Friday, September 28, 2012

END OF WATCH Is One Hell of a Cop Movie


- I'll admit, my expectations were a bit lowered going into END OF WATCH. The movie had the misfortune of having a subpar panel at this past July's San Diego Comic-Con. With fans gathered in the massive Hall H to see glimpses of new geek-friendly films, sandwiched in between was a look at this gritty cop flick that probably had no business being at the show. I felt bad for director David Ayer and star Michael Pena for having to be there. But look, there was no way I was going to be able to get 100% psyched for a movie like this at a place like Comic-Con. Because  End of Watch isn't a showy, epic-scale movie. It's gritty, down-to-earth, and starkly realistic. It's also super-badass and absolutely riveting. Don't worry about the hype - or lack thereof - around this one. Just know that it's one of the best cop movies in years, and an affecting, gripping drama with some killer action to boot.

What makes End of Watch click is the relationship between its two leads - Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Zavala (Michael Pena). The two actors have a fantastic, naturalistic chemistry. What they - and director David Ayer - do so well, is pepper the film with banter and small talk that feels authentic. Honestly, the conversations that the two partners have while patrolling South Central LA result in some of the funniest moments in any movie so far this year. Gyllenhaal and Pena (especially Pena, who's just hilarious) make you laugh because there's that sense while watching them that you're participating in back-and-forth with your buddies. The dialogue has an improvised feel, but it's also sharp as hell. And as the two guys banter about wives, girlfriends, race, and everything else under the sun, it serves to make the movie's serious and dramatic moments that much more intense. Because we feel like we know these guys - like these are guys who could be our friends - it's all the more riveting and jarring to see them enter dangerous - oftentimes life or death - situations. To that end, these are deceptively great performances from Gyllenhaal and Pena. These are not showy, melodramatic parts - but they're understated, naturalistic, and multifaceted. Honestly, this is some of the best overall work of Gyllenhaal's career. And same goes for Pena - who's been hilarious in movies like 30 Minutes or Less, but adds some real depth and nuance to Zavala in addition to being very funny.

The film follows Taylor and Zavala, as they go about their routine as policemen in some of Los Angeles' worst neighborhoods. We quickly how the two are perceived within the LAPD - they can be pranksters, they can be immature - some might think they are a little too buddy-buddy - but ultimately they are respected and tend to be good at their jobs. Zavala is married - his wife was his high school sweetheart. Taylor is still looking for someone to settle down with. On the side, Taylor is taking a film class, and he's begun carrying a minicam around with him on his patrols - the idea being to get footage to make a documentary about his life as a cop. This informs a lot of the film's handheld camera, found-footage aesthetic. It's also a source of tension between Taylor and his superiors, as cops on patrol are strictly forbidden from recording their activities. In any case, we follow the two as they go about their routine. We get a sense of this world, of the criminal infrastructure of Los Angeles. The gangs, the drug-dealers, the informants. The tension at times between cops, detectives, federal agents, and DEA. These tensions escalate as Taylor and Zavala get involved in taking down local dealers with ties to the cartels. Suddenly, they are mixed up in some serious stuff, and they've got targets on their backs. At the beginning of the film, we see how the pair's commitment to their jobs and to the law makes them effective cops. But as the movie progresses, we see how that same commitment can put them directly in the cross-hairs of some very bad people.

At first, I had my doubts about the film's found-footage aesthetic. But eventually, it really won me over. It did so be cause Ayer plays fast and loose with it - he isn't afraid to mix things up, and push the limits of what the cameras see, or to add some stylistic flourishes when it serves the story. The movie tends to stick to handheld camera footage when it's just the two leads on their own. But Ayer will throw in sweeping establishing shots of LA to add color and atmosphere and scale. At times, he'll shift focus to the gang of drug-dealers looking to cause trouble for the cops, at which time we see the action through an ominous night-vision lense. Other times, Ayer will borrow the aesthetic of first-person shooter games, and create a sense of you-are-there immediacy during some of the movie's most intense action scenes. It's a trick that works surprisingly well - some of the movie's big shootouts and action sequences  are total nail-biters, in large part thanks to how dynamically they are shot. As when you're playing a really intense shooter game, you're on the edge of your seat, wondering who or what lurks around every corner.

But again, the intensity and chaos of the film's gritty action scenes is tempered by the many scenes of quiet humanity and emotion. We see Taylor and Zavala's friendship at and away from work. We see Taylor kick off a relationship with a promising new girl (played with geeky likability by Anna Kendrick), that then blossoms into a real romance. We follow these characters as their lives evolve, even as we keep coming back to their existence in the dark, mean streets of LA. Essentially, Ayer deftly humanizes these characters, and makes us think about the lives that they - and real-life cops like them - lead. These are deeply flawed, all-too-human characters - but you also come away from the film thinking about the risks that cops face every day, and with a deeper understanding of what it is to be a cop.

END OF WATCH at times meanders a bit, and occasionally seems a little too in love with the banter generated from its main characters. But mostly, the movie just works - it's funny, action-packed, and surprisingly poignant. There are some things in it that are genuinely disturbing, and despite the gritty and realistic tone, the movie's also got its share of "holy $%&#" moments as well. Gyllenhaal and Pena do great work here, and easily carry the movie. The result is a badass cop story - but one with plenty of humor and heart.

My Grade: A-

Monday, September 24, 2012

DREDD 3D Is Uber-Satisfying, Old-School Badassery

DREDD 3D Review:

- I've never seen the Stallone version of Judge Dredd. Never wanted to - no interest. And yet, I always thought that Judge Dredd - the character - was cool. I wasn't super familiar with the Judge Dredd comics - most in America aren't. But I dug the look, and I was drawn to the bits and pieces of the post-apocalyptic mythology I had picked up as a kid reading Wizard magazine. I knew that some of my favorite writers and artists - guys like Alan Grant, Grant Morrison, Mark Millar, and Brian Bolland - had cut their teeth working on the Judge's comic-strip adventures over the years, in the pages of Britain's 2000 A.D. magazine. In fact, I had heard so much about the legacy of the venerable publication that, during my semester studying in London during college, I made sure to pick up a couple of issues of 2000 A.D. to see what the fuss was all about. I knew instinctively way back when that the Stallone film had little to do with the gritty, darkly satirical vision of the Dredd comics. And so I hoped that this new adaptation would live up to the legend of one of the UK's most popular fictional badasses. And man, rarely has there been a more purely satisfying big-screen comeback than DREDD. The film delivers kickass action while maintaining a perfect tone of grim sci-fi mixed with pitch-black humor. The result is the kind of unapologetic B-action flick that would make the likes of John Carpenter proud - not to mention Dredd's creators.

First off, Karl Urban as Judge Dredd is just, well, definitive. The man becomes and is Judge Dredd - it's that simple. I can't tell you how satisfying it is to see an egoless comic-book performance like this one, with no considerations except making Dredd as badass and true-to-the-books as possible. Dredd's helmet STAYS ON for the entire movie. Urban acts through his scowling mouth, his jutting chin, and his body language. And he does a great job of it - and the integrity of the character is maintained. I'd liken the performance to Ron Perlman as Hellboy or, most recognizably, to Peter Weller as Robocop. There's no pandering to a mainstream audience, no movie-poster-ready glamour shots. Urban is Dredd, Dredd is Urban, and he nails the gravelly hero voice to an extent that Christian Bale should be taking lessons from him. 'Nuff said.

I also, somewhat surprisingly, thought that Olivia Thirlby was fantastic as Psy-Judge Anderson. In part, it's because the movie is very clever about how it uses her. For one, I'll backtrack for a second and say - thank the gods, this is NOT a Judge Dredd origin movie. The movie wisely realizes that we don't need Dredd's origin - he is a sci-fi Man With No Name, and Dredd stories are more about the world that Dredd finds himself caught up - the world that he's a product of - than the man himself. But, you still want interesting characters for him to play off of - and that's where Anderson comes in. This is, in some ways, her origin story. She is the one who has an actual character arc in the film, and it's fun to see her start out as a somewhat naive, nervous rookie - made a Judge due to her potent psychic abilities - and watch as she adapts to the violence and kill-or-be-killed environment she finds herself in. Thirbly does a great job with the role, pulling off the movie's tone to a T, and working well with Urban. I'll also mention Lena Heady - best known these days from Game of Thrones - who is a lot of fun as Ma-Ma (yep), the scarred drug queen who is the film's chief villain.

The movie, overall, does a nice job of just sort of throwing you into the world of Judge Dredd. The world is quickly established: post-nuclear world war, the U.S. is a burnt-out husk of its former self. The surviving populace lives in the confines of vast mega-cities, often in towering, enclosed constructs called Blocks (in a bit if dark humor, each Block - no matter how decrepid and horrible - has a fluffy name ... the main Block in this film, for example, is known as Peach Trees). Throughout the mega-cities, justice is dispatched by a police force known as the Judges. Armored to the teeth, the Judges were created to deal with the lawlessness and anarchy of the new world, by being granted the rights of policeman, judge, jury, and executioner. In Mega City One, the most legendary of all the Judges is Judge Dredd. And that's all the back-story you really need to know.

In this particular tale, Dredd and the rookie Anderson infiltrate Peach Trees to investigate a series of drug-related deaths, linked to the criminal Ma-Ma. In a bid to take out the Judges, Ma-Ma puts Peach Trees on lockdown, and sets out to hunt down and eliminate Dredd and Anderson. Suddenly, a simple investigation turns into a deadly game of cat and mouse, with the odds, certainly not in the Judges' favor.

It's a very simple story, and yes, there are some structural similarities to The Raid from earlier this year. But I wouldn't bother comparing the two too much. While The Raid is nonstop Hong Kong-style action, Dredd is more in the mold of classic Carpenter - more methodical and atmospheric, with a hefty dose of satire. And honestly, that's one of the best things about the film. It oozes that dark, bleak, pitch-black humor that the character is known for. Think Robocop. Think the kind of hard-R ultraviolence that typified the great 80's action flicks. Think the kind of dark dystopia that they just don't do anymore, the kind from before it was all about teens with bows and arrows. Yep - DREDD is a timewarp back to the glory days of 2000 A.D., Escape From New York, Robocop, and the like. The great techno soundtrack is the icing on the cake. As is the wryly funny script from Alex Garland - who wrote great modern horror/sci-fi flicks like 28 Days Later and Sunshine for Danny Boyle.

Complaints? Some it boils down to what were probably budgetary limitations. I wished that Mega City One looked a little more sci-fi and a little less like downtown LA. I wish we got a little more sense of scope and scale - some more imagery of the larger world of the film. To that end, the set design occasionally feels a little bland. Especially given how well they nailed the costumes and the look of the characters (impossibly, the Judge helmets look awesome), it would have been nice to have the locations feel just as pitch-perfect for this world. I also felt like Pete Travis' direction, while solid, relied a bit too much on some hoaky slo-mo bits for added drama. It all sort of ties in to the fact that the drug Ma-Ma is peddling induces a slow motion-like effect on its users ... but I still thought it was overused and a bit gimmicky. Same goes for the 3D - there were a handful of kewl in-your-face moments, but mostly, it seemed unnecessary. And with a darkly-lit movie like this, the 3D again seemed to make things unnecessarilly blurry and unfocused. Overall though, Travis does solid work, and he makes sure that the movie has a couple of great "oh $#@&!" moments that serve as great payoffs to the building intensity of the narrative.

DREDD in and of itself may not be an action masterpiece, but it's pretty startling how much it gets right, even in the face of obvious budget limitations. It 100% made me want sequels that get bigger and crazier and give us more exploration of the world of Mega City One and beyond. Honestly though, the biggest compliment I can give the film is that it finally made me realize the cool-factor of the characters and the world I admired from afar way back when. After watching the movie, I logged on to Amazon and purchased some 2000 A.D. collections - I was on a Dredd kick and eager to see where it all started. You can't ask for much more from a movie like this than that. And I think that's why old-school action fans should run out to support this legitimately badass comic book flick.

My Grade: B+

THE MASTER Asks Big Questions, But Provides Few Answers


- There's no doubt - Paul Thomas Anderson is one of the great filmmakers of our time. His movies are ambitious, thematically-rich, gorgeous to look at, and typically filled with stunning performances from top-notch actors. To me, Anderson reached his apex with his last film, There Will Be Blood, which was an incredible instant-classic. One of the top films of the last decade. And now ... after a lengthy wait, comes The Master. My anticipation for this film was off the charts. Anderson, teaming with Joaquin Phoenix, Phillip Seymour-Hoffman, in a film that was purportedly inspired by the life of L. Ron Hubbard and Scientology? It seemed fascinating, thrilling, and like a potential masterpiece in the making.

The truth is though - I came out of The Master with mixed emotions. I felt like I had just witnessed some of the very best performances I'd *ever* seen in a film. I knew what I had seen was stunningly shot, meticulously crafted. Certainly, the characters and the narrative left me a lot to chew on. But I just wasn't quite sure what to make of the movie. It felt scattered, disjointed. It felt like Anderson had a lot of disparate ideas about man and master, about religion and cult, about post-war America, about Id, Ego, and Super Ego. But I wasn't quite sure if he ever fully tied those ideas together into one cohesive whole. Not that there's anything wrong with a collage-style movie. Anderson, of course, has experimented with that very idea in films like Magnolia. But you need that one through-line, that connective tissue, those "aha! moments" where the bell goes off and you see the forest for the trees. The Master is a film that may reward multiple viewings in that manner - as its layers are peeled back and the Truth behind some of its mysteries is exposed. But my gut feeling is that, while this film will be analyzed and discussed for years to come, its sketchiness and looseness will make most interpretations seem like they're reaching a bit.

But let's go back to the acting for a second. For let it be said: Joaquin Phoenix simply takes things to another level in this one. As Freddie Quells, Phoenix has a Brando-esque rawness that is totally captivating. He lets it all hang out, and goes for broke. Quells is sailor returned from serving in World War II. To what extent he always was a certain way, and to what extent he's been changed and warped by the war, we don't quite know. But Freddie, when we first meet him, is like some kind of feral, almost neanderthal-esque man who wants to fight and fornicate. Post-war, he wanders from odd job to odd job, but his self-sabotaging ways get him into trouble. Ultimately, he stumbles onto a cruise ship while trying to escape from some guys he's run afoul of, and has a fateful meeting with one Lancaster Dodd. Philip Seymour Hoffman shapes Dodd into a bellowing, charismatic cult leader - "The Master" - a blowhard philosopher/intellectual who is the founder of "The Cause" - a new-age belief system that bears some resemblance to Scientology. Dodd, a man typically surrounded by followers and yes-men, takes a liking to Quells. There's something about Quells' unchecked id that fascinates Dodd. Dodd's entire belief system is about controlling and repressing man's basest and most animalistic urges - and yet, The Master hints that Dodd seeks to tame Quells as a means of, in turn, taming himself. In a way, "The Cause" seems as much a way for Dodd to come to terms with his own vices - sex, booze, rage, etc. - as it is anything else. But Dodd is also clearly a charlatan and a fraud - a modern-day Wizard of Oz. Even he seems uncertain of what B.S. he'll spew forth next. But like many con-artists, part of the game is conning himself. And so, Dodd and Quells enjoy a unique sort of relationship. To Dodd, Quells is almost like a dog to be trained. And in many ways, Quells acts like a dog - ever loyal to his master, only half-understanding the things being said to him, being trained to obey.

The relationship between Dodd and Quells is what makes The Master sing. The scenes between Hoffman and Phoenix are often electric - a clash of titans that will shake you and stir you. There is a love and a hate between the two characters that is truly epic. And that strange relationship is made all the more compelling by the two actors bringing it to life. Let me just emphasize: what Phoenix does here is totally remarkable. As theatrical and singular as Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood, yet with a naturalism and sense of immersion in character that I've rarely seen in film.

The problem is that there is a vague sense here of existential conflict, of life and death struggle, of a clash of wills between two men. But it feels like an outline that's not fully formed. In part, it may be that the film is actually hurt by its ties to the Scientology story. The fact is, there are some undeniable ties to the life story of L. Ron Hubbard - enough that it will be in the back of your mind throughout the movie - but the movie ultimately ends up having little to do with Scientology at all. To me though, the fact that the movie draws *any* comparison ends up hurting it. Because the moments that do evoke it also emphasize that the film doesn't really talk about the sorts of questions we all have about the religion: why would seemingly smart and well-off people join it? Why wouldn't they question the outlandish mythology on which it's based? And to what extent did L. Ron Hubbard intend for it to become what it has? The Master isn't really interested in any of these more specific topics. The movie is painting a picture in very, very broad strokes. It wants to explore why one man would follow another, even if the master's philosophy never really makes sense in any meaningful way to the follower. The movie posits that in fact, we are all Quells, and that only a thin veneer of B.S. allows us to function as civilized human beings. Because Dodd's "The Cause," says The Master, was never *really* about explaining the mysteries of the universe. No - it was, only, about creating a system that would bring this man followers - that would create for him a flock. Again though, while the movie works - and is thought-provoking - on this sort of big, grand level ... it's less compelling as an actual narrative.

Anderson stages the movie with a strange blend of matter-of-factness and dreamlike, surreal storytelling. At times, what we see may or may not be Quells' imagination at work - his delusions. But Anderson seems to shift from reality to fantasy on a whim. "He's making all of this up as he goes along," warns Dodd's doubting son to Quells - speaking of his father's philosophical principles that make up The Cause. Sometimes, the same could be said of Anderson's narrative. Maybe that's the intended effect? I don't know. But certain reveals fall flat. Quells' relationship with a young lover from back home is more awkward and baffling than anything else. So too is Dodd's strained relationship with his icy wife, played with great restraint by Amy Adams. Adams does a great job in the role, but her relationship with Dodd - and with Quells - is left so open for interpretation that it's hard to get a handle on. And that's the thing ... there are many puzzle pieces here, but few if any are moved into place by the movie's end. As phenomenal as the lead performances are, the film leaves you wanting for some sort of narrative meat to sink your teeth into. Anderson isn't trying for Lynchian abstractness, but he begins veering into that territory in a way that I'm not sure he fully intended. Perhaps Phoenix's brilliant but admittedly over-the-top performance ended up pushing the film in that direction. Perhaps Anderson - known for dreaming up disparate scenes and then later tying them together - never quite found that connective tissue I mentioned earlier. But regardless of his intentions, too many scenes in The Master left me wondering what the heck Anderson was trying to say. And no explanations I've seen or heard have yet sold me that there is, in fact, something major that I was missing. Maybe there is some grand, unifying theory of The Master out there that will change my mind. More likely, however, is that this is simply a case of big but vaguely-defined themes overwhelming the rest of the movie, at the  expense of  definable narrative progression and character arcs.

PT Anderson is one of the great modern filmmakers. And any film fan owes it to themselves to go see The Master - because even if it isn't a masterpiece, per se, it is one of those brilliant-but-flawed works whose high points are very, very high. The performances are breathtaking, the cinematography mind-blowing (not to mention - the intense, mood-setting score from Johnny Greenwood). Individual scenes are stand-outs. And yet, those high points make the movie's inability to fully resonate that much more frustrating. In a way, it reminded me a bit of this summer's Prometheus - grasping at the Big Questions but never quite addressing them head-on. The Master asks much, but rarely answers in a satisfying or definitive manner. And so you have to wonder - what story does this movie tell? I suspect that film fans will be wondering - and discussing - for a long time to come.

My Grade: B+

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

ROBOT & FRANK is a Funny, Heartfelt, Surprising Trip to The Twilight Zone


- Like a lost episode of The Twilight Zone, Robot & Frank is a sci-fi allegory, an all-too-human story, and a profound fable all rolled into one. I absolutely loved this film. It made me think, feel, and marvel at the spectacular, Oscar-worthy central performance of Frank Langella - at his very best here.

Robot & Frank is a simple story with a lot of depth. Like the Twilight Zone episodes of old, it's not exactly subtle in its storytelling ... and yet, there are indeed many subtle layers to Frank Langella's character ... it's one of those acting jobs that's amazing to just sort of sit back and watch and take in all of the little nuances. Robot & Frank takes place in the near future, in a world that's not too hard to imagine evolving from our current era. In this future, the analog age has even more fully given way to a digital reality. Robots are starting to become commonplace in the home and workplace. In particular, a sleek model of helper-robot is starting to become a mass-market item. A sleek, space-age automaton that looks like a cartoon spaceman as designed by Apple. One of the common uses for these helper robots is to care for the elderly. They serve as a butler, aide, caretaker, and, in a strange way, companion. Suffice it to say, the aging, grizzled Frank does not want the robot that his protective son Hunter (James Marsden) gives to him. James drives two hours to see his dad every weekend, and he's becoming increasingly concerned about the old man - his memory seems to be deteriorating, and Frank seems to be losing his ability to care for his home and for himself. The twist here is that Frank is no ordinary senior citizen. He's an ex-con. In his day, he was a master thief, a skilled cat-burglar, a legendary con-artist, and a man of adventure. At first, Frank resists the robot - he doesn't want an artificial caretaker telling him to excercise, take his pills, and find new hobbies. He is firmly of the same anti-robot mindset as his daughter, Madison (Liv Tyler) - though she is so because of an overwrought conviction that robots should not be used for labor in place of real people. Soon enough though, Frank begins to warm up to the thing. He begins to enjoy its company (he does, afterall, live alone in a rather isolated house on the outskirts of town). But what really gets Frank to warm up to the robot is when a lightbulb goes off in his head - when he realizes that the robot - adept at everything from picking locks to cracking safes to hiding evidence - could be his ticket back to the big scores of his criminal heyday. And therein lies the irony of Frank - going back to a life of crime is what makes him feel rejuvinated - sharper, spryer, happier and more fulfilled than he's been in years.

The less you know about where the story goes from there, the better. All I will say is that ... when I suggest that the movie is like a Twilight Zone episode, I'm not kidding. But the movie does a remarkable job of combining big, hit-you-over-the-head emotional and story beats with a whole lot of humanistic, heartfelt emotion. What Langella does here is nothing short of phenomenal. You can't help but root for Frank, even as he engages in criminal acts. At the same time, you can't help but feel sorry for the guy - especially as we see how his memory continues to evaporate, as Alzheimer's and/or dementia sets in. Anyone who has witnessed a family member go through this will feel twinges of sadness and heartbreak, as Langella brilliantly portrays his character's off-and-on symptoms, his self-denial, his frustration with his own loss of sharpness. An easy way to tell this story would be to have Langella play a badass who becomes unstoppable with the help of his new robot companion. But the movie takes a much more complex route to telling its story, giving Frank moments of triumph and tragedy - moments where he seems like the smartest guy in the room, and moments where he seems pathetic and ineffectual - an old man overreaching. But my god, to think that Langella puts on this performance for the ages, even as much of his screentime is spent acting with a robot (or a guy in a robot suit, I guess) - it's incredible. The way that director Jake Schreier crafts the relationship between Robot and Frank ... the way he makes us really care for them as a pair, despite one being a four-foot-tall machine ... again, it's pretty amazing. And I also give a lot of credit to the script by Christopher D. Ford. It's a fantastic piece of work. Funny, moving, and poignant. The tone here is a very delicate thing. Certain characters are deliberately more over-the-top and cartoonish (Tyler as the whiny, semi-oblivious Madison, Jeremy Strong as a slimeball who becomes Frank's mark). But Ford's script keeps things emotionally grounded, despite the movie's more fantastical and comedic elements.

This is Langella's show, but the cast as a whole is quite good. I'll give special mention to two people. One is Susan Sarandon as Jennifer, the librarian of what seems to be the last real library in the world, which happens to be Frank's favorite place (partly for the books, partly because he enjoys flirting with Jennifer). Sarandon is amazing in this role, especially as certain information about her character comes to light. And then there's Peter Sarsgaard, who voices Frank's robot. Sarsgaard is doing one of those classic HAL-style robot voices, but what's impressive is how he puts little hints of something more beneath the surface. The fact that we come to care for the robot - just as Frank does - is a credit to the script, to Sarsgaard, and to the film as a whole.

I found myself very surprised by this film. I didn't anticipate where it was going with its plot and character development. I didn't anticipate the brilliant way in which Frank and his robot's destinies would end up becoming comingled. I didn't anticipate that this movie would have the layers of social commentary and sci-fi allegory that it did. And man ... I did not anticipate the emotional gut-punch of the film's final act. Perhaps some may find the film hamfisted. But I was so invested in its characters, so won over by the movie's combo of humor and heart, that I couldn't help but be bowled over by its ultimate revelations. It left me a bit shaken, to be honest. Happy, sad, floored by Langella's performance ... and feeling like I had just seen one hell of a movie.

Go see ROBOT & FRANK. It's a fantastic movie, and one of the best things I've seen so far this year.

My Grade: A-