The best repertory and art-house screenings, special presentations, lectures, and limited engagements in Toronto.
At rep cinemas this week: a documentary about a crew of covert dirt bike riders in Baltimore, a look at children in film, and the Coen brothers’ lament for a failed folk artist.
12 O’Clock Boys
Directed by Lotfy Nathan
Carlton Cinema (20 Carlton Street)
Occupying a rare place between West Side Story and The Fast and the Furious, 12 O’Clock Boys is one of the most enjoyable and modest social issues documentaries to come down the pike in some time. The title refers to a crew of Baltimore dirt bike riders, who, as we learn in a dreamy voiceover that recalls Terrence Malick (a curiously popular trope of late, inching its way into a host of documentaries as well as Super Bowl ads), “drive the bike straight back, like the hands on the clock.” Their goal, the film suggests, is to achieve a moment of transcendence—a respite from the systemic urban poverty, violence, and police harassment that fill their daily lives.
Directed by first-timer Lotfy Nathan, the film steers clear of juvenile delinquent stereotyping or proselytizing about the criminalization of urban youth. For the most part, it lets its social portraiture come across through its crisp photography of the rides and through the musings of its lead subject, Pug—a smart, word-slinging young man we meet as a youngster in the spring of 2010, as he is training to join the crew, and follow through his preteen apprenticeship up to roughly the present. “Every hood has a Pug,” one of Nathan’s subjects tells us in a rare talking-head interview designed to give us context. At its best, though, the film argues the opposite: that every Pug is a singular character, impossible to reproduce.
A Story of Children and Film
Directed by Mark Cousins
Bloor Hot Docs Cinema (506 Bloor Street West)
It’s hard to know what to make of critic and documentarian Mark Cousins’ new film essay, A Story of Children and Film. Falling somewhere between a shot-analysis class and a descriptive video service for those without visual impairments, the film mixes competent aesthetic readings of films about children from around the world with Cousins’ usual lilting narration—focused this time on the cinema’s preoccupation with young folks. That mix of visual analysis and personal essay had some merit in Cousins’ earlier The Story of Film, a multi-part, amateur romp through film history. Here, though, one constantly tries to suss out the filmmakers’ point amidst his endless procession of up-spoken arguments, all delivered in his charming but ultimately wearying Irish brogue—which adds an invisible question mark to declarative statements such as “Social class isn’t always mentioned in children’s films?” and “She’s not spellbound by the film; it’s spellbound by her?”
As in The Story of Film, Cousins’ strength as a populist teacher of film history lies in his fairly wide-ranging taste. Though he dutifully touches on representations of children in blockbusters like Steven Spielberg’s E.T., he’s more engaged when introducing relatively underappreciated Iranian films like Mohammad-Ali Talebi’s Willow and Wind and Jafar Panahi’s The White Balloon. The trouble is the narration, which rarely justifies or contextualizes the project, except in that it churns out outlandish claims about how the cinema cares more about children than does any other art form, including the novel—an assertion that is surely anecdotally wrong, even if it’s impossible to prove either way. Like the ravings of a drunk at a party, but delivered in a more soothing register, it’s all bluster.
Inside Llewyn Davis
Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen
Revue Cinema (400 Roncesvalles Avenue)
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.