In the last seven years Denzel Washington has paired with director Tony Scott on four hyperkinetic ultra-saturated feature films: Man on Fire Deja Vu The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 and Unstoppable. When he strays from the time-honored action collaboration you'd think the man would take a break from the format. Not so—as Washington's new film Safe House clearly demonstrates.
Daniel Espinosa director of the acclaimed Swedish crime drama Snabba Cash shoots his espionage thriller with Scott-ian flair complete with rapid camera movement a palette of eye-scorchingly bright colors and fragmented editing. If Safe House was emotionally compelling the stylistic approach might make the narrative sizzle—but the script is as simple and familiar as they come: Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds) is a CIA agent with a monotonous gig. He's a safe housekeeper tasked with maintaining a stronghold in South Africa in case the feds need to stop by for some…interrogating. After a year of begging for field work and keeping the joint tidy Weston finds himself embroiled in the investigation of Tobin Bell (Denzel Washington) an ex-CIA notorious for selling information on the black market. A group of agents bring Bell in to Weston's safe house for a routine waterboarding but everything is thrown into chaos when the lockdown is infiltrated by machine-wielding baddies looking to put a bullet in Bell's head. To keep the captor alive Weston goes on the run with Bell in hand…never knowing exactly why everyone wants the guy dead.
The setup for Safe House provides Washington and Reynolds two fully capable action stars to do their thing and to do it well. The two characters have their own defining characteristics that each actor bites off with ferocity: Reynolds' Weston is a man drowning in circumstance built to kick ass but still out of his league and just hoping to get back to his gal in one piece. Bell has years of experience boring into the heads of his opponents and Washington plays him with the necessary charisma and confidence that make even his most despicable characters a treat to watch.
But the duo fight a losing battle in Safe House contending with the script's meandering action and ambiguous stakes that turn the Bourne-esque thriller into a grueling experience. Much of the movie is an extended chase scene where the object of the bad guys' desire is never identified. It's a mystery!—but the lack of info comes off as confusing. Safe House cuts back and forth between the compelling relationship between Weston and Bell and a war room full of exceptional actors (Vera Farmiga Brendan Gleeson and Sam Shepherd) given nothing to do but spurt straightforward backstory and typical "there's no time Mr. ______!" exclamatory statements. Caking it is Espinosa's direction which lacks any sense of coherent geography. The action is never intense because you have no idea who is going where and when and why.
Safe House is a competently made movie with enough talent to keep it afloat but without any definable hook or dramatic emphasis it plays out like an undercooked version of the Denzel Washington/Tony Scott formula. Which is unfortunate as four solid ones already exist.
By both critical and commercial measures live-action anime adaptations boast a record of futility second perhaps only to videogame adaptations. Some essential aspect of the source material is irretrievably lost during the process of translating Japanese cartoon to Hollywood tentpole something that even the most bloated visual effects budget can’t conceal. Think Dragonball Evolution and Speed Racer.
And yet Hollywood keeps trying lured by tantalizing visions of cash-cow franchises fed by loyal built-in — and most importantly international — audiences. The latest casualty of this misguided ambition is The Last Airbender based on the hit Nickelodeon series Avatar: The Last Airbender. To be fair Avatar isn’t anime in the orthodox sense in that it was conceived and produced in the States but its style and soul are almost exclusively anime-inspired. As such its big-screen fate is similarly sealed.
Who could possibly break such a rueful trend? For some reason the minds at Paramount thought M. Night Shyamalan that notorious purveyor of ponderous and increasingly shlocky supernatural thrillers might succeed where so many other directors had failed. Even worse they saw fit to hire him to pen the screenplay as well ensuring that every vital aspect of the film would feel the crushing weight of his heavy hand. With such a hacky burden to bear it comes as no surprise that The Last Airbender never really takes flight.
The film's story is set in a world divided into four tribes each aligned to an element: Air Earth Water and Fire. Certain gifted tribe members known as a “benders ” can manipulate the properties of their assigned element to suit their ends. In order to do so they must first perform an elaborate and utterly ridiculous kung fu dance after which a torrent of fire water or whatever arises to obey their command.
For the better part of a century the oppressive and warlike Firebenders have besieged the other nations gradually thinning their respective ranks. The Air Nomads have faired the worst of the lot and are presumed to be extinct until Water peeps Katara (Nicola Peltz) and Sokka (Jackson Rathbone) discover a boy named Aang (Noah Ringer) trapped in a giant ball of ice. Not only is Unfrozen Kung Fu Warrior the last remaining Airbender (thus the title) he is also an Avatar the only being on the planet capable of wielding all four elements. And only he can bring an end to the Firebenders’ evil reign.
Blessed with an opportunity to reinvent himself in a new genre and with a new demographic Shyamalan can’t avoid falling back on old habits most notably his penchant for awkward and cumbersome dialogue. It’s difficult enough for adults to deliver his lines but it’s absolute hell for The Last Airbender’s youthful protagonists whose not yet fully-developed temporal lobes can’t hope to adequately process the inanities of Shyamalan-speak. One can almost see the smoke coming from little Noah’s ears as he labors to complete each portentous sentence. Poor kid. Where are the Child Labor people when you need them?
But bad dialogue is only one of a litany of problems that plagues The Last Airbender which suffers from mediocre CGI inexplicable casting decisions (caucasians actors none of whom are especially talented are tabbed for asian roles when sufficiently mediocre race-appropriate actors were surely available) and a plot comprehensible only to the most ardent fans of the Nickelodeon series. Much as Aang bends the air Shyamalan tries to bend the laws of quality cinema to his will but they refuse to yield to the force of his ego. I only wish the execs at Paramount had been as stalwart.
Despite seemingly having it all hunky Tripp (Matthew McConaughey) has still never been able to leave the nest. It’s actually easy to see why. It’s free and his mother (Kathy Bates) dotes on him. But Tripp’s parents especially gregarious dad (Terry Bradshaw) are anxious to get him out of the house so they can have their own lives. That’s where Paula (Sarah Jessica Parker) comes in: a professional consultant who works specifically with fed-up parents who want their adult sons to move out. She dates them convinces them its time to fly the coop and then lets them go. It’s mostly foolproof--but not in Tripp’s case. No this is different because Paula starts to have feelings (Can you blame her? Just look at the guy) jeopardizing not only her job but the fact she may have found the perfect guy. OK Launch seems contrived but give it a chance; it might grow on you. As with any romantic comedy it’s about watching two attractive people--in this case McConaughey and Parker--spar and connect. Well at least most of the time. But there’s another trend in rom-coms these days: wonderfully original supporting characters who add color and can oftentimes steal the show all while allowing the main characters to shine beyond the standard girl-meets-boy scenario. Tripp’s two best friends Demo and Ace--played by Bradley Cooper (Wedding Crashers) and Justin Bartha (National Treasure) respectively--are a real hoot. As is Zooey Deschanel (Elf) Paula’s anti-social bird-hating roommate Kit (great name by the way); she nearly steals Parker’s thunder especially when she and Bartha’s Ace hook up. Also delightful are Bates and Bradshaw as Tripp’s patient parents itching to break free. Who knew an Oscar-winning actress and former Super Bowl champ could have chemistry? Under the direction of Tom Dey (Shanghai Noon) Failure to Launch isn’t the end all be all of romantic comedies but it does take delight in some of its idiosyncratic approaches towards the genre. For example the womanizing Tripp may seem to have a devil-may-care attitude about his living situation but he’s really has some deeper issues going on. And Paula’s job--it seems a bit mean-spirited don’t you think? She leads these poor guys on and then once they leave the house dumps them. So in a way she gets her due. Of course Dey’s attention to the side characters also gives the film a big boost. He probably learned a lesson or two from watching Four Weddings and a Funeral and Notting Hill. Ultimately in what you’d think might be another stale rom-com Launch surprises you with its wry humor and multi-layered performances.
"In this alarming cinematic event alone you will encounter a terrible fire dim lighting high tragedy a giant snake low comedy man-eating leeches and Jim Carrey " Mr. Snicket claims--and he isn't joking. It is indeed unfortunate times for the Baudelaire children who are left orphaned by a tragic fire that burned down their luxurious mansion and killed their parents. Violet (Emily Browning) one of the finest 14-year-old inventors the world has ever known her 12-year-old brother Klaus (Liam Aiken) a voracious reader and their baby sister Sunny (Kara and Shelby Hoffman) an excellent biter are now at the mercy of unknown guardians with vague connections to their parents. They include Aunt Josephine (Meryl Streep) a widow terrified of almost everything but who insists on proper grammar; Uncle Monty (Billy Connolly) a kind and warm herpetologist who holds a well-kept secret on the Baudelaire parents' past; and the most malevolent of them all Count Olaf (Jim Carrey) a wannabe actor who sets about a series of ill-fated events for the Baudelaire orphans in hopes of obtaining their vast inheritance. It's almost too much to bear--but these orphans rely on their keen intelligence and unique talents to escape Olaf's clutches.
The distressingly talented if somewhat over-the-top Jim Carrey is tailored made for the ostentatious Count Olaf much like he was for the Grinch in Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas--but this time he does it with a lot less green makeup. With a smelly disposition and one giant eyebrow Carrey sufficiently oozes the right amount of villainy as Olaf without getting too "Carreyed" away. Streep also has a marvelous time playing the skittish Aunt Josephine who is so concerned about any fateful event that may befall her inside her house she doesn't seem to realize she lives in a precarious perch above a roiling sea full of killer leeches. Connolly too takes great pleasure wrapping snakes around his neck as Uncle Monty the good-hearted reptile lover. Even Jude Law makes an appearance thankfully only in silhouette as the narrator himself Lemony Snicket. Yet even against veterans such as Carrey and Streep the stoic Baudelaire orphans make the film. They're played brilliantly by Browning (Darkness Falls) Aiken (Good Boy!) and the cute-as-a-button Hoffman twins. Unlike the inexperience of say the young Harry Potter cast when they first started out Browning and Aiken are pros bringing a rather bright and inquisitive yet suitably morose quality to their characters.
"I begged them not to do it. I begged them not to get a good director. I begged them not to cast anyone talented. I begged them not base the movie on any of my books and they chose three of them!" exclaims Mr. Snicket. Good thing the filmmakers didn't listen to Mr. Snicket aka author Daniel Handler because the story of the Baudelaire orphans and their misadventures is too sweet to pass up. It follows along the traditions of other children's literature--from the Brothers Grimm to Roald Dahl to J.K. Rowling--of absurdly awful things happening to perfectly nice children. Taking from the first three books in the series--A Bad Beginning The Reptile Room and The Wide Window--director Brad Silberling (Casper) expertly creates the Snicket world staying true to the visions and unusual style of Handler's bestsellers. Shot entirely on Hollywood sound stages the film is virtual eye candy dripping with austere sets--particularly Count Olaf's dilapidated mansion and Aunt Josephine's rickety house--that are reminiscent of Barry Sonnenfeld's creepy Addams Family and Tim Burton's bleak Sleepy Hollow (whose production designer Rick Heinrichs designed Snicket). Can't wait to see what they do in the next Snicket installment.
January 11, 2002 11:05am EST
Shaun Brumder (Colin Hanks) is sitting on the beach pondering the mysteries of life after losing his surfing buddy to a tsunami when he finds a copy of Marcus Skinner's novel Straitjacket buried in the sand. The book by a mythical Kerouac-type author who teaches at Stanford University profoundly influences Shaun who in turn decides he will become a writer. But Shaun's dreams of attending Stanford and studying under the guidance of his new mentor get squashed when a scatterbrained guidance counselor sends the wrong transcripts to the university. With the help of his peace-loving girlfriend Ashley (Schuyler Fisk) and his junkie brother Lance (Jack Black) the trio sets off to Stanford to convince school officials to reconsider his application before the deadline the following day. After a series of catastrophes Shaun becomes convinced that his dysfunctional family is conspiring to keep him in Orange County.
Colin Hanks (Get Over It not to mention Tom Hank's son) is the film's protagonist Shaun Brumder. He and his on-screen sweetheart played by Schuyler Fisk (Snow Day not to mention Sissy Spacek's daughter) bring quality to a good script suffering from shaky direction. The two interact quite naturally and make a pretty sweet couple. Jack Black (Shallow Hal) is hysterical and not just when he is standing around half-naked and dirty. Some of the funniest scenes are when Black's character Lance tries to be serious and stoned at the same time. Catherine O'Hara (Best in Show) plays Shaun's boozy mother without going over the top and John Lithgow (Third Rock from the Sun) is equally convincing as his rich father now married to someone half his age. There are several notable cameo appearances from actors including Lily Tomlin Ben Stiller Kevin Kline and Chevy Chase but they do not bring anything unique to their performances.
Orange County is directed by Jake Kasdan (Zero Effect) who more recently directed episodes of teen TV series Freaks and Geeks Undeclared and Grosse Pointe--and it shows. While the script is hilarious and the acting above par the pacing is a bit uneven. The film jumps from really gross shots of Black prancing around in his skanky underpants to sentimentalized family issues that are a little too real to be funny. Then we are subject to scenes of Shaun's wheelchair-bound stepfather rolling out onto the street and getting hit by a car being the target of falling objects or crying out in pain because no one remembers to give him his medication. When did the blatant neglect of invalids become funny? Unfortunately these elements did not come together very well. Of course Kasdan does not resist the temptation of subjecting us to a dreaded college frat party scene involving flaky teenage girls and pompous college boys that with the help of Monica Keena (Undeclared) almost felt like a sitcom.