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Column Fri Feb 10 2012
I've never had the pleasure of seeing any of Swedish-born director Daniel Espinosa's other films (he's only made three, all in his native country/tongue), but based on his approach to his first studio movie, Safe House, I have to imagine there are probably examples in his older works of his "more-is-more" style that nearly smothers what might have been a fairly interesting psychological action film. The idea of a rookie CIA safe house operative trying to protect a prisoner, while said prisoner is trying to get into the rookie's head and make him doubt his every decision and move is a cool one. But Espinosa's overdone atmosphere is at times so distracting that you forget to actually pay attention to what's being said. Add to that some ridiculous shaky-cam cinematography (thanks to Oliver Wood, who clearly never met a tripod that was good enough for him), and you get a film that feels like the actors are actually competing for attention with the director.
The rookie CIA agent is Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds, stripped of most of his comic smarm, and that's a good thing for this role), stationed in South Africa for a year and wanting desperately to be reassigned to Paris, where his hot girlfriend (Nora Arnezeder) is about to move. He's lobbying a higher-up fellow agent and friend David Barlow (Brendan Gleeson) for a better job, but even he's not sure he can help Weston with his promotion.
Meanwhile, a legend at the agency, Tobin Frost (Denzel Washington), has involved himself in a deal with a rogue MI6 agent that would appear to involve him acquiring a file with the names of intelligence agents from all over the world, something nobody wants to get released. He is captured and brought to Weston's safe house, which is promptly attacked by hired mercenaries, and the two CIA agents are forced to take their show on the road in an effort to keep Frost alive. Meanwhile back in Langley, top agents played by the likes of Sam Shepard and Vera Farmiga are working to contact Weston and guide him to a safe place where he and Frost can hide out until the cavalry comes.
The two biggest problems with Safe House have to do with its two secrets. One has to do with a mole at the CIA who is feeding information to someone in South Africa about the location of Weston and Frost, so that the mercenaries can find them. There was never any doubt in my mind who the leak was; it was so obvious, in fact, that I thought it was a false lead. But no, it's just that damn obvious. The second issue has to do with Washington being pitched to us by the CIA as a "bad guy." I never bought this, and I always suspected that when all was revealed, his intentions for acquiring this information would be revealed as a worthy cause. It's not that Washington can't play or hasn't been cast as a villain before, but this movie didn't seem clever enough to pull that off.
But Safe House isn't a total bust — not even close. What's going on between Reynolds and Washington is great stuff... at least when it sticks to their battle of wits. The girlfriend subplot with Reynolds is a complete waste of time and an unnecessary distraction that never goes anywhere. True, Frost uses Weston's emotional vulnerability regarding his significant other as part of the psychological warfare against him, but entirely too much screen time is devoted to Weston trying to find time to call her or reassure her he's alright, even though he can't reveal what his job is (which we know he will before the story is done). There's a scene where Frost paints a picture of Weston's future (or lack thereof) with his girlfriend that is damn near perfect, and gives us our best example of Frost working the mental, as well as the physical, angles with Weston.
Faring slightly better is Washington as Frost, who has pretty much all of the fat cut away from his character development, leaving a coiled and dangerous man whose brain is always spinning and is constantly looking for a way to escape Weston. Frost is painted as a long-gone operative who has spent the last 10 years betraying his government for money, and I'm fairly certain that part of his background isn't fiction. I liked that the film didn't attempt to paint with broad strokes Frost's reason for turning traitor for hire; instead, the script by David Guggenheim leaves a lot of murky water surrounding Frost as a person and a misguided patriot.
Of course, a great deal of Safe House is focused on action — gun battles, car chases, explosions and a whole lot of close-quarters, hand-to-hand fighting, which were my favorite moments in the film. Much like in the recent Haywire or the Jason Bourne movies, this film's emphasis on up-close, skilled fighting provide it with some of the best moments. But so much of Safe House seems over-produced, stylized to unnecessary extremes and obvious that it's impossible to whole-heartedly recommend you check it out. Personally, I consider any new Denzel Washington movie cause to be interested; the man doesn't know how to phone it in, and he certainly doesn't do that here. But when a great performer has to constantly fight against over-saturated colors and hand-held messes like this one, we're not seeing him at his best.The Vow
If a "based-on-a-true-story" movie feels fake, you might as well just stop before you start. I'll admit, the idea of The Vow is intriguing — it's kind of like Regarding Henry in reverse — with a young Chicago couple getting into a car accident (involving a city plow, of course) that leaves the wife brain damaged. When she wakes up after several weeks in a coma, among the memories she has lost is the entirely of their relationship. Channing Tatum and Rachel McAdams, both veterans of the Nicholas Sparks' school of romantic films (Dear John, The Notebook), play Leo and Paige, a fairly hip pair — she's an artist, he owns a recording studio — whose past must be re-created in hopes that Paige will start to remember their relationship.
The wrinkle is that Paige's snooty parents — Sam Neill and Jessica Lange — are more than willing to take advantage of Paige's memory loss to put behind them some ugly family drama that she has also forgotten. Since she hasn't spoken to her parents in five years, they've never even met Leo and are eager to whisk her from the hospital right to their home, as if Leo didn't exist. Her last memories put her in law school engaged to another man (Scott Speedman), who also seems eager to test the limits of Paige's feelings to get what he wants. Only Leo seems interested in following the doctor's orders and getting her back into the routine she had before the accident in the hopes of triggering more recent memories.
Initially, Paige seems willing to try and recapture her life and she goes back into the city to live with her husband (with a revised sleeping arrangement, naturally); reintroduce herself to her artistic side, which she has no memory of, despite leaving law school to go to the School of the Art Institute; and reacquaint herself with favorite haunts, friends and special places she shared with Leo. Allow me to inject this random thought here: Paige and Leo have the biggest bunch of hipster douchebag friends I've ever seen in one movie, including Rent; I probably would have tried to forget them too.
The truth is McAdams and Tatum are two strong actors with decent chemistry trapped in a below-average film. However, when the story focuses on just these two and on Leo trying desperately to reconnect with his wife, the film is much more watchable. There's a solid scene in which Leo realizes that Paige may never get her memories back, so he focuses on creating new ones by asking her out on a date. It may sound corny, but I'll be damned if it doesn't work in this context, if only because I firmly believe that the real-life Leo probably came to the same conclusions. In fact, I was moved by pretty much any scene that felt plausible given the circumstances. I'm not saying that Paige's parents weren't manipulative cretins, but they are drawn so flat and uninteresting, I just never cared.
The Vow is far from unforgivably bad, and the lead performers certainly do their part to keep things emotionally true, even in the face of a badly overwritten script and shallow direction from Micahel Sucsy (who did some nice work with Lange in the HBO movie Grey Gardens), but the material with the old boyfriend is terrible and the behavior of the parents is so deplorable that I never believed anything like that could or would happen in real life. Tatum in particular is poised to have a very interesting year with the fantastic Haywire already out and as many as four more diverse films coming out in 2012. His fans (I am among them) will have more worthy reasons to rejoice as the year goes on, but The Vow isn't one of them, although he's the best thing in the movie. It's a coin toss, but all I know is by the time I got home after the screening of this film, I'd taken the Paige route and basically forgotten what I'd seen.
Journey 2: The Mysterious Island
Alright, let me make sure I've got this right, because god knows I wouldn't want to mislead you. Since the Jules Verne novel Journey to the Center of the Earth (which was made into a bad movie a couple years ago starring Brendan Fraiser and Josh Hutcherson as nephew and uncle) didn't have a sequel, the makers of the movie sequel, Journey 2: The Mysterious Island, have pilfered Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea follow-up, The Mysterious Island, as kinda-sorta source material for this new movie, starring Hutcherson and Dwayne Johnson as the boy's stepfather. To make sure the sequel was a quality product, the studio hired Brad Peyton, whose only other feature film credit is Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore. So, we're up to date, yes?
This movie is appealing enough as a visual spectacle, I'll give you that. But everybody in it is so damn dumb that it just made me mad. And the biggest dummy is Michael Caine for taking the role as Josh's grandfather in the first place. In Journey 2, Hutcherson's Sean gets a message from his long-missing grandfather that has clues guiding him to a secret island in the Pacific. Sean and his stepdad don't get along, but Sean's mom (Kristen Davis) believes sending the boys on this trip will help them bond, or ensure that they die. On their trip, the rest a seaplane from Luis Guzman's Gabato and his daughter Kailani (Vanessa Hudgens), and that's pretty much your setup.
Mistake Number 1 is casting Johnson in the film as Hank. There are moments when this effects-heavy adventure film actually breaks for comedy. There should be a starter pistol that shoots out one of those little flags that unfurls to read "HUMOR," because the breaks are that jarring. And shockingly enough, Johnson ain't that funny. Watching a muscle-bound tough guy ride on the back of a giant bee isn't as funny as it sounds, and watching Hank give his stepson advice on wooing Kailani is both ill-timed (they are literally watching the island sink around them) and king of gross, since Hank is basically telling Sean how to get in the girl's pants. Real classy, folks. Kitty Galore, indeed. Did I mention there's a song break too, as Johnson sings "What A Wonderful World"? It made me sad.
Plus, the little verbal spats between Johnson and Caine are so childish, you almost have to turn your head away in embarrassment. And as much as I love me some Guzman, his portrayal of the smelly, lazy, bumbling pilot borders on stereotyping. To be completely honest, the part of me that was most offended by Journey 2 was my sense of dignity. I was embarrassed for everyone connected with this movie, especially whatever members of the Verne family are still kicking. I can only imagine young kids watching this movie and somehow thinking that this somehow represents Verne's writing. The possibilities are staggering and upsetting.
And if you get there before the movie starts, you'll be "treated" to a weird, CG cartoon of Daffy Duck vs. Elmer Fudd called "Daffy's Rhapsody," which somehow features the voice of the late Mel Blanc (I guess these are unused recordings or something). I probably would have liked this cartoon were it not for the overly slick animation. This is my way of saying there is almost nothing to like in either the short or feature if you decide to attend Journey 2. I'd rather you take them to The Phantom Menace 3D, and I mean that sincerely. This isn't a very good week for new movies, but I guess that's typical when most people are attempting to catch up on their Oscar-related films. Yes, do that instead.
Oscar Shorts — Live Action & Animated
Reviewing shorts is interesting, because basically it comes down to whether or not the story is worth telling at any length. The added criteria with these particular 10 shorts is whether they are worthy enough to be in the running for an Academy Award, and the good news is that I'd guess eight out of the 10 shorts in the Live Action and Animated Oscar categories are quite excellent. These two particular categories are being featured in separate programs in Chicago at the Landmark Century Center Cinema, with the added bonus being that for the Animated program, you'll get a few more shorts that were in the running but didn't make the final cut. In addition, beginning this weekend the Music Box Theatre is showing the shorts nominated for Documentary Shorts, but since I didn't get a chance to see those, I've got no review.
The Live Action pieces are a great bunch that include Pentecost (from Ireland) about an outcast altar boy who is brought back into play when the Archbishop returns to his hometown to perform a special mass. But the boy is more interested in football, and he find an interesting way to combine the two. I especially love the way the local priest preps the altar boys for the service, much like a football coach gets his team ready for play ("Have the mass of your lives!"). Raju is a great drama featuring a German couple attempting to adopt a boy in India. The day after the adoption, the husband and boy go for a walk in the bustling city, and the boy goes missing. In his search for the boy, the man discovers something shocking about both the boy and the orphanage where they got him, something that may help to get him back but at a heavy price. This feels like the kind of film that might win come Oscar night.
My personal favorite was The Shore from Northern Ireland, directed by Terry George (Hotel Rwanda, Resurrection Road) and starring Ciaran Hinds and Kerry Condon, playing a father and grown daughter returning to his hometown after 25 years to face something that happened regarding his one-time best friend and former girlfriend. The acting in this film is great, and I loved seeing Hinds play something of a normal guy, rather than a menacing or authoritative figure. Plus, the story is really lovely and a bit mysterious. The short feels like a portion of a larger film, and in truth, I would love to see this story expanded and made into a feature. But as it stands, it's pretty wonderful. From the U.S. comes Time Freak, a light-hearted science-fiction work that asks the worthy question: What if a perfectionist invented a time machine? The answer is apparently that he would keep hitting a button that sends him back in time just a few minutes so he can get every little word right during his encounter with someone who wronged him or a girl he likes or his best friend who he's trying to show his time machine to. It's a funny film with a great ending, but I'm not sure it feels quite worthy of an Oscar.
The final film is Norway's Tuba Atlantic, concerning an old farmer who doctor tells him he has only a few days to live. He is visited by a young woman who refers to herself as his "angel of death" who arrives at his doorstep with a "Road to Death Handbook." After knocking off a few much-hated seagulls, the farmer decides he wants to reunite his long-gone brother (now living in New Jersey) by means of an unusual amplification system. The banter between the old man and the angel is a wonderful mix of cheery and surly. Fun stuff.
As for the animated fare, the nominees include the clever A Morning Stroll from the UK, which opens in black-and-white 1959 with a stick-figurish, hand-drawn character going for a walk, followed by a color, CG character taking the same walk during 2009, and ending with an inspired 2059 walk through a zombie Apocalypse stroll. In each version of this journey, a man sees a chicken walk down the sidewalk, knock on a door, and go through the door to points unknown (until the last segment). From the United States, The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore is a surreal little number about man living in New Orleans who is swept up by a storm that resembles a certain twister that picked up a little girl from Kansas. Only during this hurricane, the man sees a woman flying around the sky being pulled by books that take her (and him) to a magnificent library. There's not much to this one, but I like the message about the power of the written word, and there's a hint of Buster Keaton in the main character, so I was smiling.
Dimanche/Sunday from Canada is the slight but elegant story of a boy spending Sunday in church with the family, but it's really about the things people think about when they'd rather be anywhere but where they are. Canada's Wild Life is my personal favorite in this category, documenting an Englishman who came to be a cowboy and seek adventure in 1909 Alberta. The images are like a series of animated paintings — you can see the brush strokes — and the colors are beautiful. The title cards give details on the nature of comets such as "Once a bad omen, now they are seen as rare and harmless," and we realize that the man is his own type of fleeting comet. He buys a large tract of land, calls himself a rancher, but just lies around doing very little, while others in the community talk about him. When winter comes, he's totally unprepared. It's a bittersweet parable, with great visuals, and I'll be rooting for it.
Although for the first time since the Best Animated Feature category was created in 2001, Pixar doesn't have a dog in the race (sorry Cars 2). However, that doesn't mean the animation house doesn't have anything vying for an award this year. The lovely La Luna (which will serve as the short for this year's Pixar feature Brave) begins with a young boy, his father and grandfather all packed in a small boat in the middle of the sea just as the moon rises. I don't want to ruin what it is they're doing out there, but let's just say it's a very special clean-up job. Like most (possibly all) of the stand-alone Pixar shorts, La Luna doesn't have any dialogue, so there's great fun is waiting to see what this little gang is up to, and I promise it will bring a smile to your face.
It goes without saying (but here I go anyway) that supporting short films of all kinds is an important and rewarding endeavor. So please do what you can to check out any of these programs if they pop up in a city near you between now and the Academy Awards. Enjoy!