Thursday, December 20, 2012

Capsule Reviews: End of Watch, Flight, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

End of Watch (David Ayer, 2012)

Whether the cops in End of Watch talk like cops matters less than the joy of them talking like actual human beings. Jake Gyllenhaal and partner Michael Peña enjoy a natural chemistry that works with Ayer’s hyperactive, disjunctive direction to give the impression of normal police work on L.A. streets even as the calls to which they respond are not only blatantly cinematic on an individual basis but also link up in a building narrative arc. That frenetic direction is the result of handheld cameras, most of which appear diegetically, toted by cop and criminal alike as their colleagues attempt to dissuade the would be filmmakers from carrying around evidence against them. It figures: the one time these characters are spared the weight of allegorical importance, they strive to be symbolic stars of their own movies. Admittedly, the sheer frantic collision of shots holds the film back, but it also pays off in some nearly surreal setpieces, especially during a rescue effort in a burning house that actually manages to communicate the terror of heat forming physical barriers and exits being lost behind smokescreens at a second’s notice. Besides, the technique cannot be too distancing, as End of Watch creates an immediacy of emotional connection rare to cop films. Grade: B+

Flight (Robert Zemeckis, 2012)

Doing press for this film, Robert Zemeckis objecting to an interviewer’s question about what it was like to return to live action, asserting that he had never left. Judging from this film, though, he’s still making cartoons. The opening plane crash sequence is one of the most thrilling sequences of the year, in which the tension of mechanical failure is compounded by the question of just how functioning an alcoholic Denzel Washington’s pilot is. Washington suits the role well, his mix of natural charm and the increasing droop of his hang-dog neutral expression preparing him for the task of facing the world with a dubiously believable smile while always standing on the brink of his self-control. But Zemeckis cannot let Washington’s subtleties sell the picture, instead relying on ridiculous side players (one woman’s brief “Praise Jesus” rivals the totality of John Goodman’s “Sympathy for the Devil”-scored entrances as a Brundlefly version of The Dude and Walter Sobchak) and thudding moral twists to put forward a message far blunter and more one-sided than the real ambiguity Washington suggests. And yet, for all the plodding obviousness of Zemeckis’ choices (not to mention the hilariously on-the-nose soundtrack), Washington’s performance stayed with me after watching it. Initial, mixed-to-negative thought slowly crawl toward a positive appreciation of the honesty that Washington, if not the film around him, brings to a subject that usually fares even worse than some of the eye-rolling clichés found within this uneven picture. Who knows, maybe after a revisit I will like it even more. That I want to revisit it at all places it on a level above Zemeckis’ motion-capture work. Grade: C+

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (Peter Jackson, 2012)

Freed from the debate over its much-lambasted 48fps 3D presentation, the first of Peter Jackson’s strung-out Hobbit trilogy is a stupefyingly bad film in its own right. Jackson’s inconsistent direction of the Lord of the Rings films is compounded here by the general lack of tactility stemming from the transition from a mix of CGI and physical effects to all-digital wizardry. The results make for tacky, clearly fake production design, makeup and effects, all in service to a lugubrious story that takes pains to introduce a cast of characters for whom it does not care in any way. Even Martin Freeman’s natural comic timing does not get a chance to shine, and the host of dwarves he accompanies manage to be even more indiscriminate from one another than in Tolkien’s pages. It is disastrous filmmaking, its chaotic, incoherent action setpieces nothing more than the video that will play in the waiting line for whatever amusement park ride is made out of this travesty. Grade: D

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