The Company You Keep

April 26, 2013 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Robert Redford, Shia LaBeouf, Julie Christie
Directed by: Robert Redford (“The Conspirator”)
Written by: Lem Dobbs (“Haywire”)

It might flaunt the most impressive cast top to bottom you’re likely to see this year on the big screen (21 Oscar nominations, 4 wins), but the script behind Oscar-winning director Robert Redford’s political thriller “The Company You Keep” can only lead its actors just far enough before they’re let down by the material.

It really is unfortunate since Redford, who earned an Academy Award for directing in 1981 for “Ordinary People,” comes into the project with a lot of the pieces already in place. This should be a more intriguing look into the radical leftist organization known as the Weather Underground in the late 60s and early 70s, but it falters. The revolutionary group, whose members were charged during that time for bombing a number of sites such as the U.S. Capitol and the Pentagon, were hell-bent on overthrowing the U.S. government.

In “Company,” Redford stars as Jim Grant, a New York City lawyer and former activist of the Weathermen, who has been living as a fugitive for the last 30 years after a bank heist he is involved in during his heyday claims the life of a guard. Jim is flushed from his quiet suburban home when one of his former Weather Underground colleagues Sharon Solarz (Susan Sarandon) is finally found and arrested for her involvement in the radical movement. Her arrest triggers a domino effect that leads to Jim’s participation in the crime. Now on the run with the FBI and media (Shia LaBeouf plays a scrappy newspaper reporter who cracks the case) on his trail, Jim hits the road in search of a way to clear his name.

Based on the novel of the same name by Neil Gordon, “Company” is a sort of slowly-paced road-trip movie where tons of characters join the fracas, but none are very important to the overall narrative. It’s great to see the likes of heavy-hitters like Julie Christie, Richard Jenkins, Chris Cooper, Nick Nolte and Stanley Tucci tag in and out like some kind of all-star contest, but the substance behind each of their individual connections to the story is thinly scripted.

The acting makes up slightly for the film’s lack of tension. We’re not looking for car chases and extensive getaway scenes here, but Redford’s inability to draw out more emotional conflict from the script is its greatest letdown. There just aren’t enough big moments the talent can sink their claws into. “Company” is never boring, but it also never shifts out of first gear, which poses a major problem when you have a fugitive on the run and a lot at stake.

Safe House

February 18, 2012 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Denzel Washington, Ryan Reynolds, Brendan Gleeson
Directed by: Daniel Espinosa (“Easy Money”)
Written by: David Guggenheim (debut)

The rules are fairly easy in Hollywood if you’re a filmmaker wanting to direct a movie. Prove yourself a moneymaker like Michael Bay and budgets will usually swell. Problem is, every bloated and brainless production looks like the next one on the conveyer belt and mainstream audiences – despite their insatiable need for big explosions and pricey special effects – sometimes don’t fall for it (see “Green Lantern” or “Speed Racer”). What’s a studio to do when it wants to hire a new voice, but doesn’t want to gamble $170 million on someone whose resume only features a collection of really slick-looking TV commercials? The answer: Find some foreign talent yet to be influenced by the big industry machine and see if they can figure out how to inventively bash robot heads together at half the salary.

Examples from the past few years include Russian-Kazakh director Timur Bekmambetov, whose film work in Moscow earned him the right to make the 2008 Angelina Jolie action flick Wanted, and Danish filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn (“Bronson,” “Pusher” trilogy), whose first American-made film was last year’s stylish arthouse hybrid “Drive.” Next in line to take a swing at an America action movie is Swedish-Chilean director Daniel Espinosa with “Safe House,” an exceedingly routine spy thriller starring Denzel Washington and Ryan Reynolds that will easily be lost among the mediocrity come March. Despite keeping things moving with some creative stunt driving and distracting editing, the film falls short in the screenplay department. While adequate in small doses, the lightweight plot, which becomes increasingly formulaic and predictable, doesn’t do much to heighten Espinosa’s visual approach or Washington’s villainous intentions.

Washington has played the bad guy before, but in films like “American Gangster” and his Oscar-winning role in “Training Day” there was more to his character than firing a slug into someone’s forehead or pointing a pair of pistols at a hoodlum’s groin. There was depth in those performances that simply isn’t found in the “Safe House” script of first-time screenwriter David Guggenheim. As renegade CIA operative-turned-traitor Tobin Frost, Washington makes his dead-on gazes work for him, but aside from the tough exterior there’s little about Frost that would send a chill down anyone’s spine. He’s selling government secrets in South Africa when he ends up in the custody of his former agency. Left to contend with Frost is Matt Weston (Reynolds), a low-level MI6 agent who must try to keep his “high-profile asset” alive as both are tracked by a mob of assassins. Wasting away in the wings are actors Brendan Gleeson, Vera Farmiga, and Sam Shepard, who stay holed up at CIA headquarters supervising the jerry-rigged mission for most of the runtime.

For those who like the hand-to-hand combat of the Jason Bourne series and the firefights and action of something like “Assault on Precinct 13” or “The Taking of Pelham 123,” “Safe House” might be a safe bet for a matinee if you’ve already caught up on the spillover from 2011. As much as the film wants to be a battle of wits between Washington and Reynolds, there isn’t nearly enough downtime for bullets to stop flying and a significant conversation to take place. Basically, this is a 106-minute chase scene through Cape Town that highlights a few fun stunts and some trivial storytelling. Espinosa does his best impersonation of Paul Greengrass and Tony Scott, and therein lies the problem. Until foreign directors like him realize their American films don’t necessarily have to be Americanized, we’ll continue to get what ultimately ends up being copies of copies of copies.

The Guard

September 9, 2011 by  
Filed under Cody, Reviews

Starring: Brendan Gleeson, Don Cheadle, Liam Cunningham
Directed by: John Michael McDonagh (debut)
Written by: John Michael McDonagh (Ned Kelly)

If the McDonagh brothers’ portrayal of the Irish were to be believed, one might think that they are a foul-mouthed, morally-corrupt and politically-incorrect population. In fact, as Sergeant Gerry Boyle (Brendan Gleeson) is being chastised for racially insensitive comments during a briefing, he matter-of-factly explains that racism is part of the Irish culture. Written and directed by first-time filmmaker John Michael McDonagh, the brother of Martin McDonagh (director of the outstanding and widely- acclaimed 2008 dark comedy “InBruges”) “The Guard” has “Irish culture” on full display. While not for the easily offended, the film is a satisfying, and often quite funny, dark twist on a buddy-cop comedy.

During the film’s opening scene, Sergeant Boyle’s morals quickly come into question as he nabs and drops acid from a dead car crash victim. As uptight FBI agent Wendell Everett (Don Cheadle) comes into the small Irish town to investigate a massive drug smuggling ring, Boyle, using his own unique form of communication, links it with a recent murder. Boyle and Everett then form an unlikely alliance to try to bring down the ring and clean up the corruption the criminals leave in their path.

Brendan Gleeson is nothing short of brilliant in a role that is equal parts over the top and emotionally grounded. With a wickedly dry and sometimes almost mean- spirited sense of humor, most of the laughs in the film come at the hands of Gleeson. After seeing him as the “normal” member of the duo in “In Bruges,” it is a very welcomed change of pace to witness Gleeson let loose and show off his comedic abilities.

Don Cheadle is good, but ultimately overshadowed in his role as agent Everett. Most of his screen time is spent in disbelief at the things that are coming out of Sergeant Boyle’s mouth or struggling to communicate with the disrespectful Irish community. It should be noted that because most of the cast is Irish, the dialect is often muddy and hard to understand, so pay close attention to the dialogue.

“The Guard” will unquestionably bring comparisons to “In Bruges,” mostly because of the relation of its creators and its sharing of a principal cast member. While there are similar elements such as the fish-out-of-water story or the crass and sarcastic nature of its characters, “The Guard” is much less black and lighter in tone than its counterpart.

Although some quick edits and worn-out scenes in the script make “The Guard” feel unpolished and rough around the edges, it is a film that has its own unique voice – even if it is a vulgar and sometimes unintelligible one.