Thursday, February 28, 2013

Lay the Favorite

Lay the Favorite - Dir. Stephen Frears (2012)

Stephen Frears has had a long and diverse career as a director. He's helmed some winners (High Fidelity) and some losers (Mary Reilly). Frears has also directed two Best Picture nominees in Dangerous Liaisons and The Queen. So you can't help but feel that he and his cast are slumming with Lay the Favorite.

Rebecca Hall plays Beth, a beautiful free-spirit whose life is going nowhere fast. She's a stripper who makes house calls and the occupation doesn't exactly thrill her. On a whim, Beth decides to pack her bags for Las Vegas in order to become a cocktail waitress. Hey, dream big, right?

Much to her chagrin, Beth quickly learns that the waitress industry is unionized and she has no way in. Thanks to a pair of friendly neighborhood strippers, Beth gets a job taking bets for a gambler named Dink (Bruce Willis), whose operation gives odds on every major sport along with beauty pageants and spelling bees. Despite an utter lack of experience, Beth catches on quickly thanks to a winning personality and a knack for numbers. In the process, she finds herself attracted to Dink. However, his temperament runs hot and cold depending on his luck and he has a controlling wife in Tulip (Catherine Zeta-Jones). Beth rebounds into the arms of Jeremy (Joshua Jackson), a nice and normal journalist in New York City. Finding herself without any job prospects in the Big Apple, Beth falls into old habits by going to work for Dink's rival, Rosie (Vince Vaughn). She doesn't seem fazed that bookmaking is illegal outside of Nevada.

Lay the Favorite is based on the memoirs of Beth Raymer, who chronicled her journey from stripping to working operations in the Caribbean and Costa Rica where bookmaking is unregulated. In between, she tried her hand at amateur boxing, which is never mentioned in the movie. Raymer certainly led an interesting life, but you would never know it according to the fictionalized account. Lay the Favorite prefers to be a mildly amusing romp with a few romantic comedy tropes and a smidgeon of the con artist picture that Frears toyed with previously in The Grifters and Dirty Pretty Things.

One of the reasons Lay the Favorite fails to engage is a lack of intriguing and sympathetic characters. It's hard to root for Beth when she consistently makes monumentally foolish mistakes, especially when they threaten to drag others down with her. Rebecca Hall is a fantastic actress and looks gorgeous here as she sashays around the Vegas strip in cut-off jean shorts. She pulls off the ditzy routine well and her speech patterns are somewhere in between Marilyn Monroe and Betty Boop. However, there's only so much Hall can do when the character is so thin. This is a case where Hall's boundless personality far exceeds the role. Her love story with Jeremy lacks any spark since he's an utterly bland romantic interest. Hall's scenes with Bruce Willis are of slightly more interest because the latter isn't simply sleepwalking through the movie. Willis brings a little of the energy that made him a star on Moonlighting.

Catherine Zeta-Jones is fun as Dink's overbearing wife though he eventually turns far too easily from harridan to kindly maternal figure. Laura Prepon of That 70's Show fame appears briefly as one of Beth's friends, although her look and bad southern accent may trick you into thinking she's Jamie Pressley Then, there's Vince Vaughn who is once again typecast as the fast-talking huckster and Corbin Bernsen in a throwaway cameo as Beth's father. If only the screenplay by D.V. DiVincentis were better. Frears has an A-list cast and gives them C-list material.

Lay the Favorite had the opportunity to be an enthralling exposé of the gambling world. Think Moneyball in Sin City. Instead, the movie puts it all on the line until the dice finally come up snake eyes. Nothing of note here other than Rebecca Hall's hotness and a brief topless scene by Prepon.

Rating: * ½ (*****)

Friday, February 22, 2013

Anna Karenina

Anna Karenina - Dir. Joe Wright (2012)

Joe Wright is no stranger to adapting literary classics. He made his feature film debut with a big screen version of Jane Austen's Pride & Prejudice. Wright followed that up with an adaptation of Ian McEwan's Atonement, which was nominated for Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay. After delving into sappy Hollywood territory with The Soloist, Wright went off the beaten path with Hanna, an action film with elements of Grimm fairy tales and Jason Bourne espionage. Now, he's returned to his bread and butter with Anna Karenina, based on the epic novel by Leo Tolstoy.

Anna Karenina (Keira Knightley) is a wealthy socialite living in St. Petersburg with her older husband, Alexei Karenin (Jude Law), an influential statesman, and their son, Serhoza (Oskar McNamara). Anna reluctantly leaves her boy for the first time for a trip to Moscow in order to mend the broken marriage of her brother, Stiva (Matthew McFadyen), and his wife Dolly (Kelly Macdonald). Dolly has thrown Stiva out of the house after learning of his affair with their governess. While in Moscow, Anna becomes instantly smitten to a handsome cavalry officer named Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). The attraction is mutual and the two engage in an illicit affair that is doomed from the moment they lock eyes. The passion is heated, but the once respectable Anna becomes the subject of catty gossip and sneering glances from her fellow bluebloods.

What sets Joe Wright's Anna Karenina apart from other cinematic versions is the director's use of stylized theatrical sets. The production was unable to afford shooting on location in Russia or the numerous locales that the story called for. Instead, Wright renovated an old theater outside London and dressed it up with help from production designer Sarah Greenwood.

As Shakespeare once wrote, "All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players." Wright truly takes that to heart as the theatricality works to enhance the idea that Tolstoy's characters are forced to play roles to conform to societal mores. Wright makes no attempt to hide the floodlights, curtains, or pulley ropes. The aristocracy lives on stage and in the seats while the servants and lower classes exist only backstage or in the rafters. The film sometimes transitions from one scene to another by opening stage doors. Anna's trip to Moscow is depicted by a toy train chugging past model homes and miniature snow banks. Only rarely does the story venture into an actual exterior such as during sun-lit picnic shared by Anna and Vronsky. Wright has become known for his tracking shots and he doesn't disappoint here. Wright glides the camera around the stage as extras move to and fro while stagehands alter the set. The intricate choreography will recall Alexander Sokurov's technical marvel, Russian Ark.

The sumptuous costumes and set design are almost enough to distract from the overwrought drama that is almost emotionally devoid. It's a difficult proposition to distill Tolstoy's prose into a palpable movie. Even at over two hours, the screenplay by Tom Stoppard (Shakespeare in Love) still shortchanges the various storylines.

Anna Karenina is one of the great tragic figures in classic literature, but without fully developing her storyline, she doesn't come off in a sympathetic light. Meanwhile, Jude Law's Alexei isn't portrayed in stereotypical fashion as a brute. He's stodgy, yet caring and ultimately forgiving. The love triangle entrapping Anna, Alexei, and Vronsky run parallel with two other love stories that have generally fallen to the wayside in other adaptations. Cultural hypocrisy is highlighted by the contrasts between Anna's ostracizing and the lack of consequences for Stiva's frequent dalliances. While Dolly is asked to absolve her adulterous husband, Anna is allowed no such courtesy. Yet, Stiva is played up as something of a buffoon and most of his scenes have the manic energy of a screwball comedy, which never gels with the tragedy that is about to come. The third storyline focuses on Stiva's sister-in-law Kitty (Alicia Vikander) and her courtship by the meek Konstantin Levin (Domhnall Gleeson), a nobleman who has chosen to live in the countryside away from big city life. Levin was an analogue for Tolstoy who shares his creation's humble nature. The shy Levin and Kitty share a tender moment as they attempt to communicate with each other by using building blocks. However, their romance would mean a lot more had the filmmakers found a better balance between each love story.

Joe Wright's Anna Karenina is a bold re-imagining of Tolstoy's novel that is aesthetically pleasing, but lacking in emotional weight.

Rating: ** (*****)

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

A Good Day to Die Hard

A Good Day to Die Hard - Dir. John Moore (2013)

"You know what I hate about Americans? Everything. Especially cowboys."

A brief history about the Die Hard franchise. The first film was based on the 1979 novel, Nothing Lasts Forever, by Roderick Thorp, which was a sequel to his 1966 book, The Detective. That was adapted into a movie starring Frank Sinatra as NYPD Detective Joe Leland. When Sinatra turned down the chance to make the sequel, Nothing Lasts Forever was altered into the standalone project that became Die Hard. Die Hard 2: Die Harder had a similar journey to the big screen as it was based on 58 Minutes, a completely unrelated novel by Walter Wager. Die Hard with a Vengeance and Live Free or Die Hard both began as spec scripts, Simon Says by Jonathan Hensleigh and by David Marconi, before extensive rewrites. This makes A Good Day to Die Hard the first picture in the series to be envisioned from the start as a Die Hard movie. Yet, the fifth installment is merely Die Hard in name. It's as if a studio exec fished out an unproduced screenplay from the 80's, dusted it off, and made liberal use of cut and paste to turn it into the latest misadventure of John McClane (Bruce Willis).

This time around, McClane finds himself in Moscow to mend fences with his estranged son, Jack (Jai Courtney). The junior McClane has been arrested for murder and is set to testify in the trial of political prisoner Yuri Komarov (Sebastian Koch). Komarov has incriminating evidence against a powerful government official who inadvertently caused the Chernobyl meltdown by siphoning off radioactive material to sell on the black market. No sooner does McClane arrive at the courthouse then a group of mercenaries trigger an explosion and go in guns blazing. As it turns out, Jack is an undercover CIA agent tasked with ensuring that Komarov lives long enough to finger the bad guy. Now, John and Jack must survive in a foreign land while hounded by relentless Russian killers.

Out of all the Die Hard films, A Good Day to Die Hard is the worst of the bunch. Though they may have bombed at the box office, Bruce Willis's former Planet Hollywood cohorts had far more enjoyable efforts with The Last Stand and Bullet to the Head. At least, Arnold had a very talented director looking to make a foothold in the U.S. (Kim Ji-woon) while Stallone recruited an old school master of action (Walter Hill). The fifth installment of Die Hard has fallen into the hands of the unremarkable John Moore whose credits include Max Payne and the atrocious remake of The Omen. Moore can't be bothered to hold the camera steady for more than a few seconds. A raucous car chase through the crowded streets is reduced to a jumbled mess as the audience never gets the opportunity to revel in the untold destruction reeked by the heroes and villains alike. At least, the chase goes by quickly enough that you don't have the time to think about all the innocent civilians McClane has killed or injured due to his reckless driving. The multitude of uninspired action sequences that follow are strung together by the loosest of narratives.

The script was penned by Skip Woods who has the dubious distinction of also writing Swordfish, Hitman, and X-Men Origins: Wolverine. The story possesses none of the emotional gravitas of the first Die Hard. Even the father-daughter relationship from Live Free or Die Hard was more satisfying than the utterly uninteresting interplay between father and son in Good Day. The dialogue is weak with characters barely uttering more than two sentences at a time. The banter is equally dull and McClane's one-liners don't have the punch as they did in the 80's. The closest thing to wit this movie has is a running joke where McClane berates everyone for ruining his vacation, which doesn't make any sense since he's not on vacation.

Meanwhile, a sleepy-eyed Bruce Willis goes through the motions until he can say, "Yippie-ki-yay," and cash his fat paycheck. The three-dimensional everyman that John McClane was in the original film has given way to a shotgun-toting Wile E. Coyote. The Die Hard series has never been without over-the-top stunts dating back to McClane leaping off an exploding roof with a fire hose tied around his waist. The last picture took it to new heights with McClane going one-on-one with a fighter jet. In Good Day, McClane and son leap from tall buildings and are shredded by gunfire, yet escape with only a few cuts and bruises. McClane literally becomes a cartoon character when the climax sees a CGI Bruce Willis falling in slow motion amidst digital fire and debris before landing safely in a conveniently located pool of water.

Although he was good in Spartacus:Blood and Sand and as Werner Herzog's right-hand man in Jack Reacher, Jai Courtney never makes an impression as Jack McClane. That has more to do with the role being severely underwritten than his acting abilities. He certainly doesn't make you salivate at the prospects of a Die Hard Jr. movie. Sebastian Koch, from the excellent Lives of Others, joins the ranks of Chow Yun-Fat and Michael Nyqvist as an international actor who comes to Hollywood just to play a generic foreign guy in an action movie. Good Day desperately needed an Alan Rickman or Jeremy Irons due to a lack of noteworthy villains.

There is a slight amusement to be found by an unintentional political undercurrent. A Russian baddie mocks the McClanes by stating 1986 is over and Reagan is dead. Ironic because John McClane represented the blue-collar American values of the era. He was masculinity threatened by Japanese big business, feminism, opportunistic media, and ineffectual bureaucrats. His sidekick, Sgt. Al Powell, can only regain his manhood by drawing his revolver and blowing away the big, blonde terrorist. Here, we meet McClane as a solemn and solitary figure at a gun range where a portrait of Obama hangs in the corner. Next, he becomes the ugly American blundering through a situation he doesn't understand in another country with little regard for the collateral damage he causes.

The law of diminishing returns is in full effect. A Good Day to Die Hard is an absolute low point in the franchise history. A few recalls to the first Die Hard only succeed in exposing what a pale imitation unfolds before you. This is a painfully insipid chore that will have you longing for the days of Renny Harlin and Len Wiseman.

Rating: * ½ (*****)

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters

Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters - Dir. Tommy Wirkola (2013)

Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters is the latest in a string of revisionist fairytale films following Snow White and the Huntsman and Red Riding Hood. You might even throw in Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, which delved into the secret history of the famed president and his battles against the undead. In Witch Hunters, writer/director Tommy Wirkola reveals what happened to the sibling duo after their childhood run-in with an evil witch and her gingerbread house.

As children (played by Cedric Eich and Alea Sophia Boudodimos), they were left alone in the woods by their father and barely survived their first encounter with a witch. As adults (played by Jeremy Renner and Gemma Arterton), they earn a living by traveling the countryside, killing witches, and saving abducted children. Hansel and Gretel are called to the town of Augsburg where many kids have been taken by a coven of witches led by the powerful Muriel (Famke Janssen). Muriel intends to use the children for a ritual sacrifice that will grant her wicked sisters immunity against fire.

Wirkola is no stranger to these oddball mash-ups. His previous picture was the horror/comedy, Dead Snow, featuring a group of vacationing teens battling a cadre of zombie Nazis. Here, Wirkola has some fun re-imaging Hansel and Gretel as a leather-clad two-some armed with a variety of steampunk inspired weapons such as machine guns, mechanized crossbows, and an early 19th century version of a stun gun. Witch Hunters pays absolutely no attention to historical accuracy, which leads to dialogue riddled with anachronistic inanities. “Will you shut up?” and “That was awesome,” for example.

Considering the thin story, it’s not surprising that Wirkola originally envisioned the concept as a short film. The majority of the plot consists of the characters wandering the forest and fighting a witch ad nauseum. There’s not much in between other than a half-baked romance for Hansel and a convoluted origin for him and his sister. You’d think the movie would be cleverer with Will Ferrell and Adam McKay listed as producers. Unfortunately, Witch Hunters feels like a Funny or Die short stretched beyond its capabilities. Wirkola does manage to sprinkle in a scant few sparkling ideas including a gag where portraits of missing kids are tied to milk bottles. Hansel also happens to have diabetes as a result of the witch force feeding him sugary treats to fatten him up. He requires regular insulin shots, but that plot point is forgotten for much of the movie until the climax.

The original Grimm fairytales were gruesome cautionary tales. While Witch Hunters never gets that gory, it does earn its R-rating with plenty of cartoonish violence. Witches are regularly beheaded, burned, and sliced to ribbons. The score by Icelandic composer Alti Orvarsson is energetic and reminiscent of the Sherlock Holmes soundtrack by Hans Zimmer, who served as music supervisor.

Jeremy Renner and Gemma Arterton make the most of their roles, but both actors deserve better. It’s doubly disappointing to see Gretel transforming from kick-ass chick to damsel in distress requiring her brother to rescue her. Famke Janssen doesn’t get much either as the villain since she spends most of the film hidden behind Evil Dead-esque make-up. Peter Stormare appears in a small role as an obstinate sheriff very similar to his part in Terry Gilliam’s The Brothers Grimm.

Just like The Brothers Grimm and Van HelsingHansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters is an oddball concept that is never fully realized. At least, Wirkola tackles his film with a tongue-in-cheek attitude and a brisk runtime.

Rating: ** (*****)

Saturday, February 9, 2013


Parker - Dir. Taylor Hackford

"I don't steal from people who can't afford it and I don't hurt people that don't deserve it."

The late-Donald E. Westlake is best known for a series of crime novels starring a highly skilled crook named Parker, each penned under the pseudonym of Richard Stark. The first of those books, The Hunter, was famously adapted as Point Blank starring Lee Marvin, a fine example of the classic revenge film. That same book was translated with less success as Payback with Mel Gibson. Neither of those movies featured Parker per se because Westlake wouldn’t allow producers to call him by that name unless they intended to make the whole series. Thus, Marvin became Walker while Gibson was called Porter. Another excellent adaptation was The Outfit starring Robert Duvall and directed by John Flynn, who also helmed Rolling Thunder, one of the best revenge films of the 70's. Following Westlake's death, his wife, Abby, and close friend, producer Les Alexander, hoped to turn the Parker series into the franchise Westlake had envisioned.

Simply titled Parker, this new film is based on Flashfire, one of Westlake's later novels, which was published in 2000. This time Parker (Jason Statham) hooks up with a quartet of crooks for a heist at the Ohio State Fair. Parker's new cohorts are headed up by Melander (Michael Chiklis) and include Carlson (Wendell Pierce), Ross (Clifton Collins Jr.), and Hardwicke (Micah A. Hauptman), a royal screw-up who only has a spot because his uncle is a big time mobster in Chicago. The gang makes off with a million dollars and double-cross Parker in order to use the score to fund their next caper. The rest of the story will sound familiar to Parker fans as their hero is shot and left for dead only to survive, and then go on the hunt for revenge.

Parker tracks his former colleagues to Palm Beach, Florida where they plan to steal $75 million in jewelry from an auction house. He receives unlikely aid from Leslie Rogers (Jennifer Lopez), a down-on-her-luck real estate agent who is divorced, deep in debt, and lives with her overbearing mother (Patti LuPone). Nick Nolte looks like he's about to keel over at any time in his small role as Parker's mentor.

Statham is an old hand when it comes to playing these anti-heroes who adhere to their own moral codes as exemplified in The Transporter and The Mechanic. In fact, swap a few details here and there and Parker could have been any number of previous Statham vehicles. Nothing about the screenplay from John McLaughlin (Hitchcock) feels particularly unique though Statham is charismatic enough to keep you entertained even when he's putting on the worst Southern accent ever. Yes, Parker goes undercover as an oil tycoon from San Antonio with a drawl that would fool no one. Even Statham seems to believe the accent is bad enough that he quits doing it midstream.

Jennifer Lopez's character is a far cry from the tough and resourceful Karen Sisco in Out of Sight. She's shoehorned into the plot almost as awkwardly as some of the flashback sequences. Leslie's only reason for existing is to act as damsel in distress and allow horndogs to ogle Lopez when she strips down to her bra and panties. She's not a love interest for Parker since he already has one in Claire (Emma Booth), the dutiful girlfriend who worries while still patching up his gunshot wounds. Meanwhile, Leslie's mother walks around the house with her foo foo dog demanding the TV be constantly turned to her soap operas. She's so broadly sketched that you half-expect Broadway legend Patti LuPone to appear in a muumuu with curlers in her hair.

Parker is the first genre effort from Taylor Hackford, known more for prestige dramas such as An Officer and a Gentleman and Ray. Hackford's action sequences aren't terrible, but there's no panache to the point that any work-for-hire director like Simon West or Renny Harlin could have been behind the camera.

In the end, Parker is indistinguishable from the rest of the middling early year releases. It's a shame that Westlake's pulpy crime fiction has been diluted into yet another run-of-the-mill Jason Statham actioner. If you want to see Westlake's works translated well, check out the graphic novels by Darwyn Cooke.

Rating: ** (*****)

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Bullet to the Head

Bullet to the Head – Dir. Walter Hill (2013)

Is the time of the big name action star over? Try as hard as they might, guys like Jason Statham and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson will never be the heirs apparent to Arnold Schwarzenegger or Sylvester Stallone. That’s okay because those muscle-bound matinee idols are still kicking, even if their luster has faded over the years. Arnold returned to his first starring role in over a decade with The Last Stand, which already seems to have disappeared from theaters weeks after release. Bruce Willis will return to the franchise that made him a bankable name with A Good Day to Die Hard. After having fun with the ensemble Expendables pictures, Stallone goes it solo for Bullet to the Head, which is loosely based on a French graphic novel.

Stallone isn’t the only old-timer returning to the fold. Bullet to the Head marks the return of Walter Hill, one of the stalwarts of the 80’s era. Hill hasn’t directed a feature film since 2002’s Undisputed and hasn’t helmed anything of significance since 1996’s underrated Last Man Standing. Hill’s resume includes The Warriors, Extreme Prejudice, Streets of Fire, and The Driver. He also has a memorable comedy under his belt in Brewster’s Millions with Richard Pryor. To top it off, the prolific Joel Silver is counted among the producers. Silver was a producer on classic action pictures such as Predator, Commando, Die Hard, 48 Hrs. (also directed by Hill), and the Lethal Weapon franchise with the latter two being prime examples of the buddy formula. That same formula is in full effect with Bullet to the Head, so much so that Silver replaced Thomas Jane with Sung Kang because one of the leads had to be a minority.

Stallone is Jimmy Bonomo aka Jimmy Bobo, an experienced hitman in New Orleans. He’s a nice hitman though because he doesn’t kill women or children. Bobo and his partner Louis Blanchard (Jon Seda) are having a few drinks at a redneck bar after taking out a coked up Hank Greely (Holt McCallany). The celebration is cut short when a hulking mercenary named Keegan (Jason Momoa) kills Louis while Bobo narrowly escapes. Greely used to be a cop in D.C. before turning dirty and his former partner, Taylor Kwon (Kang), arrives in town to investigate his murder. Kwon and Bobo form a shaky partnership and their mission leads them to Robert Nkomo Morel (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), a ruthless African businessman, and his sniveling lawyer Marcus Baptiste (Christian Slater).

Stallone gives exactly the type of performance you expect from him, all stoic and badass as he mows down a succession of villains. Poor Sung Kang is given the thankless role of sidekick who gets to be on the receiving end of insulting nicknames like Confucius and Oddjob. Stallone gets the spotlight for the majority of the action as Kang stands off in the corner with his hands in his pockets. The most emotion he’s allowed to show is indignation whenever Bobo brutally kills someone. His biggest contribution is his Blackberry, which allows him to call headquarters to magically give him the location and pertinent info on every suspect in their sights. Of course, Bobo doesn’t appreciate all that newfangled technology. His idea of Google is breaking a guy’s legs.

The screenplay by Alessandro Camon (who also wrote The Messenger) sticks rigidly with genre conventions. It introduces Bobo’s beautiful and tattooed daughter, Lisa (Sarah Shahi), knowing full well Keegan will kidnap her just in time for a climatic confrontation. That showdown will take place in an abandoned warehouse because all bad guys have to have an abandoned warehouse. The bad guy also has to be foreign with a sinister accent that shows when he explains his evil schemes in laborious detail. The McGuffin in Bullet to the Head involves a folder (and later a flash drive) containing incriminating evidence that must be destroyed. This is the kind of movie that doesn’t concern itself with the fact that these items could be easily copied and distributed.

Hill directs the action with an old-school feel. Bullets rip through bodies with a healthy compliment of spraying blood. The editing gets a little too frenetic during the inevitable fight sequence between Stallone and Momoa. Hill does manage to set a noir-ish mood to the proceedings and captures the atmosphere of New Orleans, which has quickly become a Mecca for low-rent action movies. The Big Easy is to shoot ‘em ups what Bulgaria is to Sci-Fi Channel movies of the week.

Bullet to the Head is exactly the kind of actioner Stallone used to make during his glory days. It doesn’t come close to matching the quality of First Blood or Demolition Man, but it does linger right there with Cobra or Tango and Cash.

Rating: ** (*****)

Monday, February 4, 2013

End of Watch

End of Watch - Dir. David Ayer (2012)

You can trace the origins of the found footage genre back to the controversial horror film Cannibal Holocaust. However, it was The Blair Witch Project that really brought it to the forefront for modern audiences. With camera technology readily accessible along with the proliferation of the internet and viral videos, found footage has become more relevant today. Most importantly, they are relatively cheap to make. Recent years have seen a glut of found footage horror films that include The Devil Inside, The Last Exorcism, The Chernobyl Diaries, and Apollo 18. None of them were very well received though movie-goers liked REC and Paranormal Activity enough to warrant multiple sequels.

The subgenre was in danger of growing stale, but a few filmmakers ventured to apply found footage aesthetics to other genres. Project X was a raunchy teen comedy shot documentary style that was critically reviled, but wildly successful at the box office. Chronicle was a unique take on the superhero origin story from director Josh Trank, who wound up scoring the job of helming the Fantastic Four reboot for Fox.

This brings us to End of Watch, a cop drama set in the inner city of Los Angeles from writer/director David Ayer, who has made a career of gritty crime flicks set in L.A. He wrote Training Day, Dark Blue, and S.W.A.T., then went on to direct Harsh Times and Street Kings. Ayer does his best work with End of Watch, which is a more positive look at the LAPD than his earlier pictures. It follows two hotshot LAPD officers named Brian Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Miguel Zavala (Michael Pena). Taylor is a former Marine who is earning his law degree on the side. As part of his course work, he is filming a documentary about his life as a police officer. This includes using tiny cameras pinned to his lapel and his partner's. Whereas Zavala is a family man, Taylor is happily single though he may have finally met "the one" in the perky Anna Kendrick.

End of Watch opens with a wild pursuit recorded by a dashboard camera that ends in a justified shooting. From there, we watch as Taylor and Zavala rescue kids from a burning house and bust a perpetrator carrying a ton of cash and a jewel encrusted AK-47. Our protagonists even earn the respect of a gang member named Tre (Cle Sloan) after he gets into a brawl with Zavala. After discovering a house full of rotting body parts, Taylor and Zavala unwittingly earn the wrath of a ruthless Mexican drug cartel pushing its way into Los Angeles.

End of Watch doesn't stay firmly within the realm of found footage. While there are the usual shaky cam shots, many of the scenes are shot and edited conventionally. Still, End of Watch succeeds in placing the audience intimately alongside the officers. It's as if we were right there for the ride. Ayer's willingness to shoot tightly and closely gives the action sequences an immediacy and tension not found in movies with larger budgets. Ayer also throws in some unique shots such as one in which a camera has been mounted on Taylor's shotgun barrel.

Shootouts are all well and good, but Ayer ensures that we care about the characters with the camaraderie of Taylor and Zavala at the forefront. Gyllenhaal and Pena give strong performances and their banter is a highlight. Though the focus is on them, their relationships with their families and fellow cops aren't short changed. Taylor and Zavala have their run-ins with an embittered beat cop (David Harbour) and a pair of female officers (Cody Horn & America Ferrera) who aren't impressed by their cocky attitudes.

End of Watch falters when it shifts focus from Taylor and Zavala to the Latino gangbangers gunning for them. In the YouTube era, it makes sense that the criminals would be bold enough to record their illegal activities. Still, their scenes are less interesting because they are portrayed in stereotypical and over-the-top manner.

End of Watch is a gripping police drama that rises above genre conventions and the limitations of found footage.

Rating: *** (*****)

Sunday, February 3, 2013

For a Good Time, Call...

For a Good Time, Call... - Dir. Jamie Travis (2012)

Are we living in a post-Bridesmaids world? While it wasn't a wholly new concept, Bridesmaids did become a benchmark for female-centric comedies in current cinema. The girls could be just as raunchy as the guys and the plot didn't have to entirely revolve around a woman's search for Mr. Right. For a Good Time, Call… is one of several movies that have been compared unfavorably to Bridesmaids, despite going into production before its release.

Lauren Powell (Lauren Miller) is a young professional woman who hits a sudden rough patch when she loses her job and gets dumped by her boyfriend for being boring. She's asked to move out of their apartment, but cannot afford a place of her own. Her gay best friend, Jesse (Justin Long), points Lauren in the direction of Katie Steel (Ari Graynor), who is behind on rent for her ritzy flat following the death of her grandmother. Lauren and Katie are actually old college acquaintances, except the latter got drunk and poor Lauren ended up with a face full of urine. Needless to say, she is not happy about the situation.

Things get weirder when Lauren discovers Katie makes most of her money as a phone sex operator. Unable to find a decent job, Lauren reluctantly serves as Katie's assistant and routing her calls. After a crash course in dirty talk, Lauren becomes a second operator and finds she actually enjoys the work. Meanwhile, Katie warily drops her guard for a romance with a frequent caller named Sean (Mark Webber).

Lauren Miller not only starred in the film, but also co-wrote the screenplay with Katie Anne Naylon, a former college roommate who really did work as a phone sex operator. Is phone sex still something people pay for, especially with the wealth of pornography on the internet? Or so I have heard. Considering the subject matter, For a Good Time, Call… could have easily been set in the 80's and it does have a retro tone mixed with a filthy mind. All too often, Miller and Naylon go for the easy jokes involving bodily fluids.

However, what really sells For a Good Time isn't the sex or the filth, but the friendship between the female protagonists. If I Love You, Man was all about the bro-mance, this is all about the girl-mance. The two leads have great chemistry together. While Miller is perky enough in her role, it is Ari Graynor who finally gets a chance to shine. She's displayed her comedic talents via smaller roles in films like Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist, Whip It, and Celeste and Jesse Forever. She gets to run a gamut of emotions here from her unique line readings and physical humor to selling her sweet-natured relationships with Lauren and Sean. Where For a Good Time fails is in its adherence to formula with Lauren as the uptight conservative who has to learn to let her hair down. There's also a second act break-up of their friendship that feels contrived simply to lead into the climatic reconciliation.

The supporting cast is great with Don McManus and Mimi Rogers as Lauren's parents, Nia Vardalos as a prospective employer, and cameos by Ken Marino, Kevin Smith, and Miller's husband, Seth Rogen, as phone sex customers.

For a Good Time, Call… is an R-rated twist on the Odd Couple concept. Most of the humor falls flat and the film never delves too deeply into its characters. However, it's energetic pace and breezy runtime might make it worthy of a rental.

Rating: ** (*****)