Like a middle-aged tomcat come in from the cold, Gary “Gal” Dove (Ray Winstone), a former London gangster now retired to the Spanish seaside, loves lying in the sun, scarfing down his calamari, and rubbing his big body up against his mate for comfort and excitement. Sexy Beast, the title of Jonathan Glazer’s immensely pleasurable, genre-defying first feature, goes straight to the heart of Gal’s appeal—which is inseparable from that of the actor who embodies him. Gal is sexy, not because he’s gorgeous or powerful or narcissistic (if narcissism weren’t sexy, Tom Cruise would never be a movie star), but because he lives as beasts do, tuned to his immediate sensory experience of the world. He has animal magnetism.
Gal’s Costa del Sol idyll comes to an abrupt end with the unexpected appearance of Don Logan (Ben Kingsley), a seething torrent of hatred compressed in a muscle-bound body topped by a jug-eared bald head so disproportionately large it makes him look like a three-year-old, or maybe like Rumplestiltskin. Don has been dispatched to Spain by big-time gangster Teddy Bass (Ian McShane, who’s most scary when he’s flashing his dentures) to tell Gal that he’s needed in London to help his old friends pull a bank job. The mission gives Logan the opportunity to terrorize Gal, his adored wife Deedee (Amanda Redman), and their best friends, Aitch (Cavan Kendall) and Jackie (Julianne White). “I can’t believe you married dirty Deedee,” says Don, shoving Gal’s face in his wife’s porn-star past. No mere prude, Don is pathologically repressed. At a particularly choice moment, he refers to his genitals as his “front bottom.”
Glazer, who started his career directing TV commercials and music videos (MTV banned his video for U.N.K.L.E.’s “Rabbit in Your Headlights,” featuring Denis Lavant as an unfortunate pedestrian in a tunnel), has a distinctive compositional style. He often isolates an actor in the extreme foreground or background of a shot, and he knows how to cut together odd-angled images so that they have kinetic impact. The movie itself is something of a sexy beast; it lures you in with a 10-minute opening sequence that’s sensuous and funny. There’s Gal basking beside his pool, his fleshy body all sweaty, the white mat on which he’s lying reflecting so much light you want to grab your sunglasses. On the soundtrack, reggae gives way to rumba mixed with a throbbing techno bass. Gal stands up, has a little chat with the pool boy, and just when it seems like the plot will never kick in—and maybe that’s OK—a huge boulder tumbles down the steep hill behind his house, flies over Gal’s head, missing him by inches, and lands in the pool. The boulder—a reminder that that you can’t expect bliss to remain unbroken—foreshadows Don’s arrival.
What distinguishes Sexy Beast from the recent rash of British gangster films is Glazer’s investment in character and performance. The film is exuberantly styled, but not for the sake of style itself. Rather, the lush color and off-kilter framing make you more aware of the characters’ responses to the world they inhabit; they let you understand that Gal is on the side of life and Don is on the side of death. The two men go head-to-head, with Don insisting that Gal participate in the bank heist and Gal refusing. “Do it, do it, do it!” shouts Don, bobbing his rigid torso forward and back, as if it were a plank he intended to use to bash Gal’s head. The actors, who clearly relish the confrontation, are pretty evenly matched, but Kingsley has the more showy role and the advantage of playing against type. The film goes down a notch in intensity when he’s offscreen.
For reasons of self-preservation, Gal decides to do the job, but once Sexy Beast moves to London, the script runs out of steam. In an attempt to jack up the drama, Glazer blows what could have been a novel underwater heist by intercutting an ultraviolent flashback showing how Gal, Deedee, and their friends got their revenge on Don. It’s a desperate tactic, and despite some subtle acting by Winstone in subsequent scenes, the film never quite recovers. Still, there are long stretches in Sexy Beast that are so exhilarating it feels churlish to dwell on its flaws. And how could anyone resist a movie that uses Dean Martin’s insinuating cover of “Sway” for a finale?
Now in its 12th year, the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival is showcasing a jam-packed lineup of films that deal with struggles for justice and freedom all over the globe. Although they vary in cinematic sophistication, all are eye-openers in terms of content, offering detailed firsthand accounts of survival in such “trouble spots” as Jerusalem and Kosovo. And although the Human Rights Watch is a refuge for films considered too tough, too artless, or too specialized for higher-profile festivals, let alone for commercial release, several films in the series are slated for wider distribution. Among them are Raoul Peck’s Lumumba, an engrossing biopic of the visionary African leader that features a towering performance by the French stage actor Eriq Ebouaney, and Stephanie Black’s Life and Debt, a lively investigation of the adverse effects of economic globalization on Jamaican workers, farmers, and civil servants.
The winner of this year’s Nestor Almendros prize for courageous and committed filmmaking, Jung (War): In the Land of the Mujaheddin shows the destruction wrought on Afghanistan by the Taliban regime. Filmmakers Alberto Vendemmiati, Fabrizio Lazzaretti, and Giuseppe Pettito travel with a surgeon and a war correspondent who are trying to set up a hospital, officially for land-mine victims but in fact for all victims of violence. Crossing a landscape that’s strewn with the wreckage of 20 years of war (before the CIA-aided Taliban takeover, the Russians ravaged the country), the filmmakers come under fire from Taliban guns and tanks, talk to maimed and terrorized children and adults, and try to wrest some small hope from an almost unrelievedly grim situation. At once intimate and epic, Jung makes Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s overpraised Cannes competition film Kandahar (about an Afghan woman trying to rescue her suicidal sister) seem thin and contrived.
An outstanding American entry, Bestor Cram and Mike Majoros’s Unfinished Symphony revisits a historic protest staged by Vietnam Veterans Against the War in Lexington, Massachusetts. To cap three days of marches and street theater, the vets staged an illegal sleep-in on the site of the first battle of the American Revolution. The filmmakers edit together footage of the demonstration, on-the-spot interviews, and TV news coverage of the war. Set to Henryk Gorecki’s “Symphony of Sorrowful Songs,” the collage retains something of its original impact, but distanced by the music—and the passage of 30 years—it also takes on a haunting quality. With the military-industrial complex once again poised to run wild over the U.S. economy, these ghosts of protests past couldn’t be more relevant. A brief section of the film is devoted to the Winter Soldier hearings, in which vets testified about acts they came to view as atrocities, including the slaughter of innocent Vietnamese villagers. (It puts the recent Bob Kerrey affair in perspective.) Unfinished Symphony is politically potent as long as the veterans’ voices dominate. Unfortunately the film turns mushy when the filmmakers attempt an overview. What could be more lame than ending with “Give Peace a Chance.”
Lenora Todaro’s review of Life and Debt.
Greg Tate’s profile of Life and Debt director Stephanie Black.