SUNDANCE 2001: DAY FOUR With MORIARTY
Hey, everyone. "Moriarty" here with some Rumblings From The Lab.
It seems fundamentally wrong to me to schedule movies for 9:30 in the morning, but if you’ve got to show anything, then Fox Searchlight’s badass thrill ride SEXY BEAST seems like as good an idea as anything.
Robie and I managed to get a fair amount of sleep before heading out to the Egyptian, but even so, I found myself chewing the giant Trader Joe’s zinc and echinacea tablets that have been our only armour against sickness all week, washing them down with Mountain Dew. I really wouldn’t recommend the combo, although it gives you the strangest energy buzz as it kicks in. Or maybe that was Jonathan Glazer’s debut feature that did it to me. SEXY BEAST not only has my favorite title from the festival this year, but also my favorite opening scene. The introduction of Ray Winstone as Gary "Gal" Dove is classic. He’s on the back porch of his villa in Spain, soaking up the afternoon sun that’s hot enough to fry an egg on his stomach, taking a swim in his truly indecent little suit. As he stands on the edge of the patio, a boulder dislodges from the hillside above and bounces over Gal, just missing his head, landing in his pool. It’s terrifying, but it makes you laugh out loud, especially once Gal reacts. Winstone wins you over right away with a performance that just drips with charm. He’s pear-shaped, just on the verge of letting himself go completely to seed, but there’s a remarkable presence to him anyway, a physical charisma that’s undeniable. When we see him interact with Deedee (Amanda Redman), his wife, there’s a real sweetness to the way he handles her. They dine out with a pair of friends, Jackie (Julianne White) and Aitch (Cavan Kendall) every night. It’s idyllic, even beautiful, and there seems to be nothing but joy for the four of them.
All that changes with a phone call made to Aitch one afternoon, a phone call he’s terrified to bring up to Gal at dinner that night. Seems that Don Logan (Ben Kingsley) is on his way to Spain with a proposition for Gal, a job offer. These aren’t the kinds of offers that you turn down, either. This is our first hint of Gal’s gangster past. He keeps saying he’s retired, as much for Deedee’s benefit as for his own, but there’s nothing he can do about Don’s arrival. Aitch and Jackie pick him up at the airport and bring him to Gal’s house, where the film kicks into high gear.
Ben Kingsley has never been anything like this on film before, and it’s riveting to watch him shred his way through each character he encounters. Don Logan is as loathsome a screen character as I’ve encountered since Aaron Eckhart’s debut in IN THE COMPANY OF MEN. He’s a bundle of rabid energy, a bully wrapped in a little man’s body, and it’s remarkable to see the substantial Winstone shrink before him, obviously afraid of him and what he represents. Gal’s gone soft by choice laying in the Spanish sun, and he doesn’t want any part of the life he left behind in England. No matter how he tries to explain it to Don, though, Gal doesn’t seem able to make any headway with him. Don is determined that Gal’s going to come in on a job, a plan that he’s been working on with Teddy Bass (Ian McShane) for almost six months. It’s supposed to be foolproof, and part of the plan relies on using men that are tested and trustworthy, men like Gal.
Over the space of a long night and the following day, the tension between Gal and Don builds and builds, with Don dragging all sorts of personal issues into it. The first thing he brings up is his sexual history with Aitch’s girlfriend, Jackie. It’s hard to tell if he brings it up because he’s still got some sort of attraction to her brewing, or if he does it simply to introduce chaos and hurt into the world Gal’s been working so hard to build. Don uses words, fists, and even a gun to try and make his point, but Gal holds firm. It’s not fear that keeps him from going back to the life, either... it’s love. His love for Deedee is intense and powerful, and when Don starts bringing up Deedee’s past as a porn actress, that’s the breaking point.
We don’t see how things are resolved, either. At least, not at first. We cut to London, where Gal shows up, ready to do the job. The heist that’s been designed is visually amazing, one of my favorites in recent memory. I like the fact that we don’t spend tons of time on the planning of the job. This is Gal’s movie, and he comes into it late, just as we do. He’s just one bit of muscle, one of the cogs in the system. Besides, how many more planning sequences do we need to see in movies about heists? Inevitably, they’re just riffs on a theme, and they’re never as interesting as the actual job itself. Screenwriters Louis Mellis and David Scinto did a great job of boiling this tale down to its essence, which is the struggle by Gal to hold on to something good and decent after a lifetime of anything but. Director Glazer, who’s done some great work as a video director for bands like Radiohead and Jamiroquai, manages to prove himself as someone with a great narrative sense, automatically leapfrogging past many of his music promo peers in the process. Like David Fincher and Spike Jonze, Glazer has a genuine voice, and he’s made a film here that should rattle viewers in the best possible way when it opens later this year.
Tom DiCillo, on the other hand, seems determined not to rattle viewers. Each comedy he makes seems to get softer and softer and softer, with DOUBLE WHAMMY marking some sort of milestone for him in his career so far. Unfortunately, it’s not the good kind. As with THE REAL BLONDE, DiCillo seems to be shooting blanks, going through the motions. He’s written a script that seems to have had large spaces reading "INSERT JOKES HERE," and it’s as if he never went back to do the actual finishing work on the thing. It’s a damn shame, too, since there’s good work done by some of the cast, and it’s obvious that he can put together a pretty impressive ensemble. Denis Leary toplines this film, and he’s looser than he’s ever been, engaging and warm, finally able to shake his image as the sarcastic bastard. I’ve always thought of Leary as an actor like Greg Kinnear, uneasy with the thought of giving himself completely over to a character. This time, Leary proves me wrong, and that’s frustrating. I wish the film were worthy of the work that he’s doing here as NYPD Detective Ray Pluto. He and his partner Jerry Cubbins (Steve Buscemi) stop for lunch at a burger joint, and Pluto runs in. As he’s standing there, a crazed gunman rams his truck into the front of the place, then starts firing on everyone. As Pluto draws his gun to stop him, his back seizes up, and Pluto drops to the ground. A boy of about ten, Ricky Lapinski, (Kevin Johnson Olson) picks up the gun and ends up shooting the gunman, saving the rest of the diners and making Pluto a citywide laughing stock at the same time. Pluto’s taken off active duty until he is able to prove that his back won’t hinder him from duty anymore, leading him to a chiropractor named Ann Beamer (Elizabeth Hurley). The setup of the film actually works with a certain degree of confidence, and I started getting into the film, thinking that DiCillo had finally found a comic voice that worked. That feeling lasted all the way through the introduction of Juan Benitez (Luis Guzman), the super in the building where Pluto lives. It’s a great role for Guzman, allowing him to display a warmth and a sweetness that we rarely see from him, and he proves once again why he’s one of the best character actors working. He’s sorting out his problems with his daughter Maribel (Melonie Diaz), and the way he plays off her is really lovely. He misses the times when she was younger and simply enjoyed hanging out with her papi, and the seismic shifts of teenage life seem to baffle Juan completely.
If DiCillo could have focused his energy on just those characters and the way they spun around each other, he might have had something. He can’t stop there, though. No, DiCillo has to make another one of his statements about filmmaking by introducing two terrible characters, Cletis (Donald Faison) and Duke (Keith Nobbs), wannabe screenwriters who method act their bad Tarantino ripoff script as they work on it. This material wouldn’t have been fresh even when every other indie film was a Tarantino clone. Done today, it’s just plain pathetic. It’s a waste of time and energy, and every moment we spend with them deflates the film further. Eventually, even the appealing leads can’t keep this thing afloat, and we’re left with a muddled mess that isn’t sure if it wants to make us laugh or turn us on or move us. My final reaction? Boredom, the purest form of death for a comedy.(
Not that it’s much better to be bored by a drama, especially one that purports to be about something as fascinating as the world of professional shoplifting. LIFT was evidently developed with the Sundance Director’s and Screenwriter’s Labs, a fact which mystifies me. How did it get this far and still not work on any level? This is a film that takes a potentially fascinating milieu and squanders it. DeMane Davis wrote the film, and then co-directed it with Khari Streeter, and both of them spend a good deal of time in the press notes explaining their intentions and the things that originally drew them to the idea. They talk a good game, tossing out all sorts of provocative nuggets about shoplifting and the effect of materialism on the family and their own personal experiences. There’s one particular passage that I have to quote, though, because of how completely off the mark it is:
"Almost four years in the making, LIFT is about the search for self-love in a community with a set of values that’s completely unaffordable. While most inner city films have addressed the singular male experience, this film is multigenerational and true to households held together by strong, Black women. It was inspired by benchmarks like ORDINARY PEOPLE, EAST OF EDEN, and THE LITTLE THIEF. Powerful films where a child spurned by a parent persists in trying to gain their love, and is forced into dark and often extreme circumstances. The bottom line is this: Black people make less money but spend more of it on clothes than any other race in this country. We made this film to help young Black women gain self-esteem and look within themselves to solve their problems. Ultimately, however, we learned it transcends issues of race and gender. Everyone wants their parents’ love."
Hogwash. Unmitigated hogwash. The film is a series of conversational cliches, crippled by a predominantly mediocre cast. The family dynamic is muddled and unclear, with people talking around their problems and alluding to all sorts of issues that just lay there and never resolve into anything compelling or dramatic. What’s worse is the idea that they think they made a film that addresses the idea of a clothes culture and the way it skews people’s values. They didn’t. They never go into the reasons behind anyone’s actions, leaving Kerry Washington, their lead, stranded in a series of unconnected scenes and mannerisms that pass as characterization. Washington seems to be a gifted young woman, striking and direct in her delivery, but she can’t overcome the material she’s been given here. When she’s trapped into one of her interminable confrontations with her mother (Lonette McKee), you can practically mouth the words before they deliver them. It’s that pat.
The film has a certain sheen of professional quality to it, but that’s to be expected. Kathy Konrad and James Mangold, both smart indie producers, and Hart Sharp, the company that brought us BOYS DON’T CRY and YOU CAN COUNT ON ME, have all turned out films that manage to communicate honestly, directly, and with keen intelligence. It shocked me to see their names attached to this film, but it does explain when it feels like there was a sharp professional crew at work behind this film. Davis and Streeter owned and operated an ad agency called Two Potato, and there are a number of individual moments in LIFT that almost work. Still, the waste of the efforts of all involved is the most bitter pill to swallow in regards to this stunningly disappointing feature.
Michael Cuesta also directed commercials for many years, but the talent on display in his new film L.I.E. marks him as a talent of note. Navigating very difficult emotional and moral waters with a sure hand, Cuesta and his co-screenwriters Stephen Ryder and Gerald Cuesta have crafted a story that is slight but affecting, that puts a human face on something despicable, and that ultimately refuses easy answers. The films starts with a haunting shot of Howie (Paul Franklin Dano), a 15 year old boy who bears a startling resemblance to our own John Robie, a fact he’s spent the whole week threatening to kill me if I mentioned. He’s on an overpass of the Long Island Expressway, staring down at the traffic below, as we hear him speak in voice-over about how dangerous the L.I.E. is, how it’s claimed the lives of people like Harry Chapin, Alan J. Pakula, and even Howie’s mother. He stands up on the ledge of the overpass, his footing unsteady, just as we move a week backwards in time to see the events that led up to that place.
Howie’s feeling disconnected, alone. His mother gone, his father Marty (Bruce Altman) is dating a hot young thing and spending most of his time trying to stay out of jail due to an investigation into the shady dealings of his contracting business. Howie’s one close friend is Gary (Billy Kay), a rabid little weasel of a kid who takes Howie along as he and some other kids break into local houses to steal whatever they can get their hands on. One of the houses they break into belongs to Big John Harrigan, played with real courage by Brian Cox. After seeing Cox in SUPER TROOPERS this week, it was startling to see him play something this different, something that is so ambiguous and challenging and even dangerous. The kids steal a couple of replica Russian pistols that Harrigan wants back, and he easily locates Gary. Turns out they already have a relationship since Gary’s been selling his ass, and Big John’s been buying. Big John, a former diplomatic attache, a respected member of his community, and a seemingly decent guy overall is actually a chickenhawk, a predator, intoxicated by boys. Gary gives up Howie as being part of the break-in, which leads Big John to become part of the boy’s life just as Gary packs up and takes off with money he stole from Howie’s dad.
As played by Dano, Howie is a great character, full of contradictions in the way that all teenagers are as they’re figuring themselves out. At one moment, he seems like an adult, older than his years, but at other times, he’s still obviously just a frightened kid, alone and in need of a friend. The fact that Big John is the one friendly face he sees should be disturbing to an audience. In their first conversation, Big John shows him porn movies, asks him how much he knows about blow-jobs, and tells him that "five inches may be a lot of snow, but it’s not a lot of cock." It’s unsettling, and Howie seems almost amused by Big John’s obvious advances. As time wears on and Howie’s situation gets worse, though, Big John’s intentions become more difficult to interpret. Is he still trying to fuck this kid, or has some sort of paternal instinct kicked in? Is he genuinely trying to be the helping hand he pretends to be? Has Howie reached something real inside John, something decent? These questions and their answers are responsible for the great tension the film builds over the course of its running time.
It’s not a perfect movie, and it’s definitely not one that’s going to be easy to sell, but I’m thrilled to see that it’s been picked up for a wider release later in the year. Even if the very ending of the film, particularly where Big John is concerned, feels like a last minute cop out, there’s still so much about the film that’s smart and subtle and admirable. Cox is outstanding, and the young actors all do a great job. Director Cuesta is given fantastic support by his director of photography, Romeo Tirone, who manages to give the film a lyrical look without over-romanticizing the Long Island neighborhoods where it all takes place. I think this film is more sincere than the controversial HAPPINESS in its attempts to portray the dual nature of a functional pedophile, and the courage and clarity with which they approach the subject demands respect.
After we emerged from L.I.E., Robie and I headed for The Caledonian, a condo cluster located right on Main Street, which is where the SUPER TROOPERS gang was all located for the first part of the fest. We sat down with Broken Lizard hot on the heels of signing their distribution deal with Fox Searchlight and interviewed them about the elation, the work it took to get there, and their plans for the future. I’ll be transcribing that interview in the next week as I decompress, and we got it all on videotape to share with you in some form in the future. The energy between these old friends on the eve of their largest success as a group so far was incredible, and it was a real pleasure to be there to share it with them. It also happened to be producer Rich Pirello’s birthday, which meant that the party that erupted in the aftermath of the interview was an insane one. I ignored every bit of advice given to us by Cameron Crowe, and Robie and I stayed all night to party with the rock stars. It was incredible fun, and I have even more esteem for the members of Broken Lizard as individual talents and as decent guys after the time we spent there. Expect to see a lot about them in the year to come. With dawn breaking on the horizon, Robie and I made our way back down the mountain to try and recover for the next day’s activities. But more on that later...
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Jan. 27, 2001, 4:29 a.m. CST
Bow before me. Sexy Beast looks cool, for a review check out www.heres-looking-at-movies.com
Jan. 27, 2001, 4:39 a.m. CST
Sexy Beast is a quality film. I saw it last week. Ray Winstone never lets the side down and Ben Kingsley, I've never seen him act as intense as this... Much, much better than all the crap Brit Crime flicks we've had over the last 4 years... Quality...
Jan. 27, 2001, 10:03 a.m. CST
If you aren't able to see it (like me), take a look at the trailer. It's more than just a crime flick; there's some genuine weird shit in just that trailer. Tiger
Jan. 29, 2001, 4:50 a.m. CST
When is a gangster film not a gangster film? When it is a Sexy Beast. Sexy Beast top,top film it almost makes up for the dirge of gangster bobbins that came in the wake of LS&2SB. Ray Winstone is great in what for him a virtual about face with Ben "Gandhi" Kingsley playing the psychopathic Don,the man is terrifying. Strong performances alround although I did feel that it was a bit too stylised at some points, a little bit too Lock Stock. It's just a same that Aitch died before it opened but the film is one hell of a eulogy. Go see this and forget about Snatch(tired rehash with bigger budget)
June 16, 2001, 10:46 a.m. CST
I can't wait to see it. Hope it makes it to the theater in my lil town, or I will have to make the pilgrimage to Austin, again!
June 16, 2001, 10:47 a.m. CST
by SEATTLE SLEWW
Moriarty, I've already told you I can't see you this wekend.
June 16, 2001, 12:37 p.m. CST
Haven't seen Sexy Beast yet, but I did catch the trailer last week, and I've never seen Ben Kingsley looking so bad and buff before. I'm beginning to think there's NOTHING this guy can't play!
June 16, 2001, 3:53 p.m. CST
After THE ANIMAL, EVOLUTION, SWORDFISH, PEARL HARBOR, WHAT'S THE WORST THAT COULD HAPPEN, TOMB RAIDER, and all the other shitfests this summer, it's refreshing to see a movie as hard-hitting, unpredictable and downright enjoyable as SEXY BEAST! Ben Kingsley is smashing in this film (no pun intended) and the direction was fresh and exciting. Take note you film executive motherfuckers in Hollywood, who enjoy green-lighting $100 million fesces and who dick us over with drivel by the Michael Bays and Brett Rattners of the world. SHREK, MEMENTO and SEXY BEAST almost salvaged the fucking season so far.
June 16, 2001, 4:21 p.m. CST
by Miss Aura
I agre with you totally Spacesheik, Sexy Beast is awesome and Those 3 films are the only ones which have made a mark and put my faith into cinema this summer, so far.
June 16, 2001, 5:21 p.m. CST
All you developement girls and gals at Newline, Dreamworks, Fox, Warner, CAA and AMG - do something that has some BALLS next time and hire a new director like GLAZER & Mike Cuesta. Glazer is incredibly talented which was already apparent in his fantastic commercials and videos for Radio Head, Blur, Massive Attack, Nike, & Guinness. He chose the right script and didn't make a film for film sake. Hollywood may eventually realise that commercial video directors are the ones to hire.
June 16, 2001, 10:27 p.m. CST
by Billy Bizar
"Sexy Beast" was pretty good. Especially the scene wherein that giant boulder in the background comes down from the mountain. Great stuff! But clocking in at 87 minutes running time i thought the film was a bit too short. I would like have to see more of the Ben Kingsley character.
June 17, 2001, 1:33 a.m. CST
This should be a cool film, and no doubt, and it's been a long time since Kingsley has had a role that he could really get his teeth into so I'm definitely looking forward to seeing this one. I just hope it gets a big enough theatrical release.
June 17, 2001, 7:56 a.m. CST
Sexy Beast is undeniably a good brit gangster film, but can we brits make a decent film without Ray (whose your daddy) Winstone? Also, how many times does Ben Kingsley say 'you caaaunt'
June 17, 2001, 10:23 a.m. CST
I saw "Sexy Beast" at the Santa Barbara Film Festival last March, and was floored by Ben Kingsley's acting... this is Ben as you've never seen him before. The other actors are no slouches, either - they create a convincing peaceful world about themselves, only to have it come crashing down when bad-ass Ben appears on the scene. Their interplay is tense and in-your-face... a study in contrasts. Do yourself a favor and check out this movie... you won't regret it.
June 17, 2001, 12:23 p.m. CST
by northern monkey
About time some you Americans realised what a genius Ray is. If you can track it down get hold of a copy a SCUM, it makes Sexy Beast look like Beauty and the Beast. Not for the faint hearted but when Ray goes mental chicken oriental at the end its breathtaking.
June 17, 2001, 12:42 p.m. CST
by Capt FUBAR
June 17, 2001, 3:26 p.m. CST
this film is decent, not great, but next to crap like ph, swordfish, evolution, etc, it looks like citizen kane. i saw it at union square in nyc last week, and after the credits were done, kingsley himself came out and gave a little talk and took some questions. he talks a lot (which he joked about), but it's ok because he's an intelligent, well spoken guy. he said that all of the dialogue came directly from the script, there was no improvisation, which is surprising because the tone of the script seemed to me to be very loose and informal. they had even specified how many times he actually said 'no' in that one scene with winstone, i think it was 13 times, followed immediately by another 8. he likened it to shakespeare and the rhythm that actors get into with his dialogue. anyway, after about 15 minutes, he cut himself off and said that there was another screening happening in the theater, and that we all had to clear out, so we did. pretty annoying to have so little time with an oscar winning actor.
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