Anyone who has read a James Ellroy novel can attest to the author’s unparalleled ability to dramatize the dark corruption of the LAPD. Ellroy’s collaboration on the screenplay of Rampart brings his hard-boiled world to the screen, and starkly so through the gritty style of director/co-writer Oren Moverman (The Messenger). Rampart is an unflinching and unflattering portrait of the Rampart division of the LAPD. While the graphic realism of the film pushes it near the point of repulsion, Rampart is also a fascinating interpretation of seedy cops thanks to Woody Harrelson’s bravura performance as Dave Brown, the prototypical LAPD cop who abides by the philosophy of “shoot first, ask questions later.”
Brown is perhaps the worst kind of cop. This is not because he’s a hotheaded racist pig, but because he packs an earnest desire to protect the streets, yet his vigilant ethic frequently turns into vigilantism. Brown prefers to work outside the law in order to uphold it. Like a small boy playing with his toys, Brown flaunts the law ignorant to the consequences. The repercussions of his ire are evident in his fractured family. Brown supports two sisters – one is his current wife (Anne Heche), one is his ex-wife (Cynthia Nixon) – as well as one daughter from each of the two mothers. All four women in Brown’s life are plainly suffering from neglect. Much like the relationship between Brandon and Sissy in Shame, Dave’s recklessness explodes with complete disregard to his family.
As Brown, Harrelson is a minefield of testosterone and bubbling rage. Harrelson’s volatile and wrathful cop makes Denzel Washington’s Alonzo Harris look like Little Bo Peep. It’s an excellent characterization on par with Harrelson’s last collaboration with Moverman in The Messenger. Moverman also stacks the film with a strong list of supporting players including Robin Wright, Sigourney Weaver, Steve Buscemi and Ben Foster. Rampart is a solid sophomore effort by Moverman.
The second screening of the day posed a slight dilemma. Whilst in the line for Rampart, I learned that another screening of 360 had been added to the festival. I was quite tempted to switch my afternoon film to see Fernando Meirelles’s latest, especially since I missed the other regular screening during the lottery (I got Moneyball instead). I ultimately opted not to, partly because 360 would cut into my third screening, Dark Horse, but I mostly wanted to keep my original film, 388 Arletta Avenue, because my line up doesn’t contain as many Canadian films as I would have liked it to. (It’s surprisingly difficult to see them in theatres, especially if you don’t live in Toronto.)
I’m glad I stuck with Arletta because this thriller by Randall Cole is stylish, suspenseful, and highly entertaining. 388 Arletta Avenue creeps into the lives of the Deakins, an upscale Toronto couple played by Nick Stahl and Mia Kirshner. The Deakins unsuspectingly live under twenty-four hour surveillance. The who and why of their invasion of privacy remains a mystery, and the two questions have one on edge while observing the couple from the dozens of hidden cameras planted in their home, car, and places of work. The entirety of the film is shot from cameras that are either hidden or handheld by the stalkers as the prowl Arletta Avenue.
The formal gimmick works surprisingly well. It sustains the film throughout, just until the unravelling of its final act. The invasive voyeuristic nature of 388 Arletta Avenue is like Paranormal Activity crossed with Caché. While Arletta admittedly isn’t in the same league as the Michael Haneke film, it could be a sleeper hit akin to Paranormal Activity. Horror/thriller fans should keep a watchful eye for this film.
Third for the day was Todd Solondz’s Dark Horse. I’m glad I stuck with this one too. Dark Horse offers more of the sharp, funny, and scathing suburban satire that many have come to love in the films of Todd Solondz. His latest film chronicles the arrested development of a thirtysomething man-child, Abe, (Jordan Gelber), who is a disastrous product of over-parenting, nepotism, and internet shopping. He meets Miranda (Selma Blair) and falls in love instantly, despite the lack of a visible spark between them.
As Abe fumbles about his courtship and slacks off at work, Solondz offers more of his wry observations on the banalities of contemporary American living. Dark Horse lacks the wily edginess of Life During Wartime’s take on Bush-era politics and China, but it still playfully lampoons the side of suburbia that’s been corrupted by American Idol and big box stores. Solondz succeeds best with his episodes of escapism in which Abe retreats into fantasies about his dad’s sultry cougar secretary (Donna Murphy) or has nightmares of hepatitis. Solondz also gets the best from his ensemble, especially Mia Farrow and Christopher Walken as Abe’s parents, and Selma Blair as the overly Prozaced Miranda. Even if Dark Horse does not register among Solondz’s best work, it still proves the filmmaker’s stock by showing that a lesser Solondz film is still better than most.
The final film of the day was easily the best. I’d been anticipating Martha Marcy May Marlene since the film took off at Sundance. Martha Marcy deserves the hordes of accolades it has received: this is a taut, beguiling thriller.
Martha Marcy May Marlene unspools with a labyrinthine narrative that cuts back and forth between Martha and Marcy May. The film begins with Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) on the run from her surrogate family in upstate New York. Martha takes shelter in the home of her sister, Lucy, (Sarah Paulson), but lives in fear that her former life will catch up with her. Writer/director Sean Durkin shrewdly unfolds the origins of Martha’s corruption into Marcy May, her alter ego bestowed upon her by her leader Patrick (John Hawkes). Marcy May’s rituals and beliefs haunt Martha and permeate her efforts to transition back into everyday life. The adaptations of both Martha and Marcy May into their new surroundings are not very different, for while Patrick indoctrinates his “children” with cultish mumbo-jumbo, Lucy lectures Martha on normalcy and proper behaviour.
Martha’s predicament is creepy, and the intricate structuring and editing of the film grant it an ominous foreboding tone and an unending sense of danger. The film also benefits from the sullen atmosphere of its ashen cinematography, as well as an effective score, which includes the haunting ballad “Marcy’s Song,” performed by Hawkes. Last, and certainly not least, in the kudos is Martha Marcy herself, Elizabeth Olsen, who gives the year’s most impressive breakthrough performance not given by Jessica Chastain. Martha Marcy is movie magic.
*I’m sad to report that I’ll be away from the festival on Tuesday, as I have prior commitments back in Ottawa; however, keep an eye on the AD Twitter feeds (and the folks at #TIFF11) to see Toronto’s take on W.E. I’ll return to the festival on Wednesday to see Elizabeth Olsen team up with Jane Fonda and Catherine Keener in Peace, Love, and Misunderstanding, and I’ll catch screenings of Monsieur Lazhar, Pariah, and Carré Blanc. Stay tuned!