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End of Watch

L.A. cops Brian Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Mike Zavala (Michael Pe±a) patrol the streets of South Central, a place where, Zavala boasts, an officer can see more action in a day than most cops can experience in a lifetime.

David Ayer, who explored the dark side of the force with his screenplay Training Day, pivots this movie on this tight partnership as the two men make their regular rounds, incorporating the daily horrors of cop life (child abuse, assault, house fires). They consistently find themselves crossing paths with one of the violent Mexican drug cartels making inroads into southern California. In their private lives, Zavala and his wife (Natalie Martinez) become parents and Taylor begins courting a sweet young woman. (Anna Kendrick).

Ayer's one questionable conceit in the film is that Brian is studying filmmaking, and has outfitted himself, his partner and their cruiser with tiny cameras that capture all the action in faux-documentary style.

But even this pays off in curious ways, including a parallel tendency of a Latino street gang to capture their criminal activities on video, a suggestion that the narcissism of communications technology knows no division of good guys and bad guys.

Mostly, though, this is a compelling slice of cop life, anchored by the excellent chemistry between Gyllenhaal and Pe±a. In fact, End of Watch is actually reminiscent of the fiction of cop-turned-writer Joseph Wambaugh as an insider glimpse of law enforcement, encompassing bravado, friction, battlefield bonding, mischief and sheer horror. 'Ö'Ö'Ö'Ö

Butter

This is a parable of Obama-era politics as seen through the greasy filter of a butter-sculpting contest.

Jennifer Garner (who also produced) plays Laura, the wife of a legendary Iowa butter-sculpting champ Bob Pickler (Ty Burrell). When Bob is asked to retire from the competition after 15 years of butter-sculpting dominance, Laura decides she herself will enter the contest to retain Pickler family preeminence.

Too bad for her, there's a new master sculptress in town. She's a 10-year-old orphan named Destiny (Yara Shahidi). She has a pair of decent, loving adoptive parents (Rob Corddry and Alicia Silverstone), but she is otherwise bemused by the "crackers" in her constituency.

She nevertheless strikes out to prevail with her butter-sculpting talent and that doesn't sit well with Laura (whom Garner portrays as a self-serving Sarah Palin-esque ninny), who resorts to dirty tricks to smite her 10-year-old competitor.

In her defence, Laura is under a lot of pressure, since her hubby cheated on her by having a fling with a stripper/hooker (Olivia Wilde, living up to her last name) now determined to undermine Laura at every turn, even if that means entering the contest herself.

If this was a simple comedy-drama, it might have passed muster, but it's extremely condescending to the midwest Middle Americans it sets out to burlesque. Nothing deflates satire more effectively than a smug, smarmy tone. 'Ö'Ö

The Paperboy

In his last movie, Precious, director Lee Daniels troweled tragedy on top of calamity on top of nightmare, but thanks to a realist style and a touching central performance, the movie found both an audience and critical esteem.

Someone evidently got the bright idea that what Daniels needed was a mainstream Hollywood cast to take him over the top.

Well, The Paperboy is over the top all right. This skeevy gothic legal drama takes place in the early '60s in the deep south. A man may have been wrongfully convicted for the murder of a fat, violent good-old-boy sheriff.

But the man convicted of the crime doesn't apparently warrant any civil rights outrage. He is Hillary Van Wetter (John Cusack), a career outlaw whom authorities would be happy to execute. But he happens to tumble into a salacious pen-pal relationship with Nicole Kidman's trashy Charlotte Bless, a woman who could never be accused of being overly discriminating.

Charlotte's campaign to free Hillary brings a couple of hotshot reporters in from Miami. Ward Jansen (Matthew McConaughey) is in fact returning to his old hometown, partnered with Yardley (David Oyelowo), an Englishman with little patience for the institutional racism of the American south.

Soon, all seem to be orbiting around Ward's adrift younger brother Jack (Zac Efron), a former competitive swimmer who takes a job as driver for his big brother. Along the way, Jack finds himself falling for Charlotte, even after he witnesses her engage in a weird no-touch sexual encounter when Hillary is first interviewed in prison by the reporters. (Yikes! What a scene! Imagine an amalgam of Russ Meyer, John Waters and Tennessee Williams. This tops it.)

Daniels has more in store. In another scene, the lovelorn Jack, spurned by Charlotte, goes for a swim, only to be stung by jellyfish. A gaggle of beach bunnies attempt to save him from his allergic reaction with the application of urine, but Charlotte chases them off with the immortal line: "If anybody's going to pee on him, it's going to be me."

Ward, whose face is cruelly scarred, has his own store of surprises.

When the movie focuses on the relationship between Jack and his family's faithful housemaid Anita (Macy Gray), the film threatens to be grounded in something like a recognizable human drama.

But then Daniels whisks you back into the movie's unrestrained Oedipal/sado-masochistic/sociopathic whirl. It's kind of guilty fun, especially when Kidman is on the screen. The actress is too unlined and Botox-ed to resemble an authentic fortysomething southern Jezebel of the era, but one can't help admire her willingness to go for it. In that, she joins the pantheon of classic camp performances alongside Patty Duke in Valley of the Dolls, Tura Satana in Faster Pussycat! Kill Kill! and Divine in Female Trouble. 'Ö'Ö1/2

randall.king@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 24, 2013 C12

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