Sunday, December 31, 2017

Toronto film festival report, part four

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in October 1999)

This is the fourth of Jack Hughes’ reports from the 1999 Toronto International Film Festival.

Breakfast of Champions (Alan Rudolph)
Impossible to imagine many people actually liking this hyperactive version of Kurt Vonnegut’s novel about the impossible strains of latter-day consumption-crazed America (it’s already been and gone from commercial release), although Nick Nolte’s performance as a cracked cross-dresser almost redeems the whole thing. Bruce Willis, though, in the central role, is as flat as the cardboard cutouts of him that pop up in every other scene (as with so much about this film, it’s hard to tell how deliberate that is). The film is seeped in tacky, garish imagery, reminiscent of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (although the characters aren’t on acid exactly): it’s a strange, hermetic construct – not wacky enough to be interesting on its own terms, but not sufficiently relevant to perform as satire (particularly as the ending is more a surrender than a conclusion). It does generate a strange sense of alienation and longing, and some of Rudolph’s visual tricks are giddily entertaining in the manner of a Monty Python cartoon insert: one suspects the film’s nutty messiness is more or less what was intended, but it’s hard to celebrate that kind of success.

Guinevere (Audrey Wells)
This sensitive drama of a young woman’s affair with a much older photographer effectively explores the problematic nature for a woman of finding one’s identity and maturity through a relationship which inherently seems weighted towards the egotistical gratification of the male. Sarah Polley and Stephen Rea make intriguing partners in what develops into a subtle power game, even if the conception of Rea’s character tends a bit too much toward conventional, self-possessed charismatic distance. The film’s side-excursions into satire (mainly through pot-shots at Polley’s constipated family of lawyers) are most successful; in the end, the film allows Rea a measure of indulgence in his grandiose fantasy, but makes that enjoyment explicitly a gift that lies under Polley’s control – one might have a satisfying sexual-politics-oriented debate about whether this is a satisfying arrival point (I think it’s passable).

Women talking Dirty (Coky Giedroyc)
An undistinguished piece of festival schedule-padding that although not the worst film I saw at the festival was the one that left my head feeling the emptiest. Two women in picturesque Edinburgh go through an unremarkable succession of romantic ups and downs; one (Helena Bonham Carter) is tediously quirky, the other (Gina McKee) is low-key and mopey. There’s an icky secret that injects some fire into the latter stages, but so little happens through vast stretches of the film that I defy anyone not to get distracted by McKee’s quite pretty apartment and to drift off into thinking about home decorating (great purple couch). The themes, of course, involve female self-determination and life-balance issues (the same issues currently dealt with more effectively in Guinevere and Tumbleweeds and, I’m sure, numerous others). There’s not much dirty talk, which is a further disadvantage. The film is so undistinctive that it plays Patsy Cline’s “Crazy” over one sequence. Elton John was one of the producers. Can’t think of anything else to say about it.

Tumbleweeds (Gavin O’Connor)
A film that, compared with the above, evidences vastly superior insight and finesse in dealing with broadly similar concerns. Janet McTeer  (in an excellent, wide-ranging performance) plays a four-times-married woman whose response to romantic letdowns is always to move along, with her 10-year-old daughter in tow. The film is fundamentally familiar in its exploration of how a woman asserts her self-determination and independence when drawn as a matter of emotional and sexual practicality into relationships with men (none of whom, as luck would have it, are much good); it’s an older, blue-collar version of Guinevere, given additional resonance by the contrast with the daughter’s budding maturity and the well-caught texture of the small-town Northern Californian surroundings. Any film that can cast the great and weird Michael J. Pollard as an office manager without losing its grip on plausibility has confidence to burn; director O’Connor seems to have a perfect sense for where quirkiness and realism most profitably intersect, and creates a rich, resonant film.

Onegin (Martha Fiennes)
An oddly somber, if not depressing, choice as the closing night gala, this tragic story of a nobleman who spurns an offered love then later seeks to reclaim it is dramatically rather inert and thematically unexceptional. Ralph Fiennes rises well to the challenge of Onegin, conveying the character’s shift from arrogance to desolation (his motives remain undramatized in some key respects, but the film is comfortable with its own mystery). Liv Tyler is also as good as she’s ever been. The film’s brooding atmosphere is sometimes highly effective (such as in an almost unbearably tense duel sequence); sometimes on the strained side, with the sound design introducing an almost otherworldly element into its dramatization of disengagement and decay. Its measured eeriness is never dull, but the attention given to the film may be a counterproductive case of overselling – there’s a severe limit to how much hype this modest work can carry.

Mumford (Lawrence Kasdan)
Already in commercial release, this gentle film about the attainment of unobtrusive stability has a style that almost expresses its theme too well – it’s so polite and pleasant as to almost melt away before your very eyes. Loren Dean plays a psychologist called Mumford, practicing in the small town of Mumford (neatly summarizing the theme of assimilation), who achieves success and local popularity more through sympathetic listening and empathy than through clinical technique – no surprise then, that he’s not a psychologist at all, but just a man trying to escape the mistakes of his past. Dean’s undemonstrative performance is oddly suited to a movie that’s clearly conservative, if not regressive, in its distrust of pace, ambition and big business (Ted Danson has a wonderful cameo as the embodiment of all these evils). In many ways the movie seems merely trite and naïve, hardly funny at all even though it’s being sold as a comedy, and yet it’s certainly coherent and assured – it’s as if Kasdan had been making the same basic movie for years and has thus attained a comfortable, almost effortless autopilot; a strange effect given that this hasn’t in fact been Kasdan’s career.

Monday, December 18, 2017

Miracle on the greens

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in December 2000)

I doubt that my low regard for Robert Redford’s new film The Legend of Bagger Vance is simply a consequence of my not being a golfer. True, it came as a surprise to me how much of the film – well over half – consists basically of a golf tournament, the progress of which marks (of course) the redemption of its protagonist. But then, Ron Shelton’s Tin Cup a few years ago was also an intensive golf movie, and I liked that one just fine (I cannot at the moment recall with accuracy whether I’ve ever seen the daddy of them all, Caddyshack, although for some reason I’m fairly sure I’ve seen Caddyshack 2). I watch the major tournaments on TV, monitor Tiger Woods’ progress toward the record of 18 major championships, and have occasionally faked my way through a conversation with a keen golfer without ever divulging my own lack of participation. I rather like the notion of golf as a solitary endeavor, spread out over a vast terrain, variously requiring both brute strength and extraordinary delicacy of touch and analysis. None of this is likely to find me spending three or four hours walking and hitting balls when I could be watching a movie (not just any movie – Lawrence of Arabia!), but it means I’m as up for a good golf movie as anyone else is.

Faded hotshot

Steeped in golf lore, Bagger Vance is the story of a faded young hotshot (Matt Damon) whose glittering career peters out after he’s traumatized by his service in World War One. He descends into drink and inertia, until the local bigshots stage an exhibition match between titans Bobby Jones and Walter Hagen, and seek his participation as the only semi-viable local representative. He initially refuses, but then (for reasons that the film barely manages to articulate) changes his mind. Carrying his bag is the title character (Will Smith), who simply appears from the darkness one night, to begin instantly dispensing advice and insight, all with a detached twinkle and infinite patience and self-possession.

Redford doesn’t appear in the film (although the actor who plays Jones is a dead ringer for the younger RR) but in its pictorial splendor, its deliberate pace, its adherence to traditional values and general inoffensiveness, and in the amount of time it spends photographing grass, it’s squarely in line with most of the movie’s he’s directed. I just looked back at my review of his last film The Horse Whisperer, in June 1998. One of the greatest achievements of that film, I said, was that “even though we know Redford is directing it himself, and that he’s therefore personally responsible for taking a simple story and padding it out to almost three hours, largely by making his own character into some kind of mythic ideal of unpolluted masculinity, it doesn’t offend us as one of the more tasteless ego trips in recent cinema. This I suppose is the true mark of his skill: to stand before us as an icon without inciting revolt or revulsion.”

Happy caddy

Bagger Vance is much the same thing, except on this occasion it’s significantly more annoying (although at least it’s a bit shorter). The Horse Whisperer had a genuine interest in character, however woolly and self-indulgent. But I can hardly remember a “serious” film that showed so little curiosity in or regard for the complexity of human personality as Bagger Vance. Damon’s background is sketched for us in a long opening voice-over; we get a couple of scenes of his down-and-out state, then he decides to sign on to the golf tournament and from there it’s one big ride to renewal. The character is a complete cipher, a blank vessel with “Save me” written across his vacant forehead.

But the conception of Damon’s character is positively Shakespearean compared to that of the eponymous Bagger. It’s an (I suppose) amusing irony that Jada Pinkett Smith could be seen in screens in Spike Lee’s savage Bamboozled, where she’s at the heart of the film’s diatribe against reductive images of black culture, her husband Will happily occupies an utterly demeaning role in which he’s cast as a beaming sprite, channeling mystic wisdom and intuition. Southern golf clubs are famous for their late conversion (if it’s happened at all) to the cause of integration, but there’s not the slightest hint of this subject in Bagger Vance. When Damon suffers an abysmal start to the tournament, and the local bigwigs rail at Vance for his apparent negative influence on their intended golden boy, it’s very hard to imagine that their antipathy would have been so scrupulously expressed in entirely non-racial terms.

A perfect shot

Anyway, the film has no psychological tension whatsoever, and since the outcome is exactly the one that you’d imagine, there’s really not a lot to it. I wasn’t bored, but I had a lot of time dring the film to think over my stocks, and some stuff I have on my desk at work, and much more besides. One of the things I thought about was why so many films of supposedly serious intent dabble now in theologically unspecific but explicitly supernatural mysticism. I remember being amazed ten years ago when Field of Dreams got away with being so silly, but nowadays that movie would seem virtually sane. The Green Mile, for instance, with its Jesus Christ evocations attached to a dumb prisoner possessing the power of healing, was staggeringly pretentious and stupid – and it got an Oscar nomination! (Come to think of it, a black actor filled that role too – I’d like Spike Lee to investigate this trend). Pay it Forward verges on the same territory, not to mention that there’s another angel movie (although if the angels are Charlie’s, I’m OK with them).

I guess that if I had a different preconception in these matters I’d probably applaud the trend toward greater spirituality in movies. But when it’s expressed in such terms as golf clubs possessed by magic…well, you really have to be desperate for your soul to be stroked to get off on the stuff. The philosophy of Bagger Vance, if it can be termed as such, is summed up thus: “There’s a perfect shot out there…all we have to do is let it choose us.” Not only is this pretty useless as an insight into our existence – I’m told golf’s a bit harder than that as well.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Dying is easy

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in April 2004)
New movies in the same weekend by Kevin Smith and the Coen Brothers – this should have been the best news for comedy since Pauly Shore stopped making movies (sorry - just thought I’d try that one out). Well, it didn’t quite turn out that way. 
Jersey Girl
So if you take Smith, the deceptively low-brow seeming auteur of Clerks and Dogma, and subtract the flamboyant obscenity, the comic books and the frantic invention, we now know that you get something close to Edward Burns. Burns is the guy who had a brief run as a chronicler of blue-collar New Jersey (The Brothers McMullen won big at Sundance) before his luck ran out (as a director that is – he continues to do pretty well at scoring acting gigs). Smith’s new film Jersey Girl doesn’t have Jay and Silent Bob, and has not one use of the f-word, and that’s even with George Carlin in the cast. In some scenes you can viscerally feel Smith straining to write his way around his normal vocabulary.  He just about made it – but what was the point?
Apparently rooted in some way in Smith’s new contentment as a husband and father, Jersey Girl stars Ben Affleck as a career-loving Manhattan publicity consultant. He marries a book editor played by Jennifer Lopez (although it seems that we’ve been reading the Bennifer stories forever, the two actually met on the set of this film), and when she gets pregnant he grudgingly accepts the prospect of an adjustment in his work-life balance. But Lopez dies in childbirth, and he’s left with his agony and with a daughter he can’t comprehend. When a frustrated outburst costs him his job, he moves back to New Jersey with his father (Carlin), and eventually goes to work with the old man in the sanitation department. The years go by, the kid grows up to be seven, and Affleck adores her, but never stops thinking of getting back to Manhattan and into the game again...
As if in partial compensation for his self-imposed f-word embargo, Smith contrives a bizarre meeting between Affleck and Liv Tyler in which she, a video store clerk, harasses him about his renting a porno tape. This is just the most egregious of the movie’s many off moments. Sometimes – as in the weird choice of a scene from Sweeney Todd for the kid’s act at the school play – you think it might amount to something, but it never lasts. In the end, Will Smith, playing himself, turns up as the voice of wisdom, musing on the magic of fatherhood and on the wretched compromises that take you away from your kids. I’m only guessing here, but I think the parenting support system available to Will Smith might be a bit plusher than the norm – plush enough, maybe, that a director of serious intent could have looked elsewhere. As it is, Smith’s appearance seems quasi-ethereal and rather demeaning, like his role in The Legend of Bagger Vance.
(Kevin) Smith’s earlier movies were defiant in asserting his tastes and sensibilities – they had a swaggering take it or leave it quality about them. But on the basis of Jersey Girl, you can only assume he agrees with all those cracks about his own arrested development. His idea of an adult movie is to make himself into someone else. As if tired of the recurring jibes about his films’ undistinguished visual style, he hired Oscar-winning cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond (Close Encounters; McCabe and Mrs. Miller) – but the film’s resulting gloss only serves to emphasize its lack of personality. At the end of it, you feel that Smith’s in a similar spot to Woody Allen in Stardust Memories, agonizing over being superficial and about the meaning of it all, whereas God only wants him to concentrate on making funnier movies. Sadly, by the time Allen really took that advice on board, his skills had eroded. Smith’s skills were never at that level to begin with, which I’d say makes his next move rather critical.
The Ladykillers
The Coen brothers’ latest film The Ladykillers is another case of auteurs scoring below par. It’s a film of inventive, quirky bits and pieces (much better than any of the bits and pieces in Jersey Girl) that fail to coalesce into a whole. The film’s opening ten minutes hit you like random cuttings from a studio floor – a credit sequence built around garbage barges; a long stilted conversation in a sheriff’s office; Tom Hanks doing a weird accent; Marlon Wayans in a scene that could fit in a hundred other movies; an indescribable interlude involving a dog in a gas mask, and so it goes on. 
These early scenes set up a motley bunch of criminals, and the old lady whose basement they intend to use as a base for digging into a nearby vault. The film is a remake of a 1950’s British classic, and it’s hard to know why the Coens bothered. The movie never stops feeling fragmented – it doesn’t flow with anything close to the fluency of their best movies. Of course, their narratives have always been crammed and digressive – movies like Fargo and O!  Brother Where Art Thou meld a corkscrew sensibility with an approach to character that’s somehow both clinical and tolerant. When it works, it’s a dazzling act. But their second-tier movies tend to seem like creations where you instantly get half the joke and love it, but somehow can’t summon the energy to figure out the other half.


The Ladykillers comes out only six months after their last film, Intolerable Cruelty. That was a more unified effort than this one, but felt superficial next to their best work – for one thing, it was set in Hollywood, which at this late stage seems like a tired satirical target. The new film’s quick arrival, the presence of Hanks, the general sloppiness, and the presence of a Gospel soundtrack that seems too stridently designed to match the success of the O! Brother bluegrass soundtrack, all seem to smack of what Hollywood calls “product.” And although it’s often funny, I found myself laughing more at Wayans’ trademarked profanity than anything else. Which gives The Ladykillers something in common with Scary Movie.

Talking of auteurs, but no longer of comedy, Neil Young picks up his sporadic film- directing sideline with Greendale, a muddled story of small town mishaps set to a nine-track song suite. The film is grainy and haphazard, taking potshots at some identifiable targets like John Ashcroft, and conveying no end of suspicion about the modern media, before ending up on an expansive be-one-with-nature note. The film is dully literal-minded – the images generally merely illustrate what’s plain from the lyrics, although there’s the odd bit of surrealism in there too. But compared to the two films reviewed above, Young’s is at least intimately faithful to his muse.

No sunshine

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in June 2000)

It was director Nicholas Ray who reportedly said, “If it were all in the script, why make the movie?” Not many movies nowadays provide any particular reason to think back to that remark (today’s directors are mostly showmen, if they’re anything at all), but Istvan Szabo’s Sunshine is an unwelcome exception. Here’s a film that provides not one solitary moment of visual imagination, not one memorable flare of the director’s craft. The picture is not an ounce better than its script, and given that the writing appears little more inspired than that of the average corporate training video, that doesn’t give us much. And it’s three hours long. Sad to say, this monumental mediocrity is a Canadian co-production, nominated for several hundred Genie awards.


The film follows three generations of a Hungarian Jewish family, through the First and Second World Wars and the subsequent upheavals. Ralph Fiennes plays the most prominent male members of each generation. The family passes through various stages of upheaval and suffering, losing sight of its inherent strength and tradition before finally finding peace with its own history.

The story winds through some of the key events of our century (a family member dies in a concentration camp; another is a leading protestor against the Russian occupancy in 1956 Budapest), but makes little attempt to convey either an emotional or an intellectual sense of those events. There are a few flatly-staged crowd scenes, but the action consists mainly of conversations in rooms, with archival newsreel footage liberally interspersed. I can’t tell you how irritated I got at the film’s continual use of Fiennes’ voice-over to tell us what happened between one scene and the next (especially as the events he describes almost invariably sound more interesting than the stuff actually put on screen). This could theoretically have been an interesting artistic strategy, perhaps exploring the impotence of individual gestures against the crushing power of political and institutional change, but it certainly doesn’t function here as such. It’s more as if they set out to film a vast, sweeping novel, but with a shoestring budget that meant most of the good stuff had to be cannibalized or glossed over.

Lost investment

Unfortunately, I understand it’s not a low-budget film at all. A couple of months ago I cited Giuseppe Tornatore’s Legend of 1900 – the saga of a piano player who lives his whole life on an ocean liner – as the epitome of a certain kind of lavish, commercially doomed art film. Tornatore’s film, whatever its faults, seemed to me to follow its own muse. But Sunshine is as off-puttingly calculating as a Bond movie. It means to make us glow with its humanity, to make us gasp at its scope. It has the requisite amount of Euro-style nudity, scattered carefully through the film. It has the speeches, the recriminations, the tragic ironies. Surely the subject matter must have meant something to Hungarian director Szabo (best-known for his Oscar-winning Mephisto), but on this evidence he’s artistically decrepit, phoning it in.

Of course, it’s not as if one salvages nothing from the experience. The last third of the film is moderately successful in tracing the moral decay of the Communist takeover (an appearance by William Hurt, more nuanced than the rest of the cast put together, helps). The death of one of the Fiennes characters is chilling, as is the depiction of the family sitting around the radio, pouncing on every shard of hope, as the Jewish exclusionary laws are announced. But ultimately, there’s no compelling reason for the film to exist. It doesn’t have the artistic aspirations of, say, The Unbearable Lightness of Being (which came to my mind not least because the recreation of Prague ’68 in that film is so vastly superior to the equivalent set-pieces in this work); it has no commitment to revealing character, being entirely lacking in spontaneity; it’s not really interested in illustrating politics or social change (I often found myself, during the plodding exposition of escalating anti-Semitism, longing for Oliver Stone). And the poor shareholders of Alliance Atlantis won’t even have the consolation of knowing they squandered their money for the greater Canadian good – on a three-hour bio of Rene Levesque for instance, or of Peter Gzowski, or even Mike Duffy.

The Cider House Rules

By comparison, Lasse Hallstrom’s The Cider House Rules is a film of studiously limited ambition, yet nothing in Sunshine sends as much of a transgressive shiver down the spine, as Cider House’s unflinching embrace of what’s pejoratively termed “abortion on demand.” In this adaptation of John Irving’s book, Michael Caine (excellent) plays an overseer of a remote New England orphanage, fervently devoted both to his poignantly-portrayed changes (“Princes of Maine, Kings of New England”) and to his secondary abortion practice. Tobey Maguire (sweet, but a bit bland) is the orphanage-raised protégé who rejects the path Caine’s designated for him, and goes off to see the world.

The film is generally much like an afternoon siesta in a Maine meadow – pleasant enough as long as you don’t have too much else on your to do list. As it goes on, the intended theme seems to be about self-discovery through gentle myth-making, about tearing up the rules – but this is all rather less than persuasive from a film that takes so few chances itself. The oddly restrained climax certainly doesn’t hit home. But The Cider House Rules stands apart from mere travelogue if only because of its treatment of abortion, in which respect the filmmakers must consider themselves very lucky not to be attracting more adverse publicity than they are. Maybe, given its box-office failure, the habitual protestors have finally learned that disdain is the best weapon.

Any Given Sunday

Talking as I was of Oliver Stone, I also saw his new film Any Given Sunday, a pro-football epic that Stone puts across like a sequel to JFK; any given scene groans under the director’s hunger for complexity and expansiveness. But even if his subject-matter were as compelling as that of the earlier movie, his instincts certainly aren’t – the kinetic style often seems borderline ludicrous here, and works against any sort of dramatic differentiation. The main plotline, contrasting the weathered coach (Al Pacino, with a couple of good locker-room speeches) and the young hotshot, sputters along to a climax so unconvincing that you could accuse the film’s last twenty minutes of dissing the grander ambitions of its first two hours. A case perhaps for a conspiracy theorist, once he’s finished investigating how Sunshine got made.

Monday, December 4, 2017


(originally published in The Outreach Connection in July 2001)

I’ve missed Pearl Harbor and Shrek and A Knight’s Tale and all the summer blockbusters so far except Dominic Sena’s Swordfish, which I went to see because my brother and my sister in law were in town and it was something we could all just about agree on. Going on, my thought was Swordfish looked like a slightly more adult, hard-edged brand of popcorn. Well, I guess that’s about right, but how hard-edged is popcorn ever going to be (you could break a tooth!) The movie sure wasn’t a waste of time. I was consistently entertained by it. Maybe it’s even brilliant. Or maybe it’s that I’ve stayed away from blockbusters too much, and I’m forgetting the rules of the game.

Swordfish has John Travolta as a master villain leading a multi-billion-dollar computer hacking scam; he enlists down-on-his-luck hacker Hugh Jackman to do the dirty work. Halle Berry plays Travolta’s right-hand woman, and Don Cheadle is the cop on the trail. The movie is shot in the fast-cutting, high-gloss style we expect of contemporary action films, with lots of explosions and chases and confrontations, utilizing state-of-the-art special effects. It doesn’t make a damn bit of sense, but that seems like a quaint kind of complaint in this context. And yet not, for Swordfish’s most intriguing quality is an apparent semi-awareness of its own idiocies and compromises – an awareness that it airs fully on the screen, without ever exhibiting any desire to do anything about it.

The mind believes

The film’s philosophy, such as it is, seems to be summed up by Travolta’s approving description of Harry Houdini as a master of “misdirection” – “what the eyes see and the ears hear the mind believes.” This has an obvious application to cinema, dovetailing with an opening monologue in which Travolta muses on cinematic creation (with particular reference to Sidney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon). There’s a shot early on, of a ball-bearing rolling across  the floor and coming to rest with Hugh Jackman’s reflection in it, that made me think fleetingly of Orson Welles, and thus of Welles’ admission in F for Fake that he’s been lying his way through the latter part of the movie. Swordfish is intellectually barren by comparison, yet the movie’s excess and the depth of its confusion are enormously interesting. It’s rather like this year’s 15 Minutes, which I wrote seemed to me as though “a serviceable, unremarkable thriller had been driven mad by the intensity and turpitude of its preoccupations.” Swordfish is dumber and more programmatic than 15 Minutes, which in this somewhat bizarre context may actually generate a better film.

The ”misdirection” partly amounts to the kind of plot twists and reversals we’ve seen a thousand times – characters who seem to have died but really haven’t, who seem to be one thing but are really another, etc. etc. But it also goes deeper. The film oscillates between passing reflectiveness – on cinema, on global politics, on relative moral choices – and vacuousness that’s extreme even by commercial standards. The plot appears essentially insular and passive – crime by computer hacking doesn’t really involve having to do much – but decks itself out with vastly gratuitous action-packed manifestations, none of which seem well-integrated into the core plot.

Topless Halle

The movie fusses over the back-story for Hugh Jackman’s character – he has a daughter that he’s desperate to take back from her porn star mother – and yet most of its other characters are conceived only in grotesquely melodramatic terms. Travolta is the most cartoonish of supervillains, and yet comes equipped with a weirdly grandiose motivation – to use the stolen money to gain revenge on America’s terrorist enemies. The film demonstrates magnificent technical expertise – such as a breathtaking circular pan around an explosion – mixed in with a maladroit approach to basic storytelling and clarity.

When Jackman first meets Travolta, the latter tests him by having him hack his way into a top-security site in less than sixty seconds, while simultaneously having a gun held to his head and being orally serviced by one of Travolta’s blonde minions. What kind of sordid juvenile imagination would ever come up with something like this, let alone persuade respectable actors and technicians actually to put it up on film? But the scene serves to embody the sensory overload and fearlessness that prevails throughout. The movie is already notorious for a topless scene by Halle Berry. I was taken aback by the, uh, out there nature of the scene – the camera cuts to her and there she is, topless, with none of the pansying around that normally attends big star flashing. It’s definitely indicative of a definable attitude. Of some kind.

Sidney Lumet

Nothing is wackier than the film’s evocation of Dog Day Afternoon – which Travolta informs us is Sidney Lumet’s best directing job. Of all directors who might have been name-checked here, it’s amazing that someone as self-effacing as Lumet would be the one. Actually, I think Dog Day Afternoon, although still enormously enjoyable, may now seem mainly like an example of how to do a genre piece with unusual wit and energy and exuberant characterization. But some of Lumet’s movies do achieve a depth of feeling and poignancy that I don’t think he’s received sufficient attention for. Network falls into that category, and it happened that the day before seeing Swordfish I rewatched The Verdict – a simple David vs. Goliath legal story transformed into a bracing meditation on redemption and the nature of justice. When Paul Newman astonishingly wins his case at the end, Lumet moves the camera into a sudden close-up of his reaction, and coming after such a still, sculptured film, it’s almost shocking – effective not just as dramatic underlining but also as moral revelation. There’s not a moment in Swordfish (including Travolta’s monologue on Lumet, in which the camera constantly moves in and out of focus) that doesn’t mess with the camera more than that.

It’s just faintly possible that Sena holds Lumet in contempt, and that this is merely the movie’s cruelest and most personal example of misdirection. As you can see, his film accommodates all sorts of musings – it’s a dynamo of signs and possibilities. Unfortunately, it’s impossible to determine how much of this is accomplished despite rather than because of the filmmakers’ efforts. It’s possible also that Swordfish is as near as we’ve come so far to the theoretical roomful of typing monkeys that ultimately generates the complete works of Shakespeare.