Saturday, September 29, 2012

End of Watch ★★½

The Found Footage Genre Applied To A Buddy Cop Movie Proves Ineffective

Written by Matt Giles
Edited by Erin Accomando

An up close and personal look at the lives of two hotshot police officers patrolling South Central, End of Watch is about as gritty as it gets. Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña star as Brian and Mike, two Los Angeles cops who get more than they bargained for on an almost weekly basis. Brian is taking college classes on the side, one of which happens to be a film course. For one of his projects, he decides to outfit himself and Mike with mini-cameras so that whoever watches his finished film will get a first person perspective of their daily routines.

The interesting stylistic choice on the part of writer/director David Ayer, who has an obvious affection for the found footage genre, is abandoned midway through the movie. But it's not unwelcome, considering within the first twenty minutes or so even the criminals that Brian and Mike are chasing have cameras, the reasons for which are never explained. Once the switch occurs, you're immediately aware of it and it takes away from some of the film's emotional impact; you no longer believe in the vision of South Central Ayer set out to show us. Instead, you realize that this is just hyper stylized world that is nothing more than the creation of a gifted filmmaker.

This is not to say that the film doesn't have certain things going for it. Gyllenhaal and Peña have terrific chemistry, so much so that even when Ayer is is making mistakes stylistically you still believe that these guys are actually cops. Gyllenhaal's Brian is tough and brazen, pushing the limits of his job a little too far, while Peña plays Mike equally as assertive as Brian is, albeit with a more level head on his shoulders. You immediately see why these two are not only partners but best friends, and they keep you invested in their story.

That story is one that leads to a lot of dead bodies, mangled cops and the Mexican cartel, all of which seems like a little too much over the span of time that the movie covers, which seems to be about a year, maybe two. While both leads are good, Ayer, for all the realism he's going for, doesn't seem to have a grip on reality. He's too chaotic for a movie about chaotic circumstances and too indecisive to stay with one style. The result is a film that happens to have solid performances from its actors but falls short of being anything memorable.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Looper ★★½

Time Travel Just Isn't What It Used To Be, Or Will Be

Written by Matt Giles
Edited by Erin Accomando

The new film Looper has about as much plot as you'd expect in a time travel movie and then some. The story focuses on Joe (Joseph Gordon Levitt), who is known as a "Looper" (a hitman in the present who kills men that have been sent back from the future). As we're told in Joe's opening narration, time travel is not invented until thirty years down the road, and when it is, it's immediately outlawed. The only people using it are the mob who, instead of killing these men in their time (apparently disposing of bodies in the future is quite difficult), send them back to the present to be executed. There's one rule among Loopers: never let one's target escape for any reason. It seems an easy enough rule to follow, until Joe's older self is sent back to him and he gets cold feet. For those still with me, it's never a good idea to hesitate when your older self is played by Bruce Willis.

Once the older Joe escapes the film enters into its very slow second act and introduces the characters of Sara (Emily Blunt) and her son, Cid (Pierce Gagnon). Both characters are crucial to the plot in ways I suspect many viewers won't be expecting, but they're also the weakest element of the film. Any screenwriter will tell you that the second act in any story is the hardest to write; it has to keep the story going with all of the elements introduced in the first act and lead into the resolution of the third act. Unfortunately, Looper ends up being an example of a film with an unsuccessful second act.

It's not so much that taking the time to discover who Sara and Cid are is bad, or that learning more about young Joe doesn't benefit the story, it's that neither is all that interesting nor does it seem to fit within the story. We've learned enough about Joe (both young and old) from the first act of the film, so it's unnecessary when the second act almost forces the audience into believing that young Joe is a hero of some kind. He's not really, which is not to say that Joe isn't an engaging character despite his flaws. It's almost as if the writer/director Rian Johnson thought the dystopia he was creating was too dark and, as a safety measure, decided to make Joe more heroic. 

Despite it's second act, there are elements in the film that work. Aside from Gordon-Levitt, who always does a good job no matter what movie he's in, the breakout performance for me came from Jeff Daniels as Abe, the mob boss in charge of all of the Loopers. Daniels plays him so perfectly; so chillingly matter-of-fact that every scene he was in worked so well. It's a very small role, but one that has stuck with me. It illustrates what a great, understated actor like Daniels can bring to a part, big or small. In Looper, you know Abe means business, even if he talks to you like he's your best friend.

That point is made clear in a scene where Abe persuades young Joe to give up his best friend and fellow Looper, Seth (Paul Dano) for letting his older self (Frank Brennan) escape. It's a pivotal scene in the film because it achieves two things: it shows us just how bad of a man Abe is and why he's the man running the game, and it illustrates to us the consequences Joe will face if he does not kill his older self. It's perhaps the most disturbing sequence in the film in that we see young Seth's fate through his older self's scars and vanishing appendages.

Scene's like that emphasize the craftsmanship of Johnson, who has a knack for being very original, both in story and tone. His first film, Brick (his and Gordon-Levitt's first collaboration) was a dark film noir set in a high school that had elements of horror, comedy and drama mixed into it. It worked very well and proved that Johnson wasn't the kind of storyteller most are used to. His second film, The Brothers Bloom, was more light hearted and polarizing with audiences. I was one of the people that thoroughly enjoyed it because it did for me the same thing Brick did, only in a different genre. With Looper, we get that same originality but instead of his usual mixed tone, it's a consistent one, which ultimately hurt my enjoyment of it. The second act just felt too safe and conventional, especially for Johnson.

This intriguing time travel film loses itself in its seeming desire to be mainstream, which is disappointing for a movie by such a gifted filmmaker.