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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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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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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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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Sing Street. ‘Once’ again.

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Is there any decade more divisive than the 80’s? Actually, no sooner had we typed that then we realised it’s a daft question, for any human being with an ounce of taste and decency generally reviles the decade with a passion normally reserved for mass murderers and Conservative politicians.  Prepare to have your taste and decency challenged.

 

Sing Street is from the same writer/director responsible for Once, the much-lauded, low budget Oirish musical that ought to be infuriating but is actually totally charming. So on paper Sing Street, also low budget, also set in Oirland, sounds like a calculated Once Mk. 2 and should definitely be infuriating.

 

Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) is fifteen and the new boy in his Dublin school. He’s also nice, intelligent, naive and wearing the wrong colour shoes, just the thing for attracting the resident school bully who accosts him in the toilets on his first day. He also encounters the gorgeous Raphina (Lucy Boynton), an exotic older (by one whole year, so at least 25 in teen-years) woman who hangs around opposite the school gates, smoking enigmatically, weighed down by hoop earrings and hairspray. To impress her, Conor announces he is starting a band and invites her to star in their music videos. So now all he has to do is actually start a band. And make some videos. Easy.

 

Helped along by his music obsessive older brother Brendan (Jack Reynor), assorted classmates and religious observation of Duran Duran on Top of The Pops, his unlikely venture soon starts to take shape. From rudimentary practising in a classmate’ s front room they sharpen their musical skills, start writing songs and finally hit the big time with a headline spot at the school disco.

 

Sing Street, darn it, is funny, sweet and totally charming. It captures the naivety, innocence and exuberance of being 15, where the school gates, youthful crushes and dressing like Spandau Ballet are the entire world. This is mostly down to the endearing cast, who play their roles with optimism and a total lack of self-awareness.  But it’s also down to the soundtrack, for Sing Street has somehow managed to prove that yes, good music DID come out of the 80’s – The Cure’s In between Days a case in point. A joy from start to finish. Go see.

 

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Hail, Caesar! Hollywood On Hollywood.

hailcaesarposterHollywood adores a movie about Hollywood, not that La La Land is shallow and self-obsessed or anything. And not, of course, because a movie about Hollywood is dead easy to make, being on its own doorstep. No need to faff about hiring mini-vans to lug all those pesky cameras around. The latest addition to the naval-gazing cannon is Hail, Caesar! the Coen Brother’s tribute to the hand that feeds it.

 

Set in the 1950’s when Hollywood’s Golden Age was in full swing, Hail, Caesar! chronicles the trials and tribulations of big cheese studio head Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin).  Eddie chews cigars in a monstrous office and marches around the studio lot barking orders at his long suffering assistant while trying to keep the egos and careers of his stars in check. We meet DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson), an angel on screen and foul-mouthed, fast talking diva off-screen; temperamental director Laurence Laurentz (a fabulous Ralph Fiennes channelling his Grand Budapest Hotel comedy spirit) and the studio’s hottest star, the amiable and ever so slightly dim Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), inconveniently kidnapped by a secret clan of Communist screenwriters whilst filming biblical epic Hail, Caesar!

 

Rambling and rambunctious, it’s less narrative story than a series of comic sketches, jumping around from character to character and back to an increasingly frazzled Eddie. Which sounds somewhat shaggy and unstructured but it fizzes with so much feel good energy you’re happy to go with the flow.  Especially when said sketches include an entirely gratuitous and fabulously camp song and tap dance routine from a back-flipping Channing Tatum in a sailor suit.  Frankly, if that doesn’t bring a smile to your face then you’re just no fun. The Coens have trodden this ground before (see Barton Fink) but never with such silly humour nor with a cast so obviously revelling in their OTT characters. Hollywood on Hollywood has rarely been such a delight.

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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.

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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 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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