Feb. 22, 2012 10:59

Denzel Washington in Safe House, coming of age in Pariah

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The title Safe House , is ironically and intentionally inaccurate, as the house in question is definitely anything but safe — as low-level CIA agent Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds) is about to discover.

Matt soon rues his eagerness for more excitement when former CIA operative Tobin Frost (Denzel Washington), who went rogue a decade ago, suddenly turns up at his doorstep at one of the agency’s safe houses in South Africa. Frost weathers a bit of torture at the hands of Matt’s colleagues, but soon enough a bunch of guntoting goons come knocking… and shooting … Thrown together by these circumstances — which are hardly surprising for any aficionado of the espionage or action genre — Frost and Matt form an uneasy, tenuous alliance as they barrel through Johannesburg, Cape Town and nearby environs, pursued by the aforementioned gun-toting goons and wreaking havoc wherever they go.

Under the direction of Daniel Espinosa, tackling his first big-budget assignment, Safe House tends to play it too safe by playing to formula and convention. There are the obligatory and reasonably well-handled car chases, shoot-outs, fistfights and explosions, yet for all the twists and turns in David Guggenheim’s screenplay, few surprise.

Throughout most of the film, Frost routinely dominates and outfoxes his pursuers — and Matt, for that matter — and Washington (also an executive producer) effortlessly dominates the proceedings. When the story’s emphasis isn’t on Frost — and the film’s emphasis not on Washington — Safe House loses traction. Nora Arnezeder plays Matt’s French girlfriend, but aside from providing Reynolds with an onscreen love interest, the character is completely superfluous.

Time spent with her is time wasted. Vera Farmiga, Sam Shepard and Brendan Gleeson punch the clock in routine assignments as CIA honchos keeping tabs on things from headquarters, while Liam Cunningham, Robert Patrick and Ruben Blades are on and off(ed) so quickly that they barely make an impression.

There is, of course, the obligatory traitor in the midst, and it should be obvious early on who that turncoat is. In the end, Safe House is just another slick ‘n’ shallow shoot-’em-up, elevated slightly (and expectedly) by Washington’s charismatic presence.

It’s all very competent and mostly uninspired.

Pariah , which opens Friday, marks the well-intentioned, well-acted feature debut of writer/director Dee Rees, who exhibits a keen eye for time, place and character — although not always simultaneously. Nevertheless, Rees’ obvious talent and ambition will likely yield bigger and better things for her. The same is true of leading lady Adepero Oduye, in her most significant role in a feature film to date.

She and Rees previously collaborated on the short film that Pariah is based on, so there’s a definite familiarity with the pivotal character of Alike (pronounced “Ah-lee-keh”), a typical New York teenager who’s both bright and independent — the latter trait a result of her sexual preference. Alike is gay, but hasn’t really come out — at least not “officially”. She has lesbian friends, but attempts to keep that aspect of her life separate from her life at home.

Her parents (Charles Parnell and Kim Wayans) have adopted something of a “don’t-ask, don’t-tell” policy, essentially letting Alike go her own way — although Mom would rather she not spend so much time with Laura (Pernell Walker), who’s a little too “butch” for her liking. She’d rather Alike get to know another neighbor, Bina (Aasha Davis), completely (and rather amusingly) unaware that Bina is herself gay.

The two girls are initially, understandably wary of each other, but as they get to know each other it becomes clear that their relationship will be the catalyst for Alike to finally stop hiding (from herself, mostly) and assert herself.

This is who she is, this is what she is, and there’s nothing anybody can do about it. Nor should they. If they can’t deal with it, that’s their problem — not Alike’s. Some observers have compared Pariah to Precious (2009), given its urban setting, but it’s more reminiscent of the recent Albert Nobbs in that the principal character must confront — and embrace — her own identity in order to move forward with her life.

Pariah doesn’t quite hit its dramatic stride until very late in the game, but its sincerity and energy are unmistakable.

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