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Toronto, Day 7: The festival that ate itself

Posted by Ty Burr  September 11, 2013 09:31 PM

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Is the Toronto International Film Festival getting too big for itself? For the first time in a veteran festival-goer's memory, the fall season's major movie event feels in danger of spiraling slightly out of control. With many of the most prominent films (and related appearances by A-list stars) frontloaded into the first five days of an 11-day schedule, the festival has a hectic, overloaded feel.

Lines are longer and more fractious, the race from one must-see screening to the next is more harried, and publicists are tearing their hair out in larger chunks than usual. The crowds lining the streets for the evening premieres seem more obsessive, too. One night, as Joseph Gordon-Levitt arrived outside the Princess of Wales Theatre for the opening of his directorial debut, the porn-addict comedy-drama "Don Jon," the cellphone-wielding hordes set up a chant: "Jo-SEPH, Jo-SEPH." The night before, outside the Elgin Theatre on Yonge Street, another mass of fans had spied Ralph Fiennes alighting from a limo for the world premiere of "The Invisible Woman," and chanted "Ralf! Ralf!" No matter that it's pronounced "Rafe". It all feels positively un-Canadian.

But Toronto has always been a festival with a split personality: Half glitzy opening gun for the Oscar season and half carefully-curated buffet of global cinema. More than ever, the awards bait has expanded to fill the opening days while the back half is where the discoveries are.

Which isn't to say that the first half doesn't have its lasting pleasures. A movie like "August: Osage County," due in theaters in December, is rich with absurdly juicy performances from a cast that almost beggars belief: Meryl Streep, playing the toxic midwestern matriarch of Tracey Letts' hit play, goes head to head with Julia Roberts as the daughter who's almost as mean as she is, and the stark contrast in their styles -- craft versus charisma, an actress who loses herself in roles versus a star who's embodied in them -- is nothing less than thrilling to behold.

But everyone brings their A-game here: Ewan McGregor, Juliette Lewis, Abigail Breslin, Chris Cooper, Sam Shepard, Benedict Cumberbatch, Julianne Nicholson, and character actress Margo Martindale, who almost steals the final act from the rest of the company. Who cares if John Wells directs "August" like a play that occasionally wanders outdoors for a look-see? The movie promises a thespic cage-match, and it delivers, even if the Weinstein company is still dithering over whether to keep an ending that slightly softens the play's punch. (For the record, I'm in the camp that feels the movie should end, as in the play, with Streep's character rather than Roberts' -- you'll know what I mean when you see it -- no matter how much audience whining Harvey is hearing in the test screenings.)

If the media descends on Toronto looking for likely Best Picture contenders, it also tries to sniff out great performances and overarching themes. "12 Years a Slave" (photo above) and "Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom" provide both. Along with the recently released "The Butler," the films represent a deepening in the presentation of black life in commercial cinema, and both are being singled out for lead performances by actors whose career breakthroughs are long overdue.

In director Steve McQueen's "12 Years a Slave" -- perhaps the most well-received 2013 festival entry so far -- Chiwetel Ejiofor ("Kinky Boots") plays a free black man in pre-Civil War New York who is kidnapped and taken below the Mason-Dixon line (Brad Pitt and Michael Fassbender co-star). And in "Mandela," Idris Elba ("The Wire") takes on the title role of South Africa's Nelson Mandela from his imprisonment to his country's presidency.

The dramatization of history, both recent and in the more distant past, is probably the most common thread in Toronto's first half. In addition to the above films, there's "The Fifth Estate," director Bill Condon's take on the wikileaks scandal, a sprawling affair that resists being crammed into the confines of a conventional feature film. Featuring an expertly multi-layered performance by Benedict Cumberbatch as Julian Assange -- with three films in this year's line-up, the actor's the de facto It boy of Toronto 2013 -- "Fifth Estate" is a smart, over-directed film built squarely on the bones of "The Social Network," down to Daniel Bruhl as Daniel Domscheit-Berg, the common sense counterweight to Assange's brilliant loose cannon. I feel like we already got most of what we needed to know about this story from Alex Gibney's excellent documentary "We Steal Secrets." All "The Fifth Estate" adds is sex scenes, a few fine performances, and Hollywood suspense.

Tuesday's big premiere, "Kill Your Darlings," turned out to be another luridly engrossing fact-based drama, this one the tale of young Beat writers Allen Ginsberg (Daniel Radcliffe), Williams S. Burroughs (Ben Foster), and Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston) and their involvement with the 1944 murder of David Kammerer (Michael C. Hall of "Dexter") by their friend Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan, a ringer for the real Carr). The film marks a strong debut for director John Krokidas, whose occasional stylistic overreach is balanced by a swooning sense of time period; DeHaan's mercurial performance as a complex, closeted young man got all the Toronto buzz, but Radcliffe's less showy work as Ginsberg is solid as a rock. It's official: He's much more than Harry Potter, even if the hordes lining the street still having trouble seeing him as anything else.

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Ty Burr is a film critic with The Boston Globe.

Mark Feeney is an arts writer for The Boston Globe.

Janice Page is movies editor for The Boston Globe.

Tom Russo is a regular correspondent for the Movies section and writes a weekly column on DVD releases.

Katie McLeod is Boston.com's features editor.

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Emily Wright is an Arts & Entertainment producer for Boston.com.

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