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Two-and-a-half-star films

All or Nothing
Mike Leigh (U.K.)

This is familiar ground for Mike Leigh: an ensemble look at working-class neighbours in a London housing project over the course of a weekend. Leigh's well-observed real-life moments and offbeat humour do not get their best showcase here in a story that teeters on caricature and ends up awash in sentimentality. At the centre of the miserable circle is Phil Bassett (Timothy Spall), a depressive cab driver with two overweight children and an unhappy wife (Lesley Manville) who struggles to keep food on the table. In the midst of boozing and misery among the older set - and sexual contests among the young - the movie manages a pregnancy, a woman beater, an alcoholic, a couple of car crashes and a heart attack before the forced sunny ending. The bravura performance of the film goes to Manville, though one can't help feeling the script judges her character unfairly. - L.L.
(Mon., Sept. 9, 9 p.m., Uptown 2; Tues., Sept. 10, 9:15 a.m., Cumberland 3.)

Ararat
Atom Egoyan (Canada)

Director Atom Egoyan's attempt to address the Armenian genocide of 1915 is not an attempt at a re-enactment. It is a contemporary story with a circle of characters feeling the aftershocks of that history in a series of convoluted relationships. There are at least nine characters, all full of decent intentions, including an art history professor (Arsinée Khanjian) specializing in the works of Arshile Gorky, Charles Aznavour as the director of a film within the film, and various others offering a cross-section of viewpoints. The characters are connected by discussions of storytelling and veracity, accusations and denials, but trying to sort out the forests of implications and links of causality finally leaves the viewer more confounded than moved. - L.L.
(Thurs. Sept. 5, 8 p.m., RTH; Thurs. Sept. 5, 7:15 p.m., Uptown 1.)

Blind Spot: Hitler's Secretary
Andre Heller, Othmar Schmiderer (Austria)

This documentary promises infinitely more than it delivers. At the tender age of 22, Traudl Junge was plucked from anonymity to work as Hitler's secretary, which she faithfully did from late 1942 through to the final days in the Berlin bunker. Now you might expect such an intimate vantage to yield real insights into a figure whose hold on our imaginations remains as strong as ever. Sorry, but no. Talking straight to the camera, an aged yet still attractive Junge says little or nothing that isn't widely known, and most of what she does venture falls into the shallow category of the trite paradox - hey, the man who doomed millions was nice to children, fond of animals and invariably polite in mixed company. We keep hoping for more, and the film shrewdly rides the momentum of that hope - our anticipation keeps us watching eagerly, and leaves us keenly disappointed. - R.G.
(Mon. Sept. 9, 10 p.m., Uptown 3; Tues. Sept. 10, 4:30 p.m., Varsity 2.)

Blue Car
Karen Moncrieff (U.S.)

An unhappy teen living with her divorced mother, Meg writes tortured poetry along the lines of: "I am the disease that rots the bark of trees." The tortured movie that follows is cut from the same sophomoric mould. As the family melodrama intensifies - bitter arguments with her narcissistic mom, worrying behaviour by her even more troubled sister - our aspiring writer seeks comfort from a concerned English teacher, whose literary encouragements aren't entirely without an ulterior motive. Along the way, writer/director Karen Moncrieff elicits strong performances from the cast, but her more-sensitive-than-thou script is another matter entirely - the suffering just seems too arch and arbitrary. Blue Car plays like juvenilia from Sylvia Plath - stuff better left to mature in the rewrite drawer. - R.G.
(Tues. Sept. 10, 7 p.m., Uptown 3; Thurs. Sept. 12, 9:15 a.m., Cumberland 3.)

FIX: The Story of an Addicted City
Nettie Wild (Canada)

Given the title, you might expect a bit more journalistic scaffolding in this documentary about heroin abuse in Vancouver: How many addicts are there? How long have they been there? Oddly, these mere details are not part of the film that Nettie Wild (A Place Called Chiapas) wants to make: A compelling if incomplete portrait of the relationship between a charismatic ex-con heroin-user named Dean and an angry, impassioned social activist, Anne. The story of their troubled relationship sits in the middle of a more ordinary piece of advocacy about the former mayor's failed attempt to create a more progressive drug policy for Vancouver. - L.L.
(Tues. Sept. 10, 7 p.m., Cumberland 3; Thurs. Sept. 12, 1:30 p.m., ROM.)

Horns and Halos
Suki Hawley, Michael Galinsky (U.S.)

A wrenching if incomplete look at a troubled writer, James Hatfield, who wrote the George W. Bush biography Fortunate Son (1999). The book made the once-controversial claims that the current U.S. president used cocaine and boozed excessively, was a flop at business and dodged the draft. Hatfield suffered ignominy when the book was dropped by its publisher and his own criminal past - including a five-year prison stint for attempted murder - was exposed. The movie shows the battle of a hustling punk publishing company, Softskull Press, to bring the book back to light, leading to a pivotal appearance on 60 Minutes before the volatile writer's tragic unraveling. Hatfield seems less a victim of Bush than his own worst enemy - himself. - L.L.
(Sun. Sept. 8, 10 p.m., Cumberland 3; Wed. Sept. 11, noon, ROM.)

Intacto
Juan Carlos Fresnadillo (Spain)

Intacto tries to be a thriller (successfully) and a movie of ideas (unsuccessfully). It takes place in a world like our own except for one thing: Some are born with a gift for controlling luck. They prey on gambling casinos protected by others, like the mysterious Sam (Max von Sydow), who have the power to rob others of their gift by touching them. Sam thus robs his unfaithful protégé, Federico, in a vampiric embrace. The film then unspools as a tale of Federico's revenge as he seeks a "lucky" man powerful enough to destroy Sam. It also tries to speculate on the meaning of luck and causality, but here it falters. The characters are typical denizens of any crime film, and the modulations of "luck" - especially a sequence about Sam's childhood escape from a Nazi death camp - are unconvincing. But it is a visually splendid portrait of a soul-dead world, full of tenebrous underground chambers and lifeless sunburnt vistas. - R.C.
(Sat., Sept. 7, 6 p.m., Uptown 2; Fri., Sept. 13, 1:45 p.m., Cumberland 1.)

Is the Crown at War with Us?
Alanis Obomsawin (Canada)

Alanis Obomsawin (Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance) offers the native take on the Burnt Church confrontations of 2000 that saw Mi'kmaqs in angry, humiliating fights with fishermen and RCMP officers when they attempted to exercise their historic fishing rights. As an exercise in advocacy for native rights, the film is of interest, and its portrait of the continuing failure of the federal government is depressing. But Obomsawin's desire to present a united and harmonious native front feels forced: She simply doesn't question, for example, the role of the controversial "warrior society" or admit any division within the community about their tactics and dubious historical claims. - L.L.
(Fri. Sept. 13, 6 p.m., Cumberland 3; Sat. Sept. 14, 6:30 p.m., Varsity 7.)

Laurel Canyon
Lisa Cholodenko (U.S.)

The director of High Art returns with a California tale of a conservative young Harvard graduate, Sam (Christian Bale), his academic fiancée Alex (Kate Beckinsale) and their mind-altering stay with Jane (Frances McDormand), his wild record-producer mom. What follows is a kind of slow-motion sex farce. Alessandro Nivola plays the young British pop star who sleeps with Jane and has an eye for Alex. Meanwhile, Sam is being tempted by a senior Israeli resident (Natascha McElhone). McDormand offers a witty performance, but much of the plotting is gauche, teetering on a softcore-porn level of emotional insight and moral resolution. - L.L.
(Sat. Sept. 7, 9:45 p.m., Elgin; Mon. Sept. 9, 3:30 p.m., Uptown 1.)

Long Life, Happiness and Prosperity
Mina Shum (Canada)

A children's movie really, centring on cute, bespectacled Mindy Ho (Valerie Tian) who is determined to employ various kinds of traditional Chinese magic to find her single mom (Sandra Oh) a husband. Soon, Mindy's magic causes unpredictable results - a security guard loses his job, a local butcher wins the lottery, and two men fall in love with each other. Somewhat less persuasive is the sentimental flip-side to the comedy, including a subplot about the butcher's attempts to reconcile with his father and his problems with his own son. - L.L.
(Sat. Sept. 7, 8:30 p.m., Cumberland 2; Mon. Sept. 9, 4 p.m., Uptown 3.)

A Lucky Day
Sandra Gugliotta (Argentina/Italy)

Director Sandra Gugliotta invests the desires of a generation of young Argentineans in 25-year-old Elsa (Valentina Bassi). Alongside three friends, she struggles - with good cheer - to make ends meet in a society marred by economic collapse, unemployment and social unrest. Gugliotta also includes, to great effect, documentary-like scenes of the 2000 riots that could have been shot by an intrepid reporter with a handheld camera. But there is a marked difference between showing a situation and engaging with it: the film fails to hold up to scrutiny. Appealing actors like Bassi are of little consolation when the narrow-minded story they're placed in refuses to dig beneath the surface; and the cameraman in charge of the handheld could also have used a tripod once in a while. - M.P.
(Fri. Sept. 6, 6 p.m., ROM; Sun. Sept. 8, 9:15 a.m., Varsity 1.)

My Mother's Smile
Marco Bellocchio (Italy)

A contemporary Italian painter (Sergio Castellitto) discovers that his mother is being considered for canonization. His revulsion comes not just from his atheism, but his realization that his family - including his former wife - is working at manipulating a tragic history (the mother was murdered by the painter's insane brother) for possible social gain. What begins as a Kafka-esque study in bizarre paranoia devolves into melodrama, but along the way this is a fascinating curiosity. - L.L.
(Thurs. Sept. 12, 7 p.m., Elgin; Sat. Sept. 14, 3 p.m., Uptown 2.)

Nowhere in Africa
Caroline Link (Germany)

If the title rings a bell then so will the movie - this is Out of Africa with a German accent. Fleeing the Nazis, a Jewish family - lawyer father, snobbish mother, precocious daughter - travel from Breslau to Kenya, where they take up work as tenant farmers. A drought, a war, a plague, a pestilence and much domestic melodrama later, many life-lessons have been learned - like a tolerance for others and a love of this wild land. Fair enough, but such clichéd revelations hardly merit the running time - at 2 hours and 20 minutes, the picture is epic only in length. Director Caroline Link displays a keen eye for the African surroundings, yet struggles with the narrative pacing - the story slows when it should hurry and rushes when it should ponder. The performances are solid but the result is frustrating - a merely watchable film that could have been so much more. - R.G.
(Thurs. Sept. 5, 5:30 p.m., Varsity 8; Fri. Sept. 13, 11:15 a.m., Varsity 3.)

Pure
Gillies MacKinnon (U.K.)

Canada's Molly Parker stars as a heroin-addicted mom whose 10-year-old son Paul (Harry Eden) must bring her breakfast in bed along with her morning fix. MacKinnon (Small Faces) has a gift for working with child actors, but the strong performances, and the creepy domesticity of drug-using, can't overcome the schematic movie-of-the-week quality of the script. -- L.L.
(6 p.m., Uptown 2.)

Rabbit-Proof Fence
Phillip Noyce (Australia)
There's a bullet-proof smugness that mars Rabbit-Proof Fence, one of those based-on-a-true-story flicks that pits the plucky individual against the misguided state. In Australia circa 1931, the government has legislated the forcible removal of "half-caste" children away from their aboriginal families and into residential schools. Led by the indomitable Molly, three such children escape the institution and trek on foot across the wilderness - seeking to walk the 2,400 kilometres back to their rightful home, and pursued en route by the obsessive bureaucrat (Kenneth Branagh) who engineered this racist policy. The rest is really an extended chase scene, directed with quiet skill by Phillip Noyce but undermined by the material's self-congratulatory tone. The girls' courage is uplifting but the script isn't. From the bald symbols to the incriminating dialogue, the screenplay deals in the same easy certitudes as the bad law it condemns. - R.G.
(Sun. Sept. 8, 6:30 p.m., Uptown 1; Tues. Sept. 10, noon, Cumberland 3.)


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