Music Mondays: Sonia Stein

   Welcome to the start of the week!

   Today's Music Monday is a post dedicated to the sultry vocal stylings of London newcomer Sonia Stein.

   "Friendly Ghost" (video embedded below) is a powerful tour-de-force of understated longing boasting a controlled and emotive vocal line. Produced by Liam Howe (Lana Del Ray, Marina and the Diamonds), the woozy, laconic mood of the piece is in keeping with his impressive discography so far and the timbre he creates perfectly compliments Stein's haunting voice.

   Stein's music is available to listen to on her Soundcloud channel and you can follow her on Tumblr and on Twitter too.

Film Review: Inside Llewyn Davis

   Often, whilst watching films, I will find lines from other movies, television shows or items I've read coming to mind, often with little rhyme or reason. During the opening minutes of the Coen Brothers' amazing latest feature Inside Llewyn Davis, it was the profoundly melancholy sentence put forward by Andy Bernard (Ed Helms) in the final episode of the American Office which perfectly captured the mood and sentiment of the film unfolding before my eyes: "I wish there was a way to know you're in the good old days before you've actually left them."

   In the instance of Inside Llewyn Davis, the "good old days" is the New York folk scene of the early 1960s, presented here with a warm, hazy nostalgic glow. The titular character, as portrayed by Oscar Isaac, is our "in" to this unique period in history - an age in which traditional song-smithery and counter-culture ideals began to mesh.

   Yet, despite Davis' incredible talents - as evidenced by his soulful performance which opens the movie -  his tale often feels like a case of being in the right place, but at the wrong time of his life. Pregnancy scares with friend's partners, an inability to find a job or home, a mouth which antagonises at will and a fondness for alcohol are in constant battle with his strong principles and steely determination. The "good old days" are about to pass Davis by and, whilst he's struggling to get his affairs in order, folk singers around him, novelty performers too, are about to make good whilst our protagonist is stuck in a rut, a self-inflicted purgatory of sorts. His resolve to make a living and find adulation on his own terms is often undermined by life choices which are often self-destructive.

   We first encounter Davis in a classic "morning after the night before" situation - his big mouthed heckling of an act have led to a beating in an alleyway whilst, just yards away in-doors, another folk singer is taking their first steps of an ascending path to stardom. At least, we imagine, things can't go any further downhill from here for our protagonist. Yet, as illustrated by one of the most cerebral oeuvres in American cinema history, the Coens' are more than merely a few steps ahead of the audience - they've plotted an entire labyrinth ahead of us, leaving breadcrumbs which lead to an unexpected conclusion (albeit one which they've signposted from the very opening frames). If this is the humdrum manner we first discover Llewyn Davis, where will his path lead and what does this ultimately mean?

   Inside Llewyn Davis is ultimately a film which questions the very notions of success, of our life's journey, and how we should define it. If folk music is all about principle and counter-cultural ideals, then why should "making it" rank so very highly on many acoustic troubadours' lists of aspiration - if capitalist reward is of no value, then why pursue it?

   Perhaps, despite being found beaten, we meet Davis' as a winner - someone stuck in a purgatory of his own creation, a moral man who would rather live in constant discomfort than surrender his ideals? Or maybe, like Billy Liar, despite a world of talk, Davis is scared to succeed, comfortable in his own squalor rather than chance failure through effort. Whilst Sam Cooke sung, at around the time of the movie's setting, of vital changes about to come, there is very little in Davis' life that suggests his existence will ever stray from a circular path in which he's doomed to make the same mistakes over and over. His odyssey has no end in sight - his is a tale which was ever new, but never gets old; one stuck in stasis.

   Whilst it may have been a quote from The Office which inspired this article's train of thought, my feelings towards the movie simultaneously run in a contrary direction, ecstatic that I'm aware of how special the electric shadows of the Coens' latest movie are as they flash before me. Unlike Andy Bernard, it's almost impossible to not appreciate the extraordinary experience unfolding in present time - throughout Inside Llewyn Davis, the muscles at the corners of my mouth and my tear-ducts battled for supremacy over my face which remained dewy-eyed and adorned with a rictus grin from the opening frames until long after the screen had faded to black. The performances, particularly Isaac's and John Goodman's hilarious cameo as a pretentious jazz musician, are things of joy (with the lone exception of Carey Mulligan and her odd acting decision to shout every swear word and mumble all else), and it would be a strange review not to mention the lilting melancholic euphoria of the soundtrack produced by T-Bone Burnett alongside Marcus Mumford.

   Boasting all the hall-marks of a Coen Brothers classic, Inside Llewyn Davis also has the bonus of an added emotive layer, presented in the form of infinite moroseness, not as apparent in the rest of their work. As Llewyn Davis, forlorn and weathered, walks through mountains of snow, broken but propelled on-wards by stoic resolve, it is impossible not to be moved to the core - until one notices the snow-free, and easier to navigate, ground just yards to his side. If only he didn't so stubbornly chose to walk the hardest of paths at all times his journey wouldn't quite be such an odyssey.

Film Review: Her

   Many times, the most intense love stories take place solely in the mind. As humans, we mythologise and fantasise - whether or not our love is requited, we create grand narratives, and place on a pedestal the objects of our affections. We often create identities for our suitors based entirely on what we want to see, rather than what is there - we lie to ourselves, follow confirmation bias to extremes and project illusions on to Rorschach canvases in order to satiate our hearts. Love, particularly for the loneliest of souls, is often an illusion or, at the very least, the projection of desperate hope. Love is, they say, a socially accepted insanity.

   Not too long ago talking to one's self in public would be considered a madness too. Yet, as technology and it's presence in day-to-day living has grown in it's omnipresence, we humans have taken to detaching ourselves from the world around us; we queue outside shops to purchase machinery which means we don't have to see life around us with our own eyes any more and we, en mass, make public displays of grief when a man who sells us these machines dies. Like composed feeling of love, these too exist to stave off loneliness - a mind attached to a machine, scrolling through endless reams of Tweets and viral videos, has no time to comprehend solitude or mortality. We fetishise the products that give us this freedom, this escape from loneliness and, oftentimes, eschew real companionship as we indulge ourselves with technology - it's not uncommon for men to sacrifice real intimacy in exchange for more time spent staring at non-judegemental screens.

   It is in this peculiar state of mind which Spike Jonze takes us with this fourth feature film Her. Joaquin Phoenix stars as Theodore Twombly - a remote, detached individual who makes a living writing articulate personal letters for those too busy to commit to composing their own notes. Yet, despite the warmth of his prose, Twombly seems to exist at a disconnect to the world which surrounds him, interacting much more with IT than with people. The only hope of making a connection in this life, having suffered an excruciating split from his soon to be ex-wife (Rooney Mara), comes in the form of the world's first artifically intelligent operating system who names herself Samantha (Scarlett Johansson). Lovesick and lonely, Twombly begins to fall for software which, despite its lack of physical presence, provides non-judgemental advice and companionship. He's a lonely heart, she is playful, flirty and shares the dry, throaty tones of Scarlett Johansson - their burgeoning relationship is almost inevitable.

   Like all romances, Theodore and Samantha experience all the emotions fallible humans suffer as they pursue love - insecurity, elation, jealousy and longing. To Theodore, his feelings are real but, to the audience, watching a man engage in something that looks and feels so similar to the love of which we are used to causes concern and sensations similar to "uncanny valley". As Phoenix's face radiates the joy that comes with the first flourishes of amour, we find ourselves entranced and bewitched - elation is contagious but, it would hardly take the most committed Luddite to become concerned and ill-at-ease at the blossoming relationship unfolding before our eyes. As Twombly begins to soar, spinning around in public with gleeful abandon, it's hard not to be touched by what appears to be euphoria but masks clear melancholy and an escape from sorrow which is steeped entirely in artifice. For those in society who seem unable to function if they leave home without their smartphone, Her may make for sobering viewing as we are asked to re-evaluate our relationships with technology. Is our reliance really healthy?

   Like Don Jon, Jonze feature is an astute look at how our perceptions can be warped through illusions presented to us and how often real life cannot match fantasies cultivated through our engagement with technology and new media. Yet, Her suffers from feeling rather cold and oddly distant - perhaps this is by design? Whilst Phoenix delivers a magnificent, emotive performance as the film's protagonist as we observe him leave depression behind and we see, through his eyes, the beauty of a man rediscovering the joy in his life (no matter how impermanent this may be), there seems to be little magic or humanity in the world around him.

   Whilst Jonze's debut and sophomore features (Being John Malkovic and Adaptation respectively) centred around grand ideas, his previous movie Where The Wild Things Are seemed a huge step forward for the director in terms of engaging his audiences on an emotive level. Her, in this respect, has much more in common with his first two films - concerned with exploring wider themes rather than the internal lives of the characters in his narratives. Here, we catch the glimpse of a soul named Twombly, lonely in crowds, struggling to find a connection in a shallow and empty world yet we don't really learn what drives him beyond sorrow. A film with a smart, witty, relevant theme but, like the operating systems found at the heart of the tale, there's no heart to be found behind the production.

Film Review: Blue Jasmine

   The funniest aspect of the recent career of Woody Allen has been the "return-to-form" label which is applied to each new film he releases before high praise is slowly withdrawn - from Cassandra's Dream to Match Point and Scoop, critics fall over each other to laud the latest release from the diminutive New Yorker before realising... perhaps the work ain't much cop after all?

   If, in the cold light of day, it's accepted that Allen's filmography is, as his biggest fan would agree, "patchy" or, as those less willing to indulge the director, sub-standard - surely his "form", his "consistency" ain't all that. As such, those who report on Allen's latest "returns-to-form" are usually inaccurate on at least two accounts.

   Blue Jasmine, then, is not so much a return to form for Allen but, simply, a continuation of the form he's displayed throughout his career. As a director, Allen is capable of pointing the camera at the character who is taking a turn at speaking but little beyond that. He's negligent to a degree which would be labelled amateurish or lazy were another name present in the movies' credits - it makes one wonder why his involvement in cinema extends beyond (or even to) screen-writing. Perhaps he finds catharsis in the process of film-making (rather than in the end product), but the haphazard and sloppy, clumsily plotted feature Allen has put his name to suggests that, perhaps at last, it's time to put the typewriter away once and for all.

   Cate Blanchett stars as the titular Jasmine, a fictitious version of the Queen of Versailles (or a retake of Blanche Dubois depending on one's perspecitve), a woman who lost everything in the global economic crash - her philandering husband (Alec Baldwin) faces jail due to his involvement into white collar crime and, as such, Jasmine leaves the high society of New York to spends the film's running time verging on complete emotional collapse living with her sister (Sally Hawkins) in San Fransisco. In order to escape her fate, Jasmine decides to try and find herself a new partner who can support her financially in the way her husband used to and targets Peter Sarsgard. There aren't characters in the film per se, but rather avatars on whom to hang plot device.  The working classes are goombahs and the rich billow and flounce - there's not an ounce of soul on display. Nothing much happens either with the exception of Jasmine's increasing bitterness towards her hosts - something mirrored by my own increasing bitterness to Blue Jasmine.

   It's very difficult to imagine why this movie exists. Over the course of the film, Allen touches fleetingly on the issues of class, corporate crime and even mothering, yet he, and the character's he gives voice to, have little or nothing to say in the way of insight - the script feels like a first draft, and an unfinished one at that. On top of this, Blue Jasmine feels like at least the tenth time Allen has made this film (albeit with different titles) such is the stasis his career has entered. There's a dispiriting feel of over-recycling here and one wonders if time would be better spent re-watching Hannah and her Sisters than wasting energy with this sub-par remake.

   The saying that unless we learn from history we are doomed to make the same mistakes applies perfectly to the filmography of Allen - as with all reviews, we should learn not to rush to praise (or damn) them simply because of who the creator is or we'll fear repenting in leisure. Judged by the standards of Woody Allen, Blue Jasmine is a fantastic example of his form; judged on an objective level, this is a flat, weary movie, a tiresome bore.
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