2000 TIFF Festival Daily Update #10: "Code of Honor"

Commentary by James Berardinelli
September 16, 2000

Since this is my final update for the 2000 Toronto Film Festival, the time has come to present an overview of some of the highlights and lowlights of the previous ten days of cinema mania. First, however, there's one final common theme that I want to pursue which has crept up in a few of the past week's films: that of the code of honor (as you will see, I'm using that term loosely).

The highest profile film to screen at TIFF 2000 with this theme is the aptly titled Men of Honor, one of Fox's big fall releases. The movie has a promising cast headlined by two Academy Award winners, Robert DeNiro and Cuba Gooding Jr., and the director, George Tillman Jr., has a shiny gold star on his resume for his helming of 1998's Soul Food. The story, at least on a high level, sounds interesting enough: tell the true tale of Carl Brashear, the first black man to join the U.S. Navy's deep sea diving team. Unfortunately, the film runs into serious trouble when Tillman and his screenwriter, Scott Marshall Smith, decide to get heavy-handed. A moderately entertaining movie until the final 20 minutes, Men of Honor falls apart during its last act, when the filmmakers embrace the tactic of overbearing manipulation.

The movie, which has a wraparound plot structure that allows the majority of the story to be told through flashbacks, introduces us to young Carl Brashear (Gooding Jr.) in his hometown of Sonora, Kentucky in 1943. Years later, after hearing the pitch of a recruiter, he joins the U.S. Navy, only to find out that there are three options for a black man: be a cook, become an officer's valet, or get out. But Carl is strong-willed and his talent as the fastest swimmer on the ship garners him a place among the Search & Rescue swimmers. From there, after two long, hard years of work, he becomes the first black man to be accepted into the Navy's diving school. There, in Bayonne, New Jersey, he encounters a man who calls himself God: Master Chief Billy Sunday (Robert DeNiro), a bigot who is determined that Carl fails his class.

Men of Honor tackles military racism during the '50s and '60s in a straightforward manner. Some scenes are probably overplayed, but the technique is effective at underlining the kind of opposition encountered by trailblazers like Carl. And, while the confrontations between Carl and Master Chief Sunday are derivative of those we have seen in countless other movies about military training, the acting by Gooding Jr. and DeNiro is of a high enough caliber that we're able to forget (at least momentarily) that we've seen these scenarios played out numerous times before.

The so-called "men of honor" are, of course, Carl and Master Chief Sunday. The former is a man who promises his father something and is determined to live his entire life focused towards that goal. The latter is an arrogant, insubordinate military figure who must find a way to overcome his inner prejudices in order to change his character and offer support to one who is truly deserving. It should come as no surprise that the two individuals who begin as adversaries end up on the same side. This is, after all, a feel-good motion picture, not a realistic or believable one.

The downfall of Men of Honor comes during its latter stages, long after the issue of racism has faded into the background. Without giving things away, I can say that there's a big courtroom scene that left me wanting to gag. Tillman plays every card in the deck trying to wrench the audience's emotions during this sequence, and, as is too often the case, he goes off the deep end, leaving us feeling angry at his inept manipulation rather than fulfilled. The obvious counter-argument to this complaint that some will use is that it's based on a true story. The key words in that phrase are "based on" - Tillman has taken one man's inspirational tale and overcooked it to the point where it's soggy.

Undoubtedly, Men of Honor's clumsy approach will find its share of supporters, and, to be truthful, there are stretches of the movie (including Carl's struggle to pass his final exam and his underwater encounter with a Russian submarine) when it offers solidly engaging material. But good intentions and a solid thematic foundation aren't enough. This is one motion picture that only puts half of the pieces together.

There's a code of honor for criminals just as there is for enlisted men. It may not be as firm or as clearly delineated, but it's just as binding. This is the area explored by The Yards, director James Gray's disappointing follow-up to his powerful debut, Little Odessa. Gray claims that much of the material for The Yards is based on the real-life experiences of his father, who worked maintenance on New York City subway cars. It's ironic, therefore, that the film's biggest problem is the preposterousness of the script, which throws one unbelievable scenario after another at the audience. Things in The Yards get so hard to swallow that even the most easygoing of viewers will find it hard to suspend disbelief.

Mark Wahlberg plays Leo Handler, a young man just out of jail after serving a 16 month sentence for grand theft auto. Leo's a stand-up guy; he didn't rat out his best friend, Willie (Joaquin Phoenix), on his way down. Now, Willie, who suddenly is rolling in cash, wants to pass on some of his good fortune, so he sets up a job interview between Leo and Frank (James Caan), Leo's aunt's new husband. Frank owns one of the biggest manufacture and repair companies for subway cars in New York City, and he wants Leo to take a maintenance course and learn a trade. But Willie pushes for Leo's entrance into the darker side of the business - the one that sabotages the competition. It's a faster way to make money, but it comes with a price, and, predictably, during Leo's first mission, things go disastrously wrong. A man is killed, another is badly injured, and Leo finds himself wearing the costume of a scapegoat. Only his cousin Erica (Charlize Theron) and his ailing mother (Ellen Burstyn) believe in his innocence. So he's hunted by just about everyone - not only the police, but Frank's men.

To Gray's credit, the film is well-paced and includes several sequences that are legitimately suspenseful, but the movie falls apart because the plot hangs by thin strings of credibility that frequently snap. For example, while Leo is wanted for murder and attempted murder, he is somehow able to sneak into and out of his house to visit his mother on more than one occasion. One would assume that even the most inept police department would have the premises under surveillance. The list of problems like this is extensive. Gray may have based large elements on his father's experiences, but The Yards gets nearly all of the details wrong.

The ending is equally problematic, since it works overtime to sew up every possible plot thread, and accomplishes this in a manner that has as many credibility problems as the rest of the film. The movie has three distinct stopping points, but it doesn't end until the over-the-top third one. It's as if the filmmakers wrote an ending, decided it didn't meet all their needs, then decided to tack on another one. This gives the final ten minutes a choppy feel.

The casting is effective. For the three leads, Gray has selected a trio of hot young actors: Mark Wahlberg and Joaquin Phoenix as Leo and Willie (apparently, these two flip-flopped their roles just before the start of production), and Charlize Theron, who will be ubiquitous this fall (she also appears in Men of Honor as Robert DeNiro's wife and The Legend of Bagger Vance as Matt Damon's girlfriend), as Erica, the obligatory love interest. James Caan, Ellen Burstyn, and Faye Dunaway (as Erica's mother) add a few veteran names.

As an expose of corruption in New York City politics, The Yards doesn't offer anything new. As a low-key thriller about crime, punishment, and betrayal, it's competent, but not spectacular. And, as a melodrama about broken friendships and tangled family relationships, it only does the job some of the time. Gray showed great promise with Little Odessa. Hopefully, The Yards represents nothing more than a sophomore slump.

Meanwhile, heading across the Atlantic to the French film industry, we find the latest effort from director Patrice Leconte, whose previous film, The Girl on the Bridge delighted audiences across the globe. This time around, Leconte has opted for a costume drama with a distinct anti-death penalty flavor. As one would expect from an accomplished director, his intent is not to preach, but to demonstrate by example. The Widow of Saint-Pierre asks two complex questions: what does it take to redeem a murderer and which path should an individual choose when morality conflicts with the law?

To play out this tale, which transpires during the 1850s in the French territory of Saint-Pierre, an island off the coast of Newfoundland, Leconte has brought together two of his country's best-known actors. Juliette Binoche plays Madame La and Daniel Auteuil is her husband, the captain in charge of the French military stationed on the island. The third player in the drama is Neel Auguste (Yugoslavian director Emir Kusturica in a fine screen debut), a convicted killler. The court sentences Neel to death for his act, but there's a problem. French law demands execution by guillotine, and there isn't one on the island, nor is there an executioner. So, while the islanders of Saint-Pierre await the arrival of the instrument from Martinique (a several month delay), Neel is allowed a degree of freedom by the Captain and Madame La. A series of good deeds on his part make him a beloved member of the community, and, when the guillotine eventually arrives, no one is willing to wield it. Meanwhile, the Captain, having decided that it would be unjust to execute Neel given his reformed character, informs the local government that his troops will not aid in the beheading - a stance that places him in a dangerous position.

With The Widow of Saint-Pierre, Leconte has crafted a compelling melodrama. It's an occasionally powerful and often thought provoking period piece that is characterized by strong acting and an effective visual style. By using blue filters that mute the intensity of bright colors, Leconte gives his film a stark, wintry feel. Saint-Pierre is represented as a cold, isolated place, far removed from France and French justice. With his superiors so far away, the Captain feels compelled to act in accordance with his conscience rather than to follow his orders. Which is the more honorable course?

Of course, Leconte's point is that not all criminals are beyond rehabilitation and redemption. Neel commits a brutal, senseless crime, but his actions afterward prove that his transformation is one of the heart and soul. In truth, he believes that he deserves his sentence, and is unwilling to put others at risk to flee from it. The Widow of Saint-Pierre points out one of the key flaws inherent in the death penalty - the possibility that a man's nature can be re-shaped.

If there's a flaw in the film, it's Leconte's cool, detached perspective of the characters, which dissuades emotional involvement. It's as if the starkness of the film's setting has seeped into the heart of the production. In many ways, The Widow of Saint-Pierre reminded me of the classic The Return of Martin Guerre, although this film is not as effective or accomplished. The movies, however, have similar agendas and the best scenes in The Widow of Saint-Pierre evidence the same kind of quiet power that is apparent throughout the whole of Martin Guerre. Leconte's latest film will not be remembered alongside his materworks, but it is nevertheless a worthy effort.

Across the channel, British filmmaker Ken Loach has devoted his career to a code of honor that acknowledges the basic dignity of a human being, regardless of income or social status. Loach is an activist, and every film he has made illustrates one aspect or another of his world view. Bread and Roses, his latest, brings him for the first time to the United States. Set in Los Angeles in the immigrant community, Loach takes a look at the inequities faced by minorities who are forced to subsist on poverty-level wages because they lack the skills and organization to unionize. He personalizes the struggle by focusing on a small group of characters who work as non-union janitors in a downtown high rise.

The film opens with the arrival of Maya (newcomer Pilar Padilla) in Los Angeles. Her sister, Rosa (Elpidia Carrillo), has paid for her to be brought across the border from Mexico. When Rosa is unable to come up with the agreed-upon price, however, Maya is required to make up for the difference with her body. She escapes and flees to Rosa's house, where the sisters have a joyous reunion. Money is a problem for Rosa, whose husband's doctor's bills eat up much of the income she makes from working long hours as a janitor. Maya also needs work, and Rosa helps her to get a job with her company. Meanwhile, a local activist, Sam (Adrien Brody), is seeking to unionize the workers in the building where Maya and Rosa work - an intention that creates friction between the sisters. Maya believes that it is a cause worth fighting for. Rosa, who cannot afford to lose her job, is unwilling to take any risks.

Loach's pro-union stance comes across loud and clear. In fact, there are times when the film edges close to sermonizing. However, as is always true of the director's films, we become so deeply involved in the lives and relationships of the characters that the presentation of the message seems like a natural extension of the story, not something grafted heavy-handedly onto the plot. Loach approaches filmmaking with an almost Dogma-like simplicity (an approach he used long before Von Trier et. al. codified the style), employing hand-held cameras, preferring simple shots, and eschewing cinematic trickery. It makes the characters and their situations seem more real and less like a writer's inventions.

One scene in Bread and Roses stands out above all others. It's a searing confrontation between Maya and Rosa that generates goosebumps even as it elevates the film to the next level. The scene must be experienced for its power to be understood; it places everything else in the movie into a far different context, and introduces moral ambiguities that pure idealism disallows. The two actresses involved (Padilla and Carrillo) are incredible; not since Lara Belmont's breakdown in The War Zone has there been a more emotionally wrenching moment committed to celluloid. Once the 2000 TIFF has faded into the recesses of my memory, there are two moments that will still stand out: the climax of Requiem for a Dream and this sequence from Bread and Roses.

Several name actors have leant Loach their support for this film by making cameo appearances. They include Lara Belmont and Tim Roth (both of whom were on a publicity tour in Los Angeles for The War Zone when Loach was filming), as well as William Atherton (the sleazy reporter in the first two Die Hard movies) and Ron Perlman. Their presence adds to the film's credibilty, but it's the work of the leads that gives Bread and Roses its strength. The film is not without faults - it tends to lionize the pro-union movement without acknowledging certain terroristic tactics - but that doesn't diminish its overall impact, nor does it in any way invalidate the important message that Loach is championing.

Briefly, here are few thoughts on three other movies that, to one degree or another, apply some form of a code of honor.

The Truth About Tully offers a biblical approach to honor, as in the commandment that states "Honor thy Mother and Father." Another apt passage to invoke when discussing this film is that "the sins of the fathers shall be visted upon the sons." The Truth About Tully, from first-time director Hilary Birmingham, offers a moving portrait of a family that has erected communications barriers. A rancher named Coates (Bob Burrus) lives with his two sons, Tully Jr. (Anson Mount) and Earl (Glenn Fitzgerald), on a farm in Nebraska. Coates no longer communicates with either of his sons and Tully Jr. has shut himself off from any sort of emotional attachment with anyone. The film, which unfolds unhurriedly, explores how easy it is to build these barriers and how difficult it can be to tear them down. Tully Jr. is helped in his quest to re-connect by Ella Smalley (a wonderful Julianne Nicholson), the one woman in town who wants to be his friend rather than his lover. Meanwhile, Coates discovers his own path for showing both his sons that he loves them.

Wong Kar-wai's In the Mood for Love examines how two people honor their marriage vows, even when their respective spouses are cheating on them with each other. The film takes place in 1962 Hong Kong, where Chau (Tony Leung) meets Li-chun (Maggie Cheung) when they become next-door neighbors. After learning that Chau's wife is having an affair with Li-chung's husband, the two become close friends, and the attachment between them develops into something deeper and more lasting than a casual liaison. But, because of cultural issues and feelings of guilt (the guilt of an act thought about but not committed), they never act on their impulses. In the Mood for Love is a powerful study of longing that uses innovative camera techniques (many of the director's shots are from ground level and cut off the actor's heads), evocative music (mournful violins) and strong performances to bathe the audience in the mood of the characters -- one of poignant yearning for something that both of them desire but which neither can find the courage to express.

Finally, there's the oddly-titled Sexy Beast (oddly titled because neither of the main characters is sexy, although both are certainly beasts), which focuses on a husband's determination to honor a promise he made to his wife. The movie, the debut effort from British director Jonathan Glazer, is essentially a caper flick, athough the best parts take place before the crime gets underway. The first two-thirds of this film represent a test of wills between retired criminal Gary (Ray Winstone, playing a softer role than in either Nil By Mouth or The War Zone) and gangster Don (Ben Kingsley), who wants Gary to come back to work with him on one more job. Both actors give forceful performances, and their often-vicious give-and-take is a delight to behold. Satellite characters, such as Gary's wife, Deedee (Amanda Redman), enrich the plot by raising the stakes. Gary can cope with Don's threats and bullying when they are directed at him, but not when his wife is their target. With a style that recalls recent films like The Limey and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, Sexy Beast offers a suspenseful 90 minutes. It will blow into U.S. Theaters next spring.

So, with that, it's time to wrap up this year's coverage. It's hard to say whether this was a strong or weak festival. It didn't have as many giddy highs as the 1999 edition, but it also didn't have as many lows. And, compared to the dismal offerings dished out by the 2000 Sundance Film Festival, the 2000 TIFF was a glorious thing to experience. (Then again, it's probably inherently unfair to compare meat-market Sundance with Toronto in the first place.) All-in-all, I'd call it "average" -- and, in a year when so few good movies have reached multiplexes, "average" turned out to be wonderful.

What was the best film I saw? That's a difficult call. I would rank four films near the top, and would have difficulty choosing between them if forced. They are: Liam, Stephen Frears' powerful (if conventional) drama; The Princess and the Warrior, Tom Tykwer's amazing follow-up to Run Lola Run; Requiem for a Dream, Darren Aronofsky's bold and gut-wrenching anti-drug film; and Bread and Roses, Ken Loach's pro-union film (which I discussed earlier in this update). All four are shoo-ins for my 2000 Top 10 list. It's a lot easier to figure out the which was the worst film: Sally Field's Beautiful, which represents the kind of crap that no serious movie-goer should ever be subjected to. I discussed this film with several of my colleagues as well as a few non-critics, and the negative opinion seems to be universal.

So, as a quick recap, here are three lists -- the films I strongly recommend, those I recommend, and those that I recommend be ignored. All the movies in these lists either have a U.S. distributor already or are likely to get one, and many of these titles will see the light of day in North American theaters before the end of the year. They are presented alphabetically.

As always, I close the book on this festival feeling a mixture of exhaustion and melancholy. Physically, I don't think I could have kept up the pace of writing one update and watching four movies every day for much longer, but, on another level, the thought of the festival going on and on is a delicious, delerious idea. Every year, I treasure this ten-day period in September, because the high concentration of cinematic quality re-invigorates my appreciation for the art. And for those who couldn't make it to Toronto, fear not -- the good stuff is on its way, headed south of the border, led by Almost Famous.

© 2000 James Berardinelli

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