September 16, 2014

2014 Toronto International Film Festival Capsule Review Round-Up

Here it is, devoted visitors of the Cinema Hut: my master list of capsule reviews from the just-completed 2014 Toronto International Film Festival, or TIFF as its friends call it. Clip ‘n’ save for future reference as these continue to roll their way through the film festival circuit.  Although I mostly pick titles without distribution in place as of the printing of the program book, many were picked up in the course of the event and will be rolling out to select theaters over the next year or so.  Then they’ll roll out to disc and VOD, then premium cable, and finally streaming services like Netflix. Titles from last year’s fest are now starting to pop up on Netflix, for example, so if you check out my list from then you’ll find stuff available to watch right away.

As always, I’ve arranged these in rough order of preference, which will probably change as certain films rise in my memory and others fade. Gradations within a header are slight.

Overall it was a very strong year. We’re hoping we won’t be, but if we do wind up priced out of the festival in future this was a good one to treat as a last hurrah. Never had I had so many contenders for the coveted third slot in my best of fest category. Any other year, it could have easily been taken by A Girl at My Door, The Golden Era, The World of Kanako, or They Have Escaped.

The Best

Fires on the Plain [Japan, Shinya Tsukamoto] in the dying days of WWII, Japanese soldiers stuck on the island of Leyte go to desperate lengths to survive. Tsukamoto (Tetsuo: Iron Man, Tokyo Fist) turns his career-long obsession with mental disintegration and brutal body transformation away from genre freak-out to the ultimate real world horror.

Partners in Crime [Taiwan, Chang Jung-chi] Trio of high schoolers who meet while discovering a schoolmate's body decide to investigate the reasons for her apparent suicide. Teenage paranoia thriller scores the trifecta: gripping, fresh, and always real.

Not My Type [Belgium, Lucas Belvaux] Unlikely love sparks between handsome Parisian philosopher and fun-loving small-town hairdresser. Deceptively simple romantic drama which becomes surprisingly suspenseful--because you're waiting for him to make the horrible mistake that ruins everything.


A Girl at My Door [South Korea, July Jung] Alcoholic cop (Boona Dae, Cloud Atlas) transferred to serve as chief of a backwater police force creates waves when she protects the abused child of the labor broker who keeps the town working. Emotionally complex, powerfully acted, simply told drama of crossed boundaries.

The Golden Era [China, Ann Hui] Biopic follows the work and tortured love life of pioneering woman writer Xiao Hong  against the chaos of the Chinese war years. By declining to dramatize events not directly attested to in first hand accounts, and through distancing devices like time jumps and direct address, this biography suggests the unknowability of its, or any other, life.

The World of Kanako [Japan, Tetsuya Nakashima] Deranged, brutal ex-cop (Koji Yakusho) searches for his missing daughter. Assaultive, megaviolent neo-noir furiously upends the genre's moral expectations.

They Have Escaped [Finland, JP Valkeapää] Stutterer doing alternative military service as an attendant at a juvenile detention facility escapes with a cute punky inmate. Imagistic outlaw couple on the run movie initially plays like a gentler cover version of Badlands. And then it doesn't, and that's all I should say.

Tokyo Tribe [Japan, Sion Sono] All of Tokyo's cartoony gangs go to war when the lunatic evil ones lure the nice guy crew into a trap. Energetic insanity reigns in this martial arts manga adaptation hip hop musical.

The Dead Lands [New Zealand, Toa Fraser] When the enemies who slaughtered his tribe take a shortcut through accursed territory, a novice warrior seeks the aid of its resident   flesh-eating monster. Thrilling pre-contact action movie redolent with Maori mythology.

In Her Place [South Korea/Canada, Albert Shin] Well-off woman goes to the country to live with the family of the girl pregnant with the baby she has arranged to adopt, so she can pass it off as her biological child. Naturalistic social drama from first time director with the assurance to bring out the issues strictly through character behavior.

A Hard Day [South Korea, Kim Seong-hun] After he kills a man in a hit and run, on the night of his mother's funeral and an internal affairs raid on his detective squad, a cop goes to increasingly complex lengths to cover it up. Pulse-racing action-thriller with a wicked sense of humor.

The New Girlfriend [France, Francois Ozon] Woman discovers that her best friend's widow has taken to wearing her clothing. Sirkian drama for the age of gender multiplicity with standout performances from Romain Duris and Anais Demoustier.

The Grump [Finland, Dome Karukoski] Octogenarian potato farmer sows bullheaded havoc in the life and career of his daughter-in-law when he must go to Helsinki for physiotherapy. Lots of hilarity, just enough punching of the heartstrings.

Ned Rifle [US, Hal Hartley] On his 18th birthday a young man, aided by a fetching literary stalker (Aubrey Plaza), sets out to find and kill his father, who got his mother imprisoned for life on terrorism charges. Completes the decade-spanning trilogy that started with Henry Fool and Fay Grim with Hartley's trademark witty dialogue and underplayed delivery.

Over Your Dead Body [Japan, Takashi Miike] Love triangle between actors rehearsing a samurai ghost play mirrors their backstage lives. Stately contemplation of artifice and reality mixes experimental intentions with horror imagery.

Red Amnesia [China, Wang Xiaoshuai] Stubborn senior adjusting poorly to widowhood becomes the subject of a mysterious harassment campaign. Tells a suspenseful story with multiple turns in a completely naturalistic way.

The Face of an Angel [UK, Michael Winterbottom] Director goes off the rails in Siena after agreeing to make a true crime movie based on a tabloid frenzy murder case still wending its way through the Italian justice system. In this fictionalization of the process of fictionalizing the Amanda Knox case, Winterbottom weaves another of his moody, questioning anti-narratives.

Tokyo Fiancée [Belgium, Stefan Liberski] Young Belgian woman who wants to be Japanese moves to Tokyo and falls in love with a guy she's tutoring in French. Sweet, melancholy romance powered by the incredible charm of soulful, adorable lead actress Pauline Etienne.

Spring [US, Justin Benson & Aaron Moorhead] Young Californian in Italy after the death of his mother falls for an alluring geneticist with an ancient, paranormal affliction. Reference points for this beguiling supernatural romance include Richard Linklater and Arthur Machen.

Haemoo [South Korea, Shim Sung-Bo] Desperate fishing boat captain agrees to take on a load of illegal immigrants. Nautical noir keeps on raising the stakes.

Scarlet Innocence [South Korea, Pil-Sung Yim] Caddish professor's affair with excitement-starved small town girl touches off a multi-year spiral of sexual obsession and vengeance. Ominous drama recasts a Korean fable in contemporary terms.

What We Do In the Shadows [New Zealand, Taika Waititi & Jemaine Clement] Vampire housemates face the stresses of life in modern Wellington, NZ. Hilarious deadpan mockumentary from the team that brought you Eagle vs. Shark.

Wet Bum [Canada, Lindsay McKay] Awkward 14 year old grapples with an attraction to her untrustworthy lifeguard instructor and gets to know residents of the retirement home where she has an after school cleaning job. Quiet, grounded coming of age drama shows a first time director in command of mood and image.

Alleluia [France, Fabrice Du Welz] Criminal career of con artist who specializes in lonely woman gets bloody when one of his victims won't let go of him. Intimate psychodrama with surreal touches transposes the Beck-Fernandez murders to modern France, as an amor fou with collateral damage.

Shrew's Nest [Spain, Juanfer Andrés & Esteban Roel] Agoraphobic seamstress imprisons virile injured neighbor in the small flat she shares with the younger sister she abusively represses. Suspenseful gothic thriller balances pathos and gory black humor.

Hill of Freedom [South Korea, Hong Sang-soo] Woman reads letters about the time a Japanese man spent waiting to find her--but she jumbles the pages, so the scenes play out of order. Sweet, funny meditation on time, language and longing.

Confession [South Korea, Lee-Do-yun] Two childhood friends bungle an arson scam, killing an accomplice, the mother of a third friend. Effective neo-noir about loyalty and betrayal.

Elephant Song [Canada, Charles Binamé] Stern psychiatrist (Bruce Greenwood) quizzes brilliant, game-playing mental patient (Xavier Dolan) on a colleague's disappearance. Acting duels nest within acting duels in this stage play adaptation.

Out of Nature [Norway, Ole Giæver] Disenchanted family man tries to sort out his thoughts with a weekend jogging trip into the mountains. Acerbic drama shows that if you want to heighten your midlife crisis, do it in the wilderness.

Cub [Belgium, Jonas Govaerts] Misunderstood Cub Scout realizes there's something sinister in the woods. Fast-moving horror flick lays booby traps for viewers expecting kid-friendly scares.

Itsi Bitsi [Denmark, Ole Christian Madsen] Young couple's commitment to their 60s odyssey derails their shot at love. Biopic  chronicles the life of a counterculture flame-out whose short-lived band remains iconic in Danish rock music.


Don't Go Breaking My Heart 2 [HK, Johnnie To] Financier (Louis Koo) who lost out in a previous love triangle romances the boss of the woman he pines for. Glossy farce gives To lots of room to exercise his mastery of spatial relationships in a comic context.

Goodnight Mommy [Austria, Veronika Franz & Severin Fiala] Dread ensues when twin boys become convinced that the cold, bandaged woman freshly returned from plastic surgery is not really their mom. Drolly alarming neo-Kubrickian modern gothic.

Big Game [Finland, Jalmari Helander] 13 year old in the mountains on his rite of passage hunt protects the President (Samuel L. Jackson), whose plane has been downed by assassins. The director and young star of Rare Exports reteam for a crowd-pleasing entry in the endangered POTUS sub-genre.

Bang Bang Baby [Canada, Jeffrey St. Jules] Girl who dreams of singing stardom thrills when car troubles trap an Elvis-like star in her nowhere town, unaware of the mutagenic disaster about to issue from its purple mist plant. Mixes the streams of Canadian film with leaving home theme, stylized irony, and Cronenberg body horror.

Eden [France, Mia Hansen-Løve] DJ extends his adolescence into his thirties as the Parisian garage scene rises and falls. Impressionistic storytelling more interested in evoking experience than heightening it into drama.

Don't Breathe [Georgia, Nino Kirtadzé] Energy company middle manager, his friends and family wildly overreact to his bursitis diagnosis. Naturalistic drama with comedic touches explores the Eastern European appetite for doom.


A Second Chance [Denmark, Suzanne Bier] When his infant son dies. A compassionate cop (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) swaps the body for the living child of a junkie couple. Compellingly acted and directed, but the script has to expend a lot of effort making its premise seem believable.

Two Shots Fired [Argentina, Martin Rejtman] A teenager failed attempt to shoot himself to death is just the first in a string of miscommunications involving an ever-widening circle of characters. Ultra-deadpan absurdist comedy could do with some kind of new angle on the director's signature style.

Where I am King [Philippines, Carlos Siguion-Reyna] Tycoon on the skids moves with his young adult grandchildren into a tenement he owns in the slum he was raised in. Life lessons abound in this amiable melodrama.

Not Recommended

Princess of France [Argentina, Matías Piñeiro] Director of a radio production of Love's Labours Lost mentally remixes the cast's romantic miscommunications with various permutations of participant and outcome. Attractive actors perform a hermetically sealed experiment in deconstruction.

Revenge of the Green Dragons [HK, Andrew Lau & Andrew Loo] Young man recounts his experiences as member of a notorious Queens, NYC, Asian crime syndicate. If you're going to invite comparisons to Goodfellas (including a role for Ray Liotta) and the dialogue and narration aren't as insanely brilliant as Nicholas Pileggi's, you are not ready to start shooting yet.

The Judge [US, David Dobkin] Cynical hotshot defense attorney (Robert Downey Jr) takes on the case of his life when he must defend his uncompromising estranged father, (Robert Duvall) a small town judge, from a vehicular homicide charge. Magnetic actors fully commit to a sometime sharp, more often ridiculous script, packed with enough stock melodramatic situations to fill seven movies.

The Worst

Kabukicho Love Hotel [Japan, Ryuichi Hiroki] 24 hours in the life of a red light district sex hotel. Script for this ensemble drama includes such hallmarks of bullshit writing as heavy reliance on coincidence, characters spouting their backstories at each other, and cheap invocations of recent disasters.

Waste Land [Belgium, Pieter van Hees] To convince his wife to take her pregnancy to term, unstable homicide detective (Jeremie Renier) promises to quit--as soon as he closes a case involving Congolese artifact smuggling. Filmmakers have no idea how to construct a cop thriller--which they seem to realize partway through, throwing up their hands and heading off to crazytown.