Sweet and Salty Movie Fun

6 Oct

Angelina Jolie, as photographed by Mert Alas and Marcus Piggott for the October 2011 cover of Vanity Fair.

Angelina Jolie is on the cover of the current Vanity Fair. It’s a gorgeous photo, no doubt. Okay, I’m sure it’s retouched, but if she didn’t already have such exquisite features, all the Photoshop in the world couldn’t make her look as ravishing as she does in this particular image. You see, Jolie has a new movie, due out by the holidays. The name of the film is In the The Land of Blood and Honey, but Jolie is not the star. Instead, she’s the writer and director.  The movie is a love story set against the backdrop of the Bosnian war. Of course, there will likely be an Oscar campaign. That’s just the nature of the business. Thematically “important” movies with big stars and/or major directors typically enjoy  a big Oscar push, and I’m usually good with that because I understand the purpose of the Oscars and how they function. Besides, Uncle Oscar gets it right quite often. For example, look no further than last year’s big champ The King’s Speech, starring Best Actor winner Colin Firth, to find a film that hits all the right notes in the prestige department and still scores as a popular entertainment.

On the other hand, to see how Oscar sometimes falls into the trap of  honoring earnest obvious work for all the wrong reasons, look at last year’s Best Actress race. Why not start  with winner  Natalie Portman in Black Swan?  Again, I full well understand the appeal of Ms. Portman’s film, and her performance in it, but I could never fully embrace it either. Of course, she’s a splendid actress, and she clearly pours her heart, body, and soul into the role of a studiously single-minded ballerina slowly losing her grip on reality. The problem then as now is that Portman isn’t necessarily playing a character in Black Swan–she’s playing a conceit, and while that shouldn’t have any bearing on the quality of her work, I think that in a roundabout way it does because no matter how entertaining, the performance isn’t grand enough to camouflage the seams in the material. Furthermore, and this is important–well, it’s important to me–I can’t imagine watching, or wanting to watch, Portman in Black Swan ever again.  I do think one of the hallmarks of an Oscar caliber performance is that it should stand the test of time–and how can anyone ever know that if no one is willing to watch said performance again?

Of all the actual nominees, I was most impressed by Blue Valentine‘s Michelle Williams–as a woman whose marriage, built on a shaky foundation in the first place, is in a rapid state of decline. Like Portman in Black Swan, Williams gives her all to this sad, sad, woman, but to what end? As  powerful as it is, it’s also something of a dead end and not remarkable enough to warrant a second viewing. Plus, I’m not certain that an actress should have to play a woman who is repeatedly debased in order to assert her talent.  Elsewhere, I thought Annette Bening gave a subtle, commendable performance in The Kids are All Right, but aside from some other fine performances, the film left me cold. Jennifer Lawrence showed her mettle in The Winter’s Bone–and I did indeed admire the film as a whole–but, even so, the Oscar nomination seemed just a tad generous. I freely admit that I avoided Nicole Kidman’s Rabbit Hole.  I’m not a fan of the Oscar winning actress (The Hours, 2002), and from what I’d read about the play–a couple grieving the death of a child–I just didn’t think I could sit through it. The horror, the horror.

The cynical take would be that all five of these women mustered up as much grim determination as they could to act themselves into year end awards consideration, which apparently worked. I would have gladly traded  any of the official nominees for Naomi Watts’ ripped-from-the-headlines turn as Fair Game‘s former CIA operative Valerie Plame, whose cover was scandalously blown to bits by members of the Bush administration in 2003. Plame’s story is, indeed, an important one, yet the world of political espionage and intrigue also makes it as suspenseful as a vintage thriller; however, Fair Game was a box office bust, and while ticket sales are no guarantee of cinematic excellence, the simple truth is that the Academy is looking to honor “achievement,” which doesn’t always allow much room for movies that under-perform in the market place, unless there is also some other timely factor which bears heralding.

The website "Matt's Movie Reviews" actually features 4 different posters for Salt, presumably for foreign markets. Speaking of foreign markets, Salt grossed $175 million overseas in addition to another 118 million in the United States, for a grand total of 293 million, give or take.

What I would have liked to have seen in the most recent Best Actress race was someone actually having fun. Two of my faves were and still are Diane Lane in Secretariat and Emma Stone in Easy A, both of which I intend to write about soon enough, but for now I want to throw the spotlight back on cover girl Angelina Jolie because I  think that almost no performer, male or female, exhibited as much good old fashioned fun at the movies as she did in the outlandishly twisty action flick, Salt.  The set-up is thus: Jolie plays Evelyn Salt, a bad-ass CIA operative who yearns to leave behind a life of derring-do in order to lead a more traditional 9 to 5 existence with her sexy yet nerdy European born arachnologist husband. Just when she thinks her dream is about to come true, a crackpot Russian defector inexplicably outs her as a sleeper spy. (Shades of Plame.) Is she, or isn’t she? Of course, her employer wants to keep her in custody pending an investigation, but Ms. Salt has another idea or two. The movie is a great big whirlwind of fun as Salt runs–and runs and runs and runs–for her life, outwitting her pursuers through one death defying stunt after another.

Let me perfectly frank: Salt is about as stupid as a movie can possibly be. First, even taking into account Hollywood’s need to pile on stunt after stunt, Salt pretty much takes the cake for unrelenting adrenaline pumping absurdity. Not only does Salt survive one incredible escape after another, she pretty much does so with barely a scrape; moreover, and this is one of the truly fun parts of the movie, there’s just something deliriously yet deliciously far-fetched about a movie that in a roundabout way links Angelina Jolie, of all people, to the Kennedy assassination, but don’t take my word for it. Watch it for yourself.

Sublime stupidity aside, the movie works as well as it does primarily because Jolie is so committed to the material, and I don’t mean just because she allegedly performs her stunts as the commentary and featurettes on the DVD work hard to assert. Now, I wasn’t there on the set when the movie was being filmed, but my guess is that while Jolie might have done a few stunts for shots that couldn’t be  easily faked, I doubt the film’s insurance company would have allowed the star player to risk life and limb in such extreme conditions. Plus, the fact is that a woman named Janene Carleton is listed as “stunt double: Angelina Jolie” in the complete list of cast and crew reported on the Internet Movie Database.  So there. No, what I mean when I write that Jolie is committed is that she is fully emotionally invested in this character. I really don’t know how she does it,  but Jolie’s every move, facial expression, and line reading is infused with palpable urgency. Of course, it certainly helps that Jolie is committed as well as a true movie star. What does that mean? Well, for starters, the camera loves her (though I’ve always thought she should consider gaining about 15 lbs). Additionally, and for better or worse, there’s just something larger than life about her. She’s glamorous, mysterious, aloof, and people are so fascinated by her that they follow her every move. Of course, being a great star is not the same thing as being a great actress, but Jolie is, at the very least, a shrewd actress, and that’s something that transcends technique.

Evelyn Salt: calm, cool, collected desk jockey and domestic goddess.

Another thing that makes Salt so much fun is watching Jolie’s array of transformations. In the beginning she looks like hell, beaten and bloodied in a North Korean prison, bravely withstanding torture as she steadfastly refuses to admit that she’s a spy. Minutes later, she’s the world’s most improbably chic desk jockey, sporting a beautifully tailored suit with a slit skirt. The look is completed by killer pumps and an intricately braided ponytail. One high octane chase sequence later, she reinvents herself as a black clad urban ninja who’s preparing to go underground. Literally. Then, she takes a brief detour and models the latest in camera ready Cossack garb. Finally, her most stunning transformation is what I call the movie’s “transjoyous” moment. Allow me to clarify: per the DVD,  Salt was originally conceived as a vehicle for a top male star–Tom Cruise if memory serves; however, at some point, Cruise became unavailable, and the script found its way to Angelina Jolie, who’d harbored a dream to act in a James Bond type adventure–but as Bond, and not as a so-called “Bond girl.” Anyway, the concept was completely overhauled and tailored to Jolie’s strengths.  Of course, Salt isn’t the first movie to feature a female character that was initially written as a male.  Sigourney Weaver’s “Ripley” in the first Alien film is one such example.  It is, therefore, a transjoyous moment indeed in this movie in which the female lead, who at one time had been a male lead, makes her boldest move when the disguises herself as a man. So, take that, Natalie Portman!

My favorite moment in Salt is also its most startling. I don’t want to ruin it for newbies, but let me just say that Salt, to borrow one of The Ghost and Mr. Chicken‘s catch phrases,  does what a girl has to do and makes her whole body “a lethal weapon.” Shocking? You betcha, but, for some reason, it makes me howl with delight every time. That noted, I freely admit that I am not, I repeat, I am not a 100% dyed-in-the-wool, full-fledged Angelina Jolie fan. I do not make a point of seeing all her films, nor do I necessarily even enjoy those  that I do see; however, I thought she was alarmingly good in her Oscar winning supporting role in Girl, Interrupted  (1999) though I’m not one of those fans who insist that she stole the film from star Winona Ryder (in a more reactive role). I pretty much despised her widely heralded “Best Actressy” turn as Mariane Pearl, the French born widow of slain American journalist Daniel Pearl, in A Mighty Heart (2007).  Apparently I’m in the minority on that one because she was nominated for almost every conceivable award, including a Golden Globe, a Screen Actors Guild Award, and an Independent Spirit Award.  Indeed, practically the only award for which she was not nominated, is the Oscar. Maybe I’m not in the minority after all. On the other hand, I was suitably impressed by her Academy nominated work in 2008’s fact-based Changeling, which I intend to write about at a later time.

Yes, Angelina, there really is an Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Films.The non-profit organization was founded in 1972, and it is based in Los Angeles, CA.

Of course, even a stupid movie with a fabulous leading performance cannot happen without a director, and Salt‘s is none other than Aussie Philip Noyce, whose credits include two of the best Tom Clancy adaptations, Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger, as well as 2002’s stunning, fact based, eugenics themed drama Rabbit Proof Fence (which the Academy stupidly overlooked in every category, by the way). Noyce must be given credit for orchestrating such wildly over the top set pieces and for keeping the movie chugging along at a breathless space–and he gives Jolie all the breathing room she needs. That noted,  though Jolie is front and center throughout most of the movie, she gets able support from the likes of Liev Schreiber, Chiwitel Ejifor, and Corey Stoll (the latter scores memorably as Ernest Hemmingway in Woody Allen’s sleeper hit Midnight in Paris, and looks nothing like his character  in Salt).

It would be hard to argue that Angelina Jolie was somehow robbed of an Oscar nomination for her work in Salt because no matter how compelling she is in the film, the film still is what it is, and what it is, now and always,  is stupid; however, it’s also a heck of a lot of fun, fun, fun! Maybe it wasn’t the “best” performance by a leading actress in all of 2010, but it was and is certainly my favorite performance by a leading actress in all of 2010. The movie was more or less overlooked by the Academy except in the category of “Best Sound Mixing, ” which it lost,  unsurprisingly, to Inception.  I think at the very least it should have been nominated for “Best Makeup” for all those fabulous looks (blood and gore as well as gender bending). That noted, the movie won Best Action/Adventure film at the Saturn Awards (from the Academy of  Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror Films), and Jolie was indeed nominated as Best Actress, but to whom did she lose the coveted trophy? The girl in the paranoid ballet fantasy,  of course. Of course. (Please note: according to Internet reports, there are no less than three versions of this movie on DVD, starting with the original theatrical edition, as well as an extended cut, and also a director’s cut. I can only verify two versions available on Amazon, but so what? I obviously saw the theatrical edition, loved it, and I’m good with that.)

Thanks for your consideration…

LINKS!

Vanity Fair:

http://www.vanityfair.com/magazine/toc/contents-201110

To learn more about the Saturn Awards and the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Films:

http://www.saturnawards.org/

Check out Matt’s Movie Reviews:

http://mattsmoviereviews.net/

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One Response to “Sweet and Salty Movie Fun”

  1. andrew 06 October 2011 at 8:58 pm #

    i agree that salt was lots of fun.

    i also agree that michelle williams was haunting in blue valentine. to this day, i still pause and think about that movie. it was my favorite of 2010. however, like you, i’m not sure that i want to see it again.

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