A United Kingdom. A Timely Tale.

a-united-kingdom

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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Our Kind Of Traitor. (Russian, Old Skool, Quite Scary).

our traitor

 

Mildly interesting fact: The Sloth used to work for the literary agent who represented John le Carré, best-selling author of Our Kind Of Traitor and reputedly an ex-spy, which he never confirms nor denies. We would speak to him on the phone and he was mightily intimidating, which sadly prevented us asking ‘so did you get to use poison tipped umbrellas & stuff?’.

 

Mr Le Carré and his old skool, Cold War thrillers are currently enjoying a field day, what with Putin’s stellar work to re-instigate Russia as Public Enemy Number One.  Most recently with Tom Hiddlesbum’s extended Bond audition in The Night Manager and now Our Kind Of Traitor’s outing on the big screen.

 

Ewan McGregor, in floppy haired ‘dowdy’ mode, plays Perry Makepeace – clearly a random name with no character implications whatsoever. A nice guy and gentleman, Perry is on a weekend break in Marrakech with his lawyer wife Gail (Naomie Harris), to try and boost their struggling relationship (see, totally random name). Except it’s not going too well, so when Gail excuses herself to take yet another work call, a frustrated Perry is invited by Dima (Stellan Skarsgård), a raucous Russian, to join him and his friends for a drink. Which leads to another drink, which leads to a party at a rich Russian’s house, during which Perry stumbles upon a rape taking place and heroically breaks it up.

 

Convinced of Perry’s good guy status, Dima confides he is a money launderer for the Russian Mafia. Desperate to escape his situation, he gives Perry a memory stick to take back to the UK and hand over to the authorities in exchange for safe passage to the West for Dima and his family. Naively Perry accepts, thinking he’s doing a simple civic duty, but receives a suspicious reception from British Secret Service Officer Hector (Damian Lewis). Against their will, Perry and Gail soon find themselves drawn into a dangerous covert operation to expose corruption between the UK and Russia.

 

This kind of film rarely gets made anymore because it assumes a modicum of intelligence from the viewer. Yes, the plot might be a trifle perplexing in places – The Sloth isn’t convinced we would unhesitatingly accept USB’s from the Russian Mafia – but it has an impressive underlying anger, railing against the willingness of governments to turn a blind eye to blood money. Controlled and understated, it’s far less glossy and far more downbeat than The Night Manager and will probably suffer for comparison, although personally we can’t help feeling the former now seems a little pantomime. With an unusually introspective turn from McGregor, balanced with a roaring performance from Skarsgård, it might not be the very best of the numerous Le Carré adaptations, but it’s still worth a look.

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Eye In The Sky. Somebody’s Watching You….

Eye in the Sky Movie (1)

The Sloth loves Helen Mirren. Partly because at 60+ she can randomly dye her hair pink and look good, not mad. Partly because she’s never had ‘work done’.  But mostly because there are few other actors who can play ‘ballsy’ with anywhere near as much panache, exemplified by her career defining role as Prime Suspect’s D.S. Jane Tennison. So the prospect of Helen as high ranking British Army Colonel Katherine Powell in Eye In The Sky boded extremely well.

 

Colonel Powell is in pursuit of a suspected terrorist cell in a Kenyan village. Having monitored and tracked her suspects for some time, she is desperate to eliminate them before they can carry out an imminent suicide bombing. But despite wearing full combat fatigues, hers is no old-skool, guns ‘n’ ammo military operation, rather it is a war of stealth and technology, waged from thousands of miles away.

 

Having enlisted the help of a high ranking pal in the US Army, Colonel Powell has a US drone, piloted by Steve Watts (Aaron Paul), hovering over her suspects, missiles primed for launch. On the ground she has local intelligence agent Jama Farah (Barkhad Abdi) stationed nearby. Having obtained clearance from the British Government, she has the go ahead. But just as Steve is about to push the button, a young local girl appears on the street outside the cell and sets up a bread stall, which puts an enormous spanner in the works. Do they now knowingly kill one child to prevent the terrorists potentially killing multiple children?

 

Eye In The Sky is that simple. One pertinent moral question that asks ‘what would you do?’. Set in real time, it shows the weakness of government ministers who dither and refer upwards to their superiors, the sobering reality of taking a life hitting home to the drone pilot, who till now has been cocooned in a pod. It’s also a frankly disturbing insight into how sophisticated military technology has got (word of warning – that annoying buzzing bluebottle in the corner might not be what is seems…). With excellent performances throughout, including Alan Rickman’s last role before his untimely death, it’s that a rare cinematic beast – one that asks us to engage our intelligence. How refreshing.

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High-Rise. Hiddle’s Bum Hits New Heights.

High-Rise-4

Hardly a day goes by without Tom Hiddlesbum getting his nethers out for the cameras. The Sloth wholeheartedly applauds this.  Not because we are a perv, nor because we have any personal lecherous interest in Hiddlesbum, but because he is single-handedly flying the flag for equality. Discussing Crimson Peak, in which he got naked (albeit fleetingly) whilst his leading lady remained resolutely clothed, he commented “I was happy to do it. In many of these situations it is the woman who is more naked, and we wanted to re-dress the balance”. For doubters who dismissed this as a neat PR hook, last Sunday he was at it again, unleashing The Buttocks midway through The Night Manager, to the sound of tea being spluttered across middle England. Those of you who regularly follow The Sloth’s witterings will know equality is our favourite hobby horse, which we have previously discussed at length here.

 

So a new week, a new opportunity, this time in a late 1970’s tower block. High-Rise is based on the JG Ballard novel that portrays an idealistic social experiment gone horribly wrong. Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons) is a visionary architect who has designed a skyscraper apartment building where all social classes cohabit – the poorer at the bottom and the richer at the top, with himself in the grand penthouse. Hiddlesbum plays Dr Robert Laing, a new resident who, being middle class, is allocated an apartment on the middle floors. Meeting his glamourous upstairs neighbour Charlotte Melville (Sienna Miller), Laing is soon introduced to his fellow residents and joins their endless rounds of cocktail parties.

 

So far, so idealistic. But no prizes for guessing this will all go spectacularly wrong. Failing power supplies lead to unrest on the lower floors which, unchecked, quickly escalates to rioting and anarchy. At the same time, the upper floors ongoing partying descends into an orgy of debauched, Bacchanalian excess. Laing is our calm, rational Everyman, observing the chaos with growing horror as the entire block gradually implodes upon itself.

 

The Sloth hasn’t read the novel, so we can’t comment on how true/good/bad/ugly the film remains to Ballard’s original. It certainly paints a memorable picture with industrial-concrete-meets 70’s-shag-pile interiors (unbelievably fabulous – The Sloth is moving to The Barbican pronto) and captures the tense, fishbowl claustrophobia of living in such close proximity. It’s not easy viewing, the violence and excess reach truly nightmarish levels becoming ritualised and almost abstract, but the portrait of a selfish and volatile society is worryingly relatable to anyone who battles the London rush hour of a morning.

 

So does he unleash The Buttocks? Oh yes. Not only that but he gets fully naked, protected only by a towel clasped over his dignity, leading an impressed Charlotte to comment “you’re lucky, you’re one of the few people who look better naked”. Good effort, Mr H. Female actors the world over should be saluting you.

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Chronic. Care In The Community.

chronicNever let it be said that The Sloth doesn’t bring you the best of top quality movie entertainment. With that in mind, how’d you fancy one about a nurse who looks after the terminally ill? You’d be all over that like a cheap suit, right?

 

Chronic opens with David (Tim Roth) tenderly washing a naked, painfully thin and clearly desperately ill woman in a bath.  From the gentle, patient care he takes with her, David presumably must be her husband.  But no, we soon find out he instead is a nurse supplied by a care agency who look after the dying in their own homes.  David is an excellent nurse – devoted, kind, utterly dedicated to those entrusted to him.  But perhaps just a little too dedicated.

 

Our initial impressions of David are exemplary.  He shows calm, reassuring professionalism, an easy rapport, chatting quietly, soothing nerves. But slowly things start to seem somewhat ‘off’. Should David be amiably encouraging an elderly male patient to watch porn on his computer?  Is it just harmless fun, cheering an old boy up? Should David be sending away his night time shift replacement, taking on a double shift and sleeping on the sofa beside a female patient?  More alarmingly, should he be telling strangers in a bar that ‘his wife’ has just died, when we know he is in fact referring to a female patient who has just passed away.  

 

The more we learn about David, the more we realise his own life experiences are impacting his work life. An exploration of where professional and moral boundaries start and end, Chronic’s strength is in its nonjudgmental tone, inviting us to consider at what point does personal experience benefit or hinder those in the care professions? It also delves into deeper issues around euthanasia and the right to die. Central to the success of this film is Tim Roth’s exemplary and understated performance as David, as equally sympathetic as he is disturbing.  Chronic is hardly cheery, but it’s extremely intelligent and deals with big issues in a sensitive and thought provoking way. Trust us, you’ll still be ruminating on it months later.

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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.

big short

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 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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