The best repertory and art-house screenings, special presentations, lectures, and limited engagements in Toronto.
At rep cinemas this week: a glib but revealing exposé of Scientology, a screening of Kubrick’s sci-fi classic introduced by cinephile favourite Alfonso Cuarón, and Ava DuVernay’s all-too-current portrait of civil rights activism.
Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief
Directed by Alex Gibney
TIFF Bell Lightbox (350 King Street West)
If the vaguely threatening letters critics have been receiving since the film’s bow at Sundance are anything to go by, Scientology’s top brass has made a big fuss about Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief, prolific documentarian Alex Gibney’s adaptation of the bestselling Lawrence Wright exposé about the religion’s shadier dealings. Though the famously press-shy religion was right to expect a walloping, it probably doesn’t have much to worry about in the end. As blithely engaging as it is at times, Gibney’s doc is rather par for the course: a nasty little look at founder and professional con artist L. Ron Hubbard for initiates, a series of good anecdotes about the church’s curious treatment of faithfuls like John Travolta for the already-opposed, and not much for anyone else.
Gibney is by now an old pro at this sort of thing, so Going Clear has the sturdiness and professional sheen you’d expect of a big-deal HBO production, down to the cheeky hard cuts after a subject says a ridiculous thing and seamless mix of archival images and goofy recreations, scored to the spooky sci-fi sounds of the ondes Martenot. It’s also got some pretty good talking heads in a team of recent Scientology ex-pats, none better than Oscar-winning filmmaker (and former Kingston resident) Paul Haggis, who, despite his hack work in Hollywood, has turned out to be an awfully good whistleblower. What’s missing is a larger sense of purpose beyond the cheap shots: Going Clear lands most of its blows, and occasionally inches toward important critique, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that a less glib treatment of the church’s many human-rights violations might have been more effective.
Gibney will be on hand to introduce Monday’s screening, which has gone rush.
2001: A Space Odyssey Introduced by Alfonso Cuarón
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.
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, even if the human character work is a bit lacking. While a lot of Canadians of a certain age inevitably first watched 2001 on mediocre televisions in its annual New Year’s broadcasts on Bravo, the best place to see it and take in its ambition and scale is inarguably the cinema. Come for the infamous Star Gate sequence that sees astronaut David Bowman (Keir Dullea) traipsing through various psychedelic nebulae, but stay for the unbearably tense stretch that precedes it, where poor Dave has to make nice with his ship’s homicidal computer HAL 9000.
Wednesday’s screening will be introduced by Academy Award–winning director Alfonso Cuarón, whose 2013 film Gravity is indebted to the Kubrick classic. The screening has gone rush, so unless you can persuade HAL to open the pod bay doors, we’d recommend that you get in line early.
Directed by Ava DuVernay
Fox Theatre (2236 Queen Street East)
When the Academy Award nominations were announced earlier this year, few results raised as much internet ire as the relative shut-out of Ava DuVernay’s Selma, which only picked up a Best Original Song nod (and later win) to go with its Best Picture nomination. In addition to being one of the best-reviewed prestige pictures of the year, Selma is inarguably topical, as it coincides with the energy in the Black Lives Matter movement (as well as the recent unrest in cities like Baltimore) to provide a timely portrait of civil rights activism in the 1960s.
Though Selma’s value as a conversation piece about protesting an actively hostile state is unassailable, its merits as a film are more mixed. David Oyelowo gives a rich, star-making performance as Martin Luther King Jr., portraying the civil-rights leader as a pensive man who has to reconcile his privacy with his public importance and the demands that come with it. And DuVernay transitions with ease from a minimalist, finely textured independent work into a large-scale historical drama, showing real directorial chops.
But the film suffers from a patchy script, ostensibly DuVernay’s uncredited page-one rewrite of first-timer Paul Webb’s draft. (Credit for King’s powerful oratory also goes to DuVernay, since his actual speeches were apparently licensed to Steven Spielberg and thus off-limits.) Eager to respect the major figure at the movement’s centre without losing sight of the ground-level organizing that made it happen, the film shifts uneasily at times between a King-centred drama and a hazy 1965 class photo, at one point awkwardly superimposing explanatory captions over closeups of activists who otherwise don’t register in their screen time. The film’s much-discussed depiction of the relationship between King and Lyndon Johnson (Tom Wilkinson)—slammed as unfair to the president in a rambling Washington Post editorial from one of his former aides—is also a problem, to be sure. The weakness of that conceit, though, lies not in any historical fibbing but in the unshakeable feeling that it’s a spectre from an earlier draft of the film, structured not as a procedural about a black activist movement rooted in the streets, which is mostly how DuVernay plays it, but as a Frost/Nixon-inspired two-hander about a pair of powerful men shaping civil rights in America right from the Oval Office.
In spite of these rough patches, Selma is an important, frequently powerful film that’s landed at the right time. If it can’t seem to decide whether it’s about a movement or the figureheads who represent it, it’s still an indispensable portrait of what it means to organize.