The best repertory and art-house screenings, special presentations, lectures, and limited engagements in Toronto.
At rep cinemas this week: Toronto treasure Ingrid Veninger’s newest drama, Xavier Dolan’s rural psycho-thriller, and Wes Anderson’s ode to a bygone era.
The Animal Project
Directed by Ingrid Veninger
TIFF Bell Lightbox (350 King Street West)
Ingrid Veninger, the godmother of Toronto’s D.I.Y. filmmaking scene, follows up the lovely mother-daughter drama of i am a good person / i am a bad person with The Animal Project, an equally scrappy but harder-nosed successor. Toronto actor Aaron Poole stars as Leo, a frustrated theatre director and acting teacher who—inspired by a short film he once made with his now-teenaged son Sam (Jacob Switzer)—pushes his alienated students to re-engage with the world around them by donning animal suits.
Veninger does a nice job of mining the uncanny weirdness of the actors’ decidedly human Toronto adventures in animal garb, but, as in her earlier films, her greatest strength lies in capturing with openness and honesty the tricky bond between creative parents and their sweet, if slightly caustic, children. The moments when Leo and Sam repair their frayed father-son ties are both tender and funny, and Switzer (the filmmaker’s own son) is as much of a revelation as his sister Hallie Switzer was in Veninger’s earlier film Modra.
Tom at the Farm
Directed by Xavier Dolan
TIFF Bell Lightbox (350 King Street West)
Whatever else you might think of his work, it would be hard to argue that Montreal director Xavier Dolan hasn’t proven himself a stylist in his first three features. Tom at the Farm, his fourth (and newest, until the recent and successful Cannes bow of Mommy) is a clear departure from that now established syntax, an overly fussy auteur’s effort to shake out his aesthetic tics and tell a thriller story straightforwardly.
Based on Michel Marc Bouchard’s play, the film follows the eponymous Montreal ad man (the close-up hogging Dolan, naturally) in the days after the death of his partner, Guy. Torn up with grief, Tom forgoes the city for his closeted partner’s funeral at his childhood farmhouse, and finds himself initiated into a punishing series of abusive family rituals at the hands of Guy’s brother, the psychopathic and seemingly equally closeted Francis (Pierre-Yves Cardinal).
For the most part, Dolan does an admirable job of keeping things lean, and hewing to the strong basic mechanics of the script, co-adapted with Bouchard. Tom at the Farm works best in that mode, as a paranoid psycho-thriller about identity erasure in a rural almost-paradise. Less successful, and more conspicuous than usual, are the stylistic flourishes, from an unnecessary and not especially affecting aspect-ratio shift in the middle of a wheat-field tussle to the thudding visual rhymes between that wheat stalk and city boy Tom’s stringy golden ‘do. As ever with Dolan, whose output has been impressively steady since he debuted on the international stage at all of 19 years old, we look forward to the next film—although we do wish the current one were more successful.
The Grand Budapest Hotel
Directed by Wes Anderson
Revue Cinema (400 Roncesvalles Avenue)
When Wes Anderson briefly fell out of critical favour in the last decade (before his renaissance with Fantastic Mr. Fox and Moonrise Kingdom), it became a standard critical line to harp on his tendency to build dioramas rather than movies. With The Grand Budapest Hotel, as manicured and art-directed a thing as anything Anderson has ever produced, we see the Texan-turned-pan-Europeanist giving the finger to his old critics while burrowing deeper into his own alternate world.
Ralph Fiennes gives a buoyant, wonderfully modulated performance as Gustave—the titular hotel’s concierge—who, like Anderson himself, is a devotee of all things beautiful and old. While Anderson’s tastes run to the Baroque and to turn-of-the-century storytelling traditions, Gustave’s are directed toward the hotel’s aging clientele, including the elaborately named Madame Céline Villeneuve Desgoffe-und-Taxis (played briefly by Tilda Swinton, and referred to as “Madame D.”), who dies and leaves Gustave the heir to her precious painting, much to her aristocratic family’s consternation.
There’s a melancholy aura to the efforts of Gustave and his faithful lobby boy Zero (Tony Revolori as a teen, and F. Murray Abraham in his old age) to hold on to their precious art, and the world it represents, on the verge of the Second World War. Even more than in Anderson’s earlier films, which tend to be about moments of generational upheaval, one senses here that Gustave’s (and the filmmaker’s) retreat into the past comes from a deep knowledge of the fact that what’s coming isn’t going to be good for anyone. The film is a bit frostier than his usual work—the emotional line lost in an overly complicated nested narrative schema that makes the too-obvious point that every story is a retelling of a memory rather than the real thing—but in some ways it’s richer for it: it’s unencumbered by whimsy, despite the preciousness of the conceit.