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Review of 2012 Part One – “Safe House”

To break with tradition, I thought I’d start relaying my top ten of 2012 rather early.  The main reason for this is that financial pressures have made it hard to see many films this year, so I’ve probably had my last cinema excursion of 2012.  That said, there might be a December release that can be seen in January, so the official, ranked Top Ten will not appear until the start of 2013.  But over the next few weeks, I’ll post commentary on the films that really impressed me this year.  I have posted on several before, so I’ll try not to repeat myself, and those which have not been spoken on yet shall be in detail.

As a start though, I post on the year’s disappointments, as I don’t think I’ll see anything else that provokes my dismay.  Overall, this has been a good year.  I have very wide tastes so usually find something to appreciate in all movies that I see.  There have been a couple of turkeys in which I did find something to appreciate, but they were still less than good.  Terms such as “best” and “worst” are problematic because they imply some sort of objective standard, so in discussion I shall simply refer to what I found the weakest, the least convincing or the least entertaining films, and later on, what I consider the strongest and most impressive films that I saw this year.

Safe House (Daniel Espinosa, 2012) was a disappointment, mainly because its content was over-emphasised and therefore felt lacking in confidence.  A film expresses confidence through pacing, measure and commitment to its subject.  Safe House failed to deliver this confidence, through a plot that felt contrived for the sake of contrivance, characters that were thin at best, and a style that was terribly overwrought and more distracting than engaging.  I’m all for a good conspiracy, but the conspiracy was so side-lined as to appear rudimentary.  The film’s finale suggested some kind of wider socio-political critique, but this jarred against the mostly personal dramas of the earlier narrative.

The personal dramas were unconvincing as well.  Denzel Washington is one of the finest actors working today, and he is as committed as always.  But his Tobin Frost is neither sufficiently cynical nor idealistic.  His poise and control demonstrates his experience and confidence, which results in him seeming to have walked in from another movie.  I understand star vehicles, but could the vehicle and the star at least be going in the same direction?  Frost’s relationship with Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds) is meant to be the emotional core of the film, and Reynolds does a decent job of portraying the well-trained but inexperienced CIA operative.  However, too much time is spent on the run for any real relationship to develop, and while some mentoring moments appear, they, along with too much of the film, get lost in the incessant, intrusive, infuriating unsteady cinematography.

The shaky cam aesthetic is one that can be used well, Paul Greengrass being a particular master of it with The Bourne Ultimatum (2007), United 93 (2006) and Green Zone (2010).  Indeed, the cinematographer for Safe House, Oliver Wood, was also DOP on The Bourne Supremacy (2004) and The Bourne Ultimatum, which gave me a particular incentive to see it (although some were put off by the prospect of nausea-inducing cinematography).  I did not find the shaky cam sickening, but it was very annoying due to its indiscriminate use.  Weston sits and bounces a ball off the wall – camera waves around like the operator is drunk.  David Barlow (Brendan Gleeson) and Catherine Linklater (Vera Farmiga) talk tersely at Langley – camera rocks around as though on board ship in a storm.  Frost meets Alec Wade (Liam Cunningham) in a private restaurant booth – camera swoops around their faces and the confined space like a mosquito on speed.  It got to the point where I wanted to shout at the screen: “Just stay still!”  It was annoying to the point of disengaging me from the action completely.

When used judiciously, such as in sequences like Safe House’s car chases, one of which involves a struggle, as well as a fight at a second safe house, unsteady cinematography can be effective in bringing the viewer into the action and allowing us to vicariously experience the instability and disorientation of the action sequence.  However, if the camera is constantly unsteady the viewer has no stability to be lost, is already disorientated, and therefore there is no suspense.  Suspense is absolutely crucial to a thriller or action movie – the viewer requires uncertainty about what might happen in order to be engaged in the scene.  Instability and disorientation can add to this uncertainty and increase the suspense, but when the opening shots and indeed all subsequent shots are unstable and disorientating, the viewer can be certain that what happens next will be unstable and disorientating!  If you know what’s coming, suspense goes out the window.

Naysayers may point out that Paul Greengrass is similarly indiscriminate with his cinematography, but the crucial difference is pace.  Greengrass maintains a swift pace throughout his films, Jason Bourne typically on the run while in Green Zone characters are either moving very fast or having quick, terse meetings.  In United 93, the shaky cam is appropriate during the takeover and attempted re-taking of the doomed airliner, but earlier the camera stands back, only moving slightly as it betrays an almost voyeuristic pose as the hijackers offer final prayers and the passengers prepare to board.  So Greengrass, champion of shaky cam, exercises its use with a surprising restraint and discipline, which Espinosa did not instruct Wood to do with Safe House.  The dialogue scenes in Safe House are slower and more deliberate, working as a break between the action, yet the camera continues to pan, track, tilt, dip, sway, plunge, spin for no dramatic purpose.  Get a Steadicam for the love of Hitchcock!

I like to assess a film on all its components, and I will say that the South African location of Safe House distinguishes it from the more standard American setting.  But James Bond has been globe-trotting for 50 years, Jason Bourne passed through most of Europe as well as India and Russia (smashing a fair bit up along the way), and even Tinker Tailor Solider Spy (Tomas Alfredson, 2011) spent some time in Istanbul.  For a view of a South African slum, you’re better off with District 9 (Neill Blomkamp, 2009).  For a lean, tense espionage thriller with judicious use of shaky cam, you’re much better off with The Bourne Ultimatum.