Lowering the temperature on the Cold War, below freezing, Salt exposes a subterranean population of Russian “sleeper” agents with far more nefarious designs than those of the eleven happy capitalists rounded up recently (and for the film’s sake, fortuitously) by the FBI. To wit: a Destroy America operation that dates back to Lee Harvey Oswald. For a short time the film, like its patient spies, puts up a decent front. Director Phillip Noyce, who owns such respectable credits in the genre as Patriot Games and The Quiet American, oversees some nice subjective camerawork and high-pressure closeups, and he reaches a pitch of intensity in nothing flat. Liev Schreiber, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Daniel Olbrychski all bring a compelling measure of commitment, and although Angelina Jolie in the title role of Evelyn Salt, ultra-modern Mata Hari, is so chiselled as to look out of place anywhere but in the funny pages, she reveals some becoming agitation and vulnerability, the first when confined against her will in an interrogation room at CIA headquarters in D.C., and the second in a two-years-ago prologue, clad only in bra and panties in a North Korean torture chamber, from which she emerges with a black eye and a fat lip — no, wait, she always has a fat lip, make that a split lip — and badly shaken. (Yes, shaken Salt.) Even her barefoot escape from the locked-down CIA building demands no more than human levels of determination and resourcefulness.
But then the chase is on, and is thereafter never really off. Huff-puff, huff-puff. Our saline protagonist, steadily raising her determination and resourcefulness to superhuman levels, is soon jumping from freeway overpass to moving truck to moving truck to moving truck, or from a full-speed subway train, running like the wind and driving like a demon and climbing like a human fly, donning a latex mask out of the Mission: Impossible makeup kit, altogether transforming herself into a cookie-cutter Kick-Ass Chick who likes to propel herself into her balletics by running halfway up the walls, shot so tight in mano-a-mano combat that the spectator can’t lean back far enough to be an honest judge of her capabilities. Much like the deep-cover Russkies who finally drop their disguises, but much sooner, the film stops pretending to be a legitimate espionage drama and reveals itself for the silly dilly that it is. The aficionado’s sense of betrayal and outrage cannot be less acute than Uncle Sam’s. The mindless action fan on the other hand, or more precisely the mindless fan of mindless action, should have no complaints, except maybe that even he’ll be a step ahead of the revelations.
Agora, from Spanish filmmaker Alejandro Amenábar, is a funereal toga party commemorating the culture clash in a majestic computer-generated Alexandria, pre-Islam: pagans, Christians, Jews. It is no surprise — although given the locale, and given the drift of current events in the region, it is an undoubted provocation — that the Christians, out from under the Roman sandal, get fingered as the prime movers of religious intolerance, desecrators of the all-embracing Library of Alexandria and martyrizers of the 4th-century philosopher and mathematician, Hypatia, a dim persona from distant history until Rachel Weisz stepped into the role to give her form, substance, and a starry glow. The latter’s private struggle to understand the Earth’s orbit proves to be more engrossing, if no more free of modern axe-grinding and historical rewriting, than the inexorable and escalating sectarian strife. One can be prepared to believe all manner of bad things about Christians without believing that their silencing of this solitary independent voice, this feminist demigoddess, set back the cause of astronomy by more than a millennium.
The Reading Gaslamp continues, undiscouraged, to turn up movies that turn up nowhere else. Last Friday, in addition to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Undead, which I couldn’t make time to see, it turned up Love Ranch, which I could. (Me and, in the afternoon of the opening day, six others, three times the number at Daddy Longlegs a week previous.) On its face the project looks less hopeless than many of the Gaslamp’s finds, directed as it was by the veteran Taylor Hackford (Ray, Dolores Clairborne, An Officer and a Gentleman, etc.), and telling the fact-based tale, despite the name changes from Oscar Bonavena, Sally Burgess, Joe Conforte, and the Mustang Ranch, of a lethal love triangle comprising an Argentinian heavyweight contender and the married partners in a legal brothel outside of Reno. It seems a subject made to order for the screen, though you couldn’t prove it by the humdrum outcome. There’s no problem with the desolate locale and tacky trappings (all the way up to the plush carpet atop Joe Pesci’s head) other than that they remain an unexplored background. The notion, the working theory, that the connection between the “Wild Bull of the Pampas” and a woman twenty-odd years his senior was something deep and true and precious is simply spoken rather than enacted, raising grave doubts that this embroidery of the facts was the proper path to pursue. And while Helen Mirren lends a definite touch of class, it is perhaps too strong a touch, as if, let’s say, the D.C. Madam had been confused with Katharine Graham.
Dinner for Schmucks, directed by Jay Roach, is a softened, mushed-up remake of a rather distasteful French farce, called here The Dinner Game, concerning a clique of fat cats who periodically convene for a soirée to which each of them for their shared amusement brings along an unwitting idiot to compete for the laurel of biggest idiot. For the American mass market, the focal fat cat (Paul Rudd) has been made leaner and hungrier, a sympathetic, reluctant participant forced to jump through this hoop for job advancement. The focal idiot (Steve Carell) has meanwhile been so grotesqued — a buck-toothed, four-eyed dolt in a oversized hooded lavender nylon windbreaker, an IRS pencil pusher whose off-hours hobby is the construction of miniature tableaus with dead mice — that no idiots in the audience are at risk of identifying with him and taking offense, and yet he’s not so irredeemable an idiot that he cannot learn and teach important life lessons in the last act. Any sensitive viewer will be compelled to surrender his sense of moral or intellectual superiority by wanting fervently to kill the bumbling idiot for turning the fat cat’s life upside down in the twenty-four hours prior to the dinner, or else to kill the fat cat for enabling the idiot to do it. Like the French version, the film is quite nice-looking, but nowhere near as nice as the French.