> Volume 3 > Number 23

Volume 3, Number 23

This Week's Reviews:  Daddy and Them, Evolution, Swordfish, The Center of the World.

This Week's Omissions:  NONE.

Daddy and Them

(Dir: Billy Bob Thronton, Starring Billy Bob Thornton, Laura Dern, Andy Griffith, John Prine, Walt Goggins, Jeff Bailey, Brenda Blethyn, Sandra Seacat, Kelly Preston, Diane Ladd, Jim Varney, Tuesday Knight, Ben Affleck, Jamie Lee Curtis, and Joe McCrackin)



Billy Bob Thornton's Daddy and Them has become the subject of estimation over the past couple of years. Like Town & Country and his other film, All the Pretty Horses, there has been something to keep it out of theatres for so long that a release almost seemed incredulous. I had the luck to see Daddy and Them at a film festival -- as of this writing, Miramax has still not given the film a release date to play at anything other than two film festivals (the Nashville Independent Film Festival and the Newport International Film Festival).

Daddy and Them is a slow and often aggravating little film -- filled with moments that are wonderful amidst a mess of strained moments. Billy Bob Thornton marries the styles he used with Sling Blade and later All the Pretty Horses. When the camera is moving, it moves beautifully, but the close-ups still have that forced intimacy that marred some of his work on Sling Blade. Cinematographer Barry Markowitz has learned a great deal of cinematographic magic since Sling Blade, especially in his work with James Toback on Two Girls and a Guy, by which his most realistically remarkable moments are those that seem sedated but have an alert tone.

The film is about one relationship and how it hinges on the family that truly hates each other. Thornton is Claude Montgomery, a civil servant in a small Arkansas county (he mows the lawns of public property). When his Uncle Hazel (Varney) is arrested for attacking a man that would not quit hounding him for attention, Claude and his wife Ruby (Dern) must make the journey to the family home to show their support for Hazel in his trial. Making things tougher is the fact that Ruby’s mother Jewel (Ladd) and sister Rose (Preston) want to tag along to show their support for Ruby’s in-laws. At least that is their supposed intentions, the reality becomes incredibly clear as time passes: Jewel believes that her daughter could have done much better than Claude and Rose is still in love with Claude who had been her boyfriend before turning out with Ruby.

At home, Claude has even more to deal with from his own family, a pack of drunks that take pride in their drunkenness. The patriarch is O.T. (Griffith), who desperately believes that there is something more to his brood -- the unremarkable daughter (Knight), the nosy son (Prine), the constantly partying son (Goggins), and the distant mother (Seacat). Considering that he moved away for his own life outside of the Montgomery household, Claude might just be the pride of O.T.’s family.

Things do not look too good for Hazel: his defense is that the assaulted former friend is lying. Not only does Hazel’s aggressive attitude at the arraignment sully his chances, the prosecution has a witness to testify against him. Hazel’s wife Julia (Blethyn) has hired a husband-and-wife lawyer team (Affleck and Curtis) to defend him whenever they take a break from their constant bickering.

Amidst all the characters that Thornton throws at the audience is a single story that seems to be the focus of the entire film: Claude and Ruby are in love. There are many bumps in the road, but they are truly, madly, deeply in love. She is his Juliet, he her Romeo, and they will do anything to remain together. This is the story that works in the film, and I have no doubt that Thornton worked the plot out of his own relationship with Dern at that time. It seethes with a realistic platform that the rest of the film lacks.

Daddy and Them takes almost constant missteps from the get-go, but whenever it returns to its primary objective, it shines. I like quirky characters and all, but few of the ones Thornton gives are that interesting. Seacat and Griffith are great in their roles, Ladd is fun watching as Dern’s mother (which she played in Wild at Heart as well as in real life), and Blethyn gives a remarkably subtle performance as the only stable person in the entire place.

For whatever it’s worth, Daddy and Them is a nice little film, nothing more. I can see it winning some people over, especially in the South, but the flaws get deeper and deeper as the film progresses until the film nearly falls apart in a way-too-eccentric last act. Thornton’s valentine to Dern, like the real relationship he had with her, seems exquisite in the beginning but finally fails.


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(Dir: Ivan Reitman, Starring David Duchovny, Orlando Jones, Julianne Moore, Seann William Scott, Ty Burrell, Ted Levine, Michael Bower, Dan Aykroyd, Ethan Suplee, Wayne Duvall, Katherine Towne, and Sarah Silverman)



When Ivan Reitman made Ghostbusters, he made something special. Ghostbusters was one of those action comedies that is both exciting and funny. That seems to be the biggest problem with his latest effort, the dismally lost Evolution: it succeeds in being neither.

Sure there are a few laughs here and there and a few surprises are hidden amongst the bore -- but, for the most part, the laughs are only funny after an hour of tedium and the surprises are only such because they are so absurd. In other words, I was not expecting one character to get sucked up the anus of an alien, but neither was I lead to care.

Evolution follows Ira Kane (Duchovny) and Harry Block (Jones), two community college science professors that happen to fall on one interesting finding. It seems that the meteor that hit their sleepy little Arizona town a few days earlier has organisms that are evolving abnormally fast. They go from one celled to many in a matter of hours before finally growing into different species of animals and even the all-important primates. These aliens are not a real threat at the moment; they cannot breathe the air on Earth. Instead they must remain in the shallow environment filled with smoke around the meteor -- whenever they travel up into the residential areas, they scare a few people before suffocating to death.

This, of course, finally sparks the interest of the government, who quickly send out an army of scientists to the area to cull information from this and knock Ira and Harry out of the chain of knowledge. This certainly irks the two, who think that they have as much a right to the findings as those from the government, including the stiff-as-nails yet egregiously clumsy Allison Reed (Moore). They set out with Wayne Green (Scott), the man the meteor nearly crushed upon arrival, and begin to search out their own new research and, perhaps, save the world as all these films must finally face.

David Duchovny must be desperate for something to take him away from The X-Files because it is hard to believe that the same famously finicky actor made the decision to appear in this. Perhaps, it was the chance to work with Ivan Reitman -- I cannot believe that it had anything to do with the script by David Diamond, David Weissman (both of The Family Man fame), and Don Jakoby (John Carpenter’s Vampires, Double Team). In fact, considering the constant ‘blah’ demeanor that Duchovny shows in the film, I would not be too surprised if he did not even read the script until a couple days before production.

Giving the only refreshing moments is Orlando Jones, punching out a few jokes to make up for the ones that he evidently left out of Double Take earlier this year. Jones injects the film with some much-needed hilarity whenever he is not sticking to the unfunny script. Oh, and speaking of unfunny, Seann William Scott gets another chance in this film to prove that he teeters on taking the most useless actor award from Freddie Prinze, Jr. Well, actually, Scott can deliver some funny moments when playing a jackass in films like Road Trip, but his latest roles as idiots (most notably in Dude, Where’s My Car?, but also in Final Destination) is annoying. Please give this man something cocky to say or have him wait tables in San Jose!

There are actually a few moments, though, that work despite the impediments abound. There is one moment that I especially liked in which a group of women find an alien in their closet. This moment actually reminded me for a moment of Ghostbusters, where they showed that there were other people seeing the ghosts beyond the lead characters. I could compare this scene in Evolution to the one in Ghostbusters where people see the arrival of the Titanic.

I can even give the film some kudos for some occasionally nice special effects sequences. Sure, they seem like really fake CGI, but they do work in their own sloppy way. Considering the mostly reviled CGI of this summer (especially the Scorpion King in The Mummy Returns), the visual effects in Evolution seem artificial but charming. When people name off reasons to hate the film, I don’t think that visual effects supervisor Phil Tippett will be the one under the microscope.

However, I do not mind splitting a few hairs while I’m at it. The film’s excessive use of Head and Shoulders may be nothing more than a joke, but it gets really old towards the end and the final attempt at laughs by pushing the shampoo is grating to watch. While they’re at it, why don’t they give a few notices to Mr. Clean and Taco Bell and K-Mart. Hey, I’ll even give a few shout outs while I’m at it: I like Evian and Backyard Burgers and Abercrombie and Fitch. Is this annoying in a film review? Definitely, but it’s even more annoying in a multimillion dollar movie.

Evolution is definitely in the lower area of the comedy food chain -- with the exception of some apparently improvised moments from Jones, the film is nearly laughless. The situations are ho-hum to say the least, and the action is subdued. I love Ivan Reitman trying to recreate his past success (heaven knows that films along the lines of his Six Days, Seven Nights are not the best choice for his future), but just wish that something more could have come out it. On that chart of the evolutionary process according to Darwin, Ghostbusters would be the man at the end and Evolution would be the ape at the beginning. Wait, isn’t evolution supposed to create a stronger, more agile successor? Well, this is definitely not a step up for Reitman, only a step down.


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(Dir: Dominic Sena, Starring Hugh Jackman, John Travolta, Halle Berry, Don Cheadle, Vinnie Jones, Zach Grenier, Angelo Pagan, Sam Shepard, Camryn Grimes, Drea de Matteo, Nick Loren, and Timothy Omundson)



John Travolta starts off Swordfish with a monologue on the lackluster action films that Hollywood has churned out as of late. He even singles out one shining exception that holds itself beyond any of the hackneyed films that had followed: Dog Day Afternoon. Then, within moments, the audience is treated to an action sequence that even makes the bullet-time sequences in The Matrix seem ‘so two years ago.’

But, as the dust clears and the audience remarks on such a grand opening, Swordfish falls into its own enemy’s guise: the hackneyed action film. While Sworfish is not a bad film, it does have moments that seem like every other film in the genre, good or bad. I happened to have liked the film because it seems proud of its place in the world. It’s no Face/Off, but Swordfish does serve as a nice interim substitute.

The film follows one of my least favorite action plot devices -- the computer hackers quickly typing away -- but turns it inside out. When this film needs some energy, some adrenaline Swordfish does not merely have lead Hugh Jackman type up a storm, but also lets baddie Travolta shoot and blow up people to his heart’s content. Director Dominic Sena even gets to infuse the film with a little Gone in Sixty Seconds action, with a car chase that includes machine guns from the speeding vehicle. Hey, even Hugh Jackman gets an incredibly nervy action scene when he must hack into a computer and figure out a code while a hooker is orally pleasing him and a gun is cocked to his head while a 60 second time limit ticks away.

Jackman is Stanley Johnson (Jackman), a hacker that spent a stint in prison when he tapped into the FBI and brought down their personal e-mail reading system (because, you know, he cannot be too bad). Now he works at a dead-end job greasing oilrigs in Midland, Texas, lives in a trailer beside the rigs, and spends his spare time knocking golf balls off the top of the trailer wearing only a towel. Stanley cannot touch a computer keyboard as part of his court judgment and, worse yet, cannot see his daughter as part of his divorce.

Then a lady in red knocks on his door and invites him to an easy $10 million. She is Ginger (Berry), an envoy for the anti-terrorist terrorist Gabriel Shear (Travolta). If Stanley can pass the test of hacking the aforementioned password, he’s hired to the $10 million job of hacking into the FBI bank accounts. Stanley, needless to say, passes the test despite the, err, impediments. Now Stanley is part of Gabriel’s ultra-cool in crowd, people that promise him money and the ability to get his daughter back, and he has to deal with the hounding from FBI agent A.D. Roberts (Cheadle) who wonders why Stanley is back in L.A. and seemingly working with such an unusual character.

Of course, this is not the entire film’s synopsis -- there are many other subplots that play including a corrupt senator (Shepard) and the question that one person may be in cahoots with the DEA. Writer Skip Woods follows most of the formulas behind dramatic action films, just does it slightly better than most.

It is easy to hate Swordfish -- heaven knows many do -- but there’s too much to enjoy to really dismiss the movie. Sure it’s dumbed down action at times, but it’s also unabashedly proud of it. I don’t really think that the opening dialogue is meant to be ironic, but most of the film does follow every step that it should and seems quite fine doing it. Swordfish never attempts any guise of a smart thriller, it just sits as is and hopes that audiences will be happy to have something exciting and simple but not necessarily unnerving like most of the other films that come out of Jerry Bruckheimer directors of the past.

Dominic Sena took me aback in 1993 with Kalifornia and did not return to direct a film until last year’s Gone in Sixty Seconds. The latter film was definitely dumb, but was also exciting. I thought that Gone in Sixty Seconds was a perfect guilty pleasure -- it’s no great film by any means, but it does not hurt to watch and even pumps the audience up a little. Swordfish is better than Gone in Sixty Seconds, Sena infuses it with panache, sex, and excitement all rolled into a tough thriller that does not take many chances but does loosely strain out a few. It’s Die Hard lite -- even letting Travolta act a little close to Alan Rickman.

Hugh Jackman seems on his way to making something out of his sudden emergence in X-Men last year. His last work was the romantic comedy Someone Like You, a by the book genre piece. That film gave him some variety, and I respect him for that. Jackman could very well be on his way to a huge career -- all he really needs is one absolutely huge hit. X-Men was a moderate hit and he was part of a large ensemble; here he gets to play the sympathetic lead and gain some female points by being the only attractive male on the screen (that is, unless they get their kick out of the Euro-trash looking Travolta). With this moment in his career I’m slightly reminded of Clint Eastwood -- whom he bares a slight resemblance to -- and this could be his A Fistful of Dollars. Then, I suppose, Someone Like You was a very early attempt by him to get his Every Which Way But Loose behind him.

And then there are the breasts of Halle Berry, which have become the main subject of most of the film’s unpaid advertising as of late. The actual actress does a fine, if passable job here -- she never has really showed herself to be much of an actress, even in her much ballyhooed performance in Introducing Dorothy Dandridge -- she is neither great nor horrible, just ok for the film. But her seduction skills seem to be the main focus anyway. She has two main skin scenes -- one wearing lingerie, one wearing nothing. The bare chest scene seems out of place and unnecessary. I remember that the payment of $500,000 to display her bosom came really late in the production, which makes me think that the scene was shot and added on late in the game for the mere chance to show the breasts to post-pubescent boys waiting to see someone that has not been on late night Cinemax yet. I mean, I really don’t mind her baring all, but I really cannot comprehend why they’d go to such extremes (especially considering the hefty price tag) just for the nude scene. For my money, to tell the truth, the lingerie scene is far more fulfilling and thankfully has an importance to the story.

But, of course, that’s all part of the game when it comes to Swordfish. The sex is as much a high-priced tease as in Wayne Wang’s The Center of the World but in a much more cheerful attitude. Sure people die in the wake of Gabriel’s actions in Swordfish, even a few innocent ones, but isn’t that what Swordfish is going for. I mean, as Gabriel puts it in the opening, all Hollywood makes is “shit.” Well, at least Swordfish is shit of the least revolting grade.


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The Center of the World

(Dir: Wayne Wang, Starring Peter Sarsgaard, Molly Parker, Carla Gugino, Mel Gorham, Jason McCabe, and Balthazar Getty)



Wayne Wang’s The Center of the World is about people dealing with their inability to find reality in their lives. Everything seems artificial, almost a toy brought into their existence so that they might not feel as depressed as they already do. The film’s main act is sex, but not an intercourse that comes to mind. The rules set forth very early on in the film is that there will be no penetration, hell, there’s not supposed to be any kissing.

Like the lap dances that the lead protagonist Richard (Sarsgaard) receives early on, there is nothing real to what he wants. Even the central location serving as a setting has an artifice to it: the Las Vegas backdrop is filled with a plastic Eiffel Tower and Statue of Liberty and Sphinx. This idea of a setting gives another meaning to the film’s title -- the characters also mention that the “center” could represent the Internet and a woman’s vagina.

And amidst all this pretense is Wayne Wang’s decision to direct the film on digital video, a medium that has taken on its own realm of pretension. I’m sure that he chose the style because of its nearness to reality, but in the end it becomes as artificial and forced as the non-essential strippers in the backdrop of some scenes.

The story follows Richard and his newly found friend -- a stipper named Florence (Parker). They have become casual acquaintances from his patronage to the café that she works at as a second job. She is in need of money -- two jobs is bringing in just enough for a living but not helping her in her dream of being the drummer for a band. He, as fate would have it, is filthy rich -- Richard is one of the young millionaires from the Internet Age. And he has an idea: $10,000 for three nights with Florence in Las Vegas. She, of course, has reservation but cannot turn up such easy money. The only thing is that he must follow certain rules that she sets forth: no kissing, no penetration, and the only contact can be between 10:00 PM to 2:00 AM.

Everything is set up in their hotel room -- they have connecting rooms and happily keep to the time limits. But there is something brewing between both. Wang plays the audience and the characters like a violin -- not until the end is it really visible who’s in love and who’s using the other. People come in and out of their tale and change things, especially Florence’s friend Jerri (Gugino).

One of the main reasons that The Center of the World works in its own way is that the two leads are so incredible. Both Sarsgaard and Parker are engaging in their roles even if their characters are often occupied in something that is rather unseemly. They flesh out their roles in such a way that Richard and Florence are one of the few realistic parts of the film.

Also turning in a surprise performance is Carla Gugino. Never really showing off too much prowess in dramatic acting, Gugino is incredible playing Jerri slightly enticing, slightly frightening. If there was one thing that I had to set aside from the film as a standout, it would be Gugino. Anyone that thought she was nothing more than another actress-for-hire based on her work in Snake Eyes and Spy Kids (myself included) should take the time to catch her at her best here.

The Center of the World is a tough film to like. It’s filled with rough edges and even rougher moments. It is dark and depressing at times -- a count of the smiles in the film would use only the fingers of one hand -- but there is also something desperately respectable in the film. It’s easy to hate the film for its continual dragging of the characters and the audience through mud, but it is also hard to remember another film audacious enough to do so without becoming manipulative and contrived (though, I even thought one choice that Wang et al. gives Richard near the finale seems a little manufactured).

Cinematographer Mauro Fiore goes ballistic with the desaturization and blue-hue to every scene that it becomes redundant after awhile. The dark mood leaves out anything to keep the film from becoming a listless, tone-deaf mood piece. I’m sure that the film is supposed to be down and out, but the way Fiore attempts to ram this into the audience’s heads is rather unnerving. Fiore, as I’ve noticed over the past year, is not horrible with single shots, but often ruins the look of entire films with his continual ramming of the his style.

However, Wayne Wang is definitely a fine director, often times crafting entire sagas out of the simplest stories. When I first saw Wang’s Smoke, I knew that there was more to this director than most indie film directors. He took one of the most clichéd ideas for a film -- the then oft-made Brooklyn kaleidoscope of cultures in the post Do the Right Thing nineties -- and turned it into an engaging little drama. His follow-up, the Smoke sequel Blue in the Face, failed on more levels than it extended, partly because Wang became too dependent on his previous work from Smoke. His most well known film, The Joy Luck Club, was a meticulously beautiful film but lacked the emotional stratum of Smoke, a touch that he would also bring to Chinese Box in 1997 (though that film suffered from an incontrollable problem with tonal diarrhea) and to a lesser extent Anywhere But Here (another product of a cliché riddled genre) in 1999.

The Center of the World feels like no other Wayne Wang film -- it has more depth than most of his films, but is also far more distant. It’s almost as if, in his attempt to bring in reality to the play, Wang wrote a screenplay (with Miranda July, Paul Aster, and Ellen Benjamin Wong) that almost completely leaves out everyone but the two lead characters, even shafting them a little towards the end. The Center of the World is not what could be considered to be an erotic film despite having moments as graphic as most soft-core porn films. It lacks connection beyond the most visceral. The characters have some sort of sex with no real pay-off. Sure, each one gets something out of it -- Richard gets companionship, Florence gets money -- but in the end there is nothing to speak of that they have commuted to each other. They have what could be considered the most unfulfilling sex ever. What In the Mood for Love did for sensuality without the sex is what The Center of the World does for sex without the sensuality.


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Reviews by:
David Perry