Leaving a recent screening of Cyrus, my friends and I noted how refreshing it was to see a movie in which, right up until its final seconds, you had no idea where events were going to lead; the creepy indie comedy could've ended with either a Happily Ever After or a vicious display of bloodletting, and neither finale would've seemed unjustified. (No spoilers here. You've still got a few days to catch it locally.) And the best I can say about director Phillip Noyce's Salt - and it's a considerable compliment - is that it, too, is totally unpredictable, a gripping, over-the-top action flick that makes you gasp and then giggle, and then giggle at yourself for gasping. Audiences seeking loud, defiantly ridiculous escapist fare should have a blast. Speaking as someone with a low tolerance for spy thrillers, stunt-heavy summer blockbusters, and (more often than not these days) Angelina Jolie, I had a pretty fantastic time myself.
I'll admit, though, that Salt's first half hour or so didn't exactly fill me with hope. Beginning with its audience-goosing preamble, in which Jolie's CIA official Evelyn Salt is brutally tortured in her bra and panties, and continuing through its "two years later" interrogation scene that finds the now-happily-married woman accused (by Daniel Olbrychski's defector) of being an undercover Russian agent, Noyce's film is sleek, well-staged, and fundamentally uninteresting. And it stays uninteresting even after Salt, having unsuccessfully argued her innocence, escapes CIA detention and hightails it out of DC. Despite the obvious professionalism and a fair degree of drive, there's nothing here we haven't seen in countless other works of its type, and Jolie's natural imperiousness seems somewhat indistinguishable from laziness; God knows she's a magnetic screen presence, but the star's habit of staring down the camera as if daring us not to get turned on is growing a little tiresome. (Salt's opening third is practically an Angelina Jolie's Greatest Hits package, offering echoes of Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, Wanted, A Mighty Heart, and even Clint Eastwood's Changeling, with Jolie's panicked cry of "Someone's going to kill the Russian president!" substituting for her histrionic "I want my son back!")
But once events move to New York City, man oh man does Salt get better in a hurry. Charged with protecting the Russian leader from that threatened assassination attempt, one set to occur within the well-protected confines of a Manhattan cathedral, Chiwetel Ejiofor's Agent Peabody says, "If anyone tries anything here, it'll have to be pretty amazing." It is. Though you don't necessarily believe in the goings-on, the lead-up to this plot-altering suspense sequence is exciting in the extreme, and its payoff is a true jaw-dropper - one of those "You're freaking kidding me!" reversals of expectation that you might've thought Hollywood had lost the nerve to deliver.
From that point, and without ever really deviating from its throwaway, thrill-ride aspirations, Salt goes on to provide surprise after surprise, with unexpected shifts in character and locale, sublimely well-choreographed chases, ballsy narrative gambits, and a batch of shocking, completely unanticipated deaths. (More than halfway through the film, out of absolutely nowhere, the great character actor Andre Braugher shows up. SPOILER ALERT: Don't get too used to having him around.) And Noyce's film actually winds up a marvelous showcase for Jolie, who ably matches wits with the likes of August Diehl and the ever-intimidating Liev Schreiber, and whose initial, screen-siren inscrutability gradually morphs into a cunning caginess; up until the movie's final moments, you're never entirely sure where her character's allegiances lie, or whether they lie with anyone at all. Like the films in the Jason Bourne franchise, Salt emerges as both profoundly silly and sensationally smart, proving that the cinematic suspension of one's disbelief is immaterial when experiencing that disbelief is so damned much fun.
RAMONA & BEEZUS
Not that you'd know it from poor, misdirected Noah Ringer in The Last Airbender, but in general, pre-teen acting in American movies has probably never been as consistently excellent as it is right now. This year alone, young Jaden Smith carried his demanding role in The Karate Kid with effortless charisma and naturalism; Zachary Gordon, Robert Capron, Karan Brar, and Grayson Russell were all dynamic pint-sized comedians in Diary of a Wimpy Kid; and that film's gifted Chloe Moretz also delivered a poised, thoughtful, and rather ferocious performance in the graphic graphic-novel adaptation Kick-Ass. (Eleven years old at the time of shooting, Moretz appeared more than willing to tackle complex layers of disturbing subtext. Too bad the filmmakers didn't.) Based on works in Beverly Cleary's beloved series of Ramona Quinby children's books, director Elizabeth Allen's Ramona & Beezus is the latest release to feature a minor in its major role, with 10-year-old Joey King playing the sprightly, talkative, accident-prone Ramona. Contending with grade-school traumas, the recent downsizing of her attentive dad, and her fancifully overactive imagination, Ramona beams, pouts, cackles, cries, shrieks, and rolls her eyes at the ridiculousness of the adult world, and King - whose readings, like the words uttered by most pre-teens, are rarely predictable - ensures that the character is alternately lovable and insufferable. She is, in short, just about perfect, and for what it is, Ramona Quinby is, too.
True, the movie's slapstick is mostly tired (particularly when Ramona crashes through her house's second floor and her legs are seen dangling above the living room), and while I, personally, wouldn't have wanted less of them, it's possible that too much screen time is devoted to the extended romantic subplot between Ginnifer Goodwin's Aunt Bea and Josh Duhamel's Hobart; the youths at my screening seemed to get rather itchy during the duo's (intensely sweet) interludes. But in nearly every other way, it's hard to imagine how Ramona & Beezus could be much better. Allen directs both Ramona's daily-life travails and her occasional escapes into the surreal with utter sincerity and understated wit, Laurie Craig's and Nick Pustay's script is filled with surprisingly sharp banter and legitimate pathos - you may want to bring tissues for the last scene involving the family cat, Picky Picky - and Selena Gomez (as Ramona's older sister Beezus), John Corbett and Bridget Moynahan (as the girls' harried yet loving parents), and the martini-dry Sandra Oh (as Ramona's fastidious teacher Mrs. Meacham) are as wholly winning as you could want. The movie probably isn't anything that you, or even your kids, will remember even a couple days after seeing it. Yet it's swift and genial and almost magically charming, and features what must be a first in a G-rated 21st Century entertainment: The only fart noise you'll hear on-screen comes when Ramona aggressively squeezes a tube of toothpaste. Cleary, I'm hoping, would be proud.