Sunday, August 29, 2010

Film Review: Animal Kingdom

Animal Kingdom:  C

Another victim of the hype machine, David Michod's Animal Kingdom is just a boilerplate cinematic recyclable that does nothing to make itself stand out from the pack nor does it re-contextualize its' proceedings in such a way as to make it worthwhile.  This Australian crime drama details the Cody family, a criminal unit tied into the armed robbery bracket in Melbourne.  Four brothers (mentally unstable Pope, drugged-out Craig, forward-thinking Baz, and malleable Darren) make up the amoral gang, but this testosterone-packed clan is overseen by its matriarch, Smurf.  As played by Jackie Weaver, Smurf is a petite, bottle-blond with pancaked, garish make-up who as the film progresses increasingly demonstrates a maternal love for her children that hinges on the sociopathic.  She's also the most engaging character in the film because of her warped love for family and her artful manipulation of those around her.

At the beginning of the film, the brothers begin to see the writing on the wall for their way of life due to the local law enforcement's decision to fight such illicit proceedings with swift, brutal, and decisive violence.  Into this close-knit clique comes the teenage Joshua "J" Cody, the nephew of the four outlaws, who has grown up outside the murderous world of his uncles and grandma because his mother had a falling out with the family.  The film opens with J sitting impassively beside his mother, who moments later we learn is dead from an overdose.  With seemingly no one else to call, he telephones Grandma Smurf, who picks him up and takes him under her wing.  Soon, J is plugged into a network of criminality both familial and police.

A huge fault within Animal Kingdom exists with the character of J.  Viewed as a sponge of sorts who absorbs all of the schemes and internecine conflicts that coalesce between cops and criminals (often one in the same), the character as written and portrayed is a banal, introspective man-child who must navigate the murky waters of right and wrong without ever quite revealing his desire to stay above water.  Only J's voice-over reveals his character as someone who has a deeper understanding of his surroundings and its inhabitants than he demonstrates.  The problem with this particular approach is Michod has written J as a conduit for the audience yet he lacks any real magnetism to draw us into into this particular animal kingdom.  J's common expression is blankness, a tabula rasa of sorts, which makes sense and makes J the character you least want to spend screen time on.

As the noose methodically tightens around the Cody family, Animal Kingdom does an extremely slow burn.  Very few scenes exhibit any sense of tension, which saps all potential energy from the film until it fizzles out.  A couple blasts of violence (the finest being a shockingly early one involving the bloody death of a someone believed to be a major character) attempt to jump start the film, but most of the movie remains lifeless.  Michod shows real restraint at avoiding gratuitously sordid situations, but I'll avoid the term "admirable" because I would have liked a little bit more shock and awe to add some pop to the film's proceedings.  The whole film feels rudimentary from its characters, a series of stock types, to the mechanics of the plot to its' central thematic concept spelled out in the film's title.  I don't know if critics are fawning over this film because they're enchanted by the Australian accents, but this film is simply another carcass littering the highway of cinematic crime dramas.  Go rent The Proposition for another Australian film detailing an outlaw family and the weight of morality, or lack thereof, that burdens the choices individuals make in order to stay alive.    


Sunday, August 22, 2010

Video Reviews: Descent versus Hostel 2

Descent:   C
Hostel 2:  D
Note:  The picture above is not the exact photo shown on the DVD cover.

The DVD cover shot intrigued me. A picture of a (seemingly) naked Rosario Dawson, her dark features engulfed by the darkness of her hair, flipped upside down; the photo merging with the title, like she was slowly submerging herself into the cover art; and, finally, the plug from The New York Times comparing Dawson's performance to those of Robert DeNiro and Hillary Swank in Taxi Driver and Boys Don't Cry, respectively. The back of the DVD featured all sorts of hyperbole like "Shocking" (Entertainment Weekly) and "A Masterpiece of Shock Cinema" ( If only Descent lived up to the sordid expectations I projected upon it. Unfortunately, the film itself is a brutally dull psychological slog that only achieves a visceral reaction during its’ two sequences of violence; until then, it's a straightforward, yet pretentiously abstract, excursion into the psyche of a rape victim that never garners the fist-clenching fury of the two films previously mentioned.

Dawson stars as Maya, a nineteen year old college student at what appears to be a predominantly lily-white college ( I think they mentioned Claremont). The film starts slowly enough during the winter time, teasing out Dawson's character more through her body language and facial expressions than dialogue. The director and co-writer, Talia Lugacy, realizes what a fantastic actress she has to work with, and she wisely does more with less in terms of establishing the character's reservedness, but also the power of her femininity. When the Maya meets Jared at a house party, his initial conversation with her hits all the right notes in that it feels forced, authentic, and superficial all at the same time, but it makes for a banal film-making experience. Maya, however, isn't a simple one-note character. One of the nice things about her construction and Dawson's portrayal is that Maya projects a vivid sexuality that makes it easy to see why someone like Jared would find her so attractive, yet she also presents the viewer a vision of an intelligent, prudent woman aware of herself and others. When Jared ends up raping her, a third of the way into the film, the scene is difficult because Lugacy refuses to cut away for most of its' running time; instead, she keeps the camera in a two-shot close-up, a long take of Jared and Maya making out for the first time that feels ominous, but sensual, until the sexual excitement is replaced by blunt power, as Jared uses his strength to force himself on Maya despite her attempts both verbal and physical to stop him. Jared (played with meatheaded gusto by Chad Faust) amplifies the abuse when he lets loose a series of racial/ethnic/sexist epithets, which jacks up the didacticism. Now the film has bluntly called attention to the power dynamics that exist in a white, male dominated world that for centuries has used force to overpower women and, more specifically, the feminine ethnic "other".

This scene, along with the final scene, is the rubber-necking experience I had been expecting, where you want to look away, but find yourself drawn into the degradation. Unfortunately, the middle section, entitled "Spring" is a tedious muddle. An overt, heavy-handed symbolic reference to rebirth, this section is visually presented in Dawson's physical appearance, which now consists of a short bob (more deliberately masculine, but still allowing the feminine sexuality) and her one facial expression (glum, bordering on catatonic). Maya invests herself in her work at a retail store, while falling into an after-hours routine of dance clubs, drugs, sexual exploration, and a strange friendship with Adrian, a muscular, tattooed DJ. Lugacy even provides Dawson with her own "You talkin' to me?" scene when Maya stares at herself in a mirror while uttering the confessional "Yeah, you are" repeatedly. Like Travis Bickle, Maya really is the only one there, a figure who's withdrawn herself into herself and who seeks to disappear in a world of sex and drug use in order to mask her own emotional stuntedness. And like Bickle, she will not take it anymore and she seeks release to wash the personal scum in her life off the campus green.

Part of the problem with this middle third is the presentation. Lugacy favors using long tracking shots, periods of no dialogue, blackouts, voiceover, and garish red lighting to suggest the hellish underworld that Maya descends into in order to rediscover or reinvent or simply numb herself. Much of it feels hazily realized, intentionally so in order to depict Maya's semi-conscious state of mind. At times, these techniques work to create a feeling of dread and fear. A static shot of Maya dressing/undressing a mannequin at her job does a better job than any in the film at subtly suggesting how woman are treated as window dressing, something to be made-up and redone and presented in such a fashion as to be visually, rather than intellectually, appealing. However, much of Maya's journey is simply a bore and the psychological underpinning never feels fully explored. The film feels made by an academic rather than a dramatist. Her relationship with Adrian never feels fleshed out and her reclamation of sexual power (evident in the section's final scene, where Maya makes out with a woman while getting eaten out by a man) seems strained, rather than earned because the filmmaker hasn't provided strong enough evidence to make this seem plausible.

The final section ("Fall" - again, heavy-handed title card) seems shorter and turns Maya into an avenging angel.  I don't want to spoil too much, but the final scene, shot with implication rather than explicitness, is primal in its power.  It also subverts the initial rape scene and demonstrates an alternative reality where the (ethnic/racial/sexual/linguistic) abuse that has historically been aimed towards women and minorities is righted old testament style.  Much like the climax of Taxi Driver, this scene confronts viewers. It forces us to take into account our own personal and moral beliefs, and makes us consider whether our own primal desires trump our highfalutin "black and white" belief system when the theoretical becomes reality.

It will be interesting to see more from Lugacy. Descent is her first full-length feature, and she has a command of visual/aural relationships used to provoke an atmosphere of a world coming unhinged. I hope her storytelling steps up to become leaner and meaner, more interested in dramatically juicing her stories so they don’t become so narcoleptic. Because when all is said and done, Descent is ultimately a grindhouse revenge thriller disguised as feminist post-traumatic rape treatise.

With that being said, the director of Hostel 2, Eli Roth, could learn a thing or two from Talia Lugacy. I never meant for the two to be viewed as companion films, but it just so happened I rented them on the same night and watched them back to back. As a matter of fact, I think Hostel 2 would have been much improved if Lugacy had left her textbooks at home and directed this trash.

Hostel 2 is a replica of the first film, where a bunch of backpacking college kids end up in Slovakia for good times only to end up kidnapped and sold to the highest bidder invested in a “murder for sale” business known as Elite Hunting. The only difference this time around is the sequel replaces the callous boys of the original with a trio of young women. This is probably Roth’s idea of female empowerment. Anyways, if you have seen the original, you’ve seen the sequel by default. If you enjoy seeing a naked woman hung upside down while another woman slices her open to bathe in the girl’s blood while seemingly masturbate, this film is for you.

What really struck me is the idea of Lugacy making this kind of trash. Roth has no intention nor desire to generate the threat of violence or humiliation or intimidation through a strategic manipulation of image and sound; he wants to get to the good stuff and wallow there. The problem with this approach is no real menace, no real fear is generated as the story unfolds-instead, the viewer is subjected to recurrent scenes of disembowelment, cannibalism, and the climactic money shot, a castration shown in full where a cock gets devoured by Dobermans jonesing for some real meat. Lugacy could have shot the lights out of this film and provoked some real tension, some real atmospheric dread, and most importantly, some genuine scares. She has a great understanding that less actually can be more, and her instincts would have left Hostel 2 a more horrific film rather than the tired piece of shit it becomes.

I didn’t hate Hostel 2. It’s not repulsive enough to hate. It’s just not scary. The original Hostel, despite any objections to content, contained some real chills. Now that the cat’s out of the bag concerning the protagonists’ fates, Roth would have been wise to go in the other direction. Less focus on gore (much of which is more comedic than frightening—not deliberately, I believe), more on sustaining a mood. Because it’s not in the knowing, but in the telling, and in Hostel 2, Roth simply tells us the story in the same exact way. If I’d known this to be the case, I would have rented Hostel again.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Film Review: The Kids are All Right

The Kids are All Right:  B+

Watching the new film by Lisa Cholodenko, I felt a lot of initial admiration for the execution of such a film.  It's rare these days to find a film that attempts to juggle adolescent insecurities, middle age marital woes, family values, and more, while subverting many of these everyday issues by filtering the film's lens through that of Jules (Julianne Moore) and Nic (Annette Benning), an upper-class lesbian couple raising two teenage children in the vastness of Los Angeles.  And while I sat ensconced thoroughly enjoying this dramatic comedy, I marveled at its ability to juxtapose comedy and drama often within the same scene in a fashion that made the proceedings, well . . . really, really likable.  Every major character in this film comes off this way while on screen, and I salute all of the actors (Moore, Benning, Mark Ruffalo as the kids' sperm donor, Mia Wasikowska and Josh Hutcherson as the kids) for investing their characters with a lot of humanity that stems from the littlest of gestures just as much as it does the pointed dialogue that often finds its mark ("I need your advice about as much as I need a dick in my ass!").

And yet . .  and yet . . . and yet, one narrative decision bothers me in a fairly egregious fashion that doesn't stop me from recommending you go see the film (for one thing, it's a pleasure to see a film centered around two flawed, adult, educated women and both major performances deserve recognition), but I am disappointed and a bit concerned by this major element that I believe weakens the film's overall impact.  This flagrant narrative miscalculation doesn't derail the film in its entirety, but it raises certain issues in a way I feel seem to be a gross error in content and, more importantly, in a macroscopic perspective of societal norms.  Since my concerns revolve around this major plot point, I cannot write about it without spoiling a part of the film (although previews hint at it).  Therefore, you should stop reading now and jump to the section where it states:  End Spoilers!


Jules begins to have an affair with Paul, her children's sperm donor.  What begins with a kiss turns into a sexual liaison between two consenting adults that threatens to destroy the life Jules and Nic have made for themselves and their children.  An affair would be a point of conflict between various characters regardless of the characters' sexual orientation, but the affair proves troubling in this film because beneath the surface complexities of cheating on your significant other lies the potentially dangerous assumption that homosexuality is a choice.  I don't believe the director/co-writer, Lisa Cholodenko (a lesbian), believes this to be true; I don't dispute the fact that Jules could potentially be bisexual (though we are not given any clues to suggest this); and I don't equate sex with sexual orientation-one can be separated from the other I believe.  However, Jules' decision provides people who oppose homosexuality/homosexual marriage or unions with an example of how homosexuality is a choice rather than something predetermined via genetic/environmental/societal factors.  After talking with my brother, my mother, my sister, and her wife, we were all a little perplexed and some of us were flat-out bothered not by the infidelity (this has organic roots in the presentation of Jules and Nic's struggling relationship), but in Cholodenko's choice of gender.  Why did Jules, a lesbian who for all we know has been faithful to Nic for 18 plus years, need to fall off the homosexual wagon by sleeping with a man (her children's sperm donor no less, a major plot contrivance)?  Why couldn't she have had an affair with another woman?  It would have been more messy in an emotionally authentic way to present Jules and Nic's strained relationship via a third woman rather than Paul's character since the emotional dynamics would be reflected through the prism of an established sexual point of view.  Granted, the film is about relationships (homosexual and heterosexual), but the whole affair rings false at best and dangerous at worst, something to be used as propaganda by those who believe you can be converted back to heterosexuality.  Not exactly the lesson I think the film was trying to make, but one I believe it (unintentionally) makes regardless.

Another problem stemming from the affair is the impact it will have on the children.  The title of the film is meant with a smidgen of irony; we’re introduced to Laser as he and his friend tip over trash barrels and snort drugs.  Yet the film uses the affair to deal more with the fallout between Jules and Nic rather than their kids, who take more backseat roles as the story progresses.  This seismic shift in Joni and Laser's world is not ignored completely, but it's treated in such a shallow, lazy way.  Joni gets drunk at a party.  Joni fights with Nic.  Joni tells off Paul.  Laser ignores Paul when he comes to the house.  Nothing in the film really attempts to address in a sincere, meaningful way the fact these teenagers are watching their mothers' relationship implode, which is a shame because the film started off with a focus on the children.  After all, Laser and Joni were the ones who searched out Paul and they started to form a relationship with him, however tentative or naive.  After they first met Paul, their initial reactions to him seemed so sincere.  Joni was taken with Paul's groovy lifestyle choices (he owns/operates a restaurant utilizing local ingredients and he drives a motorcycle) which seemed so less rigid and formulaic a path than the one she had embarked upon, while Laser's critical comments of Paul reflected his level of genuine hurt disguised as nonchalance after Paul had innocently belittled organized sports, something at which Laser excelled.  By the end of the film, I felt like the children had been marginalized from the affair's fallout and the audience gets treated to a facile ending that neglects to truly deal with the kids and whether they are all right.


Other, little things bothered me.  Jules hires a middle-aged Latino man to help with the landscaping of Paul's backyard, which is a truthful portrayal of the hired help most readily available in LA.  But despite the class condescension towards this character, believable since Jules lives an upper-class lifestyle, her remarks and the director's stabs at humor come off as racist and unnecessary.  All scenes involving this man should have been edited out since they added zero to the film and cast another ugly glow on it.  All of these mistakes weaken what is essentially a strong relationship drama.

And yet  . . .  I do no completely dismiss The Kids Are All Right; in fact, I highly recommend people go see it and judge for themselves.  Something the film gets right, more than it gets wrong:  the little moments in a relationship that establish a sense of lives lived together where your significant other knows just the right thing to say or do and just the wrong thing.  It's these little slights Jules and Nic playfully and antagonistically give off that provide for a lot of the film's prickly humor and dramatic depth whether it be Jules' needling of Nic's need for more wine or Nic's verbal barbs concerning Jules' lack of professional commitment (Jules is trying to get a landscape design business off the ground, while Nic obviously is the monetary provider as a doctor).  Their relationship feels real and both actresses perform it gracefully.  Many of the difficulties they face as a couple transcend labels and can be universally applied to anyone in a long-term relationship.  Does this person still love me?  Does this person even find me attractive any more?  Have I sacrificed more than I've gained from this relationship?  If so, am I OK with the decisions I've made?  

At its heart, The Kids are All Right forges ahead to erase a line between what is a traditional family and what is an alternative family.  I admire its willingness to tackle this issue even if I strongly believe it places roadblocks in its way that hinder and weaken the argument that there's really no line of demarcation:  they are both one and the same.  Hopefully, though, this film will only be the start of many films that present such families on screen, warts and all, in a way neither somberly dramatic nor infused with sterile eccentricity, but, in a word, is merely real.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Film Review: Restrepo

Restrepo: B+

Regardless of your stance concerning the war in Afghanistan, which has entered its 9th year, you should go see Restrepo to gain a more visceral understanding of life during wartime for the men and women (both Afghan natives and American military) struggling to survive. The companion piece to Sebastian Junger's recent book entitled War, the film alternates between the footage Junger captured when he was embedded with the US Army's 173rd Airborne Brigade in the Korengal Valley in Afghanistan and interviews with the soldiers who came home after their 15 month deployment. This is tough, tough stuff not so much in the sense that the documentary wallows in violence (the battle scenes are all first person point of view and mostly bloodless, but they put to shame the disorientation shown during the Battle of Normandy that opens Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan), but in the sense that these young men literally put their lives on the line every second of every day to battle a faceless foe. This is a film dripping with tension in scenes; when gunshots burst during this film, these characters might not get up from their wounds. And while this isn't anything groundbreaking, it contextually provides "us" (citizens here in the states) a point blank lens with which to see "them" (US military and Afghans) during the course of this awful war.

Make no mistake, the film refuses to produce an ideology towards the war, but not towards war itself. Politics are never directly mentioned and the president at the time, Bush, does not exist at all in the film except as a spectral presence by which all we witness directly and indirectly transpires. None of the soldiers articulate the feelings of being caught in a quagmire that will be determined by more than simply boots on the ground and superior firepower.

However, the images and conversations captured and reassembled in Restrepo (named after one of the first soldiers from the platoon to die) provide viewers an intimate perspective on how war creates a culture among a group of young men that has far more to do with brotherhood and life's fleetingness than any kind of masculine, macho stereotype. These men are not unemotive killing machines. These are men who bond as a unit, who fight as a unit, who joke as a unit, and who console as a unit. They fight for each other, not for a mission statement. If we cannot attempt to understand what they do not only for our country, but for themselves, we are acting as cowards and charlatans; it's easy for those of us who have never experienced war to criticize our soldiers since we view them from afar. Restrepo attempts to not let us make that mistake. If ever you feel like making an easy moral judgement on the men and women in the armed services, watch the scene in this film where a soldier breaks down in mid battle after a close colleague of his is shot dead.

Restrepo makes it clear: these men are charged with a Sisyphean task of not only trying to defeat the Taliban militarily, but they must simultaneously work to win the humanitarian battle of the Afghan "hearts and minds". This is much easier said than done when the enemy is everyone and no one, everywhere and nowhere. The Taliban are never seen during any of the firefights, yet they killed so many soldiers that the Korengal Valley was at one point considered the most violent part of Afghanistan. Villagers caught on film may or may not be Taliban, but you get the suspicion some of them cooperate with the Taliban.

Because of this fog of war, collateral damage is awful, unfortunate, and expected when information being provided to help the US forces is inaccurate. Afghan hearts and minds harden when their homes are bombed and their children killed, a chilling scene caught on film here that produces extreme sorrow for both sides. Junger and co-director Tim Hetherington aim their camera at the Afghan villagers and their hardened eyes speak of the deep distrust many of them have towards the US; many of them will never come to see the US side and you almost feel as if you are witnessing the next generation of insurgents being born before your eyes. This collateral damage is great propaganda for the Taliban to use to persuade villagers to join their fight against the infidels. It is no wonder when you watch the soldiers go about their day to day activities you really begin to understand the enormity of their task as well as the extreme hardships Afghan men and women have dealt with for generations.

Various other scenes in the film stand out.  Some Catch-22 style humor exacerbates the grimness of the story such as when an Afghan man tries to barter with the military for compensation due to his cow being killed.  The man wants money.  The soldiers are authorized only to provide the weight of the cow in beans and rice.  The man walks off, but you realize the cow is a source of income for the man.  Should he have been compensated monetarily, where the money might be funneled to the Taliban, or with the food offered?  Another scene that evokes a momentary release and escape from the deathly grind displays soldiers dancing joyously and jokingly to some terrible techno song within the confines of a tiny room.  Other times, the expression "lost in translation" seems appropriate not just linguistically, but culturally.  The weekly meetings Captain Dan Kearney holds with the village elders that exist to influence the most respected and relevant members of the Afghan communities become exasperated bits of blackly comic ineptitude where neither side seems to make progress.  These meetings, even more than the physical violence, project an air of dread and disillusionment.  If we cannot even seem to win over one group in one region, how can we successfully persuade most of the populace to side with us rather than the Taliban?  Indeed, after eight years, the Taliban has only gained in strength despite our military and humanitarian efforts, while Al-Qaeda (the US's initial target in Afghanistan) is not even mentioned.

But the film doesn't linger on these scenes since it isn't strictly about policy, but people. These scenes do illustrate just how difficult soldiers have it in a world totally foreign to them. In the end, Restrepo is a relevant film because it allows us into a world alien to most of us back stateside, who know more about Lindsay Lohan's quarter life crisis than we do about the men and women fighting half a world away in a war seemingly without end.  Restrepo might not ask much more than for viewers to look and listen to these men in uniform, but by doing so, the film demands those viewers to look beyond their often myopic, even fanatical viewpoints to really empathize with those soldiers struggling to survive one day at a time.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Film Review: Get Low

Note: In the original incantation of this review, I accidentally wrote how Robert Duvall had starred in Righteous Kill and Meet the Fockers when I had meant to write Robert DeNiro. My apologies; DeNiro, not Duvall, starred in those pieces of cinematic shit.

Get Low: D+

Get Low is one of those films that just sits there like a dead creature trapped and preserved in amber: momentarily beautiful and briefly compelling, but it remains very much a lifeless object. The film never seems to breath; it is merely an extension of handsomely composed scenes that leave you pondering why the hell this film had to get made at all. If anything, Get Low appears to be a lean 20 minute film that has ballooned into the bloated body of a 90 minute movie.

Based somewhat on a true story, the movie takes place in the 1930s and details the life of a man, Felix Bush (Robert Duvall), who wishes to "get low" and determines he wants a funeral party before he dies. Felix decides to invite everyone from the neighboring counties so they can come and share their stories about him, most of which would seem to be highly fictionalized accounts centered around the fact that Felix self-exiled himself 40 years before and created a hermetic life in the backwoods. Bill Murray and Lucas Black play the funeral director and his apprentice who acquiesce to Bush's funeral wishes, and Sissy Spacek plays a widow who has known Felix for years.

I'm not sure who to blame for this picture. Robert Duvall, Sissy Spacek, Bill Murray, Lucas Black, and Bill Cobb all deliver strong performances, but every character is thinly defined and evaporates once the film concludes. Each actor has his/her moments, but that's the problem; each piece doesn't lead to any significantly larger whole. For example, Duvall's character was good friends with Bill Cobb's preacher at one time. From a time period standpoint, this friendship that transcends racial barriers must have been an arduous struggle due to all the vitriol and hatred aimed towards African Americans especially in what appears to be the South. But we're never given anything to understand this element of the film, which shortchanges the entire relationship. So I blame director Aaron Schneider and the film's writers. This film has no momentum, which is a significant and sizable problem when you base an entire film around what amounts to one man's spiritual deliverance. When you finally learn about the secret the Bush has kept all these years, the reason he's secluded himself and developed the reputation that precedes him, the air completely leaks out and the film achieves complete ascepticism. It wasn't even much of a surprise, which I wouldn't have minded so much if the events prior to this climax developed characters, developed style, developed energy, humor, pathos, anything, you name it. But they don't. The whole film treats the secrecy of Bush's past like it's sacrosanct, when really it's simply mundane.

Basically, Get Low is a bore through and through. What a waste of talent. It's not like Bill Murray and Robert Duvall whore themselves out like Robert DeNiro and appear in a bunch of shit like Righteous Kill or Meet the Fockers. They're a bit more choice with their film selections. Unfortunately, this time they chose unwisely.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Film Review: Salt

Salt: C+

Far be it from me to disagree with two thoughtful, articulate critics (Roger Ebert and Matthew Zoller Seitz) who obviously took a strong liking to the new film, Salt, but their praise of the film seems wildly overrated. Reading their reviews got my hopes up. And then my hopes were slowly stripped from me.

Don't get me wrong; Salt is entertaining and it does a good job of adequately keeping you guessing how events will play out, though you never really doubt Angelina Jolie's character, Evelyn Salt, will be on the side of righteousness at the end. After all, this is the summertime and the film stars one of the most popular actresses in Hollywood in a PG-13 rated spy thriller. Do you really believe the studio would pay Angelina upwards of 20 million dollars to be a sexy Russian spy who actually murders the President of the United States by the conclusion? If you do, I have some BP stock to sell you.

Speaking of Jolie, she doesn't so much do great work as get in a great work out: leaping from moving vehicle to moving vehicle, bursting out of an in-flight helicopter before plummeting into chilly waters below, bouncing off walls while delivering lethal kicks and punches to her assailants, free climbing her apartment building while dodging her adversaries, jumping from metal beam to metal beam while descending an elevator shaft. This woman can do it all. The film's director, Phllip Noyce, does his best to ground the film although it eventually gets carried away on the wings of absurdity. By the end, Evelyn Salt has single handily infiltrated the most secure, remote location within the WHITE HOUSE! while killing/disarming too many men to count. Take 1/3 amnesiac killing machine Jason Bourne, mix in 1/3 patriotic-to-the-core Rambo (the cartoonish one of numbers 2 and 3), and a final splash of sexy, yet lethal, Mrs. Smith, and you have Evelyn Salt.

Both Ebert and Zoller Seitz praised Noyce's direction; Zoller Seitz went so far to exclaim the film the "best pure action film to come out of Hollywood in a long time." I saw nothing of the sort. Noyce does a competent job; the action moves along crisply and his sense of spatial relations is generally true. The film isn't hacked to pieces by Stuart Bard so a sense of coherence is retained within all the pandemonium that breaks out even if the film's set pieces become increasingly more ludicrous. But I never got that giddy, elated, tingling-from-head-to-toe action movie high Zoller Seitz calls "maximum ludicrosity." The action is fun to watch (especially the initial foot/car chase that sets Salt running), but I'd be hard pressed to fire Salt up on DVD to study its action scenes the way I would the bank robbery in Michael Mann's Heat or the restaurant shootout in John Woo's Hard Boiled or the climactic shoot-out in the Wachowski brothers' The Matrix ("We need guns. More guns") or the House of Blue Leaves battle in Tarantino's Kill BIll Volume 1 or . . . I could go on and on. Those films had me rocking back and forth with my eyes popping out of my head like a cartoon silently saying, "Holy shit is this fucking awesome!" Granted, those aren't "pure" action films, but neither is Salt; it is a hybrid action-spy thriller, and none of the action approaches such levels of incredulity which balloon into pure cinematic bliss. I guess we've really lowered the bar when competence in our directors (often insultingly labeled as "workman like") is viewed as the exception rather than the rule.

The minor twist is the fact the film stars Angelina Jolie. Originally written for a man (Tom Cruise), the film makes the small statement that gender roles within Hollywood action porn can be flip-flopped and not suffer cinematically nor at the box office (although I would be hard pressed to think of another female who could play the role with such carnality, athleticism, and perverse pleasure at all the violence). Female action stars are not exactly new, but for these type of big-budget Hollywood multi-million dollar pictures they are. Sure, we've had Charlies' Angels, but those characters were presented to be tongue-in-cheek. Sarah Connor's ripped biceps served notice in Terminator 2, but she still was only a key supporting character. Ellen Ripley in Aliens comes closest, but Weaver and Cameron made her into an actual character, not a character like Salt who's stripped of fat, sinewed down to lean and economical emotional muscle that produces a simple context ("My husband, I've got to help my husband.") with which keeps the action hurtling along on a crash course with the next extravgant action sequence.

Should we herald this as promising? That the ladies now get to join this particular men's team? Movies like Salt seem more to follow the maxim "If you can't beat them, join them." But was this a team ever worth joining? It's extremely rare these days to wow audiences any more with pure, unfiltered kinetic action regardless of the main character's gender; you need the right alchemy of gripping plot, intriguing characters, and a sense of auteurship that exposes the audience to something that feels fresh even if it's being subtly recycled. I feel fine with women partaking in these roles, but I still would prefer to see real flesh and blood heroines like Ree from Winter's Bone. Meanwhile, we'll have to make due with Salt in terms of action-oriented cinema until the next true action star (male or female) comes along.