At the 34th Toronto International Film Festival, everyone’s seeing orange. The lower-case “tiff,” the color of a pumpkin, blares from posters and billboards throughout the city as a symbol of festival director Piers Handling’s determination to simplify everything, including the logo, in a movie orgy that has clearly outgrown itself. Last year, the sheer bloat of this annual circus inspired accusations of “elitism” and complaints that a beloved event started by three movie buffs in 1975 was “no longer the people’s film festival.” This year, in the midst of a hobbling global recession, the goal is to “return the festival to the people” as 312 feature films flow through every projector in the city, from 9 a.m. screenings for priority press to midnight-madness horror flicks featuring the latest assortment of infectious viruses, rampaging zombies and flesh-eating ghouls for the unwashed masses toting sandwich bags and styrofoam cups from Starbucks. (The projectionists sleep from 2 a.m. to dawn.) I don’t know about a return to simpler days, but there is certainly something here for every taste. You can see documentaries about Hugh Hefner and Glenn Gould; endless tracts on the war in Iraq; Michael Moore’s latest assault on capitalism (blame it all on Bush’s bank bailouts); Drew Barrymore’s making her directorial debut with Whip It, starring Ellen Page on roller skates; a vampire musical called Suck; Jewish liturgy from the Coen brothers; and another loathsome barf job by Danish wacko Lars von Trier called Antichrist, in which pickle-faced Charlotte Gainsbourg, who always looks embalmed, prunes away her genitalia with garden shears. Naturally, it will show up shortly in the New York Film Festival, the official depository for movies nobody wants to see, where torturing the audience has become an acknowledged priority.
Despite the volume of product, there is evidence wherever you turn that the fat has been trimmed. Recession-cautious buyers are stoic, and roughly 100 of the films on display have arrived without any distributors at all. Unlike Cannes, which has an actual film market resembling a tag sale, Toronto’s deals are more informal, with the buying and selling done on cell phones and in hotel lobbies. Hollywood studios are scaling back on the swag. There are fewer exclusive dinners, midnight cocktail soirees, corporate sponsors, red-carpet premieres, limousine rentals and hairdresser appointments. Nobody seems to care much about shelling out money, even for bragging rights. But George Christy’s coveted annual lunch at the Four Seasons went on as planned; Matt Damon hosted another charity benefit for underprivileged kids; and Joan Baez gave a free concert in the middle of the street. This year the lavish party circuit is taking a back seat to the movies, and glam venues like the Rosewater Supper Club and Ultra have a lot of blank pages in their reservation books.
Never mind. Swag or no swag, the boldface names are here anyway. Spotted in full gridlock on the red-carpet runway: Demi Moore, Ann-Margret, Norman Jewison, Mariah Carey, Ewan McGregor, Jeff Bridges, Keanu Reeves, Viggo Mortensen, one-name-is-all-you-need Oprah, assorted Colins (Farrell and Firth), Jennifers (Connelly and Garner, but not Aniston) and Michaels (Caine, Douglas, Moore and J. Fox). Not to mention Bill Murray, Patricia Clarkson, Christopher Plummer, Penélope Cruz, Clive Owen, Edward Norton, Chris Rock, Nicolas Cage, Robin Wright Penn and others too famous to mention. They only stay long enough to suffer through the idiotic press conferences, pose and then head for the airport. Some of them don’t even have movies to plug. They’re just here for the photo ops. George Clooney is everywhere with his hand in a bandage—a good excuse for not signing autographs. Jane Fonda is not here, but sent some controversy in her place. When she heard about this year’s sidebar event honoring Israeli films and the city of Tel Aviv, she signed a protest letter attacking the Israelis and defending Palestine, which elicited an enraged response from Jon Voight, her co-star in Coming Home, who accused a deluded Jane of once again backing all the wrong people. Result: A series that stood every chance of being ignored suddenly had a new focus of world interest. Too bad Jane and cohorts like Harry Belafonte and Wallace Shawn didn’t know one of the films they boycotted was a collaboration between Israeli and Pakistani co-directors. I skipped Triage, an Irish war drama with Colin Farrell as a wounded front-lines freelance photographer in Kurdistan (he lost 25 pounds for the role by living on black coffee, cigarettes and two cans of tuna per day), and opted for a live auction where one of the prizes was tea with Diane Lane to “talk Hollywood, world issues and life.” Don’t ask.
WOLFING DOWN CLUB sandwiches and Yoo-hoos, you finally try to see some movies. After years of bad advice from festival brochures and eager press agents, experience (and failing eyesight) have taught me to cross off some contenders early, just from the synopses: like the one that “tells the story of 13-year-old Gunther, growing up in the 1980s in a household of drunks, gamblers and womanizers in small-town Belgium.” Or how about “an alcoholic actress trying to put her life together” and “a young mother struggling to shake a drug habit”? Sometimes the titles alone will do it (Bitch Slap, Women Without Men, The Men Who Stare at Goats). In all the clutter, I have still managed to see some amazing films. If Toronto sets the tone for the forthcoming awards season, you can plan ahead for a few riveting performances and welcome surprises. You also better plan to dress up for depression. Viggo Mortensen gives the performance of his career in the faithfully rendered film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s heartbreaking apocalyptic novel The Road. After an unspecified global catastrophe wipes out most of the world, including his wife (Charlize Theron), a desperate father (a gaunt Viggo), in an attempt to stay alive, takes his son on a long and dangerous journey to the sea across a burned-out America, encountering cannibalism, rape and other bleak nightmares amid the last remnants of human life (Robert Duvall and Guy Pearce among them). Artistically rendered by director John Hillcoat, sensitively adapted by Joe Penhall, hauntingly shot in many of the post-Katrina landscapes in southern Louisiana and wonderfully acted (especially by Viggo, whose face has been described as an El Greco etching), The Road is a tremendous achievement.
George Clooney is unveiling two alleged “comedies” simultaneously—one good, the other an insufferable disaster. In Jason (Juno) Reitman’s smart, cynical and witty Up in the Air, the suave Hollywood film personality his fans have erroneously labeled “the new Cary Grant” plays a cool, emotionally detached and swellegantly groomed businessman whose job is to fly around America downsizing companies and firing people. He’s a termination specialist whose only goal in life is to rack up 10 million frequent flyer miles. But fate intervenes when he meets a tough cookie played by the fantastic Vera Farmiga, and all bets are off when he breaks his own rules, falls in love against his better judgment and finds his heart. The payoff (a basically venal character who deceptively appears to have everything already reevaluates his career priorities when he learns how much he’s been missing) is not as sappy as it sounds, and the ending is a kick in the shins. Up in the Air often looks like an American Airlines commercial, and I wouldn’t call it a feel-good movie per se, but there’s a certain satisfaction watching two snappy, beautiful people at the top of their form. Mr. Clooney has never looked better, acted with more confidence or oozed more charm, but he’s no Cary Grant.