1. The Lookout (2007) / End of Watch (2012)

This evening, I finished watching the second of two films I have been meaning to watch for a while now. Usually I think I will stick to writing about one film primarily, but in this case a double post will get the blog going.

The films are quite different, although both had a classic American feeling to them. One, because it was a mash-up of a heist movie and small-town drama (two sort-of-genre classics) that ended up being surprisingly moving, and the other because it was set in South Central Los Angeles and featured a fuckload of guns. They were The Lookout (2007) and End of Watch (2012), respectively.

The Lookout got better reviews than I would have given it credit for. Initially, I was unsure about what this was even about­; it had sat on my DVD shelf for a couple of months, perhaps even half a year, unwatched.

I sat down to watch it last night. I probably made it about half way before switching off and going to bed (though I admit I had watched End of Watch directly before, so…)

My initial impression was that it was similar fare to early Joseph Gordon-Levitt movies like Brick and Manic, both of which I enjoyed, although Rian Johnson’s Brick was far higher-budget and superior as a result. I’ve always had a slightly soft spot for JGL, probably (embarrassingly) since watching 500 Days of Summer at too impressionable an age.

Nonetheless, he’s a pretty decent actor, and, in fact, having watched Anna Kendrick in End of Watch last night, I think that it may have been subconscious memories of the two of them in 50/50 that motivated me to sit down to this – another film in which JGL essentially portrays an attractive, successful young man thrown into a horrible health position by accident (or carelessness).

For anyone who hasn’t seen it, The Lookout follows a young man named Chris Pratt (played by JGL) whose mental capacity is damaged following a car accident, who becomes involved in a bank robbery. Unfortunately for you if you haven’t seen it, these reviews aren’t going to be aimed at people who haven’t seen the films — go and watch it, then come back and read this to see if you agree.

Anyway. JGL seemed good, but two things struck me initially aside from him. The first was fairly minor, and it was that I had never seen Isla Fisher in a film before. I knew she was married to Sacha Baron Cohen, but aside from that she was relatively new to me as an actress. The second was that Jeff Bridges is an amazing talent; something I hadn’t realized when I watched The Big Lebowski years ago, nor any of his other movies.

Other than that, though, The Lookout didn’t really measure up to expectations. Roger Ebert had named it one of his best films of 2007 and I wasn’t really sure how, as it seemed slow-moving and derivative.

I came back to it this evening. I think perhaps I had been tired the first time round, because it seemed far more touching, relevant and just generally engaging than before.

The plot was relatively predictable — either the ‘doughnut’ cop or Jeff Bridges’ character was going to be killed during the robbery, and they went with the morally easier option of killing off the cop, not the blind character. Nonetheless, it was still marginally sad to see a character die who was likeable, even if his characterization was as simple as “I bring doughnuts to the main character every night and am gormless, and also have a baby on the way.” The cop was enough of a standard get-the-audience-to-invest-in-someone guy that I don’t even know his name, but I would imagine it is ‘Donnie’ or something. Think along the lines of Scream.

Instead, Jeff Bridges was able to play a sort of “wise disabled man” character, who (if derivative) provided some introspection to an otherwise standard plot.

The other nice moment was when Isla Fisher’s character flees the heist plot, and the film. She just gets in a cab, and leaves, and there is a moment where she stops, looks back, and then tells the cab driver to keep going, leaving JGL’s Chris Pratt (I know, right? But I think this was before the Parks and Rec one was famous) in the snow, unaware of the bad shit he’s getting himself into.

What I really liked about this scene was that she kept going and there was no goodbye. She was a morally ambiguous character at best, and had seduced JGL to get him to become a part of the plot. But, her moment of conscience was understated and had no clear payoff.

In many more commercial films (the likes of Edge of Tomorrow spring to mind, even though that was a great movie) the main male and female leads would get together at the end and forgive each other, just as service to viewers who sat through an hour and a half expecting the hero to get the hot girl. Not so here.

Nope. She just gets in the cab and leaves the film for good. The same thing happens with JGL’s character in a scene very near the end, where he seeks forgiveness from his ex-girlfriend and she smiles at him and says everything is okay. It’s obviously a dream; anyone who has ever seen even two or three films would know that. But the fact that there is no similar reconciliation outside of the dream at the end of the film makes the whole thing more touching.

Chris Pratt might get his life back together and make up with his ex, or find a new girl, but we will never find out, and the film’s only rosy final moment comes from Jeff – a man who earlier confirmed the viewer’s suspicion that someone like Isla would never end up with a guy like Joseph — and his new restaurant.

It’s bittersweet. But it’s nowhere near as bittersweet as the ending of End of Watch (emphasis here on the bitter), which in opposite fashion to The Lookout got far worse reviews than I would have given it credit for.

I thought this movie was brilliant. The only criticism that I could think of that held some sway was that it began as a real-life documentary-style movie that steadily descended into an action movie in the vein of Sicario. Then again, I feel as though the flip side of that criticism would have been levelled at the film if it hadn’t ramped up the tension and the stakes – if it had stayed realistic, and the cops just sat there and gave out parking tickets, then we would have been sold a very different film.

There was also the slight issue of the ridiculous villains throughout the film, too, who are exclusively Hispanic and black. Then again, this is South Central, right? So there are many more heroic cop characters who are African American and Hispanic through the film (including the brilliant Michael Peña) as a result. Yes, there are Bloods, and yes there is an evil cartel connection, but the LAPD in this movie is primarily comprised of heroic individuals; men and women, predominantly from minority backgrounds. Minorities are not portrayed as criminals, but rather all races have good, bad, and in-the-middle sides.

In fact, I think that this was a film that focused on Hispanic culture in Los Angeles above nearly everything else. There are two ‘families’ that feature heavily in End of Watch – the tight-knit cops, and Michael Peña’s extended relations, whose multiple quinceañera invitations and general Latino stereotypes (feisty get-togethers, good food, family values and dancing etc etc) Jake Gyllenhaal mocks the whole way through the film in typical buddy-cop fashion.

It is this two-way piss-taking and the deeper interactions that deepen the relationship between the two leads, and which provide the film’s strongest point. It’s highly believable, and the depth is increased by commendable supporting performances by Anna Kendrick and Natalie Martinez as their significant others. The film fails the Bechdel test because the only conversation between the two women is about their men, but the actresses do very well with what little they are given, and I felt as though their fears about the possible line-of-duty deaths of their husbands were ever-present in every moment of conflict; if Jake or Michael dies, they may die a hero but they leave a gaping void in the lives of the one they love. And it might be for selfish reasons.

The real payoff to this implication, of course, is the end of the film. If you watched this and didn’t expect at least one of them to die as they consistently and deliberately put themselves in the firing line, ran into burning houses and dug deeper and deeper into cartel activity in LA, then you probably don’t watch many movies.

Nonetheless, the ending still provided a couple of shocks. I promised in my introductory post that I would include spoilers here, but this is one to be watched, not read.

There was a really good piece about (the atrociously written, intensely disappointing and downright racist) Suicide Squad in The New Yorker the other day. That film, the article posited, failed because David Ayer failed to commit to either a realistic or a ‘fake’ setting and mindset. So, there was no distinction, say, between the graphic text overlay introducing each of the Squad members in large pink pseudo-comical letters, and the ‘gritty’ and often extreme moments of violence meted out by the same characters. The viewer didn’t know whether to laugh or to bite their lip, and the film didn’t have enough depth to switch between the two with any finesse, thus confusing it.

With End of Watch, Ayer committed admirably to realism (silly foul-mouthed gang-banger villains aside). Small moments of charming detail — jokes shared between the cops, Anna Kendrick and Jake Gyllenhaal singing along to Cam’ron on a long drive, the chief of police getting drunk and confiding in new recruits the demons of his past — gave the film life and character that meant we were invested in it.

It was touching, and the documentary (cop-umentary??) format was well used without being suffocating. Quite soon into the film, Ayer drew the camera back from being purely found-footage in style, but retained the same shaky, handheld feeling (taking this to the extreme in the gun fights), which allowed a lot more mobility and breathing space. Anyone who has seen Cloverfield will know how that format can be restrictive…

It’s worth watching, as much for its flaws as for its strengths.

@tom_boc

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