TIFF 2013 Diary: Day One, from crooked cops to Cumberbatch

Our survey of the TIFF scene, from Clive Owen’s Brooklyn blunder to Michael Fassbender, dance-floor wonder

The Fifth Estate stars Carice van Houten and Benedict Cumberbatch (Stefanie Keenan/Getty Images for Grey Goose Vodka)

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: This year, the first day of TIFF happened to coincide with one of the most holy days on the Jewish calendar: Rosh Hashanah. While I’m not the religious type (I like to say I’m “Jew…ish”), it’s an important day for family, and thus the first half of Thursday was a wash, screening-wise. (I can only imagine the frustrated emails TIFF had to endure from Toronto’s cinephile Jewish community.) Still, I managed to take in two films (one excellent, the other not so much) between bites of gifilte fish.

The first, Chilean director Sebastian Lelio’s Gloria, offers a powerhouse performance from Paulina Garcia, who plays a sexually frustrated middle-aged divorcee (a role that the Berlin Film Festival rightly lauded with a best actress award). While it’s a typical festival film—slowly paced, with little attention paid to moving the plot forward—Garcia elegantly portrays a woman teetering at the edge of romantic despair. Lelio’s frank depiction of over-50 sex is also appreciated, with Garcia’s full-frontal nude scenes both shocking and refreshing. And yes, the film prominently features the anthem Gloria by Them, which I cannot possibly rid from my head (and my apologies for now getting it stuck in yours).

But if Gloria was a treat, then Blood Lines was a cruel trick, as the crime drama squandered immense promise thanks to wildly miscast leads and a ludicrously pat ending. Directed by the oft-dependable French filmmaker Guillaume Canet (Tell No One), the crime drama proved to be an unnecessary remake of Jacques Maillot’s Les liens du sang—though its muted response at Cannes should have been evidence enough to skip it.

For some reason known only to himself and his producers, Canet decided to cast the majority of his characters—an assortment of Brooklyn cops and crooks familiar to any of co-scripter James Gray’s previous films—with European actors, who all struggle mightily with the New Yawk accents. Clive Owen, Marion Cotillard and Matthias Schoenaerts sound like they’re from another continent (which, surprise, they are), while the native tongues of Billy Crudup, James Caan and Mila Kunis are only handed mediocre and trite dialogue. The ending is also patently ridiculous, with a car chase from Brooklyn to Grand Central Station that spells out—in caps—Canet’s unfamiliarity with the New York landscape, and thus his entire story.

The talent: Rosh Hashanah or not, TIFF’s opening day typically proves to be barren in terms of available—and talkative—talent, but there were still a few artists who were willing to go on the records. Lucky McKee was in particularly high spirits, as his excellently titled new movie, All Cheerleaders Die, opened this year’s Midnight Madness program to great hysteria.

At the pre-screening party for the film at King Street haunt Brassai—which featured, naturally, waitresses outfitted as comely Bring It On-style cheerleaders—McKee excitedly explained the genesis of the horror flick, which is actually a reboot of a film he and co-director Chris Sivertson made in 2001. “After working on our own projects, we decided it was time to get back together, and make something that had the initial idea of what we were working on, but with the resources and skills we’ve acquired since then,” said McKee, who quickly added the new film was not nearly as dark or controversial as his last film, The Woman, which explored misogyny and patriarchy in brutal, bloody terms. “This one is so funny and action-packed, it goes by like a bullet. It’s like candy.” Bloody, gore-splattered candy, maybe, but candy nonetheless.

The parties: While TIFF likes to think that its “official” opening-night party at Maple Leaf Square is the place to see and be seen, there were a smattering of higher-profile soirees throughout the city on Thursday. First, there was the aforementioned Brassai bash for All Cheerleaders Die, which featured appearances from the directors and cast, with star Brooke Butler proving to be an especially game storyteller, recounting how she had to film one scene from sundown to sunset while stuck in a pit (“I was screaming my head off until six in the morning…I definitely got over a few ex-boyfriends that night”). The film’s heavy gore quota didn’t seem to upset anyone’s stomach, either, with mini grilled cheese sandwiches and sliders disappearing into the crowd.

Later in the evening, there was the Disaronno/Interview Magazine party for Blue is the Warmest Color, the Palme d’Or winner that creepier critics will happily remind you features an explicit and lengthy (“so very lengthy”) sex scene between its two female leads. Held on the Thompson Hotel’s rooftop—with an infinity pool and panoramic skyline that inspired equal parts awe and jealousy—the party was a curious mix of the expected (Jian Ghomeshi, too many stilettoed marketing consultants to count) and the exotic (perfectly coiffed stars Lea Seydoux and Adele Exarchopoulos, who were huddled together, alone, on a couch in a roped-off area, as if they were sharing a private joke). Still, the view and the sweet-and-sour Disaronno cocktails provided a good enough time for an hour or two.

Yet the party to end all parties (at least on Thursday night—the week is young, after all) was found at the tail end of the evening, care of the Soho House’s celebration for festival opener The Fifth Estate. Co-hosted by Grey Goose, the event featured in-the-flesh appearances from stars Benedict Cumberbatch (looking dapper in a tuxedo quickly nicknamed the Benedict Cumberbund), Daniel Bruhl and Carice Van Houten, plus Paul Giamatti, Tom Welling and Colin Hanks.

Oh, and for good measure, Cumberbatch brought along his 12 Years a Slave director Steve McQueen and co-star Michael Fassbender. While the star-wattage was a bit blinding, I can safely report that Fassbender enjoys a spot of tea at 1:30 a.m., and he is not afraid—perhaps because he is the perfect physical human specimen we’ve now come to know as Michael Fassbender—to get the party started on the dance floor.

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