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

It’s arrived! See you at TIFF15


Friends, I’ll be spending the next few days at the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival, so be on the lookout for my updates on Facebook, on Twitter, and later for Buffalo.com, Buffalo Spree magazine, and BuffaloSpree.com. I’ll only be at ‪#‎TIFF15‬ for a few jam-packed, sleep-deprived, and underfed days, but I’ve also had the chance to watch a number of pre-festival screeners. So lots of fun to come in this, my ninth fest.

I urge you to also keep up with my friends Jared Mobarak and Jordan Smith for their updates, and to follow The Film Stage and The Playlist for reviews and news. I’ll also be rounding up all of my TIFF15 work here at FilmSwoon.com. More to come soon, from a long line on King Street or a steep escalator at the Scotiabank Theatre.

(In addition to my previously posted Buffalo.com work, here’s a brief piece on 10 buzzworthy titles playing this year’s fest, and another, from the September Spree, on festival tips.)

For Buffalo.com: Plan your trip to Toronto film fest


Here’s a TIFF15 preview post for Buffalo.com. Watch the site, here, and BuffaloSpree.com for more.

In a little less than one week, some of the world’s acting and filmmaking heavyweights descend upon Toronto for the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). Nearly 300 features will unspool over 11 days—Sept. 10 to 20—and it’s not too late to plan your trip. What makes TIFF especially fun for Western New Yorkers is that it’s ideal even for a day trip. Head up in the morning, breathe in cinema, and hit the QEW that night. Here are a few helpful tips.

What should I see?

You can pore over the entirety of the festival’s schedule, read synopses, and watch trailers at tiff.net. But remember that part of the fun comes from making a discovery. While you might be able to snag a ticket for the new Sandra Bullock movie (“Our Brand is Crisis”), it will eventually play Buffalo. The same can’t necessarily be said for acclaimed Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda’s “Our Little Sister.”

How much will I need to spend?

Individual film tickets at TIFF are certainly more expensive than a normal Saturday night at the Regal. Yet considering what one gets for the cost of a ticket—a chance to hear from the film’s director and see the stars, the inimitable festival vibe, the opportunity to see something that may never play this close to Buffalo again—it’s hard to call it outrageous.

Note, however, that there are both “regular” and “premium” selections. The latter are star-heavy, debut screenings of such films as “The Martian” and “The Danish Girl.” Those tickets are $48 Canadian ($40 for seniors, $30 for 25 and younger). Regular screening tickets are $25 ($21 for seniors, $18 for 25 and younger).

There also is the cost of gas and meals in Toronto. Yet plenty of fun can be had before and after a film just wandering down “Festival Street” on King Street’s collection of food trucks, live music, and more. See tiff.net/festivals/festival15/street for more info.

Where can I buy tickets?

By this point, all ticket packages are long closed. However, individual tickets go on sale Sept. 6 on tiff.net. You’ll redeem those tickets at the festival box office, 225 King Street West. Tickets also can be purchased by phone at (416) 599-TIFF or (888) 599-8433, and at the box office.

Venue box offices open an hour before the day’s first screening. Note that tickets are not for sale at the box office of four of the festival’s largest spaces, Roy Thomson Hall, the Princess of Wales Theatre, the Visa Screening Room and Winter Garden Theatre. (The latter two are in the same building.)

Anything else I should know?

Numerous screenings are held at the Scotiabank Theatre, a venue with an escalator as steep as any I’ve ever seen, but don’t let that scare you. Oh, and keep an eye out for me, the skinny dude in glasses reading and re-reading a dog-eared copy of the festival schedule.

Review: Unforgettable ‘Phoenix’ explores identity, memory


It’s pretty rare to feel as overwhelmed by a film as I felt after finishing “Phoenix.” Here is my 4-star review of one of 2015’s finest.

There are at least three moments in the stunning, unforgettable post-World War II film “Phoenix” that will, quite literally, take your breath away.

Two occur near the midpoint of director Christian Petzold’s story of a concentration camp survivor’s attempt to reconnect with the (non-Jewish) husband who believes she is dead, and to learn whether he betrayed her to the Nazis. Another is the film’s overwhelmingly emotional final scene.

When the latter moment occurs, the greatness of Petzold’s achievement is cemented. “Phoenix” is one of 2015’s finest films, and a gloriously complex conversation starter.

Its theme of the intersection of identity and memory brings to mind a number of very good films, from Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” to Pedro Almodovar’s “The Skin I Live In.” But the German-language “Phoenix” tackles the concept with originality, emotion, and verve.

Nina Hoss stars as Nelly, the German-Jewish survivor. We meet her in a series of strange, mysterious sequences. Her face, covered at first in bandages, is significantly damaged. She is accompanied by her friend Lene (Nina Kunzendorf), but nevertheless seems alone in her thoughts.

Before the war Nelly was a singer at a Berlin nightclub called Phoenix – the name takes on new meaning as the film progresses – and lived with her dashing husband, Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld). Was Johnny the reason Nelly was taken by the SS? Did he betray his wife?

These are the questions that haunt Nelly, and also haunt Lene. Now physically and emotionally damaged, Nelly is about to have plastic surgery. While she could, in a sense, start a new life, she tells her surgeon that she wants to look like the woman she was.

Once the surgery is complete, Nelly wants to seek out Johnny, despite Lene’s protests. She soon finds him at Phoenix, and after several thwarted encounters and the realization that he does not recognize her, something occurs that shocks her: Johnny whisks Nelly away and lays out a plan.

He wants her to pretend to be his late wife, so he can claim her inheritance. What follows is a peculiar game in which Johnny attempts to teach “Nelly” how to talk, dress, and act like the wife he believes is gone. The process culminates in a stunning series of events.

While much of the success of “Phoenix” is from the script (co-written by Petzold and the late Harun Farocki, and based on a novel by Hubert Monteilhet), the trio of lead actors all give award-worthy performances.

As Lene, Kunzendorf takes a character that could have been one-note – the friend who knows best, and has an idea for your future – and infuses her with complexity. Lene watches helplessly as Nelly tracks down Johnny and agrees to his scheme. Watch Kunzendorf closely in these casually devastating scenes, and see an actor who has mastered the art of facial expression.

And, of course, there are Hoss and Zehrfeld. The duo starred in Petzold’s previous effort, “Barbara,” and were quite impressive as physicians in early-1980s East Germany.

In “Phoenix,” they go even farther with equally difficult roles. Hoss must, in a sense, give two separate performances, as Nelly when she is with Lene, and “Nelly” during her encounters with Johnny. She creates an individual who is both heartbreakingly hurt yet stunningly strong-willed.

Zehrfeld, meanwhile, has the task of demonstrating the cold, calculated nature that has kept Johnny alive, but also needs to evidence a certain charm that still envelopes Nelly.

For Hoss, Zehrfeld and Kunzendorf, then, “Phoenix” is a triumph. And for director Petzold, it is a masterpiece, one that elevates him to the upper echelon of international filmmaking.

When was the last time a film left you breathless? “Phoenix” will, and that makes it a must-see.

Review: ‘A Borrowed Identity’ is a distinctive coming-of-age film


“A Borrowed Identity” came and went from local theaters quickly, but the hit or miss film should draw interest on DVD, etc. Here is my 2 1/2-star review.

The young protagonist of Eran Riklis’ “A Borrowed Identity” fits the coming-of-age mold nicely. He is smart but emotionally complex. His family life features great love, but also paternal upset. His long-term plans are a bit sketchy.

Above all else, he is dropped into a situation in which he is different from his fellow teenagers in one key respect: Eyad is a Palestinian-Israeli, an Arab trying to fit in at a predominantly Jewish school in Jerusalem.

This is the hook of a film based on Sayed Kashua’s novel “Dancing Arabs,” and it is a good one. Unfortunately, while the concept is certainly unique, the film is not. It’s an adequate, worthy production, but one that never quite surprises or makes a case for lasting significance.

Still, teenage audiences, especially, will find much to chew on. “A Borrowed Identity” is certainly a stronger coming-of-age tale, for example, than the overrated “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl.”

Yes, it is a subtitled, Hebrew-language drama, and features some brief nudity, but one of its successes is demonstrating that many of the issues teenagers face in North America exist in some form around the world – even amidst the greater tensions of 1990s Israel, and the Middle East at large.

When we first meet Eyad, he is a young adult (played by Razi Gabareen) attempting to learn how his politically active father ended up a common fruit picker. “Why? Because of the state,” explains his grandmother. “How? Because he got involved in politics.”

We jump ahead several years to teenage Eyad, now played by the poised young actor Tawfeek Barhom. He has been accepted into a boarding school in Jerusalem, and leaves home with great reservation.

“Welcome,” says one of the first adults he speaks to. “I didn’t realize they accepted Arabs here.”

Eyad encounters the usual bullies, but also becomes friends with the Jewish Naomi (Danielle Kitzis). She offers some tips on blending in, including the common pronunciation of words starting with “p.” (At home, the “p” is often pronounced as a “b” – as in “Barliament.”)

Time jumps ahead once more and Eyad and Naomi are in love, but attempting to keep their relationship quiet. He has become a popular student and friend to his Jewish classmates.

Eyad forms a particularly close friendship with Jonathan (Michael Moshonov), a music-mad teen with muscular dystrophy. This relationship is crucial to the film’s second half, for better or worse.

While it’s nice to see a prominent character with a disability on screen, the time away from school is, quite simply, less involving. Moshonov gives a strong performance, as does Yael Abecassis as his mother, but the scenes between Eyad and Jonathan begin to feel repetitive and dull.

However, this relationship is essential to the film’s “twist,” and it explains the significance of the title “A Borrowed Identity.” Without detailing what occurs, Eyad makes a crucial decision that will impact his life. In the context of the film, the move seems abrupt, and not altogether satisfying.

For all of its flaws, this latest entry from the director of international successes “The Syrian Bride” and “Lemon Tree” remains a distinctive entry in the global coming-of-age catalog, thanks mainly to its fresh milieu and sturdy central performances.

Barhom makes Eyad a strong-willed, often rebellious individual. He is an actor to watch. Also noteworthy is Danielle Kitzis, whose Naomi feels wonderfully real and delightfully wise – a strong female attempting to keep her relationship with Eyad alive and healthy amidst difficult circumstances.

“A Borrowed Identity” will not linger in one’s memory for long, but it deserves to be seen, and contemplated. Plus, there is a scene in which a character thinks he spots Saddam Hussein’s face on the moon. That has to be a coming-of-age flick first.

Review: ‘Spike Island’ is no classic, but Stone Roses fans will adore it


It’s a ridiculously clever concept, really: a U.K.-set coming-of-age folm centered around each Stone Roses’ era-defining Spike Island gig in 1990. Unlike the Madchester heroes legendary concert, however, director Mat Whitecross’s “Spike Island” is not one that will be remembered for decades. Unexceptional it may be, but the film is undeniably involving for Stone Roses fans, and Anglophiles in general. (It’s “Taking Woodstock” for Britpoppers!)

It’s the kind of Lads-with-a-capital-“L” flick with a main character known as “Tits.” (Charming …) And that gets old pretty fast. However, star Elliott Tittensor gives a fine, believable performance as the aforementioned Gary “Tits” Tichfield, a young man devoted to the Roses, his own band, and his pals.

Tits and the other characters are saddled with some yawn-inducing subplots, including a dying father and dull romantic subplot involving — yes — SALLY (Cinnamon?), played by the Khaleesi herself, Emilia Clarke. When the gang finally makes it to the site of the gig, the film finally takes flight with some clever and convincing use of old film of the band and fine stage-setting from Whitecross.

And even when the characters and story feel rote, there is that glorious music. “Spike Island” is a reminder why the Roses still matter, and if it does nothing more, that makes for a worthwhile film.

The film is now available for rental or purchase on VOD, an ideal format considering its appeal to a limited but devoted American audience. For that group, “Spike Island” qualifies as a must-see.

Review: ‘Magic Mike XXL’ offers go-for-broke cinematic insanity


This 3 1/2-star review of “Magic Mike XXL” was one of the more enjoyable reviews to write. I’m glad to see so many critics were as impressed with the film as I was.

We need “Magic Mike XXL,” and we need it now. The news cycle of summer 2015 has been utterly topsy turvy, making this the ideal moment for a film of six-pack abs, charmingly daft “male entertainers,” deliriously turned-on women, and a deluge of dollar bills.

Some things have changed in this sequel to the enormously successful “Magic Mike.” Gone is the element of surprise that came from director Steven Soderbergh’s 2012 film, one inspired by star Channing Tatum’s stint as a male stripper.

Gone too are many of the first film’s notable actors, including Matthew McConaughey’s crazy-eyed club owner Dallas, and dead-eyed Alex Pettyfer’s Kid. And Soderbergh (“Traffic,” “Ocean’s Eleven”) is replaced by his longtime assistant director, Gregory Jacobs.

Also jettisoned – wisely – is any semblance of seriousness. Admittedly, Soderbergh’s somber eye for economic hardship was key to the first film’s critical praise. (One of its more memorable sights was Mike’s sad notebook of ironed dollars.)

But dropping the gravity makes for a better film. For “Magic Mike XXL” is the rare sequel that improves on its predecessor. It’s a raucous, weightless party that might just be the summer’s finest comedy.

Much of that is due to immensely talented “21 Jump Street” and “Foxcatcher” star Channing Tatum, the inspiration-producer-star of the most unlikely franchise in filmdom. In “XXL” he is as delightful as ever, cementing his rep as equally liked by both sexes

When we last left Tatum’s “Magic” Mike Lane, he had made the decision to bail on Dallas and the Xquisite Strip Club crew just as they were ready to make their move from Tampa to Miami. He had also hooked up with the Kid’s sister, Brooke.

Fast-forward three years, and Mike has his own (struggling) business and a broken heart. When a call comes from old mate Tarzan (surprisingly witty WWE legend Kevin Nash), he cannot help but ponder the life he once led.

As Tarzan, Richie (“True Blood’s” Joe Manganiello), the aptly named Ken (Ken doll-ish Matt Bomer), Tito (Adam Rodriguez), and amiable DJ Tobias (Gabriel Iglesias) explain, Dallas and the Kid have split town. So the gang is heading for one last blowout, the annual stripper convention in Myrtle Beach.

It doesn’t take much to talk Mike into joining this merry band of dancers, and soon he has a seat on Tito’s food truck.

That’s pretty much the plot. Occasionally, there is a callback to the hard-out-there-for-a-stripper vibe of “Magic Mike,” but the focus is mostly on this motley crew of characters and their adventures on the road.

Several sequences drag, yet by the time the crew unleashes its convention performance, “Magic Mike XXL” has become the rowdiest bachelorette party of (at least some of) its audience’s dreams. And my goodness, is it a comically joyous blast of shirtless anarchy.

New to the proceedings is Amber Heard’s Zoe, a sharper, sexier foil than the first film’s wan Brooke (unmemorably played by Cody Horn). Jada Pinkett Smith is perfectly cast as Rome, an old love interest of Mike’s who runs a wild establishment in Savannah.

The always likable Elizabeth Banks – who, between this, “Love and Mercy” and “Pitch Perfect 2” is having one heckuva summer – Donald Glover (“Community”), and Andie MacDowell pop up in fun supporting roles, and let’s just say you’ll never look at Michael Strahan the same way again.

Yes, the film misses McConaughey’s disorderly glee, and the darker elements Soderbergh brought to the table. But Jacobs directs with a light, unobtrusive touch, and he knows when to let his actors’ personalities take over. (It’s worth noting that Soderbergh was still involved as cinematographer, editor and a producer.)

Take, for example, Manganiello’s Richie. More of a background player in “Magic Mike,” “XXL” sees the actor steal almost every scene he’s in. One sequence in particular, a mini-mart, Backstreet Boys-soundtracked dance amid bags of Cheetos and bottles of Pepsi, might be the funniest scene of 2015. It’s that strong, and Manganiello nails it.

The film’s core audience was well-represented at the screening I attended, and hooted, applauded and laughed with abandon.

However, male or female, straight or gay, permissive or prudish, you will simply not find a summer flick to match the fun quotient of “Magic Mike XXL.” If you cannot appreciate Tatum and company’s go-for-broke cinematic insanity, maybe movies just aren’t for you.