A film about a family torn apart when an only daughter becomes a terrorist (American Pastoral), an Oliver Stone movie taking a sympathetic view of a man described by some as an American traitor (Snowden), a movie in which a woman expresses conflicted reactions to a brutal rape (Elle), a controversial movie about a slave rebellion that has been subject to trials and tribulations of its creators who at one time were up on rape charges themselves (Birth Of A Nation), a movie depicting a world with no patience for a racially mixed relationship (A United Kingdom), and a documentary featuring a superstar begging the world to wake up to the crisis of climate change (Before The Flood). Not to mention another about a young woman accused of murdering her roommate (Amanda Knox) – a woman who actually showed up for the premiere. Welcome to day 2 of the Toronto International Film Festival.
If you had heard about the ecstatic reaction at earlier film festivals to La La Land, an homage to the great hollywood and french musicals of a bygone past, and hoped the tone for this fest was going to be lighter in spirit, you wouldn’t have found much evidence on TIFF’s day two (that musical doesn’t arrive until Monday). Even the popcorn feel of Thursday’ s opener The Magnificent Seven feels far in the past. It is true fests tend to err on the side of darkness and this one is no different. But the issues in these films are important ones and the audiences experiencing these movies seemed quite receptive to the bleak situations. Friday night’s TIFF World Premieres are a case in point.
Lionsgate and Lakeshore unveiled their 1960s- and 70s-set drama American Pastoral, based on Phillip Roth’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel about a model American family ripped apart when the daughter hooks up with a radical group and commits an act of terrorism. It played to a receptive crowd at the Princess Of Wales Theatre where the film premiered. Ewan McGregor makes his directorial debut and stars as The Swede, a popular jock who marries beauty queen Dawn, played brilliantly by Jennifer Connelly. The daughter is Dakota Fanning in a startling change-of-pace role. The history of movie adaptations of Roth books is checkered, but McGregor and screenwriter John Romano get this one right, and if you don’t believe me take it from Roth himself. The nervous filmmakers showed him the long-gestating film version last week in New York and as Lakeshore’s Tom Rosenberg (Oscar winner for Million Dollar Baby, who produced this film along with partner Gary Lucchesi) said at the packed CIBA after-party, Roth gave the movie an affirmative two thumbs up, saying he liked it very much, even the changes that were made from his book.
That is high praise indeed, as Roth rarely pipes in on movie versions of his books and in fact has never given an opinion on previous collaborations with Rosenberg and Lucchesi, which include Elegy and The Human Stain. Connelly told me she has been anxious to get this book to the screen for at least a decade – and different iterations – and tonight was the first time she has seen the finished product. McGregor was pleased with the reaction to his directorial debut, although he said there were little quirks in the sound mix he noticed during the screening. But considering he has probably seen it 100 times, he has a finely tuned ear for things that no one else would notice.
Early trade reviews were mixed, but the buzz at the after-party elicited strong emotional response, particularly with the theme of a parental relationship with a child. It is not exactly the kind of material that has you going out singing the tunes, but many agreed there is a lot of contemporary pertinence to the movie and it should resonate when it opens October 21. Among those attending in the crowd was producer Armyan Bernstein, who praised the film and told me he is responsible for bringing Rosenberg to Hollywood sometime after they both attended the University Of Wisconsin. Bernstein, who just wrapped an eight year run for the series Castle, says he has some 40 movies in development and 40 TV projects as well for his company Beacon. He says it is getting much harder to lure top actors to movie projects since TV has become such an attractive option with offers from the likes of Netflix and Amazon and their new viewing models.
The Toronto Film Festival is a dizzying collection of nightly and afternoon Gala premieres and Special Presentations competing with each other. It makes the Cannes Film Festival’s two premiere a night policy seem subtle by comparison. Friday’s lineup of launches for A United Kingdom, American Pastoral, Snowden, Trespass Against Us, Elle, the rebirth of Birth Of A Nation, Colossal, Amanda Knox, and Before The Flood among others makes this fest of some 300 titles almost impossible to navigate for completists. I work much of the summer, beginning with Cannes through Telluride and numerous Los Angeles pre-screenings just to get in shape to tackle this fest. Fortunately I had seen American Pastoral, Snowden, Elle etc before I ever hit Canada. (The best way to approach a film festival is to try and see every film in advance before you even get there. )
But Friday’s World Premiere of the British racially-mixed marriage drama A United Kingdom, starring an excellent David Oyelowo and Rosamund Pike, was actually new to me here. It’s an emotional and involving crowd pleaser, a true story set starting in 1947 about the marriage between the black king of what is now known as Botswana and a white English woman that was opposed by all sides and caused enormous friction professionally and personally. The TIFF crowd was totally with it and gave its stars, and director Amma Asante, warm applause and a standing O when the lights shone on them at the end. It is an acquisition title and should have no problem being picked up for American distribution by someone who wants to tap into The King’s Speech crowd.
With another mixed marriage film, Loving, getting its North American premiere here on Sunday, it is clearly a hot topic at this year’s TIFF. A United Kingdom is much more pronounced than the quiet dignity found in Jeff Nichols’ Loving, which Focus releases on November 4. It’s likely A United Kingdom won’t hit U.S. theaters until next year.
Snowden, one of the best Oliver Stone films in years, also had its official World Premiere here Friday, although it was shown in a special screening for select journalists at Comic-Con in July. For me it made me reassess my opinion of Edward Snowden, a man who sparks all sorts of reactions, from Traitor to Hero and everything in between. It gives a background we had not seen in the Oscar winning documentary Citizen Four from Laura Poitras, Joseph Gordon Levitt is excellent in the lead role, and we even get the real man himself in a cameo. It opens next Friday. With so much going on and jockeying for prime slots, the Snowden party at LaVelle was held before the 9:30pm premiere. Keeping everything within walking distance is a smart strategy for organizers of these multiple parties and screenings. Traffic was a nightmare earlier.
As to the question pundits are already asking: which of these films are Oscar contenders? Toronto always has a say in that race but it is still a very fluid situation in terms of what movies have the goods to survive the next six months of this campaign, one that Sony Pictures Classics’ Tom Bernard told me last night at their intimate Toni Erdmann dinner would be the biggest in the history of the Oscars, thanks in part to all the new players.
Tomorrow, as Scarlett O’Hara once said, is another day – and another opportunity for TIFF to drive film nerds crazy.