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Toronto International Film Festival: An insider’s guide to babe magnets and albino alligators

Colin Firth was in town to promote his new film ‘The King’s Speech,’ while Werner Herzog intoned about albino alligators in his 3-D film ‘Cave of Forgotten Dreams.’

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The reliably cranky Mike Leigh was in fine form at the public screening of his mostly terrific new film “Another Year.” I always look forward to his meltdowns when confronted with dumb postscreening audience questions. A few years ago, at the Q-and-A for “Happy-Go-Lucky,” a woman wanted him to fill her in on what she missed when she ducked into the ladies’ room. (His reaction is unprintable.) This year, someone asked him why “Another Year” had to end sadly. “Well,” he responded, with a look that would wither granite, “we were going to have a happy ending with elephants and monkeys but we ran out of money.”

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Werner Herzog, with whom I had dinner, is another famous festival character. His new movie, “Cave of Forgotten Dreams,” is about the 30,000-plus-year-old cave paintings in Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc in southern France, and it’s in 3-D! It’s a remarkable experience. The 3-D brings out the curvatures in the caves so that the charcoal drawings of horses and rhinos and, in one case, a female torso, have a roiling monumentality. These are not only the first-known drawings by humans, they are also, in a sense, the first movies.

Herzog being Herzog, he also manages to work in a digression about twin albino alligators, which his executive producer has suggested is in the movie so that the great director, who also narrates the film, could intone the word “doppelgänger” on the soundtrack.

The distinction between documentary and fiction, between “subjective” and “objective,” is never clear-cut, least of all with Herzog, who for his entire career has shuttled back and forth between filmic forms. He tells me about the time he confronted a viewer who claimed that documentarians should be like “a fly on the wall.” “No,” he replied, “we should be the hornets who come out and sting!”

I was yanked away from the worldly otherworldliness of Herzog’s film by Davis Guggenheim’s documentary “Waiting for Superman,” about America’s failing public school system. Guggenheim wants to do for education reform what his “An Inconvenient Truth,” at least in theory, did for climate change reform. He has Bill Gates, who is interviewed in the documentary and thinks it “powerful,” in his corner. But Guggenheim’s denigration of teachers unions and his starry-eyed appraisal of charter schools brought forth a mass e-mail to journalists from American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten, who writes, “Is America ready to settle for a good education – for the few? That’s the unfortunate takeaway from [the film].”

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