Have Guilt Trip, Will Travel

In Bread and Roses, Ken Loach raises Hollywood’s consciousness; Swordfish has mercury poisoning; Evolution demonstrates the opposite. 

Bread and Roses
Directed by Ken Loach
Lions Gate Films

Directed by Domenic Sena
Warner Bros.

Directed by Ivan Reitman
DreamWorks SKG

In Bread and Roses, his first feature set in the United States, the lefty English director Ken Loach does the opposite of “going Hollywood.” The story of a custodians’ strike in a non-union office building in downtown Los Angeles, the film is a sort of guerrilla cinema attack on the movie business’s back porch—a bracing slap of socioeconomic realism. The building in which the custodians’ strike takes place is co-owned by a hot-shot entertainment industry law firm, and you’re meant to think: “Stick it to ‘em, Loach! Expose those limousine liberals who raise millions for ‘progressive’ politicians while hiring custodial firms that pay employees $5.75 an hour—without vacation, sick leave, or benefits!”Bread and Roses might not be full of surprises (how many movies with union-organizer heroes are?), but L.A. is a city in which the greedheads and scoundrels vie to win “humanitarian” awards. The movie’s targets are exquisitely vulnerable.

That said, it’s a tough sell. Good liberal though I am, I admit to approaching a Loach film warily, admiring the focus on economic injustice but dreading the point at which the narrative will grind to a halt for a 20-minute discussion of, say, agrarian reform. The problem isn’t that political debate and great drama can’t mix. It’s that Loach’s thoughts on most political subjects can be summed up on a few placards—and frequently are. He’s in more compelling territory when he dramatizes the ways in which desperate members of the “underclass” prey on one another, and the resulting tensions that can tear apart even close families. As Bread andRoses opens, the Mexican heroine, Maya (Pilar Padilla), is smuggled over the border into the United States, but her most immediate antagonists aren’t the customs police. They’re the Mexican-American facilitators who—when her older sister, Rosa (Elpidia Carrillo), is short of cash to pay them off—casually flip a coin to see who gets to cart the young woman home to be raped.

Loach has a light touch with actors and an invisible technique—his work is much less self-conscious than that of his American comrade-in-arms, John Sayles. The lines sound as if the actors are thinking them up on the spot. (Mindful of its bifurcated U.S. audience, the film is alternately in Spanish with English subtitles and English with Spanish subtitles.) The verisimilitude compensates for a lot of predictable agitprop plotting. Rosa barely makes enough money cleaning offices to support her kids and her diabetic husband (Jack McGee), so she’s surprised when Maya—who has managed to escape her would-be rapist—ends up begging for a job in the same non-union high-rise. Maya doesn’t have time to resign herself to a life of exploitation, however. Her first week at work finds a skinny union organizer named Sam Shapiro (Adrien Brody) dashing through the corridors with the building’s security forces in hot pursuit. The pair meet cute when she hides him in her trash cart, and before long she’s sitting in on union meetings and doing her best to convince her skeptical sister Rosa that the benefits of organizing outweigh the horrific risks.

Chief among those risks is running afoul of the cleaning firm’s supervisor, Perez. As played by George Lopez, a Los Angeles disc jockey and stand-up comedian, Perez is both painfully ordinary and scarier than any James Bond supervillain. A byproduct of both capitalism and Latin machismo, Perez has no qualms about wielding an unnatural amount of power—he rewards and punishes arbitrarily. It’s his bland sense of entitlement that makes him frightening. When an older Spanish woman with poor English rubs him the wrong way, what begins as a mere rebuke for lateness develops a life of its own: He builds to firing her the way a monarch might once have built to, “Off with her head!”

Loach and screenwriter Paul Laverty prepare us for Rosa’s betrayal of the union—but not for the volcanic confrontation that follows its revelation, in which Rosa spells out for her righteously indignant little sister Maya just how far she has gone in the past to put food in the bellies of her loved ones. The scene, which is deftly built around an ironing board (Rosa keeps laying out articles of clothing, Maya keeps snatching them away, refusing to allow her sister to escape into domestic rituals), doesn’t explode the movie’s ideology. It follows from Brecht’s dictum, “First comes food, then comes morals.” But it explodes our view of Maya’s union-fed pieties and then some. Elpidia Carrillo has been in movies for two decades: She was the Mexican madonna rescued by a once-cynical Jack Nicholson in Tony Richardson’s The Border (1982), and she also helped to make James Woods a more committed person in Salvador (1986). But nothing I’ve seen her do is in a league with this scene, which has the cathartic fury of an exorcism.

The big strike that follows is inevitably something of an anticlimax, and the movie ends abruptly, with a lot of issues unexplored. At one point, Maya robs a gas station to get money for a terminated colleague, but Loach doesn’t waste any pity on the small businessman she victimizes—the scene is played for laughs. Comic, too, is the larky moment in which she presses all the buttons inside her building’s elevator to inconvenience a bunch of departing yuppies—although the only thing these people seem guilty of is being white and well-dressed. The director’s knee-jerk anti-capitalism often sticks in my (white, well-fed) craw. Loach was smart to cast Adrien Brody (son of the great lefty photographer Sylvia Plachy) as his organizer, since Brody has a likably scruffy diffidence even when mouthing righteous union maxims. His Sam gets off on the Abbie Hoffmanesque prankster’s part of the job. Sneaking around the high-rise ready to accost some smug employer, he’s like the liberals’ answer to Bruce Willis in Die Hard (1988): He wounds with public shaming instead of bullets.

With a vengeance the bullets fly in Swordfish, a thriller that revolves around the blood-soaked activities of a monstrously omnipotent master terrorist (or something) played by John Travolta. (“He exists in a world beyond your world. Nothing is beyond him.”) Thirty years ago, in her review of the French Connection (1971), Pauline Kael worried that movies might devolve into “jolts for jocks”—a phrase that can make us snicker ruefully today, since anyone born after 1971 could scarcely have known commercial films that were anything but jolts for jocks. The mogul behind Swordfish, Joel Silver, is a specialist in hip jolts for hip jocks—which means an A-list cast that includes Travolta, Hugh Jackman as a virtuoso computer hacker, Don Cheadle as an FBI maverick, and Halle Berry as a half-naked femme fatale; smartass, Tarantino-influenced small talk about bank-robber movies; and action scenes that are orgiastic in their level of mayhem.

I had a pretty good time in the first half, which has a surprising opening, fancy digital syntax, overripe dialogue, and an aura of gleeful skankiness. Early on, there’s a whale of an explosion: The camera spins in slow-motion sync with the blast as the shock wave takes out cars and windows and policemen. (The audience applauded the shot.) You get to see tall, sinewy Hugh Jackman in his undies, along with Halle Berry in her lingerie and—briefly—showing off her pert breasts and dark nipples. (“Are you surprised that a girl with an IQ over 70 can give you a hard-on?”) Jackman’s algorithmic cyber forays are directed like adrenalin-fueled rap numbers. And Travolta, with a mane of hair and a pinkie-sized line of fuzz dividing that goofy chin, gets to stroll around smoking big cigars and squeezing supermodels with names like Helga. Then Swordfish gets all sanctimonious and twisty: Jackman pines tediously for his little daughter; Travolta turns out to be more than just a Caucasian Fu Manchu and, worse, starts speechifying; and by the third big climax the audience has started to get impatient with the movie’s pointless zigs and zags. My inner jock left hungry for some good final jolts.

Beneath the mostly unfunny antics of Evolution is the skeleton of a decent, old-style, threat-from-space sci-fi picture about a meteor carrying alien DNA that explodes in the American desert. When the species’ evolution from single-celled creatures to fish, reptiles, and mammals happens over days instead of billions of years, humans face the prospect of being crowded off their own planet by more efficient (Darwinianly speaking) organisms. It was reportedly director Ivan Reitman’s idea to take Don Jakoby’s solid premise and turn it into a Ghostbusters-style romp, with David Duchovny and Orlando Jones as rascally, gonzo scientists butting heads with Julianne Moore as a cold but adorably clumsy government honcho. In Mars Attacks! (1996), Tim Burton proved (in spite of a witless script) that farce and sci-fi carnage could devilishly coexist. But Reitman doesn’t have Burton’s emotional ties to the genre—so Evolution shuttles back and forth between a facetious, third-rate science-fiction thriller and a sloppy, third-rate clown show crammed with enema jokes. I laughed—but mostly to keep from getting depressed about the devolution of mainstream movies.