TIFF '11: Day Seven 

Rampart
Director/Country/Time: Oren Moverman/USA/105 min.
Cast: Woody Harrelson, Sigourney Weaver, Robin Wright
Program: Special Presentations
Headline: O’er The Rampart We Watched
Scott’s Take: Drawn from the same source of inspiration as The Shield—the mass corruption uncovered within a rogue anti-gang unit in the Los Angeles Police Department in the late ‘90s—Oren Moverman’s Rampart already starts with the disadvantage of covering in 105 minutes a story that The Shield rolled out over seven seasons. And in some ways, those shortcomings are painfully obvious: Even with James Ellroy, the great authority on LAPD corruption, serving as his co-writer, Moverman has trouble wrangling the misdeeds of one super-corrupt cop into a coherent narrative, and there’s simply no time to give the many supporting characters anything like a full airing. But Moverman combats these limitations by holding the focus on one character (played by Woody Harrelson, in a performance of toxic magnetism) and ramping up the cinematics beyond what would be possible on television. So while the details of Harrelson’s offenses—chiefly, a Rodney King-like beating caught on tape and a botched attempt to a rob a high-stakes card game, to say nothing of an incident that earned him the nickname “Date Rape”— play out murkily, Moverman’s impression of his life is startlingly immediate, shot through with a style that’s overdetermined at times, but mostly represents externally the beast within. The dialogue is tart and often funny, (“You’re the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen… [long pause]… in this bar.”) and Harrelson is surrounded by sharp performances from familiar faces, most notably Ned Beatty as ex-cop with connections and Ice Cube as an Internal Affairs officer who isn’t susceptible to his mark’s slithery charms. Moverman’s talent is evident; maybe some day he’ll have the confidence to ease off the throttle a bit.
Grade: B
Noel’s Take: I’m more or less with Scott on this one, though actually I was impressed by how un-Shield-like the movie ended up being, after an opening scene that left me worrying that Rampart was going to try and do in two hours what it took The Shield six years to accomplish. Instead, it’s more expressly a character sketch, and sometimes to its detriment. (Personally, I would’ve preferred a more straightforward and coherent narrative.) And Moverman’s stylistic touches do get too heavy at times. But Harrelson gives one of his peak performances in an increasingly distinguished career, creating a character who’s cocky and sure of his worldview (self described as “fascist”), even when he knows that if he softened just a little, it would make everyone he lives and works with so much happier.
Grade: B

The Deep Blue Sea
Director/Country/Time: Terence Davies/United Kingdom/98 min.
Cast: Rachel Weisz, Tom Hiddleston, Simon Russell Beale
Program: Special Presentations
Headline: The End Of The Affair
Scott’s Take: Liverpool-born director Terence Davies frequently revisits post-war England, which fans of the semi-autographical films Distant Voices, Still Lives and The Long Day Closes and the autobiographical documentary Of Time And The City know well as his formative years. And though they were painful years, Davies nonetheless carries a deep nostalgia for the music and movies of the period, and behind his wonderfully caustic voice lurks an abiding romantic spirit. Adapted from Terence Ratigan’s play, The Deep Blue Sea draws the audience firmly into Davies-world once again—formal, old-fashioned, and suffocatingly insular, but also exquisitely realized and heartbreaking. A superb Rachel Weisz stars as a heroine prone to romantic destruction (and self-destruction), having split with a judge (Simion Russell Beale) to take up with a handsome, hard-drinking, abusive former WWII pilot (Tom Hiddleston). Weisz attempts suicide—partly out of despair, partly to get the attention of both men. Though mostly a chamber piece that forgoes period bric-a-brac for confining close-ups on the actors, The Deep Blue Sea still deftly moves back and forth in time, and notes the ravages of war on the city. Davies demands patience in setting up the emotional stakes, but the final act, consisting mainly of a reckoning between Weisz and Hiddleston, is a crushing acknowledgment of two people who know they’re no good for each other.
Grade: B+

Himizu
Director/Country/Time: Sion Sono/Japan/129 min.
Cast: Shota Sometani, Fumi Nikaidou, Tetsu Watanabe, Mitsuru Fukikoshi
Program: Contemporary World Cinema
Headline: Love among the ruins
Noel’s Take: It’s pure coincidence that this capsule review of Japanese cult filmmaker/poet Sion Sono’s latest film Himizu lands the day after my DVD review of Sono’s Cold Fish, which I saw at TIFF last year. But it’s no coincidence that I scheduled Himizu in the first place; because Cold Fish impressed me enough to want to see what else Sono can do. Himizu, based on a comic by Furuya Minoru, follows two teenagers dealing with abandonment amid the aftermath of the recent Japanese earthquake/tsunami, and though it’s nowhere near as violent and sick as Cold Fish, it’s still primarily a cut-vein howl of rage, asking why some people (and some countries) get the shit kicked out of them over and over. Shota Sometani stars as a 15-year-old who wants to live like a mole (or “himizu”), unseen and ordinary, running his parents’ boat-rental business and letting people who’ve been left homeless by the quake camp out by his corner of the lake. But then his mom leaves for good, his dad swings by periodically just to tell him he’s useless, and his classmate Fumi Nikaidou keeps coming around to ply him with poetry and tell him he’s special. It’s all highs and lows for our man—none of the steady, anonymous middles he craves. The same can be said of Himizu, which veers from wacky comedy (much of it provided by the lovesick Nikaidou) to extreme violence as various characters cross paths with criminals. People smack each other and scream at each other, and about halfway through the movie Sometani suffers a psychotic break once he realizes that just being alive in this world means he’s going to cause pain and receive pain on a near-constant basis. After watching Cold Fish and Himizu, I’m still not sure I can call Sono a great filmmaker. His style is all over the map—sometimes Lynchian, sometimes Truffaut-like, sometimes reminiscent of Takashi Miike—and he’s not exactly big on subtlety. But there’s something compellingly punk rock about his vision of a life dominated by mud, blood, bruises, rain and radiation.
Grade: B

Hysteria
Director/Country/Time: Tanya Wexler/UK/95 min.
Cast: Hugh Dancy, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jonathan Pryce
Program: Gala
Headline: Ribbed for your pleasure
Noel’s Take: Boy, people sure were dumb in the 1880s, huh? That’s the major takeaway from Hysteria, a broad period comedy—ostensibly about the invention of the vibrator—that squanders an interesting subject by refusing to see it from anything other than a modern perspective. Hugh Dancy stars as a young doctor who gets drummed out of hospital after hospital for being too beholden to modern methods of germ-prevention. Then he comes into the employ of Jonathan Pryce, who has a thriving practice treating “hysterical” women by massaging their genitals until their “uteruses properly realign.” Dancy also begins courting Pryce’s younger daughter, though he’s more captivated by her older sister, Maggie Gyllenhaal, a feminist and socialist who runs a cash-poor mission for the indigent. Dancy also has a rich, gay best friend (played by Rupert Everett, naturally) who dabbles in inventing. However will Gyllenhaal keep her mission afloat? How will Dancy continue in the uterus-realignment business when it makes his wrist hurt? Hysteria connects the dots in wholly expected ways, smirking all the way at the era of leeches and phrenology. There’s something undeniably satisfying about the way the pieces of the plot all fit together, and at least the movie is light of spirit and not tongue-cluckingly judgmental (much). But the film could’ve said a little more about how the pursuit of cutting-edge science leads down some blind alleys, and it could’ve said a lot more about the sexual habits of Victorians. Instead, this is one of those movies where if there’s a pile of horseshit on the ground, you can be sure that some finely attired gentleman will step in it. Today, I think that gentleman was me.
Grade: C-

The Moth Diaries
Director/Country/Time: Mary Harron/Canada-Ireland/85 min.
Cast: Sarah Bolger, Lily Cole, Scott Speedman
Program: Special Presentations
Headline: The Private School That Dripped Blood
Scott’s Take: The worst movie of the festival is also the most inexplicable: How did Mary Harron, the skilled and reliably intelligent director of American Psycho and The Notorious Bettie Page, make a film as inept as The Moth Diaries? You can see where the attraction might be for a feminist filmmaker like Harron: Based on Rachel Klein’s novel, the film is a vampire tale set in an all-girl boarding school, offering a chance to express the vampire myth in wholly feminine terms and assert a classicism absent in the Twilight movies. (Scott Speedman, playing a teacher, gives pointed lectures on the gothic tradition in literature, specifically the Dracula precursor Camilla.) Sarah Bolger plays a student who comes into the school year with a cheery attitude, having gotten enough distance from her poet father’s suicide to enjoy her friends and move on with her life. But when a tall, pale, freakish new student (Lily Cole) gets between her and her best friend (Sarah Gadon), her jealousy turns to suspicion that this girl who clearly looks and acts like a vampire may actually be one. The Moth Diaries deals with the intense emotions of girls in the blush of adolescence, but Harron, perhaps wary of exploitation, pour cold water over them. What’s left is bland, stilted, straight-to-DVD fodder, aimed at a Twilight audience that may not require quality, but at least responds to passion.
Grade: D

Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory
Director/Country/Time: Joe Berlinger & Bruce Sinofsky/USA/106 min.
Documentary
Program: Real To Reel
Headline: Waiting for a final verdict
Noel’s Take: The recent good fortune for The West Memphis 3—freed from prison last month after 17 years—proves to be ill fortune for Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory, which was completed before Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley and Jason Baldwin were released. Berlinger and Sinofsky are in the process of prepping an epilogue, which’ll be ready before the documentary airs on HBO next year, so I’m going to withhold a grade until I see what they come up with. But honestly, given what PL3 is currently like, an epilogue probably isn’t going to be satisfactory. It’s a gripping film, sure—much moreso than PL2, which got mired in self-congratulatory footage of the Free The WM3 crowd and some morally dicey guilt-shifting—but ever since the first film, Berlinger and Sinofsky have shifted more to advocacy mode when it comes to this case, which makes PL3 more of a direct call for justice combined with an expression of frustration with the slow-drip appeals process. And given the new developments, that approach wouldn’t seem to jibe with a zippy 15-minute postscript. Or perhaps it will; I’ll give Berlinger and Sinofsky the benefit of the doubt, given their track record. As for the film as it stands, it’s driven largely by new revelations about the DNA evidence that have come out since PL2, and by yet another attempt to point to another possible suspect—an attempt that would have more sting were it not for the filmmakers’ previous efforts in that regard. (Though it’s worth noting that Mark Byers, the villain of PL2, has since become a staunch backer of the Free The WM3 movement.) What fascinates me about PL3 though is how effectively Berlinger and Sinofsky are able to repurpose outtakes from the first Paradise Lost. The same was true of PL2, actually. The new film goes over the facts of the case yet again—how three 8-year-old boys were bound, mutilated and murdered, and how Damien, Jessie and Jason were accused of performing a Satanic ritual—but it doesn’t reuse much from the earlier docs. Instead we see and hear evidence we’ve never seen and heard before, and not all of it is new. In fact, at one point the lead investigator on the case complains that HBO has never shown the public all the relevant evidence, and even in this film, in the background of some courtroom shots we can see pieces of exhibits that may relate to some of that evidence. This is not to say that The WM3 are actually guilty; I personally believe they were probably railroaded. But it’s fascinating that this case is so rich with detail that Berlinger and Sinofsky have gotten three lengthy films out of it, and still haven’t told the whole story.
Grade: Incomplete

The Tall Man
Director/Country/Time: Tony Krawitz/Australia/79 min.
Documentary
Program: Real To Reel
Headline: The power and the passion
Noel’s Take: Tony Krawitz’s documentary The Tall Man is based on a true crime book, about a case in which an aboriginal man was killed in police custody, and about what the case revealed in regard to ongoing racial divisions in Australia. The island where the incident occurred has had a history of police brutality, with the government routinely closing ranks around the offenders. In the days after the death, the locals staged demonstrations that turned into riots, and the police declared a state of martial law. All of that drew national attention, with the police aligning behind their colleague, and organizations of indigenous peoples aligning against them. Krawitz assembles official police footage, news reports and new interviews, focusing on the way the local cops hide their brutality behind official lingo and procedure, and how the various governmental agencies ignore their own policies in order to produce the outcomes they want in this case. As a documentary, The Tall Man is merely solid, but it's a powerful illustration of how institutional racism can be hard to change, despite the best intentions of all concerned.
Grade: B

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