Archive for September, 2014

In Toronto: Movies and Megaphones @ TIFF 2014

September 10, 2014

By Robert Israel

Attending the Toronto International Film Festival over three days, I saw one remarkable film out of many and I got a front row seat to the drooling adoration that bonds movie stars to some of the reporters assigned to cover them.

It’s my contention that it’s not what performers say when they walk off the red carpet and stare, from behind sunglasses, at the throngs of shutterbugs and ink-stained wretches — it’s how they perform in the films that matters.

Evidently, this is a minority view. It reminded me of Russell Baker’s New York Times description of beat reporters as serving as “nothing more than a megaphone for the convenience of frauds.”

To wit: actor Jake Gyllenhaal, starring in Nightcrawler as a lone wolf determined to succeed by any means, legal or illegal, was asked an obvious question by a reporter from an Ottawa newspaper about what compelled him to work with writer/director Dan Gilroy (The Bourne Legacy).

Gyllenhaal’s obvious response: “Dan wrote a very extraordinary character on the page.”

And yes, this entire banter was published the next morning in the Globe and Mail.

Toronto’s film festival, conceived 39 years ago, has grown from a modest, low-scale event into a major industry showcase. The city goes all out. King Street is blocked off to traffic. Autograph seekers lurk behind police barricades to catch glimpses of their favorite stars. I was far from the gawking crowd, comfortably housed at the newly revamped Eaton Chelsea Hotel, an easy stroll to several of the venues.

Toronto is a magnet for filmmakers because of its lenient tax shelters, and is sought after for its plethora of scenic locales.

Richard Fiennes-Clinton, a tour guide for Muddy York Walking Tours, took me on around, pointing out several spots where Toronto’s brick and cobblestoned streets have appeared in major Hollywood films. He told me that the film Chicago was shot at various locales in Toronto, prompting the windbag Mayor of the Windy City to issue a public complaint (it unheeded by industry moguls).

One area popular with filmmakers is the Distillery District, faithfully preserved with a rugged 19th century ambience.

“A number of films have been shot here,” Fiennes-Clinton said, “it can resemble London during the time of Jack the Ripper, for instance, or New York during Prohibition.”

The Festival, affectionately known as TIFF, is home grown: it now boasts 2,800 volunteers working at dozens of venues throughout the city; they don bright tee shirts and herd the masses behind stanchions. Each volunteer is equipped with headsets and mikes to communicate with central command. It’s always chaos at each opening. I got shut out of a couple films. Overall, however, it’s an efficiently run festival (anyone can buy passes or seek out individual tickets to any film). And Torontonians are extra polite: even if they are herding and prodding you to get in line, they apologize profusely for doing so.

Returning to the aforementioned remarkable film I saw at TIFF, first let me ask: When was the last time you cried, laughed, cheered and applauded when you saw a film?

The film that elicited these responses from me – and others at Toronto’s elegant Elgin Theatre during the screening – is Pride, a British film that premiered at Cannes and was given its North American premiere at TIFF. In my view, it should go on to win many more awards for its stirring tale of humanity.

Set in London and Wales in during the mid-1980s, during the reign of Iron Lady Margaret Thatcher, it depicts an era before the AIDS crisis raged rampant in the United Kingdom and elsewhere. It tells of a rag tag group of gay activists, who, from a shabby office in Bloomsbury, set out to express solidarity for the miners who are in the midst of a bitter strike.

The motivation for the gay group is genuine: having long been ostracized and scorned, they relate to the miners’ plight and want to raise funds for them. They stand round with buckets on street corners, soliciting loose change.

It’s a story of transformation. At first the gays face rejection by the miners and members of their own inner circle. Slowly, through tender and raucous scenes paced with the eye of a true storyteller, each group embraces the other. Based on real events and real people, the cast is real, too. Directed by Matthew Warchus, and distributed by CBS Films and Pathe International, it so moved the audience at the screening that they rose to cheer it.

Another notable film seen at TIFF: The Judge, starring Robert Downey, Jr., and Robert Duvall as a dueling father and son, directed by David Dobkin (Warner Brothers). Also notable: The Humbling, starring Al Pacino, directed by Barry Levinson. Both films are worth seeking out in theatres this fall.


Rosh Hashanah 5775: Words, Meditations, Deeds

September 7, 2014

By Robert Israel

Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, arrives at sundown on September 24. It is a joyous yet solemn time. Known as one of the Days of Awe, it is a time when Jews take stock of their lives, reflect on the global community, and pay homage to those who have passed away. By asking to be inscribed in the Book of Life, we are acknowledging our mortality.

As we listen to the blasts of the shofar, the ram’s horn, its shrill notes connect us to our tribal roots over five thousand years ago when Jews gathered to worship under the stars. The blasts of the shofar awaken us from our summer reveries and remind us to prepare for the harvest, and to bind together the unraveled strands of our lives.

During this reflective time, I recall a prayer I have spoken aloud many times since boyhood:
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable unto Thee, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.

As a youngster, the prayer admonished me to humble myself before an omnipotent deity. In adulthood I have come to see it also as a cry for peace. By intoning the words, “my rock and my redeemer,” Jews acknowledge a personal and collective commitment to a higher purpose. We search within ourselves to find strength to combine words and meditations to create a world of justice, a world of peace. It begins within ourselves; it spreads to others.

When I have faced difficulties, this prayer has brought me solace, has shown me a path, and has helped me to face uncertainties with courage and faith.

Yet peace does not come about by merely lamenting the endless wars and conflicts that threaten Jews and non-Jews each day in the Middle East and elsewhere. Nor does peace come by intoning only words and meditations. The process of achieving peace requires deliberate efforts, placing ourselves at the mercy of a higher entity for guidance.

It is with this is in mind that I add one more phrase to “words of our mouths” and “meditations of our hearts.” It is this: “with our deeds.” By combining words and meditations with our deeds we become empowered to transform ourselves and to inculcate others to join with us. It is a quest Nobel laureate Pablo Neruda once described as setting out “to sell light upon the roads.”

We welcome Rosh Hashanah 5755 with heartfelt words, meditations and with deeds so that we have the strength to go forth to shine light onto even the darkest roads.

Robert Israel can be reached at