TIFF report card 2015: Grading this year’s films

Sept. 16, 2015, 11:24 a.m.

Celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) continues to be the “festival of festivals:” a ragbag of red carpet affairs and quiet independent flicks that thrives on an unwavering dedication to the filmgoers that keep this industry alive. Praised, over the last decade, for its incomparable slate — often packed with major awards contenders — TIFF has evolved into one of the festival elites, a sweeping 10-day tribute to the magic of cinema.

For the second consecutive year, I had the pleasure of taking part in this annual merrymaking. Packed with everything from journalistic thrillers (a particular weakness of mine) to absurdist Australian romps, my schedule was varied and delightful. As a film critic and film fanatic, the following writings have been a labor of love. Below, you will find my musings on the 13 films, which I was fortunate enough to view during my week in Toronto.

“The Martian”

(Courtesy of Aidan Monaghan, Twentieth Century Fox)
(Courtesy of Aidan Monaghan, Twentieth Century Fox)

Ridley Scott’s “The Martian,” based on Andy Weir’s self-published novel of the same name, effortlessly combines the technical derring-do of “Gravity” with the scope and urgency of “Interstellar,” in turn producing a blockbuster of fine quality and refreshingly simple ambition. For audiences unfamiliar with the novel’s straightforward “problem/answer” construction, “The Martian” may feel repetitive at times, but, as the minutes pass, this cyclicality fades, slowly revealing what is sure to be Ridley Scott’s best work in years. B+

“Maggie’s Plan”

Writer/director Rebecca Miller hasn’t had the greatest luck in the feature film department: From her early work (“The Ballad of Jack and Rose”) to her more recent efforts (“Proof” and “The Private Lives of Pippa Lee”), Miller has never quite managed to relate to critics or filmgoers. With her latest piece, the delightful “Maggie’s Plan,” however, Miller adopts a zanier approach to narrative that proves endearing in its artful carelessness. Buoyed by an ensemble cast that includes a never-better Julianne Moore, “Maggie’s Plan” runs just over 90 minutes, proving a breezy quirk-fest that demands little and offers plenty in return. A-

“I Saw the Light”

(Courtesy of Sam Emerson, Sony Pictures Classics)
(Courtesy of Sam Emerson, Sony Pictures Classics)

Like an album of Hank Williams’ greatest hits, Marc Abraham’s “I Saw the Light” is much too concerned with the folk legend’s domestic and professional milestones to sew together a narrative from the pieces of his splintered life. Though “Light” begins as a marital drama — an early scene captures the marriage of Williams (Tom Hiddleston) to wife Audrey Mae (Elizabeth Olsen) — Abraham is quickly distracted, and, within minutes, the film devolves into a scattershot meditation on fatherhood, self-harm, parasitism and, of course, love. Technically impressive in every way — Hiddleston’s voice is liquid sex, while Olsen’s saucer eyes anchor yet another effortless turn from a brilliant actress long overdue for some awards love — Abraham’s sophomore feature is just one of those films that can’t decide what it wants to say, and, as a result, winds up saying absolutely nothing of consequence. For those familiar with Williams’ untimely demise, “I Saw the Light” feels like it’s merely waiting for its subject to keel over and die already, and, when he does, there remains a shadowy enigma where his legacy (as defined by Abraham) should stand. C-


“Miss You Already”

Toni Collette and the long-absent Drew Barrymore unite for Catherine Hardwicke’s “Miss You Already,” a clichéd tearjerker that says little meaningful about the companionship of women, while simultaneously finding beauty in the places you’d least expect. About the relationship between a pair of childhood best friends who quickly find their lives moving in different directions — one (Collette) is diagnosed with cancer and the other (Barrymore) discovers that she’s pregnant — “Miss You Already” is at its best when Hardwicke seeks to broaden the film’s scope, allowing the supporting characters (including an excellent Dominic Cooper) to deconstruct these two women, both of whom are frequently difficult to comprehend. Also of note: Elliot Davis’s cinematography, which easily distinguishes Hardwicke’s endeavor from schlockier fare. C+

“The Program”

Stephen Frears’ “The Program” is sure to inspire plenty of debate upon its release. Adapted from sports writer David Walsh’s personal account of the Lance Armstrong doping scandal, Frears’ follow-up to the Oscar-nominated “Philomena” paints a scathing portrait of the man who inspired, and disappointed, the world at large. Played by a brutally unhinged Ben Foster (who reportedly underwent Armstrong’s notorious training regimen in preparation for the role), Frears’ Armstrong is a nightmare of alarming ego and vast hubris. The film’s greatest success lies not in the deconstruction of this icon, however, but in its ability to preserve Armstrong’s trademark magnetism despite evidence of downright villainy. Even as Armstrong crashes and burns, he remains absolutely fascinating, impassioned in a way few people are. Unfortunately, when Frears ventures beyond the bounds of Armstrong’s mind, the film noticeably blunders, unable to decide what it hopes to accomplish or say. As an Armstrong biopic, though, “The Program” is an engrossing — and beautiful — ride. B+


(Courtesy of Phil Caruso)

Joining a parade of movies about the quest for equal rights, Peter Sollett’s “Freeheld” does little to distinguish itself amid a mass of crusading “prestige” dramas. Though the film — about a dying cop (Julianne Moore) struggling to leave her posthumous pension to the woman she loves (Ellen Page) — boasts yet another quietly moving turn from Julianne Moore, Sollett’s rather orthodox approach to the source material yields few moments of impact. Much of this flatness is due to a surprising lack of chemistry between Moore and an uncharacteristically stiff Page, but a great deal of blame also falls on Ryan Nyswaner’s script, which is far too outdated for a film about gross conservatism. Trafficking in gay stereotypes — a vagina-fearing activist played by Steve Carrell is most egregiously lazy — “Freeheld” lacks the bite necessary to do its vital subject justice. C

“The Lobster”

The premise of Yorgos Lanthimos’ “The Lobster” is simple: In a futuristic society, single individuals are shipped away to a posh hotel where, upon arrival, they are granted 45 days to find a mate. If they are unsuccessful, they are transformed into an animal of their choosing and released into the untamed wilderness. David (Colin Farrell) chooses a lobster, granting the film its title and much of its eccentricity.

Quirky beyond compare, what ensues is both a satire of the falsehoods of coupledom and a commentary on what it means to be alone in a world where everyone else is together. When Lanthimos explores the former, “The Lobster” is delightfully hilarious; when Lanthimos concerns himself with the latter, things slowly begin to unravel. The result is a film that is both brutally funny and disappointingly inconsistent. B-


(Courtesy of Kerry Hayes, Open Road Films)

Returning to the Toronto International Film Festival just one year after the debut of his critically maligned “The Cobbler,” writer/director Tom McCarthy gets his groove back (sort of) with “Spotlight,” the remarkable true story of the Boston Globe journalists responsible for uncovering an epidemic of sexual assault in the Catholic church. Intelligent and passionate — as is standard for fact-based procedurals of this sort — “Spotlight” easily makes for thought-provoking viewing. Yet, with a made-for-TV aesthetic and script that takes few risks or liberties, “Spotlight” isn’t nearly as memorable as a film of its pedigree should be. Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams and Mark Ruffalo do admirable work, but nothing about this newsroom flick suggests that it’s much more than decent awards bait. B

“Being Charlie”

Written by director Rob Reiner’s son Nick, “Being Charlie” is an insultingly bad and horribly misguided melodrama about how much it sucks to be Rob Reiner’s son. Starring Nick Robinson (“Jurassic World”) as heroin-addict Charlie Mills — a high school dropout who constantly bickers with his too-busy-being-famous dad and slinks in and out of rehab facilities incapable of kicking his habit — “Being Charlie” reeks of nepotism, never able to become more than a grand theater for the Reiners’ personal battles. Writing like a teenager who’s mad at his old man, Nick, who apparently conceived the screenplay from his own experiences, says nothing original about the trials of addiction, instead choosing to whine about how people don’t understand, how the blame should always fall upon someone else. It’s amateur and immature: a movie that thinks that yelling the loudest somehow makes it right. F


Bryan Cranston in "Trumbo." (Courtesy of eOne Film)
(Courtesy of eOne Film)

Dalton Trumbo, The Hollywood Ten, Edward G. Robinson: Ripped from the headlines of yore, the subjects of Jay Roach’s neat biopic “Trumbo” have since become legend. Naturally, adapting legend for the big screen is not for the faint of heart, but with a sturdy screenplay and an above-average turn from Bryan Cranston, Roach and company do justice to the man behind “Spartacus,” “Roman Holiday” and a plethora of other Hollywood standards. Clocking in at just over two hours, “Trumbo” is 30 minutes too long; otherwise, it’s a smart flick that merits consideration even if it fails to make a splash come award season. B


(Courtesy of Lisa Tomasetti, Sony Pictures Classics)

“Fuck ‘em all”: Such is the mantra of 60 Minutes producer Mary Mapes as portrayed by Cate Blanchett in James Vanderbilt’s riveting directorial debut “Truth.” Based on a memoir penned by Mapes herself, “Truth” explores the controversy associated with George W. Bush’s dubious service in the Texas Air National Guard and the CBS news team — including Mapes and colleague Dan Rather (Robert Redford) — that asked the tough questions and paid the ultimate price. Driven by the same crusading spirit carried in Mapes’ credo, “Truth” is easily one of the festival’s finest, whirring along with the pace-quickening flurry of righteous indignation. Blanchett — who has proven herself time and time again — is at her absolute best, and, coupled with stellar supporting turns from Elisabeth Moss, Dennis Quaid and Topher Grace, Vanderbilt weaves a web of intrigue that celebrates the very best of humanity while mining the depths of its very worst. A

“The Dressmaker”

“The Dressmaker” is so Australian. Dark, twisted and humorous Jocelyn Moorehouse’s latest feature is a grand vehicle for Kate Winslet; however, it’s a vehicle that lacks more than a few screws, and, in the final hour, enough gas to drive itself to a satisfying close. With a thrumming score and highly stylized approach to production, “The Dressmaker” hardly misses a beat, but marred by an inability to know when to say when, the circus winds up overstaying its welcome. B-


(Courtesy of Anne Marie Fox, Twentieth Century Fox)

Like the bastard child of past People’s Choice Award victors “American Beauty” and “Silver Linings Playbook,” Québécois auteur Jean-Marc Vallée’s “Demolition” is yet another quirky and good-natured look at the American husband in crisis. This time that husband is played by Jake Gyllenhaal (a man who could attract rave reviews for taking a piss), and though this TIFF opener is a bit too off-the-walls for many — early reactions have been laughably inconsistent — a winning lead performance and a boatload of ambition carry “Demolition” across the finish line with surprising gusto. A-


Contact Will Ferrer at wferrer ‘at’ stanford.edu.

Will Ferrer is a junior at Stanford, a current member of The Editorial Board, and a former Executive Editor, Managing Editor of Arts & Life, and Film/TV Desk Editor at The Stanford Daily. Will is double-majoring in Film and Media Studies and English Literature. After a childhood spent nabbing R-rated movies from his brother’s collection, Will is annoyingly passionate about all things entertainment. Heralding from Northern Virginia, Will abhors Maryland drivers and enjoys saying he is “essentially from Washington DC.” Contact him at [email protected].

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