Last night when Lena Dunham – the writer, director, star, and all-around powerhouse behind HBO's buzzy show Girls – leaned in and kissed the dreamy Patrick Wilson and he kissed her back, the snarkier parts of the audience (myself included) immediately thought, "Oh please, there is no way that he would get with her!" The rest of the episode, in which Dunham's Hannah spends two days in the loving arms of Wilson's Joshua, was a suspension of disbelief, as we're supposed to imagine that this romantic coupling is accepted by today's society. Their discrepancy was only made more apparent in a scene where Hannah and Joshua play half-naked ping pong and Wilson looks like a bronzed statue of Hercules and Dunham looks, well, not quite like an Aphrodite. But, by doing this, is Dunham actually genius? Yeah, I think so.
As much as we hate to admit it (strict codes of beauty be damned), Dunham is not what we consider conventionally attractive in Hollywood. And she'll tell you this as soon as anyone else. She even has said she makes her sex scenes as uncomfortable as possible to play up her non-conformist body type. She even uses her physicality as part of her comedy. Just look at her when she is standing at Joshua's stoop in her too-tight jumper with a massive wedgie. This is not a girl who is overly concerned with being a pretty pinup and knows that everyone will guffaw at a non-size-2 woman making a fool of herself.
But that is one of the brilliant, subversive things about Girls. We have suffered through years of sitcoms in which schlubby guys have courted voluptous ladies and it's become a sad TV cliché. And we've consistently found ourselves wondering how we're supposed to believe these lopsided relationships existed in the first place. It goes as far back as fat Ralph Kramden on The Honeymooners and his shapely wife Alice. Even if Kevin James was royalty, there's no way his King of Queens deserved a hottie like Leah Remini. Same goes for schlubby Jim Belushi and gorgeous Courtney Thorne-Smith on According to Jim. On Modern Family it's hard to say that Ed O'Neill wouldn't land a bombshell like Sofia Vergara because, well, how many fat old rich guys have gorgeous trophy wives, but twink Jesse Tyler Ferguson's pairing with bear Eric Stonestreet is a little less believable.
Lena Dunham is finally getting revenge for all those tight-bodied women stuck with jelly-bellied husbands. She is regularly casting guys as her romantic interest that are consistently more traditionally beautiful as she is. Adam Driver's character Adam (while not necessarily a looker) is as obsessed with keeping his body tight as Hannah is at keeping hers frumpy. Donald Glover is hiding a set of six-pack abs under his shirt instead of a muffin top. And Wilson, well, he's just in a class all of his own, and most mere mortals aren't nearly attractive enough to deign to make out with him. But here is Dunham, conquering them all.
She is doing what all those men before her have done, saying that she is worthy of sex and attention not for what she looks like, but for who she is. While it may sound harsh to say she's not any of these men's ideal, in terms of sitcom history, this is the first time that a woman has fought for this kind of equality: to not be the one who is slumming, but the one who is slummed. Just as male actors and writers have lived out their fantasies of bedding beauties on screen, now Dunham is doing the same, and making a shrewd point while doing it.
What's even doubly subversive about Hannah is that she isn't even really worthy of being loved. What we're supposed to think about all the schlubby men above — each one a before picture in a Weight Watchers ad — is that they are so wonderful and funny and such great providers that it's worth overlooking that roll that obscures their belt buckle to see the heart inside. Last night, Hannah was just the opposite. She and Joshua fell into each other's arms because they were such lonely messes, seeking out any sort of human connection, and Joshua wallowed in her flesh, a figure that isn't exactly exalted outside of Reuben. But when he got to actually know her, when she revealed herself to him and he saw who she really was, that is when he rejected her. He didn't dismiss her for what she looked like, but for who she really was.
The same thing happened with Glover's Sandy, who kicks Hannah to the curb for her unsympathetic political beliefs, not because of any junk she may or may not have in her trunk. Dunham is telling us what all of our mothers told us so long ago: It's what is on the inside that matters. While you don't need to be beautiful on the outside to get laid, you do need to be beautiful on the inside to be loved. That's not such a crazy lesson at all.
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The Amazing Spider-Man would prefer if you didn't call it the fourth Spider-Man movie. See this ain't the Spider-Man your older brother knew from ten years ago — it's a reboot. The latest adventure to feature the comic book webslinger throws three movies worth of established mythology straight out the window swapping the original cast with an ensemble of fresh faces and resetting the franchise with a spiffy new origin story. "New" in the loosest sense of the word — the highlights of ASM mainly a sleek new design and spunky reinterpretation of Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) and gal pal Gwen Stacey (Emma Stone) are weighed down by overpowering sense of familiarity. Nearly a beat for beat replica of the 2002 original with some irksome twists of mystery thrown in Amazing Spider-Man fails to evolve its hero or his quarrels. The film has a great sense of cinematic power but little responsibility in making it interesting.
We're first introduced to Peter Parker as a young boy watching as his parents rush out of the house in response to a hidden danger. Mr. and Mrs. Parker leave their son in the care of his Aunt May (Sally Fields) and Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen) who raise him into Andrew Garfield's geeky cool spin on the character. Parker's a science whiz but faces the challenges of every day life — passing classes talking to girls the occasional jock with aggression issues — but all of life's woes are put on hold when the teen discovers a new clue in the mystery behind his parents' disappearance. The discovery of his dad's old briefcase and notes leads Peter to Dr. Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans) a scientist working for mega-conglomerate Oscorp and his Dad's old partner. When they cross paths Connors instantly takes a liking to the wunderkind and loops him into the work he started with his father: replicating the regeneration abilities of lizards in amputee humans (Connors is driven to reform his own missing arm). But when Parker wanders into Oscorp's room full of spiders (a sloppily explained this-needs-to-be-here-for-this-to-happen device) he receives his legendary spider bite that transforms him into the hero we know.
Director Marc Webb (500 Days of Summer) desperately wants Amazing Spider-Man to work as a high school relationship movie but with the burden of massive amounts of plot and mythology to introduce the movie sags under the sheer volume of stuff. Stone turns Parker's object of affection Gwen Stacey into a three-dimensional character. Whenever they happen upon each other an awkward exchange in the hallway a flirtatious back-and-forth in the Oscorp lab (where Stacey is head…intern) or when the two finally begin a romantic relationship the two stars shine. They're vivid characters chopped to bits in the editing room diluted by boring franchise-building plot threads and routine action sequences. Seriously Amazing Spider-Man another mad scientist villain who uses himself as a test subject only to become a monster? And another bridge rescue scene? Amazing Spider-Man desperately wants to disconnect from the original trilogy but it's trapped in an inescapable shadow and does nothing radical to shake things up. Instead it settles for the same old same old while preparing for inevitable sequels instead of investing in its dynamic duo.
There's a sweet spot where the film really hits his stride. After discovering his spider-abilities Peter hits the streets for the first time. He's superhuman but still a headstrong teen full of obnoxious quips and close calls with shiv-wielding thugs. The action is slick small and playful Webb showing us something new by melding his indie sensibilities with big scale action. If only it lasted — the introduction of Ifans reptilian half The Lizard implodes Amazing Spider-Man into incomprehensible blockbuster chaos. A gargantuan beast wreaking havoc around New York City promises King Kong-like escapades for the friendly neighborhood Spider-Man but the lizard man has other plans: to rule the world! Or something. Whatever it takes to get Lizard and Spider-Man fighting on the top of a skyscraper over a doomsday machine — logic be damned.
Amazing Spider-Man peppers its banal foundation with great talent from Denis Leary as Gwen's wickedly funny dad and the police captain hunting down Spider-Man to Fields and Sheen as two loving adults in Peter's life to Garfield and Stone whose chemistry demands a follow-up for the sake of seeing them reunited. But it's all at the cost of putting on the most expensive recreation of all time with new demands imposed by the success Marvel's other properties (except that franchise teasing worked). Amazing Spider-Man introduces too many ideas that go nowhere undermining the actual threat at hand. No one wants to be unfulfilled but that's the overriding difference between the original movie and the update. You need to pay for the sequel to know what the heck is going on in this one.
Salt the propulsive new thriller from Phillip Noyce (Clear and Present Danger Patriot Games) has been dubbed “Bourne with boobs ” but that label isn’t entirely accurate. In the role of Evelyn Salt a CIA staffer hunted by her own agency after a Russian defector fingers her in a plot to murder Russia’s president Angelina Jolie keeps her two most potent weapons holstered hidden under pantsuits and trenchcoats and the various other components of a super-spy wardrobe that proudly emphasizes function over flash.
But flash is one thing Salt never lacks for. Its breathless cat-and-mouse game hits full-throttle almost from the outset when a former KGB officer named Orlov (Daniel Olbrychski) stumbles into a CIA interrogation room and begins spilling details of a vast conspiracy. Back in the ‘70s hardline elements of the Soviet regime launched an ambitious new front in the Cold War flooding the western world with orphans trained to infiltrate the security complexes of their adopted homelands and wait patiently — decades if necessary — for the order to initiate a series of assassinations intended to trigger a devastating nuclear clash between the superpowers from which the treacherous Reds would emerge triumphant.
The Soviet Union may have long ago collapsed (or did it? Hmmm...) but its army of brainwashed killer orphan spies remains in place and if this crazy Orlov fellow is to be believed they stand poised to reignite the Cold War. It’s a preposterous — even idiotic — scheme but no more so than any of our government’s various harebrained proposals to kill Castro back in the ‘60s. As such the CIA treats it with grave seriousness even the part that that pegs Salt who just happens to be a Russian-born orphan herself as a key player in the conspiracy.
Salt bristles at the accusation but suspecting a set-up she opts to flee rather than face interrogation from her bosses Winter (Liev Schreiber) and Peabody (Chiwetel Ejiofor). A former field agent she’s been confined to a desk job since a clandestine operation in North Korea went south leaving her with a nasty shiner and a rather unremarkable German boyfriend (now her unremarkable German husband). She’s clearly kept up her training during while cubicle-bound however and in a blaze of resourceful thinking and devastating Parkour Fu she fends off a dozen or so agents of questionable competence and takes to the streets where she sets about to clear her name and unravel the Commie orphan conspiracy before the authorities can catch up with her. That is if she isn’t a part of the conspiracy.
The premise which aims to resurrect Cold War tensions and graft them onto a modern-day spy thriller is absurdly clever — and cleverly absurd. But Kurt Wimmer’s screenplay isn’t satisfied with the merely clever and absurd — it must be mind-blowing. Salt is one of those thrillers that ladles out its backstory slowly and in tiny portions every once in a while dropping a revelatory bombshell that effectively blows the lid off everything that happened beforehand. No one is who they seem and every action every gesture no matter how seemingly trivial is imbued with some kind of grand significance. The effect of piling on one insane twist after another has the effect of gradually diluting the narrative. When anything is possible nothing really matters.
But spy thrillers by definition trade in the preposterous and the principal function of the summer blockbuster is to entertain. In that regard Salt more than fulfills its charge. Noyce wisely keeps the story moving at pace that allows little time for asking uncomfortable questions or poking holes in the film’s frail plot. And he has an able partner in the infinitely versatile Jolie who having already exhibited formidable action-hero chops in Wanted and the Tomb Raider films proves remarkably adept at the spy game as well.
It’s well-known that Jolie wasn’t the first choice to star in Salt joining the project only after Tom Cruise dropped out citing the story’s growing similarities to the Mission: Impossible films. But she’s more than just a capable replacement; she’s a welcome upgrade over Cruise not least because she’s over a decade younger (and a few inches taller) than her predecessor. Should Brad Bird require a pinch-hitter for Ethan Hunt he knows where to look.