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Pitt, Haggis, Penn films heading to Toronto

Globe and Mail Update

Eight high-profile films were added yesterday as special presentations for the upcoming Toronto International Film Festival, including Brad Pitt's portrayal of notorious U.S. outlaw Jesse James, a directorial debut from Irish actor Stuart Townsend, a directorial resurrection by Sean Penn, an ambitious biopic in which Cate Blanchett channels her inner Bob Dylan and a cinematic return of Canada's golden boy, Paul Haggis.

Haggis, who is expected to land in Toronto fresh from screening The Valley of Elah at the Venice Film Festival, will present his political drama inspired by the murder of young American soldier Richard Davis, who died from 33 stab wounds shortly after arriving in Fort Benning, Ga.

Haggis, whose film Crash won the best-picture Oscar in 2006, has long been a vocal opponent of U.S. policy in Iraq. The film's title refers to the biblical site where David fought Goliath. Tommy Lee Jones and Susan Sarandon play Davis's parents, who search for their son's killer with help from an investigator (Charlize Theron).

It's not known yet if Pitt, who filmed Andrew Dominik's The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford in Calgary, Edmonton and Winnipeg in the summer of 2005, will make an appearance at TIFF again this year. In 2006, he caused a sensation when he came to promote Babel and stuck around to support his pal Matt Damon, who hosted the children's charity One X One. The western also stars Casey Affleck as Ford, Sam Shepard as Frank James and Mary-Louise Parker as Zeralda James.

Chances are also good that Academy Award-winner Theron (2003's Monster) may show up in Toronto, since she is also cast in boyfriend Stuart's Battle in Seattle, about the full-scale riots of 80,000 anti-globalization protesters against the World Trade Organization. Townsend, who wrote and directed, shot the film in Vancouver. It also features Andre Benjamin, Woody Harrelson, Joshua Jackson, Ray Liotta, Michelle Rodriguez and Channing Tatum.

Penn, who was slapped with a fine from Toronto City Hall last year after he lit up a smoke at a TIFF press conference, may also show his face to plug his new movie, Into the Wild, based on a true story documented by author Jon Krakauer in his bestselling novel about Christopher McCandless (Emile Hirsch), a young man from a privileged Washington background who abandoned his possessions and hitchhiked to Alaska to live - and die - in the wilderness. It also stars Marcia Gay Harden, William Hurt, Jena Malone, Catherine Keener and Vince Vaughn.

From Academy Award-nominated writer-director Todd Haynes (Velvet Goldmine), audiences will see I'm Not There, a biographical film about the iconic singer/songwriter Bob Dylan. Haynes hand-picked six actors who will portray six distinct stages of Dylan's career, including Blanchett, Christian Bale, Marcus Carl Franklin, Ben Whishaw, Heath Ledger and Richard Gere.

Co-written and directed by Haynes, the film - whose title is a reference to the Dylan outtake recorded during The Basement Tapes (Sessions) - was shot in Montreal.

Two comedies focused on contemporary (dysfunctional) American families will also be special presentations. Margot at the Wedding, written and directed by Academy Award-nominated Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale), stars Nicole Kidman and Baumbach's real-life wife, Jennifer Jason Leigh, as polar-opposite sisters.

In Tamara Jenkins's The Savages, Oscar-winner Philip Seymour Hoffman (Capote) and Laura Linney are cast as geographically and emotionally estranged siblings who have to reunite to care for their estranged and ailing elderly father.

Joe Wright's Atonement, based on Ian McEwan's acclaimed novel, will screen in Toronto after it opens the Venice festival. Set predominantly in England in the 1930s, Atonement tells the tale of a privileged young girl, Briony Tallis (Saoirse Ronan), who causes a catastrophe for her older sister, Cecilia (Keira Knightley), and her lover, Robbie Turner (James McAvoy).

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