TIFF, Day 2: Hot Parties and Dark Movies

The Toronto nightlife heats up with George Clooney and Harvey Weinstein, but filmmakers explore the abyss

Now the partying has begun in earnest.

The Toronto International Film Festival's opening night shindig is usually a Canadian affair, full of donors and local celebs (Chantal Kreviazuk, anyone?), although the presence of half of U2 kicked things up a notch on Thursday night.

But on Friday, the big boys came to down. While Sony was enjoying the gala premiere of "Moneyball," a few blocks away the Soho House was hosting a cocktail soiree for the studio's other big entry, "The Ides of March" – and any party that includes George Clooney (along with Ryan Gosling, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Paul Giamatti, Evan Rachel Wood, et. al.) is clearly an A-list gathering.

We Need to Talk About Kevin galaYet another formidable player, Harvey Weinstein, hosted his own reception to celebrate "The Artist" at the Roosevelt Room, following the TIFF premiere of Michel Hazavanicius' utterly charming black-and-white silent film.

Alliance Films threw a gathering, and Michael Winterbottom's "Trishna" was feted at a dinner, and there were parties for "Friends With Kids" and Women in Film and others as well.

And late at night, a different room at the Soho House was the site of a post-midnight dinner (it started earlier, but the food service was slow) for the Tilda Swinton film "We Need to Talk About Kevin."

At that gathering, "Kevin" director Lynne Ramsay and her husband Rory Kinnear (also the film's co-writer) said the TIFF premiere of their film felt like they'd finally given birth to a baby – though when it was pointed out that the film had also played in Cannes and Telluride, they laughed. "This baby has been born quite a few times," said Ramsay.

Ramsay's baby, it turns out, is as intense and disquieting as advertised: drawn from Lionel Shriver's epistolary novel, it details the relationship between a suburban mother and a son who commits a horrific crime.

"Fasten your seat belts, it’s going to be a bumpy ride," said Ramsay at the beginning of the premiere – though in a blue dress and jeans jacket, with a big grin on her face and her arms thrown open wide, the Scottish director hardly seemed the threatening type.

(Above: Ashley Gerasimovich, Ezra Miller, Tilda Swinton and Ramsay; photo by Aaron Harris/Getty Images)

The film is definitely dark and creepy: Tilda Swinton's haunted and often wordless performance as the mother is riveting, while the boy played by Ezra Miller as a teenager and Jasper Newell as a child is the stuff of any parents' nightmares.

The surprising thing (for me at least) is that while "We Need to Talk About Kevin" is unsettling and disturbing, it is also unexpectedly lyrical, with an austere beauty and a brilliantly nuanced sound mix. 

"It's a love story, really," insisted Swinton after the screening. "Boy gets mum."

But "Kevin" was hardly the day's only disturbing movie. In the morning, a press screening of Werner Herzog's "Into the Abyss," which had premiered the previous evening, showed that the director's examination of a triple murder in Texas packs an emotional wallop – and that Herzog can be as canny an interviewer as he is a crafty filmmaker.

The director's usual voiceovers are absent from "Into the Abyss," but his voice is often heard as he poses questions to a pair of convicts, family members of the perpetrators and the victims, and others involved in the death penalty case.

In an interview with TheWrap, Herzog said he didn't meet any of his subjects prior to interviewing them. One particularly striking moment comes when he's talking to a chaplain who is with condemned men when they're executed – and a seemingly throwaway question about a squirrel turns out to prompt the man to break down in tears.

Werner HerzogI'll let Herzog (Getty Images photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez, right) tell the story himself:

"The chaplain had to be in the death chamber within 40 minutes. He arrives when we just set up the camera, and he looks at his watch and he says, 'Quick, quick. Let's get over with it, because I have to be in the death house.'

"So I introduced myself within 60 seconds, telling him why I want to film with him, and he starts to talk like a television preacher. All those phony thing about we have a loving, forgiving God, and paradise awaits everyone, and he looks at his creation and sees the beautiful grass, and on the golf course a squirrel, and how beautiful.

"And now I ambush him: 'Tell me about an encounter with a squirrel.' And he very cheerfully says, 'Oh yes, I was on the golf course in my cart, and the squirrels appeared on the path, and I put on the breaks, and I could have run over them. And they looked at me, and how about that!'

"And all of a sudden he unravels, because he realizes that in 20 minutes he has to assist an execution. And unlike the golf cart, he cannot stop what's going on and rescue anyone.

"Nobody in film school can ever teach you that. When you're a director of movies, you'd better know the heart of men, and now how to very quickly look into the deepest recesses of their souls."

A few minutes after that, Herzog headed to his room to pack for a flight back to Los Angeles. "I want to be a ghost in Toronto," he said, leaving all those parties behind.

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