At a time when comic book movies were steadily cranking up the Sturm und Drang, 2015’s Ant-Man served as an amiably slouching alternative, gently snarking at superheroic conventions while still staying within the Marvel mandated lines. What’s more, it was one of the rare blockbusters that actually got better as it went along, with a third act that felt like it was beginning to fully grasp the scale-shifting possibilities of its hero. All this, plus a pretty sweet joke involving The Cure, to boot.
The movie begins with a hurricane on Mars, a life-threatening debris storm, and a spaceship that might not be able to lift off in the chaos. And that’s the easy part. After the rocket finally blasts from the surface, an astronaut—presumed dead—is left behind on the Red Planet, and he’s got to figure out how to stay alive by himself until a very improbable rescue mission could pick him up. That will take many, many months, if it happens at all. So The Martian is a problem-solving movie: How will castaway Mark Watney (Matt Damon) figure out the fundamental problems of food, shelter, and communication? The movie doesn’t waste much time worrying about issues of loneliness; after we’ve spent time with Watney, who has a complete lack of introspection and neurosis, it’s no wonder.
Commandeering yet another police car to exploit dangerous days and ways in L.A.’s South Central badlands, David Ayer (Training Day) drives deep in End of Watch. Sadly, deep for Ayer is pretty shallow. What saves this cop show from its predictable tropes and clichés are terrific performances by Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña, who’ve got each other’s backs as actors and as “brothers” in law enforcement. The rhythms of their bone-deep affection, played out in banter and in brutal action scenes, keep End of Watch moving and save it from entirely bogging down in Hollywood-macho vignettes of good guys going up against trash-talkin’ ghetto dregs.
Ayer’s a sucker for the stylistic fallacy spawned by Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity: the lazy notion (already old hat) that an unmanned camera, the mechanical eye, automatically ensures documentary reality and immediacy. So most of Watch‘s action is caught on patrol-car cams, cellphone cameras, lapel video recorders—a supremely irritating gimmick that batters the viewer with crazily dipping and bobbing camerawork. Messy and uncomposed doesn’t equal realism, but that approach is convenient cover for flat-out not knowing how to shape and move and give organic life to cinematic fictions.
Riding along with cops Brian Taylor (Gyllenhaal) and Mike Zavala (Peña), we’re often perched down under the dash to viddy the easy give-and-take between these very different comrades.Taylor’s an ex-Marine, clearly a striver in love and work. His shaved head and sculpted features contrast with his less driven Hispanic partner’s softer, darker face. Their talk—funny, raunchy, serious—ranges through love, sex, police work, family values, their cultural differences. Both are young, learning from each other about how a man lives honorably and survives on the job. Effortlessly, Gyllenhaal and Peña enact authentic friendship, the kind of camaraderie that looks casual but is cemented in stone.