Cloud Atlas(10/27/2012)


When one reviews films one has to make certain sacrifices, and one of them is that you should avoid reading novels that are soon to be adapted into films.  I follow this on principle, firstly because reading source material is pretty much the ultimate spoiler and secondly because it steals away one’s ability to watch something objectively on its own merits rather than its relationship with said source material.  I usually have no trouble following this credo, but in the case of David Mitchell’s novel “Cloud Atlas,” I willfully ignored it.  I read that novel earlier this year knowing full well that it would likely influence how I watched the upcoming Wachowski siblings/Tom Tywer helmed adaptation of the book, but I didn’t care and that’s because I simply didn’t think this trio of filmmakers had a prayer of being able to pull off an adaptation that wasn’t a complete disaster.  Everything I’d heard about the book sounded both extremely interesting and also completely unadaptable.  I’m normally a big supporter of cinematic ambition, but this seemed more like cinematic hubris and I wanted to experience the story for the first time in the only medium that seemed capable of containing it.

As it turned out, my experience reading David Mitchell’s novel wasn’t quite as amazing as I expected it to be.  I found the book flawed and uneven; I loved parts of it and disliked parts of it in equal measure.  By the novel’s end I was still glad that I’d picked it up but it wasn’t really the masterpiece that it sounded like in its description. This experience may have ultimately enhanced my experience going into its adaption, which is equally uneven but in different ways, if only because it kept my expectations in check and also because I knew that there were ways that the source material could be improved.  That said, it is more or less impossible for me to separate my experience with the film from my knowledge of the source material and my analysis of the film will likely reflect that mindset rather than the mindset of someone coming into this story for the first time, so I apologize in advance if this review doesn’t give the most objective look at the film.

Cloud Atlas tells six separate stories set in six different time periods about six separate characters, each one meant to be a reincarnation of the last.  In the film these stories are cut so as to play out simultaneously and many actors play multiple roles across all six stories.  Two of these stories are set in a distinct past: the first story is set in 1849 and tells the story of an American Notary named Adam Ewing (Jim Sturgess) doing business with slaveholders in the South Pacific who becomes sick on his journey home and the second is about a roguish musician named Robert Frobisher (Ben Whishaw) who travels to Belgium in the 1930s in hopes that he can assist an old and ailing composer named Vyvyan Ayrs (Jim Broadbent) with his latest opus.  The next two stories are set closer to our contemporary era: one is set in the mid 70s and depicts a journalist named Luisa Rey (Halle Berry) as she tries to uncover a conspiracy involving a nuclear power reactor which could cause a major disaster while the second story is set in modern times and follows the adventures of an aging publisher named Timothy Cavendish (Jim Broadbent again) as he goes through some wacky ordeals in the wake of his publication of a gangster’s memoir.  The final stories are set in the distant future: one is a dystopian story about a cloned worker named Sonmi-451 (Doona Bae) who comes to realize she is a slave and attempts to break free from the role she’s been forced into, and the last story is set in a distant post-apocalyptic future in which a primitive islander named Zachry (Tom Hanks) goes on an adventure with a technologically advanced outsider named Meronym (Halle Berry again) as she looks to find a communication array hidden on the island.

The story I was most excited to see on the screen was the one I liked the least on the page: the final story, which is called “Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After” in the novel.  This story had an interesting trajectory in the book, but unfortunately Mitchell opted to write this section in a strange form of invented dialect which renders the whole thing nearly unreadable.  The basic idea was that in this distant future language has devolved into a sort of primitive drawl, which is an interesting idea, but reading sixty-some pages of sentences like “Brave Truman trekked’n’climbed for three solid days an’ had varyin’ adventurin’s what I ain’t time to tell you now, but she s’vived ‘em all till he was up that feary’n’ghostsome summit in the clouds…” was simply a chore that rendered any of the story’s good qualities moot.  This strange language persists in the dialogue during this section in the film, but seeing the story dramatized rather than narrated made this a lot more palatable and this section of the film had perhaps the best blend of action, science fiction, and visual splendor.

Another story that I wanted to see liberated from David Mitchell’s gimmickier tendencies was the third story, which is called “Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery.” In Mitchell’s novel this story is told in the style of a bad “beach read” mystery and serves as a sort of parody of commercial novels that are written “with an eye on Hollywood.”   This poses a pretty big challenge for adaptation because the story is kind of hokey and when presented in the film “as is” rather than as a strange commercialized interpretation of a story and the whole thing comes off rather odd.  It doesn’t help that a lot of the 1970s period detail is rather poor and garish which is especially embarrassing with the film coming out mere weeks after Argo, which presents the decade much better.  Still, the story does have a lot of decent action in it and can be fun to watch at times.

One story that is mostly improved by its cinematic presentation is the first one set in the future: “An Orison of Sonmi~451,” which is the most action driven and the most overtly political of the six stories.  The future envisioned by this story is one in which corporations have complete control of society and have developed what is essentially a slave class.  The story’s political messages came off a bit on the nose in Mitchell’s novel but seemed a lot more relaxed in the film, in part because it’s fast pace pushes phrases like “corpocracy” and “consumer class” into the background.  At times though, the story is so hurried that we don’t really get a full picture of what this society is all about, nor do we fully understand the central character’s arc.  Instead we get a lot of action scenes in this section and some of these scenes work better than others.  It almost feels like the filmmakers were being pressured to turn the film into more of a blockbuster and they needed to wring more action out of this section.

Mitchell’s novel has a fairly interesting structure in that it presents the first half of each of these stories one after the other in chronological order until it reaches the final story, which is told in its entirety, and then it presents the second half of each story in reverse chronological order until it ends right where it begins.  The film discards this format and instead intercuts between the stories, the way a “hyperlink” film like Babel or Traffic would.  That struck me as odd given that the symmetrical structure was more or less the signature element of the novel, and it might have been the single thing about the movie I was most worried about.  Ultimately I think the new structure was something of a mixed blessing.  On one hand, it did keep the film moving along at a very fast pace and it also helped to bend the six stories and bring their thematic and structural similarities to the forefront.  On the other hand, some of these stories worked better in the format than others.

In particular I thought that the fourth story, “The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish,” suffered from being chopped up and blended with the other stories.  In Mitchell’s novel this section is a very fun first person narrative whose comical tone makes for a nice relief before delving into the dark science fiction that follows it.  In the film it suffers some of the same problems as “Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery” in that it comes off as a literal story rather than an exaggeration that’s been conjured up by an unreliable narrator.  More problematic is that Cavendish’s petty problems seems a lot less charming when the film is cutting between it and the more serious peril that the other stories depict.

Another story that feels a little out of place when subjected to this format is the second story: “Letters from Zedelghem.”  This was one of my favorite stories from the novel and when it’s on screen it’s one of the best executed in part because of a very good performance from Ben Whishaw as its central character.  This is, incidentally one of the most altered of the six stories, in that the film more fully explores the homosexual relationship between the main character, Robert Frobisher, and the man receiving the letters which make up the story’s epistolary narrative.  In the novel the very existence of this relationship is only subtly hinted at, but the decision to make it front and center was likely a good one because it makes the story’s thematic connections to the other five a lot more clear.  The problem is that this relatively low key story gets kind of lost in the shuffle of all the bigger and flashier stories that surround it.

The story that seems to have been altered the least might be the story which is the earliest chronologically: “The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing.”  From a visual standpoint this is one of the more rewarding sections of the film with some of the best period detail.  However, I found that this story felt rather rushed, almost like an afterthought in the film.  It also suffered from a rather miscalculated performance by Tom Hanks, who showed his hand much too quickly in a role that is supposed to change much more slowly and subtly.  In both the novel and the movie this comes off as a rather short and seemingly minor story, but in many ways I think it’s the thematic glue that holds the entire work together.  This in part is because it is the purest and most relatable example of what all of these stories are ultimately about: they’re all stories about people who are either themselves stuck in an oppressive system or who witness an oppressive system and who manage to fight back against it in some way or another.

These are ultimately stories about rebellion and resistance and that is likely what attracted the Wachowski’s to the project as they had similarly explored this topic both in their Matrix trilogy and in V for Vendetta. They are likely responsible for much of the film’s more ambitious visuals and action scenes.  Tom Tywer has also made films about breaking out of vicious cycles and brings a more comical touch to various aspects of the film when that is required and I suspect that he had a lot to do with the film’s aggressive editing.  It is likely that all three filmmakers deserve credit for the film’s excellent production design, photography, just the general audaciousness that was likely needed in order to get the damn thing made in the first place.

Indeed, such audacity is to be admired, but I think sometimes this audacity went a little too far.  In particular I question the decision to cast most of the actors in multiple roles, sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse.  It is fun to see many of these actors play vastly different roles across the many stories. This is especially true when there seems to be a thematic through line to their casting, as was the case with Hugo Weaving, who plays a villain (or some sort of unsympathetic character) in all six of the stories.  At other times though, this multi-casting seems more like a stunt than anything, especially when these actors are cast into roles that require them to wear heavy makeup when a separate actor could have just as easily been selected, or when major actors are asked to make miniscule cameos in some stories just for the sake of getting one more member of the repertory cast into a given story just to say they did.

This was perhaps done for budgetary reasons, or maybe it was done to better express the notion of reincarnation that pervades the film.  And this is the element that, more than anything, probably keeps me at a bit of an arm’s distance from this whole project both when it’s been in book form and in film form.  I’ll just come out and say that I’m neither a follower nor a studier of Eastern religion and I get the feeling that David Mitchell isn’t all that gung ho about it either beyond its ability to connect his stories on a more literal level.  I find it preferable to just ignore all the New Age “past and future lives” stuff and to instead look at these events as a pattern of conditions through history that are the result of human nature’s greater and lesser halves.  It’s about the greed which leads the people in power to exploit one another and disregard environment’s welfare, but it’s also about the drive which leads people to overcome and rise above such treatment.

So, what did I think about the movie?  Well, I liked it a lot, I guess.  This is a tricky one to call because there really are a lot of problems with the film, but since the movie is so jam packed with content these flaws don’t stand out as much as they would in a normal film.  As was the case with the book, I don’t think this is the masterpiece that it could have been, but it’s still a very strong and intriguing piece.  I’ve written over twenty four hundred words about it so far and I’ve only scratched the surface.  That’s not something I can easily do with most films.  Furthermore, I enjoyed myself quite a bit while watching it and was consistently intrigued by the directing team’s many different choices over the course of the project.  So in all, I guess this is a pretty strong recommendation.

***1/2 out of Four

Argo(10/14/2012)

It’s interesting how quickly events can go from being modern headlines to being distant history.  For instance, the Iran Hostage crises was an event that happened before my time, but it will be a distinct memory in the minds of many people going to see the new thriller Argo.  This is an event that happened a mere thirty-three years ago, and yet the makers of this thriller probably had to put the same amount of detail into their costumes and production design as the makers of the recent prohibition era thriller Lawless.  It makes you wonder how soon we’ll be seeing “period” films about events like the Arab Spring or the Health Care Debate.  No matter how long ago this happened it’s really shocking just how relevant the story of the hostage crisis is in this era of embassy attacks and ever heightening tensions between Washington D.C. and Tehran, it’s the perfect story to be telling in 2012 and with the right execution Affleck and co. are in the perfect position to hit a home run.

Many know about the fifty two diplomats who were held hostage in the U.S. embassy to Iran in the early eighties, but less remembered are the six U.S. diplomats who escaped the embassy during its storming and managed to hide out in the house of Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor (played in the film by Victor Garber).  Argo tells is the story of how a CIA agent named Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) managed to smuggle these six escapees out of Tehran.  Mendez’ plan was to enlist Hollywood talent like producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) and makeup artist John Chambers (John Goodman) to fabricate the production of a fictional movie called “Argo” and enter Iran under the pretense of shooting said film in the country’s desert locales.  Mendez thinks that this idea will be crazy enough to work, but he’ll need to both convince his superiors of this and then execute the dangerous mission in hostile territory.

Argo is an interesting nut to crack because there are two seemingly antithetical sides to it: that of a tense thriller and of a cynical comedy.  As a thriller, the film works well from the get-go.  The movie opens with a dramatic re-enactment of the storming of the U.S. embassy complete with the sight of diplomats desperately shredding and burning sensitive documents and ushering out Iranian asylum seekers while the crowd is eagerly pounding at the gate.  Later, when Mendez is leading his escape there are moments of nail biting tension.  And yet, the film also has a substantial amount of comic relief, especially during the sections of the film where Mendez deals with his Hollywood connections, who are exactly the kind of petty Hollywood “moguls” who have been extensively parodied on the show “Entourage” and in movies like The Player and Swimming with Sharks.  The film also largely avoids politics outside of its opening narration (which wisely points out that the Iranians storming the embassy may well have had some valid beef against the United States), so those weary of “preachy” movies about the Middle East should have no problem with this one.

Affleck ably fashions the film after the political thrillers of the 1970s and even photographs the film using the kind of high-grain filmstock of that era.  He also edits the film very smoothly and makes the whole film clip along at a very steady pace.  However, the film is maybe not as deep as some of the Lumet and Packula films that it imitates.  As well executed and topical as the film is, there is a nagging feeling that it’s still beholden to a lot of the same Hollywood conventions that lesser thrillers are privy too.  There are a couple characters who seem to have been arbitrarily added in order to complicate matters, a few renegade decisions that seem to go against the protocol of a real espionage operation, and also a few moments that seem to have been somewhat contrived in order to make the whole operation seem a little closing to the wire than I suspect it really was.

This is not filmmaking on the level of something like Steven Spielberg’s Munich, which also dealt with the fallout of an infamous 1970s event related to the Middle East and ended up giving audiences a lot more to chew on while also being a very effective thriller.  Still, being “just” a very effective adult thriller is perhaps too difficult a task to be dismissed that easily.  Every year around this season there are a lot of challenging and well made films like The Master that one loves to proselytize to cineaste audiences but in the back of your mind you know that recommending them to more casual movie goers would be to send them into a lion’s den.  That’s why critics love movies like Midnight in Paris, The King’s Speech, Up in the Air, and Slumdog Millionaire.  They may not re-write the cinematic rulebook, but they’re a welcome adult alternative to the CGI-infused blockbusters that Hollywood would otherwise be putting out and you can pretty safely recommend them to audiences of any walk of life and be confident that they’ll have a good time at the theater.  That’s nothing to scoff at.

***1/2 out of Four

Seven Psychopaths(10/12/2012)

When it came out in 2008 I was a little less enthusiastic about Martin McDonagh’s In Bruges than many critics, perhaps because I wasn’t really expecting it to be as much of a comedy as it was and partly because I found its structure somewhat contrived.  Still, I could tell that there was an interesting voice at its center and I came to like the film more upon reflection than I had while watching it.  That film was one part dark comedy and one part straightforward crime film, you could come for one element but stay for the other and that made the film very accessible for broad audiences.  McDonagh’s new film, Seven Psychopaths is a very different beast indeed.  The film disposes of any pretense of “drama” or “straightforwardness” in favor of a balls out post-modern satire with a “fuck the world” attitude and a degree of irreverence that will leave many audiences completely baffled and a select few absolutely riveted and as I’m writing this I don’t quite know which camp I’m in.

Seven Psychopaths follows a Hollywood screenwriter named Marty Faranan (Colin Farrell) who’s working on a film called “Seven Psychopaths” and is looking to the world for inspiration.  His friend Billy (Sam Rockwell) is trying to encourage him while running his illegal side business of kidnapping people’s dogs and then sending his elderly friend Hans (Christopher Walken) to collect the reward money.  Unfortunately for all involved, Billy has kidnapped the wrong dog this time, the beloved Shih Tzu of a deranged and violent mob boss named Charlie Costello (Woody Harrelson).  This is the plot point that’s most heavily emphasized in the film’s advertising, but that’s really only the tip of the iceberg of the film’s absurdist twists.  There’s a masked man who walks around killing mafiosos and leaving behind playing cards to mark his kills.  There are characters introduced for seemingly no reason except to immediately kill them off.  There are seemingly tangential side-stories about such material as: Quaker revenge sagas, Viet Cong terrorists, and Zodiac Killer killing killers.  It’s not exactly an easy movie to summarize.

First and foremost, one needs to know that this movie is extremely meta.  It follows in the tradition of movies like Adaptation and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, which openly dissect Hollywood screenwriting clichés while at the same time taking part in them.  Like Adaptation this film is sort of being written by its central character as it goes along, but this isn’t as rigid as Charlie Kaufman’s film which was careful to follow a clear internal logic.  Seven Psychopaths has more of an anarchist spirit and it’s not trying to pretend that any of this insanity literally happened to the film’s actual writer.  Characters in the film openly talk to the film’s screenwriter protagonist about how they “want this movie to end” and often his screenplay complies.  Consequently, a lot of the film’s characters act in ways that are very peculiar.  It’s strongly implied that Colin Farrell’s character is simply not a very good writer and that this influences a lot of the strange happenings and tangents and it’s hard to tell just how much of the film actually exists in some sort of reality and how much is simply the work of the screenplay that’s being written by the character.

Anyone who saw In Bruges knows that McDonagh does have an ear for dialogue which was likely honed by his years of work as a playwright in Ireland.  McDonagh fills his film with memorable lines that are steeped in irony, irreverence, and blunt political incorrectness.  They’re really well-crafted and interesting quotes and I admired a lot of them from a distance, but oddly, I found a lot of these lines to be funnier in theory than in practice.  I wasn’t laughing out loud much while I watched Seven Psychopaths and neither was the audience I watched it with.  Additionally the characters are written so broadly that it was really hard to get much of a grip on any of them.  The film is filled with talented actors that seem to be doing everything that they were supposed to be doing, and yet none of them were really able to give these people much humanity.  You know how Christopher Walken has a habit of showing up in bit parts, giving bizarre speeches, and then leaving?  Everyone is doing that in this movie, including Walken himself, who is even stranger than usual.

So, what can I say about this movie in final analysis?  Well, if nothing else the film is rarely formulaic, and whenever it is formulaic it immediately mocks itself for being formulaic.  I had no idea where the film was going for much of its running time and it made a number of twists that were completely out of left field.  There were moments where I felt like I was in the presence of a brilliant piece of post-modern cinema, but then there were a number of other moments that made me feel like I was in the presence of a complete mess.  He makes some interesting points about mainstream cinema and makes them in an entertaining way, and yet none of these points are wildly original and I’m not sure that all the film’s chaos was really necessary in order to make them.  I admired what McDonagh was doing, but at the same time I don’t feel like I can follow him down the road he’s walking.  I suspect this film is going to get a substantial cult following and if the film sounds like it’s your cup of tea you might as well give it a go, but this is decidedly not going to be for everyone, know what you’re getting into.

**1/2 out of Four

Looper(9/30/2012)

Director Rian Johnson is, if nothing else, an expert self-promoter.  He’s gotten a lot of good press by interacting with various film blogs and podcasts and has also boosted his pop culture image with cool side-projects like stints as a guest-director on the ubiquitous AMC drama “Breaking Bad.”  Everything seems to have fallen in place perfectly for this guys… except for the fact that he’s never really made a truly exceptional movie.  His debut film, Brick, was a slickly made high concept indie which showed his skills behind the camera but which was ultimately empty and kind of pointless.  His sophomore effort, The Brothers Bloom, wasn’t much more substantial and it also had the baggage of being a Wes Anderson rip-off, albeit one that is more skillfully made than most Wes Anderson rip-offs.  Still I like this guy and wish the best for him, and that’s why I’ve still been looking forward to his newest film, the time-travel thriller Looper.

Being as this is a time travel film, it’s not going to be easy to summarize, but here goes.  Looper is (mostly) set in the year 2044, and while time travel hasn’t been invented yet, it will be in thirty years.  Pretty much the only people with the will to use said time travel devices in the 2070s are organized crime syndicates who use the technology to send their enemies into the past for purposes of body disposal.  To accommodate this, they’ve hired a variety of people in 2044 called “loopers” who wait by the spot where these victims are to be transported and then shoot them as soon as they cross over and destroy the body.  It’s good work for the amoral crooks they hire to do this, but there’s a catch: if the loopers are still alive thirty years later they’re kidnapped by the mafia and sent back to be killed by themselves in 2044, a sacrifice many of these loopers are willing to make.  One such looper is a man named Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who’s been in this business for a while and has plans to one day escape to France in hopes of avoiding the eventual fate of most loopers.  One day though, the man sent into the past for disposal isn’t tied up like most of the future-mafia’s victims and it quickly becomes clear that this middle aged man is the Joe from the future (Bruce Willis) and he’s not going to go quietly.

Looper is in many ways a look at what Back to the Future would have been like if it had been an action thriller rather than a teen comedy.  Like that seminal time travel blockbuster, this script dives into the “time paradoxes” inherent to the genre head first and doesn’t look back.  This film will almost certainly produce internet study guides which dissect the various strengths and inconstancies of the film’s time travel scenarios, but I made a concerted effort not to get too bogged down in plot-hole hunting during my initial experience with the film, a mindset which I knew would only needlessly distract from the film.  The paradoxes that the film brings up certainly are worth thinking about, namely the film’s central concept which essentially has people committing indirect suicide, but people who take the notion of a “butterfly effect” too seriously may seriously question the plausibility of the whole enterprise.

I was less intrigued by the film’s basic vision of the future, which seemed rather… boring.  I suppose that living in a world that’s filled with high tech gadgets but which otherwise looks pretty similar to 1992 has made filmmakers a lot more conservative in their visions of the near-ish futres, but I still feel like Johnson could have done more with 2044 than he did.  This future looks a lot like modern America, except poorer and with a handful of extra gadgets which pop up occasionally.  In particular I found the weapon of choice in the future, a sort of less efficient shotgun called a “blunderbuss,” to be both silly looking and not overly useful to the film’s action scenes.  Speaking of the actions scenes, I wouldn’t expect a whole lot from them.  The film isn’t My Dinner With Andre or anything, a lot of people do get shot and there are number of well-made set pieces, but if you go in expecting it to be competing with something like The Matrix you’ll probably be disappointed.

Prior to 2005 Joseph Gordon Levitt had earned himself steady work starring in the sitcom “3rd Rock From the Sun,” but it was Rian Johnson’s film Brick that really launched his career as a respected film actor, which likely influenced his decision to star in this film.  His work here is good, but he’s not doing a whole lot in the film that will surprise anyone who’s been following his career, he continues to be a serviceable young film star.  Bruce Willis was an interesting choice to play Gordon-Levitt’s older self; he doesn’t necessarily look all that much like the younger star and he sort of has a different way of carrying himself too.  In many ways he looks more like Levitt’s father than his older self and this does give the film a certain added dimension because, like a father, he tries to give “young Joe” life advice only to be disregarded by a younger generation (of sorts) that has no respect for the kind of life experience that must have shaped said advice.

On the downside, Willis’ presence does bring to mind his 1995 film 12 Monkeys, which was a superior time travel film in a number of ways.  The thing is, Looper is a very well made film.  I couldn’t help but have a lot of respect for Rian Johnson’s skill as a filmmaker, but once again it feels like that skill is in service of a film that is ultimately empty.  It brings up some interesting moral quandaries, but fails to explore them in any kind of real depth: it’s a film that is clever rather than smart.  I feel like it’s a film that would have impressed me a lot more if it was among the first three or four time-travel films I’d seen rather than among the first fourteen or fifteen.  Still, I don’t want to come off too negative on the film.  It is going to serve audiences better than most of the cookie cutter actions movies that populated the summer season, and I suspect that I would have been a lot more excited about it if it had come out then rather than on the cusp of award season.

***1/2 out of Four

End of Watch(9/26/2012)

In 2001 a film called Training Day came out and turned into a pretty substantial sleeper hit.  It wasn’t an outright blockbuster at the box office, but it earned respectable cash and it also earned Denzel Washington a well deserved Oscar.  I also liked Washington’s performance a lot, but I wasn’t a fan of the rest of the film.  Antoine Fuqua directed the film well but its script was, well, stupid.  It felt less like the streetwise thriller that it was sold as and more like a privileged suburban film student’s idea of what “gritty realism” was and it ended with a dumb action movie finale that seemed to be contrary to everything that came before.  That script was written by a young man named David Ayer who was raised on the streets of Champaign, Illinois, Bloomington, Minnesota, and Bethesda, Maryland.  After writing Training Day he made a career of making what appeared to be similarly “gritty” films like Harsh Times and Street Kings.  However his latest cop thriller, End of Watch, has gotten very strong reviews, strong enough for me to give him another chance.  I was hoping I’d see some growth in Ayer, but as it turns out he really hasn’t changed much since Training Day.

End of Watch follows a pair of uniformed LAPD officers named Brian Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Mike Zavala (Michael Peña) over the course of a year or so on their beat in South Central.  The film establishes early on that officer Taylor is a pre-law student when he’s not policing and as an elective he’s been taking film studies.  As part of this film study he’s decided to make a documentary about his day job and begins bringing a camera along on his patrols.  He and Zavala also wear a pair of very expensive looking mini-cameras in their shirt pockets to pick up what he can’t film with his hand-held camera.  The audience is clearly being told that what they’re about to see is a “found-footage” film, the latest entry in the growing sub-genre of films that are made to appear like what the audiences is watching has been filmed as they happened by the characters.

The thing is, this isn’t a found-footage film.  Instead of being strictly made up of footage filmed by Taylor and Zavala, End of Watch quickly indulges in a variety of shots and angles that could have never been shot by either of the officers.  All of the footage is done in a hand-held style and it almost always has the same consumer-grade digital video quality and the film does continue to use footage that was meant to have come from the cameras the officers are carrying throughout its run-time along with an assortment of faux-security camera footage and footage implausibly shot by criminals in the midst of illegal activity, but whenever he feels like it Ayer says “screw it” and throws in footage that is clearly omniscient.

Ayer was right to free himself up in this regard, a strictly “found-footage” approach would have been needlessly limiting, but I frankly don’t understand why he bothered to incorporate the “found-footage” element in the first place if he wasn’t going to stick with it.  The presences of cameras adds nothing whatsoever to the story and the idea of cops and even criminals carrying around cameras in all these dangerous situations strains credibility.  I had similar problems with Neill Blomkamp’s District 9, which also set itself up as a faux-documentary until it abruptly decided it didn’t want to be, but at least when it was done with the gimmick it had the sense to drop it altogether rather than have it coming in and out throughout the entire runtime of the film.  The basic hand-held style is used to good effect a number of times throughout the film and would have probably worked well had Ayer not wasted time with all the needless found-footage stuff reminiscent of Brian De Palma’s ill-fated Iraq-war project Redacted.

The film does do a pretty good job setting up a rapport between the two officers, who prove to be fairly crude but ultimately likable jock-types.  We spend a lot of time taking these guys ribbing each other between calls and the film also does a good job showing some of the minutia of police work, but this is all stuff we’ve seen before elsewhere.  The film is a lot less successful in its depiction of the criminals that the officers encounter.  There’s a particularly silly encounter early in the film in which one of the officers takes off his gear and challenges a gang member to a fist fight, the officer wins and the criminal later praises the officer for “keeping it gangster.”  The behavior of the less personable criminals is even less believable, particularly a small gang of Latino thugs who look like they’re being played by UCLA students even though they use an obnoxiously large amount of profanity.

Occasionally the officers make statements like “some cops go their whole career without pulling a gun” or “a vast amount of police work is standing around,” but as the film progresses the script still has the officers getting into large number of gun fights and at the film’s end they end up in a large scale shootout against questionably motivated criminals which is even more ridiculous than the finale of Training Day.  This scene adheres to almost all the clichés of dumb action films (the bad guys can’t seem to land a single shot while the good guys seem to have expert marksmanship), and this more or less kills any sense of realism that the film has tried to build up.  The basic problem I had with everything I’ve seen of Ayers’ work, he acts like he’s making hard hitting movies about urban crime but he’s really just making middling action films and that’s particularly offensive in this film because its visual style is supposed to scream “authenticity” by its very nature.

For a better look at the lives of uniformed LAPD officers I’d direct readers to the criminally under-appreciated TNT drama “Southland.”  People have been saying for a while that television has been evolving to a point where the best programs rival what can be seen in theaters, but I’ve never seen an example where a T.V. show that’s this comparable is so much better than a well received film.  “Southland” has characters that are similarly likable but also a lot deeper and more interesting, crime stories that are exciting but more plausible, and a handheld stile that is similarly intense but also much less distracting.  It also doesn’t get bogged down by mockumentary silliness or contrived plotlines that seem to be way above the pay-grade of a couple of street cops.  I’d recommend any two episodes of that show over this film in its entirety any day, and TNT isn’t going to charge you ten dollars for a ticket.

** out of Four