15 Minutes Review
Media satires tend, on the whole, to be toothless affairs, with the same old targets being set up and knocked down, seemingly without interest. However, 1976's Network was an excellent mixture of black comedy and genuinely heartfelt drama, and expectations were high that Herzfeld, the writer and director of 1996's underrated Two Days in the Valley, would make a film at least worthy of comparison to it. However, the film opened to a barrage of hostility, and was something of a box office failure. This is a great shame as, while never quite as clever as it thinks it is, the film is a terrific mixture of exciting thriller and black comedy, with enough surprises and shocks to make it well worth a watch.
The plot is vaguely familiar, down to the Warhol-referencing title. Two Eastern European psychopaths, one Russian, one Czech (if you believe Herzfeld, this is deeply symbolic, but it certainly doesn't make an awful lot of difference) arrive in America, the land of opportunity, and promptly start murdering people, their reasoning being that they will exploit the legal system and become famous. On their tail are a veteran detective (de Niro) and an arson investigator (Burns), as well as an unscrupulous news reporter (Grammer).
If a basic synopsis makes the film sound rather trite, that's a problem with trying to summarise it; there are so many different plot strands in the film that Herzfeld should be congratulated for pulling them together. There's a major plot reversal around two-thirds of the way through that really throws the storyline into first gear, but the intelligent and witty script makes a number of exceptionally valid points on the media's glorification of infamy and crime throughout, with the buddy-buddy relationship between de Niro and Burns subverted by the bleak nature of the crimes being committed by the killers. The film was criticised on its release for being excessively violent; there are two deeply unpleasant scenes here which are somewhat hard to watch, as much because of the intensity in them than the actual acts of violence themselves. It is to Herzfeld's credit that the violent scenes do not overwhelm the film, but instead help to show the hypocrisy and venality of the media.
The performances are as good as you'd expect. De Niro does a good riff on Kevin Spacey's Jack Vincennes from LA Confidential, and seems to be relishing the opportunity to play a romantic lead who isn't insane in some way. Burns has the more traditional arc of the by-the-book arson cop who has to get his hands dirty, but he does a good job, and is less irritating than in his self-directed films. Grammer is highly amusing in a role that is essentially the antithesis of Frasier Crane, but also has at least one moment towards the end of the film where his acting ability is genuinely tested, and he rises to the challenge admirably.
The film certainly isn't flawless; some of the early scenes drag slightly, the film occasionally seems to glorify the violence it spends most of the film condemning, and there's a character of a murder witness who seems to have been included in a final draft as an afterthought. That said, this is an intelligent, adult thriller, with about as much valid commentary on today's falling journalistic standards as anything else you'll see, and with some exciting action scenes to boot. Strongly recommended.
A flawless transfer from New Line, after a slightly disappointing effort for their previous Infinifilm title Thirteen Days. Colours are clear and sharp, there is no grain or print damage of any sort, and the scenes using digital video are extremely well integrated into the film. A superlative effort, and impossible to fault.
A 5.1 mix is provided, which does a fine job. The surrounds are used more or less constantly, both for the action scenes and the quieter dialogue-led scenes, but the mix is constantly active, with the soundtrack being spread out nicely. New Line appear to have given up on DTS soundtracks for this new range of DVDs; I can't say I'm heartbroken, as I can't realistically imagine it improving on the mix here in any way.
In New Line's Infinifilm range, the gimmick is that the viewer is able to access the extras while watching the film. Therefore, you will watch a few minutes, be able to skip to a segment of a documentary or a deleted scene, and then resume watching the film. If you prefer watching a film from start to finish, this is not the mode for you; however, it's easily the most interactive means of filmwatching yet pioneered by a studio, and works far more often than not. However, all the extras can be accessed outside of the Infinifilm mode of watching the film, with the exception of the film facts subtitle track (which is interesting but too sporadic).
John Herzfeld's commentary is one of the better ones I've heard recently, because it's constantly interesting to hear his comments on the media and his attitudes towards their portrayal in the film. Occasionally, he descends into 'Everyone was great' banalities, but there's a surprisingly candid bit about how the costume designer was fired, essentially for daring to disagree with Robert de Niro. Deleted scenes are also provided, again with commentary. These vary enormously in quality, from misguided attempts to provide sympathy for the nastier villain to a terrific chase scene that was apparently cut from the film 'because it was action overload.'
2 documentaries are provided, neither of which is really anything to specifically do with the film. Instead, one concerns a look at tabloid television, with interviewees such as Jerry Springer, while the other is a look at crime and celebrity, complete with such guests as Mark 'Bloody OJ Simpson glove' Fuhrmann. The first documentary is longer and more interesting, with some startlingly hypocritical statements from tabloid TV presenters, but both are worth watching, albeit after the film, as both have heavy spoilers in. The other extra features are fairly interesting; some rehearsal footage, the unedited footage of one of the character's 'videos' in a couple of scenes, the trailer and a music video. In all, a terrific set of extras, although the absence of a specific documentary on the film is missed.
A very underrated film is released on a very good DVD indeed. With superlative audio and visual quality, and extras that are clearly thought-out and actually worth watching more than once, this is an easy recommendation, although the film may well not be to all tastes.