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Sorting out the cine-junk so you don't have to!

‘There Will Be Blood’ is a showcase of acting greats

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There Will Be Blood (2007)

Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson

8.5/10  R

In 2007, writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson (“The Master“) carefully crafted a 25-year saga following an oil tycoon and the trials and tribulations he faced on the road to questionable success. The film received eight Academy Award nominations and two wins, for Best Actor (Daniel Day-Lewis) and Best Cinematography (Robert Elswit). What it hasn’t yet received is proper praise from me. Until now.

there will be blood 1Daniel Plainview (Day-Lewis) discovers a knack for oil prospecting while a geological surveyor in the American West. Along with his adopted son HW (Dillon Freasier), Plainview finds a significant sea of oil under the land of Abel Sunday (David Willis) and his family, including his outspoken son and local preacher Eli (Paul Dano). At the cross-section of greed, religion, and money, Daniel Plainview and Eli Sunday lock horns and struggle to meet their particular wants and needs.

Daniel Day-Lewis is the greatest actor alive today. In “There Will Be Blood,” he teaches a master class in acting. No matter how many roles I’ve seen him in, I never see him as Daniel Day-Lewis. You can’t say that about any other actor with his level of popularity. Aside from his incredible acting expertise, Day-Lewis’s personal privacy allows him to be seen in a unique light in every new role. He has full command of his character for every second, and it’s the little things he does right to make Daniel Plainview a well-rounded and complete character. To Day-Lewis, even the small talk has big effect. He’s as close to perfect as one will find. But Paul Dano is nearly his equal. Dano is perhaps today’s most underrated actor, a consistent acting talent without the there-will-be-blood-there-will-be-blood-27-02-2008-26-12-2007-32-gAcademy Award nominations to go with it. Like Day-Lewis, Dano’s versatile acting range and isolation from media outlets allow him to hide behind the characters he’s performing as. What’s better than both actors? Any scene in which Day-Lewis and Dano face off. It’ll blow you away.

In “There Will Be Blood,” Paul Thomas Anderson’s script says just as much with actions as it does with words. You don’t hear the first line of dialogue until 15 minutes into the film. You appreciate it. Anderson’s dialogue accurately reflects the lexicon of the turn-of-the-century American West, but doesn’t lose viewers in mind-numbing Old English. Plainview spits distinguished insults backhandedly, drawing laughs and responses of “Oh, burn!” while Eli Sunday just looks on, dumbfounded. It’s as entertaining as it is respectable, a rare feat accompished.

You won’t see many movies quite like it. There’s not much wrong with it. Technically, it’s just about perfect.

“There Will Be Blood” is on Bllu-ray, DVD, and is streaming on Netflix.

‘Grand Piano’ is entertaining enough once you set aside your standards

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Grand Piano (2013)

Directed by Eugenio Mira

6.5/10  R

Though preposterous, the mere premise of “Grand Piano” promises suspense and excitement. And, thankfully, it pretty much comes through. For a low-budget, foreign, indie film with Elijah Wood, “Grand Piano” exceeds whatever low expectations can reasonably be placed on it.

Here’s that outlandish plot: Five years ago, superstar pianist Tom Selznick (Wood) choked on the final notes of “the unplayable piece,” leaving his career (and his self-confidence) in limbo. Now, after the death of his long-time mentor, Selznick will return to the stage to play a tribute concert with a full symphony backing him up. But when Tom receives a message from a mysterious man (John Cusack) threatening to kill him Grand Piano Movieand his wife if he doesn’t play every note perfectly (I wouldn’t spoil his admittedly flimsy motive), the pressure mounts. The stakes couldn’t be higher, as Tom literally plays like his life depends on it.

Sure it’s ridiculous, but Elijah Wood is just virtuosic enough to make it enjoyable. He’s a classic screw-up, and no one can play panicky like him. Pigeon-holing at its finest. Unfortunately, his cast mates lay it on thick as they cheese their way through their theatrical performances. It’s almost painful to watch, but thankfully all eyes are on Tom almost the entire time.

If you find the predictable dialogue and student-theater-troupe acting unbearable, sit back and enjoy the hour of beautiful music being faked by Wood and the symphony orchestra. They might not be doing it, but somebody had to. The music is marvelous. So inventive is the film that makes such an important character of its beautiful score.

There’s just something grand about a concise little thriller that you can catch on Netflix, isn’t there?

“Grand Piano” is also on Blu-ray and DVD.

‘Gone Girl': Better left in the pages of Flynn’s novel?

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Gone Girl (2014)

Directed by David Fincher

7.5/10  R

Can you smell it in the air? It’s Oscar season, and twice-nominated David Fincher’s “Gone Girl” formally ushered in the season with a bang. Now is when we can expect the theaters to begin filtering out all-flash-and-no-bang movies like “Guardians of the Galaxy” and “Into the Storm” in favor of consistently praise-worthy stock. But how worthy is this highly praised suspense thriller? I would say, if you want to read the book gone-girl-movie-photo-550x365and haven’t done so…wait. In the second time in as many trips to the theater, I’ve been the victim of a book robbing me of a would-be fantastic movie experience. Not that “Gone Girl” is worthless after having experienced Gillian Flynn’s phenomenal suspense novel…but it’s certainly not all that it could be.

Ben Affleck leads the cast as Nick Dunne, whose wife Amy (Rosamund Pike) disappears from their home on the morning of their fifth wedding anniversary. In the whirlwind that follows, the media pick apart Nick and Amy’s troubled marriage, the police question Nick’s lack-of-alibi, and the public adds their own two cents. Nick finds support from his twin sister Margo (Connie Coon) and lawyer Tanner Bolt (Tyler Perry) as he tries to survive this frenzy. But it’s a series of shocking revelations that makes “Gone Girl” the most unpredictable, titillating story in years.

Watch out Academy, here comes Rosamund Pike. The British actress of “The World’s End” (the only other role I’d ever seen her in) wouldn’t have been my first choice to play Amy, but Pike is the face of cunning. For over two hours, she has us in her trance, mere puppets at her command. Not once do I see her as anything other than Amy Dunne. Her sing-songy voice makes the story even more of a fairy tale gone awry. In this complicated emotional waltz, she’s always in the lead. She’s perfect. Ben Affleck, whose casting as Batman last year still has eyes rolling, was movies-gone-girl-still-14always the ideal choice to play good ol’ Midwestern boy Nick, whose life took him to New York, where he met Amy, then back to Missouri, where he met unemployment. Affleck’s mysterious façade (an asset playing Bruce Wayne, as well) gives his face a kindly, yet villainous look. We dislike him, then we like him, then we hate him, then we love him – just like he says. When the cast was released, however, no choice was as unconventional as the casting of Tyler Perry (as high-profile attorney Tanner Bolt, who in the novel is a Southern white guy) and Neil Patrick Harris (as Amy’s jaded ex-boyfriend Desi Collings). Thankfully, they both turn out to be outstanding choices. Perry capitalizes on the extra wit Flynn adds to the script, and NPH never reveals his hand as the debonair Collings.

David Fincher already has a long résumé of incredible thrillers, like “Se7en” and “Fight Club.” Unfortunately, “Gone Girl” doesn’t reach that level of excellence. In my mind (and I think, soon, public opinion will agree), even Fincher’s last thrilling adaptation, “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” was far superior. Still, “Gone Girl” is a marvel. Fincher’s twice-Oscar-nominated cinematographer and twice-awarded film editor team up again to create a deeply intimate movie-going experience. If you enjoyed the darkly twisted look and feel of “The Girl with the Dragon Rosamund-Pike-Gone-GirlTattoo,” the pit of your stomach will have the same feeling watching “Gone Girl.” It’ll give you those David Fincher chills.

There’s extra legitimacy in an adaptation’s script being written entirely by the novelist, and Gillian Flynn shows us why. Her vulgar and realistic novel becomes even more witty, more modern, more in-tune with today’s crowd than before. The smart script is well-paced, never wasting a single word on something that needn’t be said. It’s reminiscent of an Aaron Sorkin script, like in Fincher’s “The Social Network.” Every word and every action is under the microscope to create a tightly constructed story without a single boring second.

David Fincher can’t always top himself, but “Gone Girl” is an incredible reason to go to the movies and a beautiful way to start your Oscar season.

“Gone Girl” is in theaters.

‘The Maze Runner’ re-invigorates the YA adaptation

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The Maze Runner (2014)

Directed by Wes Ball

7.5/10  PG-13

A first-time director and three first-time screenwriters team up with a cast of young breakthrough acting talents in one of the biggest surprises of the year, “The Maze Runner.” Having read the book (which was far too YA for my liking and a decision I now regret), the movie’s most intense moments came as no surprise. Even that didn’t take the edge completely off, but had I gone into it without knowing the full story I would’ve been completely blown away.

Thomas (Dylan O’Brien) is dropped into the middle of a giant maze, unaware of where he came from or any personal details about himself. He’sMovie-Stills-the-maze-runner-film-37017557-1600-1067 surrounded by dozens of boys about his age, all living in the Glade, a peaceful enough area in the maze’s center. But the maze is seemingly unbeatable, and what lies beyond the moving walls of their humble abode are too frightening to talk about. As he and the other boys (including Will Poulter, Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Aml Ameen, and Ki Hong Lee) try to find the answers to everyone’s questions (Who put them here and why? How do they get out?), a few shocking twists will rock the Glade and put some urgency into their mission.

In James Dashner’s 2007 YA novel, immature actions and silly Glade lingo (which was intended to replace cussing) watered down a very real, very adult story. Thankfully, the moviemakers had the sense to make “The Maze Runner” a PG-13 movie that adults can enjoy as well as teens. The movie said away with most of these nonsense words in favor of the vulgarities that would really be said in these dire situations. This cast of young men handle themselves with such grace, any pettiness that characters seemed to have in the novel disappear when their lines are spoken. While The-Maze-Runner-Movie-Trailer-2Poulter (known for his hilarious role in 2013’s “We’re the Millers”) doesn’t quite have the dramatic gumption to pull off his antagonistic role as Gally (without coming across as forcing it), the rest of the men don’t look back once they hit their stride. The emotion brought forward in the tense story and beautiful score are given life by the young men starring in one of the most well-rounded ensembles of the year. Not the best, but perhaps the most fun. They have the chemistry they need.

The most thrilling maze-running scenes send your pulse racing, thanks to Enrique Chediak’s dynamic (yet intimate) cinematography and a beautiful score. If your heart isn’t thumping out of your chest, you must not have one. While it might not keep you engrossed for its entire two-hour runtime, “The Maze Runner” will hit you with fits of thrilling, adrenaline-pumping fun.

Go out and get wrapped up in the mystery and the fun of “The Maze Runner.”

“The Maze Runner” is in theaters.

‘Chef’ looks better than it tastes

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Chef (2014)

Directed by Jon Favreau

7/10  R

In “Chef,” Jon Favreau (directing, writing, and starring, his first triple-threat since 2001’s “Made”) gets back to the basics of filmmaking…but he misses his mark. Sometimes I feel like, as a young(ish) moviegoer, I’ve been jaded by the special effects and fantastical plotlines of today’s cinema. But I know a good, simple, realistic movie when I see one, and I think “Chef” had the potential. It just didn’t reach it.

Chef-Movie-5When semi-celebrity L.A. chef Carl Casper (Favreau) leaves his restaurant after a dispute with his boss (Dustin Hoffman), he gets in a funk. That is, until his ex-wife Inez (Sofia Vergara) finally convinces him to try the food truck business. So, Carl buys an old fixer-upper and takes his every-other-weekend son Percy (Emjay Anthony) and favorite sous-chef, Martin (John Leguizamo), across the American South, serving up dishes to hungry fans and making deep connections they never thought they would make.

Even though I came straight from a delicious food truck lunch (a ham and mozzarella sandwich greasy and savory enough to make anyone a foodie), the dishes cooked and served in “Chef” looked delectable enough to make me hungry all over again. Food porn of the most exotic kind.  But “Chef” focuses too much on the dishes. It turns into a Food Network special and stops being a fictional narrative. The story falters. The characters aren’t hashed out. (But Casper makes hashed browns that made me want to leave the theater and run to the nearest gourmet breakfast restaurant. Yum.) But back to what I was saying – “Chef” just doesn’t cut it. The story relies on character chemistry, and it simply isn’t thereChef Movie (3) until the three men hop on the food truck – and that’s an hour into the movie. Robert Downey Jr. has a killer cameo, but you only have five minutes to enjoy that. Sofia Vergara is better than her material. She never fails to, at the very least, appear likable. But Jon Favreau is a stud. Casper is the only character that Favreau (as screenwriter) decides to tell us a little about. His is the only one worth getting invested in. And Favreau goes beyond cheap comedy flick to make Casper a real underdog. It still doesn’t make up for a subpar story and careless script.

It’s a fun ride, but I keep thinking of what “Chef” could have been.

2 stars.

“Chef” is on Blu-ray and DVD.

‘Tusk': Kevin Smith’s sick flick might make you hurl

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Tusk (2014)

Written/directed by Kevin Smith

5/10  R

In one of the biggest cinematic mistakes of my life (second only to passing on “Gravity” to see “Carrie” last October), today I decided I would wait to see early Oscar-favorite “Boyhood” on DVD and instead see writer/director Kevin Smith’s newest horror-comedy “Tusk” on the big screen. If you’re hearing something, it’s me slapping myself. Just try to ignore it.

In the opening credits to “Tusk,” the always-reassuring tag “Based on actual events” flashes on the screen. I come to find out that the “actual event” was just an hour-long podcast conversation Kevin Smith had where he and a friend hypothesized what might happen if a creepy Tusk Movie (1)Canadian man offered up a room in his middle-of-nowhere mansion, free of charge. The result? When Wallace (Justin Long), a Los Angeles podcaster, has a big story in Canada that turns out to be a bust, he scrambles to find an interesting story in Manitoba. What he finds is a handicapped man, Howard Howe (Michael Parks), who just wants to share his incredible life story. But instead, things go terribly wrong…in a “Saw” meets “Human Centipede” sort of way. When Wallace doesn’t return, his coworker Teddy (Haley Joel Osment) and girlfriend (Genesis Rodriguez) team up to search for him based on the thin clues they have of his possible where-aboots.

Tusk Movie (5)It turns out that Justin Long excels at tragic terror more than he does at comedy, at least this time around. When Wallace is in the height of his peril, Long begins to shine. Before that, he spends most of his screen time laughing at his own sophomoric jokes. I wasn’t laughing along. Haley Joel Osment, in his first major screen role in over a decade, is now regrettably baby-faced, overweight, shaggy, and lousy at acting – but at overacting, he’s a pro. Osment’s Teddy is a ridiculously predictable and stale character, and Smith doesn’t seem to care. Quentin Tarantino regular Michael Parks is the only saving grace in this scrap heap of a movie. He gives it his f*cked-up all.

It’s hard to describe just how vile and messed up “Tusk” is. It took my appetite a few hours to return to normal. I actually had to put dinner on hold. “Tusk” is at times really, really gross. At times, it’s so slow and pointless it’s like pulling teeth. Could it turn into a cult classic? It’s certainly the stuff filthy cult classics are made of. Will I be seeing the rest of this apparent “True North” trilogy? Definitely not.

“Tusk” is in theaters now.

‘The Last King of Scotland’ brings about unwanted deja vu

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The Last King of Scotland (2006)

Directed by Kevin Macdonald

7.5/10  R

I’m confused. I want to praise “The Last King of Scotland” for its bold use of documentary-style cinematography, throwback film score, and surrealist, “Trance”-like sequences to shove the action forward and build dramatic suspense…but instead, my head clouds with thoughts that I’ve seen it all before. Sure, it’s eight years old now. But it seems like a mere compilation of more the-last-king-of-scotland-originalcontemporary movies like “Blood Diamond” and “The Last Station,” and even the failed television show “Hostages.” The déjà vu is unshakable.

James McAvoy is incredible as Dr. Nicholas Gerrigan, a young, well-to-do Scottish physician who feels he would be better utilizing his skills in a country where an oppressive regime is currently being taken down: Uganda, 1971. When he treats the new commander, Idi Amin (Forest Whitaker), following a car accident, Amin asks Gerrigan to be his personal physician. Showered with gifts from the loving leader, Gerrigan accepts the offer and feels that he’s doing his duty to the people of Uganda. But Amin, as history will prove, isn’t all that he seems. Will Gerrigan stay blinded by the gifts, or will his sense of duty shift to a cause more…moral?

Forest Whitaker is the true pulse of the film as he plays Uganda’s charismatic new leader. Whitaker swept the award circuit, winning Best Actor in 27 different award ceremonies from the Academy Awards (his only Oscar) to the Washington D.C. Area Film Critics Association Awards. Incredible. His performance is a staggering masterpiece. Not to take anything away from McAvoy, who’s right in his element. McAvoy is always better as the weaker man, the one not in power.last-king-of-scotland-2

But like I said before, there’s something too familiar about “The Last King of Scotland.” It’s an unbelievable true story (well, mostly true…Gerrigan’s character is mostly fiction, simply a means to tell Amin’s story from an outsider’s perspective), but true stories are by no means a new trend. Even true stories about oppressive regimes with a backdrop of war are hardly unique. Internal conflicts of duty vs. trust is just as common, as are themes of broken alliances and insiders using their privilege.

But still, “The Last King of Scotland” is incredibly well-made. The two masters of acting in the lead roles are top-notch. The cinematography encourages the fast-paced action that you see on screen. The story is full of natural drama and suspense.

I guess I just saw it too late. Don’t make the same mistake.

“The Last King of Scotland” is on Blu-ray and DVD.

Robin Williams has some fun in ‘RV’

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RV (2006)

Directed by Barry Sonnenfeld

6/10  PG

I’m not a fan of “family fun” flicks…unless my family was the one having the fun. Nostalgia has a funny way of altering your perception of movie quality. When “RV” released, I was 14. JoJo was my dreamgirl and poop was still funny. Now…well, at least JoJo is still gorgeous. But the comedy doesn’t quite translate. My sense of humor has changed, for better or worse. But RV-movie-22that didn’t stop me from laughing the way I did 8 years ago.

Before “We’re the Millers” made the family RV trip funny again, Robin Williams had his turn. It’s far from his best (far, far, far from it), but it has a few fits of inspired hilarity. Williams plays Bob Munro, a family man whose work allows his family to have a good life. But when his boss asks him to travel to pitch an important business merger during his vacation week, Bob kills two birds with one stone and takes his family (Cheryl Hines, JoJo Levesque, and Josh Hutcherson) in an RV across three states to Colorado, where he’ll have to sneak away for the business meeting while his family unknowingly thinks this vacation is all about “them time.” You can foresee the complications. But when an overly-loving RV family (led by Jeff Daniels and Kristen Chenoweth) becomes a little stalker-ish, the story gets really fun.

Don’t blame Robin for the bad material he had to work with (from the screenwriter of “Daddy Day Care,” another movie that’s only funny to me because of nostalgia). In fact, like it or not, “RV” is what comes to mind when I think of Robin Williams’s special brand of humor. A good mix of impressions, accents, improv, sass, quick wit, and potty humor (literally) lets Williams rv_2006_1284x1024_705648show off everything he’s good at in under 100 minutes. He carries the story, though he has some funny support. Daniels and Chenoweth never break character as two lovey-dovey psychos who homeschool their kids as they travel the country as full-time RV-ers. Six years before “The Hunger Games,” Josh Hutcherson plays a gangster wannabe. You’re laughing at him, not with him. But you’re laughing. And JoJo doesn’t hit her peak until the credits, when she and the rest of the gang croons in a hilarious (and sometimes really good) rendition of “Route 66.”

Sometimes you need a little guilty entertainment. It’s not great, but “RV” and I have a history so I’m trying to show it some mercy. I got a kick out of Robin Williams when I watched movies like “Flubber,” “Jumanji,” and “RV” as a kid. When I discovered “Dead Poets Society,” “Patch Adams,” and “Good Will Hunting,” I knew he was one of the most versatile actors of his era. Thankfully, his life’s work will live on in history. Go enjoy some of it.

“RV” is on Blu-ray and DVD.

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Robin Williams (1951-2014)

‘The Incredibles': A reminder of Pixar’s peak

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The Incredibles (2004)

Directed by Brad Bird

8/10  PG

Some animated movies get better with age. Ten years ago, “The Incredibles” (from writer/director Brad Bird, “Ratatouille”) became one of Pixar’s smartest, most mature, and most respectable feature films. It has remained so for the past decade, as Pixar has seen its ups and downs. “Cars 2”? Really? Fun and meaningful for the whole family, “The Incredibles” shows relationships tested, Syndrome_Incredibles_h1family bonds strengthened, and cities united for the common good. It flips superhero movie clichés on their back, dissecting the universal stories for something worth watching.

When Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson) and Elastigirl (Holly Hunter) got married, they had no intentions of hanging up their supersuits. But when they had kids and saw their heroics were no longer needed, they put that life behind them for good. They became Bob and Helen Parr. But when a plot to destroy their city puts Bob in danger, Helen will introduce her kids (played by Spencer Fox and Sarah Vowell), who also have super powers, to the life she once lived. And they’ll all have to work as a family to stop the evil (mainly a jealous super-wannabe named Syndrome, voiced by Jason Lee) threatening to destroy their livelihood.

the_incredibles-207910But Helen isn’t excited. She retired from superhero work! Her marriage is threatened in a very real way when she finds out Bob has been lying to her. The kids are hurt. Relationships are not as close as they once were. These aren’t PG emotions. But the family that fights together stays together, they’ll discover. This is an atypical family with typical family problems. Strength doesn’t always refer to physical ability. The Oscar-nominated super-script is unlike most animated films. And with phenomenal voice-acting from all involved, these complex emotions are spoken with live-action clarity and meaning. But also insane humor! Samuel L. Jackson, as family friend and former superhero Frozone, is the most insanely awesome and funniest minor character in animated movie history! Challenge me on that. Director Bird throws his own voice in the mix as supersuit designer E, a squatty old woman with immense attitude. Bird is hysterical. Along with 314_6_frozone“Monsters Inc.” and “Toy Story 3,” “The Incredibles” remains one of Pixar’s funniest.

A jazzy score from Oscar-winner Michael Giacchino (“Up”) is an homage to the film’s superhero serial roots. But “The Incredibles” takes the super-standard and turns it around. Vibrant, fluid animation incites the same excitement, and you’ll find yourself cheering as you see these superheroes showing off their super-skills.

You won’t find many animated films quite so maturely meaningful and immaturely hysterical as “The Incredibles.” Suit up and revisit an instant animated classic.

“The Incredibles” is on Blu-ray and DVD.

‘Training Day': Good cop/Bad cop routine perfected

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Training Day (2001)

Directed by Antoine Fuqua

8.5/10  R

Denzel Washington has a reputation for playing heroic, morally pure characters. From “Philadelphia” to “John Q” to “Unstoppable,” so many of Washington’s characters are wholly good. But it was in 2001’s “Training Day,” playing vulgar, corrupt detective Alonzo photo-Training-Day-2001-1Harris, that Washington hit his career peak.

Harris has been in narcotics for nearly two decades, and he has a reputation for making respected detectives out of newbie cops. Now it’s training day for Jake Hoyt (Ethan Hawke), a young family man hoping to make detective. As Harris spends the day training Hoyt on what it means to be a narcotics officer, Hoyt discovers the real meaning of street justice and learns that, sometimes, it takes a wolf to catch a wolf.

Harris is fifty shades of messed up, and good ol’ boy Denzel has a ball cracking vulgar jokes and playing this twisted, crooked cop. But he nails it. He does bad so, so good. In fact, he earned his second Oscar (his only for Best Actor) for the role. Screenwriter David Ayer (“Fury”) makes Harris into more than a corrupt cop stereotype. Even though the story takes place in the span of a day, Harris becomes a well-rounded character with a distinct arc. And Hawke is his perfect opposite. He’s always been the everyman type, but here you buy into his normality more than1459-3 ever. You can read Hoyt’s inner-struggles on Hawke’s face. “Training Day” also gets solid support from several key players in small roles. Eva Mendes, Snoop Dogg, and Macy Gray all bring their A-game, even with only a few minutes of screen-time.

“Training Day” brings you into downtown L.A. with gritty, intimate cinematography (Mauro Fiore, “Avatar”) and a concrete jungle soundtrack. You can practically feel the heat rise from the asphalt. Without that, you might not stay interested in the slow-burning crime drama unfolding. And no movie gets my full recommendation without a solid ending. Thankfully, “Training Day” has an earth-shatteringly good finale, full of excitement and closure that wraps up the story better than anything else could have.

“Training Day” is on Blu-ray and DVD.