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.
WHAT IT'S ABOUT?
Essentially about the offbeat relationship between two very distinct people with anything but normal families Gigantic centers around the search for meaning by Brian Weathersby a 29-year-old high-end mattress salesman who is looking for something to anchor his life to. He becomes determined to adopt a baby from China but soon gets involved in an unexpected and wholly different kind of romance when the quirky and pretty Harriet aka Happy wanders into his showroom and falls asleep on one of the beds. Along the way he must deal not only with her loudmouth father Al but also his own dippy parents and two older more successful brothers.
WHO'S IN IT?
When describing the charms of Gigantic all roads lead to Paul Dano who underplays Brian in a wonderfully droll deadpan-style reminiscent of the great Peter Sellers in Being There. Dano who has done this low-key kind of act before in Little Miss Sunshine is truly winning without expressing visible emotion and letting others play off his blank canvas. As Harriet Zooey Deschanel also takes what could be a one-note character and invests her with complexity and quirky humanity. You can't take your eyes off of her when she's on-screen. Veteran actors Edward Asner and John Goodman play the pair's fathers and both adapt their oversized personas beautifully to the precise rhythms established by the stars. Goodman gets great mileage out of his character's bad back problems and is better than he's been on screen in years. Jane Alexander as Brian's mother also has a couple of wonderful moments. Hot comedian Zach Galifianakis takes on the film's oddest role as a mysterious homeless man who keeps showing up to attack Brian.
Co-writer and first-time feature film director Matt Aselton takes a cue from directors like Hal Ashby (Harold and Maude Being There) and Spanish surrealist Luis Bunuel in creating a tone and distinct minimalist sandbox for his actors to play in and it works beautifully for those in the audience who don't need every little detail explained. By dialing it way down he gets an aura of originality not attempted in many comedies these days.
By crossing the line between fantasy and reality and intentionally blurring his main character's emotional well-being a unique device is used throughout that will require patience and suspension of belief before its ultimate payoff toward the end. The less adventurous viewers may not want to make the investment.
A restaurant double-date between Dano Deschanel plus Goodman and his date is brilliantly written and acted as Brian is grilled in vivid detail by Harriet's take-no-prisoners dad.
BEST GREETING BY A STONER:
A slacker friend who has probably already smoked his lifetime supply of weed asks and answers his own question with every hello: "Hey dude What's up? Not much."
NETFLIX OR MULTIPLEX?
If you can find this indie gem in theaters go! But it should be hitting the video shelves before you can say "Hey dude. What's up? Not much."
Only mildly titillating and not especially thrilling the wannabe erotic thriller In the Cut isn't able to rise to the occasion so to speak. This yawner stars Meg Ryan as Frannie a depressed creative writing teacher in New York who keeps mostly to herself unless it's to get together with her slutty half-sister Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh). Wary about love Frannie's seen how messed up relationships can get. The last guy Frannie dated an mentally unstable med student (Kevin Bacon) is stalking her while crazy sis Pauline is currently stalking a married man who has a restraining order against her. These people have serious issues and dour Frannie figures its easier just to fantasize about men and masturbate (hey don't we all?). Then she meets Det. James Malloy (Mark Ruffalo) an aggressive yet charismatic cop who questions her about the brutal murder of a woman in the neighborhood. Things get all screwy (in more ways than one) when the attraction between Frannie and Malloy grows and the slick detective ends up taking Frannie to some new sexual heights while at the same time strange occurrences are making her suspect Malloy is the murderer. Aw she's just so negative. It all comes to a head so to speak as the real murderer comes to light blah blah blah--but all we want to know is will Frannie finally find a good anti-depressant?
Along with so many actresses Meg Ryan apparently believes dying her hair brown wearing no makeup and sporting a sour and we suspect surgically enhanced face (she looks more nauseated than anything) gives her dramatic heft. And what about that gutsy move of showing a little frontal? Stop the presses--America's sweetheart bares her soul and her breasts! Unfortunately it all backfires. The usually perky Ryan can't dig deep enough to inhabit Frannie's miserable persona even though she's had practice (remember When a Man Loves a Woman and Courage Under Fire) and with In the Cut she comes off looking worse than ever literally and figuratively with a wrist-slitting performance that only proves comedies will forever be her forte (where's Sally when you need her?) As the skanky cop Ruffalo (You Can Count on Me) fares a bit better but still telling a woman all the things you want do to her in bed in a flat emotionless voice doesn't help his case as a sexually provocative leading man. If Ryan's Frannie was not so lifeless maybe she and Malloy could have sizzled but they never connect. The always-good Leigh would have made a much better Frannie. As disturbed Pauline she turns in the most interesting performance of the film.
Director Jane Campion (The Piano) admits she was going for a specific look and feel with In the Cut that of the emotionally charged '70s dramas and thrillers such as the classic 1971 erotic thriller Klute about an emotionally distant prostitute who helps a detective solve a string of murders. In the Cut tries to be Klute--sans Jane Fonda's Oscar-winning performance as the prostitute and Donald Sutherland's superb turn as the smitten detective. Campion's film lacks both stellar performances and the street grit that made those older films so powerful though she does give the film the same drab grimy look of a '70s indie film to match the mood of her main characters (and what fun that is). Plus the way she annoyingly films scenes out of focus makes you think you've got myopia--the periphery is constantly out of focus. Rather than being artsy all this does is trigger a headache.