Sunday, August 01, 2010

"Salt" Has Savor, Not Substance; "Agora" Makes Philosophy Sexy and Tragic


directed by Philip Noyce
starring Angelina Jolie, Liev Schreiber, Chiwetel Ejiofor

Preposterous plot? Check. Implausible twists? Check. Paper-thin characters? Check. A fun ride? You bet.

“Salt” is a triumph of style over substance. Not just Angelina Jolie’s style, though that’s obviously a key component. But it wouldn’t be enough without the support of her co-stars and, most of all, the savvy of director Philip Noyce. While there’s no hiding the high cheese factor, what could have been pure Velveeta instead tastes more like a sharp, bracing cheddar.

After a grim opening in North Korea – Hollywood’s last bastion of faceless totalitarian villainy – the film quickly gets to the main point: a mysterious Russian man identifies CIA agent Evelyn Salt (Jolie) as a mole tasked with assassinating the president of Russia. Never mind why a Russian spy would want to kill her own president (the writers don’t concern themselves very much with this point); the real question, on which the movie expends most of its energy, is that of Salt’s loyalty. Is she a double agent, or isn’t she? Her closest colleague, Ted (Liev Schreiber, doing his usual sturdy, understated good work), insists she isn’t; a less sympathetic counterintelligence specialist (Chiwetel Ejiofor, engaging as always) concludes rather peremptorily that she is.

To be fair, Salt’s behavior isn’t that of an innocent woman: after a desperate attempt to find her husband (August Diehl), she goes on the lam and heads straight for the Russian president’s next known destination, taking out a bunch of other agents and enforcement officers along the way. Chase follows spectacular chase, in various forms – foot, cars, motorbike – as the action shifts from D.C. to New York and back again, and shifting with it, our interpretation of Salt’s motives. There’s a twist or two, of course, and an ending that leaves the door wide open for a sequel, but nothing that an alert viewer can’t anticipate. The entertainment definitely lies in the journey, not the destination.

Make no mistake, “Salt” is pure fantasy, though it may have acquired a veneer of unexpected topicality after the FBI’s recent, uncannily well-timed bust of a ring of Russian spies masquerading as ordinary Americans. Certainly there’s an echo of that bizarre story in the tall tale Salt’s accuser spins of schools of Russians who are rigorously trained to assume the identities of upstanding American citizens and wait for years before moving into action. At the same time, there’s something endearingly old-school about the movie’s resurrection of classic Cold War film tropes of Communist brain-washing and sleeper agents. (The only reference to the more current bugaboo of choice, Muslim fanatics, is a throwaway line that, whether intentionally or not, plays for laughs.)

Noyce doesn’t take these hoary Soviet-era themes too seriously, but to his credit, neither does he wink and nudge the audience—at least not overtly. Rather, he adopts a businesslike approach to a wholly improbable plot: his business is to keep viewers on the edge of their seats and guessing what happens next, and in this he succeeds admirably. The Austrialian director is an old hand at the art of maintaining suspense, dating back all the way to his 1989 killer-thriller “Dead Calm,” and he’s had practice with the espionage flick, having twice directed Harrison Ford as Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan in “Patriot Games” and “Clear and Present Danger.” (Sadly, he was also responsible for Val Kilmer’s unfortunate turn as the big-screen version of “The Saint,” one of the dumbest movies I’ve ever seen.) Noyce has since moved on to more serious, politically and socially conscious films, e.g., “Rabbit-Proof Fence” and the very fine “The Quiet American,” but “Salt” shows he hasn’t lost any of the skills that propelled him into the big time. He understands, maybe better than anyone else in the business, how to pace a film like this and how to shoot a bang-up action sequence—crisp, tight, and crackling with tension—with a minimum of actual bang and boom.

He also knows how to use Jolie’s star power, which is obviously the force that drives the movie. “Salt” was originally written with Tom Cruise in mind for the lead, and the critical consensus is that had he in fact accepted it, the movie would have been a failure. I concur, although I resisted at first: why would a warmed-over James Bond/Mission Impossible-derivative thriller be any fresher or more effective with Angelina Jolie instead of Tom Cruise? It isn’t just because Jolie’s a woman (this is hardly the first time she’s played action heroine, after all), or because her star wattage is higher (debatable, though one can make a decent case for it). Perhaps it has something to do with the air of mystery that’s always pervaded Jolie’s persona and that serves her particularly well with this character (Charles Taylor has some perceptive thoughts on this). Perhaps it’s the fierce conviction with which she attacks the role yet somehow manages to make it look easy—something Cruise has never been particularly good at doing. I’m not talking about the physical stunts so much as the shifts in mood, expression, and bearing Salt undergoes over the course of the movie. (Don’t get me wrong, Cruise can be effortless in certain parts, but in others—and Salt, I think, would have been one of them—you can feel him working really hard at it, which can be a bit of a drag.)

And perhaps Jolie’s success does have something to do with the role’s gender reversal—again, not so much with respect to Salt’s superhuman physical abilities, but rather in the depiction of her marital relationship. That dynamic, which would have been merely trite if Salt had been a male agent with a vulnerable, loving wife, suddenly becomes more intriguing in the context of a female agent with a vulnerable, loving husband. “Salt” isn’t the kind of movie that has either the time or the inclination to carve out much emotional depth, yet Jolie manages to infuse it with something resembling pathos without giving the entire game away. Hence, even as we roll our eyes at the silliness of every plot turn, we stay invested in who this woman is, and what she’s really up to, right up to the absurd, adrenaline-soaked end.



directed by Alejandro Amenábar
starring Rachel Weisz, Max Minghella, Oscar Isaac, Rupert Evans, others

A star vehicle of a wholly different sort, “Agora” also happens to be the most provocative film I’ve seen all year. Sadly, it probably won’t find more than a tiny fraction of the audience that “Salt” drew in its first week alone, and it isn’t the kind of small picture that’s likely to take off through word of mouth: its ostensible subject, the life and times of a female mathematician and philosopher in fourth-century Alexandria, is a little too esoteric, even as its broader themes are a little too controversial. Moreover, “Agora” lacks critical buzz, having failed to gather momentum when it made the film festival rounds, and even though it’s been substantially edited for its theatrical release, the reviews have continued to be mixed.

That’s a shame, for while the film has undeniable flaws, it raises important, intelligent questions and explores them in a generally intelligent and engaging way. Directed by the talented Alejandro Amenábar (“The Sea Inside,” “The Others,” “Open Your Eyes”), “Agora” depicts the gradual yet inevitable, violence-streaked conversion of a renowned seat of classical learning to de facto Christian rule, as seen from the viewpoint of Hypatia (Rachel Weisz), a beautiful, brilliant scholar of mathematics, astronomy, and philosophy, and three of her acolytes—bold Orestes (Oscar Isaac), quiet Synesius (Rupert Evans), and even quieter Davus (Max Minghella), who also happens to be a slave in Hypatia’s house. All four end up following different paths that reflect their divergent attitudes towards the growing power of Christianity—yet each of them is forced to confront the contradiction that Hypatia succinctly sums up in a conversation with Synesius, an early adopter of Christianity who later becomes a bishop: “You do not question what you believe, or cannot. I must.”

“Agora” takes its time to get going and feels at first like a rather flat – though very good-looking – costume pageant. Against a backdrop of handsome, discreetly CGI-enhanced sets that quite effectively convey the grandeur of classical Alexandria, Amenábar introduces his key players with some stiff, clunky dialogue, and sets up the central conflict with none-too-subtle visual contrasts between the white-robed pagan aristocrats and the blue-clad Christians, who mostly belong to the poor and disenfranchised. (There’s a strong suggestion throughout the film that the success of Christianity rested in large part on these class tensions.) He’s also far too fond of punctuating his scenes with “mother Earth” shots that zoom out to the cosmos, as if to contrast its infinite vastness with the groping attempts of man to explain, define, or limit it. But as the balance of power in Alexandria shifts decisively towards the Christians, the film acquires an increased urgency and sense of foreboding. It isn’t long before we realize that Hypatia and everything she stands for—the gospel of pure scholarship, with its devotion to no god but learning, and rule by reason rather than faith—is doomed, her cool, quiet appeal to the intellect no match for the impassioned, all-consuming fire of religious conviction.

Weisz gives a luminous, if not particularly complex, performance as Hypatia: she’s less a character than a prism through which the film views the events that overtook her and, by extension, Alexandria. Amenábar, who wrote the screenplay with Weisz in mind for the lead, plainly intends her to be the film’s moral center. Yet as “Agora” is structured, it’s as much about her students – or more accurately, perhaps, their evolving attitudes towards her, and what they portend for their city – as it is about Hypatia herself. If Hypatia symbolizes the brain of Alexandria, guardian of its intellectual tradition and legacy, then Orestes and Synesius represent its divided heart, and young Davus its even more divided soul. And it’s the struggle for that soul, in particular, that’s reflected in the trajectory of Davus’ feelings towards Hypatia: from the very outset it’s clear he’s silently besotted with her but frustrated at the inconsistency between her kindly treatment of him as a bright pupil and his status as chattel, and irresistibly drawn to the egalitarian promise of Christianity. There’s a crisis moment, fairly on, when Hypatia treats him with the kind of imperious contempt that could only be reserved for a slave. It’s an uncharacteristic and, frankly, unconvincing aberration on Hypatia’s part, obviously a narrative device to force a turning point for Davus. But even after his break with her, we see that some part of him will always yearn for his old mistress, and the film follows that inner conflict to its bitter end.

Not surprisingly, “Agora” has given rise to some complaints that it’s biased against religion in general and Christianity in particular. It’s not a baseless accusation, but it’s not an entirely fair one, either. While I’m no historian, much less an expert on this particular period of history, from what I’ve been able to gather the movie’s account is reasonably accurate: at least, most of the major characters, except for Davus, were real historical figures, and most of the major events it recounts really happened (except, perhaps, its suggestion that Hypatia anticipated the discoveries of Johannes Kepler). True, Amenábar has a tendency to idealize Hypatia (how can you not, when you cast Rachel Weisz?) and, by contrast, makes the film’s most powerful Christian figure—Cyril, the patriarch of Alexandria—into a pretty one-dimensional villain. And certainly one could read any number of disquieting allegories for our current, troubled times into the brutality of “Agora”’s religious conflicts, the mob mentality exhibited by enraged Christians, and the ignorant and intolerant persecution of Hypatia and all that she embodies. However, what the film ultimately condemns is not religious faith per se, but the abuse of faith and the manipulation of religious emotions as a means to power. One would be hard pressed to dispute the value of that message today, or indeed at any other point in human history. It’s timely, but it’s also timeless.



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