Eight Millimeter
Produced by Columbia Pictures and Hofflund/Polone
Directed by Joel Schumacher
Screenplay by Andrew Kevin Walker
Released by Columbia Pictures

October Sky
Produced by Charles Gordon and Larry Franco
Directed by Joe Johnston
Screenplay by Lewis Colick and Homer Hicham
Released by Universal Pictures

Analyze This
Produced by Tribeca Productions
Directed by Harold Ramis
Screenplay by Ken Lonergan and Peter Tolan
Released by Warner Bros.

Watching film today exercises your capacity for hope. You’re always longing for the medium to realize its potential, knowing in advance it won’t more times than it will. Three movies I saw recently prove the point: two disappointments, underworld in every sense, and one spirited reach for the sky.

Let’s get the worst out of the way first.

Although St. Paul claimed the wages of sin were death, many of Hollywood’s finest would beg to differ. For them, the wages of sin are, well, wages. And extravagantly bountiful wages at that.

Case in point: Joel Schumacher, the currently popular director who saw fit to sexualize a comic-book hero by redesigning Batman’s bodysuit with nipples and a codpiece. Schumacher apparently has an aggravated talent for prurience, and ifs once again on display in Eight Millimeter.

There’s only one reason to comment on this loathsome film. It perfectly illustrates Hollywood’s tried-and-true version of bait and switch. Schumacher dresses up a degrading panorama of pornography and sadism as though it were a morally serious exploration of evil.

The film’s dishonesty is apparent from the very first scenes. A wealthy woman discovers something disturbing in the safe of her recently deceased husband. It seems to be a snuff film—pornography featuring the murder of a woman. Does the dowager burn the film? Of course not. She enlists private detective Tom Welles (Nicholas Cage) to determine its authenticity. Plausible, right?

Soon we’re glimpsing what Welles sees when he screens the grisly reel. A helpless-looking girl in a camisole sits on a bed as a burly man wearing leather and an S&M mask enters the flame. This alone is quite enough for our hero. Well before anything else happens, he’s recoiling in horror at the possibility that this may be the prelude to an authentic snuff film. Would you want a detective this squeamish? Of course not. Schumacher does, however. He wants to establish his film’s veneer of moral righteousness early and often. This, we’re to understand, is unspeakable stuff; it’s only being shown because the plot demands it.

With this license, Schumacher pursues his real objective: to send Welles— and us—on a tour of the porn world. As Welles scours the marketplace looking for evidence that will help him uncover the girl’s fate, he must watch numerous videos of erotic sadism, and so must we if we insist on seeing this stinker out.

It’s not surprising that a major studio would support a project of this kind. Mainstream films today are so steeped in pornography that a director really has to shred the envelope to shock an audience. One does what one can to earn one’s wages.

Stripped of its veil of seriousness. Eight Millimeter is little different than the pornography it pretends to condemn. And like standard-issue pornography, it shows small regard for narrative plausibility and even less for moral distinctions.

There is, however, one exception to its cynical commercialism. The connoisseur of erotic slaughter, we discover, is surnamed Christian. The ill-fated runaway who supplies his high-priced thrill travels with a rosary in her suitcase. A porno director keeps a seven-foot crucifix in his studio for crossbow practice. The S&M killer is shown helping his aged mother onto a private bus emblazoned with the words “Faithful Christian Fellowship.” And just in case we missed the point, the camera lingers on a statue of the Blessed Virgin standing outside the miscreant’s back door.

Get it? These vile, depraved people — saints preserve us!—they’re all Christians! Now who would have thought it? Well, this will teach us Bible-thumping hypocrites to shut up and take what’s coming to us.

Fortunately, films like October Sky come along just frequently enough to rinse away the foul aftertaste left by the likes of Eight Millimeter.

I saw October Sky with my nine-year-old son, Liam, who was enchanted by the movie despite its conspicuous lack of special effects. When I told him that it was based on Rocket Boys, retired NASA engineer Homer Hickam’s memoir about growing up in a 1950’s coal-mining town, Liam insisted we get the book. He’s reading it as I write this. There may be higher accolades to pay a film, but I can’t think of any.

Director Joe Johnston deserves congratulations for daring to take on this unlikely project. By today’s standards, it’s as far from mainstream as you can get. It even includes a scene in which a couple of 17-year-olds find themselves alone in a car at night and—get this—keep their clothes on. Though strongly attracted to one another, they’re too shy and respectful to act on their inclinations. Rather than mock their reserve, Johnston celebrates its sweetness. One can only imagine what Joel Schumacher might have made of this episode.

The film opens with a ruminative evocation of Hickam’s hometown of Coalwood, West Virginia. In an eerily quiet montage punctuated by brief blackouts, we watch coal miners come and go on their daily rounds, stooped, exhausted, begrimed, yet shrouded in an aura of working-class dignity. Then the screen fills with what seems to be the folds of an iron-gray curtain. Only when these folds begin to move and the camera pulls back do we realize that it’s a huge reel of steel cable hauling the mine elevator up from the depths, bringing one crew of miners to the surface before lowering the next into the pit.

The sequence tells us much about these men. Their lives are curtained by Stygian work shifts. To make their living, they must toil long hours in darkness, crawling through narrow tunnels, breathing coal dust, and watching warily for cave-ins. Their reward comes in the brief respites they enjoy with their families. It’s not surprising that Homer Hickam didn’t want to follow his father into mining work.

The arrival of Sputnik in 1957 shows Homer (Jake Gyllenhaal) the way out. While his neighbors scan the evening sky for the Russian triumph, wondering whether it might drop bombs on them. Homer is inspired. He’ll build rockets. By doing so, he hopes to construct his escape route to college and then a career in aerospace, far away from Coalwood.

After numerous misadventures, including errant rockets that narrowly miss his neighbors’ homes, Homer and his friends begin to succeed. Soon, the rest of the town becomes involved, coming to see the midget missiles launched.

As the boys passionately pursue their rocket experiments, the film’s scenes alternate between oppressive mine interiors and expansive skyscapes, visually conveying the story’s central struggle between a loving but dour father and his ambitious, visionary son. Homer Hickam, Sr. (Chris Cooper) wants his boy to stop dreaming and prepare himself for a life of work in the mine. But Junior won’t listen. He’s literally shooting for the stars.

To his credit, Joe Johnston neither exaggerates nor romanticizes Hickam’s story. He depicts mining as a harsh occupation, but one that offers men opportunities to prove their ingenuity and valor. Hickam may bridle at what he takes to be his father’s blinkered existence, but he respects his father and longs for his approval.

It’s a true story and an old one, captured with photography that’s all the more compelling for its seemingly unstaged compositions and natural lighting. This film shows us what the medium can do in the right hands.

Analyze This, produced by Billy Crystal, who plays one of the leads, and directed by Harold Ramis, promised to be funny. Like October Sky, it begins with a reference to Sputnik. Here, the upstart satellite provides ironic counterpoint to the infamous Appalachian, New York, Mafia summit that took place in 1957. It’s meant to establish that the story’s Mafia boys are earthbound clods. At least, I think that’s the point, but who can tell with a film so sloppily written?

I found this putative comedy as witless as they come. Try this on for size. Robert DeNiro, as a John Gotti-like thug, notices a 70-year-old man gawking at him. Exasperated by the geezer, he snarls, “Whaddya lookin’ at? Get outa here before I break your [supply the all purpose participial modifier] face.” If this is your idea of a laugh line, you’ll certainly enjoy the rest of the show. If not, this is one movie offer you can safely refuse.