The Politics of Mad Max

Published May 17, 2015 by tootingtrumpet

guernica3When I first saw Mad Max, it seemed straightforward to my teenage eyes: a revenge movie, like the Charles Bronson vehicle, Deathwish or, more upmarket, Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. Yet it also seemed both less than those films (and their many imitators) since the exposition was perfunctory and the characterisation minimal; and also more, because we could fill in so much of the movie’s morality ourselves. The MM1 has something of Picasso’s Guernica about it, a montage of images through which violence is mediated, the impact not so much linear (as in narrative) but holistic (as images connect, then slide away). It helps that the film is remarkably beautiful to look at, every shot soaked in an exotically other Australianess that is also present in another violent movie that is much more than it appears on the surface, Chopper.

But what of Politics of Mad Max seen with eyes now 34 years older? Much has been made of Mad Max: Fury Road’s lead character, Charlize Theron’s Furiosa, a woman who, like Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle, would not take it any more. She doesn’t attempt to assassinate the President – instead she makes a break for a mythical rural idyll with his most prized possession: five women (The Wives) who look like they’ve wandered in from a Helmut Newton shoot (and, along for the ride, two men). One of those is Max himself, looking after Number One as usual, but more explicitly buying into Furiosa’s dream than he did Pappagallo’s in MM2. This may be the softening of Max’s heart by the recognition of a kindred spirit in Furiosa (and lest we forget, her extreme beauty, though he is unmoved by Newtonish models after a first lustful look), but it’s also an important clarification of Max’s motives as they have developed from MM1 through MM2 to MM:FR.

MM:FR is firmly fixed in the dystopian novel / film genre, but it is not nihilist in its depiction of its world. Not only does Max edge towards Furiosa’s idealism, Nux, the would-be suicide bomber, is also won over (perhaps a little too glibly) to Furiosa’s cause by the gentle hand of one of The Wives (and, a little, by his own disillusionment with his brainwashing). This may be just another re-working of John Lennon’s “All You Need Is Love” but it’s an important message about the redeemable nature of human beings, one all the more important in an age of religion-inspired terrorism when even a court in Boston can calmly sentence a man barely out of childhood to be executed by the State. The left-leaning viewer can have their qualms about MM:FR, but can also relax knowing that the film is, at the very least, open to an interpretation with which they can be comfortable.

MM2 is the most conventional of the three films under discussion (click here for my reviews of MM1 and MM2 and MM:FR), a conventional tale of a town under siege needing heroic sacrifice to be saved. The good guys are recognisably modern democratic people, fighting anarchy not with greater anarchy or authoritarian clampdowns, but with the solidarity that a shared and decent culture brings. The key question is whether you believe that Max knew what he was doing when he offered to drive the rig in the final chase – I suspect he did, seeking redemption for his failure to protect his own child in MM1 by saving the Feral Kid, with his music box (the music box reappears in MM:FR, a nice touch). Again, a message that the politics of the Left (if not the politics of pacifism) can feel at ease with.

Which brings me back to MM1 – is it just another yarn about a vigilante standing in for a state that was too weak to protect his wife and kid? There’s plenty that says yes, including the greasy lawyers getting the bad guys off and the overwhelming outnumbering of the police by the crazies. But is there also a reluctance too, an absence of joy in Max’s retribution, a longing for the domesticity that has now gone forever, casting him out into the Outback, shutting out the bad dreamtime as much as he can? This is not the tease of “Do you feel lucky punk?”, it’s a hollowed out man, finding a way back to himself.

Well, maybe – but perhaps a leftist sensibility can only enjoy MM1 as a guilty pleasure – as it does American Sniper and many movies (and the novels of Evelyn Waugh and much else). Not so MM2 and MM:FR. For all the uber-violence, these movies bear messages that support a leftist Weltanschauung. Pleasures without the guilt.


Published May 16, 2015 by tootingtrumpet

CTWe have, of course, been there before, but, whether it’s a sequel, a re-imagining or a franchise reboot, the one thing we’re not expecting is new ground being broken. However, we do expect everything else to be broken and boy, does it get broken! The genius of Mad Max: Fury Road (apart from that twee punctuation in a film that piles ! on top of !) is that it gives you exactly what you expect yet still surprises you – or rather, awes you with its spectacle, its self-belief and its refusal to back off, even for a moment.

Max (a taciturn Tom Hardy, more early Clint than early Mel and, perhaps paying a little tribute, without a name until the very end) is still having flashbacks, the ghosts of his lost family still haunting his dreamtime, still on a road to nowhere. This time he’s much more one of a team though, Furiosa (Charlize Theron, who, shorn of her tumbling locks and provided with just Castrol GTX for make-up, has surely never looked more beautiful) his equal in all but his unshakeably nihilistic Weltanschauung. She’s doing the escape from hell into an unseen, unreliable nirvana that animated the Eloi (okay, wrong story, but they were definitely Eloi in MM2 and they are definitely Eloi again in MM:FR), but this time it’s not about the how they will flee, it’s about how they are fleeing.

So how does something that is pretty much a 120 minutes car chase not bore like a 120 second drum solo? Well, partly it’s due to the acting (Hardy and Theron get some great support from Nicholas Hoult and Hugh Keays-Byrne, back for another go after his turn as the Toecutter in MM1) but it’s mostly due to the car choreography and cinematography. Placing CGI at the service of the crew (and not the other way round, as is so often the case) allows director George Miller to deliver scenes of terrible beauty, nodding towards the likes of the legendary Hollywood stuntman, Yakima Canutt, ensuring that the whizzes and bangs never quite overpower the people. And, though it’s a tinge disappointing to know (and see) that the location is not the Australian Outback, teeming with hostile life, but Namibian desert, bereft of anything living, the wide shots are wondrous to behold, and so, so worth investing in a cinema seat rather that waiting for the DVD release, which will be flat beer after this heady brew.

Not everyone will like it – at times I felt the awful prospect of Zardoz looming into sight and there are plenty of parallels with Total Recall, but none of Paul Verhoeven’s wicked wit – but such are mere quibbles about a movie that was costed at $150M and puts every last cent on the screen for us to enjoy.

He’ll be back too, and it won’t take 30 years this time.

You can read my review of MM1 and MM2 here.


Published May 14, 2015 by tootingtrumpet
One man and his dog

One man and his dog

Every creature in Australia is out to kill you – and, in George Miller’s extraordinary debut movie, that applies to the human creatures as much as the spiders and snakes who have long been man’s adversary in the brutal Bush. There’s not much story in the Mad Max movies – they don’t need much – but there’s a visceral sense of place, of jeopardy and, in those faraway days before CGI, of reality.

I first saw Mad Max in “my mother’s” cinema in 1979 on my father’s recommendation (an unlikely one, given his general distaste for dystopian sci-fi shoot-’em-ups). Back then, it was perfectly possible to see a film blind, as tabloid newspapers didn’t review many movies, Barry Norman was only on BBC 1 once a week and there was, of course, no internet. And, at a time when multiplexes were just starting to be rolled out and a night at the flicks still comprised a B movie and main feature, you could see a lot of cultish stuff (so long as it wasn’t subtitled – that was for BBC 2 and probably a mite racy for Liverpool). Like most who saw Mad Max first time round, I emerged blinking and shaking after the ride of my life.

We knew more about Mad Max 2, the success of its predecessor making a star of Mel Gibson (not yet bonkers) and the marketing budget set for a mainstream blockbuster release. It was still a shock to the system, its tattooed, post-punk warriors feeling barely human at all in 1981. There had been nothing on screen quite like them before, although since there have been many imitators, especially in computer games.

Watching both MMs again now in a double bill on the big screen, the two films seem much more tame – but what they lose in visceral gut-wrenching thrillerdom, they gain in aesthetic pleasure. Everything looks perfect, from the low shots of the high brick walls of the police station in MM1 to the high shots looking down on the pathetic compound of the Eloi-like commune surrounded by their Morlockish enemies in MM2. Australia’s flat land, broken by its spiky rocks, and (especially) its huge sky sending forth that bright, bright light, has never been more integrated into a film and I include Walkabout in that. The big screen, the HD and the sound system of a 21st century cinema create literally different films than the ones you’re familiar with on DVD or Sky Movies. You can’t do epic on a 52 inch screen – but on a 52 feet screen? Well…

I had wondered whether it would be worth it to make the effort to see such familiar work again – and MM2’s plot is barely more fleshed out than MM1’s – but it was, it really was. Perhaps the same thinking can now be applied to the first two Terminator films and we can see those masterpieces on a double bill on the big screen to support its franchise’s summer reboot too. Indeed, why not reserve one screen on one day per week for a retro-evening giving us 20th century classics in a 21st century cinema. Let’s start with Apocalypse Now and Aguirre – The Wrath of God: because that’s definitely not just messing about in boats.

X + Y Reviewed

Published March 14, 2015 by tootingtrumpet

XYThough you know it’s coming as it’s been signposted like Chekhov’s Gun, there’s a real gut churner in the last ten minutes of X + Y – and, for an old seen-it-all type like me, that’s irrefutable proof that this film is a notch or two above the “awkward geniuses at Cambridge” fare that will follow the successes of the award-laden Turing and Hawking movies.

Our hero this time round is Nathan (Asa Butterfield in a nicely understated performance), a kid with more baggage than Heathrow at 7.00am on a Monday morning. No dodging the doctors here – we’re told upfront that Nathan is autistic – and he’s soon locked into his own world, with the patterns and predictability of numbers providing all the company he needs. He’s dealing with more than the spectrum, as if that wasn’t enough!

But the kid can do maths like Mozart could do music, so he’s soon on his way to Taiwan for a brutal selection boot camp for Team GB’s squad limbering up for the International Mathematics Olympiad (to be held in Cambridge – natch). There he meets kids even brighter (and even more extreme) than he is, which lends him some perspective; but his life really changes when he’s paired off with Chinese hopeful Zhang Mei (Jo Yang, who has plenty of everything needed to break down any teenage boy’s defences). Nathan learns that some things in life don’t reduce to binary numbers and edges towards the empathy that his autism has denied for so long.

It’s easy to spot a little Harry Potter here, a soupçon of His Dark Materials there and a light sprinkling of Spellbound (the Spelling Bee movie), but, somehow, the movie cliches (and they do keep coming) glide past painlessly. That’s a testament to highly impressive cinematography from Danny Cohen, who captures the contrast between urban Taiwan and the straight lines of the classroom with an elegance that made me very pleased that I was watching the film in a cinema. Praise too for Rafe Spall and Sally Hawkins as Nathan’s teacher and mother, two characters who made me groan when introduced – they might as well have been written with a cookie-cutter – but two splendid performances carried an over-familiar subplot along with aplomb.

Perhaps the best recommendation for the movie comes not from me but from my two teenage boy mathematicians (they’re not at Nathan and Zhang Mei’s level, but they’re good). Asked if they liked it, they drawled “Yeah – it was good. Yeah” which is about as much as one can wrench from boys aged 14 and 17. Then I thought a bit and realised that they had hardly moved through the film’s 111 minutes – no squirming, no grabbing for their drinks, no kicking off shoes. That told me that they identified with and cared about the boy on screen and those trying to relate to him. And I hope, when their turn comes to step out of their comfort zones as life “gets complicated”, they’ll recall this film’s central message – because sometimes the best things in life just don’t add up, no matter how much maths you know.


Published January 18, 2015 by tootingtrumpet
Bradley Cooper - or near enough

Bradley Cooper – or near enough

When I was a kid, Manifest Destiny was the stuff of Saturday morning kids’ telly. The Cowboys would hit the Injuns with firearms, knocking them dead (literally) and the Injuns would return fire with arrows, like the darts at the Ally Pally. My grandad once said about these 60s black and white American import series (and it’s stuck with me for forty years or more, so it hit home), “Nobody cares about those dead Injuns much do they?” No, they didn’t care much – not much at all.

If Clint Eastwood wasn’t in that cheap TV filler, he was in Rawhide, which probably wasn’t much different. And he’s been active in Republican Party politics for years – once interviewing an empty chair in some stunt or other to rile the Democrats. So, on saying, “Two for American Sniper please,” and shoving the card into the reader to pay, you have to leave your Guardian editorial-honed sensibilities behind at the popcorn stand. This is no documentary, no examination of the case for war, no even-handed inquisition into its impact on all combatants. So, rather like the grunts over there, you just have to get on with it.

What impresses is not the film’s “depth” – the impact of PTSD, the ebb and flow of the marriage of Bradley Cooper (good, but too charismatic surely) and Sienna Miller (not given enough to do – but, you know, by Clint), the buddies rubbing along – it’s the shallows of the film.

Well, not quite the shallows, but the surfaces. The battle scenes are photographed with real panache, the flat light that washes out all but the greys I last saw in American History X (another film with its problems) is back and doing the same job, twenty or so years on. The broken cities are given dignity by a camera that laments for their lost completeness and disdains the tiny humans ducking in and out of doorways and windows. Like the New York of The Warriors, the city overwhelms its occupants.

Good too is the camerawork on the action sequences – for once we feel present without feeling the seasickness attendant on the fast cut, wobbly handheld sequences that seem almost obligatory these days too. There’s CGI, but its unobtrusive, and lost in that light that just floods out such detail. Eastwood’s politics may have hardened over the years but so too has his confidence – this is a film-maker with nothing to prove (at least, technically) and it shows.

Ultimately, American Sniper shares a lot with (of all things) pantomime. It can be coarse and derivative, it demands that the audience buy into its conceits and it’ll attract plenty who will deride it (mostly without the benefit of actually seeing it). But grit your teeth, leave your politics in the foyer and enjoy a film that is more successful (on its own terms) than the other Oscar contenders I’ve seen and then see if you agree with me – if Clint does get the nod for best director, he’ll 100% deserve it.


The Theory of Everything – Reviewed

Published January 11, 2015 by tootingtrumpet
Jarvis Cocker and Christine Keeler - maybe

Jarvis Cocker and Christine Keeler – maybe

You know the form. Oxbridge actors filmed by an Oxbridge director while the sunlight dapples the honeyed college buildings and (probably Oxbridge) extras walk about quads looking, well, very Oxbridge. Nobody seems to do much work, money sloshes about and someone is overcoming extreme personal challenges. Between this caricature and its Mike Leigh / Ken Loach mirror somewhere up North with ex-members of 7:84 or Hull Truck Theatre doing the Oxbridgers’ roles, you might just be able to tell why I tend to cast a rather jaundiced eye at British films.

The Theory of Everything deserves better than that – just. It is distinguished by two splendid central performances from bee-stung lipped pretty boy turned twisting professor Eddie Redmayne and bee-stung lipped pretty girl turned saintly carer Felicity Jones (as Stephen and Jane Hawking). Both should feature in the upcoming awards jamborees with Redmayne well ahead of Cumberbatch for my money in the Eton vs Harrow old boys face-off. The principals are worth keeping an eye on (well, it won’t take much effort doing that I suspect) as both almost certainly have much more to offer in future projects having had to throttle back in the second half of the movie.

And that’s where the problem lies. For an hour or so, the love story under pressure is set against Hawking’s rapidly disintegrating body and burgeoning scientific career. Though (as the quip doing the rounds claims) there’s not much theory in the The Theory of Everything, there’s a sense of his genius, of the nature of academic work, of something unique. Hawking is funny too, but, apart from his atheism and Jane’s High(ish) Anglicanism, we’re told nothing of their backstories, so we do what we can to fill in the gaps with cues from accents, clothes and all the tedious markers of English class – because, well, it matters (even if it shouldn’t).

And, once Charlie Cox walks on the scene with a sympathetic eye and a sympathetic story of his own that made even me want to hug him, the film loses its extraordinary quality and becomes a rather conventional tale of two people drifting apart as they find the needs they had in their mid-twenties differ from the needs they have in their late-forties.

Hawking falls for a rather less rounded (if more curvy) nurse whom one is given to believe is not driven by the most noble of motives, and soon the removal men are in and the family photos are being divvied up. You end up pleased for the two of them really, as it can’t have been easy, and it’s especially heartwarming to witness the late, somewhat unexpected, reconciliation at Buckingham Palace. That said, it’s disappointing to have to flick the Wikipedia switch to find out that Jane is a professor in her own right having been seen for less than ten seconds actually studying her subject of Iberian medieval poetry (barely tolerated by the geekish men of course). At least she fares better than Alicia Nash, John Nash’s wife, in the dismal A Beautiful Mind, a film that shares much with this one though is inferior in all aspects.

That real-life events have been manipulated for dramatic effect (see this piece in Slate for some of those elisions and extensions) is fine by me – it’s entertainment, not history – but it’s a shame that the film falls away into something not far removed from a soap opera storyline. Perhaps, in the last 45 minutes or so, a little more E = mc^2 would made the time pass a little less slowly.



The Python Years: Diaries 1969-1979 by Michael Palin – Reviewed

Published December 25, 2014 by tootingtrumpet
Keeping matters in hand - on the set of Jabberwocky

Keeping matters in hand – on the set of Jabberwocky

I like diaries. Of course, there’s the frisson of excitement that comes with looking at anything forbidden, the pulling back of a curtain and the peek inside the life of another. But, aside from the voyeurism, three other structural qualities give the reader of diaries a real thrill.

Firstly, the roles of writer and reader are reversed. There is no omniscient narrator slowly revealing the plot to us, the denouement held back just long enough for that oh so satisfying resolution. It’s us, comfortably sitting in 2014, who know the diarist’s future not them!

Secondly, one is immersed in a permanent present, each day self-contained and as likely to butt up against Triumph or Disaster as any other day. And one can track one’s own parallel life too – the months and years at the tops of the pages as much a map for one’s own memory as for the entries of the writer.

Thirdly, one sees the doubts, the paths not trodden, the sheer chance of life explicitly – diarists do not plot a route to becoming Prime Minister at 45, they muddle through as much in thrall to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune as the rest of us. They’re lifted from our lives of opportunities missed or refused only partly by talent – it’s hard not to conclude that it’s as much luck, energy and boldness that defines a person’s life as the dead hand of socio-economic class etc etc etc.

These observations seem to cut through all diaries, whether the politics and positivity of Tony Benn, the decency and melancholy of Chris Mullin, the snobbery and gossip of Sir Roy Strong or the wit and tragedy of Kenneth Williams. So it’s no surprise at all to find them applying to Michael Palin’s Diaries, the first volume of which is an ascent from post-Oxbridge umming and ahhing to global megastardom with the Pythonic apotheosis, “The Life Of Brian”.

Palin is, of course, a notoriously decent cove, something that shines through on page after page. He sees the best in people and that sunny disposition means (as so often) people return the favour by seeing the best in him – he’s good company. He’s not without his frustrations: Graham Chapman’s boozing; John Cleese’s eye on the cash and a certain impatience with unionised film crews come through strongly; but nothing like as strongly as his respect for the talents of others. Though not prey to false modesty, Palin knows that his fellow Pythons are immensely gifted too and this combination of egos (incredibly) holds together on this gossamer-thin thread of multilateral respect, as they are tossed on the stormy seas of international fame. There is, of course, much to be said in any relationship for the ability to make one another laugh – and they never stop doing that.

Other names outside the magic circle flit in and out of shot: a charity football match vs Radio One, in which Ed Stewart plays a blinder in goal; The Secret Policeman’s Ball with Peter Cook’s virtuoso judgement on Jeremy Thorpe; George Harrison, all quiet decency and sly scouse humour. Nobody is given short shrift: even John Belushi (who surely can’t have been easy to work with, jetting in and out of Saturday Night Live) comes across well.

Insights pop up on almost every page. One of the best half-hour comedies in the BBC’s rich history of the format, “The Testing of Eric Olthwaite” was filmed between his father’s death and the memorial service a week later. Pre-Diana, that was the way things were. The now classic “Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life” that closes “Brian” was received “coolly” by the Pythons at a preliminary read-through. The brilliantly funny School Leopard in “Tomkinson” was an ad-lib, the sequence dropped in later.

There’s more, much more, as we sit in on the creation, execution and (though there’s rather more of it than I would like) marketing of some of comedy’s highest peaks. What’s remarkable is the willingness of the Pythons to maintain so much control over their work, regardless of its impact on their lives. Each of them write, perform and direct (or otherwise work on casting, editing etc) day-in, day-out, the inspiration seemingly on tap and available at 2.00pm – 5.00pm between a morning spent acting and an evening schmoozing potential investors. Perspiration trumping inspiration yet again on the production of great art.

Though in the late 70s, Palin and co are cushioned by substantial (but nothing by today’s standards) pots of cash (even travelling by Concorde can be hard work), the ordeals involved in filming “Holy Grail”, “Jabberwocky” and “Brian”, all of which demanded much of Palin’s good humour, physical fitness and will to succeed, the business of making films is gruelling and would break lesser men. Palin’s feet were fixed firmly to the ground by (it has to be said, cliche though it may be) dollops of Northern common sense, ordinary domestic arrangements (wife and three kids in North London house with Mini parked outside) and a keen curiosity in everything – the urge to travel, manifest in later life, pokes through the narrative regularly. Quite how characters less anchored than Palin survived such workloads is a story in itself – some, of course, did not.

There are few laugh-out-loud passages in the diaries – there seldom are in this format – the need to get things down at the start or the end of busy days with no time for rewrites is hardly a recipe for style. But the ordinary prose about extraordinary events leads to a rhythm that makes the volume unputdownable. I’ve already downloaded Volume II and I know I’ll do the same for Volume III.

Thanks Michael – see you again soon.


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