Live from the Toronto Film Festival: Wednesday, September 16

September 17, 2015

martian

I saw three films in a row today at the Toronto International Film Festival that have generated heavy buzz in the early festival days of fall – and found that none of them actually has the makings of the awards-season juggernauts they’re being touted as.

In other words, don’t believe the hype.

“The Martian” is being hailed as this year’s answer to “Gravity.” But as is usually the case with the films of Ridley Scott, there’s much less here than meets the eye.

It’s a simple enough concept: A manned mission to Mars has reached the planet surface. But it must be aborted early because of a deadly sand storm. In the process of evacuating the planet, one crew member is swept away by the storm and presumed dead, while the others start the long journey back to Earth. Except that this particular astronaut, Mark Watney (Matt Damon), survives — so now what?

Andy Weir’s best-selling novel was straightforward, minus the sort of reversals that would make it more than a good beach read (which it is). Somehow Scott has managed to drain the story of most of the excitement; not all, but most. While the film is definitely tense and filled with moments that make you wonder whether you could survive under similar circumstances, it is also bloated with shots meant to show off Scott’s visual prowess (Scott’s strength and, unfortunately, his failing).

What we end up with is a special-effects laden film built around Damon’s wisecracks and exposition. It never achieves the kind of visceral or emotional lift-off that propelled “Gravity” to Oscar glory. Instead, it’s a solidly made, mainstream commercial film. Period.

(And can we please call a moratorium on using certain songs — Elton John’s “Rocket Man,” Norman Greenbaum’s “Spirit in the Sky” or, in this case, David Bowie ‘s “Starman” — in movies about space? Honestly — we get it already.)

beasts-of-no-nation

“Beasts of No Nation” is a solid and disturbing film about child soldiers forced to fight or die in an unnamed African country. It too is being touted as a year-end force, but it’s hard to imagine anyone sitting through it who doesn’t have to (i.e., critics).

I understand the film’s importance: Our media has resolutely ignored the various genocidal civil wars in Africa (sorry, they don’t generate ratings) and the audience for documentaries on subjects like this are pitiful. So a drama based on a novel — one directed by Cary Fukunaga, the guy who helmed the first season of “True Detective,” with a star as magnetic as Idris Elba — is the way to go.

But this story of a village lad named Agu (Abraham Attah) is fairly simplistic: Both sides are butchers and the innocent die. Agu is transformed from innocent to butcher in order to survive. It’s a blunt instrument of a film, even when filtered through a child’s eye. Or perhaps because of it.

Unsparing? Yes. But what lesson do we learn? It’s not as if man’s inhumanity to man comes as a surprise; it is a fact of life in that part of the world (and, really, everywhere else, if you look even a little closely). So, again: It’s a movie for critics, one that will sicken and pain audiences brave enough to take it in.

As for Charlie Kaufman’s “Anomalisa,” which just won the main prize at the Venice Film Festival, well, again: Here’s a movie for critics and real film buffs that will leave anyone else duped into watching it shaking their heads in puzzlement. I watched it with increasing fascination, but felt like I should temper any enthusiastic appraisal of the film with heavy-duty caveats.

Almost nothing happens in this film. Shot in stop-motion animation, it’s a nearly plotless tale of an author of a best-seller on customer service (voiced by David Thewlis), who flies from L.A. to Cincinnati to deliver a speech on the subject. While he’s there, he calls up an old girlfriend for a drink, in hopes of apologizing for dumping her. Then he picks up a woman (voiced by Jennifer Jason Leigh) who’s there for the speech, has sex with her and even imagines a future together. Then he delivers his speech (and has a bit of a meltdown), before returning home to his wife and son.

If it were shot with actors, it might pass as a David Lynch film (though it’s less hellish than Lynch would make it and the animation softens the horror). As it is, there’s something weirdly fascinating about this low-key story of a man having a kind of mental breakdown, told with what are, in essence, puppets. Even then, it will probably earn an R rating for a fairly graphic scene of cunnilingus.

I hated Kaufman’s “Synecdoche, New York,” a film that seemed to crawl up its own ass. But I couldn’t stop watching this film. But, again – I’m a critic, who tends to enjoy films that do something I haven’t seen before.

I’ve seen films like Dito Montiel’s “Man Down” before, but it was still compelling enough to pull me in and keep me watching. Most of that has to do with the performance by Shia LaBeouf in the film’s central role.

The film’s jigsaw-puzzle construction keeps you guessing about what’s what until the final 20 minutes. Montiel begins with scenes of a bearded, wary Gabriel Drummer (LeBeouf) searching an apocalyptic landscape for his son after some unspecified disaster. We also see flashbacks to Gabe and his best pal Devin (Jai Courtney) going through Marine boot camp, then being deployed together in Afghanistan. These are mixed with sequences in which Gabe undergoes therapy with a military shrink (Gary Oldman) about “the incident,” something that happened to him in Afghanistan.

Eventually Montiel (and writer Adam Simon) have to lay their cards down and make things clear. The ending seems a little pat but the journey is never less than compelling, thanks to what is obviously a deeply felt performance by LeBeouf.

 

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