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Thursday, January 24, 2013

DVD+Digital: South Central, found footage and End of Watch

Posted by on Thu, Jan 24, 2013 at 4:01 PM

End of Watch — the intense police drama new to DVD, Blu-ray and digital this week — truly is a different kind of cop movie.

I know, I know. They all say that. But director David Ayer (writer of Training Day) executes an interesting game plan here and gets big results by going small. He narrows the focus radically by following two L.A. cops and their day-to-day experiences in a notorious South Central neighborhood.

Jake Gyllenhaal headlines as Brian Taylor, a young patrolman for whom the term "gung-ho" was apparently invented. As stated in the film's opening voiceover, Taylor fully believes in the concept of the thin blue line: That a brotherhood of good guys with badges is the only thing standing between a safe society and a murderous criminal class of bad guys.

Taylor's on-the-job experience seems to support this theory. Along with partner Miguel Zavala (Micheal Pena, Tower Heist), Taylor encounters scene after harrowing scene of violence and despair on the streets of South Central. When the partners break down one too many doors, they're targeted for bloody elimination by a terrifying Mexican drug cartel.

The film's narrative twist is that Taylor carries a hand-held digital camera with him on duty, as part of a community college project. Director Ayer uses the digital camera — plus lapel cameras and squad car dash cams — to deliver much of the film in dizzying first-person close-up. In fact, as the extras reveal, the original plan was to film the entire movie in the "found footage" style so fashionable of late.

Ayer eventually chose to integrate traditional cinematography as well. Good call. The found footage gimmick is too conspicuous and too implausible — why would the gangbangers have cameras? End of Watch is a good movie, but it could have been even better film if Ayer had discarded the shaky cam entirely. You don't need a reason to use weird, tight camera angles. Spike Lee does it all the time.

In any case, the horribly intimate camera work makes End of Watch a hard-hitting and visceral experience, even on the small screen. Everything is immediate, disconnected and lethal. The cops must simply react. The film doesn't play by the usual storytelling rules of crime drama, either. We never get the Big Picture regarding the drug cartel's operation.

For instance, the feds are apparently lurking about, monitoring the cartel. But the street cops aren't told what's going on. Neither is the viewer. Late in the movie, a call for backup goes unheeded and we're left to wonder, like Taylor and Zavala, what happened to the cavalry? Were the backup units deliberately delayed? They never find out, and neither do we.

The film's unsparing final scenes also cut against the grain of cop movie tradition. Even the bleakest of violent thrillers seldom wander this far off the map. Be sure to check the included alternate endings in the DVD extras to see just how weird Ayer was willing to get. Also look for crisp supporting work from America Ferrara and Anna Kendrick.

Gyllenhaal and Pena both give tremendous performances. You really feel the fraternal bond between these two characters. The two actors spent nine months riding along with actual L.A. patrol cops and, not coincidentally, the film pulses with authenticity. If you have the stomach for it, End of Watch is one of the best cop movies to come along in years.

Also New This Week:

Matthew McConaughey, Nicole Kidman and John Cusack star in The Paperboy, a bugged-out Florida Gothic drama from director Lee Daniels (Precious).

Searching for Sugar Man explores the true-story rock fable of Detroit musician Sixto Rodriguez, who left America to become a superstar in apartheid-ravaged South Africa. The film is among five nominees for this year's Documentary feature Oscar.

Yet another great documentary from last year, Beauty is Embarrassing profiles eccentric designer and artist Wayne White, visual architect of Pee-Wee's Playhouse.

Somewhat less than great, The Imposter is still among last year's most fascinating documentaries. The film examines the strange case of a French con man who lied his way into the U.S. by impersonating a missing Texas teenager

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Jake Gyllenhaal fights a vicious drug cartel in director David Ayer's superior cop drama.

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