The best repertory and art-house screenings, special presentations, lectures, and limited engagements in Toronto.
At rep cinemas this week: a surreal portrait of a computer programming conference gone mad, a look at Roma history and culture, and a Southern coming-of-age story.
Directed by Andrew Bujalski
TIFF Bell Lightbox (350 King Street West)
Andrew Bujalski made his mark nearly 10 years ago as the progenitor of a talky, low-fi genre a lot of people like to call mumblecore. Even so, nothing on his impressive C.V. quite prepares us for the singular joys of Computer Chess. A strange, heady, and often hilarious period piece about a beehive of 1980s tech geniuses at a programming conference in a shoddy hotel, it might be the first film that feels as though it were directed and displayed on a closed-circuit camera loop.
Shot in black and white on analog video cameras that were already out of fashion by the ’80s—a first for Bujalski, who, unlike the majority of his mumblecore brethren, prefers to shoot on film—the opening is a work of comic anthropology. It introduces us to the programmer tribe, a bunch of smart young men (and one woman) who shirk eye contact but spout theory with aplomb. In a mostly nonprofessional cast of over two dozen, Bujalski generally gravitates to a delirious ringmaster (played by film critic Gerald Peary), and a young Cal Tech savant (Patrick Reister) whose unlikely and eventually stunted maturation is all the more touching for being so underplayed.
There’s a meandering sort of charm to how the film follows and drops these players on a whim, pausing along the way for cracked insights like, “War is death; hell is pain; chess is victory.” But it’s the surreal last act that puts Computer Chess over the top. The closing moments feel like the haunted autobiography of one of the enormous computers the programmers tenderly lug down halls on trolleys: the sound fluctuates, the video splits in two, and the image switches, without warning, to film stock, pulsing with colour. Some will find this formal code-switching irritating rather than interesting, but for whatever it’s worth, it’s foreshadowed early on, when one of the programmers looks on a battle between his fellow man and a chess programme and admits, “My money’s on the computer.”
A People Uncounted
Directed by Aaron Yeger
Bloor Hot Docs Cinema (506 Bloor Street West)
Late in Aaron Yeger’s A People Uncounted, a Romani Holocaust survivor bemoans the fact that no filmmakers have taken up the cause of his people, the largest minority group in Europe and one of the most consistently discriminated against. The film, a backgrounder on the Roma experience in the 20th century, is tasked with being the community’s equivalent of a Schindler’s List or Shoah. It’s an attempt to register a historical catastrophe that permeates every aspect of contemporary life for its survivors and their ancestors.
The belatedness of that attempt poses a challenge to the Toronto-based filmmaker. On the rare occasions that the Roma people have breached Western consciousness, the film points out, it’s usually through the derogatory depictions of itinerant gypsies in American movies and romance novels. That leaves Yeger with the unenviable job of having to debunk pervasive stereotypes about his subjects, who have long served as both an exotic and abject other in the Western imagination. Only then can he get to the crux of the film: the devastating and soberly presented testimony of survivors whose suffering has largely been ignored in documentaries about the Holocaust.
Although that initial lighthearted cultural survey feels tonally at odds with the film’s eventual shift into these first-person accounts of trauma, Yeger is otherwise delicate in tracing the line between the historical violence against the Roma people and their present-day woes, as they once again find themselves the target of extremist ethnic nationalists. Its structural quirks aside, this is a critical film, not only because it happens to be the first sustained treatment of its subject. More importantly, it’s a new perceptive on how stereotyping gives way to systematic violence. A People Uncounted is vigilant about uprooting racism where it starts.
Directed by Jeff Nichols
The Royal (608 College Street)
Jeff Nichols makes films about young Southern men and their Southern ways, so it was only a matter of time before he got around to the looming Americana of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, as he does in Mud, which clearly has Mark Twain in its sights. A lovely and evocative young-adult adventure novel stitched onto some hostile pontificating about the ways of women, Mud is at once Nichols’s most visually accomplished film and his weakest one, structurally, to date. Ultimately, it’s sunk by its goofy worldview.
Matthew McConaughey is wonderful as the titular character, a scruffy outlaw camping on an island in the Mississippi River until he’s found by Ellis (The Tree of Life’s Tye Sheridan) and his friend Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), a couple of teenagers from the Arkansas delta. Though he’s wanted for murder, Mud quickly wins the trust of Ellis, whose raging hormones and family struggles make him especially susceptible to the older man’s romantic tales of a lost love.
The boys’ efforts to help Mud escape are, if not quite up to Twain’s standards, at least worthy of the comparison. The trouble is, Mud’s life story is more creepy than heartening, and his insistence on badgering his alleged soulmate into loving him, like a disgraced knight before his lady, is downright unsettling. It’s no wonder Ellis falls for this chivalric schtick, given the cards he’s been dealt, but one expects better of Nichols, a grown man elegizing a child’s view of relationships. There’s real beauty to Mud, which drinks in the strange details of its southern landscape—finding wonder, for instance in a boat displaced by floodwater into a tree—but in the end it’s a boy’s movie in the most frustrating sense.