Friday, August 20, 2010
Disclaimer: Yes, I think Salt is just as good as Inception. If this offends you, go elsewhere!
Salt is, for my money, the best action thriller to come out of the mainstream in a while. In short, Angelina Jolie plays Evelyn Salt, a crack CIA agent who is pulled in last minute to interrogate a Russian walk-in, who figures her as a sleeper agent. Action, intrigue and mystery ensues. I was dazzled and enraptured for it's 95 minute length by it's impeccable craft and nervy filmmaking; Salt is no revolution in this genre or any genre. What it does it is tweaks and heightens tropes and cliches of the genre to make itself as original and enjoyable as it is.
Directed by Philip Noyce, of the excellent Rabbit-Proof Fence and a host of not-so-excellent thrillers, the film moves along at a clip. It is economical, we get as much information as we need, and then we move onto the next plot point, the next fight scene, the next piece of awesome. It is a fleet film, but the editing isn't as jump-cut-happy as the Bourne trilogy, the last of which shockingly won the Oscar for Most Editing. This is most prominent in the fight scenes, it has become frighteningly common during fight scenes for the editor to cut on action, not to let the stuntman/action carry through the motion and land a hit. There's also an equally frightening lack of geography in these fight scenes, you have no idea where any actor is in the scene and it's disarming for all the wrong reasons. However, in Salt, there's just that split-second extra after a cut, we see the actor land a hit, we know where they are in the room. It's a small change, but the film is infinitely better because of it.
Visually and aurally the film is impeccably crafted, but perhaps too calculated. This is to be expected of a calculated mainstream action film though, so it's hardly unforgivable. James Newton Howard provides a typical action score, there's vervy, uncomfortable synths that set the action on edge and that speed up just at the right moment for the fight scenes. Robert Elswit has as much command of the image as he always does; the cinematography is grand if unimaginative here. It's never at a detriment to the film and seems almost invisible, never did I go "WOW! THAT'S A GREAT SHOT!" which was the point, I guess.
And we come to maybe my favourite part of the film, the screenplay. If there was any justice in the world, this would be up for awards. At the very least, it needs to be used as a teaching tool. Just like the film, it's fleet and economical. We don't linger on exposition, we don't linger on "she has a husband" fluff, it's in and out. The audience is given as much information as they need. This is especially important where the twists are concerned; I figured them out earlier then they came, but I feel like I figured them out at the exact right point so I was in on it just before the screenplay told me what was up. Early enough to feel smart and satisfied. It's a perfectly-crafted screenplay, even if it lacks a little depth.
Okay, I lied. My favourite part of this film is its calling card, Angelina Jolie. Jolie is perfect for this role, and she gives a more-than-decent performance in the role. It's a hard role to perfect, Evelyn Salt is a character that has to keep us guessing from the second act all the way into the last act. Jolie keeps us on her side while keeping her innate aura of mystery and distance around her. It's a balancing act, but it is what the film is sold on. "Who is Salt?" indeed.
Is Salt a masterpiece? Not at all. There are occasionally clunky moments, but they're brief and skimmed over. The coda feels tacked on, egging on for a sequel which I hope will come. And some of the visual effects aren't integrated as well as they should be; they seem to press up against the frankly masterful stunt work. But as far as action films go, as far as intelligent action thrillers go, this is an iconic entry into the genre, and should be as well-remembered in the years to come as Die Hard is. A/A-.
Sunday, August 15, 2010
Science fiction is one of those genres that has masses of potential; potential that is rarely mined or achieved. At the low point of the genre we have The Matrix, Barbarella and countless cult or 'SyFy' (as the channel is now called) films which pretend at intellectual or social relevance but end up being frustratingly shallow. At the high point, we have the original Solaris, Cronenberg's output, Lynch's output (depending on how liberal your definition of science fiction is) and The Fountain. This remake, or if we're to be more accurate, reinterpretation ranks at the high end of cinema. (You can take your Star Wars, Star Treks and Avatars and shove them. Well-crafted if we're being generous, but morally simplistic and backwards.)
You can't begin to analyse Solaris without acknowledging that it is based off a novel which is very different, and it stands in the very large shadow of the original Tarkovsky film. This Solaris is still as brainy, vervy and technically exquisite as it's predecessor, but there is a clear shift in focus between the films. The Tarkovsky version is much more focused on the titular Solaris, a seemingly menacing planet whereas the remake, by wunderkind Steven Soderbergh, is far more focused on the main character, a psychologist sent to figure out what is going on with the inhabitants of the space station above Solaris. It is this change in focus that makes the films interesting to compare and contrast.
Alas, I'm not going to be doing that. Because I haven't seen the original Solaris since I was a wee young lad of fifteen. And I have Soderbergh's version on hand. And this is a review/essay/analysis/criticism of that one.
Solaris is much more concerned with the headspace of it's hero, in his insecurities, frailties and half-memories refracted by Solaris. The central plot of Solaris, unchanged, is the psychologist, Chris, (Clooney) goes to a space station to figure out what is wrong with the inhabitants (Davis, Wright), and finds things to be seriously strange and off-kilter there. A spectre of his dead wife, Rheya, (McElhone) shows up and he puts her out the airlock, convinced she is some projection of the planet. And then she returns. Things get worse.
Inserted between the present mystery of the space station and Solaris are memories of Chris and Rheya's troublesome marriage, fraught with misunderstanding, overworking, and all the things that middle-class people have issues with in their marriage. There's also a fair deal of interesting, and provocative talk about religion and philosophy that's uncommon in this genre, let alone any commercial film. (It's easy to forget that in 2002, this was intended to be a commercial film. And it flopped quite badly. Sadly, that box office flop has translated into an unfair critical slamming.)
What gets me, and appeals to me, about Solaris is it's preoccupation with the human elements of science fiction. The purpose of science fiction, to me, is to shine a light on humanity and society, not to show aliens beating up other aliens and shapely women. That could just be me, though.
The horror sets into this film when the audience realises that this spectre is not in fact Chris' dead wife. Even in this science fiction fantastical setting, which skews uncomfortably close to reality, we know this cannot be true. Instead, she is a projection powered or fueled by his memory, as her chilling remark tells us, "If I'm suicidal it's because that's how you remember me." It sets up the most interesting parts of the film, where we see Chris wrestling with this fact, and even more horrifically, trying to bring Rheya back to Earth with him. When Gordon (Davis) says, "It's not human." it is just as much of a shock to the audience as it is to Chris, not because we think she's human, but because it's easy to get duped.
There's so much about this film that I'm not getting across that I want to. So I'll talk about the craft. Soderbergh is never an uninteresting craftsman, and the editing style in this film is nearly as experimental as The Limey, there's a docu-drama kind of feeling to it at points, and a fractal memory like quality. It isn't consistent, and it never lets you rest. It's a definite bonus. The widescreen photography is also gorgeous, especially on the Earth scenes, with the golden hues. Cliff Martinez delivers a subtly creepy score that underlines that bad shit is going to happen well before it does and setting the audience appropriately off-edge.
On the other side of the camera, all of the actors are assets to this piece. This is Clooney's best performance, haters of him aside, he's removed all of his charisma. There is nothing wry or sarcastic here, there is just the harrowing guilt and disbelief. He has a subtle character arc to play, and there's nothing showy or false about this turn. Natasha McElhone is severely underrated, as well. There's a dual performance here, the Rheya as Rheya and the Rheya as Chris remembers her; there's enough overlap between the two to make it convincing, and enough difference to make it unnerving. The actress has an inert quality that makes her very well-cast for this part; it's just another shading that this projection is not human. This is Chris' memory funneled through Solaris. As an afternote, Davis is perfect in this film as the severe Lieutenant Gordon. She's the audience medium here, and she although she doesn't get a big scene or moment to herself, her line-reading of "It's not human." reverberates after the film.
The most troubling question the film poses is at the end, "I am haunted by the idea that I remembered her wrong." For me, that sentence is as brutal and harrowing as it gets. The film is an example of how close science fiction can get to the human condition, even as it spreads outwards in surreal and often horrific ways.