Toronto International Film Festival: Fresh start for stars, directors

When the Toronto International Film Festival announced its high-profile premieres on Tuesday, the lineup was filled with the expected prestige — an adaptation of a Pulitzer Prize-winning work starring Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts (“August: Osage County”), a 19th century race drama from the British artist and director Steve McQueen (“12 Years a Slave”).

But the list also included a more surprising crop of films. Among the world and North American premieres set for the festival when it begins Sept. 5 are potential awards turns for mainstream commercial actors such as Matthew McConaughey (“The Dallas Buyers Club”) and Kristen Wiig (“Hateship Loveship”), along with upscale science-fiction movies starring Sandra Bullock (“Gravity”) and Scarlett Johansson (“Under the Skin”).

Ron Howard is coming with an auto racing movie starring the man who played Thor (“Rush”). The director of the Oscar-nominated foreign-language “Incendies,” Denis Villeneuve, will be there with a thriller starring Hugh Jackman (“Prisoners”).

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There’s even a feature from “Mad Men” creator Matthew Weiner--starring Owen Wilson and Zach Galifianakis (“You Are Here”).

Toronto serves as a critical early stop for movies on the fall awards circuit and commercial campaigns; last year, “Silver Linings Playbook” and “Argo” both established themselves as potential hits and Oscar front-runners there. 

But more than most cinema gatherings, Toronto offers the possibility of reinvention. Coming at the end of a movie summer filled with explosions but before autumnal awards-ennui kicks in, the festival offers a chance for audiences to get a fresh start — and plenty of famous film people to do the same.

“There’s a shorthand that movie stars have that has us enjoying watching them do similar things again and again,” TIFF artistic director Cameron Bailey said in an interview Tuesday. “But there’s also something very liberating about seeing them do something new, and it’s part of our mission to bring that to audiences.”


The festival is taking its mission particularly seriously this year. After a period of pushing in new directions with “Magic Mike” and “Mud,” McConaughey expands further with “The Dallas Buyers Club” as the real-life, fast-living Texan Ron Woodroof, who, after being infected with the AIDS virus in the 1980s, began smuggling drugs from Mexico to help himself and other patients. The film also stars Jared Leto, in just his second big-screen role in six years, as a cross-dressing AIDS patient, and Jennifer Garner as a doctor.

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“Ron Woodroof’s determination to live and to refuse to die inspired this film. Inspired me. And wait to see how it inspired Matthew, Jared, Jenny, the whole cast and crew!” enthused “Dallas Buyers Club” director Jean-Marc Vallee in an email message Tuesday.

A similar unexpected spirit permeates “Hateship Loveship,” a movie that stars Wiig but is directed by Liza Johnson, a filmmaker who previously made the intimate military-themed indie drama “Return.” The new movie has Wiig playing a shy caregiver who finds herself in the grip of a new desire, in an adaptation of a novella from the Man Booker International Prize winner Alice Munro. “Bridesmaids” this isn’t.

Meanwhile, after coming to Toronto with the hard-hitting “Incendies” in 2010, Villeneuve has made the long-gestating Hollywood script “Prisoners,” about a desperate father (Jackman) who seeks answers after his daughter is kidnapped.

“The first three days making this movie I almost had a heart attack when I realized that this could be my movie but also a Hollywood movie,” Villeneuve said in an interview, adding, “People will get a chance to see Hugh Jackman do things they don’t get to see him do.”

Genres are being cast in a new light too. Bullock stars opposite George Clooney in the outer-space tale “Gravity,” a movie that marks Alfonso Cuarón’s first new film in seven years — and offers a rare chance for a science-fiction movie to be positioned as an awards contender. “The people who responded most to the film when we screened it are the ones with the most sophisticated tastes,” Bailey said.

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Also in the sci-fi realm is “Under the Skin” as Jonathan Glazer, who more than a decade ago directed the heist antihero picture “Sexy Beast,” unveils his first movie in nine years. Oh, and Johansson? She plays an alien who must drug and kidnap earthling hitchhikers.

Of course, the actress will have competition on the new-horizon front from Adam Levine: The Maroon 5 frontman and “The Voice” mainstay takes a turn to the big screen as a star of “Can a Song Save Your Life?” the new drama from “Once” director John Carney.

Meanwhile, Oscar winner Howard has turned his attention to the unlikely subject of Formula One racing, making the fact-based “Rush,” about the 1970s rivalry between Niki Lauda (Daniel Bruhl) and James Hunt (“Thor’s” Chris Hemsworth).

And “Mad Men’s” Weiner, who made one little-seen feature 17 years ago and is thought of as a leader of the golden-era of TV moment, hits the festival with “You Are Here,” a story about two slackers that itself has both of its leads trying to come back from box-office flops this summer.

Even the medium of movies is getting a new spin thanks to Ned Benson’s “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby.” A Black List screenwriter making his feature debut, Benson has crafted an unusual romantic drama. More specifically, he’s created two romantic dramas: a full-length movie subtitled “Him” and another subtitled “Her” that will be shown in sequence.

The two films, which each star James McAvoy and Jessica Chastain as a young couple in and out of love, focus on the relationship from their respective points-of-view. There are both divergent scenes and overlapping scenes in the two pictures, but even in the overlapping scenes meaning is shaded toward the perspective of the person to whom the subtitle belongs. Toronto will screen the two films on one bill with a 15-minute intermission,

“I guess reinvention feels like a big word,” Benson said, when asked how he sized up his formal innovation. “But I was trying to do something different, to start a discussion about the subjective experience of both relationships and watching movies.”

TIFF this year will also give an unusually large number of actors a platform to do something very different: direct. The slate it announced Tuesday is filled with movies by actors who have gotten behind the camera, including Jason Bateman for his spelling-bee comedy “Bad Words,” Ralph Fiennes for his Charles Dickens romance “The Invisible Woman” and Keanu Reeves, whose Mandarin-English martial-arts film “Man of Tai Chi” was financed by the Chinese government.


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Epitomizing that trend: Mike Myers. The “Saturday Night Live” veteran behind some of the biggest comedy franchises of the last several decades hasn’t had a major film in five years. He will come to this year’s a director...of a documentary.

Called “Supermensch,” it tells the story of the talent manager Shep Gordon and is financed and produced by A+E Studios, a company best-known for hard-hitting documentaries like “The Tillman Story.”

“We are excited by the passion Mike Myers has brought to this project,” A+E Studios president Bob DeBitetto said in a statement, putting a point on the unlikely arrangement. And then in a phrase meant to capture its subject--but that perhaps also shed light on its shapeshifting filmmaker and others who are Toronto-bound--the release added: “Capitalist, protector, hedonist, pioneer, showman, shaman … Supermensch.”