DID YOU READ

Why is Denzel Washington playing it “Safe”?

021312-denzel-washington

Posted by on

Everybody likes Denzel Washington. A steady film presence for 25 years, he’s won two Oscars, been nominated for three others, and been a consistently reliable box office performer. Perhaps even more importantly, he’s never jumped up and down on Oprah’s couch, never been indicted for tax evasion, and never been caught by TMZ making drunken, racist comments. Sure, he’s not always the warmest of interview subjects and Bronson Pinchot definitely doesn’t like the guy, but stacked up against most other Hollywood mega-stars, those sorts of quibbles are rather small potatoes. But at this stage of his career, Denzel’s likeability is, weirdly enough, starting to become his greatest liability. There used to be a time when we loved him. But it’s hard to love a career that seems to be stuck on autopilot.

That sense of dull inertia is very apparent in his latest film, “Safe House,” and like too many of his recent offerings it’s a solidly-crafted action-thriller that’s kinda forgettable but mostly works because of how effortlessly cool Denzel Washington is in it. While it’s true that most stars eventually just start playing themselves, the Washington who shows up as the rogue C.I.A. agent in “Safe House” isn’t all that different than the one who played the veteran train engineer in “Unstoppable” or the ruthless crime boss in “American Gangster.” Whether he’s the good guy or the bad guy, Washington is always the coolest guy on the screen — the man with the lethal charm, the man with the quickest wit.

This is hardly the worst thing in the world. Unlike a lot of action stars, Washington can actually act — as if to prove that point, he snagged a Tony in 2010 for his performance in the Broadway revival of August Wilson’s “Fences” — and his ability to lock into a dependable onscreen persona guarantees that anything he’s in will be elevated simply because of his presence.

But that’s part of Washington’s problem of late. The decent-enough “Safe House” is symptomatic of a lot of his recent work. Sure, he’s not slumming in dreck like “Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance,” but when’s the last time Washington’s career choices really surprised anyone? 2007’s “American Gangster” was his last serious drama, although it wasn’t particularly inspired, and his last really great hit was 2006’s “Inside Man.” Instead, what you usually get from him these days are so-so Tony Scott vehicles or blandly inspirational dramas that he directs. It’s gotten to the point that he’s almost become a charismatic self-parody, which explains why Jay Pharoah’s dead-on spoofs of him on “Saturday Night Live” have been so funny. They’re not particularly mean — Washington is too likeable to really rip — but the send-ups nicely tear apart the actor’s overly familiar acting tics: the casually menacing glare, the off-kilter cadences, the hair-trigger laugh.

I don’t want to be too harsh. In “Safe House,” Washington’s as magnetic as always, and unlike a lot of A-listers, his movies don’t seem as if they’re designed simply as vanity projects. (In both “Safe House” and “Unstoppable,” he’s actually quite generous to his younger co-stars — Ryan Reynolds and Chris Pine, respectively — allowing them to shine in their own right.) And give Washington credit: because he’s never been obsessed with being the world’s biggest action star, he’s focused on sturdy, stylish, respectable thrillers that don’t seem ludicrous for someone his age to be in. (He turned 57 at the end of last year.) He’s only had two $100-million-plus films in the last 12 years, but he turns out consistent doubles commercially, which have allowed him to age gracefully — a rare feat.

But, ultimately, what have all those sensible career decisions brought him? The grittiness of “Devil in a Blue Dress” is now 17 years ago. The stunning embodiment of Malcolm X in Spike Lee’s brilliant biopic is now two decades old. The genuinely daring turns — such as in “He Got Game” and “Training Day” — are starting to feel more like aberrations in his catalogue. Instead of pushing himself, Denzel Washington seems to have settled into a comfortable groove that does well enough with audiences and impresses enough critics that nobody really minds.

Still, watching “Safe House,” I felt like I had already seen this Washington enough. It’s an intense performance, but there’s oddly no sense of stakes to it. Washington has never been beset by scandal — he’s been married to the same woman for almost 29 years — and he’s also never really suffered from a downturn in his commercial clout. If you wanted to show a young actor how to conduct his career (and life), you’d point him in the direction of Washington. But, oddly enough, while an erratic star like Tom Cruise has had his shares of up and downs, at least he has a certain urgency that gives his movies a jolt. (Part of the fun of the most recent “Mission: Impossible” was Cruise’s all-in commitment to the terrific action sequences.) Washington is steady as a rock professionally, but I do worry that it’s neutered his sense of adventure in choosing roles. One of his generation’s best screen actors, he has too long being content to simply coast. Even worse, too many of us have gotten so used to this fact that we don’t even seem to care.

Carol Cate Blanchett

Spirit Guide

Check Out the Spirit Awards Nominees for Best Male and Female Leads

Catch the 2016 Spirit Awards live Feb. 27th at 5P ET/2P PT on IFC.

Posted by on
Photo Credit: Wilson Webb/©Weinstein Company/Courtesy Everett Collection

From Jason Segel’s somber character study of author David Foster Wallace, to Brie Larson’s devastating portrayal of a mother in captivity, the 2016 Spirit Awards nominees for Best Male and Female Leads represent the finest in the year of film acting. Take a look at the Best Male and Female Leads in action, presented by Jaguar.

Best Male Lead 

Christopher Abbott, James White
Abraham Attah, Beasts of No Nation
Ben Mendelsohn, Mississippi Grind
Jason Segel, The End of the Tour
Koudous Seihon, Mediterranea

Watch more Male Lead nominee videos here.

Best Female Lead 

Cate Blanchett, Carol
Brie Larson, Room
Rooney Mara, Carol
Bel Powley, The Diary of A Teenage Girl
Kitana Kiki Rodriguez, Tangerine

Watch more Female Lead nominee videos here.

Shelf Life: “Malcolm X”

020312_malcolmx

Posted by on

The Sundance Film Festival is a bonanza for cinephiles because it offers them a unique and early opportunity to experience movies yet to be released and filmmakers yet to be discovered. But just as much, it’s an opportunity for film fans to reconnect with the artists who inspired them to love the medium in the first place, even as those artists push their work into new, unforaged or at least hopefully more deeply refined territory. And in 2012, no known filmmaker made a deeper impression at Sundance than Spike Lee, whose “Red Hook Summer” polarized audiences even as it demonstrated the director’s return to the sort of material that first helped establish him as a great cinematic voice.

Coincidentally, Lee’s film “Malcolm X” was released on Blu-ray this week, and Warner Home Video did an excellent job of putting together a release that at the very least is worthy of the film’s enormous ambition. But given the fact that it came out near the peak of Lee’s earliest success, and it was released some 20 years ago, when films like this could be incendiary and provocative and yet conventionally satisfying all at once, does “Malcolm X” hold up as a great work of art? Not having seen it in many years, we weren’t sure, but that’s why “Shelf Life” was created – to see how well a film’s artistic bona fides stand up years after its initial release.


video player loading . . .

The Facts

Released on November 18, 1992, “Malcolm X” was always seen to some extent as a prestige picture by Warner Brothers, so even though it didn’t hugely outgross its budget (it cost $33 million and made $48), it was a modest financial success. Despite the controversy over its conception – including Lee’s condemnation of the film’s first choice of director, Norman Jewison, and the generally mixed feeling many moviegoers had over supposedly glorifying such a divisive historical figure – the film went on to receive significant praise from the critical community, garnering a 91 percent fresh score on Rotten Tomatoes.

At the Academy Awards, star Denzel Washington received a nomination for Best Actor but lost to Al Pacino for Scent of a Woman. The film was also nominated for Best Costume Design. Washington won the Silver Bear Best Actor award at the Berlin Film Festival. The Chicago Film Critics Society gave the film Best Picture, Best Actor and Best Director awards, and nominated Al Freeman Jr. for Best Supporting Actor.


What Still Works

First, on a technical level, the film is beautifully constructed – there’s no fat on its three-plus hour running time, and it truly feels like it captures the most important moments in X’s life. (And more importantly, the transformation the former Malcolm Little makes into El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz is natural and unforced, but pointed.) Lee’s script captures the mindset of the former hoodlum as he transforms into the figurehead of the Nation of Islam, and then strikes out on his own as a Muslim who refuses to be bound by blind faith but must rely on logic and common sense just as much. And Ernest Dickerson’s cinematography captures some of the most glorious images ever put on screen; the director of photography has an approach that’s not unlike, say, Robert Richardson’s, where the fills the screen with color and light, and isn’t afraid to create a stylized world while somehow managing to make it still believable.

Washington’s performance as Malcolm X is one of the great in cinema history, and it’s a genuine tragedy that Al Pacino won an Oscar over him for his mugging, grandiose performance in Scent of a Woman over this complex, nuanced and utterly affecting turn. The actor’s febrile energy sizzles during the early scenes in which Malcolm fearlessly throws himself into a life of wasteful self-indulgence, and later, criminal misdeeds, and later his palpable intelligence balances out that ferocity that feels as much like a maturation of Washington himself as the character. As Elijah Muhammed, Al Freeman Jr. inspires an immediate kind of awe, and a reverence that both Washington and the audience respond to, creating a character whom we can understand why Malcolm committed himself so fully – and later, felt so powerfully disillusioned because of.

Thematically, the film should resonate with any person of any color, as its fundamental story is an American archetype – the transformation of a person with nothing into a person of great character and accomplishment. That Lee is able to successfully communicate that without X’s rhetoric overwhelming it is a testament to his virtuosity as a filmmaker. At the same time, there’s a much more fascinating and resonant idea percolating beneath the surface of the story, and that’s of a person who discovers faith and then finds that faith shaken. There’s something beautiful and tragic and truly moving about Malcolm’s commitment to the Nation of Islam and Elijah Muhammed, because he inevitably severs ties and exacerbates the rift between himself and them once they excommunicate him.

But there’s also something powerful and uplifting about the rediscovery of Malcolm’s intellectual awareness, his inability to simply accept on blind belief the truth and integrity of what he (and especially Muhammed) is doing. His ultimate rediscovery of his own self through his submission to the Islamic faith is a brilliant parable for any person who believes in a higher power.


What Doesn’t Work

Honestly, nothing. I’ve seen the film many, many times since its original release, and going back, there’s nothing in it that should be removed or redone or that’s problematic in any significant or even noticeable way.


The Verdict

There are many fans of Spike Lee (and detractors as well) who believe that “Do The Right Thing” is his best film, his masterpiece, and they’re right in that it contains the most rage, the most focused frustration turned into character and story. But “Malcolm X” shows the filmmaker not just at a point of advanced refinement, remarkable calm even in the face of such provocative subject matter, but at a place where he was most and best able to create stories that were very unique and yet very accessible to audiences. It certainly helped that at that time, directors like Oliver Stone were pushing buttons and mounting rhetorical cinematic arguments about a wide variety of different subjects. But Lee at that time was an equal filmmaker to Stone or almost any of his contemporaries, and “Malcolm X” is a masterpiece that deserves far more recognition than it ever received.

Weird Al CBB

CB!B! Gets Weird

“Weird Al” Yankovic to Join Comedy Bang! Bang! as New Bandleader and Co-Host

"Weird Al" is coming to Comedy Bang! Bang! this spring on IFC.

Posted by on

Comedy Bang! Bang! has just enlisted its new bandleader and co-host — and he’s pretty “weird.” Filling the big shoes left behind by Kid Cudi and Reggie Watts, parody demigod “Weird Al” Yankovic will be joining host Scott Aukerman and the rest of the CB!B! menagerie for the upcoming season.

“If you would have told me, when I was a teenager, listening and laughing along to Al’s In 3-D album, that one day I would partner up with him, I would have asked who you were and how you got in my room. Then I would have politely shown you the door. Because that’s how I was raised,” Aukerman said.

With a musical career that goes back to the ’70s, Yankovic’s comedy and musical pedigree needs no introduction, and as a recurring guest on the IFC talk show and the CB!B! podcast, his improvisational skills and rapport with Aukerman have proven to be fan favorites.

Production for the 20-episode fifth season begins today with a premiere date slotted for the spring. Listen to Scott’s announcement on today’s episode of the Comedy Bang! Bang! podcast, featuring Weird Al himself as a special guest co-host.

Powered by ZergNet