Live from Toronto Film Festival: Wednesday Sept. 16


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? To paraphrase Spinal Tap, there's a fine line between clever and obvious.)

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).

This commentary continues on my website.