28 November 2012

Movie Review: End of Watch

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B+

End of Watch
2012, 109mins, 15
Director: David Ayer
Writer: David Ayer
Cast includes: Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Pena, Anna Kendrick, Frank Grillo, David Harbour, America Ferrera 
UK Release Date: 23rd November 2012


Found footage, shaking cameras and first person gun barrel perspective have all become tired gimmicks, technical quirks and stylistic tropes usually deployed to mask incompetent filmmaking or lack of creativity. It’s a surprise then to find that whilst “End of Watch” features all of these dubious touches, the film is a massively accomplished and appreciatively character driven effort. Director David Ayer (last seen helming 2008’s swiftly forgotten “Street Kings”) actually makes strong use of the rugged POV aesthetics, casting them to ratchet up the product’s intensity rather than hide a lack of engaging human presence. This believable and charged account of life as a law-enforcer is a far cry from another tired “Paranormal Activity” sequel.

Brian Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Mike Zavala (Michael Pena) are two gusty and respected members of the LAPD; partners and brothers in arms. They have been at each other’s sides for a considerable swathe of time, the bond having formed into a cocksure but intimate dynamic, both professionally and personally. As Brian collects footage for a school project, he and his partner inadvertently anger leaders of a local cartel, drawing their wrath due to a major cash and firearms bust. With both men enjoying rewarding family lives, the trouble arises at an objectionable time, but in order to survive they will have to come together and prepare for street warfare.

The plot takes time to work itself into a lather, but that transpires to be of little concern. The episodic first act in “End of Watch” actually fuels prime character development and allows for a flavour of L.A’s streets to surface, Ayer capturing the dry, sun-baked underbelly of the city rather marvellously. The clammy setting is fantastically realized, pumping the already intense product with a further dose of connective tissue. Audiences should have no trouble placing themselves within Ayer’s vision, the organic scenery and clever handheld camera work encouraging a real feeling of voluntary participation.

“End of Watch” is violent and often grim, the picture making no apologies for its frank and unfiltered examination of criminal behaviour in L.A. Women are beaten. Children are placed in jeopardy. Officers are stabbed in the eye-socket. Ayer has an unflinching touch and uses it to increase his film’s grasp on reality, never exploiting the horror, but rather implementing it to further flesh out his protagonists. Sharp screenwriting also helps things plenty, “End of Watch” not completely forfeiting a sense of humour. Yes the investigative moments are often nasty and the dialogue expletive ridden, but Ayer’s picture does manage to provide a healthy stock of banter and boyish clowning. These softer moments coupled with a few instances of sentimental familial bliss help raise the stakes come the bullet filled finale, certainly by the climax there’s enough of a human spirit on show to incur sympathy from attentive viewers.

Gyllenhaal and Pena are both great, the former particularly impressive as the mellower and slightly adrift Brian. Both men look to have beefed up in order to fully partake in the physical side of things, handling the action beats with aplomb, but it’s the ticklish chemistry and steel-faced bravery that mars their turns as more than stock genre acting. They’re an enjoyable duo to be in the company of, which given the film’s near two hour runtime is a lucky break.

“End of Watch” is an exciting, vibrant and affecting crime thriller, more sophisticated and grounded than the usual thin blue line fodder. The acting is capable across the board (Anna Kendrick and David Harbour leave their respective marks in small supporting roles), which coupled with the picture’s commitment to “keeping it real” adds wonderfully to the authenticity Ayer is gunning for. As hardboiled mainstream confection goes, “End of Watch” feels like a keeper. Call it Procedural Activity. Actually don’t. That’s an atrocious pun.

A Review by Daniel Kelly, 2012

27 November 2012

Movie Review: Silver Linings Playbook

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A-

Silver Linings Playbook
2012, 122mins, 15
Director: David O. Russell 
Writer (s): David O. Russell, Matthew Quick (novel)
Cast includes: Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro, Jacki Weaver, Chris Tucker, Julia Stiles
UK Release Date: 21st November 2012

 David O. Russell loves dysfunctional family units, “Silver Linings Playbook” simply providing him with the latest platform to indulge this recurring whim. Based on a superbly touching novel by Matthew Quick, “Playbook” is a strong dramedy with a selection of terrific performances. Minor alterations have been made to make the cinematic adaptation more palatable for mass consumption, but the spirit of Quick’s source has been respectfully retained, O. Russell using his offbeat sensibility and spiky cast to imbue proceedings with edgy soul. A superficial argument could be made that the film is a tearjerker in the mould of numerous Oscar contenders, but emotional truth and relatable character dynamics elevate “Playbook” firmly above sentimental award-baiting.

Pat (Bradley Cooper) has spent a hefty amount of time in a mental health facility, sentenced to serve time there after senselessly beating his wife’s lover.  His long-suffering Mother (Jacki Weaver) and Father (Robert De Niro) pull legal strings to get him back home, Pat’s first order of business being physical and intellectual embitterment so he might win back his estranged wife’s affections. Into his life stumbles Tiffney (Jennifer Lawrence), a volatile young woman recovering from her own war with depression, the pair forming an erratic but blatantly valuable connection. They eventually agree to help each other; in return for participating in a dance contest with her, Tiffney offers to aid Pat in making contact with his spouse. Pat is initially delighted by the arrangement, but others surrounding him are less sure that such an intimate bond with Tiffney will be beneficial to his recovery.

The acting in “Silver Linings Playbook” is stupendous, the talented ensemble doing great work under O. Russell’s assured guidance. Cooper continues to grow and display variation as an actor, here evolving on from the decent job he executed in last year’s “Limitless”. Capturing Pat’s subtle neurosis without sliding into overkill, Cooper uses his natural charisma to warm the central protagonist up, before applying defter thespian touches in order to colour him as an individual. It’s a layered and committed turn, the sort that should at least command moderate attention during the awards rush next February. Lawrence is possibly even better, blending distress and vulnerability with a hyperactive and consistently entertaining screen presence. Her and Cooper make a neat couple and enjoyable sparring partners, there’s genuine heat in the many scenes they share. De Niro and Weaver are both excellent as Pat’s parents, whilst Julia Stiles, Chris Tucker and John Ortiz all kick back comfortably in memorable supporting parts.

Quick’s novel was written in the first person, always a tough mechanism to depict onscreen, but “Playbook” manages to infuse Pat’s story with a personal touch, rarely resorting to hackneyed narration. This is largely achieved thanks to O. Russell’s sophistication as a film-maker, using seemingly insubstantial shots and little visual motifs to provide “Playbook” with a deliberately uneven pace; helping to authentically simulate the headache its leading character perpetually suffers through. The intimacy between Pat and Tiffney is sincere, at no point does the film utilise contrived clich├ęs to enhance or sell their relationship. The actors are sharp and the scripting grounded, even during the more overtly stock Hollywood moments it’s hard not to be swept away by their chemistry.

The picture builds to a formulaic climax, happiness left dangling in the hands of football (the Philadelphia Eagles have a huge part here) and the aforementioned dance competition. However up until that point “Playbook” refuses to take the easy way out, and even in the aftermath of such spectacularly corny plotting the movie still manages to cultivate a climax of resonant clarity. This diversion into more standard melodramatic screenwriting is disappointing and one of the few changes that actively works against the picture in comparison to its source, but otherwise “Playbook” provides a skilful balance of harrowing lows and blissfully natural highs.

Not much attention is applied to the scientific threat of mental sickness, instead “Playbook” finds its footing attempting to humanise a set of peculiar individuals. The illnesses that plague the corners of the picture are a merely a context to allow O. Russell to explore the fragility of our minds through the unlikely heroes, the film often juxtaposing the diagnosed and the supposedly sane with rewarding results. At no point does “Playbook” pander toward the academy by drawing out manipulative sobs or auctioning off the illnesses via soppy overacting. It is a dignified representation, subtly lurking under a drama more predisposed toward familial and romantic relationships.

The soundtrack is eclectic and soothing, suitably understated, allowing the performances and scenarios to dominate viewer attention. In many ways “Playbook” is the product of many talented but unselfish creative types coming together, each looking to support a greater whole rather than singularly steal the show. It’s a mature and engaging watch, a strong contender to rank amongst 2012’s very finest. 

A Review by Daniel Kelly, 2012