Latest Reviews

Entries in Denzel Washington (4)

Friday
Nov022012

Flight

It’s been 12 years since director Robert Zemeckis stepped behind the camera for a live action feature. Having become seemingly obsessed with motion capture technology over the years, he has pumped out The Polar Express, Beowulf and A Christmas Carol in that time, raising the visual bar while neglecting the raw emotion that made his previous movies like Cast Away and Forrest Gump so successful. Finally, Zemeckis is back trying to capture that feeling again with this week’s Flight. Although the attempt is nothing less than admirable and welcome, the execution is inconsistent. For every subtle point it makes, it pounds you over the head with another and for every emotional scene it creates, it ruins it with over-the-top melodrama soon after. What could have been a truly great movie, one that vied for end of year awards and “Best of 2012” spots turns into a functional, if underwhelming, drama that strikes out just as often as it home runs.

The film begins with a man named Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington) waking up in a hotel room, hung over from the night before. It’s instantly clear that the man has a substance abuse problem and he verifies it soon after by snorting a line of coke. Whip is actually a pilot and he’s scheduled to fly just a few hours from now. When he arrives on the plane, he seems his normal self, but he’s still under the influence of the alcohol and drugs in his system. Unluckily for everyone on board, there is an equipment malfunction and the plane starts going down. Calm and collectively, Whip takes drastic measures to land the plane as safely as possible and ends up saving 96 out of 102 people on board. Soon afterwards, he becomes a national sensation, partially because of his heroic actions and partially because of an investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board that found drugs in his blood. With the help of attorney Hugh Lang (Don Cheadle) and the love of a recovering junkie, Nicole (Kelly Reilly), he sets out to clear his name, despite his wrongful actions.

And thus begins a film whose structure has you at constant odds with yourself. Whip clearly put the lives of the people on the plane in danger when he showed up drunk and high on drugs, but the cause of the crash was not his own. There was a mechanical failure that caused the plane to go down and it was Whip’s clear-headedness and professional actions that ultimately saved those people on board. As pointed out later in the movie, there are only a handful of people who could do what he did—other pilots acting out simulations all failed and killed everyone on board. Without him, they would all be dead. But does that fact excuse his state of being? Should he be brought to justice for the drugs in his body or should he be heralded as a hero? Finding a clear answer isn’t easy and this is where the film works best. It doesn’t ever seem to take sides one way or the other and it lets you come to your own conclusion based on the evidence that is presented.

With a narrative such as this (spoilers!), the main character needs to have some type of redemptive moment, some type of realization that he’s heading down the wrong path in life and needs to shape up. This is where the film misses the mark. Rather than create an arc for the character, his eventual redemption comes suddenly and all in one late scene, so close to the credits that the emotional repercussions don’t have time to resonate. Whip’s decisions prior to this moment hardly do enough to set up such feeling, so it likely won’t matter to the majority of viewers anyway. This late climax is followed by perhaps one or two quick scenes, which are full of the most heavy-handed monologues and dialogue exchanges you can imagine, that further devolve Flight into little more than an average experience.

In the end, what really convinced me to recommend Flight is its incredible plane crash opening. Although I can’t speak for its authenticity when looking at it from a real world perspective, I can say that it’s one of the most frightening and intense things you’ll see all year. It sets the bar high for a movie that should have been as emotionally gripping as it was viscerally exciting, but, unfortunately, that bar isn’t reached or even come close to. Like many of this year’s so called “Oscar contenders,” Flight has the ingredients to be something special, but struggles to get off the ground.

Flight receives 2.5/5

Friday
Feb102012

Safe House

It’s always a pleasure to watch Denzel Washington, even when he’s in a movie that fails to live up to his screen presence. If anything, his mediocre films, like Unstoppable, The Taking of Pelham 123 and The Book of Eli, only strengthen that argument. He’s so good in all of them that he makes them better than they deserve to be. Still, one can’t help but long for his glory days of starring in bona fide winners, like Man on Fire and Training Day. His latest, entitled Safe House, isn’t a return to form, but it’s a step in the right direction, easily a notch above his last few efforts, but far below the quality of film he deserves to be in.

Washington plays Tobin Frost, an ex-CIA traitor who has been leaking important government information to a number of various parties for years. He has just been caught and transported to a government safe house in South Africa, which is cared for by an up and coming agent named Matt Weston, played by Ryan Reynolds. However, the safe house is quickly breached by an unknown party and Matt soon finds himself in possession of Tobin and tasked with bringing him in.

Safe House has a pretty simple story, though it tries to cover it with talk of government espionage, encrypted files and the like. It’s little more than an action movie where the characters have to move from Point A to Point B while dodging gunfire and participating in car chases. There aren’t any surprises to be found, including an eventual revelation that someone inside the CIA may be corrupt, but it moves forward at a brisk pace, occasionally stopping for some expositional dialogue, and always manages to entertain.

This lack of story development may be frustrating for some, but in this case, its simplicity is its gain. Many films with government conspiracies and espionage get bogged down in their own confusing narrative, but Safe House doesn’t, instead focusing more on what the characters are doing rather than why they are doing it. With two impressive performances from its leads, including Reynolds who has come a long way since his goofy comedy days, this focus works. Reynolds and Washington manage to keep the audience gripped, even after they’ve lost interest in the overall goal of the film.

Where it suffers is where many action films these days do: its persistent use of shaky cam. When things get hectic in Safe House, so does the camera, which leads to disorientation and the occasional inability to tell what’s going on. Ever since the Bourne movies, this technique has been a go-to for many filmmakers, but it rarely works. Although it may give more of a sense of actually being there, which is a benefit for some movies (most notably “found footage” films like Cloverfield), it prohibits the audience from achieving maximum enjoyment. In Safe House, it’s a hindrance.

With an untested director behind the camera, this ill-advised decision isn’t surprising (though cinematographer Oliver Wood, who also framed the aforementioned Bourne movies, does what he can to make it work). With his insistence on the technique and off-putting lighting filled with dark, dank hues, it’s difficult to say whether Daniel Espinosa has the chops to be a big time filmmaker, but at least he chose the right movie to make his American debut. It’s nothing so special to be out of his talent range, but nothing so dumb that he will be written off. Safe House rests squarely in between. It’s not the smartest movie of the year, nor the most exciting, but given its February release, it’s enough.

Safe House receives 3.5/5

Friday
Nov122010

Unstoppable

Over 80 years ago, silent movie star Buster Keaton released a movie called The General. Critics at the time didn’t appreciate it, nearly all of whom wrote negative reviews. As time went on, however, the cinema world began to realize its genius. Amidst the goofy humor, it was a movie that featured exciting, life threatening stunts. As I watched Keaton jump from car to car and even ride on the front of a train barreling down a railroad tack, I began to realize just how much danger he was putting himself in, all for the sake of my entertainment. I mention this because that movie is truly something special and if you’re looking for thrills, you need look no further than that. Passing by on the 2010 “train action” movie, Unstoppable, to watch The General instead would be a benefit to you, but if you’re so inclined to venture to the theater this weekend to check it out, you’ll find a stupid, half brained, yet absurdly enjoyable piece of nonsense.

Loosely based on a true story, Unstoppable stars Denzel Washington as Frank Barnes, an engineer at a Pennsylvania railroad company. Along with the new conductor, Will Colson, played by Chris Pine, they set out to do their daily duties, but they soon find out that a runaway train carrying hazardous material is barreling down the track towards them. After narrowly escaping a collision, they take it upon themselves to stop the train before it derails and kills any citizens in its path.

Denzel Washington and director Tony Scott have gone from the subway to the railroad. Last year, they teamed up for a remake of The Taking of Pelham 123, a similarly stupid, but oddly compelling film that more or less has the exact same problems as Unstoppable. What that film lacked, so does this and both can be compared to other, superior films.

And when you do compare, this doesn’t hold a candle to the aforementioned The General. Unlike that movie where the action and excitement came from the characters, Unstoppable relies on objects. It isn’t until the last block of the movie that the two leads find themselves in any real danger and the admittedly impressive (though derivative) stunts begin. Up to that point, we merely watch the train hit other unmanned means of transportation. Ultimately, that is its biggest downfall.

The movie doesn’t bother so much with the characters, uncomfortably forcing in expositional dialogue in the thick of the action, but instead focuses on the runaway train, treating it as if it were this giant monster hell-bent on taking as many lives as it can. There’s no real villain here, though it makes a flimsy attempt to create one in the form of the company Vice President, played by Kevin Dunn, and its demonic personification of the train is absurd.

Truth be told, the events that unfold before the big climax are a little boring, though that doesn’t stop Tony Scott from attempting to create some artificial excitement with his trademark hectic technique. Like Pelham 123, the camera rarely stops moving, circling around the actors and quickly zooming in with the hopes that we’ll be fooled out of realizing that there actually isn’t much happening.

Scott’s irritating style is distracting, but the stars of the movie pull off the material, which helped me to, at times, forget about the incessantly moving camera. Washington and Pine are great together and, although they have only known each other for a few hours at the beginning of the movie, you feel like they’re genuinely bonding and coming to like each other.

Their fine chemistry together makes up for the lack of substance from the dialogue, a nonexistent problem in The General. That movie was more exciting, fun and funny than all of Unstoppable and it was done without the help of spoken word. While I am recommending this for its idiotically fun nature, I advise also watching that Buster Keaton classic so you can see just how easily a movie from the 1920’s can outmatch a modern big budget blockbuster any day.

Unstoppable receives 3/5

Friday
Jan152010

The Book of Eli

The end of the world seems to be all the rage these days. Everywhere you turn, some nonsense theory pops up. If it's not the Mayan calendar proclaiming Armageddon, it's cries of the Antichrist finally coming in the form of Barack Obama. Both have zero validity, but that doesn't stop Hollywood from capitalizing on them (though we're still yet to see that Obama movie). In recent years, post-apocalyptic movies have flooded our screens. Just in the last few months we've seen director Roland Emmerich blow stuff up real good in 2012, the Oscar worthy picture The Road, and the vampire and zombie apocalypses in Daybreakers and Zombieland. Chalk another one onto the ever growing list with The Book of Eli, a moderately entertaining film that will appeal to the following interests. If you want to see three decapitations in about that same amount of time, you'll like The Book of Eli. If you want to see a guy get an arrow through his crotch, you'll like The Book of Eli. However, if you want to see a post-apocalyptic tale with heart and meaning, you may want to look elsewhere. It's basically The Road meets Mad Max, but it's only about half as good as either of those films.

The movie opens with Eli (Denzel Washington) as he embarks on a trip to the west (as opposed to the trip down south the characters take in The Road—totally different). The world has been destroyed by a war and something they call "the flash," assumably referring to a nuclear war, which blinded many of the remaining survivors. It's been thirty years and a new generation has now grown up not knowing about the times before where, as Eli puts it, "people threw away what they kill each other for now." On his trip, Eli stumbles into a broken down town where he is violently confronted. He asks for no trouble, but is forced to kill a whole bar full of people. Carnegie (Gary Oldman) takes notice. He's the leader of the town and has a slew of henchmen he uses to track down an old book, one he claims will be able to control the lives of those he reads it to, thus giving him power. Little does he know Eli has that book.

What transpires is nothing more than a battle between the two factions for possession of the book. But what is the book? Well, if you have half a brain, you should be able to figure it out fairly quickly, though some still deem a reveal a spoiler, so I suppose I should offer up a warning. I will discuss what the book is and how this affects the overall picture, so if you want to go into the movie in the dark, stop reading.

Now, with that out of the way, the book is the Bible. Again, that shouldn't be too hard to figure out. A quick glance at the poster should be enough to give it away. "Deliver us" isn't exactly the most subtle of taglines (nor is the more succinct Gary Oldman one-sheet, "Religion is Power"). Then again, there's also a giant freaking cross on the cover of the book, which you see very early on in the movie. But why did I feel the need to bring this up? Because it is necessary to discuss the message, one that is admittedly fresh in a business that seems to continuously be at odds with it.

The recent comedy, The Invention of Lying, made it a point to deem religion a falsity. In fact, that was the whole basis of the film. The documentary, Religulous, does exactly the same (given the snarky title). But The Book of Eli is decidedly different. Its message here, without giving away the ending, is that there most certainly is a God and he (excuse me, He) uses people for a greater purpose. There's no doubt about it. He exists and works in all of our lives in ways we cannot possibly imagine. It's refreshing regardless of your religious beliefs.

Unfortunately, I've always been one to lean on the side of thought and interpretation rather than the straight forwardness of The Book of Eli. The Invention of Lying may have been anti-religion, but it posed questions. Would the world be better without it? Would there be war? Would it even exist in a world where nobody could lie? The argument it makes is that religion is merely a temporary solution to life's problems and that speculation about the afterlife is time wasted when we could be doing so many other positive things right now. Religulous, in it's own sarcastic way, does the same. These films make us question our beliefs and the beliefs of those around us, which is fascinating. The Book of Eli doesn't.

Sadder still is that it sets itself up to do just that, but never does. As noted before, Carnegie is searching for the book, knowing full well that it is the only Bible left in existence. He wants to use it to control people, insinuating its power and how it can be, and most certainly is, used for evil. At one point, Eli mentions that some people even think that it was the cause of the war that destroyed their planet. Well, religion is used to justify wars. Why not explore those themes?

Regardless of its missed opportunities, it was nice to see a pro-religion film. It just would have been nicer for it to pose questions rather than state facts, something too many religious people do already. But there's more to this thing than just its religious message and, unfortunately, not much of it is particularly impressive. It may be supporting Christianity, but boy does it get bloody. This is an action movie after all. Though the action is stylish and fun, it usually comes about arbitrarily. One scene that ends with multiple bodies strewn across the floor is initiated by Eli shoo-ing a cat away from his things. The cat's owner is none too happy and attacks Eli. Too many action scenes felt randomly placed in the movie rather than working out of necessity of the story.

The Book of Eli is a moderately successful, sporadically entertaining post-apocalyptic film that borrows from other, better movies ranging from a shot taken directly from The Road to a scene that mimicked The Devil's Rejects. Outside of the admittedly clever twist, which nevertheless is never completely satisfactory, The Book of Eli doesn't offer much other than an unexplored message stated matter-of-factly. This might work for some, but for those who like to think about religion and discuss it rather than have it shoved down their throats, The Book of Eli is a bust.

The Book of Eli receives 2.5/5