Maths graduate commenting from London

A Most Wanted Man

(dir. Anton Corbijn)

A tale as hard and unjust as Willem DeFoe’s facial structure, which we have the pleasure of watching tense and un-tense repeatedly through the film. A cold, stifled style delivers this fragile story through which danger silently echoes; a style broken, only appropriately, in its blundering and disastrous climax.

It’s a predictable situation. We are in awe of cagey, detached maverick Günther (Philip Seymour Hoffman); he had a rough time in Berlin, as his seniors never let him forget. We are hopeful for the naive, do-gooder lawyer Annabel (Rachel McAdams) and her haunted, honest client Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin), whose troublesome past threatens to jeopardise his chance of a clean slate.

In exploring the very relevant subject matter we get a sense of the complexity of the web we call terrorism, or perhaps more a sense of how badly the web is being navigated. As to who is navigating it poorly – the terrorists or “counter-terrorists” if I may coin a phrase – is a matter of opinion, which is where conversations can get interesting.
As per usual with this kind of subject material, we never have the person at the top of the chain – the one responsible for the evil injustices – appearing onscreen, leaving you with that grossly uncomfortable, pent up frustration which comes from having no one to persecute. This in itself relates directly to the Western world’s foolish assumption of the very existence of this person at the top of the chain, and so my curiosity piqued to see how the questioning of our rudimentary “system” would be answered. Unfortunately, the questions were hardly asked. 
Throughout the film Günther provides fleeting insightful nuggets in conversation with American Ambassador Martha Sullivan, played by Robin Wright (quite comfortable in a role almost identical to her excellent Claire Underwood); I think that development upon these nuggets could well have lifted this film out of mediocrity and into the profound.

Kind of Blue – Miles Davis


Something has always stopped me from getting into jazz and blues, perhaps because every time I’ve put on an album I feel like I’m expected to conjure up hackneyed images of solitary evening strolls through crowded cities in which I feel so alone yet so invigorated thanks to Coltrane on sax. Or I associate the sounds with some sourceless image I have of a smoky, red-velveted, low-ceilinged club where people grin at each other through clouds of cigarette smoke and I am nightmarishly forced to talk about art I don’t like, literature I haven’t read and politics I don’t care about.

Of course this reaction of mine is a result of a tired stereotype propagated by unimaginative films and vacant stories told by acquaintances who I think are really quite full of shit.

But alas! This listening experience is far from dreadful. The album opens with a saxophone that feels like a torch shining hyperactively around the inside of my brain, removing all this dusty cynicism, all this social anxiety, all this inherent need to conform. It’s like all the canals and corridors between my right ear and my left ear have been burst open and my head is now filled with aural nectar instead of everyday neuroticism.

I’m greedy for the addictive pulsating of “Blue in Green” that captures the delicacy of escapism. I focus on the way the instruments fit together harder than I ever focussed on any exam, and it’s a concentration that is pure, that I enjoy and that doesn’t burn me out and drain my soul like those long hours of concentrated exam revision.

I meditate on my wallowing enjoyment of solitude, and savour the way I feel so comforted by this escape from the grief and stress of real life, because in this moment, everything is just right. I’m so immersed that it only really occurs to me about 35 minutes in that there are human hands behind this perfection.

So I guess you could say I understand what all the fuss is about. A very selfish review I seem to have written, but I think there’s something very selfish about listening to music. And so be it.

Force Majeure (2014)


(dir. Ruben Ostland)

After reading rave reviews, watching Force Majeure certainly lived up to expectations. I’m not sure whether it’s the way the fickle exploits of this privileged family ring so hilariously true with my own kin, or whether it’s the thoughtful gender and relationship questions brought up that filled me with glee, but either way Force Majeure was a fantastic, riveting watch.

The second you feel that you’ve finally adjusted to the film’s dark humour and unbearable tension, Ostland has that knack of immediately displacing your comfort all over again, and while you claw at your face wishing the agony would cease, you find yourself wondering: “how am I so caught up in the banality of this middle class family’s anxiety-ridden holiday?” And, in response, you wonder whether to laugh or feel ultimately bleak. This kind of film ranks very highly with me.

Feeling like 2001:A Space Odyssey at times with its other-worldly, haunting shots of vast snowy expanse, there is a sense that this holiday has rendered the characters strangers, inverting their comfort with each other and trapping them in a Shining-style suffocating hellhole from which there is no escape; no chance of forgetting the “horrors” they have experienced.

The fluctuations from comfortable to tense, male-dominated to female-dominated, rightly anxious to outright paranoid, coax the film on in an interesting and original direction, and offers a well-captured observation of turbulent real-life.

Heat (1995)


(dir. Michael Mann)

How it has taken me so long to see this gem of a crime drama I will never know. First off, Robert de Niro versus Al Pacino. I know, I know, textbook fan behaviour. I don’t even care; there’s a reason they were both director Michael Mann’s first choices for their respective roles. I could watch an entire film featuring the duo sitting opposite each other throwing jibes. Or not even speaking. Just exchanging their trademark stares.

Legendary actors aside, the entire cast hold the film together exceptionally well; characters are so confirmed that the plot is almost predictable (I’ve been searching for a fault in this film for hours now), but more likely just plain inevitable.

Aesthetically brilliant, especially the fluctuating blurriness in some scenes that brings to mind that feeling of blood rushing to your eyes when your emotions are heightened and when adrenaline is pumping. De-saturated, muted pastel-coloured tones reflect the characters’ simultaneous suppressed panic and sharply focussed thinking. Dialogue is either lyrical or razor sharp, often both.

Not only is Heat a perfectly executed crime film laden with plausible jargon and subtly comic moments, it is moving and thoughtful (i.e. immediately gets my approval). Seemingly telling a tale of the soulless, hollow exploits of uncaring characters, I think there’s a lot more to Heat than just a cleverly constructed cops-and-robbers doo-dah. In exploring the staunch human character, the destructive consequences of poor relationships and the unyielding force of male dedication to their own interests, this film generates pure emotion from cold detachedness: a feat certainly worth admiring.

Short Term 12 (2013)


(dir. Destin Daniel Cretton)

I’m often hesitant in liking this genre of twee indie cinema; I’m not a Wes Anderson fan and I only just managed to sit through Martha Marcy May Marlene, despite it’s rather good quality. I was pretty embarrassed, then, when I started welling up at several points during Short Term 12, due to some incredibly heart-breaking performances from the lead, Brie Larson, and supporting actor Keith Stanfield.

However, I’m slightly wary of the ease with which sentiment can push my waterworks buttons, and the too-clean, verging on unrealistic conclusion of this film almost nullifies the impact of the (very real, very well written) issues raised throughout. Nevertheless, the originality of the dialogue and likeable characters contribute to the pervasive tenderness of the feature; it certainly captures moments, however contrived they may be. Short Term 12 captures your attention, your empathy, and probably your heart as well, for a short term moment.

I’d say it falls into a particular category shared with a worrying amount of films I’ve seen recently: the “enjoyable to watch but once ended, feels vacuous” category.

Magnolia (1999)

(dir. Paul Thomas Anderson)

A tale ultimately about humans, beautifully crafted in the best interlinked story structure I have seen to date. An extensive, stellar cast, yet intimacy is maintained in a story that explores forgiveness, trauma and vulnerability.

Dizzying panning shots that ease into intense static shots over the course of the film correlate with the transition from the characters’ incoherent attempts to convey what’s on their minds to a stable (albeit painful) exploration of their stored up problems.

I’m a bit critical of the Aimee Mann soundtrack, especially in the emotional scene that ends up feeling like a bad music video, and a bit of a joke. However, the cheap pop music is balanced out by other intense, well chosen scores, and finely tuned audio layering throughout that profoundly accentuates dialogue and instrumentals at crucial points.

The story is so plausible and the characters so well developed that we are reminded that the film is fictional only due to Anderson’s surreal, symbolic motifs, and the over-the-top coincidences that occur, pointed out and justified by the narrator. If you adore the subtly weird and the wonderful, you’ll adore this film; it sits in a niche of its own, perfectly formulated and somehow transcendent of other films of the same genre – there is a sort of post-modern feel to it.
It is a lesson that control over the random unpredictability of life is not entirely necessary, and of the importance of human connection.
Top marks for another insightful, moving and honest picture from Paul Thomas Anderson.

Skeletons (2010)

skele-0074(dir. Nick Whitfield)

Classic black British comedy’s answer to Inception. A film about directness – with others and with yourself – conducted by a mystical duo consisting of average-Joe-get-the-job-done softie Frank Bennett (Andrew Buckley) and the talented, more ambiguous Simon Davis (Will Adamsdale), together supernaturally extracting the darkest of secrets from their clients. And true to ‘who cuts the barber’s hair?’ form, the pair’s own skeleton-induced insecurities are confronted.

Brilliantly filmed in greyly saturated tones to emphasise the social detachment induced by pain and loss, and sharp performances from the entire cast keeps this gem of a film perfectly balanced between fantasy and reality.

Platform, Michel Houellebecq

It is in our relations with other people that we gain a sense of ourselves; it’s that, pretty much, that makes relations with other people unbearable.


Despite often coming across as an emotional masochist, Houellebecq’s work has the most uplifting effect on me. Beyond the seemingly impenetrable bleakness of the brilliant Platform lies something profoundly comforting; it is a universal welcome that promises to treat you as an equal, for once. Through his frank tone, he backhandedly reassures us that our natural imperfections – those grotesque warts we perceive in ourselves that refuse to conform to our modern ideal – are just fine, and he does it more convincingly than any hypocritical, mid-priced women’s magazine could ever hope to.

This reassurance lies in his rejection of snooty, self-righteous criticism; sticking a middle finger up to the disdain that is constantly directed towards the ‘base’ pursuit of money and sex… things we have been trained to view as immoral and destructively ephemeral. But an adoption of such pious values opposing the cheap thrills of frivolity (both sexually and financially) would be an adoption of a naive ideal of humankind paramount, in my opinion, to faith in a universe of intelligent design, created by a supreme being living in the sky.

Michel, our protagonist, endures life, as many of Houellebecq’s characters do. He is thoughtful but not enthused, content to wilt under the oppression of our youngest religion, capitalism. The hiatus he takes in the aftermath of his father’s death is the first step in his disengagement with his mediocre life, eventually resulting in beautifully understated revelations about human sexuality, self-liberation and what it means to be satisfied with life and love – all in a manner void of pretension and contrived philosophy.

It is in Houellebecq’s cynical rejection of the neurotic, modern Western world (not that he wouldn’t reject and find infinite faults in any other social system) that you catch a glimpse of what it would be like to live a life entirely purely and naturally. Yet by being born and entering the world we live in, we paradoxically can never achieve such a state.

Is the Man Who is Tall Happy? (2013)

45a67aa2d12f363ead17101a2a1446b7e23c42(dir. Michel Gondry)

The mesmerising visuals of Michel Gondry’s stylistic animations kept me captivated throughout the film, significantly more so than the actual dialogue between the director and the renowned Noam Chomsky.
For a somewhat tangential discussion on the topic of linguistics – and by tangential I don’t mean dreamy musings, I mean aimless pointlessness – the conversational aspect of the film was immensely disappointing. Chomsky doesn’t know what Gondry is asking (neither do we, bless his French accent), so repeats his base points, tells anecdotes that are so superficially related to his philosophy it made me throw my hands up in surrender and he actually comes across as a bit of a snooty arsehole.

Despite the interesting and profound subject matter, it is all merely touched upon – more deep-sea delving would’ve satisfied my expectation of drowning in some seriously esoteric discussion. And ultimately, the content is communicated badly. Perhaps it’s poor editing on Gondry’s behalf, or perhaps it’s because there’s an ironic point nestled in there somewhere; Chomsky has delivered legendary work in the field of linguistics and in the study and nature of language and communication (none of which I’ve read – maybe I am missing something here).

Criticisms aside, it was quite a beautiful watch thanks to Gondry’s absorbing animation, and I am very much looking forward to his new flick Mood Indigo (based on the French novel Foam of the Daze – might give that a read while I’m at it). Looks just as imaginative.

Her (2013)

6a0168ea36d6b2970c01a511b6da18970c-800wiThis film is one of the rare recents which have truly blown me away. Spike Jonze fantastically demonstrates the modern technological circumstance whilst simultaneously poking fun at the blossoming adults of today: decked out in their outfits of pastel and neutral shades, strictly shopping organic and possessing that infuriating, self-conscious artistic expression. Amy Adams and Matt Letscher’s relationship is a particularly interesting embellishment of the main plot, supplying a substantial amount of both comedy and grief throughout.

As the film progressed I started to strongly dislike Joaquin Phoenix’s character: a wallowing, self-absorbed daydreamer, an overgrown toddler incapable of loving anything other than an operating system specifically designed to meet his every need.. in other words, serve him
Yet after some thought, I clocked that this is one of the most accurate and relatable depictions of human nature, surprisingly scarce in films, perhaps out of our own narcissism (note I refer to human rather than man – us gals are equally guilty of such egotism). Phoenix embodies our state of self-awareness and thought that characterises our evolution beyond any other creature. I think therefore I am and all that.. Although on the surface Her is a love story, the concept of existence is much more at the heart of the film.

To my glee, the nature of being is also brought into the mix with the passing mention of Alan Watts, no doubt (well, I refuse to believe otherwise) an intentional reference to the late spiritual philosopher who, in his time, always advocated existential exploration of the self.

Albeit a portrait of isolation, Her oddly connects with the viewer. The only explanation for this I can give is Jonze’s capturing of the very crux of the human condition. Compulsory viewing for anyone who wants to take a good hard look at themselves, and consequently everyone around them.


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