Toronto International Film Festival: the buzz this year

George Clooney film captures attention, along with a new Neil Young documentary.

Fred Thornhill/Reuters
Actor Ryan Gosling arrives outside the gala première of ‘Drive’ to a sea of fans at the 36th Toronto International Film Festival.
The Little Film Company
Charlotte Rampling stars in ‘The Eye of the Storm.'

The Toronto International Film Festival, which wraps up its 10-day run on Sept. 18, screens about 300 feature films. I have seen every single one of them. At least it feels that way sometimes.

Actually, I've seen 20 thus far – that's about three a day. The films come from 65 countries ranging from Albania to Argentina, but the festival's big liftoff is its long opening weekend when Hollywood showcases its upcoming wares – the movie equivalent of Paris's fall fashion preview. For film journalists, this is a chance to get a leg up on a lot of big-ticket items and, like it or not, be part of the buzz-athon leading up to the Oscars.

Last year, for example, I saw "The King's Speech" in Toronto. We all know where that went. I can safely say that this year Alexander Payne's smoothly enjoyable The Descendants, starring George Clooney as a harried father in Hawaii, will be in the running for an Oscar. I can also safely say that the Madonna-directed W.E., starring Andrea Riseborough as Wallis Simpson, will not be. At least that's what I've been told. Dear reader, Madonna's directorial debut, "Filth and Wisdom," gave me zero incentive to subtract 114 minutes of my life for her latest venture.

That doesn't mean I could avoid all the Madonna hoopla at the festival. Apparently, in what is being billed as Hydrangea-gate, a fan presented her with a hydrangea on the red carpet and was rebuffed because the diva prefers roses. Additionally, Madonna's camp denies the report that, before her press conference, eight volunteers were told to turn and stand facing the wall so she could walk down the hallway without them looking at her.

Clooney, on the other hand, who was also represented at the festival in the entertaining if hardly groundbreaking politics-is-a-dirty-business drama The Ides of March, which he also directed, plays up to his public with smiley, goofy aplomb – unless he is asked about his personal life, which always prompts his standard curt reply: "Next."

The first film I caught in Toronto, Werner Herzog's documentary Into the Abyss, about death row inmates in Texas, was not exactly an upper – except that it's a very good film, and good films are always a lift. With his unmistakably dolorous voice, almost verging on self-parody, Herzog spoke with the audience after the public screening and revealed that making the movie prompted him to take up smoking again after quitting for years. This is also what happened to him in 2005 when he made the bear-mauling documentary "Grizzly Man." He plans more documentaries about capital punishment (which he opposes), so a smoke-free future seems unlikely.

David Cronenberg is a Canadian favorite son, but his new movie, A Dangerous Method, starring Viggo Mortensen as Sigmund Freud and Michael Fassbender as Carl Jung, is a disappointingly stodgy talkfest. That casting is certainly offbeat, though. If I were promoting the film, I'd go with something like: "Who knew psychoanalysis could be so hunky?"

I caught up with Geoffrey Rush, one of my favorite actors, promoting his new film, The Eye of the Storm, where he plays a hammy Australian performer who decamped years before to London's West End to escape his harridan mother, played by Charlotte Rampling. It's an uneven but intermittently powerful movie directed by the undervalued, world-class Fred Schepisi ("The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith," "Roxanne") and it has the added bonus of costarring the great and fearless Judy Davis.

I mentioned to Rush that he played a bad actor in "The King's Speech," where we see him auditioning for "Richard III," and in "The Eye of the Storm" he is shown emoting in the outback as a brass-lunged King Lear. How does a great actor so convincingly play a dreadful one? "You just tear into it," he replies. "It's all self-exhibition."

Also on the Shakespeare front was the Ralph Fiennes-directed Coriolanus, where he plays the banished Roman general in a revamp set in war-torn Europe. Call me old-school, but I'm not crazy about Shakespeare modernizations that serve up the bard's language via CNN bulletins.

On the other hand, I'm not old school enough to go ga-ga over festival favorite The Artist, an Oscar-buzzy weepie set in 1920s Hollywood and almost entirely silent and in black and white. It's about a matinee idol, played by the French actor Jean Dujardin, whose fans forget about him when talking pictures come in.

This pleasant-enough novelty is, as they say, a "hard sell," except that The Weinstein Company is selling it. This is the company that, if you are a voting member of the Motion Picture Academy, will track you down to the remotest jungles of New Guinea in order to screen their film for Oscar consideration.

There were times when TIFF, as everybody calls the festival, seemed more like a rock show than a movie show. Davis Guggenheim's U2 documentary, From the Sky Down, kicked off the 10-day event, and there was also Cameron Crowe's documentary, Pearl Jam Twenty, and Jonathan Demme's Neil Young Journeys, which is mostly a record of Young's solo concert in May in Toronto's Massey Hall. Bono and The Edge and Eddie Vedder were limo'd all over town. They even jammed. But there's nothing quite like listening to Neil Young singing some of his best stuff in the Demme film. (This is their third collaboration together.)

After the screening, a grade school classmate introduced herself from the audience – turns out Young had a crush on her in third grade – and he talked about how as a little boy he used to collect turtles from the local watering hole in Omemee, Ontario, and blow them up with firecrackers. "I guess my environmentalism roots aren't all that deep," he said.

I attended a small dinner with Young that same night, where I wanted to talk music and he told me instead that the secret to dieting is not eating bread at restaurants. I asked about breadsticks.

He thought for a while and then answered: "That's a gray area." With a beat-up leather jacket and yellow Panama hat, Young could be mistaken for a superannuated roadie and not one of rock's lasting luminaries. He's currently writing a memoir about the cars in his life.

Francis Ford Coppola's mostly self-financed, microbudget Gothic horror film, Twixt, starring Val Kilmer as a sub-Stephen King novelist, is colossally disappointing, but it provoked one of the more moving moments at a festival press conference. The movie includes a fatal boating accident involving the novelist's daughter, clearly an allusion to the boating death of Coppola's son Gian-Carlo. Tearing up, Coppola said, "Every parent feels they are responsible for what happened to their kid. I didn't realize until I made the film that I felt so responsible for what happened those 24 years ago."

He was also asked if he would ever direct a "Godfather IV," to which he responded: "I have less interest in making another 'Godfather' movie than I have in this glass of water in front of me. And I'm not thirsty."

I was in Toronto during the 9/11 attacks and the festival commemorated that event on its 10th anniversary this year by showing a short film chronicling that horrible day. TIFF, which was in the middle of its run, didn't shut down on 9/11 but there were no parties, no galas, no red carpets, no interviews, just movies.

I thought at the time that the movies should have been jettisoned as well, but by the end, I changed my mind. Good movies can be more than diversions, they can be restorative, and back on 9/11 everyone was looking to connect with life in whatever way they could.

Ten years later, we live in a world very much shaped by that awful event, and the same principle, as this festival so vigorously confirms, still applies: Movies, at their best, are a way to bring us into the world and make us feel.

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