The best repertory and art-house screenings, special presentations, lectures, and limited engagements in Toronto.
At rep cinemas this week: J.J. Abrams’s crack at Star Wars; a scary debut about Puritanism, teen girls, and witchcraft; and Leonardo DiCaprio’s epic rendezvous with a bear.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Directed by J.J. Abrams
The Royal (608 College Street)
Skillful mimic and expert rebooter JJ Abrams wears the Star Wars franchise’s aesthetic and thematic quirks like a tight-fitting glove in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, a pleasingly familiar return to George Lucas’s best stomping grounds after the epic disappointment of the hot digital mess of the prequel trilogy. Picking up about 30 years after Return of the Jedi and finding a new generation of heroes and villains inheriting the woes (and in some cases, the genes) of their predecessors, the film imagines a world where Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) has gone AWOL and only a trio of newbies (Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, and the internet’s new boyfriend, Oscar Isaac) can bring him out of hiding to face a new threat, the whiny but powerful Kylo Ren (Adam Driver).
Despite the film’s almost incalculable success at the international box office—imagine a sea of dollars surrounded by another sea—much has been made of the film’s derivative style and character and narrative beats, which recreate 1977’s A New Hope down to the wide-eyed desert scrapper (Rey for Luke), renegade gone good (Finn for Han), and straight-shooting resistance fighter (Poe for Leia). That’s true enough, and Abrams doesn’t score a lot of points on world-building or elegance. But The Force Awakens is a savvy bit of adaptation and, yes, fan service, honouring its antecedents while undoubtedly investing in the future represented by its young cast, all of whom are funny, fresh-faced, and game for whatever pulpy, melodramatic adventures Abrams throws at them.
Directed by Robert Eggers
TIFF Bell Lightbox (350 King Street West)
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 writtenness 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 Alejandro G. Iñárritu
Revue Cinema (400 Roncesvalles Avenue)
Leonard DiCaprio finally snagged that elusive Oscar for The Revenant, the latest punishing epic from the now four-time Academy Award-winning auteur Alejandro G. (formerly González) Iñárritu. A bit more narratively straightforward than earlier films, such as 21 Grams and Babel, but just as aesthetically bombastic and prone to meathead philosophizing, The Revenant might be Iñárritu’s best work: a pretentious, goofy revenge tale that swings big and occasionally hits despite being in poor taste.
DiCaprio plays frontiersman Glass, a guide who is betrayed by his men following a vicious grizzly bear attack. Ditched on his back and foaming at the mouth by shifty-eyed enemy Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy, doing one of his less successful funny accents), Glass hauls his broken body across the American wilderness, meeting Native American allies and fighting French-Canadian trappers to make his way back to camp, and to the man who killed his son and left him for dead.
For all the advanced press about the film’s difficult shoot and immaculate, magic-hour cinematography by master Emmanuel Lubezki, The Revenant is a pretty basic movie. Though impressively mounted and occasionally stirring, it trades in tired old American bromides about vengeance and manliness, and turns in a pathetically inadequate apology for white settler-invaders’ seizure of Native American lands. Believe it or not, that still makes it Iñárritu’s most successful picture, powered by a muscular lead performance—has any actor come alive as often as DiCaprio while crawling on his stomach?—and an enjoyably brash sensibility.