I think I have a decent working knowledge of recent cinema, but I admit that I had no idea director Danny Boyle (127 Hours) was such a prolific filmmaker.  His name wasn’t on my radar until 2008’s Slumdog Millionaire, which was amazing. I looked at his filmography and realized that there are a few more of his movies that I’d seen, including 28 Days Later and The Beach.  I enjoy his work because he has no discernible niche, and his repertoire reflects a unique versatility.

His latest offering is Trance, a reality-bending thriller starring James McAvoy (X-Men: First Class), Vincent Cassel (Black Swan), and Rosario Dawson (Unstoppable). McAvoy leads as Simon, a young auctioneer who sells valuable paintings off for a Sotheby’s-like company. The movie begins with Simon as narrator, describing his duties as auctioneer, including a detailed description of their robbery protocol.  Robberies used to happen with greater frequency in decades past, as thugs would simply storm into the auction with guns drawn, taking the precious art by force. When Vincent Cassel’s character Frank and his cohorts conspire to steal a valuable Goya painting, they display an intimate knowledge of the robbery protocol that could have only resulted from inside information, which implicates Simon.  When their brilliant heist goes awry, Simon is the only one who can provide answers. The stolen Goya has been lost, and only he knows its whereabouts.  Unfortunately, during the botched heist he suffered an amnesia-causing injury.

Complicating matters is Dr. Elizabeth Lamb (Dawson), a hypno-therapist who believes she can unlock Simon’s memory through co-operative therapy.  She places him in a trance, a mental state where he is highly susceptible to suggestion.  Elizabeth helps Simon navigate the deepest recesses of his mind and he begins to recall certain events.  But are these memories real or false? The lines between doctor and patient and reality and fantasy all become blurred, giving the film a surreal, moody quality.  There was foreshadowing throughout, which only added to the mystery and atmospheric intrigue that Boyle so deftly created.

Vincent Cassel was very effective as Frank, giving the character an unexpected depth.  One minute he seems like Simon’s tormentor; the next minute he is a concerned friend.  Rosario Dawson literally bared it all, boldly appearing nude from head to toe more than once.  I couldn’t believe she showed everything…even the “honeypot!”  I respect her dedication to the role, because although a close up of her hoo-haa may seem gratuitous, it actually made sense for her character to expose herself in such fashion.  James McAvoy ably exhibited Simon’s downward spiral, beginning the film upbeat and confident and ending it in a very dark place as he questions all around him.

The camera angles and cinematography were superb, as some scenes resembled the famous paintings that were featured in the movie.  Boyle’s use of color and overhead camera shots elevated the film to another level.  The writing and performances were nearly flawless, and the script was so cleverly written that Trance bears repeated viewings to be fully understood.  I found it confusing at times, but I attribute this muddling to my own lack of understanding rather than a flaw in Boyle’s writing.  Again, a second viewing is advisable.  If you appreciate suspense, you will not be disappointed. Grade: A-


I’m getting a little repetitive in my reviews here lately, but it can’t be helped. There’s just some good stuff coming out of Hollywood lately, and the last few movies I’ve seen have been amazing.  Flight was another recent addition to what’s been a great year in film.  Denzel Washington (Safe House) is one of the preeminent actors of our generation, obviously.  We already know that he’s talented and marketable, but I think that the further along and more settled an actor becomes in their career, the less likely they are to take risks or to stretch themselves.  Washington has made a career out of being the hero, and when I initially saw the trailer for Flight, I assumed it would be more of the same.  Like, you saved people from a train (Unstoppable), and now you’re going to save people on a plane.  Been there, done that.  But after watching Flight, I was simply blown away.

Washington stars as Whip Whitaker, a seasoned commercial pilot whose experience, knowledge, and gumption make him one of the best.  While he’s in complete control in the cockpit, his personal life on the ground is much rockier.  He has a contentious relationship with his ex-wife and is estranged from their teenaged son.  The movie begins in a hotel room with Whip GETTING. IT. IN.  I mean, whatever you’re into – he had it; pick your poison.  Coke? Check. Drink? Check. Weed? Check.  I thought he was just having a good time, so imagine my surprise when he and his lovely bedmate mention their impending flight!  I like revealing, expository opening scenes, and director Robert Zemeckis (Cast Away) expertly told us all we needed to know about Whip in five short minutes.  Well, almost all we needed to know.

Let’s jump to the actual flight, which includes one of the most intense scenes I’ve ever witnessed on the silver screen.  The real trouble starts when the plane takes an unexpected nosedive about 20 minutes into the flight.  Folks, let me pause here.  This scene was nothing short of amazing.  I have to tip my hat to Zemeckis for this because I’ve never been so riveted by a single movie scene, and I swear I’ve seen it all at this point.  My movie buddy clutched my thigh, and my eyes began to water.  That’s how amazing this crash scene was.  Everything was depicted perfectly, from the panic and terror of the passengers, to the bravery and sacrifice of the flight attendants as Whip once again showed his mettle.  To stabilize the plane, he inverts it…and they fly upside down!  The plane levels off and he rights the aircraft, lessening the inevitable impact of the crash while lives hung in the balance.  To put it simply…Whip is The Motherfucking Man.

I’ve chosen my words carefully and tried not to reveal anything that I don’t think you’d already have gleaned from the trailer.  Whip’s aviation abilities are above reproach, but his pre-flight behavior was indicative of a man with a serious problem.  After the crash, that behavior is scrutinized and it’s revealed over the course of the film that Whip is a raging alcoholic.  The depths of addiction know no bounds, and I’m speaking from experience.  If you’ve never struggled with it or known someone who has, some of the things Washington’s character does will seem unbelievable, but I thought it was spot-on.  Anyone who has dealt with addiction knows there’s a dark place you have to go before you can vanquish whatever demon threatens you – and that place is called Rock Bottom.  I was greatly impressed with Washington’s ability to portray a character that was deeply flawed, yet sympathetic.  His obvious addiction is expertly juxtaposed with the heroism and skill he displayed on the flight.  As a viewer, you want to despise the recklessness of his actions one minute and applaud him the next.  That conflicting duality of his personality made for an excellent film.  We are the sum of our parts, but it was hard to define Whip Whitaker at times.

Flight literally took my breath away, it was that good.  Washington is a force to be reckoned with and he swagged all over this joint.  His sex symbol status is different now, and I could have done without the shot of his booty, but he is still handsome and oozes charisma.  I’ve never seen him in such a fluid role, where the dichotomy between right and wrong and hero and villain becomes blurred by circumstance.  Actress Kelly Reilly (Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows) was also a revelation in her role.  I’d never heard of her before this, but she was a wonderful counterbalance to Whip’s addictive personality, as they forged a tentative romance that never really had a fair shot.  Go see this movie! Grade: A.

This Means War

I’m proud to be an American, but the quickest way to turn me off from something is to dub it “America’s fill-in-the-blank.”  For example, “America’s Team” would be the Dallas Cowboys.  Or maybe the New England Patriots.  Either way – I ain’t with it.  Similarly, we’re fond of calling people “America’s Sweetheart.”  I’m not a fan of the expression or what it represents.  Take “America’s Sweetheart,” Julia Roberts.  I’m over her; she doesn’t get a pass for mediocre movies or that obnoxious toothy laugh.  However, there is one notable exception to my disdain for all things patriotic.  Reese Witherspoon – one of America’s Sweethearts who doesn’t annoy me.  Plus she played Tracy Flick in Election, so she can’t be that much of a goody two shoes.  Check that one out on DVD if you haven’t seen it, especially if you’re a fan of black comedy.

I was curious about her latest movie, an entrant into the relatively unique action rom-com genre.  If you don’t know what an action romantic comedy is, think Mr. & Mrs. Smith.   I digress.  Witherspoon (Water for Elephants) stars alongside Chris Pine (Unstoppable) and Tom Hardy (Warrior) in This Means War, a spy vs. spy movie that ended up being pretty entertaining.  Best friends Tuck and FDR are CIA agents who discover that they are casually dating the same woman; a cute thirty-something named Lauren who is none the wiser.  Being the competitive chaps that they are, Tuck and FDR refuse to back off and defer to each other.  They lay down some ground rules, and the game is on.   As secret agents they bring all of their espionage talents to bear, complete with high-tech gadgetry.  Unbeknownst to their boss (played by the wonderful Angela Bassett), they use Agency resources to take cock blocking to unprecedented levels, complete with surveillance and wiretaps.  Lauren genuinely is interested in both guys for different reasons.  Tuck is nice, humble and sweet, while FDR is brash and cocky.  Advising Lauren every step of the way is her sister Trish, played by the hilarious Chelsea Handler in her big screen debut.

Witherspoon’s character was relatable and endearing.  Lauren needed to be capable of making two guys battle each other tooth and nail for a shot with her.  Considering that most men hate to lose, it wasn’t a far-fetched idea.  Tom Hardy continues to impress me with the wide range of roles he accepts.  He’s quite versatile, capable of being both a romantic leading man and a diabolical villain (check him out in the upcoming The Dark Knight Rises).  Chris Pine doesn’t really do it for me, but I understood his character’s appeal.  Everyone had good chemistry with each other, both comedic and romantic (not the two guys, obviously).  The movie doesn’t sacrifice Tuck and FDR’s friendship either, supporting the old adage of bros before garden tools.  To sum it up, this was a great date movie.  It has a little something for men and women alike.  Grade: B

Safe House

Denzel Washington (Unstoppable) has built an immensely successful career that is both prolific and praiseworthy.  His body of work includes biopics, period pieces, action movies, and dramas alike.  He’s an award winning A-list actor that has managed to retain some degree of realism and accessibility, despite the well-deserved fame.  However, Washington is not immune from being pigeonholed like any other actor who routinely chooses similar roles.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing, because he does it well.  I’m just saying, whether it’s The Taking of Pelham 123, Déjà Vu, Man on Fire, or the aforementioned Unstoppable  – we’ve seen it before: Washington saves the day.  Safe House features Washington in a departure from his customary heroic roles, though he winds up an unlikely protagonist by the time the credits roll.

Washington stars as Tobin Frost, a rogue CIA agent who has been off the grid for years.   He resurfaces seeking amnesty at a U.S. consulate after a deal goes wrong and his criminal counterparts begin deadly pursuit.  Next he is transported to a government safe house manned by novice agent Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds, The Change-Up).  Frost was once an elite operative, trained in psychological manipulation and interrogation.  Now he is public enemy no. 1, a criminal so elusive that it seems the only way he could be caught is if he surrendered.  Frost is in possession of a data chip containing valuable classified info, and there are several factions who will stop at nothing to get it; but now he is in the custody of the CIA equivalent of the mailroom guy.  When the safe house is ambushed, Weston is faced with some tough choices.  He must secure the high level asset without getting himself killed.  Meanwhile Frost is yammering the whole time, planting little seeds of doubt in Weston’s head about the Agency, causing him to question the circumstances surrounding their fortuitous coup of the nation’s top traitor.

Safe House featured Washington at his charismatic best.  There was one early scene where he practically radiated off the screen, eyes twinkling, head cocked to the side.  “Don’t I look good?” he asks another character.  “Yes,” says the woman sitting next to me in the theater.  I had to chuckle.  He’s still got “it,” but I’ll admit I found some of the physical scenes a little unrealistic, especially one where he runs from rooftop to rooftop in hard bottom shoes.  Safe House is rightfully marketed as a Denzel Washington flick, as the rest of the cast dwindled by comparison.  Reynolds did a capable job as the wet-behind-the ears newbie, but it’s hard to hold your own next to Washington.  He wasn’t bad, but he just seemed a step behind Denzel, both in terms of character and performance.  Vera Farmiga (Source Code) is always pretty good, but her role was a basic one.

Safe House was an enjoyable movie for me, mainly because of Denzel Washington.  He carried the movie, and he’s the main attraction.  I thought he was worth the price of admission, though the movie itself wasn’t as smart as some of his others.  It was a little formulaic and not very suspenseful.  It’s made clear from the outset that Frost is being set up and who’s responsible.  The movie’s so-called twist hardly qualifies as a surprise, and the plot wasn’t terribly intricate.  Just sit back and bask in the Denzeliness. Grade: B+