Wednesday, September 26, 2012

End of Watch

Alternate Title:  Knights in Blue

One sentence synopsis:  Two cops in South-Central Los Angeles run afoul of Mexican Drug cartels while living their lives outside of work.

Things Havoc liked:  I'm just gonna go ahead and say it: I hate Jake Gyllenhaal. I hate him primarily because he starred in Donnie Darko, one of the most overrated movies in cinematic history. He did not help his case when he went on from that to make movies like October Sky and The Day After Tomorrow, alternately a sappy snoozefest derived from the worst dregs of the 1950s and a preachy extremist tale of how Dick Cheney destroyed the world. Even his "good" work, such as Brokeback Mountain or last year's Source Code either went unseen by me, or had their virtues somehow contrive to hide themselves in my presence. As such, I was not exactly eager to go see this movie, headlined as it was by Mr. Gyllenhaal, but my other selection for this week fell through, and I found myself with no other options.

I should have known better. End of Watch was written and directed by David Ayer, writer of such movies as Dark Blue, SWAT, and a movie so good it made me like Ethan Hawke, Training Day. Ayer is a rarity, a Hollywood writer so good with a particular genre that he has managed to typecast himself, but given that we're working within the genre here, that's no problem. And to make this film, Ayer wisely added Michael Pena, formerly of Crash and various TV movies, to serve as Officer Mike Zavala, partner of Officer Brian Taylor (Gyllenhaal) on the mean streets of South Central Los Angeles. In a film with very few missteps, Pena steals the show as one of the most "real" portrayals of a cop I've ever seen on the silver screen. None of the usual things one means by "real" apply here, as Zavala (and Taylor) are neither "gritty" nor "hard boiled" nor "break all the rules" nor "rookies", though they are all of these things at times. Instead they are real people, partners in a Law Enforcement agency that might well exist, just as portrayed. Taylor and Zavala are less like partners and more like brothers, covering one another's backs in a sense that goes beyond professional but never veers into hackneyed cliche. They attend each others' weddings, talk about their lives, their plans, their hopes, joke and fight with one another the way only people of long acquaintance can, cementing over and over again a bond between them that seems absolutely real. In one of the best sequences in the film, Zavala offers Taylor tickets to a Dodgers game, which he turns down, as he and his girlfriend are going to attend the LA Philharmonic instead. "Oh, okay, have fun with your white people shit," says Zavala, entirely without sarcasm.

End of Watch isn't really a narrative film in the sense that we expect. It's not about a series of events that happen in sequence to characters who are changed by the experience. Instead, the movie is simply about two cops, no more, no less, chronicling their lives as peace officers in South Central LA, an area showcased so much in film that merely mentioning it brings all manner of expectations to the forefront. The film is shot Blair-Witch style with a series of cameras mounted on dashboards, jacket pockets, or within lockers, presumably as a film school assignment on the part of one of the cops, permitting us to essentially follow along with them as they go through their days. We see Taylor and Zavala cruising their patrols, serving warrants, performing traffic stops on suspicious vehicles. We see them dealing with other cops from their precinct, dealing with paperwork, we meet their families, attend their weddings and the births of their children, and are just generally allowed to get to know them without the need for an imposed storyline or narrative. Oh the story is there, certainly, involving Mexican drug cartels and the increasingly violent events that the two cops get swept up in, but it's never once pushed to the forefront, nor made to feel like the movie is about anything but the lives of these two police. In the hands of a lesser writer, this might have been boring. Instead it's almost fascinating.

Things Havoc disliked:  The gimmick here is that the movie is "found footage" of a sort, compiled from cameras mounted in the cops' car, on their uniforms, etc... Unfortunately, rudimentary thinking causes this conceit to fall apart. Sequences wherein the bad guys (a gang of affiliated gangsters trying to ascend the ranks of the cartel) are filmed planning their crimes torpedo the entire premise instantly, as does any one of the many, many shots wherein someone besides the two cops is plainly holding the camera. This break in the immersion isn't terribly jarring, admittedly, but it leads one to ask why the conceit of a film-making project was necessary in the first place.

There's also a couple of sequences that are just not handled terribly well. The gangster that Pena throws down with early on in the film, thus earning respect for having the balls to handle himself, is a bit too heavy-handed. Surely it takes more for a cop to gain the confidence and admiration of a hard-core two-time felon gangster in South Central LA than said cop fighting him man to man and not bolstering the felon's charges for it? There's also the unfortunate addition of Cody Horn as Davis, the Rookie cop, who while she is not in the film terribly much, has an obviously pre-scripted role in the time-honored tradition of Rookie cops in movies. Again, nothing that would be too jarring, save for the overall high level of verisimilitude in the movie in general.

Final thoughts:  Honestly though, that's about all I can complain about here. End of Watch isn't a game-changer for actor or genre the way Training Day was, but it's nonetheless one of the most complete cop films I've ever seen, and my opinion of the movie, high as it was on exiting, has only increased with time. And while I wouldn't say it has made me a fan of Jake Gyllenhaal, if he keeps on making movies like this one, we might get there some day.

Final Score:  7.5/10

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Sleepwalk with Me

Alternate Title:  Dying is Easy, Comedy is Hard

One sentence synopsis:  A struggling stand-up comedian must deal with a decision on whether to marry his long-term girlfriend, as well as a worsening case of sleepwalking.

Things Havoc liked:  I'd never heard of Mike Birbiglia before, but judging from his IMDB and Wikipedia pages, that places me in something of a minority. My sister, who had heard of him, recommended that I see this film, based on a one-man Broadway play and a series of stand-up sketches he performed at various times on tour and for National Public Radio, detailing the lengthy process that he went through trying to define his relationship with his long-term girlfriend, break into the stand-up comedian business, and deal with a sleepwalking problem that has grew progressively worse as the tensions with the first two issues increased. To describe it as a 'problem' is perhaps understating the matter. One episode involves Birbiglia diving headfirst through a closed, second-story window in his hotel room, an incident we are repeatedly assured actually happened.

Such assurances come to us because Sleepwalk with me is filmed as a part-movie, part-Video log, with lengthy sequences wherein Birbiglia stares into a camera mounted in his car passenger seat, and explains to us his mindset or additional details concerning what we are about to see or have just seen. It's a narrative trick that used to be far more common in indie cinema, the best example of which is probably 'High Fidelity', John Cusack's greatest movie, made back in 2000. Through it, Birbiglia delivers a bewildering array of flashbacks, flash-forwards, timeskips, and other editing tricks that somehow manage to knit together into a coherent, nominally autobiographical story.

I'm normally suspicious of autobiographies, but I'm prepared to take this one on faith, considering the utter disregard this movie seems to hold its main character in. Birbiglia is portrayed here as an insensitive idiot, not mean necessarily, just clueless to the point of blindness thanks to the competing pressures he either receives or perceives from his parents (played by Carol Kane and the ubiquitous James Rebhorn), his sister, his agent, and of course, his long-time (8-year) girlfriend, played by Lauren Ambrose. We watch him as he drifts through his life, struggling to break into stand up comedy, despite having apparently no talent whatsoever for it. As Birbiglia himself is a famous comedian, with Comedy Central specials, successful Broadway plays, and now a Sundance Festival Award, I must assume that he is only pretending to be an awkward, unfunny comedian struggling to find his voice, a role he is eminently successful at. Indeed, despite the absurd lengths to which both his sleepwalking (drop kicking a clothes hamper and protesting in his sleep that it's a jaguar), and his comedy career (how does anyone continue after bombing on stage like that?) go, the film never once caused me to sit back and cynically question whether things like this had happened. It all felt entirely real...

Things Havoc disliked:  ... which is sort of the problem.

Birbiglia is not only the main star of this film, but also wrote and directed it, and here we run into an issue that often afflicts projects this personal. A movie created entirely by one person and based entirely around their life story can fail in a number of ways, one of which is the 'so what' test. Events that have earth-shattering importance when they are happening to you are not necessarily going to translate into interest for a wider audience, unacquainted with the details of your personal circumstance and unconcerned with whether or not you succeed in your goals. That's not to say you can't get up on a screen and tell us your story, any audience should be willing to give a filmmaker the benefit of the doubt. But we need a reason to be interested in what you have to tell us, or else the film risks turning into the celluloid equivalent of that annoying bore who monopolizes the conversation for two hours at the office Christmas party to tell you how he rose above his Lawn Gnome addictions. And while Birbiglia is, I'm sure, a talented comedian who can tell a funny story when asked to, I'm afraid we see very little evidence of that here.

For one thing, there's nothing in the world quite as awkward as bad comedy, and to paraphrase Galvatron, there is an awful lot of bad comedy in this movie. I understand that it's intentional, that comedy is hard and that newly-starting comedians often bomb on stage, but it's still hard to watch a man get up on stage and fail to be funny. In a movie that tried to wring pathos or character out of Birbiglia's failures, this might have worked, but Sleepwalk With Me is Indie to a fault, and too afraid of appearing maudlin to give the main character any catharsis for his issues. Yes, in reality, this is probably how it went, but reality is no excuse for telling a boring story, and eventually the audience is left sitting through yet another unfunny comedy routine, just waiting for it all to end. And while we do get flashes, later on, of the more successful routines that he eventually came up with, the routines are never allowed to build any momentum. A joke (or a scene) draws a laugh from the audience, and then is abandoned, as the movie veers off into another aspect of Birbiglia's strange life. Much attention is paid, for instance, to the fact that Birbiglia begins to achieve success when he draws on his own personal life for his comedy, and his worries about whether his girlfriend will understand him doing so, all without ever paying off the question.

Even when he's not on stage though, Birbiglia's life is not just enough to hold our attention. The will-they-or-won't-they dance that he and his girlfriend do play out like slightly more self-aware sitcom formulas, their veracity notwithstanding, something not helped by the movie pausing every five minutes so that Birbiglia can explain what he was thinking at the time to us. High Fidelity worked so well because Cusack's musings at the camera served as an effective contrast to what he was doing between the monologues, giving us insight into his philosophies, tastes, and intentions of the character. Most of the time, he was not directly discussing what he had just done or was about to do, trusting to us to connect the dots between his oblique references and memories, and his present situation. Birbiglia's monologues consist mostly of him explaining his thoughts to us directly, telling us what should frankly be shown instead. This is not helped by Birbiglia's general manner of speech both in and out of monologue. Stand-up comedy involves a loose, stream-of-consciousness recitation of pre-planned material designed to make it all sound off-the-cuff. Film, a completely different medium than stand-up, does not reward hemming and hawing, and Birbiglia's colorless tone and broken cadence, which never varies between monologue, dialogue, and stand-up routine, lends the whole thing a feeling of contrivance and dispassion. This gives the film (in combination with the subject matter) a very Woody Allen-like feel, save that Birbiglia, try as he might, is simply not the same caliber of filmmaker that Woody Allen is (of course, given Allen's last project, neither is he).

Final thoughts:  This movie isn't horrible, but it never really rises above the level of mediocre. Its artifices and style, which no doubt garnered it all manner of awards from professional film critics, serve either to deaden what life is in this material, or simply try to disguise the lack thereof. There are a few moments where Birbiglia gives himself license to do what I assume he does best, which draw a couple of laughs (a joke involving him and his girlfriend discussing their worst fears is actually really funny), but these fade as quickly as they arise, as though Birbiglia was too afraid of being accused of narcissism to actually let us into his head. Ultimately, Sleepwalk with Me is a leaden, uninteresting enterprise, one that takes a story that is intensely personal and fails to convince the rest of us that it need be anything else.

Final Score:  4.5/10

Friday, September 7, 2012

The Odd Life of Timothy Green

Alternate Title:  Plant-Jesus, the Early Years

One sentence synopsis:  A childless couple buries their wishes for a child only to find one grown seemingly out of the ground.

Things Havoc liked:  I feel that some background may be necessary for this one.

There are occasions on this movie project wherein I find myself facing down a week with nothing to see. Sometimes I make the best of a bad situation, and go see something that really doesn't interest me, and sometimes I call an audible and just pick whatever looks the most interesting. This time however, I literally walk into the theatre and ask the lady at the ticket counter to recommend me something starting within the next half-hour. Her suggestion is a strange movie I've seen posters for, but know nothing about, called The Odd Life of Timothy Green.

I step back, take out my smartphone, and began to consult the internet. Reviews are mixed for the movie, but several of the top critics in the country, including those of the Chicago Tribune and Sun-Times (the latter of whom is of course the great Roger Ebert), the Hollywood Reporter, the Arizona Republic, and my own local SF Chronicle all praise it in glowing terms. I look over the cast: Ron Livingston, James Rebhorn, Dianne West, David Morse, and Emmet Walsh (whom Roger Ebert once opined has never appeared in a bad film, a trait he shares with Harry Dean Stanton). Good actors, all of them, funny and talented, and worthy of some faith. And then I go inside and sit down, and lo and behold, the very first thing I hear is the voice of Persian actress Shohreh Aghdashloo, a name that none of you will recognize until I tell you that she was the voice actress for Admiral Shala'Raan vas Tonbay in the Mass Effect series, and that I would accordingly recognize her voice anywhere. Thus re-assured by a good cast and a good voice actress, I settle down to watch what I hope will be a nice, heartwarming film.

Things Havoc disliked:  Ahem...


What the hell? What did I do? What crimes against humanity did I commit so as to karmically deserve this fate, I ask you all? What could I possibly have done to deserve to be lied to by a complete stranger and led into this grotesque, ultra-saccharine heart-stoppingly awful Hallmark-reject of a movie? Was I Hitler in a past life or something? Why has this befallen me?

I didn't ask for much here. I wasn't looking for high drama and poignant, Pixar-class emotionalism. All I wanted was a watchable film, something I could spend two hours beholding and walk away feeling better with myself for having done so. But what I received was, literally and without exaggeration, the single sappiest thing I have ever seen. Worse than the Disney sequels, worse than Toy Story 3, worse than A Dog of Flanders, worse than the goddamn Christmas Shoes. This movie was so bad that I had to take bathroom breaks during parts of it to avoid contracting diabetes from the sheer, nauseating levels of saccharine being force-fed down my throat by means of terrible acting and worse writing.

First things first, I am done with Jennifer Garner. Yes, she's been in the occasional good film, but I cannot stand the high-strung manic mode of acting that she seems to bring to every damn role she takes that isn't Alias. And given that here, she somehow managed to trump Elecrta as both her worst performance and worst film, I feel entirely justified. Her counterpart, Joel Edgerton, has a resume whose highlights include the remake of the Thing, and the Star Wars Prequels. His character, unlike Garner's, is supposed to be reasonable, a laughable claim when he is called upon, early on in the film to hang up on a 911 operator and lie to the police so as to conceal a child, which the movie establishes, he believes at this point to be a runaway.

And speaking of the child, the titular Timothy, played by CJ Adams, has the unenviable quality of being a stand-in for Jesus. The premise of the film is that the parents bury a list of all the qualities their perfect child should have, and the resulting magic produces Timothy, which means, definitionally, that Timothy is a perfect, flawless child derived literally from hopes and dreams. I don't object to a child-character with a good heart, but the movie is written in such a schmaltzy, direct manner that there's just no character to Timothy at all. We are told (and shown) that he has leaves growing out of his legs, and that there is some connection between these leaves and his "role" here on Earth, but nothing further, leaving us to wonder if he is some sort of angel. This wonder lasts precisely twelve seconds before the movie sends us into a diabetic coma and we lose all powers of thought, which given everything, may be a mercy.

There is literally no Hallmark-channel movie-of-the-week cliche that this film does not rob. Timothy's father (Edgerton) works at a pencil factory (har har), run by Ron Livingston (who has come full circle, and now plays Lumberg from Office Space) and which may close. His mother works at the pencil museum for Diane West, who is stern. He is picked on at school by Ron Livingston's kids. His grandfather (Morse) does not respect his father and they are estranged. There is a shy girl with a birthmark at school who is afraid to let it be seen. If you are at all questioning whether Timothy, the little saint, will miraculously resolve all of these issues with the magical power of earnestness and sunshine, then you are the sort of person who should see this movie and revel in its unexpected twists. Everyone else will probably be rolling their eyes the fifteenth time that we cut away to Garner and Edgerton talking about how wonderful Timothy is and how amazing his ability to solve everything makes them feel.

Independent of the film's message and style however, the thing is just incompetently done. Scenes of rain falling are obviously looped and run backwards to pad them out in the hope that nobody will notice. A subplot concerning water rationing is brought up and then dropped unceremoniously at around the 20 minute mark when the film's attention wanders off. Much time is given to some "revolutionary" (there are not enough quotation marks to put around that word) idea for a "new pencil" (same) that Timothy "inspires" (again) with his "wisdom" (kill me), all without ever giving us the slightest idea what the new pencil is, how it works, or what's so revolutionary about it. Finally, the framing story of the movie (the parents telling this story to an adoption agent), while it did give me a chance to think about Mass Effect for a while (the agent is played by Aghdashloo), leads me to wonder why, five minutes into the story, the adoption agent in question did not call security into the room to arrest these two people on suspicion of kidnapping, fraud, and reckless endangerment. Seriously, how did this child materialize out of nowhere and live with these two people for months, attending public schools, hospitals, and soccer camp, without anyone ever asking where he came from?! No birth certificate, no medical records, no adoption papers, he simply appears without warning in these people's lives and nobody, police, school officials, doctors or otherwise, so much as bats an eye!

Final thoughts:  Yes, yes, yes, I know! I know this is all parable and fairy tales and nobody asks these perfectly logical questions because we are living in a land of happiness and rainbows. I get it. I just don't want it. I said this was the sappiest movie I've ever seen and I meant it goddammit. Warhorse has nothing on this piece of high-fructose-corn-syrup. That said, yes, I appreciate that not every movie has to be ultra-realistic, and I do, generally, prefer that a movie err on the side of happiness and light than on the side of grim-dark brooding assholery. But this movie was so bad that it was actually painful to sit through, so bad that I can remember only one scene that generally worked.

Good intentions can only get you so far, ultimately. In the end, you have to present a movie worth watching. And this one just ain't.

Final Score:  2.5/10

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Robot & Frank

Alternate Title:  Desperately Seeking Asimov

One sentence synopsis:  An elderly, retired cat burglar plans to commit crimes using his medical assistance robot.

Things Havoc liked:  An old man lives alone in the woods of New York. He is losing his memory. His son, unable or unwilling to visit him as often as necessary, decides the time has come to seek professional help, a prospect that the cantankerous old man resents and resists. At first he belittles his new caretaker, chafing against the intrusion in his life, but before too long they begin to bond over the most unlikely of passtimes, ultimately becoming close friends, despite the efforts of the rest of society to separate them. Sound familiar? Well that's because it is, save that this movie takes place in the near future, the caretaker is an autonomous servant-robot, of the sort that Japan is presently trying to produce, and the activity that the two bond over is the old man's old profession, jewel theft.

Frank Langella is a masterful actor, and I've loved every single thing I've ever seen him in without exception (stop bringing up Cutthroat Island, damn you!). Here, he plays Frank, a man just beginning the slide downward into Alzheimer's, increasingly forgetful but still capable of planning heists, or reminiscing on his glory days as a cat burglar. Frank is not a loveable old man, but neither is he the cartoonish old bastard designed to either have epiphanies or reveal his children as secular saints. He seems to acknowledge that he was not the greatest father to his children, but that was a long time ago, and he is still on speaking and visiting terms with both of them (James Marsden and Liv Tyler), at least initially. He strikes me as the sort of person whose presence is tolerable only in small doses, which of course leads to the device of the robot.

Designed very much along the lines of existing prototype Japanese service robots, the robot (it has no name) is voiced by Peter Saarsgard's best HAL 9000 impression, though the comparison stops there. Only a robot would be patient enough to put up with Frank for an extended period of time, particularly given that his general philosophy when dealing with something he dislikes is to annoy it to death, something obviously impossible here. The robot is clearly designed with the elderly in mind, and it is its unflagging desire to improve Frank's mental capabilities by giving him a "project" that leads it to agree to lessons in lockpicking and burglary, culminating of course in grand larceny. It is in the crimes, and the aftermath thereof, that the movie finds its strongest chord, alternating between hilarity as Frank enacts convoluted plans to throw off the pursuit that his crimes have engendered, and scenes played for pathos as Frank confronts the fact that the robot, as a machine, may be used as evidence against him (a fact the robot itself brings up). All along, Frank's deteriorating memory renders an increasingly unstable narrator, leading ultimately in directions one might not expect.

And yet, despite the outlandish premise and futuristic robotics, the movie has a verisimilitude to it that most films only aspire to. Aside from the robots and a couple of smart-car looking vehicles, the film feels very present-centered, interludes of high technology layered over a familiar world. The family interactions between Frank and his children feel real. His son tries, despite himself to do right by his distant, ex-con father, allowing his frustrations to explode only when the situation properly warrants it. His daughter on the other hand, a crusading social-justice-seeking control freak, clearly means well when she shows up unexpectedly at her father's house and completely takes over his life. Yet at the same time, Frank doesn't hesitate to rope his son unwillingly into his plan to evade the law, nor does his son shy away from hitting back as hard as he can when he does so.

Things Havoc disliked:  The central conceit of the movie is that all evidence to the contrary, the robot is not alive, a fact it repeats to us multiple times. All well and good, but the robot is advanced enough to lie to Frank about its feelings in order to get him to agree to a course of action, and to evaluate independantly whether or not Frank should pursue a given criminal operation. At risk of quoting Alan Turing, exactly what is there to distinguish between this robot and a living thing? Self-preservation instincts?

Leaving the metaphysics aside, this movie is all over the map emotionally. Normally that wouldn't be a problem for me, as I like a little drama with my comedy and vice versa. But the pacing of the film is such that very heavy, very sad elements of the film are sandwitched between quasi-farcical numbers wherein Frank absconds with his robot and runs through the woods. Each scene works well independently of the others, but the aggregate sometimes leaves one with mood whiplash, particularly towards the latter half of the film.

Also, in a movie this real, the character of Jake, the ostensible antagonist of the film, is gratingly inappropriate. That Jake is a snooty rich asshole, I can accept. That he morphs overnight into a paranoid revenge-obsessed fanatic and that the police permit him to be such a thing while interfering in their investigations, I cannot accept. Moreover, his character's motivations open doors the movie should not be opening. Knowing what we know by the end of the film, and operating under the assumption that Jake must know these things from the get-go, why does he insist that Frank never return to the library?

Final thoughts:  These are all more or less nitpicks, and are not the reason that the film didn't score higher. That comes from a simple lack of ambition on the part of the film. It has a simple story to tell and wishes to tell it without diving deeper into the subjects that it takes on, which is fine I suppose. I do wish the movie had gone more into the nature of the robot, Frank's mentality, or other directions that it seemed to be hinting at, but fundamentally this film is a good story told well, and that's nothing to take for granted.

Final Score:  7/10

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