Friday, July 30, 2010

Glum and glam

Like its star, Salt is a spare and lean piece of work; it’s everything a modern action movie should be, a picture made with confidence but not arrogance, one that believes so wholeheartedly in its outlandish plot twists that they come to make perfect alt-universe sense. The story — the script is by Kurt Wimmer — draws numerous outrageous loops, but Noyce neither dwells on them ponderously nor speeds through them in a misguided attempt to energize his audience. And he makes fine use of his star, an actress whose lanky gait is as delicious to watch as her spring-loaded leaps are. Noyce frames the movie around Jolie’s finely tuned sense of movement, and yet it’s her expressiveness that anchors the story emotionally: In an old-fashioned, old-Hollywood way, Noyce and his cinematographer, Robert Elswit, are wholly alive to her face and all its possibilities.

[. . .]

Noyce has made his share of action thrillers (he’s the director behind the Tom Clancy adaptations Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger), but he’s pulled off more serious, emotionally complex material too (like his meticulous and thoughtful version of Graham Greene’s The Quiet American). Salt is, of course, closer in style to the former than the latter; still, Noyce approaches the material with a healthy sense of humor. The subject matter alone is likely to give moviegoers of a certain age a pleasant shiver of Cold War nostalgia, and Noyce runs with that. (The Cold War wasn’t so much fun while it was going on, but as much as we feared that the Soviets might someday come over and liquefy our buildings, they never actually did so.) Touches like Orlov’s dumpling-thick Russian accent, or the way Salt wraps herself in a swishy fur-trimmed cape, topped off with a Dr. Zhivago toque, are served up with a sly wink. (Stephanie Zacharek, Salt, Angelina Jolie Deliver the Action-Packed Summer Blockbuster Goods, Movieline, 21 July 2010)

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It's a mark of the stupidity (and hypocrisy) of Stephanie's lazy fanboys that they actually admire her for her critical double standards, her inane protocols, and her lack of intellectual rigor. For her review (gee what a surprise that an Angelina Jolie starrer gets an unqualified rave from Stephanie - gosh darn it, never saw that one coming!!) praises Salt for all the same qualities she derided Inception for having: an unbelievable plot set in an "alt universe," "outlandish plot twists," over-the-top images which equate "awesomeness" with "greatness," paper-thin characterization, etc., etc. No use trying to find consistency and fairness in a Stephanie Zacharek evaluation. Read between the lines and she's basically excusing Salt for containing the exact same elements she found objectionable and tiresome in Inception. To describe a movie as taking place in an "alt universe" where "outlandish plot twists" occur is to admit the movie is junk after all.

The only difference is that Salt doesn't take itself too seriously: being self-consciously "hip" rather than attempting to be "deep," and also having a glam heroine rather than a gloomy hero, Steph can ignore the fact that in all other respects, it's just as undistinguished as the other film she panned.

Essentially she loved Salt for one main reason: because it has Angelina Jolie as a kick-ass heroine. Since Stephanie, like so many of her smug admirers, has always been a delusional, self-congratulatory narcissist, of course that combo would go down well. It always does.

Secret to making a movie that SZ is guaranteed to love: make the plot knowingly "hip" in its outrageousness. Make sure you include plenty of preposterous plot twists, but make sure you show, every step of the way, you're in on the joke. That way no one can accuse you of taking yourself too seriously. That also is guaranteed to make SZ and like-minded hipsters feel super-cool and "with it" when they watch.

Next, add in a glam-girl heroine who, despite looking like a waif, can by some miracle kick ass effortlessly, even when up against men twice her size. Stephanie, being a narcissist, will always praise any movie that allows her to "identify" (the way a little kid "identifies" with her barbie dolls) with a sexy, witty, butt-kicking, devil-may-care babe. (Never mind that in real life, a woman with Jolie's physique would last about 30 seconds against any of these heavies: in today's market, movies are about flattering the female ago just as much as the teen male ego. At least James Cameron, whatever his other faults, cast the brawny Linda Hamilton as his female ass-kicker.) Most people outgrow this kind of dumb fantasy long before they're Steph's age.

Finally, cast Angelina Jolie in the lead. This isn't always necessary, but it's a marked bonus.

What's especially funny is that I guessed more or less what SZ was going to write the moment I saw the poster for Salt. She has become that crushingly predictable. There wasn't a single paragraph of this review that took me by surprise. Stephanie, you truly are a paint-by-numbers hack.

This part of SZ's review made me laugh:

The movie opens with a flashback, jolting us back to early-2000’s North Korea. A semi-naked Salt is being tortured by soldiers in a dank-looking dungeon. They keep insisting she’s a spy; she keeps repeating, with unwavering authority, “I’m not a spy, I’m a businesswoman”

God, I've never seen that one before! Didn't Madonna parody this one in her "Die Another Day" video? Isn't it the opening scene of every episode of Alias ever? Thank God Salt's there to keep the hoariest of cliches alive. (Chris, response to post)

Chris: I think you do a good service in getting us to compare her reviews. Having read her review of "Prince of Persia," for example, with its key praise for it being that though it isn't perfect it does at least aim for "grandeur" ([i]n a moviegoing climate where so many people — out of necessity or preference — end up watching movies at home on DVD"), I think you really should ask for some explanation as to why "Inception" was so panned SPECIFICALLY FOR its aiming at the OMG! awesome. I don't think it's quite a contradiction because I think she really appreciates ambitious reach, lavish and scale, and wants us to extend ourselves to films that generously offer as much, but doesn't want to sense that a film's grandeur / awesomeness depends on your willingness as a filmgoer to experience it as an acolyte oh-so-ready to lose yourself to rapture, or just on your having sat before a film that will willy-nilly juice you until you're brain-fried, but it's worthy of a clarification, and my guess is that few who read both reviews thought one was required.

Reading this review, I myself would want to know how exactly a reviewer would square praising a film for it "believ[ing] so wholeheartedly in its outlandish plot twists that they come to make perfect alt-universe sense," with its also deserving kudos for its "healthy sense of humor." It seems, at least, that the same film is credited for its level of seriousness and immersion but also for its laid-backness and modesty, its evidencing of a knowing and awry distance / detachment. Maybe the two can go together, but not obviously so; and it's worth a check to see if with this film they're congruent and / or that if for some reason to a certain reviewer taking oneself seriously is always a precarious lurch, even when its clearly established as a subject of praise. I don't want to be prepared to be generous with a film simply because a film maker shows s/he's prepared to shift tones / weight if what s/he's up to "now" is making me uncomfortable -- not simply because it gives me room to think / feel for myself -- or because it extends some reach but beyond what remain MOSTLY ACCEPTED perimeters (i.e., standard summer blockbuster fair): I'd be concerned, I think, that what I foremost want / expect movies to show me is that they are first of all MY subject -- i.e., just a movie -- with from there being the starting place, the only place, from which something worthwhile might develop. I'd be afraid that previous shocks were delimiting, were limiting, current explorations, who I might still become. Or is it sheerly childish to ask that a movie be allowed still to alter you, morph beyond being just a movie to actually become a life-changing event -- to a certain extent even without your permission -- with adulthood being about attenuation, modest reconsideration / recalibration to a largely settled core? Do we actually APPRECIATE the bossyness in the Nolans -- the bossy Nolans -- if "they" help us color all of what might be good for us but what we can't bear to brave, so we can engage them optionally, perhaps LARGELY laughing, mocking, deriding and closed?

Re: “I think you really should ask for some explanation as to why "Inception" was so panned SPECIFICALLY FOR its aiming at the OMG! awesome. I don't think it's quite a contradiction, because I think she really appreciates ambitious reach, lavish and scale, and wants us to extend ourselves to films that generously offer as much, but doesn't want to sense that a film's grandeur / awesomeness depends on your willingness as a filmgoer to experience it as an acolyte oh-so-ready to lose yourself to rapture”

Patrick, I understand that everyone has their personal quirks and biases, and that what turns one person's crank won't turn another's. Every single critic and moviegoer on the planet brings her or his own personal prejudices to the table. And I know there's no objectively "right" or "wrong" opinion about any movie under the sun. (And I must repeat: I'm fairly lukewarm on Christopher Nolan myself.)

But Stephanie takes subjectivity of response to a nearly psychotic extreme. Skim through her reviews and it becomes glaringly obvious she just plain likes certain qualities that aren't inherently "better" or "worse" than others she detests: she just likes movies that contain certain ingredients and that's that. It doesn't matter if the ingredients are sloppily flung together, it doesn't matter if the recipe is poorly prepared in the kitchen, all that matters is that it contains Stephanie's favorite ingredients. She's like a restaurant who loves pasta more than anything in the world, so therefore gives every single Italian restaurant she visits a four-star review. Whereas she hates Chinese food, so every Chinese place gets the thumbs down regardless of how good or bad the food is. Just the fact that it serves Chinese food is enough for her to give a restaurant a thrashing. Have critical standards sunk so low that we now revere individual reviewers simply for not saying the same thing as everyone else? One can be a moron as long as one isn't a sheep? Just because Zacharek departs from the general consensus on Chris Nolan movies, she's to be revered as some sort of hero?

Having read (like a masochist) enough of Stephanie's reviews over the years, I'm prepared to say again that the main reason she loved Salt and hated Inception is this (to quote from myself): Salt is a movie having a glam heroine rather than a gloomy hero.

Again and again SZ says nice things about movies with heroines who play into SZ's wish-fulfillment fantasies. It's quite revealing what she does and doesn't like about the movies she reviews. What really irritates her about Inception and The Dark Knight is that the kind of wish-fulfillment they tap into is more of a guy thing, whereas SZ likes chick flicks of a certain sort, not gushily sentimental ones like Titanic, but Angelina's movies, or the TV show Sex and the City, chick shows and chicklit and chick flicks of a certain hip, cool register. Chris Nolan's universe is too much of a geeky boy's club, but it isn't actually "worse" artistically so much as it appeals to a different niche.

. . . . .

Oops, this....

She's like a restaurant who loves pasta more than anything in the world

should read She's like a restaurant REVIEWER who loves pasta.... etc. (Chris, response to post)

She really liked "Letters to Juliet," and it wasn't so much cool and hip (in fact it wasn't at all that) as it was bright, warm, relaxed and --- conditionally -- AVAILABLE: I think, the opposite of hipster. I think you can provide a lot of examples of the cool and hip she goes for, but it would as you know need targeting to convince, because with just hearing that she goes for the hip and cool it's too easy to think of movies that are a kind of cool, that are in fact so LAMENTABLY cooled down that you recall most vividly her attending to the few instances of vibrant "aliveness" the films did allow, the refreshing bit of color -- glam? -- in landscapes otherwise so everywhere neutered and grey. Your claim that she is attracted to glam is interesting, though. As I've suggested / implied, it could be made to be about her preference for color over drabness, part of her war against freezing mannerisms -- which would be a sign of her own aliveness, her expectancy for soulfulness, much more than it would her girlish adolescence -- but you mostly want to make it equivalent to the stunted guy's going for glum and grime it would seem.

You made the point earlier that the legacy of Pauline Kael (I remember now I actually did try to get into her work -- a couple of times in fact -- but so wasn't drawn in that I could barely recall having tried her on: I was always way, way more for Nathaniel Branden than I was the kinda alien creature-seeming Ayn Rand as well) has been the omnipresence of critics who cannot allow that their ostensibly more evolved, more involved engagement with films has mostly been a kind of cunning skating on the surface, an ongoing disinclination to throughly analyze, deeply involve oneself with film, in preference to sporting with them. You focus on Stephanie because you think she's so beholden to her, because she represents THE PROBLEM -- the log jam -- it would mostly seem, and not because you're a masochist (though you say this, and I accept it, and hope you know it's worth your exploring too). And it seems -- from one of the things you said on the "Inception" thread -- also because you have seen what she can do, and sense her potential. If I were you, I would continue to finesse out where she goes wrong, and -- very much please -- at some point also where she goes so wonderfully right, for all our sakes. Maybe you could best do so by responding after you've just seen a film she's "taken on."

You know the challenge involved in showing the kind of reviewer who seems attendant and responsive to every film molecule to be actually mostly closed off / shut down, so I wish you a universe of good luck, as well as an unbeknownst deity or two to have your back. But my rooting for your cause is genuine: Wouldn't it be wonderful if one day Stephanie looked back and recalled "Avatar" in such a way that you wouldn't be drawn, as one commenter on the Salon thread did, to ask if she in fact had a limbic system? As I thought the alien flower she so appreciated and attended to in the film notable but still so easily and immediately trumped preamble, I had to wonder too, and would certainly cheer at this!

Link: Angelina Jolie Deliver the Action-Packed Summer Blockbuster Good (Movieline)

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