The best repertory and art-house screenings, special presentations, lectures, and limited engagements in Toronto.
At rep cinemas this week: a gorgeous nocturnal portrait of Harlem, a moving and raw first feature about care and loss, and a tough anti-comedy.
Directed by Khalik Allah
The Royal (608 College Street)
The corner of 125th Street and Lexington Avenue gets a gorgeous but challenging document in Khalik Allah’s Field Niggas. The Long Island-raised photographer and filmmaker follows a host of unnamed Harlem denizens who pass before the camera in a series of beautiful, near-still chiaroscuro portraits as their words—poetic and mundane—serve as a counterpoint on the un-synced soundtrack. The result is an equally fine-grained and dreamy look at how intersections gather up disparate people, energies, and experiences, and at the quiet dignity and endurance of a neighbourhood struggling with racial profiling and urban poverty, with Eric Garner’s death at the hands of police still to come.
Like his apparent fan Pedro Costa, the Portuguese filmmaker whose docufictional work similarly follows Lisbon’s disenfranchised, Allah has been criticized in some circles for romanticizing his subjects and revelling in a brand of poetic poverty. There is a certain aesthetic of rumpled, stoic masculinity that seems to hold Allah’s eye, but that’s no reason to dismiss such a marvellously photographed and edited, humane work, which speaks softly and leaves an indelible mark.
MDFF presents Field Niggas in a double bill with rising and already critically acclaimed Winnipeg filmmaker Isiah Medina’s Time is the Sun.
Directed by Josh Mond
TIFF Bell Lightbox (350 King Street West)
Josh Mond makes an impressive directorial debut with the moving and understated James White, which reads like a heartwarming Sundance drama and plays like an accomplished outtake from France’s Dardenne brothers. Former Girls star Christopher Abbott plays the titular troubled man, a late twentysomething writer who spends his days clubbing and caring for his terminally ill mother Gail (Cynthia Nixon) in the wake of his father’s death.
You wouldn’t think there’d be much to recommend the film on the strength of its premise alone, given that the American independent scene has thoroughly mapped out the grief of wayward young men like James. But this is a raw, unassuming, and surprisingly rich character piece, beautifully acted by Abbott and Nixon, who resists all the tropes of illness narratives by imbuing Gail with equal parts anger and dignity. We’ve seen people like James grieve before, to be sure, but there’s something singular about his loving and mutually challenging dynamic with Gail, who emerges as a person rather than the transitional aid toward a young man’s maturation you might expect from the title.
Directed by Rick Alverson
The Royal (608 College Street)
Rick Alverson makes difficult films, but it’s hard to properly brace yourself for Entertainment, the filmmaker’s arguably even more alienated and uncomfortable follow-up to the anti-comedy of the suitably named The Comedy. Australian comic Gregg Turkington plays an unnamed character who is part himself, and part his infamous alter ego Neil Hamburger, a decrepit and dishevelled comedian who launches ugly, violent punchlines at unappreciative audiences on a tour of the Mojave Desert, prefacing most of them with a halting “Why”—his existentialist alternative to Jerry Seinfeld openly wondering what the deal is.
Entertainment is an ironic title for such a flattening experience, but you can’t help but admire Alverson’s commitment both to his craft and to the onscreen despair it realizes. This is as technically beautiful a bummer story as you’re likely to see, unfolding through a steady procession of ironic musical cues, creepy tracking shots, and impressive, sometimes surreal compositions that frame our somnambulant host as he traipses across an all-American wasteland. (Anyone expecting real levity from brief appearances by the likes of John C. Reilly and Michael Cera need not apply.) It’s not funny ha-ha, but it isn’t meant to be.