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.
On the eve of the release of Paul, a movie about two aging geeks who find an alien while on a road trip to Comic-Con, we figured it would be a good time to revisit our favorite sci-fi road trips. We’re not talking about a sci-fi journeys, either. These movies aren’t just about a group of people hiking toward some far off destination, they’re about that great American tradition of hoping in a vehicle (of some sort) and heading off on a mission, be it to accomplish a precise goal or to simply wander. As long as they’re in a vehicle when they do it, it’s up for consideration-- and the great thing about sci-fi is that the vehicles can get pretty crazy.
Also, be wary of spoilers below for any of the films you haven’t seen.
The Vehicle: 1977 Ford Mustang Cobra II
The Travelers: Jenny Hayden (Karen Allen) and the Starman (Jeff Bridges)
The Destination: From Wisconsin to Arizona so the Starman can catch an intergalactic ride away from the stupid people who shot down his peace-bringing spaceship.
Trip Highlight: There’s a lot to pick from in John Carpenter’s Starman - resurrecting a deer, fighting the truckers, fleeing the NSA - but the highlight would have to be Starman driving their car directly into a gas tanker while they’re both inside. It takes balls to intentionally blow up your road-tripping ride, even if you are a space alien.
Close Encounters of the Third Kind
The Vehicle: A variety of station wagons and trucks, but it all begins in a yellow Ford-F250.
The Travelers: Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) and Jillian (Melinda Dillon)
The Destination: Devils Tower National Monument in Wyoming
Trip Highlight: The arrival of the mothership, of course. It technically happens after they’ve reached their destination, but we’re still counting it since it’s the start of a second road trip for Roy. Except where he’s going, they don’t need roads. (Sorry, it had to be said.)
The Vehicle: The spaceship Icarus II
The Travelers: A team of eight scientists
The Destination: The sun
Trip Highlight: Some crazy stuff goes down in Sunshine, but as insane as stuff gets, the trip highlight has to be the spacewalk Kaneda and Capa take to make repairs after Trey forgets to adjust the heat shield for their new trajectory. Not only is it a visually awesome scene, but it’s essentially the most high-stakes tire change ever seen in a road trip movie.
2001: A Space Odyssey
The Vehicle: The spaceship Discovery One
The Travelers: David Bowman (Keir Dullea), Dr. Franke Poole (Gary Lockwood) and Hal 9000
The Destination: Jupiter, though no one knows what to expect when they get there.
Trip Highlight: Dave’s mind-bending trip into the monolith orbiting Jupiter, which in turn sent countless college kids on acid trips of their own while trying to figure out just what in the hell the ending of 2001: A Space Odyssey means.
The Vehicle: A pimped-out Winnebago Chieftain
The Travelers: Lone Star (Bill Pullman) and Barf (John Candy)
The Destination: Planet Druidia to stop President Skroob (Mel Brooks) from stealing all of its air.
Trip Highlight: Lone Star and Dark Helmet’s duel inside Mega Maid’s ear, which taught the world over the heartwarming message that you don’t need a special ring to use the Schwartz as long as you’re pure of heart. Or something.
The Vehicle: A 1984 Chevy Van
The Travelers: A group of geeks on a mission to see Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace early.
The Destination: Skywalker Ranch
Trip Highlight: A surprise encounter with William Shatner in Las Vegas, who then tells them what they need to do to infiltrate Skywalker Ranch. Sure, the movie may not be all that great, but it’s scenes like this that prove its intentions were in the right place.
The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers
The Vehicle: Treebeard, the oldest Ent of Middle Earth
The Travelers: Merry (Dominic Monaghan) and Pippin (Billy Boyd)
The Destination: Isengard
Trip Highlight: Merry and Pippin going to battle riding atop giant, ancient walking trees of doom. Enough said.
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
The Vehicle: The spaceship Heart of Gold
The Travelers: Arthur Dent (Martin Freeman), Ford Prefect (Mos Def) Zaphond Beeblebrox (Sam Rockwell), Trillian (Zooey Deschanel) and Marvin (Alan Rickman/Warwick Davis)
The Destination: The planet Magrathea, which contains the answer to the Question of Life, the Universe and Everything
Trip Highlight: All manner of insane and improbable things happen in The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, so it’s hard to pick just a single highlight. However, we’ve got to hand it to Marvin the Paranoid Android for saving the day by turning the Point-of-View gun on the Vogons, causing them to be overcome with crippling despair.
The Vehicle: Virgil, a deep-Earth drilling vessel.
The Travelers: A team of scientists and astronauts trying to restart the Earth’s molten core, which has stopped spinning.
The Destination: The Core, duh.
Trip Highlight: Let’s be clear, The Core is only a movie worth talking about because of how joyously silly it is. To that end, we can’t help but give a bit of a slowclap to its cheesiest moment: getting rescued because a pod of whales singing a song that alerts the surface that Virgil survived the nuclear explosions at the core.
Star Trek: The Voyage Home
The Vehicle: A Bird-of-Prey starship
The Travelers: The exiled officers of the USS Enterprise.
The Destination: Earth, 1986, where the crew plan to abduct a humpback whale and bring it back to the future.
Trip Highlight: Well if it isn’t another whale-related sci-fi plot point (if only we had gone with the falling whale in Hitchhiker’s Guide, we’d have a hat trick going on)... Strange obsession with whales aside, it’s hard not to love the scene where Kirk saves the day (and the future) by decloaking the Bird-of-Prey right in front of a group of angry whalers who most likely all had to change their underwear afterward.
Two orphaned kids Andi (Emma Roberts) and her mechanical whiz of a younger brother Bruce (Jake T. Austin) live in a foster home with a couple of aging wannabe rock stars (Lisa Kudrow Kevin Dillon) who are vehemently anti-pet. Running out of ways to keep their stray pooch Friday hidden in plain sight they stumble on to an abandoned hotel that turns out to be the perfect shelter for Friday – and transform the place into luxury accommodations for all sorts of unwanted pets they spring from the local pound and the streets. But can they stay one step ahead of the law while keeping this United Nations of dogs in line? Human actors don’t have a chance against the gifted assortment of canines. With dogs of every breed from a border collie who loves to herd sheep (don’t ask) to an English bulldog obsessed with chewing stuff the trainers deliver a cast that flawlessly pulls off every dog trick in the book. Fortunately Roberts (Nancy Drew) and Austin are winning and likeable as the two main kids who share a need for family with their four-legged counterparts. Kudrow and Dillon don’t get a whole lot to do in strictly stereotyped roles but Don Cheadle as the kids’ social worker adds a nice touch of dignity and warmth to the story. For his first American feature German director Thor Freudenthal got the supreme challenge: working with kids and animals. Getting this furry menagerie to act on cue could not have been easy but Freundenthal and his talented trainers make it look so. Particularly amusing are the various gadgets and elaborate contraptions Bruce builds to keep the doggies occupied and quiet -- including simulated car windows they can stick their heads out of portable toilets complicated feeding machines and on and on. Just like the current hit Marley & Me it’s a funny and heartwarming family comedy.
There is something more than a feast of love being force-fed to us in this movie; it’s closer to all-you-can-eat buffet o’ syrup but that is admittedly not an inviting title. Either way the entangled melodrama in Feast of Love is too much to digest. The movie centers on several love stories or perhaps more specifically the Oregon coffeehouse that serves as the de facto hub of said stories. The café’s owner Bradley (Greg Kinnear) is responsible for most of the tales since women leave him left and right. In fact the movie opens with Bradley’s wife (Selma Blair) ditching him for a woman. Then there’s Harry (Morgan Freeman) the Yoda of love who advises Harry—and everybody else—in the school of relationships. Finally there’s Oscar (Toby Hemingway) a young barista in the café whose lust for his new coworker (Alexa Davalos) goes requited. The carousel continues with Bradley’s misfires Harry’s philosophizing about them and Oscar’s blossoming relationship until the movie exploits our lack of attention to detail at the end. That’s when the big “intersecting” storyline is meant to swoop in and leave us in awe over the many splendors of love or the Feast thereof. It says something when even a classic Morgan Freeman performance can’t bring Feast of Love a smidge closer to realism. In other words he can’t be blamed for headlining an untenable movie. Feast greatly simplifies what a longtime vet like Freeman—or his screen wife Jane Alexander—understands and the rest of the cast doesn’t: less is more. He refuses to buy into the melodrama under which this movie wants to operate and that refusal is what makes his relationship the only palpable one. Elsewhere a “more is less” mode of thinking seems to take over. Kinnear further pigeonholing himself as the embodiment of blissful ignorance (i.e. Little Miss Sunshine The Matador) can score laughs with ease but can’t evoke anything subtler especially pity. Meanwhile Radha Mitchell (Melinda and Melinda) as Bradley’s second wife (following a barely there Selma Blair) displays some promise before her role spirals out of control and into Overacting 101 which she passes with flying colors. But nobody exaggerates like the cast’s youngest members Hemingway (The Covenant) and Davalos (The Chronicles of Riddick). Of course the screenplay is responsible to a certain extent for their hamming it up but simply put their couple seems much more Shakespearean than contemporary American. Case in point: When Davalos deadpans “I think my intensity scares guys off ” it can’t be anything but eye-roll worthy. By now it’s hard to fathom that Feast of Love director Robert Benton is the Robert Benton of Bonnie and Clyde and Kramer vs. Kramer fame. His movies have been on an extremely steep decline ever since those landmark achievements and his latest brings that decline one step closer to a crash landing. Feast is not unlike many romantic comedies in its inability to replicate real life—only...it’s supposed to be a dramedy! But while the humor aspect is there and connects drama to Benton and writer Allison Burnett (Resurrecting the Champ)—who adapted Charles Baxter’s undoubtedly more entertaining book—seems to mean nudity aplenty and/or soap-opera dialogue peppered with F-bombs. It’s as though the director in sculpting his characters has never met a real-life couple because two of the three couples are caricatures with Freeman and Alexander narrowly saving theirs from being so. That might’ve worked if the movie were a romantic comedy in earnest and didn’t try to wax poetic with a tidy wrap-up ending. But it’s all so unrealistic almost supernatural in its conclusion that Feast is the sort of movie that arouses the love cynic in you not the believer.