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Toronto festival jams its early schedule with an overload of big-budget movies

TORONTO -- The Toronto Film Festival used to unfold grandly over 10 days. Now it seems to run for a weekend, plus added attractions. The opening three days are so insanely front-loaded that critics go nuts trying to map out their schedules; they stand in the lobby of the Varsity, crossing screenings off their lists.

It's not such a problem for the public because festivalgoers have made their choices weeks in advance, or sometimes had their choices made for them by ticket availability. But a critic can choose from several advance press screenings at the same time, and this year, more than ever before, the 500-pound gorillas have booked themselves Friday through Sunday.

If I were here representing a film I loved and I wanted it to get fair attention, I would avoid the first weekend like a curse. Smaller films suffer because the Hollywood studios are here with their junket films; visiting journalists pad around the hotels like house pets, lapping up their five-minute sound bites. They've made a Faustian bargain with their editors: Let me go to Toronto, and I'll give you all the movie stars you want--as long as I can stay to see the art films.

A wiser course is the one mapped out by films such as "Lovely and Amazing," "Waking Life," "Revolution #9" and "Asoka," which will slip into town midweek, when the frenzy has died and there's time to consider the films instead of processing them--time to discuss them over a cup of coffee instead of racing to get in line for the next screening. The closing Saturday of the festival is always fun for me because the craziness is over and I can go shopping for a Vietnamese musical.

I suppose normal people find all of this incomprehensible. Every movie critic is asked incessantly, "How many movies do you see in a day?" (One answer: "For every movie I see, I get asked that question four times.") The notion of seeing three, four or five movies back to back would not strike any reasonable person as a pleasure, and yet at a festival like Toronto, where there's a good chance they'll be interesting, we line up eagerly. It's not the movies we see that's the problem. It's the movies we're missing.

* * *

I have not been a Stephen King fan, and yet I approached "Hearts in Atlantis," the Friday night gala movie, with unusual anticipation. It was time for a new look at the best-selling author. I had dinner two years ago in New York with Peter Mayer, who as chief of Viking-Penguin published many of the best books of recent decades, and I asked him who was the best living novelist. "Saul Bellow," he said. Then he said: "And the most overlooked is Stephen King. He sells millions of books but doesn't get credit for being as good as he is. For the 20th century, he's our Dickens."

Chastened, I decided to listen to the audiobook of King's Hearts in Atlantis, read by William Hurt, and found myself driving around the block because I didn't want to park the car until a chapter was over. I was humbled: King was better than I thought, or at least this book certainly was.

I went to the Scott Hicks film wondering if the movie could possibly capture the eerie, bittersweet tone of King's story (and of Hurt's great vocal performances, with its pauses and rushes and off-center emphasis, as if the story's narrator were puzzling it out as he remembered the story). I was not disappointed. I was also startled that the sets and locations looked so much as I had imagined them.

The movie is faithful to the events of the book and even more faithful to its mood--and with "Hearts in Atlantis," mood is more or less everything. A dispassionate synopsis of the story would seem to show it thin on plot and heavy on atmosphere. It involves a friendship between a boy named Bobby (Anton Yelchin), on the cusp of adolescence, and a boarder named Ted (Anthony Hopkins), who arrives with his possessions in paper bags and moves into the rooms upstairs. It quietly becomes clear that Ted has certain powers, that Bobby has tendencies in that direction, and that "low men" might come to town looking for the boarder. It doesn't much matter who the low men are, or why they want Ted.

Indeed, the book and movie skew slightly differently in what they lead us to believe about the men. The movie is not about that, although a lesser one would be. It's about friendship, and growing up, and Bobby's troubled relationship with his mom (Hope Davis), and about how his first kiss (with Mika Boorem) will be, as Ted tells him, the standard by which all future kisses will be judged.

Scott Hicks' "Shine" (1996) was one of the most celebrated gala premieres of recent years. He has returned to Toronto for luck, no doubt, with this new film, and I think he will find it. He's rare among modern directors in choosing the wide screen and fully exploiting it; his interiors stay wide to emphasize rooms opening off of rooms, and mirrors reflecting the action back on itself. The film is gorgeous to look at. But its strength is in the mood, in the way Anthony Hopkins lazily smokes Chesterfields and nudges the kid into a richer adulthood without even seeming to think much about it.

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