The best repertory and art-house screenings, special presentations, lectures, and limited engagements in Toronto.
At rep cinemas this week: a documentary about Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti, a Wes Anderson confection, and Richard Linklater’s profile of an American boy’s adolescence.
Directed by Alex Gibney
Bloor Hot Docs Cinema (506 Bloor Street West)
Sometime before 12 Years a Slave became a TIFF success story and winner of multiple Oscars, director Steve McQueen and star Chiwetel Ejiofor were in talks to steer a long-overdue biopic of Afrobeat legend and political activist Fela Kuti. Though the project eventually stalled, Fela fans can in the meantime make do with Alex Gibney’s documentary Finding Fela, an unorthodox profile that alternates between archival footage, present-day interviews, and filmed performances of Bill T. Jones and Jim Lewis’s Broadway musical Fela!
Refreshing as it might be in the abstract, Gibney’s gambit of ceding much of the running time to an actor playing the role of the Nigerian musician famed as much for his politics of resistance—against colonialism as well as the Nigerian military—as for his music turns out to be a blunder. From what we see of the Broadway show, its characterization of the late artist is worryingly flat, which makes Gibney’s reliance on it when he has so much archival material at hand puzzling. For beginners interested in a casual introduction to Fela’s political consciousness, aesthetic theories, and music, though, Finding Fela will likely do the trick, its occasional footage of his concerts with Africa 70—equal parts dance party, sermon, and polemic—mesmerizing enough to draw attention back to the real story.
The Grand Budapest Hotel
Directed by Wes Anderson
Fox Theatre (2236 Queen Street East)
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.
Directed by Richard Linklater
TIFF Bell Lightbox (350 King Street West)
The culmination of a 12-year commitment to filming a young actor in yearly instalments from the ages of six to 18, Boyhood is a remarkable formal achievement. That it’s also a fine film, a textured and offhandedly detailed portrait of one Texas family from the early aughts to the present, is a testament to the unsung talents of director Richard Linklater. Though he’s often praised for his storytelling experiments—his Before series spans more than a decade, while Dazed and Confused famously restricts itself to a single summer day—Linklater’s role as one of the most consistent and humane of contemporary American filmmakers has until recently been fairly underrated. Boyhood ought to rectify that.
As any of the critical hosannas the film has received since its Sundance bow will tell you, Ellar Coltrane plays Mason Jr., an adolescent whom we watch develop from his first days in grade school to his first day of college. An aloof sort in his early moments, Coltrane proves himself a sensitive actor in his own right over the course of the film—the passing years are marked by more than a series of haircuts. As impressive as it is to watch him age and mature as a screen presence, though, the finely tuned performances by Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke as his divorced parents are equally striking—and the story of their child becomes also an incidental biography of middle-aged liberal parents in Texas from the Bush years onward.
For all its ambition and its tenderness, Boyhood isn’t perfect: the early moments can feel rudderless at times—a series of pop-music–scored scenes from the early 2000s in search of purpose greater than the creation of either nostalgia or ironic distance. But when it finds its groove, the film becomes not just a longitudinal study of Mason or a paean to American boyhood, but also a record of its own development from a scrappy conceit to a nuanced and entirely real coming-of-age drama about a teenager and his family.