Guys, let’s face harsh facts. The new mainstream releases for the past couple of weeks have been sometimes painfully awful or just plain disappointing. Sure, there are a lot of things going on in indie cinema to celebrate (and especially in Canadian cinema), but for those looking for a bit of film history or nostalgia to get through what has been a pretty savage winter thus far (both in terms of quality and temperature), Cineplex and the TIFF Bell Lightbox have you covered.
The Great Digital Film Festival kicks off at select Cineplex locations across Canada today (including for the first time ever in Halifax, check out the Cineplex website for a full list of participating theatres, films, and showtimes.), bringing with it a whole slew of cinematic classics for the low price of $6. With a specific focus this year on science fiction and superheroes, one of the highlights is an all day comic themed blockbusters (on February 2nd) that runs the gamut from the original Richard Donner Superman to Tim Burton’s now 25 year old Batman (and Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight) to Joss Whedon’s large scale team-up The Avengers, and more. If caped capers aren’t your thing, there’s some classic anime (the also 25 year old Akira and the equally heralded Ghost in the Shell), a Guy Richie double bill (Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels, Snatch), some classic Terry Gilliam (Brazil, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and the incredibly underrated The Fisher King), a couple of seemingly randomly selected classic James Bond films (On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Thunderball), and some cult sci-fi classics (Flash Gordon, Battlestar Galactica, Tron, Logan’s Run). But perhaps most bodacious and welcome of all are 25th anniversary screenings of the most excellent and often bogusly imitated Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. That one alone is pretty radical.
Although it kicked off last weekend at the TIFF Bell Lightbox (and runs until April 4th), the organization’s retrospective of the works of Dutch filmmaker Paul Verhoeven starts to really get interesting not this weekend, but next weekend. Showcasing the works of both a misunderstood and often unnecessarily derided European and North American treasure in chronological order, the series is still taking a look at the works made in Verhoeven’s pre-Hollywood blockbuster days. This week brings the 1975 period piece Katie Tippel (Friday, January 31st at 9:00pm), an 1881 set look at a young woman (played by Monique van den Ven) growing into her role as a social revolutionary that set a high bar as the most expensive Dutch film ever made at the time. It’s okay, but that monetary record would be broken by Verhoeven’s next film, the exceptional World War II coming of age drama Soldier of Orange (Friday, February 7th, 9:00pm), a film that would make him a national treasure. It’s a distinction that would be short lived, since the film that follows in his oeuvre, Spetters (Thursday, February 13th, 9:00pm), would be a sexually charged, misanthropic, and bitter coming of age story made with his greatest collaborator and discovery Rutger Hauer. It’s the film that would ultimately serve as the pivot point in his career that would eventually find him making such widely discussed high concept studio pictures as RoboCop (Friday, March 7th, 9:30pm), Basic Instinct (Thursday, March 13th, 9:15pm), Starship Troopers (Friday, March 21st, 9:15pm), and Showgirls (Friday, March 14th, 10:00pm). We’ll have more on this series on February 25th when we explore the bridge in Verhoeven’s career, but there’s no time to get a head start on us like the present.
Finally worth noting and flying a bit beneath the usual cinephile radar is an incredibly vital Lightbox retrospective of works from one of the best and sadly often overlooked African American filmmakers of all time Oscar Micheaux (running from Saturday, February 1st until the 23rd). A bestselling author turned filmmaker, Micheaux was the first black filmmaker to depict minority life in American cinema without giving in to stereotypes to simply cater to predominantly white audiences. In his second (and sadly earliest surviving film following the adaptation of his own novel The Conquest, later retitled The Homesteader for the screen) 1920’s Within Our Gates (Saturday, February 1st, 2:00pm), Micheaux tells an unflinching story of post- World War One social inequality, told from the viewpoint of mulatto woman Sylvia Landry (played by Evelyn Preer) sparked extreme reactions (including rioting in some cities) and lots of regional censorship, but firmly established him as a filmmaking force to be reckoned with. Seeing that many of his films haven’t survived or are extremely rare to come by, this month long series brings actual prints to the Lightbox that might never be seen again in this area for quite some time. I guarantee you that it’s a major blindspot for many cinema aficionados and historians and something even I fully intend to check out the first chance I get. It’s not like the new releases are doing us any favours this season.