Sunday, February 19, 2012

Movie Review: Safe House

Safe House is the story of Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds), a low level CIA guy stuck in a nowhere job and desperately wanting to get more involved. His chance comes when notorious traitor and expert spy Tobin Frost (Denzel Washington) is forced to surrender to the US Embassy in South Africa to elude being killed by a large, well-trained army of henchmen.

Taken to the safe house ran by Weston for safe-keeping, Frost proves to be highly sought-after. The well-trained CIA team finds itself under a well-co-ordinated attack. During the assault Frost convinces Weston that he will be killed while Frost is kept alive so Weston elects to try to take Frost back to the embassy.

Power plays in the CIA headquarters result in him being told to stay away from the embassy until a specified time. As he wheels around the city trying to keep Frost both under arrest and safe, it becomes obvious somebody within the CIA is leaking information.

As a side note, I had the who pegged within the first 10 minutes of the film, I thought it was that obvious...though later they throw some red herrings out that might let the unwary viewer begin to suspect someone else. It is a minor quibble...writing a solid Benedict Arnold into a story like this with concealed motivations and actions is very difficult.

By the time the final showdown is reached Weston has changed his goals completely. His use of a key phrase in the movie to respond to the CIA chief in his exit interview is pitch perfect.

The things I love about this movie are multitude. The villains are solid and believable. Unlike some action-adventure movies where the villains are incompetent buffoons who would seem incapable of defeating a well armed termite, these are very are the CIA team they take out at the safe house.

This matters. All too often, in order to make the ultimate hero of the piece seem stronger their allies are imbeciles who would be defeated in a battle versus snowmen in Death Valley in July. In this case they are quite talented, put up an expert defense and are overcome, thus leading to the villains being a credible threat.

Second, the characters of Frost and Weston are done well enough to draw you in. Though entertaining movies like this one are never hailed on Oscar night, the acting in it is excellent; you do not see Ryan Reynolds and Denzel Washington, you actually see Weston and Frost.

Third, the camera work was mostly well done. While there were moments of jump-cuts, close ups during fights, etc., for the most part we were actually allowed to see what was happening. When you go to an action movie and actually get to SEE the action it makes it much better.

I also liked the synergy of the name Weston. I instantly tagged it as being a reference to the titular star of Burn Notice, Michael Westen (Jefferey Donovan). It lent a certain fictional credibility to the idea a guy like Weston who had spent his entire CIA career in a low-profile, action less safe house could run, drive, shoot, and miracle his way to getting the bad guy, recovering the information, and surviving.

Of course, there also must be quibbles, so in the interest of fairness, there were a couple things I did not like about the movie. First of course would be those moments when they failed to let us see the action. Fewer than in many movies, they were still there.

Second would be a rather major one; the difference between the movie as previewed and the movie as executed.

In the scene in question Weston is on the ground as a train roars by. Frost holds a gun to his head as he cringes in fear. Each time Weston spouts a line, then fires the gun right next to his head, the concussive blast then disorienting Weston. The problem is the line in the previews and the line in the movie are so different it completely changes the focus of the movie.

In the movie Frost says, "I only kill professionals." Fair enough. Good reason for letting Weston off the hook in their world.

The problem lies here; in the preview the line is, "I WANT you to take me in." The clear inference is there is some reason Frost needs to be taken into secure intelligence community quarters. It implies he fires the shot to show Weston it is for his own purpose. This is reinforced by a moment in the previews where two CIA honchos are talking and one says, "A guy like Frost doesn't just walk into an American Embassy".*

Therefore, the expectation set by the previews of Frost having some ingenious purpose for willingly and intentionally being captured by the CIA is never fulfilled; it is a false premise and unfair to those paying attention.

Third, watching Weston go from never having fired a weapon to out-shooting crack commando teams was a bit of a jolt that threatened to pull me out of the moment, though ultimately the story was fun enough to make that no big deal and, after all, we do want our heroes to be capable as well.

With that aside, it was still a very entertaining, pretty action-packed, layered bit of film-making that was worth the price of admission. Hopefully I was able to give the gist of the story without giving away any of the spoilers.

*Not a direct quote, but pretty close

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Movie Review: Chronicle

Lets start from the top; I am not the target audience for this movie. I am not an angst-ridden, troubled teen with parent issues, social withdrawal, and a constant need to video-document my every move.

At the same time, I truly like a good action-adventure yarn and, since I number among my favorite movies many other yarns aimed at a younger set (Despicable Me, How to Train your Dragon) I elected to see this one anyway.

The movie tells the story of Andrew (Dane DeHaan), a young man who has few friends and a bad home life, and his growing interaction with his cousin Matt (Alex Russell) and new-found friend Steve (Michael B. Jordan) as his separation grows with his parents.

When the movie begins we see Andrew having a tough home life. His mom is deathly ill and his dad is a broke, disabled former fire fighter. Meanwhile, only his cousin Matt speaks to him in any other way than bullying.

Unpopular at school, miserable at home, Andrew begins videotaping everything that happens.

Matt, trying to get him to become more personable, convinces him to go to a party where they meet Steve, popular soon-to-be class president, top athlete, smart guy and popular student. Andrew's video camera is needed, so Matt and Steve convince him to go down a hole with them where they tough a McGuffin and develop super powers.

At first they just play around with their powers, doing Jackass-like stunts, but soon their powers begin to grow.

As Andrew's home life gets worse, his friendship with Steve and Matt grows. In an attempt to help him become more popular, Steve convinces him to perform at a talent show which indeed increases his popularity...until he makes an embarrassing social gaffe at a party.

The difficult parts of his life overwhelm Andrew and, as he continues to videotape everything, his life spirals out of control. People begin dying and ultimately Matt and Andrew have a confrontation; can Andrew find friendship with his cousin or will the pressures on his young life lead to ultimate separation from family, friends and life itself?

Ultimately it is Matt who must make a fateful decision; can Andrew be allowed to continue to spiral out of control or, if not, can he be stopped by any means short of death?

The movie uses its platform to preach on several issues. Among these are the growing publicity as video blogs, you tube, and so forth make more and more portions of previously private life public and bullying.

This is a tragic tale of a young man who runs into too many pressures and ultimately documents his downward spiral and rejection of those who try to keep him away from it.

From a technical standpoint, the movie made a choice to shift back and forth between steady cameras and the shaky, cannot really track what is going on "real feel" made popular by The Blair Witch Project".

I understand why they did it. There are parts of the movie where it works. But there are parts of the movie where it does not. Allegory for public violence done to inner turmoil or not, action scenes should not be shot that way. It turns what might be a well-choreographed bit of entertainment into a cringe inducing, "what just happened?" bit of nonsense.

Ultimately, this story fell short. The focus changed too bizarrely, the resolution was unsatisfying, and the action not enough to make up for the various weaknesses. It has a few cheap laughs, a few pathetic moments, and an overall dreary feel that takes it out of the realm of entertainment without really doing a good job of addressing the potential issues.

Save your coin, watch it on Red Box...or not at all.