The best repertory and art-house screenings, special presentations, lectures, and limited engagements in Toronto.
At rep cinemas this week: a Studio Ghibli classic, the semi-triumphant return of Charlie Brown, and an immersive Holocaust drama.
My Neighbor Totoro
Directed by Hayao Miyazaki
Revue Cinema (400 Roncesvalles Avenue)
Children’s films don’t get much better than My Neighbor Totoro, Japanese animation house Studio Ghibli’s first international smash. Directed by Hayao Miyazaki, the most prolific and well-regarded of the studio’s filmmakers, the film tells the story of Satsuki and Mei, two young sisters who discover that their new house is also occupied by a number of dusty spirits, and find that the forest just past their front door is home to the enormous titular creature.
Since the film’s success, Totoro has become Ghibli’s equivalent to Mickey Mouse, and for good reason. He’s a sweet and gently surreal creation, an undomesticated, primal teddy bear who, in one of the most beautiful and strange sequences in the film, delights in the mere sound of raindrops falling on his comically undersized umbrella. That Totoro is a lingering forest spirit in an age that doesn’t much value the natural is just one of the deep thematic resonances in a film that says a lot with a few words.
More than its fantasy elements, what makes My Neighbor Totoro special is its staggering attention to detail and its emotional depth and texture. Despite its austere script, this may be one of the most sophisticated children’s films to come down the pike, in part because of how astutely it renders the psychology of its young heroines—a preteen and a toddler trying to make sense of their mother’s illness and cope with their new surroundings, while keeping their imaginations well-fed through their surroundings.
The Peanuts Movie
Directed by Steve Martino
The Royal (608 College Street)
Charles M. Schulz’s signature sad-sack Charlie Brown rides again in The Peanuts Movie, which comes to us about a half dozen years after the beloved comic strip’s last original run, care of director Steve Martino and a script by Schulz’s son Craig and grandson Bryan. Whether you chalk it up to filial loyalty, conservative thinking, or a lack of imagination, the junior Schulz’s extension of the family franchise feels pretty familiar, tracing as many of the narrative beats of the comic strip and TV specials as possible and adding a slick, slightly uncanny CG sheen to their character designs.
For the most part, that’s fine. The Peanuts Movie won’t win any awards for originality, but there’s a low-key pleasantness to sinking back into Schulz’s sweet, slightly wary world. If Charlie’s dogged but distanced pursuit of The Little Red-Haired Girl feels a trace creepier now than it did before—we were reminded of Brian De Palma’s Body Double—and the gags feel a bit worn out, there’s still a lot to admire in Martino and company’s minimalist riff on the franchise, not least their painstaking recreation of Schulz’s aesthetic, singularly designed so that a lone squiggly hair and a solid black zigzag are all that distinguish our down-on-his-luck hero from his friends and family.
Son of Saul
Directed by László Nemes
TIFF Bell Lightbox (350 King Street West)
László Nemes leaves an indelible first mark with Son of Saul, the Hungarian filmmaker and ex-assistant to slow cinema stalwart Béla Tarr’s impeccably directed if intellectually dubious feature debut. A runner-up at Cannes and critical darling on the fall festival circuit, the immersive, 35mm shot film follows the travails of Saul, an Auschwitz-Birkenau inmate who makes it his personal mission to find a rabbi to secure a proper burial for a boy killed in the gas chambers. Saul’s quixotic, hopeless quest becomes for Nemes a way to channel the unspeakable horrors of the Holocaust on a single brave soul’s journey through it and toward something like redemption.
Your mileage will vary on the question of whether Nemes’s formal gambit of presenting Saul’s story as a you-are-there frontline experience of the Holocaust, filmed just over the protagonist’s shoulder, is bold or exploitative. We weren’t so persuaded, and found the experience akin to a solemn video game shooter that at once revels in violence and scolds its audience for taking part in it vicariously. But there’s no denying Nemes’s craft, or his singular focus, which makes this as troubling and impressively sculpted a debut as we’ve seen in some time.