Put SALT In Your Eyes.

7 08 2010

As SALT ended, I felt something I don’t think I ever had before in a movie theater. The credits rolled. “That was it?” I asked out loud – not upset, or let down – I just thought the film was only about halfway through. I looked at my watch: just under two hours had passed. “WHAT?” I’m not ashamed to admit, friends, I was confused. You should have been there, you would have thought I looked like an idiot.

I smiled through SALT, but I didn’t really like it until the moment it stopped. It’s rare for a movie of this genre to end so abruptly, without all the i’s crossed and t’s dotted and ‘b’ plots tied up. And the sparse SALT delivers a jolt. Maybe, now that you’ve read this, that jolt has been spoiled for you. But I have a feeling you’ll enjoy this movie anyway.

Angelina Jolie, in mid-MacGyver

Angelina Jolie plays Evelyn Salt, a CIA agent leading a double – or is it quadruple? – life. One evening, interrogating a Russian defector, she’s told that there is a Russian mole in her department. The mole’s name: Evelyn Salt. Awwwkwaaard. And, we’re off to the races! That about covers it. But what works about SALT, apart from its confident stride, and its Angelina (in a part Tom Cruise was originally meant to play, no joke,) is that it frequently upends expectations, without any sign of self-satisfaction. Director Phillip Noyce brings to SALT the same unostentatious craft he’s displayed in his best efforts (THE QUIET AMERICAN, PATRIOT GAMES) and keeps foot firmly on pedal from start to finish. Like Martin Campbell, another director from downunder of the same generation and genre, Noyce is a talent whose films’ biggest defining characteristic is, simply, their consistent quality. They’re (mostly) solid films, without being Phillip Noyce Films. The same can’t be said for the man whose behemoth is currently dominating SALT, Chris Nolan. INCEPTION has received the velvet glove treatment from many eager to hail its writer-director as visionary, while ignoring the flaws of his latest as a piece of entertainment foremost.

Is SALT better than INCEPTION? Eh, probably not, in the scheme of things. But it is a whole lot more efficient, and forty-five minutes shorter. Which, when I thought about it on my way out of the theater, was probably why I found the end of the film so arresting. When it comes to the modern blockbuster, bloat is the norm. These days, it’s downright uncommon to see one that runs under two hours – if not much, much more than two hours. SALT is nothing new, it’s basically a repackaged, full-lipped BOURNE franchise looking to get its first chapter out of the way. The cliffhanger isn’t reinvented here – but it is refreshing to see a thriller that makes with the thrills,  and then has the good taste just to cut to black.


Los Feliz 3 Cinemas, Los Angeles

Tuesday, August 3, 9:45pm showing


EDGE OF DARKNESS and the Resurrection of Mel Gibson

31 01 2010

Warning: If you’ve never seen a Mel Gibson movie before, this review may contain spoilers.

Following THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST, and revelations about his feelings towards the chosen people and the sugar-titted, many such as myself have spent the last decade fairly uncomfortable with Mel Gibson. As much as it may have electrified a base of believers who hadn’t had an item of pop significance since the Counter-Reformation, for those brought up in the Church of the Sacred Multiplex THE PASSION raised some uncomfortable questions about one of the world’s biggest movie stars.

A majority of Mel Gibson films are connected by a persistent theme of justified violence. From LETHAL WEAPON to BRAVEHEART, his characters are typically tortured (in one way or another, and not infrequently in the Christ pose,) and in turn take vengeance on their assailants. And his films as a director – an Oscar-winner at that – are largely of a piece with his most memorable parts: they’re about men who kill in righteous anger, and win. No self-reflection necessary. By contrast, another actor-turned-director, Clint Eastwood, spent the first half of his career as the silver screen’s most iconic vigilante, but has spent the second half directing films about the nature of and need for forgiveness.

It’s hard not to mention all this as preamble to Mel’s first on-screen role in nearly a decade, in a movie tailor-made to his protagonist specifications: Martin Campbell’s EDGE OF DARKNESS finds Mel playing Tom Craven, a Boston cop whose daughter Emma is murdered before his eyes. From there, Mel kicks many an ass to gain access to the most powerful ass of all – and then kicks that ass as well. He’s aided by shadowy government operative Jedburgh (Ray Winstone) whose bosses are bent on covering up the conspiracy that led to Emma Craven’s offing.

After eight years on his private island, tens of thousands of Camel Lights, and several New Testaments’ worth of bad P.R., Mel Gibson is no longer svelte and sexy, he’s creased and bulky. In a way, he’s never looked better for this kind of role, and with a solid Boston accent and a few fine Mad Mel moments, he anchors this film with an undeniably spot-hitting performance. Growling a perfunctory line like “welcome to hell,” Mel makes it sound just like it should – and for some viewers, that will be enough. But the film that’s built around that growl is a detective story without any real twist – mainly because its villains are never less than completely obvious. The mystery, apparently, isn’t the point; ass-kickery is. But does that really let writer William Monahan off the hook for so many unwieldy chunks of exposition? There’s a lot of “that’s all I can say… except for (insert clue)” and “you have to leave, but first, I want to give you this (clue.)” Yet for all the jawing, Winstone’s subplot is so barely penned that his own righteous/violent turn in the film’s climax plays as shocking in the wrong way – not a ‘wow,’ but ‘wow, really?’

Mel Gibson in EDGE OF DARKNESS, or possibly RANSOM

Now, as one whose favorite film of 2009 was INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS, I can get down with cinematic violence when directed at deserving villains. But to the detriment of EDGE OF DARKNESS, its antagonists are simply stuffed suits with bad ‘tudes. The plot that claims the life of Emma Craven is barely relevant to the action of the film; it’s only ever referenced in the abstract to justify her father’s vengeance. Characters enter and exit based solely on his desire to kick their asses: like “Robinson,” a crooked environmentalist who’s introduced at the end of Mel’s fist, then pummeled without one line of dialogue. The scene goes like this, and I paraphrase: “hi,” bam pow, end scene. Not that this isn’t kind of amusing… It’s just not so satisfying.

And I play a villain!

The strength of EDGE, as with most Martin Campbell films, is the action – and there are some expertly timed jolts throughout his newest. The death of Emma Craven is so well executed (ba-dum-bum,) it’s shown twice. That’s  genre entertainment, perhaps, the nature of the beast, but it also speaks to the larger issue with Mel Gibson and his films of choice. The man is unapologetic – in life, on film. (See the PAYBACK: STRAIGHT UP DVD extras, in which he matter-of-factly explains his decision to seize control of the film from its director Brian Helgeland, and overhaul it to make it a more standard Mel Gibson vehicle – including the addition of, yes, a torture scene.) After eight years away, returning to acting with another revenge drama to add to his already sizeable pile, he shows no signs of maturation apart from the physical, and he doesn’t seem to care. That lack of pretension makes it hard to dislike Mel, at least on-screen. But the question post-PASSION remains: does he take on films like this because he simply believes this is what audiences want to see of him? Or are his choices indicative not of movie star populism, but a personal obsession with absolution through brutality?

It’s tempting to give him the benefit of the doubt after the forgettable but fun EDGE OF DARKNESS, if only because there’s no Catholic imagery to speak of here – nor, apart from the guy’s daughter being blowed up in front of him, is there any real torture. Yes, Craven is hauled off to the villains’ lair in the film’s last act, but the whole sequence is so inexplicably brief, and his escape so swift, that his kidnappers don’t even have the chance to torture him. This surely upset no one more than Mel himself… Following some well-staged dispatching of heavies, the film’s denouement, with father and daughter walking arm-in-arm into a white light, is pure schmaltz that smacks of PAYBACK tampering. Another hero has killed his way to vindication and is martyred, only to be united with his beloved… Sorry, I guess that’s a spoiler – but only if you’ve never seen another Mel Gibson movie.


Los Feliz 3 Cinemas, Los Angeles

Friday January 30, 7:00pm showing

Ah, shit: Sam Mendes to direct the next James Bond movie

6 01 2010

From today’s Hollywood Reporter:


To be a James Bond fan is to live in disappointment. Every two years, you’re teased with a sensational trailer featuring a couple big explosions and/or breasts, you get yourself all worked up by either or both, and when the newest Bond film finally hits, you’re there opening night… only to emerge two hours later, bludgeoned by a European cheese platter with nothing to recommend it but the reprise of that jangly, addictive theme song. Nothing, it seemed, no gadget nor titty, could ever deliver the pure high of the Sean Connery years…

Or so it was until 2006, when the bar was raised high again by the Bond series’  finest reinvention, CASINO ROYALE, a film that only gets better on repeated viewing. Director Martin Campell, master of classy action, carried off the series’ trademark chase sequences with flawless pacing and spatial orientation. In his first outing as 007, Daniel Craig’s grave confidence wasn’t just fun to watch, it felt instantly earned. More than anything though, what worked about CASINO ROYALE was the relationship between Bond and Vesper Lynd, played by the magnificent Eva Green. If anything, the final act which on first viewing seemed indulgent with its extended, swooning romance (not exactly 007’s trademark,) now seems irreducible. To cut a second of it would ruin everything.

Bond. James Bond.

Craig’s second outing, the 22nd Bond film QUANTUM OF SOLACE, is not much of a movie – though compared to the nadir of the series, it’s also quite acceptable. Director Marc Forster was seemingly so intimidated by the perfection of Campbell’s action sequences that he chopped up his own nearly beyond recognition – similar to what Christopher Nolan has done in his Batman series. In Forster’s hands, SOLACE contained some highs (the opening teaser’s boffo, I SAID BOFFO, and the dangling climax to the Siena sequence is tense and excellent,) but the finale held no surprises, and never realized the potential of the film’s first moments.

Weak. Real weak.

Like bringing Nolan onto Batman, putting Forster on Bond was an attempt to add some prestige to a formulaic genre piece. And now, Sam Mendes will have his shot to make BOND 23 all arty and shit; an assignment that certainly recalls Forster and Nolan in spirit – but still sends a shiver down this fan’s spine. And that’s not just because Mendes hasn’t directed a great film since his first one; it’s because what Bond films depend on isn’t an injection of style or an outsider sensibility. A good Bond requires a familiarity with Bond over all else. Almost all the best films of the Bond series weren’t the first Bond film made by their director. Terence Young shot DR. NO before FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE, Guy Hamilton had GOLDFINGER before LIVE AND LET DIE, and before hitting gold with CASINO ROYALE, Martin Campbell had already directed GOLDENEYE.

More than an experienced helmer even, good Bond calls for a screenplay that walks the tightrope between delivering what’s expected, and delivering a jolt. Mendes, unfortunately, has proven several times over that he’s drawn to material that allows him room for style – even when substance is lacking. (JARHEAD, anyone? Didn’t think so…) Dare, friends, to imagine Mendes’ over-stylized, down-beat Donmar take on spy-jinx  – and how far off balance that could throw the Bond tightrope act. If the past decade since Mendes won his Oscar have made anything clear, it’s that Alan Ball’s screenplay for AMERICAN BEAUTY was its great asset. Not Kevin Spacey, not that marimba-heavy score or that deeply profound Ralph’s bag – and not Mendes, the would-be wunderkind who appeared to knock one out of the park on his first at bat… turns out, in retrospect, he really didn’t.

The good news is that Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, co-writers of CASINO ROYALE, (with ex-scientologist Paul Haggis) are working on BOND 23 – albeit with a nip and tuck this time by Peter Morgan, who recently said that this film will be “shocking.” Shocking like REVOLUTIONARY ROAD, Peter? Guuuhhh. But hey, maybe Purvis and Wade will rise again to the occasion, and maybe, just maybe, Mendes won’t get in their way… Anything’s possible. Guy Hamilton, who directed the series capstone GOLDFINGER, also directed THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN, one of its most craptastic. Anything’s possible – even, I suppose, a good James Bond movie by Sam Mendes. I’ll believe it when I see it… And needless to say, I’ll be there opening night, ready to be let down.