The best repertory and art-house screenings, special presentations, lectures, and limited engagements in Toronto.
At rep cinemas this week: a subversive documentary about an Iranian filmmaker, a martial arts classic, and a would-be epic crime drama.
This Is Not a Film
Directed by Jafar Panahi and Mojtaba Mirtahmasb
TIFF Bell Lightbox (350 King Street West)
This Is Not a Film opens with co-director Jafar Panahi under house arrest, waiting to hear about an appeal that might modify a harsh edict from the Iranian government that banned him from filmmaking for 20 years and sentenced him to six years in prison, ostensibly for making anti-government propaganda. That’s a grim situation, no doubt, but the film that ensues—despite the ironic, mocking title—is nothing less than invigorating. The documentary, clandestinely shot and ingeniously co-conceived by Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, then smuggled out of Iran to its festival debut on a flash drive nestled into a birthday cake, is at once a stirring portrait of an artist for whom filmmaking is a reflex that can hardly be suppressed by law, and a powerful essay on what constitutes storytelling.
Set over the course of a day in Panahi’s apartment, the film is at its most bracing when he stages a live reading of an unproduced screenplay, rejected by the government. At his lowest point, after he’s demarcated the boundaries of the set with pieces of tape, Panahi looks into the camera and asks why anyone would tell a film if they could make one. Deflated by his failure to capture something in the description of it, he runs to his TV and shows us a clip from one of his earliest films, where a nonprofessional actor embodied a quality that could not have existed for Panahi until he saw it through the lens of his camera. Panahi’s point seems to be that however intelligent a director might be, films are a kind of prepared accident, a product of the world they’re made in. By that token, This Is Not a Film is a very happy accident, despite the crushing circumstances from which it grew.
TIFF’s screening of This is Not a Film is presented with a talk by Iranian film scholar Hamid Naficy, who will put the documentary in context with other works of Iranian underground documentary cinema.
Directed by Jackie Chan
TIFF Bell Lightbox (350 King Street West)
Jackie Chan had his Hollywood breakthrough in 1995 with Rumble in the Bronx, a cult hit about a Hong Kong cop raging against a bevy of New York street gangs. Long before then, though, he was both a major star and a pioneering force in Chinese action comedy. His comic timing and knack for choreographing complex fight scenes have rarely been mined as intelligently as in 1985’s Police Story, a remix of countless American genre films about good young cops and bad drug kingpins that nevertheless feels like its own thing, thanks to Chan’s acrobatic martial arts demonstrations and daring stunt work.
There isn’t much to the needlessly protracted story, which finds Chan’s friendly policeman entrusted with protecting the secretary of a nasty crime boss while dealing with his own long-suffering girlfriend. (The women are played, respectively, by superstars and Wong Kar-wai favourites Brigitte Lin and Maggie Cheung.) But one doesn’t go to this sort of film for the plot. The action set pieces more than deliver. The highlight is a balletic showdown in a mall that sees everything from clothes racks to a seemingly infinite supply of glass panes turned into props, with stunt work to rival the best of Buster Keaton.
Chan will be present to introduce the film, which screens as part of TIFF Cinematheque’s retrospective on Chinese genre cinema.
The Place Beyond the Pines
Directed by Derek Cianfrance
Revue Cinema (400 Roncesvalles Avenue)
As engaging as the performances by Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams might have been, there was a worrying ostentatiousness to Derek Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine, which was his second feature but his first major blip on most people’s radar. A portrait of a couple in crisis, the film needlessly shuttled back and forth between the early and waning days of a relationship, leaving a gaping hole where the middle ought to have been. Cianfrance’s followup, The Place Beyond the Pines, takes his earlier film’s structural problems to a new level, hanging a three-part tragedy about fathers and sons on the thinnest dramatic clothesline possible.
Gosling returns, this time as a face-tattoed, motorcycle-riding carny who starts robbing banks to provide for his infant son. What comes after is sensitive spoiler material, but suffice it to say that Gosling’s ruffian comes up against a Schenectady beat cop (Bradley Cooper) with an infant son of his own, an encounter that sets both men on different life courses. Nothing much follows from there apart from some bad luck, intense scowling, and deep thoughts on the nature of manliness.
Gosling gives a good stoic face, and Cooper is affecting as a nice guy in a bad situation, but Cianfrance’s pretensions defeat both men by handing the third act over to a pair of overtaxed teen actors who can’t do much with his thin script. They’re stuck playing hot potato with badly improvised dialogue that sounds like stuff David Mamet might have come up with after a concussion. (For example: “What is there to do in this town?” “In this town? To do?”) Cianfrance surely sees this as a dramatically fulfilling conclusion to a multigenerational saga, but to most it’ll just look like amateur hour.