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Safe House (2012)

This is me writing this straight after getting home from the theatre.  I saw this a few weeks after release just because of not getting my time in order.  Regardless, what I have to say about Safe House is that it is amazing on many different levels.  There are some cinematography shortcomings, but where it counts, this is a movie that delivers on more than just action.  Safe House is one of the best thrillers I have seen in many, many long years, and this is a genre I am very passionate about.

Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds) is a low level CIA agent who has been stuck as a “housekeeper” for their safe house in Capetown, South Africa for the past twelve months.  Believing he has the potential to become a full fledged case officer, Weston becomes frustrated by the complacency of his career.  Meanwhile, Tobin Frost (Denzel Washington), an ex-CIA agent turned international criminal, obtains a digital file from an MI6 contact which contains incriminating evidence of several worldwide intelligence agencies.  However, he is targeted by a team of mercenaries, and the MI6 agent is killed in the process.  Seeing no alternative, Frost evades them by walking into an American consulate and turns himself over to the authorities.  This lands Frost in Matt Weston’s safe house where a harsh interrogation by a special ops team begins, but is cut short when the mercenaries attack the safe house.  Weston is forced to escape, taking Frost captive to keep him safe until brought back into CIA hands.  However, Tobin Frost is a master manipulator, and he begins to get into the head of the young operative who finds his morality tested and idealism shaken.  Circumstances soon push Matt Weston into going against orders and to figure out who he can trust before he and the world’s most skillful assassin are both eliminated.

Simply said, this is a very powerful, effective film fronted by two incredible actors.  This film entirely backs up my statements from my Green Lantern review of the wide range and quality of Ryan Reynolds’ acting ability.  Playing opposite Denzel Washington inevitably requires an actor who can carry a lot of weight, and in my mind, Reynolds never slacks off.  Matt Weston starts off the film as a very frustrated, yet untested agent.  He has the ambition to move up in the ranks, but hasn’t the experience to temper his confidence.  The film forces him into a dangerous journey that forges him into a sharp minded, confident, and capable man.  All the while, Reynolds holds up his end of the film with amazing talent.  This is him upping his game and allowing himself to shine through next to Denzel.  That is not an easy feat to accomplish, and the screenplay throws a lot at the character to make it an achievement to be hard earned.  Reynolds’ performance crafts a great and compelling arc for Matt to work through.  The character has many highly relatable aspects, and is a very human character.  He has a loving girlfriend named Ana, portrayed by Nora Arnezeder, who he wants to devote so much of himself to, but he cannot due to the secretive necessity of his job.  And being stuck on this assignment will soon force him to be parted from her as she takes a job opportunity in Paris.  All of these lies and frustrations ultimately create a conflict for Matt as the story forces him into a more perilous position, but never does he let go of his emotional core.

Now, Washington and Reynolds work off each other fantastically creating an evolving character dynamic which is constantly compelling and intriguing.  Throughout the film, Frost is imparting his experience and cunning skill set upon Matt, and this is the basis for their relationship.  At times, it’s survival based, but ultimately, it’s about trust.  As if it needed to be said, Denzel is stunning as Tobin Frost.  He is one of the finest, most talented actors around.  While Denzel usually has roles that allow his natural charm and charisma to work to his advantage, here, he curtails it entirely.  Frost is a far more psychologically driven character who is dark, dangerous, and ruthless.  Morality doesn’t factor into anything, it’s about strategy and survival.  However, he connects with Weston because Frost sees what he once was and wants to help this young man not become the same thing he became.  He’s never straight forward in saying that.  Instead, he works as an observer of Weston’s life, and bestows his experiences upon him.  This ultimately affects Matt’s decisions and actions.  Again, it tempers him, and allows him to survive to make better choices than Frost made.  Denzel is also quite unsettling in how he inhabits the merciless nature of Frost’s violence.  He doesn’t need to shoot a prone man five times, but he does out of cold rage or a vindictive point.  He shows his enemies how more deliberately violent he is by doing such things.  For him, it is only shoot to kill.  Denzel conjures up a brilliant performance of an intelligent, analytical character who brings immense gravitas to the story.  The emotion he shows is subtle and veiled in Frost’s inquisitive and foreboding nature.

The strength of the film is maintained by a solid and impressive supporting cast.  Everyone nails the dramatic weight and tone of the film, and their characters feel fleshed out and realistic.  Brendan Gleeson is the most prominent as Weston’s direct superior, David Barlow.  He plays the subtle turns of the character very nice, and holds an audience’s attention quite well.  The film plays some misdirection here and there, but these moments only continue to fuel Weston’s growing weariness.  Sam Shepard also appears as CIA Director Harland Whitford creating an all around interesting performance that motivates many of the thematic elements through to the end.  An appearance by the always solid and enjoyable Ruben Blades as a document forger adds an extra dimension to Frost.  Even if he happens to be a criminal, it shows that Tobin does have people he trusts and can call a “friend.”

What few scenes we do get of Nora Arnezeder as Ana Moreau are great.  From tender and affectionate to quietly concerned to distraught and upset, she inhabits all emotional aspects of Matt’s beloved superbly.  While she is never in peril or is a direct motivation for Matt to do what he does, she is always in the back of his mind.  He has something worthwhile in his life that he does not want to lose, but there are bigger ramifications at hand which he cannot turn a blind eye to.  If for nothing else, he wants her kept safe, and makes some difficult choices because of that desire.

This truly is a thriller on the level of Michael Mann.  Even a few moments in the musical score felt evocative of Collateral here for me.  Composer Ramin Djawadi has done some work I am familiar with including Iron Man, the Hugh Jackman-Ewan McGregor thriller Deception and the current CBS crime thriller series Person of Interest – and so, I can truly see why he has tapped for this film.  The score is entirely awesome bringing out some stellar emotional resonance in key moments, and serving the intense action sequences excellently.  This is another powerhouse element that raises the film up to another level.

Now, I have good and bad things to say about the cinematography.  First off, STOP IT!!!  Stop with the blasted shaky cam!  Break out a tripod, a steadicam, or dolly track for one scene!  Safe House was shot by Oliver Wood, who also photographed the first three Jason Bourne films.  Now, while Paul Greengrass has nothing to do with this movie, you would think otherwise in how it was shot.  Still, it is a little better than Greengrass’ Bourne films as the framing can be wider at times, and the lighting is far superior.  You can actually maintain a sense of geography in most action sequences, especially the car chases because the action is given a wider composition.  Still, this trend has worn on me so much over the years, I can only plead filmmakers to stop at this point.  There is one scene between Matt and Ana where it’s supposed to be a quiet emotional scene, but the camera just keeps wobbling all over the place.  From experience, shooting a simple dialogue scene with a handheld camera usually only results in a subtle instability, but here, it is so deliberately shaky like the camera operator was about to stagger and fall over.  The good half of the cinematography is that it does add a necessary gritty, hardened reality to the film.  There is nothing glossy about it, and that’s how it should be.  The lighting reflects this with perfect execution using many color schemes to breathe some vibrancy into select scenes.  There is moodiness and atmosphere, but that gritty texture is always present to maintain a consistent visual style.

And despite the shaky cam crap, the action sequences are massively effective.  This truly has some hardcore action going for it by never pulling any punches.  It’s full-on, straight ahead realism maintaining intense momentum and adrenalin.  The hand-to-hand combat scenes are definitely impressive showing Denzel and Ryan handle themselves like dead-on professionals.  They both deliver hard edged physicality which further drove my respect for both actors, especially Reynolds.  It really is a pleasure seeing him in a role that showcases his wide range of abilities, and seeing him handle the physical demands of this film pleases me a great deal.  I also enjoy that the action sequences aren’t there for self-indulgence, they push the plot and character arcs forward.  Seeing Weston beat down on one of the gunman, interrogating him while Frost looks on from afar was an impactful scene.  It starts to beg the question of just what path is Matt Weston starting down.

The screenplay by David Guggenheim is a masterful piece of work.  Every character is written with such strength and depth that they must have jumped right off the page.  The story itself is wonderfully crafted establishing Tobin Frost quickly as a dangerous and cunning man through not just actions but words.  The tone of the scenes are built into how they are written through character interactions and situations.  While everyone else is panicking in the safe house when it is hit, Frost sits there, handcuffed and calm as can be.  He talks Matt through the situation, and tries to keep him calm and focused.  This is a man in control, a man who can see the next step forward.  He always sets up the situation where he has the leverage, where he dictates how it goes down.  This is established right from the beginning of the film, and continues on throughout.  The psychological aspects of the story are brilliant.  Whether or not Matt Weston trusts what Tobin Frost says, he cannot ignore his words when circumstances turnaround on him.  He becomes more and more aware of the truth closing in around him, and Matt must act in his own best interests as a direct result of what he learns from Frost.  The screenplay continually weaves a finely textured fabric of truth and deception around Weston with only Frost as the key to unravel it all.

This is all amazingly executed by director Daniel Espinosa.  You can be certain that his name is one I will take notice of from here on out.  Again, me comparing this to the best of Michael Mann’s work is a huge piece of praise as Mann is my favorite filmmaker (excluding Miami Vice & Public Enemies).  This truly has all the hallmarks of the finest this genre has to offer.  Every emotion, every conflict, every action sequence, and every character is handled with immense care, detail, and weight.  Nothing is cheated or unearned.  Great respect is given to all aspects of this story to craft it into a deeply satisfying and rich film.  I honestly can’t recall seeing another film as dramatically impactful an visceral as this one, theatrically, in a terribly long time.

For me, 2011 was not a great year at the theatre for me.  There were some enjoyable flicks, but nothing remotely as riveting as Safe House came into my view.   Whatever the rest of 2012 holds for me, I always enjoy starting out a new year of cinema with a strong film, and this is one of the most rock solid films around.  With an incredible cast of talent in front of the camera coupled with an intelligently written screenplay populated by powerful characters, Safe House was an absolute pleasure for me to experience.  I am glad I made the time to give it my attention.  I highly and deeply recommend this film for anyone who is excited by a psychologically rich dramatic thriller with visceral action sequences.


Green Lantern (2011)

DC Comics have certainly languished behind Marvel Studios in bringing their popular characters to the big screen in the last decade.  At times, I had thought it was because Warner Bros. wanted to take their time to do things right, and make good movies instead of cheap, fast cash grabs.  Marvel has had plenty of those.  Of course, you need to have not just good talent, but the right talent behind a project to make it all it should be.  With Batman firmly established and a Superman reboot rigorously in the works, Green Lantern would’ve been the springboard for other DC Comics film adaptations, but its box office performance was not what was hoped for.

There have been many Green Lanterns throughout the decades, but Hal Jordan has been the most popular one for over fifty years.  I have some fond history with Hal Jordan originating back to the time of The Reign of the Supermen event which set him on a path from fallen hero to super villain to spirit of vengeance to redemption and resurrection.   I enjoyed this journey which took a whole decade to see fulfilled.  It has since made me a fan of Hal, and I became a supporter of having a Green Lantern movie made.  We finally got one, but it wasn’t all I had hoped for.  The resulting film has some serious flaws in it, but very satisfying elements do exist.  Let’s set the stage, first.

Billions of years ago, the Guardians of the Universe divided the universe into 3,600 sectors to be policed by their Green Lantern Corps, assembled from the most fearless beings throughout the universe to maintain order and justice.  When one of their finest, Abin Sur (Temuera Morrison) is attacked by the yellow fear-essence entity Parallax, he is mortally wounded, and crash lands on Earth.  He commands his ring to find a worthy successor here.  That person is the reckless and cocky aircraft test pilot Hal Jordan (Ryan Reynolds) who is no stranger to fear.  As Jordan slowly learns to use his power ring when he is whisked off to the planet Oa, the home of the Green Lantern Corps.  Here, he is trained by the best Lanterns including Sinestro (Mark Strong) and Kilowog (voiced by Michael Clarke Duncan), but also has his failings and fears brought to light.  Meanwhile, Parallax creates death and destruction as it moves through the universe towards Oa.  The Corps’ attempts to thwart this enemy fail with more casualties, and they consider harnessing the yellow power to fight fear with fear.  On Earth, scientist Hector Hammond (Peter Sarsgaard) is summoned by his father Senator Robert Hammond (Tim Robbins) to do an autopsy on Abin Sur’s body at a secret government facility, and is infected by the yellow fear entity developing telepathic and telekinetic powers.  Hal returns home where he must combat Hector’s increasingly dangerous and villainous behavior, and confront his own insecurities before he can become a true Green Lantern.  Soon, the fate of Earth and the entire universe will be in the hands of Hal Jordan.

What I need to say first is that I do not believe Ryan Reynolds was miscast as Hal Jordan.  Yes, there could have been better choices, but Reynolds was not a bad choice.  I have seen him in dramatic roles such as in Buried where he portrays a man buried alive in a coffin in the middle east.  The raw, wide range of emotion he put on display in that film solidifies my faith in his acting abilities.  The problems in this film that diminish his effectiveness here were far beyond his control.

The main problem here is how unbalanced the film is, and I can entirely pinpoint all the aspects.  Fundamentally, the film is divided between the Earth-based scenes and the intergalactic ones.  They both follow different plotlines and carry different tones and scopes.  Everything involving the Green Lantern Corps on Oa or elsewhere in the universe has a serious urgency to it, and a vast wondrous visual landscape for an epic adventure to take place in.  The Earth scenes have a lighter tone with no such urgency to the storytelling process and a fairly contained scope.  Events in one setting do not have enough effect on those in another.  It can feel like two different films meshed together with Hal Jordan as the only linking thread between them.  There is no cohesion to bring the plotlines tightly together, and when they do converge at all, it’s done too late.  To boil it down simply, everything that didn’t take place on Earth happened to be the best parts of the movie.  Every time the film cuts away from the cosmic, intergalactic part of the story, I couldn’t wait to come back to it.  I had no such anticipation for the Earth-based scenes.

The story involving the Green Lantern Corps and Parallax is so compelling because it deals with a threat on a large, epic scale.  Billions could die, and so many have already perished in its wake.  Therefore, every action and decision the Corps makes has the weight of that menace bearing down upon it.  There are strong characters and fleshed out personalities in these extraterrestrials that easily dwarf those of the human characters.  Sinestro stands out as the strongest and most compelling character in the entire film for me.  I would’ve liked more time spent with him than anyone else to delve deeper into his psychology and emotions.  Knowing that Sinestro becomes an enemy of the Green Lanterns in the comics, he would’ve been a deeply fascinating character to explore in detail before he became that enemy.  Mark Strong does an amazing job with him reflecting many subtle nuances, and he does leave me wanting a hell of a lot more.  It’s a wasted opportunity that more wasn’t done with such an excellent actor in this strongly written role.  On the lighter side, I’m sure fans gained enjoyment from Kilowog, who is particularly entertaining.  Michael Clarke Duncan has a good amount of fun playing this character that he is so much a fan of.  The Guardians themselves have some gravitas to them because of their looming, stoic manner.  They are mysterious, but much can be read into them, as Hal does late in the movie.  They set a very ominous tone that is integral to building up the threat of Parallax.

The visual effects that create these alien landscapes are beyond gorgeous!  In those respects, I can see where all those millions of dollars went in this inflated budget.  They are breathtaking vistas filled with rich depth, color, and textures to create worlds that are enveloping.  Green Lantern is given a strong cosmic sense to it with a universe filled with millions of years of deep history.  The visuals offer a massive scope along with a perfect visual tone to compliment the story.  I have not often seen interstellar science fiction cinema with this amount of extraordinary, beautiful detail.  They surely put the CGI in the Star Wars prequels to shame, in most regards.  All of the CGI aliens in the Corps are fantastic looking!  They all have their own textures, body language, and unique character traits that give the film a wealth of visual personality.  Although, the motion capture animation can tend to appear lacking in realism, mostly in wider shots.  There is not enough weight (or mass) given to their movements in these instances is what I perceive.  However, it’s only in brief, sparse moments.  Conversely, when the shots get in close on Reynolds while wearing the energy suit, the effect is not very convincing.  It can look cheap at these moments, and since Hal Jordan is the main character with a generous amount of close-ups, these moments are frequent.

Over on the Earth based story, so much feels like throwaway content.  It might be necessary content to develop Hal’s character, in theory, but so much fails to have any worth.  The girlfriend is the girlfriend.  Carol Ferris provides the usual emotional support, and she has some amusing moments.  However, I failed to see much depth in the character.  She fulfills a role in the story, but there doesn’t appear to be much potential for her to be more than that.   She’s also the damsel in distress that the hero must save because she must be used as a hostage for the useless villain in Hector Hammond.  Peter Sarsgaard certainly does an excellent job with the quirky, bizarre, and twisted Hammond.  Everything he does is great and dead on the mark, but Hector really has no purpose in the story.  His sinister actions do add a certain dynamic to this part of the story as he slowly mutates into this whacked out super powered agent of Parallax.  It creates conflict amongst a few ancillary characters, but his inclusion gives way to a bunch of unnecessary elements that get in the way of the main plot.   There was no need for the covert organization Checkmate or Amanda Waller in this story.  They exist here only as a conduit for Hammond to become accidentally infected by the yellow fear entity via an autopsy on Abin Sur.  Waller herself is not presented well.  Angela Bassett has all the skills to bring Waller to powerful life, but she’s not given enough meat to sink her teeth into.  Pam Grier did a perfect job with Waller on Smallville, but Bassett could’ve given her an impeccable performance to rival.  Still, what matters here is that the story of Hal Jordan becoming a hero and defeating Parallax requires neither the presence of Hector Hammond, Amanda Waller, or Checkmate.  Hammond is there as a physical adversary for Hal to combat until Parallax actually arrives on Earth, but once that occurs, Hammond is disposed of promptly.  While he does a serve a purpose in attracting Parallax to Earth, a creative screenwriter could’ve easily reworked plot elements to achieve that same result if Hammond were excised from the film.  I feel it would’ve been wiser to save Hammond for a more focused story in a later sequel.  Frankly, all of these extraneous elements only serve to chop up the story, creating more fundamental problems.  There are too many subplots going on detracting from the potential streamlined flow of the main plot.

The unevenness of the movie is further attributed to the more lackadaisical pace of the Earth-based story.  While there is impending doom tearing through the universe, Hal Jordan returns to Earth to talk with his jokey friend, deal with his girlfriend, and have some fun being a superhero.  No dramatic pressure is put on Jordan until the final act when Parallax diverts to Earth because of its link to Hector Hammond calling him there.  This should’ve happened much sooner in the film.  If so, it would’ve put that needed pressure on Jordan to overcome his fears in face of an inevitable doom over a longer period of time, and thus, creating a correlating urgency with the rest of the film.  As it is, the fear element in Hal’s character evolution is not well executed, and the ending feels weak and rushed.

I can’t help but compare Green Lantern to Batman Begins due to this similar theme of fear.  Where Batman Begins explored the concept very thoroughly as both an internal conflict for Bruce Wayne to overcome, and then, an external element to be utilized and combated, Green Lantern just kind of talks about it over and over again.  Nothing is really explored or exploited.  You never see Hal actually be defeated by or struggle with fear.  It is something talked about.  He talks about being afraid, and others talk about him having the courage to overcome it.  You don’t see the struggle he has to face to actually triumph over those things.  It should have been a weakness that takes away his confidence while battling an enemy.  It would force him to face a crushing defeat that would motivate Hal to rise back up as a confident hero by the end, but it hardly happens.  There should be emotional conflict to punctuate this story element, considering it is fear.  Batman Begins showed us, in many ways, how Bruce Wayne confronted fear, overcame it, and was able to turn it back around as a weapon against his foes.  There is not enough adversity thrown at Hal Jordan either by his own internal struggles, or anything external to really build up dramatic suspense or tension in his ascension to superhero.

Breaking away from plot elements, I do want to credit the score by the always impressive James Newton Howard.  It truly gives the film the big, epic scale it demanded with some strong and mysterious themes.  Everything Howard seems to do is sure gold, and he truly reaches for the stars on this one.  Like all great film composers, he is able to adapt himself to the needs of the picture pulling on all his diverse musical skills to create a unique experience.  It is surely one constant throughout the film that did not falter.

Action sequences are nicely handled.  Martin Campbell has done two James Bond films before along with other rousing action pictures, and so, he has the skills to put together coherent action sequences.  Dion Beebe’s cinematography maintains an integrity throughout by not giving into clichés of the genre.  His cameras hold to the grand scope of the story by giving us shots with depth and patience.  This is a stark contrast to the work he did on the mostly handheld digital video-shot Michael Mann movies Collateral and Miami Vice.  As with Howard, it seems Beebe is able to adapt his style to the needs of the picture.

Making my final story related notes, there is a lot of repetitive dialogue reiterating exposition as if we didn’t get it the first or second time.  The script really could’ve been tighten up to make way for more poignant character or story elements to be fleshed out.  Not to mention, tightening the script could’ve balanced out the urgency of the plot.  The character stuff is very drawn out, and the plot elements are very short.  The good things were really good, but too much of the film is too light and clunky for the good elements to win out.  It was enjoyable, but it’s a little too forgettable.  I don’t think it has anything to do with Ryan Reynolds.  It’s all in the script and direction.  Reynolds can pull off the kind of performance this film needed, but he either just wasn’t pushed into it or the script didn’t call for it.  The movie needed more dramatic momentum to make itself work right.  Director Martin Campbell has had many excellent and successful films to his credit including GoldenEye, Casino Royale, & The Mask of Zorro.  Of course, he has the off-the-mark Mel Gibson revenge thriller Edge of Darkness more recently to his credit, but Green Lantern is even further from the mark.  It really is a combination of an unrefined screenplay, loose editing of the various plotlines, and his direction that leave the movie feeling lopsided and ineffective.

Green Lantern had the makings of a really good movie, but it didn’t go deep enough with the characters to make Hal Jordan’s ascension and success epic enough.  It had potential, but it was too uneven to succeed.  There are other bits and pieces I could criticize, but they are pretty inconsequential when there are such larger problems to address.