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.’

Fred Thornhill/Reuters
Actor Colin Firth attends a news conference to promote the film 'The King's Speech' during the 35th Toronto International Film Festival on September 11.
Fred Prouser/Reuters/File
Director Werner Herzog posed for a photo as he arrived at the Los Angeles Film Critics Association awards ceremony in Los Angeles, California January 17, 2006.

Where else but in Canada would a world-class film festival feature a hockey musical for its opening night gala?

The enjoyably clunky “Score” was, however, something of a red herring for the Toronto International Film Festival, which screens approximately 300 movies in 11 days and previews everything from Hollywood Oscar bait to the Finnish-English-Russian-Swedish entry, “Laplander’s Odyssey.”

“Rainer’s Odyssey,” as I am tempted to call my cinema sojourn in the Great White North, has taken in 20 of those 300 movies thus far – the festival wraps this weekend – and encompassed manifold meet-and-greets. Racing up and down the long avenues en route to innumerable screenings, I have become an adept practitioner of parkour.

What you see as you whiz by is sometimes as entertaining as the films themselves. Is that Martin Sheen on a picket line of disgruntled hotel workers? (Yes.) Is the geeky guy encased in his entourage Bill Gates? (Yes.) Is that mega-bearded dude really Joaquin Phoenix? (Maybe not. A press release from a company called Nuclear Lounge Media stated that “Fans are being tricked and disillusioned by a fraud who arrives by limousine and is accompanied by a massive entourage of security and scantily clad groupies.”)

Bruce Springsteen, perpetually black-leather-jacketed, is in town along with his singer wife, Patti Scialfa, for the hero-worshippy but fascinating documentary “The Promise: The Making of ‘Darkness on the Edge of Town.’ ” As part of the festival’s “Mavericks” chat series, Springsteen revealed to chat mate Edward Norton, also in basic black, that his 20-something children aren’t interested in seeing him perform. “Why would any kid want to come and see thousands cheer their parents? They’d rather see thousands boo their parents.”

Fun guy Woody Allen, at a press conference for his soon-to-be-released new OK movie “You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger,” was similarly upbeat. “I’ll be 75 in a couple of months and I do see myself as being waning and decrepit. For me, it gets worse and worse: I see absolutely no advantage in aging. It’s total annihilation with no hope of resurrection.”

On a brighter note, Keanu Reeves, in town to promote the romantic caper movie “Henry’s Crime,” said he might be up for a sequel to “Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey” – but “only if they come up with a good script.” Reeves was often mobbed by the public in what, in the trade, is now referred to as a “cluster grope.”

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.”

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].”

Just in case Canadians are blasé about education reform – according to a 2006 international survey, Canada ranked 5th among 30 developed nations in teen proficiency in math and science while the United States ranked 25th – the film’s producer, Lesley Chilcott, told a panel audience: “My understanding is things are starting to slip here.” Cue the creepy music.

This was the year when the festival finally unveiled its new year-round home, Bell Lightbox, after a decade of promises and fundraising pitches and hard-hat tours. A five-story downtown complex set beneath a 42-story residential development, it features a three story atrium, twin escalators leading up to five public cinemas, two galleries, three learning studios, a bistro, a restaurant, and a lounge. Everything, it seems, but a heliport. And it all has that new-building smell. A temporary installation features a flurry of split-second clips from 100 “essential” movies ranging from “The Passion of Joan of Arc” (No. 1) to “Playtime (No. 100). Robert De Niro’s cabbie’s license, dating from the penurious days when he was a taxi driver instead of just playing one, is enshrined in a glass case. All in all, a movie nut’s mecca.

My favorite mishap at the festival: Jean-Luc Godard’s talky “Film Socialisme” was screened without much in the way of English-language subtitles. Since for decades his movies have been incomprehensible with English-language subtitles, I didn’t see what the fuss was about.

My favorite movie star encounter: chatting over dinner with Colin Firth, who plays the famously stuttering King George VI in the marvelous “The King’s Speech” (out in December). He said of the king, “He would rather have faced machine-gun fire than a microphone.” Geoffrey Rush plays the speech therapist, Lionel Logue, who saved him.

Firth is a fixture in Toronto and a babe magnet for women of a certain age – of any age, actually. He seems to have finally shucked the Mr. Darcy vibe that saddled him as surely as Gandhi’s once saddled Ben Kingsley. For all that, he remains impeccably well-mannered. I have no doubt he would be unfailingly polite even to twin albino alligators.

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