At rep cinemas this week: a fly, a witch, and an aging composer.
Directed by David Cronenberg
TIFF Bell Lightbox (350 King Street West)
David Cronenberg reached a career high with 1986’s The Fly, his singular, at times operatic, adaptation of the 1950s sci-fi classic. Cronenberg transforms the creature feature into a melancholy chamber drama that takes a series of dark turns into the grotesque, gradually transforming his sweet story of new love between two young professionals into a monster movie with a heavy heart.
Jeff Goldblum plays Seth Brundle, an ambitious but erratic physicist who promises the story of a lifetime to tenacious science journalist Veronica Quaife (Goldblum’s then-girlfriend Geena Davis). After dragging her back to his industrial dump of an apartment (slash lab), he shows off his contribution to modern science: a teleportation device that moves matter between a pair of—true to the Cronenberg aesthetic—vaguely ovary-shaped pods. Veronica’s won over by her new subject, both professionally and romantically, until a late-night experiment goes awry and Brundle finds himself genetically spliced with a common housefly, losing his bodily integrity and transforming beyond the aid of modern medicine in the process.
Much has been made over the years about the prosthetics and latex work that went into The Fly’s unparalleled makeup and visual effects. As impressive as the visual spectacle of the last act is, though, what makes The Fly one of the best horror films of the past 30 years is its emotional intensity and genuine love for its characters, with Goldblum and Davis turning in one of the great movie romances despite the pound of makeup on the former’s dignified, monstrous face.
Directed by Robert Eggers
TIFF Bell Lightbox (350 King Street West)
Robert Eggers makes a stunning, moody directorial debut to rival Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook in The Witch, a Sundance hit that delivers in slow-burn scares what it lacks in the way of a refined script. Going back to 17th-century sources for its dialogue and scenario, the film tells the eerie story of a faithful Puritan family turned inside out by an evil spirit from the woods, who unlocks dark forces in the eldest teen daughter.
The Witch is as tightly and rigorously conceived as any debut we’ve seen in years. Like David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows, it also earnestly explores a young woman’s burgeoning sexuality as the subject of horror without lapsing into clichés, stereotypes, and misogynist tropes—at least until the somewhat goofy finale positions witchery as feminist praxis. If we’re a bit hesitant to embrace it in the end, it’s due in part to its restrained-to-a-fault style and overly bullish presentation of the documentary reality of its source text.
Like a lot of films that anchor themselves in historical rhetoric as a guarantor of authenticity, The Witch takes its sources at face value without acknowledging their writtenness or their original implied reader, creating some occasionally stilted moments that seem to present highly stylized 17th-century diction as casual, realist dialogue. We didn’t really buy the ethnographic value of, say, a scene where a goat asks a girl if she’d like to “live deliciously,” but we were otherwise held in thrall by the work of a sharp new talent with a distinctive voice, well developed straight out of the box.
Directed by Paolo Sorrentino
Fox Theatre (2236 Queen Street East)
Paolo Sorrentino inflicts his latest dish of overcooked wisdom on undiscerning cinephiles in Youth. The Italian filmmaker’s first stab at hyper-stylized faux profundity since nabbing an Oscar for The Great Beauty is a bit warmer than its immediate predecessor, closer in spirit to his English-language debut This Must Be the Place. (That film, its small audience will remember, featured Sean Penn looking like Robert Smith and tracking down the Nazi who persecuted his father in Auschwitz.) Still, this being a Sorrentino film, it marries its sentimentalism and hollow life advice to a host of garishly ugly, abstract set pieces that would not be out of place in an Italian rock video.
Michael Caine stars as Fred, a septuagenarian former composer who, upon vacationing at a spa in the Swiss Alps with fellow retired creative Mick (Harvey Keitel), is strong-armed into performing his hugely popular composition “Simple Songs” by the Queen’s emissary. Fred resists, but finds himself drifting back into the past as he ambles through the resort, meeting his morose daughter and personal assistant (Rachel Weisz), an obnoxious actor (Paul Dano, possibly channelling Johnny Depp), and a host of grotesques who wouldn’t be fit for a lesser Fellini film.
If the setting and the physically varied extras haven’t already given it away, Sorrentino is aping Fellini’s 8 ½ here, having not learned any lessons from Rob Marshall’s disastrous Nine. Youth is a better film, owing to Caine’s subtlety and low-key chemistry with Keitel and Weisz, but it’s just as devoid of real insight and just as prone to clutching fool’s gold as if it were the real thing.
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