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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Love & Mercy. God Only Knows What Musical Genius Takes

Love-and-Mercy-Poster-2015En route to a preview screening of Love & Mercy, The Sloth was shocked to discover that a junior colleague in attendance “didn’t really know” The Beach Boys. Granted, said colleague was probably born when The Sloth was guzzling K Cider and shoe-gazing to Suede the first time round, but still. Good Vibrations is something babies can gurgle on emergence from the womb, no?

Having given said colleague a stern dressing down, we settled back. Love & Mercy is a dramatisation of the life of Brian Wilson, roundly acknowledged to be the creative force behind The Beach Boys and a bona fide musical genius. Split between his early career in the band and his later struggles with mental illness, it eschews a chronological approach to instead jump back and forth in time, with the younger Wilson played by Paul Dano and the older by John Cusack.

We first meet an older, shaky, ill Brian buying a Cadillac from attractive car dealer Melinda (Elizabeth Banks).  Striking up a rapport, Brian asks her out. But dating Brian is no simple matter. Pumped full of drugs and monitored 24/7 by the oppressive, controlling Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti), it soon becomes clear that Brian’s life is not his own.

It’s easy to assume Brian Wilson’s later troubles resulted directly from 60’s ‘excess’ but, as Melinda gets to know Brian, so do we. We see the young Brian, clearly a fragile and sensitive soul to begin with, derided, mocked and tormented by a cruel father. We see the older Brian verbally abused and manipulated by Dr Landy. Fortunately for Brian, Melinda decides to do something about it.

And throughout it all we have the music. Paul Dano is stunning as the young Wilson, doing his own playing and singing in a manner that doesn’t just mimic, but somehow captures his spirit. A semi-improvised scene of a young Wilson on a creative high, frantically directing a wonderstruck studio full of musicians to play in entirely new ways, reminds us just how innovative he was.

Love & Mercy is a captivating, emotional tribute to genius and a warning note to the price it can cost. If you have any interest in music, any at all, go see. Then dig out your copy of Pet Sounds and play it with new reverence. Oh, and my junior colleague? He absolutely loved it. Mr Wilson, your legend lives on.

UK release 10 July

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12 Years A Slave. The Oscars Start Here.

12 yearsWhat deathly sway does director Steve McQueen hold over his muse Michael Fassbender? For Hunger Michael dieted into losing 16 kilos. In Shame he cavorted naked with prostitutes. Now in 12 Years A Slave he’s evil incarnate. We’re thinking hypnosis. Paul McKenna on speed dial. How else do you explain it?

12 Years A Slave is based on a true story. Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) was a respectable, educated black man living in New York in 1841. A talented musician, with a wife and children, he had money, a place in society and, crucially, was a free man. Until one day falling victim to two con artists he found himself drugged, kidnapped and headed to the Deep South to be sold into slavery.

Initially landing at the hands of kindly cotton plantation owner Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), Solomon learnt keeping his head down and working hard led to tolerable living conditions. Sadly, this wasn’t to last. After an altercation with Tibeats (Paul Dano), a rogue employee of Ford, Solomon was sold on to Edwin Epps (Michael Fassebender). Actively, sadistically cruel, Edwin ruled his plantation with violence, beatings and terror. Pushed beyond points that would break most men, Solomon held his spirit until a chance encounter with Canadian liberal Bass (Brad Pitt) led to his liberation.

To date, being an inhabitant of the enlightened 21st century, historical slavery in the Deep South has seemed an impossibly alien world. But Solomon is an educated everyman like you and I, and watching him experience this unspeakably foul society makes it immediately, horribly real. It is very hard to watch in places. The violence and cruelty are absolutely brutal and the camera does not relent from showing you every detail in real time. Which is as it should be. It does its subject justice by portraying it as the abhorrent time in history that it was. An important and incredible film, visually stunning, beautifully directed and acted. Don’t miss it.

UK release 24 January 2014

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Prisoners. Takes No.

prisonersWe need more of this kind of film. Smart and convoluted, Prisoners is a proper, old-skool noir that isn’t afraid to tackle the darkest of subject matter.

Two young girls, Joy and Anna, go missing on Thanksgiving after heading outside to play. Distraught, Joy’s parents Nancy (Viola Davis) and Franklin (Terrence Howard) and Anna’s parents Keller (Hugh Jackman) and Grace (Maria Bello) mount an increasingly desperate search. The police are called and focus efforts on locating a strange camper van seen in the street hours earlier. The driver Alex (Paul Dano), a young man with the mental age of a ten year old, is taken into custody on suspicion of abduction.

Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) takes the case. Loki is good.  To date, he’s solved everything assigned him. We know he’s good as, like all great screen detectives, he’s got A Look: slim fit shirt buttoned to the neck, slicked back hair and an habitual, owl-like blink. Loki says little, the majority of which begins with ‘f’.

After interrogation, Loki comes to the conclusion Alex lacks the mental capacity to have taken the girls. But Keller isn’t settling for this. Irrational with fear for his daughter, fuelled with a history of alcohol abuse and unwilling to listen to reason, Keller is convinced of Alex’s guilt and decides to take the law into his own hands.

What follows is a twisting thriller that explores the blackest side of human nature and questions how far we can go with sufficient provocation. Filled with terrific performances, not least from Hugh Jackman who creates a pitiless character that makes Wolverine look positively cuddly, it may turn a couple of twists too far towards the end, but that’s a minor gripe. En route it takes in sufficient psychotic loners, boarded up buildings and dark, rainy nights to more than make up for it.

UK release 27 September

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