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?
When all-American girl Susan Murphy is inadvertently hit by a falling meteor on her wedding day she grows to be nearly 50 feet tall. The U.S. military gets wind of this renames her Ginormica and locks her away with a slacker group of other “monsters” in a top-secret compound. But when a mysterious alien robot lands on Earth and begins wreaking havoc these good-hearted but inept creatures are called into action by the President and must band together as a team to save the world from certain catastrophe.
WHO’S IN IT?
As usual Dreamworks has assembled a stellar A-list voice cast led by Reese Witherspoon as Susan/Ginormica. Playing one of the rare female animated heroes Witherspoon’s sweet/confused demeanor — in light of her highly unusual status as a fearsome freakazoid — hits just the right tone generously letting her zanier colleagues steal scenes from right under her (a long way down by the way). Chief among these are a not-so-bright gelatinous blue mass named B.O.B. hilariously voiced by Seth Rogen; the genius Dr. Cockroach Ph.D in the capable hands of House doc Hugh Laurie; and Will Arnett’s half-ape half-fish The Missing Link. In the human roles there’s Stephen Colbert as the idiotic U.S. President Kiefer Sutherland as the monster’s prison guardian Paul Rudd as the ego-driven weatherman fiancé of Susan; and a deliciously villainous Rainn Wilson as Galaxhar the alien determined to take over Earth.
Superb 3-D effects aren’t overdone and add immeasurably to the ginormous fun of the film but even seeing it in theaters that only show it in regular 2-D doesn’t spoil the pure joy of this cartoonish War of the Worlds. Throw in parodies of every cheap '50s sci-fi movie you can think of and you have the ingredients for a silly monster mash sure to appeal to just about anyone who wants to laugh. Despite the impressive production elements it’s the smart and clever script that really sets it apart from its competitors — and that even includes the similar Monsters Inc. from Pixar.
Like any kid-oriented comic ‘toon today the action can be a bit too frenetic and Monsters vs. Aliens piles a lot of it on in its trim 95 minutes. Still the lovable characters carry the day and somehow make it all palatable.
When Susan now Ginormica brings her new friends home to meet her parents chaos ensues and so do the laughs. Also impressive are the large action scenes that make fine use of CGI animation breakthroughs.
BEST SUPPORTING BLOB:
It's easily the one-eyed lame-brained blue lug of a people hugger named B.O.B. perfectly matched to the talents of Rogen. He rolls away with the movie and inevitably the merchandise tie-ins.
Spanning from WWI to the 21st century Eric Roth’s screenplay (based loosely on a 1922 short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald) tells the unique story of a man named Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt). He is born in New Orleans as a very old baby the equivalent of a man in his 80s who then ages backward into youth over the better part of a century. The film is told in flashback by a very old dying woman Daisy (Cate Blanchett) who recounts her tale to her daughter (Julia Ormond) from a hospital bed during Hurricane Katrina. Left on the doorstep of a retirement home one night by his father (Jason Flemyng) Benjamin is brought up by Queenie (Taraji P. Henson) who runs the place. While there he meets a young girl Daisy who will become a key figure -- romantically and otherwise -- in his life. Ben does have some grand adventures: He goes to work on a boat sees sea battles during WWII finds love with an older married woman (Tilda Swinton) -- and gets progressively younger as the decades fly by. It all manages to be alternately haunting romantic funny epic emotional and incredibly moving and will likely to stay with you a lifetime. Brad Pitt manages to deliver a thoughtful and subtle performance through all the special effects makeup and CGI. He does so much just by using his eyes. Cate Blanchett is equally fine as she plays Daisy from a teenager to an old woman and matches Pitt in bringing an entire lifetime skillfully to light. Her aging makeup is completely natural and she’s very moving in the hospital scenes opposite Ormond. Henson is just marvelous as Queenie a warm and understanding soul. Swinton is elegant and memorable in her few crucial encounters with Ben and plays beautifully off Pitt. Jared Harris (TV’s The Riches) as the colorful Captain Mike who hires Ben on his tug boat and Flemyng (The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen) as Ben’s father are also effective in their brief screen time. Interestingly Benjamin Button has been gestating for decades in the Hollywood firmament but needed time for the proper technology to catch up to it. Director David Fincher (Zodiac Fight Club) with his early background at George Lucas’ ILM proves to be the perfect choice to marry a compelling story with spectacular visual effects achievement. He did not want to do the film unless the technology allowed one actor to play the role throughout the course of the film. Remarkably they were able to achieve this superimposing Brad Pitt’s face and eyes into all the incarnations of Ben Button. In one sequence Pitt looks just like he did in Thelma and Louise. It’s an amazing feat. He has seamlessly created a unique universe without ever bringing attention to it advancing the art of screen storytelling leaps and bounds ahead of everything else that has come before. Benjamin Button is a plaintive and provocative meditation of life death and what we do while we are here. It’s the stuff of dreams.
Top Story: Liv Tyler's Newest Ring Is a Wedding Band
Liv Tyler, the daughter of Aerosmith frontman Steven Tyler, has added a new rocker to her life. The Associated Press reports Tyler wed longtime boyfriend Royston Langdon, lead singer and bassist of the band Spacehog, in a private ceremony at a villa in the Caribbean on March 25. Tyler's publicist said Wednesday the couple is planning a small reception for family and friends next month in New York. It is the first marriage for Tyler, 25, and the British-born Langdon, 30. The actress, who has starred in Armageddon, Inventing the Abbotts and That Thing You Do!, plays elf Arwen in Peter Jackson's epic The Lord of the Rings trilogy.
"War" Singer Edwin Starr Dies
Motown legend Edwin Starr, whose 1970 No. 1 Grammy-winning hit "War" denounced war as good for "absolutely nothing," died of a heart attack at his home in central England, Reuters reports. He was 61. "I am absolutely saddened and shaken up by his death. He was performing right until the end," his manager, Lilian Kyle, said Wednesday. Starr himself served in the U.S. army for three years before embarking on a career in music.
Bruckheimer and WB Ink Multimillion-Dollar Deal
Producer Jerry Bruckheimer has signed a four-year deal that will keep him at Warner Bros. TV through May 2007, Variety reports. Financial details of the complicated pact were not immediately available, but industry insiders said the deal guaranteed Bruckheimer and Bruckheimer Television at least $10 million over four years and covers drama, comedy and reality programming. Bruckheimer, who has managed to translate his big-screen success to primetime, produces the hit CBS shows CSI: Miami and Without a Trace.
MTV Reunites with Tom Green
MTV, which releases a new series nearly every three weeks, has greenlighted two new projects as part of their lengthy development slate, The Hollywood Reporter reports. Beginning June 16,Tom Green will return to the network in a late-night talk show that will invite viewers into his personal life. The second series, which will premiere in August, will feature married performers who were big during MTV's boy-band phase. Nick Lachey of the group 98 Degrees and singer Jessica Simpson will open their home to MTV's cameras to document their first year of marriage.
Linkin Park Debuts at No. 1 on Billboard
Linkin Park's Meteora crashed into the Billboard 200 at No.1, selling 810,000 copies in the U.S. for the week ending March 30, according to Nielsen SoundScan data issued on Wednesday. Despite being released in conjunction with the start of her much-hyped Las Vegas production, Celine Dion's One Heart came is second with 432,000 copies sold. Meteora also beat out debuts from Brian McKnight, the Diplomats and the 12th edition of the Now That's What I Call Music! compilation series, Reuters reports.
Radiohead Tracks Leaked Online
Tracks from Radiohead's upcoming album Hail to the Thief, which comes out June 10, have been leaked on to the Internet. Guitarist Jonny Greenwood said the versions constitute "work we've not finished, being released in this sloppy way, 10 weeks before the real version is even available. It doesn't even exist as a record yet." A source told Billboard.com that album producer Nigel Godrich reviewed the files that are circulating and confirmed they may date from as far back as the first day of mixing. In the past two days, EMI has sent cease-and-desist orders to a number of individuals who were hosting the files on their personal Web pages.
"Potter" Prevails Over "Grotter"
Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling won a court battle Thursday to block the Dutch publication of a Russian novel about a girl wizard called Tanya Grotter, Reuters reports. Grotter author Dmitry Yemets, who has sold more than 500,000 books in Russia, said his book, The Magic Double Bass, was a parody of the Potter novels and trusted his readers could tell the difference between the two. But the court said in a written ruling that the Russian book was an unauthorized adaptation of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone and its publication in the Netherlands would infringe Rowling's copyright.
Role Call: Urban Joins "Pitch Black" Sequel, Cheadle Set for "Nixon"
Karl Urban, who plays Eomer in The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, has joined the cast of the Pitch Black sequel The Chronicles of Riddick, which stars Vin Diesel, Judi Dench and Colm Feore. The second installment, written and directed by David Twohy, finds Riddick, now a hunted man, in the middle of two opposing forces in a major crusade. The project begins June 9 in Vancouver ... Don Cheadle, meanwhile, is negotiating to star opposite Sean Penn in The Assassination of Richard Nixon for writer-director Niels Mueller. The film centers on the true story of a Philadelphia furniture salesman who hatches a plot to kill Richard Nixon.