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Toronto Film Festival

Another Toronto Film Festival has come and whooshed by!
I’ve been asked what my favourite films from this year’s fest are. And what a coincidence – I made a running video about them. Another coincidence? Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, which won the Grolsch People’s Choice Award was my top film too. Frances McDormand needs to win all the awards for her role in it, where she plays a grieving mother who takes up a drastic move to solve the mystery of her daughter’s brutal death. Sam Rockwell, too, shines, in this film from director Martin Mcdonaugh, who brought us In Bruges and Seven Pyschopaths.

This week’s The Rundown comes to you from Greece, where I went to my cousin’s wedding. Opa! 

The stories…

* It’s film festival season right now – and Johnny Depp seems to be getting some of the spotlight…

Telluride in the Rockie Mountains just wrapped up – Johnny Depp’s Black Mass has had people talking about his turn as mobster boss Whitey Bulger. So too, is there buzz for Joel Edgerton. Talk of Depp being back on top form makes me very happy as he’s had a couple of misses lately. An actress who’s been receiving a lot of praise is Brie Larson, one of the finest underrated actresses around too, for a film called Room.
Steve Jobs from Danny Boyle, written by the Social Network‘s Aaron Sorkin has also attracted applause. I’m looking forward to seeing Black Mass, among others, at the Toronto Film Festvial but the Steve Jobs movie will only be at the NYFF.

* The Venice Film Festival is underway and Toronto has just begun…

Venice will hand out its top prizes this Saturday. Reports say there was a 10-minute standing O for The Danish Girl, starring Oscar winner Eddie Redmayne as one of the first known people to undergo gender reassignment surgery. Alice Vikander stars alongside him. Netflix’s Beasts Of No Nation also drew strong praise for Idris Elba’s turn as a warlord recruiting child soldiers in Africa. South African director Oliver Hermanus debuted his third feature film called The Endless River, which drew mixed reviews. It’ll be at Toronto, which kicked off on Thursday, along with three other South African films. 

* The Bond theme singer has finally been revealed..

Ending months of speculation – I had put my money on Lorde, but it’s Sam Smith — still one of the names that was up there high in the running so not unexpected. The song is called Writing’s on the Wall. It’ll be released on iTunes on Friday in two weeks time. The movie comes out October and November. Smith is following in the footsteps of Adele, who swept the Grammys and then went on to sing the Bond theme song, earning an Oscar too. Will he follow those steps too?

The route

It’s about four miles long, and takes in some of the sights. Start from Syntagma Square, the heart of the Greek parliament. Head west for about 300 meters until you see the Evaggilistrias side-street going off to the left, with all its outside dining tables. Cross the cathedral square and turn right on Pondrosou to run the last few blocks along this pedestrian street and its little shops, to Monastiraki Square, one of the most vibrant parts of the city. Make your way to Odeon of Herodes Atticus. You’ll pass the smaller Dionysus Theater, where the classic Greek playwrights all performed their plays. Then head to the Acropolis, where is costs 12 Euros to enter. 

When you’re at a film festival, you’re in a bubble – a cinema-wide bubble that includes only the story playing out on the screen in front of you. Walking out of my second film of the fest, the bubble was popped by the news of Joan Rivers’ death. But hurrying off to catch another film on the oh-so-tight schedule meant there was only time for a few quick obit reads and celeb tweets before it was time to go back into it.

And so my bubble grew, screening after screening, bigger and bigger, until I was deep inside a world where Jake Gyllenhaal was a entrepreneurial maniac and Minnie Driver the mother of a pop-star. 

While the rest of the world was buzzing about the new iPhone launch, I had just come out of 99 Homes, disturbed the greed today’s day-and-age justified in Michael Shannon’s character, and headed for an exploration of scientist Stephen Hawking’s love life in The Theory of Everything. It was only hours later I learnt exactly how big the new models are and that U2 had surreptitiously deposited their latest album in everyone’s iTunes account.  

But my TIFF bubble this year wasn’t as exciting as last year’s.

Most of the stand-out films I’d already seen – Whiplash at Sundance, Foxcatcher at Cannes. Three of my favourite films were ones I missed at Cannes, because I had to leave a little earlier than usual this year. The ones I loved the most had sub-titles, but I did really like a few others, and there were some stand-out performances in okay films. 

Of the 25 or so films I saw, these were my highlights…

The Films I’d Recommend Without Hesitation

Mommy – Canadian director Xavier Dolan has a reputation for being a film-making wunderkind, who at the age of 25 has become a Cannes darling, having premiered 4 movies there. This year he won the Jury Prize for Mommy, a film I heard nothing but praise for.  It deals with the mother of a teenager who has ADHD and the neighbour who helps them find some kind of normalcy in a world where parents can drop off children they can’t deal with into the hands of the state. The music (standout use of Celine Dion’s On Ne Change Pas), the actors (Dolan’s frequent collaborator Anne Dorval as the Mommy and Antoine-Oliver Pilon as her son), the cinematography (aptly mirroring moments of exuberance and sadness) – all come together to create a moving slice of life with characters who are just trying their best to make a life for themselves and those they love.

Timbuktu – the power a film holds to bring a story to life off the pages of a newspaper or on an Internet screen is held within these 97 minutes from Abderrahmane Sissako. It’s one thing to have read about the militant Islamic occupation of the Malian city, but it’s another to see people oppressed for artistic expression. It’s something made even more poignant by being at a festival, enjoying movies and the natural right to see them.

Girlhood – you’ll have heard of Boyhood, and while this film isn’t as long in length and it didn’t take over a decade to shoot, it still offers deep insight into the traditional coming-of-age story – but from the point of view of a girl. A French teenager tries to find her place in a gang that she yearns to be accepted by, but also wants to stand out from. Again, there’s another fantastic music scene in the film, where Rihanna’s Diamonds is given a semi-alternative music video – one I think works even better than the original!

Wild – Cheryl Strayed’s writing is gorgeous enough on its own. The way she articulates her experience of hiking the Pacific Crest Trail is one of those stories that makes you wonder how a film would be able to capture the internal back-and-forth’ing that goes on in her mind and is captured so well in her autobiographical novel. Jean-Marc Vallee does an admirable job, together with Nick Hornby who wrote the screenplay and Reese Witherspoon as Cheryl. You experience the journey with her, and how she learns to put herself “in the way of beauty,” as Vallee’s eye creates it. Hopefully the Oscar buzz around Witherspoon lasts, because she deserves it.

The Theory of Everything – Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones play British scientist Stephen Hawking and his first wife – a woman who signs up for a lifetime of care-giving, patience and love. She is a rock throughout this film, and Redmayne shows the humanity and comedic moments that aren’t always seen on screen in people with disabilities. I was moved me to tears. But leaving the cinema, I had to wonder why the film didn’t really show us much of the hardships Hawking must’ve faced at the onset of motor neuron disease, and how ugly things must have got when he divorced the wife who’d stood by him for 30 years for a nurse. That aside, Redmayne and Jones make a stellar pairing.

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I also saw and liked…

Nightcrawler – Jake Gyllenhaal is terrifyingly good as a model prospective employee who uses all the right words and catchphrases – in all the wrong ways! He’s a poster-boy for the TMZ/Vice generation, and it’s more his character than the actual story of how he goes about breaking into the biz itself that kept me hooked.

99 Homes  – Michael Shannon impresses in this story of our times, and how desperate people make desperate money. He plays alongside Andrew Garfield, who flexes his non-superhero muscle in this film by playing an everyman evicted from his family home. It’s topical, urgent and begs for empathy.

The Drop – Tom Hardy and a puppy, what more do you need to enjoy a film? (Between Hardy’s dog and Bill Murray’s cat in Saint Vincent, four-legged friends got decent screen-time at TIFF this year.) Hardy is an unassuming Brooklyn bar-tender caught up in a scheme involving James Gandolfini’s character’s bar. The two, together with Matthias Schoenaerts, are a treat to watch onscreen together.

Saint Vincent – Bill Murray is the best-kind-of-grumpy-old-man-who-grows-on-you while newcomer Jaeden Lieberher wins you over instantly with his kid wit. Naomi Watts as a Russian stripper is an inspired choice in this sweet dramedy.

While We’re Young – Noah Baumbach has stitched together a humorous take on all the things we admire and dislike about being young and getting older in the time we live in right now – sharing versus stealing, what success means, having kids versus having experiences. I thoroughly enjoyed this – added bonus in seeing Ben Stiller try to become a hipster!

Beats of the Antonov – a fascinating documentary about how music plays a part in the identity and cultures of people living in Sudan, where planes flying overhead with bombs is a daily reality.

Films I Heard Good Buzz About But Didn’t See…

Still Alice, in which Julianne Moore plays a woman with Alzheimers and The Imitation Game, in which Benedict Cumberbatch brings the little-known story of scientist Alan Turing’s cracking the Nazi Enigma Code but being persecuted for being gay.

Other Fab Festival Moments…

Interviewing Al Pacino, who had two films he was promoting Manglehorn and The Humbling, in which he is a washed-up theatre actor who falls in love with the lesbian daughter of family friends, played by Greta Gerwig, and finding him to be a lot funnier in real life than I expected. No more so than when he said he was afraid of heights and then walked over to the edge of a large window and started playing around about said fear.

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Bill Murray Day!

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Seeing the promos for TIFF’s upcoming Kubrick exhibition – a reason as any to return to T.Dot very soon!

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The excitement of opening day was tempered by the news of Joan Rivers’ death. I, like many festival-goers, emerged from the a darkened cinema to discover that the 81-year old comedian and actress had died. The news came a week after she suffered cardiac arrest and had been in a serious condition in hospital in New York.

As word spread through the festival, so too were memories shared of her acerbic wit and sharp tongue. May her feisty soul rest in peace.

I consider Day 1 to be a success, as I managed to make it to all four of the films I had planned to see, as well as fit in two interviews and a drink at the TIFF Opening Night party. Three out of four of the films were ones I had missed at Cannes earlier this year, and even as I settled into my seat for the 9:30pm screening of the last one, exhausted and hungry, I was so glad to have seen them all because each one was thoroughly worthy of the the praise I’d heard.

My day started with Mommy, 25-year-old celebrated Canadian director Xavier Dolan’s feature that won the Jury Prize at Cannes. From the music (Sarah Mclachlan, Celine Dion, Lana Del Rey) to the suffocating framing, the fantasy sequences and the cast (especially the actress who plays the lead Mommy, Anne Dorval), it’s not hard to see why the film has had so many people gushing over it. I appreciated it for what it showed about the bond between mother and child, and also the one between hope and hopelessness.

Straight from Mommy, I went to see Timbuktu, a film that is such a powerful example of the value cinema holds for helping us learn more about the world around us, and elicit empathy for people in other countries. Directed by Abderrahmane Sissako from Mauritania, it looks at the occupation of the Malian city by militant Islamic rebels. We read about the stories of musicians being punished and persecuted for their love of song during the occupation, but seeing this film, especially in a place like Toronto that celebrates the arts so vibrantly, was shell-shocking.

On the complete opposite end of the spectrum, I went to The Judge premiere, the festival’s opening film. I love Robert Duvall and Robert Downey Jr as actors, and they are a powerhouse together, playing off their familiar roles as mean-but-wise-cracking son versus mean-but-upstanding dad, but I did feel like I was being told how to feel at every point in the film, which also felt quite long too.

The final screening of the day, Girlhood, ended my Day 1 superbly. With Boyhood opening in South Africa today – a movie that is an acute study of a young man growing up filmed over 12 years, my hope is that this one reaches a wide audience too. The film is a full-bodied look at all the complexities of being a young woman growing up – trying to fit in and stand out at the same time, as seen through the experience of a French teenager. Truly superbly done.

Now, for Bill Murray Day!

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Howzit T.Dot!

So happy to be back in Toronto for a third time, covering the film festival. It’s the only time I get to visit Canada, which is a shame really, as I always enjoy being here and would like to experience the place without the rush of having to get myself to a darkened cinema on time.

But that is the aim for the next few days. The festival runs until the 14th but I will be leaving just before that to go to LA for another set of interviews. So, today begins the frenetic pace of fitting in film-watching, moviestar-interviewing, press-conference-hopping and of course, since I’m training for the Chicago Marathon, mile-running too.

Last night the Toronto Film Critics Association welcomed all the other critics and film journalists who’re in town with a cocktail party, which featured “Telluride Throwdown Margaritas”, playing on the hyped-up tension between the two festivals. Now that Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) has made it a rule that those films premiering at Telluride the weekend before can’t show during the first week of TIFF, there’s been a lot written about the perceived rivalry between the two fests. I just am happy that it means a few more of the films are spread out as opposed to being screened entirely during the first weekend, as has been the case in the past.

It’s always nice to see familar faces, so the welcome party was such a great way to ease into the fest, seeing some of the friends I’ve made during time spent standing in line or waiting for interviews. Talk was all about which films are on who’s schedules, the changes being made to the line-up, and those margaritas!

Over 300 films will screen here during the fest. I’ll aim to see a small percentage of those – among them, The Imitation Game with Benedict Cumberbatch, Jon Stewart’s Rosewater, Wild (the adaptation of one of my favourite books) and The Judge, which stars Robert Downey Jr and Robert Duvall.

I’ve seen a few on the list already at Cannes – Whiplash at Sundance, and Foxcatcher and Mr Turner, all praiseworthy. I also want to try catch up on those films I missed during Cannes, like the much-talked about Xavier Dolan’s Mommy, the French-Mauritanian drama, Timbuktu and Girlhood by French filmmaker Celine Sciamma, which opened the Director’s Fortnight. South Africa has one film in official selection at TIFF, Impunity, by Jyoti Mistry, so that’s on my list too.

I’m also looking forward to Bill Murray Day, a chance for the festival – and festival-goers – to pay tribute to the inimitable actor, who is premiering his latest film, St Vincent here. Last year, I remember walking past a sign outside a bar that was addressed to Murray, known for dropping in on random parties, inviting him inside for karaoke. Maybe this year, that same sign will be up again, and maybe this year he might just pop on in.