Movies in Theaters February 10, 2012
This weekend brings us George Lucas' latest round of post-mortem Star Wars tinkering with a 3D remix of The Phantom Menace; Denzel Washington in an action movie that wasn't directed by Tony Scott (though it certainly looks like it was); Woody Harrelson's return to grittier Natural Born Killers kind of territory and what looks like the most sickly-sweet Valentine's Day release ever made. Choose from this eclectic cinematic box of chocolates.
I don't have much memory of Episode I, because I slept through about two-thirds of it. Blame the time of day I saw it more than the content (though that's arguable); I saw it on opening day, or opening morning, rather -- the 3:30AM screening at New York City's ever-classy Ziegfeld Theater. Despite the coffee and the excitement that came with the fact that I was seeing a Star Wars movie for the first time in the theater since 1983, I was sawing logs by about 30 minutes in, waking up in time to see the rather impressive three-way lightsaber duel between Darth Maul, Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan. I was, of course, miserable at work the rest of the day from lack of sleep. That experience kind of sums up the collective universal reaction to the beginning of George Lucas' prequel trilogy -- all hype and anticipation followed by a swan dive into disappointing and anti-climactic reality. If you're a fan (and there's definitely more than one Star Wars completist out there who's blind to the actual quality of these films), then check out this 3D treatment, which I'm sure has its dazzling moments. But you must admit the whole endeavor is kind of staggeringly pointless.
Wait a minute -- this movie isn't directed by Tony Scott? It sure does look like the umpteenth collaboration between one of Hollywood's A-list action directors and his muse Denzel Washington, but Safe House is actually the work of Swedish director Daniel Espinosa, who looks to have taken a page (or several) out of the books of Man on Fire, Deja Vu, Unstoppable and other super-frenetic Scott-Washington muscle machines. Ryan Reynolds, who's starting to look a little lost as true superstar status continues to evade him, plays a young CIA agent assigned to guard a former operative who went rogue (Washington) at an isolated South African safe house; after unidentified assailants descend on the hideaway, the two ex-colleagues are on the run together, with Washington working his Training Day-ish mind games on his rookie companion. Denzel's done this kind of role a dozen times before, and one has to wonder how many times Hollywood is going to introduce Reynolds' character in a particular movie with a scene of him waking up with some beautiful woman in his bed, but Safe House looks like it just might deliver some hard-hitting R-rated action thrills -- with or without Tony Scott. Brendan Gleeson gets to play shady again as Reynolds' superior, though one has to wonder where Vera Farmiga is going with her career path as she accepts yet another "lady agent" kind of role.
In the first few seconds of the Rampart trailer, Woody Harrelson smokes, drinks and beats up the guy who crashed into his cruiser as "the most corrupt cop you'll ever see on screen," as a title card proudly proclaims. For a supposed morality tale about a crooked LAPD officer who suddenly has to face the consequences of his wayward life and career, Rampart seems to have no problem with exploiting its subversive elements for titillation's sake -- after all, who wouldn't want to see the guy who played Mickey Knox in Natural Born Killers raise a little hell almost 20 years later as one of California's finest? Even if Rampart ends up suffering from such a conflict of interests (like, apparently, its tortured protagonist), it's still got a top-notch cast going for it; Harrelson will certainly own the show as he brings his dangerous live-wire energy to the kind of role he's been aching for for years, flanked by an amazing supporting cast consisting of Ice Cube, Ned Beatty, Steve Buscemi, Ben Foster (whose trademark super-intensity is confined to a wheelchair this time), Sigourney Weaver, Robin Wright, Cynthia Nixon and Anne Heche. It should also come as no surprise that James Ellroy, the renowned crime fiction author of L.A. Confidential and The Black Dahlia, had a hand in the rough-and-tumble screenplay in which the pervasive profanity transcends itself and becomes a form of gritty street poetry.
Okay, we admit it, the world needs its romantic tearjerkers, too, especially around Valentine's Day. But The Vow looks like it not only crosses the line of what's tolerable and acceptable in this genre -- it catapults itself across it, landing in some sort of phantom zone beyond mere "sappy sentimentality" and into a world where everyone walks around with at least four boxes of tissues at all times because they can't stop crying at Channing Tatum and Rachel McAdams' ridiculous predicament. Tatum and McAdams (who are both really above this kind of shamelessly manipulative material) plays two newlyweds who share a life in which every damn second is absolutely perfect; their fairy-tale existence is torn asunder after a car accident leaves her with severe memory loss -- and renders her husband more or less a total stranger. Looks like he's got to woo her all over again! Really, The Vow looks so sickly-sweet, it almost comes across as crass; fortunately, Tatum will emerge unscathed thanks to becoming one of Steven Soderbergh's new favorites (he appeared in Haywire and has Magic Mike coming out this summer), but McAdams, who proved a gifted comedian in Mean Girls and a formidable scream queen in Red Eye, seems content lately to just smile and bat her eyelashes through these simplistic "audience-pleasers." We sigh -- and not for the reasons the producers intended.