The best repertory and art-house screenings, special presentations, lectures, and limited engagements in Toronto.
At rep cinemas this week: highlights from National Canadian Film Day, including a Cronenberg near-classic, a boxing drama about race and class in Halifax, and an experimental debut from Winnipeg.
Directed by David Cronenberg
The Royal (608 College Street)
Nothing cemented David Cronenberg’s reputation for the gory set piece quite like Scanners, the Toronto filmmaker’s gruesome follow up to The Brood, which is still the benchmark for exploding head special effects, if a lesser effort in the Cronenberg pantheon. A hinge point between Cronenberg’s early venereal horror and more refined genre fare like Videodrome and The Fly, Scanners is a high concept sci-fi potboiler that just about makes up for its stilted performances and sometimes halting narrative with its memorable visuals and unsettling tone.
Painter and occasional actor Steven Lack stars as Cameron Vale, a skittish outsider with powerful telepathic abilities beyond his control. Scrambling to take care of himself for most of his adult life, Vale now finds himself subject to the scrutiny of ConSec, a shady organization that hopes to weaponize his gift while promising to regulate its uncomfortable side effects if he agrees to take down renegade scanner Darryl Revok (Michael Ironside) on their behalf.
Like Cronenberg’s best films, Scanners flirts nobly with some big ideas, earnestly engaging in discourse about whether physical and cognitive variations are best rendered taboo or socially integrated, or whether special abilities ought to be regulated, privatized, or left unrestrained. (In that debate, it nicely prefigures the recent spate of superhero cinema about collateral damage.) That it more or less succeeds as a work of science fiction about a poor man trying to survive at the fringes of society is a wonder given its wooden central performance, but Cronenberg’s commitment to exploring the consequences of his conceit and his penchant for unforgettable images—we’ll leave the most famous one unspoiled for any novices—helps Scanners squeak by.
Lack will be in attendance for the screening, moderated by film critic Norm Wilner.
Poor Boy’s Game
Directed by Clement Virgo
Media Commons, University of Toronto, Robarts Library (130 St. George Street)
Clement Virgo made a compelling but under-seen bid for the mainstream with Poor Boy’s Game, a nice testing ground for the rich family narrative storytelling of his CBC miniseries The Book of Negroes. A sturdy melodrama about boxing, race, and class in contemporary Halifax, the film is smart and meditative if a bit uneven.
Danny Glover stars as George, a retired boxing coach and family man living under a fog while trying to care for his son, who was left with serious cognitive and physical impairments after a racially motivated beating. That traumatic wound reopens when Donnie Rose (Rossif “Son of Donald” Sutherland), the young white boxer supposedly most responsible for the assault, comes out of prison and is immediately challenged to a revenge fight by George’s nephew, a pro athlete with no compunctions about killing an out of shape amateur in the ring. Crossing deeply felt cultural lines to help another working class kid in a rigged system that pits poor youth against each other, George trains Donnie in hopes of getting something like redemption.
That’s a fairly convoluted premise, but Virgo taps into something stirring and true in his depiction of a racially divided Halifax brought together by the promise of a fight and the capitalist mechanics of boxing, which at once indulges the working class’s earnest love of sport and exploits their rage. He’s aided, too, by Glover’s tender, understated performance, which always feels real and emotionally on-point despite the melodramatic hoops the script forces him to jump through.
88:88 and Hit 2 Pass
Directed by Isiah Medina and Kurt Walker
Nat Taylor Cinema, York University (4700 Keele Street)
Winnipeg-based filmmaker Isiah Medina makes an evocative feature debut with 88:88, which earned critical acclaim on the festival circuit last year. A formally diverse digital video diary of musings ranging from the romantic to the philosophical and the political, the film is at once a formalist puzzle, a multifaceted portrait of a city, and a trenchant meditation on race and class. More importantly for those who find experimental cinema difficult to take without a primer, it’s also a strong demonstration of the ways that the avant-garde can anchor itself in the personal to great emotional effect. Medina’s debut is the rare experimental feature that’s as affecting as it is formally enchanting.
88:88 screens as part of a double bill with Vancouver filmmaker Kurt Walker’s similarly indelible mix of avant-garde aesthetics and personal experience in Hit 2 Pass. Hit 2 Pass takes its name from a demolition-derby car race in Prince George, B.C., where you literally have to hit to pass your fellow driver. The film is an indelible, mixed-media experiment that runs the gamut of documentary aesthetics, 8-bit video games, and a first-person memoir about what this country of scrap heaps means to the First Nations people who live there.
The films will be followed by a Q&A with Medina (in person) and Walker (by Skype).
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