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Reporter’s Notebook: The 34th Toronto International Film Festival

Originally Posted: October 22, 2009

John Wegorzewski

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Mark Butan, John Hillcoat, Paula Mae and Steve Schwartz at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). Photos by John Wegorzewski

Toronto - We survived and enjoyed the Hamptons International Film Festival (HIFF) just a mere week ago here on the East End. Still thinking about great film, we felt it would be exciting to take a look back on the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) as well from one of our 'native' sons who attended.

Diane Von Furstenberg and Barry Diller enjoy the TIFF.

What luck this year! The TIFF coincided with a trip to my hometown for my mother's 90th birthday. In between familial obligations, I was able to get to a few of the most important events including The Creative Coalition and "Making of" Awards jointly sponsored awards dinner and the Vanity Fair fete. More importantly, I was able to observe the electricity in the air that is absolutely palpable when Hollywood comes to Toronto.

Despite the enormous amount of films and TV shows shot here, Toronto has always been the low key sister to Tinseltown and the Big Apple, but once a year Torontonians (yes, that is how we refer to ourselves!) get a real dose of old-fashioned Hollywood glamour courtesy of the TIFF organizers and the familiar byways like King Street and Cumberland that take on the look of Hollywood Boulevard and Rodeo Drive. Indeed, the very first person I ran into was celebrity gossip scribe Roger Friedman late of Fox and now with the el primo The Hollywood Reporter, who usually works the LA and New York red carpets so smoothly. Roger gave me the quick skinny on what was hot and what was not!

Harvey Weinstein negotiating at TIFF Creative Coalition Awards.

This year was bigger than ever as scores of Hollywood's brightest and biggest stars added to the mega kilo-wattage of the scene! It was celebrity gridlock all around Toronto but especially so in Yorkville where much of the screening and party activity took place. With 312 films to be shown in 12 days, it was no surprise that the celeb attendance was so high - even if some of the A-listers popped in only for a day's round of interviews and a quick red carpet walk.

From the young Turks to the seasoned pros, there was no shortage of paparazzi bait with the red carpets – indeed the streets – overflowing with gleaming smiles and designer duds sported by the likes of Drew Barrymore Demi Moore, Jeff Bridges, Jennifer Connelly, Jennifer Garner, Colin Firth, Colin Farrell, Matt Damon, Keanu Reeves, Bill Murray, Patricia Clarkson, Penelope Cruz, Edward Norton, Christopher Plummer, Clive Owen, Chris Rock, Robin Wright Penn, Viggo Mortensen, Nicholas Cage, a slew of Michaels – Michael Caine, Michael Moore, Michael Douglas and Michael J. Fox and so many more too fabulous to mention.

Honoree Lee Daniels and Cassin Eles, Creative Coalition LA.

Star spotting was at an all time high with the most ubiquitous Hollywood denizen strolling my hometown streets being George Clooney. But then George had not one but two major films showing in Toronto including the much lauded "Up in the Air" directed by Canadian born Jason Reitman of "Thank You For Smoking" and "Juno" fame. Reitman passed on the fancy cinemas with their full service bars and gourmet snacks to have the world premiere of "Up in the Air" at the funky Ryerson Theatre where his first film "Thank You For Smoking" was screened by the TIFF and also was the site of the premiere of his Oscar-blessed "Juno" in 2007.

Clearly, the Ryerson and indeed Canada still have a special place in the heart of the now Hollywood-based director and producer. "TIFF has made me feel like a Canadian reborn, and I think of the Ryerson Theatre as the birthplace of my movies," he stated on the red carpet. His feeling is easily understood when one considers the TIFF was founded to be the people's film festival and not a commercial bazaar like its gaudy sister Cannes.

The Spice Room at Hazelton Lanes for the TIFF Creative Coalition Awards.

Sure the parties have been cut back a bit and the swag suites are not quite as abundant as in previous years but that's the story everywhere. Certain events went on as planned including The Hollywood Reporter's annual lunch hosted by the famed columnist George Christie – a much coveted ducat – and a free performance by Joan Baez in the middle of the street added to the carnival like atmosphere.

Honoree Rebecca Miller at TIFF Creative Coalition Awards.

But the big bashes – The Creative Coalition Awards and the always hot Vanity Fair party showed no signs of recession awareness and were chock-a-block with the foremost figures in filmmaking.

This year the Creative Coalition joined forces with the new website, Making of (www.makingof.com) co-founded by Natalie Portman to host a dinner to champion the art and craft of filmmaking. Hosted by Harvey Weinstein, Bob Weinstein, Dan Glickman, Chairman & CEO of MPAA, ICM's film head Hal Sadoff, Robert Baruc, President, Screen Media Films and Natalie Portman. At the dinner at the posh Spice Room, scores of film industry insiders gathered to honor director Lee Daniels ("Precious"), Rebecca Miller ("The Private Lives of Pippa Lee") and Alejandro Amenabar, (director of "Agora") filmmakers who utilize the silver screen platform to bring attention to themes and messages that affect us all.

Thanks to The Creative Coalition's Barb Horvath, I was seated with an extraordinary group of creative types who were being honored that evening, including producers of two of the festival faves. Jill Footlick, executive producer of Miller's prize winning "The Private Lives of Pippa Lee" which stars Robin Wright Penn, Mike Binder, Alan Arkin, Wynona Ryder and Maria Bello, and who is no stranger to the film festival world - having cut her teeth working in the early days of the HIFF. Just goes to show what a small world it really is! Jill was with Ted Mundorff, CEO of Landmark Theaters so there was much talk about the movie going public. By the way, one of Jill's fellow producers is none other then Brad Pitt, so you can be sure attention will be paid to this lovely gem of a film.

Ian Astbury at TIFF Creative Coalition Awards.

Also at the table were the producers behind the film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's best seller, "The Road" the post-apocalyptic tale of a man and his son trying to survive by any means possible, including director and honoree John Hillcoat, Steve Schwartz, Paula Mae Schwartz, Mark Butan and Nick Wechsler. The quartet spent much of the night justly accepting kudos for the film which stars Charlize Theron, Viggo Mortensen, Guy Pearce, Robert Duvall and in a breakout performance young Kodi Smit-McPhee.
One of the great highlight's of the evening was to watch my dinner companion director and producer Lee Daniels accept his award for the harrowing tale of an illiterate 16-year-old girl, pregnant for the second time by her father and receiving no support from her abusive mother (brilliantly played by comedienne Mo'Nique), "Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire," Lee told me he was positively "thrilled to have Tyler Perry and Oprah Winfrey in my corner". The pair are executive producers of the film and of course were among the red carpet walkers for its TIFF debut as were its stars including Mariah Carey, Lenny Kravitz, Grace Hightower and Sherri Shepherd of "The View" fame. Lee told me he almost didn't make it to the dinner on time as the crush of reporters on the red carpet was intense. No surprise as the film had a tremendous reception at the Sundance Festival winning the Audience Favorite award. By the end of the week, Lee had snagged the Toronto fest's highest honor "The People's Choice Award."

By any means possible, crowds flocked to the Vanity Fair party.

Already the Gold Derby prognosticators have this movie in their sights and with the guaranteed PR rollout thanks to Perry's growing rep as a moneymaker with his "Madea" series and Winfrey's amazing skill at putting people and projects she favors into the international spotlight, you can bet this will be everywhere in coming months including the Globes and the Oscars.

TIFF Creative Coalition Awards welcomed filmmakers and honorees.

Catching a glance of producer Harvey Weinstein, I excused myself to have a word with the man behind so many moneymakers for his old company Miramax (with brother Bob) and now at Warner Brothers where they are raking in the dough with their latest successful venture "Inglorious Basterds." Unfortunately, when I caught up with him in the lobby, he was just beginning negotiations for the much anticipated "The Single Man" the directorial debut of Tom Ford the man who brought Gucci and other luxe brands back to the top of the heap before ditching it all to try something new. Harvey politely explained that he couldn't speak or pose for a quick photo as he was intent on getting this film. He suggested to wait a bit - good thing I didn't as the deal wasn't sealed until 10:30 the next morning. I imagine them sitting up all night in the lobby with waiters rolling out pots of coffee every half hour but that's the way it's done here at TIFF.

Ted Mundorff and Jill Footlick enjoy the TIFF>

I was a bit dismayed but my spirits were lifted upon meeting the incredibly charismatic Ian Astbury lead singer of the legendary rock band The Cult. Ian you may remember stepped into Jim Morrison's shoes doing vocals for the new incarnation of The Doors, touring as the 21st century Doors several years ago.
Buoyed, I headed around the corner (everything at the TIFF seems to be "just around the corner") to pop into the Vanity Fair party. You know the festival has a certain gravitas when Graydon Carter and the Vanity Fair crew are pouring the Moet-Chandon for the film and fashion world elite. What better place to measure the pulse and try to get an advance on Oscar potential films and performers. In recent years, the TIFF have been a presage of the Academy Awards - films that find favor in Toronto seem to be a shoo-in with the folks at the Academy Awards.

Media was lined up behind barricades across the street from the Hazelton Hotel, the site of the festivities and as I later learned, who had not been invited to the party. Lucky me! Once past the velvet ropes (which unlike New York or LA were graciously lifted for me upon the presentation of my card), the first people I encountered was that golden couple, the Queen of the Tents and the King of Interactive Media - none other then Diane Von Furstenberg and Barry Diller. With a quick air kiss on both sides, Diane explained they were dashing off to another fete but had to share with me her excitement about her daughter Tatiana's new film "Tanner Hall," which had its American premiere at the HIFF.

Robin Bronk at TIFF Creative Coalition Awards.

Once inside, I began my informal polling of both the visiting film crowd and the natives lucky enough to have scored an invite to the exclusive bash. As always at events such as these, everyone is a handicapper and the chat focused on who and what was likely to make it to the Oscars, or at least turn back a tidy profit for the studios. And then there were the projects that were just "interesting" such as Isabella Rossellini's brilliant venture into the digital world with the Robert Redford funded "Green Porn."

The money is on Reitman's "Up in the Air" which came in with the biggest buzz but also the greatest expectations. Not to worry, both audiences and critics see the George Clooney starrer a surefire best picture contender. Drew Barrymore's directorial debut "Whip It" which takes on the world of women's roller derby was also a great crowd pleaser with only some grumbling that the players were too pretty and not "butch" enough. "Precious" as already mentioned scooped top honors at both Sundance and TIFF, and has a guaranteed place on serious voters' lists. The emotional wallop it packs will make it perfect fodder for the morning/afternoon talk show circuit as the issues of poverty, race and parenting are too juicy for show hosts to pass up.

Our 'native' son John Wegorzewski with his mother, Mary Wegorzewski and twin sister Maria Grotek. Happy Birthday Mama!

Of course, there was much buzz, both pro and con, for Michael Moore's latest Don Quixote-ish foray, "Capitalism: A Love Story" in which he has the financial system in his crosshairs amid scenes that range from gut-busting funny to tear-your-heart-up melodrama. Moore fans will love it as will all of Bernie Madoff's victims if they can stomach it. "A Serious Man" is in many folks view still a question mark.

Arriving in Toronto the latest from brothers Ethan and Joel Coen seemed a little slight and overly joke laden. Nonetheless, audiences were in love with the film and many critics see it as another gem from brothers who seem to regularly churn out real crowd pleasers that are also quality movies. From "Raising Arizona" to "Fargo" to "The Big Lebowski" to "O Brother Where Art Thou" right up to winning an Academy Award for "No Country For Old Men," they always seem to produce a winner. "A Serious Man" may be just another sleeper for best picture from the talented duo.

The Vanity Fair party drew huge stars and star gazers.

All in all, it was an extraordinary opportunity to see my hometown as a visitor for the first time. Needing a reality check to see if local folks didn't look just a little more fashionable and hipper this time of year, I consulted with journalist Corey Goldman, a noted financial writer and keen observer of the cultural scene. Corey also has - at least for me - some serious New York cred as he spent some 10 years in New York with CNN, Bloomberg and head writer for Peter Jennings just before his death. Corey confirmed my feelings saying, It's the time of year where normally staid Toronto, saved from the mid-West by a lake and time zone, goes just a wee bit Hollywood, with everyone stepping it up just a notch or two, lest the paparazzi mistake them for someone famous."

Although he decried the appearance of "Pimped-out mostly-rented Ferraris and Aston Martins parked side by side in trendy Yorkville, with the usual euro-trash Hollywood wannabes hoping to be mistakenly photographed for someone important, or better to be invited in to one of the myriad of pre- and post-screening parties" he did hold that the festival was indeed a bright spot on the cultural landscape, no matter that it had moved from its 'people's festival' roots summing it up this way." Despite losing its rep as one of the last true film fests for the people, the 34th TIFF still managed to attract thousands of tried-and-true die-hard local movie fans, truly in it to see a work of art - and a passing star ordering a no-foam latte at Starbucks - than anything else".


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Guest (Errol Rappaport) from New York says::
That was a most informative and well written article. Errol Rappaport
Oct 23, 2009 3:42 pm


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