TIFF 2013 Diary, Day Three ... from space cadets to cannibals

Our daily dose of the TIFF scene, from Sandra Bullock's space cadet to Eli Roth's hungry fans

(Courtesy TIFF)

For journalists, the Toronto International Film Festival is a heady 11-day stew of screenings, interviews and alcohol-soaked after-parties. Throughout this week and the next, I’ll be delivering daily updates on every aspect of this year’s monstrous festival (free booze not included—sorry).

The films: Whereas the past two days delivered hits and misses in almost equal measure (and in the case of James Franco’s Child of God, direct shots to the stomach), Saturday’s screenings were uniformly stellar. Things started off slow and sweet with Hateship Loveship, director Liza Johnson’s adaptation of one of the short stories found in Alice Munro’s Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage. While star Kristen Wiig has a rocky relationship with TIFF—her post-Bridesmaids comedy from last year, Imogene, was released to little fanfare under the new name Girl Most Likely after a quiet festival premiere—the former SNL star is in fine form here, proving she’s as adept at drama as she is at comedy. Although the film’s narrative feels disjointed—not surprising, given the thin nature of the source material—Wiig and the rest of the cast (Guy Pearce, Hailee Steinfeld and a teddy bear version of Nick Nolte) lend the drama a genuine warmth. It’s not an awards-contender, but anyone who stumbles upon it should consider themselves lucky.

An hour later, Canadian director Jean-Marc Vallée’s Dallas Buyers Club drew a packed house of journalists and distributor types—and kept them there for its entire two-hour running time, no small feat at a press and industry screening, where audience members traditionally duck in and out to catch competing screenings or interviews. While the medical drama has Oscar bait scrawled all over it—the film features not one but two actors who lost significant amounts of weight for the roles, plus the cachet of being based on a true story—Vallée is careful to never exploit the story’s inherent sentimentality, and delivers a film that’s both honest and inspirational, a warts-and-all portrait of a sleazy opportunist-turned-humanitarian.

Matthew McConaughey stars as Ron Woodroof, a Texas electrician, drunk and womanizer who contracts HIV/AIDS from unprotected sex circa 1986. Initially told he has a month to live, Woodroof starts a complex—and shockingly successful—smuggling operation to bring unapproved drugs across the Mexican the border, becoming an accidental gay-rights and sexual health advocate along the way.

McConaughey dropped nearly 40 pounds to play the emaciated Woodroof, but even his extreme Method acting is overshadowed by Jared Leto (yes, Jared Leto, of 30 Seconds to Mars “fame”), who is near-skeletal as Woodroof’s drag queen business partner/fellow AIDS sufferer. Vallée, who returns to the gay themes he first explored in C.R.A.Z.Y., wrings career-best performances from both his leads, though Jennifer Garner’s character, a do-good doctor who reluctantly warms to Woodroof’s methods, is lost in the shuffle.

Later in the night—12:25 a.m., to be precise—one of TIFF’s biggest success stories, Eli Roth, made his blood-soaked return to the Midnight Madness program, 11 years after launching his career with the frugal and filthy Cabin Fever. The Roth faithful were out in droves at the Ryerson theatre, and greeted the man behind Hostel as a near-god. The filmmaker and official FOT (Friend of Tarantino) was only too happy to soak it all in—and rightly so, as his new film, The Green Inferno, finds Roth doing what Roth does best: full-on, stomach-churning gore.

The film doesn’t stray too far from typical horror-movie territory, in which a bunch of idiotic young people are systematically slaughtered, punished for their own self-delusion, with one “final girl” remaining to exact revenge. Yet there are some tricky racial politics in this one, as it focuses not on a group of comely coeds, but rather New York college students who, believing they are fighting the good fight, travel down to the Amazon to force the hand of a development company. Naturally, they find themselves stranded in the jungle, and at the mercy of some very hungry cannibals. The audience ate it up.

Yet no screening could compare to Saturday’s 3D premiere of Gravity, Alfonso Cuarón’s impossibly beautiful and at-times unbearably tense outer-space thriller. Starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney as a pair of in-peril astronauts, Cuaron (Children of Men, Y Tu Mamá También) uses and stretches all the technological resources available to a modern filmmaker to craft a film of immense power, one that rivals Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, and proves that Cuarón is cinema’s best working director. To say anything more about the plot would spoil all the superb twists, but a few words of advice before watching the film once it’s released next month: see it on biggest screen you can find, and make sure to view it on an empty stomach.

The talent: It was another interview-light day with plenty of filmmakers and actors scheduling back-to-back junkets for Sunday and Monday, and leaving the first half of the weekend alone. Yet that didn’t stop Diamond Rings (a.k.a. John O’Regan) from spilling a few details about his exclusive set Sunday night at the Festival Music House, a TIFF-spurred effort to expose Canadian musical acts to Hollywood producers.

“The hope is to get on their radar, yes, but for me, it’s also just to expose someone who isn’t from the city to who Diamond Rings is, who we all are” says O’Regan, who will be sharing the bill with local acts Mother Mother, The Darcys and Nightbox. “I still haven’t landed that kind of massive dream deal that everyone hopes for—you know, the iPod commercial kind of thing—but for me, it’s not much about that. The way that a song is used in a film, or a commercial, outside its existence on an album is important. I trust that the right people will find my stuff, when they’re ready.”

Both TIFF and Arts & Crafts Records are behind the unique event—which, sadly, is closed to the public—and it took a certain measure of balance to ensure out-of-town producers were exposed to the right varierty of acts. “We held an open call for artist submissions, and from there the lineup was carefully curated, ensuring diversity from aritsts with the most potential of impact,” says A&C co-founder Jeffrey Remedios. Adds Cameron Bailey, TIFF’s artistic director and the man who essentially runs the city during these next few frantic days: “Any time filmmakers from around the world get closer access to some of the talent that’s made Canada hip, it’s a win for everybody.”

O’Regan, though, doesn’t necessarily worry whether his music—a jangly blend of electro and synth-rock, with a large measure of sweet sentimentality—will open the next James Bond movie. “When I’m writing a song, I’m just worrying about that, I’m not imagining that it’ll be in the credits,” he says, before quickly adding, “but I’m totally jealous of Adele.”

The parties: I admit, it only took two nights of back-to-back last calls for me to cry uncle on Saturday. Instead of the previous day’s party marathon, I only (only!) made it to two (two!) affairs, both wildly different in size and scope.

First up was the post-screening party for You Are Here, the directorial debut of Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner. Although star Zach Galifinakis didn’t make it to Toronto (his wife going into labour is apparently a more pressing concern—kidding!), Weiner provided enough wattage for the intimate Soho House/Grey Goose bash, which he pulled off with Don Drapper-like flair (but, you know, without the womanizing or overwhelming sadness).

Weiner was even kind enough to say he has “eight million back issues” of Maclean’s, which, hey, why not? Maybe Jessica Paré, Mad Men‘s resident Canadian, lent them to the cable TV mastermind. Regardless of what can be found in Weiner’s magazine stack, the party’s stacked food and drink lineup—lamb, paella and pasta instead of the ubiquitous sliders—satiated the masses, who then made circles around Weiner and the film’s co-star Amy Poehler, likely desperate to share their latest Bob Benson theories.

Just a few blocks away at the luxe Ritz-Carlton, Hello! Canada said, er, salutations to a wealth of CanCon talent, both from this year’s slate of homegrown films (Empire of Dirt, Devil’s Knot) and an entire digital package worth of TV series (the casts of Seed and The Carrie Diaries, plus Rupinder Nagra from the upcoming reality show Bollywood Star).

Occupying the huge second-floor ballroom, the party filled up quickly, with guests dining on mini pork buns (yes, I know, everything is frustratingly miniature at these things) and some delicious dumplings that I consumed too quickly to care about its contents. Patricia Arquette, Atom Egoyan and seemingly half the cast of Degrassi mingled and lingered, though, sadly, no one claimed they had millions of Hello! Canada back issues like the clearly on-the-ball Weiner.