The best repertory and art-house screenings, special presentations, lectures, and limited engagements in Toronto.
At rep cinemas this week: George Lucas’ dystopian first film, the Talking Heads in the best concert film of all time, and an impressive, diverse new addition to the Rocky franchise.
Directed by George Lucas
The Royal (608 College Street)
George Lucas made an auspicious if quiet start with THX 1138, the Star Wars mastermind and eventual fanboy punching bag’s first foray into science fiction. Where Star Wars would peel off in the direction of fantasy and Flash Gordon serials, THX 1138 grounds itself squarely in the realm of dystopian fiction, imagining an ugly, brave new world where mind-numbingly repetitive and life-threatening work is the order of the day, sex and love are outlawed, and mood-levelling drugs are mandated to the populace.
Though Lucas’ Foucauldian world of surveillance, state control, and self-denial is undoubtedly familiar in its broad strokes, you can’t underestimate the film’s impeccable, oft-imitated design, which prefigures the stark, minimalist interiors and blinding whites of Star Wars’ imperial space stations and mining colonies. It must be said that the Brechtian stiltedness of the performances points uneasily to Lucas’s eventual, how shall we say, distinctive direction of actors like Hayden Christensen and Natalie Portman in the prequel trilogy. But credit ought to go to Robert Duvall for making his titular drone with a conscience and a suppressed sex drive seem fully-fleshed in the moments he breaks out of his narcotic stupor—what’s the equally wooden Anakin’s excuse in Attack of the Clones?—to come into himself as an individual.
Stop Making Sense
Directed by Jonathan Demme
Bloor Hot Docs Cinema (506 Bloor Street West)
Widely regarded as the best concert film of all time, Stop Making Sense feels especially vital in light of the Talking Heads’ current status as one of the few critically acclaimed bands of the 1980s to resist the siren call of a lucrative 21st-century reunion tour. As directed by a pre-Silence of the Lambs Jonathan Demme, who would go on to make a trio of middling films profiling Neil Young, Stop Making Sense operates as the Platonic ideal of a Talking Heads show, a record of three 1983 performances at the Pantages Theatre shot and edited from a disembodied perspective that allows unimpeded access to frontman David Byrne and the sparsely but meaningfully arrayed stage—with nary a view of the audience until the last encore.
That isn’t to say that the rest of the band, who join Byrne in increasing numbers with each successive song, isn’t given its due, but that Byrne is clearly the ringmaster. So strong is his conceptual focus that one could argue the film is co-directed. We begin, for example, with just Byrne and a boombox, and the promise that he has a tape he wants to play us. From there, he launches into a possessed rendition of “Psycho Killer,” his lurching dance determined by the staccato clicks of the drum machine ostensibly lurking somewhere inside the cassette player. You could read that postmodern snake-charming entrance as a metaphor for Demme’s authorial vision here: to let his own record of these performances fall in line with whatever rhythm Byrne sets.
An art-school dropout before he formed the band with fellow Rhode Island School of Design student Chris Fentz, in temperament Byrne is as much a visual artist as a musician. It’s perhaps that designer’s sensibility that has led to the ranking of Stop Making Sense as among the most visually distinctive rock documentaries ever made, despite Demme’s no-frills approach. Governed by Byrne’s aesthetic, the stage transforms into a vast installation space capable of accommodating various set pieces—like a surreal performance of “Girlfriend is Better,” in which he is decked out in an extravagantly oversized suit, and a tender rendition of “This Must Be the Place” that transforms the theatre into a modest middle-class home, adorned with back-projected bookshelves and an oversized lamp for Byrne to dance with.
Directed by Ryan Coogler
Revue Cinema (400 Roncesvalles Avenue)
Whether you blame the 2015 Academy Award nomination slate’s shameful lack of diversity on the conservative voting body’s overwhelming whiteness or on the industry’s failure to cultivate anything but white talent, it’s hard to make sense of the near complete snub of Ryan Coogler’s Creed. The seventh instalment of the Rocky series in all but name, Creed is a tender and remarkably executed reinvention of a moribund franchise, bringing its original namesake back as a coach for the wayward son of his old nemesis and eventual friend.
Michael B. Jordan stars as Adonis “Donnie” Johnson, the illegitimate son of former (and, thanks in part to Rocky, dearly departed) champion Apollo Creed. Bounced through an unwelcoming foster care system until he is adopted by Apollo’s widow (Phylicia Rashad), Donnie cuts his teeth on street fights while toiling away at a desk job. He finally embraces his destiny and, however ambivalently, his family name, with some help from underdog-turned-champion-turned-restauranteur Rocky Balboa, played once again by a pleasantly rumpled Sylvester Stallone.
Stallone seems poised to nab an Oscar for easing back into the skin of a character who netted him his first (and until now, only) nomination, but the grace and poise with which he realizes Rocky’s dignified twilight makes his inevitable coronation feel deserved; this isn’t the fait accompli it might have been. But Stallone’s fine work would be lost without Coogler’s smart, understated direction—which subtly tweaks the franchise’s working class Italian-American view on Philadelphia to take in the African-American fighting class that’s always been on the periphery of its vision—and Jordan’s proud, rambunctious energy as the new contender.