TIFF turns forty: Buffalo Spree recap

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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             

TIFF15 review: ‘Northern Soul’ is sonically explosive

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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’

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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’

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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.

It’s arrived! See you at TIFF15

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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

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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.

40 days till TIFF15: Toronto Film Fest returns with heavy hitters, Hitchcock

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The Toronto International Film Festival held its kick-off press conference this week, and the announcements were, in a word, stunning. This is a stacked festival ready, with many, many more announcements to come. Here are a few thoughts on the first batch of titles, for Buffalo.com.

The message at this week’s 2015 Toronto International Film Festival announcement press conference was clear: TIFF is back, in a big way. It’s not as if last year’s festival would be classified by most as a disappointment — ask the scores of audience members who trooped into festival venues last year if they were disappointed, and they’re likely to laugh and shake their heads.

But TIFF’s bold move to only allow films making their world or North American debuts at the festival, a direct strike against fests in Venice and Telluride, led to much grumbling among media and filmmakers. It also meant a number of major films either skipped Toronto altogether, or screened at the tail-end of the festival.

For 2015, Toronto’s head honchos eased up, and the result, as evident from the press conference, is a stunning lineup of heavy hitters and Oscar bait. While there are a few notables missing from the lineup — Todd Haynes’s “Carol,” the Aaron Sorkin-penned biopic “Steve Jobs,” mountain climbing pic “Everest” — the galas and special presentations announced this week include some real stunners.

Consider just a few of the films announced for this year’s festival, running from Sept. 10 to 20:

  • Michael Moore’s the-title-says-it-all documentary “Where to Invade Next” is sure to be controversial.
  • Ridley Scott’s “Interstellar”-ish “The Martian,” starring Matt Damon, is one of the most high-profile world premieres in festival history.
  • “Theory of Everything” Oscar winner Eddie Redmayne plays a transgender pioneer in “The Danish Girl.”
  • Fictional drama “Stonewall,” based on the 1969 Stonewall Riots, is directed by a very unlikely individual: Roland Emmerich (“Independence Day.).
  • And how about Alfred Hitchcock? The festival concludes with a free screening of “Vertigo,” complete with a live score by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra.

More announcements will follow in the weeks to come. But make no mistake — while it may be 80 degrees outside, the Oscar race is on.