Rep Cinema This Week: Sorcerer, The Monuments Men, and Finding Vivian Maier
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Rep Cinema This Week: Sorcerer, The Monuments Men, and Finding Vivian Maier

The best repertory and art-house screenings, special presentations, lectures, and limited engagements in Toronto.

Still from Sorcerer.

At rep cinemas this week: a new digital restoration of William Friedkin’s rarely seen nihilistic cult classic, George Clooney’s sheepish essay on the importance of preserving art in times of war, and a documentary about an unsung Chicago street photographer.

Directed by William Friedkin

TIFF Bell Lightbox (350 King Street West)

Fresh off the enormous critical and financial success of The Exorcist, William Friedkin took a major gamble with his globe-trotting followup Sorcerer, an ill-fated adaptation of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s classic The Wages of Fear—which, despite its early reputation as an expensive bomb, has enjoyed a nice critical afterlife as a cult favourite. To this day, Friedkin insists that the thriller about four exiled criminals tasked with transporting hypersensitive explosive materials across some less-than-delicate terrain is his best. That may be a stretch, but thanks to its moody Tangerine Dream score, its guns-blazing action sequences, and its rain-soaked atmosphere, it may be his most nervy—a quintessential ‘70s thriller for those who like the genre at its brashest and most nihilistic.

With its virtuoso camerawork and expertly crafted set pieces involving hard dudes doing hair-raising work in extreme environments, Sorcerer is the sort of movie you want to see big and loud if you’re going to see it at all, but its triumphant maximalism doesn’t make it any less goofy. The title, which refers not to any supernatural being onscreen but to one of the trucks carrying the payload (and, if you buy Friedkin’s oft-cited explanation, to “the evil wizard of fate” mocking the four antiheroes, whatever that means), is a good indication of the film’s pretensions to cosmic significance—but if that doesn’t cut it, the omnipresent harsh weather and hostile natural surroundings should get the idea across. You wouldn’t call Sorcerer subtle, but its obviousness works to its advantage when seen in the rearview: like Darren Aronofsky’s recent (and regrettably inferior) Noah, it hearkens back to a time when American auteurs spent real studio coin on idiosyncratic, bombastic passion projects.

TIFF Cinematheque presents Sorcerer in a new, director-approved digital restoration.

The Monuments Men
Directed by George Clooney

Revue Cinema (400 Roncesvalles Avenue)

What is there to say about The Monuments Men that hasn’t already been said about the episode of The Simpsons in which Grampa reveals that back in the Second World War he was a member of a battalion of misfits who raided a Nazi castle for a treasure trove of stolen paintings? Though it’s based on more solid historical evidence, loosely adapting the story of an actual makeshift unit of art collectors and curators sent into Europe in the waning days of the war to secure Western art before its destruction by Hitler, George Clooney’s delayed award-aspiring (and failing) caper is about as thin and cartoonish as that premise—a dreary, tonally awkward affair that reads alternately as bullish about its own importance and ashamed even to exist.

A Hollywood liberal of the highest order who took his Academy Award speech as an opportunity to wax poetic about the vital work of progressive artists, Clooney has always seemed primed to make a film about art’s triumph over the collected dark forces of the world. But this story represents a curious way of approaching that message, given the belatedness of the American war effort that funded the titular group’s European excursion while the Nazi death camps raged not far from their culture-saving romp. That grim reality suffuses Clooney’s film with a hangdog sadness that doesn’t jive with its otherwise comedic spirit, and it occasions some torturously ham-fisted speeches from Clooney as the team leader who, in the narrative that frames the men’s mission, sheepishly attempts to justify the importance of the job even in light of the obviously more monumental events that surrounded it. Like Clooney the director, his heart doesn’t seem to be in it.

Finding Vivian Maier
Directed by John Maloof, Charlie Siskel

TIFF Bell Lightbox (350 King Street West)

A virtual unknown until amateur historian and collector John Maloof began mounting posthumous retrospectives of her work around 2009, Vivian Maier has in recent years become a cause célèbre in photography circles for her staggering collection of over 100,000 photographs—mostly street portraits taken in her adoptive home of Chicago. Those disparate strands come together a bit uneasily in Finding Vivian Maier, a documentary co-directed by Charlie Siskel and Maloof, who doubles as our narrator and frequent onscreen interlocutor.

Maloof sets the stage early on, wondering why the life’s work of such an apparently accomplished photographer would end up consigned to the auction bins in which he found it in 2007, at which point Maier was still alive but was by most accounts homeless and penniless. The film follows his line of inquiry, suggesting that Maier’s unsettled childhood in France and subsequent 40-year career as a nanny in Chicago—where she lived as a perpetually single, eccentric sort, confronting strangers on the street about their politics while disclosing little of her own—shaped her into a fringe artist destined to be unknown until after her death.

There’s certainly a picaresque life behind Maier’s portraits, but Maloof and Siskel lean too hard on their initial angle, which is that there is something inherently inspiring about the idea that a nanny should also be a photographer. Though there are some nice shadings to their developing psychological profile of their subject, and some fascinating tentative suggestions about her method of snapping photos from low angles to catch her own subjects unawares, there’s altogether too much of Maloof and not enough of Maier in the approach. It reads as a novice curator’s suppositions about an artist, rather than as an informed survey by an expert, who might more profitably have contextualized Maier’s work within any number of frameworks—from the genre of street photography to the history of Chicago to the social expectations placed on unmarried women in North American culture of the 1960s. Lacking those contexts, Finding Vivian Maier is in the end little more than a good excuse to see the artist’s photographs on a big screen—not that that’s anything to complain about.