Sunday, October 20, 2013

Short Takes: End of Watch, Se7en, and Other Police Films

End of Watch (dir. David Ayer, 2012)

It made sense that the found-footage conceit would find it's way into the police drama; to our viewing fortune, it was David Ayer - best known as the writer of Training Day - who decided to make it happen. Brian (Jake Gyllenhaal, sporting a bald head that only accents his eyes more) and Mike (Michael Pena) are partners and friends; they've been riding together for a long time, and for a class project at his night school, Brian is filming his daily life as a beat cop in the LAPD. However, they both find themselves in a tough spot when a routine investigation uncovers a massive operation by a cartel. The film's greatest strength is in the chemistry between Gyllenhaal and Pena (the latter of whom can always be counted on to bring great depth to his characters). The two of them feel like they've been friends for ages, and as a result any moment that focuses just on them doing their job feels terrific. Ayer - who wrote and directed - doesn't completely stick to the found-footage motif, and the climax can feel a little too action-movie cliche to fully work. But it is a wholly worthwhile ride-along to take. B

Rampart (dir. Oren Moverman, 2011)

Set in the early days of the LAPD's Rampart scandal in the late '90s, Woody Harrelson stars as Dave Brown, a racist, misogynistic corrupt cop who is a renegade in a department that's heavily under investigation. The film is essentially a character sketch, following "Date Rape" Dave around as his life collapses around him, though he's the only one who can't see that happen. Oren Moverman - who also wrote and directed the terrific and underrated The Messenger - works with crime novelist James Ellroy to paint a pained portrait of a man who's been left behind by the times, and isn't capable of understanding why his methods are wrong. Harrelson rightfully earned enormous praise for this role; it's easily one of the finest performances in a career that's got quite a few great ones. His Messenger co-star Ben Foster appears as a homeless informant, and Brie Larson steals all of her scenes as Dave's daughter Helen, who hates her father and everything he stands for. Rampart is a knock-out of a film. A-

Se7en (dir. David Fincher, 1995)

It may seem odd to say nowadays, but there was once a time when David Fincher was considered a risk to hire as a director. His previous film, Alien 3, was a disaster for the studio, and as his first feature, it seemed like he may have to retreat to the comfort of music videos for the rest of his career. Se7en changed that. Morgan Freeman stars as cop-on-his-last-assignment Somerset, who works with the new guy in town, Mills (Brad Pitt), on solving a string of gruesome murders related to the seven deadly sins. Fincher amplifies the film's grimy, corrupt soul through dreary visuals and consistent rainfall. But Freeman is the MVP here, bringing "I'm getting too old for this shit" weariness while showing shades of a man who really has seen too many tragedies to keep going. And, though most of us now know who the killer, all I'll say is that Kevin Spacey had a pretty terrific year in 1995. Of course, the film is most famous for it's climactic third act; even 18 years later, it packs a hell of a gut-punch. A-

Zodiac (dir. David Fincher, 2007)

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the San Francisco area was terrorized by a serial killer known as the Zodiac, thanks to the cyphers that he sent to local newspapers as a challenge. New letters would appear every few years, before they finally stopped; the case was never solved, with a handful of confirmed victims and as many as 30 possible victims left unknown. Given his track record (see above), it seemed obvious that Fincher would be drawn to this material. Jake Gyllenhaal plays San Francisco Chronicle cartoonist Robert Graysmith, who became obsessed with the case and eventually wrote two books about Zodiac (which formed the basis for this film). Robert Downey Jr. - still in the midst of his pre-Iron Man comeback - portrays reporter Paul Avery, who's assigned the case by the newspaper, and Mark Ruffalo is Inspector David Toschi, the detective in charge of the investigation. What Fincher and screenwriter James Vanderbilt do so well here is using this case to explore the nature of obsession, and how Zodiac's main weapon - fear - ruined far more lives than just the ones he took. Everything about this film is close to perfect: the acting, the cinematography, the costumes, and especially the editing - the film never drags despite being over two-and-a-half hours long. Fincher has been celebrated for a number of his films, but only this one truly qualifies as his masterpiece. A+

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (dir. Nuri Bilge Ceylan, 2012)

To close out these short reviews of police dramas (not what I intended to first), Once Upon a Time in Anatolia provides an existential police drama. Unfolding over one night and the ensuing day, a team of police officers and other personnel, led by Commissar Naci (Yilmaz Erdogan), search for a body in the countryside around Keskin, Turkey. The film, like many of Ceylan's, is contemplative, as the characters discuss everything from yoghurt to previous cases, and the stark, repetitive landscape provides a terrific metaphor for the existential angst the characters are faced with. It could have been a very dull, plodding story, but Ceylan and his cast bring it to life in a way that never fails to lose the audience's attention. This film is what AMC's The Killing wanted to be. A-

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