My favorite thing about the Toronto Film Festival, when I started attending in 1984, was the chance – two or three times a day – to walk into a theater knowing nothing about a movie and discover it with a clean slate.
That’s what it was like when I saw the Coen brothers’ “Blood Simple” here for the first time, and Michael Moore’s “Roger and Me.” And Quentin Tarantino’s “Reservoir Dogs” – and so many others.
That opportunity feels as if, for the most part, it’s all but disappeared, in terms of the big movies that come out of Toronto these days. By the time Toronto rolls around, the major Oscar contenders have long since been identified, usually when the films have played at earlier festivals. Attending Toronto then becomes an effort to catch up with everything you’ve been reading about all year but haven’t had a chance to see: “The Birth of a Nation,” “Manchester by the Sea,” “Arrival,” “La La Land.”
In this era of media saturation, it’s hard NOT to be aware of these films and what other critics already think of them, even though I generally don’t read reviews before I see a film. It’s impossible to miss the Facebook postings and Twitter pronouncements; I’m as guilty as the next critic of doing the same thing.
So it’s rare that I walk into a film not knowing anything about it as the lights fade and the opening credits roll. But that was the case when I walked into “Maudie,” a Canadian-Irish co-production that was my final film of the day.
I only saw it because I’d changed my mind about the film I originally meant to see at the same time, a documentary about Amanda Knox. Before I went to the theater, I was having a conversation with a friend about what I was going to see, and when I mentioned that film, he said, “Well, isn’t that going to be on Netflix in a few weeks?”
And I thought – OK, so here’s “Maudie,” about which I know nothing, starting at the same time. I turned left instead of right and went to see it. (And, honestly, if I’d known it was a Canadian film, I probably would have skipped it, which would have been a shame.)
“Maudie” turned out to be a small, understated and winning film starring Sally Hawkins as a noted Canadian folk artist, Maud Lewis, who lived in poverty all her life while selling her paintings at a roadside stand for $5. Her gruff (to the point of hostility) husband, Everett (Ethan Hawke), is a fish peddler who does other odd jobs, which keeps them in a one-room house with a sleeping loft.
Even as she becomes more and more stooped, the effects of rheumatoid arthritis and what looks like scoliosis, her spirit is indomitable, whether she’s standing up to her domineering husband with sly good humor or shyly making sharp bargains for her work. It is a love story about outsiders who learn to fit together, even as Maud takes unsurpassed joy from the simple act of painting a picture of flowers.
If the film is a shade too long – and goes off on an unfulfilling tangent about a secret from her early life – it still rises on the crooked back of the marvelous Sally Hawkins, in her most fulfilling role since Mike Leigh’s “Happy Go Lucky.” The physical disabilities never come across as actorly shtick, as Hawkins finds this woman’s glowing spirit and shines it on the crusty Ethan Hawke, crabbed and hunched against the world.
Otherwise, my day held three other films about which I knew too much, even without reading about them. Luckily, I enjoyed most of them.
My favorite was Christopher Guest’s “Mascots,” another film that will pop on Netflix before too long. While not as jam-packed with laughs as some of his earlier work, this mockumentary – about a competition for minor-league and college sports mascots – still averages more laughs than almost any comedy you can name from the past six months.
Guest has many of his regulars back for this film, including Parker Posey, Bob Balaban, Jane Lynch, Ed Begley Jr. and Fred Willard, who has the film’s single funniest scene when his character encounters a little person. “Ask me for five dollars,” he says to the small performer. When the little person does as told, Willard comes back with, “Sorry – I’m a little short this week.”
While certain regulars are sorely missed (Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara – come home!), Guest makes up for it with newcomers Zach Woods (of “Silicon Valley”) and Sarah Baker, as a pair of married mascots who are having relationship issues, and Christopher Moynihan as a college mascot. For good measure, Guest reprises his character of Corky St. Clair from “Waiting for Guffman,” who comes in as a mentor for one of the contestants.
If only Guest would make these films more often: Be thankful we have this one. Keep an eye out on Netflix.
I also saw Tom Ford’s “Noctural Animals,” a study in style (in color this time, instead of the luxurious black-and-white of his first film, “A Single Man”). The film operates on two tracks: In one, Amy Adams, as a bored L.A. art gallerist, suspects her husband (Armey Hammer) is cheating, even as he heads off to New York to keep his business alive. She receives a bound galley of a new novel, sent to her by her first husband, Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal), which she reads because she has perpetual insomnia.
The novel provides the other track: a brutal revenge story, in which Gyllenhaal also appears, playing the protagonist. He’s a businessman who, while driving at night across the plains of west Texas with his wife and daughter, is rammed and pulled over by a team of three thugs led by Aaron Taylor-Johnson. The husband is separated from his wife and daughter, who wind up raped and murdered. So he joins forces with an about-to-retire cop (Michael Shannon) to find the killers and bring them to justice, one way or the other.
There’s a distance to Ford’s work that often gives the film an arm’s-length quality, which seems to be Ford’s point. Yet he’s not afraid to upset the viewer with in-your-face tension and the traumatic violence at the center of the story-within-a-story.
Despite a character who is written as though she’s wandering around in a fog (it’s really a cloud of self-hatred), Adams gives this woman a painful depth and sense of awareness of the mistakes that litter her path through life. Shannon is brutally funny and scary as the lawman, while Gyllenhaal is alternately chilly and overheated as the husband.
My other film Wednesday was “Deepwater Horizon,” which will be in theaters in a couple of weeks as well (and which I had to see in order to write a review). Directed by Peter Berg and starring Mark Wahlberg, Kurt Russell and John Malkovich, it’s a film about the explosion that destroyed the Deepwater Horizon, a deep-sea oil-drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico rented by British Petroleum. The explosion killed 11 workers in 2010, part of the worst-ever marine oil spill in human history, which BP is still alternately paying for and trying to weasel out of.
There’s not a lot of subtlety to Berg’s film. The first half-hour is littered with overly obvious bad omens, including a BP executive giving rig-boss Russell a safety award just before the whole rig blows sky-high because of improper safety precautions caused by BP cost-cutting.
Indeed, there are arguments pitting Russell and Wahlberg – as the rig operation’s most responsible parties – against the on-site BP executives (including Malkovich), who pooh-pooh the rig operators’ fears that the well they are digging is unstable and could do exactly what it ends up doing.
The film’s second half – the explosion and the surviving crew’s subsequent escape and rescue from the oil rig – is much more solid, a tense and pounding action sequence involving fire, explosions and the sheer terror of self-preservation. It’s exciting film-making, though loud and percussive to the point of being assaultive.
It’s now Wednesday night and I’ve seen 17 movies in four days. I’ll top off the tank with one more in the morning – Ewan McGregor’s directorial debut, an adaptation of Philip Roth’s “American Pastoral” – but this will wrap up my coverage of Toronto.
This site now goes back to being dormant until I head for the Sundance Film Festival in January 2017. See you then.
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