Rep Cinema This Week: Chi-Raq, Room, and Cemetery of Splendour
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Rep Cinema This Week: Chi-Raq, Room, and Cemetery of Splendour

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

Still from Chi-Raq.

At rep cinemas this week: Spike Lee’s new joint about gang violence in Chicago, Brie Larson’s Oscar-winning performance, and a Thai Palme D’Or winner’s haunting new film about sleep and memory.

Directed by Spike Lee

TIFF Bell Lightbox (350 King Street West)

Spike Lee returns to form in fiction filmmaking after a successful run as a documentarian with Chi-Raq, a clever and intermittently powerful reimagining of Aristophanes’ Lysistra that takes on the subject of gangland violence in Chicago. Mad Men’s Teyonah Parris stars as the contemporary Lysistra, a woman who becomes community organizer and peace activist alike when she persuades the women of Chicago to swear off sex with their gang affiliated partners–including the titular rapper and child of the city Chi-Raq (Nick Cannon) and rival baddie Cyclops (Wesley Snipes)–until the men cease their gun violence. Setting up shop in the local armoury–seized, to the police’s great surprise, through entirely nonviolent means–the women start a global movement that seeks to put a redemptive end to masculinist violence.

As always, Lee is a filmmaker of ideas, and he packs a lot of stirring ideological debate about gun culture, poverty, and police violence against black bodies into an aesthetically playful package which includes, of course, iambic pentameter and rhyme. (We were especially taken with his mix of heady discourse and goofy wordplay that links the film’s chorus Dolmedes, played by Samuel L. Jackson, with Wheaties.) One wishes those ideas weren’t sullied by the film’s casual heteronormative stance and lazy sexism, which makes beautiful objects of the female leads it ostensibly celebrates, but one takes the bad with the good in what is probably the filmmaker’s most important statement since Bamboozled in 2000.

Directed by Lenny Abrahamson

Regent Theatre (551 Mt. Pleasant Road Toronto)

Newly minted Oscar winner Brie Larson does a lot of heavy lifting in Room, Lenny Abrahamson’s slightly ropey adaptation of Canadian-by-Ireland Emma Donoghue’s Booker Prize-nominated novel. As Joy, a young woman kidnapped as a teenager and held hostage in an outdoor shed, Larson has to take command of the enclosed space of the titular holding cell while effectively co-directing adorable rising star Jacob Tremblay, playing her five-year-old son Jack (Jacob Tremblay), who she has raised entirely in captivity. Larson rises to the task in a performance that’s alternately soft and hard-nosed. But she’s let down by a film that isn’t quite sure what to do with the source text, dragging it kicking and screaming into the cinema with Jack’s out-of-place lyrical narration about the wonders of the world, which casts an overly pretty sheen over some thoroughly ugly material.

As good as Larson is in the opening half, which Abrahamson treats as a kind of one-act play with the leads playing off only each other and the mundane props around them, the film more properly gets into gear once it opens up into the world after mother and son’s dramatic, authentically moving escape. If Abrahamson’s staging of their cell doesn’t quite feel as claustrophobic as he intends—the toilet and sink Jack lovingly dubs Toilet and Sink scanning more like a prestige film’s set dressing than real appliances—the pair’s uneasy settlement in Joy’s mother’s house grounds the film in more interesting territory. It’s here where Donoghue’s examination of Jack’s separation anxiety, Joy’s depression, and her mother’s grief—beautifully realized in a low-key performance by unsung MVP Joan Allen—pay off, the first half’s strained theatrics and clunky voiceovers replaced with something nuanced and rich.

Cemetery of Splendour
Directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul

TIFF Bell Lightbox (350 King Street West)

Thai Palme D’Or winner Apichatpong Weerasethakul makes a beautiful variation on old themes in the enchanting if slumber-inducing Cemetery of Splendour. Every bit the equal of the more celebrated Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, the film is set at a country hospital that houses soldiers who’ve fallen into a mysterious deep sleep that might have supernatural roots. The plot, such as it is, finds a young medium and not-so-young volunteer at the hospital joining forces to get to the bottom of the men’s illnesses, which appears to have something to do with the unsettled psychic energies of the archeological site beneath the ground they stand on.

Part ghost story, part regional idyl, and part hallucination, the film is difficult to put into any neat generic categories. Suffice it to say that it is singularly Apichatpong, the work of a modest, funny, and serious filmmaker with an impossibly delicate sensibility. Beneath the film’s soft, quietly shuffling tone and pacing and gorgeously muted visuals—including the signature image of the soldiers piped to sleep under glowing tubes whose colours change like mood rings—is a surprisingly trenchant allegory about the dangers of sleeping on one’s national history.


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