NPR logo Matt Damon On Mars: A Toronto Diary, Part 1

TIFF 2015

Matt Damon On Mars: A Toronto Diary, Part 1

Matt Damon plays an astronaut accidentally abandoned on Mars in Ridley Scott and Drew Goddard's The Martian. Aidan Monaghan/Courtesy of TIFF hide caption

toggle caption Aidan Monaghan/Courtesy of TIFF

Matt Damon plays an astronaut accidentally abandoned on Mars in Ridley Scott and Drew Goddard's The Martian.

Aidan Monaghan/Courtesy of TIFF

Coming to Toronto for the film festival is like anything else you do that has complex logistics: You get better at it with practice. This is my fourth time, and now I know where things are, how to schedule myself and how not to panic over everything I'm missing. Here's a rundown of my first three days, with an open acknowledgment that in part because of some movies I wasn't able to get into, this is a pretty white-guy-heavy chunk of my schedule; rest assured that three of the five films I have scheduled for Day 4 are directed by women.

Hitchcock/Truffaut: Director Kent Jones uses as his jumping-off point the treasured 1967 book Francois Truffaut based on a week of interviews with Alfred Hitchcock. From there, he crafts a documentary (mostly about Hitchcock, not Truffaut) with the help of talking-head interviews with directors like Wes Anderson, Richard Linklater, Martin Scorsese and others. The directors analyze Hitchcock's aesthetic and thematic choices while we hear recordings of the original interviews and see plenty of illustrative clips.

As a light introduction to thinking about formal elements of filmmaking through the lens of popular movies, it's accessible and helpful — there are discussions of the use of space and editing that will make sense even to people who typically don't spend a lot of time reading about such things. And for Hitchcock enthusiasts, it's always fun to hear him grump and lecture and tease, guided by his passion for scaring and unsettling audiences and his deep ambivalence about them and about actors. But the film ultimately tries to be about too much, never quite settling on a thesis it can explore in depth and probably spending too much time on its most precious assertion that Hitchcock is an artist and not just an entertainer — a point that perhaps needed making in 1967 but seems like received wisdom now.

And one other thing: It is distracting to watch, among many other topics, the psychosexual underpinnings of Hitchcock films like Vertigo and Psycho discussed by a parade of directors that includes no women at all.

45 Years: Andrew Haigh, who wrote and directed the lovely drama Weekend and worked on the HBO show Looking, brings this drama about an English couple about to celebrate their 45th anniversary with a fancy party when an unexpected letter unsettles their relationship. Played by veteran actors Tom Courtenay and Charlotte Rampling, Geoff and Kate inhabit their decades-old marriage with a raw and exposed intimacy that serves as an important reminder that relationships continue to go through periods of safety and peril long after children and neighbors have come to assume a companionate ease that doesn't actually exist.

Haigh's direction is clever, particularly in the way he conceals Geoff from the audience at key moments to stress his emotional impenetrability, which Courtenay plays as a frustrating opacity that keeps him just out of reach. But the film belongs most to Rampling, whose work as a woman who both treasures her marriage and keenly feels wounds she's almost embarrassed to acknowledge is somehow both so fierce and so fragile that her every changing expression becomes suspenseful.

Every Thing Will Be Fine: Wim Wenders directs this story of a man (James Franco) who experiences, in the manner of a good number of movies before this one, an extraordinary event in the middle of an ordinary life. His handling of the aftermath — in this case, across a number of years — makes up the story. He is eventually entangled not only with his wife (Rachel McAdams), but also a single mother (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and her son. While 3-D remains a technology most often experienced by American audiences as a tool of bombast, Wenders makes intriguing and often beautiful use of it to bring depth to quiet, ordinary scenes of dust, snow, smudged windows, and filmy curtains. There's a lot to like about the way the film plays with expectations, particularly about danger and violence, and there are even horror and suspense tropes being toyed with near the end. Unfortunately, the combination of strangely stilted dialogue and the struggles that always seem to plague Franco when his work is highly stylized rather than charmingly naturalistic means that the storytelling never has the grace that the visuals do.

The Assassin: Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien mixes the kind of gorgeous, deliberate, picture-making style that Americans might associate with somebody like Terrence Malick with outbursts of martial arts in this story, set in the ninth century, of a woman (Shu Qi) who begins to lose her taste for working as a trained assassin just as she's sent to kill the powerful man she was once meant to marry.

It's impossible with a film like this, with its very long shots and intricate plotting, not to acknowledge the role of personal taste in the way it's received, and I have to admit that I regularly struggle with this kind of pacing, as well as with winding plots about epic power struggles (that's one of the reasons I'm not a Game Of Thrones person). So I'd be lying if I claimed to have responded much to it and maybe lying even more if I claimed I could explain everything that happened in it (I'm sure it would also help to know more about the ninth-century Tang dynasty than I do). At the same time, it's beautiful to look at, and if you don't attend things that aren't naturally in your wheelhouse at a film festival, there's essentially no point in going.

The Return Of The Atom: A documentary about the construction of the first nuclear power plant approved in Europe after Chernobyl — located in the Finnish town of Olkiluoto — The Return Of The Atom begins as a darkly comedic look at a long-delayed boondoggle that started with the opening of construction in 2004. For that purpose, its interviews with locals and construction crew members are right for the task. But as the film progresses, it becomes more of a wail of protest against nuclear power as menacing and dangerous, at which point it needs more research, rigor and expertise than it offers. Filmmakers Mika Taanila and Jussi Eerola seem to have learned from Michael Moore the trick of putting public relations guys who work for corporations – in this case, men who work for the companies building the plant and are in charge of saying it's safe — on camera to sound glib and unconvincing, but that's not actually evidence that the opposite of what they're saying is true.

Demolition: Films about what happens after car crashes are a surprisingly common thing, and here is another, from director Jean-Marc Vallee (Dallas Buyers Club). Jake Gyllenhaal plays Davis, a New York banker who loses his wife in an accident and lapses into something that looks less like grief than like grim determination to understand his world by taking it apart. The symbolism is, to put it mildly, not subtle: he's a man whose life has come so fully undone that smashing refrigerators and bathroom stalls gives him something that, in the moment, passes for peace.

Gyllenhaal is excellent, though, and while Naomi Watts doesn't have a huge amount to do as Karen, a woman Davis befriends, a relationship that develops between Davis and Karen's son (nicely played by Judah Lewis) goes in some unexpected and sometimes funny directions. The film doesn't necessarily hold up to a huge amount of scrutiny and the freshness of its ideas is only middling, but its nonlinear style — in which scenes often are less scenes than a series of moments strung together, as if the scene, too, has been knocked around and reduced to pieces — is effective.

The Martian: Again, personal taste: I was an enthusiastic evangelist for Andy Weir's book, which tells the story of an astronaut accidentally stranded on Mars, where he must survive for potentially years on his own before he can even think about being rescued. The book, while very often wryly funny, is heavily reliant on the math and science that botanist and engineer Mark Watney employs to figure out how to eat where nothing grows, breathe where there's no air, drink where there's no water, and get word back to NASA that he is not, as they believe him to be, dead. Thus, my expectations for the film, in which Matt Damon is perfectly cast as Watney, were almost absurdly high. Still, director Ridley Scott, working from a screenplay by Drew Goddard — who has witty sci-fi chops out the wazoo, from Buffy The Vampire Slayer through The Cabin In The Woods and beyond — managed to meet them.

The film retains Watney's science-based swagger, his detached narration of his own plight (which cleverly allows him to, in a sense, use himself for company), and the delightful fact that he has very little back story. There is no pregnant wife back home, no tragic tale of suffering to goose audience sympathy, as was present in the regrettably maudlin Gravity screenplay. The Martian relies on Damon's portrayal of Watney to make his survival stakes enough, and it is. He's so much fun to watch, improvising and tooling around in the rover, and when the despair of his situation does seep in through his armor of will, those scenes land specifically because they are few. There are elements of what goes on back at NASA and on the craft that inadvertently left him that look a lot like other movies (including, logically, Apollo 13), but because they're so nicely executed and what's going on with Watney is so specific, they don't sink into cliché. (The cast is also an embarrassment of riches: Jessica Chastain, Michael Peña, Kate Mara, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Jeff Daniels, Kristen Wiig, Donald Glover — all terrific in roles of various sizes on earth and in space.)

Where To Invade Next: Michael Moore's latest documentary is disguised as a comic study of how the United States can better invade other countries, and he's been keeping the premise largely under wraps. But what the film actually does is take Moore to countries mostly in Europe, where he vows to "invade" in the form of stealing their ideas. Thus, he goes to Italy to investigate the idea of longer vacations and better benefits for workers; to France to steal the idea of healthier school lunches, and so forth. In short, it is a long argument that other countries are better at everything than we are.

There's not much effort to place any context around any of this, such that his portrayals of Italian and French citizens as perfectly happy feel pretty silly and obviously have to be taken with a grain of salt as actual policy analysis. (Two apparent Europeans I overheard discussing the film later, with one describing it to the other, certainly seemed to find the central thesis of perfect French and Italian bliss a simplistic American cliché.) At the same time, it's provocative in that it will present an American audience with some public policy decisions that Moore alleges are uncontroversial and successful in other places that U.S. politicians rarely discuss — Norwegian prisons, for instance, are not designed (according to this film) to be especially miserable places beyond the simple loss of freedom; inmates lose their freedom but are otherwise treated sort of like college students who aren't allowed to go home but are meant to improve themselves in the meantime. It's quite different watching Moore interact almost entirely with people he approaches as an admirer and learner; it brings out a different quality in his filmmaking and his persona. But it will be a film that will draw a lot of fact-checking and contextualizing, I suspect.

The Final Girls: Self-aware horror/comedy hybrids have been around at least since Scream, in part because it's a genre that lends itself so well to both inhabiting and breaking down its clichés. The Final Girls follows Max (Taissa Farmiga), the daughter of an actress, played by Malin Akerman, who appeared in a bunch of slasher movies in her youth, including a particularly popular one called Camp Bloodbath. Through a series of unlikely events, Max finds herself living out a slasher movie scenario with her own friends — played by a nifty cast including Alia Shawkat, Nina Dobrev, Thomas Middleditch and Alexander Ludwig — who are well aware of the rules of the genre and the requirement that there be a "final girl" who will battle the masked slasher. Less committed to satire than The Cabin In The Woods and less actually gory than Scream, The Final Girls finds an entertaining balance between scary and goofy.

Miss You Already: Every festival needs a weepie — a flat-out sniffler, where there's sadness and love and you drop actual tears all the way onto your shirt. That's Miss You Already, directed by Catherine Hardwicke and written by actress and writer Morwenna Banks. Drew Barrymore and Toni Collette star as Jess and Milly, longtime best friends who find that major life events — one of which, yes, is cancer, as it always is — challenge their relationship. What's good about the film is that it finds the details of their closeness in specific small moments rather than in toweringly important conversations: their friendship is in how they handle bandages and wigs, not in how they declare it to each other or to their husbands. There are some very nice thoughts in this script about friendships coexisting with marriages, about a crisis not always bringing friends together, and about learning to accept the limitations of the people you love. But make no mistake: you are meant to cry, and the manipulation is and feels overt. People with limited patience for the feeling that they are being asked to cry will, despite good performances from both actresses and Paddy Considine and Dominic Cooper as their husbands, resent it.

I Saw The Light: Tom Hiddleston as Hank Williams makes some physical sense, and it turns out he's able to inhabit the role for this biopic pretty persuasively. The film, written and directed by Marc Abraham, begins with Williams' gas-station wedding to Audrey Mae Sheppard (Elizabeth Olsen), an ambitious young singer without the chops to follow her new husband to the places he's going. It follows Williams from there through his brief but powerful recording career until his death, when he was only 29.

Despite the fact that Hiddleston does his best with Williams' alcoholism and tortured soul (and, perhaps more impressively, does the singing), I Saw The Light is a pretty lifeless piece whose only structure is chronological. It cries out for a stronger script, not so much in the dialogue as in the decisions about what to include and how to shape the film. As it is, it suffers from the common biopic problem of not conveying a lot that you wouldn't get from a basic roundup of biographical facts.

Eye In The Sky: So here's a cast for you, and not a complete list: Helen Mirren, Alan Rickman, Aaron Paul, Iain Glen — and, delightfully, Barkhad Abdi, who got an Oscar nomination for Captain Phillips after leaving his life as a Minneapolis cab driver and who's once again terrific here. Eye In The Sky is a tense film about drone warfare, but not in the same existentially troubled sense as last year's Good Kill, which focused on the ethics of drone strikes in general. Eye In The Sky follows a group of operatives and decisionmakers, including a British colonel and lieutenant general (Mirren and Rickman), an American drone pilot (Paul), the British foreign secretary (Glen), and an operative on the ground (Abdi), all of whom are involved in an incident, conveyed almost in real time, in which they have to decide whether to bomb a house in Nairobi where they believe terrorists are located.

Less than a film about the specifics of Western involvement in Somalia, Eye In The Sky is about how better surveillance — the drone technology is as important here for its cameras as for its weapons — leads to better information, which in some cases only makes the calculations of war more agonizing. It really does give both sides of its central conflict a fair hearing; it's impressive that the last two-thirds or so of this film involve mostly a single yes or no decision, but I genuinely don't know what director Gavin Hood or writer Guy Hibbert think is the right or wrong decision; it almost seems beside the point. The point of the film seems to be an argument that people are not well-equipped to make these sorts of decisions and find all sorts of ways to deflect and delay them until that's no longer possible.

Being AP: AP McCoy, called Tony in his day-to-day life, is one of the most famous athletes I'm going to guess a significant number of Americans have never heard of. He's a recently retired jump jockey, a giant of horse racing in the U.K., and this BBC-produced documentary follows him through his final season, where he becomes the champion of his sport for the 20th consecutive year while wrestling with the idea of whether to retire.

Because it's so focused on McCoy's greatness as an athlete, the film spends less time than it could on the most interesting thing it seems to uncover, which is his near-pathological attachment to racing, which he himself repeatedly compares to an addiction he cannot give up, even as his body seems less and less able to tolerate it. It's a comparison that first seems like amusing hyperbole, but comes to seem perhaps more apt than it's entirely comfortable to admit. He openly acknowledges, for instance, that he's probably more interested in his career than his marriage, and he expresses the belief that in order to be great, you have to be all about yourself and put nothing before your own needs. And this is a man with two children.

There are stretches of Being AP that don't amount to much more than the kind of sports package you might see before or during a racing event on TV, but there are also stretches that hint at a more complicated story yet to come: how this man who seems entirely unprepared for life after racing will cope with it when it's upon him.

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