Archive for July 2010


July 25, 2010

Competence is underrated. Last week’s Inception is a wild and visionary thriller, but Christopher Nolan isn’t really an action director; there are too many fight scenes in which we can’t tell who’s where or what’s going on. Salt is a whole other ballgame. It marks a return to form for the great action director Phillip Noyce; thank the cinema gods for someone who knows where to put the camera and how not to let his editors turn everything into unwatchable gibberish. Noyce made the two best Tom Clancy thrillers, Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger, and there’s no nonsense in his style, not an ounce of flab.

The same could be said of Angelina Jolie. She plays Evelyn Salt, a CIA operative accused of being a sleeper agent for the KGB, as if Salt had already seen the movie and were one step ahead of everyone. There’s a car-chase sequence wherein Salt hops from the top of one moving vehicle to another; she seems to know exactly when a hoppable truck is coming up, or maybe she’s just always alert to any advantage. Jolie reportedly did a lot of her own stunts, and the action has a blunt physicality you simply can’t get by leaning too much on CGI or wirework. The success of this movie and Inception is heartening; it may mean that audiences are tired of watching supposed human beings bend physics too far past credibility.

It’s a good thing Noyce and Jolie are dedicated to old-school clarity, because the plot of Salt is the usual convoluted spy stuff. Salt goes on the run to clear her name and also to foil a Russian plot to kill Russia’s president. Salt was in the can long before the recent news about Russian spies hit the headlines, but Russians had made a recent comeback as Hollywood’s bad guys even before this — post-9/11, thrillers need villains who aren’t Middle Eastern (True Lies couldn’t be made the same way today), and we’re in two hot wars with them anyway, so we might as well reactivate the Cold War in movies. It’s comforting, somehow, a throwback to the ‘80s.

Salt is an aesthetically pleasing machine, with fine little witty touches — I enjoyed the bit with Salt repeatedly tasering a barely conscious driver to jolt him into keeping a vehicle going. But a lot of it slips one’s mind as soon as it’s over, and it’s easy to forget that anyone but Jolie is in it. Liev Schreiber and Chiwetel Ejiofor, as fellow CIA guys, spend much of the movie squinting at monitors or coughing on Salt’s dust as she sprints out of their grasp. August Diehl (Inglourious Basterds) makes a brief impression as Salt’s husband, who she originally hooked up with as part of her job but who ended up winning her heart anyway. Salt also has a cute little dog, and I was grateful that the film took time to show her leaving the dog with a little girl for safekeeping. But by the end of the movie, which explicitly leaves the door open for a franchise, I wasn’t concerned with how Salt would pursue her new mission; I worried about whether the doggie missed her all this time and whether Salt would ever see it again. You put a pet in this kind of movie, I’m going to think about stuff like that. Sorry.


July 18, 2010

It’s never quite clear what’s real or unreal in Inception, and it becomes less clear as the end credits roll. This gargantuan and madly complex experiment — a $160 million art film — turns the viewer into a termite chewing through endless pages of text. Internet geeks will debate the meanings and symbols in Inception for months, perhaps years. Full of both eye-boggling action and mind-boggling dream logic, it bids fair to be the largest, heftiest cult film ever made. At times it’s like Synecdoche, New York with gunmen on skis. The puppetmaster here, writer-director Christopher Nolan, has realized his trippy vision on a scale, and on a technical level, heretofore unimaginable.

If the emotions were there, Inception would be the grand slam many people are receiving it as. Instead it’s a solid home run; we take pleasure in the crack of the bat and the triumph of the batter, Nolan, rounding the bases, but the hit doesn’t bring anyone else home. It’s a one-man parade, confetti thrown wildly in honor of Nolan’s ingenuity, Nolan’s cleverness. Ultimately, despite some deep-dish exposition about psychological depths (and the insights are very Psych 101), the movie isn’t really about anything but cleverness. It’s a gigantic chess game — a pivotal character is even named Robert Fischer — and we watch the pieces in play, often thrillingly, but seldom movingly. And since the whole plot turns on the desire of the hero, Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio), to get over the death of his wife (Marion Cotillard) and reunite with his children, the muted emotional engagement is a serious snag.

As pure filmmaking, though, Inception is masterful, in a league — no, a sport — all its own. Dom is hired by a Japanese businessman (Ken Watanabe) to enter the brain of a dying competitor’s son (Cillian Murphy) and plant the idea that his dad’s company should be broken up. As in any good heist film — this is a heist flick in reverse — Dom assembles his team, each with a specialty; there’s the research guy (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, in the standout performance), the designer of the dream worlds (Ellen Page), and so on. These dream invaders talk on and on about the rules of dreams, and what you can and can’t accomplish in dreams, and all of it is fascinating on a sci-fi level. Eventually we get dreams within dreams within dreams, a spiral draining down to a kind of stuck madness in which you can be unaware you’re in a dream and spend decades there.

All of this is crisply visualized; the images have an epic grandeur, and in the sequence destined to be included in “Best Movie Fights” highlight reels, Joseph Gordon-Levitt bobs and weaves in mid-air in a hallway while fighting “projections” — unreal attackers — and trying to figure out a way to make an elevator simulate falling in a dreamspace with no gravity. The set pieces in Inception are gorgeously worked out; even the somewhat conventional-feeling ski-combat scenes play like a wink and a nod to James Bond (and by the way, this is a better 007 flick than any actual 007 flick we’ve gotten since the ‘70s).

Cinematically, this is a keeper, a fireworks grand finale that goes on flashing and booming for two hours and twenty-eight minutes. But, oh, for some genuine heart, instead of a dead wife and two little kids we hardly know thrown in for obligatory motivation. I wasn’t feeling it, and I suspect Nolan wasn’t, either. If Dom merely took the final job as a self-challenge, to prove he could pull off the inception of an idea (as opposed to his much easier normal task of raiding people’s subconscious for secrets), this might’ve been a higher-mind Kubrickian masterpiece. Instead, it’s only brilliant at the money scenes. Which in itself makes it one of the few events worth your ticket money this summer. Nolan just needs to put more trust in his cold brain and keen eye; when he tries to get sappy, it doesn’t wash.


July 13, 2010

New reviews of old flicks: Double Indemnity and Electra Glide in Blue.

Life During Wartime

July 4, 2010

Less amusing than despairing, Life During Wartime, Todd Solondz’ follow-up to his controversial 1998 gem Happiness, tracks its people through a haze of regret and trauma. The movie uses many of the same characters from Happiness, played here by different actors, and I suspect anyone who hasn’t seen the earlier film will be a little lost through this one. Happiness haunts Life During Wartime like a ghost, and indeed there are possible ghosts in the movie, accusatory spirits drifting into people’s lives. The film’s working title was Forgiveness, and that — and the lack thereof — is the theme here.

Fans of Happiness may recall that it focused on three adult sisters: suburban housewife Trish (Cynthia Stevenson in ‘98, Allison Janney now), flustered singleton Joy (Jane Adams then, Shirley Henderson now), and tortured poet Helen (Lara Flynn Boyle then, Ally Sheedy now). Trish’s husband turned out to be a pedophile, Joy flitted from one dysfunctional man to another, and Helen developed a strange thing for Allan (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a perv who sexually harassed random women over the phone. Here, Allan (now played by Michael K. Williams) is married to Joy, though he hasn’t quite given up his twisted proclivities, and Trish is trying to forget ex-husband Bill (Ciaran Hinds), who’s just out of jail and wants to make sure his now-college-age son Billy (Chris Marquette) won’t follow in his footsteps.

Like the first film, Life During Wartime is full of endless ghastly conversations that redefine “awkward.” Trish’s 13-year-old middle son Timmy, for instance, asks her precisely how it is that pedophilic men can rape boys if they have the same parts. Or take Joy, visited by pathetic former flame Andy (Jon Lovitz in the first movie, Paul Reubens here), who killed himself after she dumped him; her husband has unwittingly bought her (on eBay) the same ashtray Andy gave her and then took back in Happiness. (I took one look at that ashtray and was probably as chilled as Joy is.) The restless spirit Andy wants to rekindle things, and, rebuffed, he launches once again into desperate vituperation (remember Lovitz’s “You’re shit. I’m champagne”?).

I doubt that Solondz, whose dyspeptic yet precise control never wavers, is taking the film into the paranormal; Andy and other dark figures from the past (including Bill, a walking, breathing ghost) symbolize past guilt and heartbreak that will never die. Solondz continues to make films as though it were still the mid-’90s and there were actually an audience for this sort of intractably bleak art-house film. I’m stunned, yet glad, that anyone gave him the money to make this movie, which offers little or no hope for its characters and very few laughs that aren’t choked gargles of disbelief. (The film should probably be seen with an audience if possible, just to hear the collective discomfort in the room.)

Again and again, people ask for forgiveness or question whether it’s possible in some cases. What does Solondz think? He doesn’t say. He just puts us among these walking dead and lets us observe them cringing their way through the long days and longer nights. Life During Wartime lacks the stinging clarity of Happiness, and its abbreviated running time makes it feel more like an addendum than a second volume, but it’s still galvanizingly perverse enough to stand out in what may be, so far, the blandest movie year in recent memory.