September 23, 2011

Toronto International Film Festival Capsule Review Round-Up

At one point in the archival, Borges-penned rarity Invasion (see below), the gray-haired spymaster Don Porfirio looks in a mirror and says, “I'm getting too old for this.” This moots the tantalizing possibility that this key film cliché, now better known in the updated “I'm getting too old for this shit,” was first introduced to the movies by Jose Luis Borges.

It also sums up how I'm feeling as I belatedly file this round up of capsule reviews from my twenty-fifth full-tilt run at the Toronto International Film Festival. The addition of a final full Sunday of programming, and more subtle changes to the arrangement of venues and slots, has made an event I used to jokingly refer to as grueling actually so. I really hit the wall this year and, days later, have yet to fully recover my stamina. Apparently my spring chicken status has been revoked. As of next year I'm going to have to find a more civilized and leisurely way of doing this—and that means fewer films.

Had this been a banner year, I might be celebrating the enervation as a badge of honor. And if you average my numerical ratings for each film, the number might be higher than in years past. I saw fewer less-than-okay titles than ever. There are only three films here that I can't recommend. Unfortunately, masterpieces proved scarcer still. Instead, my festival was about high-quality films that accomplished what they set out to do. Absent from the proceedings were works that startled, or broke new ground, or heralded the arrival of fresh directorial voices. Instead, familiar talents delivered in familiar ways.

I wonder if we're not seeing the downside of the ongoing commercialization of world cinema. Craftsmanship is up; vision is in shorter supply.

Or maybe it's just a down year. The gala side of the fest lacked luster as well. Star titles aimed at Oscar glory acquired scant buzz. The Peoples' Choice Award, often a harbinger of hit status and gold statues, passed over the Hollywood fare in favor of a foreign-language title, Nadine Labaki's Lebanese Lysistrata variation Where Do We Go Now?

Of the titles I skipped because they had distribution already in hand, Steve McQueen's Shame and Lars von Trier's Melancholia gave off the most promising buzz.

That said, the list below surely includes many of this or next year's top films. Clip and save for your future Netflixing, renting or art house delectation. Astute watchers of the daily reviews will note that some titles have risen, and others have settled, as immediate experience gives way to what lingers in memory.

 

Recommended

Himizu [Japan, Sion Sono] Junior high student with toxic parents who lives in the zone struck by the March tsunami and subsequent Fukushima disaster struggles to find an outlet for his existential fury. Epic, ambitious grapple with despair.

A Simple Life [HK, Ann Hui] Film producer (Andy Lau) sees to the care of the elderly family maid who helped raise him. Beautifully observed drama driven by a conflict so delicate as to be nearly imperceptible.

Into the Abyss [US, Werner Herzog] The imminent execution of a young Texan for a callous triple homicide prompts a discursive documentary portrait of his hometown, and the people touched in various ways by the crime. What seems at first like a standard inquiry into the death penalty unfolds into a surprising meditation on the richness, tragedy and strangeness of human lives.

Michael [Austria, Markus Schleinzer] Unassuming insurance man's affinity for routine detail assists him as he keeps a young boy imprisoned in his basement. Wickedly matter-of-fact take on the banality of evil can safely be called the most restrained horror film in movie history.

Kotoko [Japan, Shinya Tsukomoto] Hallucination-prone woman yearns to regain custody of her son. Alternately super-upsetting and poignant subjective portrait of mental illness.

Trishna [UK, Michael Winterbottom] Beautiful village girl (Freida Pinto) accepts a not entirely altruistic employment offer from an irresponsible Indo-British hotel heir. Modern, India- set Tess of the d'Ubervilles succeeds by fully transposing the premise to a new time and place, without seeking an analogue for every plot point of the original.

The Sword Identity [China, Haofeng Xu] Martial artist battles an outpost full of soldiers for the right to add an innovative sword design to the list of officially approved weapons. Sly exercise in formalist minimalism that, unlike most art takes on the martial arts film, doesn't cheat the fight choreography.

Invasion [Argentina, Hugo Santiago] Agents of a shadowy conspiracy fight to prevent younger, more casually dressed rivals from invading the city of Aquelia. Cryptic, deadpan, action-packed exercise in narrative deconstruction is what you'd get if Jorge Luis Borges wrote a spy thriller--because he did, and this is it. This 1969 archival rarity, once thought lost, screened as part of the fest's spotlight on the cinema of Buenos Aires.

House of Tolerance [France, Bertrand Bonello] In Paris, 1900, women face the vicissitudes of sex work during a legalized, luxury brothel's final months. Juxtaposes romantic visuals with an anti-romantic text.

Extraterrestrial [Spain, Nacho Vigalondo] Man and woman waking up after one-night stand realize they missed the evacuation of Madrid due to hovering UFOs; bedroom farce ensues. Delivers delightfully throughout on its inspired mix of seemingly unrelated genres.

Rebellion [France, Mathieu Kassovitz] Negotiator from the gendarmerie (Kassovitz) sent to defuse a hostage taking by insurgents in New Caledonia, discovers that the real obstacles to peace are the electioneering politicians back in Paris. Gripping examination of the steps that turned a 1988 colonial crisis into an atrocity.

Your Sister’s Sister [US, Lynn Shelton] Woman (Emily Blunt) with unacknowledged feelings for her dead ex's brother (Mark Duplass) sends him on a head-clearing retreat to her family cottage, where he gets unexpectedly close with her sister (Rosemarie Dewitt.) Witty, truthful comedy-drama of romantic manners keeps the stakes high without extreme characters or phony behavior.

Love and Bruises [China/France, Lou Ye] Chinese student in Paris allows herself to become enmeshed in an abusive relationship with a manipulative laborer. Tough journey inside an all-too-common relationship takes on a political dimension.

Beauty [South Africa, Oliver Hermanus] Closeted Afrikaaner businessman's yearning for a old buddy's son sends him spinning out of control. Unflinching drama anchored by a pressure-cooker lead performance.

Generation P [Russia, Victor Ginzburg] Ad man spends the post-Soviet money grab era on a drug fueled rise through the unstable new power structure. Hallucinogenic satire based on a Victor Pelevin novel.

Mr. Tree [China, Han Jie] In a northern mining town, a perennial screw-up haunted by a family murder makes a footless effort to better himself. Finds unexpected depths in its central character as its naturalistic comedy shifts into the dramatic.

Life Without Principle [HK, Johnnie To] As global markets melt down, the robbery of a loan shark ripples through the lives of a disparate but interconnected group. Coolly controlled ensemble drama of fate and finance.

Juan of the Dead [Spain/Cuba, Alejandro Brugues] Band of Havana ne'er-do-wells copes with an epidemic of flesh-eating, undead "dissidents." Hilariously adds zombie action to the national "everything's fucked in Cuba but it's all right" template.

Sons of Norway [Norway, Jens Lien] When his mom is killed and his dad falls to pieces, a boy raised in a hippie household seeks angry solace in the burgeoning punk scene. Funny and moving coming-of-age story clangs to the music of the Sex Pistols.

Headshot [Thailand, Pen-ek Ratanaruang] His vision upended after miraculously surviving a bullet to the head, an ex-cop turned assassin finds his destiny closing in on him. Moody Buddhist noir sees Ratanaruang returning to the style of his early classic Last Life in the Universe.

The Good Son [Finland, Zaida Bergroth] Young man whose actress mother's boundary-less dependence and history of bad boyfriends has turned him into her rage-filled protector overreacts when she lets a new man into her life. Taut, perceptively played drama.

Chicken With Plums [France, Marjane Satrapi & Vincent Paronnaud] In fifties Tehran, a temperamental violinist (Mathieu Almaric) takes to his bed, willing himself to die, after he gets swindled trying to buy a Stradivarius. Sad stories told in a funny way, through (mostly) live action sequences in a comics-influenced style.

Countdown [South Korea, Huh Jong-Ho] Icy collection agent's bad-ass search for a liver donor leads him to a game of cat-and-mouse with a glamorous con artist. Bubbling pursuit thriller gradually gives itself over to tearjerking melodrama.

Caprichosos de San Telmo [Argentina/Canada, Alison Murray] Documentary profiles members of a murga, a traditional costumed drum and dance group from a poor Buenos Aires neighborhood who perform at Carnival time. Testament to the power of collective creativity presents the folklore and politics of murga through the stories of the participants.

Monsters Club [Japan, Toshiaki Toyoda] Young mail-bomber leading a hermit's life in a snowy mountain cabin faces reproachful family ghosts. Contemplative inversion of the spiral into madness movie starts with its protagonist already mad and invites us to hope for his return to sanity.

Rampart [US, Oren Moverman] During the 1991 Rampart scandal, a beating incident triggers a reckoning for a brutal, racist patrolman (Woody Harrelson.) Bad cop character drama convincingly executed by an impressive cast.

Goodbye First Love [France, Mia Hansen-Love] A 15-year-old girl's intense love for her boyfriend casts a shadow over her life that lasts for many years after their break-up.

Play [Sweden, Ruben Östlund] Pre-teen trio gets dragged across Gothenburg by bullying, older immigrant kids. Coolly upsetting crime docudrama takes a despairing look at Swedish race relations.

Smuggler [Japan, Katsuhito Ishii] Loser's involuntary new job as an underworld clean-up man exposes him to a series of reprisals involving the nun-chuk wielding super-assassin Mr. Vertebrae. Manga adaptation pairs kooky comedy with lovingly detailed ultra-violence.

J’aime Regardez les Filles [France, Frederic Louf] Callow florist's son party-crashes his way into an ultra-wealthy social circle. Engaging coming of age comedy drama to which Whit Stillman comparisons are inevitable if not 100% on point.

You’re Next [US, Adam Wingard] Masked killers hunt down members of a well-heeled family's anniversary gathering--unaware that one of the new girlfriends wields a seriously bad-ass skill set. Musters more wit and character detail than you'd expect from a gory neo-exploitation thriller.

Pompeya [Argentina, Tamae Garateguy] Meta-fiction juxtaposes the writing of a bloody gangster pic with scenes from the final movie--or is it? Exploration of the cruel allure of the crime genre finds surprising layers by declining to treat the film- within- the-film as a joke.

 

Good

God Bless America [US, Bobcat Goldthwait] Middle-aged office worker with nothing to lose bonds with disaffected teen girl as they conduct a nationwide killing spree targeting exemplars of meanness and vulgarization. Gleefully nasty satire is what you might get if Paddy Chayevsky were still around to rewrite Natural Born Killers.

Alps [Greece, Giorgios Lanthimos] Secretive group consisting of two hospital workers, a gymnast, and her abusive coach aid the grieving by acting out scripted scenarios in which they substitute for the deceased. Variation on the director's previous film, Dogtooth, that isn't as resonant or mind-blowing.

Whore’s Glory [Austria, Michael Glawogger] Documentary achieves remarkable access into the workaday lives of prostitutes working in Thailand, Bangladesh, and Mexico. Presents an impressionist portrait with arresting cinematography and cool music from acts like PJ Harvey and Antony and the Johnsons; could use a less forgiving edit from its 2 hr length.

Tyrannosaur [UK, Paddy Considine] Violent widower (Peter Mullan) learns to see rage from the other side when he connects with a devout charity shop worker whose husband abuses her. Performances and characterizations register despite a script with showing vs telling issues.

My Worst Nightmare [France, Anne Fontaine] Boorish tradesman defrosts demanding gallerist (Isabelle Huppert.) Use the fluffy dessert metaphor of your choice to describe this class-conscious romantic comedy.

 

Okay

Superclasico [Denmark, Ole Christian Madsen] Dejected wine shop owner goes with son to Buenos Aires to get his wife back before she divorces him for a football superstar. Fluffy, episodic comedy leaves too much of the narrative heavy lifting up to the voiceover narration.

Bunohan [Malaysia, Dain Said] Three estranged brothers--a kickboxer, a killer, and a shady businessman--return to their home village and come into conflict over the family land. Languidly paced rural noir punctuated by sudden bursts of brutal violence.

Alois Nebel [Czech Republic, Tomas Lunak] Depressed railway dispatcher stoically suffers setbacks after the fall of the Iron Curtain. B&W computer rotoscoping, in the Waking Life style, lends graphic novelty to your basic post-Communist despond movie.

 

Not Recommended

Nuit #1 [Canada, Anne Emond] Man and woman exchange self-lacerating confessions after a one-night stand. Stylized language and behavior might be easier to buy into on stage, free of a realism that calls its credibility into question.

A Mysterious World [Argentina, Rodrigo Moreno] After his live-in girlfriend dumps him, an affectless nebbish drifts through a series of droll and/or melancholy incidents. Bored art about bored people.

That Summer [France, Philippe Garrel] Feckless bit player recalls the events in a tortured marriage that led to his artist friend's suicide. I watched this listless trainwreck in puzzled fascination, wondering if its near-complete avoidance of well-constructed dramatic scenes comes through incompetence or perverse design.

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