41st Toronto International Film Festival Coverage: Day Two

September 9th, 2016 by Ian Evans

Day Two of TIFF and things really begin to get underway with multiple premieres at multiple venues and filmgoers and journalists darting from screening to screening.

Roy Thomson Hall played host to galas for Amma Asante’s A United Kingdom and Oliver Stone’s Snowden. A United Kingdom is a biopic about Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo), a former royal who led Botswana to independence and became its first president. He also courted controversy with his interracial marriage to Englishwoman Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike). The audience gave the film a warm reception and the crowds of fans outside did the same for Oyelowo and Tom Felton of Harry Potter fame.

Oliver Stone’s Snowden stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Edward Snowden, the former NSA employee who revealed how much the NSA tracks Americans and is a traitor to some and whistleblower to others. Gordon-Levitt said his own research into Snowden immediately showed him the conundrum of making one’s own mind up about him as even a simple Google search immediately brought up so many conflicting viewpoints on him. On the acting side, he was glad that Stone cast Shailene Woodley opposite him as he feels that she brings a real sincerity to her work. Woodley returned the compliment, telling press on the carpet that she felt that in a film such as this, with so much focus on it, it could be easy for an actor to use that focus to highlight themselves and craft in a “look at me” fashion. She said that Gordon-Levitt’s integrity meant that he wanted the focus to remain on Snowden’s character and motivations. It was this talent and integrity — not to mention a resemblance to Snowden — that made Joseph Oliver Stone’s first and only choice to play the role in a film he sees as pulling back the curtain on a secret government structure that has gone too far in the name of security.

Over at the Princess of Wales Theatre, Ewan McGregor brought his directorial debut, American Pastoral, to the festival. Starring McGregor, Jennifer Connelly and Dakota Fanning, this adaptation of Philip Roth’s Pulitzer Prize—winning novel about a family whose daughter becomes radicalized in opposition to the Vietnam War.

Screenwriter John Romano told the press that the hardest part of adapting Roth’s book was deciding which of its wonderful parts he would have to leave out. He found the task easier when he saw that — at its heart — it is a father-daughter story. It obviously looks at terrorism and political culture, but the relationship at its centre is what drives the story forward.

From father-daughter to father-son, the POW also played host to the premiere of Trespass Against Us, which stars Michael Fassbender as the heir to a British criminal clan who wants to break away from that life against the wishes of his father, played by Brendan Gleeson. Fassbender was accompanied on the red carpet by the film’s director, Adam Smith, as well as co-stars Lyndsey Marshal and Bryce Dallas Howard.

The theme of the night over at the Elgin Theatre (which is dubbed the VISA Screening Room for the duration of the fest) might well have been controversy. Paul Verhoeven, a director who doesn’t shy away from controversial themes, looks at brutality, malice and humiliation in Elle. It tells the story of a video game executive (Isabelle Huppert) who is brutally raped and then fantasizes about her attacker’s return and also exacting revenge on him.

But more attention was on the premiere of Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation. The film, which was lauded by audiences at Sundance and picked up by Fox Searchlight for a festival record $17.5 million, tells the story of Nat Turner (Nate Parker), a slave who led a rebellion in Virginia in 1831. The controversy around the film does not stem so much from the film itself, but from the filmmaker and his writing partner Jean McGianni Celestin. In 1999, when both were Pennsylvania State University students, they were accused of raping a fellow student. Parker was acquitted in 2001 while Celestin was convicted, though that was overturned in 2005 following an appeal and the accuser’s reluctance to testify. There were allegations that Celestin and Parker continued to harass the accuser on campus (a complaint the university settled) and she later went on to commit suicide. The controversy surrounding Parker and his past also includes questions about his inclusion of a rape scene in the film that is not part of the historical record. The movie industry is a big business and, needless to say, Parker and his handlers will do their best to try and steer the press away from asking about his past. Don’t expect that effort to be too successful going forward, but tonight the Festival managed to quell any uncomfortable questions by only doing a photo call on the red carpet and not allowing the press to interview Parker and the cast.

Ryerson University’s Ryerson Theatre played host to three evening premieres. First up was Onur Tukel’s black comedy Catfight, which stars Anne Heche and Sandra Oh as two former college pals whose current diverging lives see them end up in a no-holds-barred series of brawls.

Colossal was next on the red carpet at Ryerson. The film by Nacho Vigalondo tells the tale of a party girl (Anne Hathaway) who discovers she has a connection to a giant monster doing Godzilla-like damage to Seoul. Anne was joined on the red carpet by her director and co-stars Jason Sudeikis (with wife Olivia Wilde), Austin Stowell and Tim Blake Nelson.

The evening at Ryerson ended with another Midnight Madness entry, the Indonesian action flick Headshot, which is co-directed by Timo Tjahjanto and Kimo Stamboel. Iko Uwais stars as an amnesiac whose past seems to be as a killing machine as he becomes involved in taking on a powerful drug lord and his gang.

That’s it for day two as we prepare to take on the weekend.