The Man in the High Castle

wwjxv2h0azrsnnh5pfp7I’m pretty sure I read the novel – but about 35 years ago – so I’d actually forgotten who the man in the high castle turns out to be in The Man in the High Castle, although it seems obvious once you see it.

Amazon’s production has had a long gestation, with Ridley Scott attached to it as executive producer. I think it started as an idea for the BBC, and thank goodness they didn’t make it, because they wouldn’t have spent enough on it. Then I think it was hovering around SyFy, as a four-parter, before finally fetching up as an Amazon Original.

Somewhere along the way it has ballooned from a four-part mini series with a beginning, middle, and end, into a 10-part series which leaves an opening for a sequel. If it has a flaw, it’s that it does feel unnecessarily stretched in terms of its action/plot ratio. It has the pacing of a Mad Men rather than a Blacklist, which depending on your taste might be an issue.

Along with lots of others, I watched the pilot a while ago, and I’ve been quite keen to see the rest. The opening episode sets up the premise brilliantly, with superb production design evoking an alternate 1962. The maguffin of the book, the stories, are transformed here into visual media (newsreels), and our lead character (Alexa Davalos as Juliana Crain) starts to investigate the mysterious alternate world they show. So this is both a period drama (1962) and science fiction (counterfactual history), rolled into one. In those terms, Amazon have done a stunning job in the mise-en-scène, from costume design through backgrounds, vehicles, hair, properties.

West of the Rockies, the US is occupied by the Japanese, so there’s a militaristic Kokutai (?) culture based around Imperial power. With the mountain states nominally neutral, the Eastern US is occupied by Nazi Germany, with Hitler still alive and ruling from Berlin. In terms of production design, then, the producers had three different looks to play with: a Japanese puppet state, a Nazi puppet state, and a grimly clinging on neutral zone. Action switches between the two puppet states, with characters from both flung together in the neutral zone.

All of which is set up in the first episode: what follows is a slowly unfolding plot with a large cast of characters, struggling for and against the occupying powers. In Germany, Hitler’s grip on power is loosening as he gets older, and a power struggle is erupting. Similar manoeuvrings are afflicting the Japanese and a very few brave souls are operating a resistance movement – or are they?

What I liked about this was that while the acting is great, there were very few ‘names’. The one person I recognised was Rupert Sewell as a truly sinister American Nazi who has to face up to the horrors of his own philosophy in a personal way.

The nominal plot (trying to track down these mysterious films and deliver them to someone) is less important than the overall atmosphere and the character drama, which involves 1984-style breaking of the human spirit mixed with love and betrayal. Mad Men is a good reference point, not just for the pacing of the show, but also the fact that it was a period drama (same era) which tried to encompass big ideas about culture within a show ‘about’ advertising. Man in the High Castle has nuance: not all the ‘bad guys’ are bad guys. There are a couple of strong female characters, too, though not as many as there could be.

I watched most of it over a weekend. It’s (potentially) Amazon’s Game of Thrones.

Talking of 1962, I went to see Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies, which was very good. Again, great production design and photography. But with my usual fussiness about digital projection and the screening experience, I found myself distracted by focus issues, jittery movements, and weird distortions at the screen edges. And it wasn’t even IMAX!

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The balcony

We persuaded my oldest to come away with us in the summer, guessing it might be a while before the whole family went on holiday together. She won’t be with us this Christmas, and who knows what she’ll be wanting to do next summer, after ‘A’ levels?

Anyway, it occurred to me that I might have taken my last balcony shot for a while. I’ve been getting the girls to pose on their grandparents’ balcony in Plancher Bas for years. I’ve mostly remembered to do at least one a year since the first.

Downloads of the Year, 2015 – music edition

300x300It has been a decent year for music, if not a vintage year. My one ongoing bugbear has been the lack of new product from many of my favourite female artists. It was an ‘off’ year for those still working, like Tift Merritt, Sara Evans, Martina McBride, Taylor Swift, Larkin Poe; and there was still no sign of anything from Faith Hill, the Dixie Chicks – and Trisha Yearwood has hidden her stuff away behind an ‘alternative’ non-iTunes service, and I just can’t be bothered to seek it out. As ever, I’m reluctant to sign up for yet another retailer who will bombard me with emails for my special valentine or dead relatives.

So it’s a male-heavy list you’re about to see, but not through any choice of mine. If there’s a story to this year it was the appearance of good music from people you’d long since have written off as retired or semi-retired. As with other years, it’s also the case that not everything I downloaded in 2015 dated from then. I recently discovered the Lo-Fi album, for example, which came out last year; and Jason Isbell’s earlier Southeastern came out in 2013.

10. Angels and Alcohol – Alan Jackson

Although this is not particularly memorable, and vied for 10th place alongside the not particularly memorable new one from Tim McGraw, I don’t think Alan Jackson can be faulted. His is a calculated sameness: each releases slotting in alongside the others, with similar production values, similar musicianship. A year down the line, you’ll be hard pushed to remember which album a particular track came from. His records still sound quieter than everyone else’s because he refuses to play the loudness game. Ten songs, a little bit of this and a little bit of that. Nothing to make you jump out of your car seat, but it sounds good. Three to download: You Can Always Come Home, Gone Before You Met Me, Angels and Alcohol.

darlene-love---introducing-darlene-love-cover-art_sq-9372c2dbe6e8d67cf27d39408a50d23597c2d8f1-s300-c859. Introducing Darlene Love – Darlene Love

I reviewed this not long ago. Produced by Steven Van Zandt, with songs by him, Elvis Costello, Bruce Springsteen, and others, this is a throwback in more ways than one. It’s a throwback to the Wall of Sound and Love’s belting vocals; it’s a throwback to the 70s, when Springsteen was a songwriter whose prolific writing was too much for his own needs, and so his songs would turn up performed by Robert Gordon, The Pointer Sisters, Southside Johnny, Patti Smith. This is a Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes album with guest vocals from the criminally overlooked Darlene Love, in the spotlight at last. Three to download: Forbidden Nights; Night Closing In; Just Another Lonely Mile.

1035x1035-ryanadams19898. 1989 – Ryan Adams

The bold stroke of recording the entirety of Taylor Swift’s recent 1989 garnered lots of column inches, but once the furore died down, was this album any good? Yes. Swift is a great songwriter, and while Adams is a limited performer in terms of his range and the speed at which he works (you can’t help thinking there might be some more creative arrangements here, given more time and a good producer), this is still one of the albums of the year. Three Four to download: Welcome to New York; Blank Space; Style; Out of the Woods.

7. Southern Gravity – Kristian Bush

How long before an ‘hiatus’ becomes a permanent split? Thinking of the recent events in Paris at the Bataclan, you can imagine how traumatic events might take their toll. When several ‘VIP’ fans were killed at a Sugarland concert in 2011, it probably didn’t occur to many (concerned as they would have been with the victims and their families) to consider the toll on the band themselves. To feel any sort of responsibility for those tragic deaths must be hard. Maybe it is better for them to record apart? I thought at first that Jennifer Nettles’ baby and solo album would be it, matched with this outing from the prolific Kristian Bush. But now Nettles is in the release cycle of another solo set (first single just out). Just as the Courtyard Hounds once seemed to be a side project from the Dixie Chicks, it seems the Sugarlanders are now solo artists. This is a fine set, and certainly had a good summer vibe in the middle of the year. Bush is a good egg, too, and you can feel that through all these tracks. A Decent record from a decent human being. Three to download: House on a Beach; Giving it Up; Southern Gravity.

kacey-musgraves-pageant-material-2015-billboard-650x6506. Pageant Material – Kacey Musgraves

I’ll say what I said before: I really like Kacey Musgraves. I like her vibe, her approach to music, and even tolerate her taste for kitsch and the Nudie-suited side of country music. She is a rhinestone cowgirl, through and through, with her own line in boots. After her well received debut, this is another solid set, though it doesn’t advance much in terms of sound or sophistication. But I can hardly criticise her for that when I praised Alan Jackson for taking the same approach. If you liked her first record, you’ll like this. Or start here, go backwards. She’s a Radio 2-friendly, globally oriented country artist who works hard and is reaping the rewards. (Some country artists don’t translate because their redneck anthems about trucks, beer, and girls, conceals a basic bigot.) Three to download: High Time; Pageant Material; Good Ol’ Boys Club

f9h3_CCcoversmall_15. Cass County – Don Henley

Again, I reviewed this recently. I was completely unprepared to like this as much as I did. I’m a lukewarm Eagles listener at best. Never particularly liked their dry production sound or their 96-part harmonies (joke), but the occasional track breaks through: usually one with Henley on lead vocals. This is a great country album: feeling as effortless as you’d expect from a consummate artist like Henley, and with a surprisingly hip selection of songs, including a Tift Merritt track: and I do hope she’s making shedloads of money off the back of it. Three to download: Bramble Rose; No, Thank You; Take a Picture of This.

4. Second Hand Heart – Dwight Yoakam

This feels like a blast from the past: but it was only released in April. Recorded in LA, using the legendary Capitol Records echo chambers for reverb, this set sounds both contemporary and retro. Yoakam sounds ageless, still doing his thing and doing it well. Like Alan Jackson, he knows his sound and he knows his audience. All of which adds up, I think, to timeless music – which is precisely what Alan Jackson and Dwight Yoakam are aiming for. It’s that sense of timelessness that makes great country music great. He went through a few years in the doldrums, but looking back, I’d say his most recent releases are better in almost every way than even his early Pete Anderson-produced albums. He’s a better songwriter, a better guitarist, and a better producer. Three to download: V’s of Birds; Dreams of Clay; Second Hand Heart.

jason-isbell-something-more-than-free-560x560-560x5603. Something More Than Free – Jason Isbell

Isbell is one of the artists who is breaking through in spite of being completely ignored by US radio. He’s been on telly, though, and it’s odd to think that you’re more likely to catch good music on a mainstream talk show than on a specialist radio station. His brand of country-folk-rock is low key but appealing to a broad audience. Thoughtful, if gloomy, lyrics, good production, and a vocal that wanders between plaintive and indifferent, in tune with contemporary attitudes. A Ryan Adams who takes a bit longer between records, who takes more time over production? Maybe that’s it. Three to download: If It Takes a Lifetime; 24 Frames; Something More Than Free.

chris_stapleton_cover_sq-c95dfdd7b91189234fb82aeac25260ccfc908efb-s300-c852. Traveller – Chris Stapleton

Yes, it’s here. Many column inches and stroked chins after his triumphant night at the CMA awards, but before that? Flying so low under the radar he was basically underground, Stapleton’s album garnered good reviews and zero airplay. The ‘tastemakers’ in radio, like Jon Snow, know nothing. Why not? Because they’re not tastemakers but corporate shills, playing what the conglomerates want them to play. Payola never really went away, did it? And the conglomerate behind Stapleton’s radio decided that he wasn’t pretty enough for radio? Or something. It’s hard to get your head around the logic. Established songwriter with an incredible singing voice; record company gives him a deal, records and releases an album, and then – nothing. It’s as if they wanted it to fail, so they could all agree that scruffy-looking male vocalists with beards just don’t belong in the modern music industry. Anyway, here it is, the almost-album-of-the-year. Three Four to download: Tennessee Whiskey; Traveller; Fire Away; When the Stars Come Out

On To Something Good – Ashley Monroe

Inevitable, I suppose, given how much I played this both before and after it came out, that this would be my pick of the year. Another Vince Gill-produced mini masterpiece. The slickness of this production may not appeal to everyone (especially those who come to country for ‘authenticity’), but this sounded so good to my ears that it became my go-to album for testing out wireless speakers in shops (something of an obsession). Because of the beautiful sound mix and the smooth, rolling rhythm section on the title track in particular, I just love hearing this played through a decent set of speakers. Since my oldest was a toddler I’ve actually not had anything resembling a hi-fi in my house, and as she approaches that time when she’ll actually be leaving home, I’m becoming more and more obsessed with having something to play music on. This summer, you could find me in Fnac, trying out rows of Bluetooth speakers at various sizes and price points*, playing the title track from this. This album in particular fuelled that obsession. I want to play it, and because it sounds so good it feels wrong to play it on a shitty speaker, or even through headphones. Three Four to download: On To Something Good; Weight of the Load; If Love Was Fair; The Blade.

  • The best? I think probably the Marshall Action comes a close second to the Nad Viso. But that may be because I’ve got a soft spot for the Nad brand, it having been my late lamented hi-fi, semi-destroyed by my daughter and sold on.

(I have a set of Wharfdale Diamond speakers in the loft, bought a good ten years ago and only ever used for a few months when I was first experimenting with music technology/recording and my current plan is to get a bluetooth-equipped amp to pair with them, but the cost would be the same as for the Marshall or the Nad, so no diff.)


08dd285525909f9577c56e9242e2967fCreating a mini-unit on Vietnam War poetry today, I came across this poem by SuAnn Doak, which I thought was pretty fucking good.

A furry eye opened halfway

in its dish of red petals

is what he paints,

every day, all day.

Each morning, a fresh canvas

glistens white

in the barred sunrise.

He flexes his hands

like a surgeon,

each finger playing

a concerto as he sits,

stares at the blank square.

Then he carves precise

red across white.

Why poppies? I ask.

He shrugs. They remind him

of humid red sunsets

on the Mekong,

red parasols carried

by Saigon whores,

of his buddy napalmed

near Soc Trang,

his eyes burned black

in his head, opened

like a red blossom.

That night, he dreamed

poppies sponging up blood.

The next patrol, he carved

skin like petals

from captured VC.

Now he paints poppies.

His fingers spread crimson

as the sun rises.

The poppy blooms.

Star Trek 2017 – graphic designers in space?

StargateUniverseCBS have announced that they’re launching a new Star Trek TV series in 2017, to be screened (in the USA) on their streaming service All Access. I wonder what that means for the UK? Amazon? Netflix? A CBS app on Apple TV? Sky Atlantic? I’d be surprised if any of the terrestrial broadcasters bothered with it. Anyway, people are already speculating about what form the new series would take, and in what era. On a ship with a crew? A space station with a crew? Would it be in the JJ Abrams reboot universe? It’s unlikely to tie too closely with the recent films – if only because the rights to the film franchise is jointly owned by Paramount and CBS.

This is something I’ve thought about before. The last Trek series that was decent, even if only in parts, was Voyager, and that was mostly for a couple of years at the beginning of Seven of Nine’s residency. Even Voyager had too many silly characters. Enterprise was disappointing, partly because it seemed like too safe a choice, and partly because they allowed it to be derailed by the 9/11-style attack on Earth and all the subsequent War on Terror nonsense. So the show died, in my mind, before it could really get going. Prior to all that, I never much liked Deep Space Nine, although some people do swear by it. I expect if I saw it again now it would be better than I remember. Apart from those Ferengi plots. And Odo.

TNG was also a mixed bag. Better after its creator died, but like most things probably overstaying its welcome.

My ideal new Star Trek has already been made: it was called Stargate Universe, and like the Original Series of Trek, it was cancelled (too soon, I say). Others might argue that Firefly had something of the original Trek frontier spirit, but that too was cancelled too soon.

Here are some of my ideas for the new Trek.

  • Game of Trek – diplomats vying for supremacy, the Federation falling apart, intrigue, murder, a cast of thousands. Emilia Clarke as a sexy vulcan entirely optional.
  • Star Fleet Academy – a revolving cohort of young people on training missions that, like the holodeck of old, always go wrong. Emilia Clarke as a sexy vulcan entirely optional.
  • Star Trek Parallels – life is tough in the Mirror Universe. Emilia Clarke as a sexy vulcan entirely optional.
  • Star Trek Frozen – a character frozen in the OS era wakes up in his/her far future. Emilia Clarke as a sexy vulcan entirely optional.
  • Star Trek Bios – the crew of a ground station on a planet with a hostile biological environment but valuable secrets. Emilia Clarke as a sexy vulcan entirely optional.
  • Indistinguishable – the adventures of a small but dedicated group of researchers in the Advanced Technology Unit – creating and testing new, experimental tech that is indistinguishable from magic. Emilia Clarke as a sexy vulcan entirely optional.
  • Edge of Forever – time portal Trek. Emilia Clarke as a sexy vulcan entirely optional.
  • Starfleet Weapons Inspectors – trying to prevent the next devastating intergalactic conflct. Emilia Clarke as a sexy vulcan entirely optional.
  • Graphic Designers in Space – needs no explanation
  • Star Trek Dreamscape – the whole thing takes place in one of Chakotay’s vision quests. Emilia Clarke as a sexy vulcan bajoran entirely optional.
  • Star Trek Refugee – a small crew on a broken down ship try to survive in a hostile universe, and try to avoid the attentions of the Federation (hmmm… seems familiar). Emilia Clarke as a sexy vulcan entirely optional.
  • Star Trek Derelict – a crew of “wreck divers” discover an abandoned alien ship with technology so advanced they barely understand it – and attempt to fly it home (hmmm… seems familiar). Emilia Clarke as a sexy vulcan entirely optional.

Chris Stapleton and Justin Timberlake at the CMAs

I bought the Chris Stapleton album in the summer, after reading Grady Smith’s column in the Guardian. (Grady Smith is a far better source for news about good new music than the pathetic iTunes Country section.)

It is a great album, well-deserving of its Album of the Year prize, and veteran songwriter Stapleton must feel some irony at being awarded the New Artist prize in addition to the well-deserved Male Vocalist prize. He fairly swept the board this year, which I think is a hopeful sign, given the terrible trend towards what has come to be called Bro Country in the past couple of years.

Here comes the backlash, as Nashville’s love of great songs reasserts itself. Not only did Little Big Town win Song/Single of the year for “Girl Crush” (a clear signal to country radio programmers that they’re getting things wrong), but Chris Stapleton has won three prestigious awards based on zero airplay on country radio. Zero. At this point, nobody is thinking radio programmers are doing a good job.

In a stroke of co-marketing genius, Stapleton performed two songs with Justin Timberlake at this week’s CMA Awards. Whereas other guest appearances by pop/R&B artists have fallen very flat in the past, the multi-syllabic Timberlake/Stapleton pairing was a true musical event. I know almost nothing about Mr Timberlake, aside from the fact that the guy’s a decent actor as well as a musician. I know enough not to muddle him up with that other Justin.

Timberlake’s from Memphis, and Chris Stapleton’s album edges more towards Blues than country, especially given his gruff-but-flexible voice. As you can see from the video above, both artists can sing, both can control their melisma and both were thoroughly enjoying themselves. I’ve watched it several times now, and I still think it’s the most exciting performance I’ve seen in a really long time. I think you can tell that everybody on the stage and everybody in the audience was aware that everything was falling perfectly into place. It’s not often that something that’s kind of hyped in advance can live up to expectations, but I think this performance exceeds all expectations. I don’t think anybody could have believed it would be this good.

As impressed as I was by their performance, you could tell how special it was by seeing the reaction of the old pros in the audience. Look at the expression on Keith Urban’s face as he records some of the performance on his smartphone. Look at the other artists who are not only digging it, but clearly wishing they could be on the stage. There’s even a shot of what looks like a Music Row executive (?) with a diabolical fixed grin on his face. You could almost see the $ signs revolving in his eyes.

The full 8-minutes has received over 3.5 million views on the official ABC channel (notwithstanding ropy over-compressed audio – the two separate videos I’ve posted here have better sound), and Stapleton has hit #1 in the iTunes chart: again, with zero support from country radio.

Traveller isn’t my personal favourite album of the year, but it’s wonderful that the shaggy-beared scruffy songwriter is up there taking the spotlight away from the bros. And as for a putative “country” outing from Mr Timberlake, I think I might give it a listen.

IMAX – not believing

imax-theatreBeen meaning to say something about IMAX since I went to see Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak a few weeks ago. It was playing on the IMAX screens in the new Odeon in Bletchley/Milton Keynes. Given that there were no other screen options, and given that I’d never experienced IMAX, I booked tickets.

First of all, the film: not all that impressed. Seemed like a mashup of his other films, but I’ll wait till I see it again in a non-IMAX format, because my whole experience was affected by the screening.

hated the IMAX screen. Its curve meant that people got weirdly distorted when they moved across to the side. I don’t see how a curved screen is any use for anyone other than the very few who can sit bang centre and far enough back (which in the Odeon, of course, are the “premium” seats). Movement seemed jittery, too, like on your 1080p TV screen, lacking the smooth blur that traditional 24-frame-per-second film stock gives.

I’ve seen those curved screen TVs in shops, and I think they look shit. Again, no good for anyone who is not sitting dead centre. Which I guess is fine in our lonely, single-person household society. But not for me.

Apart from the annoying curve and the jitter (both of which are deal breakers for me), which are distorting the screen image and distracting me, leaving me unable to suspend disbelief, I hated the height of the IMAX screen. IMAX talk on their web site of the “cropped” image of 1953-era Cinemascope anamorphic screens:

When a film is presented in CinemaScope it is cropped and uses only part of the image the movie camera captures. This is the reason most ordinary screens are very wide but not particularly high – like looking at the world through a narrow slit.

Which demonstrates the visual equivalent of a musical tin ear. They’re saying it as if it’s a bad thing. It’s like saying, ‘When you hear “Strawberry Fields Forever,” you’re only hearing the result of editing together the best parts of several different takes. The IMAX version of “Strawberry Fields Forever” gives you all the shit that The Beatles cut out because it was rubbish.’

The genius of film and photography is that it puts the world in a frame. The frame of cinemascope is the highest expression of that genius. A cinemascope landscape or close-up has an incredible visual impact: so much so that watching cinemascope films on an un-letterboxed 16:9 screen is disappointing. Great directors use the framing/cropping of Cinemascope as part of the art of filmmaking. Given the ‘uncropped’ option, where’s the art? You see more, so what? Fucking less is fucking more, you morons.

Watching IMAX felt like watching a giant 4:3 ratio (but curved) TV. The image didn’t even look like it was a high enough resolution to warrant the size of the screen. People looked odd, like you could detect the artifice behind the make-up. There was nothing happening in my peripheral vision other than distortion of the image. As to the sound: too fucking loud, man. Like an amplifier that goes up to 11: better, because louder? Fuck off.

IMAX is the Spinal Tap of movie projection. Never again.