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15 MINUTES

As disreputable as Oliver Stone’s “Natural Born Killers” is as an artistic document, the infamous 1994 satire on the linkage between the cult of celebrity and the culture of violence in contemporary America can at least be admired for the director’s able deployment of his patented bag of film-school tricks to give the picture the hysterically jazzed-up surface so characteristic of his work. If you want to see how an imitative hack fares when he tries a variation on the same theme done in a similar vein, just check out John Herzfeld’s “15 Minutes.” In this case the shallow, superficial treatment of the subject–not unlike Stone’s–is joined with a visual style that’s flashy in a clumsy, rather than skillful, way, and the result is a picture that’s not only thoroughly disagreeable but slovenly made as well.

Herzfeld’s script attacks absurdly easy targets–tabloid television, the public’s appetite for sleaze and the media’s willingness to provide it, a corrupt legal system–and does so with a sledgehammer rather than a scalpel. Its over-the-top narrative is set in motion by two eastern European thugs named Emil and Oleg (Karel Roden and Oleg Taktarov), who enter the U.S. to track down an old comrade and retrieve their share of loot from a robbery. Unfortunately, the confederate has spent their dough, and the freaked-out Emil promptly murders him and his wife; the slaughter, however, is not only witnessed by a beautiful illegal immigrant, Daphne Handlova (Vera Farmiga), but also taped by Oleg, a movie buff who’s pilfered a video camera on the way to the confrontation. To cover their tracks, the duo sets the apartment afire, leading to an investigation by celebrated NYPD homicide detective Eddie Flemming (Robert De Niro), who reluctantly links up with Jordy Warsaw (Edward Burns), a hot-shot arson specialist in the Fire Department, to track down the perpetrators. This necessitates a search for Daphne, to whom Burns will–needless to say–be attracted to provide some necessary romantic interest (we also cut away from time to time to see Flemming’s uneasy courtship of reporter Nicolette Karas, played by Melina Kanakaredes). Meanwhile, Emil decides to try an end run around the judicial system–and make a fortune in the process–by using Oleg’s video camera to record evidence of his feigned insanity, thus paving the way for an eventual acquittal and a major payoff in book sales and TV residuals. His scheme involves Robert Hawkins (Kelsey Grammer), the ratings-obsessed host of a tabloid TV series, who’s teamed up with pal Flemming to their mutual benefit in the past but, as events reveal, will stoop to anything to get a scoop.

It’s obvious that all this–and we’ve only skimmed the surface of the various plot complications Herzfeld has contrived–is intended as an attack on our modern fascination with short-lived celebrity (Flemming has embraced it, Hawkins feeds it, Emil and Oleg lust after it), the phenomenon Andy Warhol described in the title words. But the assault isn’t merely narrative; it’s also visual. Herzfeld employs careening camera compositions, splashy shows of light and shadow, fiery explosions, and grainy, hand-held inserts (from the perspective of Oleg’s omnipresent camera) to juice up the story with lots of surface energy. But the result, which Herzfeld obviously wants to be edgy and truthful, instead comes across as vacuous and overwrought. Its cheap sensationalism is particularly revolting: while posing as a clarion call against violence, the picture actually glorifies what it purports to abhor, pummeling the audience with repeated sequences of the grossest brutality; and it ultimately panders in the basest fashion to viewers’ blood-lust by making sure that, in the end, the guy they want to see get riddled with bullets is, and the fellow they hope to see slugged gets properly punched out. Within this context a Capraesque denouement, suggesting that a single little guy can triumph against all the malign forces arrayed against him (and society, too) is particularly offensive. Frank’s estate should sue.

It’s especially sad to find De Niro trapped in such sludge. Of late he’s stood out in his comic roles (“Analyze This,” “Meet The Parents”–let’s just forget the malodorous “Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle”), but his attempts at drama have fallen flat. Last year, in the dull, formulaic “Men of Honor,” he was reduced to trying to energize a stock character (the gruff sergeant) by twiddling endlessly with a corn-cob pipe. Here, he toys with cigars in an equally vain effort to invest another cardboard figure–the flamboyant, microphone-hungry cop (who nonetheless will take a rookie under his wing and show fright at the thought of proposing marriage to his girl)–with a smidgen of depth or realism. It’s a trick that doesn’t work here any more than it did before. Even so, De Niro remains watchable, which is more than can be said for Burns. From a purely technical perspective he’s a staggeringly inept actor: he’s handsome enough, to be sure, but he confuses posturing with screen presence, and he’s as amateurish as anybody on “Baywatch.” Grammer does the oily, serpentine bit well enough, but he’s no match even for Dustin Hoffman’s manipulative newsman in Costa-Gavras’ mediocre “Mad City” (1997), let alone Kirk Douglas’ shark-like journalist in Billy Wilder’s “The Big Carnival” (1951). Kanakaredes is attractive but hasn’t a great deal to do besides mope about. For some reason Charlize Theron, Kim Cattrall and David Alan Grier all do cameos in the picture, but their participation is sufficiently limited that it probably won’t darken their reputations too much. As for Roden and Taktarov, they leer and sneer with gusto, but in the final analysis all that the nastiness their characters perpetrate demonstrates is that there are people who should never be permitted near a camera. Unfortunately, on the evidence of this flick and his previous debacle (the 1996 mess “2 Days in the Valley”), John Herzfeld is one of them.

BOOK OF SHADOWS: BLAIR WITCH 2

“I think something terrible’s happened to her,” a character intones about one of his colleagues who’s mysteriously disappeared about two-thirds of the way through “Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2,” Joe Berlinger’s sequel to last year’s summer smash. The remark is prophetic but entirely too limited: something awful has befallen absolutely everybody associated with this muddled mess of a movie. If you took a few rolls of film, dumped them into a blender, turned on the power, let it run for a bit, extracted the celluloid remnants, slapped them onto a projector and screened the result, you’d get something similar to it. (Seven monkeys working in a closed room would probably do better.) “This makes no sense,” a different character comments at another point in the flick. Truer words were never spoken.

One reaches such a conclusion reluctantly, because Berlinger has previously collaborated with Bruce Sinofsky on some of the best American documentaries of the 1990s: the extraordinary “Brother’s Keeper” (1992) and the two HBO productions “Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills” (1996) and “Paradise Lost 2: Revelations” (2000). But his first dramatic feature indicates that he should have stuck to the non-fiction format. That fact that Berlinger is also (at least partially) responsible for the script makes the fiasco all the more regrettable.

As has become customary it this age of post-modern horror, the picture is, like the “Scream” series and its ilk, self-referential. The twist in this instance is that rather than treating the events of the first “Witch” as real occurrences, the plot depicts the original flick as an explosive cultural phenomenon, a fictional narrative which persuaded millions that it was true. So as the sequel opens, we find the town of Burkittsville inundated with tourists; in response some residents have sought to profit from its new celebrity. One of them, Jeff (Jeffrey Donovan), an unstable fellow who’s spent time in a mental institution, has created a “Blair Witch Hunt,” in which he promises to lead a tour of sites supposedly associated with the gruesome doings of Part One. In the inaugural trip he carries four paying passengers: the Wiccan Erica (Erica Leerhsen), psychic Goth girl Kim (Kim Director), and two romantically-attached grad students, Tristen and Stephen (Tristen Skyler and Stephen Baker Turner), who are researching a book on the legend and its aftermath. The group makes camp on the ruins on the old house at which the first picture closed, but after waking in the morning they find the area ransacked and themselves with no memory of what transpired overnight. Repairing to a decrepit old warehouse that Jeff calls home, they try to reconstruct the lost hours using video tapes made during them that have been mysteriously recovered; the investigation leads to murder, mayhem and madness, and includes recollections of the mass slaughter of another group of tourists, various apparitions, the killing of a local clerk, the disappearance of one of their own members, and instances of what seem to be possession.

This precis, however, makes the movie seem far more cohorent than it actually is, because the narrative is presented not in a straight linear fashion, but in a confused melange marked by abrupt chronological shifts, sporadic (and gruesome) inserts, and hazy fantasy sequences. The first ten minutes, presented in a mockumentary style similar to that used in the phony documentaries on the first film shown on the SciFi Network and Showtime, are wryly amusing, but then the picture becomes a complete mishmash of gore, inexplicable role-changing and pointless dramatic reversals. The intent is to raise existential questions, playing the old reality-vs.-illusion game by blurring the distinction between truth and fantasy while simultaneously offering satirical observations about the overlapping of fact and fiction and the notion that artistic violence begets the real-life variety. All of this is suggested by the use of the word “shadows” in the title, which seems meant to point out the fallibility not only of human memory as a reflection of actuality but also of our modern instruments of recording the past (video tape, digital cameras and the like), which might prove as unreliable as our own faculties. (A “book of shadows” is also a sort of Wiccan diary in which an adherent records experiences, spells, recipes, charms and the like, and the phrase once again calls to mind the act of remembering, which, the script wants to imply, is often deeply flawed.) But while all of these issues could be potentially intriguing, the script raises them in so arbitrary, slapdash a dramatic form that its take on them becomes mystifying in the worst sense. Simply put, when a film follows no narrative rules, implying that what we’ve already seen need not have happened at all and rewriting moments we’ve already witnessed in an entirely different way without sense or explanation, the result ceases to be a pleasurable puzzle and degenerates into a fruitless and frustrating exercise, a random assemblage of chaotic bits lacking rhyme or reason. When, moreover, the denouement arrives, it proves even flatter than that of the original–which dismayed many viewers the first time around (although, to be fair, the first picture was a model of clarity compared to this one). One can almost hear a collective “Huh?” emerging from the audience as the movie ends.

Even with all these problems, “Book of Shadows” might still have provided some junky fun if it had been made with even a hint of professionalism. It’s not only poorly directed and edited, however, but the various technical credits are distinctly sub-par: the lighting is poor, the cinematography irritatingly artsy, the sound mix clumsy. Even the music score by Carter Burwell, a talented fellow, is utterly forgettable. And the acting is terrible across the board. Though the five “hunters” would be a tad too old to be in a “Friday the 13th” flick, they exhibit roughly the same degree of skill as the youngsters in those trash epics–that is, they’re slight below ordinary community-theatre standards. But even they, as bad as they are, pale beside Lanny Flaherty, playing the gruff sheriff who’s Jeff’s great nemesis. Flaherty actually has a substantial resume, having appeared in some respectable features; but in the present case he seems to be doing a Slim Pickens impersonation of the broadest sort–indeed, Sheriff Cravens makes Ol’ Slim’s Colonel “King” Kong seem positively restrained and subtle a creation. Perhaps the awful acting and slipshod construction are intended to turn “Book of Shadows” into some sort of grisly comedy with horror elements. But if so, the attempt fails in both respects; the picture is neither scary enough to be a true thriller nor sharp enough to be genuinely funny. The only laughs it elicits are chortles of derision rather than affection, and the only shudders reactions of disgust rather than bemused fright.

“Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2” is likely to divide viewers into three groups. Those who loved the first film will doubtlessly consider it an insult to what they consider a classic. Those who disliked the original will find this one even worse. And those who didn’t see the initial “Witch” won’t have the slightest idea of what’s going on as the new flick completes its sloppy narrative. Perhaps the relatives of its makers might find something vaguely positive to say about the picture, but even that seems doubtful. The only thing certain is that after a disaster of such magnitude, this is one cinematic franchise that’s going to have to be put on immediate life support if it’s going to have any chance of surviving to a third installment.