2001 TIFF Festival Update #8: "Star Power"

Commentary by James Berardinelli
September 15, 2001

Hollywood trotted out select elements of its Fall schedule and previewed them for audiences at the 2001 Toronto International Film Festival. Due to the terrorist attacks, release dates are already shifting, but all of these movies are still on the calendar. And, while there are no great motion pictures in this batch, at least there are a few watchable ones.

Arguably the highest profile film playing at the entire festival was Antoine Fuqua's Training Day, the story of an idealistic young cop who gets a hard lesson about life in the streets from a veteran. Shining with the star power of Denzel Washington (playing the most morally ambiguous role of a fruitful career) and Ethan Hawke, Training Day crackles with energy. It's two hours long, but seems a lot shorter. However, as good as most of the movie is, it could have been better had the ending evidenced more careful scripting and less of a reliance upon contrivances.

This isn't in any way a "typical" undercover cop motion picture. Fuqua said as much during his introduction, stating that, although this was not his debut feature (he previously helmed The Replacement Killers and Bait), it was the first directorial effort that meant something to him and was, at least in part, drawn from his memories of growing up in Los Angeles. Training Day is about something - it's not a series of generic gunfire and chase sequences. It asks the compelling question of whether it's possible to effectively fight crime without descending to the level of the criminal. Can an idealist be a warrior and protector? On the streets, what's the difference between good and evil? These questions have added relevance in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attack, when the need for vengeance as a means of closure threatens to blind us to all other concerns.

Ethan Hawke is Jake Hoyt, an ambitious L.A. cop who wants to make detective. The fastest route to that position is to join the elite team headed by legendary undercover figure Alonzo Harris (Denzel Washington). To that end, Jake has been given one day to prove to Alonzo that he's ready for the job. At first, things don't go well - Alonzo scoffs at Jake's by-the-book attitude. "You've got to hear the street, smell it, taste it," he admonishes. Then, later, "This is street justice. It takes a wolf to catch a wolf... It's ugly, but it's like that." So Jake starts to learn - smoking some LSD-laced weed after Alonzo tells him, "A good narcotics officer must have narcotics in his blood." But things soon get out of hand, with Alonzo breaking the law more often than upholding it, and Jake begins to wonder what kind of hell he has lost himself in.

Ethan Hawke does a solid job in a thankless role. He's the film's "everyman" - the bland, honorable guy we're supposed to identify with. Not surprisingly, Washington has the plum role, stealing scene after scene as he utters gritty dialogue and glares into the camera. After playing righteous men in The Hurricane and Remember the Titans, Washington finds himself completely at ease in a part that has him leaning towards the other side of the moral compass. Other than the two leads, there are no significant parts, although Scott Glenn, Tom Berenger, Dr. Dre, and Snoop Dogg have supporting roles.

The movie asks hard questions and rarely gives an easy answer. It's riveting and intense, with just enough action to satisfy those who enjoy that genre and enough substance to satiate viewers who are tired of the long litany of dumb motion pictures marching through multiplexes. Unfortunately, Training Day doesn't deliver the complete package. The last 15 minutes are full of cliches, contrivances, and smart characters acting dumb - all in the name of providing a "pat" conclusion. The disappointing climax is not enough to take Training Day off the recommendation list - the rest of the film is too strong - but it diminishes its impact.

It's rare these days that a movie being touted as a "contemporary action thriller" (Warner Brothers' words, not mine) can stand tall as a piece of social commentary. There's an almost Shakespearean quality about the construction of the narrative (at least until the final fifteen minutes), and Alonzo is the kind of charismatic, flawed individual that the Bard would have enjoyed penning a tale about. For those of us who don't really care about the Elizabethan playwright, all this means is that Training Day represents a mainstream motion picture that can be seen and appreciated as more than "mindless entertainment".

Another festival thriller, albeit much more in that "mindless entertainment" category, is John Dahl's Joy Ride. The film, which runs just a little over 90 minutes and is continually well paced, is fast, furious, fun, and requires very little in the way of thought or rumination to "get" it. It's also completely preposterous, so more than a little suspension of disbelief is necessary to appreciate what it has to offer. This is one movie where mindset is important. You have to be looking for an escapist experience that relies strongly on an adrenaline rush.

Joy Ride starts out innocently enough, with two brothers, Lewis (Paul Walker) and Fuller (Steve Zahn), on a cross-country road trip. Lewis, a college student on summer break, is headed to Denver to pick up his dream girl, Venna (Leelee Sobieski), to give her a ride back to New Jersey. Fuller, whom Lewis bails out of jail in Salt Lake City, is along for the ride. One of their first acts of brotherly bonding is to play a practical joke on "Rusty Nail" - the handle of a trucker they hear on the CB radio. Lewis pretends to be a woman and lures the lonely man to a motel for a rendezvous. But the practical joke turns bloody - the man staying in the room number given by Lewis is murdered , and it isn't long before the two young men find themselves being pursued, threatened, and taunted by a faceless trucker. And, although they think it's over once they reach Denver and pick up Venna, it's really just beginning.

John Dahl has already proven he's very much at home working with movies that combine suspense with dashes of macabre humor (see Red Rock West and The Last Seduction for examples), and Joy Ride fits right in. Because the story centers around a relentless truck driver, comparisons have been made to Steven Spielberg's early feature, Duel, but the movies are different in tone and intent. Duel is much more of a psychological thriller while Joy Ride is far less sophisticated and not as concerned with mind games.

The cast is well chosen. Paul Walker plays Lewis straight - a nice, clean cut guy we can all relate to. Sure, the character does something stupid, but we forgive him much more quickly than Rusty Nail does, because he's such a nice boy. Zahn provides most of the comic relief, although he shows, as he has done before, that he's capable of playing material straight. Leelee Sobieski displays her effortless charm and provides a small dosage of sex appeal. Finally, the villain, Rusty Nail, is never seen - he's just a voice on the CB and an ominous, shadowy presence sitting behind the wheel of a truck.

Joy Ride is a lot of fun as long as you don't expect more from it than it promises to deliver. This is essentially a popcorn movie put together by a director who knows how to generate suspense and build tension. And that's what this is all about. Any dramatic moments are simply there to give the audience a breather between action sequences. One other recommendation: avoid the trailer at all costs. Not only does it give away almost every single one of Joy Ride's surprises, but it telegraphs the ending. If you follow that advice, this movie will deliver the kind of experience that its title promises.

Serendipity is a romantic comedy from British director Peter Chelsom (Hear My Song, The Mighty) that pairs quirky, likable John Cusack with rising star Kate Beckinsale. All of the usual adjectives apply: sweet, cute, delightful, romantic, etc. Alas, there are also a few others that are equally valid: annoying, long-winded, and irritating (to name a few). This is one of those movies that thinks it's building suspense and romantic expectations by keeping the characters away from one another for most of the movie. In reality, all it's doing is delaying the inevitable moment when they finally get together and robbing us of the opportunity to enjoy them interacting. I like romantic comedies where the characters spend time with each other instead of running around New York City and San Francisco, almost bumping into each other.

This is the characteristic that most annoyed me about Next Stop, Wonderland and, to a lesser degree, bothered me about both Sleepless in Seattle and You've Got Mail. Maybe I'm just impatient, but, for the hour during Serendipity when the two star-crossed lovers were trying to connect, I was drumming my fingers on my arm rest and muttering silently, "Just get on with it!" Then, after 60 minutes of teasing, they payoff is disappointingly short. I want to see the movie that comes after this one, when these two soul-mates start spending time in each other's company.

Cusack plays Jonathan Tragar, who meets Sarah Thomas (Beckinsale) in New York City a few days before Christmas in 1994. They spend a magical few hours together in a romantic pseudo-reality, but then they must part, since both of them have significant others. But Jonathan and Sarah sense they are drawn to one another by more than dumb luck or blind chance. So, to test fate, Jonathan writes his name and number on a $5 bill and Sarah inscribes her information in a book ("Love in the Time of Cholera"), both of which are put into circulation (the money is spent and the book is taken to a used book store). If either of them finds the other's information, they will know they are meant to be together. Seven years later, they are still looking, although not very hard. But, as marriage approaches for both of them, little things remind Jonathan of Sarah, and Sarah of Jonathan, and the search begins in earnest - through department stores and warehouses, and from coast to coast.

Have I spoiled the ending? Yes, and no. Yes, I have told you what happens (at least in general terms), but this is what everyone seeing Serendipity will expect, with absolute certainty, before they walk into the theater. Enjoyment of the movie depends upon how much you like being teased. Please note that I'm not complaining about the fairy tale nature of the story, with all of its ruminations about fate, which I found to be charming. I just didn't like that we were deprived of the characters interacting.

The chemistry between Cusack and Beckinsale is palpable, and, on those occasions when they are together (especially in the beginning), we notice it. They actors are appealing enough when apart, but the movie is at its best when they're on screen at the same time. The supporting players provide the film's dose of comedy. Jeremy Piven is Cusack's best friend, while Molly Shannon plays the same role for Beckinsale. Not surprisingly, the scene-stealer is Eugene Levy, whose deadpan portrayal of an uptight department store salesman is one of Serendipity's highlights.

Romantic comedy lovers will probably swoon over Serendipity. From my perspective, it's a lukewarm feature, but there are things to appreciate about it, and I have to admit leaving the film with a little smile on my face (rather than the scowl that has too frequently shown my displeasure with other movies this year). Chelsom does almost enough right to counterbalance what he does wrong. While I don't think this is the kind of movie worth running out to see, if you like sentimental pictures, you will probably enjoy what Serendipity has to offer.

Also in the romantic comedy genre, and also from Miramax Films, is Birthday Girl, another high profile motion picture about which I wish I could generate more enthusiasm. The movie stars sad-eyed Ben Chaplin as John, a lonely bank clerk who yearns for female companionship, but can't find the right woman. What's a '00s guy to do? Go to the Internet, of course. On a site called "From Russia with Love", he finds his ideal mate - Nadia, who's smart, pretty, and speaks perfect English. However, when he picks her up at the airport, he discovers that her online bio isn't 100% accurate - she can't speak a word of John's language. After a rocky beginning, things improve. The couple still can't communicate verbally, but Nadia discovers some porn magazines John has hidden in his house, and accommodates a few of his kinky fantasies. But the bliss only lasts until the arrival of Nadia's cousins (Vincent Cassel and Matthieu Kassovitz), who quickly turn John's life upside down once he learns that the con is on.

Birthday Girl, the sophomore feature from British director Jez Butterworth, tries to be a little more ambitious than the average romantic comedy, but, for the most part the thriller/caper aspects are less than impressive and not terribly interesting. The romance, despite being a little bland, is far more compelling that the scenes featuring Cassel (who was also featured in the fabulous TIFF2001 French picture, Sur mes levres) and Kassovitz (the director of Hate, which starred Cassel). Chaplin and Kidman are fine in their own right, but they don't strike many sparks. Anyone expecting the romantic froth of Moulin Rouge or the low-key geniality of The Truth about Cats and Dogs will be disappointed.

I suppose the core problem with Birthday Girl is that, although it doesn't do anything radically wrong, it doesn't do anything radically right, either. It has some humor, some action, and some romance, but not enough of any of those elements to really spark an audience's interest. On top of that, the disparate aspects are not interwoven seamlessly. The tone is uneven, veering from near camp to stark cruelty. Birthday Girl is passable entertainment, but it's the kind of motion picture that won't make much of a splash when it's released, and will not be remembered long afterwards.

Finally, there's the anxiously awaited Hearts in Atlantis. This is clearly a "prestige" film - a label that is often attached to adaptations of non-horror Stephen King stories. It stars Anthony Hopkins, is directed by Shine filmmaker Scott Hicks, and has a prime Fall release intended to attract Academy interest. Yet, despite all of those factors, Hearts in Atlantis is a disappointment. Slow-paced and unevenly scripted (highly unusual for veteran screenwriter William Goldman), the movie leaves us wondering whether we were supposed to care about any of the characters, and, if so, why.

Like Stand By Me, this is a tale of growing up told in retrospective. Robert Garfield (David Morse) uses the occasion of the funeral of a boyhood friend to gaze back 40 years in time to the events of the summer of 1960. It's the summer when he, as an 11-year old boy (Anton Yelchin), has his first kiss - with neighbor Carol Gerber (Mika Boorem); when his mother, Elizabeth (Hope Davis), is forced to come face-to-face with some hard truths of being a single parent; and, most importantly, when the mysterious Ted Brautigan (Anthony Hopkins) moves in upstairs. Bobby and Ted become almost instant friends, despite the vast age difference. Bobby, who is saving up to buy a bicycle, does a number of odd jobs for Ted - including looking out for "low men" who are apparently searching for him. During the course of Ted's stay, Bobby learns that he has the power to look deep into people's minds, and that is the ability that makes him a wanted man.

Unfortunately, director Hicks has crafted a film that moves as glacially as another Anthony Hopkins outing, Meet Joe Black. The movie never develops any kind of momentum or energy to propel it forward - it often seems to be spinning its wheels. With only limited success, Hicks attempts to blend two diverse kinds of movies into one whole, but the sepia-tinged, nostalgic coming-of-age story never fully fuses with the low-key mysticism. Instead of coming across as a living, breathing mentor, with whom young Bobby can give and take, Brautigan emerges as a remote, detached figure. He seems less like a real person than like a figment of Bobby's imagination. And the powerful feelings of friendship Bobby develops for him seem contrived as a result.

Like all coming-of-age tales, whether true-to-life or fictional, this one is about growing up and finding one's place in the world. It's about taking responsibility while learning that life isn't always fair. The most effective aspects of the film are the simpler ones - Bobby's interaction with his mother, who is unsuited to raising a child but trying nonetheless, and his tentative venture into prepubescent romance with Carol. Their first kiss, which happens on a Ferris Wheel, is adorable. Indeed, there's a sense of gentle, unforced realism in their relationship that makes these scenes magical. Unfortunately, the Bobby/Carol material is only a side-bar to the main story.

The look of the film is perfect - slightly nostalgic, but not the point of sentimentality. As always, cinematographer extraordinary Piotr Sobocinski, the longtime Kieslowski collaborator, utilizes (but never overuses) filters to suggest moods. This was Sobocinski's final motion picture, and Hearts in Atlantis is dedicated to him. It is clearly not the best movie Sobocinski worked on, but his participation is not one of the reasons the motion picture fails to fully satisfy. That fault lies on the shoulders of Hicks, and may also be attributable to the source material. There are things to appreciate here, and, if the film captures you in its fragile spell, you may be enthralled. For me, it was too slow moving and the seams showed, and that was enough to mute my appreciation of what it has to offer.

© 2001 James Berardinelli

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