“End of Watch”

Richard’s Review:  3 1/2 stars

The lives of LAPD cops have been the stuff of TV shows and movies for years. So how do you lend some interest to the story of two South Central patrol cops? By not telling a story, that’s how.

Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña play Officers Taylor and Zavala, patrol cops in Los Angeles’ tough South Central neighborhood. A routine traffic stop turns into something bigger when they confiscate money and guns from a cartel member. “Be careful,” they’re warned by a senior officer. “You just tugged on the tail of a snake that’s going to turn around and bite you.” 

“End of Watch” is all buildup. The movie spends 90 minutes introducing its characters, giving us a sense of the dynamic between Taylor and Zavala as they bust chops and solve crimes. We learn about the mundane work-a-day nature of policing. “Policing is all about comfortable footwear,” we’re told. We also discover that these guys are trouble magnets. Not since Angela Landsbury starred in “Murder She Wrote” have fictional characters had such a knack for being on the scene where some crime has just happened.

It takes a while to warm to the “story’s” episodic nature. Director David Ayer specializes in L.A. cop dramas, having written “Training Day” and “S.W.A.T.” He also directed “Street Kings.”

Ayer eschews traditional storytelling for character study. Through a loosely related series of scenes we learn about the sense of love, honour and loyalty shared by these cops.  Once you allow yourself to be drawn into the performances and the chemistry of the lead actors, you’ll be sucked in straight through to the film’s exciting conclusion.

The beginning of this movie is tough, however, and its first half-hour is stagey. Having a character film part of the movie has been done to death and adds a level of artificiality to this film. The Barf-O-Matic hand-held camera work adds a sense of immediacy to the action scenes, but it’s overused and it is sometimes hard to tell what is happening. Take out the wobbly camera and no one would miss it.

Also, it’s hard to discuss the end of this film without spoiling it for moviegoers. Let’s just say the movie goes from jovial to gritty and back to jovial again. I didn’t love it, but Hollywood seems to be allergic to tragic endings. Ayer finds a way to circumvent that and stay true to his gritty vision for this story.

Despite an unnecessary coda, “End of Watch” works because of the naturalistic performances and the climax.

“The Master”  

Richard’s Review:  4 1/2 stars

It’s impossible to deny the correlation between “The Master” and the origins of Scientology. No story about a mid-century mystic starting a religion based on science fiction could avoid the comparison, but Tom Cruise and John Travolta don’t have to boycott the film. Director Paul Thomas Anderson simply uses the birth of the religion as a backdrop for a study in extreme behaviour focusing on two troubled men, Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix).

Quell, a WWII vet with a taste for gut-rot hooch and post-traumatic stress disorder drifts through life until he meets Dodd, a self-described "writer, doctor, nuclear physicist, theoretical philosopher [and] hopelessly inquisitive man." Dodd is the godhead of a new movement called The Cause, which aims at maximizing human potential. His disciples believe his mix of sci-fi and religion. They also believe that it will rid them of past trauma, and call him the Master.

Quell is invited to join the group with the welcome, “Leave your worries for a while. They'll be there when you get back. Your memories aren't invited." The bewildered sailor agrees, becoming a pet project for Dodd, who “processes” him to cleanse his past lives and free his spirit. What follows is a beautifully choreographed ballet of loyalty, deceit and betrayal, with Quell and Dodd taking turns leading the dance.

Giving away too much more isn’t fair to the movie or the viewer. The relationship between these men is complex. It’s doctor-patient, father-son and almost oedipal in its nature. It’s been suggested that Quell is a Tyler Durden character -- he doesn’t exist except as a manifestation of the rage that Dodd manages to keep in check most of the time. I don’t buy that. They may be two sides of the same coin, but they are definitely two different people. 

As Quell Phoenix is a raw twitching nerve, part Brando, part Bukowski. He’s restless, disturbed and feral. The kind of man who enjoys drinking a home brew made from paint thinner, picking fights and crying when he thinks of lost love. Emotionally damaged, Quell is unpredictable and Phoenix embodies him throughout this film. It’s an astonishing, revelatory performance that recalls “Raging Bull” era De Niro.

As untamed as Phoenix is, Hoffman is controlled and hands in a performance brimming with confidence, power and charisma. Imagine Orson Welles as a wannabe prophet and you get the idea. He’s a charlatan with a silver tongue, a true believer who presents his wacko ideas “as a gift to homosapiens,” and, alongside Phoenix, a lock for an Oscar nomination. 

The leads are joined by an impressive cast of supporting actors, notably Amy Adams as the steely wife of the Master and Laura Dern as an early disciple.

“The Master” won’t satisfy those who like their stories tied up in neat bows. It is an enigmatic story about impenetrable people. It’s also an opaque, singular experience that is best thought of as a tone poem about man’s aspirations and failures.  

“The Trouble with the Curve”  

Richard’s Review: 2 1/2  stars

This weekend in “Trouble with the Curve” Clint Eastwood is playing a character he’s never tried before -- sort of.  He’s a baseball scout who brings his daughter along as he recruits new players. It’s his first baseball movie, but it isn’t the first time he’s played this kind of role -- a man on the proverbial one last job.

The icon plays Gus, a legendary (read: old) Atlanta Braves scout. He’s regarded as a dinosaur by his colleagues, who mock him for his old -school, anti-“Moneyball” approach -- travelling to games, reading stats in the newspaper -- as they sit behind their computer screens gathering information. His job and legacy rest on recruiting batting hotshot Bo Gentry (Joe Massingill), but old age and failing eyesight are slowing him down. His boss and oldest friend Pete (John Goodman) guilts Gus’ estranged daughter Mickey (Amy Adams), named after Mickey Mantle, to accompany him on the road. It may be Gus’ last scouting trip and his last chance to patch things up with the daughter he left in the metaphorical bleachers when she was a young girl.

“The Trouble with the Curve” is the kind of harmless, predictable movie that succeeds despite the story. Pretty much everything that happens is telegraphed long in advance. The characters are the kind of people who exist only in the movies and like its lead actor, it feels like a relic from another time.

That, in some ways, is a good thing. There isn’t a cynical bone in this straightforward story that uses star power to elevate it from “Grumpy Old Men” territory.

The Clintiness of it earns it a recommend. The iconic actor has never been shy about embracing his veteran status on screen. Since “Unforgiven,” Eastwood has been acting his age. Now at 82 he’s acting like the grandfather he is in real life, terrible jokes and all. “Get out of here before I have a heart attack trying to kill,” is a line that would have stuck in Dirty Harry’s throat, but here it’s funny with just a hint of menace.

Eastwood is funny, gruff and even lip-quiveringly emotional in this moive. Continuing his newfound habit of speaking to inanimate objects, Eastwood does a monologue with a gravestone that is as cliché as anything thing we’ve seen in that wheelhouse. Even so, somehow Eastwood makes it work.

As for the supporting cast, Amy Adams and Justin Timberlake have good chemistry, Matthew Lillard is an easy-to-dislike smarm-bucket and John Goodman is as comfortable as a well-worn in baseball mitt. But make no mistake -- none of this would matter without Eastwood at the helm.

The trouble with “Trouble with the Curve” isn’t the curves. It’s too by-the-book. Luckily a combo of Clint and some good old-fashioned sentimentality save it in the final innings.  

“House at the End of the Street”

Richard’s Review: 2 stars

Jennifer Lawrence follows up the mega success of “The Hunger Games” with “The House at the End of the Street,” a creepy-house-next-door flick featuring good-looking teens, a double murder and one pretty good Norman Bates impression.

Lawrence is Elissa, a 17-year-old from Chicago transplanted with her single mom (Elisabeth Shue) to a small town in search of a better life. They find a comfortable home in a nice neighborhood. The only drawback is that it is next door to the scene of a gruesome double murder. Years before little Carrie Anne bludgeoned her parents to death before disappearing off into the woods, where it is rumoured she still lives today. When Elissa befriends Ryan (Max Thieriot), the only surviving family member, she discovers there’s more to the story than she had heard.

Much of the plot sounds like a campfire ghost story -- “And the crazed killer lives in the woods to this VERY DAY!!” -- and is about as scary as that story can be  without someone holding a flashlight under their chin.

There are some good atmospherics near the beginning and some tension of the “don’t you open that door!” kind, followed by the “don’t you go down those stairs” type which leads to a predictable ending. You won’t be on the edge of your seat, but you might move closer to the middle.   

There are a few too many red herrings for “The House at the End of the Street’s” payoff to feel genuine, and some of the dialogue is unintentionally hilarious. But Lawrence’s charisma is in effect and if they ever decide to remake “Psycho” again they should give Thieriot a call.