TORONTO — It’s Sunday, i.e. Day 4 of the Toronto International Film Festival, and the crowd control is, by consensus, out of control. For the hastily added additional screening of Alfonso Cuaron’s “Gravity,” a TIFF volunteer told me, the first press person showed up at 9 a.m. — for a 12:15 screening. By the time I arrived, around 11-ish, a large clump of people had assembled, but weren’t in line, because the staffer said the line wouldn’t start until 11:15. But — how can you not start a line when a line is already there? Something to ponder, while standing in a vast assemblage of anxious people that is, by definition, Not a Line.
And “Gravity” is good — very good, even to this not-terribly-interested-space-travel viewer. Sandra Bullock and George Clooney (and yes, they need to be in that order, because this is Bullock’s movie, by a mile) play a pair of astronauts who must quickly abort a mission due to unexpected debris falling through space. Things go wrong — well, everything goes wrong — and “Gravity” becomes both a suspense thriller in a unique environment, and a moving meditation on the idea of home. I’ve never seen anything like this movie, which took Cuaron 4.5 years to make; both Bullock and Clooney are mesmerizing. See it in 3D IMAX, as I did, when it opens in Seattle October 4.
Stephen Frears’ “Philomena” would seem to have little in common with “Gravity” — except that it’s also essentially a two-character story, and its themes include the meaning of home. Judi Dench plays Philomena Lee, an Irish woman (a real-life character) who 50 years ago became pregnant as a teenager and was sent to a brutal convent, where the nuns sold her child to wealthy Americans and forced her to work in their laundries to pay off her “debt.” With the help of an initially skeptical journalist (Steve Coogan), who’s reluctant to lower himself to write a “human interest” story, she goes searching for her long-lost boy, and finds . . . well, I’m not going to tell you. Suffice to say that this one’s an audience pleaser, that tears could be heard among the usually grumpy press-and-industry crowd, and that Dench and Coogan (who co-wrote the film, which won the screenplay prize at the Venice Film Festival this weekend) make an unexpectedly funny and lovable duo. One sign of how good this movie is: In a festival where it’s customary to drop in and out of films, almost nobody left this packed, vast theater until the final credits. I loved it. “Philomena” will likely hit theaters nationwide around holiday time.
Couple of realizations today: I’m still using, for my press pass, the photo that I used for my first visit to the TIFF in, I think, 2000 — which means that I’m basically walking around with a reverse Picture of Dorian Gray around my neck. Maybe it’s time to reshoot. And, among my interviews for the festival this year are Ralph Fiennes (talked to him today, about his Dickens drama “The Invisible Woman”) and Daniel Radcliffe (tomorrow, for “Kill Your Darlings”) — which means that I’m getting both Voldemort and Harry Potter in the same festival. What a long, strange trip this is.