Movie News

Moriarty Sinks Into SALTON SEA!!

Published at: Nov. 30, 2000, 7:53 a.m. CST by staff

Hey, everyone. "Moriarty" here with some Rumblings From The Lab.

My e-mail box has taken quite a beating in the five days since I published my UNBREAKABLE review. I've gotten letters both pro and con, people defending the film to me, attacking me for not liking it, coming down on my side, twisting my mixed review into a shared hatred. I've seen every sort of response, from an intriguing couple of letters sent from a certain inmate of an asylum outside Philadelphia to illiterate rantings about my parenthood or lack thereof. As always, it's been a trip to sort through it, and it's kept that film in my mind for the past few days, if nothing else.

One thing I will concede to those who wrote me in defense of the film is that you had an experience I didn't have: you were surprised by the film. This seems to be a very large part of why some of you are so rabid about the movie. You enjoyed that sense of being surprised. You liked being caught off-guard. I can respect that. I know that some of the film experiences I love most are the ones where I was startled, surprised, when I found a gem in a place I wasn't looking. IRON GIANT was like that for me. I saw it one night before I'd heard a word about it, saw an unfinished print of it, and it rocked me. It literally sent me off-balance for days.

Well, I just had my ass handed to me all over again tonight when I was invited to a test screening of SALTON SEA, the feature film directorial debut of DJ Caruso. I read the script for this movie and even wrote a review of the script back in April. I thought at the time that it was a solid read and could turn into a groovy little movie if Caruso handled his cast and the Tony Gayton script just right. Then a few weeks back, Mysterio sent in the first screening review I'd seen for the film. He seemed to dig the movie in a reserved sort of a way, with one major reservation involving a scene near the end of the film involving Anthony LaPaglia's character.

Before I continue, let me say that I will be treading very, very, very, very lightly in terms of spoilers in this review. I do that because I am acutely aware of not wanting to steal from you one bit of the particular quirky pleasure of this film and the way it unspools. I do that because the film's executive producer would strangle me if I ruined it for you. And I do that because Warner Bros. could have a lot of fun marketing this film if they pay attention to the audiences they show it to between now and release.

This is not a film built around one central surprise like THE USUAL SUSPECTS or THE SIXTH SENSE or DARK CITY. Instead, this is a film that is built around a gradually unfolding web of mystery, a puzzle box with a broken heart at its center. The film starts with an arresting series of images that dissolve from one to the next. A bruised and bloody man plays a mournful Miles Davis song on trumpet. Flames lick the ceiling of a cheap motel room. Money is stacked haphazardly around him. As he plays, his mind wanders, and we hear his cascading thoughts in voice over. He wonders who he is, where he is, how he got here. He muses about the different roles he's played, the different lives he's led. And it all comes down to speed. "Speed's as good a place to start as any," he says.

And then we're off and running, immersed in the world of methamphetamine users and dealers in Southern California. And this script that I thought I had figured on the page, it unfolded in front of me into something dirty, something gritty, something alive and absorbing and brutal and funny and at the heart of it was the biggest surprise of all, the biggest reason to tell you to see this film as soon as you get a chance...

... Val Kilmer nailed it.

Thank you, Tony Gayton. Thank you, DJ Caruso. Thank you to all the producers and the crew and the rest of the amazing cast. Thank you to everyone who was part of whatever magical blend brought us to this place. It's been a long, long time since I was able to point at a film and say "That's the reason he matters" in regards to Val Kilmer. I was a fan of his from first exposure back in the TOP SECRET! and REAL GENIUS days. I thought this guy was going to be one of the biggest movie stars on the planet. TOP GUN gave him commercial credibility, and it looked like he was being smart with roles in films like the early John Dahl film KILL ME AGAIN and his astounding portrayal of Jim Morrison in Oliver Stone's THE DOORS.

And then something happened. God only knows what, but it derailed the guy. Sure, he showed signs of life in TOMBSTONE, but the film itself was average at best. THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU cemented his reputation as the most difficult eccentric this side of Brando, the kind of reputation that can destroy a career. Ventures like THE SAINT and AT FIRST SIGHT have done nothing to return Kilmer to serious consideration as either a star or an actor, and I was just about ready to quit on him altogether. I just couldn't take it anymore, watching him piss it away in subpar role after subpar film.

So tonight as I was watching the start of this film, I was paying attention to DJ Caruso's work, curious why Darabont's been such a strong supporter of this young filmmaker for so long now. I was basking in the confident, crisp cinematography of Amir (EYE FOR AN EYE, THE JOY LUCK CLUB) M. Mokri. I was focused on these other things, so when Kilmer's remarkable work started sneaking up on me, I wasn't prepared for it. I wasn't expecting it.

And that sense of discovery, of being surprised, was delicious.

It should surprise no one that Adam Goldberg and indie god Luis Guzman and Peter Sarsgaard and Shirley Knight and Anthony La Paglia and Doug Hutchison and Debra Kara Unger and Danny Trejo and BD Wong all do excellent supporting work here. That's a supporting cast made up of some of the most consistent and interesting names and faces out there right now. It should surprise no one that Vincent D'Onofrio manages to paint a more convincing portrait of a deranged and dangerous man with the 25 minutes he has here than he did in the entire running time of THE CELL. It is, after all, what he's best known for.

What might surprise you is how effortlessly this film manages to blend dark humor in the first half with genuine fear and pain in the second half. What might surprise you is how morally ambiguous they're willing to leave the ending, one of my favorite things about classic noir fiction by guys like Jim Thompson, but not something you see much of in modern big-budget Hollywood films. What might just blow you away is how this seems so effortless, so simple, and so fresh, when we've seen Tarantino clones fail one after another in the years since PULP FICTION blew up. Here's something that manages to stake a claim as something original, something unique, even as it stands among the best of its genre. This thing hit me the way OUT OF THE PAST did upon first viewing, as a great glimpse of something black and true at the heart of all of us.

Danny Parker is a tweaker, a meth addict. He may also be a police snitch, turning in dealers and users in order to help himself out of a jam. He may also be a man running from memories of a lost love, a missing wife. He may be a musician, or he may be a fed, or he may just be in over his head, a man looking for justice where there is none. Hell, he may not even be Danny Parker.

Telling an audience more than that before they see the film really isn't fair, which makes Warner's job selling the movie a little tricky. And I say "a little" because the solution should seem fairly evident: sell the secret. It worked spectacularly for Miramax with THE CRYING GAME, and it seems to be working well for Disney's UNBREAKABLE right now. SALTON SEA isn't just some summary you read in the paper; it's an experience you have to go have. The audience tonight hung on every beat of this film, applauding it as the lights came up at the end, digging it, going with it. At one point early on, after we've seen just how freaky the world of the tweaker can be, just how low these people will go to get high, Danny begs us in voice-over, "Don't judge me yet." It's a testament to the sort of star charisma that Kilmer musters here that we do just that. We go along with him, waiting, reserving judgement until everything is done, until all the information is in. Even then, there's no guarantee any two audience members are going to feel the same about what Danny does, or why. For me, this was a brutal journey, but it's one that ultimately seems to be about hope and healing, however strange it seems.

I hope this film plays some festivals and has a chance to build some real critical momentum before its release in the spring. South By Southwest would be a great place to unleash it on the world, and it would help showcase the great work by this cast and this talented new filmmaker. If Warner handles this film carefully, with the care and attention it deserves, it's got a chance to make a real mark.

In the interest of full disclosure, I was invited to the screening tonight by one of the film's producers, Frank Darabont. Doesn't make a bit of difference. He invited me not because I'm a friend or because he wanted the publicity for the film. He invited me because he knew they'd made something special, and he wanted to show it off. He couldn't wait any longer to share. I'm eager for them to make their last few tweaks and nips and tucks on the film and start showing it, because I think you guys are gonna love it when it finally hits. It's one of those films you're going to see a couple of times as you show it to friends, when you can't wait to share it yourself. Until then...

"Moriarty" out.





Readers Talkback

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  • Nov. 30, 2000, 8:46 a.m. CST

    first

    by headcrab7

    This sounds ok.

  • Nov. 30, 2000, 9:29 a.m. CST

    second

    by Ethan Hunt

    actually it does.... Kilmer deserves a break.

  • Nov. 30, 2000, 10:35 a.m. CST

    got to get better in a little while

    by reni

    'Don't judge me yet' - that should be the chatroom title header.... One thing I've missed in the last couple of years is a Usual Suspects and this sounds like it could be, especially with the cast involved. Again I'm sold. But then I'm pretty easy really.

  • Nov. 30, 2000, 10:56 a.m. CST

    A biased opinion of "Addict" films.

    by littlenemo

    I work at a drug rehab center and if you had to deal with all the lying and stealing that goes on there (And I hope they portray that part honestly in the film.)you would understand why I could give a rats ass about another drug movie. Now, if this story is written honestly, and portray the drug addict as a grown man with a four year old mentality,who destroys his family and friends, steals money from their grandmothers retirement, robs liquer stores and sometimes kills for their addiction, and then has the gall to complain about the price of a rehab center because the judge ordered them there instead of prison, then I WILL SEE THIS MOVIE. But if this is just another "feel sorry for the addict" film, count me out. Thanx for letting me blow off some steam. :)

  • Nov. 30, 2000, 11:24 a.m. CST

    salton pepa

    by jeff bailey

    Heyout there in movieland, I read this script earlier this year and it was pretty good. It actually had a really funny part in the middle involving a robbery. And some pretty decent dialouge. I'm sorry to hear it had rewrites. But with Darabont involved, hopefully it was kept under control. At any rate, a cool cast, and I always like Val Kilmer, even if I don't like the movie (I don't care if any anyone never listens to me again when I say I liked Moreau). This seems like a cool little matinee flick. Intelligent, fun, and hopefully, surprising.

  • Nov. 30, 2000, 11:43 a.m. CST

    Of course reading scripts beforehand ruins the film....

    by Fatal Discharge

    ....that's why I don't read them. The same happens for books adapted into films. I read SILENCE OF THE LAMBS months before the film came out and though I could see the film was very well done, there was a spark missing because I knew all the plot turns already. Viewing the film more times since has made it grow in stature because film as a medium implants itself into the memory much more than reading does. This could be different for mainly visual films like sci-fi or fantasy which could show you unimaginable stuff but for narrative films which rely on plot, reading the script is like some blabbermouth telling you all the best parts of the film and ruining it before you see it.

  • Nov. 30, 2000, 4:46 p.m. CST

    Reading scripts before you see the movie

    by Keyser195

    I personally don't think it makes THAT much of a difference if you read a script before you see a movie in determining whether or not it's a worthwhile movie. Sure, the "twists" won't really be twists any more if you've read them already, but a script is not a movie - it's one portion of the overall picture. As far as UNBREAKABLE goes, I didn't read the script before I saw it, but even if I had, there was so much visually to see in the movie, that I don't think it's fair to say that without the "surprise" aspect of it there's nothing worthwhile. And, like that, I'm gone...

  • I've been waiting for Kilmer to come around again, wondering where the fuck he'd gone with crapfests like "Red Planet" and "At First Sight" directed by Irwin Winkler, funny name. He is just sooo good. He just needs good material to open up.

  • Nov. 30, 2000, 8:24 p.m. CST

    Reading a script doesn't ruin the movie because, like Harry once

    by Lenny Nero

    That may seem like an odd statement, but it's definitely true.

  • Dec. 1, 2000, 10:03 a.m. CST

    Another great Kilmer film...

    by Sideswipe

    I think Kilmer was at his best in Heat. Brilliantly understated.

  • Dec. 1, 2000, 11:30 a.m. CST

    reading scripts/darabont

    by HeywoodFloyd

    i think you can read a script and still enjoy the flick--they're different mediums. i am more interested in the execution of the story than what happens at the end, so i don't mind reading them before hand. good for kilmer, good for everyone involved, good review--until the last paragraph. mori, you don't really think that the only reason darabont invited you was "because he knew they'd made something special, and he wanted to show it off. He couldn't wait any longer to share", do you? come on, he wanted to get a little hype going on this site, which is fine. you can admit it. ps--just curious why docsisx thinks that this film will have a tough time of it in the wake of requiem. this sounds like a much different movie. it's got bigger names attached, and it doesn't sound as aggressive visually, so it will probably get a R rating.

  • Dec. 1, 2000, 4:11 p.m. CST

    Believe every word Moriarty said...!!!

    by LiquidNitrate

    I was at this screening, and "Salton Sea" ROCKS, ROCKS, ROCKS! Finally we get Val Kilmer in a role worthy of his diverse talents. I can't imagine what other actor could have pulled this off so precisely well. Tony Gayton's writing is terrific also, and this approach to storytelling seems as fresh as Tarantino did when he first arrived on the scene. (Ironically, just yesterday I read some coverage of Tony's newest script in which the reader did not at all appreciate his talents.) I had read the various "Salton Sea" reports and reviews months ago, yet in spite of all that advanced knowledge of the story, SALTON SEA was still PACKED with surprises, emotion, darkness, suspense, comedy, sentiment, and unpredictable characters. It's flawed and imperfect, yet inspired and hilarious and vicious and gut-wrenching. Reminiscent of a variety of good flicks, like a sort-of "1940's film-noir meets SLC Punk meets True Romance meets Payback with a pinch of Usual Suspects." WITH HEART. Once I see it again, I may realize that it's actually not THAT omnipotently stellar (I'm trying to moderate my own shamelessly superficial Hollywood hyperbole in case gravity brings me back to earth soon), but compared with the pitiful crap we've endured from the studios during the past year (including Kilmer's own abysmal Red Planet), "Salton Sea" was a breath of fresh air and does indeed capture the flavor of all those 90's-classics. It's very enjoyable in its own way. Perhaps a little too much trumpet and not enough cowbell. Who would ever guess that DJ Caruso used to work for John Badham on pieces of toad-stool like "Drop Zone"? Some of the editing on "Salton Sea" seemed a little wet/raw/recent, so hopefully those will be fixed soon. The only REAL flaw is that the female roles weren't as well-done as the male roles. (Deborah Kerr Unger's character is IDENTICAL to her characters in "Payback" and "The Game," so her casting in "Salton Sea" makes Tony Gayton's writing look weak in that aspect. Casting a different actress may have hidden the blatant similarities). And Chandra West is pleasant on the eyes (she's a former ballet dancer and model) but her acting "talents" do not accomplish much more than her previous roles in straight-to-vid flicks like the Puppet Master and Universal Soldier sequels. On the other hand, the male roles are well-delivered. Peter Sarsgaard is great as the best pal, Adam Goldberg's character does not at all wind up the way I expected (I haven't seen a character's exit occur this way in a LONG LONG LONG time, and boy was it worth it), Doug Hutchison's decent in his cop role (albeit wary of sympathy after Green Mile) and D'Onofrio is SPECTACULAR as the villain. Six months from now, EVERYBODY's going to be fondly remembering such classic new moments as the Pooh Bear JFK scene. I agree with Moriarty about WB's challenge in marketing this... it's a throwback to the kinds of hard-edged mysterious classics of the 40's and 70's, but done for the modern college demographic. So how do you appropriately engage modern lowest-common-denominator googleplex "Charlie's Angels - MI2 - Grinch" audiences with a movie that's NOT easy to shoebox? How does a single poster or trailer effectively communicate all the hidden charming gems that this movie has to offer? I wish WB's marketing department the best of luck, as one they get past that initial hurdle, they're home-free. The movie delivers, and the audience will be satisfied all the way through the final scene. A special benefit that "Salton Sea" has in pleasing a wide audience is that in spite of its gritty grisly content, it still manages to be a "nice" "sweet" movie, enabling it to walk that fine-line balance of pleasing the "Reservoir Dogs/Killing Zoe" crowd while not completely alienating the tender-warm-fuzzy bleeding-heart softies.

  • Dec. 1, 2000, 4:14 p.m. CST

    Believe every word Moriarty said...!!!

    by LiquidNitrate

    I was at this screening, and "Salton Sea" ROCKS, ROCKS, ROCKS! Finally we get Val Kilmer in a role worthy of his diverse talents. I can't imagine what other actor could have pulled this off so precisely well. Tony Gayton's writing is terrific also, and this approach to storytelling seems as fresh as Tarantino did when he first arrived on the scene. (Ironically, just yesterday I read some coverage of Tony's newest script in which the reader did not at all appreciate his talents.) I had read the various "Salton Sea" reports and reviews months ago, yet in spite of all that advanced knowledge of the story, SALTON SEA was still PACKED with surprises, emotion, darkness, suspense, comedy, sentiment, and unpredictable characters. It's flawed and imperfect, yet inspired and hilarious and vicious and gut-wrenching. Reminiscent of a variety of good flicks, like a sort-of "1940's film-noir meets SLC Punk meets True Romance meets Payback with a pinch of Usual Suspects." WITH HEART. Once I see it again, I may realize that it's actually not THAT omnipotently stellar (I'm trying to moderate my own shamelessly superficial Hollywood hyperbole in case gravity brings me back to earth soon), but compared with the pitiful crap we've endured from the studios during the past year (including Kilmer's own abysmal Red Planet), "Salton Sea" was a breath of fresh air and does indeed capture the flavor of all those 90's-classics. It's very enjoyable in its own way. Perhaps a little too much trumpet and not enough cowbell. Who would ever guess that DJ Caruso used to work for John Badham on pieces of toad-stool like "Drop Zone"? Some of the editing on "Salton Sea" seemed a little wet/raw/recent, so hopefully those will be fixed soon. The only REAL flaw is that the female roles weren't as well-done as the male roles. (Deborah Kerr Unger's character is IDENTICAL to her characters in "Payback" and "The Game," so her casting in "Salton Sea" makes Tony Gayton's writing look weak in that aspect. Casting a different actress may have hidden the blatant similarities). And Chandra West is pleasant on the eyes (she's a former ballet dancer and model) but her acting "talents" do not accomplish much more than her previous roles in straight-to-vid flicks like the Puppet Master and Universal Soldier sequels. On the other hand, the male roles are well-delivered. Peter Sarsgaard is great as the best pal, Adam Goldberg's character does not at all wind up the way I expected (I haven't seen a character's exit occur this way in a LONG LONG LONG time, and boy was it worth it), Doug Hutchison's decent in his cop role (albeit wary of sympathy after Green Mile) and D'Onofrio is SPECTACULAR as the villain. Six months from now, EVERYBODY's going to be fondly remembering such classic new moments as the Pooh Bear JFK scene. I agree with Moriarty about WB's challenge in marketing this... it's a throwback to the kinds of hard-edged mysterious classics of the 40's and 70's, but done for the modern college demographic. So how do you appropriately engage modern lowest-common-denominator googleplex "Charlie's Angels - MI2 - Grinch" audiences with a movie that's NOT easy to shoebox? How does a single poster or trailer effectively communicate all the hidden charming gems that this movie has to offer? I wish WB's marketing department the best of luck, as one they get past that initial hurdle, they're home-free. The movie delivers, and the audience will be satisfied all the way through the final scene. A special benefit that "Salton Sea" has in pleasing a wide audience is that in spite of its gritty grisly content, it still manages to be a "nice" "sweet" movie, enabling it to walk that fine-line balance of pleasing the "Reservoir Dogs/Killing Zoe" crowd while not completely alienating the tender-warm-fuzzy bleeding-heart softies.

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