You can neither make beautiful, great movies without risk as you can make babies without sex. Risk is part of the artistic process. That’s why I like performance, because performance is walking a high wire.
~ Francis Coppola
Posts Tagged ‘Salt’
Salt: Deluxe Unrated Edition
Angelina Jolie has proven time and again that she’s the only established actress — outside China, anyway – who not only can open an action film, but also carry it to the finish line at the box office, no matter how unfathomable the premise. If I had to boil her appeal in such pictures down to a single word, it would be, “swagger.”
William Goldman is one of the greatest screenwriters of all-time, but he was also a fantastic essayist and one of the most insightful minds when it came to writing about films. His collection of essays, The Big Picture, has been read so many times by me that the pages are starting to break free from the binding. But one of the questions he came back to was: who is the biggest star in the world right now? Almost every year during the ’90s, he tried his best to answer that very question.
For whatever reason, Goldman’s not writing (or at least not publishing) his essays about film and I decided that I would try to answer the question as we wind down the year 2010. Just like Goldman, I won’t use a ton of numbers or charts and graphs, but I’ll present my evidence as best as I can.
Last year, I think the answer would have been a bit easier. James Cameron was clearly the biggest star in the world in 2009 and it wasn’t even close. The man released his first film in twelve years and just happened to make a movie that broke every box office record imaginable. It is now clear that any year in which Cameron releases a film, he will be the biggest star in that year. One could make a case that he’s the biggest star of this current year since Avatar raked in most of its dough after the calendar flipped to 2010, but by the time this year ends, I don’t think he’ll still be on anyone’s mind.
As for those in front of the camera, it would be easy to name folks like George Clooney or Brad Pitt. Up in the Air and Inglourious Basterds were hits both critically and commercially and it’s reasonable to expect every film to which one of these handsome men is attached will at least make its money back. People will go to the movies specifically because they hear the names “Clooney” or “Pitt” and that’s becoming increasingly rarer.
If you need evidence of this, check out this weekend’s grosses for The American. It was the number one film of the weekend, despite the fact that Clooney was the only actor anybody heard of and despite the fact that it’s a deliberately-paced film that most American audiences would usually find dull. I doubt it’ll have strong legs next weekend, when word of mouth spreads, but the bottom line is that Clooney put butts in seats this weekend. Audiences in this country feel comfortable with Pitt and Clooney, that they will deliver the goods in projects that are worthy of their time and money.
Johnny Depp might want in on this conversation.
I personally think he’s fading as an actor I trust, but Alice in Wonderland still made a ton of money. Although, I don’t know how much if it is Depp and how much of it is Burton and how much of it is the recognizable brand. Depp certainly didn’t help Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus get seen by very many people, and while Public Enemies did okay, it didn’t do as well as expected in a cushy Independence Day slot. The Tourist will be a good test for him, where he’s paired with one of the top female stars out there.
Speaking of Angelina Jolie, could she be the biggest star in the world? She’s certainly one of the most recognizable faces, gracing the covers of magazines on newsstands around the globe. She was the only major draw in Salt and that film has grossed over a hundred million dollars at the box office. Jolie and action is a formula for success, as she had already proved with Wanted. Unfortunately, put her in a serious drama – even one she’s excellent in, like Changeling – and audiences turn away.
Speaking of Clint Eastwood, I must make mention of him because I think he was on William Goldman’s list every single year he made it. And the weird thing is that you could probably still put him somewhere on the list. The guy has been a commodity for about forty years already and has shown no signs of slowing, releasing a film every single year. When he actually gets in front of the camera, (a rare sight these days) people tend to show up, even if it’s something as dumb as Gran Torino.
Box office gross of the aforementioned film: nearly 150 million bucks and Eastwood was the only draw. Dude is nearly eighty and he still gets audiences to come out. His next film, Hereafter, reunites him with Invictus star Matt Damon and comes out in the fall.
Matt Damon, you say? Why yes, I did. I’d love to put him somewhere on this list, but the truth of the matter is that while he’s a recognizable face and name and he gives any film he stars in the air of respectability…he’s not quite in the running for biggest movie star status. The Bourne films were cash-cows, of course, but the truth of the matter is that he’s too much of a damned artist to be a movie star.
He’s the kind of guy who gains forty pounds to star in a Soderbergh film, the kind of guy who brings subtlety to his pitch-perfect performance in The Good Shepherd (one of my favorite performances of the last twenty years). He’s the kind of guy who will take time out of his schedule to film cameos in Soderbergh’s Che or Coppola’s Youth Without Youth. He doesn’t seem especially motivated by money or fame; instead it seems his one big desire is to work with as many great directors as possible.
The guy has worked with Scorsese, Coppola, Soderbergh, Minghella, Van Sant, Gilliam, Redford, Eastwood, and has a film coming up with the Coen Brothers. He might be one of the finest popular actors of his generation, but he’s not one of its biggest movie stars.
Damon also worked with Steven Spielberg on Saving Private Ryan and Spielberg used to be a staple on this list. You could always put him on it because he’s easily the most famous film director in the history of motion pictures. If you ask any bozo off the street to name a film director, they’ll definitely be able to mention Steven Spielberg. Unfortunately the man hasn’t released a film since Munich (What Indiana Jones film? I keep telling you, it doesn’t exist!).
He’s got a couple of projects on the horizon, including War Horse and Tintin, but I can’t put him anywhere near the top until he finally makes that damned Abraham Lincoln movie. Or, you know, if War Horse is brilliant and makes a ton of money. But he deserves a place on this list, even as just a producer. Hell, every Transformers movie is a gigantic hit and he’s one of the men responsible for it.
How about the star of that hit franchise? No, not Michael Bay or Optimus Prime, but Shia LaBeouf. He’s only 24 years old and he’s the lead actor in a franchise that has grossed a kajillion dollars (he was also in that Spielberg movie that doesn’t exist and grossed a lot of money). But, come on, we know people weren’t going to the theater for a chance to see LaBeouf. And while Disturbia was a decent-sized hit, Eagle Eye was a disappointment. We’ll see how he does with the Wall Street sequel, but even if it’s a huge success, it probably won’t be due to him. He might be the biggest star in the world in five to ten years, but he’s not there yet.
There’s no natural transition to this one, so I’m going to try not to snap my neck with this segue: Will Smith! What about Big Willie? He’s still getting jiggy with audiences, whether it’s in the atrocious Hancock or the even more atrocious Seven Pounds. It’s actually an amazing testament to his star power that the latter film managed to gross seventy million dollars, despite its subject matter.
I mean, that’s not an easy film to sell and basically they marketed it as “Will Smith…in a movie!” Nobody had any clue what it was about, but the promise of Will Smith drew people in. That’s pretty impressive. But he’s been absent from screens for two years now and Men in Black III isn’t coming out until 2012, so he’s taking a break from his throne.
No, Jaden Smith isn’t where I’m going next.
I don’t know who to blame or praise for the success of Twilight, so I can’t really put any of those kids or filmmakers on here. I’ll chalk that one up to “phenomenon” and move on. Same goes for the much better Harry Potter films.
Leonardo DiCaprio? He’s the star of one of the most talked-about movies of the year, Inception, which will end up with around 300 million bucks in the bank. Not too shabby. He’s also Scorsese’s favorite actor and DiCaprio has helped turn Scorsese into a legitimate box office favorite. Or maybe it was the other way around? Unfortunately, he couldn’t help turn Revolutionary Road or Body of Lies into hits.
In the right project, DiCaprio is gold. And Inception might have been more about Christopher Nolan than DiCaprio. I think his turn as the title character in Eastwood’s J. Edgar Hoover biopic will probably garner some awards buzz, but we’ll see if he can take it to the top of the box office.
Adam Sandler was the answer to this question for a while. But that was back when his movies cost nothing to make and grossed insane sums of money. Now the movies cost more, he costs more and he can’t even guarantee a hit when he’s working with Judd Apatow. Grown Ups grossed about $160 million, but it definitely cost quite a bit to make and market. He’s near the top of the list, but it seems he’s veering closer towards modern-day Eddie Murphy family-movie territory. And that’s a hit or miss world to live in.
Okay, enough beating around the bush, the answer to the biggest movie star in the world? Well, who could it be other than Sandra Bullock? She’s gracing the cover of Entertainment Weekly this week despite the fact that she’s got nothing to promote and she wasn’t even interviewed. She starred in two massive hits last year, got an Oscar and could get anything greenlit immediately. She was the star of 2009 and is the biggest movie star to grace a cinema screen right now.
But that’s not the answer. She might be the biggest actor in the world, but the biggest movie star right now (and I would argue, for the last decade) is very simple…
Name me another company, actor, director, etc. in the history of cinema that has never made a film that bombed either critically or commercially. You can’t do it. (Okay, maybe John Cazale?) Every year, Pixar releases a film that grosses a ton of money and tops critics lists. This year, they put out Toy Story 3 and it grossed over 400 million dollars. I don’t think any movie star on the planet can guarantee you half that. Well, except for Pixar. I’m putting the over/under on the next five Pixar releases at 250 million and I’ll take the over. I’ll win every time.
Without a doubt, the biggest movie star in the world is Pixar. And it’s not even close.
I finally caught up with Salt this weekend and I’m surprised it’s gotten a pass from most of the critical community (61% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes). It’s not that it’s an awful movie, but it’s certainly not a very good one. In fact, it’s a ridiculous and outlandish film that feels twenty minutes too long despite the fact that it’s got a 90 minute running time. You’ve seen this movie before and everyone in it seems kind of bored, going through the motions, except for a nearly mute Angelina Jolie.
But the one thing I was certain of while I was watching the twists and turns of a narrative that made little sense was this: Angelina Jolie is an action star.
I want that to sink in a little bit because it’s a much bigger deal than you might think. I can think of other female movie stars that have been in an action movie or two, but I honestly can’t think of one prior to Jolie who could legitimately be called an action hero on the level of someone like Sylvester Stallone or Bruce Willis. What I mean by that is that those guys were brands and you simply took an action property and placed one of them in it and it guaranteed a greenlight and often box office success. There is a long history of female branding, but almost solely in the realm of romantic comedies or “chick flick” vehicles. We found America’s newest sweethearts by looking to see who was making the most money in a romantic comedy, with the crown held by actresses like Julia Roberts and Sandra Bullock. Can’t really picture either of those two in a film like Wanted or Salt.
What’s so interesting to me about Angelina Jolie’s career is that she isn’t interested in being America’s sweetheart. She does her share of serious work (her performance in A Mighty Heart is one of the finest female performances in the last decade), but instead of alternating that work with a light, frothy romance, instead she picks action films. Rather than filming montages where she’s frolicking with her would-be suitor in parks, she’s kicking and punching and shooting bad guys and scaling tall buildings. More than that, we believe her in these roles.
Let’s face it, action movies have long been a boy’s club. If there are female parts that require some ass-kicking, it’s usually beside a stronger male part. This summer we’ve seen two takes on a similar theme with Knight and Day and Killers, both of which are films that require most of the action to be done by Tom Cruise and Ashton Kutcher, respectively, while Cameron Diaz and Katherine Heigl shriek a lot and cower. Both of them are thrown a bone and they’re allowed to shoot a gun, but it’s clear that they are not the action heroes of those films.
Jolie, meanwhile, is doing most of the dirty work in her action films. I really didn’t enjoy Wanted, but I admired the fact that James McAvoy was playing the ingénue part and shrieking while Jolie played the calm and cool veteran of the game.
But the most important word in discussing Jolie’s action films is the word “films” as in multiple, more than one or two. Before Jolie, the only woman I could conceivably call an action hero is Sigourney Weaver due to her work in one series of films (the Alien movies) and I really think of her more as Bill Murray’s girlfriend in Ghostbusters. Every other female star since – and I mean movie stars here – has gotten where they are because they starred in romantic comedies, romantic dramas, family dramas, etc. Jolie is famous mostly due to her work as an action hero in films like Tomb Raider 1 and 2, Gone in Sixty Seconds, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, Wanted, Mr. And Mrs. Smith. More should be made of this.
As for Salt itself, as I said earlier, it’s not good. I give the film credit for having a twist that was fairly interesting, but most of the film doesn’t make any sense. We’re supposed to believe Evelyn Salt is so in love with her husband that it has fundamentally changed her, yet we barely get to see any of her husband at all. We have to take the film’s word for it that they are in love because we see almost no evidence of it. It’s hard to be affected by a film just because it’s telling you to be affected by it.
The relationship with her husband is supposed to ground Evelyn Salt as a character and make the action scenes sizzle more because she has something on the line that is greater than national security. Except the movie has no interest in actually building that relationship outside of one major act of heroism on the husband’s part in the beginning of the film.
But speaking of the beginning of the film, the movie lost me pretty much from the get-go.
You see, Salt has been detained in North Korea and is being tortured by her captors and they’ve decided to waterboard her in her underwear. You see, the part that’s wrong with that is that she’s in her underwear. I’m not a pervert – and lord knows I could easily find films where Jolie disrobes completely – but I find it hard to believe that while torturing a CIA agent, they would allow her to keep her clothes. If you’ve read anything about Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo Bay, you’re aware of the fact that prisoners who are tortured are not often allowed to keep their clothes on. I understand that the film needs to keep Jolie clothed in order to gain a PG-13 rating, but it doesn’t jibe with the reality of the situation, or at least what I perceive the reality to be. It all comes down to my favorite word: verisimilitude. It doesn’t have to be real, it just needs to feel real and this film often feels false.
But Jolie being clothed in a torture scene is hardly my biggest issue. That happens to be the scene where Jolie has escaped from her apartment building and then jumps onto a moving truck. Okay, I can buy that; it’s probably not the easiest thing to do, but in the reality of the film, I accept that it’s possible. However, her pursuers are fellow CIA agents who then decide to fire upon her while she is on top of the moving truck. My problems are thus: 1) CIA agents would risk the lives of innocent people driving down the freeway by firing their guns at moving cars? 2) Upon hearing shots fired from an overpass or perhaps actually hitting the windshield or hood of your car, you wouldn’t slam on the brakes and duck for cover? 3) None of these trained CIA agents can hit Jolie while she’s on the car? I have to believe that the CIA agents would promptly be fired for causing a fifty car pile-up and hundreds of deaths and lots of damage.
What killed me the most was the climax of the film that takes place in a bunker below the White House where apparently the President can punch numbers into a computer that will cause a nuclear war to start. Has nothing changed in national security since WarGames? Anyway, the hero of the film tries to get into this impenetrable room (remember, it’s there for the President to stay safe) by breaking bulletproof glass, which of course doesn’t work. But, aha! There’s a side door! And the side door, of course, is made of easily breakable cinder and an electronic door that is easy enough to override. Really? A side door? That’s how easy it would be for someone to kill the President? I don’t know, maybe this all 100% accurate, but the bottom line is that it felt false.
Then, the film tries to end about five times in the next ten minutes before finally ending with the least interesting of the possible ways to end it. That way, the audience can go outside disappointed. Look, it’s not the worst movie ever and Philip Noyce is certainly a capable and decent filmmaker, but it feels like it has suffered from too many cooks and studio interference. I can’t say with any confidence that those things actually happened, but that would be my guess. It just seems like there was a kernel of a good idea in there (which is what attracted Tom Cruise to the role before Jolie signed on), but it got lost somewhere. It’s always strange when a film like this is under 90 minutes and it feels like a lot has been cut out to focus on the action scenes. The problem is that when you cut a lot out of a film, it has the effect of making it seem longer than it is.
Angelina Jolie is fine in the movie, although she’s capable of much more. She’s doing the Matt Damon, Jason Bourne thing here. She doesn’t talk very much (except with her fists!) and spends most of the movie running and shooting and kicking. But like Damon, she’s such a good actress that we feel like there’s more going on under the surface. Ultimately, however, what she does best is seem believable while killing bad guys and jumping out of helicopters. She is an action hero, possibly the biggest action hero we have right now, able to headline in $100 million grossing films where she kicks ass. This is definitely not something we would have expected in the ’80s and it’s a welcome change. Now we just need her to find a better vehicle.
We’re in the middle of the summer movie season and so far everything has been exactly what we would have expected it to be. No movie has been any better or worse than I would have assumed before summer started and I’ve yet to see something that has truly wowed me. There are still about seven weeks left of the season, though and there are projects on the horizon that might prove worthwhile. We’ll find out what’s good and what’s not in the coming weeks, but until then these are the questions I’m curious to find the answers to before the summer is over (more…)
As a CIA officer, Evelyn Salt swore an oath to duty, honor and country. Her loyalty will be tested when a defector accuses her of being a Russian spy. Salt goes on the run, using all her skills and years of experience as a covert operative to elude capture. Salt’s efforts to prove her innocence only serve to cast doubt on her motives, as the hunt to uncover the truth behind her identity continues and the question remains: “Who is Salt?”