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.
In the Australian town of Jindabyne mystery flows like the river and the river is about to overflow. Racecar driver-turned-mechanic Stewart (Gabriel Byrne) goes on his annual fishing trip with three buddies (John Howard Stelios Yiakmis and Simon Stone) leaving his ill wife Claire (Laura Linney) at home with their son. While on the trip Stewart and his friends discover a young Aboriginal woman’s dead body floating in the water but lest the trout swim away they decide to wait till morning to alert the authorities. The four friends wind up paying for that non-decision in ways they hadn’t previously foreseen. Upon returning home they’re greeted by what they think is undue public outrage but none is heavier than the punishment levied onto Stewart by an already skeptical Claire. She was the last of the wives to learn of Stewart’s particularly unforgivable actions that day and she joins the rest of the community in not being able to look him in the eye. She demands he act like a man and show his face at the victim’s traditional Aboriginal burial ceremony as a last resort to some semblance of redemption. Meanwhile the actual serial killer remains at large and makes no attempt to run or hide from anybody. But as is the running theme of Jindabyne who is the real bad guy? Laura Linney the lone American in the movie headlines a cast of well-proven veterans. No contemporary actress not named Streep or Dench does “adult” quite like Linney and Jindabyne is another dazzling notch on her belt. As always Linney keeps things tense the whole way through even during the first half in which her character is fairly content; however she makes it clear that everything’s not OK despite seeming superficially so. But more than anything Linney’s Claire marks a welcome if much more dramatic return to her You Can Count on Me roots. Byrne who appeared alongside Linney in 2004’s P.S. turns in perhaps his darkest emotional performance to date. His Stewart turns into a pathetic shadow of a man towards the end with one shot at potential redemption and Byrne—an odd casting choice because he’s an Irishman playing an Aussie—really makes it stick. The rest of the largely Australian cast won’t be recognized by American viewers but they’re quite frequently employed in their native film industry and for good reason. Deborra-Lee Furness aka Mrs. Hugh Jackman especially stands out as one of the frantic newly ostracized wives. Jindabyne is director Ray Lawrence’s third film; his first was in 1985. For that reason it’s fair to say he’s Australia’s Terrence Malick. Every second of film for Lawrence like Malick is a labor of love. It shows but with Jindabyne it makes for a less enthralling—and less organic—viewing than his previous film 2001’s superb Lantana. Jindabyne is a pleasure to look at and listen to and the story—based on a short by Short Cuts author Raymond Carver—probably has a lot more to offer when read but Lawrence’s slooooow-burn technique with fade-outs in almost every spot that needs a cut is occasionally tough to sit (awake) through. Towards the end however it picks up speed and profundity and ultimately leaves your head spinning for mostly the right reasons. In other words it winds up a genuine Ray Lawrence experience which is a good thing. That said the movie is definitely not for everyone especially in the days of sequel season er summer.
White Oleander focuses on teen beauty Astrid Magnusson (Alison Lohman) and her equally beautiful mother Ingrid (Michelle Pfeiffer) an accomplished--if self-centered and manipulative--artist who tends to drag her daughter a budding artist in her own right into her own neuroses. To Astrid however her mother is a goddess--at least until police charge Ingrid with poisoning her lover in a fit of jealousy and she is sentenced to life imprisonment. Astrid is immediately placed into the foster care program and each new home presents a different set of rules for the young girl. There's life with Starr (Robin Wright Penn) an alcoholic-turned-born-again-Christian who becomes violently jealous of Astrid. There's life in a child-welfare institution where Astrid meets Paul (Patrick Fugit) a comic book artist with whom she immediately connects. Then there's life with Claire (Renee Zellweger) a lonely woman who can't have children of her own and whose husband (Noah Wyle) is never home. Claire shows Astrid the kind of genuine love the girl has never experienced but Ingrid haunts them needling and sabotaging her daughter's happiness at every turn. Astrid could simply go off the deep end but instead she becomes more resilient ultimately reaching a place where she can love her mother without letting her destroy her life. Sapville.
The acting talent in Oleander is definitely the movie's saving grace. The actresses make the film's trite dialogue almost palatable. Pfeiffer is amazingly beautiful and strong as Ingrid and she manages to burn the character into our brains even when she's not on the screen. Ingrid's relationship with her daughter is at times hard to watch: Ingrid digs at Astrid to try and control her but all this really does is expose Ingrid's own insecurities and failings as a mother. Pfeiffer relishes these moments and plays them to their full effect. Playing the other two "mothers" in Astrid's life the always good Penn takes the thankless part of Starr and turns it into something memorable while Zellweger's expert turn as Claire has a broken-doll quality that perfectly captures the character's fragility. The real dilemma for the film's producers was finding the right Astrid--an actress who could hold her own at the heart of the story--and whose talent would hold up opposite Pfieffer. Lohman was chosen from a cast of thousands and does a fine job playing Astrid; the camera clearly loves her. Still she needs a little more experience under her belt before she can truly shine. Fugit who was once the newcomer himself in Almost Famous (and did a much better job the first time out) manages to create a believable rapport with Lohman as her boyfriend Paul.
OK this is a gripe to all Hollywood executives: stop using sentimental material to make major motion pictures even if it is from a bestselling book. While Fitch's novel tells a moving story it does not necessarily translate into an inspiring film. Director Peter Kosminsky does his best with Oleander to create a haunting atmosphere and there are times when the material is elevated especially in the scenes between Zellweger and Lohman and those that explore the tragedy that befalls them. Yet ultimately the film plays like an after-school special. This isn't to say an intimate story can't make an interesting movie (The Good Girl and Igby Goes Down are just two examples of what's out there right now) but Oleander fails to engage its audience in any kind of meaningful way.