The best repertory and art-house screenings, special presentations, lectures, and limited engagements in Toronto.
At rep cinemas this week: an energetic dance film set in Manhattan, Lee Daniels’ surprisingly tame look at a presidential butler, and Wong Kar-wai’s martial arts biopic.
NY Export: Opus Jazz
Directed by Henry Joost and Jody Lee Lipes
Bloor Hot Docs Cinema (506 Bloor Street West)
Those who hoped Black Swan would start a dance-film resurgence would do well to check out NY Export: Opus Jazz, a spirited attempt at re-envisioning the 1958 ballet of the same name. The first film conceived and executed by the New York City Ballet, it’s a spry tour through a number of Manhattan locales. The many filming locations become the sites of seemingly impromptu, but actually rigorously staged, set pieces.
Unlike less accomplished dance films, NY Export: Opus Jazz works both as cinema and as documentary. Directors Henry Joost (Catfish and the recent Paranormal Activity instalments) and Jody Lee Lipes (a frequent director and cinematographer for HBO’s Girls) are as invested in showing off present-day Manhattan’s theatres, parking lots, and buses as they are in capturing the boisterous movements of the dancers. They alternate between slow tracking shots through commonplace venues and static master shots of the company in full bloom, the dancers’ bodies nearly bursting out of the frame.
There isn’t much dramatic shading here—the dancers’ personalities seem as sunny and square as their rainbow-coloured tops—but then there doesn’t need to be. Joost and Lipes’ project works well enough within its own parameters. It’s a fleet, limited engagement with a professional dance company, and the closing set piece serves as a sly reminder that, in lieu of a proper live show, the film will have to do.
The screening will be introduced by Rex Harrington, Artist in Residence with the National Ballet of Canada.
Lee Daniels’ The Butler
Directed by Lee Daniels
Revue Cinema (400 Roncesvalles Avenue)
Lee Daniels found himself in the eye of an odd publicity storm late this summer when, practically on the eve of The Butler’s theatrical debut, rival studio Warner Bros. tried to block its release, citing its rights to a lost 1916 short of the same name. Though the solution, renaming the film Lee Daniels’ The Butler, has resulted in a title only slightly less complicated than that of Daniels’ earlier film Precious, Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire, it might also be a marketing masterstroke by distributor The Weinstein Company. Somewhere between art-house savant and camp pariah, Daniels has made a name for himself on the strength of the hothouse madness of melodramas like The Paperboy. What better way to prime audiences for the civil rights drama of The Butler than to drop that name right in the title?
Whether for better or worse, Lee Daniels’ The Butler doesn’t quite live up to its triumphant title: it lacks the demented signature of the filmmaker’s most singular—if singularly daft—work, which is to say you won’t find Nicole Kidman urinating on Zac Efron here. In place of that scrawl, we have a fairly anonymously directed historical melodrama about Cedric (Forest Whitaker), a humble and hard-working African-American man who serves as a butler in the administrations of every U.S. president from Eisenhower (a dreadful Robin Williams) to Reagan (Alan Rickman).
Screenwriter Danny Strong struggles to find a throughline for Cedric’s life outside of his mostly passive engagement with the civil rights movement, arbitrarily jumping from presidency to presidency to find Cedric poking his head into the Oval Office whenever a new hot-button issue about race lands in his boss’s lap, not unlike Forrest Gump. But there’s undeniable power in Whitaker’s restrained performance, which is matched by Oprah Winfrey’s sensitive turn as Cecil’s wife Gloria. Though the film pays lip service to the more radical path taken by the couple’s activist son Louis (David Oyelowo), it’s Cecil and Gloria’s more routine story that resonates, mostly because Daniels, his freakish tendencies aside, is clearly drawn to the way moderates survive and occasionally even cause ripples of change.
Directed by Wong Kar-wai
The Royal (608 College Street)
Despite his proven track record, Harvey Weinstein has a fearsome reputation among cinephiles as the kind of shamelessly hands-on producer who takes the work of distinctive artists and turns it into barely recognizable pablum. Though his sins are legion, bad enough to earn him the moniker “Harvey Scissorhands” (and the ire of everyone from Matt Damon to Martin Scorsese), Weinstein’s twisted editorial labours have never yielded anything quite as strange as the North American cut of The Grandmaster, celebrated Hong Kong filmmaker Wong Kar-wai’s martial arts epic about Ip Man, trainer to Bruce Lee.
On the face of it, The Grandmaster might seem like an unusual project for Wong, whose swooning dramas about geographically dislocated would-be lovers are typically modest affairs. Yet despite its grand historical canvas, which finds the fate of Ip Man (Tony Leung) shaped by the economic despair of the Second Sino-Japanese War, this is still an intimate and lyrical biopic, most electric when the downtrodden hero crosses paths with Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi), the self-trained daughter of a rival grandmaster from the north.
That tentative near-romance between two experts forced to neglect their gifts because of the exigencies of class and gender is classic Wong, but the subtlety of its portrayal is nearly undone by Weinstein’s clumsy tampering with the finished product, which ran 130 minutes in Chinese cinemas but is well under two hours in its North American incarnation. The original film has been substantially trimmed, rearranged, and supposedly clarified for domestic audiences through a series of pointless intertitles. Worse still are the maddeningly obvious captions emblazoned on the screen in this new cut whenever new characters appear: picture a production of Richard III that superimposes the words “Richard III, House of York” over the future monarch’s opening monologue. It’s a shame that such clunky exposition has been applied to so graceful a film.