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July 12, 2007
Festival Fever Sets In

It starts in mid-August, when the festival pre-screenings begin, that hunger for cinema, as much as possible taking hold like heroin must grab a drug addict. My kids are getting ready to go back to school, and dear old Dad is getting ready for the Toronto International Film Festival, quite frankly the finest such event I have attended. For ten days I do nothing else but see films from around the globe and interview actors and directors who have come here with their films hoping for success. They have every right to hope, as Toronto has been the launching pad of many an Oscar winner, or a critic’s darling over its long history now spanning three decades.

We already know that “Elizabeth: The Golden Age” is coming to town, as is the Coen brothers’ latest “No Country for Old Men.” Recently added were Cannes standout “The Diving Bell and Butterfly” and Alan Ball’s as yet sans distribution “Nothing Is Private.” “Michael Clayton,” “The Brave One” and “Reservation Road” round out a list of awards-hopeful product set to unveil at the fest, and that’s just the tipping point. Announcements will soon start coming once a week, a couple of huge ones first, then through the summer some enticing ones, ending with a blow out press conference where the whole list of films is announced to a movie-hungry press.

What started as The Festival of Festivals, a small upstart festival that not even two of the three daily newspapers would support is now among the top two film festivals in the world, and certainly the single most important of the fall festivals. The studios use Toronto as their launch towards the Academy Awards while the smaller companies come in hopes of their film being discovered. Still, others bring their pictures in hopes of a sale. Robert Duvall’s “The Apostle” remains one of the great festival legends as the iconic actor brought his film here to show to an audience for the first time in 1997 and sold it to October Films, eventually winning several critics awards including the Los Angeles Film Critics best actor prize and notching an Oscar nomination (which he should have won).


In recent years films such as “American Beauty” (1999), “Brokeback Mountain” (2005), “Crash” (2004) and “Walk the Line” (2005) have premiered in Toronto, earning great success, while other such as “All the King’s Men” (2006) have crashed and burned. The festival organizers and programmers do an incredible job of combing the globe for the films they will bring to the festival, and though there have been blunders – last year’s Gala Opener “The Journals of Knud Rasmussen” being one – there are also major finds such as Sarah Polley’s breathtaking “Away from Her,” which was not only the best film I saw at last year’s festival, but the finest film I screened all year.

Sadly not all the films at the festival are winners. How could they be? I remember sitting in Roy Thomson Hall at the Gala screening of “All the King’s Men” last year, watching intently while that incredible cast was brought out at the beginning before the film for a round of applause. It is customary for the cast to remain and take a bow at the end of the film, but not for this one. They got out, obviously knowing what we now know, that their film was not up to snuff. And after admiring “The Apostle” so, I was anxious to see Robert Duvall’s “Assassination Tango” in 2002, only to be bitterly disappointed by the rambling, messy narrative and Duvall’s indulgent performance.

However, these let downs are worth putting up with if it means finding something like “The Red Violin” in 1998, “Little Children” and “When the Levees Broke” in 2006, “Far From Heaven” and “Auto Focus” in 2002 or “The Barbarian Invasions” in 2003. The chatter of film critics from around the world before the film begins is thrilling to hear because you may hear of a film they like that had not been on your list (but soon is), or you have something to offer them you may have seen at a pre-festival screening. It is truly an exciting environment.


One may think that covering a film festival as a critic is an easy job. It is anything but. True, I get to see a lot of product over the ten day event, but they are crammed into days of screening four, sometimes five films a day, depending on which actors and directors I am interviewing. Believe it or not, this is demanding, difficult work. Physically demanding.

I move into the Delta Chelsea Hotel for the duration of the festival because it makes sense to stay away from the ninety minute drive home and back each and every day. My family comes to visit on the weekend, though I do not see much of them. After setting up my laptop and organizing the room the way I like it, I will head over to the Press Office for my press pass and check my mailbox. This is a stop I make every day. Then I come back to the hotel and thumb through the now well-worn Program Book, a thick monstrosity that lands on the bed with a thud, and compare notes with the screening schedule, my Bibles for the next ten days. Before drifting into a fitful sleep, I will call my girls to say goodnight, and choose my clothes for the next day.

The alarm sounds at 6 and it begins. I shower, shave and dress and make my way downstairs to the Hotel dining room where a huge buffet awaits. Eating buffet cuts down on waiting time. I thumb through the movie pages of the three daily papers in Toronto as well as the New York Times and make some notes about the films I will see today. At 7:45 I jump into a cab and head to the Manulife Center on Bay and Bloor, the home of the Varsity Cinemas, where most of the press screenings are held. Showing my pass I walk in and sit for the first of the festival. From here I will go to another, and another and another, grabbing coffee and bagels in between, fuelling my body on caffeine and water (a lot of water). By seven that night I will have seen four, perhaps five films, made a visit to the Press Office for press kits and mail, and schedule some interviews for the weekend and beginning of next week. Exhausted I will head back to my Hotel and collapse on the bed for a brief nap before writing my reviews, which take an hour or so. I am blessed with the sort of mind that does not have to make rough notes; whatever spills out of my head hits the page.

If I am attending a Gala I will leave at 8:30 for that, if not, I may go back to the screening rooms for another film, or rest for tomorrow. A call will be placed to my girls regardless, and then, sleep.

The next day, at 6, it begins again…the fever has taken hold.


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