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Salt, The Kids Are All Right
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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, Fail-Safe and select James Bond tales. And the title of this feature even suggests a nod to that significant chunk of 20th century history involving U.S.-U.S.S.R. tensions: After all, SALT (Strategic Arms Limitations Talks) was the name given to the discussions centering on reducing both nations' arsenals of nuclear weapons. Unfortunately, the majority of this frequently daft picture fails to pay honor either to its cinematic predecessors or to its real-life milieu: Extracting the occasional misplaced titter from disbelieving viewers, it stirs memories less of John le Carre and more of Yakov Smirnoff.

Angelina Jolie, again proving herself to be a potent action star (when is someone going to offer her a Marvel or DC superheroine to play?), headlines as Evelyn Salt, a CIA agent accused of being a Russian spy. Her boss (Liev Schreiber) believes her to be innocent, while another agency suit (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is convinced of her guilt. Salt is forced to escape from her CIA stronghold -- she can only clear her name and protect her unsuspecting husband (August Diehl) if she's free -- but as she follows a trail of clues, it begins to appear as if maybe even she's not completely certain about her own identity.

In a role previously envisioned for Tom Cruise (who opted to make the thematically similar but marginally more entertaining Knight and Day instead), 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 and director Phillip Noyce's previous handling of the exact same plot pirouette in the Jack Ryan adventure Patriot Games -- culminates in a final twist that can be spotted even before moviegoers manage to crack the top layer of their buttered popcorn at the film's start. 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.



Yet one more movie exploring family dysfunction might sound like a slog through well-trodden indie film terrain, yet writer-director Lisa Cholodenko's The Kids Are All Right is written with such perception, directed with such sensitivity and acted with such brio that the result is not only a path paved with good intentions but also one lined with loving detail.
Besides, while many films of this ilk focus more on the "dysfunction" -- often with a trace of bemusement if not outright condescension -- this one centers more on the "family," specifically, how a true family is determined not by society-approved labels but by the hard work that molds all those involved, and how simply wanting to belong to a family doesn't mean that carte blanche will (or should) automatically be given.

Annette Bening and Julianne Moore star as the anal-retentive Nic and the openhearted Jules, a married lesbian couple with two upstanding children, 18-year-old Joni (Alice in Wonderland's Mia Wasikowska) and 15-year-old Laser (Josh Hutcherson). The kids decide that they'd like to meet their biological father, the man who donated the sperm that led to both their conceptions. He turns out to be the laid-back Paul (Mark Ruffalo), whose scruffy demeanor and easygoing attitude eventually earn the affection of the kids and Jules but sets Nic on edge. Unsure of how to allow this man into their collective lives, the adults try to determine what's best for all involved, not once imagining the unexpected consequences that loom on the horizon.

Even more than in her previous efforts High Art and Laurel Canyon, Cholodenko demonstrates a real grasp on the manner in which people express themselves through both words and actions. Such a command of dialogue and circumstance leads to a number of choice moments throughout the picture, whether meaningful (Jules delivers a terrific speech about the difficulties in keeping a marriage together) or merely a throwaway (Laser's idiotic buddy has an odd way of bothering animals, to say the least). That this screenplay has been translated into imagery with the help of five terrific performances (although Moore emerges first among equals) makes the whole enterprise as inviting as a Thanksgiving dinner.