The best repertory and art-house screenings, special presentations, lectures, and limited engagements in Toronto.
At rep cinemas this week: The Coen brothers’ uncharacteristically warm take on the pre-Dylan folk scene in New York, Macaulay Culkin’s yuletide assault on a pair of burglars, and Alfonso Cuarón’s space thriller.
Inside Llewyn Davis
Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen
TIFF Bell Lightbox (350 King Street West)
Toward the end of the Coen brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis—an uncommonly tender portrait of New York’s folk scene in the early 1960s as glimpsed through the eyes of an artist destined for a rather more modest career than Bob Dylan’s—our beleaguered, eponymous hero (Oscar Isaac) stands arrested before a poster for Disney’s animal adventure The Incredible Journey. It’s hard not to be moved as Llewyn looks on the homeward bound dogs and cat, not least because he comes to it at the end of his own mini-odyssey, a rootless adventure in search of material comfort and career recognition that spans a hit record that’ll net him zero royalties, two ex lovers, and a lost cat.
The Coens have long been accused, not always unfairly, of badgering their protagonists, and some will surely cite Llewyn’s struggles to make a mark in show business as just the newest example of the filmmakers’ alleged crusade against the unsuccessful. In this case, they’d be wrong: as played by the wonderful Isaac, who’s in nearly every frame and whose performances of Llewyn’s folk arrangements are always played as show-stopping, character-defining set-pieces, Llewyn is an uncompromising, chronically unsatisfied, and unlucky sort who also happens to be pretty talented, if not a clear star. The surviving half of an abruptly disbanded duo, struggling to find his way in the world on his own, Llewyn is treated with the utmost respect by filmmakers who sometimes trade in garish caricatures—and perhaps that’s unsurprising, given that their own creative partnership has sustained them for so long.
Though it’s undoubtedly their warmest picture (despite Bruno Delbonnel’s gorgeously washed-out photography), Inside Llewyn Davis will be instantly recognizable to fans of the Coens’ puckish wit and gravitation toward cosmic questions. Structured as a kind of endless loop of cat crises and couch-crashes, the film arguably shares its worldview with the far bleaker A Serious Man, in which the suffering Job-surrogate played by Michael Stuhlbarg is told to just “accept the mystery” of an incomprehensible situation. As straightforward as it might seem on the surface, Inside Llewyn Davis yields plenty of its own mysteries the more you dwell on it. It’s above all one of the richest films of the year—the kind that will have you splitting hairs about an orange tabby.
Directed by Chris Columbus
Bloor Hot Docs Cinema (506 Bloor Street West)
A live-action cartoon with some of the most violent slapstick this side of Wile E. Coyote and his backfiring Acme rockets and anvils, Home Alone has, in the years since its smash debut, become something of an unorthodox Christmas staple, a yearly refresher for those who can’t get through the holidays without seeing a hot iron burned into Daniel Stern’s face.
For the handful of uninitiated, a pre-pizza eating Macaulay Culkin stars as Kevin McCallister, a good-natured but bratty kid who finds himself master of the house when any number of failsafe systems, including decent parenting, go awry, and he ends up left at home for the holidays while his absent-minded parents (Catherine O’Hara and John Heard) and unruly extended family jet off to Paris. From there, it’s a mix of quixotic journey, as Mom heads back by plane and by U-Haul (driven by John Candy and his team of modestly successful polka musicians), and survival movie, as Kevin arms the homestead against a pair of burglars (Stern and Joe Pesci), who’ve had their eyes on the obscenely opulent McCallister abode for some time.
Seen now, what most impresses about Home Alone, besides the inventive damage it wreaks against Stern and Pesci’s fragile bodies and the curious way it sits comfortably with the yuletide bells and holiday sentiment, is its strange dream logic. We’re never quite sure what the so-called wet bandits hope to achieve by plundering the home while Kevin’s still there, for one thing, and the denouement to their failed heist is so clipped as to feel straight out of fantasy: Kevin is spared the requisite police interviews about, say, the nail-through-the-foot incident, and is advanced straight into the welcoming arms of his miraculously returned family, who are none the wiser about what’s just gone down.
Some concerned sorts took from the film’s vagueness about the consequences of beating the hell out of your neighbourhood burglars a sense that director Chris Columbus and screenwriter John Hughes were endorsing child sadism—and certainly one comes away at the end worried for the next door-to-door salesman to cross Kevin’s path. But we choose to think of the whole thing as Kevin’s Freudian nightmare about being the constantly put-upon youngest pup in the litter, a therapy session as potent as the one in Where the Wild Things Are, though it looks close enough to reality to be mistaken for the real thing. Anyway, it’s a good time.
Directed by Alfonso Cuarón
Revue Cinema (400 Roncesvalles Avenue)
The trailer for Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity promises an austere space thriller midway between 2001: A Space Odyssey and Alien. For better or for worse, that’s not quite what we get. Gravity turns out to be something more modest, despite its wide scope and dazzling 3D visual effects. It’s a technical demonstration and straightforward survival story with a dash of new-age spiritualism.
Inasmuch as there is one, the script, co-written by Cuarón and his son Jonás, follows astronauts Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and Matt Kowalsky (George Clooney) as they try to stay tethered to something, anything, after a debris storm dislodges them from the space station they’re repairing. Though one wishes the dialogue were as pared down as the narrative—Clooney natters away condescending advice to his junior female coworker, while Bullock discloses a boilerplate personal trauma—there’s a strange beauty to the images of the two shooting through space like pinballs in zero gravity. Clichéd as the script might be, then, Gravity works on the level of pure spectacle—as an amusement park simulator for floating over Earth in nothing but a jetpack and a space suit.