Toronto Film Festival: Days 1-4

Total Film reports from the opening days of the festival…

“Have you seen Borat?”, “Do you think Penelope Cruz is going to win the Oscar for Volver?” and “Can their respective PR armies make sure Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston don’t bump into each other at the festival?” were the three questions that kept cropping up in the first few days of the 31st Toronto Film Festival. And the answers? Yes, but only the first 11 minutes; if Volver director Pedro Almodovar’s confidence is well-judged, put your bets on Cruz now; and yes, of course – that’s what expensive PR armies are for.

On the opening day of the festival, Total Film wandered along to the screening of ace Korean creature feature The Host – a B-movie with brains, jump-out-of-your-seat scares and a toxic-chemical-generated monster that looks like the slimy offspring of Alien’s big mama and a giant tadpole. It’s a hoot and hitting UK screens very soon (10 November 2006). But as much fun as it was, everybody was talking about not the opening night film, The Journals Of Knud Rasmussen, but the midnight screening of Borat: Cultural Learnings Of America For Make Benefit Glorious Nation Of Kazakhstan – with the promise that Sacha Baron Cohen, aka Borat, had hatched a publicity stunt to trump his lime-green-thong stunner at Cannes. He duly arrived by horse and cart – with Kazazkstani peasant women doing the pulling and the horse resting behind him in the cart. Not the same level of genius as the thong, admittedly, and the evening took a further tumble when, after a delayed start, the projector broke down 11 minutes into the movie. Fortunately, documentary giant Michael Moore was in the audience and rode to Borat’s rescue, hopping up on stage for an impromptu Q&A session. “Thank you fat man,” was Borat’s ungrateful reply, adding disgustedly, “Next time make an effort with dress – not show up in shorts…” The guffaws ended there, as the audience was forced to slink into the chilly night and the screening was rescheduled for the next night.

When it comes to A-list stars, the Toronto fest is in the major leagues, and this year isn’t disappointing with the likes of Pitt, Aniston (here to support boyfriend Vince Vaughn’s travelling road-show doc, Vince Vaughn’s Wild West Comedy Show), Russell Crowe, Sean Penn, Kate Winslet, Heath Ledger, Reese Witherspoon, Christina Ricci, Will Ferrell, Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson all rolling into town to plug their latest releases. (Bill Clinton even showed up to hold his 60th birthday bash.) The festival’s also got a rep as the launching pad for Oscar season, and Babel, Ridley Scott’s A Good Year, All The King’s Men, Stranger Than Fiction and Volver all held red-carpet events to curry some buzz and, hopefully, leave Toronto with a brisk, awards-season tailwind behind them.

Strangely, out of the aforementioned high-profile quartet, it was Almodovar’s La Mancha drama rather than the Hollywood hopefuls that seems to be the hot tip, with the Spanish director – tirelessly working the city with his glamourous star – claiming that every day he prays for Cruz to win the Oscar. When Total Film bumped into him, he professed to be feeling so confident Academy voters would swoon for Volver, he planned to go on a diet. With Cruz knocking the likes of Crowe, Pitt and Witherspoon off the front pages of the Toronto papers, looks like Almodovar would be wise to kickstart that slimming campaign now.

Ridley Scott’s Provence-set comedy had a subdued reception, while Crowe jokingly denied that the film was his first stab at comedy since The Sum Of Us. “There were a lot of laughs in Gladiator, mate,” he quipped. “It wasn’t sold that way but that’s why people went back to see it because you chop somebody’s head off the right way, it’s fucking funny.” Stranger Than Fiction was labelled a bit lightweight to snag the big Oscars but was filed as a major contender for acting and screenplay honours (and Dustin Hoffman’s antics at the press conference were the funniest thing so far at the festival). Babel got a few plaudits too but might be a shade dour for Academy voters and All The King’s Men… well, more on that later this week.

Total Film also laughed its head off at a beardless Billy Connolly playing a little boy’s pet zombie in Andrew Currie’s suburban satire Fido – and caught up with the Big Yin for a natter on the Intercontinental terrace. “Thank god there’s no zombie rulebook,” chuckled the Scots funnyman, who jumped at the role because he didn’t have to memorise any dialogue. “I just did what the hell I wanted.”

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