Pound Shop Movies

The Maker

In: mudwig, reviews, drama

02 Feb 2005
The Maker - In A Wacky Font
The question is whether Hollywood DVD gave Jonathan Rhys-Meyers top billing just because his name is longer than the rest.

"When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro" - Hunter S. Thompson (1937-2005)

The Maker falls into one of a fairly limited group of pound shop movies that I would seriously consider paying Proper Money for if someone put together a DVD release with a good transfer and some special features. This is not to imply that the film is a classic, but it is the kind of movie you would want to show to people you actually liked.

I might be a little biased from the get-go, as very early on in the movie, while we are being introduced to the main characters, the soundtrack features a number of songs by Elliott Smith, one of my favourite suicidal songwriters. The initial characters we meet are the friends of Josh Minnell (the always cool Jonathan Rhys-Meyers) , including Fairuza Balk putting in a great performance as Josh's teenage, lesbian best friend Bella. Josh and his mates cruise around comitting minor crimes and laying about, slightly in conflict with Josh's infatuation-from-afar with police officer Emily Peck, played ably by Mary-Louise Parker, who, despite several notable roles, I know mostly from West Wing.

Josh lives with his adopted family, the Minnells, as his parents died when he was very young. A few years after their death his older brother lit out, and hasn't been seen since. However, it is Josh's 18th birthday, and out of blue appears his brother, Walter (Matthew Modine), complete with convertible, nice suit, sunglasses, and their parents surname. He also seems to know what actually happened to their parents, referring to the nightmares that Josh claims he is no longer having, fractured dreams of a dark, dank warehouse. Walter quickly turns out to be a crook, with his literal partner in crime Felice (the wiry Jesse Borrego), and it doesn't take long for Walter to convince Josh to join him in some less than legal escapades

Walter and Felice subscribe to the concept of the "maker", the person who makes the rules for a given situation, and who dictates how everyone in it responds. When, during a heist under the guise of a removal company, the trio are stopped by a cop, Josh's instincts take over and he chats easily to the cop, while Felice is close to flying off the handle at the lawman's presence, due to his fear of returning to jail. Walter and Felice reward Josh with an extra slice of the cash from the job, explaining that just then Josh was the maker, and to always find a way to take that role and control the events. Speaking of control, the man fencing Walter's stolen goods is a haggard crook named Skarney, played by Michael Madsen, whose office is a garden table and chair set overlooking the airport, and decorated with some hired muscle. Josh finds himself getting involved in bigger and bigger heists, and coming into more and more personal conflict over what he is doing, and what happened to his parents.

Despite the criminal elements that run through the film it is very much a story of relationships, and decisions about them. Josh's with his friends reflects, and is reflected, in his uneasy friend/partnership with his brother and Felice. Walter's attempts to rouse Josh out of the teenage slump he seemed to be in, mostly by throwing him in at the deep end, and showing Josh his version of the truth about the world isn't that far from the attitudes of their foster parents, to Josh at least.

Similarly, the ongoing semi-romance between Josh and the several years older police officer Emily is one of the best, but strangest, parts of the movie. From the start, where he's lazily stalking her, to their first encounters (after he's followed her into the blood bank, and given blood, she helps him when is unable to pierce the foil on a box of juice, commenting "that's the serve part of protect and serve"), and through to his dancing with her with the confidence his brother had given him, there is a slight edge to their relationship, an element of surreality that never seems to matter during their scenes together, but makes the whole thing seem slightly dreamlike elsewhere in the movie.

The surprising thing about the film is the quality of the performances. It's a given that Matthew Modine is going to be compelling to watch, and Rhys-Meyers has certainly proved his talent recently, but there's hardly a bad performance to be found, and Michael Madsen steals the show with his understated performance, which taking the harshness out of some of the script's rougher edges. Director Tim Hunter does have a striking style, with some of the informality of the many TV shows he's worked on brought over into the style of the film, and thematically there has commonalities with his more noted River's Edge. Echoing the earlier film, Hunter regularly brings things down, to remind us that Josh is just barely 18, and how his life has snapped over the course of the movie.

In fact, the bad points are almost all centered around the character sketches in the script. While the actors naturally restrain them to some degree, the characters aren't quite on, a little too much a list of relevant character points as opposed to a view of a rounded, dramatic persona, and a little too generic. I imagine this stems from the same well as the slighty preachy attitude that the writing sometimes slips into. The writer, Rand Ravich, went on to make The Astronaut's Wife, which suffers, worse, from a lot of similar problems.

The real let down, however, is the ending. The film had built quite a lot into all the characters, and something had to give in order to tie things up. Unfortunately, the pressure was resolved by just killing most of the cast off, and while the very final scene works fairly well, the action leading up to it is bland, full of squealing tires and tired writing. It's preceeded by a quite cleverly executed heist as well, which just emphasises the problems.

Still, it's shortsighted to condemn a movie based on the last five minutes, and The Maker, despite the sloppier sections and some slightly uneven pacing, is a well made, well performed film. Overall, it is very much worth watching; even though it perhaps isn't as slick a movie as, say, Shades, there is some real heart here, and it is the kind of film that people will be pointing back to later in Jonathon Rhys-Meyers' career.

You could only get it from the marketplace on Amazon, but it seems they have restocked. You know they all came from the pound shop anyway though.

All The Queen's Men

In: mudwig, reviews, comedy

02 Feb 2005
All The Queens Men - Apostrophe Now
Thanks to the miracles of modern design, Matt LeBlanc is on the cover twice.

Eddie Izzard, how do you choose film scripts? While I may never know the answer to that question, I am willing to guess it's not by reading them. From The Avengers to Circle, Ed can't get enough of being... but Eddie Izzard was pretty good. In All The Queen's Men he doesn't even achieve that, but it should have been so right! Men in dresses, WWII era cabaret, Nazis, it's got it all and Eddie should have fit right in.

However, it all goes wrong, and it does so from the very begining with a voice over that could induce cringes right through the armour on a shiny new Sherman. Immediately afterwards we're treated to Matt LeBlanc, as the last-name-only-agent O'Rourke, engaging in a daring (for some definition of the word daring) escape from a German base, complete with an Enigma machine. This includes a tank chase, one of those rare cinematic entites that would take an exceptional amount of skill to make unenjoyable (though it's no GoldenEye). This cannot last, of course, and we are rapidly brought into the movie proper after enjoying the sight of an incompetent British office destroying the Enigma.

One of the interesting artistic choices that the opening indicates, and is repeated throughout the movie, is the lack of subtitles on the sections conducted in german. O'Rourke doesn't actually speak german (because, you know, he's a hero) to be fair, but usually in these kind of situations the german speaking sections are quite brief. This is not so in All The Queen's Men.

Anyway, we quickly reach the movie proper, where, obviously, O'Rourke is asked to go back to germany and get another Enigma machine. To aid him a crack team is put together, consisting of Temporary Major Archie, an administrator sent to keep O'Rourke in line, and played by the vastly over qualified James Cosmo, Johnno, a young (and shockingly, naive!) codebreaker who speaks 27 languages (including german) played by David Birkin, who was the kid that played the young version of Captain Picard in that one episode that time, and finally Eddie Izzard, playing the cross-dressing, bi-sexual former lieutenant Tony, who also speaks german. The target is the the source; the very factory that builds enigma machines.

So far, so mediocre, but now is the time for the movie's big punch. Y'see the war machine has sucked the fatherland dry of its chaps, so all the staff at the factory are women. In order to blend in O'Rourke and his team are going to have to go disguised as women. Comedy uranium. Once the undercover pongos parachute in to Germany, they quickly realise the factory was a fake, but decide to meet up with their local contact and try and find a way out. Their local contact turns out to be one of the best bits of the film, the very lovely love-interest Nicolette Krebitz as Romy, a librarian and allied agent who keeps copies of all the banned books in her loft.

Of course, the forward thinking appeal of ATQM would not be complete without a love interest for Eddie Izzard's Tony as well. It seem that Tony's ex-wife, Paloma, is in the country performing a little opera to uninterested german troops, which means that her driver, Tony's lover and the cause of his seperation from Paloma, is there too. Franz, played by german action Oliver Korittke, is a fairly inconsequential character, though well performed, who mostly sustains interest though a rather spiffing punch that at various times gets applied to most of the cast.

At least one of the four writers must have had a real dedication to the soldierly arts of the screenplay though, as All The Queen's Men comes with a full clip of clich?s, from the secret agent who always works alone to the pompus commander, all drawn from the great hollywood clip-art character file. The jokes don't fair much better, with some quality drag classics finding their way in, such as during O'Rourke's encounter with the marvelous, though only in the film for two scenes, Udo Kier, as General Landssdorf.

Maybe he's born with it? Maybe it's maybelline.
Udo can't hold a candle to Matt. BOOM BOOM.

Having received an invitation to one of the General's famously wild parties, Matt LeBlanc, disguised with the finest plaster board make up and wig, and Romy ditch their (well, Romy's) dates and make their way over to the General. Landssdorf turns round and is presented with a very attractive woman and Matt LeBlanc in a dress. I wonder who in the class can guess which one he has the hots for? Of course, Udo spirits O'Rourke upstairs to his boudoir, and decides to show off some naughty pictures from his safe, the one containing the very secrets that Our Heroes require! Matt punches him in the face, and rifles through the papers. When the general wakes up, he looks as if he's about to call the guards, but instead just asks Matt to hit him again! Ah S&M, what classic japes haven't you given us.

The movie is not devoid of plus points. The production is very nice, there are some decent locations and a very nice title sequence, but then again this is a movie with a proper star, not your average B fare. There are some amusing moments, especially with Eddie Izzard, such as his remark after Franz describes him as bi-sexual in a thick german accent: "Yes, I'm bee-sexual, I have sex with bees". The love story between O'Rourke and Romy is actually quite effective, though the one between Franz and Tony feels somewhat flat. At one point, James Cosmo is captured and tortured in front of Romy, in a suprisingly effective scene. Of course, it doesn't last long, but it's that hint of the daker side of the film that adds real colour, from the bombed out city much of the film takes place in to the motherless child that latches on to Archie.

Disappointingly though the performances of the two main names, Izzard and LeBlanc, is not really up to par, in a movie that sorely needed a strong lead. Eddie seemed less relaxed in the role than even in Avengers, and that was much more of an embarassment. Matt puts in a Joey standard performance as well, really not seeming to look far beyond the character that he was, at that time, playing every week. In fact, the movie would have probably worked better with more Tony than O'Rourke, with Tony fulfilling the role Johnny Depp dominated Pirates of the Caribbean with. That's a comparison I wouldn't have predicted making just after watching this film.

The very ending scene sums things up well though. It's a weird, static shot of LeBlanc and Krebitz leaning against a door way discussing getting their nasty on with reference to whatever they are staring at. It's not very funny, and is a decidedly dull shot, but Nicolette looks fantastic in a WWII uniform with a skinny tie, and vague innuendo is Matt's fort?. All The Queen's Men is no Kelly's Heroes; it really doesn't work at all. Eddie Izzard completists will probably want to give it a viewing, everyone else should probably give it a miss. The DVD on Amazon has a making of feature and it is possible that the one I got from poundland did too, but I certainly didn't feel like checking.

Cover-Up

In: mudwig, reviews, thriller

01 Jan 2005
If the lies don't kill you, the government will.
In many ways, a precursor to Passion of Christ.

There is nothing more irritating when watching a crap movie than suddenly realising that you are actually watching it for the second time, as I recently experienced while enjoying 1990's Cover-Up. One of the few things that can offset the creeping realisation that you have thrown precious life-minutes into the pit of despair that could otherwise have been used to read the latest musings of the internet's lively blogging community is the presence of Dolph Lundgren in the film. Big Dolph has had some classy roles in his time, He-Man, The Punisher, GR-13 in Universal Soldier, and a guy who's scared of milk (though not chocolate milk, so that's something), and Tarrantino started his career as a production assistant on Lundgren's fitness video, but this role, as investigative reporter Mike Anderson, is not his finest hour.

Mike, formerly a marine himself, is investigating an attack at a US army base in Israel and getting nowhere fast with base commander Lou Gossett Jr. who plays a character imaginatively called "Lou". As the title may have given away, something is being Covered Up, and when Mike tries to investigate with the somewhat reluctant help of his best friend Coop (John Finn) and ex-girlfriend, but now Coop's fiance, Susan (Lisa Berkely) all he finds is Danger and Death (for Coop at least). Mike learns that the attack was just a front, and that a deadly new form of poison gas was actually stolen from the base and that someone is planning to use the gas... TO KILL! Thanks to the opening scene, the audience knew most of that a lot earlier, but we'll let them pass on that one.

The thing about Cover-Up is that it's not an action movie, which is certainly what the big D was known for at this point in his career. Unfortunately, it's not much of a political thriller either, and so the action scenes are relied upon to hold up the movie at several junctures. While the few explosions in the movie are nothing special there is a lone, fairly well put together car chase, and some good one on one combat with an assassin, among others, but outside the inital heist the action, what there is of it, doesn't really kick in till well in to the movie.

Disappointingly the intrigue part of the movie is a little ropey as well. While Lou Gossett Jr. and female lead Lisa Berkley both put in acceptable performances they don't get the A for extra effort, and are matched by some equally lack lustre work from Lundgren. Only in the occasional scene, such as a paranoid walk around his hotel room after realising his phone is tapped do you really see he has a level of acting ability greater than the average action star. Even the shower sex scene, which had the potential to be a steamy chunk of cinema is more steamy in the water vapour sense than revealing.
Dolph in a compromising position

The real gems of moviemaking in this picture are the requisite ending twists. The first is in character, and works pretty well, while the second or "unnecessary" twist makes the effort to truly annoy the audience. This is probably not helped by the weird run through Jerusalem that a wounded Mike makes, mixing the religous imagery surround him with the ending of the movie in a way that undermines whatever effectiveness the location may have provided. The whole ending sequence is one of the best shot parts of the movie, but also one of the most fractured from the rest of the film, in terms of feel. It draws the film to a close effectively, and with a visual flair, but not satisfyingly. To be fair, the film does deserve some credit for the use of the locations, which do give the movie a distinct Israeli feel that must have taken some effort on the budget, and the location is related, if not integral, to the plot, rather than an attempt at an atomospheric add-on.

Many of the problems with the film are abetted by the sheer mountains of clich? that fill the movie. The villian's generic monologuing, to borrow a term from The Incredibles, to a captured and disarmed Mike and Lou tops the list, but there is plenty of generic fodder crammed in. The script does have some originality between the formulaic scenes, but it is sometimes hard to tell that the movie was written by people and not some kind of script generation program for the BBC Micro. Director Manny Coto doesn't help matters particularly with a lethargic style of direction, and no apparent interaction with his actors, which is a suprise given his work in horror movies up until then, a genre where pace is particularly critical.

This isn't to imply that the film is without entertainment value, Lou and Mike banter back and forth with an easy chemistry that showed up first in The Punisher, and their scenes are generally entertaining. The action is quite focused when it occurs, and in general the film seems like one tough editor away from being a decent channel 5 saturday night film.

In the end, unlike one of Dolph's later thrillers, Silent Trigger, Cover-Up doesn't even give us a ludicrously huge gun to provide amusement through the more tepid sections of the film. This is probably the better movie of the two but there are many other options in the genre that aren't so reliant on clich?, and are directed with more flair and pace. Still, the package is fairly slickly put together, and as a late night watch Cover-Up might just suffice to provide a gentle lead in to a sound nights sleep. Worth a watch at least once for Ludgren fans, everyone else will probably want to pass.

Why I keep putting these Amazon links up I don't know, but I just would hate for someone to suddenly realise they needed to see Cover Up and by unable to.

Shades

In: mudwig, reviews, drama

01 Jan 2005
The Shades cover fails to feature Mickey Rourke's dog.
Mickey Rourke in smoking shock.

Inspired by Unknown Movies' comments at the start of the recent Local Boys review, I feel I should attempt to bring some balance to these pages by talking about a pound shop movie that you might actually want to watch instead of, say, a Simpsons episode that you've only seen twice. While Shades might not be perfect, it is significantly better than most of the crop, and anyway, how many Belgian movies have you watched recently?

The plot revolves around the making of a movie in Belgium, by a Belgian producer, but in English, with an American director and star, played by Mickey Rourke and Andrew Howard respectively. The movie they are making is also called Shades, and focuses around the actions, and memoirs, of serial killer Freddy Lebecq, who habitually wore sunglasses and is still alive in prison. Of course the shoot is plagued with problems: the star, Dylan Cole (Howard), goes increasingly off the rails as the film progresses, identifying more and more with Lebecq and attracts a lot of bad press because of it, the money pulls out, the families of the victims are protesting, and the director starts receiving death threats. On top of this the lead actress is an ambitious young woman who also happens to be the producer's girlfriend, and a documentary is being made on the film by a noted TV critic.

Mickey Rourke plays a superb almost-parody of himself as director Paul Sullivan, and Andrew Howard's tempremental star is just on the right side of believable, but the local talent of Jan Decleir as Lebecq, and to a lesser degree Gene Bervoets as the producer who will do just about anything to get the film finished, Max Vogel, steal the show. Vogel's single minded determination is suprisingly endearing, despite his near constant attempts to manipulate everyone around him and Lebecq's ambivalance over having his story told, his potential upcoming parole and his understated but evident sickness is equally compelling.

Story wise it's immediately clear that we're in the kind of territory plumbed by The Player or Swimming With Sharks, among others. The setting makes a world of difference though, with the attentions of the media and the nature of the process being quite different to the Hollywood variant that is most often presented. That said, the film is presented in a Hollywood style, which does disguise quite how influenced this film is by its home country. Lebecq is modelled on real life serial killer Freddy Horion, and I wouldn't be suprised if the film contains some recognisable characters for those in the Belgian film industry. The picture painted is a dark one, but the fundamental message of an industry full of Machiavellian characters will not be a revelation for most; it's almost the standard view of the industry for the more cynical cinemagoer.

Still, films about film are strange territory. Yes, there is certainly room for the kind of clever, satirical writing which pops up in Shades from time to time, but there's also a danger of using the opportunity to riff on, or slate, people in the industry while forgetting about the audience, a trap that Shades seems sometimes to be teetering on the edge of. It's good for writers to write what they know, but as John August said: "If screenwriters only wrote about subjects they knew intimately, most screenplays would be about Tetris, television or getting picked last for team sports".

It's clear that the producers of Shades wanted a mainstream sheen to the film, as much to reflect on the project the film centered around as for commercial reasons, and Danny Hiele certainly did a good job as DP. Add to that some excellent music by one of my favourite bands, Hooverphonic, and the package works very well . In the end, as commercial reasons go the film didn't justify them, with a quite significant amount of hype in Belgium evidently causing somewhat of a backlash on its release. This is not to imply that the film is without issues. It tapers out towards the end, with a few fairly contrived and forced scenes that may leave viewers cold. The direction is slightly clumsy, and at times the film can feel a little heavy handed with regards to it's fairly well trod subject matter. The pacing can also get bogged down, which doesn't quite gel with the US feel, but that is a fairly minor complaint.

Overall, this is an intelligent, darkly humourous slice of film, and is worth a watch. Given a decent DVD release, and perhaps a new edit, I get the feeling that Shades could have had some kind a second chance. As it is the budget market is the only place you'll find it for the time being, but it is definitely the kind of discovery that makes it worth digging.

* Again, for the pound shop deprived, someone on Amazon seems to be selling it for 79p on the marketplace.

Sworn To Justice

In: mudwig, reviews, action

01 Jan 2005
short justice
Cynthia Rothrock has a license to blonde.

According to the font of movie trivia that is the IMDB this film was known in the USA as Blonde Justice, which is a far superior title on the grounds that "Sworn To Justice" means not a lot, and that the concept of Blonde Justice is generally amusing. The blonde in question is of course the legendary Cynthia Rothrock, 5' 3" of high kicking action wonderfulness, but in this film she's not just a martial artist she's also... psychic. A psychic psychiatrist specialist witness, to be precise, called Janna, who goes on a restrained rampage of reasonable revenge after her family are killed by Criminals.

Being the family member of a martial arts star seems about as sensible as being Bond's girlfriend. In this case Janna's sister and niece were housesitting for her when they were killed in a robbery - the villians having assumed the house would be empty. Why, exactly, they were robbing the place was a little beyond me, but the punch bags were probably worth something. Janna is haunted by their deaths, not helped by the fact that she sees the events replay in her mind whenever she touches a small amulet her sister was holding during the deed. Determined not to let herself by overwhelmed she goes back to work, but now her abilities seem to be manifesting themselves everywhere. As she sees crimes occuring she steps to stop them, while at the same time searching for the villians that did in her sister, who have not been idle themselves. It seems they all fall under the purview of a recently released gang boss who is taking over with the help of an anonymous Official. During one shakedown at a chop shop, the boss uses the persuasive technique of the heated nail clipper under the nail, which showed flair and innovation in the field of inducing cringes from the viewer. Suppported by the man known only as The Man, they find that the only thing that stands in their way is an unknown vigilante. And her heels.

The cast is nothing special in the main, with some of the most recognisable figures turning up in almost cameo roles. Walter Koenig brings his experience as B5's amoral psychic Bester to bear, and sports a ridiculous accent, as a psychology professor investigating psychic phenomemon that Janna consults about her burgeoning abilities. Still on the trek tip Voyager's Brad Dourif has plenty of experience playing nutters (starting with Billy in One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest of course) and pops up in court putting in a top notch performance as a defendant whom Janna is providing expert testimony for, but who was also involved with the gang that killed her sister and niece. Of course, this is a martial arts movie, so we're going to need a few asians, and the go to guy is clearly the voice of Aku himself, the mighty Mako, as a wise, blind, news-stand owner.

On the subject of martial arts, it would seem appropriate to mention that the fight scenes are pretty durn good. The movie ranges in tone, on the lighter side is a brilliantly comical bit of vigilantism in the storeroom of a shop against some hoods who are attempting to rob it, which features sarcastic and quite random comments from the clerk ("oh, I remember the combination now!"), cheesy latino music, and a beautitful bit of duct tape imprisonment to put Jet Li's Romeo Must Die plastic tie scene to shame. On the other end of the scale Janna's fight against her sister's killer is short, violent, and fatal. It's so different it could be from another movie. Even during the relationship between lawyer/tai-chi boyfriend Nick their inevitable bout of sparring is played with a light touch by both actors, leading to a remarkably good scene that feels like nothing else in the movie.

That said, whichever angle the film approaches the fight scenes from they work well. Outside of her Hong Kong movies Sworn To Justice features some of Rothrock's best scenes, martial arts wise. The problem is that there are simply not enough of them. The film drifts by on a sea of melodrama, not entirely helped by soap opera like plot twists, and soap opera level acting by some of the cast. It features two sex scenes, both of which were pretty good, and fairly revealing, but neither of which was really necessary, and mostly served to bog down the already slow story. Janna's psychometric abilities were entertaining, and could have formed a core part of the plot, but really served as little more than a vehicle for getting her to the crimes, which could have been done by more conventional means. This is the kind of film that it is easier to be kind to in hind sight than at the time, as the bland sections are simply not worth remembering, so you don't. This doesn't mean the dramatic sections are all bad, Brad Dourif's scene in which his character is interrogated by Janna is fantastic, and one of Rothrock's finest performances, but this is the exception, rather than the rule.

Sworn To Justice is a hard film to recommend. Rothrock fans should watch it for sure, but then again Rothrock fans already will have. Fans of martial arts movies, especially those of the American direct-to-video/Chuck Norris vein should get a kick out of it, and it's better than your average B. Edit out the cruft though and you have the core of a really good quality action movie, and that's probably what makes it an overall disappointment. Through the movie Cynthia's skirts get shorter and shorter, until the sex scenes appear and they come right off. But it's the long one at the end that she looks best in, and if the producers had realised that, they might have made a better movie.

*Amazon have it, but it looks like no particular improvement over the pound store version, for an extra five quid. If you can find the 2 films on one disc version, the flip side is Gen Y Cops, an extremely silly but extremely entertaining movie that makes the package more than worthwhile.