SEXY BEAST (2001)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 29 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Pervasive Language, Strong Violence and some Sexuality

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Directed by: Jonathan Glazer

Written by: Louis Mellis & David Scinto

Starring: Ray Winstone, Ben Kingsley, Ian McShane, Amanda Redman, James Fox & Cavan Kendall

Though he only has three films under his belt so far, Jonathan Glazer has been compared to Stanley Kubrick by a number of film critics. Now having seen two of those three movies, I can definitely see that description being somewhat accurate. Glazer first made waves with this British crime flick that polarized audiences upon its release and rightfully got Ben Kingsley an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. Kingsley’s performance is undoubtedly the best part of this film, but the rest of the performances and the so-so screenplay make for a fun hodge-podge of a stalker flick and a typical heist thriller. As a whole, SEXY BEAST is an enjoyable flick, but not without a good share of problems.

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Gal is a retired safecracker. After spending nine years in prison and pulling off many successful jobs, he has settled down with an ex-porn star and retired to a gorgeous Spanish villa. Gal’s nasty life of crime catches up with him in the form of Don Logan. Don has come to Spain in order to recruit Gal on for one last job. It only seems natural that Gal is hesitant to return to the criminal underworld, even if it’s just for one final robbery, but Don isn’t going to take “no” for an answer. Verbal sparring soon turns into violent confrontations and things quickly spiral out of control.

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Ben Kingsley has said that he based his performance of Don on his grandmother. Whatever his inspiration may have been, it works wonders as he completely steals the show. Don Logan is a memorable sociopathic villain for the ages. If the rest of the film had been up to the same level as this psychopathic baddie, SEXY BEAST would be a masterpiece in my eyes. However, the movie slightly suffers during every scene in which Kingsley is absent. I like Ray Winstone, but Gal seems to be a fairly run-of-the-mill reluctant ex-con. We’ve seen this character in a million other movies, though Winstone does his best to make him likable. Ian McShane is enjoyable as the intimidating mastermind behind the heist, but doesn’t receive enough screen time to really cement his presence in this film. The rest of the side characters are forgettable and don’t add much to the story. This film is all about Ben Kingsley’s Don and his performance warrants a viewing alone.

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The script of SEXY BEAST wanders from conversation to conversation. While a film full of talking heads can be riveting given the right story (e.g. A MOST WANTED MAN), SEXY BEAST happens to be a heist thriller in which the thrills make up little over a third of the running time. As the movie goes along and Kingsley gets more unhinged with each passing second, I found myself getting more invested in watching his lunatic gangster as opposed to actually being interested in the plot at hand. The final third is satisfying, especially in later moments involving Ian McShane becoming nearly as unhinged as Kingsley’s Don. However, this still feels like a standard heist movie that happens to feature a vicious psychopath in it. The movie also ventures too far into pretentious areas with a man-sized rabbit who makes a couple of appearances in dreams. Though this movie was made slightly before DONNIE DARKO, all I could think of was how much better that film pulled that off as opposed to SEXY BEAST throwing in this monster for a few minutes.

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SEXY BEAST is worth watching thanks to Ben Kingsley’s performance. Without Kingsley in the role, this would come off as a merely okay heist thriller. The film is entertaining throughout, but also seems to be a little too in love with itself during certain moments (that damned rabbit). It’s an entertaining run-of-the-mill crime flick that just happens to have a lunatic villain at the center of it. I recommend SEXY BEAST on those merits, but this was clearly an early effort for Glazer. The man has definitely improved over time (2014’s UNDER THE SKIN may just be his defining masterpiece).

Grade: B

BEOWULF (2007)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 55 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Intense Sequences of Violence including Disturbing Images, some Sexual Material and Nudity

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Directed by: Robert Zemeckis

Written by: Neil Gaiman, Roger Avary

(based on the epic poem BEOWULF)

Starring: Ray Winstone, Angelina Jolie, Anthony Hopkins, Crispin Glover, John Malkovich, Brendan Gleeson, Robin Wright, Alison Lohman

Adapting the oldest known piece of English literature is a difficult task. This is made even more difficult by people taking creative liberties in order not to tell the same old story yet again. This version of BEOWULF was filmed in the motion capture style. The cast were in special suits with dots on their faces and then proceeded to act out the scenes on a blank stage. The character designs were then animated from the movements of the cast and the world around them was created by a group of animators. When examined as an exercise in style, BEOWULF is impressive on some levels and flawed on others.

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In a time of magic and monsters, a young warrior travels to a distant kingdom in search of glory and gold. The man is named Beowulf and he’s taken the task of slaying the vicious demon Grendel. This is easier said than done, because Grendel’s a near indestructible creature and is not the only monster lurking in the kingdom. Beowulf carves out a reputation for himself and receives glory, but it’s at his own peril. His legend is sung throughout the lands, but Beowulf has a dark secret that comes back to haunt him in his old age.

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From that brief synopsis, fans of the epic poem will notice changes to the source material. The original tale is a predecessor for things like LORD OF THE RINGS and the title character was a sort of medieval superhero. The movie stays true to the revered story for the first 45 minutes (the impending battle with Grendel). When Grendel’s mother surfaces is where things play out very differently. What was a poem of heroism, bravery, and conquering beasts turns into a cautionary tale about the flaws of men. While I don’t necessarily oppose this script entirely (as the original epic poem made Beowulf out to be a boastful braggart in places), it’s overly familiar in many respects. We’ve seen this type of movie many times before, so why turn a beloved fantasy epic into just another story about bad karma.

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To add another cliché to the mix, there are a couple of dream sequences that conclude in the same way of Beowulf waking up screaming with a quick jump scare. It’s yet another laughable element thrown into a story that didn’t need these additions. Though seen through animation, the performances are visible (it’s the actors’ emotions on the characters’ faces after all). Anthony Hopkins gets a little too hammy as the drunken king and John Malkovich chews the scenery as Unferth. In some places, it sounds like Malkovich is eager to be done with this film to receive his paycheck. There’s either a hint of him reading lines from a script or putting too much inflection into his dialogue. On a lesser degree of over-acting is Ray Winstone as Beowulf. He flies from 0 to 60 in the volume of his voice in a millisecond. Winstone goes from restrained in his delivery (his more effective scenes) to wildly yelling at the top of his lungs.

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Most of the animation is stunning. There are a couple of moments that look like a herky-jerky PlayStation 2 game, but those instances can be counted on one hand. The creature design of Grendel is very impressive. The poem wisely never tells you what he looks like and leaves it to the reader’s imagination to conjure up this monster’s image in their mind. I really dug the look of this demon, even if Crispin Glover gave an unneeded reason for him to be devouring the people (involving sensitive ears). The dragon is awesome as well, while Grendel’s mother is literally Angelina Jolie with gold covering her privates. The soundtrack is also really cool and gives the whole film an epic vibe, even with the flaws being very apparent.

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My biggest complaints with BEOWULF can purely be leveled at the changes in the script. It almost like two different stories were combined into one. If you’re going to retell the epic poem in an appropriately epic fashion, then don’t blend a completely unnecessary and familiar thriller formula into it. There’s plenty of excitement to be had purely from a tale of warriors, dragons, and demons. The acting ranges from good to very over-the-top, just as the animation is awesome in some places and shaky in others. Taken on a pure spectacle level, BEOWULF is enjoyable. Taken as an epic fantasy that could possibly go down as a great adaptation of medieval literature, it’s iffy at best. Overall, BEOWULF is a decent film, but suffers from messy storytelling in front of and behind the camera.

Grade: C+

NOAH (2014)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 18 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Violence, Disturbing Images and brief Suggestive Content

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Directed by: Darren Aronofsky

Written by: Darren Aronofsky & Ari Handel

Starring: Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly, Ray Winstone, Emma Watson, Logan Lerman, Anthony Hopkins, Douglas Booth, Frank Langella, Marton Csokas, Madison Davenport & Nick Nolte

Biblical epics are nothing new. Since the art of filmmaking has been around, talented (and not so talented) directors have been putting scripture stories into cinematic form. It’s odd that the story of Noah’s ark has only been brought to film twice before. I have yet to see the 1929 silent film and the 1999 made-for-TV movie looks embarrassingly bad. Darren Aronofsky’s film version of the tale is sure to be a divisive one. Instead of staying completely word-for-word true to the source material, Aronofsky plays everything as a sort of fantasy epic. It is ironic that the people who might enjoy the film also might condemn it on sight. I’m not speaking of religious people, but atheists. There are admittedly stupid decisions here and there in Aronofsky’s storytelling (one of which definitely knocks this movie a notch down on my grade factor), but I found NOAH to be a stunning piece of work that stays true to the themes and overall message of the Bible story, even if it’s not close enough to the material for many viewers’ comfort.

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For those who have utterly no knowledge of the tale (despite it being prevalent through many different religions), Noah is a good man in a world of wickedness. He has visions from God (or as they only refer to him in the film: The Creator) that inform him of the impending destruction of the world. The Creator plans to wipe everything clean with a massive flood that will cover the entire planet. With the help of fallen angels in stone form (more on that in a moment), Noah constructs a massive ark that will carry two of each animal safely through the watery doom. The evils of man pose a threat as the king (descendant of Cain) plans on taking the ark from Noah by force when the flood arrives.

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One thing should have immediately stuck out from that previous paragraph that is vastly different from the Bible story and that’s the rocky fallen angels helping Noah out. These beings looked like the Rockbiter from NEVERENDING STORY (big strong hands) and the fact that they do talk in gravely voices made it even more awkward to watch. The first 15 minutes featuring these beasties front and center are a bit shaky to say the least. However, it does get to a point where they are merely means to an end in the background. I did like what they resolved these creatures with as well. There are other fantastical elements added as well, but I thought these other ideas were integrated very well into the story.

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The really interesting stuff comes after those first 15 minutes. The film is the Noah’s Ark story, but new ideas have been thrown into the mix that make Noah a much more fleshed out character. He’s portrayed as very flawed and faces tough choices before the flood arrives and while on the ark. The supporting cast of Noah’s family includes familiar faces too. Jennifer Connelly is great as Naameh (Noah’s wife) and delivers some really heart-wrenching emotional moments. Logan Lerman (PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER) plays the rebellious son named Ham and does it well. Meanwhile, Emma Watson is nothing short of amazing as Ila (an adopted daughter of sorts to Noah’s family). Anthony Hopkins also appears in about four scenes as Noah’s wise grandfather. Ray Winstone is a gruff and intimidating figure in his most notable roles. As King Tubal-Cain, he shines. This is the arch-enemy of Noah and there’s more to this character’s story than meets the eye. I really liked where director/writer Aronofsky took things with this plot-thread. Finally, there’s Russell Crowe himself as the title character and he gives a powerhouse performance as Noah. You feel his desperation, his struggle, and see where he’s coming from (even if you don’t agree with some of his actions).

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Effects-wise the film is absolutely amazing to behold. This is spectacle done almost perfectly. It’s a movie made to be seen on the big screen and it certainly adds power that the story’s so compelling. For all the mistakes in the opening that hint at an awkward experience shown in the beginning, NOAH gripped me more as the film went on longer. Once the flood comes and the family is aboard the ark with all the animals, you’d think the film would slow down. Instead, it went in a much more human-nature oriented direction that I imagine a lot of Bible purists won’t approve of, but I found it to be very deep and profound. The flood sequence itself and the battle leading up to it are awesome. There is a stark raw brutality around the film that must be respected too. The Bible had uplifting messages in its stories, but plenty of them weren’t pretty and the same can be said of this film adaptation. There were a couple of scenes that really shocked me at how dark Aronofsky decided to go with this material.

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Even though this story has been given almost a sort of LORD OF THE RINGS epic treatment, the message is still at the heart of this film. The concepts of sin, repentance, human life as a gift, giving thanks for blessings, and things happening for a reason are all examined in a respectful way. It’s ironic that atheists might enjoy this film a lot more than most Christians. The religious relatives I saw the film with thought it was boring and just not very well made. I heartily disagree. There is one dumb decision (those lame rockbiters), but everything else is absolutely awesome. It’s a slightly flawed biblical epic that I plan on revisiting many times in the future. Worthy of seeing on the big screen!

Grade: A-

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