Hope you caught ‘The Look of Silence’ …


“The Look of Silence” is, unquestionably, one of 2015’s best. My friends at Cultivate Cinema Circle brought it to town for one-night only, so I hope you were there! Here is the preview I wrote for Buffalo.com.

The fall season of Cultivate Cinema, the cinephile-friendly screening series that began in June, ends with three great films over the next few weeks. The first is a 2015 release, but make no mistake, Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentary “The Look of Silence” qualifies as a modern classic. It screens at 9:30 p.m. Nov. 24 in the North Park Theatre.

This is the companion film to “The Act of Killing,” Oppenheimer’s stunning documentary that featured the actual perpetrators of the Indonesian killings of 1965–66. With shocking openness, these men — many of whom are still in power — discussed and even demonstrated how they killed.

“Art” was one of the most powerful films of the last decade, but “The Look of Silence” is even stronger. This time, Oppenheimer narrows his focus to one man’s tale: an unidentified (for safety reasons) Indonesian eye doctor who talks to the men responsible for the horrific death of his brother.

As Cultivate director Jordan Smith puts it, “Watching ‘The Look of Silence’ is to bear witness to Indonesia’s past, to internalize the struggles of living with the horrors of previous generations, and in spite of it all, facing it with heart-wrenching, unfathomable courage.”

Tickets for “The Look of Silence” are $7 at the door, or $8 presale at northparktheatre.org.

Far lighter are the final two entries in Cultivate’s fall season, a free Orson Welles double feature on Dec. 5 in the Mason O. Damon Auditorium at the Buffalo Central Library. “The Lady From Shanghai” is shown at 1 p.m., followed by “Touch of Evil” at 3 p.m.

Visit cultivatecinemacircle.com for more information.

Review: With ‘Breathe,’ the great Mélanie Laurent directs a wonderful film


I have adored actress Mélanie Laurent for years now, and was intrigued by the idea of her moving behind the camera. “Breathe” ranks among her finest achievements; I gave it 3 1/2 stars in the Buffalo News.

“Breathe,” the directorial debut for wonderful French actress Mélanie Laurent, is an astute study of the emotions and pains of adolescence.

Laurent is best known in North America for her role as revenge-seeking Shoshanna in Quentin Tarantino’s revisionist WWII extravaganza “Inglourious Basterds.” It was the film’s finest performance, and one that deserved award consideration. She also has appeared in films such as “Beginners,” “Now You See Me” and the 2009 French hit “Le Concert.” (She even released a fine album in 2011.)

“Breathe” tells a simple story, but one that should resonate with anyone who dealt with unpopularity, nastiness or troubled friendships as a teenager.

Charlie (Joséphine Japy) is a quiet, thoughtful teen who forms a strong friendship with a girl who might be considered her opposite. Sarah (Lou de Laâge) is outspoken and impulsive, a new kid in town with a mysterious, slightly questionable past.

This air of mystery makes Sarah seem slightly exotic, and to Charlie, wondrously fresh. With Charlie’s parents on the verge of splitting up, the arrival of this new friend could not seem better.

However, a few comments hint at a fracturing relationship between the two, and after Sarah joins Charlie on a family trip, things take a dark turn. Soon, Sarah is leading an effort at school to harass Charlie, who grows increasingly somber and despondent.

The scenes of Charlie’s treatment at school are breathtakingly sad, an indictment of bullying and the power of calculated persecution. Laurent and her young stars make it all believable and even understandable. Only with a melodramatic turn in the final few minutes does “Breathe” make a wrong turn.

Despite that conclusion, the film is both harsh and heartbreaking, a story of teenage wildlife as strong as the recent French classic “Blue is the Warmest Colour.”


Photo courtesy of Film Movement


Review: Alison Brie shines in ‘Sleeping With Other People’

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Can one actor make a movie worth watching? In the case of Alison Brie, absolutely. The film “Sleeping With Other People” has some great moments throughout, but it is Brie who steals the show. I gave it three stars in the Buffalo News.

“Sleeping With Other People” is a romantic comedy for people who generally dislike romantic comedies. This very funny, tart-tongued film does not quite break from the conventional rom-com formula. But with a killer lead pairing – former “Saturday Night Live” star Jason Sudeikis and “Community”/“Mad Men” star Alison Brie – and a nicely naughty script, “Sleeping” qualifies as a modest success.

The time is certainly right for a comedy with two delightfully realistic protagonists, the type who make mistakes constantly, joke about HPV and chlamydia, and somehow can’t seem to figure out why they’re perennially dating (or sleeping with) the wrong people.

Director Leslye Headland’s second feature (after the 2012 Kirsten Dunst comedy “Bachelorette”) starts in the early 2000s, as college students Jake (Sudeikis) and Lainey (Brie) meet-kinda-cute, and realize they have something major in common: They are still virgins.

A nicely fumbling first sexual experience follows, and soon we skip to the present day, in which both characters have gone their separate ways. Single Jake is a likable womanizer whose married-with-children business partner Xander is in a very different place. (Xander calls his friend “the biggest slut in the world.”)

Lainey is a serial cheater whose most recent boyfriend (a very funny Adam Brody) doesn’t take the news of her outside dalliances very well. She also is struggling with the news that her old boyfriend, a doctor played by Adam Scott with a weasel mustache, is soon to be married.

Jake and Lainey run into each other outside of a sex addiction meeting – of course – and slowly begin to realize they have too much in common not to be great friends. They quickly become confidants for each other, all while fighting the obvious attraction they (still) have for each other.

These characters, especially Lainey, are prone to utterly foolish feelings and decisions, and while that can be annoying for the viewer (it’s hard to tell why she is so hung up on Scott’s off-putting character), it lends a feeling of real-life silliness to the proceedings. Real people have these sometimes inexplicable problems, and that means Headland’s film often takes a sledgehammer to rom-com cliché.

That’s why it’s a tad surprising the film ends on the type of happy note that’s not unlike all manner of Hollywood romantic comedy. It is perhaps an earned ending, yet something as acidic as the rest might have better fit the characters.

Sudeikis is more appealing here than he has ever been on screen. He has not distinguished himself much outside of “SNL,” whether the films have been hits (“We’re the Millers,” “Horrible Bosses”) or flops (the underrated “Hall Pass”).

The real star of “Sleeping With Other People,” however, is Brie. She was a consistent highlight on “Community” and made the most of her small role on “Mad Men.”

On the big screen, however, she has been wasted in such tripe as the Will Ferrell disaster “Get Hard.” It took a writer-director as canny as Headland to show how adorably off-kilter and wildly funny Brie can be as an actor. It won’t linger long in your consciousness, but for its 90 minutes, “Sleeping With Other People” is an entertaining anti-rom-com. You’ll never look at an empty bottle of green tea the same way again.

TIFF turns forty: Buffalo Spree recap


Each year, I write a Toronto International Film Festival recap for Buffalo Spree’s November issue. Here is the latest, out now.


“We’ve been coming to TIFF for all forty years,” says the husband of a truly lovely couple at the 2015 Toronto International Film festival. “It’s changed, for sure. Remember? The Uptown, the Cumberland …” I nod and smile, not admitting that those venues were long gone by 2007, when I started attending the annual September extravaganza. The wife talks of having vouchers the first few years, with no movie titles on the tickets, and lining up for hours to gain entry. While there is clear nostalgia for the days when the likes of Henry Winkler were considered the festival’s top celebrity guests, they are not critical of the eleven-day, nearly 300-feature TIFF of today.

You don’t have to be a four-decade attendee to see that the Toronto International Film Festival has evolved dramatically. It’s changed since last year, for example, in ways both interesting and odd. The 2014 festival was, memorably, the installment that saw TIFF brass allow only films making their world or North American premieres to screen during the first four days. This was a calculated response to the increased prominence of the earlier fall festivals in Venice and Telluride, both of which have stolen some of Toronto’s Oscar-tastemaker thunder in recent years. For attendees and media, this meant that TIFF’s opening weekend did not feature some of the year’s biggest films. However, the approach was softened for 2015, likely a response to the bad press and film critic grumbling the move received.

Fast forward to the opening weekend of TIFF15 and it’s clear early-festival madness is back, in a big way. The several-blocks-long area of live performances and tables known as Festival Street is hopping, public lines for the films are long, and even two solid days of hard rain don’t seem to dampen anyone’s enthusiasm.

Nor should it. Minus a couple notable films missing in action—specifically, Danny Boyle’s Steve Jobs and Todd Haynes’s Carol, starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara—the lineup for 2015 is stacked with high-profile winners. Many have previously played spring’s Cannes Film Festival or debuted days before in Venice or Telluride, but their presence is wonderful news. And, of course, TIFF has some world premieres of its own, including Ridley Scott’s big-budget sci-fi epic The Martian, starring Matt Damon. I skip the latter, Johnny Depp’s Black Mass, and the drug cartel drama Sicario since I know the trio are soon making their way to screens in Western New York. Scheduling concerns mean I can’t see the Catholic Church child-abuse storySpotlight, Brie Larsen in Room, or Jake Gyllenhaal in Demolition.

Still, there are real gems among the fifteen films I see during my three-day visit, as well as among the dozen screeners viewed before and after TIFF15’s opening weekend. László Nemes’s Cannes hit Son of Saul(opening in late 2015/early 2016) is an emotional stunner about a concentration camp inmate’s attempts to give a young boy (who may or may not be his son) a traditional Jewish burial. Charlie Kaufman’s Anomalisa(likely due for release this year) is a hilarious and moving stop-motion comedy that equals the power of hisSynecdoche, New York. Hitchcock/Truffaut, about the famously insightful book that director Francois Truffaut authored after interviewing Alfred Hitchcock, is a cinephile must. Scary “New England folk tale” The Witchproves why it was one of the 2015 Sundance Film Festival’s most buzzed entries. And Dogtooth director Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Lobster is a strangely moving, wildly funny bit of quasi-sci-fi featuring a career-best performance from Colin Farrell. Set in a time when singles must find a partner or be turned into animals (!), the film features TIFF’s most memorable love story.

More highs: Fifties-set immigration drama Brooklyn cements its status as a) a sure-fire Oscar nominee and b) a film that is nearly impossible to dislike, so strong is star Saoirse Ronan’s performance and so heartfelt its message of finding a new home on the other side of the world. Canadian writer-director Andrew Cividino’s three-teens-and-one-hot-summer drama Sleeping Giant is a startling debut. A number of less high-profile international entries, including Homesick, Magallanes, Girls Lost, Keeper, and London Road (Tom Hardy sings!)  are smart and interesting. Plus, Tom Hooper’s flawed The Danish Girl features strong performances from Alicia Vikander and Eddie Redmayne. (Oddly, the film seems to focus less on Redmayne’s Lili Elbe, one of the first recipients of sexual reassignment surgery, than on her former wife, Vikander’s Gerda Wegener.) And the rather overblown Youth is a swirling visual powerhouse with awards-worthy work from Michael Caine, Harvey Keitel, and Jane Fonda.

It seems each year there is at least one moment when I’m reminded of not just why I love TIFF, but why I love movies. At TIFF15, it’s the world-premiere screening of Ben Wheatley’s High-Rise, a J. G. Ballard adaptation the Kill List director introduced to the packed Visa Screening Room house as follows: “It’s a big building, there’s lots of sex, violence, swear words, adult content, dancing, and it’s J. G. Ballard.” Starring Tom Hiddleston, Sienna Miller, Elisabeth Moss, Luke Evans, and Jeremy Irons, the Kubrick- and ABBA-infused film is a compelling stew of sex, violence, and class warfare, all set in a strange apartment building in 1970s Britain. About ten minutes in, I say to myself how exhilarating it feels to adore a movie this much. That’s a glorious feeling. Whenever the film is set for American release, it’s a must-see.

High-Rise is screened as part of TIFF’s new Platform program, a new juried section featuring twelve fascinating films from unique filmmakers. Unlike the TV-focused Primetime program—I understand there is amazing television around the world, but I come to TIFF to get away from TV—Platform feels fresh and thrilling. If it can unleash something like High-Rise on the world, clearly the Toronto International Film Festival is a healthy forty.        

Photo courtesy of TIFF             

Review: ‘Everest’ and IMAX are a perfect match


More mountain-climbing madness! I quite enjoyed “Everest,” especially in IMAX. I gave it 3 1/2 stars in the Buffalo News.

Is IMAX worth it? Paying extra money for 3-D is often a tough decision, and throwing down cash for IMAX is an even harder call. In general, I’d call both unnecessary.

“Everest,” however, is ideal for IMAX. The new action-disaster epic doesn’t just justify the large screen – it makes it almost essential.

It is hard, in fact, to recall a recent man vs. the elements flick with such an epic scope. There are moments in “Everest” – especially on IMAX screens – that will leave audiences breathless. And despite some notable flaws, it is a satisfying, well-mounted production.

This is a slight surprise, since director Baltasar Kormákur is no one’s idea of a sure thing. His previous action ventures, the Mark Wahlberg smuggling thriller “Contraband” and the forgettable Denzel Washington vehicle “2 Guns,” were pedestrian at best.

But in “Everest,” he has crafted spectacular set pieces and a true sense of place. During the two-hour drama about the tragic 1996 Mount Everest climb that left eight dead, the audience develops a strong sense of the mountain’s geography. This feeling heightens the tension; we know how difficult rescue will be.

The ’96 Everest disaster was documented in harrowing detail by author Jon Krakauer in his stunning “Into Thin Air.” For readers of the book, “Everest” the film is still a winning experience, yet one whose ultimate impact is undeniably dented by the knowledge of how things turned out.

While Jake Gyllenhaal is the lineup’s biggest name, the real star of the film is Jason Clarke. The actor plays New Zealander Rob Hall, the leader of a guiding agency called Adventure Consultants. As the film opens, Hall’s group is preparing to lead a group of civilians up Mount Everest – for a price, and after weeks of training.

These climbers include Texas doctor Beck Weathers, played by the great Josh Brolin; mild-mannered mailman Doug Hansen, portrayed by John Hawkes; and Krakauer, brought to life by “House of Cards” scene-stealer Michael Kelly.

Back in New Zealand is Hall’s pregnant wife Jan (Keira Knightley), while the Adventure Consultants team includes actors Emily Watson (“Angela’s Ashes”), Elizabeth Debicki (“The Great Gatsby”) and Sam Worthington (“Avatar”). Gyllenhaal appears in a surprisingly small but welcome role as Scott Fischer, the chilled-out leader of a competing agency called Mountain Madness.

It’s a large cast, and meeting so many individuals adds to the drama. Scores of groups have planned to summit Everest on the same day, creating a logjam that makes a difficult situation even trickier.

The tension ramps up quickly, and the film’s leisurely start also contributes to the later suspense. In addition, the inherent drama is increased even more thanks to the acting of Brolin, Hawkes, Watson, Gyllenhaal, and, especially, Clarke. His Rob Hall is the film’s leader, and its emotional anchor.

Kormákur devotes time to each of these figures, although Knightley is rather wasted in a role that requires little more than sobbing. The direction and writing (by the talented William Nicholson and Simon Beaufoy) hint at the tragedies to come throughout the film. Whether one knows the result of the climbs or not, there is a strong sense of what went wrong, and how nature and luck made success nearly impossible.

Once a walloping storm hits the climbers, things slow down a bit, and the proceedings grow a bit repetitive. But there is always this cast, and those visuals. They combine for an action spectacle that truly delivers.

While it will likely prove effective on any size screen, plunk down the extra money for IMAX and you’ll likely find “Everest” an impressively immersive experience – so immersive, in fact, that you might just scratch “climbing Mount Everest” off your bucket list.

Review: ‘Meru’ brings up-close terrifying view of mountain climbing

Meru Expedition, Garwhal, India

“Meru” is an interesting if occasionally pedestrian documentary. I gave it three stars in my Buffalo News review.

Over the next few weeks, much will be written about “Everest,” the star-heavy (Jake Gyllenhaal, Josh Brolin) film about the tragic 1996 Mount Everest climb that formed the basis of Jon Krakauer’s “Into Thin Air.”

Early reviews have been strong – the film premiered at the Venice Film Festival – but “Everest” has some competition in the white-knuckle climbing derby.

The documentary “Meru” is an involving, powerful film that brings the viewer as close to the feeling of climbing as any piece of cinema could. Directed by husband-and-wife filmmakers Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, “Meru” took home the documentary Audience Award at January’s Sundance Film Festival, and should prove one of 2015’s most popular nonfiction entries.

While it’s an exhausting effort that culminates in a rather anticlimactic final stretch, “Meru” is a visual stunner that smartly focuses on three fascinating individuals who rank among the planet’s most accomplished climbers.

One of these is co-director Jimmy Chin, a young mountain climbing star with an unusual past – his parents were immigrants from China – who also is a hugely talented photographer.

Chin’s mentor is one of the world’s most gifted and well-known climbers: Conrad Anker, the man who memorably discovered the body of George Mallory on Everest. He also is the survivor of an avalanche in Tibet that killed his climbing partner, Alex Lowe.

Chin calls Anker a “hero to young climbers,” such as the third member of the team, Renan Ozturk. A rising star, Ozturk is less experienced than his teammates but no less courageous.

All three have taken many of the world’s tallest and fiercest mountains. But Meru? This mountain in the Indian Himalayas is a different story. As Anker puts it, “Meru is the culmination of everything I’ve ever done,” a complex monster of nature that had thus far proven un-doable.

The “Shark’s Fin” route up Meru is the “in” for this trio, but as the film makes clear, any Meru route is “the test of the master climber,” says author Krakauer, who adds insightful commentary throughout the doc. The world’s greatest climbers “tried and failed,” he notes.

Krakauer explains that Anker “first tried the mountain on 2003 and got his a– kicked.” This is perhaps why he seems the most full-on dedicated to the quest. A family man who lives in scenic Montana, Anker knows his chance to take Meru must happen soon.

The trio’s first ascent starts disastrously, and this is the film’s most compelling section. Stuck in a blinding snowstorm for four days, the team lost half its food with 90 percent of the mountain still to go.

Ozturk was ready to give up the climb, but Chin and Anker focused on continuing. (I’m with Ozturk.) The worse the storm gets, the harder the decision of what to do next. As Anker puts it, “What if we push on? Should we push on?”

With severe cases of frostbite and trench foot, the answer is “no.” Interestingly, however, one of the team faces his greatest physical (and emotional) setback years after the first ascent.

It is no spoiler to say the trio eventually return to Meru, and by this point, the film has lost some of its earlier verve, and much of its inherent drama. Yet there is satisfaction in seeing Anker, Chin and Ozturk return to the Shark’s Fin.

Through it all, the documentary features breathless action and awe-inducing imagery, while at the same time asking important and probing questions about the whys of mountain climbing. Is it worth it? What if life hangs in the balance? And what makes one try again and again?

As Ozturk states near the film’s end, “It was worth possibly dying for.” Whether or not the viewer agrees, “Meru” makes for a unique viewing experience.

TIFF15 review: ‘Northern Soul’ is sonically explosive


Here’s an under-the-radar selection from TIFF15 that I quite enjoyed. I gave “Northern Soul” a B+ in my review for The Playlist.

“What’s your favorite record?” That is the key question asked in director Elaine Constantine’s “Northern Soul,” a rousing, wildly entertaining Toronto International Film Festival entry set in mid-70s England. Here is a sonically explosive film that understands the deep connection that can exist between a genre of music and its fans, especially those who might be considered (or would consider themselves) outsiders. In this case, that genre is Northern Soul, a still-influential style of music that has never been properly documented onscreen before. While a few names will ring a bell to fans of soul music — Edwin Starr, for example — the majority are names unfamiliar to even the most devoted trainspotters. What’s most important is that the predominantly African-American sung music moves, and pulsates with a triumphant feeling at odds with much of early-’70s U.K. rock.

As “Northern Soul” begins, John Clark (Elliot James Langridge) is a sullen 18-year-old whose school and home lives are somber, unhappy affairs. His parents (played, in an unexpected pairing, by pop singer Lisa Stansfield and “Me and Orson Welles” star Christian McKay) find him far too weird and insular for comfort, and urge their only child to mingle at the local youth center. At school, he vacillates between boredom and embarrassment, finding himself the subject of ridicule from a starched-shirt teacher played, with delightful obnoxiousness, by Steve Coogan. Matt’s only real connection of note is with his good-natured grandad (Ricky Tomlinson).

Overhearing a conversation in which fellow teen Matt (Josh Whitehouse) is identified as a DJ changes his life. The duo quickly bond over music and John’s seemingly unlikely love of graffiti. Matt tells tales of “thousands of teenagers” dancing to Northern Soul tunes, and a place called the Wigan Casino. (Search on Wikipedia now, please.) He also speaks wistfully of America, and the scores of records that await them in Chicago and beyond. (There are several points of comparison with Mia Hansen-Løve’s “Eden,” and this sense of America as an oasis of music and talent is certainly one of them.) Constantine lovingly brings to life a time when music was still unattainable, when a mythic record could be shrouded in mystery. (“It’s the only place you can go and find a record nobody’s heard already!”)

“Northern Soul” bursts into life when John and Matt start DJing together, and ponder their own club space. Soon, John’s look and demeanor have undergone a marked change, and cause him to rebel at school and find the confidence to chat up the girl (Antonia Thomas nicely plays Angela) he’s seen from afar on the bus. As Starr’s “Back Street” pounds on the soundtrack, John and Matt’s wide-eyed plans begin to come to fruition. It takes time, but soon they’ve developed a following, one strong enough to attract the attention of real-life Northern Soul DJ legend Ray Henderson (James Lance).

Drugs, of course, enter the picture, as well as the shady likes of Jack Gordon’s Sean. It is here that the film’s initial verve starts to dip, and some late missteps (mainly those involving the character of Sean) keep the film from greatness, veering toward the type of melodrama “Eden” so successfully avoided. A sudden emotional outburst from John seems particularly contrived, and the film’s final stretch simply does not compare with what came before.

Yet it’s hard to feel too much in the way of disappointment, as “Northern Soul” is so successful as a whole. Constantine captures the invigorating joy of these songs, and humorously shows that it is nearly impossible to listen and not feel the urge to dance. (One is reminded of the memorable line uttered by Steve Coogan’s Tony Wilson in “24 Hour Party People”: “This is the moment when even the white man starts dancing.”) It is a stirringly vivid debut feature for the first-time director, and considering her past, this is not a surprise. Constantine came to fame as an art director and photographer for sadly departed U.K. mag The Face, and has helmed music videos for the likes of Richard Hawley.

“Northern Soul” makes clear Constantine is a filmmaker to watch, and while it is hard not be most impressed with the film’s high-tempo editing and ideal music choices, it is also well-acted from top to bottom. Elliot James Langridge is likable and believably flawed, while nicely portraying how drastically John’s new friendships and suddenly public display of musical affection change his personality. Coogan is of course a delight in a too-brief role, but the most memorable performance here is from Josh Whitehouse. His Matt is a force of nature, yet one with a stronger sense of what’s right and wrong than John. It’s star-making work, and a sneeringly comic treat.

Like “Eden,” “Northern Soul” is tailor-made to send satisfied viewers racing to Spotify to track down the who’s-who roster of performers. In fact, the film’s double-album soundtrack features 54 (!) killer tracks, and likely qualifies as a must-own. Unlike the strained “The Boat That Rocked,” the film has a lived-in aesthetic and relentlessly enjoyable energy. If “Boat” felt stodgy and middle aged, “Northern Soul” feels driven by youthful energy. It undeniably counts as one of TIFF15’s most pleasant surprises.

TIFF15 review: ‘Kill Your Friends’


Here is one of my TIFF15 reviews, a “D” for “Kill Your Friends.” You’ve been warned. Here is my Film Stage critique.

Kill Your Friends is a pungent, thoroughly hollow failure as a comedy, a “thriller,” and a document of a fascinating era in modern pop music. That it is watchable at all is a testament to the talents of Nicholas Hoult, who stars as relentlessly unlikable, circa-1997 A&R rep Steven Stelfox. Within the first few moments of meeting him, Steven has explained that art and talent are meaningless to the on-the-make music exec. Making money is what matters, and by any means necessary. Director Owen Harris clearly expects us to be shocked by that revelation, failing to realize the audience has heard such pronouncements for decades. In fact, we have seen and heard every moment of Kill Your Friends in other, better movies. It is not clever or surprising, it is not funny or “outrageous.”

On paper — and perhaps in the novel from John Niven, who also authored the screenplay — the dialogue might seem amusingly tart. Onscreen, however, it feels utterly trite, delivered with the subtlety of a sledgehammer. It’s too bad, because a film about the Cool Britannia era could have been something special. It was a strange, jingoistic, hopeful time in the UK in many respects, and much of the era’s most successful music captured that feel. And there are great films about unlikable characters who are pop culture kingpins of their time, including, of course, Altman’s The Player. But the story of studio executive Griffin Dunne’s murder of a screenwriter stays grounded in reality even as its protagonist becomes unhinged. Kill Your Friends dropkicks all sense of reality at the moment Steven, well, kills a friend.

More on that in a moment. As the opening credits roll and Steven cruises to his job at Unigram Records, Blur’s “Beetlebum” blasts on the soundtrack with confidence. For a North American Britpop aficionado, there remains a rush in hearing the greatest songs of that era on film, however strong or weak the movie. (See Brie Larson’s endearing strut to Pulp’s “Common People” in 2015’s weak-kneed remake of The Gambler.) I mean really, how bad could a film be that opens with “Beetlebum”?!

The answer is, “Bad. Very bad.” Kill Your Friends feels tiresome and predictable from its earliest moments. Consider: Steven wants the head A&R job, he jeers behind the back of his good-natured rival for the gig (played by talk show host James Corden), he depends on his (seemingly) sweet assistant Rebecca (the winning Georgia King), he is cruel to his young protege (Submarine star Craig Roberts). He snorts coke. He drinks. He screws. He loses out in the job of his dreams. And, of course, he does what a cliched movie character must do in that situation, which is kill the rival.

It is at this point that Kill Your Friends goes full-on American Psycho, loses all contact with reality, and amps up its sprint to irrelevance. It’s a shame, really, because there occasional evidence of real wit. One sequence in particular, in which Steven and Darren meet with a humorously over-the-top German techno producer played with relish by Run Lola Run’s Moritz Bleibtreu, offers a glimpse of what Friends might have been. The scene and the song he is hawking, titled “Why Don’t You Suck My Dick,” work because they actually feel … possible. Stranger hits have happened, especially in 1990s Europe.

But all too quickly the film returns to the realms of the unreal. A wannabe songwriter detective enters the picture, Steven attempts to sign a hot indie band before another of his rivals, Rosanna Arquette suddenly appears, and another, even less believable, act of violence occurs. The film’s final stretch, especially is handled by director Harris with a self-congratulatory smugness that is relentlessly off-putting. When one of the film’s most likable characters is dispatched in the goriest manner possible, and the film has a laugh at pedophilia “involving babies,” it is clear Kill Your Friends is not just unpleasant, but borderline unbearable.

It is Nicholas Hoult, and Nicholas Hoult only, who keeps one watching. Even here he commands the screen, and shows himself able to carry a film. Next time, perhaps it will be a good one, and not one with such a needlessly tired message. Certainly one of the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival’s most egregious duds, Kill Your Friends succeeds only in making the viewer want to listen to Oasis, Blur, Pulp, Paul Weller, and the myriad other artists mentioned or listened to in the film. Funny that the fillmmakers have a laugh at short-lived Britpop band Menswe@r, a band with an infinitely greater shelf life than Kill Your Friends. My advice? Track down the band’s 1995 debut, Nuisance, enjoy Nicholas Hoult in Max Max: Fury Road, and let’s pretend this film never happened.

My TIFF15 recap: Hard rain, large crowds, unforgettable ‘High-Rise’


Writing my Toronto International Film Festival weekend recap for Buffalo.com gave me a chance to ponder the great “High-Rise.”

It rained during the first weekend of the Toronto International Film Festival. And then it rained some more, soaking the long, long lines of ticket holders and celeb-watchers on the streets of TO.

But amid the raindrops were a number of stunning films. There was even one next-level, hallucinatory masterpiece — more on that in a moment.

While many of the festival’s early favorites premiered at other festivals, their strong showing in Toronto cemented their reputation as ones to watch when they open in Buffalo. I skipped some biggies soon to touch down in Western New York, including Johnny Depp’s “Black Mass” and Matt Damon’s “The Martian.”

Yet my TIFF was one of numerous highs. Some of my personal favorites from the opening weekend include:

  • “Son of Saul”: A fiercely original, immersive story about concentration camp inmate’s attempts to give a young boy a traditional Jewish burial, “Saul” is sure to be one of the year’s most talked-about films.
  • “The Witch”: This “New England folk tale” about a 17th century family torn about by mysterious forces is the scariest psychological horror film in ages.
  • “The Lobster”: If you’ve ever come upon director Yorgos Lanthimos’s “Dogtooth,” you will not be surprised to hear his new film “The Lobster” is strange, startling, darkly hilarious, and genuinely disturbing. Set in a hotel in which residents must find a partner or be turned into an animal (just go with it) is remarkable, as is the lead performance from Colin Farrell.
  • “Anomalisa”: Charlie Kaufman’s stop-motion comedy about one sad man and his night at a hotel in Cincinnati might be even better than his last effort, “Synecdoche, New York.”

There were other very good films during the course of the weekend, including the award-worthy Brooklyn, while even the so-so likes of “The Danish Girl” and “Youth” offered undeniable pleasures, specifically the performances of Alicia Vikander and Harvey Keitel (in “Girl” and “Youth,” respectively.)

But the weekend’s most boldly brilliant film, was Sunday night’s “High-Rise.” The film’s director Ben Wheatley introduced the film with jocular honesty: “It’s a big building, there’s lots of sex, violence, swear words, adult content, dancing and it’s J.G. Ballard.” Indeed, that is an accurate summary. But it only hints at the complex, ingenious design of a picture equally indebted to Cronenberg, “Clockwork Orange”-era Kubrick, and Abba. (Seriously.)

A ludicrously attractive cast that includes Tom Hiddleston (one of TIFF15’s most popular figures), Sienna Miller, Elisabeth Moss, Luke Evans, and Jeremy Irons topline the glorious rush of sex and ultra-violence, all taking place in a strange, modernist apartment building in ’70s Britain.

Exaggerated and lovingly over-the-top, often hilarious and willfully complex, Wheatley’s film made its world-premiere at TIFF, and can therefore be considered a major victory for Toronto in the fall festival wars. It may not earn wide release until 2016, but remember that title.

There is much left to screen through September 20, including the eagerly awaited “Spotlight.” But I can’t see anything topping the mesmerizing, unforgettable“High-Rise,” a film that will haunt your brain — and make your next walk through the doors of a skyscraper a very paranoid experience.

Roy Andersson’s ‘A Pigeon Sat …’ is strange and mesmerizing


You’ve never seen a film quite like “A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence” — unless, that is, you’ve seen any of director Roy Andersson’s other films. The third part of a trilogy that began with 2000’s “Songs from the Second Floor” and continued with 2007’s “You, the Living” is a surreal, often funny, occasionally moving treat. Recently released in the U.S., this critical darling was the deserved winner of the Golden Lion at the 71st Venice Film festival.

Squeaky Wheel recently screened “Pigeon” in Buffalo, and this rare opportunity to see Andersson’s film was not to be missed. It is an almost indescribable experience, really, a collection of brief vignettes that are strange memorable. (One of my favorites involves the fate of the beer and sandwich prepared for a man who has just died.)

I applaud Magnolia Pictures for releasing “Pigeon,” which is destined to be a cult classic. Too “strange” for most audiences, the ambitious viewer will be mesmerized. And ready to watch again.

Photo: Viktor Gyllenberg in A PIGEON SAT ON A BRANCH REFLECTING ON EXISTENCE, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures