London Film Festival 2014 – Our Top 5

The BFI London Film Festival is finally over for another year. After 2 weeks permanently parked on a movie theatre pew, The Sloth’s eyes are bloodshot and we have callouses around our nether regions. Never mind that, we hear you cry, what was good?  Drum roll please. In reverse order, here’s our top 5 to look forward to in months to come:

kelly-cal-poster5 Kelly & Cal.  WHY DOES JULIETTE LEWIS NOT GET MORE WORK? IT’S A DISGRACE! The Sloth LOVES Juliette, so we were delighted to see her in this bittersweet dramedy of an unlikely friendship between two outsiders. A small film with a very big heart. Seek it out.

 

Foxcatcher poster

4 Foxcatcher. Arriving with more critical fanfare than a trumpeter’s convention, frankly this was never going to live up to the hype. But it’s a cool, mesmeric, understated psychological drama with terrific turns from Channing Tatum (potential contender for The Sloths’ New Favourite Actor – how did Mr Step Up suddenly get so good?) and Steve Carrell.

 

MrTurner_Final3 Mr Turner. A biopic of the acclaimed painter sounds, let’s be honest, somewhat dull. But in the hands of Mike Leigh this is unexpectedly witty, warm and wonderfully entertaining. Add in Timothy Spall’s marvellously bestial, grunting, porcine performance and you’ve got a winner.

 

white god2 White God.  Dog pound strays turn nasty on their human captors. Mad as a bucket of frogs metaphorical critique of state oppression that starts out as Lassie and ends up 28 Days Later meets Planet Of The Apes. Nutty and sublime in equal measures. Deservedly won canine star Hagen the Palme Dog. We’re wondering how the director explained his motivation.

 

whiplash1 Whiplash.  Does what it says on the tin. A thrilling, demonic, whirlwind tale of musical obsession with terrifyingly good (and downright terrifying) performances from stars JK Simmons and Miles Teller. It drew not only applause but cheers at the press screening.  Stonking.

Serena. Plenty Of Clouds. No Silver Linings.

serenaIf we were J-Law and Bradley Cooper’s respective other halves, we’d be getting a bit worried.  Serena is the third time they’ve worked together and Bradley was apparently recruited at J-Law’s special request as they had such a ball on Silver Linings Playbook.  Just sayin’…

This, however, is the first time they’ve done ‘serious’. Set in depression era North Carolina where men were men and women were of little consequence, Bradley plays George Pemberton, wealthy owner of a timber farm and dashing alpha-male. In need of a wife but finding few women of much interest, George is transfixed one day by the impressive skills of horsewoman Serena and sets about woo-ing her, which takes all of 5 minutes.

Soon married and high on a cloud of romance, George brings his alpha-female back to his timber farm where it becomes clear she is a woman of MUCH consequence. Assuming an equal status with her husband, who instructs his begrudging men to accept direction from Serena as if from him, all is joy and happiness. Until it becomes evident that not only can Serena not bear a child to complete their lives, but George is already father to an illegitimate son. Inevitably, jealously and paranoia soon begin to rear their ugly heads.

For the most part, we much enjoyed this slow-burning tale of love and obsession. Brooding and atmospheric, it takes unexpected twists and turns into an increasingly nightmarish scenario. Our only caveat was the overly melodramatic ending, which frankly was a little silly. But with two ever-watchable leads you can’t really go wrong. And did we mention Bradley shares undeniable chemistry with J-Law?  We’re just SAYIN’…

UK release 24 October

Maps To The Stars. Burn, Hollywood, Burn.

20140415153532!Maps_to_the_Stars_posterAs a subject, Hollywood loves nothing better than Hollywood, but most often in self-reverential terms. With the ridiculousness of La La Land ripe for satire, we can only assume Hollywood doesn’t go down that route too often as all those needy, neurotic actors find playing needy, neurotic actors a bit too close to the bone.  So for David Cronenberg’s satirical Maps To The Stars he did the only sensible thing – call the fearless Julianne Moore.

A warts-and-all dissection of celebrity, Maps To The Stars focuses on seemingly casually interlinked characters. Julianne plays the wonderfully named Havana Segrand, a needy, neurotic actor on the wrong side of the age hill. Havana chain smokes, has massage/therapy sessions with guru Dr. Stafford Weiss (John Cusack) to work through her mother-issues and chases an ever-decreasing pool of parts. In need of a personal assistant to do all the tricky stuff she can’t manage – move pot plants, buy Tampax – she employs Agatha (Mia Wasikowska).

New in town and sporting long black leather gloves to hide scars from a house fire, Agatha is an unnerving presence. Befriending bored limo driver Jerome Fontana (Robert Pattinson), who is at pains to point out he is actually an actor and writer and thinking of converting to Scientology as a career move, she is cagey about her backstory.  And with good reason.

Our final main player is Benji Weiss (Evan Bird), teenage star of a hugely successful sitcom and son of guru Dr Stafford Weiss. fresh out of rehab, Benji is spoilt, brattish and odious to everyone who has the misfortune to meet him.

Inevitably, as more about them is revealed, our cast of miscreants become increasingly intertwined and brought down by their own flaws. Mercilessly skewering the self-obsession, narcissism and selfishness of a town where one person’s personal tragedy becomes another’s career opportunity, it is satirical often to the point of viciousness. And needless to say, Julianne Moore is on predictably magnificent form. Cracking stuff. As long as you’re not an ac-tor…

UK release 26 September

The Imitation Game. Stranger Than Fiction.

imitationThe Sloth wonders at what point the law was passed decreeing that B. Cumberbatch Esq and Ms. K Knightley should have first dibs on all eccentric loner and pouting vintage damsel roles respectively. For in The Imitation Game both are safely in their respective elements.

What do you think of when you hear ‘breaking the Enigma code’? We’re betting ‘Bletchley Park’ and ‘winning WW2’ spring immediately to mind, not ‘Alan Turing’ the mathematical genius who masterminded it. With the allied forces losing WW2 their only hope of victory was to break the supposedly unbreakable Enigma code that the German army used to send operational orders to its troops. Alan (Benedict Cumberbatch) was a Cambridge don recruited by MI6 as part of a team tasked with cracking the code.

Unfortunately, someone forgot to tell Alan there is no ‘i’ in ‘team’. His prickly, borderline autistic personality, fearsome intelligence and devastation at his only school friend dying at a young age isolated him from forming relationships. Fortunately fellow code cracker Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley) had the patience to see through his arrogant façade and help him relate to the others. Which was just as well as Alan’s code cracking vision was of essentially the first ever computer, a mechanical monster that systematically chewed through work at a rate no human could.

Part history lesson, part biographical study, this is a fascinating insight into a remarkable event that had unimaginably far reaching consequences – in both human lives and technological progression.  We’d have liked a little more bare facts as to how Turing’s machine actually worked, but that’s a quibble and doubtless we wouldn’t have understood it anyway. Turing’s story, a man victim of gross prejudice despite his achievements, is often heart-breaking and Cumberbatch, as we have come to expect, does him full justice. Oh, and look out for the dashingly suave Mark Strong in a scene stealing role as a super-spook MI6 commander par excellence. Marvellous stuff.

UK release 14 November

’71. Soldiering On.

71-efm-1sheet-lr-1If Idris Elba is the current bookies favourite to be the next Bond, The Sloth is hedging a long range bet on Jack O’Connell being Idris’ successor.  Already a master of Bond’s essential moody, thousand yard stare and no stranger to cinematic violence, squint a bit and he could be Daniel Craig’s little brother.

In ’71 Jack plays young British squaddie Gary Hook.  A newbie recruit, still green around the edges, Gary finds himself dispatched to the Northern Ireland of the early 1970’s – not a good place to be for a British soldier. His regiment are charged with keeping a very fragile peace in an anti-British Belfast, at a time when IRA militant violence was at its peak. Commanded by a naively inexperienced officer who believes a cheerful smile will get the locals on-side, his regiment are sent to patrol the unpredictable streets with minimal defensive kit.

Within minutes, things take a turn for the worse.  A mob of aggressive locals surround the young soldiers, taunting and baying for blood. Tension and panic mounts and the soldiers find themselves under attack, pelted by missiles and molotov cocktails. In the confusion, they beat a chaotic retreat, leaving Gary behind to the fate of the vengeful mob. Fortunately, an older woman takes pity, saving him from the worst of their violence and he makes a run for his life. But what are his chances of survival in such violently combative streets?

We rated Jack O’Connell’s ultra-disturbing turn in Starred Up and he continues to impress here, a master of maximum conveyance with minimal dialogue. Gripping and shot with frightening intensity and immediacy, it captures the terror and animalism of the gang mentality – whether in Northern Ireland or any other political hotspot.  Just don’t get so traumatised that you forget to stop by Paddy Power for a quick flutter on the way home

UK release 10 October. More in the same vein? Try Starred Up.

Soul Boys Of The Western World. Communication Let Them Down.

spandaKids, let The Sloth sit you on our knee and tell you a bedtime story. Once upon a time Steve from Eastenders was a popstar who sang songs about Olympic medals while wearing a tea towel on his head. Don’t believe us? Check out Soul Boys Of The Western World.

Comprised partly of historical footage and partly of current day interviews, it traces what has now become a depressingly familiar pop career trajectory. Spandau Ballet were formed endearingly from a group of school chums who hung out at the now legendary Blitz Club (did ANYONE from an 80’s pop band NOT hang out there?), taking cues from the cool club kids and dressing like pirates. Suitably swathed in enough tartan to fuel the entire Scottish tourist industry, their big break came with the impossibly catchy To Cut A Long Story Short and chart domination soon followed.

Inevitably, as the royalties came flooding in primarily to songwriter Gary Kemp, tensions surfaced and Spandau eventually imploded in a messy and very public court battle. The brothers Kemp went off to be actors and the rest got jobs down Lidl or something. One thing clear from the present day interviews is very little love was lost.

Much has been made of the 80’s revival. Hoary old one-hit-wonder popstrals are dusting down their shoulder pads and troweling on the eyeliner for the delectation of middle class festivals across the country (OK we’re being sniffy but we’d secretly quite like to see The Durannies belting out Hungry Like the Wolf one last time). Spandau Ballet, who for so long held out, have finally also succumbed and are taking the stage once more to coincide with this film’s release.  Money hungry publicity stunt or genuine attempt to reconcile?  Soul Boys Of The Western World, by going more for nostalgia than the jugular, would suggest perhaps a bit of both. And it’s certainly fun gawping at the 80’s fashion excess while you ponder.

UK release 30 September

What We Did On Our Holiday

holidayWho doesn’t love Billy Connolly? The loose Glaswegian comedy cannon who proved himself a serious ac-toor with a glowering turn in Mrs Brown, simultaneously becoming bezzie mates with Dame Judi, is now a bona fide National Treasure. So we were very much looking forward to seeing him take an increasingly rare screen role in What We Did On Our Holiday.

Doug (David Tenanant) and Abi McLeod (the currently ubiquitous Rosamond Pike – how does that girl fit it all in?) are having marital problems. But, faced with a gathering of the family clan to celebrate Doug’s father Gordy’s (Billy Connolly) 75th birthday, like all good imminent divorcees they decide to hide their situation from the rest of the family. So packing their three children into the car they begin a long, squabbling and bickering journey North.

Not that things calm down on reaching their destination. With Doug’s insuffereable brother Gavin (Ben Miller) and downtrodden wife Margaret (Amelia Bullmore) supervising the party planning, chaos reigns supreme. Oblivious to the chaos is Gordy who, seriously ill, has clear ideas of his priorities in life. Gathering up his grandchildren he sneaks them off to escape the fracas for a day at the seaside. But things don’t turn out exactly as anticipated.

We won’t reveal a simultaeously macabre and joyful twist in this tale. Suffice to say it caught us unawares and elevated what at first seemed to just be a run of the mill mainstream comedy. From the creators of the TV show Outnumbered, it has the same semi-improvised feel, with the child actors ad-libs apparently leading the dialogue. And boy do the kids earn their pocket money.  But for us the most moving element was Billy Connolly’s portrayal of the terminally ill Gordy. Having been diagnosed with cancer in real life, it’s a poginiant instance of art imitating life. Let’s hope he beats it and we get a good few more vintage performances out of The Big Yin.

UK release 26 September

Grand Piano. Musical Mayhem.

grandDid you know that Elijah Wood, as well as possessing a pair of Gremlin goggle-eyes, also possesses a virtuoso piano playing talent? No? Nor did The Sloth. Prepare to be properly impressed as he tinkles all of his own ivories in bonkers thriller Grand Piano.

Tom (Elijah Wood) is a retired concert pianist. Retired not because he is old and decrepit, but because years ago he suffered a seisimic attack of stage fright that ended his acclaimed career. Now, with encouragement from his glamorous movie-star wife Emma (Kerry Bishé), he is making a comeback, attempting to play a fiendishly difficult concerto to a packed and expectant audience.

So far so nerve-jangling (for Tom, not the audience – that would make a rum thriller). But, as if he wasn’t uptight enough, Tom then discovers a cryptic note scrawled on his music score proclaiming ‘play one wrong note and you die’.  Whatever happened to ‘break a leg?’ And who could be responsible for such a dastardly deed? A disgruntled critic? The mild mannered janitor? With the curtain about to rise Tom, practically comatose with fear, has no time to ponder but takes to the stage to literally play for his life.

This sounds daft and yes, it is properly daft. A schlocky B-movie / Hitchcockian thriller mash up with a side order of Speed. But primarily thanks to Elijah Wood’s sheer boggle-eyed commitment to the role, plus a deranged turn from John Cusack as a fiendish rent-a-villain, on a delightfully camp and OTT level it somehow works. Although if you’re expecting a second helping of The Pianist, despite Elijah’s spectacular playing, we recommend you look elsewhere.

UK release 19 September.

A Most Wanted Man. A Most Missed Man.

a-most-wanted-man-673x449It’s impossible to approach A Most Wanted Man without the untimely death of Philip Seymour Hoffman at the forefront of your mind. One of his last films, it’s a reminder of how he was one of those actors that are a reliable movie litmus test – if they’re in it, it’s generally going to be good. A Most Wanted Man is no exception.

Set in Hamburg post-9-11, Philip plays German security agent Günter Bachmann. Heading up a select team charged with monitoring the ongoing terrorist threat, Günter’s attention is caught by the arrival in Hamburg of shady half-Chechen, half-Russian illegal immigrant, Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin). Taking refuge within the city’s Islamic community, Issa sets about trying to lay claim to the ill-gotten fortune of his dead father and is quickly labled a potential jihadist. For what else would he want the money for than to fund terrorism?

But Issa isn’t Günter’s only problem. German intelligence having spectacularly under-performed in the past (the small matter of not spotting 9-11 being planned in Hamburg, right under their noses), his every move is under close scrutiny from both his superiors and US intelligence officer Martha Sullivan (Robin Wright). Add in the irritation of well-meaning human rights lawyer Annabel Richter (Rachel McAdams) who has taken it upon herself to protect Issa from the suspicious masses and Günter has had easier cases.

Based on the novel by John le Carré, A Most Wanted Man is a proper, old school spy thriller. No Jason Bourne action-types here, this is a world of shady doorways, gloomy grey skies, double crossings and more twists than a Curly Wurly. Full of memorable performances, most notably from Philip Seymour Hoffman whose Günter chainsmokes and drinks his shabby, baggy self through the day, threatening, cajoling and lying as he sees fit.  If he did have to go out early, at least he went with a bang.

UK release 12 September

Before I Go To Sleep

before-i-go-to-sleep-poster-debuts-online-165153-a-1404314515-470-75We are a somewhat squeamish Sloth.  So when Before I Go To Sleep opened with an extreme close up of Nicole Kidman’s graphically bloodshot eye, we nearly had to reach for the smelling salts.  

Christine (Nicole Kidman) has lost her memory. Each morning she wakes up in bed next to an apparent stranger who turns out to be her husband, Ben (Colin Firth).  Ben patiently explains to her, as he has done each morning for numerous years, that she is suffering amnesia after an accident. Each day Christine will learn anew about the life she leads until she goes to sleep, at which point her memory is wiped once again.

But in the past two weeks Christine, unknown to Ben, has secretly started treatment with neurologist Dr Nash (Mark Strong).  Keeping a daily video diary at his instruction to aid her memory, she begins to experience flashbacks from her earlier life. Flashbacks that lead her to question whether Ben is being entirely truthful to her.

Before I Go To Sleep is based on the mega-hit, best seling novel. Which naturally raises the question – is it better than the book? Well, no. But how many films are?  Much as The Sloth loves the moo-vies, the nuance and detail of 500-odd written pages are seldom improved by reducing to 90 minutes of screen time. So let’s judge it on its own merits. It might not reach the Hitchcockian-esq heights it clearly aspires to – all claustrophobia and menacing score – but it kept us cheerfully hooked for all of those 90 minutes. Boasting a subversively sinister turn from Colin Firth, and equally confounding Mr Nice Guy turn from rent-a-villan Mark Strong, if you need a servicable little runaround of a thriller, it’s perfectly reliable.

UK release 5 September