Toronto Film Festival Update #8

September 11, 2008
A thought by James Berardinelli

It's impossible to notice the date and not think back. Thoughts of 9/11 don't linger in my mind the way they did at the film festival in 2002 or 2003, but they're still there. Of all the memories I have of spending time in Toronto, those from 9/11 are the most forceful and lingering. Every moment of that day is etched in my mind with an almost supernatural clarity: which movies I saw (Joy Ride and In Hell, for the record), where I ate lunch, where I ate dinner, etc. If you asked me about September 8 or 9 or 10, I couldn't provide such an account.

It's seven years later. The world has returned to normal - sort of. Flying is more of a hassle today than it was on 9/10/01, but that's more because of customer service cutbacks than anything else. In the short interim between then and now, movies have been made about the day. Some, like Paul Greengrass' United 93 and Oliver Stone's World Trade Center have been thoughtful. Others, like Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 (and dozens of direct-to-the-web conspiracy "documentaries") have been exploitative. There's a bitter irony, however, that no movie can match the stunning reality of what happened that day. Two of the nation's largest buildings crumbling to ash - iconic images snuffed out in hours, taking thousands of lives with them. Like December 7, this is a day that will live in infamy and, for those who lived through it, that one day on the calendar will never be just another date, festival or not.

Once upon a time, it was "cops and robbers." Now, the cops sometimes are the robbers. Such is the case in Gavin O'Connor's police corruption thriller, Pride and Glory. The movie runs 125 minutes and, for about 110 of those minutes, it's a workmanlike take on the genre - not groundbreaking, to be sure, but competent in its rendering of drama and tension. Then, in almost spectacular fashion, it implodes with what ranks as one of the worst final 15 minutes of any major motion picture (worse even than Lakeview Terrace). Pride and Glory traverses the road from enjoyable to ludicrous in record time. This stunning example of self-immolation left me literally shaking my head as I exited the theater. A half hour earlier, I had been silently congratulating the film for avoiding the kind of silly, violent pitfalls that seem necessary in this sort of film.

Edward Norton is Ray and Noah Emmerich is Francis Jr. - two brothers who are both NYPD stalwarts. Their brother-in-law, Jimmy (Colin Farrell), is also a cop, and Ray and Francis' father (Jon Voight) is an ex-police chief. Blue runs in their blood, but that blood threatens to spill on the streets when four cops are killed and Ray's investigation into the massacre leads him to believe that cops were involved. As it turns out, the culprits weren't just "any" cops, but a group headed by Jimmy, who has been using members of his squad to carry out murders for cash. Since it's drug dealers paying for other drug dealers to die, Jimmy doesn't see anything wrong with it but, when one of his targets gets away, the fallout threatens to expose the scheme and plunge public trust in the police to an all-time low.

It's impossible to argue about the quality of the acting, but one would expect no less from the likes of Norton and Farrell. Voight, who has been somewhat hit-and-miss in recent years, is in fine form, and there are solid supporting performances from Emmerich and Jennifer Ehle (everyone's favorite Elizabeth Bennett) as Francis' cancer-stricken wife. For well over 90 minutes, the writing is as solid as the acting. The narrative generates sufficient tension to make us forget how familiar many of the beats are and the intelligent way in which the investigation is handled makes us wonder why more police thrillers couldn't be like this. The disappointment engendered by the ending is hard to express. There are at least three major problems. Without being specific, I can say that one has to do with an incident at a convenience store, another relates to a fist-fight, and a third employs a coincidence of staggering magnitude. The final 15 minutes are so awful that it's difficult to believe that the bulk of the film is actually decent. Some movies can survive a bad climax well enough to receive a recommendation. Pride and Glory is not among their number.

From Stephan Elliott, the man who brought us The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert comes Easy Virtue, an adaptation of Noel Coward's play. The thing about Coward's work, whether in its unexpurgated version or in a new, re-tooled approach, is that it's all about the dialogue. Sure, there's a plot, but the thing that shines about the writing is the lines the actors deliver. Only Oscar Wilde has the same bite. Fortunately, Elliott understands this, which makes Easy Virtue go down smoothly.

The story unfolds in 1920s England. Post-World War I and before the Depression and Hitler, the world is on a high. The gay spirits, however, haven't quite reached into the English countryside, where the favored Whittaker son, John (Ben Barnes), has returned home to show off his older, American wife, Larita (Jessica Biel). John's mother, Veronica (Kristen Scott-Thomas), nearly has a heart attack when she meets her new liberated daughter-in-law. John's two sisters have mixed reactions, with Marion (Katherine Parkinson) turning up her nose and Hilda (Kimberly Nixon) exhibiting fascination. Only John's father (Colin Firth) offers the genuine hand of welcome. That's because he, like Larita, is too much of a free-spirit to be comfortable within the gilded cage of a drafty mansion.

The film shoots off one-liners at a rapid pace, with nearly every line of dialogue crackling with wit. Firth and Scott-Thomas are especially adept at biting off Coward's words and phrases, and Biel does as well in this period piece as she did in her previous such endeavor, The Illusionist. The supporting actors are all fine, but this movie belongs to the veterans, both of whom exhibit perfect comedic timing. Firth and Scott-Thomas have been better known for their dramatic work over the years, but both have appeared in their share of comedies and this reminds us of their versatility.

Elliott adds a few "touches" that aren't entirely successful. The soundtrack is comprised primarily of jazz and big band sounds, but the filmmaker slips in some re-tooled mixes of recent pop songs. It's a little jarring to hear a Duke Ellington-inspired version of "Car Wash" or "Kiss." Such innovations are as likely as not to take the viewer out of the moment. The film as a whole feels a little on the light side, but there's as much a place in art house movies for none-too-serious fare as there is in multiplexes. The laughter found in Easy Virtue requires a sophisticated cinematic palate, but for those who appreciate this sort of motion picture, it's a top-notch creation.