A week at the Toronto Film Festival added up to 24 screenings–a decent pace, but not an outstanding one. Blame some vagaries of the festival’s scheduling, and a baseline decision that Midnight Madness was too much midnight and maybe even too much madness. The potential awards contenders I wasn’t able to get to included Legend, Youth, Our Brand Is Crisis, 45 Years and Son of Saul. As for the ones I did see: the following mini-reviews are listed in a rough order of preference, although I’d note that fully the first half of the list features films that are well worth seeing, and even farther down, many of the titles have their virtues.
SICARIO (Lionsgate – September 18): Denis Villenueve’s Prisoners was a genre thriller that went deeper and darker than the norm, and the same is true of Sicario. Taylor Sheridan’s script gradually upends our expectations about what an action movie about the pursuit of cartel kingpens should be, supplying plenty of visceral excitement but insisting we register the complexities that come along with it. All of this is reflected in Emily Blunt’s brilliant performance as a crack FBI agent who has no idea about how small a pond she’s been in until she finds herself in an ocean of moral ambiguity. Her implosion is powerful, and while Benicio del Toro and Josh Brolin are in roles more comfortably in their wheelhouses, they’re both superb, especially del Toro, whose character is the script’s onion, constantly revealing new aspects. Roger Deakins, who also shot Prisoners, contributes masterfully varied tones of cinematography, and there’s a propulsive, perfectly matched score by Johann Johannsson.
THE MARTIAN (20th – October 2): This jaunty sci-fi offspring of Apollo 13, Cast Away and McGyver is Ridley Scott’s most enjoyable movie in years. Matt Damon plays the astronaut mistakenly left for dead on Mars by his crew, and as he quickly realizes, if he’s going to survive until he can be restocked with supplies or rescued, he’s going to have to “science the shit out of” his predicament. He does, and so does just about every scientist on Earth, as one crisis after another threatens his survival. Damon is ideally cast, and everywhere you look, there are actors you’re happy to spend time with: Jeff Daniels, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Sean Bean, Kristen Wiig, Mackenzie Davis and Donald Glover on Earth, and Jessica Chastain, Sebastian Stan and Kate Mara in space, among others. Scott’s mastery of all the elements that brought this tale to life is so seemingly effortless as to be underestimated, and Drew Goddard’s script achieves just the right level of giving us enough jargon so that we buy that the people on screen know what they’re talking about, without boring us with too many details, and it delivers plenty of earned laughs along the way, too. Probably not an awards candidate (except in technical categories, and possibly for Damon), but The Martian is likely to be enough of a hit to wipe Fantastic Four off Fox’s books.
ANOMALISA (Paramount – December 30): No one expects “normal” from Charlie Kaufman, but happily his first film since the nearly impenetrable Synedoche, NY, while not lacking in uniqueness, is one of his more accessible works. He co-directs with Duke Johnson, and for a very specific reason: he’s taken a work about an overnight hotel stay in Cincinnati that was originally written as a “live radio play,” to be delivered by 3 actors on a empty stage and featuring only their voices (plus a score by Carter Burwell), and reimagined it as stop-motion animation, albeit in a very naturalistic and adult style. (Johnson was the director of the stop-motion Christmas episode of Community, among other animations.) This isn’t just a stunt–it ties in with some of the themes of the work, and it gives the material scale and emotional power that a traditionally indie approach wouldn’t have conveyed. The vocal talents of David Thewlis, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Tom Noonan are inextricable from the result, which recalls Kaufman’s desperately romantic Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind but, as usual with Kaufman, in an entirely new and different way. It was acquired by Paramount during the festival for an awards run, and while as with all things Kaufman, it will be an acquired taste, it could be a contender if Academy voters are feeling daring.
TRUTH (Sony Classics – October 16): There were two varieties of true-life journalism stories at this year’s festival: Spotlight (see slightly below), where the reporters do virtually everything right, with happy endings for all but the wrongdoers exposed, and Truth, in which there are no unsoiled heroes, and everything falls apart. Spotlight may well be the more popular hit, but the complications of Truth make it a bit more interesting. The story being reported was about the nature of George W. Bush’s National Guard service during Vietnam, and hinged on memos that may or may not have been genuine. Mary Mapes (Cate Blanchett) assembled a A-team (Dennis Quaid, Elizabeth Moss, Topher Grace) to investigate, and the group intended at all times to do its best, but shortcuts were taken, the process was rushed, and the result left Mapes fired and even the venerable Dan Rather (Robert Redford) upended from his network anchor chair. James Vanderbilt’s first film as a director as well as screenwriter sometimes betrays his roots–lots of characters get to make rousing speeches. Overall, though, he has a fascinating story to tell and tells it well. One day Cate Blanchett will be less than amazing in a movie, but it isn’t here, where she makes us believe Mapes’ exceptional talent as well as her failings, and even though Redford looks nothing like Rather, he duplicates the anchor’s cadences, and once his fame melds with the anchor’s, the casting ends up making sense.
ROOM (A24 – October 16): Emma Donoghue’s bestselling novel presented a daunting obstacle to screen adaptation, since the story is told from the viewpoint of a 5-year old who doesn’t understand that his beloved Ma was kidnapped as a teenager and raped by her captor, and who believes that the shed where the two of them are confined is the entire world. Donoghue herself did the very skilled screenplay, and while some elements are reduced, the emotional force of the tale remains. Director Lenny Abrahamson and his technical team pull off the trick of keeping the action in a single tiny space without becoming visually tiresome, and when the story eventually moves beyond the shed, things are equally distinctive. Ultimately, though, this was always going to be a film that rested on the backs of its two main actors. Brie Larson confirms after Short Term 12 that she’s a major American actress (it would be a shame if she’s outpaced in the Oscar race by bigger names and more experienced studios), capable of warmth, fury and heartbreak and everything in between, and however young Jacob Tremblay’s performance was coaxed from him, he does virtuoso work in an incredibly difficult role.
SPOTLIGHT (Open Road – November 6): The other news drama of the festival was the one where the good guys won. The target this time was the entire system by which the Catholic church shielded child molesters in its clergy, and the heroes were a special investigative journalism unit of the Boston Globe, which painstakingly (with a luxury of time that the film makes clear may not exist in the news business for much longer) built its case from the story of a single priest into a Pulitzer Prize winning epic. The ensemble cast includes Michael Keaton as the unit’s head, and Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, and Brian D’Arcy James as its members (and Liev Schreiber and John Slattery as the senior editors). Tom McCarthy’s film (co-written with Josh Singer) is a crisp, no-frills procedural: All the President’s Men without the 70s paranoia. For McCarthy, whose previous work includes The Station Agent and Win Win, it removes the stain of his Adam Sandler vehicle The Cobbler from his record.
BLACK MASS (Warners – September 18): One’s reaction to Scott Cooper’s film (written by Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth) will likely depend less on the appreciation of Johnny Depp’s performance as Boston gangster James (don’t call him “Whitey”) Bulger–he’s ferociously believable as a psychopathic killer–and more on how one responds to the way the film draws the FBI agent Connolly (played by Joel Edgerton) who protected him for 20 years as a confidential informant. Connolly is presented as an idiot who never realized until it was much too late just how evil his childhood friend Jimmy had become, and as the murders pile up, it’s easy to lose patience with him. Other than that very problematic depiction at the movie’s center, it’s a richly satisfying, high-toned (if familiarly Scorsesian and super-violent) gangland story, with a cast that includes Kevin Bacon, Benedict Cumberbatch, Peter Sarsgaard, Jesse Plemons, Corey Stoll–and even a moustached Adam Scott as another FBI agent. The lovely, dark photography is by Masanobu Takayanagi (who also shot Spotlight).
THE DANISH GIRL (Focus/Universal – November 27): Transgender issues have so quickly become a part of pop culture that people may be unprepared for how subdued and apolitical Tom Hooper’s film is. Lucinda Coxon’s script tells the true story of the 1920s Danish painter Einar Wegener (Eddie Redmayne), who with his wife Gerda (Alicia Wikander) introduced a female alter ego into their romantic lives they called Lili. For Gerda, Lili was a bit of light perversity, but for Einar, it brought to the surface feelings he’d repressed since youth. The film is mostly about the ways that this affected their marriage–medical considerations only come into play toward the end–and it’s kept quite small in scale, with much of the first half taking place in the Wegeners’ apartment. Redmayne gives a exquisitely delicate performance, and Vikander shows for the first time in an English-language film what her range as an actress is. This film will certainly figure into awards season, although perhaps more for the actors than for the picture itself.
DEMOLITION (Fox Searchlight – 2016): The festival’s opening night film provoked some head-scratching, because it looked and felt like a potential awards contender, but Searchlight swears it’s not opening until next year. It’s a very carefully told story about losing control, and that dichotomy between Jean-Marc Vallee’s filmmaking and the ideas in Bryan Sipe’s script may ultimately hold it back, although Jake Gyllenhaal’s performance is the real thing. He plays a smooth Wall Street broker whose life is ripped apart when he’s suddenly widowed. In a somewhat unsubtle metaphor come to life, he starts ripping things apart himself: his house (and those of other people), the office men’s room, and various objects that come his way. He also establishes a relationship with the customer service manager (Naomi Watts) of the company whose vending machine doesn’t dispense the candy he wants, along with her young son. Demolition is both sincerely moving and contrived, although in its last act, it moves more toward the latter. But Gyllenhaal is an open nerve, and there are some sequences here that are wildly funny and a little bit scary, the tone the whole movie seems to have been aiming for.
FREEHELD (Summit/Lionsgate – October 2): If it’s awards season, it must be time for Julianne Moore to be gravely ill again. OK, that’s unfair, but Freeheld does follow close on the heels of her Oscar winning Alzheimer’s performance in Still Alice. This time it’s a true story, and really more about an underlying social issue than the illness itself: Moore plays New Jersey cop Laurel Hester, who was diagnosed with late-stage lung cancer and fought her town council (called “Freeholders”) almost to her dying day, when they refused to allow her to assign her pension to her domestic partner Stacie (Ellen Page). Even though the film’s events took place just 10 years ago, they’ve been swiftly overtaken by legal change, giving Freeheld the feeling of a period film, and Ron Nyswaner’s script (he also wrote Philadelphia) is more serviceable than inspired. Peter Sollett’s direction, though, trusts the actors to find the emotional truth in the work, and they do: Moore, of course, is heartbreaking, and while Page is excellent as well, it’s Michael Shannon, as Moore’s partner on the force, who has the biggest impact, proving himself just as effective a hero on screen as he’s often been a villain. (Steve Carell’s turn as a flamboyant Orthodox Jewish gay activist seems to be around more for crowd-pleasing purposes.)
THE MEDDLER (Sony Classics – no release date set): Hollywood has recently come to realize that the senior audience is one of its most loyal: in 2015 alone, the hits include Woman In Gold, The 2d Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, A Walk In the Woods, Grandma, I’ll See You In My Dreams and Learning To Drive. Lorene Scafaria’s semiautobiographical comedy (her movie stand-in, a TV scriptwriter played by Rose Byrne, is named “Lori” instead of “Lorene”) will almost certainly join that list. The main character is Lori/Lorene’s mother Marnie (Susan Sarandon), who followed her daughter (in real life, too) to Los Angeles after her husband died, and, with the very best of intentions, made her daughter’s life a living hell with helpful and nudging calls, texts and visits. In the movie, at least, there’s a sadness behind Marnie’s compulsion that makes The Meddler more than a sitcom, and Sarandon–once you get past her Noo Yawk accent–gives a terrific, centered performance. She’s matched by J.K. Simmons, who channels his inner Sam Elliott as her retired-cop beau, and the cast also includes Cecily Strong, Jason Ritter, Casey Wilson and Lucy Punch. Everyone’s children will tell everyone’s parents to see it, and vice versa.
THE FAMILY FANG (no distrib): Another dysfunctional family, although Jason Bateman’s film (based on David Lindsay-Abaire’s script and Kevin Wilson’s novel), despite its seemingly farcical plotline, takes itself much more seriously. The Fangs, Annie (Nicole Kidman) and Buster (Bateman), are the adult children of performance artists Caleb (Christopher Walken) and Camille (Maryann Plunkett), who used their kids as performers–sometimes witting, sometimes not–in provocative art pieces that were aimed at causing panic or anger in a crowd. Years later, both Fangs are emotional wrecks who blame Mom and Dad for their problems, and they have to reunite when their parents disappear, not at all sure whether something has really happened, or if they’re merely pawns once again in their parents’ art gamesmanship. There were people who admired this more than I did: although the cast is first-rate (Kidman and Bateman are surprisingly apt at siblings, and Walken could hardly be better cast), and Bateman’s direction is far more assured than in his uneven debut Bad Words, the gimmicky plot and the melancholy tone never quite came together for me.
THE LOBSTER (Alchemy – no release date set): The winner of the Palme D’Or at Cannes, and pretty much the definition of a “film festival movie”. Yorgos Lanthimos’ allegory (written with Efthimis Filippou) is set in an alternate present where official society won’t tolerate singleness: anyone not in a couple is sent to a rundown resort hotel and given 45 days to hook up with another guest with whom they share a trait, physical (shortsightedness) or psychological (heartlessness). If they don’t, they’re transformed into the animal of their choice; the divorced architect played by Colin Farrell declares that he’ll become a lobster. The only escape is to the woods, where the opposite worldview controls, and anyone who so much as flirts with another person is subject to hideous punishment. There’s more than enough quirkiness to go around, and some effectively deadpan humor executed by the fine cast (Rachel Weisz, John C. Reilly, Lea Seydoux and Olivia Colman among them), but this is extremely rarefied filmmaking, even in its Bunuelian context.
CASUAL (Hulu/Lionsgate – Premieres October 7): For the first time this year, Toronto featured a program of television series, acknowledging the seriousness with which the medium is now regarded. Hulu’s upcoming half-hour series Casual, created by Zander Lehmann and with Jason Reitman as an EP and director of its first two episodes, is TV in its semi-indie form (think HBO’s Togetherness or FX’s Married), mumblecore with gags. It’s about a therapist in the middle of a divorce (Michaela Watkins), who lives with her unruly brother (Tommy Dewey) and her acerbic teen daughter (Tara Lynne Barr), and the issues they all have with sex and romance. Based on the two episodes screened, it’s not going to be a signature hit for Hulu, but it’s an affectionate, likable effort.
TRUMBO (Bleecker Street – November 6): It’s an unfortunate irony that this biography of one of Hollywood’s celebrated screenwriters (Roman Holiday, Spartacus) is victimized by an inadequate script (by John McNamara, also the perpetrator of NBC’s Aquarius). Superficial and with a wobbly tone that moves between straightforward biography, soap opera and showbiz farce, it wastes the talents of an exceptional cast that includes a very arch Bryan Cranston as Trumbo, Diane Lane as his wife, Elle Fanning as his daughter, and Michael Stuhlbarg, John Goodman, Stephen Root and Alan Tudyk as various Hollywood denizens, real and fictionalized, not to mention Helen Mirren as Hedda Hopper. The damage caused by the blacklist is made clear, but the the faulty approach minimizes its weight (The Front, from 1974, is a far more effective mix of blacklist comedy and drama), and Jay Roach’s direction never succeeds in tying it all together.
MAGGIE’S PLAN (no distrib): Saying that a performer is miscast isn’t the same as saying they’ve given a bad performance, and Greta Gerwig puts all of her flibbertigibbet adorableness into playing Maggie–it’s just that since the character is meant to be a nurturing yet buttoned-up woman who always has to be in control, those traits don’t really make sense. Writer-director Rebecca Miller, shifting to comedy after the extremely serious Personal Velocity and Ballad of Jack and Rose and the only slightly less somber Private Lives of Pippa Lee, adapts Karen Rinaldi’s story with more enthusiasm than comic style. The narrative concerns the disarray in Maggie’ life when her careful plan about how to have a baby with minimal male involvement is tossed aside after she finds herself falling for a novelist (Ethan Hawke) who’s married to a Danish professor (Julianne Moore, who delivers most of the movie’s big laughs). The low-key Noah Baumbach mode–which hasn’t even been working lately for Baumbach–doesn’t really suit Miller, who loads on rom-com complications without the ability to carry them off
I SAW THE LIGHT (Sony Classics – November 27): The life story of Hank Williams sounds like it should make for a tremendous musical biography, crammed with alcoholism, marital strife, and a tragically short but legendary career. But writer/director Marc Abraham’s film is no more than adequate. He writes like an accountant, carefully noting the exact dates of one event after another on screen, but never delivering a theory on why Williams was so self-destructive, or even more fundamentally establishing what it was about Williams and his songs that even 60 years later set him apart from any other hard-luck country singer. It’s a shame, because Tom Hiddleston pours himself body and soul into playing Williams, and if there’d only been a script to support his work with emotional substance, he could have found himself in serious contention for awards. Elizabeth Olsen, as Williams’ fiery first wife, seems at first as though she’ll carry the film on her own back, but Abrahams lets her character subside into just another aggrieved showbiz wife whose husband cheats on the road. Perhaps Toronto’s most disappointing premiere, if not necessarily its worst.
BEING CHARLIE (no distrib): Sadly, the phrase “Rob Reiner’s best movie in years” doesn’t have much meaning after two decades of suffering through one flop after another. But yes, compared to Alex & Emma, Rumor Has It, Flipped, The Magic of Belle Isle and And So It Goes, among others, Being Charlie is at least a step in the right direction. It wears its personal ties to Reiner on its sleeve: it’s co-written by his son Nick (with Matt Elisofon), and it’s based on the writers’ own experiences in rehab, as well as the main character’s (Nick Robinson) troubled relationship with his actor/political activist father (Cary Elwes). The former part of that mix, which takes up the first half of the movie, is by far the better, adding some sharp humor to the usual rehab story, with strong roles for Common and Ricardo Chavira as the men in charge of the rehab centers. The father-son business, though, along with the soapy complications that accompany it in the second half, send Charlie in the wrong direction, however therapeutic it may have been for the Reiners. At this point, though, half a decent movie from Rob Reiner is better than none at all.
LONDON ROAD (no distrib): The single strangest film I saw at Toronto (and that’s counting Anomalisa), and unfortunately one that didn’t work, although apparently the stage production on which it’s based was a big hit for English’s National Theatre. Rufus Norris’ film (he also directed the stage show) is a musical about a serial killer menacing the town of Ipswich, but that’s not the strange part: it’s the fact that the songs (or “songs”) by Alecky Blythe (with music by Adam Cork) are constructed entirely out of the actual transcripts of interviews Blythe conducted with Ipswich residents. Or, to be more accurate, they’re mostly chants consisting of one or two lines from those transcripts repeated over and over. Some have compared the result to Philip Glass oratorios, and sure, this may be the movie musical for fans of Philip Glass oratorios. For the rest of us, it’s just weird, and it all sits even more uncomfortably in the relatively naturalistic world of the cinema than on the more stylized one of the stage. (Additional odd footnote: Tom Hardy turns up for a one-song cameo as a suspicious cab driver.)
LOUDER THAN BOMBS (The Orchard – no release date): One of the questions film festivals routinely ask of their audiences is how much time they’re willing to spend with truly atrocious people. That’s certainly the case with Louder Than Bombs, the first English-language film by the esteemed Norwegian director Joachim Trier (whose films include Oslo, August 31), from a script he wrote with Eskil Vogt. It acquaints us with the father (Gabriel Byrne) and two sons (Jesse Eisenberg and Devin Druid) of a war photographer (Isabelle Huppert, in flashbacks) who died two years earlier. The survivors are all morose jerks, although Eisenberg, as appears to be comfortable for him, comes off as the jerkiest. Amy Ryan and Rachel Brosnahan are additional women who find themselves involved with these men. It’s the kind of ponderous, pretentious art film where literally any scene could end with one of the characters committing suicide and it wouldn’t come as a surprise–or even necessarily as a bad idea.
COLONIA (no distrib): The most shocking sights in Florian Gallenberger’s Colonia–a movie that prides itself on a steady supply of shocking sights–are the photos under the end credits demonstrating that much of the background of of the story is absolutely true. There really was an establishment in Chile that was a combination of a religious cult and a military torture and murder center, run by a German immigrant who fancied himself a messiah and protected by both the Chilean government and the German embassy, and it persisted in business for decades. The reason this comes as such a surprise is that Gallenberger (and his co-writer Torsten Wenzel) have buried this incredible true story under so many action-schlock cliches that the movie seems more fit for a direct-to-VOD run than any serious consideration. Daniel Bruhl plays the liberal innocent thrown into the Colonia Dignidad during the overthrow of the Allende regime in the 1970s, and Emma Watson(!) is the stewardess who voluntarily joins the cult to break her boyfriend out. The phrase “stranger than fiction” has rarely been so true.
HEROES REBORN (NBC/Universal Television – premieres September 24): There was a theory going around that the reason the two-hour premiere of Heroes Reborn had made it into the TV portion of the film festival line-up, even though it wasn’t remotely festival material, was because the show is shot in Toronto, and the powers that be wanted to show some support for local product. That would at least make some practical sense. Certainly it didn’t qualify on the basis of quality: Tim Kring’s reboot is little more than a carbon copy of the first version of Heroes, despite the fact that the intervening 5 years has seen an explosion of superhero stories on big screen and small, leaving Heroes feeling as up-to-date as The Great Train Robbery. The wooden acting (by a mostly new cast, Jack Coleman being the exception), close-to-nonsensical writing and B-level special effects are back, and the only real change is that along the way, Kring has discovered anime. (One of the Japanese characters is sucked into a video game to exercise her powers.) Far more interesting than any of the content in Heroes Reborn is whether it can find an audience in 2015, considering that the original Heroes went off a ratings cliff following its first hit season, and with the superhero genre saturating pop culture.
A TALE OF LOVE AND DARKNESS (no distrib): Natalie Portman certainly didn’t take it easy on herself in her filmmaking debut: she wrote and directed (adapting a semiautobiographical book by the Israeli writer Amos Oz), and performs the leading role–in Hebrew, with subtitles. The film is accomplished, to an extent, but its achievements are typified by the photography by the great Slawomir Idziak, stripped of virtually all color for a bleak, painful kind of beauty. Although the story takes place during the period when Israel was declaring itself a nation and fighting its first wars, only a bare minimum of the script pays attention to the fascinating history and politics around the characters. The focus instead is on Oz’s tragic mother (Portman), and her fade to an early death. But even that story is presented without context or detail, so that it’s often hard to figure out what’s going on, let alone feel anything about its events beyond a vague depression. It would have been tremendously difficult for a much more experienced writer/director than Portman to pull off this material in a way that would resound with audiences, and although the project clearly meant a great deal to her, she probably should have started with something less demanding.
THE PROGRAM (Momentum – no release date): Utterly useless. With an authoritative documentary on the Lance Armstrong story already widely available (Alex Gibney’s The Armstrong Lie), the only reason to supplement it with a scripted version would be to offer a take that went beyond the documentary, or to showcase a great performance. Neither is the case here: John Hodge’s script does a perfunctory and often tedious job of repeating the story everybody already knows, and although Ben Foster has made himself look remarkably like Armstrong, he captures no more than the expected ruthless ambition under a blandly heroic exterior. The director Stephen Frears has made many very fine films (Dangerous Liaisons, The Grifters and The Queen among them), but this feels like a lazy work-for-hire effort. Suffice it to say that no one involved seems to have shown anything like the succeed-at-any-cost commitment to their project that their protagonist did with his.