Slate of early fall films a mixed bag

Slate of early fall films a mixed bag

An aging baseball scout, a couple of rogue cops and a charismatic cult leader all debuted this week in theaters and the results fared from so-so to fantastic.

Nobody plays Clint Eastwood better than himself (unless it’s Bill Hader of “SNL,” who does a wicked impersonation of the octogenarian), so the character of Gus Lobel, a career scout for the Atlanta Braves in “Trouble with the Curve” (PG-13), fits Eastwood like a well worn mitt. Age has caught up to Gus, who instinctively knows a good baseball player when he sees one; the trouble is he can’t see anymore. For what will probably be his last scouting trip, his estranged daughter, Mickey (Amy Adams), tags along to help him as they try to make peace when they’re not too busy talking ‘bout baseball.

This is a predictable, plodding feature that fails to distinguish itself on any level unless you are a die-hard Eastwood fan. Even he looks bored playing the same curmudgeon we’ve come to expect. This is “Gran Torino” with baseball games instead the gang violence. And with the chemistry lacking between him and Adams, well, he may as well have been talking to a chair. This is what you get for trying to help out an old friend — Robert Lorenz is a longtime Eastwood collaborator and makes his debut as director here, with very mixed results.

For a faster pace and better story, “End of Watch” (R) is an up-close encounter with the LAPD and South Central gangs through the eyes of two young dedicated patrol cops, Officer Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Officer Zavalla (Michael Pena). The two have made a name for themselves as a cocky duo that gets results, but their attitudes cause friction in the department. When a turf war erupts between black and Latino gangs, Taylor and Zavalla go at it full tilt, but their success with drug busts puts a price on their heads.

Filmed in an almost pure cinema verité style, the action and the dialog can sometimes be hard to follow. This gritty, almost documentary-style feature that involves police work in a high crime environment is relentless, bloody and very good. Gyllenhaal and Pena are natural together as partners and friends who call each other “brother” in a harrowing up-close look at gang activity related to illegal drug operations that feels ripped right out of the LA Times.

“The Master,” Paul Thomas Anderson’s highly anticipated new film, did not open in Beaumont theaters this past weekend, but you can find it in many Houston theaters. This eighth film is more languid than his last, “There Will Be Blood,” and more controversial as Anderson treads gently around the topic of cult religion, namely Scientology, and its creator L. Ron Hubbard, on which this is rumored to be based.

Set in post World War II when this country was exploding with opportunity and new ideas, we meet Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) a self-proclaimed philosopher and theorist who is really nothing more than an avuncular snake oil salesman selling “The Cause,” his invented path to higher awareness, with the help of his dedicated wife played by Amy Adams (far superior here than in her “Curve” role). He meets his greatest challenge and convert in Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a volatile ex-serviceman with a flash temper and an alcohol problem, mainly due to his talent as a mixologist who can create potable concoctions with whatever is handy – like paint thinner.

Their relationship of teacher/student, father/son plays out to the beat of Anderson’s distinctive directorial style set to the eerie rhythm of Jonny Greenwood’s score made up of percussion and atonal chords that are equally jangling and soothing.

Both actors are mesmerizing, this despite the shortcomings in Anderson’s character development. We learn more about Quell — his unrequited love and awful upbringing, but Dodd remains more of an enigma. Phoenix is a transformed revelation as Quell. With his shoulders hunched over and arms akimbo, he coils and uncoils into fits of violent anger. His face stays contorted in a perpetual sneer disturbingly set off by eyes that burn with alienated desperation. His thick-tongued speech rolls out with the economy of a soul unaccustomed to interacting with others, and I kept thinking how much he reminded me of Montgomery Clift in his last few roles — the emaciated frame, the scarred face and the hesitant speaking pattern.

This Anderson film is less fully realized than others. There are no stunning “I drink your milk shake” moments, rather a thoughtful, if not disconcerting, detachment. Whatever is there is the product of an accomplished director whose talent is becoming more and more evident with each new film. Every frame, whether a lingering extreme close-up of an actor or the receding azure wake of ship that Anderson keeps returning to, is simply exquisite. Like the film or not, there is a “Master” at work here.