The Man in the High Castle

Reproduced, with thanks, from Bingebox magazine (2016):

It seems like a familiar sight. A lone sultry and very famous singer delivers a seductive performance of “happy birthday” to the birthday boy, actually her secret lover, who also happens to be her leader. But as she reaches the third line, something jars. The words change and things take a chilling turn. “Happy birthday…Mein Fuhrer,” are the star’s next words. For while this is Marilyn Monroe, she is not singing to President Kennedy, the charismatic young American president but to … someone else entirely.

So, begins the trailer for the second season of Amazon Prime’s, The Man In The High Castle. And as if we didn’t know already, this is a world in which history has taken a very different turn from our own. And not for the better.

THE REICH STUFF

The premise of The Man In The High Castle stems from the endlessly fascinating question; what would the world be like, had Nazi Germany and imperial Japan triumphed at the end of the Second World War instead of the Allies, (that is the United States, Soviet Union, British Empire and others)?

It was a question which once haunted the feverish, troubled but hugely imaginative mind of author Philip K Dick. The man whose writing ultimately inspired many of the greatest science fiction films of all time including Blade Runner, Total Recall, Minority Report and The Adjustment Bureau, Dick been just too young to fight for the US in World War II himself but nevertheless realised what a close thing the outcome of the war had been. Over fifty years’ ago, inspired by another novel which convincingly  imagined a victory for the slavery supporting Confederacy in the 1860s American Civil War, he set to work producing a book depicting a similar alternative ending to World War II.

Prone to hallucinations and sudden bouts of paranoia, Dick had a relatively short turbulent life, dying in 1982, aged just 63 without seeing most of his work reach the screen. But he enjoyed probably more success The Man in High Castle than with any other book during his lifetime.

WELCOME TO AMERICA: 1962

The first season of The Man In The High Castle in 2015 brought the book’s chilling vision vividly to the screen. The United States of America we know from this period (portrayed in the early series of Mad Men, amongst other things) was confident, victorious and powerful poised on the verge of huge successes such as in the space race, but also riven by racial division and on the brink of disaster both in the Cuban Missile Crisis and in the growing war in Vietnam. But the America portrayed here is very different: it is no longer in fact, even the “United States” at all. We soon learn that the west coast of the former USA is now under the control of the victorious Japanese while the eastern bit is under Nazi German rule. The Rocky Mountains meanwhile are a neutral buffer zone between the two sides, this being where the mysterious “man in the high castle” is said to reside.

 Tantalising hints as to what has befallen the Allies are scattered liberally throughout both the series and the book. One character suggests the great war leader President Franklin D. Roosevelt was assassinated long before the war started in this reality, perhaps explaining why the US did not win. Another suggests that the war dragged on until 1947 instead of 1945 here, only ending when Nazi Germany dropped an atomic bomb on Washington DC.

TORN ASUNDER

A divided land then and few of the characters we meet are not facing a conflict of the loyalty of some sort or another. With the first season still on Amazon Prime some might want to steer clear now. But for everyone else, here’s a quick reminder…

San Francisco resident Juliana Crane (Alexa Davalos) for example, an expert in aikido appears happy living under Japanese rule at the start of Season 1. That’s until her half-sister Trudy who turns out to have been a member of the anti-government Resistance, is unexpectedly killed. Juliana finds herself drawn herself into the work of the Resistance as she attempts to complete Trudy’s last job: delivering a tape entitled The Grasshopper Lies Heavy to the mythical man in the High Castle. Intriguingly, the tape depicts an alternative version of history in which the US and the Allies defeated Germany and Japan! Essentially, the world in the tape is very like our own.

Juliana is aided and abetted by her boyfriend Frank Frink (Rupert Evans) a man enjoying some creative success but who has a dark secret which pushes him closer and closer to full blown rebellion: he is Jewish. Joe Blake (Luke Kleintank) meanwhile faces conflict of a different sort. Although supposedly a member of the Resistance he is in fact a secret agent in the employ of SS Obergruppenfuhrer John Smith (Rufus Sewell). Although very clearly a baddie, Smith is far from the typical stereotypical black and white Nazi villain. As his name suggests, he is an American-born participant in the new regime. A family man living a comfortable suburban life, it is suggested he has been drawn to Nazism by the apparent failure of the old American system in the Great Depression of the Thirties. Trade minister Nobusuke Tagomi (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa) is yet another character who finds himself torn between conflicting loyalties. The new series also sees Chief Inspector Kido (Joel de la Fuente) begins to take more interest in the Man in the High Castle.

With Juliana, increasingly unsure what to do about the treacherous Joe, Joe doubting his own continued commitment to the Third Reich, Smith increasingly doubtful about the Nazi philosophy after the illness of one of his children, more revelations from The Grasshopoper Lies Heavy tapes and mounting tensions between Germany and Japan, the ten hour long episodes of Season Two of The Man In The High Castle promise to be just as compelling and as full of intrigue as the first.

At the root of the series’ success however is its authentic portrayal of a chilling but plausible alternative version of American history that though perhaps a touch more plausible in the wake of Donald Trump’s recent election victory, has mercifully never existed.

WHO’S IN IT?

ALEXA DAVALOS

Playing the starring role of Juliana Crain, French-born Alexa has appeared in a good range of TV (Angel, Mob City) and films (notably The Chronicles of Riddick and Clash of the Titans).

RUPERT EVANS

With a key role in Ewan MacGregor’s recently released directorial debut American Pastoral, British actor Evans who plays Frank Frink has been in plays, TV and film aplenty, notably offbeat superhero flick Hellboy.

RUFUS SEWELL

Instantly recognisable as the older man love interest Lord Melbourne in the recent ITV Victoria, Sewell, also British, has been playing sexy villains for years in A Knight’s Tale, The Legend of Zorro and other films and TV.

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Victoria vs. Poldark

Reproduced, with thanks, from Bingebox magazine (2016):

VICTORIA

Send her victorious? As the dust settles, ITV’s Victoria is widely seen as the winner of this autumn’s big ratings battle with BBC’s Poldark. But whatever the outcome, both are likely to be big sellers on DVD this Christmas.

In retrospect, with its attractive cast and sumptuous period setting, it might seem hard to see how Victoria could have failed. But fail, she very easily could have. A few months ago, Jenna Coleman’s post-Doctor Who credentials were unproven. But as the teenaged Queen assuming leadership of the greatest empire the world has ever seen, Coleman has triumphed, her decision to forsake the TARDIS, totally vindicated.

Her on screen romances with her first Prime Minister Lord Melbourne (played by aging sex symbol, Rufus Sewell) and more famously German aristocrat, Prince Albert (Tom Hughes) were also well received. Although given that Coleman is already far more attractive than the real Queen Victoria ever was and that her infatuation with Melbourne along with much of the plotting which makes up much of the storyline is largely fictional, the series soon faced charges of historical inaccuracy.

But unlike the last attempt to tackle this subject matter – 2009’s film The Young Victoria – this is a success. Perhaps it is fitting that that earlier film was written by Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes. For it is in Victoria, that ITV has truly found a period drama to compare to Downton’s level of success. Long live the Queen!

POLDARK

The wilds of late 18th century Cornwall have proven fertile ground for drama before. First, there was Winston Graham’s dozen or so hugely successful Poldark novels. Then there was the hit 1970s TV series. Finally, there was last year’s BBC ratings smash Poldark starring Aidan Turner. It was only a matter of time before Poldark returned. With the second outing proving another success, both recent series are available on DVD and Blu-ray now.

This is perhaps inevitably a sexier affair than the 1970s series: recognising this, Turner is required to take his shirt off in the first episode of the second series. But let’s not get carried away: were Poldark not compelling, well-acted, authentic and reasonably faithful to its source material, it would never have worked. The second series begins where the last one finished: with Ross accused of murder.

Thanks to this and the likes of War and Peace and The Night Manager, the BBC has had a good year for TV drama in 2016. But while one wouldn’t want to rain on Poldark’s undoubted success, it is worth noting that Poldark though screened on BBC One was, like Victoria, made by ITV Studios. With ITV also behind a number of the notable period drama hits of recent years such as Downton Abbey and Mr Selfridge, is it conceivable the Beeb’s status as the home of British period drama could be under threat? Only time will tell.

WHO’S IN IT?

AIDAN TURNER

A familiar face to many already thanks to roles including the poet Rossetti in TV’s Desperate Romantics, as the conflicted vampire in Being Human and Kili in the Hobbit films, the Irish actor’s dark brooding sex appeal as Ross Poldark has undoubtedly smoothed the show’s path to success.

ELEANOR TOMLINSON

As Ross Poldark’s beautiful second wife Demelza, Eleanor Tomlinson has seen her star rise considerably. A film actress since her early teens, her CV includes major supporting roles in big screen flop, Jack The Giant Killer and BBC War of the Roses historical drama, The White Queen.

JACK FARTHING

As the ruthless, arrogant and determined power-hungry banker George Warleggan, Jack Farthing has essentially taken the role of Poldark’s villain. A theatre actor, the Oxford-educated Farthing is best known for posh roles such as Freddie Threepwood in P.G. Wodehouse adaptation Blandings and for Oxford University-based film drama, The Riot Club.

Head to Head: House of Cards Vs The West Wing

Chris Hallam's World View

Gratefully reproduced from Bingebox magazine (2016):

THE WEST WING

Welcome to the presidency of Josiah Bartlet. During the
seven season run of Aaron Sorkin’s award-winning series, we see the fictional two-
term administration take a rollercoaster ride through crises (a major
assassination attempt and an attempt to kidnap the president’s daughter),
scandal (is the president concealing something important from everyone?),
disaster (a major nuclear accident in California), numerous triumphs and many
other matters, some of global import, some, such as the president falling off a
bike in public, more trivial.

In truth though, this is not just the story of a president but of the talented team behind him. In what may prove to be career-best role, onetime Brat Packer Rob Lowe excels in the first four seasons as razor-sharp speechwriter Sam Seaborn with Bradley Whitford, Alison Janney, Richard Schiff, John Spencer (the last of whom sadly died just as…

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Book review: Cult Filmmakers: 50 Movie Mavericks You Need To Know

Book review: Cult Filmmakers: 50 Movie Mavericks You Need To Know. By Ian Haydn Smith. Illustrated by Kristelle Rodeia. Published by: White Lion. Out now.

What makes a cult filmmaker? The key qualities seem to be distinctiveness and a degree of obscurity. Hitchcock and Spielberg were and are great filmmakers, but both are much too famous now to be included in a volume like this. Hitchcock might have appeared once. Spielberg too, perhaps in the brief interim after the release of Dual but before Jaws. But not now.

Indeed, it could argued that just by highlighting the fifty directors included in this volume in a book specifically titled, ‘Cult Filmmakers’, author Ian Haydn Smith is simultaneously undermining their cult status as much as he is re-enforcing it.

That is not to attack the book, which is a good one. The author’s choices are intriguing and it is almost as interesting to see who has been left out as it is to see who has been included. Sam Raimi doesn’t feature. Nor does Wes Anderson or the Coens. Presumably, the men behind The Evil Dead, Blood Simple and Rushmore would have been considered cult filmmakers once. However, they are now ineligible as they’ve all moved onto more mainstream successes as the men behind Spiderman, Intolerable Cruelty and Isle of Dogs.

But if this is the reason, it’s odd that the likes of Quentin Tarantino, Tim Burton and Kathryn Bigelow are. Other selections are less contentious: David Lynch, David Cronenberg and ‘Pope of Trash’ John Waters, have all achieved fame, while retaining their cult status. Some such as John Carpenter seem to have lost their initial cultiness, only to later recapture it.

The book is stylishly illustrated by Kristelle Rodeia. Occasionally, the pictures look nothing like their subjects e.g. Terry Gilliam. It doesn’t matter.

Personally, I am most grateful for the chapters shedding light on Amat Escalante, Benjamin Christensen and Barbara Loden, amongst others. Until this book, they were undeniably in my eyes, cult filmmakers: I had never heard of any of them. But now I do. And this can only be a good thing.

The Olivia de Haviland Awards

Chris Hallam's World View

(Special awards for people who manage to stay alive long after you think they’ve died).
1. Olivia de Haviland (103). Actress. Star of Gone with the Wind (1939). Born before the Russian Revolution. To put things in perspective, the three other stars of Gone with the Wind died in 1960, 1967 and 1943.
2. Bill Tidy: Cartoonist. Used to be on TV a lot. A British, non-perverted Rolf Harris (85). I’m sure that’s how he’d want people to think of him.
3. Kirk Douglas (102). Born 13 years after the first aeroplane flew. “I’m Spartacus!” “I’m Spartacus!” “I’m…very old.”
4. Sirhan Sirhan (75). Assassinated Robert Kennedy in 1968. In prison ever since.
5. Lady Clarissa Eden, the Countess of Avon (99). Niece of Churchill. Widow of Sir Anthony Eden (1897-1977) who was Prime Minister (1955-1957) before Theresa May was born. She was the second wife of Eden, one of only three…

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