Thursday, July 29, 2010

Salt: Cold War Pot Boiler Misses Mark

The title of the new movie Salt, starring Angelina Jolie as a CIA agent with a mysterious identity, is meant to share several connotations: SALT as in the treaty with Russia; Salt as in “salt in the wound.” And “salt,” a moniker of grit and determination, as in “salty sailor.”

Sadly, each of these sounds more interesting than the movie makes of it.

The movie starts with a promising set-up. Salt is has been captured in North Korea, where she’s tortured; she’s released after her long-suffering husband has struggled to get her out. For a CIA agent, she goes back home to a remarkably placid suburban life: trading cereal-breakfast bon mots with her arachnid-studying husband and taking care of their cute terrier (the dog is here to signal that Salt, salty as she is, has a nurturing side.)

The character is a kind of rudimentary James Bond: asexual and stoic, Salt may have just as well have been played by a man as by a desexualized Angelina Jolie.

Soon, however, a strange Russian defector walks into her office, and she and her boss (Liev Schreiber) have to debrief him only to find a puzzle: he claims that Salt is not really Salt at all, but a Russian double-agent who was planted in American society years ago, as a child, only to be activated today, for a special assignment: to assassinate the Russian president while visiting America for the funeral of the American Vice President.

Naturally, Salt – highly trained at evasion and mayhem – decides to go on the lam, claiming to her protective boss and the suspicious Internal Affairs officer (Chiwetal Ejiofor, who played a similar beleaguered government official in Roland Emmerich’s 2012) that she’s really running out of concern for her husband’s safety. We even get to see her rescue her dog, just to make the point that we’re to root for her.

Here’s where the movie breaks down, and maybe it’s because recent events have made the remaining story of Soviet spies, Cold War, and spies on the lam seem so quaint. The most interesting thing about the recent gaggle of undercover Soviet spies weren’t that they were dangerous, but that they’d become so influenced by American society that they were more interested in home mortgages than in uncovering secret documents. One of the spies wrote home to her handlers in Russia for permission to buy their house, “because that’s what people do in America, and we feel we should do that to blend in.”

Once her cover is “blown,” Salt has no concern about blending in – in fact, just the opposite, she uses the opportunity to go on a kind of wild spree of espionage and revenge – and the movie decides to reveal the answer to the mystery right in the middle of the second act, deflating any remaining tension. There’s even a moment after Salt has killed an entire boat full of Russian mobsters and spies when the movie takes an audible pause, as if thinking to itself, “well, where can we go from here?”

Where it decides to go next is a kind of high-stakes assassination-fest lifted from the plot of Eagle Eye, but it doesn’t really matter. By this time, we know who Salt is: a Cold-War era cartoon character being set up not by the KGB, but by the studio. In the end, Salt turns out to be a kind of triple-agent – and influenced by her life in America after all. Her first cover has been blown, but not her second, and she offers herself up to be turned by the Internal Affairs chief into another kind of operative, one who can operate off the books assassinating bad-guy Russians in innumerable sequels, a kind of Russian Doll version of James Bond.

The only problem is that the Russians aren’t the bad guys anymore – in fact, they are suffused with capitalism, and can barely get their own spies to give up their legitimate advertising agencies. One might excuse this film for trafficking in bulky Russian goons, DefCon 2 alerts, and rogue spies out for murderous revenge if this were 1988, but here and now, the movie feels not only stiff and wooden, but determinedly out of date.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Inception: Deep, and Yet, Not

Christopher Nolan, director of such deliciously esoteric fare as Memento and dark, blockbuster monsters like Batman: The Dark Knight, is deftly trying to do two things at once in the crowd pleaser, Inception: explore his obsession with dreams and memory, and create an action thriller that combines Bourne-Identity intrigue with Matrix-like stunt chases.

He pretty much pulls it off. One can't help but be reminded in this movie of Scorcese's recent Shutter Island, also staring LeonardoDiCaprio as a detective, of sorts, who gets pulled into a psychological trap of his own making. The two movies share the same logical DNA, giving DiCaprio an absence wife and psychological wound out of the same playbook – even the two houses that the DiCaprio's dream of in their subconscious seem like they come from the same plush suburban neighborhood.

Each movie is the creation of its director, however, so while Shutter Island takes the form of a gritty police procedural / haunted house chase, Nolan is going for something much broader and a bit more trippy. Those trailers of the city blocks raising up overhead and folding over on top of you tell you what Nolan is after here: a flexible world with no rules of physics that can mix the latest CGI effects with a good old-fashioned “Mission Impossible” action thriller.

The movie opens with Cobb (DiCaprio) and his team performing what they term an “extraction” – entering with their subject into a shared dream, where they physically must find the room where the subject has metaphorically locked away some hidden secret. Essentially they are corporate spies, and the dream story is a literal metonymic interpretation of the symbol of “locking away” a secret. This kind of psychology doesn’t exactly have the texture that one might get from Freud, say – it traffics exclusively in pop-culture understandings. The movie is content to stay on this pop-culture level throughout. But that’s okay, since it’s given itself enough to do in trying to set up its various dream worlds.

It turns out that one level of dreaming isn’t enough deception to delude their subject, and they have to take them down another level – a dream within a dream – and it’s in these maze-like levels of interlocking dreams where the movie wants to romp, and have its fun. This particular subject gets wise even with two dream states (the carpet he was lying on apparently had been changed in reality, and he notices the difference). In exchange for protecting the extraction team from their failure, the subject gives them a new challenge: instead of an extraction, he wants them to perform an “inception” – actually planting a new memory into a subject.

Cobb knows how to do this because he’s done it before, and it had something to do with his wife, and here we start to get the clues of the movie’s ultimate psychology. Like Shutter Island, we’re building up to a big revelation in the end, and one should never trust a movie that starts from the outset with the intention to play with our grasp on reality. Despite the attempt to lose us in a maze of different realities, I found Nolan’s ultimate destination here a bit predictable.

Even so, getting there is pretty fun. Nolan eventually has a team of different personalities all digging into a reality that’s at least four (or maybe, more?) levels deep. There’s a little invented device of a time distortion – the deeper you go, the more time slows down, so what’s seconds at level one is decades at level four. What I liked most was how Nolan creates a device (the movie calls this a “kick”) that synchronizes the dreamers at all the various levels, and drives everyone back to their waking states at the same moment in time. That’s some pretty deft editing to juggle all those story lines and locations and keep it all straight in audiences’ minds, let alone have them all “kick” at the same climax, and the movie does this fantastically.

Nolan adds a bit of genius casting by having Ellen Page, of Juno fame, play a young protege of Cobb’s who becomes his “architect” – a person who helps him populate the physical puzzle of the dream worlds. Page's Adriadne is a bit young to be roped into all this espionage, and her recent character as a preggers teenager is hard to erase as you watch her play Lady of the Matrix, giving her presence in the film a feeling of odd displacement. That’s exactly the delicious off-kilterness that makes a movie like this work.

What it may not do quite as well is provide a justification for it all. The absent wife in this movie has a proposition for Cobb, which we may or may not believe. But unlike the elaborate dream-worlds that Cobb has constructed, it isn’t that much of a puzzle. We never really get to see why Cobb has made his choices, or what drives him to bury them so deep, and it leaves the emotion of the film a bit hollow.

I think Nolan wanted the audience to feel that they were left with a mystery, and he has a nice little top (a “totem”) that singles that for us. It's interesting that our culture has seemingly become most entertained by depictions of distortions of reality, or people who have essentially entered into their own dream worlds. Perhaps that says something about the flexible reality our culture now traffics in. For most of us, this is starting to get old hand, and many in the audience will have guessed the end (or should I say, the open-ended ending question) half-way through. Total Recall ended with a similar brain teaser (as did the "Moriarty" Star Trek episodes about the holodeck), and though Nolan's mystery doesn't add up nearly as neat as these, it still has incredible synchronicity, like a supersized sci-fi opera.

The real mystery then is how Nolan has turned a series of pop-culture dream states into an entertaining action vehicle. The movie may not have the subtle genius of a Memento, but it has all the exotic sets, free-floating angst, and high-octane explosions to make it perhaps the biggest hit of the summer season.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Greenberg: Midlife Crisis for Generation X

If you were born in the Sixties or early Seventies, and have a friend (or perhaps this is you, yourself) who never quite gave up that college dream of "making it big" as an artist, and so have toiled half your life away in menial jobs holding on to your diminishing dreams while the world has moved on around you, then you’ll understand the movie Greenberg, staring Ben Stiller as the irascible artiste nursing fifteen years of regret.

Understand, though maybe not really enjoy. The problem with this movie may be that the characterization of Greenberg is too spot on. Even in his forties, the guy has never quite given up on some impossible, childish, classically romantic idea of an artist who can remain “pure” from economic compromises and who castigates everyone around him who has decided to live in reality. Such a purely distilled ego comprised of high self-opinion, dashed dreams, and anti-establishment ideology cannot function normally in the world for long, and Greenberg has been recently released from a mental institution and decided to come live, for a time, in the house of his successful brother in LA, while his brother and family go on a trip to Viet Nam. He immediately begins annoying his old friends and acquaintances as he attempts to keep his shit together in day-to-day reality.

Greenberg – compromised as he is – has two charges he needs to look out for, his brother’s dog (a big, furry sad-eyed canine of pure innocence) and his brother’s personal assistant, an equally sad-eyed girl named Florence who casually sleeps around and reacts to Greenberg’s unpredictable temper with an equal mix of wonder and passive-aggressive seduction.

Writers Noah Baumbach and Jennifer Jason Leigh have created a really marvelous script of casual conversation, impromptu parties, dangerous edge, and illuminating comparisons (the party where Greenberg interacts with a group of brash, egotistical twenty-year-olds – telling them about how disappointing their lives will be and castigating their musical tastes – is the thematic heart of the movie and as compelling a portrait of Generation X deterioration and Millennial conflict as I’ve ever seen on film). Stiller is also perfectly suited for the role, going deep into the character and portraying brilliantly a psyche that is both over intellectualized and deeply distorted. That is, there is a lot of good work in this movie and the raves from critics are justified.

At the same time – and perhaps, this is just me, but I suspect there are others who will feel similarly – I just did not enjoy watching this character. I really do know people like this and they are infuriating enough in real life. Like my real-life friends, I kept wanting to reach out and slap Greenberg in the face and say, “snap out of it.” Fifteen years before, Greenberg and his two friends had a band, and they were offered a record deal, but Greenberg decided he didn’t want to have to deal with a recording studio and backed out of the deal, leaving his other two friends stranded. The band dissolved, and the three of them have been nursing this wound ever since.

That IS real life, and though the film does deliver a well-earned catharsis around this issue, coming at the age of forty and for a personality that still doesn’t quite get what he did wrong, I find the outlook punishing more than uplifting.

Maybe what bothers me is this: that instead of being on a trajectory of life, where losses are lessons in how to become stronger, Greenberg illustrates a character in stagnation, who is watching the world pass by and can only lash out randomly. For some viewers, that will make this movie seem like an hour and a half of pointless talking and heartache, since there is no character arch here to speak of, just character "ack."

Greenberg and Florence do finally enter into some semblance of a relationship, though even that is too sketchy to really earn the word. As I’ve said, all of this is illustrated with supreme craft and care, and some truly nice insights into the artist’s dilemma and growing older. I just wish I could have enjoyed Greenberg’s misery as much as he seems to.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Despicable Me: Spy Versus Spy Meets Bugs Bunny Humor in Postmodern Suburbia

A six-year-old child is just beginning to form cognitive connections about the outside world. They are beginning to understand other people, that things can happen in the future, and that there is such a thing as lying.

This new found awareness of tense, truth/falsity, and otherness also imparts the six to nine-year-old with a heightened awareness of jokes, riddles, and fantasy games. They suddenly "get" that people may not mean what they say, that someone can play a joke on someone else. Essentially, they suddenly understand the concept of irony, and they like it.

Or rather, one might say - as with a new found taste for peanut butter and playing doctor - they love it.

The most beloved childhood comic animations understand the six-year-old infatuation with simple irony. Think Bugs Bunny and his turning the tables on Elmer Fudd (six year olds also get such seemingly adult humor as Road Runner defying gravity when Coyote cannot, or Bugs Bunny in drag).

What's astute about Despicable Me, the latest animation from Universal Studios (the studio that brought us The Tale of Despereaux), is that it understands the six-year-old mind at least as well as Bugs Bunny ever did, and goes after guffaw after guffaw with an old-fashioned evil-genius rivalry and some easy sentimentality borrowed from Pixar. That's fantastic, if you're a six year old. If you're the adult accompanying them, well, the movie manages to be entertaining for a good hour and a half, and there are worse things you could be doing with your time.

Despicable Me
starts from the premise of making a kind of Austin Powers-esque villain into the movie's hero. Gru (voiced by Steve Carroll) is an evil genius with a nifty lair and a freeze-ray gun whose despicable genius was never understood by his indifferent mother, but who manages to eek out a decent living managing an underground hive of cute worker minions and a British evil scientist (voiced by Russell Brand), whose collective job it is to get into endearing mischief and occasionally perform mass mayhem.

The film's conceit is that Gru is secretly a softy who simply needs to express his fatherly tendencies in order to actualize his suburban existence while at the same time achieving the grand success that has so far eluded him (he has ambitions to shrink the moon, so he can steal it). Gru adopts three orphan girls, initially thinking they will suit his purposes combating his arch rival - the new evil upstart, Vector - only to find that he actually likes the annoying little things.

When real-life suburban spies are being uncloaked on the news, one can almost say this movie was prescient for setting its cold-war combat amongst the yuppie background of the modern suburbs. Gru versus Vector has a bit of a throwback Spy Versus Spy feel (the movie gets its humor executing Road-Runner-esque setups of various ray guns, shrink rays, and evil experiments going off), perhaps updated with a PC versus Mac art direction that places Gru squarely in the less sexy arena of the tried but true PC who must best his younger and nimbler Mac-ified rival.

There are some jokes here that adults will appreciate (the Lehman Brothers joke is worth an out-loud laugh), but most of the humor, well-executed as it is, is strictly of the Fart Gun kind. Those chattering minions are designed with evil genius as well: perfect for lunch boxes and fast food glasses, they are a kind of perfection of movie merchandising, and their appearance in the film as a kind of yellow Thebian chorus serves mainly as branding of themselves.

Most of the story seems borrowed from a recent Pixar movie - Up - which featured a similar crotchety old guy learning to open his heart to an annoying six-year-old. The genius of Up that this movie misses has to do with the depth of character and the facility with human insight. These characters lack the human contextualization that Pixar has become so grand at providing. Instead, even as their movie is 3D-ified, the characters exist purely in the 2D world of cartoon stereotypes. Gru eventually finds himself torn between attending the girls' dance recital and his plot to steal the moon, but it's an artificial choice (he decides to do both), and even if he's ready to adopt these girls, the only real difference between them and the masses of other minions already under his care is that they're not yellow.

In other words, he was a softy from the start - a plush huggable toy that's menacing enough to be funny to a six year old, as are the rest of the creations. The movie takes great care to get all the jokes right, and it goes after its young audience relentlessly. Judging from the reaction of all of the kiddies in the audience, they loved it.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Top Ten 4th of July Movies of All Time

What makes a great Fourth of July movie? It has to be a summer tent-pole flick, sure. It has to be big – with top stars, obscene budgets, and an A-list director. But it also needs to capture something else to be a really good July 4th event. It needs to have a theme that resonates with the American character: something about patriotism, or heroism, individualism, or just plain goofy joy. It needs to have a really imaginative, scary, menacing bad guy: an invading army, a killer animal, an unstoppable machine, icky bugs, an evil genius, a big rock about to destroy the world. It needs to set these two forces up in opposition, so that the American heroes are tested sorely, the big-bad-world-destroying whatever is about to crush/eat/destroy everyone, and our heroes rescue the world but not without some serious loss of life. And it needs plenty of fun and fireworks – sarcastic quips, things going boom, laser beams, rock music, and maybe some beer and cigars. It essentially needs to be a big block party/fireworks show on a movie screen, and it needs to be really really fun.

With this in mind, then, I unveil my selections for the top ten 4th of July movies of all time. Please feel free to comment or add your own suggestions in the comments section at the end.

10. Men in Black (1997) – Riffing on FBI agents chasing down cartoonish aliens, this Will Smith helmer was most successful when indie-film regular Vincent D’Onofrio did his shtick as an outer-space bug wearing a not-too-well-fitted person suit. More coolly kooky than ferocious, Smith sashayed through the movie and we got a new spin on the term “bug zapper.”

 9. Live Free or Die Hard (2007) – This fourth installment of the Die Hard franchise opened the week before the 4th and posited a technological “fire sale” that causes mass chaos by shutting down the power grid. Invokes a nice sense of America’s new-found fear of going dark. Also a nice combination of Justin Long techno-geek wiz-kid-ism with old-fashion beat-em-up Bruce Willis stunts. Features a cool villain in the form of Timothy Olyphant as a villainous super-hacker and some great old-fashion flying car crack-ups and blown-up buildings, it successfully rebooted a long-in-the-tooth franchise.

8. Armageddon (1998) – Jerry Bruckheimer has seemingly staked a perpetual claim on 4th of July weekend with the Transformer movies, but Armageddon is probably the his better entry. There’s nothing like saving the world from an impending asteroid to stir up the appropriate jingoistic joys. This movie – like most Bruckheimer fare – is a bit too self-congratulatory for me to fully enjoy (the slow-mo hero shots go on interminably), but it does capture the spirit of the weekend well, with a classic Aerosmith soundtrack and plenty of fresh corn from Bruce Willis.

7. Spider Man 2 (2004) – The original Spider Man debuted to block-long crowds and rave reviews. It was the first time a comic-book movie had “heart” – or enough character development to make you both thrill and cry. Most important, the movie struck at the heart of teenager-dom and hit a chord with young audiences and adults alike. Spider Man 2 reprised the magic on the 4th of July with a better villain (Doc Oc) and some serious soul searching for Spidey.

6. Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003) – Once more into the breach, dear Terminator. This time, new director Jonathan Mostow gave us a lovely but deadly female Terminator with flaming firepower and some great careening chases. It was what we’d come to expect from Terminator movies, but it delivered.

5. The Patriot (2000) – Mel Gibson and a hot new kid named Heath Ledger teamed up to give us a unique poli-sci lesson on the American Revolution (a subject one might think would be more popular this time of year). This film stays away from history class clich├ęs by illustrating a family of young fighters and an American army more suggestive of a terrorist insurgency than the organized military we know today. Intriguing and filled with enough battles to qualify it as “action packed,” the real heart of this film was Ledger, who with his soulful eyes and youthful vim stole the show, and established himself as a leading talent.

4. Back to the Future (1985) - Marty McFly won our hearts with his skateboard and time-traveling Delorian in the first movie that really set out from the start to create a fourth-of-July weekend craze and delivered on its promise. That makeup to age his parents wasn’t too convincing, but boy did that time travel paradox of Marty interrupting his own insemination make us scratch our heads. The movie may seem tame, now, but is was racing to catch lightning, and it did.

3. Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) – The first Terminator was a cult classic, but when James Cameron came back to reprise his surprise hit from a decade before, you knew he was after something both new and big: and he didn’t disappoint. Terminator 2 took the idea of the metallic unstoppable killer and “kicked it up a notch,” creating a coolly modern, seemingly indestructible and infinitely adaptable silicon assassin and an endless chase scene that decimated cars, houses, buildings, trucks, and pretty much anything in its path. The brilliantly staged assault on the Cyberdyne building was an instant action-flick classic and has served as a blueprint for numerous top sci-fi battles, including the Transformer series, the Matrix movies, and too many others to count.

2. Independence Day (1996) – One of only two movies on our list that actually takes place over July 4th weekend, Independence Day was both an end-of-the-world sci-fi thriller and a feel-good all-American celebration of patriotism. It simultaneously resurrected the destruction/disaster movie and established Roland Emmerich as a tent-pole director (though it’s seemingly all been downhill for him since then). Independence Day’s scenes of iconic buildings being blown up by invading aliens set the tone both for future summer movies (Die Hard 4 gives a knowing nod) as well as our reaction to real-life terrorism (many people I know compared watching September 11th to this film). Helmed by Will Smith at his peak, with a snarky Jeff Goldblum to boot, this one is perhaps the perfect blend of popcorn, fireworks, and summer sci-fi.

1. Jaws (1975) – Released in the second half of June, the movie takes place over the 4th of July weekend, and it was the same weekend in 1975 when Jaws became a smash hit and literally invented the summer blockbuster. Spielberg practically created the classic villain with his seemingly intelligent killer shark (which we hardly ever got to see) and that iconic music. Probably the perfect thriller, no one will listen to Roy Scheider’s police chief Martin Brody as he struggles to close the beaches – no one, that is, but a hippie oceanographer and a scrappy old fisherman. When they three of them go out to face the shark alone, the movie becomes pure genius. Next time you hear the phrase, "we're going to need a bigger [fill in the blank]" in a movie, you can tell 'em that this was the one that started it all.