The best repertory and art-house screenings, special presentations, lectures, and limited engagements in Toronto.
At rep cinemas this week: a moving look at the life and career of Roger Ebert, an absorbing take on the Whitey Bulger trial, and a surrealist Dutch thriller.
Directed by Steve James
TIFF Bell Lightbox (350 King Street West)
When Roger Ebert announced that he was taking a “leave of presence” in light of his declining health in the spring of 2013, he stepped away from a 40-year career as the most influential film critic in the English language—in 1975, he’d been the first film critic to receive the Pulitzer Prize, even before he’d made his mark as a broadcaster. When he died only a few days after announcing his leave, Chicago documentarian Steve James’s moving profile Life Itself suggests, Ebert left behind something more complicated—a vast professional and private life full of identities that could easily have clashed, but that in Ebert seemed strangely well resolved.
Initially conceived as an adaptation of Ebert’s memoir, Life Itself hit a creative snag when its subject became gravely ill early in the filmmaking process. Though its recovery is a heartening one—the finished film is less an exhaustive biography than a living wake, which is probably for the better—one senses that James is torn between eulogizing his subject in a way that pays tribute to the loved ones left behind (including Ebert’s wife Chaz) and tracing the bumpy contours of a life whose complications don’t fit neatly into a typical end of life survey.
The latter approach—yielding as it does the deep focus on Ebert’s origins as an alcoholic college newspaper writer and editor with both a preternatural feel for populist copy and a commitment to progressive values—is more fruitful. These moments are so strong that you wish they were better integrated into a more cohesive look at Ebert’s wide-ranging interests and distinctive authorial voice, topics that fall by the wayside in the increasing emphasis on the critic’s final year. That portrait can feel overly preoccupied with the mechanics of Ebert’s daily life as a disabled person at the expense of the film’s most powerful and better contextualized threads: his very different love stories with both Chaz and his long-term professional partner and nemesis Gene Siskel. Whenever James settles down to focus on that latter relationship, as bitter and tender a major professional rivalry as you could think of, Life Itself becomes the sort of insightful if unfocused film about smart, good, complicated people its subject might have championed.
This post originally incorrectly stated that Chaz Ebert was a producer on Life Itself. We regret the error.
Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger
Directed by Joe Berlinger
Bloor Hot Docs Cinema (506 Bloor Street West)
“Whitey pulled the trigger, but I blame the FBI too,” an irate family member huffs late in Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger, Joe Berlinger’s look at the trial of gangster and eventual convicted murderer Whitey Bulger. That suggestion that the blame falls about equally on either side is the film’s gutsy thesis, and it should prove a compelling one for true crime fans, conspiracy theorists, and Boston trivia mongers alike, in spite of some occasionally pedestrian filmmaking.
Inching away from his momentous, politically effective work on the West Memphis Three trial for an equally morally complex but less ambiguous one—Whitey’s guilt in at least 19 murders and several racketeering charges seems all but certain, while the exact role played by his friends in both low places and the hallowed halls of the Bureau remains in doubt—Berlinger seems to be having a good time for the first time in a long time.
That isn’t to say that Berlinger diminishes the complaints of the mob’s many victims—faithful Bostonians such as the aforementioned witness, fighting to see the mob boss brought to justice for his crimes, are treated with a certain amount of dignity. Yet Berlinger balances that solemnity with an unashamed indulgence in the pulpier dimensions of the case through a solidly constructed chain of talking-head interviews and trial recaps, running from the government’s potentially shady involvement in his crimes as either protector or co-architect to the crime syndicate’s ugly descent into rat-hood in a free-for-all trial that seems to implicate the whole community, including the lawless lawmakers who are ostensibly at the higher end of the spectrum.
Directed by Alex van Warmerdam
The Royal (608 College Street)
Perhaps the strangest narrative feature to come from Europe since Giorgos Lanthimos satirically razed contemporary Greek family living in Dogtooth, the Dutch comedy-thriller Borgman is just about indescribable. Despite its obvious indebtedness to the work of the Austrian master of the austere and the anti-bourgeois, Michael Haneke (whose pale white beard might have inspired the colour scheme), and to countless dramas about seemingly placid but ultimately dangerous interlopers, Alex van Warmerdam’s film feels like an original if nothing else—a funny and ingeniously designed if fatally slight black comedy about an impish vagabond who turns an upper class family inside out.
Jan Bijvoet plays the eponymous antihero, who, when we first encounter him, is a bearded ruffian fleeing from a shotgun-toting priest, throwing himself upon the kindness of wealthy, mansion-owning strangers for a shower and a bed. Before long, he’s so ingratiated himself with his lily-white hosts that he’s managed to score a job as the house gardener (after the prior occupant’s untimely end) and a guest wing of the house for himself and his collaborators—a home base within the home from which to bend his hosts to his every desire.
Van Warmerdam is a gifted visual storyteller and a surprisingly nimble one when he wants to be, given Borgman’s thin conceit and protracted running time—there’s an impressive economy to the way the film’s themes and devil-may-care irony are both distilled to single pregnant images. If it’s not clear whether the film has much to say about the racist Dutch peacocks it plainly hates or if it’s simply in the business of puffing up its surrealism by adding a sheen of social commentary, it’s at least the sort of film where one is never sure what is coming next.