The best repertory and art-house screenings, special presentations, lectures, and limited engagements in Toronto.
At rep cinemas this week: a Canadian response to Argo‘s depiction of the Canadian Caper, a martial arts epic from Wong Kar-wai, and Lake Bell’s smart debut about the gender politics of the voice-over industry.
Our Man in Tehran
Directed by Larry Weinstein and Drew Taylor
TIFF Bell Lightbox (350 King Street West)
Early in Larry Weinstein and Drew Taylor’s Our Man in Tehran, an insider’s look at the Canadian government’s role in the Iran hostage crisis of 1979, an official points out that “this wasn’t a movie; this was real life.” On the one hand, she’s referring to the cockamamie scheme that came to be known as the “Canadian Caper,” a plan to smuggle six American embassy workers out of Iran under the pretense that they were a Canadian film crew working on a schlocky sci-fi movie. Yet she’s also clearly targeting Argo, Ben Affleck’s Oscar-winning film about those same events—a film that gave virtually all the credit for the successful extraction to CIA operative and disguise master Tony Mendez.
A measured Canadian response to Affleck’s American mythmaking, Weinstein and Taylor’s film is most effective when it debunks that air of Hollywood heroism and offers in its place a more nuanced portrayal of what went on behind the scenes. The title initially seems to refer to Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor, who sheltered most of the Americans for the better part of the process—but it turns out to be ironic, insofar as nearly a dozen subjects, all summoned back for talking-head interviews, turn out to have played integral parts. Among the players were Canadian Prime Minister Joe Clark and American President Jimmy Carter.
Our Man in Tehran doesn’t always work. Though it’s more detailed than the comic-book introduction we get in Argo, the film’s ostensibly no-nonsense history of the United States’ thorny dealings with Iran leading up to the hostage crisis is arguably just as manipulative, as when the sounds of women’s mournful wailing are used to underscore a diplomat’s memory of looking into the eyes of the the Ayatollah Khomeini and seeing only an abyss. As a portrait of the complexities of international diplomacy in times of crisis, though, it’s an important corrective to Hollywood’s self-congratulatory account.
Tuesday’s screening at 6:30 p.m. will feature a Q&A with Taylor.
Directed by Wong Kar-wai
Revue Cinema (400 Roncesvalles Avenue)
Despite his proven track record, Harvey Weinstein has a fearsome reputation among cinephiles as the kind of shamelessly hands-on producer who takes the work of distinctive artists and turns it into barely recognizable pablum. Though his sins are legion, bad enough to earn him the moniker of “Harvey Scissorhands” (and the ire of everyone from Matt Damon to Martin Scorsese), Weinstein’s twisted editorial labours have never yielded anything quite as strange as the North American cut of The Grandmaster, celebrated Hong Kong filmmaker Wong Kar-wai’s martial arts epic about Ip Man, trainer to Bruce Lee.
On the face of it, The Grandmaster might seem like an unusual project for Wong, whose swooning dramas about geographically dislocated would-be lovers are typically modest affairs. Yet despite its grand historical canvas, which finds the fate of Ip Man (Tony Leung) shaped by the economic despair of the Second Sino-Japanese War, this is still an intimate and lyrical biopic, most electric when the downtrodden hero crosses paths with Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi), the self-trained daughter of a rival grandmaster from the north.
That tentative near-romance between two experts forced to neglect their gifts because of the exigencies of class and gender is classic Wong, but the subtlety of its portrayal is nearly undone by Weinstein’s clumsy tampering with the finished product, which ran 130 minutes in Chinese cinemas but is well under two hours in its North American incarnation. The original film has been substantially trimmed, rearranged, and supposedly clarified for domestic audiences through a series of pointless intertitles. Worse still are the maddeningly obvious captions emblazoned on the screen in this new cut whenever new characters appear: picture a production of Richard III that superimposes the words “Richard III, House of York” over the future monarch’s opening monologue. It’s a shame that such clunky exposition has been applied to so graceful a film.
In a World
Directed by Lake Bell
The Royal (608 College Street)
Children’s Hospital writer and star Lake Bell makes her feature-film debut with In a World, a warm and funny look at the male-dominated wasp’s nest that is the voice-over industry. In addition to writing and directing the film, the multi-talented Bell stars in it as Carol, a vocal coach and aspiring voice actor who’s all but ignored by her trailer-narrating superstar father, Sam (Fred Melamed)—until, that is, she starts snagging jobs that he had lined up for his would-be successor, Gustav (Ken Marino).
Likeable as it is, this is a messy debut, prone to lengthy tangents, such as a marital dustup between Carol’s sister and brother-in-law (Michaela Watkins and Rob Corddry, both excellent) and two possible romances for Carol, who’s a bit strangely depicted as an ugly duckling despite her irrepressible star charisma. That structural bumpiness aside, the film is an intelligent skewering of an industry that undervalues talents like Bell’s, and a brilliant showcase not only for her own formidable comic chops but also for those of her fabulous ensemble cast—many of them television actors relishing the opportunity to stretch in a film.