The best repertory and art-house screenings, special presentations, lectures, and limited engagements in Toronto.
At rep cinemas this week: three wildly diverging takes on the good and the bad of print journalism, from a 1950s classic to an Oscar frontrunner.
Sweet Smell of Success
Directed by Alexander Mackendrick
The Royal (608 College Street)
Skeptical glances at the media don’t get much more acerbic than Sweet Smell of Success, Alexander Mackendrick’s blithe, funny, and bracingly mean look at the dirty tricks that make the celebrity news industry go round in 1950s New York. Clifford Odets masterfully adapts a Ernest Lehman novelette with the author, creating a beautifully textured if mercilessly nocturnal world where whispers scuttle fledgling careers at night before columns are filed in the early morning.
Tony Curtis plays Sidney Falco, an unscrupulous Manhattan press agent who finds himself frozen out from the make-or-break column of widely syndicated tastemaker J.J. Hunsucker (Burt Lancaster), the anti-Perez Hilton in his sharp suits, beefy shoulders, and glassy stare. Desperately seeking more column space for his irate clients, Falco makes a deal to smear the unapproved would-be lover of Hunsecker’s fair kid sister, a jazz musician with a promising future.
Lancaster cuts an imposing figure as the embodiment of the unmoved media gatekeeper. But it’s Curtis who really impresses as his snaky lackey, effortlessly ingratiating himself, slinking in and out of rooms, and blotting out his own subjectivity at every turn, the better to serve as a hollow instrument for his boss. For all of Curtis’ refined comic chops, it’s a chilling performance—one that is made all the more alarming by how Odets and Lehman appoint Falco as our audience surrogate, leaving us nowhere to look but down into our own gutlessness.
Directed by Richard Brooks
Revue Cinema (400 Roncesvalles Avenue)
Amidst the slow and painful disintegration of print journalism, it’s a kick to take in an eerily perceptive throwback like Richard Brooks’ Deadline—U.S.A. While Oscar pundits and old-guard media stalwarts laud Spotlight as some kind of great nostalgia machine—bringing us back to a time when staff jobs were real and investigative reporting budgets plentiful—Brooks’ film feels oddly prescient of the current apocalyptic moment, nailing the precocity and vulnerability of a business dependent on the timing of big stories and the dealings of a wealthy class beyond the reach of mere writers and editors.
Humphrey Bogart stars as Ed Hutcheson, a lead-chasing, no-nonsense editor of the New York Day (based on the then-recently shuttered New York Sun). While dealing with his own marital crisis, Hutcheson finds his professional life upended when the owner of the Day widow (Ethel Barrymore) considers selling the paper on the verge of a big story that might well keep the whole thing together.
Deadline—U.S.A. kicks off media watchdog Canadaland’s new screening series at the Revue, devoted to films about news media and journalism. The podcast’s host, Jesse Brown, will moderate a post-screening discussion with CBC Radio’s Michael Enright. Before the screening, revelers can even take in a live recording of the Canadaland podcast.
Directed by Tom McCarthy
Revue Cinema (400 Roncesvalles Avenue)
What is there to say about Spotlight, perhaps the most competent and easygoing prestige picture to come down the pike in years? Seemingly engineered from the pitch stage to rack up Oscar nominations (mission accomplished), actor-turned-filmmaker Tom McCarthy’s look at the Boston Globe’s work in uncovering the sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic archdiocese of Boston is as annoyingly self-congratulatory as it effective. This creates something of a wash: a film about the importance of speaking up about taboo subjects that doesn’t yield much conversation itself.
Michael Keaton gives a much more measured performance than his overwrought (and, predictably, Oscar-nominated) turn in Birdman as the paper’s investigative team leader Robby Robinson. Charged by incoming editor-in-chief and Boston outsider Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) with getting to the bottom of a developing scandal—involving a local priest who appears to have been bounced around church after church following accusations of sexual abuse against children—Robinson and his team uncover something far more insidious. The team uncovers a long-running, foolproof system of internally shuffling offending priests and secretly settling with victims, tacitly endorsed by the highest levels of the Church.
McCarthy is a pro at managing big players in tight, unshow-y ensembles, and Spotlight does a nice job of getting nuanced character work out of actors as disparate as Rachel McAdams and Stanley Tucci. (We’re not so sure about Oscar nominee Mark Ruffalo, who delivers some of his best as well as his worst work here, voicing most of the script’s unfortunate rants against The System.) As good as the cast is at rendering out-sized characters in minute details, they’re let down by a script that insists on annotating the team’s every minute victory and proclaiming its own importance. The result is an intermittently powerful procedural that can’t stop singing the praises of procedural work and unhelpfully narrating each step of the process.