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'THE DEEP END' FALLS INTO THE POOL; 'THE SCORE': BRANDO. DE NIRO. NORTON. 'NUF CED.

LongIsland.com

What follows is a special review of the opening night film at the Stony Brook Film Festival. "The Deep End" opens in August. And stay tuned for my review of "The Score," which follows the ...

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What follows is a special review of the opening night film at the Stony Brook Film Festival. "The Deep End" opens in August.

And stay tuned for my review of "The Score," which follows the review of "The Deep End."

by Ben Kenigsberg

In the movies, blackmailers come in all shapes and sizes. There are blackmailers who are cold-hearted killers, and blackmailers who are everyday shmos. There are blackmailers who excel at their craft, and there are blackmailers who you know are going to bungle the job from minute one.

There are blackmailers of all kinds in the movies, but

"The Deep End"

is the first film I know of where a blackmailer decides that he won't take his cut because the woman with the money has too much on her hands.

He decides that she's too nice to deserve being blackmailed after walking through her kitchen -- having a kitchen and a home and a family apparently makes her ... human -- and after hearing her give an impassioned speech about how it's

too damn hard

for her to raise the money. You try raising $50,000 while raising three kids!

It's not that I don't think such a transformation could occur. If the blackmailer had been developed slowly, in stages, perhaps we wouldn't be so surprised that he's willing to write off his $25,000. "I'm sorry, Margaret," he says at the end of the picture. "I'm sorry for all of this." Of course, that's saying nothing of his cartoonishly psychopathic partner (Raymond J. Barry)....

I wouldn't object to "The Deep End" if it were a pure human relations drama -- that is, a movie about how the blackmailer and the blackmailed come to grips with each other -- just as I wouldn't object to it if it were, as it is for at least half its run, a pure suspense film. But "The Deep End" wants to have it both ways, and in a struggle to reconcile the two genres, it turns halfway through from one of the best movies of the year to one of the worst.

I have no doubt that such a feat -- genre reconciliation, that is -- could be pulled off, but it takes better writing than is on display here. In a good suspense film, you need a twist that the audience can't predict. Hell, you need two or three twists. And to make a good melodrama, you need characters with plausible motives for their actions. When the blackmailer says he's willing to bag the deal, we're not convinced. Perhaps the speech about how it was

too damn hard

to raise the money was just

too powerful

for him.

Then again, it is quite a speech. The blackmailed, in this case, is a Lake Tahoe mother played by Tilda Swinton. Swinton deserves the highest accolades for her performance, in which she perfectly hides her character's fear beneath a calm visage. She's so pitch-perfect in this role -- so attuned to her character's subtle reactions -- that you feel sorry that she has to react to such idiocy.

Swinton's character, Margaret, has covered up for the murder of her 17-year-old son's 30-year-old lover. It's an especially tough thing for her to do, since 24 hours earlier, she offered the lover, Darby (Josh Lucas), $5,000 to stay away from her son, Beau (Jonathan Tucker). There's a brilliant scene where Margaret, driving her daughter's car pool home, sees ambulances parked by the edge of the river -- where she put Darby's body -- and struggles to keep her cool.

Margaret's relationship with Beau is depicted reasonably enough; they're not terribly close, but he's not distant and rebellious, either. ("Do you think the police will want to speak to you?" she asks. He just mumbles -- a realistic non-reply.) There are some honest scenes in their home during the movie's terrific first half, as relationships elucidate themselves and tension mounts.

Alek (Goran Visnjic) and his evil partner Nagle (Raymond J. Barry) know about Beau's involvement with Darby, and have a tape of the two

in flagrante delicto

to prove it. Thus, the $50,000-by-tomorrow-or-else bit.

But you pretty much know the movie is dead when Alek performs CPR on Margaret's heart attack-stricken father-in-law (Peter Donat). "It happens," Alek says of the incident.

We know we're watching Alek develop into a completely different character, and writer-directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel, working from the story "The Blank Wall" by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding, know it too. But they don't have any idea what to make of Alek's newfound humanity; the characters are too complex for the simple-minded (but gripping) suspense story. So how do you make the situation less complex? Easy: you kill a character. This saves you the trouble of creating a surprising finale.

It's a real shame, though, that "The Deep End" is such a cop-out. The acting -- not just Swinton's, but Tucker's and Visnjic's -- is quite good. Cinematographer Giles Nuttgens's images of Lake Tahoe are at once postcard-ready and eerie. It's appropriate that, while through much of the picture, he uses gorgeous blue filters, in a scene at the end, he opts for a peculiar puke green.

As an interesting sidenote, there are a number of sequences in "The Deep End" that seem lifted from Hitchcock, like the death in the boathouse scene ("Rebecca") and the scene where a person trying to dispose of a body goes back to it to remove incriminating evidence ("Frenzy"). At the Stony Brook Film Festival, director David Siegel told me that while he and McGehee weren't intentionally "quoting Hitchcock," Hitch's films are so ingrained within our cinematic conscience that you can't really make a suspense thriller without stumbling on something he did. Maybe so, but it's apparent that Hitch's work isn't so ingrained that they could inadvertently make a Hitchcock-caliber picture. Not that they should be expected to.

The best thing about

"The Score"

is the way it unites three great actors from three generations in the same movie. All three have memorably explored the underbelly of society in different capacities, but have always taken care to give their characters a vulnerability -- an additional layer of complexity -- that wouldn't read well on the faces of other actors.

At 77, Marlon Brando is still edgy. In "The Score," he plays a crime boss named Max who wants nothing more than to get Nick (Robert De Niro) involved in a heist. Max has hidden motives for his actions, and when they're revealed in a dialogue with De Niro, Brando has a look of helplessness that causes the movie to lift, though only momentarily, into the annals of cinema history. Like Terry Malloy in "On the Waterfront," who's partly responsible for the murder in that film's opening sequence, Max is cocky but cautious.

De Niro's more restrained than usual, though often perfectly so, perhaps because he's playing a thankless clich role: the guy who promises his girlfriend he'll quit his life of crime after doing "one last job." There's a great deal of old pro/hothead protg sparring in "The Score." And the sparring is handled so well here, you'd think it was a new concept.

Nick's sidekick is Jack (Edward Norton), a thief with remarkable patience and a penchant for acting. In scenes where Nick and Jack are talking -- either in pupil-student or man-to-man form -- De Niro gives Nick a subtly condescending tone. His lectures are like those of a grandfather teaching his progeny the tricks of the family business, with warnings speckled throughout.

Norton's just about the most versatile actor today. As Jack, he needs to pose as a mentally retarded janitor, and does so completely believably. He finds just the right note of nervousness when improvising a chat with a Montreal cop, trying to prevent the discovery of Nick, who's about to emerge from a sewer. Norton has such a fiery intensity that he nearly overshadows Brando and De Niro. That's not a canny way of saying he's overacting; that's a high compliment.

That's what's right with "The Score."

But alas, this is one of these films where the actors rise above the material, and occasionally breathe life into it. It isn't bad, per se. It's just not that original, or twisty.

Take the scenes that deal with Nick's relationship with his girlfriend (Angela Bassett). Even De Niro can't find a fresh way to tell her that he has to pull off one last heist before they can run away together. (Is this giving anyone else a "Guys & Dolls" vibe?) And Bassett is given an even harder job: trying to create a three-dimensional character in two or three scenes. Either her near-lead billing was a mistake, or her scenes were mostly left on the cutting room floor.

It's just as well, actually. Nick's more defined by his actions in the heat of the moment than by his girlfriend. We already know he has a human side. Much of the movie is so tense that the melodrama does nothing but let us catch our breath -- precisely at the moments when we should be breathless.

Such melodrama fills the first half-hour of the movie, which crawls along until we get to know Jack. From there, with scenes of exposition owing to Jules Dassin's "Rififi," the movie builds momentum.

In exactly two sequences, former comedy director Frank "Yoda" Oz proves that he knows how to set up a scene and make it suspenseful. An exchange of money for security codes in a public park, an idea so overused it's a potential pratfall, is handled deftly thanks to skillful editing. And the lengthy climactic set piece, which owes a lot to Dassin's "Topkapi" (Dassin has quite the legacy), gives us just enough details to chew on to make nail-chewing a necessity. Oz hasn't mastered pacing, but in "The Score," he shows, as he did in "Bowfinger" and "In & Out," that he's capable of directing more than Muppets.

The script, by Kario Salem, Lem Dobbs and Scott Marshall Smith from a story by Salem and Daniel E. Taylor, has its ups and downs. The downs comprise, primarily, the unoriginal parts. The script also doesn't make all the details of the robbery clear. We learn enough for the movie to make sense, but not quite enough to play along.

The crackling dialogue is considerably better. For instance, Nick tells Max that this will be his last job. "I'm gonna believe that when the pigs eat my brother," Max replies. Sure, it doesn't make any sense, but it sounds cool.

"Talent means nothing in this game," Nick tells Jack. "You want my advice? Make a list of everything you want now, and then spend the next 25 years of your life getting it."

If I were Norton, on my list, I'd include starring in a movie with actors like Brando and De Niro, as he's their natural successor. Of course, he's already done that.