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Shades is a film about (imaginary) Belgian serial killer Freddy Lebecq which producer Max Vogel, a former lawyer, is determined to make into an internationally co-produced, relatively big ... See full summary »
Erik Van Looy
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Mark Boone Junior,
Ron, who's young, slight, and privileged, is sentenced to prison on marijuana charges. For whatever reason, he brings out paternal feelings in an 18-year prison veteran, Earl Copan, who takes Ron under his wing. The film explores the nature of that relationship, Ron's part in Earl's gang, and the way Ron deals with aggressive cons intent on assault and rape. There's casual racism, too, in the prisoners and the guards, a strike called by Black prisoners, and the nearly omnipresence of hard drugs. Ron's lawyer is working on getting Ron out quickly, Earl has a shot at parole, and death seems to be waiting in the next cell. Will prison turn Ron into an animal? Written by
Buscemi's prison flick is oddly upbeat and shallow for the writer-director of the much better "Trees Lounge." We have a young drug war convict thrown to the wolves, but where is he thrown? This is prison as a place where, if he slinks off whenever trouble starts, a con can avoid most of the worst and shoot up with his pals regularly -- sometimes, courtesy of a kindly prison official! It's the joint as a center of homosexual rape, unless you happen to be doe-eyed, red-lipped 21-year old Edward Furlong, in which case you'll receive all the chaste fatherly ministrations of the skinhead hardass who happens to run your block and desires not your ass but the preservation of your dignity (an intellectual too, he'll even take an interest in your reading, steering you clear of an author who is a known "police state bitch"). These Speilbergian dimensions sit uneasily, to say the least, with the movie's cultivation of a hard edge and undermine what might have been a more honest, less sentimental view of survival.
Verité aside, this wish-fulfillment stuff is watchable for Willem Defoe's determined attempt to wrench more depth from his character than the script can provide. We never find out why such a feared badass is suddenly so caring, and what we witness isn't enough to go on to supply our own convincing answer. Then there is the complete lack of chemistry between the principals; Edward Furlong's rather bland, disaffected character hardly seems compelling enough to risk Defoe's rep or life over. We're hammered thematically with the message that caring means vulnerability, but even teen love stories can tell us that. What's more critical to this context, yet never addressed, is: why bother?
Then there's the real crime. At this moment in U.S. history our prisons are run by private companies who profit blithely from the violence boiling within; outside these pens, the drug war consumes billions of dollars in a fruitless quest. Although it is his premise, Buscemi has nothing to say about this; nothing. In fact, he has less than nothing to say, since his film's impossible sentimentality mocks the reality of the real-life Furlongs thrown daily to real-life wolves.
Yes, it's all beautifully art directed, the cellblocks washed out in harsh institutional light. Mickey Rourke's minor role as a drag queen is weirdly moving, and Tom Arnold's brief appearance as a sexual psychopath has some punch. The soundtrack by John Lurie is edgy and interesting. Just don't come looking for any narrative sense, believable motivation, or much social awareness.
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