The best repertory and art-house screenings, special presentations, lectures, and limited engagements in Toronto this week.
At rep cinemas this week: Quentin Tarantino’s blood-soaked debut, a New England folktale about teen witchcraft, and an absurdist romantic comedy about a man destined to become a lobster.
Directed by Quentin Tarantino
Revue Cinema (400 Roncesvalles Avenue)
Before he became the king of 70mm roadshows, Cannes-bound grindhouse double bills, and bullish pronouncements on his own excellence, Quentin Tarantino burst onto the scene with Reservoir Dogs. A lean, mean neo-noir about a diamond heist gone spectacularly wrong, the film is about as good as American independent debuts get, a calling card that displays all of Tarantino’s stylistic peccadilloes and unabashed cinephilia in a more concentrated, less ostentatious package than his later works like The Hateful Eight.
The film concerns itself with the fallout from a failed heist. We meet a motley group of six pseudonymous criminals–each named after a different colour–dealing with the insult, injury, and paranoia that comes from surviving a police set up. This being a Tarantino film, those thugs (and one mole) are played by a mix of big name and under-utilized character actors making the most of their closeups, chief among them Tim Roth as the gravely wounded Mr. Orange, who probably knows more than he lets on, Harvey Keitel as nominal team (and cast) leader Mr. White, and Michael Madsen as Mr. Blonde, a psychopath with a flair for torture.
Tarantino plants the seed for his later set-piece-based cinema by rooting most of the action in the same expansive but somehow claustrophobic warehouse. He mines rich performances out of a cast of distinctive mugs, delivering probably his most sincere and straightforward film, a template for what was to follow but also a fine little punchy crime thriller about big egos, stoic suffering and betrayal in its own right.
Directed by Robert Eggers
The Royal (608 College Street)
Robert Eggers makes a stunning, moody directorial debut to rival Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook in The Witch, a Sundance hit that delivers in slow-burn scares what it lacks in the way of a refined script. Going back to 17th-century sources for its dialogue and scenario, the film tells the eerie story of a faithful Puritan family turned inside out by an evil spirit from the woods, who unlocks dark forces in the eldest teen daughter.
The Witch is as tightly and rigorously conceived as any debut we’ve seen in years. Like David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows, it also earnestly explores a young woman’s burgeoning sexuality as the subject of horror without lapsing into clichés, stereotypes, and misogynist tropes—at least until the somewhat goofy finale positions witchery as feminist praxis. If we’re a bit hesitant to embrace it in the end, it’s due in part to its restrained-to-a-fault style and overly bullish presentation of the documentary reality of its source text.
Like a lot of films that anchor themselves in historical rhetoric as a guarantor of authenticity, The Witch takes its sources at face value without acknowledging their textuality or their original implied reader, creating some occasionally stilted moments that seem to present highly stylized 17th-century diction as casual, realist dialogue. We didn’t really buy the ethnographic value of, say, a scene where a goat asks a girl if she’d like to “live deliciously,” but we were otherwise held in thrall by the work of a sharp new talent with a distinctive voice, well developed straight out of the box.
Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos
TIFF Bell Lightbox (350 King Street West)
Master of the absurd, Greek New Wave luminary Yorgos Lanthimos makes his English-language debut with The Lobster, a slightly less rocky transition to the language than endured by predecessors such as Wong Kar-Wai’s tin-eared My Blueberry Nights. As in Lanthimos’s Academy Award-nominated Dogtooth—and its deeper if more unsung follow-up, ALPS—the film takes place in a singularly strange world, this time in a dystopian hotel where guests are given 45 days to meet and hook up with a life partner or be turned into an animal of their choosing. It’s a bold conceit, rife with satirical possibility. But to our disappointment, the film never quite reconciles its ingenious premise with its overly arch, syncopated comic beats, at times seeming all too amused by its superficially clever ideas to deliver much in the way of follow through.
Colin Farrell stars as sad-sack David, thrown into crisis by the recent abandonment of his wife and forced to roam the hotel’s desperate, Dantean meet market, lest he be transformed, Ovid-like, into the titular crustacean. Fleeing the hotel’s grim regime for the forest, David meets a group of renegades, including a possible new love (Rachel Weisz) who might keep him from his clawed fate.
Lanthimos’s trademark minimalist dialogue makes a fairly smooth journey into English, with Farrell and Weisz ably recreating the stultified rhythm and flat affect of the cult survivors from Dogtooth. (Nobody, incidentally, beats Angeliki Papoulia, a Lanthimos alum who is just as otherworldly strange and sad-eyed here as in ALPS.) But there’s an insularity and self-enchantment to the film’s overall presentation—from its ostentatiously dry style to its pencil-thin intellectual pronouncements on everything from monogamy to disability—that makes The Lobster as inaccessible to the unconverted as the umpteenth instalment of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.