La La Land. A New Golden Age?

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The Sloth’s two most hated films genres are: 1) Musicals 2) Romances. While the rest of the world swoons at the Golden Age of Hollywood, going gooey over Fred ’n’ Ginge, swishy dresses, big band ‘numbers’, you’ll find The Sloth revisiting the Trainspotting ‘Worst Toilet In Scotland’ scene. La La Land is a musical romance. Oh joy.

No prizes for guessing La La Land is set in LA.  It opens with Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a somewhat precious jazz pianist and Mia (Emma Stone), an aspiring actress, stuck in their cars in traffic on the freeway. But this isn’t any ordinary traffic jam. Drivers have emerged from their vehicles in a rainbow of brightly coloured outfits to burst into song and dance in what yes, is best described as a ‘number’.  Not sharing in the festivities, Sebastian honks his horn at Mia who glares frostily back at him.

A few days later Sebastian is grumpily playing Christmas songs to punters in a posh restaurant. Till he throws a hissy fit, launches into one of his own compositions and is promptly sacked, just as Mia walks in. Later still, they meet again at a party, Sebastian now grumpily playing keyboards in a cheesy 80’s covers band to Mia’s sarcastic delight.

No prizes for guessing they get together, united in their ambition to make it big in the City of Dreams. We follow the ups & downs of their relationship and careers as they suffer set backs and breaks in equal measure, sprinkled with a liberal dusting of song ’n’ dance numbers. And that is pretty much it.

We LOVED this film. Absolutely LOVED it. What should be a vomit-inducing cheese-fest is pitch perfect sweet, light and endearing, filled with guileless joie de vivre from start to finish. A lot of this is credit to the clever casting decision of taking leading actors who can sort of sing and sort of dance, making the whole thing feel altogether natural and not over-polished. Add in The Gosling’s recently discovered deadpan comic ability and you have an absolute winner. Role on awards season, it’s about time a proper good ‘un swept the board.

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Sully. Disaster At Not Many Thousand Feet.

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Never get on any form of mechanised transport with Tom Hanks. He nearly died after the Apollo 13 Mission suffered catastrophic failures. Nearly died after the FedEx plane he was travelling on crashed into the Pacific Ocean. Nearly died after captaining a cargo ship that was hijacked by Somali pirates. And most recently, nearly died alongside 155 passengers after landing a jet on the Hudson river. The man is a walking disaster-magnet.

You know the story of Sully. On 15 Jan 2009, flight 1549 left New York. Shortly after take off both engines failed following multiple bird strikes. Devoid of power and unable to make it back to an airport, Captain Chesley Sullenberger (Tom Hanks) made the unprecedented decision to land on the Hudson River, heroically saving all onboard against inconceivable odds. A classic case of truth being stranger than fiction. 

So why recount a story we know so well? Firstly, it makes for great cinema. Hollywood loves an airline disaster – few things are quite as terrifying on the big screen as the screams of passengers mixed with the screams of failing jet engines. In a previous life The Sloth used to book movies for airlines and it never ceased to amaze us how many feature plane crashes / vomit-imducing turbulence / nutters running amok onboard and threatening to blow everyone up / unlucky punters getting sucked out of windows. True to form, watching Sully’s plane slowly descend to the soundtrack of an automated cockpit warning system barking ‘Terrain! Pull up! Pull up!’ is almost unbearable. 

Secondly, what you may not know was Sully had to fight to prove his hero status. Sully the movie mostly focuses on the long and drawn out investigation that followed the crash, where he and his co-pilot Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart) were hauled over the coals by a panel of aviation experts. It’s a fascinating story, as much due to the doubt around his decision to land on the river – computer simulations suggested it may not have been necessary. Coupled with a brisk run time and a reliably solid performance from Mr Disaster himself (plus Eckhart sporting a rather fab 70’s trucker ‘tache), if you want to scare yourself reasonably silly it’s a good bet. Just avoid if you’re planning to jet off on hols anytime soon… 

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A United Kingdom. A Timely Tale.

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The Sloth once sat next to Rosamund Pike at a screening and she had such long legs we had quite the job climbing over them to get out as the credits rolled. It’s a mystery why her career has been decidedly muted following the huge success of Gone Girl, but A United Kingdom sees her take on her highest profile role since.

A true story, it recounts the stranger-than-fiction tale of Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike), a seemingly ordinary young woman in the late 1940’s. Ruth lives in London with her parents and sister, works in a typing pool and goes to dances, much like thousands of other ordinary young women of the time. Dragged along as her sister’s plus one to a dance organised by missionaries, Ruth meets Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo) from Bechuanaland, who is in London studying to be a lawyer. An instant connection sparks between them and they begin dating in spite of two crucial things 1) the 1940’s was not tolerant of mixed raced couples and 2) Seretse is soon to return to Bechuanaland. Seretse then chucks a further spanner in the works revealing he is in fact PRINCE Seretse and shortly to be crowned King.

At that point The Sloth would have thrown in the towel and gone for a port & lemon with Pete from the chippie, but Ruth was made of sterner stuff. Deciding to marry, the loved-up Ruth and Seretse envisage returning to Bechauanland on a wave of romance and living happily ever after. However it’s not just Ruth’s family who are vehemently opposed to the idea – the British government, conscious of its political links with a South Africa newly embracing apartheid, and the entire nation of Bechaunanland horrified at having a white queen, are none too pleased either.

A United Kingdom is at its best in portraying a fascinating and inspiring human story, with terrific performances from both leads – The Sloth wanted to cheer after David Oyelowo’s impassioned speech imploring Bechaunaland to accept his Queen. It does get a little too caught up in documenting the convoluted politics of the time but, in the world’s frankly disturbing current political climate, it is a sobering, timely tale that reminds us how far we have come, or thought we had come, in fighting racism. Let’s not go back there.

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I, Daniel Blake. Red Ken Strikes Again.

cqcpulnxgaawgcsWe’re going to be honest. The Sloth wasn’t particularly keen on watching I, Daniel Blake. Yes, we know director Ken Loach is ‘important’ and should be talked about with furrowed brow and much referencing of ‘social realism’, but sometimes that makes us want to trough a family pack of Revels with a side order of Keeping Up With The Kardashians. However, because we are an honourable Sloth (and we loved Looking For Eric), we parked our furry posterior and settled in.

Daniel Blake (Dave Johns) is a manual worker and a recent widower who has been signed off work by his doctor due to a dodgy ticker. Tyneside social services dispute his doctor’s opinion and have ordered their own assessment by a ‘healthcare professional’ of dubious qualification, resulting in Daniel being pronounced fit and ordered back into the workplace and off benefits. Worried for his health, the computer illiterate Daniel tries to protest the ruling but finds himself swept into an uncaring digitised system he doesn’t understand, his protests to robotic social services workers going unheeded as they endlessly point him back ‘online’.

One morning at the benefits office Daniel encounters Katie (Hayley Squires) a young mother of two recently arrived from London. New in the city, Katie has been refused her appointment as she arrived late and is unceremoniously thrown out by the staff. Daniel offers Katie a sympathetic ear and his workman’s skills to help fix up her flat. So begins their friendship – Daniel offering practical help, Katie offering companionship – as they attempt to fight their way through an unjust social system.

I, Daniel Blake couldn’t be more Ken Loach if it carried a copy of the Socialist Worker and broke into a rendition of ‘The Red Flag’. It’s an angry film and not one for subtlety – it doesn’t so much hammer its points home as bludgeon you over the head with Mallet’s Mallet – but it also has humour and warmth. You can’t knock it’s passion and you certainly can’t knock the performances – we defy you to watch the scene of Katie hitting rock bottom in a food bank and not be moved. In an era when movies are created purely to make money, it’s refreshing to see someone using film to rock the establishment boat. Well done Ken.

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The Girl On The Train

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The Sloth was lucky enough to attend the premiere of The Girl On The Train – an unexpectedly informative experience. For it revealed a vocation your careers teacher never told you about: Nipple Monitor. Yes, the lovely Hayley Bennet had chosen a red carpet frock so dangerously low cut she required a full time assistant to repeatedly hoik and squash her overflowing bodice into maintaining a PG-13 rating. Surely an inexcusable oversight on the school curriculum when boys now trail girls in performance? A 5 minute overview could eradicate truancy and improve GCSE results overnight.

State of our nation aside, was it any cop? Firstly, The Sloth is one of about 24 people in the western hemisphere who have not read the book. To bring the remaining 23 up to date: Rachel (Emily Blunt) is an alcoholic. Her drinking led to the breakdown of her marriage and loss of her job.  Struggling to come to terms with the fact her husband Tom (Justin Theroux) has moved on and is remarried to Anna (Rebecca Ferguson) with a young family, Rachel continues to take the train each day as if to her old job. From the train window, she observes and obsesses over a beautiful young woman Megan (Hayley Bennett) who, unknown to Rachel, is nanny to Tom and Anna’s child.

Megan has troubles of her own. Married, but bored with her life and haunted by a difficult past for which she is in therapy, Megan is sexually predatory. One morning from her train window a shocked Rachel witnesses Megan kissing a man other than her husband. Later that day Rachel embarks on another alcoholic binge, waking the following morning bloodied and injured with no recollection of what has happened and the TV news full of reports that Megan has gone missing.

We will leave it there, to avoid being a spoiler spoil sport. Suffice to say there are more twists, turns, red herrings and sub-plots than Agatha Christie on steroids and this could easily descend into hammed-up melodrama. But it isn’t, primarily due to the fabulous performances of the three leading ladies. The Sloth could virtually smell the stale booze reeking from Emily Blunt’s chapped lips and Hayley has far more to give than just impressive corset (love – sack the stylist). Coupled with tight direction and just-stylised-enough visuals, it’s gripping, relentless and frankly quite exhausting. If you’ve been ruing the lack of decent thrillers since Gone Girl, fret no more.

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Hunt For The Wilderpeople. Cracking Kiwi Comedy.

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There is something very pleasing about finding comedy from another country amusing. Let’s be honest, us Brits get sniffy about other nations’ humour, basically because we invented being funny and it is a highly competitive national sport (no pressure on The Sloth in this blog post…did we tell you the one about the Aardvark, the Bush Baby and the Slow Loris??). Personally, The Sloth has always appreciated the blacker than black humour of the Scandis and the dry, eyebrow raising wit of the Germans, whilst feeling our Gallic chums across La Manche may be better sticking to the existential philosophising. Now, in Hunt For The Wilderpeople, it’s the turn of our Kiwi cousins to bring the funny.

Ricky (Julian Dennison) is a problem kid. Having been turfed out of innumerable foster homes for fighting, swearing, setting fire to things and general wanton destruction, as a last resort social services foist him on the mercy of Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and Hec (Sam Neill), an elderly couple living out in the countryside. Bella, a one-woman oasis of unflappable calm, is more than a match for Ricky, soon taming his erratic outbursts and giving him the love he desperately craves. So that’s it then?  They all live happily ever after?  Err, no, because following an incident which The Sloth shall not disclose, Ricky does what every good problem kid should – runs away.

Now this is New Zealand, not Berkshire, so there is plenty of scope for running away, should you so choose. To wit Hec realises he has no option but to go in search of Ricky before he gets eaten by a rogue Hobbit. Reluctantly bonding in the depths of the woods, Hec and Ricky discover they are targets of a nationwide manhunt, with Social Services keen to take the errant Ricky back into their clutches. So our dynamic duo turn fugitive in a desperate bid for escape.

Hunt For The Wilderpeople flies along on the chemistry between the two leads, Ricky’s pent up teen energy bouncing effortlessly off Hec’s misanthropic grumpiness. Throw in several fabulous minor characters, most notably borderline psychotic social worker Paula and a dog called Tupac, and you have a quirky indie delight that effortlessly holds its own against other quirky, Little-Miss-Sunshines-a-likes of recent years. Most importantly, several out-loud belly laughs later, The Sloth is chuffed to report it wholeheartedly passed the funny test. Good job, NZ.

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David Brent: Life On The Road

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The Brentmeister needs no introduction.  Ricky Gervais’ infamous office manager single-handedly reinvented comedy in the noughties, bowing out after a laudably restrained two series (give or take the odd Xmas special), then travelling Stateside to launch the career of Steve Carell.  Now, 15 years after he first hit our screens, Brent is back. Is it a welcome return?

 

This is not The Office as you knew it. Yes, Brent is still in an office, but not Wernham Hogg.  Rather, he is a rep for a cleaning products company selling items including ladies’ sanitary goods (The Sloth will leave his sales pitch to your fertile imagination) by day, whilst heading up band Foregone Conclusion by night. Bravely, or foolishly, Brent has decided to pursue his wannabe-rock-star dreams, booking a chunk of annual leave plus assorted 3-star hotel rooms, to take Foregone Conclusion on tour in the Slough and Greater West London area.

 

Let’s cut to the chase.  Yes, this leaves a gaping Tim / Dawn / Gareth shaped hole and yes, they are missed. To get over this, we have a new set of peripherals including Brent’s token black friend, rapper Dom (Ben Bailey Smith), regularly wheeled onstage to lend ‘credibility’ and stage manager Dan (Tom Basden) who frets about the damage Brent-association is doing to his career. In a stroke of genius, Razorlight’s Andy Burrows has also been recruited, partly to play Foregone Conclusion’s drummer and partly to co-write the songs, including excruciating delights ‘Please Don’t Make Fun Of The Disabled’ and ‘Lady Gypsy’.

 

Perhaps the years had dulled The Sloth’s memory of how painful Brent can be, but we came out of our screening with knuckles gnawed raw and bum cheeks throbbing from 90 minutes of squirming. Yes, it is frequently very funny, yes our attention never waned and yes, the songs are surprisingly tuneful in a cheesy, MOR way (we defy you not to secretly love title track On The Road’s “foot to the floor, 70 miles an hour, but no more”, chorus). But what really got us cringing was the creeping feeling Brent and Gervais are actually becoming one and the same – see ‘On The Road’ soundtrack CD currently available for purchase at a music retailer near you. Superlative method acting or worrying egomaniac tendencies?  We’ll leave that for you to decide.

 

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The Shallows. Rock On.

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Firstly, manifold grovelling apologies for a long period of Radio Silence.  We could give all manner of excuses – “Nicolas Winding Refn ate our homework”… “We got accidentally blown up on a movie set underneath NYC’s Washington Bridge” (almost true –  whilst recently in NYC The Sloth did chance upon a movie set blowing things up underneath Washington Bridge, yet survived to tell the tale).  But frankly, we just haven’t seen anything that inspired us to put fingers to keyboard. Till The Shallows.

 

Blake Lively, probably best known for being a fashion bunny / sometime actress / Mrs Ryan Reynolds, plays a gnarly surfer chick on a pilgrimage to a secret, hidden beach surfed by her dead mother in her youth. After a bumpy ride through the jungle she arrives, alone, in a beachy paradise, her bessie mate having stood her up due to a monster hangover. This is IMPORTANT because it means Blake is ALONE. After a few texts (From a secret hidden beach? Seriously?  The Sloth can’t get reception in Ealing Broadway Tesco) she hits the surf. And wow, does it look good. You can’t fault the really quite beautiful cinematography.

 

Waving goodbye to the only two other surfers, Blake heads further out to catch ‘one last wave’. Kids, don’t ever do that. Cue one monstrous and very hungry shark who decides a Blake Sandwich would be just the ticket for his tea. Her leg badly bitten and her board smashed in half, Blake hauls herself onto a tiny, rocky outcrop far from land. Can she make it back to shore without being eaten?

 

The Shallows is that simple. Blake Lively. On a rock. Circled by an angry shark. For 87 minutes.

 

We know what you’re thinking: “shrapnel from the Washington Bridge explosion has clearly lodged in The Sloths’ frontal lobe, for their can be no other reason for recommending such utter twaddle”. But no, we are of fully sound mind for The Shallows is a cracking piece of popcorn film making. Taut, tense and not a minute over long, it is in no way cerebral but it doesn’t half entertain in a way Hollywood’s lengthy, drearily pretentious superhero movies simply do not – we’d take Blake V Shark over Batman V Superman any day.

UK release 12 August

 

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The Nice Guys. Plus A Nice Girl.

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The Sloth was in LA when The Nice Guys was released. We’d heard little about it, so to see posters of The Crowe and The Gosling with bad ‘taches, plastered above donut shops and Better Call Saul style dodgy US lawyer businesses, well, it didn’t exactly look too promising. First impressions aside, what’s the first thing you think of when considering Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling (keep it clean re: Gosling, ladies)?  We’re guessing ‘comedy’ isn’t it. And yet here they are, two of the moodiest actors in Hollywood signed up for that stalwart of genres The Buddy Cop Comedy. Hmm.

 

Crowe plays Jackson Healy, a grumpy, disillusioned PI who shambles around beating up unfaithful husbands and general n’er do wells to order (not a huge stretch, then…). Gosling plays Holland March, a puppyishly enthusiastic alcoholic PI who cheerily takes payment for jobs he knows he cannot fulfil. Such as the case of Misty Mountains (Murielle Telio), a generously proportioned adult film star who has recently died in a car crash. Except she may not be dead as an old lady is convinced she is alive and begs Holland to investigate. After an inauspicious first meeting where Jackson is assigned Holland as a target and efficiently beats him to a semi-pulp, our duo find themselves thrown together to investigate Misty’s case.

 

It doesn’t take a genius to see where this is going. Neatly opposite characters soon find they complement each other, with sufficient scope for witty banter. Add a ‘70’s backdrop, always a goldmine for silly outfits and bad hair and that’s several comedy boxes ticked. Luckily, The Nice Guys doesn’t leave it there, adding in a third, scene stealing character of Holland’s young daughter, Holly (Angourie Rice). Far smarter than her dad and Jackson combined, while the two of them bumble around Holly is generally several steps ahead, nonchalantly questioning suspects at a porn star party or patiently driving an intoxicated Holland home after another drinking bout. And lo and behold, both The Crowe and The Gosling prove that yes, they can do comedy, Gosling in particular turning in a goofball performance George Clooney would be proud off.  Too clever by half, the pair of them…

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Love And Friendship. Austen On Form.

love freiedThink ‘Jane Austen’ and several things probably spring to mind: GCSE English; Colin Firth’s damp thighs (down, ladies); smug types waxing lyrical about how funny she is. Then you probably yawn and go back to your Transporter box set (NB that reminds us, one day The Sloth will do a post dedicated solely to the genius that is The Stath). And with every Brit actor worth their salt having appeared in countless versions of Emma’s Pride and Sensibility, has the dainty Austen teacup not finally runneth over?

 

Love And Friendship is based on Austen’s novella Lady Susan. So OK, we don’t think that particular book has been filmed yet – one point to the filmmakers.  It stars Kate Beckinsdale as the aforementioned Lady Susan Vernon, a glamorous, recently widowed social climber par excellence, whose flirtatious and gold-digging reputation precede her. In need of a new, rich husband to keep her in the manner she has become accustomed, Lady Susan has left her preferred London to visit her dead husband’s relations in their substantial country seat, in order to evaluate the local eligible talent. Unsurprisingly, the flurry of excitement she creates amongst the single men is not entirely shared by any women in the vicinity, not least as Susan is not just man-shopping for herself, but also for her young daughter Frederica (Morfydd Clark), whose declared intention of earning her own crust as a teacher is met with horror by her mother.

 

Like all of Jane Austen’s work, Lady Susan pokes sly, satirical humour at its characters from the outset, which features headshots of each of the cast of characters with appropriate digs, one man described as ‘A Bit Of A Rattle’. Loaded with wit, the script needs careful attention, Lady Susan in particular firing out superb, zinging one-liners, often to her best friend and confident Alicia Johnson (Chloë Sevigny), all delivered with an entirely straight face. This is the Austen that the literary-types love and rarely is it done so well.  But Love And Friendship also has laugh out loud silliness, delivered splendidly by Tom Bennett as rich buffoon Sir James. Channelling the spirit of Hugh Laurie’s Prince Regent from Blackadder, Sir James bumbles and guffaws his way through this polite, clipped society in a series of hilarious scenes, culminating in his honking, gleeful bewilderment at encountering peas on his dinner plate.

 

Forget GCSE’s and thoughts of 27 Austen adaptations too many, Love and Friendship is an absolute treat.  Smart, funny and a must-see.

UK release 27 May 2016

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