Your Salty Weekend at the Movies

07/22/2010 8:51 AM |

If they do turn Salt into a franchise, shell probably need sidekicks.
  • If they do turn Salt into a franchise, she’ll probably need sidekicks.

Salt: Angelina Jolie is Jason Bourne, basically. Much has been made of the fact that this throwback spy thriller was originally written for a male lead like expert runner-jumper Tom Cruise, and retrofitted for Angelina Jolie once she showed interest. Imagine! A woman playing a part originally conceived for a man! To me, watching the trailers, the weirder thing is that this wasn’t written for Jolie, because otherwise it would probably seem completely boilerplate, rather than sexy, stylish semi-boilerplate. Anyway, I have a feeling that I might like this more than the Bourne movies, because Phillip Noyce, while perhaps perceived as more of a journeyman director than Paul Greengrass, will probably not suffer from the delusion that repeatedly cutting back to a generic control room will make his action-thriller “geopolitical” somehow. I’m just hoping that the running and jumping looks a little more believable than the generic and cartoonish spy stuff Cruise decided to pursue instead with Knight and Day.

Ramona and Beezus: You can read what I thought of the movie in my full review, how it’s a faithful, sweet, but not quite inspired version of the Beverly Cleary stories. Here, I’m mainly going to talk about Henry Huggins. Readers may remember Huggins as the subject of a series of books Cleary began before the Ramona series took off, successful but not nearly so beloved. Consider him the Boscoe to Ramona’s Bugs Bunny: squarer, less emotionally vivid, and all together sort of a likable dope, Henry is a pre-teen boy of stunning averageness in interests and intellect, coupled with perhaps a sub-averageness of physical and mental coordination. As such, he struggles: to control his mangy dog, Ribsy; to save enough money to buy a bicycle; and to outsmart, when applicable, other kids, including a then-preschool-aged Ramona. The plot of basically every Henry Huggins book (which, like the Ramona books, have a realistically episodic pace) is: Jesus, get it together, Huggins.

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Now, I realized from the first trailers that Ramona and Beezus, in taking Cleary’s stories more firmly into the present (rather than the adroit vagueness of her writing; I read them in the 80s and it never really occurred to me that they were written several decades earlier), would probably feature slightly more scrubbed-up versions of these characters. I was just happy to see that the Quimby household remained a little ramshackle and subject to financial troubles. But sweet Beezus did they fuck up (or, if you will, “Huggins up”) Henry Huggins. Granted, he’s not a major part of this or any Ramona/Beezus story, especially in the later books from which much of Ramona and Beezus is drawn. But it’s still galling to see Huggins refashioned not just as a love interest for a now-teenaged Beezus (after all, she was always a gal Friday of sorts, happy to play checkers or lend him her red wagon for some kind of ill-fated Huggins business deal like, seriously, selling gumballs he found in a vacant lot), but as played by Disney-ready Hutch Dano, a cute, understanding, appreciative one. There’s still some residual dorkiness in his bad dance moves and hesitant manner, or when Mr. Quimby refers to an apparent past of (presumably) toddler-aged dirt-eating (though you never know with Huggins; he could’ve been ten and caught up in some kind of get-rich-quick scheme gone awry). But the essence of Henry Huggins is struggle, and Fake Huggins hardly struggles at all. Indeed, it’s Beezus who gets all fluttery and nervous when he appears or calls; Cleary’s Huggins would be the flustered one on the page. In fact, Cleary’s Huggins, faced at the prospect of taking Beezus on a date, would start his own under-thought lawn-care company, sink all of his money into repairing a lawnmower he found at the dump, go into debt when said lawnmower accidentally dinged a neighbor’s car, and respond with frustrated curtness when Beezus offered any kind of financial or grooming advice that might afford him an opportunity to get closer with her. This cute kid in this movie who stands back, bemused, when wacky stuff happens to Beezus? Not my Huggins.

Life During Wartime: I love Welcome to the Dollhouse, Happiness, and the lacerating first section of Storytelling, but since then, writer-director Todd Solondz has quietly floundered. Life During Wartime sounds like part of his continuing quest to vex and punish anyone who watches his movies, especially those who might like them, under the guise of experimentation: it’s a sequel to Happiness with every role played by actors vastly different in appearance, style, and temperament. This sounds suspiciously like a re-organization of elements from Palindromes, in which he killed off Dollhouse lead Dawn Wiener in a kind of creepy black-comic opening, and proceeded to have his lead embodied by different actresses all throughout the film. I’m curious to see how Life During Wartime, which has gotten some of his best reviews in years, turned out, but this weird obsession with tinkering his past successes makes his work come off as self-conscious and cruel as some people said it was in the first place.