OSCARS KICKOFF

09.10.12

Toronto Film Fest’s Glittering Opener: ‘Looper,' 'On the Road,’ Snoop Dogg & David Geffen

The Toronto International Film Festival’s first four days offered many of 2012’s biggest movies and most outsize performances, from ‘Argo’ to ‘Looper’ and Bill Murray to Marion Cotillard. Chris Lee on Hollywood’s invasion of the Great White North.

Since opening its doors to the world four days ago, the Toronto International Film Festival has lived up to reputation as North America’s most glamorous, most grown-up, and most highly polished cinematic showcase, delivering an abundance of top-tier movies with some of Hollywood’s highest-wattage stars turning in career-defining—if not career-redirecting—performances that should keep Oscar prognosticators talking through the awards derby’s end in February.

The festival kicked off Thursday with the splashy opening-night premiere of Looper, a sci-fi thriller starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Joe, a hit man facing unique professional vagaries: he works for mob enforcers from the near future who send intended victims back via time machine. But when Joe’s older self (Bruce Willis) turns up and the younger version fails to pull the trigger, he sets off a chain of violent and spectacular action set pieces.

Looper director Rian Johnson is no stranger in Toronto, having premiered his 2008 indie crime caper, The Brothers Bloom, at the fest. But to hear him tell it, that was nothing compared with this time, when he arred with a $30 million multiplex movie costarring Bruce Willis and full studio distribution. “We had a great time being here with Bloom, but this was just a totally different experience,” Johnson told The Daily Beast. “Just the scope of it, feeling the energy from the crowd. You can probably see the thousand-yard stare in my eyes. I’m still trying to take all this in and process it.”

In terms of social-media bounce, however, Looper was upstaged on opening night by Kristen Stewart’s appearance on the red carpet in support of her sexy turn in director Walter Salles’s adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. Posing and preening for paparazzi—for the first time since her cheating scandal erupted into a global Twi-hard furor—in a form-hugging sequined dress and looking generally smokin’ hot, Stewart sent an implicit message: she’s unfazed by the controversy and takes her movie-star responsibilities seriously. Oh, and Robert Pattinson? This is what you’re missing out on.

Hip-hop superstar Snoop Dogg ventured north to Canada’s financial capital Friday similarly intent on redressing certain misconceptions about him. Resplendent in a white collared shirt, white tam hat, and Rastafarian red, gold, and green necklace inside the TIFF Bell Lightbox, the veteran gangsta rapper explained what had compelled him to take part in the documentary Reincarnated. It follows Snoop as he travels to Jamaica to record a reggae album to find him embrace the Rastafarian religion and accept a new nickname bestowed upon him by reggae superstar Bunny Wailer: Snoop Lion.

In Toronto, Snoop brushed aside any notion that the move is a cynical ploy to galvanize his career and clarified that he has never repudiated being the D.O. Double G. He plans to self-identify as Snoop Lion only in conjunction with reggae, loving and appreciating the music as well as Jamaican culture on a whole, but will continue to record and perform as the Doggfather out of a financial imperative. “I understand the business. Whatever people want, I can deliver it uncut, up close, and personal,” the performer explained. “I’m Snoop muthafuckin’ Dogg till I die.”

Several acclaimed films that debuted at the Telluride Film Festival earlier this month made a second North American landfall in Toronto to pick up more buzz—a crucial function of the fest, since it has become known as a breeding ground for prestige movies after Slumdog MillionaireThe King’s Speech, and The Artist all bowed here before claiming Oscar glory.

On the heels of its well-received Telluride premiere, Hyde Park on Hudson, director Roger Michell’s gently comic character study, has been playing well here, featuring Bill Murray in what will surely become one of the signature performances of his career: as Franklin D. Roosevelt playing host to the reticent king and queen of England during the buildup to both countries’ entry into World War II.

Likewise, director-star Ben Affleck’s historical drama Argo made a big impression in mountainous Colorado, but received a hero’s welcome in Toronto’s Roy Thomson Hall on Friday; the fest also hosted the premiere for Affleck’s last feature, The Town, in 2010. And France’s ne plus ultra hipster auteur Jacques Audiard’s disability romance, Rust and Bone, has kept its film-festival heat stoked after first wowing fans at Cannes in May and generating serious Oscar buzz for star Marion Cotillard in Telluride before arriving in Toronto.

Rust and Bone, which centers around a whale trainer (Cotillard) who falls in love with a thuggish boxer after losing her legs in an orca accident, is one of several movies screening in Toronto that feature characters who do not let their physical disabilities stand in the way of a vigorous sex life. Cotillard’s legs were digitally erased from her steamy scenes with costar Matthias Schoenaerts. Bill Murray’s polio-stricken FDR (who has no use of his legs) is depicted getting a zealous hand job from Laura Linney (in addition to being an all-around randy dude with multiple mistresses) in Hyde Park on Hudson. And John Hawkes portrays a character who, although paralyzed from the neck down for most of his adult life, decides to lose his virginity to a sex surrogate (Helen Hunt) at age 38.

People magazine’s 2011 Sexiest Man Alive, Bradley Cooper, has become a kind of inescapable presence here, turning in wildly divergent performances in two of the festival’s most pedigreed films: director Derek Cianfrance’s The Place Beyond the Pines and filmmaker David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook. In Pines, Cooper mutes his crinkly-smile charisma—some might call it smarminess—to portray a beat cop turned Machiavellian politician; unlike with previous Cooper vehicles, the character barely cracks a grin over the course of the long, lugubrious drama. In Playbook, Cooper again backs away from the smooth-talking-hunk type he usually plays to portray someone totally different from both his Hangover and Pines characters: a bipolar nut job with a heart of gold who’s been recently released from an asylum—a guy prone to flying into violent rages and a bad habit of indiscriminately blurting out his off-color assessments, never mind the collateral damage it inflicts on those he loves most.

Music and movie mogul David Geffen is another voluble character who has never shied away from shouting his version of the unvarnished truth from the mountaintops. And on Sunday Toronto hosted the premiere of the documentary about him, American Masters: Inventing David Geffen. Embarking from his dictum—“I’ve always thought that each person invented himself ... that we are each a figment of our own imagination. And some people have a greater ability to imagine than others”—the movie chronicles Geffen’s ascent from underprivileged Brooklyn son of Ukrainian immigrants to billionaire founder of three record labels and the DreamWorks movie studio, king-making political backer of Bill Clinton, and influential producer of such classic Broadway musicals as DreamgirlsCats, and A Chorus Line.

The retiring Geffen, 69, who seldom grants interviews and hates cameras, turned up for the premiere and a Q-and-A session that followed the movie and was visibly white-knuckled through a number of moderated questions. He admitted that after filmmaker Susan Lacy began the interviewing process, he regretted saying yes, but he “loved” the final product (which will air on PBS in November). Seeing the film also proved to be a revelation to Geffen.

“I forgot most of it. When I first saw it, I thought, wow, I did all of that?’” he said. “I think about what I’m going to do tomorrow. When I look back, I just think about what I fucked up.”

Geffen’s earliest success as a producer was the 1983 teen dramedy that put Tom Cruise on the map, Risky Business. The mogul used the Q and A to dish some amazing backstory about how his creative input helped indelibly change its production. As he tells it, actor Kevin Anderson had been cast as the movie’s protagonist, an entrepreneurial high-school senior, Joel, when Geffen intervened.

“That ain’t going to work,” Geffen, who came out of the closet in 1992, recalled saying to Risky Business director Paul Brickman. “You would have to cast somebody in that role that I’d want to fuck.”

Enter Cruise. Enter gigantic out-the-blocks success for Geffen. And, as they say in the screenwriting world, scene.