The best repertory and art-house screenings, special presentations, lectures, and limited engagements in Toronto.
At rep cinemas this week: a documentary on reintegrating rivers in cities, a thriller set in East Germany, and an Academy Award-winning musical.
Directed by Caroline Bâcle
Bloor Hot Docs Cinema (506 Bloor Street West)
Early in Montreal-documentarian Caroline Bâcle’s Lost Rivers, an environmentalist artist describes his work uncovering hidden rivers in urban centres as an effort to introduce the “face of water” to the public. Far from simply offering an apocalyptic forecast of planetary doom and gloom, Bâcle’s film similarly takes pride in introducing audiences to forgotten aspects of the natural world.
Serious as it is, Lost Rivers is light on the didacticism we’ve tended to expect of environmentally conscious documentaries ever since An Inconvenient Truth won an Oscar. Instead, Bâcle packages her globally diverse history of the disruption of natural water systems with a lively and intelligent profile of a loose international coalition of “drainers”: explorers who navigate the messy world of underground rivers that flow through the drainage pipes of big cities.
Through these intrepid subjects (and a host of informal interviews with academics) the film gives a sense of what cities can do in order to reintegrate bodies of water into their landscapes, and into the public consciousness.
Bâcle’s interesting premise is that while cities are typically built along rivers, we’ve gradually pushed them underground, mostly for aesthetic reasons. The utopian goal of Lost Rivers is to bear witness to the fact that they’re still there, ready to be re-integrated into healthy metropolitan centres.
Directed by Christian Petzold
Big Picture Cinema (1035 Gerrard Street East)
Between Argo, Skyfall, and Zero Dark Thirty, spies had a pretty good year in the movies in 2012. Generally, they come across as unsung guardians. Their winning streak ended with Christian Petzold’s stunning Barbara, a taut portrait of Stasi-dominated East Berlin in 1980. Unlike Skyfall’s superhuman spooks and Argo’s lovable tricksters, Barbara’s spies are the dumpy-looking people next door—representatives of a culture of surveillance so insidious that even the shifty-eyed landlady seems capable of unspeakable horrors in the name of the state.
Petzold’s frequent collaborator Nina Hoss plays the title character, an East German physician banished to the countryside for requesting a permit to leave the country so she can join her paramour in West Germany. Barbara is hard to read, and the film gets a lot of mileage out of Hoss’s inscrutable face and brusque delivery. We’re not sure at first if she’s simply a haughty, cultured city doctor unaccustomed to provincial surroundings she’d just as soon leave, or a guarded person, protecting herself against the probing eyes of strangers who would be all too happy to write her up for any behavioural infractions.
That we never really figure out what drives Barbara, even as we see her kindness toward patients in equally tough positions, is a testament both to Hoss’s terrific performance and Petzold’s firm grip on the material. Without firing a single bullet, Petzold has crafted as suspenseful a film as any this year—a thriller based on sharp sound cues, furtive glances, and rich characters who keep their motivations close to their chests.
Directed by Tom Hooper
Fox Theatre (2236 Queen Street East)
Tom Hooper’s Academy Award Best Picture win for The King’s Speech in 2011 became a rallying point for auteurists who favoured the clearer directorial stylings of David Fincher, whose The Social Network had also been nominated. Hooper’s work, some critics thought, was comparatively undistinguished—the stuff of Masterpiece Theatre and stuffy period pieces. Given that sour history, it’s hard not to read Les Misérables, itself an Oscar success (though notably absent in the Best Director category), as Hooper’s imperious response. It’s a film that unmistakably bears its director’s signature.
You wouldn’t think a big-budget adaptation of Les Mis would need much showboating to distinguish itself. Though the show was plagued by bad reviews after its 1985 stage debut, the musical adaptation of Victor Hugo’s novel about post-revolutionary France has since became an enormous hit, a global phenomenon that easily ranks among the longest-running musicals in history. Hooper, though, seems intent on making his interpretation especially memorable, saddling his version with an absurd procession of off-kilter cinematic compositions that either lop off his performers heads or peer dangerously far into their nostrils. This isn’t so much an adaptation as a smell-o-vision extension of the original production, bringing Jean Valjean’s tragic tale of abjection and redemption to life by plunging us ever deeper into his armpits or shaking jowls, as if the camera’s proximity to star Hugh Jackman’s body is better than proper characterization ever could be.
It’s a pity, because the cast gives it their all. Jackman’s nasally register isn’t the most natural fit for Valjean, but his fundamental decency translates nicely to a character defined largely by his saintliness. Jackman does, however, often seem strained by the film’s cramped aesthetic.
If Valjean has always been a bit flat, showstopper Fantine is a study in character development by brute force: more events happen to her in the 10-minute lead-in to her big number than in the rest of the film’s 120 minutes. It takes a true diva to bring a construct like Fantine to life, and Anne Hathaway does her very best.
Her rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream” feels even more like a keener student’s final exam than Susan Boyle’s infamous performance of the song before a frowning Simon Cowell, but you have to give Hathaway credit for running the gamut of the fifty or so distinct emotional states the song requires. That she does so while contending with Hooper’s spotty choices (in this case, he trains the camera on her in a single take, in close-up so extreme that when she moves at one point, she nearly tumbles out of the frame) verges on miraculous. It isn’t the most dignified performance, but it’s a brave one. Every one of her decisions is in service of the song, even as her director works tirelessly in service of his own reputation as a stylist.