My last full day at the Toronto International Film Festival was a day of hits and misses.
The biggest miss? Showing up at the Scotiabank multiplex early for a press screening of Robert Redford’s “The Conspirator” Monday night, only to be told that said screening had been cancelled.
Here, then, was the perfect chance to try to catch a bit of the lightning that only a film festival can offer. Specifically, I took myself to the next available press screening – an Australian film called “Blame” – about which I knew nothing, other than the fact that it was from Australia and it was almost ready to start.
There is so much media about most films these days that you rarely have the opportunity to walk into a movie blind like that. Sometimes you discover a gem, as happened to me when I went to a screening of “Catfish” (opening next week) at Sundance this year, without a clue as to what I was about to see.
On the other hand, sometimes you get a film like “Blame,” the movie I saw Monday night, a thriller so formulaic that it could have been a math equation. A music teacher shows up at his remote country home after a week of teaching – and is suddenly attacked by a group of young people in ski masks and suits. They tie him up and blindfold him, then forcefeed him an overdose of sleeping pills – revenge, apparently, for a crime that eventually is specified. But he doesn’t die and things unravel from there. Except you see the twists coming a mile away and the film loses tension – rather than builds it – the longer it goes on. It’s set in a great-looking house, though.
The day’s other disappointment was “Submarine,” a coming of age tale set in Wales about a teen named Oliver Tate (Craig Roberts), who gets his first girlfriend at the same time that he’s trying to save his parents’ marriage. It’s cute, it’s occasionally funny in a mildly quirky way – but the writing is never strong enough to save it from comparisons to similar but better films such as “Rushmore” or “Youth in Revolt,” which were smarter and cleverer. I’d actually heard good things about “Submarine,” and so walked out early of a press screening of “The Promise,” the documentary about Bruce Springsteen making “Darkness on the Edge of Town,” a decision I came to regret.
The day actually got off to a strong start. I saw what may be the single most fascinating film of this festival: Errol Morris’ “Tabloid,” a wonderfully bizarre documentary about a woman named Joyce McKinney, an American Southern belle who, while in her 20s in the late 1970s, fell for a young Mormon, tracked him when he disappeared from her life (he was on mission to London) and allegedly kidnapped him to have sex with him and get him to marry her. Her subsequent arrest turned her into a tabloid star in Great Britain; she tells Morris’ camera that, in fact, the British press lied about her and ruined her life. Morris then turns his camera on a pair of British journalists, who offer a completely different view of McKinney. And, just when it seems that her story can’t get any weirder, we skip forward 30 years to find her chasing tabloid headlines all over again. She’s an amazing character and gives a truly astonishing performance.
Then I made my first foray into the TIFF Bell Lightbox, the massive new edifice that will be the permanent home of the festival and its year-round operations. It’s a large, gorgeous, state-of-the-art museum and cinema emporium that has been talked about for what feels like a decade and which opened Sunday. I went to a pair of press screenings there on Monday, and found both of the main theaters to be beautiful and understated, the perfect place to see a film – large enough for the press horde without dwarfing either the viewer or the viewing experience.
The first film I saw there (the second was “Submarine”) was “The Debt,” a rugged and moving thriller directed by John Madden and starring Helen Mirren, Sam Worthington and Jessica Chastain.
Chastain, Worthington and Marton Csokas play the younger version of three Israeli Mossad agents (played in later life by Mirren, Ciaran Hinds and Tom Wilkinson) who, in 1965, are sent on a mission to East Germany. They are to capture and bring back to Israel a Josef Mengele-like figure, a Holocaust war criminal who has changed his name and is still practicing medicine in East Berlin. The ripple effect of their adventure is still felt 30 years later, when the difference between the heroic acts for which they were celebrated and the truth of the matter threaten to collide. It’s a terrific role for Mirren and a breakthrough role for Chastain. This is also the second film at the festival in which I’ve seen Worthington play a dramatic role (after establishing himself as an action hero in “Terminator Salvation” and “Avatar”).
Funny how actors suddenly pop up in several different films at one festival. I only saw about a dozen movies in my three days here – but Keira Knightley was in two of them, as were Worthington and Mirren. Sally Hawkins showed up in three of them.
As much as I wanted to see Guillaume Canet’s “Little White Lies” on Monday night, I finally decided that writing and sleeping took precedence over seeing a 154-minute film that didn’t start until 10 p.m. In my younger days, perhaps (I once saw seven films in a single day at TIFF) – but bed, an early screening on Tuesday and a flight home all beckon.