From Gandhi to Gangster … There’s Music in Them Thar Hills

From Gandhi to

Gangster

For a diverting, pulse-quickening antidote to the

summer-trash explosion at the movies, check out Sexy Beast , a noirish psychological crime thriller that kicks the

familiar genre of British gangster flicks up a notch. Follically challenged

Oscar-winner Ben Kingsley is famous for playing saints, but after his

terrifying performance as a violent, racist, homophobic Cockney thug, it will

be difficult to ever think of him as Gandhi again.

In this debut feature by British director Jonathan Glazer,

two diametrically opposite underworld criminals go head-to-head in a battle of

wills and nerves that will leave you gasping. Mr. Kingsley is Don Logan, a

repulsive sewer rat who has been dispatched to the Costa del Sol by a gay

London crime lord (Ian McShane) to fetch a retired thief named Gal Dove for one

last heist masterminded by a corrupt bank president (James Fox). But Gal

(played by the great Ray Winstone) does not want to be fetched. He’s served his

time behind bars and just wants to be left alone to enjoy the luxury of his

retirement in Spain with the wife he adores, a former porno star who has also

packed in her past (distinguished stage actress Amanda Redman). But Don is a

diabolical cretin who won’t take “no” for an answer. The result is an explosive

clash that examines, with cutting-edge realism, two different kinds of mobster

played by two different kinds of actor.

Mr. Winstone, who played the detestable, abusive father in

Gary Oldman’s independent feature Nil by

Mouth , is a bloated, paunchy, high-living beached sperm whale who has

intentionally gone to seed, fond of lush music, sausages on the barbie and

cocktails by the pool. Mr. Kingsley is a satanic-looking killer: hard, bald,

lean and tight-lipped, with cruelty playing around the corners of his mouth.

He’s a piece of work-bullying men, torturing women with sexual innuendo,

wreaking havoc on an airplane with a lighted cigarette, erupting into fits of

savage rage when provoked.

As soon as Gal and his party guests think they’ve sent him

away, Don returns to terrorize everyone in Gal’s villa in an agitated state

that builds to a ghastly climax. In a series of gruesome surprises, it takes

two women, two men and a small boy to finish him off. After Gal disposes of the

corpse, he also has to pull the job in London and outsmart an equally lethal

adversary before he can return to the good life in bliss. In one of the most

imaginatively directed and photographed sequences in film, Don’s bloody murder

is intercut with the sensational underwater heist as the gang robs the bank

from under a Turkish bath. In contrast to the dreary, navy-blue London rain,

the finale once again shifts to the sunny coast of Spain, fresh martinis and

resumed tranquillity. But can it last? Keep an eye on that swimming pool.

Although Sexy Beast

reminds some viewers of Reservoir Dogs ,

it’s more like Quentin Tarantino’s film in reverse; instead of the aftermath of

a heist, it’s a heist movie about all the events leading up to it. A sparse but

meaty script trimmed of all superfluous fat, structured and confident

direction, and superbly tense performances by the entire cast help to elevate Sexy Beast above its gangster roots. But

it is really Ben Kingsley who shocks it into a dark, exciting, energetic life

of its own. It’s a study in serpentine sang-froid, and the actor-born Krishna

Banji to a British mother and an Asian father from Kenya-has just the odd,

genetic mixture of piercing strangeness and intense ferocity to make the role

of a satanic-looking hood doubly scary. Equally convincing playing monsters

(Meyer Lansky in Bugsy ) or martyrs ( Ghandi , Itzhak Stern in Schindler’s List ), Mr. Kingsley is the

consummate artist. But in Sexy Beast ,

his beady, focused eyes, reptilian coldness and poisonous killer instinct are

the closest the movies have ever come to a human cobra.

There’s Music in Them

Thar Hills

The formidable British actress Janet McTeer is the inspired

centerpiece of Songcatcher , an unusual

film of texture and quality that combines the disciplined, high-minded

structure of a Merchant-Ivory period piece with the opulent, teary-eyed

melodramatics of a Sunday-night Hallmark Hall of Fame special. Ms. McTeer plays

Dr. Lily Penleric, a prim, proper,

turn-of-the-century music professor who is continually passed over for

promotion in the halls of academe because she’s a woman. Disappointed,

exasperated and fed up, she chucks her job as a musicologist and moves to a

remote mountain village in North Carolina to research the primitive roots of

Appalachian folk songs.

In the rural bluegrass country, she joins her spinster

sister Elna (Jane Adams), a schoolteacher who is already familiar with the

strange ways of the mountain people-but Lily learns the hard way. Hostile,

suspicious, potentially dangerous, these hillbillies lead hardscrabble lives

and do not welcome outsiders. In time, Lily develops respect for their hardened

traditions and falls in love with the country songs they’ve passed down from generation

to generation. Discovering, collecting, preserving and cataloguing this musical

heritage for a songbook is her goal, and in time she becomes a trusted member

of the community and even falls in love with a moonshiner (Aidan Quinn).

The film does a fine job of explaining these odd, reclusive,

clannish people-dirt poor, their land depleted and their crops failing, with

nothing left but their music, encroached on by intruders who want to exploit

them for everything from their patchwork quilts to their coal mines. Music is

their literature, their legacy, their culture. The film also does a fascinating

job of building a mosaic of that culture, authentically utilizing everything

from corncob pipes and schoolhouse quilts to log cabins and twig furniture. (The

sets look like a Ralph Lauren showroom.) But just when you’re beginning to

share Lily’s respect for and admiration of Appalachian strength and pride, her

sister is discovered having a lesbian affair with another schoolmarm, and hell

pierces the reverie. Fueled by fear, prejudice, homophobia and Christian

hysteria, the rednecks burn the school, destroy Lily’s work and research, and

that’s not all.

The melodrama piles up thick as blackstrap molasses. Still,

it’s a revealing and educational film, the cinematography is breathtaking,

there is haunting music in every moon ray and sunrise of this part of lost

Americana, and the distinguished performance by Janet McTeer really makes it

sing. Carefully written and meticulously directed by the talented Maggie Greenwald,

Songcatcher lulled and transported me

in time and tempo, like movements in a symphony, which is what memorable movies

are supposed to do. In the avalanche of summer trash, I don’t have to tell you

where to find Pearl Harbor . You may

have to search for Songcatcher . If

you do, I promise you’ll find it a richer, more rewarding experience.

Planet of the

Amphibians

Ivan Reitman’s zany Evolution

provides the currently deplorable state of Hollywood comedy with a welcome

lift. With this wacky sci-fi crowd-pleaser, the director of Ghostbusters delivers an assault on the

funny bone so goofy that I found myself laughing in spite of myself. A big rock

that looks like a humongous, flaming Baby Ruth hurtles toward Earth, and when

it crashes the computer nudniks and animatronic puppeteers have a field day.

Worms containing DNA don’t stay worms for long. They multiply so fast that the

equivalent of 200 million years of evolution copies in two days.

Preppie X-Files defector

David Duchovny and bug-eyed comic Orlando Jones are the Martin and Lewis of the

scenario-two science teachers from an Arizona community college who fight for

their right to conduct experiments at the crash site with their idiot

high-school-dropout sidekick (Seann William Scott, from American Pie ). But the villainous U.S. military (all nitwits in

uniform, natch!) wreck their hopes for a Nobel Prize by sealing off the area.

Then the creatures start adapting and the special-effects department goes wild,

turning mugwumps and newts into all sorts of mind-boggling Jurassic Park monsters that steal the show. Crocodiles are crossed

with pit bulls. A caterpillar grows into a muskrat with the tongue of a

dinosaur. A flesh-eating raptor attacks a shopping mall. If the numbnuts don’t

act fast, America will be toast. The Army, with typical Hollywood

nincompoopery, plans to wipe out the menace with napalm, but the heat turns the

aliens into a gigantic mountain of gory ooze. The heroes know the secret: The

only thing that can kill the Blob is Head & Shoulders shampoo!

Julianne Moore, on

vacation from her usual serious roles, joins in as a klutzy research scientist,

and Dan Aykroyd plays the moronic governor of Arizona with great relish, but

it’s the special-effects monsters you should keep your eyes on. There’s a gross-out

finale in an alien rectum the size of the Grand Canyon that has to be seen to

be believed, but it’s funny because the silliness stems from real wit instead

of broad, stupid kindergarten gags. Mr. Reitman has directed his share of fine

comedies ( Dave ) and stinkers ( Junior ), but he’s in top form here. Evolution is the kind of dope-fest I

usually hate, but this one made me laugh myself silly. This is very high praise

indeed.