Lions Gate via Everett Collection
When we last left our heroes, they had conquered all opponents in the 74th Annual Hunger Games, returned home to their newly refurbished living quarters in District 12, and fallen haplessly to the cannibalism of PTSD. And now we're back! Hitching our wagons once again to laconic Katniss Everdeen and her sweet-natured, just-for-the-camera boyfriend Peeta Mellark as they gear up for a second go at the Capitol's killing fields.
But hold your horses — there's a good hour and a half before we step back into the arena. However, the time spent with Katniss and Peeta before the announcement that they'll be competing again for the ceremonial Quarter Quell does not drag. In fact, it's got some of the film franchise's most interesting commentary about celebrity, reality television, and the media so far, well outweighing the merit of The Hunger Games' satire on the subject matter by having Katniss struggle with her responsibilities as Panem's idol. Does she abide by the command of status quo, delighting in the public's applause for her and keeping them complacently saturated with her smiles and curtsies? Or does Katniss hold three fingers high in opposition to the machine into which she has been thrown? It's a quarrel that the real Jennifer Lawrence would handle with a castigation of the media and a joke about sandwiches, or something... but her stakes are, admittedly, much lower. Harvey Weinstein isn't threatening to kill her secret boyfriend.
Through this chapter, Katniss also grapples with a more personal warfare: her devotion to Gale (despite her inability to commit to the idea of love) and her family, her complicated, moralistic affection for Peeta, her remorse over losing Rue, and her agonizing desire to flee the eye of the public and the Capitol. Oftentimes, Katniss' depression and guilty conscience transcends the bounds of sappy. Her soap opera scenes with a soot-covered Gale really push the limits, saved if only by the undeniable grace and charisma of star Lawrence at every step along the way of this film. So it's sappy, but never too sappy.
In fact, Catching Fire is a masterpiece of pushing limits as far as they'll extend before the point of diminishing returns. Director Francis Lawrence maintains an ambiance that lends to emotional investment but never imposes too much realism as to drip into territories of grit. All of Catching Fire lives in a dreamlike state, a stark contrast to Hunger Games' guttural, grimacing quality that robbed it of the life force Suzanne Collins pumped into her first novel.
Once we get to the thunderdome, our engines are effectively revved for the "fun part." Katniss, Peeta, and their array of allies and enemies traverse a nightmare course that seems perfectly suited for a videogame spin-off. At this point, we've spent just enough time with the secondary characters to grow a bit fond of them — deliberately obnoxious Finnick, jarringly provocative Johanna, offbeat geeks Beedee and Wiress — but not quite enough to dissolve the mystery surrounding any of them or their true intentions (which become more and more enigmatic as the film progresses). We only need adhere to Katniss and Peeta once tossed in the pit of doom that is the 75th Hunger Games arena, but finding real characters in the other tributes makes for a far more fun round of extreme manhunt.
But Catching Fire doesn't vie for anything particularly grand. It entertains and engages, having fun with and anchoring weight to its characters and circumstances, but stays within the expected confines of what a Hunger Games movie can be. It's a good one, but without shooting for succinctly interesting or surprising work with Katniss and her relationships or taking a stab at anything but the obvious in terms of sending up the militant tyrannical autocracy, it never even closes in on the possibility of being a great one.
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As 2012 dawned, there was one movie that geek culture anticipated above all others: The Dark Knight Rises. It was the trilogy-capping follow-up to, at that point, the most successful superhero movie of all time. The Dark Knight was a major cultural touchstone that, with its cracked-mirror reflection of a society ripped apart by terrorism, complex questions about surveillance, and dark neo-noir style, legitimized the idea that comic books could be fodder for serious cinematic art. And yet, when 2012 ended, its sequel had not walked off as the year’s highest-grossing film. That honor went to another superhero flick with a decidedly lighter-hearted tone, glossier visuals, and a mission statement to have popcorn fun rather than strive to be pop art: The Avengers. In fact, The Avengers not only beat The Dark Knight Rises for the No. 1 spot, it did so by a margin of about $175 million.
Now, we’re not saying that Christopher Nolan’s gritty comic-book movie revolution, nor Peter Jackson’s dirt-under-the-fingernails overhaul of fantasy, is by any means over. What is happening, though, is that audiences are starting to direct the question asked by Nolan’s most famous Batman character back on blockbuster filmmaking as a whole: Why so serious?
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After a decade of action, sci-fi, and comic book movies striving for a darker, grittier, more down-to-earth aesthetic — and filmmakers equating such qualities with being taken seriously — escapism is making a loud-and-proud comeback. Audiences are responding to movies that just want to have fun in a big way. In 2010, Alice in Wonderland, with its candy-colored visuals and cheeky Tim Burton wit, grossed $334.2 million in the U.S. alone. Later that year Disney scored its biggest non-Pixar animated hit in years with the $200 million-grossing Tangled, proving what a huge market there still is for bubbly princess fare. And while Bryan Singer’s Jacksonian “dirt under the fingernails” take on Jack and the Beanstalk with Jack the Giant Slayer failed to deliver blockbuster numbers with a tepid $27.2 million opening, early tracking for Oz the Great and Powerful, a decidedly more glossy, color-splashed fairy tale, suggests that film may take in $80 million or more during its first weekend. (It’s not a coincidence that Disney produced Alice, Tangled, Oz, and The Avengers.) The message is clear: there is an audience that wants fun for fun’s sake. Escapism is back.
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Just five years ago, "dark," "brooding," and "gritty" was the way to go if you wanted your tentpole movie to be taken seriously — and make a lot of money. The kid-friendly Fantastic Four movies tanked. Superman Returns’ shiny Americana seemed terribly unfashionable and out-of-date. Spider-Man 3 made a ton of money off the strength of its predecessors, but the fact that its sole attempt at going dark and brooding was to give Tobey Maguire some emo bangs earned the film geek derision and scorn from the same critics who praised the Sam Raimi franchise’s first two installments. The Dark Knight, though, had the ambition to transform iconic Batman villain the Joker into a terrorist spreading urban chaos. Casino Royale turned James Bond into a blunt instrument who was also vulnerable and capable of nursing a broken heart. And the Bourne movies deconstructed the panoptic dread inherent in spy fiction by serving up a title character who was a blank slate at the mercy of forces beyond his control. Bond, Bourne, and Nolan’s Batman presented heroes affected with a kind of PTSD, still tormented by past traumas and regrets, and tending toward a messianic relentlessness to make things right. And then there's The Lord of the Rings, about a legion of bathing-averse heroes suffering incredible hardship to stare down insensate evil. None of these movies featured traditionally “fun” characters or storylines, and yet they became among the most popular, crowd-pleasing entertainments of the past decade.
Try as journalists, publicists, and film scholars might, it’s impossible to disentangle directorial vision, marketing impulses, and audience demand to figure what exactly is responsible for a trend like the dark blockbusters that dominated the multiplexes for much of the past decade. The rote answer is that these films are a cinematic response to 9/11 and are in some way allegorical reflections of the uncertainty, powerlessness, and trauma of that terrible day. Suddenly, Timothy Dalton’s brutish, scowling 007, so derided by Reagan Era movie audiences, was reincarnated as Daniel Craig’s brutish, scowling 007, and post-9/11 audiences loved it.
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If blockbuster filmmaking ever since Star Wars has pivoted around two central themes — “With great power comes great responsibility” and also “He who fights monsters must take care that he doesn’t become a monster himself” — after 9/11 the latter theme seemed to preoccupy the most successful sci-fi/fantasy and superhero movie filmmakers. This has been a unique phenomenon in Hollywood history. In the 1930s, also a time of great trauma because of the Great Depression and the rise of fascism, American movie audiences flocked to champagne-fizzy Astaire/Rogers musicals and kaleidoscopic Busby Berkeley spectacles to escape from a harsh reality. Even in the ‘70s, the era of Vietnam and Watergate, films that held up a darkly-tinted mirror to society were personal works of auteur-driven cinema, like Taxi Driver and Dog Day Afternoon — very different from the classical blockbuster escapism of The Godfather, The Sting, Jaws, and Star Wars. So the idea that people would go to a Batman movie like The Dark Knight to find an allegorical expression of real life fears — even catharsis for them — is unique.
But then in 2008, Marvel struck back at the darkness. Oddly enough, they gave us a character very much like Batman — a billionaire at the head of a company that makes weapons who applies his company’s tech to gadgets that transform him into a superhero. Yep, Iron Man. But unlike Christian Bale’s Bruce Wayne, Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark wasn’t scarred by tragedy. In fact, you could argue that Stark only becomes a true superhero as Iron Man not when he builds the metallic suit but when he stops being an asshole and decides to use his fortune and genius for good. With Iron Man — and to some degree even more so with 2011’s Thor — Marvel offered up pop entertainment built around personalities rather than traumatic circumstances. Tony Stark and Thor struggle to overcome their natural arrogance and hubris. Then, and only then, do they truly become superheroes. In essence, Iron Man shifted comic book cinema's storytelling priority away from “He who fights monsters must take care that he doesn’t become a monster himself” back to Spider-Man’s old “With great power comes great responsibility.” That meant a lighter tone, more humor, and, not surprisingly, more color-saturated visuals.
NEXT: "Dark" and "brooding" may be cool, but lighthearted escapism — call it the Bubblegum Blockbuster — is enduringly profitable.
The “Dark Blockbuster” aesthetic was decidedly monochromatic. The Bourne Ultimatum and The Dark Knight aren’t just dark thematically, they're dark visually too. The color palette of those movies is very minimalistic — a lot of metallic blues and grays. By contrast, the post-Iron Man Marvel superhero films are bright and pop with bold, primary-colored panache. Outside of Marvel, the one-two punch of Star Trek and Avatar in 2009 also represented a stark shift in blockbuster storytelling priorities. Those were films about exploration and self-discovery more than they were about toil and strife. Sure, some terrible things happen in those movies. But they’re mostly about characters developing hidden potential while discovering new wonders. And those exploratory themes need a visual style that immediately communicates you’re in for not just a movie but an experience. So you get 3D, performance capture, heavily-CGI'd environments, and otherworldly lighting like the Thomas Kinkade glow that suffuses Avatar’s phosphorescent jungle moon Pandora.
It’s been argued that most stories in one way or another have roots charting back to The Iliad, and are about struggle and conflict, or The Odyssey, and are about discovery. Well, the latter is making a comeback with a vengeance. Movies like Iron Man, Star Trek, and Avatar are escapism in its purest form, but that doesn’t mean they're devoid of real-life issues and concerns that many, many people understand. By no means is escapism inherently mindless. It’s the mode of storytelling that’s given us a farmboy staring at his planet’s twin suns and wondering what he’s made of, or a Kansas farmgirl singing about what lies “Over the Rainbow,” and it's the basis for just about every Disney movie ever made. Those are themes everyone who’s ever grown up, or is growing up, can relate to. Even the escapism of the Astaire/Rogers musicals of the 1930s was deeply rooted in the hopes, dreams, and aspirations of the American viewing public that bought tickets.
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What we have now, to put into film industry terms, is escapism with four-quadrant appeal. Combine themes everyone can relate to with stories people are already familiar with and you’ve got box office gold. That’s why Alice in Wonderland, despite tepid reviews, still grossed a fortune. As did Tangled. And so will probably Oz the Great and Powerful. Not to mention that the decidedly kid-friendlyThe Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, which is very much the Odyssey to The Lord of the Rings’ Iliad, just crossed the $1 billion worldwide box office mark. As the President of Hollywood.com Box Office Paul Dergerabedian puts it, “Simply put, these films offer something for everyone: the action fans, the date crowd, fanboys and even families can enjoy these movies on many different levels and yet not be scared away by an R-rating or a cinematic vision that is purposefully dark and gritty.”
Call it the “bubblegum blockbuster,” a type of genre-spanning Hollywood movie that’s existed for a long, long time, from The Thief of Bagdad to The Sound of Music to The Avengers. Bubblegum blockbusters are not often considered to be all that cool, per se. The Amazing Spider-Man deliberately avoided anything as silly as Willem Dafoe’s Green Goblin Power Ranger mask from Sam Raimi’s 2002 Spider-Man movie. But for all the emphasis placed on The Amazing Spider-Man being a "more serious" take on the webslinging hero and all the fanboy discontent with how Raimi’s trilogy ended, which Spidey origin story ended up making more of the green stuff? Hands down Raimi’s bubblegum Spider-Man from 2002, which grossed $403 million to The Amazing Spider-Man’s $262 million.
"No question that 'darker and grittier' plays well with audiences too,” Dergerabedian adds. “One needs only look at the success of the Batman trilogy under the direction of Chris Nolan to realize this. However, unlike its darker-themed brethren, the bubblegum blockbuster has all the elements in place to make it an easier sell with general audiences and thus may provide an easier route to success." Though perhaps not conceived as a tentpole movie the way some of these other films were, Life of Pi also follows this model: strong archetypal themes, a coming-of-age hook, and eye-candy visuals. Hello, PG rating and $600 million worldwide box office. Not to mention that Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim, a shiny modern-day update on ‘50s monster movies, is already being positioned — like these other movies — as an adventure, a journey, and, above all, an experience, rather than a tightly-coiled drama.
Bubblegum might not be cool, but it sure is tasty...and profitable.
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[Photo Credit: Walt Disney Pictures(2)]
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S3E5: Well, this week Glee almost kept a consistent theme the whole way through the episode. It was an improvement on last week’s mess of storylines, but it still had a bit of a case of plotline A.D.D. We should have been focusing on the couples: Kurt and Blaine, Rachel and Finn, and Bieste and Cooter. The idea here was “The First Time,” yet we get a fleeting couple of moments wherein Artie finally feels like a man because of his directing gig and Mike Chang stands up to his father in defense of his desire to be a professional dancer. Sure, these could qualify as “first times” because it’s the first time Mike stands up to his dad and it’s the first time Artie feels self sufficient, but it really doesn’t do those worthwhile storylines justice. Instead they’re overshadowed by the biggest issue of the episode: sex.
“Tearing off all your clothes is a bit of a tall order.” –Blaine
“Because of the layers?” –Kurt
“Because of the layers.” –Blaine
With his newfound confidence, Artie gets gutsy enough to tell Blaine and Rachel that they aren’t great as the sexually charged Tony and Maria because they’ve never actually had sex. Now, I could see where parents could take issue with this moment. While it’s pretty typical that a high school kid would treat his virginal peers this way, but it sort of conveys the message that it’s weird that these two haven’t lost it yet. Granted, the rest of the episode makes sure to clear the whole notion up.
Rachel goes straight to Finn, makes plans to spend time alone together while his parents are out of town and plans to get right down to business. When the time comes, Finn gets condoms from Puck and makes Rachel dinner before they “snuggle” by the fire. She even says all the right things for once, until he presses her as to why she changed her mind and the real Rachel comes out: she’s doing it for the play. Finn is hurt and their magical evening is cut short before it even begins.
As for Kurt and Blaine, things are a little more complicated. First, Kurt asks why Blaine never tries anything on him and Blaine says they’re young, they don’t need to rush anything and that there’s a reason for masturbation. They’re laying it all out on the table this week, guys. After Blaine goes to Dalton to invite his old friends to the West Side Story production – and watch an awkwardly staged rendition of “Uptown Girl” complete with an awkwardly choreographed and suspiciously young, hot French teacher – he meets Sebastian, an outspoken young student who’s got his sights set on Blaine. Though Blaine makes sure to express that he’s taken, he does get the spontaneity bug from the Dalton bad boy. Side note: I loved the way the rehearsals from West Side Story are integrated here, especially with Santana’s fantastic rendition of “A Boy Like That.” When did she get to be so damn good?
Kurt, Blaine and Sebastian go to the local gay bar – a charming little establishment that looks more like a rotary club headquarters than a gay bar – and while Kurt tries not to be jealous of Sebastian dancing with his man, he runs into Karofsky. It’s a bit random, but their chance encounter is rather sweet, with Karofsky telling Kurt he’s slowly coming to accept who he is. Kurt takes this as a cue to jump up on Blaine and accelerate the process since he very clearly knows who he is. The problem is, Blaine is drunk and crassly tries to get Kurt to lose his v-card right there in his dad’s station wagon in the parking lot. This ends with Kurt in tears and Blaine stumbling home drunkenly by himself. It’s quite a bit to handle, but I’m actually glad they went this route with the plot and I’m glad Kurt stuck to his guns so resolutely.
“I don’t look the way pretty girls look.” –Bieste
Kurt, Rachel and Blaine aren’t the only ones still carrying their v-cards. Bieste never found that special someone. She does, however, have a crush on Cooter, the Ohio Statue University recruiter. The only thing is, he has a crush back, she’s just too blinded by her own lack of self-confidence to notice that he keeps asking her out.
This whole interaction – him asking her out and her turning him down by talking about chili giblets – is a bit overdrawn, but it’s adorable enough that it works. They couldn’t have picked a better guy to steal the football coach’s heart and by the time he shuts her up by calling her beautiful, handing her a bunch of red roses and telling her they’re going on a date on Friday night, you can’t help but grin from ear to ear. We’ve had enough of Bieste feeling left out and getting by with pity kisses from Mr. Schue. Now she’s got a man of her own, and I, for one, am a fan.
“We just knew it was right…no regrets.” –Tina
After her failed attempt at losing her virginity to Finn, Rachel enlists her show choir ladies – and it seems that though they’ve defected, Brittany and Santana are still willing to help a fellow lady in need – to ask for advice. Should she wait or should she do it? Quinn says wait, sex ruined her life. Santana agrees, but mostly because she says sex with Finn was akin to sex with a sack of potatoes. Lovely imagery. Finally, Tina gives her two cents: do it if it’s right. She lost her virginity to Mike Chang over the summer and it was perfect because they both knew it was right. That’s something most high school girls don’t actually experience, but I enjoyed the romanticized look at such a fragile time in a girl’s life. All girls should hope to have it happen like it does in the movies. The overlay of yet another song from West Side Story combines with a shot of Rachel looking at Finn across the hall at McKinley and she knows: it’s just right.
However, come opening night both Blaine and Rachel are still virgins and they fear they’ll screw up their chemistry onstage until Rachel finally gets it: it’s not just about sex, it’s about soul mates and they both know what it’s like to find their soul mates. I actually enjoy that they both see their first loves as their soul mates – it’s the type of innocent adolescent thinking that we look for in a series like this. Before they take the stage, Santana and the rest of the cast perform “America” in a flashy, rousing number that I honestly didn’t think this series still had in it. And I’ll say it again, Santana has really become rather amazing this season.
We flash forward to after the show, when Kurt and Blaine apologize for their behavior at Scandals and Kurt asks if they can skip the after party and just go to Blaine’s house. Rachel stops by Finn’s because he also skips the after party because as it turns out, the OSU recruiter tells him he’s not cut out for college football. His big dreams are crushed. Rachel makes him feel better by telling him he’s special and that he’ll find a new dream, and seals the deal with round two of their first time. As Blaine and Rachel’s final number as Tony and Maria, “One Hand, One Heart,” dances in between scenes of both couples snuggling, the images elude to the fact that the “first times” are occurring. It’s a sweet, completely tasteful and age appropriate representation of the act and the perfect way to make the first time both couples engage in sexual activity more about the romance and less about that charged three-letter word.
I can see why the PTC was up in arms at the thought of teen sex being the theme of the episode, but I doubt anyone can watch this episode and honestly find it in bad taste. Sex may have been the circumstance, but the real crux of the episode is love, plain and simple.
The Tourist is about as difficult to get through as spotting the vowels in the name of its director. Florian Henckel von Donnersmark was last seen receiving a Best Foreign Film Oscar in 2007 for The Lives of Others which was about a couple living in East Berlin who were being monitored by the police of the German Democratic Republic. Its positive reception made way for the assumption that Donnersmark would continue to populate the USA with films of seemingly otherworldly and underrepresented themes. But his current project is saddening in its superficiality and total implausibility.
The film’s only real upside is its stars: two of our most prized Americans. Johnny Depp plays Frank Tupelo a math teacher from Wisconsin who travels to Europe after his wife leaves him presumably because of his weakness and simplicity. While en route to Venice he meets Elise Clifton-Ward (Angelina Jolie) who situates herself in his company after she receives a letter from her criminal lover Alexander Pearce (who stole some billions from a very wealthy Russian and the British government) with instructions to find someone on a train who looks like him and make the police believe that he is the real Alexander Pearce to throw the authorities and the Russians off his track. Elise picks Frank and after they are photographed kissing each other on the balcony of Elise’s hotel everyone begins to believe Frank is the real Pearce and so begins the chase.
While Donnersmark could not have picked two better looking people to film roaming around Venice his lack of faith in the audience is obvious. Every aspect of the characters is hammed up again and again as if Donnersmark felt burdened with the task of making us see his vision. Doubtful that we’re capable of getting to where he wants us he has crafted a movie completely devoid of subtlety. Elise’s strength and superiority over Frank are portrayed by close-ups and repeated instances of men burping up their lungs upon seeing her (as if her beauty is in any way subjective?). And in case we forgot that Frank is the victim in this story -- even though he’s been tricked chased and shot at - Donnersmark still felt the need to pin him with a lame electronic cigarette to puff on. Frank and Elise somehow manage to lack mystery even though we get very few factual details about each of them.
Nothing extraordinary comes to us in the way of the film’s structural elements either. There is very little of the action that The Tourist’s marketing led us to believe and the dialog is often painful. The plot itself is almost shockingly unbelievable especially when we’re asked to believe that Elise falls in love with Frank after a combination of kissing him once and her disclosed habit of swooning over men she only spent an hour with (yes that was on her CV).
The Tourist is rather empty and cosmetic. It’s worth seeing if you’re a superfan of Jolie or Depp but don’t expect to walk out of the theater with anything more than the stub you came in with.
The story of the most dominant racehorse of all time does not easily fit into the standard inspirational sports flick mold. Such films typically require its protagonists to overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles be they competitive (Hoosiers) personal (The Natural) societal (Ali) or some combination of all three (Remember the Titans). But by all accounts the greatest challenges to Secretariat capturing of the 1973 Triple Crown were not rival horses — indeed Secretariat had no true rival — but a pair of slow starts and an abscess. And abscesses — apologies to dermatologists — simply aren’t all that effective as dramatic devices.
Lacking most of the vital ingredients of the traditional underdog movie formula Disney’s Secretariat is forced to synthesize them. Its screenplay written by Mike Rich and based rather loosely on the book Secretariat: The Making of a Champion by William Nack adopts a conventional save-the-farm framework: When her parents pass away within months of each other Denver housewife Penny Tweedy (Diane Lane) is advised to sell off her family’s Virginia-based Meadow Stables a beautiful but unprofitable horse-breeding enterprise in order to pay the onerous inheritance taxes levied by the state. But Penny her deceased father’s hackneyed horse-inspired counsel fresh in her mind (“You’ve got to run your own race ” etc. etc.) is loath to depart with such a cherished heirloom. So she concocts a scheme just idiotic enough to work betting the farm — literally — that her new horse Big Red in whom she has an almost Messianic faith will win the Kentucky Derby Preakness and Belmont races in succession.
Of course Big Red under the stage name Secretariat goes on to do just that but only after the film subjects us to nearly two hours of manufactured melodrama. Lane grasping all-too conspicuously for awards consideration treats every line as if it were the St. Crispin’s Day speech. Her character Penny exhibits a hair-trigger sensitivity to the sounds of skeptics and naysayers bursting forth with a polite rebuke and a stern sermon for anyone who dares doubt her crusade from the trash-talking owner of a rival horse to her annoyingly pragmatic husband (Dylan Walsh).
Lane isn’t alone in her grandiosity. The entire production reeks of it as director Randall Wallace lines the story with fetid chunks of overwrought Oscar bait like so many droppings in an untended stable even using Old Testament quotations and gospel music to endow Penny’s quest with biblical significance. John Malkovich is kind enough to inject some mirth into the heavy-handed proceedings hamming it up as Secretariat’s trainer Lucien Laurin a French-Canadian curmudgeon with an odd sartorial palette. It’s not enough however to alleviate the discomfort of witnessing the film's quasi-Sambo depiction of Secretariat’s famed groom Eddie Sweat (Nelsan Ellis) which reaches its cringeworthy zenith when Sweat runs out to the track on the eve of the Belmont Stakes and exclaims to no one in particular that “Big Red done eat his breakfast this mornin’!!!” Bagger Vance would be proud. Whether or not Ellis’ portrayal of Sweat’s cadence and mannerisms is accurate (and for all I know it may well be) the character is too thinly drawn to register as anything more than an amiable simple-minded servant.
Animal lovers will be happy to know that the horses in Secretariat come off looking far better than their human counterparts and not just because they’re alloted the best dialogue. In the training and racing sequences Wallace effectively conveys the strength and majesty of the fearsome animals drawing us into the action and creating a strong element of suspense even though the final result is a fait accompli. It's too bad the rest of the film never makes it out of the gate.
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.