Friday, August 6, 2010

Bummers in the Summer: Salt & Inception

Since I’m no longer reviewing movies regularly, it’s taking more time for me to catch up with new releases. In the past, I used to see things at pre-release press screenings before all the marketing hype (and their corollary reviews) kicked in. So before going to see Phillip Noyce’s hit espionage thriller Salt, I was already inundated with laudatory comments claiming Angelina Jolie as the top female action star in Hollywood history. Judging from the picture’s huge financial success at the box office, you can’t argue with the figures. But the questions left unasked are: Is anyone truly buying her performance, or even this movie?

While the idea of Russian moles being planted in the United States during the Cold War to wreak havoc on command is certainly appetizing and dramatically credible (as recent events have proven), Salt isn’t credible on any level. Working from a ridiculously incoherent script by Kurt Wimmer (Law Abiding Citizen), Noyce (Clear and Present Danger) gamely attempts to navigate through this intelligence adventure as if he’s helming one of the Bourne films – except Salt ends up being about as believable as The Boys From Brazil (1978). And Jolie, who successfully magnetizes the camera, ends up in a role that ultimately makes little sense.

Evelyn Salt (Angelina Jolie) is one of the CIA’s rising stars who has proven her salt (so to speak) to God and country, but a Russian defector, Orlov (Daniel Olbrychiski), fingers her as a KGB agent who has been in deep cover as a potential assassin. Upon that revelation, she quickly escapes while her partner Ted Winter (Liev Schreiber) and Agent Peabody (Chiwetel Ejifor) are in hot pursuit. According to Orlov, Salt’s mission is to assassinate the Russian President (Olek Krupa) while he’s attending the funeral of the American Vice-President in New York. As she heads to the Big Apple to fulfill her mission, the movie raises the audience’s suspicions as to whether she’s actually a double-agent (or perhaps even a triple-agent).

Salt has all the ingredients for an entertaining thriller except at the very core of the story where it utterly collapses. For instance, it’s clear from the beginning that we’re supposed to see Evelyn as a pawn in a larger conspiracy to possibly frame her. But by the time certain revelations get uncorked, she’s already killed and maimed so many people that it’s hard to feel any empathy for her at all. It’s also inadvertently comical that after the Russian President is ambushed the U.S. President would – just hours after the attack – allow two Russian NATO officers as welcomed guests into the White House. There are also periodic flashbacks to Evelyn Salt’s budding love affair with Mike (August Diehl), her husband, that never get fleshed out, or even fully comprehended. While watching Salt, I found myself reflecting back on the initially superb TV series Alias, with Jennifer Garner leading a double-life as an agent, and how her choices tragically affected her marriage in a far more convincing manner.

As for the performances, Jolie charges through the film like a supermodel on steroids, but the rest of the cast are laid bare by the idiocies in the plot. It’s been a while since I’ve seen such a collection of bummer moments from such notable talents. Liev Schreiber wears the same catatonic expression he perfected in Jonathan Demme’s needless 2004 remake of The Manchurian Candidate, while Chiwetel Ejifor provides a series of endless double-takes suggesting his growing disbelief at what he’s being asked to play. Poor Andre Braugher, that great actor from Glory (1989) and TV’s Homicide: Life on the Street, as the Secretary of Defense, gets reduced to utter anonymity, muttering one line before he’s cut down in a spray of bullets. There hasn’t been such a useless appearance in a major motion picture by a terrific actor of this magnitude since CiarĂ¡n Hinds was reduced to running errands for Daniel Day-Lewis in Paul Thomas Anderson’s fraudulent There Will Be Blood (2007). If anything is keeping audiences going to Salt, I guess it has to be the non-stop action which Noyce delivers as if his mind was on holiday.

The thrills in Salt may be preventing audiences from questioning the howlers in the story, but why is that vacuum on the screen known as Inception even keeping anyone awake? Director Christopher Nolan has been trading in deception ever since he pulled a fast-one with the empty conceit of Memento (2000), but Inception is one very long drone. While drawing on a number of influences, including The Matrix (1999), Mission: Impossible (1996), even Alan Resnais’ opaque Last Year at Marienbad (1961), Nolan has made an enervating heist movie cloaked in a tricky illusion-versus-reality puzzle narrative. Leonardo DiCaprio is Dom Cobb, a lost soul for hire, who makes a living diving into people’s dreams to extract their secrets. His latest client, Saito (Ken Watanabe), a Japanese industrialist, decides to up the ante by hiring Cobb to plant an idea in his victim rather than extract one. Known as an inception, Cobb is asked to enter the subconscious of Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy), the son of Saito’s industrial rival, to convince him to break up his dying father’s empire. Then, as in most heist pictures, Cobb assembles his team: his point man is Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt); Eames (Tom Hardy) forges documents as well as disguising own identity while wandering through the target’s dream; Yusuf (Dileep Rao) manufactures sedatives to sustain the dream; and a new member to the team, Ariadne (Ellen Page), who is endorsed by Cobb’s mentor Miles (Michael Caine), is the architect of the dream world the team will occupy. She has to create enough visual detail so that the target’s resistance (in the form of human projections) doesn’t sabotage the mission.

Of course, the picture’s darker drama – and mystery – involves Cobb’s late wife, Mal (Marion Cotillard), who pops up in his own unconscious to sabotage his schemes. The key reason for Cobb taking on Saito’s offer is that he gives this invader of the psyche a means to be reunited with his children who he has been mysteriously separated from. (How he plans to do this, though, is even a bigger mystery.) Inception aims to become an existential heist drama but since it really has no motivating dramatic impulse, the picture becomes an exercise in inertia.

Nolan’s version of inertia, though, always looks busy and complex, but that’s part of the more deceptive aspects of his work. Like his previous films (Memento, Insomnia, Batman Begins, The Dark Knight) Inception is essentially deep on the surface. (I deliberately left The Prestige off the list because the deceptive aspects of that story were actually engaging and clever; in fact, deception was the movie’s point given that the subject was magic.) But Inception has no dramatic core. If it did, Saito’s offer to Cobb wouldn’t be presented as something affirmative when in fact he’s breaking up another man’s company so that he can have the turf all to himself. We also would question why Adriadne neglects to inform the team of Cobb’s femme fatale dream projection when she could totally upend their plans. Nolan also has no sense of visual flow, or the lyricism to help us distinguish the various levels of dream states. (Every level looked the same to me: I felt like I was watching an endless parade of slick car ads.) And if the use of Edith Piaf's songs are included because Marion Cotillard played Piaf in La Vie en Rose (2007), the joke was lost on me.

When you get down to it, Inception isn’t really about anything and (unless you’re hooked on conceptual puzzles) it also has no psychological coherence. Dom Cobb’s crisis is about as ephemeral as the story itself – it carries no emotional resonance. The movie, in fact, made me nostalgic for Joseph Ruben’s far superior Dreamscape (1984) where Dennis Quaid entered people’s dreams to help them resolve their conflicts. Besides being far more witty and clever, Dreamscape also had some political relevance. In the story, the President of the United States (Eddie Albert) has nightmares about nuclear annihilation so he proposes signing a peace treaty with the Soviets. His Chief-of-Staff Bob Blair (Christopher Plummer), with eerie shadings of Alexander Haig, wants no part of any treaty and hires another dream traveller to enter his boss’s nightmares and assassinate him. Dreamscape was no more than an elegantly tossed off B-movie, but it had dollops of smart humour and the dreams were both funny and scary. (It was no accident that the distinguishing dreams in Dreamscape resembled a variety of different genre movies.)

Unlike Dreamscape, Inception carries a solemn air that reeks of self-importance. And since Nolan shows no interest in dramatizing his dream world, the actors are left delivering position papers on what we are supposed to be watching. (The Dark Knight came across like a college professor’s rambling lecture on Nihilism in the 21st Century.) My guess is what is engaging audiences – and many critics – at Inception are the formal artful touches Nolan provides to routine commercial storytelling. They believe that he’s adding depth to what is usually a superficial Hollywood adventure drama. But Inception is like an Escher sketch that disappears into itself – and it blows a hollow horn.

--Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.

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