Tag Archives: Ken Versus

Ken vs. Salt

Salt

Give the advertising campaign credit: “Who is Salt?” isn’t just a marketing tagline, but the question you’ll find yourself asking over and over as Salt unreels before you. At first Evelyn Salt (Angelina Jolie) appears to be a CIA agent with a loving husband and a normal life, but it isn’t long before she’s crossing and double-crossing people without explaining to anyone, least of all the audience, why she’s doing what she’s doing.

And on paper, that’s kind of a nifty idea. Salt is undeniably the protagonist of the movie; we follow her almost exclusively through her many daring escapes, assaults and flashbacks. We see that she is whoever she needs to be in a given moment, which can be anything from a charming lady to a badass martial artist. But we never know where she stands. Is she hero, or villain?

The points of contention: Salt is on her way home to celebrate her anniversary with her husband when an ex-Russian spy comes in claiming that a rogue Russian intelligence agent wants to reignite the Cold War with a countless host of sleeper agents planted all throughout the United States. Who’s going to kick it off? Why, none other than Evelyn Salt, who’ll light the fire by assassinating the Russian president in New York City. This comes as something of a surprise to Evelyn, but her peers take it seriously enough to force Evelyn to flee. Only her boss (Liev Schreiber) still believes she is who she says she is.

From there Salt takes some genuinely surprising, topsy-turvy turns that you leave you genuinely questioning who it is Evelyn works for and who, exactly, you should be rooting for. I’m not convinced this works as the audience’s sole perspective for an entire movie, and Salt does not make the case well; it so thoroughly undermines Evelyn’s identity—already pretty scant due to a script that is 80% chase sequences—that it is, in fact, impossible to care about what happens to anyone. Jolie’s ability to switch from house cat to tiger in a manner of seconds is the only thing that keeps Salt from simply floating away into the ether.

Not that I didn’t enjoy the movie’s baser pleasures. For all her prestigious star power, I think Jolie is most at home in action roles. There’s something visceral about her presence; when she’s kicking someone’s ass you feel the sheer physicality of it. She stalks through her scenes with true menace and frightening competence.

Director Phillip Noyce occasionally succumbs to the shaky-cam chaos that you see in a lot of spy movies these days, but occasionally he remembers to pull back and show us what’s going on. Was it Mamet who said that audiences enjoy watching competent people do things well? That’s a sentiment that I think applies to action directors as much or moreso than anyone else. Don’t confuse the audience; take the chance to luxuriate in the proficiency and coolness of all those martial arts consultants, all that stunt work, and all those special effects. Why spend all that money and all that time if you’re going to obscure most of it?

In short, give people the show.

Salt mostly does. It’s a pretty movie when it remembers to be, its action is entertaining and occasionally inventive. It also contains a few genuine surprises, not least of which is the moral ambivalence of its lead. But there is clumsiness on display; the husband-in-peril thread is so thin as to be transparent and the opening info-dump given by the Russian spy was, oh, a little embarrassing. Salt’s stakes are good—and refreshingly old-school in a James Bond kind of way—and Jolie makes a great dramatic action lead. It’s a pity, then, that the movie’s central premise is also its downfall.

P.S. “Evelyn Salt” is a dumb name for a character.

Ken vs. Inception

Inception

Christopher Nolan’s characters live in a world of ideas. They’re trapped by them, enslaved by them, dominated by them and ruled by them. They are fallible people who externalize every lash on their souls; their gestures change the world and they know it, but they know also that they will never live up to the abstract ideals they forever chase or evade. They are haunted by dreams dashed, lost, or inadequately conceived.

Therefore it seems predestined that Nolan would eventually tap Leonardo DiCaprio to play one of his leads. DiCaprio has built his career around playing fiercely intelligent men with deeply compromised mental integrity who chase oblivion to find peace. He does so again in Inception, which plays as a striking companion piece to this year’s other DiCaprio head trip, Shutter Island.

It’s good that DiCaprio is such a natural at this sort of thing, and better still that Nolan’s cast—so uniformly strong that any quarter of them could headline a great movie—gives so strong an impression of character and intent. On paper, these people are ciphers. See the movie and ask yourself: what do we really know about Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s staid sidekick, or Ellen Page’s honest and talented dream architect? The answer is nothing more than I just told you. The roles are simply embodied, and the actors’ charisma does the rest. It’s too bad, really, that in creating his most idea-driven movie, Christopher Nolan has left his characters behind.

But what ideas they are. DiCaprio plays Cobb, leader of a team of people who are able to enter a person’s mind via their dreams in order to steal valuable data. They call it extraction, but “they” also talk about a much more dangerous maneuver: inception, or the introduction of an alien idea into someone’s mind. It’s this latter they’re hired to do by an energy mogul (Ken Watanabe) who wants to stop the son of his chief rival (Cillian Murphy) from monopolizing the field worldwide once the rival (Pete Postlethwaite) dies, which should be any day now. Most of the movie is taken up with the business of Cobb recruiting his team and then delving into his target’s mind three layers deep: a dream within a dream within a dream, and a flirtation with delving even deeper into the chaotic and bottomless subconscious. Complicating the matter is that Cobb can’t seem to keep a guilt-driven projection of his dead wife Mal (Marion Cotillard) from popping up and sabotaging his work. And she’s getting more dangerous all the time.

So much of Inception is spent in surreal atmospheres with flexible rules and plenty of paradoxes. If I’m being honest, this—more than the good cast and intriguing premise—is why I wanted to see the movie so much. Mainstream filmmaking has been “safe” for as long as it’s existed, but the past few years especially it seems that formula, contrivance, and dim versions of the high concept have ruled every major release of every weekend. Most filmmakers (and consequently most moviegoers) forget that in movies, you can do and show anything.

Some remember, sometimes, and you get the occasional glorious success (300, Dark City, most of Pixar’s catalogue) or brilliant failure (Speed Racer, Sin City). The filmmakers remember that the empty soundstage and the green screen are canvases, and that there aren’t—or shouldn’t be—any fetters between their conception of the story and its execution.

All of which is a high-falutin’ way to say that every now and then, a filmmaker decides to show us things we’ve never seen before and can never see in any other medium. By this gauge Inception is an unqualified triumph. It is quite simply an amazing thing to behold; the glimpses you’ve seen in trailers only hint at the construction of interlocking chains of logic, consequence and action that Nolan has constructed, even if most of it is washed in that teal light filmmakers are so fond of, and so much of the dialogue is given over to simply explaining what is happening. There is one extended action sequence that takes place on three levels of consciousness, one affecting the other which affects still yet another. I guarantee you have never seen anything like it before.

Nolan’s preoccupation with city spaces dominates, as well. Cities tend to be great lurking beasts in his movies, as much a character as a setting, but never more so than here; each real-world city is introduced with establishing shots that show building after building eating up the horizon, and almost every dream construct we see is some spin on a city. In The Dark Knight, Gotham City was an endless maze for human rats to play in. In Inception, the rats build and embrace the maze themselves: for instance, in the decades spent in the dreamspace of his own subconscious, Cobb and his wife built miles of geometric cityspace and little to no wildlife. I can’t tell if this is a statement of some kind, or merely Nolan unintentionally revealing something about himself. Either way, I sympathize with his fascination.

Among all that awe, it came as a surprise to me that the more intimate moments with Cobb and Mal are so affecting. More than that, they’re frightening: Cobb’s head is a haunted place, and Ariadne’s few forays into his dreamscape feel more dangerous than any other peril presented in the movie. I felt the peril there, in a quiet and ransacked hotel room, far more than I did in some of the later action sequences. I wish we could have spent more time there.

If I have a complaint about Inception it is that it is so very plot-heavy, and its central premise for getting to the meat of it—the dream-diving—is loaded down with specialized language and the mechanics of the thing that when Ariadne at one point asks in exasperation, “whose subconscious are we diving into?” the audience laughed in recognition. There’s enough jargon here to populate a David Mamet film, and like a Mamet film, you have to pay close attention if you don’t want to get left behind.

In terms of coherence, forward motion and characterization, Inception is in many ways a step down from The Dark Knight. In terms of virtuosity, it has no modern peer: here is, quite simply, an engine built to show you wonders. Amidst the endless array of explanations and exposition, Christopher Nolan has built a movie that is impossible not to look at.

Ken vs. Cyrus

Hijinx!

John’s got a problem: ever since his wife left him seven years ago, his life has been one long, slow spiral into the gutter. He’s functional and continues to work, but that’s about all that can be said for him. So when his ex (Catherine Keener, whose presence always improves a movie’s charisma) invites him to her engagement party with the stated purpose of meeting women, he accepts. Grudgingly. His pick-up technique involves long, intense spiels about the hopelessness of his life and how finding someone to connect with may be the only thing that can save him. If there’s one thing John (played by John C. Reilly) is incapable of doing, it’s filtering his feelings.

Which is what draws Molly (Marisa Tomei) to John, played with beautiful restraint by John C. Reilly. They hit it off at the party despite his drunken state and kick off one of those intense left-field romances where everything clicks and you want to spend every waking moment with this wonderful new stranger in your life. The catch? Molly never stays the night, and is reluctant to share anything about her life.

The reason is Cyrus (Jonah Hill), her 21-year-old son, who still lives at home and seems perfectly content to spend the rest of his life with his mother. If sexless incest is a thing, then that’s what Molly and Cyrus have: a relationship through which they try to fulfill all or most of their emotional needs without much contact with the outside world. When John enters theirs, Cyrus feels threatened, and a minor showdown of epic proportions begins.

Cyrus treads a fine line for a comedy, wavering between laugh-out-loud duels between Cyrus and John and sincerely sweet soul-baring moments. In lesser hands this would be tiresome material, and I could very well see myself twiddling my thumbs through those soul-baring moments to get to the yuks. But lo, everyone is just so gosh darn likable and authentic that I ended up caring about them. It’s not so much that I know these people. It’s just that I believe them.

A lot of that’s to do with Reilly and Hill, whose duel for Molly’s affections so often takes the slow-burning path over the explosive one. Reilly is an immensely talented performer, able to convey so much while coming off as nothing more than a likable schlub. I was reminded of his performance in The Promotion, a quiet little comedy about quiet little men whose customer-service-uber-alles mentalities were the only things keeping smiles on their faces while they hurtled toward unavoidable confrontation. Reilly frequently takes absurdist comedic roles, but the man has a gift for the low key. One he doesn’t explore often enough.

He’s matched by Hill, who speaks with great kindness and politeness throughout the movie’s first half … and who clearly doesn’t mean a word of it. His Cyrus is clearly smart and mature, but there’s something off about him all the same: His congeniality masks a sinister intelligence and mountains of insecurity. Tomei has less to do with her part, but what she does give—a warm and genuinely loving presence stunted by years of emotional isolation with her son—she does effortlessly.

Cyrus really is a very simple movie, completely beholden to relationship dynamics both loud and subtle. There are perhaps ten sets, with only a handful that dominate, and three actors who occupy something like 80% of the running time. But for the heavy reliance on subtle gestures and glances, Cyrus could be a stage play. And a marvelous one at that.

A comment on the digital camera techniques of writer-directors Jay and Mark Duplass. Cyrus is filmed in digital with a pervasive use of snap-zooms to focus on actors, gestures and bits of scenery throughout. This is jarring at first, and seemingly at odds with digital’s main virtue: The purpose of digital is to remove the staginess from film—to remove excess cuts and give an overall more “natural” feel, as if we’re peeking in on actual events. (That sensation is artificial, but hey, moviemaking is about lying in creative new ways.)

So why the snap-zooms? The digital says “slice of life,” the zooms say “hey, check out our camera work!” But after awhile, I got it: each quick-zoom was a re-framing, taking a scene and drawing attention to glances, movements and setting in a scene. I thought of polyptych paintings, or of how some comic book artists draw a full scene and then frame panels throughout it to guide the eye and tell a story within a single shot. It’s a hell of a thing to pull off well, and the Duplass brothers do. In that, Cyrus’s form and function are one.

Ken vs. Jonah Hex

Of all the supernatural powers and companions Jonah Hex possesses, his horse may be the most impressive. Consider that in the first scene, Hex’s horse is forced to carry or drag three dead bodies, two mounted Gatling guns, and Jonah himself, which probably totals up to over a thousand pounds of steel and dead weight. Now consider that this same horse can handle both the whiplash and noise generated by having those two Gatling guns firing from either side of its neck and I think you’ll agree: That’s some horse.

You’ll note that I began a review about an Old West gunslinger who revives corpses and shoots dynamite crossbows by talking about his horse, and that should probably tell you something. Jonah Hex is a faint gesture of a movie, so hobbled and reliant on narrative shorthand that I’m halfway convinced audience members should get a cut of the box office for filling in the blanks. How do characters get from one place to another without any connecting scenes in between? What happens in the movie’s many fight scenes? What the hell does Megan Fox’s character have to do with anything? Friends, Jonah Hex has more pressing matters at hand, such as the devising of a dozen ways for a legendary gunslinger to not actually sling his damn guns.

In brief, Hex (Josh Brolin) is a bounty hunter and former Confederate officer hired by the U.S. government to track down his old general, Quentin Turnbull (John Malkovich), who wouldn’t you know it also killed Jonah’s family in revenge for Jonah killing his son blah blah blah. Turnbull, previously thought dead, has turned himself into a homegrown terrorist bent on tearing down the Union. Such people and factions did exist after the Civil War (and well into the 20th century), and, come to think of it, that’s not a half-bad plot for a Western.

But Jonah Hex is paradoxically both more and less convoluted than this bit of simple business, though God knows why. Sergio Leone made legendary Westerns with half as much plot, but screenwriters Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor thought they also needed to give Jonah the ability to speak to the dead (which doesn’t add a whole lot), an assortment of goofy steampunk weaponry (kind of a letdown when the guy’s supposed to be amazing with just a pistol), and a love interest in the prostitute Lilah (Megan Fox), a character that apparently exists only because there are no other women in this movie.

(Incidentally, Will Arnett—GOB of Arrested Development fame—fills out one of the movie’s many threadbare roles and deadpans the whole thing. And yes, it’s true, my friend Joe and I hummed “The Final Countdown” more than once while he was on-screen. In our defense, he says the word “magic” and is involved with the sinking of a ship. We are only human.)

What the hell kind of movie is Jonah Hex? I’m not sure, but it’s no Western. The very best Westerns have little to do with plot and everything to do with attitude, scenery, and atmosphere; in a Western, the setting is the MacGuffin, not the plot. Jonah Hex operates on an inverse property, where no one says or does anything not directly related to the plot and a few scenes just lay there, not adding anything to character or story. What attitude it has it borrows from Mastodon’s hilarious metal soundtrack and, I don’t know, the screenwriters asking their 14-year-old nephews what they think is “awesome.”

Nothing about Jonah Hex is awesome.

Ken vs. The A-Team

When I think of latter-day Liam Neeson movies, I think of a line Steve Martin used in Bowfinger to justify filming a guerilla movie around an unwitting and paranoid action star (played by Eddie Murphy): “Tom Cruise didn’t know he was in that vampire movie for two years!” Just so with Neeson. I do not believe Taken or The A-Team are movies, exactly; I think a crew just followed Neeson around and recorded his day-to-day activities.

Or maybe that’s just his value to movies like this one. Something about Neeson’s presence—the grave, wise voice, the unflinching stare—makes him, if not an everyman, at least a guy you can trust. Instinctively you believe him, whether he’s neck-chopping bad dudes in France or using the Force to cheat at a game of dice.

The A-Team needs his presence. It’s a movie that is exactly what it appears to be: dumb, moderately fun, full of crazy action and occasionally plausible master plans that conflate extreme luck with cleverness. It’s also a movie that trusts its audience as far as it can throw it: There are three callbacks to previous scenes in the film’s final reel, and two of those, spaced but minutes apart, call back to the same scene. Does that tell you something? I think that should tell you something.

Here are the motions: The A-Team is a ragtag band of four Army Rangers who specialize in doing the absolutely impossible. They are B.A. Baracus (Quinton Jackson) the brawler, Murdock (Sharlto Copley) the crazy pilot, Face (Bradley Cooper) the con man, and Neeson as Hannibal, the tough and brilliant leader who, as he says many times lest you forget, loves it when a plan comes together.

The A-Team is betrayed by a band of Blackwater-style nasties and, after getting thrown in jail, they bust right back out and get their revenge. They are sometimes pursued and sometimes aided by Face’s ex, a Department of Defense intelligence officer (Jessica Biel). Biel’s stuck with the thankless task of always being one step behind Our Heroes and not enjoying any of it, but at least she’s written as smart. Most women in these kinds of movies can’t even say that much.

The rest is not worth remarking on. The movie’s remaining 90 minutes will by obvious to you by the end of the first 30, but no one’s here for surprises or revelations. They want to see the boys crack jokes, shoot guns and throw punches. They want to see the sexy girl in tight clothes. They want to see explosions and action parceled out in a formula as rigid and formalized as any romantic comedy. There was much ado about the irresponsible, brainless pleasure-stroking of Sex and the City 2, but the truth is summer movie houses are chock full of that shit every single Friday; the only difference is that these exercises in escapist fantasy are usually made for men. We’re simply so inundated with “mindless fun” for dudes that we never stop to ask if months-long binges on empty movie calories are doing us any favors.

Look, The A-Team is fine as these things go, but I’m going to be honest with you: If I didn’t have a Friday deadline to fill I wouldn’t have bothered . . . and I sure as hell wouldn’t have paid for it. (If nothing else, this year’s quota of witty action guys doing witty action things was already filled—and better—by The Losers.) You know how the movie goes, I know how the movie goes, and in two months we’ll all have forgotten about it. You can do better.

Ken vs. Get Him to the Greek

Get Him to the Greek

Let’s get this sorted: Russell Brand is reprising the role of Aldous Snow from the charming if overlong Forgetting Sarah Marshall. In that movie he played the new beaux for the titular Sarah, and generally carried on like the pompous but affable rock star he was. Jonah Hill, who played Matthew the creepy waiter and aspiring musician in Marshall, is playing a new character named Aaron Green. Kristen Bell makes a cameo as Sarah Marshall. Nicholas Stoller, the director of Marshall, apparently saw something in the one brief but divine scene shared by Brand and Hill in that earlier work, and so he wrote and directed Get Him to the Greek and made those two guys the leads. Got it? Good, though none of that particularly matters except when Stoller occasionally insists that it does.

In Get Him to the Greek, Hill plays Aaron Green, a record label functionary tasked with getting the past-his-prime Snow from London to LA in 72 hours to play an anniversary concert that may revive his career and, not incidentally, his record label’s finances. Snow’s every bit the boozy, whim-driven rock star you’d imagine, and it actually works against Green that he’s a big fan of Snow—a big enough one to know that Snow’s last album was self-satisfied garbage. But Green’s got to get it right. His boss (Sean “P. Diddy” Combs, surprisingly hilarious) makes it clear that this is his moment to rise or fall.

It carries on from there with the usual assortment of speed bumps, what with Snow falling off the wagon after splitting up with his supermodel/pop star wife (Rose Byrne), his spiteful, mooching father, and a whole host of groupies, yes-men and various other enablers. Green’s just had a nasty split with his girlfriend so maybe he’ll… you know… indulge a little, himself. Can they get to the Greek Theater on time? Will Snow reconcile with his ex, his father, and his disastrous life choices? Gentle reader, I leave that to you to find out.

Get Him to the Greek rests somewhere in the “soft middle” of the past ten years of dude and dude-like comedies. It’s no classic like the greater Apatow works, doesn’t have the infinite replayability of lesser-but-still-inspired movies like Role Models, but it still retains some measure of intelligence and even a little reverence for music. Yes, for instance, that is “London Calling” you hear when Aaron lands in London. Cliché as hell, but at least it’s a live cut. Therein lies Get Him to the Greek’s appeal.

I’m not terribly familiar with Brand’s work pre-American comedies. I liked him fine in Forgetting Sarah Marshall and he surprisingly never gets tiresome here, but there’s only so much mileage you can get out of this kind of character. The ten to fifteen minutes of serious screen time he had in Marshall seemed like enough, so it was pleasantly surprising to see the work just as well at 110. But man, please: no more.

No, Jonah Hill is the real star here. I’ve mentioned before that I’m pretty well over his “it’s funny because he’s yelling” shtick a la Superbad; his presence is vastly less grating when he does the clever, dry, put-upon guy thing. At a few points I honestly found myself wondering how good Hill would be in a drama. Perhaps that’s because one of his few solo excursions—when he goes off into Vegas to score some heroin for Snow—is far and away the funniest thing in the movie, due in large part to Hill’s strength as the straight man. Hill’s probably got the range of his taller, slimmer predecessor, Seth Rogan, but in these more understated roles I prefer his edge to Rogan’s exasperated meta-commentary.

Anyway. Get Him to the Greek is a serviceable comedy with some real talent on display and a decent handful of genuinely hysterical moments, but it lacks the innovation of many of its forebears. I won’t be buying the DVD or seeking out repeat viewings. But considering the film’s mainstream contemporaries, you could do a hell of a lot worse.