John’s TIFF Diary: Day Seven

Harrelson, against all odds, outdoes himself in the excellent Rampart.

Little by little the crowds are diminishing, the press screenings are less packed, and the general population milling through the fantastic Lightbox is thinning out.  Like it or not, TIFF is a top-heavy festival, meaning that the big events happen from the opening on Thursday to about Tuesday…and then it all starts to phase out and wind down.

As we approach the close of the festival, all in all, it has been pretty damned good.  Not the best; for that we reach back to 2007 which was jam-packed with brilliant films, four of the five nominated Best Pictures were there and a slew of the nominated actors and actresses.  But still, 2011 has been a very strong festival, with many titles already on the path to the Oscars, rave reviews, or at the very least a sale.

Rampart (****) was the best film I saw today; an alarmingly intense experience from Oren Moverman, who gave us the heartbreaking The Messenger (2009) also starring Woody Harrelson and Ben Foster.  This film belongs entirely to Harrelson who is stunning as Dave Brown, seething with rage as a crooked cop in Los Angeles.  Well-known to criminals in the area, he is feared by everyone he encounters, including many of the cops he works with.  He arrests, beats and sentences on the street.  With no ethical compass, he is the most dangerous form of police officer; a cruel man using a gun and a badge to justify his own corruption.

It seems Brown may have killed a rapist and gotten away with it, but the shadow of the crime still haunts him.  When his department is caught up in an investigation, he of course is an easy target.  What they do not count on is his capacity for evil.  Hardened by the job and fueled by an anger I am not sure even he understands, he finds himself in the middle of something truly ugly, and leaves him with no alternative but to lash back.

Harrelson gives what might be the best performance of his career boldly portraying a man that is not easy to like.  He is frightening not for what we know about him, but for what we do not.  Few actors have been willing to portray such an intensely dislikable character before; few actors have made it work so beautifully and created art within their performance.  With a home life that is a mystery and difficult, living with two sisters who seem to fear and love him equally, he casually slips in and out of their lives.

Though Harrelson dominates the film with a superb study of a corrupt man, there are strong supporting turns from Ben Foster as a handicapped street person, as well as Anne Heche and Cynthia Nixon as his “wives.”

The film is dark, full of violence and profanity, but excellent in the way Blue Velvet (1986) was so; it touches upon a way of life we know exists but pretend does not, just as we want to say that people like Dave (Harrelson) are not real.  Sadly, they are.

Not Bruce Beresford's finest hour...

From there I unfortunately had to step down to Peace, Love, & Misunderstanding (**), a disappointment with the exception of a wonderful performance of two time Academy Award-winner Jane Fonda.  She is given a role tailor-made for her, allowing the screen legend to spoof her own image.  Fonda is brilliant, reminding audiences just how tremendously fine an actress she was through the sixties and seventies, and leaping into the race as a serious contender for Best Supporting Actress.  Having always been a huge Fonda admirer, I was looking forward to seeing the film for her alone, and was not disappointed by her work at all.  In fact she is so good she elevates the film to a higher level of enjoyment that it really deserves.

The film tells the story of Diane (Catherine Keener) trapped in a lifestyle she hates.  When she gets the divorce she wants so badly, she takes her daughter and heads for Woodstock to stay with her free-spirited hippie mother Grace (Fonda), who still holds protests against the war in Vietnam, grows her own marijuana, believes in strange healing powers and is not above howling at the moon.  Obviously Diane and her mother have been estranged for some time, but once together they begin to predictably resolve the issues between them, and presto, Diane meets a new man.  In fact so does the daughter, and even the son.  It is in these convenient events that I find the film’s major issues.  Nothing is that easy, nothing is this tidy.  I mean, really: the three, within days of landing in Woodstock, have found true love…give me a break!

Peace, Love, & Misunderstanding cannot help but have the feel of On Golden Pond (1981) to it, but the saccharine Oscar winner, now thirty years old, at least had the real life battle between Fonda and her cold, aloof father Henry in the role that won him an Oscar.  Here, we do not have that sort of baggage and the picture comes off feeling forced.

That said, I must add that the glaring exception is Fonda, who bravely spoofs herself; a kinder, gentler image of “Hanoi Jane.”  Yet when she stares at her daughter, she is really there in the scene, she is listening to everything said to her and responding as though the words were spilling out of her mouth for the first time.  She was genius then and she’s a genius now, and it was a pleasure to see her onscreen again.

It’s too bad the rest of the film does not match her level of commitment.  Keener looks tired and out of sorts, which works for a while but becomes redundant very quickly.  The actors portraying her children are the sort of spoiled movie brats that are processed by writers at the studios who know nothing about children or the behavior of them, and the love stories are simply too good to be true.  Is Jeffrey Dean Morgan not becoming the go-to fairy tale image of the guy to save the girl these days?

Bruce Beresford has done much better work, including his Best Picture-winning Driving Miss Daisy (1989).  See the film for Fonda, and revel in her glory as an actress because she’s still got it.  When you are THAT good, it never leaves you.