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Harvey Keitel in a scene from A Beginner’s Guide to Endings

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The following short reviews of some of the films opening and screening on Friday, Sept. 17 at the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival are by James Adams, James Bradshaw, Guy Dixon, Rick Groen, Liam Lacey, Gayle MacDonald, Dave McGinn, J. Kelly Nestruck, Johanna Schneller and Brad Wheeler. The star ratings are out of four.



OPENING

A Beginner's Guide to Endings Jonathan Sobol (Canada)

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2 STARS

Writer-director Jonathan Sobol (a Canadian making his feature debut) is obviously enamoured with guys' guys, and here he gives us a fistful: a wayward, drunk, gambling dad (Harvey Keitel) and the three grown sons he inadvertently screwed over, the tough one (Jason Jones), the responsible one (Paulo Costanzo) and the womanizing one (Scott Caan). The story covers one frantic week in which they all attempt to change their lives, and the plot is one of those where seemingly disparate threads escalate until they all come together in cathartic coincidence. While I got it, I didn't quite buy it. Still, it's fun to watch the brothers punch each other around, and I always love seeing J.K. Simmons, who plays Keitel's voice-of-reason preacher brother. But the revelation here is Jones, the Hamilton-born actor primarily known as a correspondent for The Daily Show (and as Mr. Samantha Bee), who is as riveting as his handlebar mustache. J.S.

Sept. 17, 6:30 p.m., Roy Thomson; Sept. 18, 11:45 a.m., Varsity 8

ALSO SCREENING

Bunraku Guy Moshe (USA)

3 STARS

In this hyper-stylized mash up that's part western and part martial-arts flick, Josh Hartnett plays a mysterious stranger who is out for revenge against a crime boss known as the Nicola the Woodcutter. At his side is Yoshi, played by the Japanese actor and musician Gackt, a warrior seeking to recoup a medallion in the Woodcutter's possession. In a dystopian world without guns, it is up to the two of them to fight their way through the many killers in the Woodcutter's gang with the help of a bartender played by Woody Harrelson, who knows how to navigate the treacherous world of the underground. With a graphic style that is reminiscent of 300 and Sin City, the film, whose title refers to a 400-year-old form of Japanese puppet theatre, can sometimes venture into cartoonish territory. But with great chemistry between Hartnett and Gackt, and incredible visuals, the ambitions of director Guy Moshe's sophomore feature more than make up for what it lacks in substance. D.M.

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Sept. 17, 5 p.m., Scotiabank 2

Armadillo Janus Metz (Denmark)

3 STARS

Like the recent U.S. documentary Restrepo, this Danish doc takes viewers directly into combat in Afghanistan, as it follows a Danish platoon on a six-month tour of duty. The film took the top prize at this year's Critics' Week at Cannes, and it's easy to see why. The cinematography is artistically varied and often shot amazingly in the direct line of gunfire and bursting mortar. Like Restrepo, this is all about showing the rawness of war, and the documentary has perhaps inevitably sparked debate in Denmark about the nature in which its forces are being used in Afghanistan. But there's another controversy of the more cinematic kind: While the footage is expertly photographed, all the different uses of filters and postproduction colour correction (to say nothing of the superb sound) - which gives the film an almost Apocalypse Now quality at times - is disturbing when we're talking not about the mythology and madness of war, but about showing real, dead people in a ditch or actual children running from fighting. It'll depend on where the viewer stands in that debate. G.D.

Sept. 17, 8:15 p.m., Scotiabank 3

It's Kind of a Funny Story Ryan Fleck, Anna Boden (USA)

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3 STARS

From the acclaimed directors of Sugar and Half Nelson, It's Kind of a Funny Story is a heart-warming, poignant tale of teen angst. Craig is a tortured teenager feeling the crushing pressure of school, meeting parental expectations and fitting in with his peers. One day, Craig cracks and checks into a psych ward where he begins a journey of self-discovery, aided by a madcap group of patients. The Hangover's Zach Galifianakis steals the picture as the chronically dysfunctional but eminently wise Bobby, who teaches the adolescent how to like himself. Warts and all. G.M.

Sept. 17, 9 a.m., Varsity 8

You Are Here Daniel Cockburn (Canada)

3 STARS

"Have you heard about the dictionary for masochists?" asks a character in You Are Here. "It has all the words in it. They're just not in any particular order." That maddening notion, roughly speaking, sums up Canadian filmmaker and visual artist Daniel Cockburn's first feature film. Less a narrative than a series of interlocking thought experiments, You Are Here is thoughtful, clever, confusing, unsettling and, perhaps, just a little bit frustrating. Cockburn is a devotee of Jorge Luis Borges, whose mind-bending metaphysical leanings are apparent in the film's various threads, such as a laborious experiment showing how the mind understands language, or an archivist (played masterfully by the late Tracy Wright) desperately trying to make sense of a breadcrumb trail of found objects. It all feels as though a dash of the surreal has been woven into moments of banal human experience to see how far reality bends before it snaps. J.B.

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Sept. 17, 7:45 p.m., AMC 2; Sept. 19, 4:15 p.m., AMC 10

Oliver Sherman Ryan Redford (Canada)

2 STARS

Naming a film after one of the characters puts an intense spotlight on that fictional persona. One of the stumbling blocks for Oliver Sherman is that while it is unmistakably "about" the tribulations of its namesake, an edgy and lonely veteran searching for purpose after suffering a head wound in combat, his psyche remains such a riddle that his last act feels as mysterious as his first. As Sherman, Garret Dillahunt gives the strongest performance of a cast (including Molly Parker and Donal Logue) that generally acquits itself well. Indeed, much of the film's tension comes from imagining what Sherman might be capable of. But the storyline through which the film explores the familiar trope of soldiers struggling to adjust to civilian life feels thin, and too often the actors seem to be trying to extract more from the script than it is inclined to yield. J.B.

Sept. 17, 3 p.m., AMC 4

Easy A Will Gluck (USA)

2 STARS

The "A" is the scarlet letter and "Easy" is how our high-school heroine wears it. Stumbling into an undeserved rep as the class slut, the heretofore invisible Olive embraces the label, certain that any reputation is better than none at all. With a nod to those two great moralists of their time, Nathaniel Hawthorne and John Hughes, the comedy is a Diablo Codyesque cut above the norm, but suffers from an engrained self-consciousness - you know, the sort of precocious dialogue where teenagers just sound way too hip for their home room. Still, if the wit feels contrived, at least there's wit to be found, and Emma Stone is a consistent delight in the title role. Apparently, there's no truth to the rumours of a Canadian remake, entitled, of course, Easy Eh? R.G.

Sept. 17, 6 p.m., Ryerson

I Wish I Knew (Hai Shang Chuan Qi) Jia Zhang-ke (China/Netherlands)

3 STARS

Jia Zhang-ke's documentary on Shanghai, commissioned for this year's World Expo there, employs interviews and painterly location shooting to tell a story of how China's most populous city was shaped, over the past 70 years, by a series of historical traumas, including the Sino-Japanese War, the Chinese Civil War and the Cultural Revolution. Similar in its use of oral history to Jia's last film, 24 City, it gains momentum, and its appeal to film buffs, in the second half during a detour that deals with films set in Shanghai and takes us to exile communities in Taiwan and Hong Kong. Throughout, actress Zhao Tao wanders through the urban landscape as a representative of the city's meandering soul. L.L.

Sept. 17, 5 p.m., Jackman

Modra Ingrid Veniger (Canada)

3 STARS

Modest and appealing, this Before Sunset-style drama follows 17-year-old Lina (Hallie Switzer) and a male school friend, Leco (Alexander Gammal), who accompanies her on a trip to her family's hometown of Modra, Slovakia. Both teenagers are nursing emotional wounds - she's just been dumped by her boyfriend, his mother has recently died. Old World scenery and music and a non-professional cast give the Slovakian interlude the quality of a breezy travelogue (marred by the precious inclusion of an enigmatic mute magician). The easy, natural performances from the young actors are refreshingly realistic: They come across as awkward, curious, empathetic and, mostly, a pleasure to hang out with. L.L.

Sept. 17, 2:15 p.m., AMC 2; Sept. 18, 5:15 p.m., AMC 2

Of Gods and Men (Des hommes et des dieux) Xavier Beauvois (France)

4 STARS

This moving, elegantly made spiritual docudrama, which won the runner-up Grand Prize at Cannes, follows the last weeks in the lives of a handful of Trappist monks living in a remote Algerian mountain community in 1996. Facing increasing threats from armed Islamic militants, the monks defy orders to return home, as they maintain their daily routine: eating, singing, praying and providing medical aid and educational help to the local Muslim villagers. The source of their spiritual strength and eventual demise is the belief of abbot Christian de Chergé ( The Matrix's Lambert Wilson). Though dismissed by some critics as hagiography, this timely film does not settle for easy answers about the limits of empathy and the clash of faiths. L.L.

Sept. 17, 3 p.m., Scotiabank 11

Poetry (Shi) Lee Changdong (South Korea)

3 STARS

An aging woman takes up poetry to help cope with her Alzheimer's and the stress of dealing with her troubled grandson, in Korean director Lee Changdong's meditative melodrama. Central to the film's impact is the warm performance of Yun Junghee, as a naive, good-hearted eccentric. When her surly middle-school grandson, Wook, is charged with several of his classmates in a vicious crime, the parents of the other children arrange a chance to settle out of court, burdening the grandmother with a huge debt. As the troubles mount, she continues to follow the instructions of her poetry teacher and find beauty in life. A poignant ending helps redeem an overlong, rambling story in what stands as a decent, if second-rank, effort from the acclaimed director of Oasis and Secret Sunshine. L.L.

Sept. 17, 9 p.m., Bell Lightbox 1

Casino Jack George Hickenlooper (Canada)

3 STARS

An adrenaline rush of a tale about lobbyists gone wild in Washington, based on the true story of Jack Abramoff, the hyper-connected influence peddler who bilked millions of dollars from native-American groups and others, and helped cause the downfall of Republican House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. Of course, with Kevin Spacey playing the lead, the mania is centred squarely around his character's murky conscience. From the opening scene, in which Abramoff gives himself an aggressive pep talk into the mirror, while brushing his teeth, you know this is a film about men in suits headed for a dramatic, entertaining fall. G.D.

Sept. 17, 2:30 p.m., Elgin

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