Film » Film Clips

Capsule reviews of films playing the week of Nov. 24

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SALT A neo-Cold War thriller would seem like just the ticket for cineastes who fondly recall Iron Curtain-courting capers on the order of The Spy Who Came In from the Cold and select James Bond tales. And the title even suggests a nod to that chunk of 20th century history involving U.S.-U.S.S.R. tensions, as SALT was the name given to discussions centering on reducing both nations' arsenals of nuclear weapons. Unfortunately, the majority of this film fails to honor either its cinematic predecessors or its real-life milieu: Extracting the occasional misplaced titter from viewers, it stirs memories less of John le Carre and more of Yakov Smirnoff. Angelina Jolie headlines as Evelyn Salt, a CIA agent accused of being a Russian spy; as she follows a trail of clues in an effort to clear her name, it begins to appear as if maybe even she's not completely certain about her own identity. Jolie is practically the whole show; the rest is negligible, from the repetitive (if well-staged) chase sequences to the absurd plotting, which — thanks to obvious casting in a key role — culminates in a final twist that can be spotted even before moviegoers manage to crack the top layer of their buttered popcorn. There's already talk of a sequel to Salt, but it's going to have to provide a lot more flavor than this bland offering. **

SECRETARIAT Until the Sports Illustrated subscription runs out at the Walt Disney Studios offices, I expect audiences will continue to be privy to cookie-cutter yarns centered around notable achievements in the sports world. Secretariat is the latest from the studio stable, and it relates the truly remarkable story of the magnificent racehorse that set records while winning the Triple Crown in 1973 (and simultaneously appeared on the covers of Time, Newsweek and Sports Illustrated while doing so). The races are exciting, but to get to these sequences, we're forced to wade through a lot of vanilla material about the difficulties faced by Secretariat's determined owner (typically reliable Diane Lane) and flamboyant trainer (John Malkovich, taking neither his role nor the movie seriously). Despite these tepidly staged interludes, the overall picture isn't quite as bland as, say, The Rookie or Miracle. Still, the staidness made me long for the studio's earlier sports flick Alive — at least that one had rugby players munching down on each other. **1/2

THE SOCIAL NETWORK Like the screwball comedies and film noir staples of yore, The Social Network exhibits an extraordinary gift for gab. Words fly like machine gun strafes, and arguments generally end with the more verbally adroit speaker standing over the other person like a wave that's managed to tumble a surfer. If screenwriting was considered a sport, Aaron Sorkin's script wouldn't just be competing for movie awards but for Olympic gold as well. One of the best films of the year, this is the fascinating story of how Harvard nerd Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) created Facebook and in the process became the world's youngest billionaire. Yet this isn't an inspiring movie about an underdog beating the odds as much as it's a prickly mishmash of how one person's insecurities led to material gains even as his personality remained stuck in an arrogant, off-putting zone. Director David Fincher keeps the proceedings moving at a rapid clip, a task made easier by Sorkin's breezy, biting dialogue and great performances by the entire cast. But a quick pace isn't the same as a hurried one, and The Social Network takes its time in showing how one loner was able to unite 500 million friends, even as he remained perpetually hidden on the other side of the cold, glaring screen. ***1/2

THE TOWN While The Town doesn't quite match the giddy pleasures of Gone Baby Gone (which, after all, was second only to No Country for Old Men on my 10 Best list for '07), it aptly illustrates that writer-director Ben Affleck won't have to contend with either the label of "beginner's luck" or "sophomore jinx." A crackling drama with a fine sense of both spacial relationships (thank Affleck the director) and character relationships (thank Affleck the writer), this adaptation of Chuck Hogan's novel Prince of Thieves (co-scripted by Peter Craig and Aaron Stockard) is set in a section of Boston known for producing more bank robbers than anywhere else in the country. One of these heist-happy fellows is Doug MacRay (Affleck), who leads his accomplices on a caper that results in the masked bandits briefly taking a hostage, bank employee Claire Keesey (Rebecca Hall). Electing to keep tabs on Claire to insure she doesn't get too chummy with the FBI, Doug strikes up a friendship with the unsuspecting woman, a camaraderie that quickly turns into love. A genre flick like this can't avoid all the clichés, but it manages to sidestep some of the biggest ones — at any rate, it's the little moments that make this stand out. The film can quickly shift from funny to frightening, and it plays out in ways not entirely expected. ***1/2

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