Category: Crime Drama


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After much delay, I finally sat down to watch the second film in the Swedish cinematic adaptations of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy, The Girl Who Played with Fire. I have not read the books though I have seen both the Swedish version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo as well as the American adaptation directed by David Fincher. They both have their strengths though I thought David Fincher’s interpretation was clearly the best and Rooney Mara’s frighteningly intense turn as hacker prodigy/deeply troubled young adult Lisbeth Salander still ranks among the best female performances of this current decade. But, for reasons that I am unable to fully articulate I put off watching the first of the two sequels (apparently there were plans for six books but the author died before he could write the last three), and now, honestly, I can say I wish I had waited until the movie had shown up naturally on this list so I didn’t go out of my way to watch it.

That’s not to say that The Girl Who Played with Fire was a bad film. Far from it in fact. The aspects of the franchise that I find compelling remained intact. Lisbeth Salander is still an endlessly fascinating creation of feminist fury. Mikael Blomqvist is also the type of great journalistic character that hearkens back to All the President’s Men. And, as far as tales of shocking luridness go, the Millennium trilogy is hard to top. Add on the fact that this particular entry is much better directed than the original and The Girl Who Played with Fire should be even better than the first film. It isn’t. If both versions of the first book suffered from a rather cut-and-dry procedural crime investigation at their core, The Girl Who Played with Fire makes the look into the Vanger family seem like Sherlock Holmes. Full of gaping plot holes and inconsistent pacing, I am now pray that maybe Fincher and co. can wrest a great film out of this material.

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After absconding with the bank account of the man that framed left-wing journalist Mikael Blomqvist (Michael Nyqvist) at the beginning of the first film, troubled hacker Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace) returns to her native Sweden when she discovers that the state psychiatrist that had raped her in the first film plans on removing the damning tattoo Lisbeth forced upon him as revenge for his act of sadism and brutality. At the same time, Mikael begins to assist a young journalist who has a story that implicates many high-ranking Swedish government officials in a sex-trafficking ring. And when that journalist and his girlfriend (who is doing doctoral work on sex trafficking) are murdered with a gun owned by the psychiatrist Lisbeth came back to threaten and then he also winds up dead, it’s not long before the police begin to suspect Lisbeth in the murders and it’s up to her and Mikael to clear her name.

As a procedural crime mystery, I obviously don’t want to delve too deeply into the details of the plot for fear of spoiling anything that happens. But, I hope it’s not a spoiler if I say that the whole arc comes off as criminally disappointing in the end and I don’t mean that simply because the movie just sort of ends as it’s finally beginning to pick up the pace. The writing in this particular entry (and I almost suspect it’s partly the subtitles/translation because there’s no way the dialogue was this awkward in the original Swedish) comes off as lazy and half-there, and by the end of the film, particular pieces of evidence are collected and then there’s one moment that I’m fairly sure was meant to be a flashback but it appears to be a flashback to a moment that never actually happened in the film in the first place, but I may be wrong there. The movie wore me out and I decided to take a quick nap halfway through and start back where I left off so I could have just forgotten that moment.

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Thankfully, Noomi Rapace and Michael Nyqvist are as great as ever. Though, one of the defining and most enjoyable aspects of the original film (in both its iterations) was the chemistry between Lisbeth and Mikael, and the two (SPOILER ALERT) don’t share the screen together until literally the final minutes of the film. Also, Noomi doesn’t have to carry out any scenes as tough as the multiple times she was raped in the first film though a particularly brutal moment towards the end of the film comes close. And Michael Nyqvist similarly doesn’t have nearly as much to work with. It’s good then that these two are pros and just their presence alone is enough to salvage less than spectacular writing. I’m hoping that by the time I get around to watching The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, these two will have more time on screen together.

I’ll draw this review to a close. This review comes off as particularly negative but I don’t want to give the impression that I didn’t enjoy The Girl Who Played with Fire. I did. I find the universe of the Millennium trilogy fascinating and unsettling and overflowing with frightening characters. Just, after the David Fincher version of the first book, I know that there is greatness possible in a cinematic version of this world, and once again, the native Swedish adaptations of the Swedish novel fails to deliver as well as one could hope. Mostly, I finished The Girl Who Played with Fire with a sense of “what could have been” and you never want to leave a movie that way.

Final Score: B-

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In order to properly imagine my state of mind while writing this review, you need to pretend that you can hear me sighing in the most frustrated manner imaginable. It has been over a year since I’ve watched a film I disliked this immensely. It was July of 2012 to be specific and I had watched the decidedly unfunny and misogynistic How to Marry a Millionaire with Lauren Bacall and Marilyn Monroe. Generally speaking, my average score for films I dislike is in the “C-” to “C+” range. I’ve given less than five total films (this brings it up to an even five) a score lower than a “C-” in this entire blog’s existence. That’s because even films I loathe like Forrest Gump or Cloud Atlas have a handful of redeeming qualities. No matter how terrible I think they are, there was at least some level of competency that went into their construction. There is nothing competent or enjoyable or redeeming about Steven Soderbergh’s (Magic Mike) 2006 indie Bubble which is a strong contender to be one of the worst, most unnecessary films I’ve ever, not just for this blog but in my entire life.

Set simultaneously in Parkersburg, WV (representing my home state here in the worst possible way imaginable) and Belpre, OH, Bubble is a turgid and excruciatingly paced look at the nihilistic emptiness of life in dead-end jobs in dying towns wrapped within a murder (non)mystery. If that sounds interesting, it could have been. There’s probably some masterful existentialist drama hidden in the thematic ambitions of Bubble. Sadly, the movie is not interesting. Martha (Debbie Doebereiner) and Kyle (Dustin James Ashley) work at a doll factory. Martha is an overweight middle-aged woman caring for her father. Kyle is a driftless twenty-something with no plans or ambition. Martha may or may not be in love with Kyle. A manipulative, pushy single mother Rose (Misty Wilkins) gets a job at the doll factory. She and Kyle start dating. She’s murdered. People begin to suspect Martha.

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I intentionally described the plot in as bare bones terms as possible because that’s literally the film. At a mercifully brief 77 minutes, plot is almost non-existent, and Netflix’s plot description makes it sound like some quirky murder mystery. It isn’t. It’s mostly a series of abysmally performed conversations with plot points seemingly artificially tacked on because Soderbergh and crew didn’t know what to do with these dull characters and non-professional actors. I know that Soderbergh is using the blandness and crippling boredom of the film as a commentary on what life is like in these sorts of towns, particularly if you’re stuck in the dead-end careers of people like Kyle and Martha. But, just because he intended to make the film as agonizingly dull as humanly possible doesn’t mean I have to applaud him for his success.

The comment about non-professional actors wasn’t unintentional. Kyle and Martha share the concept of “lead” in this film, and this was the only film either actor has ever made. Debbie Doebereiner was a manager at a Kentucky Fried Chicken in Parkersburg when Soderbergh “discovered” her and decided to cast her in his film. Don’t get me wrong. She certainly looks the part of someone who would be stuck in this lifestyle. That doesn’t make her a good actress and she has the emotional range of a Q-Tip, which actually was probably intentional on Soderbergh’s part. Dustin James Ashley seems like deep down he could probably be a decent actor, but Kyle is as flat a character as a sheet of paper, and with the film’s completely improvised script, he’s not given much substance to work with.

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I love Steven Soderbergh, and though I’m not from Parkersburg, WV, I come from a similar West Virginia town that suffers from all of the malaise that permeates Parkersburg and Belpre. I am a perfect candidate to enjoy this type of film. That I found it to be almost completely unbearable should speak volumes to the insufferably low quality of this production. Soderbergh is an Academy Award winning director (for Traffic), but Bubble feels like something a first year drop-out of film school would make if they somehow stumbled upon the miniscule budget this atrocity was shot on. At his best, Soderbergh is a genius and a poster child for inspired modern independent film-making. But if Bubble is the type of film he makes when he is totally untethered from the strictures of the modern studio system, perhaps its for the best if studio execs are there to keep him from indulging in this sort of pretentious, unwatchable nonsense.

Final Score: D+

 

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Among many people of my generation, what I’m about to say may not sound particularly controversial, but for older readers, it may shock. I consider the greatest piece of popular fiction ever made to be the fourth season of The Wire. By examining the myriad ways that bureaucratic institutions (but, specifically, the schools and city hall) fail our most at-risk children, The Wire crafted one of the most tragic, heartbreaking, and painfully honest stories ever told, not just on television but in all of fiction. Honestly, The Wire begins to transcend fiction and becomes a sociological survey of the dying American city but that’s an essay for another day. 1997’s indie drama Squeeze traverses some of the same thematic territory as The Wire, by focusing on young children on the verge of manhood trying to survive urban poverty and urban decay. Obviously, it isn’t half as good as The Wire, but, what is?

Squeeze‘s political ambitions aren’t nearly as broad and far-reaching as The Wire or even a John Singleton film, but by narrowing the focus to the external pressures bearing down on three teenage boys, Squeeze makes a statement of its own. The film doesn’t comment on why urban poverty exists or the moral failings of political institutions that have allowed the drug trade to destroy the inner cities or the cyclical nature that turns our nation’s inner city youth into “criminals.” Instead, Squeeze is content to let those phenomena simply exist without showing why they do. And, instead, it shows how the nature of violence and crime tear apart the lives of people at individual levels and that while there may be hope for people to escape that senseless cycle, seemingly insurmountable obstacles must be overcome to make it happen.

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Squeeze is the story of three young friends who have tried to stay out of the crime tearing their neighborhood apart. African-American Tyson (Tyrone Burton), Puerto Rican Hector (Eddie Cutanda), and Vietnamese Bao (Phuong Duong) work at a gas station begging for change to pump someone’s gas until a local gang intimidates them and runs them out of their job for no other reason than spite. In a moment of frustration with their lot in life, the boys attack a lone member of the gang and rob him, permanently earning them the ire of the gang and the knowledge that at any moment, the gang could kill them for revenge. The boys get a job working with a local youth group as an attempt at protection but when they far it isn’t enough, they seek the help of a Boston drug dealer who will offer them protection in exchange for them becoming dealers.

The performances of the three leads are a mixed bag. Phuong Duong can’t act, and the most consistently grating aspect of the film is having to listen to him laugh. Thankfully, then, he has less screen time than the others. Eddie Cutanda’s performance varies from surprisingly effective to emotionally wooden, often within the course of the same scene. A perfect example would be a moment shared between Tyson and Hector right after Hector’s mother shoots herself. At first, Hector seemed so sad it hurt, but then Eddie Cutanda lost his groove half-way through the scene. Thankfully then, Tyrone Burton’s performance was mostly fantastic for a child actor from beginning to end. He had some missteps as well, here and there, but mostly, it was a fierce and haunting performance from a kid’s debut film performance.

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I’ll keep this review short. It’s my day off and I want to actually enjoy as much of it as I can. I just started playing Max Payne 3 last night, and I can already tell that I’m going to love that game, and I want to play more of it tonight. So, here’s the low-down on Squeeze. It’s ending is a little too upbeat, to the point that it borders on disingenuous. And not every sequence in the film hits the right marks, but when the movie taps into something raw and powerful, it can be very difficult to watch. And that’s the sign of of realistic urban cinema. It presents truths that you would rather not face. Squeeze has those moments (though it takes a while to get there). It’s not as masterfully pulled off as a Spike Lee film or a John Singleton movie, and clearly, it isn’t The Wire. But if you have an interest in independent urban cinema, you should give Squeeze a chance.

Final Score: B+

 

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In 1986, William Hurt (One True Thing) won an Academy Award for his portrayal of Luis Molina, a flamboyantly homosexual prisoner serving time in an Argentinian prison, in the film Kiss of the Spider Woman. Along with the novel by Manuel Puig, Kiss of the Spider Woman became an important entry in the canon of LGBT cinema. Though there is no denying the bravura ferocity of William Hurt’s performance and commitment to his role, as viewed through a modern lens, this film’s characterization of homosexuality borders almost on camp caricature, and were the novel not written by a gay man, it would almost be offensive.

Imprisoned for having sexual relations with an underage prostitute, Luis Molina is toiling away his days in a horrifically managed prison overflowing with petty thieves and political prisoners of the oppressive Argentinian regime. Molina passes his time by recounting the details of his favorite movies to his roommate, Valentin Arregui (The Addams Family‘s Raul Julia), a hardened Marxist political prisoner. As Molina tells Valentin of a favorite German romance (that also happens to be a Nazi propaganda film), the pair become closer despite their differences although betrayal and lies threaten to undo the fabric of their new relationship.

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An evening of sleep removed from my viewing of Kiss of the Spider Woman and I still can’t decide whether or not William Hurt’s performance is brilliant or extraordinarily offensive to the modern LGBT community. It’s probably both. He loses himself in the role. Hurt is a famously intense character actor, and it shows in this performance. There isn’t a second where he isn’t Molina. But, the writing of Molina is so flamboyant and stereotypically “camp gay” that it’s hard for me to take him seriously. So, William Hurt becomes this wounded, sensitive, desperately lonely man, but the writing of his character often turns Molina more into a stereotype than a real man.

I have no complaints about the characterization of Valentin Arregui or the performance of Raul Julia. In fact, I was actually far more impressed with Julia’s subtle, restrained intensity as Valentin than I was with the over-the-top (though in line with the character) camp of William Hurt. Valentin is a man consumed by anger and his political passions. But, he is also a lover. He misses his girlfriends. He misses his freedoms, and he respects the openness with which Molina lives his life. And Raul Julia captures the slowly eroding layer of toughness and hatred that are all Valentin seems to be when the film opens as he becomes more sensitive in the shadow of Molina.

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Kiss of the Spider Woman can be heartrendingly intimate. Though it may not have the sheer power of Sunday Bloody Sunday or A Single Man, the film paints a detailed portrait of the lives and loves of its two heroes. And through the unique framing device of the film within the film, Kiss of the Spider Woman is allowed to weave a symbolic and allegorical web (pun possibly intended; I’m not sure) rife with the angst and longing both our heroes feel so deeply. The film accomplishes so much with the mostly two-star set up, that the moments where the film strays and introduces other characters actually living in Molina and Valentin’s real world (as opposed to the Nazi film characters) seem woefully deficient compared to the relationship of Molina and Valentin.

I’m going to keep this review really short (though I swear I enjoyed it quite a bit) because I have some other things that I need to write about today. I want to apply for a fellowship, and I’ve sort of realized that I haven’t worked on any of my screenplays for nearly two months now if not longer. It’s time to remedy that. If you enjoy intimate character studies and important films in the LGBT canon, Kiss of the Spider Woman is a must see. The ending drags on a little too long, and not every scene winds up winning (and Molina’s campiness may be a turn-off to some), but for the 1980s, this film was remarkably prescient and insightful.

Final Score: B+

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When you sit down to watch a Coen Brothers film, you know you’re in for a cinematic experience unlike anything else other contemporary artists are making. Whether it was the gritty and stylistic re-imagining of True Grit, the political satire via film noir via stoner comedy The Big Lebowski, or one of the true modern crime epics in No Country for Old Men, the Coens pack a potent punch of visual delights matched with a consistently dark and offbeat sense of humor. When the pantheon of great Coen films is brought up (Fargo, Lebowski, No Country, Raising Arizona), 2001’s The Man Who Wasn’t There is rarely, if ever brought up. It should be. Because although the film fails to meet the absurd level of perfection of Fargo or The Big Lebowski, this played straight film noir is an often breathtakingly philosophical look into the modern man and it’s nihilistic bent provides one of the most emotional Coen films this side of A Serious Man.

It’s ironic that the film proved to be such a harrowing emotional experience for me because of how emotionally dead and almost comically stoic the male lead is (but more on that in a second). But, not since my viewing of Synecdoche, New York has a piece of American cinema so convincingly reminded me of my own mortality and the potential meaningless of my own existence. On it surface, The Man Who Wasn’t There is a classic film noir (Billy Wilder would have been proud) mixed with elements of screwball comedy (in terms of the sheer avalanche of poor coincidences that haunt our hero), but at its core, the film is a terrifying peek at the price of ambition, the cruel whims of fate, and the essential fact that we will all some day die. That it manages to include all of these heady intellectual elements while still retaining the black humor normally associated with the Coens is all the more a testament to the film’s strengths.

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In the 1950s, Ed Crane (Billy Bob Thornton) is a barber, and he doesn’t talk too much. Ruled by his cheating wife, Doris (Almost Famous‘s Frances McDormand), Ed’s life is an endless haze of haircuts and cigarettes. His life is going nowhere, and, honestly, Ed’s alright with that. But, as fate would have it, a man walks into Ed’s barber shop and tells Ed about a crazy new scheme, dry cleaning. And the man just needs $10,000 to get off the ground. Ed sees his opportunity to finally do something with his life and decides to anonymously blackmail his wife’s boss (Killing Them Softly‘s James Gandolfini) over the affair he’s having with Ed’s wife to make the money for the investment. And, I’ll stop now for fear of spoiling any of the endless twists and turns that the film’s plot takes as Ed’s one small act of rebellion avalanches into a catastrophe.

All of the hallmarks, both visually and thematically, of the film noir genre are present in The Man Who Wasn’t There. If you’ve ever watched classics like Double Indemnity or Pickup on South Street, you will be bowled over by how well this film nails the genre conventions. And for fans of later, more mature neo-noir like Chinatown, the Coens give this film the character depth and philosophical bent lacking in some of the older noir films. From the deep shadows to the soft focus to the shifting/morphing cigarette smoke (even to some of the strange touches of Cold War paranoia that seep into the film, I’m now realizing intentionally), the film is a visual stunner, and it’s Oscar nomination for Best Cinematography was well deserved. In fact (and this is coming from a Lord of the Rings fan boy), it should have beat The Felllowship of the Ring for Best Cinematography for 2001.

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Billy Bob Thornton’s performance is kind of complicated to assess in a traditional sense. Because, he doesn’t exactly show the full spectrum of human emotions. Ed is more or less an emotionally dead man who’s living life  at a robotic pace. And throughout the film, we only get brief glimpses into the kind of man Ed might have been if he hadn’t crossed paths with his domineering wife. But, if you want to talk about a performance that defines showing exactly what you need in a character through a extraordinarily restrained performance, Billy Bob Thornton gets the job done. Some might complain that much of his state of mind is gained through expository inner monologue (which is fair although mostly those moments revealed Thornton’s classic acerbic sense of humor), it appeared that Thornton was able to show Ed to be a man who has lived life always under complete control and who can’t even break loose of his self-imposed cage even though his life is falling apart around him.

Although Billy Bob defies critical assessment, the film is overflowing with superb supporting performances. Frances McDormand (who is married to one of the Coens) reminds us why she is one of the most under-appreciated talents of her generation. Through her commanding performance, we see exactly why a man like Ed would find himself unable to muster a defense to her sheer domination. James Gandolfini isn’t on the screen that long, but his Big Dave Brewster is such a dynamic and constantly shifting turn that it made me sad all over again that The Sopranos is off the air (though I have the whole series on DVD and should rewatch it soon). Gandolfini’s big climactic scene alone was enough to catapult him onto my short list for Best Supporting Actor for the 50 film block I’m working on right now. And Tony Shalhoub also makes an appearance as a fast-talking, rich lawyer whose legal gamesmanship is a sight to behold.

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I’m going to draw this review to a close because it’s getting late (and I’ve become stupidly addicted to Saints Row: The Third). So, let me just say this. If you are a fan of film noir or the Coen Brothers, you owe it to yourself and to this movie to watch The Man Who Wasn’t There as soon as possible. Neo-nor remains one of modern cinema’s most consistently rewarding genres, and while this film tends to play the tropes of the 1950s almost painstakingly straight (though the Coens add their own little touches [one late twist seems a little too bizarre for me but you can judge for yourself. You’ll know what I’m talking about]), it is a hidden gem of the 2000s that has clearly slipped by too many movie lovers because it didn’t get the attention it deserved upon its initial release.

Final Score: A

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If there’s ever been a movie made that comes as close to absolute perfection as one can get but errs ever so slightly along the way, it’s Gangs of New York. In many ways, I have always found this film to be Martin Scorsese’s most ambitious and artful enterprise, but it’s Scorsese’s very ambition that leads the film to stray from its path. Along with Woody Allen, Marty Scorsese is arguably one of Hollywood’s most versatile directors. From the modern day cops & robbers thriller The Departed to the bustling children’s fantasy of Hugo to the lush, romantic period drama The Age of Innocence, his skills know no bounds (obvious, we include his now iconic crime epics like Goodfellas). Gangs of New York is Scorsese’s swing at bat for the historical epic, and it’s a home run like the rest of his career. In one of his darkest, most pessimistic works, Scorsese casts a prophetic eye to America’s political splits by looking back at our ethnic schisms, while wrapping it in a Shakespearean tale of revenge and American history.

If Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life became the summation of every theme and trick Malick had used in his films before hand, Gangs of New York fits into the Scorsese canon in the same way, and to be honest, none of his films have reached these heights since. As a man obsessed with the conflict between religious identity and our most base instincts and desires, Scorsese has become the definitive American director to explore religious guilt and the psychic conflict it breeds. He has also crafted tales centered around men and women defined heavily by ethnicity in worlds where that is all many others see. He loves men of great stature but even greater fallibility, and perhaps no American director besides David Simon is so acutely aware of the role that environment and birth play in our fate. And through Gangs of New York, Scorsese makes his grand, cynical statement once and for all on all the themes that have propelled his career.

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Before New York City became the commercial center of the world and Times Square was the most trafficked and wealthy spot on this planet, it was a poor city in the 1800s with rampant crime and plagued by ethnic strife. Though Tammany Hall, led by Boss Tweed (played in the film by Jim Broadbent), seduced the flood of immigrants entering the city as soon as they got off the boat, nativist xenophobic sentiment was not far behind from the strong-arm tactics of members of the Know-Nothing Party who wanted the nation’s docks closed to all foreigners. And, just as the United States is instituting its first draft to man the Civil War, foreign resentment and massive wealth disparities feed the fuel of public discontent, and the slightest disturbance would mean blood on the streets (when the gangs aren’t causing it already). It’s clear that one doesn’t have to make much of a stretch to find parallels from the film to not only the early 2000s that birthed the movie but also the increasingly polemic America we live in now.

The film begins in 1849 with a battle to the death between the Dead Rabbits, an Irish immigrant gang led by Priest Vallon (Michael Collins‘s Liam Neeson), and the Natives, a brutal American-born gang led by Bill “The Butcher” Cutting (The Age of Innocence‘s Daniel Day-Lewis). When Bill defeats the Priest in hand-to-hand combat, the Dead Rabbits are no more, and the Priest’s son, Amsterdam (played as a grown-up by Inception‘s Leonardo DiCaprio), is left an orphan. Amsterdam is sent-off to the Hellgate reform school, and sixteen long years he waits and lets his anger and desire for revenge grow. When he’s finally released from the asylum sixteen years later, Amsterdam returns to the city of his birth seeking nothing less than the death of the man who killed his father. But when Amsterdam returns to New york, Bill “The Butcher” is stronger than ever, and though he is initially trying to simply infiltrate Bill’s organization, Amsterdam quickly finds himself becoming a son figure to Bill who doesn’t realize Amsterdam’s true identity.

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(side note. every part of this review before this sentence was written yesterday. I passed out writing it and I’ve only just now had time to return to it. So, my apologies if my thoughts now seem disconnected)

Much like The Age of Innocence before it, Gangs of New York is everything you could possibly want in a historical epic and it mostly avoids the trappings of the era. While the costumes and period detail are astounding (though it turns out that Scorsese used a hodgepodge of different times and looks to create the feel of the film), the “period” of the film isn’t the point. It’s not a film meant to dryly capture historical facts. History books and documentaries exist to do that. Instead, Scorsese uses the class discontent, racial animosity, and seething anger of the era to turn a mirror back onto the current age. And, in the process, he asks very uncomfortable questions about one of the few wars that everyone (at least in the North) in this country can agree on today, the Civil War. By peering into darker pages of American history and wrapping it in a tragic story of revenge, Scorsese finds universal truths of the American experience. With  a script partially written by Margaret and You Can Count on Me‘s Kenneth Lonergan, the power of the story and characters should be no surprise.

In classic Scorsese fashion though, Gangs of New York is an enthralling film to look at, not just because of the striking period detail but also because of the striking cinematography from Michael Ballhaus. When the film centers around the Five Points (the area of New York City that would later on become Times Square), there is a darkness and messiness to the film’s visual style and production design (though any history buff could tell you there wasn’t nearly enough shit on the streets). And when the film briefly takes a visit to the richer parts of the city, you could be forgiven for believing you’d stepped onto the set of The Age of Innocence, and the movie’s visual style matches the new feel. And lest we forget, the movie has one of the most famous closing montages of all time as the old New York is quickly swept away and we see the ever evolving New York City skyline til it reaches the present.

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Daniel Day-Lewis is probably the greatest film actor that’s ever lived. If you can watch his body of work and not come to that conclusion, we evaluate acting differently. His dedication to his craft is simply peerless. To prepare for the role of Bill “The Butcher,” Lewis listened to old recordings of 19th century NY politician William Jennings Bryan in order to master a New York accent that has ceased to exist. He refused to take modern medicine when he caught pneumonia during principal photography for this film because it hadn’t been invented yet (he eventually caved when it nearly killed him). Yeah, that’s sort of crazy, but it’s that type of commitment to his parts that makes Daniel Day-Lewis such an extraordinary talent and why he’s won three Best Actor Oscars (more than anyone else). I haven’t seen The Pianist yet so I can’t say if Adrien Brody was better, but man, he must have been really good to beat Daniel Day-Lewis for this film.

This was one of Leonardo DiCaprio’s first really mature roles in a post-Titanic world and the beginning of his partnership with Martin Scorsese (which I hope just lasts forever cause the two work magic together), DiCaprio still brought his A-game even if he wasn’t able to meet the heights he would later set in The Departed. But, with Amsterdam, we got to see much of the boiling anger mixed with naked vulnerability that would help to define some of DiCaprio’s best roles. Although, hilariously like The Departed, he does have trouble maintaining his accent over the course of this film (though just like in The Departed, the script does try to hand-wave this away). Cameron Diaz also gives easily her best performance other than Being John Malkovich as the pick-pocket that catches Amsterdam’s eyes but also threatens to be his downfall.

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If the film can be faulted then, it’s that it has so much to say and not nearly enough time to say it all. I think that the film’s climax is one of the best things Scorsese’s ever done in terms of sheer Hellish, apocalyptic destruction, but it becomes so unfocused that on your first viewing (or three), it may not be terribly apparent why everything that is happening is happening and why it’s necessary for Scorsese to show it all. And the only time where the film really feels like it’s starting to lag over it’s nearly three hour running time is immediately following… well, a moment in the film that I don’t want to spoil, but the movie begins to feel a little bit more like  history lesson than the Shakespearean tale it had before. Although those moments do dovetail to give the film it’s messy, tragic finale.

I’ll draw this to a close. I’m re-making the list for this blog (I think I’ve accidentally been deleting movies from my list rather than just the one’s I’ve watched), and as someone who’s done that twice before (I straight up lost my first list. Yes, that was as terrible as it sounds), I can already tell you how long it’s going to take me to remake the list for this blog. But, now, I’ll be keeping it in the Cloud so I don’t really need to worry about losing it. Cause if I lose it again, I’ll probably just say f*** it and quit doing this blog. Anywyas, that’s a time consuming activity, and I want to finish at least one decade every day in terms of repopulating that list. I did the 2010s and 2000s yesterday. Today’s the 90s. My last words on this film then are, if you’ve managed to not see Gangs of New York yet, do so immediately. It just misses perfection, but it many ways it’s the most impactful film Scorsese’s ever made .

Final Score: A

 

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Not since my review of No Country for Old Men early in this blog’s existence have I reviewed a film that I have such complicated feelings toward. Much like that particular Coen brothers film, The Departed was the movie where Hollywood royalty (in this case Martin Scorsese) finally took home the big prize. Yet, just like No Country for Old Men, there is a sizable portion of that director’s fan-base who feel Scorsese was rewarded for the wrong film. I consider myself to be a bit of a Scorsese buff, and I can name around five of his films that I think are better than The Departed and quite a few films from 2006 that were more deserving of the Best Picture Oscar (Pan’s Labyrinth, Letters from Iwo Jima, Little Children just to name a few). That’s not to say this isn’t a good movie. It is, in fact, a great film (that far exceeds it’s source material, Infernal Affairs). It just has enough flaws to keep it from reaching the top-tier of Scorsese classics.

You do have to give The Departed and Martin Scorsese (as well as screenwriter William Monahan) credit for something though. The Departed (alongside Peter Jackson’s re-imagination of King Kong) has become the standard by which any future remake has to be judged. Current readers will know I reviewed Infernal Affairs last week, and I found it to be an all-style/no-substance affair. That was actually my primary complaint about The Departed for years although upon more recent viewings, I’ve come to appreciate a lot of the subtext the film contained. And despite The Departed‘s occasional slightness, it expands and broadens every aspect of Infernal Affairs. Characters that were broad generalizations are given life and depth, and with the exception of Good Will Hunting and Gone Baby Gone, Boston has rarely felt this alive in cinema.

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With many added characters and a geographical facelift, The Departed is a very Irish-American take (coming from the ultimate Italian-American film-maker, Martin Scorsese) on the Hong Kong action of Infernal Affairs. Irish mafia king-pin Frank Costello (Chinatown‘s Jack Nicholson) runs the Boston underworld, and it puts him right in the sights of Massachussetts State Police Captain Queenan (Catch-22‘s Martin Sheen). Queenan runs the Undercover Department of the Special Investigation’s Unit, and along with his assistant Dignam (The Fighter‘s Mark Wahlberg), he hires Billy Costigan (Inception‘s Leonardo DiCaprio), a State Police cadet, to go undercover and infiltrate Costello’s organization. At the same time, Costello has Colin Sullivan (Margaret‘s Matt Damon) joining the Massachusetts State Police where he quickly climbs the ranks and becomes Costello’s mole in the police. And it’s not long before both Costigan and Sullivan have to hunt each other.

Where The Departed really sets itself apart from Infernal Affairs (besides the better cast, better direction, better editing, etc) is that beneath the cat-and-mouse game at the heart of the film and the violent crime action is a tale about identity, redemption, family, and being something more than fate decides you should be. The obvious theme to discuss is identity and how men and women who go undercover as cops often risk becoming the very people they’re trying to hunt. That was all of Donnie Brasco, and The Departed makes it so much more compelling. Maybe it’s cause DiCaprio handles the terrain better than Johnny Depp (more on DiCaprio shortly), but the dramatic thrust of the schizophrenic state Billy Costigan always had to place himself in was what kept the tightly wound crime thriller glued together.

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To me, any discussion though of the film’s merits have to begin and end with Leonardo DiCaprio’s fearless performance as Billy Costigan. He got his Oscar nomination that year for Blood Diamond, but it should have been for this film, and honestly, he was just as good as Forrest Whitaker in The Last King of Scotland. This was a career-defining performance from Leo, and much like Robert De Niro before him, this was the film that cemented him as Scorsese’s new acting muse. Billy Costigan demands that Leo can reach every spot on the emotional continuum and often flip between them instantly. And not only does Leo do this, he nearly sets a new bar for masculine vulnerability. There is an emotional nakedness that Leo taps into for some of the most important scenes of the film, and it is rare to see a male actor display so much of his soul in a performance.

The rest of the cast was wonderful as well, and it’s honestly impossible to pick favorites. It’s kind of ridiculous that Mark Wahlberg got an Oscar nomination when Jack Nicholson and Alec Baldwin didn’t (as they both gave more interesting performances) though Marky Mark did do a good job in his spot. This was not one of the definitive performances of Matt Damon’s career, but he channeled the smugness and confidence that someone like Colin Sullivan would need to reach the top. Martin Sheen shined as the paternal Captain Queenan (even though he couldn’t always keep up the Boston accent). Some have accused Jack Nicholson’s performance of being too hammy, but I’m pretty sure it was intentional, and it added to the flamboyancy of the Costello character. And as the shared love interest of both Costigan and Sullivan, Vera Farmiga brings her own vulnerable sexuality to the equation as a psychiatrist.

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And, in classic Scorsese style, The Departed is a technical movie fan’s dream. There are issues I take with the direction (more on that later), but mostly, Scorsese proves again and again why he will be forever remembered as one of the most important figures in American cinema. Whether it’s the lighting, the quick cross-cutting, the not-so-subtle religious iconography, or the graphic, stylized violence, The Departed feels like a Scorsese film through and through, and after the decade spent the better part of the decade exploring more serious affairs like The Aviator and Gangs of New York, Scorsese’s return to his organized crime roots was certainly a breath of fresh air to his legions of fans. The Departed runs two and a half hours long, which is about thirty minutes too long for this story, but it took Scorsese’s steady hand to make that length bearable and consistently fun.

However, that doesn’t erase the fact that the film is too long. And while the pacing remains generally propulsive, there are moments where it lags, and I don’t just mean that it slows down to focus on characters. That’s fine. But many of the moments where the film tries to develop the Colin Sullivan character feel less well-realized than the other moments in the film, and unlike Infernal Affairs (where the dirty cop was just as interesting, if not more interesting than the undercover cop), Sullivan just never reaches the dramatic heights that Costigan finds. The sections where the film alludes to his sexual dysfunctions are especially poorly done and just don’t hit with me. Also, Infernal Affairs has a better ending than The Departed. I don’t want to ruin either film’s ending, but if you’ve seen both, I’m not sure if it’s possible to feel that Scorsese’s ending didn’t dilute the powerful nature of the other film’s climax.

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I’ll draw this to a close (this particular review keeps reminding me that I should start taking notes as I watch movies I plan on reviewing like I did in the past) and leave with these parting thoughts. The Departed is a great film and one of the definitive crime epics of the 2000s. Sadly, the competition in that particular category wasn’t as fierce as it was in the 90s and 70s. And Martin Scorsese is such a storied director with such a sizable library of classic films (Raging Bull, Taxi Driver, Goodfellas, etc) that The Departed ranks somewhere alongside Hugo in a list of his great films that just aren’t as legendary as his definitive works. Still, for fans of Scorsese and fans of crime movies in general, The Departed is about as can’t miss as they come.

Final Score: A-

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It is rare for an American remake of a film to be remotely as good as the foreign film it’s based on, let alone be better. Let Me In is one of the only ones I can think of off the top of my head and it still isn’t the instant classic that Let the Right One In has become in my mind. Usually, American remakes dial down any sexual or disturbing content (barring violence) that made the original stand out, and because they almost never improve upon the original piece in any way, they are simply redundant at best and bastardizations at worst. With that said, am I a terrible person for thinking that The Departed is vastly superior to Infernal Affairs, the 2004 Hong Kong film it is based on?

I watched Infernal Affairs for my film studies class (where we’re watching nothing but gangster movies) and we’ll be watching The Departed next week (although I watched that film last semester during that several month hiatus where I wasn’t reviewing movies to work on my screenplays). And other than the film’s ending (no, I won’t spoil it for anyone. don’t worry), I’m not sure if I can name a single area where Martin Scorsese’s remake isn’t simply a much better product than this film. From the script, to the characters, to the direction, to the editing, to the cinematography, Infernal Affairs has now become in my mind the go to example of how a good story can become a great film when given to the right hands.

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I will give the film credit for coming up with the clever story that is at both the heart of it and The Departed (although the latter so greatly expands on the themes and the characters that this film almost just seems like a sketch in comparison). Two different men are chosen to go deep undercover into the organizations of their boss’s biggest enemies. Lau Kin Ming (Andy Lau) is hired by the Triad to infiltrated the Hong Kong Police Department while police cadet Chan Wing Yan (Tony Leung) infiltrates the Triad. And as each goes deeper and higher into their undercover ops, their job becomes to find out who the mole is in their ranks.

And that’s really it. I’m going to keep on bleating on about how much better The Departed is than this film, but I’ve always thought of The Departed as one of Scorsese’s slightest films. It’s one of his films that relies the most on style over substance, but if The Departed is slight, Infernal Affairs is just anorexic. Although the film is a terrific example of non-stop intelligent pacing (the film really manages to ratchet the tension up and never let up right out of the gates), the characters are paper-thin, and you are given absolutely no reason to care about anyone involved. And when characters die or are betrayed or reveal shocking allegiances, none of it matters because you don’t feel any emotional attachment to the individuals involved.

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The direction and editing of the film though are what lead me to think of this film as being so amateurish (although I suppose any movie would pale in comparison to something Martin Scorsese touched). The opening sequences of the film are an endless stream of cross-cuts which lend no sense of direction or meaning to the story and it took me far too long to even realize what was happening and who was good and who was bad. And the film employs so many cheesy scene transitions and unnecessary expository flashbacks (not to unseen events in the film but things that have already happened once already) that you begin to feel like the director doesn’t trust the audience’s ability to keep up with the action on scren.

I’m going to keep this review short and sweet. I enjoyed Infernal Affairs, and maybe, if I hadn’t seen The Departed first, I would have liked it a lot more. As it stands, Infernal Affairs is a good movie with a great concept, and it took a more talented creative team to really bring fruit to the story. If you like foreign cinema, it’s certainly a must see, and if you’re a big fan of its American successor, it’s interesting to see just how many of the scenes were lifted straight from this film. But ultimately, it’s just a serviceable action thriller.

Final Score: B

 

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Before I went on my extended hiatus for this blog (as I was writing Aftertaste through the six or so drafts that I’ve written of my first screenplay), one of the things that I was doing with this blog was taking fairly extensive notes on a tiny little notepad so that my reviews on here could be more detailed and specific. It was a trick I had learned as a music journalist because during Bonnaroo, I realized that after seeing twenty or so bands, I’d hardly be able to remember which songs the bands had played if I didn’t take notes about it let alone awesome specific moments from any given concert. And that translated well to movies. For whatever reason, I’ve stopped doing that after I decided to go back to this blog and start reviewing movies again (though I haven’t abandoned my screenwriting. I finished screenplay #2, Thursdays, about three weeks ago, and I started screenplay #3 last night). And after sitting through the good but mildly forgettable Donnie Brasco last night (as well as my recent string of finding myself getting hazy on the details of films I really enjoyed because I had to wait so long to review them), I know I need to get the notepad out again.

Perhaps my disappointment with Donnie Brasco lies with the simple fact that I can name two films that do the two main themes of the film so much better than this film does. The film is both a crime procedural as well as a study of how undercover cops often face the peril of “becoming the mask” they wear to stop crime. Of course, the modern film that has more or less set the non-The Wire standard for crime procedurals was Zodiac and there were simply times where Donnie Brasco felt like it was playing hard and loose with the actual facts of the case (and apparently, the ending definitely stretched the truth), and Leonardo Dicaprio set the gold standard for undercover cop performances in The Departed (which I’ll be watching in a week or so for my film studies class. and this week, I should be watching the film it’s based on, Infernal Affairs). Thank god that Lefty Ruggiero was such a compelling figure that could carry the film on his shoulders.

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Donnie Brasco is a loose adaptation of the real life story of Joseph Pistone (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas‘s Johnny Depp), an undercover FBI Agent tasked with infiltrating the Bonanno crime family in the 1970s. Working under the alias of Donnie “the jeweler” Brasco, Joe befriends the low-level and all-around loser mafia hit man Benjamin “Lefty” Ruggiero (The Godfather: Part II‘s Al Pacino). Lefty wants to believe he’s a big shot, but he isn’t. He’s barely an earner, and it’s heavily implied that he might not even be a “made man.” But after Donnie earns Lefty’s trust by telling Lefty that a diamond Lefty scored is a fake, Lefty takes Donnie in as his mentor and quickly begins to personally “vouch” for him with the other mafiosi. And thus begins a years long deep cover operation that will ultimately lead to convictions against over 100 members of the Bonanno crime family.

However, Joe/Donnie’s life is more complicated than just trying to infiltrate the mob and to climb up the ranks in order take down as many mobsters as he can (though the film shows many moments where Donnie’s cover gets a hair-breadth away from being blown). Joe begins to lose himself in the identity of Donnie Brasco, and the constant demands of his job requires him to spend months at a time away from his wife (Cedar Rapids‘ Anne Heche) and kids. Donnie also knows that when he’s finally pulled out of the case and his identity as an FBI informant is revealed, it will surely mean the death of Lefty who Donnie has begun to legitimately care about almost as a father figure. Although Donnie loathes the violence and crime that these men live in, after spending so much time with them, he has begun to identify almost as much with his alter-ego and his “partners in crime” as he does anyone in the real, legal world.

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This was one of Johnny Depp’s first real “grown-up” roles, and, you know what, it’s really nice to see Depp in a non-crazy person role every now and then. It reminds you what a hell of a talented actor he is even when he isn’t playing a Jack Sparrow type or any of his other famous crazy person roles. Although it’s not as great as Dicaprio in The Departed, Johnny Depp really loses himself as a man that’s being torn apart by the competing forces in his life. And he (and the writers) aren’t afraid to paint Joe/Donnie in an increasingly unsympathetic life as the violence and madness of the mafia world begins to seep in to his home life. Depp has to go to some really dark places in this role, and when the role calls for shocking moments of brutality or for Depp to snap out against his wife, he re-inforces just how how far gone Joe has gotten lost as Donnie.

However, Pacino makes this movie. It isn’t just the fact that Lefty is the most interesting part of the film (although more on that later); it’s how deflated and pathetic Pacino can make Lefty and then shift on a dime to show the false swagger Lefty wants to have. This particular 50 film block for my blog has been really Pacino heavy (to wit: Donnie Brasco, Scarface, Glengarry Glen Ross, The Godfather: Part 1 & 2 ) and when I give away my superlatives for this set, there’s a really good chance that Al Pacino is going to be making around three or so appearances. It’s kind of crazy. He wasn’t in a single movie that I reviewed for the 300 films before this set, and now he’s just dominating the field. And while Lefty isn’t as great as Ricky Roma or Michael Corleone, he is such a massive subversion of the glamorous mafioso type (and against the sort of cocky psychos Pacino began to play) that it proves yet again that Pacino is simply one of the greatest actors of all time.

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There were other great supporting performances in the film. Anne Heche shined as Joe’s abandoned and long-suffering wife. Michael Madsen was sufficiently menacing as Sonny Black, one of Lefty’s capos whose whirlpool of violence continues to suck in Joe/Donnie. And Zeljko Ivanek brought his patented brand of slime and bureaucratic sleaziness as an FBI field manager who didn’t seem to care too much about Donnie’s safety. I’ve reached the 1000 word mark so I’ll draw this review to a close so maybe I can do a little screenwriting of my own this evening. If you like crime and ganster movies, Donnie Brasco is very good if not especially great. Other than the tragic and doomed Lefty, I never generated a real emotional connection to any of the action on screen. It just sort of washed over me. Maybe that’s just me though, and everybody should definitely give this movie a try.

Final Score: B+

 

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(A quick aside before I actually begin this review. I’m on something of a hot streak right now. Long time readers know that they come and go [and occasionally I am forced to watch several awful films in a row] but those times where the blog gods align to increase my cinematic fortunes is always a  delight. This is one of those moments because, counting this review, my last four films have all been either “A”s or “A+”s. It doesn’t get much better than that)

It’s hard to make a good cop movie/show. Ignoring for a second that the greatest television program of all time (and arguably the greatest piece of popular fiction ever produced) is the cop drama The Wire (although obviously that show is much more than just a cop show), just think about how many terribly mediocre procedural crime dramas fill up the time between advertisements on TV. The CSIs, the NCISs, the endless Law & Order spin-offs. And for every Training Day or Rampart, you get thirty lame Steven Segal films or something with Michael Bay attached to them. So, when I say that 2012’s sleeper hit, End of Watch, is the best cop movie I’ve seen since Training Day, it should mean something.

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End of Watch is reminiscent of the similarly “bro-mance” heavy and intimate military indie, The Messenger, although rather than focusing on the day to day lives of two soldiers whose job is to inform family members of the deaths of their loved ones, End of Watch peeks into the lives of  two cops in the LAPD serving in some of the roughest neighborhoods of Los Angeles. Brian Taylor (Brokeback Mountain‘s Jake Gyllenhaal) and Mike Zavala (Michael Peña) are both shining examples and stark subversions of the “Cowboy Cop” trope. Brian is a pre-law college student who is filming his daily shifts (and regular life) with his partner Mike. Mike is happily married with his first child on the way while Brian is just starting to date Janet (Anna Kendrick) as the film begins. And Brian and Mike’s lives take a turn for the worse when their cop heroics put them on the bad side of a powerful Mexican cartel that will stop at nothing to get revenge.

A common complaint people have had about the film is that it is sort of formless and “plot”-less, but honestly that was one of the most appealing parts of the film for me. It’s not meant to be a story intensive film (at least not until it’s shocking and explosive finale), and it’s rather meant to be a serious (though often intentionally comic) character drama, and in that regard, the film is a resounding success. My dad turned to me half way through the film (which he enjoyed although not as much as I did) and said “Son, you’re probably enjoying this a lot more than me cause of the dialogue.” And he was right. As Brian and Mike bond through car rides, quincineras, shoot-outs, and other turns in their personal life, you feel like you really get to know these two, and writer/director David Ayer paints a fully-realized and sympathetic (but also honest) portrayal of two men just serving their duty in the LAPD.

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Anyone who’s seen Brokeback Mountain knows that Jake Gyllenhaal is more than just a pretty face (can I say that as a straight man? who gives a sh*t). He is a talented actor that is able to delve into depths of sensitivity that few of his male compatriots his age can (Heath Ledger was an early peer obviously but he’s gone now). And while End of Watch certainly isn’t one of his most challenging roles, Gyllenhaal certainly rises to the occasion. Michael Peña was the film’s pleasant acting surprise. He’s gotten a ton of smaller (and occasionally larger) parts throughout the years ever since exploding in Crash, and End of Watch reminds me why this man should get more roles. He had better comedic chops than Gyllenhaal and was able to keep pace during the dramatic moments. In fact, Peña’s very expressive face captured possibly more of the inner turmoil yet iron courage that defined these two men than Gyllenhaal could. Here is a man that needs to be a bigger star.

I usually think of the found footage genre as being something primarily used for horror movies (Paranormal Activity, The Last Exorcism, etc) not something that you see in serious dramas, but David Ayer makes it work. The film is told almost entirely either through the cameras that Brian and Mike have placed on their chests, a handheld camera that Brian uses, their squad car’s official camera, as well as cameras held by other characters such as antagonists. It really places you right into the heart of the film’s action and you feel like you’re riding along with these two knuckleheads on one of their patrols and when the film swithces into a first-person mode, it really ups the tension to nearly unbearable levels. My only complaint about the film are the moments that seem to violate the pattern of only using footage that someone else is filming. It draws you out of End of Watch‘s universe.

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I watched this movie Friday night and I haven’t had a chance to review it til now. I just went to the doctor today after my health more or less disintegrated over the weekend at work. I developed a terrible cough and I completely lost my voice. Turns out that I have bronchitis and a sinus infection. A real double whammy that has been a lot of fun. So, when I haven’t been working these last couple of days, I’ve been resting. I’m going to keep this review short just because I waited too long to do the review, and I don’t feel like I can do it proper justice. Hopefully, I’ll be getting better over the next week or so and my blogging can stop suffering. What you need to take from this review then is that this is an excellent movie. It joins Perks of Being a Wallflower and Liberal Arts as being one of the best films that I watched from 2012, and I’m not sure if a film has a had a more shocking and brutal ending in recent years than this excellent crime drama/thriller.

Final Score: A