The best repertory and art-house screenings, special presentations, lectures, and limited engagements in Toronto.
At rep cinemas this week: Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy stroll through the southern Peloponnese, Leonardo DiCaprio makes a decent Gatsby, and a man documents his last months with ALS.
Directed by Richard Linklater
TIFF Bell Lightbox (350 King Street West)
In his wild swings between crowd-pleasers like School of Rock and didactic side projects like Fast Food Nation, Richard Linklater has charted an unpredictable career trajectory, with the lone exception of his dependably wonderful Before series. Arriving roughly every 9 years, the films pick up with stars (and, since 2004’s entry Before Sunset, co-screenwriters) Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy as they roam through different European cities, engaged in some of the most sustained philosophical discussion in American cinema.
Before Midnight is the third and richest installment in the unlikely franchise, an uncommonly perceptive sequel that finds Hawke’s Jesse and Delpy’s Celine settled into their forties long after the last time we saw them, when Jesse missed a flight back to his wife and child in America to bask in Celine’s Parisian apartment. Though the couple seems more comfortable now, lounging in a Greek summer house in the waning days of Jesse’s apprenticeship with a more-senior novelist, Before Sunset‘s cliffhanger ending, and more specifically its substitution of one family for another, turns out to have set the tone for the intervening years.
Though Before Midnight‘s predecessors go out of their way to make time for the couple’s famously charming conversations—the last installment saw them killing an hour and change between a book signing and a flight—this film is an autumnal variation on the formula, mindful of how parenting and the scheduling realities of both creative and activist jobs make such pockets of reflection scarce. The change adds a new kind of tension: as we watch the stars catch or avert glances from across the room, seeing their younger selves (and future doppelgängers) reflected in other couples at their host’s home, we wonder if they’ll find the time to debrief about what they’ve seen. The anticipatory “Before” of the series has always been a key part of these movies’ success, with Sunrise hinging on the knowledge that the two strangers would eventually have to part ways, and Sunset running up against a non-refundable plane ticket. Before Midnight has the most intense deadline yet: mortality, which is slyly represented by a romantic hotel getaway the pair have been putting off for the whole trip until their hosts (and Linklater) force them to go. It’s coming this time, whether they make their plane or not.
The Great Gatsby
Directed by Baz Luhrmann
Fox Theatre (2236 Queen Street East)
In the promotional lead-up to The Great Gatsby‘s release, much was made of Jay-Z’s involvement as music producer, which some read as a token of Baz Luhrmann’s intent to pull F. Scott Fitzgerald’s modernist novel into an all-new modern age. The bigger reveal, though, might have been Luhrmann’s licensing agreement with Brooks Brothers, which the company has flaunted in Gatsby-inspired ads that have the gall to unironically quote the book’s object of desire, Daisy Buchanan, a frivolous collector of shiny things who swoons over the titular character’s gorgeous collection of shirts. What’s troubling about the tie-in isn’t that the retailer has mangled the spirit of Daisy’s exclamation—as far as we know, she really does love all those shirts—but that it’s all too fitting a promotion for Luhrmann’s adaptation, which turns Fitzgerald’s angry screed against Jazz Age indulgence and consumption into a fashion show, where the most you can say is that the clothes are all beautiful enough to covet.
If the governing spirit of Luhrmann’s version is precious socialite Daisy, who is at the very least nicely played by Carey Mulligan, it’s narrator Nick Carroway (Tobey Maguire) who’s undergone the most substantial transformation, from passive observer to drunken hysteric. Nick’s account of the spectacular rise and fall of self-made Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio, appropriately drawling out his working class huckster’s words like a lost Kennedy) is presented this time as a novel in progress, brought to life by Luhrmann’s usual hyper-cranked photography, rapid cutting, and anachronistic music cues, and abetted by some luscious 3D.
It’s debatable whether the pop-up novel is the right form for Fitzgerald’s minor tragedy about a man who discovers that money can’t buy status even in vulgar America. Still, Luhrmann deserves some credit for coaxing good dramatic work out of his cast, save for a heavily dazed Maguire, who looks to still be recovering from his involvement in Spider-Man 3. It’s especially nice to see DiCaprio freed from his recent brooding widow schtick, even if it’s for the sake of a glorified diorama.
I Am Breathing
Directed by Emma Davie and Morag McKinnon
Bloor Hot Docs Cinema (506 Bloor Street West)
Documentaries about illness have a bad habit of flirting with the maudlin, but Emma Davie and Morag McKinnon acquit themselves nicely with I Am Breathing, a refreshingly unsentimental video diary and last testament of the final months of Neil Platt, a 33-year-old architect with ALS. Neil’s unlucky situation gives the film a sense of urgency and purpose it might otherwise have lacked, insofar as he envisions his life story as something to be passed on to his 2-year-old son, who was just an infant when his father was diagnosed. That makes the documentary a rare thing: not just a profile of a wry man grappling with his rapidly declining physical health, but a time capsule for a hypothetical viewer who we’re left to cover for in the meantime.
As Neil approaches the critical stage where he can no longer swallow on his own, I Am Breathing becomes difficult to watch. But it’s a testament to the filmmakers’ empathy for their subject—and his equally sardonic, loving spouse Louise—that they keep a respectful distance in his hardest moments. Aside from an unnecessarily lyrical shot of a bird chirping away outside his room, this is a consistently minimalist portrayal of illness, tender in its observation, but not invasive. That modest touch is a nice fit for the subject, a man who at one point professes his wonderment, despite the gravity of his illness, that humans are so adaptable when they have to be.
The film screens at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema in recognition of National ALS Day.