“The Man in the High Castle” Is Captivating Television

It has been some time since we took a look at some of the new offerings from the movie, television or music worlds and that is a good thing. First of all, I’m not going to waste your time telling you about something that is completely awful (I know I said Quantico wasn’t very good, but it hasn’t been canceled yet…that means some people must like it). If I am going to take the time to offer up something, 9 out of 10 times it is going to be worth checking out (or at least I think so). That is what we have when we look at a new offering that has just been released.

HighCastle

There is a completely new world out there when it comes to the streaming services. The days of when these outlets simply provided a way to catch the latest movies or watch an old show (or a new one) are causing rapid changes in what they offer. Part of their attractiveness is that they can be watched over virtually any device. In the beginning it was just computers, then the outlets branched into tablets, cellphones and video game devices. Now, the HDTVs that come out (with the spanking new 4K technology and “smart” TV capabilities) have one or more of these streaming outlets pre-programmed on them.

Maybe it is because of the above that the streaming outlets made the moves they did. Such outlets as Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and Hulu Plus have decided to swan-dive into the deep end of the pool and produce their own shows rather than just offer the other networks’ material (and, in most cases, pay out the ass for the programming). Since I wasn’t around for the start of House of Cards or even Orange is the New Black, I am trying to find something that I can get into that is new to many (and can take over while I wait for the spring session of Blindspot and the second season of Mr. Robot to start) and it appears that Amazon has the next big thing.

Released on November 20, The Man in the High Castle is a ten-episode series that was foisted on the public all at once, meaning you can take it in the traditional episodic doses or can fully immerse yourself in it through a “binge.” This method of “broadcasting” (hey, it’s the only term I can think of that applies) has its pros and cons; it does allow you to blast through it in one big marathon but, if you take it one or two episodes at a time, you might forget that you are watching it and not go back to the series (confession:  I DVRed The Player, meaning to watch it but never did. It was canceled two episodes into its run). With High Castle, I sincerely doubt that someone is going to forget they have it in the library.

The series is based on the book of the same name written by one of the great minds of U. S. literature, Philip K. Dick. Dick, who wrote the science fiction classic Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? that eventually became the basis for the classic 1982 film Blade Runner (one of my personal favorites), this time steps into the alternative history genre and has the same impact there that he had with science fiction. The person who brought High Castle to the air, Frank Spotnitz (best known for his work on The X-Files), also deserves kudos for producing an excellent product.

The year is 1962, ten years removed from “V-A Day,” or the day that Nazi Germany and the forces of Imperial Japan defeated the United States in World War II. As a part of the peace, the Nazis take over the Eastern part of the United States virtually all the way to the Rocky Mountains, renaming it the Greater Nazi Reich; the Japanese, for their efforts, take over from the West Coast to the Rockies with their Japanese Pacific States. Between the two, running the ridges of the Rockies, is a Neutral Zone to separate the Nazis and the Japanese that has become an area to provide living space for segments of society (minorities, homosexuals and other “deviants”) that would otherwise be persecuted or even killed for who or what they are.

It is a tenuous peace between the two international powers, however. An aging Adolf Hitler is in failing health and, as Himmler and Goebbels jockey for position to take over from him, the Japanese grow concerned that Hitler’s death would result in warfare that would force them out of the former United States. Since the end of WWII, Germany has become a technological powerhouse, developing the hydrogen bomb and planes that fly from New York to San Francisco in two hours, while Japan has languished in its imperial peace. This is an important part of the program, but it isn’t the only plotline to pay attention to as the show continues.

The show opens up with a young man, Joe Blake (Luke Kleintank), visiting a factory in New York City on the seemingly innocent premise of looking for a job. He strolls through a totalitarian Times Square replete with the Nazi swastika burnished on video boards and flags and, upon reaching the factory, finds the manager. As we sit in on their meeting, we discover it isn’t for a job in the factory; Joe is being hired to drive a truck across the Greater Nazi Reich to Canon City, a town in the Neutral Zone, for The Resistance, a rebel alliance looking to oust the Nazis from the country.

After demonstrating his will to do the job, Joe gets the keys from the manager just as Nazi troops raid the factory. While the bullets fly, Joe is able to get away from the factory intact, but everyone else is not so lucky. The Nazis summarily execute everyone who was in the factory save for the manager, who is taken into custody and, as we find out through the first episode, tortured mercilessly.

As Joe is doing this, we go to San Francisco where another part of the story is developing. Juliana Crain (Alexa Davalos), who has assimilated nicely into a post-war Japanese society (taking aikido lessons and embracing their medicinal and cultural offerings), is stunned to meet up with her half-sister who tells her she has a great new job. Later in the evening, Juliana and her sister meet again under much more dire circumstances; Juliana’s sister hands her a package and cryptically tells her to take care of it before running away. As Juliana hides in the shadows, Japanese soldiers execute her sister in the street.

Running home, a perplexed Juliana (why would soldiers kill her sister) looks in the bag her sister gave to her. In the bag is a film entitled The Grasshopper Lies Heavy and, after viewing the reel, Juliana discovers it is an alternate reality film based on what happened if the Allies had instead won World War II (you with me so far?). Spurred to action by watching the film and the death of her sister, Juliana leaves her boyfriend (Rupert Evans) who hides that he is part Jewish, a crime punishable by death even in the Japanese Pacific States, and heads for Canon City with a ticket procured for her sister to make the trip.

The remainder of the first episode brings our protagonists to Canon City. Blake has what might be called an uneventful run but discovers that, out on the Great Plains, hospitals are crematoriums for the sickly and elderly instead of healing (remember, that’s Nazi Country). Juliana has her own issues, with a female passenger on the bus she is taking to Canon City mysteriously stealing her belongings but not the movie reels. The first episode ends with a twist that I honestly didn’t see coming and, after seeing it, nearly made me rocket into the second episode rather than allowing the first one to sink in fully.

Beyond the point that we have several different plotlines intersecting in this one hour – the impending death of Hitler and the potential for war between the Nazi and Japanese, the trips of both Blake and Crain to Canon City to do what isn’t exactly known and the film (is it possible it’s true?) and its purpose – there is an attention to detail in creating the false reality of “this” divided U. S. nation that is remarkable. There are far too many things to point out that helped to convey the dread and dismay of the conditions of living in such a situation and, with the supporting cast, all viewpoints are offered (Crain’s mother hates the Japanese for killing her husband; Blake meets a police officer who was in the U. S. military but now accepts his fate with the Nazis). It potentially indicates that there are some deeper analogies that we might see in the future of the program.

The Man in the High Castle also showed me that there is a new reality to the future of television. Unrestrained by broadcast guidelines or traditional “broadcasting times,” these shows being put out by the streaming networks are quality works that should demand a great deal more attention from the viewing public. If every program was of the high quality that High Castle is, then there would be a greater impetus to “cut the cord” from normal cable and network broadcasting, which have become staid with their product.

If you haven’t had a chance to check out these streaming channels, you’re missing out on what could be a bountiful arena of choices for your viewing pleasure. You’re definitely missing out on one of the best programs of the year with The Man in the High Castle; I’d suggest climbing onboard the wagon soon for both the show and for the streaming channels.

Wondering Whatever Happened To…For September 12

Wondering whatever happened to the women of The A-Team while pondering…

Is Hollywood Bereft of Ideas? – Earlier this week, plenty of branches of the media – the sports and entertainment worlds, in particular – were abuzz over the latest casting decision made in Tinseltown. Word has it that mixed martial arts (MMA) champion Ronda Rousey had agreed to join the cast of a reboot of the movie Road House, with Rousey taking on the iconic role originally portrayed by the late Patrick Swayze. Road House, for those that have been able to avoid the 975 broadcasts of the movie per day on cable, is the story of a highly educated bouncer who goes to a small Missouri town to “clean up” a bar, but has to deal with a dastardly crime boss while romancing said crime boss’ ex-girlfriend (there’s more, but I hate to provide too many spoilers).

Give Rousey credit, she actually contacted Lisa Niemi, Swayze’s widow, to ask if it would be OK for her to take on the role her husband had created in the 1989 movie (according to reports, Niemi was more than pleased to give her blessing). And it isn’t as if Rousey hasn’t been working her way onto the Big Screen previously. Starring roles in both The Expendables 3 and Fast & Furious 7 plus a cameo in Entourage have already paved the way in demonstrating that Rousey may have some bankable acting talent. But why couldn’t Hollywood come up with something original for Rousey to make her big-screen breakthrough?

The current trend for Hollywood to “reboot” or “reimage” movies and television shows is wrong in that it gives those who are supposed to be creative an easy escape rather than challenging them to new material. Movies less than a decade old such as the Spider Man trilogy and the Fantastic Four franchise have been “rebooted” not for any artistic purpose but simply to either double-dip at the trough because the movies or shows were ahead of their time (re:  the acceptance of superhero movies as money-making outlets) or to fleece their audience a second time. While it hasn’t made the airwaves yet, the NBC series Heroes Reborn smacks of this double dipping also.

Instead of letting the creativity muscle atrophy to the point it’s nonexistent, why not come up with original programming and movies rather than fall back on tried and true tropes? Why not venture outside the box and allow for new minds to come up with programming and movies that challenge their audience while entertaining them at the same time (the USA Network’s Mr. Robot was one of the few things I’ve seen this year that challenged its viewers mind)? While Rousey is more than able to take on the role of Dalton, she should have her own vehicle to carry her to stardom.

It’s Not about Your Color, But… – The U. S. Open in tennis its final stages, looking to crown champions in the final major of the year. Tennis powerhouse Serena Williams is looking to become the first person since 1988 to win all four of tennis’ Grand Slam events (the Australian Open, the French Open and Wimbledon alongside the U. S. Open) in the same calendar year (last achieved by Steffi Graf), truly a remarkable achievement. It was the treatment of another member of the tennis community at the hands of the New York Police Department that has garnered the news, however.

On Wednesday, retired U. S. tennis star James Blake – who was ranked #4 in the world at one point during his career – was waiting outside his hotel to head to Flushing Meadows, where he was to offer commentary on the tournament. Much to Blake’s surprise, he was rushed by an unknown person, slammed to the concrete and forced to lay handcuffed face down by the attacker. The person was an undercover police officer, who never identified himself but seemed to enjoy his apprehension of a violent criminal. That was until the person laying prone in the street in front of them was identified, however.

A retired police officer told the approximately six officers standing around Blake that they, in fact, had violently attacked and apprehended a former tennis champion, not the credit card fraudster (a white collar crime, not one you’d think of for such treatment) they thought they’d apprehended. What was truly reprehensible after the incident was that the officers didn’t report the incident to their superiors; it took Blake stepping up to requests for an interview from the New York Daily News before any mention of the incident became public.

The mayor of New York, Bill deBlasio, and NYPD Chief Bill Bratton fell over themselves with an apology to Blake. “I would be very interested in talking to him to extend my apologies,” Bratton said in a press conference after the incident came to light. “Mr. Blake had no role or involvement in the criminal investigation that we were conducting and was totally innocent.” Here’s the kicker, though:  Bratton went on to say that Blake’s skin color had nothing to do with how he was treated, that “if you look at the photograph of the suspect it looks like the twin brother of Mr. Blake.” I’m sure that’s the case, Chief, and that’s why your officers were so quick to report the incident to you…

Hell Freezes Over, Occasion #1 – There is no middle ground when it comes to Fox News and the opinions that people hold of the channel. Either everything they say is the gospel and should be followed by an “Amen” or they are the second coming of the Antichrist. Sometimes, however, one of the many talented anchors and/or opinion makers they employ steps off the usual script and surprises people.

On Tuesday, Fox News anchor/commentator Shepard Smith apparently forgot to check his in-box for the latest memos or he simply decided to think for himself. The discussion over the continued jailing of Kentucky court clerk Kim Davis – who at that time was still incarcerated for her refusal to do her job and issue marriage licenses to all couples, including those of the same sex – was at a boiling point (this was but a few hours before her release from jail) when Smith ripped off his commentary on the subject.

Smith stated that Davis’ refusal to do her job on religious grounds was but a publicity stunt aimed at drumming up supporters of “religious freedoms.” “We thought what this woman wanted was an accommodation, which they’ve now granted her, something that worked for everybody,” Smith said after telling his audience that a compromise – her clerks performing the duty – had been offered. “But it’s not what (Kim Davis and her attorney) want.”

“This is what they want, what you’re hearing now, and this what they’re going to get: stirred up argument and a couple of days in the news cycle,” he said. Smith also pointed out the hypocrisy of their argument, saying, “This is the same crowd that says, ‘We don’t want Sharia law, don’t let them tell us what to do, keep their religion out of our lives and out of our government.’” Seems as though Smith might have to go to the Fox “dungeon” for some attention…

Now to answer the question…what happened to the women of The A-Team?

Of course, The A-Team was a popular television show from the mid 1980s that focused on a crack military commando unit helmed by Colonel Hannibal Smith (the late George Peppard) that was convicted of a crime they didn’t commit. Along with Templeton “Face” Peck (Dirk Benedict), B. A. “Bad Attitude” Baracus (Mr. T) and H. M. “Howlin’ Mad” Murdock (Dwight Schultz), the team helped out those who could afford their services while trying to clear their name and get the U. S. Army off their back. As a part of that effort, a young reporter was a part of the show’s cast.

Amy Amanda Adams (portrayed by Melinda Culea) was a reporter who accidentally hooked up with The A-Team through an investigation she was doing background research. She became a valuable member of the team, often getting them access to certain areas and providing them with information on the parties they were attacking. Behind the scenes, however, the “team” wasn’t quite as tight as portrayed.

Culea wanted to expand her role in the show, even to the point of taking up arms beside her male costars, but the creators and producers of the show didn’t want to breach the fraternity of the military ensemble. After slightly more than one season on the show, Culea was written out of the show and had a semi-successful life afterwards as a guest star on such programs as Star Trek:  The Next Generation, Murder, She Wrote and Knots Landing. She last was seen on the silver screen in 2001, when she was in the movie Dying on the Edge.

Although Culea’s character would be mentioned on occasion, the producers still felt the show needed a female presence. With that in mind, Marla Heasley was brought in to portray another reporter, Tawnia Baker. Heasley confirmed the anti-female mentality of the program through two instances with Peppard and, by the start of the third season, she was gone as well. Although she later would appear in the movie The Marrying Man, Heasley was out of the industry by 1993.

A third female was given a shot in the fifth season, but she didn’t even reach beyond the introduction. Tia Carrere was supposed to play a Vietnam war orphan (The A-Team was supposed to be Vietnam War veterans) who would join up with the team on its missions but, due to conflicts with General Hospital (the ABC soap opera she was also performing on), Carrere was unable to take on the show following her debut. Following that disappointment, Carrere went on to have arguably the best career of the three actresses.

Carrere would be the paramour of Mike Myers’ character Wayne in the two Wayne’s World movies and had a long run in the syndicated television program Relic Hunter as the lead character Sydney Fox. Most recently, Carrere has earned two Grammy Awards for her performance of Hawaiian music and lives in Los Angeles where she continues to perform.

Mr. Robot a Unique Trip; Florence and the Machine’s Latest Rocks

The most fun thing about entertainment – be it movies, television, music, books, video games or whatever – is that individual tastes are accentuated. Because of this enhancement, there is virtually anything out there that people can digest and, perhaps, things that particular people avoid like the plague. Two things recently have raised my metaphorical radar in that they are excellently done and intriguing, at least to me.

Lately, television has been a bit of a wasteland for me. The last show that I REALLY got into was Leverage (as you already know) and it has been a trial to find something else to garner my attention. There’s only so many athletic events, historical shows (think Henry Rollins’ 10 Things You Don’t Know About…) and movies (VERY few) that you can watch before you would like to see something weekly that you feel invested in. On my DVR right now is the USA Network’s Dig (just waiting until the right moment – as in the announcement of a second season – to burn those off), but it will have to wait until the conclusion of USA’s Mr. Robot.

Mr. Robot is the story of a computer security drone named Elliot who shuffles through his humdrum life by day working for an omnipotent company called E Corporation (or “Evil Corp” to Elliot and his fellow employees – on a side note, the logo for Evil Corp is quite reminiscent of the Enron logo) and, by night, becomes a hacker vigilante who tries to right the wrongs in society. In the very first episode, Elliot finds out a local restauranteur is a pedophile and, rather than bribing the man with the information for a financial profit, turns him into the authorities.

It’s not enough for Elliot, however. He has a massive addiction to morphine, grinding up pills to snort them directly into his system, and counters it by taking anti-addiction medication to maintain a sense of stability. Elliot also is extremely antisocial, even around his childhood friend (and maybe a feeling of more from him) Angela, a manager at the security company that both work for.

Through their company’s work in providing computer security for Evil Corp, Angela and Elliot detect a hack during a DDoS (Distributed Denial of Service) attack that requires Elliot to fly with the head of the company to access Evil Corp’s massive computer database and eradicate a file before said attack ravages the Evil Corp systems. Elliot finds the particular bug file and, strangely, the file is directly addressed to whomever finds it. The file requests Elliot to leave it in the system, which Elliot does (with a few changes that put him in control of said file) and, from there, Elliot is off on a ride that he (and the audience) have no control over.

Elliot learns that the hack came from a group called “fsociety” (a clean version of “Fuck Society”) and its leader, a mysterious and legendary hacker by the name of Mr. Robot. Mr. Robot has a vision of leveling the playing field for all of mankind against the corporations and governments that “shackle” them through eradicating all records of debt that people have accumulated in their lives. Elliot, by the end of the first program, isn’t sure which side he wants to be playing for.

Not to give away too much about the program (it is currently up to its seventh week on the USA Network), but it is as trippy as it is intriguing. Add in a Chinese hacker team known as the “Dark Army,” a Russian couple, with the husband being a high-ranking member of Evil Corp (and both with some sinister plot as well as slightly twisted minds) and a member of “the 1% of the 1%,” as Elliot learns, gangbanging drug dealers (remember, Elliot’s an addict) and various other twists and you might find your head spinning.

Part of the reason I like the program is those twists that you don’t see coming. It has a darkness to it that is realistic and, along with that point, the characters speak as a normal person would (you’re going to hear “shit,” “dickhead,” and other assorted vulgarities, including bleeps for where “fuck” has been uttered). But it is done naturally and in the flow of show so, to me at least, it is unnoticeable. There are some plot holes and reality checks during the proceedings, but the science behind the hacking and how complex computer and internet are – or how lacking they may be – is solid.

They couldn’t have cast anyone better than Rami Malek to play Elliot. He delivers on the character with some excellent acting in the role and his appearance – some of it HAS to be his own – give you the impression of someone who is dealing with an opiate addiction. I also really enjoy Christian Slater as Mr. Robot; he is able to play psychotic, caring, nurturing, demanding and rebellious, sometimes all within the same scene.

If you’ve got On Demand with your cable system, you might want to catch up with Mr. Robot as it is well worth the time spent (the first six episodes should be there). Once you’ve caught up, Mr. Robot airs on the USA Network on Wednesdays at 10PM Eastern Time.

On the musical front, I often despair. 2015 has been dominated by the post-teenage Disney chicks such as Ariana Grande, Demi Lovato and others that I just can’t get into fully. I can enjoy Jason Derulo and Bruno Mars, but other male vocalists just don’t capture my attention.  Nicki Minaj and Iggy Azalea aren’t exactly my taste and don’t even get me started on Taylor Swift. Never has someone done so much with so little talent, except maybe for a Kardashian. And she’s supposed to be what many consider a “fashion plate”; in my eyes, the clothes looked better on the hangar than on Swift (I’ve seen 2×4’s with more curves).

As such, I normally go to alternative music, although my penchants favor the hard rock/metal scene (and most of that, honestly, even bores me nowadays). Recently Florence Welch and her band, Florence and the Machine, released their third album called How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful. Many of you might not have heard of the band since their debut back in 2009, when the song “Dog Days Are Over” was a big hit on radio. But Florence and her gang aren’t easy to put into one of the nice little cubbyholes that music likes to use, hence the band’s difficulties over the past six years.

Their debut album Lungs was a treasure trove of different musical stylings that demonstrated the power of Florence and the Machine’s music and, in particular, Welch’s voice. Along with “Dog Days Are Over,” the song “Kiss with a Fist” and “Hurricane Drunk” were the outstanding tracks that showed the promise of the band. They were rewarded with being nominated in 2011 for Best New Artist at the Grammys, an award that went to Esperanza Spaulding (who?) over the group, the rapper Drake, the folk band Mumford and Sons and even Justin Bieber.

The follow-up to Lungs, 2011’s Ceremonials, was an even bigger hit for Florence and the Machine, allowing for the group to really take their time before stepping into the studios for their next effort (that and the closure of their record company, Universal Republic Records, helped to give that time). Going back to the studio last year following the breakup of Welch’s then-relationship, How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful was recorded and released in June 2015, with the band touring the major music festivals, including last weekend’s Lollapalooza show in Chicago.

The musical stylings of How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful, run the gamut. On the first single, “Ship to Wreck,” Florence and the Machine echo Morrissey, albeit with a few more guitars and a lot more power. “What Kind of Man” is a rocker that sounds as if the Tower of Power horn section was imported for backup, while “Caught” and “Delilah” capture the attention of the listener. Along the way, Welch’s powerful and emotional vocals rule the roost, evoking memories of a more-rock oriented Kate Bush or, for a more contemporary comparison, Adele. In fact, a sing-off between Welch and Adele would probably lead to a stalemate as both blow speakers out with their vocal talent.

All three of the albums are well worth owning, but How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful is the way to go for a complete look at the power and potential of Florence and the Machine. Be sure to get the extended version as it contains “Make up Your Mind” (another outstanding song) and the demo version of the title track, showing the development of the song from incarnation to finished product. You can’t miss out on what should prove to be the album that takes Florence and the Machine further into the consciousness of music audiences.