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Woody Allen, Bruce McDonald and much more

Woody Allen (left) directs Anthony Hopkins on the set of You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger.

The following short reviews of films opening on Sunday, Sept. 12 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.

The Conspirator Robert Redford (USA)

3 STARS

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This is by no means a great movie, but in telling a gripping and little-known true story with many contemporary resonances it has time(liness) on its side. It's 1865, the Union has pretty much clinched victory in the American Civil War when suddenly President Lincoln is assassinated by Confederate zealot John Wilkes Booth. Fear and anxiety grip the nation. Hundreds of citizens are rounded up, including Mary Surratt (Robin Wright), a widow and Southern sympathizer whose son is an associate of Booth. Eventually, she's lumped in with the other assassin conspirators and tried before a military commission where her rookie lawyer (James McAvoy), also a decorated Union soldier, isn't so sure she should be saved from the gallows. Redford doesn't belabour the parallels between then and now, now and then, but they're striking (and apt) nevertheless. A fine cast (including Kevin Kline, Evan Rachel Wood and Tom Wilkinson) strives mightily to personalize the tale but, finally, they're just passengers on a great engine of plot. JA

Sunday, Sept. 12, 12 noon, Ryerson; Sept. 19, 2:45 p.m., Varsity

The Illusionist (L'illusionniste) Sylvain Chomet (U.K.)

3 STARS

A surprisingly melancholic homage to the great French filmmaker Jacques Tati. This animated feature from the director of The Triplets of Belleville has no manic scenes or even outright moments of hilarity. Instead, it pleasingly and quietly follows a character resembling the angular and awkward Tati as an itinerant magician who finds himself in Scotland. Along the way, a young girl tags along, creating a father-daughter bond which never fully explains itself. It never needs to. Based on an unproduced script by Tati himself, the story was thought to the late filmmaker's message to his daughter, while Chomet's own daughter went through her teen years as he made this film. What both filmmakers left for us is a beautiful, ambiguous dream. G.D.

Sept. 12, 2:30 p.m., Elgin; Sept. 19, 6:30 p.m., Bell Lightbox 2

West Is West Andy De Emmony (U.K.)

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3 STARS

This is a sequel to East Is East, the 1999 hit family comedy about a Pakistani family living in Salford, England, and their struggles with their Old World father, George Khan (Om Puri), and Caucasian mother (Linda Bassett). The new movie picks up in 1975, when George decides to sort out his unruly youngest son, Sajid, on a journey back to Pakistan, leaving his wife (temporarily) at home. As in the previous film the form is peculiar, a blend of cultural-alienation drama and sitcom. Puri is compelling as George, a hypocrite who holds his children to standards of conduct he doesn't meet. His conflicted character can seem out of place against the broadness of the Carry On Gang-style humour. But somehow, the idea that the struggles of culture shock can be both psychologically traumatizing and a bit of a laugh works. L.L.

Sept. 12, 1:30 p.m., Roy Thomson; Sept. 14, 12:30 p.m., Winter Garden; Sept. 18; 6:15 p.m., Scotiabank 2

You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger Woody Allen (U.K./USA/Spain)

3 STARS

This decent, second-rank Woody Allen comedy features a cast led by Anthony Hopkins, Naomi Watts and Josh Brolin in a moody farce about romantic delusions and practical disappointments. Helena Shepridge (Gemma Jones) visits a psychic after she's been ditched by her husband of 40 years, Alfie (Hopkins), who has taken up with a call girl (a scene-stealing Lucy Punch). Helena and Alfie's daughter, curator Sally (Watts) is wed to blocked novelist Roy (Brolin), but both have roving eyes. He begins to flirt with a comely neighbour (Freida Pinto) while she fantasizes about her unhappily married boss, Greg (Antonio Banderas). None of this breaks new ground, but as is often the case with Allen, the ridiculous absurdities of the characters undermine the habitual pessimistic pose. L.L.

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Sept. 12, 6 p.m., Elgin; Sept. 19, 12 p.m., AMC 6

Trigger Bruce McDonald (Canada)

3 STARS

Sometimes an on-screen pairing just clicks. Though filled with recognizable faces - Sarah Polley, Don McKellar, Callum Keith Rennie, Caroline Gillis - Trigger leans almost entirely on its leading ladies, Molly Parker and the late Tracy Wright. They play reunited rocker chicks who have taken widely divergent paths in life and are wrangling demons born of a youth spent with sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll. Looking gaunt, Wright is splendid as Vic, the sharp and sarcastic half of the duo wasted by a taste for heroin. Parker is a charming and convincing foil as the cheerier Kat, now a well-paid TV executive still battling demons of her own. Trigger was rushed into production after Wright was diagnosed with cancer, but it doesn't feel that way. Shot simply but compellingly, it feels like a polished and practised portrait of rekindled bonds. J.B.

Sept. 12, 5:30 p.m., Bell Lightbox 1; Sept. 18, 12:45 p.m., Scotiabank 2

Life, Above All Oliver Schmitz (South Africa/Germany)

3 STARS

AIDS has claimed millions of South African lives in the last 25 years and today it's estimated the country has more than 800,000 "AIDS orphans." Life, Above All puts several poignant human faces to these statistics, telling the story of one township girl's efforts to hold her family and its dignity together in the face of illness, poverty, prejudice and superstition. Newcomer Khomotso Manyaka heads a uniformly excellent cast as the desperate yet indomitable Chanda who's forced to grow up fast when her newborn sister dies, her mother's health deteriorates and her alcoholic father disappears. AIDS, its threat and reality, hovers like a miasma but such is its stigma that 80 minutes of the film's 106-minute running time pass before the word is spoken aloud. Bernhard Jasper's cinematography, under Oliver Schmitz's direction, is at once funky and elegant while the script, adapted by Schmitz and Vancouver writer Dennis Foon from Allan Stratton's 2004 novel Chanda's Secret, is inspiring without resorting to any cheap sentimentality. A hit at Cannes, it'll be a hit at TIFF. J.A.

Sept. 12, 3 p.m., Varsity 8; Sept. 14, 6:15 p.m., AMC 5

The Housemaid (Hanyo) Im Sang-soo (South Korea)

2 STARS

An unnecessary remake of Kim Ki-young's 1960 Korean masterpiece (rediscovered at the 1997 Pusan film festival) flips the premise of the first film, a strange black-and-white shocker about a psychotic hyper-sexual servant girl who destroys a middle-class household. The new film focuses on the more familiar evils of the filthy rich and plays out like a Fatal Attraction erotic thriller with a ludicrously sensational ending. The main interest here is the performance of the sympathetic Jeon Do-yeon ( Secret Sunshine) as Eun-yi, a servant brought into a rich household to work for the handsome master and his spoiled, pregnant wife. Even when the script gives her a character who's an enigma, you somehow feel right must be on her side. L.L.

Sept. 12, 9:30 p.m., Roy Thomson; Sept. 14, 4:30 p.m., Winter Garden; Sept. 19, 6 p.m., Scotiabank 2

Jack Goes Boating Philip Seymour Hoffman (USA)

2 STARS

One of the most gifted actors of his generation, Philip Seymour Hoffman makes his debut behind the camera, even while starring in the title role, and the verdict is … a deep disappointment. Centred on the loves lost and found by four semi-functional New Yorkers, it's an adaptation of a theatre play, but there ain't much adapting going on. Instead, this thing creaks with staginess, a problem exacerbated by Hoffman's single-minded reliance on medium shots with a fixed lens. Yep, he makes the rookie mistake of so many actors-turned-directors - sticking his cast in a static frame and giving them a broad licence to emote. The result is always the same: lower-case directing, upper-case ACTING, a smorgasbord of uber-sensitivity. R.G.

Sept. 12, 1 p.m., Isabel Bader; Sept. 19, 9 p.m., Scotiabank 2

Outside the Law (Hors la loi) Rachid Bouchareb (France/Algeria/Tunisia/Italy/Belgium)

2 STARS

A potentially inflammatory story about Muslim freedom-fighters/terrorists in France during the Algerian independence war gets the generic gangster-epic treatment from director Rachid Bouchareb ( Days of Glory). After an early historical set up, the drama coalesces into a schematic tale of three Algerian immigrant brothers who choose different life courses to fight French authority. Oldest brother Saïd is an apolitical pimp and boxing promoter; Indochina war vet Messaoub is a warrior with a conscience, while bespectacled intellectual Abdelkader is a heartless fanatic. Shoot-em-up scenes borrow so liberally from such Hollywood models as The Godfather and The Untouchables that it's difficult to take the anti-imperialist message seriously. L.L.

Sept. 12, 10 p.m., Isabel Bader; Sept. 13, 12 p.m., Varsity 8; Sept. 18, 3:45 p.m., AMC 6

Small Town Murder Songs Ed Gass-Donnelly (Canada)

2 STARS

There are some interesting echoes of Carlos Reygadas's Silent Light (another tale of sin in a Mennonite community) in Gass-Donnelly's Ontario-set drama, which stars Peter Stormare as a hulking, small-town cop with a violent history who has recently become a born-again Christian. Sudden moments of song and music from the band Bruce Peninsula occasionally burst into the film like an impending spiritual revelation that sets up higher expectations than the plot delivers. The essential predicament - of a murdered stripper, and the suspect, a low-life former biker (Aaron Poole) who's with the cop's ex-mistress (Jill Hennessy) - is a downbeat, naturalistic drama with little room for mystery or ambiguity. L.L.

Sept. 12, 7 p.m., AMC 6; Sept. 14, 12:30 p.m., Varsity 7; Sept. 17, 9:30 p.m., AMC 6

Tamara Drewe Stephen Frears (U.K.)

2 STARS

Director Stephen Frears takes it easy here in this loopy minor effort, adapted from Posy Simmonds's comic-strip-turned-graphic-novel which is a loose comic update on Thomas Hardy's Far from the Madding Crowd. Gemma Arterton ( Clash of the Titans) stars as the titular Tamara, a former ugly-duckling girl columnist who, after a nose job, returns to her home village. In her red sleeveless top and denim cut-offs, she instantly puts the local writers' colony into a tizzy with her sexual allure. The film is at its most fun focusing on the oddball writers' group -- an American academic dullard (Bill Camp) stuck on his book about Hardy, an Irishwoman who writes "lesbian crime for the Internet," and the womanizing master of the retreat, pompous crime novelist Nicholas (Roger Allam). Some of the lines are sharp, but the antic sex farce becomes wearing, particularly the emphasis on a couple of busybody teenage girls whose machinations drive the plot. L.L.

Sept. 12, 9 p.m., Ryerson; Sept. 13, 3:30 p.m., AMC 7

! Women Art Revolution - A Secret History Lynn Hershman Leeson (USA)

2 STARS

In the U.S. in the late 1960s, the fashion in art was minimalism, devoid of political context, and its preferred makers and arbiters were white males. Almost simultaneously, two movements sprang up - one led by Judy Chicago at the California Institute of the Arts, and the other by the women's collective A.I.R Publications in New York. Their mission was to challenge cultural perceptions, to politicize (i.e., feminize) art, and to change the way it was made, sold and displayed. Artist Lynn Hershman Leeson began to film them, as well as other female artists, scholars and curators -- and kept filming for the next 40 years. The result is this highly personal documentary (Leeson includes her own art, "to not continue the legacy of omission"). Though it breaks little new ground, it reminds the current generation -- who think "feminist" is limiting - how hard women had to fight to achieve equality, and how far they have yet to go. J.S.

Sept. 12, 12:15 p.m., AMC 2; Sept. 14, 7:45 p.m., AMC 10; Sept. 19, 3:45 p.m., AMC 7

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