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

Million Dollar Arm. Tugs At The Hamm-Strings.

MillionDollarArm-PosterDon’t switch off after you read the next sentence, OK? Million Dollar Arm is a movie about baseball. NO, STEP AWAY FROM THE BACK BUTTON! It’s good! And you needn’t be American to watch it. Honest! Now keep reading.

Based on a true story, it follows the fortune of sports agent JB Bernstein (Jon Hamm). Down on his luck and devoid of decent clients, his business is about to go belly up unless he comes up with A Bright Idea, fast. Fortunately he does, from the unlikely combined inspirations of Susan Boyle and Indian cricketers. JB surmises that if cricketers can bowl a cricket ball fast, they can pitch a baseball fast. And that no-one in India watches baseball. Therefore find an Indian cricketer, turn him into a baseball pitcher and x million Indians will start watching baseball. Think of the marketing opportunities!

JB sets about creating ‘Million Dollar Arm’, an X Factor-style competition to find young Indian cricketers with raw pitching potential. Roping in retired, curmudgeonly talent spotter Ray (Alan Arkin), he packs up and heads for Mumbai where, after auditioning seemingly every cricketing juvenile in the land, they pick their naive, impressionable winners and ship them back to the good ol’ US of A for intensive coaching.

This is, if you’ll excuse the old sporting adage, a game of two halves. Part one sees the capitalist, uptight American dealing with the colourful, emotional chaos of India. Part two sees the innocent and unworldly young Indian cricketers dealing with the urban, impersonal culture of the US. But will the two, fish-out-of-water sides come together and learn from each other? There’s the Million Dollar question.

On paper this is clichéd and pulls every emotional string in the book. It even throws in a handy love interest sub-plot for JB. But we enjoyed it. Yes, it shamelessly plunders the Slumdog Millionaire feelgood factor, but the scenes in India have charm and humour. Most importantly, the cast are clearly having such a good time you can’t help but share it. Don’t analyse, just sit back and let it wash over you.

UK release 29 August.

What If. Friends Without Benefits.

What-If-posterWe hate rom coms. They make us want to stick forks in our eyes and run screaming for the nearest Terminator box set. But, because we are dutiful and honorable Sloth, we put personal suffering to one side and committed ourselves to What If.

90 minutes later we still had our sight. So by normal reckoning it was therefore fabulous and you should go see it pronto.  What?  You want more?  Grrr.

Wallace (Daniel Racfliffe, sadly without a canine sidekick called Gromit), is a bit of a geek. Shambling around at a party he strikes up a conversation with the also geeky Chantry (Zoe Kazan). Hitting it off, Wallace walks her home, clearly anticipating a bit of tonsil tennis. Sadly, Chantry chooses that moment to casually reveal she has a boyfriend, the flirtarious harpy. Crestfallen, Wallace tears up the ‘let’s be friends’ phone number she gave him and sulks.

Not for long. Bumping into each other at a movie theatre, they hit it off once again. And this time, stay in touch. For while Chantry’s boyfriend Ben (Rafe Spall, with Canadian accent) is still on the scene, Wallace figures he may as well lust from afar. So begins a beautiful friendship, marred only  by Ben’s suspicion of Wallace’s motives, plus the continual ribbing and derision Wallace’s friend Allan (Adam Driver) pours upon him. But can a man and woman every stay just friends?

Yes, we’ve seen this scenario before and no-doubt we’ll see it again. But, putting our cynicism aside, as rom coms go this is definitely one of the better ones. It’s sweet without being too cutesy and features just enough crudity and low budget indie sensibility to steer well away from Kate Hudson territory.  And we did quite like Daniel as a leading man – all nervous and short and awkward. He’s definitely no chested-waxed hearthrob and that makes a refreshing change.

Now we’re off to watch Arnie blow things up.

UK release 20 August

Lucy. 100% Bonkers.

LUVYThe Sloth loves a kick-ass female lead. The Bride from Kill Bill, Ripley in Alien, you get the drift. So Lucy, a sci-fi-esq tale of a female assassin from the director of Leon (one of the best films EVER), sounded right up our street.

Lucy (Scarlett Johansson) is having a bad day, forced to deliver a briefcase with unknown but presumably dodgy contents to notorious criminal Mr Jang (Min-sik Choi).  Mr Jang, who surrounds himself with gun wielding mobsters and splices and dices anyone he doesn’t like, is a drug smuggler who transports his wares inside the stomachs of human mules, of whom Lucy is to be the next.

However, a technical hitch occurs in transit. One of Lucy’s intestinal packages bursts open, flooding her system with Jang’s drug, a wonder-product that allows humans to utilise all 100% of their brain capacity. Cue a cut to The Science Bit: Professor Norman (Morgan Freeman) lecturing college students on the heights man could potentially reach if we employed more than the pathetic 20% or so that we actually use. Design self-slicing kebabs, that kind of thing.

Literally pumped full of drugs, Lucy develops an increasing array of astounding human super-powers as her brain capacity steadily rises. Unfortunately, this coincides with a mirrored decline in her empathy and emotional skills. No matter. Wired and intent on revenge against Jang, Super-Lucy still takes time to rope in Professor Norman to study and record her ground-breaking cerebral experience for the Greater Human Good.

Don’t try to make any sense of this. Switching rapidly between high octane action thriller and bonkers pseudo-intellectual scientific theorising, we suspect The Science Bit would hold less water than Rab C Nesbitt’s string vest. But that doesn’t matter. Like spending an afternoon with a toddler high on tartrazine, it’s wildly energetic, hugely entertaining and pays zero attention to conventional logic. Plus which, Scarlett makes a cracking super-human heroine. Enjoy. Then have a lie down.

UK release 22 August

Deux Jours, Une Nuit. Power To The People.

deuxIs there a finer actress working today than Marion Cotillard? Most probably not. Because in the hands of anyone else, Deux Jours, Une Nuit could be mind-numbingly dull. Thanks to her, it’s captivating.

This is a French film. A really French film. For what, apart from a strike or a ripe brie, could be more French than a social realist drama concerning the rights of the workers? Our heroine Sandra (Marion Cotillard), is a factory worker who has been on extended sick leave with depression and is now ready to return to work. However, her colleagues have maintained productivity levels without her. So why should her company pay one more salary than is needed?

Sandra’s colleagues were therefore issued with a vote: i) choose to allow Sandra to return to work OR ii) choose to receive their annual EUR1,000 bonus. Unsurprisingly, colleagues voted to sack Sandra and receive their bonus. But, on discovering misinformation was spread to influence voting, permission is granted for a re-vote, giving Sandra one critical weekend to try and persuade colleagues to choose her, not their bonus. Desperate, ashamed and exhausted, she visits each in turn, listening helplessly to responses across the moral spectrum, from feeble excuses about needing the money for home improvements, to undicided ambiguity, to emphatic support.

We’re no employment lawyer, but surely none of this is legal? Anyway, let’s not obstruct a good moral dilemma. For what could be a dry, heavy handed tract about money being the root of all evil, in Cotillard’s hands becomes gripping, emotional and very human. The film asks a simple question – what is more important, the individual or the greater good? And as Sandra asks this of each colleage it asks the same question of us. Would we spurn our own gain to help another? Vive Le Socialisme! Vive La Cotillard!

UK release 22 August

Into The Storm. A Supersized McFlurry.

movies-into-the-storm-posterNormally we are a cerebral Sloth. But even the most intellectual of mammals need, on occasion, to let their metaphorical hair down and indulge in some movie junkfood.  Into The Storm didn’t just let our hair down, it whipped it thrice round our neck and near-on choked us with a supersized, stuffed-crust, McWhopper.

Pete (Matt Walsh) is a stormhunter and documentary filmmaker. He drives around in a tank, as you do, searching out tornadoes. Pete is assisted by hapless weathergirl Allison (Sarah Wayne Callies) who, after months of not even predicting a storm in a teacup, finally reckons she has found a big one. So grumpy Pete and his young cameramen sidekicks dutifully head out towards the melee.

But this isn’t just a big one.  This is THE Big One. A Biblical storm of the most epic proportions, it’s threatening to take out an entire town in one fell swoop. But obviously just taking out a mere town wouldn’t be enough. We need a bigger stakes than that. Luckily, it’s also graduation day at the local high school and every bright eyed, bushy tailed, A-Grade student with a glowing future is a sitting duck in its destructive path…

Let’s get one thing straight.  This is ridiculous. Utter trash. Complete hokum. Seriously, leave all credibility at the door and forget any concerns of character or script. The screening The Sloth attended preceeded with a dramatic and reverent homage to the technical sonic wonder of Dolby Atmos. This is why you are here, for special effects so tremendously, disconcertingly realistic we were scrabbling for our brolly.  Add to this the results of When Techies Go Rogue, creating CGI people getting sucked into burning tornadoes, and you have the ultimate popcorn cheese-fest. Enjoy the sugar rush. Then detox with a triple helping of Bergman.

UK release 20 August. Want more action satisfaction? Try Non-Stop

God Help The Girl. Cynics Need Not Apply.

GOD-HELP-THE-GIRL-01We’re just going to come right out and say it – we absolutely loved God Help The Girl.  Written by Stuart Murdoch of Everything But The Girl, it features music from the band’s repertoire performed by the actors. And yes, this does mean they are prone to bursting into song in the middle of the street. The Sloth sees half of you are already reaching for your coats and normally we would entirely share your reaction, but wait just one second and hear us out.

Eve (Emily Browning) is a reluctant hospital ward. Anorexic and troubled, she uses music as an escape. Quite literally. Making a break for it one night she heads for a gig in the centre of Glasgow where she meets musician James (Olly Alexander). Angry and alone after a bust up with the rest of his band, James finds solace in Eve and, when she admits she has nowhere to go, invites her to stay in his flat.

Bonding over a shared love of music, Eve reveals some of the songs she has written to James who, already smitten, now falls head over heels. Deciding to form their own band they recruit the ever-cheerful Cass (Hannah Murray) as a third member and our trio set about rehearsing, arguing, canoeing round Glasgow’s canals and playing the odd gig, because that’s what bands do.

What makes this so touching is the relationship between James and Eve. His ever-hopeful, unrequited adoration of her is so painful and true to life it brings back all those memories of schoolyard crushes you’d hoped to have buried forever. Yes it’s whimsical and yes it’s a touch cloying and yes the camera gawps a little too reverently at Emily Browning’s undoubted beauty, but it has so much charm and heart that you’d be churlish not to thrown caution to the wind and soak it all up. Then come out singing.

UK release 22 August. Want more music? Try Begin Again.

The Rover. Fear And Loathing In The Outback.

the-rover-posterSuccess and youth must be a tough combo.  Your life goes one of two ways – straight to rehab á la Lohan, or straight to the dole queue accompanied by ‘What Are They Doing Now?’ TV rundowns. But, founded by the naked gay sex efforts of Daniel Radcliffe in Kill Your Darlings, it seems there is now a Third Way, as followed by latest disciple R-Patz in The Rover.

It’s the Australian outback sometime in the near dystopian future. Something has happened to society. We don’t know what, but it was bad. Order has collapsed, lawlessness reigns and it’s ever grumpy, unwashed outback man for himself. Henry (Scoot McNairy) and a few assorted cohorts are gunwielding hoodlums cruising through the desert. Chancing upon a diner, they steal the car belonging to Eric (Guy Pearce) who’s inside have a spot of lunch. Eric is inordinately angry about this. So angry he throws what appears to be all reason out the window, procures a truck and steams after them in hot pursuit.

On catching them up there is a stand off, shots are fired and in the melee Eric captures Henry’s younger brother Rey (Robert Pattinson). Rambling and dishevelled, it soon seems the shuffling, twitching Rey is not quite all there. But that’s OK because Eric decides Rey is his best ticket to getting his car back, so the chase continues.

Brooding and atmospheric to the point of oppression, The Rover is deliberately opaque, keeping us guessing as to the motives and backstories of its aggressive, haunted characters. Switching between the vast, empty dustbowl of the outback to gloomy, dark interiors, it captures the dystopian bleakness perhaps a little too well, not least through Guy Pearce’s chilling performance as Eric. But it was R-Patz’s vunerable, physical portrayal of Rey that stood out for The Sloth. Seems one more acting fledging has successfully flown the nest and hurrah for that.

UK release 15 August. Something else on the dark side? Frank is dark and funny.