TIFF16 recap: Good timing, bad escalators, and stunning cinema (November Buffalo Spree)

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My annual TIFF recap can be found in the November issue of Buffalo Spree, and the timing isn’t bad, since many of the films mentioned are now playing or opening soon in Buffalo.

When it comes to the film festival experience, timing is everything. The Toronto International Film Festival is no exception. In some years, TIFF’s September time slot is a good thing, since it falls squarely at the start of the fall awards season. However, the festival takes place after the increasingly important fests in Venice and Telluride, and before the prestigious New York Film Festival. That can lead to years like 2014, when a controversial screening policy led to prime slots for a number of high-profile disappointments—The JudgeRosewaterSt. VincentThe Equalizer.

That was then. In 2016 (and last year, for that matter), TIFF was better than ever. The lineup for the eleven-day festival of nearly 300 features included several masterpieces, numerous very good films, and very few all-out disasters. It’s possible—if not likely—that this year’s Oscar winners in the Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, Supporting Actor, and Supporting Actress categories all played the festival. (I’m talking about La La Land, Damien Chazelle, Casey Affleck, Natalie Portman, Michael Shannon, and Michelle Williams. And yes, it is ridiculously early to make such predictions.) Some of these premiered elsewhere, but their response at TIFF cemented their status as awards frontrunners.

For all of these films and many, many others, timing is paramount. And whether you are a paying member of the public or an accredited film critic, your overall success rate as a TIFF attendee is seemingly dependent on random chance. Take my first day at TIFF16. Heavy traffic on the QEW meant my longtime festival compatriot Jared Mobarak and I arrived a little after 9 a.m. on the fest’s opening day. That also meant I was too late to see one of my most eagerly awaited selections, Sundance Film Festival hit Manchester by the Sea. I was severely bummed, especially since I was waiting in another line as the 9 a.m. screening attendees exited and I overheard their rapturous talk. Yet three days later came a festival miracle: an added press and industry screening scheduled at 9 p.m. at the TIFF Bell Lightbox’s Cinema 5. Unsure about the size of the theater (and nervous about the number of panting press folk likely interested in attending), I arrived more than an hour early and found a short line. I also discovered the theater only had forty-five seats, and by 8:15 the queue was epic. Happily, I got one of those seats and was able to experience director Kenneth Lonergan’s emotionally overwhelming, surprisingly subtle Manchester. (Timing!) The story of a sad sack tasked with serving as his nephew’s guardian after the death of his brother features career-best work from the aforementioned Casey Affleck and Michelle Williams. It’s a legit tear-jerker.

So, yes, good timing for yours truly. This was not the only instance of early arrival guaranteeing me a seat for something special. That was also the case for the press screening of Moonlight, a wondrous coming-of-age drama that follows a young African-American male through three complex stages of his life; the press screening of designer-turned-filmmaker Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals, a stylish Hitchcockian gem starring Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, and a revelatory Michael Shannon; and for the first public screening of American Honey, an almost indescribably exhilarating teenage road movie from Wuthering Heights director Andrea Arnold.

With a family and day job waiting at home, my TIFF experience is generally short (four days this year), and so my selections are dependent on what the powers that be choose to schedule while I’m in attendance. Therefore, I was unable to catch a few of 2016’s biggest festival hits, including La La Land, the sure-to-be-an-awards-favorite musical from Whiplash director Damien Chazelle that stars the delightful Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling. And, of course, a number of biggies that were screening during my four days just couldn’t be wedged into my schedule. (I suppose that’s a mix of  good and bad timing.) But in addition to the films I’ve already mentioned, I was able to see fabulously meandering German comedy Toni Erdmann; Paul Verhoeven’s provocative Elle (starring Isabelle Huppert); the clever and surprisingly witty sci-fi drama Arrival(with Amy Adams); the morally complex Una, featuring Rooney Mara’s best performance yet; and the divisive Personal Shopper, a Kristen Stewart-starring ghost story that I found brilliant.

All in all, I watched twenty-six films in total before or during my tenth TIFF. (Nine of these were prefest screeners; seventeen were screenings during my four days in Toronto.) Twelve of these twenty-six were very, very good. Six were so-so. (Surprisingly, Nate Parker’s Sundance winner The Birth of a Nation falls here; it’s adequate at best, and that’s without even considering the horrific rape allegations rising from Parker’s past.) Six were unexceptional. (One of these was Terrence Malick’s years-in-the-making Voyage of Time: Life’s Journey, a gorgeous bore from a filmmaker whose recent decline is worrisome.) Two were really, really bad. Those numbers are quite strong.

But how’s this for bad timing? One of the stories of the festival (seriously) was the broken escalators at the Scotiabank Theatre Toronto, and, while the bitching was a bit much, it was easy to see why folks were so annoyed. This is one epic set of stairs, and it’s almost comical to ponder the up escalator (and later the down) breaking during the eleven days the world industry descends upon this theater. Couldn’t this have happened, say, twelve days later? Oh well.

At its best, TIFF and any film festival serves as a launching pad for future success, a showcase for bold new art, and a place for cinephiles, critics, and celebs to congregate and share the magic of cinema. All of that happened at the North American premiere of Jackie on September 11. I was able to get a ticket from the press office for that first screening—yep, good timing—and had high expectations. The director, after all, is Pablo Larraín, the prolific Spanish filmmaker responsible for NoThe Club, and another TIFF16 entry, Pablo Neruda biopic Neruda. And starring is Natalie Portman, a spot-on choice looks-wise. Even with my prefilm excitement, my expectations were exceeded. The story of the week following the JFK assassination from the perspective of Jackie Kennedy, Jackie was TIFF16’s finest film. It upends the traditional historical drama with bold storytelling, note-perfect performances, and a smart, probing script.

With films like this one highlighting the lineup, it was odd to read this quote about the 2016 festival, from industry bible Variety: “‘Most of the films were terrible,’ one distribution executive griped. ‘I can’t wait to get home.’” Ha. For me, TIFF16 was a series of masterpieces and a reminder that despite rumors to the contrary, film is not dead. It’s alive and well for eleven days in September and beyond. With JackieMoonlightManchester by the SeaNocturnal Animals, and many other greats set to open in Buffalo shortly, your timing is very, very good.

A TIFF16 round-up (for BuffaloSpree.com)

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I wrote this round-up of my time at TIFF16 for BuffaloSpree.com. Note that my suspicions about La La Land taking the People’s Choice Award were indeed correct.

For me, the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival is over. But TIFF16 actually runs through Sunday, the day we’ll discover which film has won the Grolsch People’s Choice Award. (My money is on La La Land.)

There is plenty more to come from me on the festival, including a feature in the November Spree. But in the meantime, here’s a brief ranking of the 26 TIFF entries I saw during or before the festival. You’re going to hear a lot more about Jackie, Manchester by the Sea, Nocturnal Animals, Moonlight, American Honey, Toni Erdmann, Elle, and Arrival in the months to come. Without further ado, my TIFF16 ranking:

  1. Jackie
  2. Manchester by the Sea
  3. Nocturnal Animals
  4. Moonlight
  5. American Honey
  6. Personal Shopper
  7. Toni Erdmann
  8. Una
  9. Elle
  10. Arrival
  11. Lady Macbeth
  12. Werewolf
  13. The Birth of a Nation
  14. We Are Never Alone
  15. Clair Obscur
  16. City of Tiny Lights
  17. Dog Eat Dog
  18. Voyage of Time: Life’s Journey
  19. A Monster Calls
  20. Trespass Against Us
  21. Marija
  22. Past Life
  23. Little Wing
  24. Le Ciel Flamand
  25. Pyromaniac
  26. In the Blood

One film to call attention to is Lady Macbeth. Part of TIFF’s Platform series, the film is a shockingly dark period piece about a young woman in a passionless marriage. What follows involves sex, murder, and some stunning set pieces, all centered on a killer performance from star Florence Pugh. Happily, the film was bought by distributor Roadside Attractions during the festival and will be released in 2017.

A quieter film than many of the festival biggies, Lady Macbeth is the perfect festival find. Keep it on your radar.

Notes from the queue: My TIFF16 diary

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A significant part of the Toronto International Film Festival experience is waiting in line for screenings to begin. This year, I spent much of that time writing reviews or putting together some brief Facebook posts about my time at the festival. Here are four days of notes, all written the morning after.

Day 1: September 8, 2016

Day one of #TIFF16 is in the books, and it was a solid start. We did not arrive in time to catch any of the early morning biggies (MANCHESTER BY THE SEA, LOVING, PATERSON, DANIEL BLAKE), but we did manage to eat pizza at 10 a.m. (win) before I caught Olivier Assayas’s confounding, brilliant PERSONAL SHOPPER. It’s no shock this slow-burn ghost story has proven to be divisive, but it worked wonderfully for me, and it’s another peak for Kristen Stewart. (A woman behind me just described the film as “an incoherent mess.”)
Next was the Cannes hit TONI ERDMANN, a long, long, long but truly lovable comedy about a father and daughter. Madden Ade’s film meanders quite a bit, but it has moments as uproarious and moving as any in recent memory.
Following TONI was Paul Schrader’s unpleasant but admittedly entertaining DOG EAT DOG. It’s a Cleveland-set crime romp starring Nicolas Cage and Willem DaFoe, and it’s exactly what you’d expect. Norway’s PYROMANIAC could’ve used some of Schrader’s lurid passion — it’s a repetitive and dull account of a serial arsonist.
Now on to day two, starting with Tom Ford’s NOCTURNAL ANIMALS … One thing is certain: Everyone on screen will be better dressed than me.

 

Day 2: September 9, 2016

Brief rundown of #TIFF16 day two — brief because I’m now exhausted: Tom Ford’s NOCTURNAL ANIMALS is my favorite of the fest so far, a razor-sharp, (predictably) stylish, uniquely funny film that feels like De Palma plus Hitchcock divided by, well, Tom Ford. The performances are uniformly excellent, with Amy Adams and Michael Shannon at the top of the list.
My Amy Adams marathon continued with ARRIVAL, a strong, cerebral sci-fi drama with surprising emotional impact. There’s always one film at TIFF that makes me really miss my kids, and this year, it’s ARRIVAL.
The somber kids’ film A MONSTER CALLS was ambitious but way too familiar, and left me cold. Paul Verhoeven’s ELLE, on the other hand, was a wildly entertaining, utterly provocative gem. Isabelle Huppert gives the most memorably complex performance I’ve seen this year.
The day ended with so-so crime thriller/family drama hybrid TRESPASS AGAINST US, a film I’ll be reviewing soon for The Film Stage.
I’m now seated for a British entry called LADY MACBETH, and the day will also include THE BIRTH OF A NATION, VOYAGE OF TIME, and at least one more TBD … On with it!

 

Day 3: September 10, 2016

It’s my fourth and final day at #TIFF16, and it follows an interesting Saturday, to say the least.
I started with LADY MACBETH, a very dark period piece not based on Shakespeare, but featuring a heroine who would make Lady M. proud. It’s unsettling and fascinating to watch where this film goes.
I followed with Nate Parker’s controversial THE BIRTH OF A NATION, a film with moments of great power but occasionally clumsy execution. I’d call it good but not great, and that’s without even considering the moral issues Parker’s past.
Terrence Malick’s VOYAGE OF TIME: LIFE’S JOURNEY is more of the same — more breathy voiceover (this time from Cate Blanchett), more stunning imagery, more Malick in every way. It’s not a satisfying experience, although perhaps the shorter IMAX version will be.
TIFF added a late-night press screening of the acclaimed MANCHESTER BY THE SEA, so I skipped Park Chan-wook’s THE HANDMAIDEN to attend. (I already skipped the latest from Wim Wenders due to fatigue, hunger, and disinterest.) Kenneth Lonergan’s MANCHESTER was worth the schedule change — it’s an emotionally devastating winner in every way. There’s lots of weeping, and yes, it made me weepy. Casey Affleck highlights a uniformly strong cast.
Today includes Rooney Mara in UNA (watch for my review for The Film Stage), buzzed coming-of-age drama MOONLIGHT, Cannes’ favorite AMERICAN HONEY, and, finally, Natalie Portman in JACKIE. With any luck, I’ll also catch some football while writing today …

 

Day 4: September 11, 2016

My final day at #TIFF16 saw fun times in the order-less line pictured here, but it was worth it: JACKIE, starring Natalie Portman as Jackie Kennedy, was the finest film I saw at the festival. And that’s saying something, because I saw several masterpieces. In addition to JACKIE, I loved three other films yesterday: Rooney Mara-starrer UNA, stunning coming-of-age drama MOONLIGHT, and the wondrously electric AMERICAN HONEY.
More to come on these and others, but right now it’s time to mow the lawn. (That’s a sure sign I’m home from the fest.)

#TIFF16 starts tomorrow … and I’ll be there

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My friend Jared Mobarak and I head north tomorrow morning, so make sure to keep up with the fun on Twitter. I’ll also be posting at BuffaloSpree.com, writing a feature for the November Spree, reviewing a couple TIFF selections for The Film Stage (if all goes according to plan, Una and Trespass Against Us), and one for The Playlist (Werewolf).

It’s all on … in less than 24 hours.

A TIFF16 ‘how-to’ and ten under-the-radar picks

Things to Come, courtesy of TIFF

Things to Come, courtesy of TIFF

It’s now a little more than one week until the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival, and two previews by yours truly were published this week. The first, for Buffalo.com, is a “how-to” guide for Buffalonians interested in attending, while the second, for BuffaloSpree.com, looks at 10 under-the-radar selections.

Lots more on the horizon, starting next Thursday, September 8 …

Yes, it’s almost time for TIFF16: Analyzing the first batch of announcements

La La Land; courtesy of TIFF

La La Land; courtesy of TIFF

TIFF16 is almost upon us … so I wrote about the festival’s first announcements for BuffaloSpree.com. The piece went live on July 27, hence the title, “42 days till TIFF16
Analyzing the first batch of Toronto Film Fest announcements.”

And we’re off … The fall festival season has begun. OK, it’s still July. But once the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) holds its introductory press conference, announcements begin to leak for fests in Venice and New York, and Telluride rumors begin, it’s clear the attention of cinephiles has moved on from summer cinema to autumn Oscar hopefuls.

TIFF15 was a fine festival, with highlights like eventual award winners Spotlight and Room, delights like Brooklyn and The Martian, and high-profile disappointments like Black Mass. At this point it’s too early to judge the TIFF16 lineup, especially since the eventual lineup will number around 300 (!).

Admittedly, the announcement of The Magnificent Seven as this year’s opening film is likely to disappoint all but the star-crazy folks who line up along King Street for a glimpse of celebrities. Antoine Fuqua’s remake of the 1960 western is an iffy proposition — the director’s last film was the justifiably forgotten The Equalizer— but it does star Denzel Washington and Chris Pratt. The festival’s opening films are notoriously a mixed bag, but it’s especially hard to summon much enthusiasm for Seven.

Still, the list of forty-nine Special Presentations and nineteen Gala Presentations includes numerous highlights. Consider just a few of the films announced for this year’s festival, running from September 8 to 18:

  • La La Land: Director Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash was one of 2014’s finest films. His hugely anticipated follow-up starring Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, La La Land, could not look more enticing. A musical set in modern Los Angeles, the film boasts one of the most striking trailers in ages.
  • Nocturnal Animals: Designer Tom Ford made a startling debut as a director with 2009’s A Single Man, and his second feature is ridiculously star-packed: Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Shannon, Michael Sheen. Intrigued? If not, try the plot summary: “[T]he story of a woman who is forced to confront the demons of her past, as she is drawn into the world of a thriller novel written by her ex-husband.” Yes, you’re in, and so am I.
  • American Pastoral: Ewan McGregor is close to the last person I would’ve pictured as Philip Roth’s “Swede” Levov. But to McGregor’s credit, he found a way to bring the 1960s-set Pulitzer Prize-winning novel to life with himself as director and star. Considering how long it’s taken to see Pastoral hit the big screen, I’m willing to accept Obi-Wan as “Swede.”
  • A United Kingdom: Belle, Amma Asante’s 2013 hit, was a moving period drama. For her next effort, A United Kingdom, she has lined up two great actors — Selma’s David Oyelowo and Gone Girl’s Rosamund Pike. It’s the “true story of Seretse Khama, King of Bechuanaland (modern Botswana), and Ruth Williams, the London office worker he married in 1947 in the face of fierce opposition from their families and the British and South African governments.” Sounds like another fascinating historical film.

In addition to those four, there are recent Cannes’ favorites like Toni Erdman and Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson, buzzed-about Sundance smashes Manchester by the Sea and Birth of a Nation, and some real question marks. (Woody Harrelson as LBJ? Directed by Rob Reiner? Hmm.)

The Canadian lineup will be announced at a press conference next week, and plenty more announcements will arrive during the next month-plus. Fingers crossed for Kristen Stewart-starrer Personal Shopper, Oasis documentary Supersonic, and Ken Loach’s Palme d’Or winner I, Daniel Blake.

Is it September 8 yet?

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.