The Man In The High Castle (TV Series) – Reviewed

Published November 29, 2015 by tootingtrumpet

MITHCNote – this review contains no spoilers.

In a phildickian world, much is familiar, but much else is different, knocking us off-balance, surprising us, but more importantly challenging us, to re-examine our own world and our agency within it. It is this demand that we be defined (wherever we find ourselves) not by who we are, but by what we do, that underpins many of the ideas that weave in and out of Philip K Dick’s writing and the growing number of adaptations of his once easily dismissed works. The most succinct statement of this quasi-religious aspect of Dick’s thinking is this famous scene from Total Recall; the most thoroughgoing is found in the sublime short story, Human Is.

There’s plenty of this stuff (and more recurring Dick enthusiasms such as the I Ching, paranoia and non-reality) in The Man In The High Castle, an Amazon Prime adaptation of an early novel, unusually for Dick not science fiction, but alternative history. This follows the basic plot of the novel (with some significant changes), includes many of the same characters and, of course, explores Dick’s uneasy relationship with perceptions and truth. It is set in a eerily authentic post-War world in which the United States is divided between the triumphant Axis Powers (after Heisenberg had won the race to build the H-bomb and the Nazis had dropped it on Washington DC). Films are emerging of an alternate reality in which the Allies won, the Resistance running them to the mysterious Man In The High Castle avoiding the SS who, acting on Hitler’s orders, will stop at nothing to intercept these reels.

Dowloaded as ten one hour episodes, there are inevitably spells when the plot drags a little and is over-complicated (but so is the novel, to be fair) but the series remains compelling as a result of two key storytelling elements that television may now deliver more consistently than film.

The ensemble acting is excellent, the standouts being Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa as the Japanese Trade Minister who carries sadness in his soul and is guided by the I Ching but also his understanding that men can shape their own fates within their destinies. There is a beautiful stillness to much of his performance, the tilt of his eyes telling us all we need to know about what’s going on behind them. Rufus Sewell may begin as a caricatured ruthless SS Officer, but, though he never loses that frightening overarching power, Sewell manages to make us empathise with him as he wrestles with his competing motivations: love for The Reich and how it feeds his ego and love for his family, an apparently picture-perfect Nazi unit.

But the real stars of this show are the production designers who have created a chilling, yet strangely beautiful world in which the delicate structures of traditional Japanese design are being overwhelmed by German technology exemplified by its rocket-planes, its huge buildings and rooms and (off-stage, but ever present) its bomb. Even the beiges and browns of the dinghy homes and workplaces of “the Whites”  are lit wonderfully well and nothing is grimy, even if it doesn’t exactly sparkle. I’ve never enjoyed CGI, but watching it in HD on a small screen, it complements rather than overwhelms the action. (There are lots of in-jokes too with references to Taxi Driver and The Stand and some drolly deadpan re-workings of events like the Kennedy Assassination to keep the viewer on their toes).

There are plenty of the twists and turns one can expect in a thriller, but there’s an underlying intelligence and depth to the big ideas that are ever-present just below the surface and, more often than expected, bubble upwards to drive the story forward. This Amazon Prime Original Series (watch it with the free 30 day trial) is not afraid of pushing its audience, who will be rewarded with something not quite unique, but richly rewarding in its otherness. And, like all the best dystopian works of art, it makes our own world feel that little bit fragile – and that little bit more worthy of protection.

(The photograph is my 25 year old paperback, the cover design of which falls somewhat short of 2015’s standards!)


Amy – Reviewed

Published July 6, 2015 by tootingtrumpet

awAmy Winehouse lived all her adult life in the 21st century and handheld cameras and phones filmed much of it. There are the girly teenage birthday parties, the holidays in Spain, the shaky shots of her waking up in the back of a car on a road trip with mates. It’s ordinary stuff really – maybe a few more cigarettes and a bit more booze than average, but nothing much that any of us didn’t do as kids.

Except the moment that, at 14, she starts to sing… and that familiar voice is there, fully formed, filling all the space with its fragile frankness, the jazz, the soul and the pain innate rather than learned. Like the teenage Michael Jackson, her singing seems informed by adult emotions and by an adult world that would be both saturated with success, but also slashed by the dread power of celebrity. No wonder the record companies and promoters were goggle-eyed at this tiny funny Jewish girl from North London, who spoke like she had just come out of a bog-standard local comprehensive and sang like she had just come out of a New Orleans nightclub.

Asif Kapadia uses only contemporary film to tell his story of Amy Winehouse, stitching together home movies, backstage material, news clips and concert footage to bring us close to our subject – so close, you half expect to turn round and see her sitting behind you. What emerges is a portrait of a life that provokes feelings of anger, admiration and sorrow – and an uneasiness about our role then, and now. Amy’s troubles – her bulimia, her hedonism and her emotional rollercoaster of a love life – are the engine of her art: crudely put, if you want Amy’s songs (and she did – she really did) then you want Amy too, and all that comes with that.

The music weaves in and out of the narrative, lyrics written on the screen (often in Amy’s own beautifully controlled and rounded hand) – and what the songs say is the same as what the images say. The songs are the woman and the woman is the songs.

If that’s the admiration, the sadness comes from the slow motion car crash that unfolds before you. The life and soul of the party after half a dozen drinks, is unable to stand up after a dozen more; the courage and vivacity that lifted her from East Finchley to global stardom becomes a liability when the absence of an off-switch takes her into some dark places full of false friends; the hideous knowledge that, amongst all those people that loved her, not one loved way in the precise way required to save her, nags at you from start to finish. And the anger – what do you do with the anger? The main villains are the two men she loved with an uncontrollable passion: the father, whom she never stopped trying to please despite his dismally misjudged attempts to balance his needs with hers; and the boyfriend / husband, who fed her voracious appetites for sex, drugs and rock and roll – which, conveniently, were his driving passions too.

Could not this woman who would stare deep into her own soul to write and then sing those songs, not see through these men’s mere veneer of care for her wellbeing? I suspect she could, but she couldn’t stop the worship of them – no off-switch again you see.

But we’re complicit too, not just in wanting the music, not just in laughing along at the late night comics’ gags about Amy’s carousing (I don’t think I’ll ever so much as smile at a cheap gag at a 25 year-old’s expense again), but in our noses being pushed further and further into her life – through the vector of the papparazzi’s lens that tortured her. And, the irony is that we only really come to know just how dangerous the flashlight can be for a woman who needs space, time and love, through those very images that make up the film’s blazing, brutal second half. Its nadir comes with the footage of her dead body, barely covered by a blanket, being carried from her Camden home to a private ambulance – a broken bird that will fly no more. We didn’t need to see that… yet, somehow, we did.

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.



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