The Movie Bug
Touching down at the Toronto International Film Festival
In its 35th year, the Toronto International Film Festival, known as TIFF, has moved into its permanent home. Getting there took lots more effort than a mere click of Dorothy's ruby-red slippers, but the biggest film festival on the North American continent, held this year from Sept. 9 through Sept. 19, now has a year-round base of operations as well as a cinema showcase of the highest order. The TIFF Bell Lightbox (yes, it bears the name of one of its major sponsors) was a long time in coming, and promises of the structure's advent had begun to sound hollow in recent years. Yet on the fourth day of the 2010 festival, the Lightbox had its official unveiling, and the reaction among the otherwise divisively opinionated film community was one of universal consensus: The innovative building seals Toronto's reputation as a world mecca of cinema.
Five stories high, the TIFF Bell Lightbox seems spacious and airy. In addition to its five theatres and wide-open gathering space and hospitality areas, the Lightbox also houses Canada's renowned Film Reference Library and other education operations as well as a gallery with exhibition space. Despite the five theatres contained within, the Lightbox is nothing like today's multiscreen cineplexes. Each theatre is designed to be a box within a box, which means each screening room is a distinct structure cushioned by massive amounts of soundproofing in the walls and floors so that sounds from other theatres, streetcars, and the boisterous downtown neighborhood in which the new venue is located (a geographical change for the fest) do not intrude upon the viewing experience. The seats are very comfortable, and the sight lines are terrific (even from the second row, where I pleasantly took in one movie).
The land to build the theatre comes from the Ivan Reitman family. As a child, the future director of Animal House and Ghostbusters emigrated to Canada with his family. His parents owned and operated a car wash in downtown Toronto on land that their children inherited and eventually donated to TIFF. This prime piece of real estate was one of the key factors in turning the Lightbox from dream to reality. In honor of the gift, the intersection in front of the building was dedicated as Reitman Square. Construction on a tower of condominiums above the Lightbox continues, where Reitman is rightfully set to become a penthouse resident. Daily screenings in the theatres and its location in the booming entertainment district make living in the towers an enticing proposition. A few days ago, I noticed this tweet from Roger Ebert: "A guy like me, I can see retiring to a condo in the TIFF Bell Lightbox and just going to movies." (And speaking of Ebert, the man is far from retired. He is writing more voluminously than ever. In Toronto this year, he hosted a one-of-a-kind tweet-off event in TIFF's new Filmmakers Lounge. And, following this summer's conclusion of At the Movies, the groundbreaking movie-review show that ran for many years, under several permutations, Ebert announced just prior to TIFF's opening the start of a new show called Roger Ebert Presents: At the Movies with hosts Christy Lemire and Elvis Mitchell – excellent choices to ensure the continuance of the show's feisty intelligence.)
Enough about buildings. What about the movies? I saw several films in Toronto that are due to come out in the coming weeks and months, as it's common for distributors to use the festival as a launching pad for their fall offerings and awards-season fare. The King's Speech is the highlight for me of this group, an opinion that was echoed by its selection to receive the Cadillac People's Choice Award. At the film's heart are the terrific performances of Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush, who respectively play King George VI of Great Britain and the speech therapist who helped the monarch overcome his stammer. Other films in the fall-release category include Woody Allen's You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger (which is another variation on the same movie Allen's been making for the last several years) and Clint Eastwood's Hereafter (which is thoroughly different from anything the director has made previously). Also scheduled for wide release this fall are Let Me In (the effective American remake of Let the Right One In, which uses a vampire story to tell a poignant tale of adolescent angst; it screens in Austin at Fantastic Fest), Never Let Me Go (Mark Romanek's melancholic slice of science fiction), and Stone (a taut thriller acted by Edward Norton, Robert De Niro, and Milla Jovavich, also playing Fantastic Fest). The film I most regret missing is also the one that garnered some of the biggest buzz: Darren Aronofsky's ballet melodrama Black Swan, which stars Natalie Portman. (It will screen at the Austin Film Festival in October.)
Toronto marks another stop for some films traveling the festival circuit. Among these, I saw Alejandro González Iñárritu's Biutiful, which features a tour de force performance by Javier Bardem in an otherwise sentimental narrative, and Cannes Palme d'Or winner Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives by Apichatpong Weerasethakul, an ethereal film that mostly left me mystified. Blue Valentine, the heart-wrenching story of love gone sour, which stars Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling, stopped in Toronto after presentations at Sundance and Cannes (it plays at AFF as well). Venice carryovers I saw include Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame, in which Tsui Hark directs an engaging period mystery tale that stars Andy Lau as a Sherlock Holmesian detective whose deductions are founded in scientific methods, and Álex de la Iglesia's dual prizewinner at Venice, Balada Triste (also screening at Fantastic Fest), which uses outrageous visual touches to recount the Spanish conflicts among clowns, fascists, sadists, and other lovers.
My favorite film I saw is Susanne Bier's In a Better World. I spoke briefly with the Danish director of Open Hearts, Brothers, and Things We Lost in the Fire, and she refused to describe what her film is about, an action I found annoying at the time but understand better in retrospect. It's difficult to summarize but nevertheless a magnificent achievement. Werner Herzog had the only 3-D film in the festival, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, and basically schooled everyone in the effective use of 3-D in this documentary about the discovery of the world's oldest cave drawings.
I returned to Texas with only one foot blister and no bedbugs (bedbugs having been the major prefestival scare among visitors). To the best of my knowledge, none were reported in any of the hotels or theatres, as had been whispered prior to the fest. And the only scabs to be found were at the Fairmont Royal York hotel, where workers were on strike and brought their picket line down to the festival headquarters. Martin Sheen, in town for the premiere of his son Emilio Estevez's The Way, was prominently seen joining their ranks. In Toronto, there's something for everyone.