Sunday, 28 December 2014

Spectrum's Best Films of 2014 (No.10-1)

10. Ida (Dir. Pawel Pawlikowski)

For a film about crises of faith, orphans, and the long-lasting, submerged repercussions of the Holocaust on ordinary people, Ida is perhaps most remarkable for its accessibility. This is certainly borne out by the box office figures, which show that this low-key, Polish-language drama has been a modest yet surprising hit in both the US and the UK. Ida, a young nun coming of age in 60s Poland, is tasked by her mother superior with visiting her earthy, strong-minded aunt in the outside world to test her commitment to her calling, and embarks on an odyssey into the recent past and the revolutionary, jazz-saturated present, where she gains her first experiences of grief and sexual love. Despite its weighty themes, the drama unfolds without bluster: like the inscrutable Ida, it says little yet speaks oceans. Nick Pierce

9. Leviathan (Dir. Andrey Zyvagintsev)

Movies that try too hard to capture the state-of-the-nation, or offer political critique of the prevailing regime, are often in danger of quickly feeling dated and irrelevant. Leviathan, the latest troubling melodrama from director Andrey Zyvagintsev, brilliantly circumvents this problem by couching its very bitter satire of Putin's Russia in biblical parable. Nikolay, a car mechanic in a remote coastal region of the country, is a modern-day Job, beset by malevolent forces beyond his control: principally the corrupt local mayor, who uses his administrative influence, connections to the orthodox church, and outright intimidation, to acquire the land that Nikolay's family inhabit for his own self-aggrandising ends. Leviathan is very dark, but it is also surprisingly funny, especially in the scenes featuring Roman Madyanov as the grotesque, drunken mayor, who appears almost as crushed and ruined by his activities as his victims. It is a bracingly full-on, and glacially beautiful, illumination of the cronyism and criminal elite that have poisoned modern Russia, and, in a broader sense, a moving retelling of the age-old story of the little man being swallowed by a bigger fish. NP

8. Mr Turner (Dir. Mike Leigh)

Is there any film genre more afflicted with banality than the biopic? Generally lacking in any narrative purpose beyond a trite cataloguing of the 'key events' in a given figure's life, they quickly assume the character of a child's clumsy attempt at storytelling: 'And then this happened and then this happened and then this happened.' More often than not, they have all the fresh insight and substance of a dramatized Wikipedia entry.

Leave it to Mike Leigh, then, a director renowned for recreating the mess and the disarray of real life, to pump rude blood through the biopic's withered veins. His passionate, and typically compassionate, treatment of the life and times of J.M.W. Turner, leaves in all of the failings and filthiness that lesser biopics timidly expunge. Much like the great artist himself, in painting a masterpiece Leigh is unafraid of getting his hands dirty. Consequently, the world in which we are immersed escapes the dressing-up-box atmosphere of most historical recreations, to become a place that we can practically smell. During the course of the film's meandering, but consistently engrossing 2 1/2 hour running time, and Timothy Spall's career-best performance, we are given glimpses of Turner the scoundrel, Turner the genius, and Turner the dying animal, Leigh wisely emulating the shifting, indistinct seascapes for which his subject is best known today by never allowing us to think that the irresolvable majesty of such a remarkable human life can come fully into focus. NP

7. Two Days, One Night (Dir. Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne)

Just when one started to suspect that the Dardennes brothers had begun to repeat themselves, releasing a series of kinetic moving portraits of lives lived precariously on the economic fringes to solid but diminishing effect, they find a renewed sense of urgency and purpose. Remarkably, they do this without really departing too far from what has come before: once again, Two Days, One Night is a small, perfectly-formed, and laser-focused account of one weekend in the life of Sandra, a factory employee at a solar-energy panel plant in a Belgian industrial town, given 48 hours by her callous bosses to persuade her co-workers to forgo their annual bonuses so that she may keep her job.

But the Dardennes revive their formula by seizing upon a concept that allows them to illuminate the iniquities of our post-crisis capitalist age, where the have-nots have been turned against each other in order to distract attention away from the wider economic system, and by casting the phenomenal Marion Cotillard in the lead role - a coup that enables the brothers to create indelible cinema simply from the storm of barely-repressed feelings that pass across the emotionally-unstable Sandra's face. The final result: the Dardennes' best film, and one of the most impeccably-crafted and socially-relevant of the entire year. NP

6. Her (Dir. Spike Jonze)

What could easily have been Lars and the Real Girl for the smartphone generation circumvents any possible awkwardness by making clear just how much more permissive Theodore Twombly’s (a disarming Joaquin Phoenix) society is toward his budding relationship with the complex, adaptive OS Samantha (Scarlett Johansson). Of course, as much as Spike Jonze’s sci-fi drama is an exploration of love in the digital age it is, more impactfully, an honest portrayal of the expectations and fears we bring to any relationship entered without reservation. Carrying its soul on its sleeve, Her polishes up many of the thematic concerns seen in earlier projects like I’m Here and Where the Wild Things Are, as Jonze’s characters work within the confines of society around them to simply try and be. Impeccably dressed (both the sets and the cast), this is an assured vision of the future, and refreshing in its hopefulness for tomorrow. Tom Dunn

5. The Grand Budapest Hotel (Dir. Wes Anderson)
With his latest feature, Wes Anderson seems to have finally found a subject that suits his vision. Whilst in the past, when applied to stories of dysfunctional family dynamics, I've found his fussiness and pedantic overemphasis on style to be exasperating, here it marries perfectly with the movie's similarly preening hero, Gustave H, concierge of the eponymous establishment. Channelling the meticulously-constructed golden-age Hollywood comedies of Ernst Lubitsch, Anderson spins a yarn about H and his put-upon lobby boy, Zero Moustafa, speeding breathlessly across a heavily fictionalised pre-war Europe to absolve Gustave of a murder he did not commit. It is genuinely hilarious, and gorgeous to look at, without ever letting Anderson's impulses as a stylist override its enormous heart. NP

4. The Wind Rises (Dir. Hayao Miyazaki)

When the magisterial swansong of celebrated veteran animator Hayao Miyazaki was released at the beginning of the year, what should've been heralded as a bittersweet cinematic event was instead tarred in the Western media with accusations of letting Japan too easily off the hook for its actions in the Second World War, which forms the backdrop and part of the dramatic impetus to The Wind Rises' biographical account of the early life of Jiro Horikoshi, gifted engineer and designer of the legendary Mitsubishi A6M Zero aircraft used by the nation's military during the conflict.

Much of this controversy strikes me as being deeply dubious, not to mention culturally biased: so ingrained in us in Britain and the USA, as victors of that war, is our sense of righteousness, that we seem to expect Japan to explicitly and contritely address its culpability in every work of art that broaches the subject, whilst the US, for instance, hardly applies the same principle; how many Hollywood WW2 movies, for example, mention the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki? Answer: not flippin' many!

But more to the point, Miyazaki's final feature is far more than the humble apology that some obviously expected it to be: it is an impassioned conflation of the life of a visionary with the life of his country, told with the sensitivity, vibrancy and visual dynamism we have come to expect from Miyazaki when he is firing on all cylinders. Within, he offers a rich and stark reflection on the costs of vaulting ambition, and remains ambivalent about the artistic vocation and his nation's recent history, right up until its deeply moving conclusion. Given the generic, resolutely infantile quality of most mainstream animation, it is hard to think of a creative force who will be more sorely missed. NP

3. Boyhood (Dir. Richard Linklater)

After last year’s Before Midnight, it was beginning to look like Richard Linklater was at risk of falling into terrible self-parody, the series that earned him worldwide acclaim finally stumbling into the clichés and faux-pas it had circled warily in the earlier Before Sunset. Thankfully, there’s none of that sniffy pop-intellectualism to be found in the superior Boyhood. Filmed over an eleven year period, this coming-of-age drama paints an impressionistic picture of Mason Evans (Ellar Coltrane) and his family, reconvening with them at key points in their lives as they grow and change. Watching Mason shift from wide eyed sprog into a gregarious young man over the course of two hours is mesmerising – in no small part helped by the clear development of Ellar’s acting ability as he in turn finds himself throughout production – but it’s the film’s final double-punch that leaves a lasting impact: Mason may have finally achieved independence at the age of 19, but we’ve watched his mother Olivia (Patricia Arquette) painfully struggle to adjust to the next 20 years in parallel with Mason’s own formative years. It remains to be seen whether or not Boyhood, technically made prior to Before Midnight, points to a still stellar career for the filmmaker, or is instead a signal to change. TD

2. Nymphomaniac (Dir. Lars Von Trier)
If recent news stories are to be trusted (and few things involving Von Trier are to be taken at face value), then we might be seeing a reduced output, or even a complete cessation of activities from the Danish troublemaker in the years ahead. If this is to be so, and all fans of challenging, arthouse cinema should hope it is not, then at least Nymphomaniac will serve as a fitting magnum opus. It touches on many of the themes that have preoccupied Von Trier, especially the paradox of an individual finding both freedom and destruction in defying society's taboos, only this time writ large on a two-part, five-hour canvas awash with blood, tears, and semen. The picaresque tale of a middle-aged woman looking back on her life-long, life-endangering flirtation with sexual and ethical boundaries, it also doubles as a portrait of the artist from whose psyche it has escaped: alternately sincere and impish, shot through with contradictions, and gloriously, shamelessly button-pushing. NP

1. Under The Skin (Dir, Jonathan Glazer)

It took Jonathan Glazer an entire decade to follow up 2004's Birth with the bizarre, haunting and sometimes darkly comic Under the Skin. That Glazer spent so much time considering how to loosely convert Michael Faber's 2000 novel shows; everything is so thoroughly well considered. The film follows Scarlett Johansson's extraterrestrial humanoid as she travels across Scotland, quite literally consuming any men whose lecherous gazes happen to fall her way. To me the film's central motifs are the ideas of consent and consumption, the scene in which Johansson wanders round a busy Glasgow mall looking for victims, dozens of shoppers unwittingly making up the film's extras, is therefore key. By no means though are these the only themes which are explored. As with Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, which this film clearly owes a debt to, Glazer is happy to leave the audience guessing as to what the questions are, nevermind the answers. Words may serve to make observations on this film seem definitive, but its main strengths are in its ability to keep the viewer guessing, and its openness to interpretation. Really, the depths of Glazer's curious triumph can only be fathomed by viewing it. George Bate

Wednesday, 24 December 2014

Spectrum's Best Films of 2014 (No. 20-11)

20. The Double (Dir. Richard Ayoade)

Whilst sorely lacking the spirit that made Submarine such a rollicking debut, Richard Ayoade’s sophomore effort is still clearly the work of a genuine voice in cinema. The Double takes the core conceit of Dostoyevsky’s novella and fuses it with the bureaucratic nightmares of Terry Gilliams, to great effect. Genuinely unnerving when it’s not pitching for gallows humour, this tale of dual souls is almost entirely carried by Jesse Eisenberg, whose self-regarding doppleganger James is just as strongly played as the more obviously ‘Eisenberg’ protagonist Simon. Hashed out in a world of clunking pipes, jaundiced yellow smoke and tinny Hawaiian ditties, their symbiotic relationship is far more complex than first appears, resulting in a climax just as murky as the streets beyond their apartment. Like Submarine, The Double is at times too referential for its own good, and it wouldn’t be hard to argue that either feature is more of a cinephile’s gimmick than it is a self-contained work. Yet Ayoade’s clear understanding of iconic personalities like Truffaut et al is apparent on screen precisely because the man is capable of executing cinema with character. He just needs to make it wholly his own. Tom Dunn

19. Nightcrawler (Dir. Dan Gilroy)

Nightcrawler is not a great film, but it is a good film that contains a great character. It is the blackly comic story of Lou Bloom, a loner who discovers a knack for obtaining gruesome footage from crime and accident scenes in night-time LA and selling it to cable news stations. The jabs at how the media preys on public fear and morbid curiosity to inflate ratings are more than a little broad and obvious, and the last act is marred by a descent into silly car chases. But as Lou Bloom, Jake Gyllenhaal turns in a genius performance that already feels like an iconic anti-hero for our times: a ruthless, ghoulish manipulator, prone to spouting careerist platitudes ripped straight out of a particularly nauseating LinkedIn profile, and more at home behind the barrier of a digital screen than he is face-to-face with another human being. Nick Pierce

 18. Gone Girl (Dir. David Fincher)

It’s difficult to get too involved in praising David Fincher’s latest belter for fear of giving the game away entirely. This examination of modern marriage begins with the disappearance of Amy Dunne (Rosamund Pike) on the morning of her fifth wedding anniversary; a crime investigation quickly developing around her husband Nick (Ben Affleck) – the prime suspect in her possible murder. What follows takes all of the complications of a long-term relationship; trust, perception, dependence, and dials them up to eleven. The result is a blackly comic fable for our times, and proof that Rosamund Pike desperately needs a better agent if it’s taken her this long to shine. TD

17. A Touch of Sin (Dir. Jia Zhangke)

Like the crazy bastard offspring of Thomas Hobbes and Quentin Tarantino, Jia Zhangke's A Touch of Sin uses stylised comic-book violence and B-movie genre trappings to target the iniquities of present-day China. The four loosely-connected stories, filled with bold, bloody imagery and whiplash pacing, range over wide geographical and thematic terrain, tackling the struggles of unionised workers, the plight of marginalised women and youngsters, and the murderous sprees of sociopathic criminals. As with Russia in the similarly angry Leviathan, the superpower is vividly exposed as a moral jungle, where all men must become the prey or the predator. After seeing these films, it's impossible not to ask: where are the British and American dramas addressing the ills of our Western governments with such clarity and vigour? NP

16. Venus in Fur (Dir. Roman Polanski)

Six decades into his filmmaking career, Roman Polanski shows no signs of running out of energy or ideas. Mathieu Amalric plays a self-satisfied director, searching for a lead actress for his stage adaptation of the eponymous work of 19th century erotic fiction. When a mystery woman (Emmanuelle Seigner) shows up at the empty theatre where the director has been auditioning for the part, he initially thinks that he might have found his muse, but soon suspects that she has altogether more sinister designs upon him. It is obvious that Polanski cast Amalric partly because of his resemblance to the director as a younger man - appropriate enough for a film with such an autobiographical feel, deconstructing his perennial fascination with women, sex, and the feminine. But Venus in Fur is also a masterclass in how to translate a dialogue-heavy stage play into cinema, with Polanski displaying a near-Hitchcockian mastery of how to place the camera to build suspense and tell a story. NP

15. Inside Llewyn Davis (Dir. Joel and Ethan Coen)

There’s a strong argument for the Coen Brothers’ finest works simply being the same film made over and over again. Inside Llewyn Davis joins the ranks of Barton Fink and A Single Man as the latest in Joel and Ethan’s farcical explorations of biblical suffering in 20th century America, as the titular folk singer struggles to make his way in Manhattan’s clubs and bars on the eve of Bob Dylan’s breakthrough. There’s perhaps only so many times we can watch characters look on in resignation as the universe conspires against them, but, like O, Brother! Where Art Thou?, Davis’ story is charged with quality song writing to temper all of the Beckett-by-ways-of-the-Stooges, and standout moments like the ‘Please Mr. Kennedy’ recording scene ensure that this is still top-shelf Coen. TD

14. Winter Sleep (Dir. Nuri Bilge Ceylan)

For those new to the work of acclaimed Turkish auteur Nuri Bilge Ceylan, his Palme d'Or snatching latest is definitely not the best place to start: among his most challenging films to date, its languidly-paced depiction of an arrogant retired actor turned hotel proprietor locking horns with tenants, a sister, and a young wife, who all treat him with barely concealed resentment, is a hardcore art-house excursion into forbidding exterior and interior landscapes. It is not the equal of Ceylan's previous release, the masterful Once upon a time in Anatolia, but it has many of the same strengths: uniformly excellent performances, uncomfortably insightful and recognisable dialogue, and a clear-eyed fascination with the gap between who we imagine ourselves to be, and who we really are. NP

13. Exhibition (Dir. Joanna Hogg)

Experimental filmmaker Joanna Hogg's chilly, austere, yet dryly comic depiction of middle-aged marriage is as formally bold as it is cringe-inducingly unflinching. In terms of story, this is about as low-key as it gets: a contemporary artist couple (played by actual conceptual artist Liam Gillick and former Slits frontwoman Viv Albertine) put their London house up for sale, only to find that the strain of moving brings their career frustrations and personal resentments to the fore.

Hogg's work is an acquired taste: some will probably dismiss Exhibition as a wearisome formalist exercise about insufferable metropolitan wankers, but I'd defend it as an alternately satirical and anthropological look at the neuroses of the chattering classes, and as an uncommonly candid dissection of conjugal friction. What's more, the fact that the narrative is almost entirely confined to the interior of the house means that it serves as a sharp commentary on the changing face of modern central London: no longer so much a living city as an enclave of the wealthy and the out-of-touch, trying vainly to maintain a hermetic separation from the mess of reality. NP

12. Frank (Dir. Lenny Abrahamson)

Lenny Abrahamson returns to Spectrum’s Top Films for the second year running, following up last year’s What Richard Did with a thematic 180 in Frank. Ostensibly based on Chris Sievey’s cult Sidebottom figure, this fictional tale of a band on their way to SXSW sees Frank (Michael Fassbender) reinterpreted as a rather more ambiguous figure. Hailed as a genius by his fellow band mates, the ever-masked musician becomes an obsessive pet project for new keyboardist Jon (Domhnall Gleeson), who sees in Frank the keys to unlocking his own commercial genius. A surprisingly astute rumination on the myth of creativity, Frank may have strayed a little far from the punk edges of its inspiration in favour of modish twee turns, but in doing so makes the film’s late-game revelations all the more tragic. TD

11. Maps to the Stars (Dir. David Cronenberg)

A fitting companion piece to his previous collaboration with Robert Pattinson, Cosmopolis, David Cronenberg’s latest American nightmare puts Hollywood firmly in its sights – and, in light of the recent Scott Rudin / Amy Pascal scenario, seems far too accurate in its execution. Agatha (Mia Wasikowska in fine, fear-inducing form), a severely scarred woman, has come to Hollywood to find her place among the stars, pulling a favour from Carrie Fisher after flattering the actress on Twitter. Her introduction to a world of total amorality and egomania – embodied in the hysterical Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore) and drug addict child star Benjie Weiss (Evan Bird) and his family – would be utterly heartbreaking, were it not for the fact that Agatha clearly has form in this environment. Shot in the same disquietingly sterile way as that earlier ode to capitalism, Maps to the Stars paints Hollywood as a claustrophobically incestuous machine that would sooner eat itself whole than search for salvation. TD

Stay tuned for part deux of Spectrum's countdown of the best in cinema 2014 had to offer...

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Faith in Strangers Review: Concrete and Melody with Andy Stott

Andy Stott's new album Faith in Strangers can be streamed here.

Whilst a large part of the techno world moves ever closer to industrial four-to-the-floor oblivion, Andy Stott is going in completely the opposite direction. As he issues a new record on long time home Modern Love, the Manchester producer is vastly diversifying his scope, citing reference points as disparate as “Ron Hardy, Prefab Sprout, Dome, Actress, Cocteau Twins and Arthur Russell”. All of these artists fall some way from the concrete-heavy dub techno for which he's become known, and what's more surprising than the list of influences is the fact that they can all be heard within the masterpiece that Stott paints with Faith in Strangers. The chugging steam-powered 100bpm dirges are still there, but they're accompanied by something entirely different.

Time Away” sets the tone, a palette cleanser with mournful chords, smothered in ferric tape hiss. At first lead track “Violence” appears to continue the theme, beginning with hushed vocals from Stott's former piano teacher Alison Skidmore. But within three minutes all hell has broken loose; sub-bass tremors the weight of tectonic plates slide in followed by a beefy kick, before Skidmore's vocal is swept aside by jagged glacial synths. After a spine-tingling onslaught, calm falls and that vocal resurfaces, slathered in reverb. This interlude is merely the eye of the storm, as the track's bewitching brutality soon returns.

An Oath” is more optimistic, slow but determined, propelled by a stuttering rhythm and, once again, Skidmore's breathy vocal, which here more clearly illustrates her operatic pedigree. The work that Stott and Skidmore have produced here feels more integrated than on 2012's Luxury Problems. That's not a criticism of their last record (which was itself a stellar achievement), it's just that whereas previously the melodious element was solely derived from Skidmore's tones, Stott has now adapted his style to absorb and more wholly complement the vocals.

That said, there's nary a word in sight on the album's bruising middle section, which stretches from the quasi-eastern chimes of “No Surrender” to the threatening “Damage”, encompassing the dubby “How it Was” in between. It's on this part of the record that Stott most resembles his genre-bending alter-alias Andrea, the moniker under which he released a collaborative LP with Demdike Stare's Miles Whittaker earlier this year. Although none of this material is club-ready, this is where it comes closest, with trap-like percussion and high energy levels.

After this the record begins to slow again, seguing into the gorgeous serenity of the title track, which, were it not for the serrated saw-blade sounds in the middle, could almost be the work of some longforgotten twee 80s group from Glasgow. “Faith in Strangers” is as close to creating a “song” that Stott has ever come, on which Skidmore narrates a morning in the life of a man who “wakes up in the morning, lights pressing on his eyes”, and barely recognizes his own face in the mirror. As she sings of the pillow he wakes on and the “celebrity pages in the paper”, the mundane becomes the beautiful and the track manages to convey both yearning and acceptance.

The curtain closes with “Missing”, a forlorn bluesy lament that could almost have been cooked up at a New Orleans jazz funeral. With this the journey is complete, Stott and Skidmore have held our hand through their murky, grime-encrusted, but beautiful world, where subtlety and power exist in equal measure. Reviews of Luxury Problems described an artist creating his definitive statement. Faith in Strangers finds Stott making an entirely new one.

Monday, 6 October 2014

Some Thoughts on Mental Health at Cambridge

I was surprised to read today of several academic studies which have illustrated that Cambridge University does not have an unduly high suicide rate amongst its students. I had looked into this off the back of an article discussing depression at the university in The Guardian, which ranks as one of today's most read articles on the newspaper's website. The article struck a chord with me because it aligned very closely with my own time at Cambridge and the difficulties I endured. However, I felt that the article missed a few vital points which I myself would like to address.

Whilst Cambridge may not appear to have a higher suicide rate than other UK universities, it can be difficult to measure for statistical significance in suicide rates due to the relatively low numbers involved, and UK coroners' resistance to list a death as a suicide without absolute certainty. The fact that, as the article points out, 25% of students at the university have been diagnosed with depression is extremely telling. The environment is positively set up to encourage it. To me one of the key causes of the problem is part of what encourages people to apply to the university in the first place; the supervision system, where students engage with their tutors on a two to one or even one to one basis, might appear like a fantastic privilege on the face of it, but to many it can seem like repeated trial by fire. There is surely much to be gained by such close contact with the some of the world's best academics, but often being the best in their field means that those doing the teaching are completely unable to empathise with students who may be struggling to grasp difficult concepts in their field. It is unfortunately often the case that those who understand most easily are the least best placed to pass an understanding on. As such supervisors can often become impatient with students when they are unable to process tricky concepts.

Add to this the fact that most people giving supervisions have little to no training specifically in teaching and you could be setting up for a disaster. I myself can remember at least one supervisor who I would absolutely dread visiting, despite knowing that I had done my best at attempting the work. He was completely unsympathetic to my struggle and the message was effectively always “work harder”. I couldn't work any harder, and can remember at least once leaving his room in tears.

One of the other difficulties is that Academic Tutors (note capitalization), who are partially in charge of pastoral care at the university, will often have their college's academic reputation in mind. After getting a 2:2 in my second year mathematics exams I was encouraged to switch to another college to study mathematics with education. Part of me feels that this was at least in part an attempt to get a lower achieving student off their books. Institutional reputation is important at Cambridge, and it seems to me is often placed ahead of things which should matter more, such as personal well-being.

The institutional pressure to perform at all costs is reinforced by the social atmosphere at the University, which is dominated by the kind of gender-specific drinking societies and sports clubs which hold a parallel with US fraternities and sororities. A recent Cambridge University Women's Society survey found that a third of respondents had been sexually assaulted whilst at the university. It seems to me that this can't be unrelated to the hyper-masculine environment that many of the male societies encourage, the kind of cliquey environment that also leads to non-public school educated students to feel excluded and looked down upon. I cannot speak for the female experience of this kind of world, but this is the kind of toxic laddish climate that Emma Watson was referring to a few weeks ago when she spoke to the UN of how feminism can also benefit men. The pressure to drink engendered by these groups can be no help either.

The social exclusivity problem is far more prevalent at some colleges than others, but the inadequate mental health support systems in place at the university are common to all students. Whilst it is true that students at the university enjoy a specific counselling service not available to the general population, saying that one group of people has greater access to mental health facilities than the general population in the UK is hardly saying anything. The University Counselling Service was, in my experience, stretched to breaking point, and only able to offer a limited number of sessions to service users. After these sessions were done you were back out on your own, in the kind of high pressure environment that is bound to cause problems. This is not to criticise the excellent work that the people at the counselling service actually do, but everyone involved in mental health in the UK knows that non-private services are woefully lacking.

I sincerely hope that this situation changes, not only for the generally more privileged individuals at Cambridge, but all of the people suffering mental health problems in the UK. Whilst the country's ability to deal with those of us less able to cope with trappings of our own minds than others is one of its great shortcomings, mental health awareness campaigns do seem to be gaining some kind of traction, and I can only hope that this is followed up by affirmative action on mental health, for people at Cambridge and everywhere.

Saturday, 2 August 2014

The Art of Not Quite Falling Apart: Why Seemingly Disparate Music is Great for the Same Reason

MF Doom would seem to have nothing to do with The Libertines. Likewise, The Libertines and Four Tet. However, in my opinion there is one theme which unites all three of the artists which I've just mentioned. This theme is also the thing which makes each of them great.

When Four Tet's Fabriclive mix was released in 2011, it came as a surprise to some that he devoted almost the entirety of the mix to little known UK garage gems from a decade previously. Usually known for his genre hopping sets (this was a man whose DJ Kicks mix had included both Curtis Mayfield and So Solid Crew for chrissakes), it seemed unusual for him to restrict himself to one sound. However, in many ways it made perfect sense. In his output as Four Tet, the man known to his mother as Kieran Hebden has progressively produced music more and more indebted to various strains of UK dance music over the past decade or so. Far greater than this however, is the influence of the broken rhythms of UK garage and jungle on his output. The off kilter beats of UKG, with its shuffling hi-hats and irregular kick drums, are clearly reflected in the highly syncopated drum tracks of his work. That Hebden has worked closely with jazz drummer Steve Reid can come as no surprise to anyone who has ever listened to a Four Tet record.

Hebden's best productions tread a very fine line - his beats are often so syncopated it sounds as if everything could rattle loose at any moment. One element of syncopation is groove; this is a term used to describe a slight offset of rhythm tracks from the exact beat or half-beat. Without groove, productions can sound lifeless and robotic. Four Tet pushes groove to the maximum, achieving  highly irregular drum patterns which are often offset by mesmerising pretty melodies.

This approach to cadence and rhythm is followed in a different way by MF Doom, whose rap style sounds as if it is always on the point of tripping over itself. The emphasis in his syllables is often placed away from the beat in the instrumental track, and even when it's on the beat, it's not quite on the beat. This doesn't mean that DOOM isn't a technically gifted rapper however, it takes a lot of skill to actually pull this off in the booth without sounding kind of pathetic. And lumbering though his deep voice may sound, the cadence is actually surprisingly fast; how a man so large can spit so many syllables in such a short space of time is beyond me. Listen to Meat Grinder an try to match the vocal flow the beat. It's incredibly difficult to reconcile but somehow sounds just right, a real white knuckle ride between the strikes of the rhythm. Generally the use of syncopation in hip hop is an important part of the genre; rhythm is really nothing without it. Stories of producers such as J Dilla programming beats without using quantising (the process whereby human played beats are snapped to a discrete set of points on a musical timeline before groove is reapplied) abound. DOOM's style then is just an exaggeration of this feature of the genre.

Unfortunately DOOM's flow is something that often doesn't translate particularly well live. Even when he's not sending impostors to perform in his place (no, really), gig reports are often scathing. I personally saw him in Birmingham a few years ago and although I love his recorded music, his live show was a shambles. DOOM didn't even appear bothered; it was as if he just wanted to get the whole thing over with, get his money and go home.

This in fact gives MF DOOM two things in common with The Libertines, who have admitted that their recent Hyde Park gigs were staged solely for the filthy lucre. The gigs themselves were by all accounts pretty shambolic, with mumbled lyrics and snuffed guitar solos a key feature. That they claimed to have rehearsed only for an hour prior to such an occasion is only true to form. This has always been part of the Libertines shambolic charm. Whether they were burgling each other's houses or making records that sounded as if they were tossed off in an afternoon between drinking sessions (they probably were), verging on the edge of (Baby)shambles was always exactly what they were about. Their ability to walk this line is why their Hyde Park gigs rapidly sold out, and it's the lack of this ability in their members other projects which means they're largely ignored. I didn't even know that Carl Barat's dreadfully dull Dirty Pretty Things had disbanded in 2008, or that Doherty's truly shambolic Babyshambles had released an album last year, until I began researching this piece. Perhaps it's the ability of the pair to anchor each other in the middle ground that means they can walk the tightrope that they do, a kind of musical Julian Barrett and Noel Fielding if you will.

With this in mind, you might think that a collaboration between the other two artists in this piece would itself fall into shambles, surely the syncopation of Four Tet combined with the arrhythmia of DOOM's vocals would be too much for one record to stand? Apparently not, as Four Tet's remix LP of DOOM and Madlib's Madvillain project attests. Somehow this meeting of minds too manages the art of not quite falling apart.

Monday, 21 July 2014

Tomorrow evening with Google

Whenever I can, I always try to catch the lift with Marcus when work’s done. He’s the janitor for our floor, and whilst I don’t really like him, his Google room temperature is way, way lower than mine. Spending time with him is the standout part of my day, and I will happily chat crap to him just so I can feel something close to a breeze on my face for half a minute.

When I leave the building I normally turn left like Maps tells me to – it’s a quick route and it cuts through Paternoster square so it’s always lively, and I’ve got yesterday’s lap time on display to keep me on my feet. It can get kind of annoying when other people are obviously doing the same thing, especially when you’re weaving between groups and then you come head-on with someone else slipping through, and it throws you so much you lose like two seconds on your clock.

I really hate that as it kills my badge run. If I remember to call out for a photo I’ll put their face in BitchslApp later on and just keep backhanding them while I eat dinner. It normally pays off as I get my best SlapStreaks when I’m already kind of wound up, so I get something to throw on Twitter before bed. I don’t think I’ll ever beat my 54 Slap Happy run though – that guy’s face just called for it, and I don’t care if he cried about it on Reddit after. He shouldn’t spend so much time stalking random accounts.

Evenings are pretty boring at the moment, especially if I’ve got no scores to show, and I spend a lot of time just browsing people from uni on Facebook (with OneWay installed obvs). I’ve got Buzzfeed set up to hit me with bundled notifications on any stories I missed while I brush my teeth, so I’m sped up on the news. I’m finding I want to stay up to date a lot more these days.

Sleep comes pretty easy since the new Android update; the shift in Flux is much less harsh on my eyes which is really nice – I finally get all the fuss from the iOS crowd, but if I’m really struggling I’ll sometimes load up Rainymood to cancel out the room.

Dreamscape’s latest series of work scenes are really useful, and I’m finding that my productivity is actually at its best during sleep. I make sure each dream ends with a prompt to activate YogaMate for 6am – obviously I could set an alarm but I like the transition in-dream. It just feels more natural.

Friday, 30 May 2014

The Amazing Yes Men

June 23, 1989 saw the release of Tim Burton’s Batman. With its dark palette, gothic atmosphere and clear references to Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke, there’s a strong argument for the film being the first ‘modern’ comic book movie. It stood apart from Richard Donner’s earlier, camp efforts with Superman and carried a rather less family-friendly certificate. However, with its carefully timed blitz of promotional comics, action figures, collector’s items, high street store events and rushed out videogames, there’s absolutely no denying that Batman was the first real instance of ‘event’ cinema. For a few weeks, Batman’s iconic emblem could be found on posters, Prince soundtracks, stationary and more. There was no escaping the movie – and why wouldn’t you want to be a part of something that was seemingly everywhere? Such heavy exposure played no small part in a tidy $400 million at the box office, against a now laughably small budget of $48 million.

The Dark Knight’s decisive role in contemporary Hollywood is twofold.

As a kid, I loved event cinema. When that sudden rush of marketing hit, you felt like something big was just round the corner – and when dealing with films like Jurassic Park and Toy Story, the sudden explosion of interest seemed more than warranted, the films themselves the satisfying end note to a brief frenzy. Even the marketing for Avatar – possibly the last Hollywood film to employ this promotion technique – caught my attention, and gave some sense of scale to the film. Given the end result, I’m sure it’s Avatar’s position as event cinema that helped contribute to many seeing the film as exactly that – an event. People don’t really seem to view cinema in that same way any more.

Contrast this to the rumblings coming through from Warner Bros. regarding their latest take on Batman, a film we recently learned had the mealy-mouthed title of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. The grand unveiling of film’s moniker and logo came a week after the internet got its first glimpse of Ben Affleck in the cape and cowl, with Wonder Woman actress Gal Gadot simultaneously teasing her forthcoming costume reveal across Facebook and Twitter. There’s a small peak in interest and discussion around the suit, and then everyone’ back to waiting for the next tidbit to drop. And this is how we’ll all continue acting until May 6, 2016, when Batman v Superman arrives in cinemas and we all immediately hop trains to start chasing info on the Justice League movie.

Hollywood cinema has swapped out the one-two punch of event cinema for a new tactic – one where we’re all endlessly chasing after a carrot dangling before us promising something more. Sometimes that carrot is a blurry set shot, sometimes it’s a 30 second teaser for a two minute trailer. Often, it’s a two hour movie that feels somewhat incomplete, but we’re okay with that, because there’s the implicit understanding that it’s just building towards something better. So what if Thor was awful? It’s just so we can all have the scene set for The Avengers. And hey, if you’re saying The Avengers came off as rushed and clunky, with a whole load of cheap scenes on a heli-carrier countering the expensive city finale, just wait until you see how much more intense The Avengers 2 is gonna be!

Regardless of your stance on the relationship between marketing and cinema, there’s surely something damaging about shifting cinema in such a way that it no longer acts as the lynch pin for the marketing, but is instead just another channel in the mix? To be clear – Batman v Superman isn’t The Man of Steel 2­, and it isn’t the new Batman film either. Its own title is quite earnestly stating that it’s nothing more than a prologue for Warner Bros. own Avengers analogue.

(On a side note, what does Dawn of Justice even mean? How does that play out in the film?


As the camera pans the horizon, all is again calm, with only a sobbing Lex Luthor cradling his now balding head breaking the peace. Super-Cavill steps forward from the wreckage, and approaches a moody Batfleck who’s subtly flexing even though the battle’s already over.

BATFLECK: I was wrong about you, Cavill-man. We’re fighting for the same thing.

SUPER-CAVILL: Yes, for what’s right.

Batfleck jerkily grasps Super-Cavill’s hand to shake it, as Wonder Gal approaches the pair, shaking city debris from her shoulders.

BATFLECK: For what’s just.

Wonder Gal places her hand over both of theirs and gives them a smug half-smile. The camera pauses to observe her glinting canine.

WONDER GAL: Together, in league.

Batfleck suddenly looks to the sky, his moody countenance broken by the sheer joy of what he’s realised, and what it means for the three of them. A single tear breaks from his eye and washes away the dirt from his face.


Cue score)

These films are just components in a marketing plan, where things are broken into ‘Phase 1, 2 and 3’, future releases speculated upon before their prequels are even out the door. They follow house guidelines, so much so that directors become interchangeable and their names moot. Did Thor feel like a Kenneth Branagh film to you? Was Ant Man looking like it was still going to carry Edgar Wright’s distinctive style when he finally left the project after eight(!) years, citing creative differences (only to be shortly followed by Drew Goddard, leaving Daredevil without a director also?)

For these films-as-marketing-channels to work, they need Yes Men – the kind of directors that do just what the studios ask, or else bow to the money and let the suits run the editing suite. This is why Marc Webb’s fingerprint is almost invisible on The Amazing Spider-man 2, and why the film’s premiere was quickly followed up by a mobile phone app revealing sneak previews of the Sinister Six. Who needs room to breathe when the next train’s already started pulling out of the station?

Tuesday, 27 May 2014

The Amazing Spider-man 2 Review

What happens when a film comes along and smashes it at the box office, despite studio execs swearing it off as a total dud and setting up damage control before it’s even out the gate? A major tentpole film that, from its onset, was really just a way to keep a big brand in-house, and prevent it from falling back into the hands of its (now highly profitable) owners? A film that, despite this, still managed to sneak in moments of real charm and awe amidst the frankly dire scripting and bureaucratic influence – largely thanks to its inspired central casting and left-of-field choice of director?

If the answer you’re hoping for is: “the execs clapped everyone on the back and left them alone to make whatever movie they liked”, unfortunately your future career in Hollywood just got laughed out onto the long bus ride home. If you instead opted for “the studio made sure they got their claws in real good for the factory-line sequel and marketed that fucker to kingdom come”, you’re gonna make a lot of money and very few friends. You were also likely involved in the processing of The Amazing Spider-man 2, the latest attempt to turn cinema into a two-hour promise of future satisfaction (way, way down the line). Largely starved of the idiosyncrasy that saved its prequel from being a dud, ASM2 is disappointing in soullessness.

Picking up where we left off last time, Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) is having the time of his life as Spider-man, throwing out quips left, right and centre as he careens through New York’s skyline. When not wearing the mask however, Peter has to juggle his on/off relationship with Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone) against the answers to his parents’ fates and sudden return of former best friend Harry Osborn (Dane Dehaan) – a man with his own share of problems. Confusing things even further is the unfortunate transformation of loner Max Dillon (Jamie Foxx) into the neon-blue Electro – a walking lightning bolt who finally has the power to strike back against a world that ignored him.

I have to be frank – just thinking about ASM2’s various plot threads is making my head hurt, but thankfully the film spends almost two and half hours languidly moving across them – plenty of time to let them wash over you and leave you wondering when exactly things are actually going to happen prior to the “game-changer” climax. This is paint-by-numbers plotting in its worst form, setting up future franchise spin-offs and sequels with nary a hint of character or consistency in the here and now.

Case in point – Andrew Garfield’s Parker somehow wavers between valley boy and techno genius as the plot demands it, with the only real moments of solidity for his character coming when he’s wearing a mask (oh if only this were some metaphor on growing up) or stood alongside Gwen. The film’s romance thread continues to hold much of the charm for the franchise, though here it no longer has the room to breathe as allowed in ASM1, and suffers for getting caught in the tide of studio manoeuvring. More generally, the film darts confusedly between the more ‘realist’ tone of its predecessor into lazy comic scripting ala Shumacher’s Batman and Robin, failing to ever find the heart it desperately needs. Dane DeHaan’s excellent performance as Harry almost pulls it out of the bag, but the ‘necessary’ twist to his tale ensures anything emotive there gets side-lined for BIG TIME FUN / a brutal example of throwing a woman in the fridge.

Much like its dark twin Spider-man 3, ASM2 does at least manage to dazzle on the SFX front, and whilst most of Electro’s narrative is frankly cringe worthy, his climactic transformation into a bodiless avatar of electricity, able to travel through mains adaptors and create light collages of his face amongst Manhattan’s skyscrapers, points toward a sense of personality the film could have played a hell of a lot earlier. Instead, most of the film’s critical plot points prior are all signposted by the sudden swell of hellish indie-pop, as Sony’s latest signees all get their turn to soundtrack the “hot new Spider-man film BOOYAH!”.

So what if I’m being harsh? The traces of genuine character in this film are forced to go down like shards of glass in a poisoned chalice, and I defy you to tell me that Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci are capable hands for any script ever. Forget Age of Extinction – we already got this year’s Transformers stand-in.

(And if you think I've finished with my soap box just yet - har har are you in for a treat! Factory line franchises are forcing Hollywood cinema into a black hole, and it's all thanks to The Amazing Yes Men. Look out for the article later this week)


Tuesday, 4 March 2014

I Might Buy That for a Dollar: Robocop Review

The story of José Padilha and RoboCop is, by many accounts, an unhappy one, so troubled by studio interference that Padilha supposedly swore off another stint in Hollywood. Parsing the rumours suggests the usual story of studio mandates systematically headbutting artistic intentions - a tale further dogged by the fact that many feared Padilha’s sensibilities would stray too far from the bite of Paul Verhoeven’s original.

The 1987 RoboCop is a classic example of Reaganite cinema, satirically taking the excessive living and unfiltered ambition of the Baby Boomer generation to its soul-destroying endpoint. It comfortably sits with the likes of Videodrome and Wall Street as enduring touch points of the period - an accolade any remake would struggle to replicate. 

Yet, for all of this, the fearful accusations hurled at Padilha’s take on the run up to its release could just as easily be hurled at the original franchise’s increasingly hollow sequels; Irvin Kershner’s RoboCop 2 is the rotten byproduct of the original’s cynicism eating itself whole (and, in hindsight, the first signpost of writer Frank Miller’s descent into madness), whilst the turgid third feature was little more than a two hour marketing exercise (oh, the irony!). The franchise is by no means a sacred cow, and, for all of its differences, RoboCop 2014 manages to be far truer in spirit to the original than any of its later iterations, though remains fundamentally flawed.

Part way through the 21st Century, the American OmniCorp company dominates in the field of robotics and AI, yet whilst their medical innovations continue to see success on home shores, the company’s series of highly effective robot soldiers are limited to foreign peacekeeping, when the real money lies in civilian law enforcement. Public opinion, however, is strongly against justice being dealt out by merciless robots, but a timely accident for policeman Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman) gives OmniCop CEO (Michael Keaton) and beleaguered scientist Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman) the chance to circumvent governmental sanctions by putting a man inside a machine, swinging public opinion enough to ensure lucrative future contracts with Police Departments across the country.

Joshua Zetumer’s script again uses its future narrative to address the concerns of the day, but here, privatisation and big living take a back seat to manipulative marketing and PR, with RoboCop purely designed to acclimatise the public to robots before rolling out pre-planned “advanced” models (a wry extension of our complicity in buying products designed to be replaced each successive year), though beyond this, what Padhila really seems interested in is the frustrated marriage of man and machine; something touched upon only very broadly in Verhoeven’s take.

Wrestling as he does against his RoboCop persona, Kinnaman’s Murphy is rather more developed than Peter Wellers’, and comparisons to The Wizard of Oz’s Tin Man abound as Murphy is forced to fight ever harder to keep his “heart”. Unfortunately, whilst there’s some interesting stuff going on here, the PR tack is far more engaging, with Keaton chewing up the scenery as a camp CEO with a head for selling. For all of his soul searching, Kinnaman’s Murphy ultimately lacks that real bite we need to rally against Omnicorp’s steady war of attrition on his sense of being. Ultimately the film doesn’t commit enough time or attention to either strand, and by the end credits leaves both as promising avenues only half explored.

Yet the fact that RoboCop decides to do its own thing rather than just being slavish to the original is really to its credit, and whilst it doesn’t even attempt to run with the anarchic vein of black humour coursing through the original, it does make the occasional nod toward it in Samuel L Jackson’s superb jingoist commentator Pat Novak. On its own terms, RoboCop is an alternately interesting and plodding re-take on the tale that shouldn’t be outright dismissed. Nevertheless, watching it reminded me of just how desperately contemporary cinema needs the same kind of bitter medicine Verhoeven and his peers were so good at administering in their hey-day. Where is our generation’s Videodrome?