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.
WHAT’S IT ABOUT?
A year has passed since Michael Myers escaped from Smith’s Grove Sanitarium and embarked on a murderous rampage through the town of Haddonfield on Halloween night. With the anniversary of the tragedy approaching survivor Laurie Strode still traumatized after her climactic encounter with Michael is plagued by nightmares that seem to foreshadow his deadly return.
Laurie’s therapist and friends dismiss her anxiety as the inevitable by-product of the trauma she experienced insisting that Michael is dead while ignoring the unpleasant reality that his body was never found. And wouldn’t you know it – the crazy chick is on to something. Far from deceased Michael’s been lying low in the days since Laurie put an end to his grisly escapade quietly convalescing in the place where most folks suffering from multiple gunshot wounds go to recover: a dirty wood shack in the middle of a sparsely-populated rural area.
Not that he’s been alone. Bathed in angelic white garments and accompanied by a similarly alabaster horse (its significance is explained in the opening credits) Michael’s mother Deborah has been paying regular visits to her son from beyond the grave appearing in visions to provide guidance to her deranged offspring. According to his nutty imaginary mum Michael’s tortured psyche will never be at peace until he’s reunited with his baby sister Laurie. And so Michael returns to Haddonfield for a second attempt at a family reunion slicing to ribbons anyone stupid enough to cross his path.
WHO’S IN IT?
After swearing up and down that he’d never make a sequel to his 2007 Halloween reboot Rob Zombie is back in the director’s chair for Halloween II. Also returning are most of the cast members including Tyler Mane (Michael Myers) Scout Taylor-Compton (Laurie Strode) Brad Dourif (Sheriff Lee Brackett) Sheri Moon Zombie (Deborah Myers) Malcolm McDowell (Dr. Samuel Loomis) and Danielle Harris (Annie Brackett). Leading the newcomers is Margot Kidder (Superman Black Christmas) in the role of Laurie’s barely competent therapist.
Given greater freedom to pursue his own twisted vision Zombie departs further from the canon of the original franchise while still keeping the essential elements intact. Michael Myers is still a quiet guy who wears a scary mask and butchers people and Laurie Strode is still the primary object of his desire but apart from that Halloween II bears little resemblance to the 1981 follow-up to John Carpenter’s original Halloween.
The character of Loomis in particular is miles apart from the Donald Pleasance version – and far more interesting. Zombie’s Loomis is an ambitious media whore who cravenly cashes in on the tragic events of the previous film by penning a memoir of his relationship with Michael then mounting a nationwide book tour to promote it. As portrayed by an amusingly acerbic pompous McDowell he’s easily the most appealing part of the film.
The tone of Halloween II is very much in line with Zombie’s previous works: gritty and grisly more disturbing than scary more uncomfortable than suspenseful. Characters make lots of stupid decisions (why didn’t Laurie leave Haddonfield and move to a town where her friends and family members weren’t massacred by a psychopath?) most of which can be forgiven for the sake of horror.
Other decisions aren’t so easily excused. As he did with the 2007 film Zombie seeks to portray Michael as a multi-dimensional villain in Halloween II and not the bloodthirsty automaton of the franchise’s previous iteration. Admittedly it’s a significant challenge adding depth to a solitary character that essentially never speaks but Zombie’s solution – summoning Michael’s mom and the aforementioned white steed at various points in the story to give him his next bloody assignment – comes off as contrived at best laughable at worst.
Comic legend Weird Al Yankovic makes a surprisingly funny cameo as a guest on a talk show in which Loomis appears to pimp his book belittling the doctor with verbal jabs until he stomps off enraged. (Click here for Zombie's explanation of how Weird Al's cameo came about.)
WHAT’S IT ABOUT?
Set in 1985 in an alternate universe the U.S. is in bad shape. Nixon is running for his third term (!) war is about to break out with the Russians and superheroes have become outcasts in a world so complicated even THEY can’t get enthusiastic about saving it. When one of them a former member of the Watchmen named The Comedian is sent hurtling to his death by an unknown intruder in his apartment it brings his former associates forced into retirement back together (sort of) to help solve this geek-laden whodunit. Among them are Rorschach a sociopath whose face is concealed by a mask that changes patterns with his moods (hence the name); Dan a gadget nerd who used to soar as Nite Owl but now is rendered impotent in every way imaginable; Adrian who lives off merchandising his glory days as “genius” Oxymandias; Laurie aka Silk Spectre II still living in the shadow of her faded superhero mom the aging Sally aka the original Silk Spectre; and above all else Jon Osterman who as the result of a government accident has morphed into the physically imposing almost always naked and very blue demigod named Dr. Manhattan. He eventually leads a life in exile on Mars.
WHO’S IN IT?
Although the busy visual landscape and CGI nature of this sprawling comic book epic doesn’t usually lend itself to memorable acting turns this well-chosen cast acquits themselves nicely particularly Jackie Earle Haley (Little Children) who manages to embody Rorschach with a Bogart-like noirish flavor. Haley’s Little Children co-star Patrick Wilson gives a quirky turn as Dan Dreiberg who longs to relive his Nite Owl days but seems stuck in a life cycle that has him spiraling downward into mediocrity. Jeffrey Dean Morgan (Grey's Anatomy) also does a convincingly chilling job as The Comedian a man with very little morals and even less patience. Matthew Goode (Match Point) as the ego-driven Adrian doesn’t make much of an impression. Neither does Malin Akerman (The Heartbreak Kid) as Laurie who is pretty to look at but has some of the worst dialogue. As her mother however Carla Gugino succinctly portrays a woman who has seen better days. Billy Crudup has a few touching moments as Osterman but is mostly upstaged by his alter-ego Dr. Manhattan whose ripped physique and superhero powers steal the show. A lot of guys will want to sign up for this kind of CGI makeover.
Director Zack Snyder has taken Alan Moore’s revered “un-filmable” graphic novel and given it a movie life that crackles onscreen. Snyder is the real star of this show who first proved with 300 and now here that he is a cinematic visionary in a class by himself. Watchmen’s effects work is top of the line dazzling.
Snyder is almost too reverential to his source material. The movie is so loaded with plot and individual storylines that at 160 minutes it tends to put your senses on overload. A little less would have gone a long way but still Watchmen is like no comic book movie you have ever seen – and that’s a very good thing.
It has to be the opening sequence in which a fairly powerful intruder beats the whaley out of The Comedian and sends him flying through his high-rise apartment's plate glass window to his untimely demise on the New York pavement below. Gets the blood pumping right away.
After Rorschach has been arrested and thrown in jail he is confronted by all the villains he has put behind bars who all want a piece of him. But he tells them "You think I'm locked up with you but it's YOU who are locked up with ME!" Oh if they only knew.
This prequel-ish remake of John Carpenter’s Halloween finds a 10-year-old Michael Myers (Daeg Faerch) looking like Dennis the Menace—but still acting like the Antichrist. Who could blame the kid? His older sister (Hanna Hall) makes fun of him when not ignoring him his alcoholic stepdad (William Forsythe) hurls food and profanity at him and the school bullies harass him endlessly. Young Michael’s only allies are his mom (Sheri Moon) and baby sister. Which explains why their lives are spared when Michael goes on a Halloween night killing spree. Fifteen years pass and Michael’s hatred of speaking and love of mask-wearing have reached an all-time high. When the guards at the instititution Michael has called home for the past decade and a half make the fatal mistake of trying to transport him to a new location—on his favorite night of the year no less—Michael busts out without a hitch. With his mom having committed suicide years ago Michael has but one person to pay a visit to: his now teenage sister (Scout Taylor-Compton) who has long since been adopted and not informed of her family tree. But with Michael’s longtime psychologist Dr. Loomis (Malcolm McDowell) hot on his trail it won’t be so easy to get to his baby sis. OK so maybe it'll be somewhat easy. The only members of the cast to turn in actual performances are Moon wife/frequent collaborator of Halloween writer-director Rob Zombie and McDowell. It’s not that the others can’t act but rather that they spend the movie screaming (Taylor-Compton) or hiding dialogue-less under a mask (Tyler Mane) or some other form of non-acting—which is admittedly neither here nor there since the same could be said about most slasher movies. Moon lends a certain humanity to an otherwise emotionless affair and it makes her stand out in more than one way but sadly her performance is rather short-lived. Elsewhere young actress Taylor-Compton certainly has nothing on Jamie Lee Curtis’ original Laurie Strode except for perhaps the decibels and amount of her screams. Filling in for Donald Pleasence McDowell wasn’t a bad casting choice to deliver cryptic if dubious dialogue but his performance is rarely more than funny—which could sum up most of the acting here. Such humor culminates with Danny Trejo’s tiny performance as a janitor who cheerily calls the grown-up Myers “Mikey”—even when being savagely murdered by him. Thought shock-rocker Rob Zombie would be the right man for the job of updating John Carpenter’s Halloween? You weren’t alone but alas it is only an update by the standards of today’s “horror” directors who mistake gore for fear factor. In the prologue featuring the young Myers the laughability of the young actor’s dialogue is only exceeded by how unscary his actions are. Blame Zombie’s screenplay which is often unfunny when it’s supposed to be funny—primarily during his trademark clichéd-white-trash-family scenes—and funny when it’s not supposed to be. In the second half at least the talking turns into screams and the pace picks up but it’s all for naught because the older Michael has become a superhuman monster instead of a troubled institutionalized human. The psychological scares have been completely drained from this remake as Zombie appears more intent on stylistically depicting the murders than setting them up; any shred of subtlety as a result is gone. Although maybe the director thought he fulfilled the psychological-scare quota when the psychologist’s life is put in grave danger. As Zombie’s Halloween limps on it becomes a sad commentary on the state of the genre: Elaborate throat-slittings and blood trajectories are no longer even flinch-inducing.