The best repertory and art-house screenings, special presentations, lectures, and limited engagements in Toronto.
At rep cinemas this week: Wong Kar-Wai’s lovesick masterpiece, an innovative Oscar-nominated take on the U.S. housing market collapse, and a charming election satire about the ad campaign to oust Pinochet.
Directed by Wong-Kar Wai
TIFF Bell Lightbox (350 King Street West)
Wong-Kar Wai established himself as one of the most accessible and idiosyncratic talents in world cinema with 1994’s visually gorgeous (thanks to DP Christopher Doyle), and exuberantly plotted Chungking Express. Split into two just about equally strong parts, the film offers both a charming and violent story of a sad sack Taiwan-born beat cop’s chance meeting with a mysterious drug runner, and one of the great movie romances, which cemented Tony Leung’s status as a sensitive heartthrob, and gave pop star Faye Wong as impressive a screen debut as Bjork’s turn in Dancer in the Dark.
Takeshi Kaneshiro (otherwise best known to Western audiences as the third plank of the love triangle in House of Flying Daggers) anchors the first part as lovesick loser He Qiwu, who pines after his ex-girlfriend May and wonders if their love is as destined to expire as a can of pineapples. He gets a new lease on life on the eve of his birthday when he meets a blonde-wig-sunglasses-and-raincoat-clad mystery woman (Brigitte Lin) who has her own romantic and professional baggage to sort. He Qiwu’s regular greasy fix at a dive mall food court serves as the hinge point for the second story, which finds mall cop 663 (Leung) nursing his own heartbreak at the snack bar, where he meets manic pixie dream girl Faye (Wong).
Like all of Wong’s films, Chungking Express revels in circularity and coincidence. The two stories are largely structured around repeated English pop standards–with reggae singer Dennis Brown’s record “Things In Life” endlessly spinning at the jukebox in the first part and The Mamas and the Papas’ “California Dreamin’” serving as dreamy Faye’s persistent theme song in the second. Contrived as that might sound, Wong effortlessly weaves these pop songs into his narrative fabric, using them as a kind of prosthetic heart for his heartbroken characters, who can never quite seem to express themselves straightforwardly. Wong’s cryptic, lovesick voiceovers and melancholy self-sabotaging protagonists would go onto tip into self-parody in his English language debut My Blueberry Nights, but Chungking Express lands right in the filmmaker’s sweet spot.
The Big Short
Directed by Adam McKay
Fox Theatre (2236 Queen Street East)
Adam McKay makes an unexpectedly refined transition from the broad farce of Anchorman and The Other Guys to the high-toned world of the Hollywood prestige picture with The Big Short, which has shot ahead of more likely frontrunners (Spotlight, Bridge of Spies) to get in line for the Best Picture Oscar. More impressively, he does it without giving up either his slyness or formal daring, adapting Michael Lewis’ take on the 2008 financial collapse with a strange, stylistically diverse tutorial on subprime mortgages masquerading as a more standard ensemble comedy.
Steve Carell and Christian Bale lead a uniformly strong cast that includes Selena Gomez (as herself) and Margot Robbie (sending up her use as a beautiful prop to bad men’s shenanigans in The Wolf of Wall Street), playing prophetic hedge fund managers Michael Burry and Mark Baum, who foresee the imminent collapse of the US housing market. Rather than sinking their energies into convincing the rest of America that the sky is falling, Burry and Baum make the high-risk, high-reward gamble of betting against the market and collecting just as the rest of the world collapses.
If the last act is a bit too solemn and self-enchanted for the usually puckish, light-on-his-feet filmmaker, The Big Short is still its own successful high risk gamble. Where other directors might have thrown up their hands at this dense material and simply offered a character study of one of these moody oddballs, McKay basks in the inscrutability of the crisis, treating his adaptation of Lewis’s book as an opportunity to make a large scale experimental riff on those old educational shorts about the constitution, or Mark Russell’s satirical piano numbers on American politics (heretofore best celebrated in The Simpsons). It doesn’t always work, but it often surprises.
Directed by Pablo Larraín
TIFF Bell Lightbox (350 King Street West)
It’s a strange honour, but No surely qualifies as one of the funniest films about the Pinochet regime. The third entry in Chilean director Pablo Larraín’s trilogy about the dictatorship—shot entirely with analog technology that visually flattens the difference between archival footage from the ’80s and scripted material, making everything seem like a news dispatch from that era—the film tells the story of the 1988 plebiscite on whether to grant the Chilean general another eight-year term as president. It’s told from the perspective of René Saavedra (Gael García Bernal), a young ad man who finds himself in charge of the television campaign for the “No” side of the vote.
René’s portfolio of hyperactive soda ads—which always make time for a mime’s smiling reaction shot—makes him an odd choice for the job, and a seemingly poor fit for the “No” campaign’s brain trust: a broad coalition of leftist politicians, community organizers, and broadcasters, endangered and driven underground by Pinochet’s oppressive rule. The schism between the campaign’s social democratic messaging and René’s tendency to boil things down to buzzwords and jingles—the shades of David Axelrod’s management of the Obama ’08 campaign and its promise of “Hope” and “Change” are surely not accidental—is gripping stuff. It’s also unexpectedly moving, as when the campaign’s banal sloganeering (“Joy Is Coming!”) becomes a populist anthem during a non-violent rally crashed by the police.
Most of all, though, it’s funny, thanks in no small part to Bernal’s buoyant performance as a gentler sort of Don Draper. No is the rare political movie that’s dead serious about its subject without being unduly enamoured with itself. Lighthearted but sincere, it strikes roughly the same balance that makes René’s campaign a success.
No screens as part of TIFF Cinematheque’s program on Pablo Larraín’s Chile Trilogy.