The TIFF Bell Lightbox, touted by the Toronto International Film Festival group as the “new home for cinema”, opened its doors to Toronto in early September 2010 at the corner of King and John in downtown Toronto. The Bell Lightbox will operate 365 days a year, hosting films for the Toronto International Film Festival in September, as well as year-round film events including Cinematheque—a year-round programme of primarily old and foreign films shown on the big scree that used to screen at Jackman Hall at the AGO.
What I Most Want
The Lightbox is a gigantic centre for film, with 5 public cinemas, 2 art galleries, 3 learning studios, a bistro, a restaurant, and a lounge. This fall, the Lightbox will be showing “100 Essential Films” as part of the Cinematheque programme for the season; the films range from the musical classic Singinʼ in the Rain to Felliniʼs 8 1/2.
There will also be a retrospective of films by Director Tim Burton, including the wonderful darkly comedic musical Sweeney Todd: The Demon of Barber Street, the delightful adaptation of Roald Dahlʼs Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and the minor but entertaining work Big Fish. The Burton films will each be screened as part of a double bill, with a corresponding film that has “influenced, inspired, and intrigued” Burton as a filmmaker. And finally, in the Cinematheque programme there will be a few reasonably independent or “small” films screening with a longer run throughout the season.
The Lightbox launched with the surprising TIFF hit and winner of the Palme dʼOr at Cannes, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, which was a train wreck of epic proportions; if you havenʼt already lost those two hours of your life, consider yourself lucky. So far, other recent films to screen at the Lightbox include Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child,
Howl, Trigger, and one of my favourites from TIFF 2009: Tales from the Golden Age. Tales from the Golden Age tells a series of urban legends from Romania during the time of communism. Itʼs a relatively light film, considering the political background, and quite hilarious at times, though each tale has dark undertones of the difficulties of the period.
The TIFF Bell Lightbox is a pretty exciting prospect, but my visit to the Lightbox involved a mix of delight and disappointment. While Iʼm delighted that there are now five new screens in Toronto for foreign, old, and independent films, in a city that is already one of the best internationally when it comes to the variety of films shown, the Lightbox delivery is disappointing.
I saw Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives in the largest cinema at the Lightbox and was astounded by how tiny the screen was. In fact, the screen was so small, it looked like the theatre was built twenty years ago, like the Carlton, rather than being part of a brand new cinema. More surprising is tthat hese screens canʼt support 16×9 aspect ratios without reducing the screen size even more. On the positive side, the projectors can match Christie projectors (like the ones you see at the Varsity) for quality, and the acoustics were all-around very good.
The seats in the theatre at the Lightbox were designed to give a luxurious moviegoing experience, and they half succeeded. The seats were comfortable and roomy and the legroom was fantastic, unmatched by any other cinema in Toronto save, perhaps, some of the AMC Yonge & Dundas cinemas. The drink holders are cleverly positioned just below the end of the armrest, so that you donʼt bang into your drink when putting your arm on the armrest. And unlike Jackman Hall at the AGO, the former home of Cinematheque, the Lightbox theatres have stadium seating so that those of us under 6 feet tall can still read the subtitles, if someone tall sits in front of us, without bobbing up and down during the movie.
However, the seats are badly placed. I found myself having to trade off between sitting too far from the screen but at the right height, or sitting at the right distance from the screen and being too low. I chose to sit at the right distance from the screen and came home with a sore neck from craning it upwards to look at the screen. Toronto has some great cinemas with both good film selection and cinema design, like The Varsity and the AMC Yonge & Dundas; the Bell Lightbox designers should have taken a cue from these cinemas when setting the seat layout.
Perhaps a bigger complaint is the design of the building itself, with huge amounts of empty open space; you actually have to walk about a block to get from the movie theatre to the bathroom. The building, it seems, on all three stories of the public atrium, was designed for the one week in the year when such a large venue would be needed to host film parties. The rest of the year, however, this empty space seems superfluous. One floor with generous amounts of empty space for a party would be acceptable. But three floors? When the sacrifice is theatres with screens hardly bigger than your television? Iʼm unimpressed.
These problems with the design of the building would be a small price to pay for the privilege of new and better international film programming. While the “100 Essential Films” is sure to attract film neophythes, and I still havenʼt seen all of them, let alone all of them on the big screen, these are the same films from the 40s and the 60s that have been playing at Cinematheque for the last four years. The Bell Lightbox should also be showcasing contemporary foreign film. Itʼs easy to find a DVD of A Bout de Souffle, but itʼs not so easy to see contemporary foreign film in a cinema except during TIFF in September or at various other smaller film festivals in Toronto throughout the year.
The Lightbox should be showcasing some of TIFFʼs finest, giving small films an opportunity to gain an audience and Toronto cinema-goers the opportunity to see films they may have missed at TIFF. If the Bell Lightbox hadnʼt picked up this yearʼs Palme dʼOr winner, another theatre likely would have; itʼs never been a problem to see Palme dʼOr winning films in Toronto. But great films like Delfina Castagninoʼs What I Most Want, Dome Karukoskiʼs Lapland Odyssey, and Achero Mañasʼs Anything You Want may not be seen by Torontonians except by those who attended TIFF and saw them there.
Anything You Want
Itʼs early days; there are still many great films to see at the TIFF Bell Lightbox this fall. In fact, keep your eyes peeled for my picks for the “Truly Essential North American Films” and the “Truly Essential Foreign Films” from the “100 Essential Film Series”. Hereʼs hoping for some more daring, contemporary foreign film programming in the new year.
Location: Located at Reitman Square on the northwest corner of King and John Streets (350 King Street West), TIFF Bell Lightbox occupies an entire city block in the heart of Toronto’s media and entertainment district. All spaces, including the cinemas, are wheelchair accessible to the public.