Photo by Nick Wall

The young wizards who make television ads and rock videos are turning in droves to filmmaking, and it’s no stretch to see why they make a beeline for neo-noir, with its compulsive skimming of life’s shiny surfaces. To its credit, Sexy Beast — a self-proclaimed “neon noir” debut by British director Jonathan Glazer, who has won every award going for his commercials and pop promos — wants to push beyond the forms of the gangster movie to some kind of emotional truth telling. In that sense, his movie tips its hat to the salad days of film noir, when the genre still cleaved to the forlorn romanticism that was as much part of its allure as was its contemplation of the mechanics of evil. Scratch the surface of every jaded cynic hiding behind a fedora, and you found a wistful lover desperate for completion.

Minus fedora, enter Gary “Gal” Dove (Ray Winstone), an ex-con who has done his jail time and now wants nothing more than to end his days in his swank Costa del Sol villa with his wife, Deedee (Amanda Redman), a classy blue-eyed brunette and former porn star whom he adores beyond reason. Sexy Beast opens in a blinding burst of golden light with Gal, brown as a Costco chicken, sunning himself poolside while his Spanish-urchin houseboy (Alvaro Monje) plies a broom around him. Moments later, the idyll is shattered when a symbolic boulder rolls down a steep hill, narrowly missing Gal and smacking into the pool — followed in short order by the appearance of another loose cannonball, the runtish Don “Malky” Logan (Ben Kingsley), Gal’s nemesis from his gangster days, who’s been dispatched by London HQ to talk Gal out of retirement for the mother of all bank robberies.

In the chattily theatrical exchange that follows (the crisply Mametian screenplay is by playwrights Louis Mellis and David Scinto), Sexy Beast announces its ambition to be not just another heist movie, but a study, at once prankish and portentous, in the light and dark of the gangster psyche. And what a joy it is to see the bald and bearded Kingsley, a performer given to flights of extreme unction in roles like Gandhi and Otto Frank, cutting up with an adenoidal cockney twang as the charmless buffoon Logan, whose bottomless insecurity and dim wit only feed his menace. He’s a funny-frightening figure straight out of Scorsese, and Kingsley plays beautifully off Winstone (a rising star on the British film scene, known here primarily for his wife-beater roles in Gary Oldman’s Nil by Mouth and Ken Loach’s Ladybird Ladybird), who works against his bruiser bulk with a tremulous, placatory half-smile that humanizes Gal, making him a perfect mark for the merciless world he thinks he’s left behind, a world that never forgives a defection.

Inevitably, Gal goes to London to face greater devils than Don, but not before a mini–horror movie at the villa unfolds, the first of several exquisitely constructed set pieces that are the movie’s true reason for being. Glazer shoots with the dreamy impressionism much favored in his principal line of work, all floaty slo-mos and in-your-face close-ups punctuated by a hard-driving rock score. The underwater bank robbery is stunning, but no amount of superior technique and dedicated acting can paper over the movie’s thin, familiar plot (most recently seen in The Mexican, whose untidy spontaneity is somehow preferable to the prepared wit and vicious polish of Sexy Beast) or the fact that, by the end, we have learned little more about Gal or his pals than we knew going in. Sexy Beast is fun, and it has the advantage over Guy Ritchie’s slick, glib Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels in giving us at least one character we might begin to care about. Glazer seems to be trying for some conclusion about the roots of evil (a deficit of love?), but like so many of his contemporaries, he’s unable to go anywhere with that thought beyond a hysterical giggle or a world-weary sigh. “I’m not into this anymore,” an exhausted Gal tells his lethal über-boss. Me neither.

For all its whiz-bang special effects, Atlantis: The Lost Empire has the comfortable, old-fashioned, earnest idealism of a ’50s Disney action-adventure — which isn’t unwelcome in the smarty-pants culture of most current animation. Shot in wide-screen Cinema-
Scope, the movie is directed, in collaboration with popular comic book artist Mike Mignola, by Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise. The two also made Beauty and the Beast and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, whose rich, purplish-brown look Atlantis mimics as it opens. The year is 1914, the place Washington, D.C., and Milo Thatch, a geeky cartographer and linguist in outsize specs (voiced by Michael J. Fox with the same casual good humor he brought to Stuart Little), has ditched a frumpy museum career to lead a submarine team, headed by the rugged Commander Rourke (James Garner), to carry on the work begun by Milo’s explorer grandfather and find Atlantis, a thriving civilization that unaccountably sank into the ocean eons ago.

Atlantis may be a boy’s own story, but it’s clear that some fairy godmother has been whispering into the ears of Disney’s animation folks to the effect that their wasp-waisted leading ladies — Belle, Pocahontas, Mulan, even that moist little merperson beneath the waves — don’t quite cut it as feminist heroines. Intended or not, the movie’s finest joke is that the hero, a bookworm who couldn’t change a light bulb if his life depended on it, is surrounded by enough musclebound female help (and hindrance) to get him where he wants to be, including past the mechanical lobster that guards the entrance to the lost city and tries to pincer the sub. The cast is as multiculti and multinational as it needs to be to generate worldwide box office — there’s a black medical officer (Phil Morris) aptly named Dr. Sweet, a charmingly conceived French-accented geologist and compulsive digger named Moliere (Corey Burton), and so forth. But it’s the women who make the biggest splash. Rourke’s lieutenant, a scowling ball-buster named Helga (Claudia Christian), looks as though she just blew in from the gym. Audrey (Jacqueline Obradors), a sassy Latina mechanic with bulging biceps and dreams of professional boxing, and Mrs. Packard (Florence Stanley), a hilariously mouthy, chain-smoking old broad who mans a switchboard, become Milo’s loyal allies and saviors. And all this before we even get to the love interest, Princess Kida (Cree Summer), an 8,500-year-old Atlantis beauty in bikini top and loincloth, who, despite being frozen into the crystal that holds the secret of Atlantis’ long-ago comeuppance, joins Milo in flushing the rotten apples from his barrel and restoring the lost continent to its former glory.

Atlantis’ final battle for the shimmering aquamarine city, with its flying crystal-powered Stonefish, is a sight to behold. Tab Murphy’s amusingly literary screenplay, with its breezy references to Plato, the Book of Job and natural selection, no less, goes a long way to compensate for the statutory moralizing that accompanies any animated movie made on Disney premises. “Mercenary?” roars one member of the team who turns out to be a bad lot. “I prefer the term adventure capitalist.” Down with stuffy careerism! Follow your bliss! Down with the profit motive! Up with principles and collective action! . . . The multiple ironies may not be lost on adult moviegoers, but they’ll sail straight over the heads of the kids the movie is aimed at. Which could turn out to be a good thing, if they grow up taking these values to heart and decide not to go to work for a corporation that, like Disney, lays off its employees by the pound, only to turn around and spend $5 million on a premiere for Pearl Harbor.

Written by LOUIS MELLIS and DAVID SCINTO | Produced by JEREMY THOMAS Released by Fox Searchlight Pictures | At selected theaters

ATLANTIS: The Lost Empire | Directed by GARY TROUSDALE and KIRK WISE Written by TAB MURPHY | Produced by DON HAHN
Released by Walt Disney Pictures | Citywide

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