Youth. Age Before Beauty.

Youth-Cover-Poster-672x372Gotta love the Italians, for they do bucket-of-frogs bonkers so well.  Cool, cerebral Scandi noir has no place in Italy’s cinemas, they like their characters mad and their storylines madder.  Youth, from Oscar winning Italian director Paolo Sorrentino, being a perfect case in point.

 

Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine) and Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel) are old pals holidaying together in the Swiss alps.  But not just any old pals. Fred, now retired, is a celebrated conductor and composer, Mick is an acclaimed film director working on his latest screenplay. They are also both exceptionally grumpy, especially Fred. So when an obsequious emissary from The Queen shows up with a request from Lizzie herself that Fred conduct his most celebrated work,‘Simple Song’, at a concert for Prince Philip’s birthday, Fred cantankerously refuses.

 

After the emissary returns home, Mick and Fred ruminate on his request and the state of their lives, while we meet other characters staying in the hotel – a grossly overweight Diego Maradona (Roly Serrano); a young, flashy Hollywood actor Jimmy Tree (Paul Dano) desperate to be taken seriously and Miss Universe (Madalina Ghenea), whose spectacular (and very naked) beauty is quite something to behold. We also meet Fred’s daughter Lena (Rachel Weisz) suffering a marital crisis as her husband has run off with Paloma Faith, yes, the Paloma Faith, who appears both in person and in a marvellously trashy pop video.

 

Bonkers enough for you? Less concerned with narrative story than with meditating on age, beauty and wisdom, Youth might sound something of a psychedelic mess on paper but it really works. Mad enough to be amusing entertainment, yet smart enough to make astute observations about its characters, its success is undoubtedly down to the terrific central performance of Michael Caine, whose grumpy exterior slowly melts to reveal a sensitive soul inside. Add in a sterling supporting cast, special mention going to a magnificent cameo from Jane Fonda as a mega-diva par excellence, and you have all the hot headed Italian bonkers-ness you could wish for.  Maybe just detox with an episode of The Killing afterwards.

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The Big Short. Money For Almost Nothing.

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Posters for The Big Short proclaim BALE, CARRELL, GOSLING, PITT in shouty, fist-pumping, hyperbolic capitals. Which makes us wonder what the atmosphere was like on set. We’re imagining the boys locker room to end all boys locker rooms.  BALE and GOSLING engaged in a pec-flexing battle of alpha males, silverback PITT sagely observing the young bucks jostling for his crown, whilst nerdy CARELL (does he really deserve the upper case?) has the sense to know his place and sits quietly picking at a scab on his knee. Yes, we came to The Big Short fearing a chest bumping testosterone overload. Were we right?

 

A ‘big short’ is a term for betting against the financial markets, specifically in this case the US housing market, for The Big Short examines how the recent US mortgage crisis and ensuing global economic crisis came to happen. For the purposes of illustration we follow Michael Burry (Christian Bale) an eccentric financial genius and hedge fund manager who spots that the US housing market is sitting on a bubble about to pop. Dismissed by most as a nutjob (mostly due to slobbing around his office in dirty t-shirts and bare feet) his predictions nonetheless attract the attention of several colleagues and fellow financiers who decide to bet against the housing market to make money and beat the banks at their own game.

 

This is not an easy subject. Terms like ‘credit default’ and ‘collateralized  debt’ normally only appear in the business sections everyone skips to get to the footy results. But that’s OK because we’re given lighthearted cameos of celebs appearing as themselves to explain the tricky bits. Although after Margot Robbie in a bathtub explained ‘sub-prime loans’ The Sloth was still confused, but we struggle with long division so that probably says more about us.

 

Filled with deliciously larger than life characters, many are indeed ludicrously macho but director Adam McKay was also responsible for the Anchorman films and his talent for satirical comedy definitely finds a place here, skewering the Wall Street egos. Most importantly, the whole thing rattles along at a riotous pace that is both marvelously entertaining and a distraction from the nagging feeling that you don’t quite understand what is going on. Which arguably is entirely the point.

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The Hateful Eight

Hateful-Eight-posterDemonic peddler of violence and profanity or visionary saviour of modern cinema, Quentin Tarantino is nothing if not a divisive figure. Your enjoyment of his latest, The Hateful Eight, will probably be tied to whichever side your personal opinion rests. So if you’re a delicate flower of Jane Austen sensibilities, we suggest you either dig out the smelling salts or look away now.

 

Being arguably the biggest movie geek this side of a grindhouse double bill, Mr Tarantino does nothing by halves. Except here he does, for the all singing, all dancing ‘roadshow’ version of The Hateful Eight is quite literally a film of two halves, split by a 15 minute ‘Interval’ and preceded by an ‘Intermission’. Which is just as well, seeing it runs to a bum-numbing 182 minutes and a Sloth’s bladder is only so big. An homage to the classic western, he also shot it on 77mm film, presumably because that is obtuse and difficult.  Geekiness aside, is it any good?

 

Set just after the American Civil War, we meet three of our eight during a blizzard in Wyoming. Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L Jackson) is a bounty hunter adrift in the snow, who catches a ride on a stagecoach occupied by fellow bounty hunter John Ruth (Kurt Russell) who is transporting his captured bounty Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) cross country to claim his reward. En route they pick up several more waifs and strays before sheltering from the storm at a mountain inn which already holds several other dubious characters including Sheriff Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins) and  Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth) to make our eight. The next few hours are spent sizing each other up as it becomes clear they may all have vested interests in the fate of Daisy Domergue.

 

The first half is a slow burn. Talky, hypnotic and highly theatrical, our characters bandy the n-word around with typical controversial Tarantino abandon, pushing each other’s buttons over the recent civil war. The second half sees tensions boil over and the inevitable bloodbath ensue. And that, essentially, is it. A chamber piece stretched over 182 minutes. Is it indulgent? Sure. Is it offensive? Doubtless. Is it interesting? Absolutely. Tarantino is famously allowed huge amounts of creative freedom by his producers, which is rare due to movies being subject to commercial pressures so, most of all, it’s fascinating to see what comes out when these constraints are lifted. Would we be calling this indulgent if it were performed on a theatre stage, rather than a cinema? Perhaps not.

 

UK release 8 January

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Our Top 10 Movies of 2015

It’s that time again.  Lolling bloated on the sofa in a fuzzy state of Christmas perma-drunk, we descend into paranoia and self loathing, realising another year has passed and we’ve still not repainted the downstairs loo. But that’s OK, for instead you spent your spare time expanding your mind with the excellent movie selections 2015 had to offer. You DIDN’T just take your mum to see Spectre and promise you’d catch the rest on DVD now, DID YOU???  So let’s stir ourselves out of our stupor with a look back at this year’s finest. Here are The Sloth’s favourites. What were yours?

 

Kingsman_The_Secret_Service_poster10) Kingsman: The Secret Service       99% of the world went to see the aforementioned Spectre. They should have seen Kingsman instead. Colin Firth as a kick-ass, action hero super-spy? Taron Egerton as his chippy, teenage sidekick? Yes please. A smart, sassy tonne of fun from start to finish, this is a sharp reminder movies are primarily meant to ENTERTAIN.

 

 

 

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9) White God          It’s 1) crazily disturbing and 2) features a cast of over one hundred doggies, so White God could not be more up The Sloth’s street. Not one for the fainthearted, it won its canine stars Canne’s hugely coveted Palm Dog, proving you absolutely should work with children and animals.

 

 

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8) Carol    So polished and dreamily beautiful it barely seems real, Carol has the critics falling over themselves to declare it a ‘masterpiece’. With fabulous performances from Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara, it also nails The Bechdel Test. Good work, ladies.

 

 

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7) Amy    The most successful documentary of all time at the UK box office, Amy is a fitting tribute to its tragic subject that neither idolises nor condones her. With painfully intimate footage of some of her darker days, it’s as much a warning against the pressures of fame and the media.

 

 

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6) Ex Machina      ‘Sci-Fi’ runs a close second to ‘Movies Featuring Dogs’ on The Sloth’s all-time cinematic wishlist. Ex Machina is a cracking example of the genre. Smart, thought provoking and full of dystopian dread, it deservedly cleaned up at the British Independent Film Awards.

 

 

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5) Love & Mercy    An innovative biopic of Beach Boy Brian Wilson, Love & Mercy saw Paul Dano give a remarkable performance, singing all of Wilson’s songs himself. A must for music lovers, it’ll have you listening to Pet Sounds with entirely new reverence.

 

 

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4) While We’re Young         Far and away the best comedy of the year, While We’re Young skewers the ignominious descent into middle age in a way is both laugh out loud hilarious and painfully close to the bone. An instant classic.

 

 

 

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3) X + Y               A comedy about autism might not sound the best idea. X+Y totally pulls it off. A small British gem of a film, it hits the perfect balance of humour and emotion while maintaining the utmost respect for its subject. If you haven’t come across it, seek it out.

 

 

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2) 45 Years          Currently hoovering up every acting award going, 45 Years is one of the most heartbreaking films you are ever likely to see. A devastating portrait of a marriage in crisis, stars Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay are a reminder that cinema is nothing without the talent of its performers.

 

 

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1) 99 Homes         Who’s up for a movie about the US mortgage crisis? Stop rolling your eyes at the back.  Part thriller, part Shakespearean drama, trust us when we say 99 Homes is an absolute cracker.  A hugely intelligent, gripping tale of human greed and corruption, with stellar performances and an almost literary script, it grabbed us from the word go.

 

Put down the paintbrush, the downstairs loo can wait. Get back on that sofa and grab a DVD, you’ve screening work to do.

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The Danish Girl. Pretty As A Picture.

the-danish-girl-posterHaving won the 2015 Best Actor Oscar for his brilliant portrayal of Stephen Hawkins, Eddie Redmayne could have been forgiven for taking a few months off to rest on his not inconsiderable laurels. Certainly that’s what The Sloth would have done.  And our laurels would have resided on a beach in the Caribbean, right next to a hammock, Piña Colada and copies of our hastily cobbled together autobiography to sign and fleece to the adoring masses. Kerching.

 

Eddie, bless, is clearly of more earnest mind for he was soon taking on another hugely challenging role, that of Einar Wegener in The Danish Girl. A successful artist living in Copenhagen in the 1920’s, Einar was shy, awkward and uncomfortable in his own skin. On marrying fellow artist, the beautiful and self confident Gerda Wegener (Alicia Vikander), Einar found himself sitting for her in lieu of a female model she was painting. Fascinated by the stockings, shoes and dress of the absent model, Einar tried them on, creating his own female alter ego, quickly christened Lili.

 

The ethereal ‘Lili’ stimulated a creative frenzy from Gerda, who painted multiple portraits of her which were exhibited to great acclaim to a world oblivious to the fact Lili was a man. And as the world rejoiced in Lili so did Einar, who realised he was far happier as Lili than as himself. So began a traumatic period of medical assessment until he found a pioneering doctor who agreed to attempt previously untested gender realignment surgery.

 

The Danish Girl is visually stunning. As much about art, beauty and perception as it is about transgender issues, each scene is carefully composed in the same muted colours as the paintings Einar and Gerda produce. Will Eddie add another gong to the mantelpiece? We think not, actually. Yes, he’s a very pretty woman with cheekbones to die for, but there’s too much reliance on fey glances and wafty hands for it to be a truly great performance. However Alicia Vikander is fabulous, giving a heartbreaking performance as the utterly selfless Gerda, who was prepared to lose the husband she adored if it meant he was happy.  It doesn’t quite reach the dizzy heights it aspires too, but it’s still a moving tale of devotion and love in the most complex of emotional circumstances. Now go take that holiday, Eddie.

UK release 1 Jan 2016

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Carol. A Not-So-Average 1950’s Housewife.

Carol-PosterIt’s official, The Season has started. No, DUH, we’re not talking about Christmas, we’re talking about The Awards Season. Although admittedly both involve sparkle, infighting and boozy parties, the awards season just contains more Botox.  And an early front runner is Carol. Nominated for 5 Golden Globes it won Rooney Mara Best Actress at Cannes but, far more importantly, took home the Golden Frog at the Camerimage festival. Now that’s a gong The Sloth would like on our mantelpiece.

 

Carol (Cate Blanchett) is a rich, bored housewife in 1950’s New York. Icily beautiful, she glides around her expensive home, cigarette artfully poised, in cashmere twinsets, perfect red lipstick and immaculately waved hair. Her days are spent shopping, having lunch and occasional playing with her daughter, the product of her loveless marriage. Wafting through a department store she comes across shop assistant Therese (Rooney Mara). Her Audrey Hepburn-esq looks and naive, innocent air capture Carol’s attention and she invites her to lunch. Which leads to an affair, which leads to a deeper relationship. But this is 1950’s America, where such things are not exactly acceptable, not least because Carol is married with a child, and fractious divorce proceedings ensue.

 

At first glance, this is the kind of cool, poised role Cate Blanchett could do in her sleep. But as the film progresses she gives us an increasingly complex character study that often leaves us unsure of Carol’s motives: is Therese just her latest plaything or is she genuinely in love with her? Much has been made of the film movingly exposing the impossibility of being gay in a less tolerant era, which it does, but that almost over simplifies it. Carol is as much about making choices between following your heart versus your head – should true love be pursued at the expense of destroying family? – and is a stronger, more rounded film for it.

 

Impeccably acted and stunningly shot in dreamy, hypnotic visuals that are eye-bogglingly perfect, Carol will lull you into another world. Beautiful, intelligent AND passes The Bechdel Test with flying colours.  Films like this don’t come along too often.  Don’t miss it.

UK release 27 November

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Black Mass. Johnny Hits New Depp-ths.

Black-Mass-Poster-2Let’s be honest, the words ‘Johnny’ and ‘Depp’ have in the last few years spelt the kiss of death for any movie. Mr Depp’s quirk ‘n’ dreads heyday appeared to have long passed. So when The Sloth heard he was to star in 1970’s gangster epic Black Mass, we didn’t exactly hold our breath.

 

Black Mass follows the real life exploits of Jimmy ‘Whitey’ Bulger (Johnny Depp), a small time Boston crook who expanded his empire to that of a full sized crime Kingpin. Jimmy was born in Southy, a rough area of South Boston (no!) where blood was far thicker than water and alliances forged by kids on the streets held fast through later life.

 

So why should Jimmy be of interest amongst the countless other ne’er do wells history has produced? Well firstly because Jimmy had a successful brother, Billy (Benedict Cumberbatch – clearly the casting director was gunning for matching sibling cheekbones), who broke out of his street kid mould to become the State Senator, no less.  Secondly because Jimmy was recruited as an informant by FBI agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), who saw him as an asset in the FBI’s attempts to bring down the local Mafia, who were rivals to Jimmy’s own gang.

 

You know what you’re getting with ‘70’s crime epics and Black Mass doesn’t disappoint. Grainy visuals – check. 18 foot long cars with spongy suspension – check. Characters called ‘Suitcase’ with faces like pigs bladders stuffed with an assortment of spanners – check. Cuddly old ladies who are delighted to see the local violent nutter back home after a stint in Alcatraz – check.

 

But what about the million dollar question, does Johnny pull it off? We’re delighted and frankly a bit surprised to say, yes he does. Granted, we spent the first 30 minutes gawping at his enormous prosthetic moon-like forehead and receding hairline,  but his usual penchance for tics and quirks are muted, his energy channelled instead into creating a psychopathic character of blood chilling proportions. A scene where Jimmy calmly torments John’s terrified wife Marianne (Julianne Nicholson) had The Sloth squirming in shared fear. Welcome back Johnny. Here’s to a revitalised career in monstrous sociopaths.

UK release 27 November

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Steve Jobs. Poison Apple?

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Michael Fassbender has not yet won an Oscar.  And it isn’t for lack of trying. The lad bared his soul (and backside) as a sex addict in Shame. Starved himself half to death in Hunger. Wore a giant papier-mâché mask for the entire duration of Frank. But so far, nowt.  Not a sausage. Only a Best Supporting Actor nomination for 12 Years A Slave. Clearly he is rattled, for 2016 sees him take on two more BIG, IMPORTANT, GIVE ME A BLOODY AWARD SHARPISH, YOU TIGHT-FISTED GITS roles, first as Macbeth and now as iconic Apple founder, Steve Jobs.

 

As if you didn’t know, geeky mates Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniaks (Seth Rogan) created Apple in their garage (kids, this was before tech start ups involved Shoreditch and cold pressed coffee). We first meet Steve when Apple is already successful and clearly leaving him with time on his hands – for he’s also been busy sleeping around and fathering unwanted children whom he now cruelly refuses to acknowledge.

 

This is the central issue that the film explores – essentially, just how much of a sociopath was Jobs? Structured around three significant product launches at different stages of his career, they form three ‘acts’, checking in with his relationships to the main players in his life: his child; Wozniaks; and his ‘work wife’,  Apple’s Head of Marketing  Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet with impressively eccentric accent).

 

Steve Jobs is breathtaking in its refusal to sugar coat the man. Fassbender, natch, is amazing, bulldozing his way through every scene. A genius Jobs might have been, but the film makes clear that this was at significant cost. Which is an interesting and brave decision as spending two hours in the company of a borderline sociopath is not exactly a barrel of laughs. But as the film ended and the credits rolled, the audience turned on their smartphones and the cinema was filled with glowing white Apple logos. Like him or not, his genius affects us all.

 

UK release 13 November

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The Lady In The Van. Exemplary English Eccentrics.

2BF430BC00000578-0-image-a-238_1441323313262Aww, who doesn’t get all warm and fuzzy on hearing the name ‘Alan Bennett’? Cuddlier than a teddy bear in an Arran jumper, as quintessentially English as a toasted crumpet with marmalade and more wittily self-effacing than Stephen Fry at an apologists’ convention, Mr Bennett defines the term ‘National Treasure’.  So as The Lady In The Van, perhaps the best-loved play from one of our best-loved playwrights hits the big screen, there’s no sense of expectation. None whatsoever.

 

The Lady In The Van is based on real events in Mr Bennett’s life, for which the phrase ‘truth is stranger than fiction’ could well have been coined. In the late 1970’s Alan, starting to enjoy the spoils of moderate success, moved to up-and-coming Camden. He found his neighbours to be a mix of literary and artistic types, who liked to think of themselves as liberal and tolerant. However upon the arrival of a clapped out old camper van, driven erratically by elderly eccentric Miss Shepherd (Maggie Smith) their tolerance was quickly tested.

 

Homeless and living in her van, Miss Shepherd hated children, noise, music (the violin in particular) and basically all humanity. She was challenged on the personal hygiene front and the inside of her van resembled less a portable home and more a portable dustbin. Initially intrigued by their new neighbour, the locals brought food and gifts, only to have them thrown back in their faces. So Mr Bennett found himself doing what only someone partially insane would do, he invited Miss Bennett to park her van on his drive. Which is where she lived for the next fifteen years.

 

It’s impossible to get your head round what an act of humanity that was. Particularly as we see Alan (played by Alex Jennings) stepping in Miss Shepherd’s, erm, ‘human waste’ as he negotiates the steps to his own front door. But in typically analytical Bennett style, this is not seen as an act of humanity. Rather, Alan endlessly questions his own motives. Is it guilt from putting his mother in a home? An attempt to mine her for artistic inspiration? All considered with the wry, acerbic and self deprecating wit synonymous with him.  Add in a typically marvelous performance from Maggie Smith, reprising her role from the stage play, and you have two hours in the company of some of the finest talents the UK has produced. Yes, you know what you’re getting, but that doesn’t stop this being a delight.

UK release 13 November

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The Fear Of Thirteen. Staring Death In The Face.

Nick YarrisAge 21, Nicholas Yarris was sentenced to death for the rape and murder of a woman. He spent the next 20 years on death row, where he continually protested his innocence. The Fear Of Thirteen explores the story behind his extraordinary situation.

 

Director David Sington takes the perhaps unusual step of allowing Nick to tell his own story entirely in his own words. The majority of the 90 minute documentary is simply Nick talking to a point off camera, recounting his life from an early age.  At the start of the film The Sloth found ourselves confused and then disappointed, for this surely was an actor interpreting Nick’s words, not Nick himself, such was the elaboration and emotional range that he puts in, embellishing his sentences with gestures, sounds, the illustration of how someone said this or did that, adding unexpected bursts of humour to the blackest situations. But no, this is indeed Nick. For this film is as much about the concept of storytelling and the redemptive power of words as it is about questions of guilt or innocence.

 

Inevitable comparisons to a one-man play are there to be drawn. Not only from the theatrical nature of Nick’s ‘performance’ but from the dramatic narrative arc of his life. An errant youth spent joyriding and indulging in petty crime escalated into drug addiction and finally the accusation of murder, an accusation that stemmed ironically from lies of Nick’s own devising. Confinement on death row led to self reflection and the discovery of reading, whereupon Nick went from barely literate to devouring 1,000 books in just a few years, learning as much about himself as the world of literature.

 

This is an utterly compelling documentary. Nick is a charismatic and hypnotic protagonist, bringing alive the secretive world behind bars and drawing you in. Simultaneously, The Sloth found ourselves wondering how much of his seductive delivery was a fiction, a testament to the power of his mastery of words, but we were lucky enough to attend a screening that concluded with a Q&A from the director and producer who assured us his story was carefully vetted and was all entirely true. Ultimately, this is a story of redemption and a testament to self-belief against formidable odds. Gripping, life-affirming and, like all the best stories, highly entertaining.

 

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