The most surprising thing about "The Martian" is how relaxed and funny it is.
On Day 2 of the Toronto film festival, it was all about the merge as I and thousands of other visitors who head up north each September like migrating movie birds and try to fly from one screening, interview or press conference to another.
Every cabbie has complained bitterly to me about the construction zones that have turned narrowed major streets into gridlock zones. And those iron barriers used to control crowds queuing up for tickets, waiting outside for a film or gathering in front of The Ritz-Carlton to take a pic or simply scream at a famous face, force pedestrians to squeeze onto a sliver of shared sidewalk.
Still, there are some payoffs that are most likely only available when the cinema hordes are in town. Such as the cotton candy machine dispensing the carnival treat in the Ritz-Carlton lobby.
But refuge from such brief hassles can always be found in the dark. On Friday, I kept having flashbacks to TIFF films past as I watched a shockingly fat-free Matthew McConaughey in "Dallas Buyers Club" take on real-life HIV-sufferer Ron Woodroof and his crusade to allow alternative treatments to battle the disease and Kate Winslet assume another restless—and, in this case, deeply depressed—suburbanite mother role in "Labor Day."
The rocky road to redemption for Woodruff, a carousing good ol' Texas boy who initially is as sexist, racist and homophobic as they come, brought back memories of "The Wrestler" and the reawakening of Mickey Rourke's battered grappler's ring career. Both characters find their way with the help of a good woman—in Woodruff's case, Jennifer Garner's sympathetic doctor—and reclaim their souls from the edge by film's end.
"The Wrestler," of course, rescued Rourke from the land of the has-beens with an Oscar nomination. While the studio has asked that no reviews be posted until late Saturday, let's just say that "Dallas Buyers Club" takes McConaughey's current hot streak that began with his 2011 sleeper "The Lincoln Lawyer" to the next temperature.
Meanwhile, "Labor Day"—a woman's picture in the tradition of Barbara Stanwyck-Joan Crawford-Bette Davis melodramas of yore—finds Winslet, a despondent divorced mother of a pubescent boy, allowing Josh Brolin's escaped convict into her home as well as her heart. While the actress is her usual stellar self as her damaged homemaker finds love again, it seems odd that she would want to revisit domestic themes that were better covered in past TIFF titles such as "Revolutionary Road" and "Little Children."
What is surely destined to be the most buzzed-about scene involving the creation of a peach pie by the makeshift family of three—as sensual as the pottery wheel sequence in "Ghost"—also serves as a link to Winslet's 2011 "Mildred Pierce" miniseries.
One thing "Labor Day" isn't reminiscent of is any of filmmaker Jason Reitman's previous movies. Whereas "Thank You For Smoking," "Juno," "Up in the Air" and "Young Adult" had a smart, topical snappiness to them, the filmmaker feels compelled to belabor the you-complete-me connection between these two characters haunted by tragedies in their past.
Kudos, though, to Gattlin Griffith as 13-year-old Henry, who gives a mature, meditative and distinctly non-kid-star-like performance. Too bad the audience is asked to believe that Griffith somehow grows up to be Tobey Maguire, who might narrate as the adult Henry but looks nothing like the younger actor.
Meanwhile, "The Fifth Estate" crew were busy doing press duties for their WikiLeaks drama at the Ritz-Carlton. Director Bill Condon has returned to the more familiar biopic ground that he covered with 1998's "Gods and Monsters" (about the last days of James Whale, director of 1931's "Frankenstein") and 2004's "Kinsey" (about the pioneer sex researcher) after dabbling in the teen-oriented Twilight zone with the final two films in the vampire-lovers series.
Why did the man behind the Oscar-nominated "Dreamgirls" who won a trophy for his Gods script want to join Team Edward, Bella and Jacob?
"The biggest thing for me was getting a taste of that kind of interactive experience with an audience that was that dedicated," he says. "It was a little scary at the beginning, but not once you get inside of it. That was fun. It was fun to know that they cared that deeply. And they were waiting on the other side."
Now he is on top of another movie trend: The boom in biopics and thrillers based on real-life events, especially after "Argo" and "Lincoln"'s Oscar success. At Toronto this year, the truth-based bumper crop includes "12 Years a Slave," "Dallas Buyers Club," "Rush," "Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom," "Kill Your Darlings," "The Last of Robin Hood," "Mary Queen of Scots," "Parkland" and "Philomena."
Observes Condon: "Why is there so much television that is reality based? I read this in connection to something else. But starting with video cameras, we are now a generation of people who have been documented from the moment they were born. And now they are in their 30s and everyone feels as if they starred in his or her own movie for their whole lives. So it feels as if, unless it is connected to someone real, it doesn't feel real. It helps to make the emotional connection."
A clarification to an earlier post: I noticed that other outlets have reported a standing ovation at the conclusion of "The Fifth Estate" gala screening. However, from my vantage point on the main floor—below where star Benedict Cumberbatch and other cast members took their bows in a second-tier balcony—attendees were not exactly jumping to their feet at the drama's conclusion. As with any movie, it is all a matter of perception.
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