Sunday, September 23, 2012

"End of Watch"

 4.5 / 5 

Jake Gyllenhaal delivers his best performance to date, matched at every turn by Michael Pena in the harrowing and vivid stunner End of Watch, a movie that suffers only from the overbearing conceit of using a "found-footage" shaky-cam style that director David Ayer struggles to keep believable.

In every other way, End of Watch is exemplary, and a stark reminder that Gyllenhaal may be one of the most underrated actors working in film today.  As beat cop Brian Taylor, assigned with his partner Mike Zavala to keep a non-existent peace in crime-ridden South Central Los Angeles, Gyllenhaal is the star in every respect, but shares an easy and comfortable rapport with Pena -- the best early scenes are those in which we see how close the two partners have become: They are brothers, they are partners, and maybe even more than they are with their respective spouses, they are soulmates.

For its first half, End of Watch simply presents the various calls they respond to, depicting with unflinching realism how impossible it is to be a "peace officer" in a place that does not want peace.  Slowly, the story meanders into a cohesive whole, but by the time it finally does, you'd be just as content to watch these two work.

This is, we suppose, what police work is really all about: cruising the streets, responding to calls that are both mundane and shockingly complex -- and interrelated.  A gangland drive-by shooting, a strung-out mother convinced her babies are missing, an elderly woman whose daughter says she has not seen her for days.  The work they do is fraught with peril, and they do exactly the work they need to do -- some of it is heroic, but neither Taylor nor Zavala understands what a hero is, or how a hero should feel; these men do their jobs, that's all.

They have personal lives, and they talk about them in between calls. They reveal that they are cops first, and people second -- but real people, with rich lives into which we get tantalizing glimpses.

For the first half of End of Watch, maybe more, it's hard to know where it's all going -- but it is going somewhere, to a place that is as inevitable as it is agonizing.  There is a plot, it's a compelling one, but it's anchored by the only thing that really matters in End of Watch: the relationship between then men. They aren't committed to their jobs, they are their jobs, and like few fictional films in the past couple of decades, End of Watch effortlessly reminds us that police officers are doing their jobs, too, to the best of their ability.  They're hampered by the system, by jaded and angry co-workers, by a set of rules too byzantine for even a longtime cop to truly understand.

And they live in a world far beyond the comfort and confines of their own homes.  Through seemingly unconnected ways, they innocently stumble into something far bigger than the every day work of responding to calls and filling out paperwork, and that something is what propels the film's final third -- expertly hinted at during the opening, harrowingly real by the end.

This is an admirable, gut-wrenching, visceral movie; it envelopes you in a world it's unlikely many of us will ever see, a world that, as much as we'd like to believe otherwise, exists.

A good portion of End of Watch consists of Taylor and Zavala talking as they cruise from one call to another, and it's to the enormous credit of writer-director Ayers that it's the central relationship we care about most, not the mechanics of a crime scene, which so many cop films forget.  It's raw, it's powerful and it's finely wrought, played perfectly and shot with ...

Well, there's the film's only major flaw.  End of Watch contrives a story that Taylor (Gyllenhaal) is shooting video of his work for a class project as part of his Pre-Law studies.  But how many people can carry video cameras?  Are the bad guys so obsessed with video that they have a camera present all the time?  One key scene is shown by using a third-party camera, one that has never figured into the story before and won't again.  In the few shots that can't be covered by the "found-footage" structure, there's an omniscient camera, available when it suits the story.

Your tolerance for End of Days may seem in part by limited by your willingness to give into the found-footage concept.  Fortunately, the story becomes so riveting, it scarcely matters -- though it would have been an interesting experience to use more mainstream techniques.

There's also a wonderfully disconnected quality to the opening 40 minutes or so.  Some of the stories in End of Watch seem important, and turn out to be; others are used simply to show the interplay between and the common sense of goal these man have.

End of Watch ultimately ranks one of the very best movies I've seen so far this year -- but might have been even better that it used more traditional photography techniques.

That's a quibble, really.  At the heart of End of Watch are the private moments between these two men; we've seen them in action, we understand why these guys love each ofther -- and so much. The best compliment I can pay to End of Watch is: I'd sure like to know more about these guys.  They're wonderfully drawn characters, with a sophistication and ease seen in far too few recent films.

These cops do their work and sometimes even get medals for it.  But the medals aren't ther purpose. They believe in their jobs, they are defined by them, but they can't imagine being a real "hero."  Heroes aren't beat cops, but, as End of Watch prove -- some beat cops are more heroic than we will ever know.

Profane, violent, disturbing and compulsively watchable, End of Watch is not to be missed.

Viewed Sept. 23, 2012 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks

Sunday, September 16, 2012

"The Master"

 2 / 5 

Watching Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master, I remembered reading about a European art museum that hung an important painting upside down for something like three or four months before anyone noticed.  But once they did, did it matter?

I wondered, because if someone told me now that The Master had been shown to me with three reels out of order, it wouldn't make much difference.  I'd like to ask Anderson, a director whose work I often admire, what he set out to accomplish and whether he thinks he did so.  And just as I'd be curious to know how art critics reacted to news that a painting they liked was upside-down when they wrote positive reviews, I'd love to know what film critics praising The Master as "challenging," "brooding" and "complex" mean by those words.  The Master is a bore.

At least Anderson himself is honest, admitting in interviews that The Master came about partly as a result of writing a character in search of a story.  Here's what he told The San Francisco Chronicle: "I was just sort of messing around writing, and then about four or five years ago, I started becoming more specific, 'What is this? Where are these pieces going?'"

Apparently he never did find out, and for nearly two and a half hours The Master moves at a glacial pace, partly proving Einstein right: Those two and a half hours feel very different in the theater than they might in any other activity.  Finally, it comes to a conclusion, or at least a final scene, about as pointless as one of the pseudo-psychological exercises that are the core of The Cause, the pseudo-psychological cult at the center of The Master.

The character Anderson wrote is certainly a vivid one, a pained loser so emotionally scarred by his experiences in the South Pacific during World War II that he's addicted to sex and to alcohol-like concoctions (formaldehyde, Lysol, paint thinner, whatever happens to be close by).  After one of his cocktails nearly kills a man, on-the-lam Freddy literally stumbles onto a yacht chartered by Lancaster Dodd, a charismatic crackpot who has started a small cult that bears more than a passing resemblance to Scientology.  Dodd believes an astonishing number of random things -- that humans are trillions of years old, that answering a bizarre series of unconnected questions will help you become a better person, and that people should call him "Master" when they address him.

Dodd is played with winning appeal and an uncomfortable gaze by Philip Seymour Hoffman, while Joaquin Phoenix is Freddy -- delivering a performance that is either uncompromising or a goofy riff on his David Letterman performance-art appearance; take your pick, either definition works.

In smaller, no-less-off-kilter roles are Amy Adams as Dodd's wife, and Laura Dern as a wealthy acolyte.  Neither female performance amounts to much -- throughout the movie, women are either sexual partners or irritating nuisances, or both.  The only two characters that matter to any degree are Dodd and Freddy, and it's their interplay that is, I guess, supposed to be enlightening.

But about what?  The Master offers no insight into the origins or precepts of Scientology -- er, The Cause -- doesn't have much of a perspective on whether it's helpful or harmful to Freddy, and shies away from the moments that might have been most illuminating.  Freddy may be simple-minded, but does he really believe that his problems were "implanted" in his soul millions of years ago?  What must he think when he comes to the conclusion that his Master is a sham?  For that matter, what of Dodd's adherents, who do, at various points in the movie, offer up their own questions?

As much as I appreciate the ambitious melodrama of Magnolia, the discomfiting sleaze of Boogie Nights and (to a much lesser degree) the bizarre epic of There Will Be Blood, nothing in The Master works this time around.  This is a plodding bore of a movie, one whose 65mm photography and meticulous set design can't save.

This is not an exploration of a cult, an examination of a religion, a story of two lonely men who make a connection, a survey of 1950s morality, a closely observed character study, or ... well, that's the problem: It's way too easy to define all the things The Master is not rather than anything that it actually is.  Except, maybe, it's upside down.  That wouldn't excuse it, but it would explain some things.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

"Robot & Frank"

 3 / 5 

Robot & Frank is a genial, unsurprising little film that plays a little bit like Short Circuit for the senior set.  It's entirely dependent on the central performance of Frank Langella, and he's completely winning as an old curmudgeon who comes to depend on technology in unexpected ways.

It's set in the convenient near future, a time that looks more or less like ours but has just enough differences to suit the slight, pleasant story.  One of those differences is that robotic technology has advanced enough to make robots acceptable substitutes for humans in everyday life.  This should put to rest the Republican concerns about using undocumented workers as hired help.

One of those robots is put into service as a health-care aid for Frank, a retired but not reformed cat burglar who has started suffering from a bit of dementia -- the last place he broke into was his own house.  He doesn't want the robot, it's a guilt-reducing exercise by his too-busy son (James Marsden), and the presence of the little mechanized man incurs the wrath of Frank's liberal-minded, globe-trotting daughter (Liv Tyler), who interrupts her travels to Turkmenistan to Skype with Frank and tell him how accepting the gift is contributing to a variety of earth-shaking declines.

But the reality is, robots are taking over everything, even working in the local library, as Frank discovers on one of his daily trips to see the pretty, almost age-appropriate librarian (Susan Sarandon).  Her job and the library itself are being taken over by a tech-happy little twerp.  Frank doesn't like this, and he doesn't like the robot, and both of these frustrations come together in the film.

The story isn't much, and it's contrived in such a way that the two plot strands will come together in ways that defy credulity in many ways.  If the film were bigger and more ambitious, that might be troublesome -- but it's hard to be offended by anything that happens in Robot & Frank, it's too little and too airy a concoction.

Frank doesn't like the robot, whose borderline-twee voice is provided by Peter Sarsgaard, but they come to an understanding and, wouldn't you know it, by the end of the movie they're friends.  They've also gotten themselves into a little caper, the kind that can only happen in the small East Coast towns in which these kinds of films are invariably set.

The considerable charms of Robot & Frank are supplied almost entirely by Langella, whose determination to be self-sufficient is like a large, male version of Driving Miss Daisy.  Indeed, Robot & Frank bears much resemblance to that little gem, if Miss Daisy and Hoke had decided to embark on a caper or two.  But Robot & Frank is not particularly thought-provoking or moving, it's just a charming lark, anchored by the considerable presence -- both in character and in physical appearance -- of Langella.

There's absolutely nothing new here, but it's cute and engaging nonetheless.

Viewed Sept. 2, 2012 -- Sundance Cinemas West Hollywood