“SALT” (2010) Review

 

“SALT” (2010) Review

It has been a while since I last saw a movie directed by Philip Noyce. In fact, the last one I can recall was 2002’s ”THE QUIET AMERICAN”. Imagine my surprise when I discovered he had been chosen to direct Angelina Jolie’s new action thriller called”SALT”

The movie told the story of a CIA agent named Evelyn Salt, who is accused of being a KGB sleeper agent. She eventually goes on the run to try to clear her name. At the order of her supervisor, Ted Winters, Salt interrogates a Russian defector named Orlov, who tells her about an operation organized by a powerful Russian since the Cold War; which will lead to the destruction of the United States. Orlov mentions that at the funeral of the late Vice President in New York City, the visiting Russian President will be killed by Russian spy – Evelyn Salt. Shaken at the accusation, Salt attempts to contact her husband Mike, a German arachnologist, fearing for his safety. Meanwhile, Orlov escapes, which prompts Salt to escape. This causes Winters and a counterintelligence agent named Peabody to believe she is a spy. After finding her husband missing at their apartment, Salt grabs a few essentials and continues her flight. After barely escaping a highway pursuit, Salt takes a bus to New York City to deal with the threat of the Russian president being assassinated.

When I first learned about the plot for ”SALT”, the first thing that came to mind was that it was a female variation on the recent BOURNE trilogy, starring Matt Damon. And in a way, it is. After all, Jolie portrays a CIA agent, who finds herself pursued by her former colleagues. And her character performs stunts that would make Damon . . . or his stunt man rather proud. However, after the movie’s setting had switched to New York City, Kurt Wimmer and Oscar winner Brian Hegeland’s script took an unexpected turn that left me a little breathless. And if that was not enough, another plot twist awaited, once the movie shifted back to Washington D.C. and a plot to kill the U.S. president. Another aspect of ”SALT” that surprised me was that the movie was released on the heels of news about a real Russian spy ring that was recently discovered in the U.S.

Angelina Jolie has come a long way since her two LARA CROFT movies. In her portrayal of Jennifer Salt, she is more assured and matured. And thankfully, she has also dropped the poseur attitude that slightly marred her performances as Lara Croft. Not only did Jolie do a first-rate job with her action sequences, she skillfully guided the emotional turmoil that her character endures throughout the movie. Adding solid support is Liev Schreiber, who portrayed her supervisor, Ted Winters. Beneath the charm and intelligence, Schreiber did a great job in conveying Ted’s emotional reaction to the possibility that Salt might be a Russian deep-cover mole. And Chiwetel Ejiofor was effective as the intense and determined counterintelligence agent, Peabody, who genuinely believes that Salt is a mole. He managed to convey this without indulging in any hammy acting.

Daniel Olbrychski gave a fascinating performance as the Russian defector, Orlov, who accused Salt of being a Russian agent. August Diehl portrayed Salt’s husband, the soft-spoken arachnologist, Michael Krause. Although he hardly had any lines in the film, he quietly conveyed his role as Salt’s emotional center. I was surprised to see Hunt Block, who portrayed the U.S. president. I have not seen him since the 1980s nighttime drama, ”KNOT’S LANDING”. I was also surprised to see Andre Braugher in the movie. He portrayed one of the President’s aides, yet he only had one or two lines. At first, I thought his career had really taken a nose dive, until I remembered that he was on the TNT television series called ”MEN OF A CERTAIN AGE”. So, how did he get stuck in a role that called for only two lines?

Noyce worked well with cinematographer Robert Elswit and film editors Stuart Baird and John Gilroy to create some very interesting action scenes . . . especially the fantastic sequence featuring the attempt to assassinate the Russian president in New York. Jolie contributed to these scenes with some of her own stunt work. Yes, I realize that some of the stunts seemed implausible – especially one that featured a jump by Salt from a Washington D.C. expressway to the top of a moving truck. But I have seen stunts in other movies that I found a lot more implausible. It seemed a pity that the movie was set either during the late fall or the winter. Although the cold season did not take any atmosphere away from the Manhattan sequences, I cannot say the same about the Washington D.C. exterior shots. I have always believed that the capital looked a lot better on film during the spring, summer and early fall seasons.

In the end, I enjoyed ”SALT” very much. I believe that it is one of the better summer movies this year. Director Philip Noyce did a first-class job with a solid script written by Kurt Wimmer and Brian Hegeland, and skillful performances from a cast led by Angelina Jolie. I noticed that the movie ended on a vague note that I would usually find annoying. But considering rumors that a sequel might follow, I can give it a pass.

Advertisements

”INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS” (2009) Review

 

inglourious-basterds

Below is my review of ”INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS”, the latest movie written and directed by Quentin Tarantion:

 

”INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS” (2009) Review

I have rather mixed feelings about director Quentin Tarantino’s work. I have not seen all of the movies that he has directed. And of the movies that I have seen, I can name only two or three I would consider favorites of mine. One of those favorites happened to be his latest – ”INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS”, a World War II comedy-melodrama (I do not know how else to describe the movie) about two attempts to assassinate Nazi leader Adolph Hitler during a movie premiere in occupied Paris.

Thinking about ”INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS”, it occurred to me that its premise struck a familiar note. It bears a strong resemblance to last year’s ”VALKYRIE”, a thriller about the last attempt to kill Hitler by a group of high-ranking German Army officers. But unlike Bryan Singer’s movie, ”INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS” featured two separate plots to kill Hitler that ended with a particular twist.

In order to present a detailed account of these two accounts, Tarantino divided his story into five chapters. The first chapter introduced Colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), a notorious S.S. officer known for hunting and finding refugee Jews in Austria and occupied France. He appears at a French dairy farm in search of a missing Jewish family named Dreyfus. After threatening to punish the dairy farmer (Denis Menochet) hiding the family, Landa manages to have them all killed, except for the 18-19 year-old Shosanna Dreyfus (Mélanie Laurent), who escapes due to Landa lacking bullets in his revolver. Chapter Two opens in early 1944 and introduces U.S. Army Lieutenant Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), a Tennessee hillbilly, who has recruited a group of Jewish-American soldiers to kill and mutilate as many Nazi soldiers they can get their hands on behind enemy lines in occupied France. By the time they have recruited Hugo Stiglitz (Til Schweiger), a former German soldier set to be punished for killing 13 S.S. soldiers, the “Basterds” have created a reputation as butchers by the German high command.

Shosanna returns to the story in Chapter Three, as the owner of a Parisian movie theater. Her theater is chosen to host the premiere of ”A Nation’s Pride , one of Joseph Goebbels’ (Sylvester Groth) propaganda films about the exploits of a German war hero named Fredrick Zoller (Daniel Brühl) . . . after Zoller meets and becomes attracted to Shosanna. The theater owner realizes that the movie premiere is the perfect place for her to get revenge for the deaths of her family and she plots with her lover and projectionist, Marcel (Jacky Ido) to burn down the theater with the moviegoers locked inside. In Chapter Four, British intelligence learns about the premiere from one of their agents – popular German actress Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger) and her plans to have the German high command assassinated. They send one of their operatives to France – German speaking Lieutenant Archie Hicox (Michael Fassbender) – to meet up with the Basterds and von Hammersmark and go along with her assassination plans. Unfortunately, the meeting goes awry due to an encounter with some German soldiers and a Gestapo officer named Dieter Hellstrom (August Diehl). Raines and von Hammersmark are forced to make some changes in their assassination plot. Chapter Five featured the movie’s finale as Shosanna’s movie theater, where the two plots to kill Hitler and the Nazi high command weave in a series of revelations, betrayals, death and sacrifice and end with a surprising plot twist.

”INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS”, like some of Tarantino’s films, turned out to be a prime example of how several unconnected subplots merge into one major plot or goal. In the case of this particular movie, the goal to assassinate Hitler and the Nazi high command. I have noticed that in movies like ”PULP FICTION” and ”JACKIE BROWN”, Tarantino likes to use nonlinear storylines. This does not seemed to be the case in ”INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS”. In fact, he carefully introduced the characters and the story in a straight, linear fashion in Chapters One to Four. Once the finale unfolded in Chapter Five, Tarantino pulled the rug from under moviegoers with several surprising plot twists that left me reeling. And by the time the last scene ended, only two major characters and a supporting character were left standing. Another aspect about ”INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS” that I found enjoyable was its mixture of humor, drama, suspense and action. Well, most of the action featured massive shootings, a major fire, stabbings, strangulation and mutilation. And the ironic thing is that the percentage of action featured in the film was minor in compare to the number of scenes dominated by dialogue. This should not be surprising, considering that many of Tarantino’s films seemed to feature more dialogue than action. Aside from one or two scenes, this did not bother me at all. I think it had something to do with the fact that I found many of the characters in ”INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS” fascinating.

If there is one thing you can count on a Quentin Tarantino film, it is bound to feature a cast of some interesting characters and performances. I suspect that Lieutenant Aldo Raine will go down as one of my favorite characters portrayed by Brad Pitt. The movie never explained Raine’s dislike and hostility toward the Nazis. But his recruitment speech to his “Basterds” made it clear that he disliked them . . . intensely. He even makes sure that his men know that he expects each of them to take at least 100 Nazi scalps. And he literally means scalps. Also, Pitt did an excellent job of expressing not only Raine’s dislike of the Nazis, but also his ruthlessness, sadism and ornery streak. And as long as I remember this movie, I will always relish Pitt’s Tennessee accent and the way he says ”Nat-sees”. Another performance I will certainly remember is Christoph Waltz’s superb performance as the soft-spoken, yet sinister Waffen-SS-turned-SD officer Colonel Hans Landa. The Nazi officer, known for successfully hunting down refugee Jews, is clearly the movie’s main antagonist, yet watching Waltz portray this guy is a joy to behold. He does not resort to the usual clichés about Nazi characters. Instead, his Landa is a polite, humorous and yet, sadistic man who enjoys putting his victims through psychological torture. His interrogations of the French dairy farmer Perrier LaPadite, Shosanna and even Raine are prime examples of this. Only with Raine, I think he may have met his match. It is not surprising that Waltz received the Best Actor Award at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival, along with a Best Supporting Actor Award for both the Golden Globes and the Academy Awards.

However, Pitt and Waltz are not the only ones who provided some memorable performances. I really enjoyed Mélanie Laurent’s performance as the intense and vengeful Shosanna Dreyfus. Not many critics seemed impressed by her performance, but then Shosanna is not exactly what one would call an in-your-face role. I could also say the same about Diane Kruger’s role as the German-born film star, Bridget von Hammersmark. Her role as the anti-Nazi spy for the British is not as colorful as some of the other roles in the film, but it is certainly more complex and interesting than her performances in the ”NATIONAL TREASURE” movies and ”TROY”. I heard a rumor that Kruger had fought for the role of von Hammersmark. Judging from the way she seemed to relish in her role that seem very obvious. Another low key, yet complex performance came from Daniel Brühl as the war hero-turned film actor Fredrick Zoller. He did an excellent job in conveying a genuine attraction to Shosanna, along with his frustration over her cold attitude toward him. He also seemed embarrassed and slightly ashamed of his heroics that led to the deaths of many American soldiers in Italy. Yet, he loves the celebrity that he has managed to acquire as due to his “war heroics”. I was also impressed by Michael Fassbender as the British intelligence officer, Lieutenant Archie Hicox, who was selected to assist von Hammersmark and the Basterds in the plot to kill Hitler. I enjoyed Fassbender’s sharp performance as the British officer as a suave “George Saunders” type, whose command of the German language is perfect, but not his knowledge of German regional accents. And Til Schweiger was perfect as Hugo Stiglitz, the psychotic German soldier whose dislike of the Nazi regime led him to murder 13 Gestapo officers before joining Raine’s group of “Basterds”. He was hilarious, yet frightening in the Chapter Four sequence that featured von Hammersmark’s rendezvous with his fellow Basterd Corporal Wilhelm Wicki (Gedeon Burkhard ) and Hicox. Schweiger’s struggle to keep his temper and murderous impulses in check during their encounter with Major Hellstrom was fascinating to watch. Apparently actor-writer-producer Eli Roth does not have a great reputation as an actor. Even I could see that he was no great shakes as an actor. Yet, the role of the violent and obnoxious Staff Sergeant Donny “The Bear Jew” Donowitz seemed to fit him like a glove. Roth did a pretty good job in conveying Donowitz’s funny, yet psychotic nature.

Before one would assume that I consider ”INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS” as an example of cinematic perfection, I must admit there were a few aspects of the film that troubled me. There were moments when the pacing seemed a bit too slow for me. I thought that Tarantino had lingered on the conversation between Colonel Landa and Perrier LaPadite longer than necessary. I suspect that this scene was merely a showcase for Landa’s talents as an investigator and his penchant for psychological sadism. Unfortunately, I found myself longing for it to end before it actually did. Another scene that seemed to stretch longer than necessary featured Bridget von Hammersmark’s meeting with Hicox and two of the Basterds inside a tavern in Chapter Four. The scene began with the actress engaged in a guessing game with German soldiers celebrating the birth of one of their colleagues’ son. In fact, the actress is forced to play this same game with Major Hellstrom, Hicox and the Basterds when the Gestapo officer insists upon remaining at their table. Now, I realize that the presence of the German soldiers played a major role in Chapter Four. But honestly . . . I found the game a bore and thought it dragged the scene.

My last quibble centered around Lieutenant Raine’s men – the “Basterds”. Aside from Hugo Stiglitz and Donny Donowitz, we never really got a chance to really know the Basterds. Most of them were given brief spotlights, but not enough to really satisfy me. After all, the movie is named after their group. Of the other “Basterds” – Wilhelm Wicki, Smithson Utivich, Omar Ulmer, Gerold Hirschberg, Andy Kagan, Michael Zimmerman, and Simon Sakowitz – at least three of them were given brief spotlights. And Tarantino never revealed what happened to the rest of them. I also understand that Tarantino had attempted to recruit Oscar-winning composer Ennio Morricone to create the movie’s score. The composer rejected the offer, due to the film’s sped-up production schedule. Instead, Tarantino utilized some of Morricone’s tracks from previous films into the movie’s soundtrack. I only hope that Tarantino did this with the composer’s permission.

As for the technical aspects of ”INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS”, I believe that Tarantino did a solid job in consolidating the cinematography, production designs, costume designs, and special effects to create a first-rate movie. But I must admit that I found myself especially impressed by Tarantino’s own script that featured a straight, linear story that concluded in a very surprising manner. I was also very impressed by the visual effects supervised by Gregory D. Liegey and Viktor Muller . . . especially during the final sequence that featured the movie premiere.

I might as well say it . . . I really enjoyed ”INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS. It is one of the very few movies I have really enjoyed in 2009.  It made the list for my ten favorite movies for that year.  It also featured an excellent story with some surprising twists and a superb international cast led by Brad Pitt, Christoph Waltz and Mélanie Laurent. And considering my mixed views on Tarantino’s body of work that has to be saying something. Hell, I have already seen it at least five or six times by now.