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15 Minutes: infinifilm

New Line Home Entertainment

Starring Robert De Niro and Edward Burns

Written and Directed by John Herzfeld

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Review by D. K. Holm                    

15 Minutes is the second in New Line's infinifilm series, after Thirteen Days. The next scheduled infinifilm release after this, breaking the numerical titling pattern of the selections, is Blow, but it isn't the first time that director John Herzfeld has used numbered titles. Nor is it the first time that Herzfeld has strayed into the subject matter of tabloid journalism. He was just on the other side of the issue before.

In 15 Minutes, Herzfeld aspires to take on the whole stewing mess of violence and the media. Borrowing for his title the overused quip credited to Andy Warhol that "in the future, everyone will be famous for 15 minutes," Herzfeld wants to show how television and its viewers conspire to degrade our moral standards. At least that seems to be the point.

If the premise is simple, the plot of 15 Minutes is rather complicated, if familiar. Emil and Oleg arrive in America. Emil (Karel Roden) is a Czech in search of his criminal partner. Oleg (Oleg Taktarov) is a Russian who serves as his strongarm buffoon. Oleg also fancies himself a filmmaker, and steals a digital video camera from a Times Square shop in order to record their momentous activities in the land of Frank Capra. When they catch up with the partner (Vladimir Mashkov, a popular actor in Russia) the meeting goes poorly, and Emil ends up torching the place, and also initiating a hunt for the sole witness to their murderous activities. In the ruins of the apartment, high-profile cop Eddie Flemming (Robert De Niro) and Jordy Warsaw (Edward Burns) meet. Warsaw is a fire marshal (the same job De Niro had in Backdraft). They form an uneasy alliance and go on the hunt for both Emil and Oleg, and for that sole witness, Daphne (Vera Farmiga). Various chases ensue, and then when Emil finally confronts Eddie, he reveals his grand scheme: he is going to commit mayhem and get away with it by pleading insanity, then write his memoirs and make a million dollars. "Not only will Americans believe me; they'll cry for me," Emil crows. Meanwhile, the duo plan to sell Oleg's video log of their antics to tabloid television, represented by Robert Hawkins (Kelsey Grammer), the on air host and reporter for a show called Top Story, who uses the tag line, "Hard to believe? Watch." As Warsaw grows unprofessionally closer to Daphne, the romance between Eddie and straight TV news reporter Nicolette Karas (Melina Kanakaredes) hits a rather unexpected stumbling block. The film builds to a confrontation in front of the Statue of Liberty, where the media, the monsters created therein, and the law all face off against each other.

*          *          *

A cross between Billy Wilder's The Big Carnivaland Die Hard 3, 15 Minutes tries to leaven its violent narrative with the uplifting patina of social comment. Director Herzfeld previously did the noir-ish 2 Days in the Valley, another film with a tendency to tell too many stories at once. But Herzfeld has also made TV movies about the Preppie Murder Case and the Long Island Lolita — films not all that far in spirit from the tabloid journalism rather obviously attacked in 15 Minutes.

In fact, it's not especially clear what Herzfeld's point is in all this. What is he for, exactly? The elimination of TV news? The banning of Jerry Springer from the airwaves? Or the deletion of hamstringing laws that let crooks go free? At the very least, his views don't seem particularly fresh (it does take a few years to get from screenplay to screen). The film views the media as intrusive rather than informative, TV people as hollow phonies rather than the agreeable faces that reassure us, and violence existing in society because it feeds off the public's supposed insatiable hunger for it, all notions that are as elderly as they are unoriginal. The film's solution to the violence in society is …more violence. A reporter says something you don't like? Punch him. A rogue evades the law through legal machinations? Shoot him. "I love America," says Emil. "No one is responsible for what they do." In Herzfeld's view, that seems to include the upholders of the law. One wishes that Herzfeld had been a more unpredictable in his thinking, for example coming out in favor of tabloid journalism; or that his wit were a better sharpened tool that would have raised his film to the biting level of its Belgian progenitor, Man Bites Dog. Instead he borrows moments from the Die Hard series, including the punching-a-TV-reporter-as-the-definitive-statement-on-the-media trick.

On the other hand, in the Die Hard part of the movie, with its chases through the streets of Manhattan and numerous shootouts and explosions, the veteran Herzfeld is on firmer ground, handing the pacing and framing with deft urgency. Other aspects of the film have an inconsistent effect on the viewer. Burns makes for a somewhat glum action hero, and De Niro does what must be his third self-homage to the mirror-talking scene in Taxi Driver. On the other hand, real-life lawyer Bruce Cutler is one of a few people who play themselves, which gives the film an air of immediacy and New York-ish insiderness.

*          *          *

New Line's infinifilm method of sorting information continues to prove itself to be a useful tool. Providing extra educational content offered with easier interactivity, the format is, in a way, the logical extension of DVD capability. Yet one hears anecdotal evidence that people resist it, already resisting change within the short biography of the DVD world. Well, infinifilm functions are optional. One can watch the film and never bother with all the extras; or you can go to the other extreme and turn it all on, from the captions and trivia track, to the commentary track and all of the pop-up menus that divide up the supplements found elsewhere on the disc and offer them to you at their logical connection with the film.

This single-sided, dual-layered disc (SS-DL) offers a flawless anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) of director of photography Jean Yves Escoffier's images. Audio comes in Dolby Digital 5.1 and Dolby 2.0 Surround, with closed-captioning. Extras are plentiful. An audio commentary track from director Herzfeld is informative and lively, and ranges from insights about production design and camera movement to interesting trivia (Edward Burns's father was a New York cop assigned to the public information office, and worked closely with tabloid shows). There are two brief documentaries, "15 Minutes of True Tabloid Stars," which goes over the same ground that other television documentaries on tabloid television have done, and "Does Crime Pay?" which addresses some of the facts and moral issues in the film. The Fact Track, an optional subtitle trivia track, feels like it strains to come up with interesting details, unlike the same feature on Thirteen Days, and all too often as soon as you read one of the subtitles, the commentary track reiterates it. There are a handful of deleted scenes with director's commentary, and the full cuts of "Oleg's Videos," the footage actually shot by actor Oleg Taktarov during two of his scenes. There's also the "Fame" music video, cast and crew credits, and DVD-ROM features such as script-to-screen and the original website. An essay on the film by director Herzfeld is included in the keep-case. Over all it's an outstanding DVD package, but unfortunately in the service of a film that's not as smart as it thinks it is. Hard to believe? Don't bother to watch.

— D. K. Holm

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