Gangster’s Paradise 

Ben Kingsley galvanizes British crime flick, but the movie’s sympathies lie elsewhere

Ben Kingsley galvanizes British crime flick, but the movie’s sympathies lie elsewhere

Sexy Beast

dir.: Jonathan Glazer

R, 91 min.

Opening Friday at Green Hills

At some point in his career, every actor should get an entrance like the one Ben Kingsley gets in the British gangster thriller Sexy Beast. An ex-con named Gal Dove (Ray Winstone) has retired with his loot to the Costa del Sol, where he and other ex-pat crooks spend their days going to seed in the Spanish sunshine. Then two things shatter the peace. One—a runaway boulder—literally drops from the clear blue sky. The other is a message, delivered over dinner by Gal’s best friend and comrade, Aitch. An old associate wants Gal to come back to London for a job. It shouldn’t be hard to refuse, until Aitch says the associate’s name: Don Logan. Gal goes pale.

By the time Kingsley shows up as Logan—seen from the back, his bald head knifing through an airport concourse like a shark’s fin—the movie has been primed for his arrival. Coarse and wiry, he’s a tautly wound psycho with Richard III-sized hurts. He resents Gal’s affability, his adoring ex-porn-star wife Deedee (Amanda Redman), his cocoon of flab. He eyes Aitch’s mistress Jackie (Julianne White) and the resort-town comforts, and he wants them so much he could rip them apart. And so he batters away at Gal’s reserve with a barrage of monosyllabic, Pinter-esque threats punctuated by thrusts of his battering-ram head.

Kingsley’s showy performance makes up only the middle third of Sexy Beast, but he’s electrifying. How could he not be? It’s like you’ve been watching The Third Man for a half-hour, hearing about nothing but this Harry Lime chap—and who turns up but Trainspotting’s über-droog Begbie. And yet Kingsley’s ferocious, all-caps acting exposes a kind of malicious relish in the material—like we’re supposed to get off on how brutal the movie can be. We are, and sometimes we do. Sexy Beast churns up the same mix of feelings as watching The Sopranos—mostly the sensations of wanting to know these people from a safe distance, and wanting to run when they get too close.

Sexy Beast is the latest—and of what I’ve seen, the best—of the new British wave of “lad movies” and gangster melodramas, a genre that includes both of Guy Ritchie’s movies, along with Circus and Love, Honour, and Obey. The lad movies are a post-Pulp Fiction fantasy of hard-man posturing and slangy pop-culture riffing—mainlined adrenaline in a national cinema prone to period-piece mildew and glum kitchen-sink realism. Sexy Beast has all the genre trimmings: balls-out bluster, above-the-law affluence, an exotic criminal underworld, and lots of blood, all orchestrated with sun-drenched, flash-cut panache by first-time feature director Jonathan Glazer. What’s different, though, is that our sympathies are drawn toward heroes past their prime—especially Gal and Deedee, a truly appealing screen couple. Glazer and screenwriters Louis Mellis and David Scinto undercut the thug worship by introducing the two when their lives outside the law are long gone, and good riddance. They don’t want back in, and the deeper the trouble gets, the more we realize we don’t want them back in either.

The biggest problem with Sexy Beast—and the lad movies in general—is that it still treats crime as a kind of gangland fantasy camp. The big caper looks like something worthy of Dr. No, not a bunch of seedy touts. Only straight-arrow audiences dream of scams this grandiose; in real life, these guys would probably consider an ATM knock-off a big score.

While the bad guys get the flashiest parts, the most affecting scenes belong to the over-the-hill gang. Kingsley galvanizes the movie, to be sure, but Ray Winstone’s Gal draws us in with his paunchy boyishness and the hints of a tough-guy past he doesn’t miss. Even when Kingsley’s chewing the scenery like a wood chipper, our eyes gravitate toward Winstone’s whipped-dog decency. Still, there’s no denying that Logan the hard man gets the best entrance. His exit’s pretty damn good too.

—Jim Ridley

Mondo cane

It’s not easy to bash a movie like Cats & Dogs. First of all, it’s a kids’ movie, which means that a 30-year-old man like me—even one with a kid on the way, like me—isn’t the stated target audience. If I grumble that the picture lacks thrills, laughs, or insight, I just sound like a fuddy-duddy. Second, the movie features cute dogs and cute cats, and there are people who will abide the most puerile junk for the chance to look at cute animals. If I complain that the furry protagonists are underdeveloped and ill-conceived, I come off like a critter-hating curmudgeon.

But I’m sorry, I have to say this: Cats & Dogs is a witless, boring, awful, awful movie. To begin with, there’s the premise: noble dogs fighting evil cats to prevent a feline takeover of the world. It’s a dumb idea to take such a simple idea as “cats and dogs fight” and expand it into an overblown international thriller, complete with secret agents and mad scientists. Rather than being an amusing, action-driven look at the hidden lives of suburban pets, Cats & Dogs becomes a plot-heavy monster.

Then there are the goofy human characters, led by Jeff Goldblum as a nutty professor who’s so intent on finding a vaccine against dog allergies that he ignores his preteen son. Goldblum is an embarrassment, vamping on his “perpetually distracted” shtick until it approaches self-parody. There’s also a family togetherness, pets-should-help-their-owners angle that generates an audible screeching sound every time the movie slows up to fill in the backstory. This movie needs less father-son angst, more kung-fu kitties.

The effects in Cats & Dogs are fairly seamless—the combination of puppetry, pantomime, and computer animation are never an issue. But what the filmmakers have the pets do! The evil-genius cat (voiced by Sean Hayes) is saddled with a bumbling henchman, which means that every other line of dialogue he utters is, “No, you idiot!” Meanwhile, the dogs run down a list of stock “funny things that dogs do” business—butt-sniffing, peeing on hydrants, etc. No one seems to have given any real consideration to what animals might really be thinking—they’re just stand-ins for human action-movie clichés.

The surprising number of good notices that Cats & Dogs has thus far received suggests that critics still don’t take children’s movies seriously. Instead, they want to laugh at the stuff that’s aimed over the kids’ heads, or that plays to kids’ instinct to chuckle at dirty jokes. Cats & Dogs’ popular acceptance also suggests that it’s easy to make a successful children’s movie: Take all the dumb, uninspired humor and dull action that wouldn’t raise a guffaw in an R-rated picture, change the words to keep things PG, and get a pass from critics and audiences who think you’re being “hip.”

Am I taking this movie too seriously? Maybe so. But I’m tired of seeing the cynical described as smart, or the hideous described as cute. Cats & Dogs may well divert the kiddies for an afternoon, but too many afternoons with movies like this will eventually deaden their senses, until they’re as easy to dupe as film critics.

—Noel Murray

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