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.
The other day, we got a look at the list of competitors in the upcoming Sundance Film Festival. But we've also got ourselves a fair share of promising premieres, with a slew of stars and directors alike that we're sure to get excited over.
Some of the big names we'll be seeing at this year's Sundance include Bradley Cooper, Zoe Saldana, Olivia Wilde and Jeremy Irons in The Words, Bruce Willis and Catherine Zeta-Jones in Lay the Favorite, Kirsten Dunst, Isla Fisher, Lizzy Caplan and Adam Scott in Bachelorette, Julie Delpy and Chris Rock in the Delpy-directed 2 Days in New York, Rashida Jones, Andy Samberg and Elijah Wood in Celeste and Jesse Forever (co-written by Jones) and Josh Radnor, starring against Elizabeth Olsen, in Liberal Arts, which he wrote and directed.
2 Days in New York / France (Director: Julie Delpy, Screenwriters: Julie Delpy, Alexia Landeau) — Marion has broken up with Jack and now lives in New York with their child. A visit from her family, the different cultural background of her new boyfriend, her sister’s ex-boyfriend, and her upcoming photo exhibition make for an explosive mix. Cast: Julie Delpy, Chris Rock, Albert Delpy, Alexia Landeau, Alex Nahon.
Arbitrage / U.S.A. (Director and screenwriter: Nicholas Jarecki) — A hedge-fund magnate is in over his head, desperately trying to complete the sale of his trading empire before the depths of his fraud are revealed. An unexpected, bloody error forces him to turn to the most unlikely corner for help. Cast: Richard Gere, Susan Sarandon, Tim Roth, Brit Marling, Laetitia Casta.
Bachelorette / U.S.A. (Director and screenwriter: Leslye Headland) — Unresolved issues between four high school friends come roaring back to life when the least popular of them gets engaged to one of the most eligible bachelors in New York City and asks the others to be bridesmaids in her wedding. Cast: Kirsten Dunst, Isla Fisher, Lizzy Caplan, James Marsden, Adam Scott, Kyle Bornheimer.
Celeste and Jesse Forever / U.S.A. (Director: Lee Toland Krieger, Screenwriters: Rashida Jones, Will McCormack) — Celeste and Jesse met in high school, married young, and at 30, decide to get divorced but remain best friends while pursuing other relationships. Cast: Rashida Jones, Andy Samberg, Ari Graynor, Chris Messina, Elijah Wood, Emma Roberts.
For A Good Time, Call... / U.S.A. (Director: Jamie Travis, Screenwriters: Katie Anne Naylon & Lauren Anne Miller) — Lauren and Katie move in together after a loss of a relationship and a loss of a rent controlled home, respectively. When Lauren learns what Katie does for a living the two enter into a wildly unconventional business venture. Cast: Ari Graynor, Lauren Anne Miller, Justin Long, Mark Webber, James Wolk.
GOATS / U.S.A. (Director: Christopher Neil, Screenwriter: Mark Jude Poirier) — Ellis leaves his unconventional desert home to attend the disciplined and structured Gates Academy. There, he re-connects with his estranged father and for the first time questions the family dynamics. Cast: David Duchovny, Vera Farmiga, Graham Phillips, Justin Kirk, Ty Burrell.
Lay The Favorite / U.S.A. (Director: Stephen Frears, Screenwriter: D.V. Devincintis) — An adventurous young woman gets involved with a group of geeky older men who have found a way to work the sportsbook system in Las Vegas to their advantage. Cast: Bruce Willis, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Rebecca Hall.
Liberal Arts / U.S.A. (Director and screenwriter: Josh Radnor) — When 30-something Jesse is invited back to his alma mater, he falls for a 19-year-old college student and is faced with the powerful attraction that springs up between them. Cast: Josh Radnor, Elizabeth Olsen, Richard Jenkins, Allison Janney, John Magaro, Elizabeth Reaser.
Price Check / U.S.A. (Director and screenwriter: Michael Walker) — Pete is having trouble resolving a happy marriage and family life with rising debt and a job he hates. When his new boss pulls him into the maelstrom that is her life, money and opportunities come his way, but at what price? Cast: Parker Posey, Eric Mabius, Annie Parisse, Josh Pais, Cheyenne Jackson.
Red Hook Summer / U.S.A. (Director: Spike Lee, Screenwriters: James McBride, Spike Lee) — A young Atlanta boy spends his summer in Brooklyn with his grandfather, who he's never seen before. Cast: Clark Peters, Jules Brown, Toni Lysaith, James Ransone, Thomas Jefferson Byrd.
Robot and Frank / U.S.A. (Director: Jake Schreier, Screenwriter: Christopher Ford) — A curmudgeonly older dad’s grown kids install a robot as his caretaker. Cast: Frank Langella, Susan Sarandon, James Marsden, Liv Tyler. SALT LAKE CITY GALA FILM
Shadow Dancer / United Kingdom (Director: James Marsh, Screenwriter: Tom Brady) — Widowed mother-turned-terrorist Colette McVeigh has high-ranking brothers in the IRA. When she’s arrested in an aborted bomb plot she must make hard choices, testing family loyalties. Cast: Andrea Riseborough, Aiden Gillen, Domhnall Gleeson, with Gillian Anderson and Clive Owen.
The Words / U.S.A. (Directors and screenwriters: Brian Klugman, Lee Sternthal) — Aspiring writer Rory Jansen finds another man's haunting memories in a collection of lost stories and claims them as his own, propelling him to literary stardom. Cast: Bradley Cooper, Jeremy Irons, Dennis Quaid, Olivia Wilde with Zoe Saldana. CLOSING NIGHT FILM
13 Notes: Paul Simon's Graceland Journey / U.S.A. (Director: Joe Berlinger) — Paul Simon returns to South Africa to explore the incredible journey of his historic Graceland album, including the political backlash he sparked for allegedly breaking the UN cultural boycott of South Africa, designed to end Apartheid.
About Face / U.S.A. (Director: Timothy Greenfield-Sanders) — An exploration of beauty and aging through the stories of the original supermodels. Participants including Isabella Rossellini, Christie Brinkley, Beverly Johnson, Carmen Dell'Orefice, Paulina Porizkova, Jerry Hall and Christy Turlington weigh in on the fashion industry and how they reassess and redefine their own sense of beauty as their careers progress.
A Fierce Green Fire / U.S.A. (Director: Mark Kitchell) — A definitive history of one of the most important movements of the 20th century, A Fierce Green Fire chronicles the environmental movement’s fascinating evolution from the 1960s to the present.
Bones Brigade / U.S.A. (Director: Stacy Peralta) — When six teenage boys came together as a skateboarding team in the 1980s, they reinvented not only their chosen sport but themselves too – as they evolved from insecure outsiders to the most influential athletes in the field.
The D Word: Understanding Dyslexia / U.S.A. (Director: James Redford) — While following a Dyslexic high school senior struggling to achieve his dream of getting into a competitive college, The D Word exposes myths about Dyslexia and reveals cutting edge research to elucidate this widely misunderstood condition.
Ethel / U.S.A. (Director: Rory Kennedy) — This intimate, surprising portrait of Ethel Kennedy provides an insider's view of a political dynasty, including Ethel’s life with Robert F. Kennedy and the years following his death when she raised their eleven children on her own.
Something From Nothing: The Art Of Rap / United Kingdom (Director: Ice-T, Co-Director: Andy Baybutt) — Through conversations with Rap’s most influential artists – among them Chuck D, Snoop Dogg, Dr. Dre, Eminem, MC Lyte, Mos Def, and Kanye West – Ice-T explores the roots and history of Rap and reveals the creative process behind this now dominant art form.
West of Memphis / U.S.A. (Director: Amy Berg) — Three teenage boys are incarcerated for the murders of three 8-year-old boys in West Memphis, Arkansas. 19 years later, new evidence calls into question the convictions and raises issues of judicial, prosecutorial and jury misconduct – showing that the first casualty of a corrupt justice system is the truth.
The best way to go into Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides is to think of it as the first film in a brand new franchise; a franchise in which mermaids love men zombies won’t eat you and a Fountain of Youth exists but all laws of logic reasoning and competent storytelling don’t. Although screenwriters Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio were smart enough to sever the narrative ties to the first two sequels in their franchise’s fourth outing the latest swashbuckling adventure in the series shares most of the same faults its predecessors faced.
Director Rob Marshall (Chicago) steps in for Gore Verbinski in On Stranger Tides but you’ll be hard-pressed to find his contributions to the already-flashy film that finds our hero Capt. Jack Sparrow (the inimitable Johnny Depp) on the hunt for the fore mentioned fountain. Of course he’s not the only one looking for eternal life: also in tow are nameless stereotypical Spaniards the English crown headed by a reformed Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) and Blackbeard a ruthless pirate who looks and sounds a lot like Ian McShane. Their paths cross on numerous occasions as the story scrambles across the map culminating in a splashy battle in a magical meadow where Ponce de Leon’s greatest discovery lies.
Less a cohesive story and more a collection of individual set pieces linked together by nonsensical dialogue and supernatural occurrences the film isn’t all that hard to follow if you don’t strain yourself doing so. The sequence of events collide so conveniently for the characters you can’t help but call the screenplay anything but the result of complacency while the film itself sails so swiftly from point to point it’s actually a waste of time to dwell on plot holes and motives. Disrupting its momentum (which is one of the few things the film has going for it) is an unwatchable romance between Sam Claflin’s missionary Philip and Syrena (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey) one of a handful of murderous mermaids who do battle with Blackbeard’s crew. Their bland courtship will have you begging for Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley to return to the high seas and that’s saying something.
The all-female fish people are one of a few additions to the Pirates world but their effect on the film is negligible outside of being the impetus for the coolest action sequence in the picture and perhaps the most unnerving of the series. The others include Penelope Cruz as Blackbeard’s busty daughter Angelica and Stephen Graham as shipmate Scrum. The former feels out of place among the cartoony happenings but provides much needed sass while the latter fills in for Kevin McNally’s Gibbs for much of the film and is a pleasure to watch for some hammy comedic moments.
As always however this is Depp’s show and he continues to put a smile on my face with his charisma and theatrical presence. Even though he’s operating on autopilot throughout you can’t help but marvel at his energy and enthusiastic output as he literally fuels the fun in the film. The same can be said of Rush who’s given a meatier and more significant arc this time around. He trades quips with Depp as if they were a golden-age comedy duo and they remain the most appealing attraction in the franchise. Though he brings an undeniable sense of danger to the picture I was sadly underwhelmed by McShane’s Blackbeard a character with such a domineering reputation and imposing look he should’ve been stealing scenes left and right. Instead I felt he phoned his performance in though that could’ve been the result of Marshall’s indirection.
No better than the genre-bending original but a slight improvement over Dead Man’s Chest and At Worlds End On Stranger Tides suffers centrally from lack of a commanding captain. Marshall’s role is relegated to merely on-set facilitator or perhaps liaison between legions of talented craftspeople that make the movie look so good. Whatever vision he had for this venture if he had a unique take at all is chewed up and spit out by the engines of the Jerry Bruckheimer blockbuster factory rendering the film as mechanical as the ride from which it is based.
P.J. Hogan's Peter Pan follows J.M. Barrie's story almost to the letter. A girl on the brink of womanhood Wendy Darling (newcomer Rachel Hurd-Wood) loves telling her brothers John (Harry Newell) and Michael (Freddie Popplewell) stories of dastardly pirates as they sit in their nursery under the watchful eye of their St. Bernard Nana. Her 19th-century Londoner parents however believe the time has come for the young girl to grow up especially her father. Then a cheeky wild-haired boy named Peter Pan (Jeremy Sumpter) flies through the nursery window one night with his trusted yet jealousy-prone fairy Tinkerbell (Ludivine Sagnier) telling Wendy he can take her to a place full of adventure where no one ever has to grow up. She readily accepts the offer and with a few happy thoughts some fairy dust and her two brothers in tow she flies off to Neverland. (Not the ranch…the real place.) Once there Wendy encounters mermaids Indians and the Lost Boys (who refer to her as "mother") and gets the whole pirate experience in Peter's ongoing feud with arch-nemesis Captain Hook (Jason Isaacs). But Wendy soon becomes conflicted because on the one hand she likes hangin' with hottie Peter but on the other she misses her mother. She decides it's probably best to go back and grow up but in her hurry to leave she ends up in Hook's clutches. A rescue ensues. Swords clash ticking crocodiles are fed and fairies are saved as our clever fly boy zooms Wendy and company back to London on a giant pirate ship. But does he stay and grow up himself? Hell no he's a Toys 'R Us kid forever!
All the kid actors in Peter Pan are highly watchable and appealing with angelic faces peaches-and-cream complexions and pouty cherry lips. This is the first time Peter is being played by a real-life boy a fact much hyped by the filmmakers and 12-year-old Sumpter (Frailty) does his best to live up to the expectations. (He's soon to be swoon-worthy material for sure.) He's got a mischievous gleam in his eye and a great sly smile but he really lights up when he's looking into Wendy's adorable face. Hurd-Wood the first-time actress who plays the spirited girl earned her role after a long and involved casting process it's well deserved; she fits the typical English-girl profile perfectly and gets the hang of her craft quickly infusing the character with a natural cheerful energy. It's also refreshing to see the young actors play up Wendy and Peter's feelings of first love which prior films always hinted at but never fully realized. Isaacs in a dual role as the firm-but-loving Mr. Darling and the frightening comical lonely charming needy reprehensible Captain Hook draws on his experience at playing exquisitely awful baddies (The Patriot Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets) and really sinks his claws into Hook. In a stand out supporting role French actress Sagnier (Swimming Pool) is really fantastic as the vivacious non-speaking Tinkerbell portraying the fairy's conflicted emotions with a silent-film over-the-top technique.
Director/writer P.J. Hogan (My Best Friend's Wedding) and his team try to distinguish their film from the other Peter Pans of the world by using all the technical and special effects wizardry at their disposal. Hogan says his Peter Pan is the way its author Barrie intended to be when he wrote it as a play over a 100 years ago--full of fantasy and wonder. In a way he's right and production designer Roger Ford and visual effects supervisor Scott Farrar take his vision and run with it giving audiences a very lush Neverland with waterfalls fluffy pink clouds crystal-blue waters and a gorgeous fairy world. But despite the bells and whistles there really isn't anything original and different in this Pan. Even its look at the dark side of Neverland has been done in Steven Spielberg's 1991 semi-sequel Hook which showed the dangers of Neverland. In this version lives really are at stake and the pirates are not cute and fun. Even the mermaids are mysterious and malevolent with scary faces and murderous intentions a far cry from the beautiful if somewhat mean-spirited creatures of the 1953 classic Disney animated adaptation another inescapable influence on the audience. When the crocodile draws near for example tick-tocking away the croc's signature tune from the Disney film comes immediately to mind. People may love those Disney films for those cutesy catchy songs but Peter Pan really is a good story. Heck it's a great story. But it's just been done.
Based on the best-selling novel by Dennis Lehane Mystic River is full of characters wrought with heavy emotions--and burdens. Yet it is also a fairly simplistic murder mystery. Three 13-year old boys Jimmy Sean and Dave are playing on a street in a tough Boston neighborhood when two pedophiles pretending to be cops grab Dave and take him away. In that moment all three lives are irrevocably changed. Jimmy (Sean Penn) grew up as tough as his neighborhood doing time for robbery but finally settling into a comfortable family life with his wife Annabeth (Laura Linney). Sean (Kevin Bacon) went on to become a cop but his personal life is in a shambles and he is estranged from his wife. Dave (Tim Robbins) has never been able to face his demons despite being a loving father and husband to Celeste (Marcia Gay Harden). Now 25 years later tragedy brings them together once again. Jimmy's 19-year-old daughter is found murdered and while Sean is assigned to the case with his partner Whitey (Laurence Fishburne) Jimmy seeks his own vigilante investigation with the local hoods--and Dave emerges as a prime suspect. As the mystery is unraveled all are pulled closer toward an abyss that will force them to face their true selves--and will mark them as irrevocably as the past itself has tainted their lives.
This is one of those dream scripts serious actors simply go gaga over--and the high-quality ensemble in Mystic River does their jobs superbly. To pinpoint the best performance of the bunch however is virtually impossible--and the Academy may have a tough time making the same distinction as there is surely going to be a nomination or two coming from this film. Penn as the emotionally charged Jimmy stands out a little ahead of the rest with his fury resonating throughout the film. Robbins' ultra-vulnerable Dave is also a remarkable study of a soul completely wounded by the horrors he has experienced. Linney and Harden too are excellent as the spouses; Linney as Annabeth is a strong defiant mother whose only impetus is to protect those she loves while Harden in contrast is meek and unsure as Celeste faced with the dilemma of showing faith and loyalty to her husband while at the same time being convinced he committed the murder. All the performances will quite literally blow your socks off.
With all its excellent acting Mystic River has the added benefit of being helmed by director Clint Eastwood who has enormous talent behind the camera. He likes his films to simmer; his Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil and Oscar-winning Unforgiven are two examples. Mystic River is beautifully put together with lingering shots of Boston neighborhoods and the people who live in them. He doesn't move the camera much keeps things steady but knows when to pull in or pull out as the drama escalates (an aerial shot of an anguished Jimmy being held back by several policeman after he discovers his daughter's body shakes you to the core). Still there are some problems with this slow-burn technique in that sometimes things should move along rather than stand still. Eastwood seems also to have had trouble finding the ending. After a pivotal powerful climactic scene with Jimmy and Sean discussing Dave's kidnapping 25 years ago and its effect on all their lives Eastwood tacks on a few more final scenes of the men tying up loose ends resolving feelings with each other and their wives--and then going to watch a parade. It's a minor point compared to the quality of the rest of the film but it still leaves things on an anti-climactic note.