For journalists, the Toronto International Film Festival is a heady 11-day stew of screenings, interviews and alcohol-soaked after-parties. Throughout this week and the next, I’ll be delivering daily updates on every aspect of this year’s monstrous festival (free booze not included—sorry).
The films: After sleeping in past 8 a.m. for the first time since the festival started (I even think I had a dream!), Monday morning was a virtual vacation, with my first screening of the day, Errol Morris’s The Unknown Known, not scheduled until the blissfully late hour of 11 a.m. The documentary, which furthers Morris’s fascination with America’s war on terror, is essentially a feature-length interview with Donald Rumsfeld, the former U.S. secretary of state.
While Morris had success with this talking-head format before–namely with The Fog of War, his gripping dissection of Robert McNamara’s cloudy career at the Pentagon–The Unknown Known can’t escape Rumsfeld’s notoriously weasel-y semantics, eventually drowning in the man’s half-truths and charisma. While The Fog of War presented, at the end, an infinitely more clear version of McNamara’s legacy, The Unknown Known introduces a cypher, and closes with a cypher. At least Danny Elfman’s score is jaunty enough to power through the slower sections focusing on Rumsfeld’s pre-Iraq CV.
The disappointment of The Unknown Known was immediately washed away by Night Moves, the latest drama from American auteur Kelly Reichardt (Wendy and Lucy, Meek’s Cutoff). A tense look at the logistics and fallout of an eco-terrorist attack, the film adds an intriguing political layer to Reichardt’s usual fascination with America’s poor and dispossessed. Stars Jesse Eisenberg and Peter Saarsgard offer compelling work, but the movie belongs to Dakota Fanning as a crafty environmental activist whose conscience may be too much for her to bear. There was barely a word spoken in the packed theatre as the quiet film played out, though one character’s shocking act in the last few minutes felt like an unnecessary distraction.
Night Moves wasn’t the only film on Monday with a problematic ending, though compared to Paul Haggis’s Third Person, it seems like the tiniest of transgressions. Yes, the latest film from the Canadian director is built upon such a shaky conceit that there were some audible guffaws heard during the drama’s world premiere at the Elgin Theatre.
Haggis politely asked the crowd beforehand not to reveal any spoilers, so I won’t—partly because I want to respect his wishes, and partly because I don’t want to jeopardize the interview I have set up with him and star Liam Neeson on Tuesday afternoon. So I will just leave it at this: Haggis has once again assembled a stellar cast (Neeson, Mila Kunis, James Franco, a particularly affecting Adrien Brody) for a sweeping Crash-like multiple narrative drama. Yet during the last twist-upon-twist 10 minutes, it became more difficult to forgive the script’s desperate cries for attention.
The talent: I had only one interview scheduled for Monday, but it was the only one that mattered: Eli Roth. On Saturday night, the director made a triumphant return to the festival that kicked off his career 11 years earlier, when he was a nobody hawking an on-the-cheap horror film called Cabin Fever. Since then, Roth has—for better or for worse—sparked an entire horror “torture porn” sub-genre, become best friends with Quentin Tarantino and become a prolific producer, helping fledgling genre friends achieve the dreams he once chased at Toronto’s Ryerson theatre.
This year he’s back where his career got kick-started, bringing his first directorial effort in five years, The Green Inferno, to the blood-thirsty TIFF masses. The cannibals-attack-tourists film is everything you would expect of a Roth film: darkly funny, extremely tense and filled with all manner of violence and entrails. With only 15 minutes to talk during a series of junket interviews on Monday, Roth still managed to expound on all manner of topics, from his love of Cannibal Holocaust, Ruggero Deodato’s landmark cannibal film (yes, there is such a genre) to the perverse peculiarities of shooting in the wilds of Peru.
“We’re about to do the first shot of the village when suddenly these two boats filled with Christian missionaries pull up,” said Roth. “They were going up and down the Amazon with speakers and stages to sing about Jesus. And when they get to our set, they see what the characters see: heads on pikes, skeletons tied up and villagers with spears and red paint. They said, ‘Oh my god, the devil really is here.’ But it wasn’t the devil—it was the Bear Jew, me.” Needless to say, the anecdote left me hungry for more (sorry). Look for my full feature on Roth later this week.
The parties: Thanks to the screening of Third Person running late, I had to bail on attending the after-party for Bruce McDonald’s The Husband, which is a shame since the low-key Queen West affair sounded like the perfect anecdote to a weeks’ worth of upscale hotel-based soirees, and because the cast and crew are genuinely nice and passionate Toronto artists.
I did have time, however, to swing by the celebrations for the TIFF doc Filthy Gorgeous: The Bob Guccione Story, which chronicles the life and times of the Penthouse magazine publisher and Caligula mastermind. Although it was getting late and my eyes were starting to force themselves shut, the Studio 54 theme promised enough spectacle/Penthouse Forum content for years to come.
Held at the appropriately sleazy Cube nightclub, the bash featured lingerie-clad models wandering around aimlessly (well, they must have had some sort of destination in mind—grad school, maybe?) and copies of Vice magazine’s new Guccione-themed issue strewn about. Although I missed any promised appearance of Harvey Weinstein, there were enough people doing the hustle and drinking “filthy martinis” and “Guccione” cocktails (cognac and orange, which proved to be surprisingly not awful) that no one seemed to mind the big man’s absence. If you’re curious: no one was doing lines off the table, ’70s style, but there was plenty of talk about kale. Times, they change.