The best repertory and art-house screenings, special presentations, lectures, and limited engagements in Toronto.
At rep cinemas this week: Highlights from an international short film festival, a screening series about science on film, and a waterlogged recreation of the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004.
The International Short Film Festival Oberhausen, 2012 Competition
TIFF Bell Lightbox (350 King Street West)
Since 1954, the International Short Film Festival Oberhausen has been an important stage for short films, screening works from luminaries like Roman Polanski, Kenneth Anger, Chantal Akerman, and Canada’s own Norm McLaren early in their respective careers. 2012′s competition slate comes to Toronto courtesy of the Goethe-Institut, which has scheduled two nights of programming highlighting the best of the festival.
Tuesday’s selection, which focuses on animal and human behaviour, is bookended by a pair of longer works by established filmmakers. The most formally sophisticated is Snow Tapes, by Israeli visual artist Mich’ael Zupraner. Zupraner offered a Palestinian family in an Israeli-controlled section of Hebron a video camera. They filmed everything from the mundane, a snowball fight and a child’s mild temper tantrum, to the political, including an encounter with a group of Israeli neighbours who harass the family by throwing stones at their home. The conceit is interesting, but Zupraner’s ingenious structure is what makes Snow Tapes special: he has the family watch and comment on their own footage on the left side of the screen, blowing the video up and relegating it to its own compartment on the right, granting the seemingly minor experiences of this family the gravity of the infamous Abraham Zapruder footage of John F. Kennedy’s assassination.
The other major film in the programme is Philip Barker’s Malody, a riff on Brian De Palma’s Carrie that sees an ill young girl using her mind to warp the contents of the room she’s in. Her gravity-defying fit allows Barker, a noted Canadian production designer who has worked for none other than De Palma himself, to manipulate his set in compelling ways, while rigging some impressive trick shots. Cited earlier this year by the Toronto International Film Festival as one of the best Canadian shorts of the year, the film will be introduced by Barker, who will stay for questions after the screening.
Directed by Andrew Niccol
Bloor Hot Docs Cinema (506 Bloor Street West)
Gattaca announces both its thematic terrain and its seriousness right from the opening title card, pulled from Ecclesiastes. “Who can straighten what he hath made crooked,” it reads, a question debuting director Andrew Niccol earnestly takes up in the anti-eugenic parable to follow, one of the smartest films of the heady science-fiction revival of the late 1990s.
Niccol’s film doesn’t have the cyberpunk thrills of the Wachowski’s hugely successful Matrix series, but its elegance and unhip refusal of action setpieces makes it the stronger film, in retrospect. Ethan Hawke stars as Vincent, the crookedly made man hinted at by the epigraph. Vincent was born with a heart defect in a utopia/dystopia where children are carefully sculpted from pregnancy, and genetic quirks screened to stop such deviations from ever being carried to term. To realize his dream of piloting a shuttle to Saturn’s moon—a hammy goal, to be sure—Vincent must adopt the so-called “genetic profile” of Jerome (Jude Law), a second-tier athlete whose swimming days ended after a car accident paralyzed him from the waist down.
Though it’s well-acted and gorgeously lensed by Slawomir Idziak, Gattaca isn’t perfect. There’s something dopey about the murder mystery Niccol keeps trying to shoehorn into the main story. For all its bona fides as a polemic about the dangers of discrimination, genetic or otherwise, Niccol also doesn’t know what to do with Jerome’s disability, treating it as a tragic but noble state for a beautiful man to find himself in—an odd inconsistency in a film that is otherwise firmly on the side of physical variation. But despite its flaws, you won’t find many recent works of speculative fiction in film that are either this smart or this sincere.
Gattaca screens as part of the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema’s “Science at the Movies” series, co-hosted by the University of Toronto and the Treehouse Group. Following the film, there will be a panel discussion with U of T Professors Donald Ainslie, from the Department of Philosophy, and Lucy R. Osborne, from the Departments of Medicine and Molecular Genetics.
Directed by Juan Antonio Bayona
The Royal (608 College Street)
Ahead of its first press screening at the Toronto International Film Festival, the notes on Juan Antonio Bayona’s international smash hit The Impossible sold its immersive sound design, boasting that it was the maiden voyage of a new kind of 3D technology that could practically put you in the film. You’d expect that kind of chest-beating in the press notes for Transformers, but that it came packaged with a film about the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004 seemed in poor taste.
Unfortunately, the bad omen proved true. Bayona’s film is the worst sort of disaster porn, a grossly manipulative CGI spectacle designed to quicken the pulse of anyone seeking cinematic destruction, then to assuage their fears that it is not good form to root for a tsunami with a rote coda about those who did not survive. What might have been a nice touch registers as a false display of crocodile tears, given the thriller mode Bayona is working in throughout: the touchstone here, as evidenced by all the wondrous close-ups, is obviously Steven Spielberg, but while Bayona is shooting for Schindler’s List, he’s only managed a real-life outtake to the pulpy horror of The Lost World: Jurassic Park.
To her credit, as a British tourist wounded and separated from her son and husband (Ewan McGregor), Naomi Watts consistently rises above this shameless material—sometimes literally, as in an eerie nightmare sequence that sees her shot up in the air on a wave, aiming straight for the heavens. This is an intensely physical performance, and Watts remains dignified even when the script calls for her body to be ravaged by nature—no small feat. But it’s also an orphaned performance, top-notch work in a b-grade thriller that desperately wants to be more.