Heather Killingbeck confesses to being "hopelessly star-struck." So an annual trek to the Toronto International Film Festival, which always attracts dozens of celebrities, is pure heaven for the 44-year-old Hinesburg resident. In 2002 Dustin Hoffman even walked over to her at a premiere of his movie Moonlight Mile. "I was gawking," she acknowledges. "He extended his hand and thanked me for coming."
But Killingbeck is also a discerning cineaste who has been attending the Ontario extravaganza for four years, along with her partner Michael Wisniewski and two other Chittenden County couples. They spend a long weekend at the fest, averaging three or four screenings a day. For them, the experience is an indoor vacation with an adventurous edge.
"I love the sense of surprise and discovery," explains Wisniewski, an architect working in Burlington. "I want to be amazed and shocked. It's enlightening to see different viewpoints from around the world."
The 29th Toronto festival, which runs from September 9 to 18, will present 328 as-yet-unreleased films from 61 countries. As usual, it's a potpourri of mainstream and art-house fare.
The lineup offers several biopics this time around: Beyond the Sea, with director Kevin Spacey playing 1950s pop singer Bobby Darin; Ray, featuring Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles; and Modigliani, in which Andy Garcia inhabits the title role of a legendary Italian painter engaged in a bitter rivalry with a Spanish artist named Picasso.
Characters on difficult quests are invariably a popular theme. Volker Schlondorff's The Ninth Day, based on a true story, concerns a Catholic priest allowed to leave Dachau. But the Germans will send him back to the concentration camp unless he can persuade the bishop in his Luxembourg hometown to stop ringing a church bell in protest of Nazi rule.
The quest for Sean Penn's character in The Assassination of Richard Nixon, by Niels Mueller, is to kill the president by flying a hijacked plane into the White House. Apparently inspired by both a post-9/11 sensibility and real-life events from decades ago, it reunites the Oscar-winning actor with his 21 Grams costar, Naomi Watts.
John Sayles takes aim at another occupant of the Oval Office in Silver City, a satire about a Bible-thumping gubernatorial candidate with poor verbal skills; it's scheduled for release before the November election. Daryl Hannah, Richard Dreyfuss, Tim Roth, Chris Cooper and Thora Birch are in the large ensemble cast.
The Chinese House of Flying Daggers might prove to be a festival highlight for Killingbeck and Wisniewski. The Zhang Yimou film, which concerns a 9th-century rebel army that steals from the rich and gives to the poor, is an elegant martial-arts epic with a romantic twist. In 2000 the Vermonters were dazzled by a similar work: Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
"What was great is that I hadn't heard a thing about it beforehand," Killingbeck recalls. "I can't tell you how blown away we were."
Above all, the Green Mountain State contingent -- which includes Peter Fenn and Jyoti Daniere of Charlotte and Kevin Gallagher and Michael Gilman of Burlington -- appreciates Toronto's eclecticism. "We really love the documentaries," Killingbeck says. "And we're excited by this year's focus on South Africa."
Their group doesn't necessarily stick together. "We each plot our own course, but generally cross paths at some point," Killing-beck notes. "Peter and Michael go for the really cold, grim Eastern European movies. I tend to like small, personal dramas."
Wisniewski is also partial to the idiosyncratic Midnight Madness program of cult chillers and rockumentaries -- which makes for a long day. "After five films, it can be hard to remember what you've seen," he admits. "We've occasionally been disappointed, but there are never too many real stinkers."
For more information on the Toronto International Film Festival, call 416-968-3456 or visit www.bell.ca/filmfest .
The more things change, the more they stay the same -- or something like that -- when it comes to the Ethan Allen Cinemas in Burlington. A few months ago, the theater dropped its longstanding bargain rates for films that have already played elsewhere in favor of more expensive ticket prices for newer fare. Now, the cost is, once again, only $3 for less recent movies.
"We experimented with a first-run policy, but the people have spoken," explains Merrill Jarvis III, whose family owns the New North End venue. "They asked for the cheap seats back, so we're giving them what they want."