Our latest reviews from TIFF have absolutely nothing in common as one is a crime drama, a genre that’s been explored quite frequently in film, and the other is a British romantic comedy set in an odd foreign environment. Rampart stars Woody Harrelson and it’s Oren Moverman’s second movie as a director while Salmon Fishing in the Yemen (CBS Films), starring Ewan McGregor and Emily Blunt, feels like Lasse Halström’s hundredth movie. One of them works infinitely better than the other.
Directed by Oren Moverman; Written by James Ellroy and Oren Moverman
Starring Woody Harrelson, Ben Foster, Ice Cube, Steve Buscemi, Anne Heche, Cynthia Nixon, Sigourney Weaver, Robin Wright, Brie Larson, Ned Beatty
For his follow-up to “The Messenger,” a surprise Oscar nominee in the screenplay category, filmmaker Oren Moverman reteams with Woody Harrelson and Ben Foster to create another stark character study, this time of a dirty cop in 1999 L.A. There are few writers who know the L.A. crime scene better than James Ellroy, which is why “Rampart” has a lot to offer beyond the abundance of other dramas that looked at bad cops, whether we’re talking about either “Bad Lieutenant” movie, Denzel Washington’s “Training Day” or Joe Carnahan’s “Narc.”
Clearly, why men who choose to join the police force decide to start breaking the law is an interesting topic, but “Rampart” has less of a running narrative than some of them, taking more of a fly-on-the-wall approach to the material and a shooting style that’s more likely to be seen in arthouses than in cineplexes.
Regardless of its potential audience, Moverman has created another great vehicle for Woody Harrelson to explore, and he’s shockingly quite likeable as the racist and sexist cop, Dave Brown, who has been accused of killing a colleague, although the crime was never pinned on him. Dave’s home life has him living with a wife (Anne Heche), her sister (Cynthia Nixon) as well as his two daughters, but he also regularly picks up women in bars for one-night stands, because on top of everything else, Dave has a sexual addiction. When Dave is caught on video beating a suspect senseless, he’s suspended from the force, leaving him pondering his decisions in life, but an opportunity arises when one of the women he picks up at his local bar is a defense lawyer played by Robin Wright, who knows something about his case.
What’s surprising about “Rampart”–named after the precinct where Brown works–is that police dramas tend to be extremely macho affairs, but with the amount of women surrounding Dave, the movie spends quite a bit of time exploring his relationships with women, whether it’s the sexier scenes with Wright or the powerful dramatic moments with his rebellious older daughter, played by Brie Larson, or confronting Sigourney Weaver as the woman investigating his case.
In fact, “Rampart” is mostly made up of scenes of Harrelson’s character interacting with those around him. Ben Foster, star of Moverman’s previous movie “The Messenger,” is barely recognizable the first time we see him as a homeless man known as “The General,” who Dave suspects may have seen him commit a crime. Dave also regularly meets with his friend and handler, played by Ned Beatty, who’s still in fine form as an actor.
As terrific as the script and overall performances are, Moverman makes a lot of odd choices in terms of camera angles, sometimes going for extreme close-ups, sometimes shooting from a distance in order to give the film a very distinctive look. There’s also a jarring scene in an underground sex club that really shakes up the fairly slow pace.
By the third act, nothing is going Dave’s way as a plan to rob a high stakes card game backfires and he starts being followed by an Internal Affairs detective played by Ice Cube. All of this builds to a somewhat ambiguous ending, which is very likely to split audiences, because there isn’t a definitive resolution and you’re left unsure whether Dave might indeed repent or if he’ll just continue doing what he does until he’s caught or killed.
“Rampart” is a powerful second film from Moverman, one that could probably find itself an audience beyond the arthouse crowd among the more discerning moviegoers who like good police dramas, and more than likely that will happen with the attention that Harrelson’s portrayal of this dirty cop will receive.
Salmon Fishing in the Yemen (CBS Films)
Directed by Lasse Halström; Written by Simon Beaufoy
Starring Ewan McGregor, Emily Blunt, Kristin Scott Thomas
The very title of Lasse Halström’s adaptation of the bestselling novel by Paul Torday is descriptive enough to give you some idea what this British comedy is about, although an attempt to set a romance within this world creates a rather mish-mash of a movie that doesn’t necessarily work as a whole.
An idealistic Sheikh in Yemen has taken up fishing as a hobby and he wants to bring the sport he enjoys so much when visiting his castle in Scotland to his home country. The Prime Minister’s press secretary (Kristin Scott Thomas) sees this as a way to improve the public’s view of British/Arab relations by taking their minds off the war, so Dr. Albert Jones (Ewan McGregor), a scientist at England’s Department of Fishing, is put in charge of making the Sheik’s dream happen if he wants to keep his job as he works with the Sheik’s representative, the clunkily-named character Harriet Chetwode-Talbot (Emily Blunt), to make this happen. Considering that Yemen is a country mostly made of desert, Jones is skeptical but agrees to take on the task with a number of seemingly impossible stipulations, all of which are met.
Even having not read the book, you have to give screenwriter Simon Beaufoy (“Slumdog Millionaire”) credit for being able to take a very difficult subject matter and making it even remotely entertaining, but it’s a risky endeavor since the resulting movie doesn’t feel like something fishing fanatics will be flocking to see in theaters. It’s essentially a movie that starts out like a cheeky British comedy ala last year’s “Made in Dagenham” and then transforms into something a bit weirder along the lines of “Men Who Stare at Goats.”
Much of the first half of the movie deals with Jones getting over his skepticism about the impossible project and trying to get through a number of hurdles to make the Sheik’s dream a reality. As he works closely with the idealistic Sheik (Amr Waked) and Harriet, he starts becoming more optimistic in the dream. Then again, once the story leaves the UK for the Middle East, the movie just falls off the edge, because it loses the cheeky political humor in favor of something more serious showing how the Sheikh faces resistance to his ideas from locals who don’t like his Western ideals.
The two lead roles in the story aren’t too far removed from what we’ve seen McGregor and Blunt do in the past, and there’s very little heavy lifting for either of them. On the other hand, Kristen Scott Thomas’ snarky wit offers some of the movie’s biggest laughs, which then disappear for a good chunk of the movie when she’s not on screen.
The humor generally works better than the drama though the few times it goes for easy laughs with physical humor like McGregor walking into a glass wall. Just to give you an idea of how ludicrous the film gets, there is a scene where McGregor stops an assassination attempt with his fishing rod, and yes, it’s truly as laughably stupid as it sounds.
Lasse Halström is certainly a competent filmmaker and he finds a way of making some of the more mundane aspects of the film more visually interesting. Usually it involves CG salmon or something to that effect, but it does give the film better production values than its presumed budget. The movie could definitely use a trim, because there are way too many dialogue scenes between the two leads and sometimes the Sheik, which really bog the movie down.
Otherwise, the movie is fairly predictable where things are heading as soon as you realize that the two leads are being set-up to be brought together. When Albert starts experiencing marital problems and Harriet’s soldier boyfriend Robert (Tom Mison) goes missing in action, it isn’t any sort of revelation.
“Salmon Fishing in the Yemen” may have been a smashing read, but trying to get audiences to root for whether fish will swim upstream is often an easier task than getting them to care about whether the two leads will hook up.