Rep Cinema This Week: Christmas, Again, Youth, and Crimson Peak
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Rep Cinema This Week: Christmas, Again, Youth, and Crimson Peak

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

Still from Christmas, Again.

At rep cinemas this week: an intimate Christmas drama, an overwrought nod to Fellini, and an indulgent gothic horror.

Christmas, Again
Directed by Charles Poekel

The Royal (608 College Street)
Sunday, Dec. 20, 8 p.m.

Cinematographer Charles Poekel makes a strong feature debut with Christmas, Again, a low-key character study of a downtrodden New York City Christmas tree salesman. Poekel is a quick study, nicely transcending his modest premise thanks to his expert craftsmanship, light touch, and knack for tapping some subtle performances from his cast.

Kentucker Audley plays the perhaps too cutely named Noel, a humble labourer who’s just dragged himself back to the city for his fifth consecutive holiday season, albeit without his old business partner and ex-girlfriend, who presumably made the time spent in his cramped trailer go by faster. Devoid of yuletide cheer and surlier than usual to both colleagues and customers, Noel is in a dark place that only a chance encounter with another sad stranger (Hannah Gross, as in Paul’s daughter) can remedy.

We’ve seen that movie before, but rarely in such nice wrapping. Though Christmas, Again superficially resembles much of its American independent brethren, it resonates with unexpected depth and grain, thanks in large part to the gorgeous 16mm cinematography by Sean Price Williams, who is on an amazing run between this and his work with Alex Ross Perry and the Safdie brothers: consider the way Noel’s slightly off-handsome face is routinely bathed in unnatural, deep blues of the dingy but soulful lighting around him. Poekel is a sophisticated visual storyteller, rendering what might seem like tired sentiments about a sad man’s belated coming of age in startlingly new, precise images, as in the beautiful last shot that’s at once familiar and welcome, like an old Christmas standby.

Directed by Paolo Sorrentino

TIFF Bell Lightbox (350 King Street West)

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.

Crimson Peak
Directed by Guillermo del Toro

Revue Cinema (400 Roncesvalles Avenue)

For anyone still doubting that Guillermo del Toro makes pretty baubles, we now have Crimson Peak, the director’s most painstakingly realized and pointless objet d’art yet. The tedious bustle of Pacific Rim seemed a worrying sign that the Mexican director and cineaste had closed his empathetic eye toward ghouls and misfits after giving us some ingenious sights in films like The Devil’s Backbone and Hellboy, but Crimson Peak is worse, repackaging his earlier films’ beating heart in a phoney, stilted story of transatlantic haunting.

The film stars Mia Wasikowska, the struggling auteur’s waif of choice, as Edith, an aspiring horror writer whisked away from her plentiful American mansion to a decrepit castle in England. Things change for Edith after a whirlwind couple of weeks that claim her father and give her a dissipated English lover named Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), who can’t seem to part from his severely dressed sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain). Enter her new haunted home, a ruined space teeming with the ghosts of Thomas’s former intimates.

Del Toro is an erudite, well-intentioned filmmaker, and it’s no wonder that he has made a name for himself in recent years as an amateur film scholar, a wealth of knowledge on everything from the gothic to Hitchcock who delivers master classes, commentaries, and Twitter essays on the same. The trouble is that that’s the mode he’s working in here, too, pedantically citing gothic trope after trope without putting them to any use. Worse, del Toro wastes a perfectly game cast, stranding valuable players like Hiddleston and Chastain in the back of the gnarly, collapsing scenery. They’re left to spout his usual bromides about the ethics of caring for the monsters in your backyard, but if del Toro can’t be roused to care about anything but the house’s impressive set design, why should we?