September 22, 2015

2015 Toronto International Film Festival Capsule Review Round-Up

For your clipping and saving convenience as you look for new and rare cinematic treats over the next eighteen months or so, I give you my round-up of capsule reviews from the films I just saw at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival. Titles appear in rough order of preference as of this writing. They will doubtless continue to slip and slide around in my estimation with the distance of time. If you’re looking for a list that will contain movies you can find right away, see my 2014 list, many of which have now made the rounds and are now available on various home video delivery systems.

Overall I felt like I had a great year because I picked well. Unlike other years I am not left with the impression that there was a ton of equally great stuff I could as well have chosen. Or maybe a strong year for Asian cinema, which I tend to program heavily anyway, made up for a slightly fallow year from the rest of the world.

The Best

High-Rise [UK, Ben Wheatley] Reserved anatomy instructor (Tom Hiddleston) moves into a brutalist apartment tower run by its strangely intrusive architect (Jeremy Irons) just before its descent into orgiastic madness. Phantasmagorical adaptation of the classic JG Ballard conjures weird beauty from the ugliest elements of 70s design.

An [Japan, Naomi Kawase] Sad-eyed pancake stall operator gives in to the entreaties of a sweet-natured elderly woman who offers to improve his bean paste--the crucial ingredient that gives the film its name. Quiet, beautifully wrought drama starts out as a delightful food procedural on the order of Tampopo or Babette's Feast but becomes so much more.

Murmur of the Hearts [Taiwan, Sylvia Chang] Memories of her family's dissolution keep a painter from connecting with her equally closed-off boxer boyfriend, or seeking out the brother she hasn't seen since childhood. Accumulates emotional power through sensitively observed, authentic character moments.


Hong Kong Trilogy: Preschooled, Preoccupied, Preposterous [HK, Christopher Doyle] Hong Kong residents from grade schoolers to Umbrella Movement activists to seniors share their thoughts and aspirations against a series of gorgeous vignettes, some whimsical, others melancholy. Moving non-narrative feature captures the spirit of the city and the evanescence of life.

Hitchcock / Truffaut [US, Kent Jones] Audio from the original interviews, clips galore, and observations from today's top directors provide a documentary extension of what is arguably the most influential film book of all time, Francois Truffaut's collection of conversations with Alfred Hitchcock. If you don't want Hitchcock and Scorsese and Fincher and Linklater et al  to illuminate more to you about storytelling in than you can absorb in a single sitting, I'm not sure we really know each other after all.

Endless River [South Africa, Oliver Hermanus] After his wife and children are murdered in a brutal home invasion, a French ex-pat finds himself drawn to a waitress, whose husband is a police suspect in the case. Layered, ambiguous noir drama evokes James M. Cain and the sweep of 50s CinemaScope.

The Promised Land [China, He Ping] Dance instructor returns to her small town, recalls the love and freedom of her time in Beijing with her hockey coach boyfriend. Subtly rendered drama amplified by a keenly beautiful visual style.

The Lobster [Greece, Yorgos Lanthimos] Sad architect (Colin Farrell) hopes to maintain his humanity in an alternate reality dystopia where unmarrieds have 45 days to find new partners, or be transformed into animals. Alternatively funny and unsettling absurdist satire of the rules societies and individuals fight to impose on romantic love.

Office [HK, Johnnie To] More than the markets are melting down for everyone from the new hires to the CEO (Chow Yun-Fat) of a trading firm headed for an IPO. Musical based on a play by star Sylvia Chang finds To continuing his  experimentations with space by leaning into the artificially of 3D on a gleaming, heavily stylized set.

Der Nachtmahr [Germany, AKIZ] Teen girl is haunted by a homunculus-like creature, leading both her hard-partying friends and uptight bourgeois parents to think she’s going crazy. Delirious fable of misunderstood youth plays like the Austrian spawn of Harmony Korine and Frank Henenlotter.

Men & Chicken [Denmark, Anders Thomas Jensen] Put-upon prof and his indignant, chronically masturbating brother (Mads Mikkelsen in his most hilarious performance) discover that they have four degenerate brothers living in the remote island redoubt of their rogue geneticist biological father. Weird, hilarious and even touching comedy of twisted family ties.

The Clan [Argentina, Pablo Trapero] State security officer in the late days of the Argentinian dictatorship enlists his family in a kidnap-for-profit ring. Bracing true crime drama takes cues from the Scorsese style guide.

My Big Night [Spain, Alex de la Iglesia] Grueling taping of a New Year’s Eve TV extravaganza devolves into chaos. Explosion of comic energy from beginning to end.

A Tale of Three Cities [HK, Mabel Cheung] The turbulence of China in the 30s to 50s tests the love between a Nationalist spy (Lau Ching-Wan) and a tough-minded young widow (Tang Wei.) Glossy, star-driven romantic epic based on the lives of Jackie Chan's parents

Hardcore [Russia, Ilya Naishuller] Newly awakened cyborg super-soldier shoots, punches, parkours and rail-guns his way through a legion of mooks to stop a telekinetic villain from assembling a world-conquering army. Every time you think this crazypants high-action extravaganza, shot entirely in POV, has gone up to eleven, it finds a whole new eleven.

Bang Gang (A Modern Love Story) [France, Eva Husson] Rift between two high schoolers over a narcissistic boy triggers out of control sex parties. Dreamy dramas is subversive in depicting  extreme teenage sexuality as entirely non-apocalyptic.

Journey to the Shore [Japan, Kiyoshi Kurosawa] Woman goes on road trip with the very visible, quite solid ghost of her husband (Tadanobu Asano.) Seems to lack the director’s telltale unpredictable strangeness… but only at first.

Evolution [France, Lucile Hadžihalilovic] Pre-pubescent boys on remote island discover that their so-called, oddly young mothers and nurses are performing weird medical experiments on them. Hypnotic tone poem suffused with horror themes and imagery.

SPL2: A Time For Consequences [HK, Soi Cheang] HK cop (Wu Jing) thrown into a Bangkok prison by organ traffickers has no way of knowing that he is the one bone marrow donor who can save the leukemia-stricken daughter of its one honest guard (Tony Jaa.) Baroque fight flick is best enjoyed by setting aside the thought that it will bear any resemblance whatsoever to SPL.

The Whispering Star [Japan, Sion Sono] An android courier delivers packages to the galaxy's few remaining humans, her only company a child-like navigational computer and her own tape recorded diary. Austere contemplation of the pleasures and perils of solitude, with the planets the protagonist visits represented by the still-abandoned streets and structures of the Fukushima quarantine zone.

Right Now Wrong Then [South Korea, Hong Sang-soo] An encounter between a feckless film director and a young painter plays out differently in two variations. Injects a touch of extra warmth to the minimalistic stock elements Hong allows himself in each of his films: chance, embarrassment, desire and overindulgence in soju.

Collective Invention [South Korea, Kwon Oh-kwang] Aspiring reporter finds a web of corporate corruption when he seeks out a pharmaceutical test subject who has mutated into a fish man. Engaging satire is what you might get if Frank Capra made a movie about Deep Ones.

Yakuza Apocalypse [Japan, Takashi Miike] Ordinary people start turnng into yakuza vampires, depriving actual gangster of victims to prey on. Spoof of genre-blending and fight film tropes goes beyond gonzo.

Honor Thy Father [Phillipines, Erik Matti] Landscaper with a shady past resorts to desperate measures after the collapse of his father-in-law's evangelical pyramid scheme leaves his family facing the wrath of violent scam victims. Tough, socially informed emerging world noir.

Very Big Shot [Lebanon, Mir-Jean Bou Chaaya] Drug dealer who acts faster than he thinks decides to dispose of a windfall of pills by faking a film shoot, so he can avoid airport security scans by hiding the goods in sealed film canisters. Adroitly executes a difficult shift of tone and genre, from tense crime drama to moviemaking satire.

Baskin [Turkey, Can Evrenol] Cops called for backup at an abandoned, Ottoman-era police station descend into Hell. Hypnagogic pageant of initiatory creepiness, conjured with micro-budget ingenuity Sam Raimi would be proud of.

French Blood [French, Diastème] Tightly wound racist skinhead gradually develops a conscience but finds it hard to distance himself from his old friends and National Front connections. What initially seems like another run through familiar territory slowly reveals itself as an observational story of incremental redemption.

Veteran [South Korea, Seung-wan Ryoo] Ass-kicking loose cannon cop won't let go of a case against a cocky young psycho executive. Hard action comedy hits the crowd-pleasing beats.

Green Room [US, Jeremy Saulnier] Punk band winds up trapped in a club surrounded by white supremacists intent on wiping them out. Violent survival thriller starring Anton Yelchin, Imogen Poots and Alia Shawkat, with Patrick Stewart as head bad guy.

Bleak Street [Mexico, Arturo Ripstein] Fatal destiny entwines twin dwarf masked wrestlers and a pair of desperate, aging prostitutes. Deglamorizes the true crime flick in persuasively grimy B&W, with the prowling camera as omniscient eye of a jaded, judging God.

Lolo [France, Julie Delpy] When his fashion show organizer mom (Julie Delpy) comes home from vacation with a hopelessly uncool new boyfriend, an emotionally arrested young artist schemes to deep-six their relationship. Urbane yet raunchy comedy of Oedipal manners tips the hat to Blake Edwards.

Girls Lost [Sweden, Alexandra-Therese Keining] Trio of girls who get bullied at school for looking like they might be lesbians drink the sap of a mysterious plant and gain the power to transform into boys. Uses fantasy premise to explore the intersection between teen drama and gender identity.

Blood of My Blood [Italy, Marco Bellochio] In the 19th century, clerics try to wring a confession of witchcraft from a nun; in the 21st, fading vampires fear encroaching bureaucracy. Thinky historical allegory given life by a series of striking images.

Demon [Poland, Marcin Wrona] English groom meeting the bride's family for the first time at a vodka-soaked Polish wedding gets possessed by a dybbuk. Stage play adaptation adds allegory and ghost story elements to the wedding spiraling out of control sub-genre.


Schneider vs. Bax [Netherlands, Alex van Warmerdam] A client assigns two assassins, one a middle-class control freak, the other a drug-snarfling novelist, to kill one other. Another enigmatic van Warmerdam fable about darkness and the bourgeiosie, this one a hitman farce of chance and mischance.


Northern Soul [UK, Elaine Constantine] Two lads in 1974 Lancashire bond over rare soul records and amphetamines. Bromantic music drama colors within the lines.

The Devil’s Candy [US, Sean Byrne] Cool metalhead dad loses himself in painting a horrific mural psychically evoking the activities of a child murderer connected to his newly purchased home. Most examples of the current parental-terror-home-ownership-anxiety-demon-haunting cycle have nowhere to go in the third act. Add serial killer tropes? Bingo: third act!

I Promise You Anarchy [Mexico, Julio Hernández Cordón] Gay skatepunks in careless love ramp up their black market blood donor network for Mexico City narcos. Social realist crime story with slice-of-life pacing.

Almost Good

Lace Crater [US, Harrison Atkins] Twenty-something woman develops strange symptoms after sleeping with a burlap-clad ghost on a Hamptons getaway weekend with friends. Mix of mumblecore and body horror has fun elements, like a supernatural entity who is as tentative and hyper-verbal as the rest of the characters, but no third act.

Not Recommended

The Mind’s Eye [US, Joe Begos] Psychokinetics escape a research facility whose megalomaniacal director is performing medical experiments on them. Rough-around-the-edges cover version of Scanners has all of its exploding heads but none of its subversive metaph0rical content.

Full Contact [Netherlands, Thomas Verbeek] French drone targeting pilot confronts the new stresses of 21st century air warfare. Dispenses with the obvious beats of a drone war story in act one, then shifts, none too compellingly, into the Antonioni zone.

February [US, Osgood Perkins] An ominous force threatens two girls left behind over winter break at a private girls' school. Slow burn horror flick uses recursive structure to complicate its thin narrative. With Kiernan Shipka and Emma Roberts.

The Worst

Frenzy [Turkey, Emin Alper] As Istanbul falls into police state lockdown, a parolee informing for the cops and his brother, who works for the government secretly shooting stray dogs, descend into separate paranoias. Hallmark signs of ill-wrought story construction include repeated story beats, dream sequences, idiot plotting, and the general wet cement pacing endemic to Turkish art cinema.

Sparrows [Iceland, Rúnar Rúnarsson] When his mom leaves the country, a soulful teen has to move to a remote northern fishing village to live with his alcoholic father. I was on board this gorgeously shot look at the way a place can rob young people of agency all the way up to its ending, a truly reprehensible piece of writing (and staging.)

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