The best repertory and art-house screenings, special presentations, lectures, and limited engagements in Toronto.
At rep cinemas this week: Stanley Kubrick’s sci-fi epic about the origins of humanity in 70 mm, Pawel Pawlikowski’s haunting take on the ghosts of the Holocaust, and Toronto filmmaker Ron Mann’s look at the life and work of Robert Altman.
2001: A Space Odyssey
Directed by Stanley Kubrick
TIFF Bell Lightbox (350 King Street West)
It’s long been a habit of a certain type of sci-fi aficionado to set Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey off against George Lucas’s Star Wars in a nerdy cage match, as if the only way to appreciate their respective contributions to the genre is to pit the former’s modernist difficulty against the latter’s goofy affability and see what happens. What that approach misses, besides nuance, is the fact that despite his reputation as a cerebral trickster figure, Kubrick was in some ways just as maximal and big-picture a filmmaker as Lucas, or indeed, as a contemporary inheritor such as Christopher Nolan, whose Interstellar has already been called Kubrickian ahead of its release. 2001: A Space Odyssey is the most quintessential product of Kubrick’s showman tendencies—a rigorously composed, unabashedly pretentious, and symphonic epic about human nature, whose effects work still rates as some of the best in modern studio filmmaking.
While a lot of Canadians of a certain age (including this one) inevitably first watched 2001 on mediocre televisions in its yearly New Year’s broadcasts on Bravo, the best place to see it and take in its ambition and scale is inarguably the cinema. That’s especially true of TIFF Bell Lightbox’s new 70-mm print, which ought to recreate the near-religious (but still secular-humanist) experience Kubrick intended.
Directed by Pawel Pawlikowski
Revue Cinema (400 Roncesvalles Avenue)
After a sojourn in English-language filmmaking, Pawel Pawlikowski returns to his native Poland with Ida, the story of the eponymous young novitiate nun (played by newcomer Agata Trzebuchowska) who, on the eve of her vows, is transformed by a visit with her estranged aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza). Wanda, a low-level judge and former Communist state prosecutor, informs the girl that she is Jewish and that her parents died during the Nazi occupation of the country. What might have been the material for a dopey road-trip story about an odd couple finding themselves in their travels through the countryside is transformed, in Pawlikowski and Trzebuchowska’s capable hands, into a modest and impeccably lensed character study about the momentous impact of one’s family history.
Immaculately shot in black and white, squared off in unusual boxy compositions, and cut with enviable precision, every still in Ida could be framed and hung on a wall. That makes the film beautiful to marvel at, though it also invests the proceedings with a certain airlessness, as though everything in this world that’s of interest is contained in the shot—an especially curious effect, given how little is revealed about the historical context behind Ida and Wanda’s quest beyond its broad strokes. Indeed, as the film goes on, Ida’s transformation at her liberal aunt’s hands from a reserved adolescent to a more freewheeling jazz aficionado begins to feel a bit too tidy, her redemption narrative somewhat at odds with the anxious collective history that has hung over both her aunt’s and her parents’ lives. Still, this is strong stuff, beautifully observed.
Directed by Ron Mann
Bloor Hot Docs Cinema (506 Bloor Street West)
Early in Ron Mann’s amiable tour through the career of the major American filmmaker Robert Altman, the late director speaks of having been fired from an early television job by Jack Warner. “That fool,” he recalls the Warner Bros. chief saying of his work, “has actors talking at the same time.” If that penchant for overlapping dialogue—and the resultant transformation of sound design from the product of a single static boom mike to something more dynamic and heterogeneous—would become Altman’s major aesthetic contribution to cinema, it’s perhaps his rich work with ensemble casts that most resonates now, nearly a decade after his death. Unlike its subject, Altman isn’t so keen on reshaping the medium, but it is attuned to that humanist slant that made Altman so fond of listening to people talking (often at the same time), reanimating the director’s filmography through warm testimonials from collaborators and family, as well as illuminating comments from the man himself, presumably culled from hours of his public appearances.
Unfolding through a wry mix of film clips, some occasionally goofy animated graphics, a few new interviews (played in voice-over), and Altman’s own tart archival testimony, the film is organized around answers given to a question from Mann about what defines the adjective “Altmanesque.” The most definitive answer might come from Altman’s frequent collaborator Lily Tomlin, who answers simply, “creating a family.” Though Mann touches on his subject’s nonconformist politics and does a good job of suggesting how they might be read into his art, the strongest impression one comes away with is indeed of Altman as an unorthodox family man—creating an extended professional tribe over the course of nearly 40 wildly varied films.