Catching up with 'The Martian,' 'Truth' and more at the Toronto Fest


I arrived at the Toronto Film Festival last Friday morning, too late for initial press screenings of Ridley Scott's The Martian and the fest's opening-night attraction, Jean-Marc Vallée's Demolition. So today was catch-up day for those major TIFF entries. With last night's screening of James Vanderbilt's Truth and this afternoon's showing of Charlie Kaufman's Anomalisa, that adds up to a strong finish for this correspondent before my flight back to New York City tomorrow morning.

Truth will someday make a great companion piece to another Toronto entry I'd already seen, Tom McCarthy's Spotlight. Both films focus on investigative journalists—in Spotlight's case on the Boston Globe reporters who broke the Catholic Church's cover-up of widespread child molestation by Massachusetts priests; in Truth the "60 Minutes" team who looked into the cronyism behind the young George W. Bush's posting with the Air National Guard during the Vietnam War. But while Spotlight ends in triumph, Truth concludes with the firing of the "60 Minutes" unit and the replacement of veteran CBS News anchor Dan Rather (played distractingly by Robert Redford). Even though the facts of their report are essentially correct, the failure to fully authenticate two documents in the rush to air is their downfall.

The central figure in Truth is Mary Mapes (Cate Blanchett), a veteran producer whom we first see putting the finishing touches on her eventual Pulitzer-winning exposé of the abuses at Abu Ghraib. The challenge of the 2004 Bush report is to find someone in the know willing to cooperate and go on the record; the ailing, reticent retired lieutenant colonel they do persuade proves to be the team's undoing, as the documents he supplies are scrutinized and debunked by the opposition and the bigger story gets lost amidst all the ruthless political maneuvering. And then there's the matter of CBS parent Viacom not wanting to cross the current administration because a crucial FCC ruling is pending.

The film is adapted from Mapes' memoir, so it of course views the controversy from her perspective. Conservatives will cry foul, but Truth's complex screenplay is about more than partisan politics—it's about how the media's fixation on sensational details and the machinations of those who know how to play its game well often obscure the bigger and more important story. And Mapes couldn't ask for a better screen alter ego than Cate Blanchett, who tears up the screen and convinces us that this is a woman of principle to be reckoned with.

After a few recent career missteps, director Ridley Scott is back in terrific form with The Martian, the story of an astronaut left behind by his crew on the Red Planet, presumed dead after being struck by satellite equipment during a sudden fierce storm. Matt Damon fully persuades us of the competence and resourcefulness of NASA botanist Mark Watney, who manages to find a way to grow potatoes on Mars and re-establish communications with his home planet. I'm now eager to read the novel by Andy Weir, since this is that rare screen property which celebrates smart people solving big problems. But there are more than enough suspense-driving obstacles along the way, and who could resist a cast that also includes Jessica Chastain, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Peña, Kristen Wiig, Jeff Daniels, Sean Bean and Donald Glover?

Fest opener Demolition, which re-screened today, is yet another example of Jake Gyllenhaal in extremis, following his intense turns in Nightcrawler and Southpaw. Here, he's a New York investment banker who has a psychological meltdown after his wife is killed in a car accident which left him unscathed (physically, that is). He begins acting out at his job (where he works for his icy father-in-law), rips apart appliances, joins a construction demolition crew just for the thrill of pounding a sledgehammer into walls, and befriends the eccentric customer-service rep (Naomi Watts) to whom he's been writing highly personal and detailed letters over a vending machine complaint. The film features good performances from the two leads and benefits from the free-flowing editing style director Vallée used so well in Wild, but the characters still feel more like a dramatist's conceit than people we'd recognize from our own lives.

My penultimate Toronto screening was Anomalisa, from the wild brain of Charlie Kaufman, the writer of Being John Malkovich, Adaptation and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. It's certainly the most unusual (and most adult) stop-motion-animated film I've ever seen. Kaufman and Duke Johnson co-directed this singular adaptation of Kaufman's play, about an accomplished motivational speaker (voiced by David Thewlis) on a tour stop in Cincinnati. Most of the action takes place in the hotel where he's staying, and what could have been a claustrophobic tale is rendered fascinating by the use of quite brilliant animation. In a very Kaufmanesque touch, nearly everyone protagonist Michael Stone encounters has the same face and voice (that of Tom Noonan). Even when he puts on headphones to listen to opera star Joan Sutherland, it's Noonan singing. Then Stone meets a woman with a distinctive face and voice (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and falls helplessly in love. Believe it or not, their explicit claymation love scene is one of the most erotic things you'll see at the movies this year. Charlie, you've done it again. Paramount Pictures just acquired the film today.

I have one more late-night screening before I pack and head home to Brooklyn: Miss Sharon Jones!, Barbara Kopple's documentary about the acclaimed R&B singer—one of Brooklyn's finest.