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.

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.

Last Bet (A.K.A Lesser Prophets)

In: mudwig, reviews, drama

07 Jul 2004
Last Bet or Lesser Prophets?
The back cover contains 100% of your RDA of gambling references with regards to seeing movies.

Last Bet, or Lesser Prophets, has some reasonable talent in it, including the always masterful John Turturro, NYPD Blue's Jimmy Smits, Elizabeth Perkins, Scott Glen who I shall forevermore associate with Hunt For Red October and John Spencer. It's a low budget movie, first time feature director, and looks like the kind of film the crops up in the early careers of many fine actors. However, this entry in the CV was actually made in 1997. By that point John Tuturro had already featured in Miller's Crossing and Barton Fink, Jimmy Smits was still working on NYPD Blue and George DiCenzo had provided his voice talents to She-Ra: Princess of Power. Still, evidently something attracted them away from their lucrative voice over careers for a few days, and it's a bit of shame that the script didn't land with a better director, as over all Last Bet is an enjoyable film that just could have been worth slightly more than ?1 on DVD.

The plot centers around George DiCenzo's book making operation. Detective "Iggy", played by Scott Glen, is after the trio of bookies, blaming them for his brother's suicide after they accepted a large bet for him which went south. After almost being busted they move to a new location, and make a huge bet themselves on a sure-thing, the tip being brought to them by the fairly mentally unstabled Leon (Turtuorro). Iggy tracks them down, but instead of bringing the bookies in demands the money back his brother bet. In the middle of this gambler Jimmy Smits informs the trio that he wont pay them his gambling debt, and gets himself shot, albeit somewhat accidentally, by Leon.

This may sound like a fairly dark film on paper, but it's propelled along by a weird sense of comedy, especially between the three bookies, and the random craziness that Turturro utters from time to time. The focus bounces back and forth between the main thread of the story and a whole host of side plots, including Iggy's wife's pregnancy, Leon's wife-beating neighbour and the unfortunate end of Jimmy Smit's backup man.

The script is suprisingly good, with plenty of pace and an energy that fits the New York setting. The actors put in good performances too, and really the main problems are inexperienced direction and editing. This is quite a shame, as the film had the potential to have been a much more mature and interesting piece than it ended up. Despite this, it's easy to enjoy the flow of the film, and after a bumpy first few minutes anyone with a reasonably open mind should be entertained enough to watch til the end without feeling unsatisfied.