Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Recent films seen

In Christopher Nolan's Inception, human beings have developed the skills and technology necessary to enter and explore the dreams of others. Some explanations are given for why they do this, but presumably it is  because they have nothing else interesting to do in reality. The movie stars Leonard DiCaprio, Marion Cottilard, Ellen Page, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and Michael Caine (in a role that manages to actually be less substantial than his one in Jaws the Revenge). But despite the best efforts of this attractive and talented cast Nolan's would-be masterpiece never rises above trickery and exposition. You can variously interpret the movie: it has either three levels of dreamscape, or four, but Nolan's main point in either case seems to be that human relationships are now more substantial in our dreams rather than in our social world. This is because the only moments of human contact seem to occur in the dreams: DiCaprio seeking to make peace with the ghost of his wife; Levitt planting a quick kiss on Page's cheek, a potentially delightful little bit of business that goes nowhere; the son of a rich industrialist emotionally confronting his father for the first time. Since Nolan has been anointed an auteur, I have to ask: if this rather mechanical deploying of cinematic poetics amounts to a vision of the world, is it one we really want, or need? Surely we still make meaningful contact with one another when we're not asleep? Allegorical defenses of the film are no doubt forthcoming, but since I think the most fundamental ground on which to defend an auteur is on the level of the human relationships he or she sets into dramatic motion, I'll take Nolan's Insomnia (2002) over this any day. And the one where the guy dressed as a bat chases around the circus clown for 2 1/2 hours.

A conspiracy theory built on the notion that Russia is still a major threat to the United States is at work in Philip Noyce's Salt, a perfectly functional new action movie that posits Angelina Jolie as the great American hope in answering the next generation of Russian spies. The film is full of reversals, all of them pretty well telegraphed in advance and none of them sensible, and all of them keyed into the idea that Russia is once again out to get the U.S. (Comparatively, the film leaves North Korea in the rearview window after its opening minutes). Ultimately, though, it's difficult to reconcile Salt as belonging to the genre of conspiracy films (The Parallax View and The Bourne Identity being among the best) because ultimately this is not a movie about nations, or international relations, at all: it's about Jolie's own private life, her desire to protect her husband (and then avenge him) without any regards as to the cost. (Note how many innocent bystanders get plugged away in this one; I haven't counted, but I suspect not even the average Michael Bay film can quite touch the number of extras who get laid to waste here). And, of course, it's in turn about us looking at Jolie (all the positive reviews - see Stevens in Slate and Ebert - cite her singular, individual badassness as the source of the movie's virtue).

On one level it's obvious why we're all looking at Jolie. But this individuation is also keyed into the film's strangely insular worldview.The film's insistence on the Jolie character's purely private motivations is related to the problem of Noyce's functional but uninvolving style. Unlike The Bourne Identity's intensely visceral pulse, which wraps up the viewer's body like a piece of immersive techno music, implicating us in the larger meaning of Bourne's wild ride, in Salt we're just observers. The national and international stakes seem hardly to matter, and we don't bat an eye when the film's president in shot in a war room. We just marvel at Jolie (and Robert Elswit's always striking cinematography) but remain rather puzzled as to why her private interest in hearth and home is somehow more important than, say, the life of the President. Or the hapless intern who works for him, and who just happened to be in the wrong room when Jolie lets loose with her Tomb Raider-esque revenge.

Michael Caine isn't in Salt, unfortunately.