Safe House: Denzel Washington is a movie star, one of many, who doesn’t always pick movies up to his abilities as an actor. In fact, Washington seems incredibly content with his mid-level consistency: he does thrillers, with directors ranging from pretty good to very good, where he usually plays a cop or an agent of something, and they gross between sixty and ninety million dollars. At this point, even his auteur movies with Ridley Scott (American Gangster) or Spike Lee (most recently Inside Man) vaguely resemble Denzel procedurals with an artier touch. I kinda dig Washington’s Cary Grant-ish preference for solid, well-crafted entertainment, and I even dig how apparently the Alfred Hitchcock of this situation is Tony Scott, who has directed Washington no less than five times so far; I’m still waiting on the conclusion of the train trilogy they began with the Pelham 123 remake and Unstoppable [As are we all, Jesse. As are we all. -Ed].
Alas, at no point at Safe House does Washington board a speeding train. But perhaps aware of Washington and Scott’s special relationship, director Daniel Espinosa apes Scott shamelessly, at least when he’s not doing a poor man’s Bourne routine (actually, the ease with which other directors can approximate a poor man’s Bourne might hint at how disposable those Greengrass Bourne sequels actually are). All of your favorite amped-up action movie techniques are here: fast cutting, shaky camera, blasted-out colors, car crashes that seem to come from nowhere.
Possessing a weakness for Scott-style mayhem (Ridley may have been leagues ahead in the 80s, but Tony’s my guy from roughly ’93 onward), I didn’t much mind the semi-coherent action that looks like a jittery team surveilling a music video. But I also know in my heart of hearts that Tony Scott would’ve done a better job, as would have another frequent Washington pulp collaborator, Carl Franklin (whose last released feature was the underrated Denzel thriller Out of Time; he’s mostly been doing TV gigs ever since). I don’t mind that Washington makes inconsequential pulp thrillers, especially because he never sleepwalks through them, but here’s where his consistency works against him: Safe House may not be a terrible example of the genre, but he’s made plenty of better ones.
The Vow: As I say in my review, The Vow is about as good as this type of movie can be, because if it turns the corner and becomes truly inventive and heartbreaking and alive, then it becomes Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and therefore ceases to be this type of movie. The Vow finds Rachel McAdams and Channing Tatum, like Benjamin Button and Cate Blanchett, meeting in the middle: he’s whittling a surprisingly decent career out of the wooden substance you may have seen trying to get through G.I. Joe and Step Up, while she’s relaxing her post-breakthrough choosiness to do de facto Notebook sequels (don’t worry—she’s got Malick and De Palma movies on the docket!). They can both do better, but in the meantime, here’s a romantic drama that shouldn’t make you feel too guilty about watching it, be it this weekend or on cable in eighteen months.
Journey 2: The Mysterious Island: The Rock apparently so enjoyed showing up late to the Fast and Furious franchise that he’s happy to pop in all kinds of sequels to movies he didn’t star in. This year alone, he subs for Brendan Fraser in Journey 2, a second 3-D presumed bastardization of Jules Verne, and then jumps into the G.I. Joe series before shooting Fast Six for a May 2013 release. The Add the Rock scenario usually works like gangbusters to revive my interest in a stupid movie series (did you guys see Fast Five? Best part five ever, not counting whatever part of Star Wars counts as part five!), but all it’s done here is raise my likelihood of seeing a Journey movie from “low” to “medium-low.”
Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace 3D: Speaking of Star Wars: this! Let me bring you up to speed on a brief history of The Phantom Menace. For a few years, it was the most anticipated movie ever. Then it came out, and for a few weeks or months it was pretty much just a movie that came out and made a lot of money and got pretty decent if not ecstatic reviews. But this did not sit well with backlash culture, so over the course of the next couple of years it became the most disappointing awful movie in the history of history (this happened with both of the prequel follow-ups that came out, greeted as way better than the previous installment, and then lumped together for post-release vilification and lame punchlines). I’ve actually noticed a smidge of backlash-to-the-backlash since then, where some Star Wars fans (mostly the types of fans who actually enjoy a whopping two out of six Star Wars movies) will say that at least Phantom Menace has the podrace sequence and is generally true to George Lucas’s awkward intentions, while the later movies represent Lucas trying to satisfy the fanboys who were disappointed in Phantom Menace, and failing. That’s an interesting point; I do wonder what Lucas might’ve done with Jar-Jar Binks had the over-twelve set not roundly rejected him, though it’s pretty much fine that we don’t know (I also wonder if, had the Internet been around circa 1977, if C3P0, who is, I promise, really fucking annoying most of the time, would’ve suffered a downgraded presence in later movies). Anyway, let me bring you up to speed on what I think of The Phantom Menace: It is a pretty awesome movie. Yes, it helps to be in touch with your inner ten-year-old. And yes, George Lucas sucks at writing dialogue. But so does James Cameron! It’s Ok! A lot of sci-fi fantasy guys suck at writing dialogue. There are some pretty bad lines in awesome sci-fi/fantasy movies as recent as X-Men: First Class.
Admittedly, I’ve seen Phantom Menace so many times that what rules and sucks about it have pretty much blurred into what I love about it, which I’m sure could get me tagged as one of those Star Wars nerds who watches stuff over and over until they are convinced they love it; somehow not rewatching a movie and reading takedowns online until you retroactively hate it is considered totally legit. But enough being super-defensive! Here are some things I love about Episode I: Natalie Portman in crazy costumes. Liam Neeson’s gravity being put to good use (namely, holding down Lucas’s clunky dialogue). Watto, the sleazy junk-dealer on Tatooine. The underwater Gungan city on Naboo and the bigger fish that there always is. Mace Windu (Sam Jackson!) glowering. Yeah, the fucking podrace sequence, specifically the weirdo aliens who suck at podracing, and also the cut to Jabba the Hutt looking entirely uninterested in podracing, and flicking a tiny helpless creature off of his balcony instead. The way Senator Palpatine promises to watch Anakin Skywalker’s career “with great interest.” The way mini-Anakin totally macks on teenage Amidala, foxy-babysitter style. The way silent badass assassin Darth Maul gets cut in fucking half by Ewan McGregor. Every time I read something about how truly terrible this movie is, I think, hmm, well, maybe; there is that clunky dialogue and Jake Lloyd really is a wooden child actor. Then every time I watch it, I think: nope! This movie is delightful! So, I don’t know, if it’s a choice between liking a flawed movie (which of course nerds would never do) or being like that Red Letter Media dude making feature-length sarcasm screeds about how Phantom Menace is an objectively bad movie because it doesn’t have a screenwriting-manual Main Character, yeah, I’m gonna go ahead and get on Team Lucas.
As for the 3D re-release plan, that’s another story; though the expected marketing blitz has reached full gear, it still feels a little halfhearted, not because they’re starting with Phantom Menace, but because Phantom Menace feels like a test balloon given that if this one makes money, they’ll keep doing them once a year for the next six years. There has to be a happy medium between the Special Editions coming out three weeks apart (which I assume Lucas figures left some money on the table in retrospect) and getting one re-release a year. They should’ve done it up Disney style and put out the 3D versions in the off seasons, every off season, for two years: Prequel trilogy in 2012 with January, April, and September; then original-trilogy style in 2013 in the same months. There’s also the fact that while those Special Editions came with whispers of the possibility of new Star Wars movies, these are pretty much just getting put out so Lucas can make some cash off the kids who love the Clone Wars cartoon but haven’t seen the movies on the big screen. Which they should totally do! If I had a kid, I would take him or her to this movie, and I will never be one of those sad nerds who debates over whether to even show his (it’s always his) kids the prequels, because, right, you know what kids would really hate: the Star Wars movies with brighter colors, crazy computer graphics, and a kid hero. I’m also not suggesting that I want another Star Wars trilogy or anything. I just wish Lucasfilm felt a little less listless, and actually seemed like they wanted to make some movies along with the Star Wars dough. That said, if 3D means that we have a few years where theatrical revivals of big audience movies become a thing, hey, fine by me. I can’t wait to tell you guys all about how much I love Attack of the Clones next year!