But then you get a bland, summer-movie-for-summer-movie’s-sake like Phillip Noyce’s ludicrous espionage thriller Salt, and the site grinds to a halt. Salt isn’t out-and-out terrible or anything. It’s just so perfunctory, so lazy and lackluster in its storytelling, that even commenting on it one way or the other seems like more than the movie deserves. (FWIW, this is the second half of the Kids are All Right double-header I mentioned a week ago.) Probably the most interesting thing I can say about Salt, other than that its Anna Chapman meets Terror Babies, Cold War-hangover plotting could be ripped from the headlines of right-wing nightmare, is that it somehow manages to be both predictable and preposterous at the same time. [Major spoilers to follow, but if you haven’t seen it by now…don’t.]
Predictable, because Salt is so clearly the type of movie that wants to blow your mind that a second-act “twist” — think No Way Out — is well nigh inevitable. (But even when it happens, the filmmakers don’t have the guts to follow through: Angelina Jolie’s character can’t just be undercover. She’s deep, deep undercover.) And predictable because, sorta like Peter Sarsgaard skulking around in Knight & Day a few weeks ago, anybody who’s vaguely into movies will know Liev Schrieber isn’t taking the role of Government Functionary #2 unless there’s some scenery to chew into at some point. (It may not be his fault, but Schrieber has become William Hurtish to the extreme to me — just a hambone waiting to happen.)
And yet, Salt is preposterous. Because, even though you kinda see the big turns coming in all their ridiculous glory, Salt still does not make a lick of sense. As the trailers indicate, Evelyn Salt (Jolie) is a CIA agent who is forced to go on the run from her bosses (Schrieber and a wasted Chiwetel Ejiofor) after a KGB defector (Daniel Olbrychski) outs her as a Russian spy. This mostly involves a lot of running and hiding and hair-dye and whatnot. (Shoplifting too. Here’s your drinking game to make Salt palatable whenever it hits cable — Drink every time Jolie ganks something.)
And, as I’ve already alluded, at a certain point in the middle going, Agent Salt [Spoiler Spoiler Spoiler] switches teams. (You can figure this out even if you’re a touch slow, or you’re watching on a plane without sound or something, because Jolie starts vamping it up like Natasha from the Rocky & Bullwinkle cartoons, and even starts wearing a Russian hat as a signifier.) So, ok, edgy second-act twist, I guess…except the whole getting-outed-by-the-KGB-guy plot at the very beginning now doesn’t make any sense at all. (You could argue he was “activating” her — but he could’ve done that with a phone call.) Multiply this sort of nonsense by three acts, and you end up with a mild fiasco by the final reel.
But that makes Salt sound more howlingly terrible than it in fact is. Phillip Noyce has made some very good movies in his day (The Quiet American, Rabbit-Proof Fence), and he’s nothing if not competent. But his action sequences are just that: competent, middling, and kind of a bore. In terms of actioners, Noyce previously made the two Harrison Ford Jack Ryan movies, Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger, and it’s probably not a positive sign for the shenanigans here that in neither film is the most memorable scene an action sequence. (In Games, it’s Ryan watching the video-gamey US counter-strike on the bad guy’s base from the Pentagon. In Danger, it’s Ryan playing cat-and-mouse on the PC with the bureaucratic bad guy next door.)
Here’s, there’s some passable stunt work, to be sure. But Salt is one of those action movies where the geography and physics seem completely random. (And I don’t just mean the rail-thin Jolie knocking out gimongous cops and robbers cold with one roundhouse punch — They mostly get around that with karate chops and such.) Salt is in downtown DC, then a highway overpass, then a full-on highway, then back in DC. She’s ten feet above the bad guys on an elevator…no, she’s five minutes behind them, in some random hallway we didn’t see before…no, I’m sorry, she’s right behind them again, because the big door is closing and she just makes it through. One gets no sense of danger or of propulsion when Jolie just seems to be teleporting around to accommodate the needs of the script.
As for Jolie herself, well she’s a movie star, and better than the film probably deserves. But, when you get to thinking on it, that’s pretty much always Jolie’s m.o., isn’t it? From Alexander to Mr. & Mrs. Smith to the Tomb Raiders to The Bone Collector (also a Noyce picture) to Wanted, Jolie tends to be the most impressive thing about otherwise terrible films. It’s a neat trick, sure, but at a certain point, you would think it’d be time to exercise a little more quality control, right?
Salt isn’t the worst film of Angelina Jolie’s career or anything, nor is it the worst film of the summer, but it is a lowest-common-denominator, assembly-line entertainment that ends up being both drab and absurd. My advice is save your money, comrades. We may have a hard winter ahead of us yet.
As real-life mountain climber Aron Ralston, James Franco is a carefree daredevil who’s gotten himself in a tight spot in the new trailer for Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours. Um…ok. Striking cinematography as usual, but, in turning this disarming tale into a full-length movie, it’s hard to see how Boyle will improve on a film like Touching the Void.
Still in catch-up mode on the movie front, so this past weekend I saw two flicks that have been making the rounds for awhile now. The first, and by far the better of the two, was Lisa Cholodenko’s well-observed situation dramedy The Kids are All Right — a smart, tautly-written family portrait that for at least its first two-thirds (before the inevitable recriminations pile up and all the characters start to vent at each other endlessly) is decently good fun.
Like I’ve said of movies like The Station Agent and You Kill Me in year’s past, Kids is unabashed indie-tainment, the type of small-bore, character-driven film that IFC or The Sundance Channel will no doubt be running into the ground six months from now. So, no, it’s not really the type of film anyone needs to rush out and see on the Big Screen, per se. Still, it is a well-made, well-acted picture, and not half bad as counter-programming if you’re looking for a grown-up, television-y alternative to the usual summer movie mayhem.
If nothing else, The Kids are All Right gives the promising Mia Wasikowska a peg to hang her hat on in 2010 after the thoroughly atrocious Alice in Wonderland. As Joni, an eighteen-year-old on the verge of leaving the family nest for college, she and her brother Laser (Josh Hutcherson) impressively hold their own with their two, thespian A-lister moms, Annette Bening (Nic) and Julianne Moore (Jules). Taken together, this foursome is a 21st century nuclear family just like any other (a point which the movie perhaps overly belabors at first) — controlling oenophile Nic can’t leave work at work, flighty, hippie-ish Jules feels taken-for-granted, Joni’s chafing under the maternal yoke, and Laser has lousy choice in friends — until the two kids decide, out of curiosity, to get in touch with their biological father, a.k.a. their moms’ sperm donor.
That would be Paul (Mark Ruffalo, who I find more palatable now that he’s less over-exposed), a charming if self-satisfied local restauranteur who needed some easy money way back when and has scarcely taken on any more responsibilities since. Still, Joni digs his insouciance and his motorcycle-riding ways, and Laser likes him ok too, even if Dad’s not quite what he was expecting, and so Paul slowly becomes integrated into Nic and Jules’ household. Too integrated, for Nic’s taste — Perhaps slightly paranoid even on the best of days, she starts to feel pushed out of the way as the materfamilias, and after awhile, for very good reason.
And so the family tension crackles and pops, as per films of this genre. For the most part, the writing here (by Cholodenko and Stuart Blumberg) is admirably subtle and character-driven — the problems that emerge seem natural outgrowths of these particular people’s traits. Still, I have to confess the film lost me a bit in its final act, as the winds of marital strife blow in earnest, and everybody keeps yelling at everybody else. This isn’t to say it’s not well-done (although one of the main characters does seem to drop out of the story rather perfunctorily), only that watching people clearly in love writhe in pain, and/or waiting for second act bygones to get bygonned, as they pretty obviously will, becomes unengaging to me after awhile.
As a sidenote, which I doubt will affect y’all’s enjoyment of this movie one way or the other, I’ll also admit to feeling some distance from these characters throughout the entire story — not because of the non-traditional (yet universally applicable) marriage at the movie’s heart, but because the action, locale, and characters here are so…Californian. Nothing against the Bear Flag Republic — I’ve got great friends out there and from there, and, as Biggie says: Great place to visit. But, as someone who grew up in the South and has lived on the East Coast for decades, I always feel a bit like Alvy Singer or Roger Greenberg while on the Left Coast — ever-so-slightly not among my people.
And, what with the locavores and the wine-enthusiasm and the car culture and the emphasis on landscaping and the skater rats and the sandals and all the “Right On”!s, Kids is as California suburbs as Mystic River is Boston, or, for that matter, Larry Clark’s Kids is N.Y.C. It’s to the film’s credit that it possesses such a strong sense of place, I guess. But as a processed-food-eating, beer-enthusiast, carless renter of the East Coast persuasion, at times The Kids are All Right seemed as much of an exercise in local color as the Appalachia of Winter’s Bone.
This is merely a quibble, of course, and probably speaks less well of me than the movie. In any event, Lisa Cholodenko’s The Kids are All Right is certainly All Right, and probably a good bit better. It’s a reasonably compelling dramedy that’s precise in its details and laugh-out-loud funny at times. If you’re in the mood for a slightly Lifetime-ish family drama this summer, you could do much worse. And, if you were to wait until it ends up on Netflix a few months hence instead, well that’d be all right too. Right on.
Best brush up on those Thriller moves, y’all: AMC and Frank Darabont’s adaption of Robert Kirkland’s’ The Walking Dead gets a 4-minute trailer and a start date: Sunday, October 31st.
For all its bleakness, misanthropy, and inordinately dicey subject matter — pedophiles, obscene phone callers, suicides, and whatnot —Happiness, I am sure some of my fellow social misfits out there will agree, was a very, very funny film. It’s sort of a high-wire suspension act over a moral and existential abyss, and all the more hilarious because it constantly flirts with disaster. (If you haven’t seen it, the entire movie is on Youtube for some reason.) Alas, somewhere along the way — probably 9/11, it seems — the bottom seems to have finally dropped out of Solondz’s world. And now, rather than just trying to be happy, the damaged, compromised characters of the first film are sifting through the wreckage of their lives, trying to either pick up the pieces or bury them somewhere they can’t be found.
As a result, Life During Wartime is a subtler and more muted affair, and one that, unfortunately, is nowhere near as viscerally engaging as its predecessor. If the first film made the case that everybody, even the sick and twisted among us, are looking for happiness in their own way, Wartime suggests that everybody, no matter how reprehensible, also needs forgiveness, and finds forgiveness equally hard to grant. Arguably, Solondz is making the same argument as last time — In both films, basic human needs trump moral and political considerations. (In the end, terrorists, like pedophiles, are people too.) But Wartime has neither the manic good cheer nor the jet-black satirical zest of the first installment, and the laughs are definitely fewer and farther-between. I appreciated the film by the end, but it’s also overly didactic at times and, at times, quite frankly, a bit of a slog.
If you do decide to see Life During Wartime, I would highly recommend watching Happiness again beforehand. Having not seen the first film in a decade or so, I only realized after the fact — like, when writing this review — that the opening scene in Wartime deliberately echoes the pre-title vignette from the earlier movie. Except now, Jon Lovitz’s character is dead (but returns here nonetheless as Paul Reubens), Jane Adams’ Joy has become even more ethereal and bird-like in the guise of Shirley Henderson, and she’s somehow ended up with Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s obscene phone caller, Allen — now recombinated as Michael Kenneth Williams (Yep, Omar comin’) — whom she met as part of her job rehabilitating criminals. (Much like how she ended up with Jared Harris’ sketchy Russian emigre in the first film.)
Things, we soon discover, are not well between Joy and Allen on the domestic front, prompting the former to go visit her older sister Trish (once Cynthia Stevenson, now Allison Janney) in Florida. But Trish has her own problems: Trying to get back into the dating scene — she just wants to find a nice, normal Jewish guy, not unlike her new beau Harvey (Michael Lerner) — Trish finds that her younger children are starting to ask uncomfortable questions about the deeds of their dead father (once Dylan Baker)…who is not really dead, physically-speaking.
Rather, he’s been serving a decade-long stint for rape and pedophilia, during which he’s filled out and been weighed down by guilt enough to transmogrify into the consistently haunted Ciaran Hinds. Free once more, Bill wants to reconnect with the son (Chris Marquette) he sinned against all those years ago. But, as you might expect, that might make for a rather touchy father-and-son reunion…
In following the various characters from Happiness as they interrogate or shrink away from their ghosts, Life during Wartime hangs together less well than the original movie, and feels much more choppy and episodic. At one point, Joy goes out to California to see her other sister Helen (Once Lara Flynn Boyle, now Ally Sheedy), and, while it’s not a bad scene per se, it sorta feels thrown in just so the middle sister didn’t get entirely neglected. (Spoiler: She ended up with Keanu, who honestly doesn’t seem too happy either.) Then again, episodic can be good too — In a brief turn as a self-proclaimed “monster” in need of a good-time-man at the local watering hole, the inimitable Charlotte Rampling just about walks away with the movie.
Still, while I appreciated elements of Life During Wartime, I never really felt fully engaged by the movie, and can’t really recommend it, overall. As the miserable folks on-screen kept circling back to the same questions of guilt and forgiveness, the movie came to seem less like a cinematic experience and more just a filmmaker’s position statement, a dry academic treatise of sorts. And while there are moments of humor here and there — Lerner’s grown son (Rich Pecci) gets in a few good laughs in particular — none really compare to the often absurd, occasionally stunning shenanigans of the first film.
Life During Wartime‘s biggest draw in the end is that it allows us, a la The Godfather III or Before Sunset, to catch up with memorable characters we shared some moments with a long while ago. And, given that they inhabit a world created by Todd Solondz, I guess it’s no surprise that, in the end, living only left them sad.
Sean Penn and Naomi Watts reunite to tell the story of Valerie Plame and the imaginary yellowcake in the new trailer for Doug Liman’s Fair Game. Hmm, ok…but I’m getting a Lions for Lambs/Green Zone flavor from this trailer — edutainmenty and too little, too late. Still, it pretty much has to be better than 21 Grams.
Sadly, it seems Pilgrim has already joined a film it shares a lot in common with in terms of visual inventiveness, the Wachowskis’ unjustly maligned Speed Racer, as something of a box office “bob-omb”. (That pun, by the way, was borrowed from one of the many Expendables fans on AICN strangely all-too-happy to dance on Pilgrim‘s box office grave.) And that’s really too bad. Because, even if I have some issues with the blatant fanboy (emphasis on “boy”) wish-fulfillment at its core, which I’ll get to in a bit, Scott Pilgrim deserves a wider airing.
For one, with its Wham-Pow! effusiveness and viscerally engaging superhero fights, it’s easily one of the most imaginative comic book renderings onscreen this side of Sin City. And comics are only half the story. From its 8-bit Universal opening (a la those great NES Pink Floyd mash-ups I linked to a few months ago), the movie also has one foot firmly entrenched in the world of old-school console gaming. If the dreamworlds of Inception felt like stages in a video game, this movie takes the conceit to the next level: Scott Pilgrim’s entire life unfolds in a Walter-Mitty-meets-Street Fighter, coin-operated Toronto (Trononto?) where g4m3r rules are a fact of life.
This allows for defeated villains turning into collectible coins, 1-ups around for psychic rejuvenation when needed, and — always a happy indication that the movie is about to get super-fun again — the Capcom “VS.” popping up whenever Scott (Michael Cera) must face off against another of his dastardly foes. Those would be the seven members of the League of Evil Ex’es, the sinister cadre of former significant others to the lovely Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) that have gathered together to block our hero from ever dating his dream girl.
And trust me — These Ex-Men (and one Ex-Woman) are no slouches. Among their number are not only Captain America (Chris Evans), here an action hero heartthrob and skater punk with a Jamie Madrox-style army of stunt doubles at his disposal, but the one and only Superman (Brandon Routh), now blonde, psychic, and, most dastardly of all, Vegan. (In the Pilgrimverse, Vegans operate like the Green Lantern Corps. Just ask Thomas Jane and Clifton Collins, Jr.) And they’re just the mini-bosses Scott will have to contend with before defeating Gideon (Jason Schwartzman, a bit anti-climatic, quite frankly — They should’ve sprung for Aldous Snow), the music biz impresario who still has an unholy thrall over Ramona, thanks to a chip implanted in the back of her neck.
Wait…a what? A chip, you say? That makes her a rather passive character, doesn’t it? Yeah, well, that’s the major problem with Pilgrim, which I attribute more to the source material than anything else. This is basically fanboy pr0n, and, in terms of the ostensible romance here, Pilgrim is as one-sided and overtly gendered a piece of rom-com wish-fulfillment as I imagine Eat, Pray, Love was in the theater next door. I mean, I get it: Saving the girl of your dreams from despicably evil forces has been a fanboy trope from Princess Leia to Princess Zelda (although, to her credit, Leia takes over the show as soon as she’s sprung from Detention Block AA-23.) And as one who’s eternally fond of Brazil, I’m not one to complain about a man going out on a limb for his dream-girl.
Still, something about Scott Pilgrim rankles. Sure, Michael Cera specializes in dweebs, but as George Michael in Arrested Development and in movies like Superbad, Juno, and Youth in Revolt, he still had a certain wry, self-effacing charm about him. But, as Scott Pilgrim, he’s just a lazy, whiny, self-entitled jerk, and seems unpossessed of any trait that would make him either desirable to the opposite sex or worth rooting for as a hero. (Well, I guess he does play the bass.) Meanwhile, Ramona is a very pretty cipher — She doesn’t bring much to the table either except Kate Winslet’s hair from Eternal Sunshine and the plot-driving baggage of seven evil ex’es. She’s more of a Macguffin than a fully-realized character.
Don’t get me wrong: There’s a lot of joy to be had in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, mostly due to Edgar Wright, after Spaced, Shaun of the Dead, and Hot Fuzz, really letting his freak flag fly. There’s almost always something fun and geeky going on in the margins of the screen or on the soundtrack, and the Brandon Routh fight and a later Battle of the Bands (between Scott’s outfit, Sex Bob-omb, and a pair of Japanese twins by way of Daft Punk) are both absolute showstoppers. (Maybe too much so, in fact — The final twenty minutes are muddled, and feel like a letdown after these earlier highs.)
Yet, despite the flaws of its titular hero, Scott Pilgrim is the most purely enjoyable roller coaster ride to come down the cinematic pike since Kick-Ass. And, sure, Scott Pilgrim probably doesn’t deserve the girl in the end (or maybe he does, given that she’s drawn as such a blank), but Scott Pilgrim vs the World definitely deserves your ten bucks regardless.
Ms. Kunis, Mr. Cassel, Ms. Hershey, Mr. Stans: To your places: Prima ballerina Natalie Portman looks to be going slightly mad in the first trailer for Darren Aronofsky’s ballet noir Black Swan, premiering at the Venice Film Festival later this year. Well, we all go a little mad sometimes.