John Travolta has an amusing look in Swordfish, where he plays a warped anti-terrorist superpatriot named Gabriel Shear. His thick, matted hair is parted down the middle and then falls away into a modified bowl cut; beneath his lower lip is a soul patch, like Dizzy Gillespie’s. The look is more promising than the character, who is less of a swinger than a starer. He doesn’t blink a lot, which is how we know he means business. In the end, Swordfish is another in a long line of middling movies for Travolta, who must have been so stunned to regain his stardom with Pulp Fiction that he hasn’t stopped working since. He trades on his quicksilver presence here, but the movie, full of explosions and shoot-outs, dabbles in an uneasy and opportunistic amorality, in which Gabriel is proudly displayed as a kind of avenging angel – a combination Ollie North and Timothy McVeigh.
Dominic Sena, who directed Gone in 60 Seconds, knows how to keep things propulsive, but too much of this Joel Silver-produced movie is like sweepings from the cutting-room floor of The Matrix (which Silver also produced). More and more thrillers are featuring cyberspace as the great new frontier for criminal activity, but there’s a basic dramatic problem with this: Watching someone hacking away at a computer is inherently dull, no matter how many lives and how many billions are at stake. In Swordfish, Hugh Jackman plays the most dangerous hacker in America, hired by Travolta, but sitting in front of a bank of computers, he might just as well be another cybernerd. Villainy and heroism don’t jibe with all these buzzing monitors and access codes.
In Bride of the Wind, Alma Mahler (Sarah Wynter) is the babe no genius could resist. There’s Gustav Mahler (Jonathan Pryce), her first husband; Walter Gropius (Simon Verhoeven), her second; and Franz Werfel (Gregor Seberg), her third, along with hot-blooded lover Oskar Kokoschka (Vincent Perez), who is so obsessed with Alma that after she calls it quits, he lugs around a full-size doll of her. Left out of the lineup are Enrico Caruso and Arnold Schoenberg, with whom she reportedly also had affairs. Gustav was briefly treated by Freud, and so one wonders – maybe Alma had a fling with Siggie too? (Now, if only she had set her sights on a young Viennese painter named Adolf …)
As Sarah Wynter plays Alma, it’s difficult to see what all the hue and cry was about; she’s rather petty and rancorous, complaining that her own songwriting gifts are being stifled by these male control freaks and yet, at the same time, riding them out for all their fame and glory. Alma is supposed to be a nascent New Woman in old-world Vienna, but her wiles seem pretty time-honored. The director, Bruce Beresford, can’t bring this saga to life because Alma herself never fully comes to life; her contradictoriness, like the way she embraces Mahler only to rail against his “Jewish music,” doesn’t add up to a whole and complex human being. We’re just watching random jottings from the bio. The only character who comes across with any depth is Mahler, and that’s because Jonathan Pryce has a way of looking hangdog yet tempestuous that perfectly fits the composer. When he walks out alone into the night air after the death of his young daughter, with Mahler’s lyrically funereal Kindertotenlieder No. 3 rising on the soundtrack, the man and the music are perfectly fused with the actor.
Evolution, the new comedy from director Ivan Reitman, began life as a standard sci-fi horror script before mutating into the unfunny mess it now is. Large swatches of the film still seem primed for scares; the meteor-driven organisms that evolve from flat slug-worms into jumbo befanged horrors owe a lot more to Jurassic Park than, say, to Ghostbusters. David Duchovny, riffing off his X-Files persona, plays a disgraced former government scientist reduced to teaching biology at a community college in Arizona, where, along with a fellow instructor played by Orlando Jones, he investigates the meteor-crash site and ultimately rescues the ecosystem. Julianne Moore turns up as a starched epidemiologist who is told that all she needs is a “good humping,” a view the filmmakers apparently heartily endorse. (They all need a good thumping.) When the government intervenes and attempts to destroy the organisms with napalm, the destructo comedy becomes particularly gross: Napalm is just not very funny. Evolution is from DreamWorks, which last year brought out the neglected sci-fi spoof Galaxy Quest, a movie with ten times the laughs and one tenth the promotion. Rent it.
The Anniversary Party is a heavy dose of movie-colony narcissism posing as warts-and-all honesty. Jennifer Jason Leigh and Alan Cumming, the film’s co-writers and directors, play a Hollywood couple who, after a year’s separation, invite their close friends over to their glass-and-stone aerie for an anniversary bash that includes the ingestion of much ecstasy. The drug acts as a kind of truth serum on the mostly showbiz crowd, and lots of pent-up resentments are released – as if, in Hollywood, you needed drugs for that. The cast members, including Kevin Kline and his wife, Phoebe Cates; Gwyneth Paltrow; Jennifer Beals; and John C. Reilly, are all reportedly friends of one another and of the filmmakers. It’s as if we were being told, Hey, we may be famous, but we’re human too. We bleed. On the evidence of this movie, my advice would be: Go back to just being famous. Please.
In Brief: the Coen Brothers’ O brother, Where Art Thou? had one of the best soundtracks in years, a mix of traditional folk and blues and bluegrass, played by Ralph Stanley, Emmylou Harris, Alison Krauss, the late John Hartford, and many more. Most of these same musicians, along with the selections they played, are in Down From the Mountain, a documentary by D. A. Pennebaker, Chris Hegedus, and Nick Doob of a Nashville concert given in conjunction with the movie’s production. Seeing these performers up close is a double blessing. (At the Screening Room.)
Starring John Travolta and Hugh Jackman.
Bride of the Wind
Starring Sarah Wynter.
Starring David Duchovny.