Live from the Toronto Film Festival: Monday, Sept. 14

September 15, 2015

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Three-fourths of the way through my second day at the Toronto International Film Festival today, I realized that, beside the documentary I’d seen Sunday, all the movies I’d chosen turned out to be dramas based on true stories. And every one of them dealt with an injustice of some sort.

Sunday, it was “Trumbo” and “Truth.” Today, the day began with “The Program,” a Stephen Frears film about Lance Armstrong. I followed that with the shattering “Freeheld,” based on the true story of a New Jersey police woman who, as she faces death from cancer, discovers that the county for which she works will not let her assign her pension benefits to her female domestic partner.

It wasn’t until “Forsaken,” my seventh film in two days, that I saw a work of fiction. I enjoyed it, though I knew it wasn’t much more than a middling western.

Peter Sollett’s “Freeheld” was, for me, the find of the day, an intensely emotional film based on a true story that could easily win Julianne Moore her second Oscar in a row (and, perhaps, earn a nomination for the terrific Michael Shannon). Moore plays Laurel Hester, an Ocean Township, NJ, police detective who is a closeted lesbian. Then she meets the love of her life, a young mechanic named Stacie (Ellen Page).

It’s 2005, so they file papers to become domestic partners, as allowed then under New Jersey law. They buy a house – but then Laurel is diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. She applies to have her police pension assigned to Stacie (so she can afford the house), but the local county freeholders (comparable to county legislators) vote to deny her request because, well, traditional marriage. While the state mandates this arrangement for state employees, it’s optional for local government – and these guys are all facing imminent reelection.

This, of course, is shortly after the Bush reelection campaign of 2004 whipped up a frenzy of fear about the threat that “gay marriage” represented. But Hester develops some unexpected allies, including a Jewish gay-rights activist (Steve Carell) and even Hester’s on-the-job partner (Michael Shannon in a role he infuses with empathy). You can look up on the Internet to see whether Hester won her case or you can wait and watch this wrenching story that features an equally heart-breaking performance from Page as the young woman confronting discrimination at her emotional low-point. It’s easy to see this film winning the festival’s audience award.

Ben Foster gives a chilling, charming performance as Lance Armstrong in “The Program.” Stephen Frears’ film is based on the book by Irish sportswriter David Walsh (who lost a libel case to Armstrong in English courts, only to have the fine returned when it turned out Armstrong was lying about not using performance-enhancing drugs).

Frears skitters across the events of Armstrong’s career, capturing key moments even as he gives the film the pace of a sprint. Pay attention because he’ll skip ahead without you. He looks behind the scenes at the ultra-competitive Armstrong’s deep dive into the science and application of chemistry and biology to increase his physical capability. It becomes matter-of-fact on Armstrong’s team: the loaded syringes left in the sneakers each morning, the blood draws and reinfusions that jacked up their red blood cells’ ability to deliver oxygen.

Armstrong becomes a champion – or does he? He’s a bully who’s not above threatening his accusers or smearing them, even as he builds a bike team designed to put him in first place of the Tour de France seven years in a row.

Anyone who’s seen Alex Gibney’s “The Armstrong Lie” understands just how close Ben Foster comes to capturing the disgraced bike-racer’s intensity and brazenness. He’s building the Armstrong brand, even if it’s built on lies and cheating. Like the best journalistic thrillers, it’s a tale of a lie unraveling in public.

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The one based-on-a-true-story film that didn’t head in the direction of battling injustice didn’t actually find much of a direction at all. “The Man Who Knew Infinity” stars Dev Patel as the self-taught mathematical theoretician Srinavasa Ramanujan, and Jeremy Irons as his mentor, Cambridge mathematician G.H. Hardy.

If you’re thinking, Oh wow—just what I’ve been waiting for: a movie about mathematical theories, well, yeah, that’s about the size of it. Patel is given obstacles of racial prejudice to overcome, as well as a separation from his young wife, while Irons entertains grandly as the crabby scholar always ready with a cutting wisecrack about his colleagues. But while Patel can convey the character’s wonder with the world he sees so differently than others, writer-director Matthew Brown can’t illuminate what it is he’s talking about. We’re supposed to take his word for it that it’s enthralling because the script never finds a way to accomplish that.

“Forsaken” is a western, a genre I love dearly, so I give it points for that. Directed by “24” veteran Jon Cassar, the movie represents the first time a film casts Donald Sutherland and Kiefer Sutherland as father and son.

Otherwise, the western tropes are familiar without being original in any way. There’s a terrorized town whose people are being bullied by an evil rich man (Brian Cox), who is using henchman to force people to sell their farms to him (or just to kill them). Enter the long-lost local boy (Kiefer Sutherland), whose reputation as a gunslinger makes him a feared figure when he comes home for the first time since leaving to fight in the Civil War — to everyone except his disapproving preacher father (Donald Sutherland). If you think you know where this is going (or if you’ve seen “Shane” or “High Noon” or any of a dozen other westerns), you’s probably right. Which would be fine if Brad Mirman’s script were more than a collection of clichés which, unfortunately, it isn’t.

What “Forsaken” has going for it are a pair of deeply felt father-and-son performances by the Sutherlands, who elevate weak material. On the other hand, Demi Moore seems far too modern to be believable as a prairie farm wife (though it’s interesting to look at her and Sutherland the Younger and recall that, 30 years ago, both were members in good standing of Hollywood’s Brat Pack).

 

 

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