The best repertory and art-house screenings, special presentations, lectures, and limited engagements in Toronto.
At rep cinemas this week: a meditative martial-arts epic, a moving reflection on love, loss and dogs who play keyboard, and a blistering drug-war thriller.
Directed by Hou Hsiao-Hsien
TIFF Bell Lightbox (350 King Street West)
Taiwanese master Hou Hsiao-Hsien returns after a long delay with The Assassin, a gorgeous if obliquely structured historical epic set in the waning days of the Tang dynasty. The director’s first wuxia film tells the story of black-clad professional killer Yinniang (Shu Qi), who’s assigned to put the hit on a military bigwig from her home province of Weibo. Easy enough, though he happens to be her cousin and former betrothed. Suffice it to say that soul-searching and precisely choreographed combat ensues.
Hou is a deliberate storyteller, fond of syncopated rhythms and impressionistic imagery, all of which makes The Assassin rather idiosyncratic as a martial arts film. Though his earlier films like Millennium Mambo and Three Times easily stand among of the best of the 2000s, we’ll confess to being a bit flummoxed by this one, a ravishing but dramaturgically bumpy film, which occasionally lost us when it navigated the hostile waters between Weibo and the Imperial Court.
Like all of Hou’s films, this one rewards patience, namely in the startling, punchy bursts of colour and naturalistic sound that constitute the blink-and-you’ll-miss-them action sequences. Our failures of attention are probably on us, but one wishes there was more here of Hou’s delicacy in capturing the minute pains and pleasures of human relationships, and less of a reliance on cyphers. Still, you take beautiful work like this where you find it.
Heart of a Dog
Directed by Laurie Anderson
TIFF Bell Lightbox (350 King Street West)
Experimental and multi-disciplinary artist Laurie Anderson delivers a moving essay on love, mourning, and post-9/11 America in Heart of a Dog, a film that subtly eulogizes her long-term partner Lou Reed while channeling his death through the losses of her mother and beloved rat terrier, Lolabelle. Through a mix of iPhone home movies, animation, and dreamy voiceover, the filmmaker delves into what it means to live in the afterlife of grief, whether it’s the surveillance state of a traumatized and emboldened America, or the long hangover of getting up after the death of a loved one.
Anderson is a charming, non-insistent tour guide through this potentially heady material, which name-drops David Foster Wallace and Buddhist philosophy while suggesting the quizzical, playful essay films of Chris Marker. Despite all that pedigree, this is sweet stuff, making room for joyous digressions about the way animals hear sound—as well as painful ones about how they confront death, either their owners’ or their own—and tender, meme-ready footage of dear Lolabelle hammering away at the keyboard like her master before her.
Heart of a Dog isn’t for everyone: some will no doubt find Anderson’s melodic but sleepy drawl and big-picture musings tiresome. But its sincerity, its verve, and its utter guilelessness should make it indispensable for those who find themselves adrift and in need of erudite company after their own loss.
Directed by Denis Villeneuve
Fox Theatre (2236 Queen Street East)
Emily Blunt learns a nasty thing or two about the drug trade in Sicario, Quebec filmmaker Denis Villeneuve’s second major swing at the rafters of Hollywood. The result is an incredibly well-oiled (and well-cast), old-fashioned thriller that hits its dramatic and action beats with precision, while telling a fairly mundane, borderline offensive story that fashions Mexico as a hell from which there is no escape for innocent American lasses.
Blunt plays Kate, a wet-behind-the-ears FBI operative whose tactical work at defusing hostage situations has lately been compromised by the cartels’ habit of leaving nothing but bodies and improvised explosive devices in their wake after business deals gone south. Enter Matt Graver (Josh Brolin), a supposed Department of Defense adviser probably working for the CIA, who recruits Kate to actually make a difference in the drug war, whisking her away to Juárez alongside his mysterious partner Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro), a strong, silent type who seems to have his own scores to settle.
Reuniting with his Prisoners D.P. Roger Deakins, Villeneuve crafts some astonishingly efficient brute-force set pieces, especially as the group first enters Juárez with a rumbling accompaniment of machine gun equipped black Humvees. And unlike a lot of hotshot filmmakers transitioning to Hollywood and directing in English, Villeneuve is clearly an intuitive director of performers, getting nuanced, shaded character work out of fine but sometimes wasted actors like Del Toro and Brolin. It’s a shame that he is so little of note to say about the drug war beyond the cynical truisms his characters have already spouted about the inevitability of violence in earlier films like Incendies and, well Prisoners.