Devolution

Devolution

Devolution

Highlights from the week in criticism.
June 9 2001 12:00 AM

Devolution

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Movies Evolution (DreamWorks). Reviews are mostly bad, though critics find a few reasons to smile at this broad Ghostbusters- ish comedy starring David Duchovny (spoofing his familiar X-Files character, Fox Mulder), Orlando Jones, and a what-is-she-doing-in-this-movie Julianne Moore. "It's not good, but it's nowhere near as bad as most recent comedies; it has real laughs, but it misses real opportunities" (Roger Ebert, the Chicago Sun-Times). The premise: A meteor crashes to Earth carrying cells that evolve into alien creatures "at a speed previously known only in the Bible," which is faster than the dumb Army can shoot them (Lisa Schwarzbaum, Entertainment Weekly). Many critics comment on director Ivan Reitman's devolution "into a lower life form" (John Anderson, the Los Angeles Times). Duchovny mooning the camera gets a lot of critical buzz, as does a huge alien ass sprayed with dandruff shampoo. (Members or wannabee members of the David Duchovny Drool Brigade, click here. Read Slate's David Edelstein's review here.)

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Swordfish (Warner Bros.). Real potential squandered on gratuitous effects and an incoherent plot, critics say. John Travolta hires a hacker (Hugh Jackman) and robs a bank to combat terrorism. Huh? "I defy anyone in the audience to explain the exact loyalties and motives of the leading characters" (Roger Ebert, the Chicago Sun-Times). "Its only logic is the logic of the explosion" (Kenneth Turan, the Los Angeles Times). In Entertainment Weekly, Owen Gleiberman calls it "highly burnished crap." At the beginning, a woman explodes in slo mo, filmed by 135 synchronized still cameras, and in the finale, a bus filled with hostages is lifted by a helicopter and then smashes into a high-rise office building. Yet with the exception of Halle Berry's bare breasts and John Travolta's TVR sportscar, "Swordfish elicits little awe" (Bob Graham, the San Francisco Chronicle). (Click here to watch the trailer.)

The Anniversary Party (Fine Line). A smart, self-indulgent ensemble comedy about Hollywood types doing drugs at a party hosted by couple Alan Cumming and Jennifer Jason Leigh. Comparisons to The Player, The Big Chill, and John Cassavetes' Opening Night abound, though you know it's 2001 since it's shot in digital video and the characters are on ecstasy. Good assessments with a few caveats: The screenplay does "an amazing job of creating about a dozen fully rounded, nuanced characters with a minimum of words. ... Hollywood being what it is, both their sense of entitlement and the nagging uncertainty of their privilege carry an extra edge of discomfort" (Stephen Holden, the New York Times). But "[f]or every scene that feels like a howler in an acting workshop, there's also a prickly exchange that delves right under the skin. ... [T]he creators are just too close to their material, and these shorthand therapy sessions (he yells, she cries) offer precious little to engage anyone outside their clique" (Gregory Weinkauf, the New Times Los Angeles). (Click here for an interview with the filmmakers.)

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Our Song (IFC). Fabulous reviews for this understated, intimate, documentary-style film about three teen-age girls in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. "Events that might have been milked for melodrama (a pregnancy, a school closure) are wound into the texture of the everyday, right along with shoplifting, making out, or playing with the local funk soul marching band, the Jackie Robinson Steppers" (Owen Gleiberman, Entertainment Weekly). It is "so unlike most Hollywood coming-of-age stories as to seem downright revolutionary. ... [Director Jim] McKay refuses to make a big deal of his characters' circumstances, or to hang message boards around their necks. He respects them too much for that" (A.O. Scott, the New York Times). The film gets at the root of "the yearning and disappointment native to both the best and worst parent-child relationships; the tiny cracks in even the closest of friendships that can split open silently, gone unnoticed until it's too late to mend them" (Jessica Winter, the Village Voice). (Here are some stills from the film; here's an interview with the director.)

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Divided We Fall (Sony Pictures Classics). Good reviews for this Oscar-nominated dark farce in the Czech New Wave tradition about a couple that reluctantly agrees to hide their former employer's son, who has just escaped from a Nazi concentration camp. Fearing discovery, the husband takes a job with a Nazi collaborator. "Heroism in this context is radically existential" (J. Hoberman, the Village Voice). The film reveals a "universe booby-trapped with impossible choices and ethical puzzles. ... The filmmakers explore not only the banality of evil, but also the banality of goodness, and the ridiculousness, as well as the tragedy, of their collision" (Scott). "This is a comedic film that never oversentimentalizes, where ironies are plentiful yet unforced, and characters, even theoretically negative ones, are not denied their humanity or their complexity" (Kenneth Turan, the Los Angeles Times). (Click here and here to read about Czech New Wave films.)

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Books I Only Say This Because I Love You, by Deborah Tannen (Random House). More self-help and pop psychology from the socio-linguist known for her theories of miscommunication between the sexes. Here Tannen turns her attention to the layered meanings and hypersensitivity of family conversations (i.e., weighty "metamessages" behind questions like "Do you really think you should have that cake?"). Critics say the book offers some useful advice but that a lot of it is obvious. "Much of what Tannen suggests could be put under the category of, 'Try to put yourself in the other person's shoes and understand their motivations.' " (Jonathan Curiel, the San Francisco Chronicle). Some critics question Tannen's view that the best dialogue is drama-free and thought out in advance. But most criticism focuses on Tannen's assumptions about natural and universal tendencies. "Tannen won't pursue the possibility that men and women begin conversations on an unequal footing because of the much more fundamental inequalities" (Wendy Wasserstein, the Washington Post); "When girls will be grrrls and guys will be gays and people otherwise deviate out of choice or nature from the 'norm,' they may have trouble identifying with the fairly neat paradigms of Tannen World" (Linda Jaivin, the Los Angeles Times). (Click here for a taste of Tannen's tone.)

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To purchase this book from barnesandnoble.com, click here.

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Music
Weezer, by Weezer (Interscope/Geffen) (informally known as "The Green Album"). Mostly good reviews for the return to pining pop melodies, ooh-whoa harmonies, hand claps, and catchy choruses from four geeky sweater punks. Fans express varying degrees of bitterness over the album's lack of depth: "While the lyrics aren't as deep or introspective as Pinkerton's (they're fluffy on the level of early Beatles), each song here is a pop gem" (Tom Mallon, CMJ); "Islands, hash pipes, girlfriends, letters. All perfectly good topics to ruminate on while pounding out 4/4 rock for the masses. ... I expected the Green Album to push in unexpected directions. Instead, it's an abbreviated (under 29 minutes) romp with ... a bunch of power chords poured into the Weezer mold and cast as skater-rawk anthems. ... [T]he band accomplish one goal and one goal only: to play low-frills rock for the people who love it" (Richard A. Martin, the Seattle Weekly). (Here's Spin's light mockery of the band.)

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To purchase this CD from Amazon.com, click here.

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Event
The 55th Annual Tony Awards. Predictions of a sweep by The Producers come true. The "profoundly suspenseless" (Michael Phillips, the Los Angeles Times) telecast began with a PBS "infomercial" (Charles Isherwood, Variety) for The Producers. (Daniel Sullivan, who won best director for Proof, quipped, "There must be some mistake. I had nothing to do with The Producers.") Matthew Broderick tried to get into the game by calling his show a "Sopranos of musical comedy," but his co-star Nathan Lane beat him for best actor. The Full Monty came up zero awards for 10 nominations, though its striptease number got Gwyny Paltrow to blush and giggle. By the end of CBS's segment (deemed by-the-numbers by most critics, though the excerpts from the dramas were done better than usual), The Producers broke Hello Dolly!'s record for most awards, Gary Beach yelled "Heil Mel!" as he accepted best featured actor, and Mel Brooks donned a Hitler 'stache and thanked the "avalanche of Jews" who made the show possible. Best revival of a musical went to 42 nd Street; One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest managed to snag best revival of a play; actors Richard Easton and Robert Sean Leonard won for their rolls in The Invention of Love; Mary-Louise Parker won for Proof; Viola Davis for King Hedley II. Go to the official Tony Awards site for more details.