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.
If you've seen Heathers Clueless or Jawbreaker then you've seen Mean Girls. Cady Heron (Lindsay Lohan) is the new girl having moved from Africa where she was raised (one of many comic head-scratchers that goes nowhere) and now trying to win
friends in a hostile new high school environment. On the verge of becoming--gasp!--friends with two geeks one gay and one Goth she is invited to join "The Plastics" (Rachel McAdams Lacey Chabert and Amanda Seyfried) the coolest girls on campus. When she develops an unfortunate crush on the head Plastics' ex-boyfriend (Jonathan Bennett) the girls declare war on each other and all hell breaks loose. Saturday Night Live regulars Tina Fey Amy Poehler Tim Meadows and Ana Gasteyer fill in the adult roles and Fey wrote the script as well.
Lohan has star power in spades and enough going on behind the eyes to at least suggest the inner life and back story absent from the script. She conveys Cady's
sudden character changes with aplomb and her comic timing is excellent. McAdams makes the biggest impression with the showiest "Plastics" role and is certainly someone to watch for in the future. Her Regina George is one of the funniest nastiest high school girls since Election's Tracy Flick. Bennett is likeable in a one-note jock role and Daniel Franzese and Lizzy Caplan are similarly stereotyped as the Gay
and the Goth respectively. Of the adults Poehler
who is always funny stands out as Regina's alcoholic mini-skirted mother. Fey wisely and selflessly wrote herself a straight-man role as the calculus teacher. And Meadows as the principal quite simply has never
been funnier. Whether he has ever been funny before is another question.
To take on a project already burdened with two strikes--Teen Comedy and SNL Movie--is either a bold move or career suicide but director Mark S. Waters doesn't need to worry. He does a nice job of staying out of the way and tells the story simply without relying too heavily on fruit-flavored set design drowning every scene in music or ruining the witty laughs with too much slapstick. And it is a very witty script sharply observed and rich in detail. (The Halloween party scene showing every single girl wearing lingerie and a different set of animal ears stands out.) Fey adapted sociologist Rosalind Wiseman's nonfiction
best-seller Queen Bees & Wannabees and the interaction between the various species of teen is note perfect. That said Fey seems to have been given a lot of leeway due to her stature on SNL and it shows. One example: everyone has trouble pronouncing
Cady's name which wasn't funny the first time and still isn't 500 times later. The movie also attempts to impart a message of female solidarity but by building the characters on the same cookie-cutter stereotypes it denounces its girl power is undermined. Plus the movie seems cut to within an inch of its life. If it is possible for a comedy to move too quickly Mean Girls does as Waters furiously connects the dots without consideration for the characters or the audience. It's like watching schizophrenics at a track meet--but maybe that's the point.
Frida Kahlo (Salma Hayek) is a mischievous and sexually liberated student and aspiring painter in Mexico City when she first spies the much older prominent muralist Diego Rivera (Alfred Molina) cavorting with one of his models. Frida lives with her loving parents--Mexican mother German-Jewish father--and is intimately involved with her boyfriend. Tragedy strikes when Frida is gravely injured in a trolley crash and she never fully recovers. When her boyfriend takes off for Europe Kahlo focuses more on her paintings and boldly approaches Rivera for an honest appraisal of her work. Rivera well known for his marital infidelity and womanizing immediately recognizes Kahlo's talent and takes her under his wing as a protégée rather than a lover. An ardent Communist with a zest for socializing he introduces her to his artsy and progressive circles where Kahlo easily fits in. The pair soon become lovers and believing they have a special understanding of each other decide to marry. The union is immediately threatened when Kahlo learns that the hotheaded Lupe (Valeria Golino) one of Rivera's ex-wives occupies the apartment above theirs. After Rivera is awarded several commissions in the U.S. he and Kahlo begin their tour in New York and enjoy life as minor celebrities. Kahlo exercises her promiscuity by carrying on with one of Rivera's lovers and Rivera exercises his political intransigence with a fateful confrontation with Nelson Rockefeller (Edward Norton) who hired the artist to paint a mural in the Rockefeller Center lobby. The dust-up causes the loss of another commission and the couple returns to Mexico where they become hosts to fugitive Communist Leon Trotsky (Geoffrey Rush) and his wife. Kahlo has an affair with the legendary figure but when it threatens his marriage they move away and Trotsky is assassinated soon after. Rivera and Kahlo divorce but remarry when Rivera returns to his partner who is now impoverished and desperately ill.
The acting here is outstanding. Salma Hayek as the wild and quietly creative Kahlo is in practically every frame and dazzles in a variety of moods and situations. Alfred Molina in the more subtle role of Rivera is every bit as marvelous managing to charm and delight as a character who is essentially dissolute yet warm and lovable. Valeria Golino is another standout in the lesser role of the fiery Lupe. Geoffrey Rush makes a credible Trotsky and Ashley Judd pleases as a jovial Mexican party girl with a taste for mischief. Antonio Banderas does a neat cameo as a heated Communist and Edward Norton plays a very decent Rockefeller not shy about saying who pays the bills. Brits Roger Rees convincing as Kahlo's loving father and Saffron Burrows as Kahlo's loving diversion add heft to their supporting roles.
Julie Taymor best known for some very showy previous works like Broadway's The Lion King her feature debut Titus and a number of critically acclaimed operas proves again with Frida that she's an incomparable visual stylist. Taymor engages the eyes with a dazzling palette of Mexican colors and iconography and episodes of magical realism and mixed media invention that convey the intoxicating world of her subjects and the dramatic signature events of their lives. But Taymor (who also delivers a seductive majestic soundtrack) never loses sight of the fact that it is her beguiling characters who matter most.
Ryan (Freddie Prinze Jr.) and Jennifer (Claire Forlani) first met on a plane when they were 12. He’s terrified of planes she promptly tells him about her first period so it’s granted that they don’t exactly click. Fast-forward to high school where they bump into each other again. Now he’s the school mascot she’s the homecoming queen. No sparks. Fast forward to college where he’s the geeky engineering major (yes you read correctly) and she’s the free-spirited rocker-dating Latin student. Finally here they become friends help each other with their love issues and despite their opposing viewpoints … well take a guess.
Prinze the BMOC in "She’s All That " is supposed to be an anal-retentive doofus. And while the pageboy cut (split down the middle) and glasses do little to mask his good looks he plays against type surprisingly well doing his best to rise above the cliché-filled script. Forlani who was calm and luminous in the sluggish "Meet Joe Black " still has "proper British upbringing" written all over her so she’s not really believable as an outrageous one-night-stander (she also looks too old for Prinze). Heather Donahue (showing a promising comedy career post-"Blair Witch") and Amanda Detmer make a great supporting cast but the show is stolen by an underused Jason Biggs. As Ryan’s woman-chasing roommate Biggs also gets the single funniest scene in the film which you’ll miss if you walk about before the credits roll.
"She’s All That" director Robert Iscove is back and using the same traits again. First we have the you-are-there flashback narration ("So I was watching him play with his band " a character might reflect in her dorm room and suddenly she’s sitting at the concert still in her pajamas). Then there’s the choreographed dance number. Disguised as a scene to show Ryan trying to loosen up at a "foam club" (like a car wash soapy water douses the dancers) it’s really an excuse to show off Iscove’s choreography background by having all patrons wiggle simultaneously to Apollo Four Forty’s "Stop the Rock." It’s cute and all but the biggest faux pas Iscove makes is having Ryan and Jennifer take a "walk" from Berkeley … and miraculously wind up at the Golden Gate bridge.