Cracking the code on TIFF’s big announcements: Knelman

29 Jul 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

‘The Martian’ to premiere at the Toronto Film Festival.

TORONTO (REUTERS) – The Toronto International Film Festival will kick off its 40th year with the world premiere of Canadian director Jean-Marc Vallee’s Demolition, starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Naomi Watts, organisers said on Tuesday.

After weeks of intense blogosphere speculation about the fall festival season and palate-whetting gala announcements from the New York Film Festival, the Toronto Film Festival kicked things into high gear this morning when it announced more than 40 titles that will comprise the festival’s Gala and Special Presentations categories come September. One of the fall’s most hyped films, Ridley Scott’s space epic “The Martian,” starring Matt Damon and Jessica Chastain, will have its world premiere at the festival in advance of its Oct. 2 release.

Other movies on the lineup with a local connection include “Spotlight,” the film about the Globe Spotlight Team’s investigation of the Catholic Church; “Black Mass,” which stars Johnny Depp as Whitey Bulger; “Freeheld,” which was produced by Cynthia Wade of Western Massachusetts; Jay Roach’s “Trumbo,” which features Bryan Cranston and Newton’s Louis C.K.; and Jean-Marc Vallée’s drama “Demolition,” which features Jake Gyllenhaal, Naomi Watts, and Kingston’s Chris Cooper. “Spotlight” and “Black Mass” will have their world premieres at the Venice Film Festival earlier that month. It’s a typically starry list, full of A-list names in front of and behind the camera, some very obvious Oscar bait, and a few Toronto stalwarts to satisfy the requisite quota of local Canadian talent, including Atom Egoyan, who makes a bid for a comeback (after the career-pummeling one-two of “Devil’s Knot” and “The Captive”) with “Remember,” starring Christopher Plummer as a Holocaust survivor trying to track down the former Nazi guard responsible for murdering his family. Other premieres in the biopic heavy schedule include “The Program,” Stephen Frears’ film on Lance Armstrong starring Ben Foster as the disgraced athlete; Jay Roach’s “Trumbo,” with Bryan Cranston as the blacklisted screenwriter; and Peter Sollett’s fact-based, marriage rights drama “Freeheld,” with last year’s best actress winner Julianne Moore and Ellen Page. “Demolition,” from “Dallas Buyers Club” director Jean-Marc Vallée, is not set for release until April and will not be among award contenders later this year. Other Canadian-directed efforts include two drug-war films: Quebec-born Denis Villeneuve’s “Sicaro,” starring Emily Blunt and Josh Brolin, is set on the Mexico-U.S. border; and “Beeba Boys,” directed by Toronto-based Deepa Mehta, which looks at an Indo-Canadian gang in Vancouver.

Documentary filmmaker Michael Moore (“Roger and Me,” “Fahrenheit 9/11”) returns to the festival this year with “Where to Invade Next,” while U.K director Stephen Frears (“The Queen,” “Philomena”) takes on the story of cyclist Lance Armstrong in “The Program,” which stars Ben Foster and Dustin Hoffman. Organisers said they have tweaked last year’s controversial format of excluding films during Toronto’s high-profile opening weekend that have already been screened at the more intimate, industry-focused Telluride festival. We can also safely assume that a quartet of new films listed as “Canadian premieres” will screen first in some combination of Venice and super-secretive Telluride. The Toronto event, ranked among the world’s top film festivals, has grown dramatically from its launch in 1976, when some 80 films screened in five theatres.

They include co-directors Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson’s stop-motion animated feature “Anomalisa” (described, in typically Kaufman-esque fashion, as a film about “a man crippled by the mundanity of his life”); Cary Fukunaga’s child-soldier drama “Beasts of No Nation”; “Frank” director Lenny Abrahamson’s “Room” (adapted from Emma Donoghue’s acclaimed 2011 novel); and Tom McCarthy’s “Spotlight,” which features Michael Keaton’s first post-“Birdman” screen appearance as Boston Globe reporter Walter Robinson, who headed the paper’s Pulitzer Prize-winning coverage of the 2003 Catholic Church sex abuse scandal. Six of the last seven audience favourites became Best Picture nominees or winners, including Slumdog Millionaire, The King’s Speech and 12 Years A Slave. Last year at this time, there was a lot of hubbub in the press about the battle lines being drawn between Toronto and its rival fall festivals — especially Telluride — over who would get to show which movies first. In 2008, “Slumdog Millionaire,” about an Indian boy’s rise from poverty to game-show riches, won the People’s Choice Award in Toronto before collecting eight Academy Awards including Best Picture.

That’s all for the best, since, at the end of the day, most of these movies need all the help they can get to attract attention amidst the billion-dollar big-studio franchise pictures. Indeed, for all the ink that’s been spilled about 2015’s record-breaking box office figures — with “Star Wars: Episode VII” still to come — it’s been anything but a banner year in the indie sector, with buzzy festival titles like “Love & Mercy,” “Dope” and “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” all performing well below expectations. JUSTIN CHANG: I’m glad Toronto decided not to hold a grudge against Telluride this year, not least because all this tussling over titles and bragging rights ultimately amounts to the sort of passive-aggressive pissing contest that winds up distracting from the films themselves.

As we know, Scott, no film has ever been particularly well served by that sorry excuse for a movie palace called the Roy Thomson Hall, which seems founded on the curious architectural notion that the smaller and more faraway-looking the screen, the better. (Me, I’ll take a seat at the Bell Lightbox or the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema any day.) Still, as this morning’s announcement makes clear, Toronto hasn’t abandoned its policy of strict transparency where a film’s premiere status is concerned — and in this, it does still deal a bit of a blow to Telluride, which has always insisted on keeping its lineup a secret until Labor Day weekend. With its exclusive-yet-inclusive atmosphere, its rarefied feel and its unbeatably gorgeous scenery, Telluride is a festival that commands an unusually high degree of filmmaker loyalty. (Those who go usually wind up going back.) But Toronto has its favorites, too, as I’m reminded by the world-premiere announcement of Terence Davies’ “Sunset Song” — which is, by my count, the great British auteur’s sixth feature to play Toronto (after “Distant Voices, Still Lives,” “The Long Day Closes,” “The House of Mirth,” “Of Time and the City” and “The Deep Blue Sea”). And then, of course, there are some filmmakers who move around a bit, like the very busy Jean-Marc Vallee, whose “Dallas Buyers Club” made a terrific splash in Toronto two years ago, and who last year took “Wild” to both Telluride and Toronto. It’s worth keeping in mind, of course, that this is merely the first and splashiest of Toronto’s lineup announcements; there will be more in the coming weeks, and while they will surely be lower on name recognition and star wattage, they will be no less deserving of serious scrutiny.

Don’t get too excited about the absence of pictures such as Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies, Ron Howard’s In the Heart of the Sea or David Gordon Green’s Our Brand is Crisis. I know it’s where you’ll be paying most of your attention, Scott, in your new capacity as an acquisitions and development with the feature films division of Amazon Studios — and needless to say, we will all be anticipating your first slate of pickups with bated breath. But it’s among those couple of hundred other movies in the Toronto lineup that critics and buyers alike hope to find that unheralded diamond in the rough by a promising new director who might go on to become the next Egoyan or Abrahamson or Fukunaga.

Amazon and Netflix are two of the companies heretofore associated with small-screen entertainment who are making a high-profile bid to enter the movie business. Netflix paid a whopping $12 million for Fukunaga’s film earlier this year, and Fukunaga himself is one of a new breed of directors who seem equally at ease working in feature films and long-form television (like “True Detective”). This year, Toronto itself will acknowledge that ever-winnowing line between those two mediums with a new programming section called Primetime, devoted to episodic series from across the globe.

It’s a smart move, given that today’s audiences scarcely seem to care what format something was originally conceived for as long as it’s an example of good storytelling. Still, there will always be directors whose work demands to be seen on the largest possible screens, and one of them is Ridley Scott, a classical master of the medium who is still, at age 77, making big-canvas entertainments at an astonishingly prolific rate. Scott had only just started shooting “The Martian” on locations in Hungary and Morocco, when I interviewed him in London last November (for a Variety cover story about his quite beautiful and underrated “Exodus: Gods and Kings,” a movie I know you, Justin, also admire greatly), and now 10 months later it’s ready to go, with a terrific teaser trailer that burned up the internet when it debuted earlier this summer.

CHANG: I know that, as someone who never misses a Claude Lelouch picture, you will also find a way to be first in line for “Un plus une.” Of the titles that have been announced so far, the biggest attention-grabber of the lot, for me, is “The Idol,” Hany Abu-Assad’s drama about the Palestinian pop singer Mohammed Assaf, a kid from a refugee camp in Gaza who went on to win the second season of “Arab Idol” in 2013, and thereafter was named a goodwill ambassador for peace by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees. As it happens, Toronto will also host the North American premiere of Jia’s “Mountains May Depart,” which, despite a few obvious third-act problems, struck me when I saw it in Cannes as one of his finest and most emotionally overwhelming achievements. It’s a welcome reminder that Toronto is a place of not just discovery but also rediscovery, and that of all the things one can say or appreciate about a movie, “which festival had it first” is surely the least significant.

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