TIFF, Day 1: Raves, Rants and the Brad Pitt/George Clooney Charisma Competition

The first day of Toronto screenings brings looks at two awards contenders, “Moneyball” and “The Ides of March”

Bono and the Edge may have provided the official launch for the Toronto International Film Festival, but other folks more used to a film festival than a concert stage were also in evidence.

Bryce Dallas HowardWerner Herzog debuted "Into the Abyss"; Gus Van Sant's "Restless" screened with guests that included the director, Mia Wasikowska and a very pregnant Bryce Dallas Howard (left); films from Finland, Tunisia, Japan, Russia and Argentina debuted.

(Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images)

And Wim Wenders' documentary about choreographer Pina Bausch, "Pina," even got a shout-out from Bono at the opening-night screening of the U2 documentary "From the Sky Down."

"Go see 'Pina,'" Bono said, after joking that the band chose Davis Guggenheim to direct their film only after they couldn’t get Wenders.

Kim Voynar agreed, calling it "superb" and "a dance film quite unlike anything you've ever seen." And the Germany jury charged with selecting that country's official entry into the Oscar Foreign-Language Film category concurred as well, making it the country's selection on Thursday. (Throwing a doc into the mix in that category is always risky, but maybe this is the doc to do it.)

Press and industry attendees, meanwhile, saw a full slate that included Lars von Trier's "Melancholia," which is weird and spectacular, and fully deserves to be considered without being saddled with the baggage of its director's intemperate comments at Cannes.

Also read: "Melancholia," Baby

Also on the P&I slate was Ralph Fiennes' "Coriolanus," a visceral update of the Shakespeare play that features a fierce, affecting and utterly assured performance from Vanessa Redgrave that's certainly worthy of awards consideration.

Two of the biggest TIFF debuts were for films that will have their gala public unveilings on Friday night: Bennett Miller's "Moneyball" and George Clooney's "The Ides of March." On Thursday, both drew capacity crowds to TIFF's marquee theater, the biggest screen in the TIFF Bell Lightbox complex.

Brad Pitt and Jonah HillOn paper, "Moneyball" looks problematic. It's a baseball movie. Strike one? It's baseball statistics movie. Strike two? It's a baseball statistics movie about a theory that never worked as well as the book says it did, and that in recent years has done nothing to halt the Oakland A's' slide into mediocrity.

Strike three?

Not exactly. For one thing, if you consider those first two facts strikes, you don't care about the third; if you think the third one is a concern (as I do), then the fact that it's a baseball movie is an attraction, not a drawback.

Besides, "Moneyball" has Brad Pitt nailing his role as A's general manager Billy Beane, all easygoing (but tightly-wound) charm and charisma in a role that requires exactly that.

Jonah Hill has a showier role, in some ways, and he fleshes out computer nerd Peter Brand with enough Jonah Hill-isms to steal a fair number of scenes. Sure, you can see why former Beane assistant Paul DePodesta declined to be depicted in the film, forcing the filmmakers to (thinly) fictionalize him — though it probably wouldn't have hurt DePodesta's career to have a major motion picture declaring him a genius by name rather than pseudonym.

(On the other hand, those of us who think that DePodesta's post-A's career pretty conclusively proved that he's not a genius don't mind that "Peter" gets the credit.)

The vast majority of filmgoers obviously won't share my concerns about omissions and oversimplifications (if you ask me, the A's won back then because of three amazing young pitchers who go unmentioned here, not because of the science of sabermetrics), and they probably shouldn't.

On its own terms as an adult drama, "Moneyball" is smart and solid and entertaining – and while it may seem as long as an extra inning Yankees-Red Sox game to those with little tolerance for the sport, it'll probably win some converts from outside the faithful. 

Awards-wise, I suspect it's a little rarefied for a Best Picture nod, though it's certainly in the running for screenplay (the formidable team of Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin) and perhaps even actor, unless Pitt fails to get credit for making it look easy.

Ryan Gosling and George ClooneyAt Variety, Peter DeBruge called the film "sharp, penetrating" and says the script "takes conversations that have no business being entertaining and leaves us hanging on every word."

Jeff Wells at Hollywood-Elsewhere was even more enthusiastic: "What it's really about is the ecstatic, pure-gravy pleasure of watching a first-rate, award-quality fall movie that's made for you and me and everyone out there who hated 'Stupid Crazy Love' [sic], plus the holy-s— excitement of a serious, Oscar-level Brad Pitt performance."

"The Ides of March" deals with another (and nastier) contact sport, politics. The conclusion of sorts is that that arena is brutal and crooked, where even the best end up hopelessly compromised; it is, it's safe to say, a message that's apt to resonate in a good many quarters these days.

The film opens up Beau Willimon's play "Farragut North": it adds plotlines, goes outside the backrooms and bars where the play takes place and introduces offstage characters like the politician played by Clooney, a charmer with even more effortless charisma than Billy Beane.  

While Sean O'Connell says it "does for behind-the-scenes campaigning what [Clooney's Oscar-nominated directorial effort] 'Good Night and Good Luck' did for broadcast journalism," I'd say there's a significant difference: "Good Night" was about the past, viewed through our knowledge of what has happened since; his new one is very much a present-tense drama.

If "The Ides of March" doesn't quite manage to nail the national mood as thoroughly as I thought it might, it's still a satisfying adult drama, a suitably cynical and nicely tense thriller of ideas. I'll agree with Jeff Wells, who called it "a smart, taut political thriller" and added this:

"Is 'Ides' about us on some level? Does it reflect or shed light upon some universal current that we've all come to know and understand? No — it's a high-end, thoroughly adult popcorn movie, and that's totally fine."

At Hitfix, Greg Ellwood assesses the awards chances for both "Moneyball" and "Ides of March" (since that's one of the (purposes of TIFF, isn't it?), and concludes that the latter is probably in a slightly stronger position, particularly with Philip Seymour Hoffman's showy supporting role.

In other Toronto coverage, Anne Thompson sits down with director Jonathan Demme, who's ubiquitous at the festival. He's directed two documentaries, the concert film "Neil Young Journeys" and the post-Katrina, New Orleans-set doc "I'm Carolyn Parker," and he'll participate in two Q&A sessions, one with Young and one as the moderator of a discussion with Sony Pictures Classics chiefs Michael Barker and Tom Bernard. 

Jason PatricAnd while Demme says he admires tentpoles like "Iron Man," he makes it clear that he's still an indie, film-fest kind of guy: "It’s a question of the necessity and passion for filming real life.”

In a significantly fouler mood was a Canadian indie icon, director Guy Maddin, who's in Toronto with his Jason Patric/Isabella Rossellini film "Keyhole" (right). On Facebook, according to the National, Maddin took umbrage at the request he's been getting for free tickets with a diatribe that began, "Do I look like some f–king dispenser of free movie tickets?”

Continued the director, “When you execute a painting or sculpture do I ask if I can have it? When you mount an opera, write a book or make a meal in a restaurant do I come a-weasling for freebs? If $11 a head is too much for you then go panhandle in front of the Bell Lightbox, or better yet, take your fault-finding face and stay home. That’s where I’ll be.”

One of the many people I saw at the "Ides of March" screening was Roger Ebert, who doesn't pay for his tickets and who filed his first TIFF dispatch on Thursday night. He spends most of it enthusing about "Melancholia," then sums up TIFF in his conclusion:

"Toronto announces the end of a summer of often disappointing and overinflated 'blockbusters,' and an autumn that feels like a springtime of the cinema."