Movie Project #19: Rififi [1955]

The 50 Movies Project: 2013 Edition

In what has become an annual tradition, I have decided to embark in a third round of the 50 Movies Project. The premise is simple — I have put together a list of 50 movies that I feel I absolutely must see in order to continue my progression as a film lover. With so many films to see, it’s easy to get off track and forget about some of the essentials. This is my way of making sure I watch those that have been on my “must see” list for too long.

Rififi [1955]

Rififi [1955]
Director: Jules Dassin
Writers: Auguste Le Breton (novel), Jules Dassin (adaptation), René Wheeler (collaboration) and Auguste Le Breton (collaboration)
Country: France
Genre: Crime/Drama/Thriller
Starring: Jean Servais, Carl Möhner, Robert Manuel, Jules Dassin, Marcel Lupovici, Marie Sabouret
Running Time: 122 minutes

Reason for inclusion: I noticed this on several “best of” lists for film noir, crime, the 1950s, etc. and wanted to make it a point to finally see it.

Accolades: Won Best Director at Cannes Film Festival, part of the Criterion Collection, Roger Ebert’s Great Movies and Quentin Tarantino’s Coolest Movies of All Time

When it comes to heist films, there is Rififi and then there is everything else.

Fresh out of prison after serving five years for stealing jewelry, Tony (aka “The Stéphanois”, played by Jean Servais) is struggling to adapt to the life he once knew. He drinks too much, has a nasty cough that suggests possible lung disease, has hit a cold streak playing cards, and to top it all off, his former girlfriend is now property of a Parisian mob boss. Needless to say, when a colleague (Jo, played by Carl Möhner) approaches him with the idea of pulling off another jewelry heist, it doesn’t take long for Tony to warm up to the idea.

Two other men — Mario (Robert Manuel) and master safecracker César (Jules Dassin) — enter the picture, and the group begins developing an increasingly detailed plan to rob a popular Parisian jeweler’s storefront. Their research is immaculate — they make multiple trips to the store, checking in on its security system while also learning the inticracies of the building itself. The store’s alarm system is easily triggered, as mere light vibrations will set it off for the whole neighborhood to hear.

Rififi [1955]

In a bit of ingenious filmmaking, we are able to watch the group as they buy an identical version of the alarm and start pondering ways to mute it. Tampering with the wires and the insides of the alarm will immediately cause a ruckus, so there appears to be no clear way to disable it. Just as the men are starting to lose hope on the operation, Tony finds a way to quiet the system using fire extinguisher foam. Eureka!

The actual heist is the stunning centerpiece of the film. For nearly 30 minutes, Dassin shows the group executing their plan, most of which takes place in complete silence (meaning no music either). It’s a rather amazing accomplishment, as there is so much tension and suspense without anything being said. This type of sequence could never happen today.

But yet with Rififi, there is still *more* after the heist. Here the criminals have to deal with the aftermath of their feat, and it isn’t pretty. The film gets shockingly violent after this, especially by 1955’s standards.

Rififi [1955]

Perhaps even more incredible, the film manages to turn these anti-heroes into likable characters. Tony, in particular, is an absolute brute at the beginning of the film. How can we root for someone so self-loathing who also unnecessarily smacked around his ex-girlfriend? Yet by the end of the film, we see that he *does* have a set of morals, and we want to see him succeed. All four thieves follow the “code of silence” after the heist, which is admirable in its own right.

Rififi is still an impressive piece of filmmaking, and it’s clear that it has influenced nearly every major heist film since its release. It’s easy to see why Quentin Tarantino selected it as one of the “coolest movies of all-time” — hell, without Rififi, there would be no Reservoir Dogs. A must see.

9/10

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Movie Review: The Bling Ring [2013]

The Bling Ring [2013]

The Bling Ring [2013]
Directors: Sofia Coppola
Screenplay: Sofia Coppola, Nancy Jo Sales
Genre: Crime/Drama
Starring: Katie Chang, Israel Broussard, Emma Watson, Claire Julien, Taissa Farmiga
Running Time: 90 minutes

A funny thing happened while watching The Bling Ring. About halfway through the film, as the characters questioned their level of fame, my girlfriend whispered to me that “if this were real, they would have their own reality show by now.” When I informed her that the film is based on a true story, she couldn’t believe it (her prediction wasn’t too far off either — one of the girls actually was on a reality show called Pretty Wild, and of course, they also got a movie).

The concept behind The Bling Ring *is* absolutely ridiculous, and if it weren’t true, the film could easily be seen as a scathing satire of today’s obsession with celebrities and socialites.

The Bling Ring [2013]

When Marc Hall (Nick Prugo) transfers to a new high school, he quickly becomes friends with the fame-obsessed Rebecca Ahn (Rachel Lee). They bond over a joint or two before Rebecca gets a wild idea — why don’t they break into a rich home while the owners are out of town? Seemingly eager to make a new friend, Marc agrees, and the two of them hit up the abandoned house of an acquaintance. In there, they go to town, stealing clothes, jewelry, cash — basically anything that looks appealing to them.

Breaking into these mansions becomes a hobby for the two of them, and soon they have a few friends getting in on the action. Nicki (Emma Watson), Sam (Taissa Farmiga) and Chloe (Courtney Ames) are more than willing to join them, especially once they start targeting the homes of celebrities. Paris Hilton, in particular, is hit multiple times while she’s out of town. Her house is the easiest to get into — she simply leaves the keys under the doormat (why is that not surprising?).

The Bling Ring [2013]

The five of them continue robbing these targets over and over again, occasionally bringing more friends (and even Sam’s 13-year-old sister) along. They use their newfound money to buy even more clothes and jewelry, not to mention bags of coke when possible. They are “living the life”, at least in their eyes.

Of course, as this is based on a true story, there is no happy ending for these delinquents. This is shown as such at the beginning of the film when we hear Nicki give a spectacularly ditzy update to the press (“I might want to be the leader of a country someday, for all I know”). Emma Watson nails this role, expertly portraying the overwhelming superficiality present in her character. In fact, this entire group of young actors all excel here, with newcomer Israel Broussard being a major highlight as well.

The Bling Ring [2013]

At times, The Bling Ring feels like a bit much. Most of the film shows these kids getting high and breaking into homes, and none of the characters are exactly likeable. Director Sofia Coppola (responsible for two genuinely great films — Lost in Translation and the underrated Somewhere) nails the party lifestyle that this group so actively pursues, but the film may be too repetitive for its own good. Did we really need to see them go nuts over finding more Louboutin, Rolexes and other designer items more than two or three times? We see them break into Hilton’s home on multiple occasions — though I’m sure she loves the attention (her real house was even used in the movie, and she makes a cameo appearance).

Still, The Bling Ring is an entertaining film. There is something alluring about the trash culture that our society is so enamored with these days, and this film puts that all on display, for better or for worse.

7/10

Movie Project #13: Hard Boiled [1992]

The 50 Movies Project: 2013 Edition

In what has become an annual tradition, I have decided to embark in a third round of the 50 Movies Project. The premise is simple — I have put together a list of 50 movies that I feel I absolutely must see in order to continue my progression as a film lover. With so many films to see, it’s easy to get off track and forget about some of the essentials. This is my way of making sure I watch those that have been on my “must see” list for too long.

Hard Boiled [1992]

Hard Boiled [1992]
Director: John Woo
Screenplay: John Woo (story), Barry Wong and Gordon Chan (screenplay)
Country: Hong Kong
Genre: Action/Crime/Drama
Starring: Yun-Fat Chow, Tony Leung Chiu Wai, Teresa Mo, Philip Chan, Philip Kwok, Anthony Wong Chau-Sang
Running Time: 128 minutes

Reason for inclusion: I had never seen a John Woo film.

Accolades: Hong Kong Film Award for Best Film Editing, #70 on Empire’s 100 Best Films of World Cinema

Hard Boiled is the type of action film that defies logic and just throws everything at you at 100 MPH. There are epic (and I mean EPIC) gun fights, huge explosions, seemingly endless bullets and witty remarks (You’re full of shit, you know that? There’s a toilet over there.). Oh, and there’s a baby that pisses on a dude’s leg to extinguish a fire.

Chow Yun-Fat stars as Inspector “Tequila” Yuen, a police officer who also happens to be one of the baddest ‘muthas on celluloid. After his partner is killed by a group of gun smugglers, Tequila vows revenge against the gang that ambushed them. His boss, Superintendant Pang (Philip Chan), has had enough of Tequila’s wild antics and tells him to give it up, but there’s no stopping him at this point.

Hard Boiled [1992]

Meanwhile, an undercover cop named Tony (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai) is working his way up the ranks of said gang. He has quickly become a favorite of mob boss Johnny Wong (Anthony Wong), and that also puts him on the radar of Tequila. Once the two detectives run into each other, the cat gets out of the bag, causing them to work together to take down the evil Triads.

This film is famous for its penultimate action scene, a 40+ minute sequence that sees our two “heroes” fighting off waves of bad guys inside a maternity ward. It’s utterly outrageous, but this setting gives way to some truly outstanding choreographed violence. One scene even has Tequila holding a newborn baby in his arms while mowing down a couple of goons. Like I said, absolutely ridiculous, but so much fun at the same time!

Hard Boiled [1992]

While watching Hard Boiled, I couldn’t help but think of its massive influence still seen today. Not only do most modern action films owe a great deal to this John Woo feature, so do many video games. Two 2012 releases in particular are indebted to this — Sleeping Dogs and Max Payne 3. The former is basically a Hong Kong action film in video game form, and many of its storytelling techniques bare striking similarities to those found in Hard Boiled. With the latter, Max Payne‘s “bullet time” combat system is a dead ringer for some of Tequila’s slick shooting techniques.

Hard Boiled is excessive, and at times, there is so much going on that the mayhem is difficult to keep up with. Yet this is also an adrenaline rush from beginning to end, and it never lets its foot off the gas. This quenched my thirst for a good action flick, and it’s made me eager to see more from Mr. Woo.

8/10

Movie Review: The Place Beyond the Pines [2013]

The Place Beyond the Pines [2013]

The Place Beyond the Pines [2013]
Director: Derek Cianfrance
Screenplay: Derek Cianfrance, Ben Coccio, Darius Marder
Genre: Crime/Drama
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Bradley Cooper, Eva Mendes, Dane DeHaan, Emory Cohen, Ray Liotta
Running Time: 140 minutes

The Place Beyond the Pines is an incredibly ambitious project that tackles many different themes and storylines in its near 2 1/2 hour running time. It is a crime drama that focuses on two separate families, brought together by one earth-shattering event.

The film is split into three very distinct acts, each one focusing primarily on one or two characters.

The Place Beyond the Pines [2013]

Act one most closely resembles a thriller, and it puts the spotlight on Luke Glanton (Ryan Gosling), a motorcycle stuntman with a traveling gig at local state fairs. While in the town of Altamont in upstate New York, he meets up with an ex-lover, Romina (Eva Mendes), who promptly tells him that he has a one-year-old son. Floored by this news, Luke immediately quits his job so he can stay in town and help raise his child.

Unsurprisingly, there aren’t too many decent-paying options for a heavily-tattooed and undereducated worker, so he begins exploring other options. It doesn’t take long for him to settle on a life of crime — more specifically, robbing banks. Luke has the mindset that getting a bunch of money will allow him to win Romina back and have a traditional American family. If only it were that easy.

The Place Beyond the Pines [2013]

Act two focuses on Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper), a rookie police officer who has his own set of problems. He is struggling to cope with an incident on the job, and he’s also quickly finding out just how hard it is to be a “good cop” in a department already embroiled in corruption.

The third act is quite different in tone, and it is set some fifteen years ahead. This act introduces us to the sons of Glanton and Cross (played by Dane DeHaan and Emory Cohen, respectively), as their lives become intertwined. There is a lot of teenage angst at hand here, but also some rather intriguing self discovery.

It is impossible to go into too much detail without giving away crucial plot elements, but the way the stories are connected is fantastic. We are given plenty of time with every major character in the film, and even though they all make their share of boneheaded decisions, it’s still easy to become attached to them.

The Place Beyond the Pines [2013]

This is a testament to both the writing and the cast. Ryan Gosling’s Glanton is almost an evolution of the Driver character from Drive, and his mannerisms and reactions are perfect while performing his daring heists. Bradley Cooper does a serviceable job as the bright-eyed newbie cop, but perhaps the best performance of all comes from young Dane DeHaan. Best known for his work in the HBO show In Treatment or the 2012 film Chronicle, DeHaan is startlingly effective here, and he is continuing to show he has a bright future in the business. The supporting cast is terrific as well, with Ray Liotta, Bruce Greenwood and Rose Byrne all playing small but critical roles.

The Place Beyond the Pines suffers slightly from the transition of a thrilling opening act into a more straightforward drama, but it’s still a highly entertaining film overall. The lengthy running time is not an issue, and not once did I grow bored; how could I, with its constantly shifting narrative? Director Derek Cianfrance deserves major credit for bringing such a wide encompassing picture to fruition.

8.5/10

Movie Review: Trance [2013]

Trance [2013]

Trance [2013]
Director: Danny Boyle
Screenplay: Joe Ahearne, John Hodge
Genre: Crime/Drama/Thriller
Starring: James McAvoy, Vincent Cassel, Rosario Dawson
Running Time: 101 minutes

Danny Boyle’s latest thriller is a film that bounces all over the place with a plot that is both convoluted and completely outlandish. Twists and turns are plentiful, and at times the film is hard to follow. However, it is directed with a style and vision that only Boyle can pull off.

James McAvoy stars as Simon, an art auctioneer who is violently hit in the head by criminal Franck (Vincent Cassel) during an art heist gone bad. When Simon regains consciousness, it is discovered that he also has amnesia — he cannot remember anything that happened after the damaging blow to the head. His memory is crucial, as it turns out that he had hidden an extremely valuable painting during the heist, sending Franck and his goons home empty-handed. Franck begins torturing Simon in a desperate attempt to find its whereabouts. Realizing Simon isn’t bluffing with his amnesia, Franck sends him to a hypnotherapist, Elizabeth (Rosario Dawson), in a further attempt to unlock the memories of where the painting might be.

Trance [2013]

From there, the film bends in all sorts of directions, and there are enough dream sequences shown to make it very difficult to know just what is real and what is fantasy. This is a film that must be taken at face value; it asks its audience to go with the flow and not think too much about what is happening on screen. So much of it is far-fetched that these jumps in logic are bound to infuriate some.

For a good 3/4 of the film, it’s incredibly difficult to determine what exactly is happening. A huge twist near the end puts things in perspective, and it is in this way that the film rewards patient viewers. Sure, it may not entirely make sense, but then again the film’s concept itself is pretty ridiculous.

In the hands of a lesser director, Trance could easily be a middling affair. However, this is Danny freakin’ Boyle, so at the very least it’s full of eye candy. Dazzling shots, vibrant colors and a rush of a soundtrack (composed by Underworld’s Rick Smith, no less) all help make Trance fly by.

Trance [2013]

The cast, of whom McAvoy, Cassel and Dawson are all given nearly equal screen time, is strong, and they play off each other rather well. The arch of McAvoy’s character is particularly invigorating, and he delivers what may be his strongest performance yet. It is Dawson’s performance, however, that people will remember most. She is completely believable as a hypnotherapist, which is a major feat in itself. I could listen to her soothing voice all day long.

While Trance may jump around a bit too much for its own good, it remains a solid thriller that is rewarding enough for those who sit through till the end. It is the type of film that begs to be seen more than once, but at the same time it is perhaps not strong enough to warrant repeat viewings.

7/10

Movie Project #5: Amores Perros [2000]

The 50 Movies Project: 2013 Edition

In what has become an annual tradition, I have decided to embark in a third round of the 50 Movies Project. The premise is simple — I have put together a list of 50 movies that I feel I absolutely must see in order to continue my progression as a film lover. With so many films to see, it’s easy to get off track and forget about some of the essentials. This is my way of making sure I watch those that have been on my “must see” list for too long.

Amores Perros [2000]

Amores Perros [2000]
Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu
Screenplay: Guillermo Arriaga
Country: Mexico
Genre: Crime/Drama/Thriller
Starring: Emilio Echevarría, Gael García Bernal, Goya Toledo, Vanessa Bauche, Álvaro Guerrero
Running Time: 154 minutes

Reason for inclusion: This is the only film in the “trilogy of death” that I hadn’t seen, and the constant comparisons to Pulp Fiction had me intrigued.

Accolades: BAFTA Award for Best Film Not in the English Language, Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film, Prize of the Critic’s Week at the 2000 Cannes Film Festival, included on Empire’s 2008 list of the 500 greatest movies of all time, ranked #182 on IMDB’s Top 250

This review discusses several plot points and may contain spoilers.

In English, Amores Perros translates to “Love’s a Bitch.” It’s a clever play on words for a film in which love and dogs play an important part in each of its three segments.

As the first entry in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s trilogy of death (later followed by 21 Grams and Babel), Amores Perros is similarly structured as an anthology film. Three completely different stories are intertwined due to a horrific car crash that happens in Mexico City.

The first segment is the hardest to watch, and it is the reason why a “no animals were harmed during the making of this film” warning appears beforehand. It involves dog fighting, and through the illusion of quick cuts, the fights come across as all too real. The viciousness of these moments are enough to make animal lovers squirm (and possibly shut off the film altogether), but numerous precautions were taken to make sure no animals were actually harmed. It’s very effective film-making from Iñárritu in his feature film debut.

Amores Perros [2000]

The main character of this first segment, Octavio (Gael Garcia Bernal), becomes involved in dog fighting by total chance. After his dog kills that of a local thug’s in an impromptu “non-sanctioned” fight, Octavio sees this as an opportunity to begin profiting from his pet. His ultimate goal is to make enough money to escape with his sister-in-law, Susana (Vanessa Bauche), who is stuck in an abusive relationship with his brother, Ramiro (Marco Pérez).

The beginning of the film indicates that things aren’t going to go as planned, as it shows Octavio and Jorge in a car chase, culminating with them smashing directly into another car.

The second segment follows the lives of Daniel (Álvaro Guerrero) and Valeria (Goya Toledo). Daniel has left his wife and two kids in order to live with Valeria, who is a Spanish supermodel. She is the one driving the other car that Octavio and Jorge crash directly into. As a result, she breaks her leg, and is unable to continue working as a model. On top of this, she also loses her dog, Richie, who has somehow managed to get himself stuck underneath the floorboards of her house. With so many things going wrong at once, the strength of the new relationship of Daniel and Valeria is already put to the test.

Amores Perros [2000]

The third and final segment focuses on one person, a hitman (Emilio Echevarría) nicknamed “El Chivo” (aka “The Goat”). His connection to the crash is the loosest of the group, as he is getting ready to perform an assassination at the exact moment the accident happens. El Chivo’s story is the saddest of the group, as he is a homeless man who just wants to reconnect with his long-lost daughter. His loyal group of dogs seem to be the only thing holding him together.

Three segments. Three completely different stories. On their own, they likely wouldn’t be particularly enthralling, but the way they are interwoven together keeps the film fresh. Little hints and reminders are dropped here and there, showing that these characters are all related in more ways than originally meets the eye. As with 21 Grams and Babel, this is a film that would seemingly warrant multiple viewings to pick up on these clues.

Amores Perros [2000]

Filmed on a modest budget of $2.4 million, Amores Perros has a very personal, authentic feel. The performances are raw and impressive, and the fact that much of the movie was filmed in the poorer areas of Mexico City adds even more to the grittiness. In a crazy bit of trivia, Iñárritu and some of his crew were actually robbed by street gangs during filming.

It’s easy to see why Amores Perros is held in such high regard, and it is a thoroughly entertaining film overall. However, its 2 1/2 hour running time is a bit of a burden by the end, and some sections could have been easily reduced or cut entirely. The middle segment especially could use some trimming, as Valeria and her cries for Richie grew more and more ludicrous with every minute.

Regardless, this is still one hell of a filmmaking debut, and Iñárritu set the stage for a formula that he would go on to perfect with 21 Grams.

8/10

Movie Project #3: The Battle of Algiers [1966]

The 50 Movies Project: 2013 Edition

In what has become an annual tradition, I have decided to embark in a third round of the 50 Movies Project. The premise is simple — I have put together a list of 50 movies that I feel I absolutely must see in order to continue my progression as a film lover. With so many films to see, it’s easy to get off track and forget about some of the essentials. This is my way of making sure I watch those that have been on my “must see” list for too long.

The Battle of Algiers [1966]

The Battle of Algiers [1966]
Director: Gillo Pontecorvo
Screenplay: Gillo Pontecorvo, Franco Solinas
Genre: Crime/Drama/History/War
Starring: Brahim Hadjadj, Jean Martin, Yacef Saadi
Running Time: 121 minutes

Reason for inclusion: This is considered one of the greatest and most important war/political films ever made.

Accolades: Golden Lion winner at the Venice Film Festival, three Oscar nominations in two separate years (Best Foreign Language Film, Best Director, Best Screenplay), ranked #6 in Empire magazine’s “The 100 Best Films Of World Cinema

It’s rare to find a war film that doesn’t pledge its allegiance to one side of the battle. In the U.S., we are so accustomed to films that either act as tributes to our soldiers, or those that paint us as bloodthirsty warmongers. There is usually no middle ground.

The Battle of Algiers has no commitment to either of the two sides it shows at war, and that’s what makes it so refreshing and still relevant.

The film acts as a capsule of the Algerian War (1954-62) between native Algerians and its French colonists, with the greatest emphasis placed on the Battle of Algiers. This is a war I knew nothing about, but the film does a good job getting viewers up to speed. The first half of the movie follows along with the urban guerrilla tactics of the insurgents in the National Liberation Front (FLN). Their goal is simple: they want their freedom back, and they will do anything to get it.

The Battle of Algiers [1966]

Many of the acts of the FLN could be considered flat-out terrorism. There is one particularly gripping scene in which a trio of Algerian women get haircuts and ditch their traditional garb in order to casually stroll past the French checkpoints in their city. Once through, each woman obtains a bomb, heads to a populated area and leaves their purse — containing the bomb — behind in a hidden location. The destruction is horrifying and we are there to see it all — the effects are made worse due to the fact that we are shown shots of people sitting down, eating, talking, basically not knowing that they are living the last moments of their lives. The shot of a little boy eating ice cream slayed me.

The Battle of Algiers [1966]

With the FLN it’s all or nothing, and while we can empathize with their request for freedom, we sure as hell can’t sympathize with their terrorist actions.

The second half of the film focuses on the French army paratroopers who are sent in to find and kill all of those active in the FLN. This group of elite soldiers, led by Lieutenant-Colonel Mathieu (Jean Martin), are there to do their job, nothing more, nothing less. Their tactics are as ruthless as the rebels — torture, assassinations and lynch mobs are just some of the Draconian methods they use. Their method is to systematically take down the movement, one-by-one, before ultimately reaching the head of the group.

The Battle of Algiers [1966]

The Battle of Algiers is shot documentary-style, making the presentation even more effective. While everything is staged, certain scenes could easily pass as news reel footage. Director Gillo Pontecorvo made sure to include a disclaimer at the beginning of the film stating that this was shot live. The cast is composed of almost entirely unknowns, with Jean Martin being the only professional actor in the bunch. As such, there is little in the way of character development; instead, Pontecorvo relies on the war itself to tell the story. We know some of the participants in the revolution (the actual insurgent, Saadi Yacef, even plays someone loosely based on himself), but they are bit players in the grand scheme of things. This is a battle between two nations.

The influence of The Battle of Algiers is still widely present today. In 2003, during the beginning of the Iraq War, the film was screened for Pentagon employees. In the late 60s, it was mandatory viewing for Black Panthers. The film is perhaps most relevant today, given the recent Arab uprisings in Egypt, Libya and other countries. This is one that has stood the test of time, and will almost certainly continue to do so.

9/10

Movie Review: End of Watch [2012]

End of Watch [2012]

End of Watch [2012]
Director: David Ayer
Screenplay: David Ayer
Genre: Crime/Drama/Thriller
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Peña, Anna Kendrick and Natalie Martinez
Running Time: 109 minutes

End of Watch is a police movie that nails one aspect that many others often neglect: the virtue of humanity.

Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena spent five months riding along (for 12 hours at a time) with several different Los Angeles law enforcement agencies in order to prepare for their roles as police officers Brian Taylor and Miguel Zavala, respectively. This commitment to their roles is extremely noticeable in their performances, as the duo feel like a pair of real life cops with their authentic banter (much of which was improvised).

End of Watch [2012]

End of Watch doesn’t have a typical plot. Most of the film feels like a hybrid of the TV show Cops and a buddy cop movie, but with an even greater air of authenticity thanks to its use of handheld cameras (more on that later). The pair of officers perform some questionable acts — such as Zavala openly brawling with a suspect in a fit of testosterone-induced action — but they remain mostly honest cops who are willing to risk their lives to save others.

When the officers stumble upon the shady underworld of a Mexican cartel, the shit hits the fan. Suddenly they find themselves entangled with the wrong group of people. As they go deeper and deeper into some truly disturbing stuff, they struggle to maintain their personal lives. Zavala is married with a child on the way, and Taylor has a blossoming relationship with fellow twenty-something Janet (Anna Kendrick). These women are well aware of the risks their men take on the job, something they are reluctantly forced to live with.

End of Watch [2012]

As mentioned earlier, part of what makes End of Watch stand out from other like-minded films is its reliance on handheld camera work. At the beginning of the movie, Taylor is shown filming everything in sight for a class project. We are often shown the perspective from his lens, but there are also many other camera angles used, most of which use the same handheld “shaky cam” technique. The transition from different angles is jarring at first, especially since the beginning of the film seems to insinuate this will be using footage from Taylor’s camera. Some of the car chase scenes using the in-dash video are tough to stomach, as are a handful of the especially-shaky action moments. While I can appreciate director David Ayer’s decision to experiment with these different techniques, I almost wish he were a little more consistent. There were also times where the camerawork made it feel as if I were watching a video game, as evidenced by its occasional “first person shooter” viewpoints, and this ultimately grew to be distracting.

While the camerawork is hit-and-miss, the sense of realism is an absolute high point. Gyllenhaal and Pena have impeccable chemistry, and the tight-knit bond between their characters feels legit. The rest of the supporting cast, led by Natalie Martinez and Anna Kendrick as their significant others, also do well in their given roles.

End of Watch [2012]

One aspect that the film scraps with is its overabundance of foreshadowing. There were far too many dialogue exchanges that spoke of impending doom, and they were laid on so thick that the film ultimately became predictable as a result. Perhaps the outcome wasn’t too unfamiliar at the beginning anyway, but I could have done without the ominous remarks.

At any rate, End of Watch is still an entertaining ride that is well worth seeing just for the partnership between Gyllenhaal and Pena. The film looks at the lives of police officers in a different light, and the character relationships make it stand out from the rest. It’s just a shame that it doesn’t quite reach the level of greatness that it sets out for.

7/10

Movie Review: Compliance [2012]

Compliance [2012]

Compliance [2012]
Director: Craig Zobel
Screenplay: Craig Zobel
Genre: Crime/Drama/Thriller
Starring: Ann Dowd, Dreama Walker and Pat Healy
Running Time: 90 minutes

Imagine you are the manager of a popular fast food restaurant. What would you do if you received a phone call from someone claiming to be a police officer who is investigating a complaint that one of your employees stole money from a customer? Would you agree to help the officer by keeping the employee, a 19-year-old woman, in a back room while searching her things? Would you agree to strip search her?

It’s easy to scoff at the notion of agreeing to do any of these things. Most of us would ask for some sort of police identification, right? Or make the cop come to you and question the girl in person? It seems like common sense, but the truth is that we really don’t know how we would react in a situation without having been there before.

Compliance tells the story of the above scenario, and every single aspect of the film is 100% true. Sandra (Ann Dowd), the manager of a local ChickWich restaurant, receives a phone call from a man claiming to be Officer Daniels (Pat Healy). He notifies her about the fake complaint, and she brings the 19-year-old “suspect”, Becky (Dreama Walker), into the back room to investigate. Firmly believing she is talking to a police officer, Sandra follows along with the man’s orders, even going so far as to perform a strip search. As if that weren’t worse enough, the “investigation” spirals out of control as other people become involved, and Becky is forced into even more unfathomable actions.

Compliance [2012]

During the entire film, I found myself saying over and over: “are you kidding me?” and “I can’t believe this is happening.” It is mind-blowing that the manager, the victim and the others who get tangled in the mess all willingly go along with this person’s orders simply because they believe he is a cop. It all sounds so ridiculous that it can’t possibly be real… but it absolutely is. After viewing the film, I immediately looked up the true story, and every single detail was accurate.

Watching this man, who we occasionally see on the other end of the phone, manipulate both the manager and employee is extremely uncomfortable. This is not an easy watch by any means, and its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival last year brought out a number of angry reactions. Some walked out of the screening; others resorted to shouting matches. Yes, this is a film capable of evoking those types of powerful emotions, and it’s unlike any other film in recent years.

Compliance [2012]

This is only director Craig Zobel’s second full-length film (he is also co-founder of the popular animated Internet cartoon, Homestar Runner), and he already has the traits of a seasoned veteran. He is careful not to show us some of the more extreme moments of compliance on screen, thankfully, and he makes masterful use of long takes, especially near the end. The performances from all involved are also strong, especially from Ann Dowd and Dreama Walker. I heard Dowd’s name being mentioned in some awards chatter, and her performance most certainly warrants recognition. And poor Walker, she does an amazing job in a difficult role, especially as she is half-naked for the majority of the film.

It’s a bit tricky to full-on recommend Compliance. It’s a masterful piece of filmmaking, but damn if it isn’t an unsettling watch. At the very least, it’s scary to imagine just how far some people will go when they are being ordered around by someone of authority.

9/10

Movie Review: Skyfall [2012]

Skyfall [2012]

Skyfall [2012]
Director: Sam Mendes
Genre: Action/Adventure/Crime
Starring: Daniel Craig, Javier Bardem, Judi Dench, Ralph Fiennes, Naomie Harris
Running Time: 143 minutes

I feel as if every Skyfall review should come with a preface stating the writer’s level of James Bond fandom. I am a novice to the series, a “rook” if you will, as I have only seen a grand total of three Bond films — the very first two with Sean Connery (Dr. No and From Russia With Love) and Daniel Craig’s first outing (Casino Royale). I enjoyed all to some degree, but I wouldn’t quite call myself a fan — yet. With Skyfall, I feel myself being drawn back into the universe, one that seems more exciting now than ever.

In this dark and rather bleak entry in the series, Bond is not quite as invincible as one might expect. Played to perfection by Craig, 007 is now old, broken down and even vulnerable. When MI6’s headquarters are blown up by the despicable villain, Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem), the British agency and its head, M (Judi Dench), are forced to rely on the rickety frame of Mr. Bond to save the day.

Silva presents a great challenge for them, as he always seems one step ahead with every move he makes. He is an excellent villain — he has superior hacking skills, a seemingly endless group of goons at his disposal, and he has an entire bombed-out island all to himself. Javier Bardem, mildly ludicrous blonde hair and all, excels in the role, making for a dangerously strong adversary despite his physical deformities.

Skyfall [2012]

When it comes to Bond films, I am always most fascinated by the exotic locations, and Skyfall does not disappoint. From the thrilling opening car chase scene through the streets of Turkey to a brutal hand-to-hand combat sequence in a Shanghai skyscraper, there is no shortage of eye candy. The Shanghai scene, in particular, is visually stunning with its black silhouettes and flashing blue lights. A later visit to the gorgeous Scottish countryside also shows off the talents of cinematographer Roger Deakins (who also worked with director Sam Mendes on Jarhead and Revolutionary Road).

The action set-pieces are flashy and loud, and for the most part this is a white-knuckled ride that rarely lets up. Since this is the 50th anniversary of Bond, there are nods and homages to every single film in the series. As a newcomer to the series, I obviously missed many of these, but I got a kick out of hearing the audience cheer in delight when some of the more obvious throwbacks were shown. Diehard Bond fans — most of whom likely saw this opening weekend — will certainly appreciate these tributes, subtle or otherwise.

Skyfall [2012]

In many ways, Skyfall is similar to The Dark Knight Rises. Both films are centered around a hero who has seen better days, one who has hit rock bottom and has to work his way back up to help save the day. Both delve a bit into their backstories; in Skyfall, we learn a little about Bond’s origin, something that I greatly appreciated. There’s even a wink at the end of both films in which a familiar character is revealed in an ode to the future. It’s an interesting thought — Skyfall simply wouldn’t be the same if it were not for The Dark Knight trilogy.

The bottom line here is that Skyfall is one of this year’s best action films, and being a Bond fan is not a prerequisite in really enjoying this. There are a few moments that could have probably been omitted — and surely a few of the groan-worthy one-liners could have been improved — but I can’t recall many trips to the theater this year that were quite as exciting. Count me in for the next one, Mr. Bond.

8/10