Blame Canada!

In an atrocity called The Men Who Stare at Goats, he’s just plain nothing at all. Intended as a farcical antidote to big-screen bores about Afghanistan and Iraq, it’s twice as pompous and endlessly tedious. His friend Grant Heslov, who co-wrote the excellent Good Night, and Good Luck with Mr. Clooney, now tries his hand at military satire in this idiotic tale of a top-secret brigade of brain-damaged lunatic soldiers trained in psychic and paranormal New Age warfare at Fort Bragg, N.C. Don’t ask. Ewan McGregor, who makes more movies than the Three Stooges in their heyday, plays a struggling journalist from a small paper in Ann Arbor, Mich., who, after being dumped by his wife, heads for Kuwait in 2003 as a war correspondent. While waiting for a permit to enter Iraq, he interviews Mr. Clooney, a nut case who was trained to read the enemy’s mind and now runs a dancing school. Don’t ask. The action shifts between Iraq and Fort Bragg in 1983, and includes moronic encounters with an aging hippie officer (Jeff Bridges) weaned on George Lucas movies who trains the unit to be modern Jedis; spouts nonsense about steroids and solar cooking; and conducts sadistic experiments on goats to see if they have telepathic powers. The villain is Kevin Spacey, as an officer whose specialty is spoon bending. Don’t ask. They’re all crazy, none of their theories work, and neither does the movie. When recruited to find General Noriega, Mr. Bridges says, “Ask Angela Lansbury.” In the deserted base hospital used for a goat lab, the Jedi warriors, brain-bombed by LSD, try to stop the heart of a goat by staring it to death, which inspires the war correspondent, heavily under sedation, to mutter, “The silence of the goats.” These are the gags, and gag is exactly what you’ll do. Mr. Bridges’ pony-tailed slob is a resuscitation of his old Dude character from The Big Lebowski, and Mr. McGregor’s constant fumbling of the word Jedi is supposed to be funny, considering his own background as Obi-Wan Kenobi. It’s just stupid.

After her own contributions to the silly Star Wars franchise, Natalie Portman emerges for the first time on the screen as a ravishingly beautiful woman of ripe maturity and emotional depth in Love and Other Impossible Pursuits, an intelligent study of complex family relationships in contemporary Manhattan, by writer-director Don Roos, whose credits include the startling The Opposite of Sex. Ms. Portman plays Emilia Greenleaf, a law firm assistant who guilelessly breaks up the marriage of her boss (Scott Cohen) and his acerbic wife (Lisa Kudrow) and becomes his second wife, enriching his life with a happiness he’s never known, until their infant daughter tragically smothers to death. Blaming herself for the accident, and trying to cope with false but overwhelming guilt and simultaneously win the affection of her brilliant but uncooperative stepson (played by Charlie Tahan, a remarkable kid with sensitivity and vision beyond his years), Emilia attempts to be all things to all people on two sides of a tangled family she never set out to inherit in the first place, which leads to domestic dilemmas and alienation for all. What could have been a real soap opera is leavened by a talented cast and director Roos, who always knows how to balance the sugar by adding vinegar. The star—and the film—are real revelations.

The most unforgettable film I’ve seen also has the most forgettable title. I dare you to remember Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire, or to even say it three times in a row. But it is raw, electrically charged, heart-rending and completely shattering. Produced by Oprah Winfrey and arriving on waves of raves from Cannes, it’s an almost documentary-style look at the diabolically cruel life of a 300-pound retarded Harlem teenager called Precious who dreams of being somebody normal despite the punishing struggles of being H.I.V.-positive; pregnant with her second baby by her own father; and the victim of continual hatred and abuse, both physical and verbal, by a mother who cares about nothing but the next welfare check. It’s horrifying but hopeful, and I hope to write about it in more detail when it opens soon in New York, but for now I will simply say it’s a once-in-a-blue-moon experience that tests the boundaries of film, with an electrifying, positively Oscar-worthy performance by salty stand-up comic Mo’Nique, as the most monstrous mother on the planet.

More greatness from Get Low, a Faulknerian Southern tale set in the 1930s, and from Robert Duvall, in his first leading role in years, as a grizzled old backwoods hermit and object of curiosity for 40 years who shocks the community and his old flame (Sissy Spacek) by planning an elaborate funeral party replete with raffle tickets that will reward the winner with 300 acres of virgin timber land—music to the ears of the local mortician (Bill Murray). Mr. Duvall is a blooming miracle, and so is a film this original and unusual. And there’s more—from Werner Herzog, Alain Resnais, Steven Soderbergh, Pedro Almodóvar, Australia’s actress-turned-director Rachel Ward and fashion designer Tom Ford, not to mention a one-minute film by the long-winded Jean-Luc Godard. Careful, old man, you’ll hurt yourself.

In the second week, when the festival rounds the turn, films multiply, fatigue builds to a crisis point no Valium can ease, and everything collapses. No soap or mouthwash has been delivered to my hotel room for two days, and the Internet telephone lines no longer work, but like a masochistic fool I reach again for the official program book to see what’s playing. It’s 452 pages long and weighs almost as much as the New York telephone directory. Then I take one more glance at the New Yorker cartoon I’ve pasted over my desk of two miserable vacationers peering out from a collapsing tent with the caption: “I don’t think there’s enough vodka for another week in Canada.”

This year in Toronto, a talisman to live by.

rreed@observer.com