Toronto festival fails to live up to hype

Stars come out to support political films

TORONTO — Expectations are always tough to manage in the movie biz, but nowhere more so than at the Toronto Film Fest, which wrapped its 32nd edition Sept. 15.

It started at the border. Americans traveling north usually expect bargains, but this year the exchange rate was merely 1:1.

Acquisitions execs and critics expected more films to get excited about, but both got it wrong given that some of the best pics had already bowed in Cannes and, unlike Cannes or Berlin, Toronto is not technically a market — so judging it by market standards seems a bit unreasonable.

With a bulging sked of nearly 300 features, finding a clear thematic narrative to the sprawling fest is not easy. But politics and war appeared high on the agenda with the bows of “Rendition,” “Redacted,” “In the Valley of Elah” and “Battle for Haditha,” in addition to several docs on Iraq and terrorism. And familiar themes were dressed up in new clothes, as in fest entries like “Heavy Metal in Baghdad” and “Body of War.”

This wasn’t Telluride, however, meaning genteel debates about troop withdrawal wasn’t what “Rendition” star Reese Witherspoon came for; she was too busy trying to dodge paparazzi by switching SUVs.

And for all the preceding talk of a more serious-minded Hollywood, much of the attention in the fest’s celeb-heavy opening weekend was garnered by the red carpet appearances of George Clooney for “Michael Clayton,” Brad Pitt, with Angelina Jolie in tow, for “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,” and Viggo Mortensen for “Eastern Promises,” not to mention the likes of Witherspoon, Matt Damon and Cate Blanchett.

Day by day, or even hour by hour, the expectations for pics were being measured and reassessed. The shift could be seen in the arrival of pics that preemed at Venice. At a “Michael Clayton” press confab, for example, both Clooney and debut helmer Tony Gilroy asserted the pic, about a lawyer dealing with nefarious corporate dealings, was not an ideological tract but a character study with universal themes. The message was markedly different, and more playful, than the Venice confab, where conversation had centered on evils of big business.

While hundreds of pics screened here, it’s significant that the biggest deal of the week — Miramax’s acquisition of Fernando Meirelles‘ “Blindness” for $5 million — was for a film not even at the fest.

The majority of deals were in the $1 million-2 million range, with the Weinstein Co.’s acquisition of George A. Romero‘s “Diary of the Dead,” ThinkFilm locking up Helen Hunt‘s “Then She Found Me” and Warner Independent nabbing Alan Ball‘s “Nothing Is Private” probably the splashiest of the fest. Overture Films showed it is for real by ponying up $1 million plus rich backend and P&A guarantees for Thomas McCarthy‘s “The Visitors.” “In Bloom,” the Vadim Perelman drama starring Uma Thurman, went to Magnolia.

At times festgoing felt akin to a political convention, and not just because Jimmy Carter hit town (for doc “Man From Plains”). Some buyers questioned how many Iraq films the market could handle, while war-weary journos trudged from one harrowing screening to another.

That was one reason the most popular screenings included “Juno,” “Into the Wild,” the war-marked but romantic “Atonement” and 20 minutes of footage from “Religulous,” Bill Maher‘s satirical doc.

For the helmers, however, the war in Iraq and on terrorism remains the most pressing issue of the day, even if combat fatigue among auds remains a distinct possibility.

“Around the world people who liked the United States now hate the United States,” says “Battle for Haditha” helmer Nick Broomfield. “My film embraces the Iraqis in a loving, human way, a way that’s understandable for an American audience. That’s the way forward. It’s not in the news, it’s not in the papers, it’s not in the debates. Everything is totally from the American point of view. The trouble is that doesn’t work. If you don’t have the hearts and minds of the people you’re occupying you ain’t going to win.”

Ditto Toronto, the ultimate people’s fest.

With ticket sales robust and autograph-seeking a steady but polite trade along main drags King and Bloor, it’s clear that Toronto still has a winning formula — as long as you keep expectations in check.

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