The best repertory and art-house screenings, special presentations, lectures, and limited engagements in Toronto.
At rep cinemas this week: Scarlett Johansson as an alien roaming the Scottish countryside, the Burt behind Burt’s Bees, and Jesse Eisenberg versus Jesse Eisenberg.
Under the Skin
Directed by Jonathan Glazer
Revue Cinema (400 Roncesvalles Avenue)
From his iconic music videos for Radiohead and Jamiroquai to his underrated sophomore film Birth, Jonathan Glazer’s work has always shown a certain visual flare. As consistently striking as his videos and films have been up to now, though, nothing tops Under the Skin, which rivals the monumental work of Stanley Kubrick in its aesthetic accomplishment, even if it does share his films’ suffocating seriousness.
Based on the novel by Michael Farber, the film follows the mysterious exploits of an alien (Scarlett Johansson, in a career-best performance) who roams the Scottish countryside in a van, picking up men and engaging them in earnest chitchat before bringing them down to her oily lair, where their bodies are butchered. That’s it for the plot, but Glazer is more interested in establishing a mood via an able mix of astonishing non-narrative visual and aural set pieces staged under the titular skin where the alien stores her unfortunate men, and a number of unscripted vignettes in the van, where Johansson acts as a kind of late-night host, interviewing her doomed guests.
We weren’t as bowled over by Under the Skin as some critics, who hailed it as a masterpiece the moment it hit the festival circuit last fall; for all its beautiful images, it struck us as a bit slight for something so self-assured—seemingly counting on our emotional investment in one gentle victim, for instance, simply because of his facial scarring. That reliance on shorthand will go further for some viewers than for others, but there’s no denying Glazer’s craft either way.
Directed by Jody Shapiro
TIFF Bell Lightbox (350 King Street West)
Burt’s Buzz, Jody Shapiro’s profile of Burt’s Bees founder Burt Shavitz, opens with a scene that wouldn’t be out of place in Richard Lester’s A Hard Day’s Night. Instead of the beleaguered young Beatles fleeing a horde of ravenous teen fans, though, we begin with the long-bearded beekeeper and septuagenerian entrepreneur walking alongside an equally hyped crowd, this one composed of a number of amped Taiwanese fans eager to greet the man whose face adorns their prized lip balms and natural ointments.
That’s an audacious opening to live up to, and Burt’s Buzz doesn’t quite pull it off—though it does a nice job of humanizing the eccentric hippie on the woodcut logo. At its best, Shapiro’s film is an absorbing look at how the company’s instinct for memorable packaging—the domain not of Shavitz but of his former business and romantic partner Roxanne Quimby, who ousted him from the company not long before selling it to Clorex for nearly a billion dollars—positioned it as the ultimate in Earth-friendly balms. Less compelling is the oddly one-sided account of the acrimonious break-up, which takes up a lot of screen time without saying much about what the partnership meant either for Burt or for the company, or about how Burt feels about his namesake’s being in bed with Clorex. Let’s just say we aren’t as crazy about Burt as his Taiwanese fan base is.
Directed by Richard Ayoade
TIFF Bell Lightbox (350 King Street West)
A rare second feature that does more than retread its successful predecessor, Richard Ayoade’s The Double builds on the sharp visual comedy and insecure male drama of his earlier film Submarine. In this rigorously constructed follow-up, an adaptation of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s dystopian novella of the same name, Jesse Eisenberg stars as Simon, a meek, low-level data processor who leaves virtually no impression on anyone he meets, including his boss (Wallace Shawn) and his secret crush Hannah (Mia Wasikowska). That’s until Simon sees James (also Eisenberg), a man who looks just like him, wandering home to his (that is, James’s) apartment, and later to his office, where no one seems to notice the resemblance.
Eisenberg’s doppelgänger casting is a wonderful riff on the unfair way in which the actor has been typecast as either a gentle nerd, in the Michael Cera mould, or as an icy power broker like Mark Zuckerberg. Ayoade gets a lot of mileage out of the strange disjunction between the vulgar, overly confident James and the invisible, put-upon Simon, but his greatest coup lies in the ingenious set design, which renders the film’s world a grey, bureaucratic hell where identity is irrelevant and life is always one administrative loophole away.