Reviews: The Fan: Encroaching Worlds

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by Carole McDonnell

man-in-the-high-300wThe Man in the High Castle. Season One. Based on the novel by Philip K Dick. Streaming on AmazonPrime; Nov 2015; 10 episodes; Amazon Studios.

Lover of time travel and alternate worlds scifi that I am, I simply had to watch The Man in the High Castle, a series based on the novel by Philip K Dick and produced by Amazon Studios. In this alternate America, the United States lost the war to Japan and Germany and both countries are engaged in a cold-war-esque hold on their new territories. The Japanese rule over the Japanese Pacific States and the Germans occupy The Greater Nazi Reich which extends from the East Coast to the Neutral Zone (The Rocky Mountains.) And there are some “colonies” where imperfect people are carted off to.

There are two major sub-plots. The first: The Nazis are more technologically advanced, alas, and Japan’s Crown Prince, along with Nobusuke Tagomi and the other Japanese command, fear that the tenuous truce will go to pieces when the ailing fuhrer dies. The second sub-plot deals with a duster-wearing bounty hunter named John Smith who is tracking folks. The primary plot brings together the main characters Juliana Crain, Frank Frink, Joe Blake, John Smith, and Nobusuke Tagomi. Their paths collide because of newsreels connected to a “Man in the High Castle” who may or may not be dead. These newsreels of a Victorious America are repeatedly denounced by the Nazis as fakes. But if they are fake, they look hella real, what with the dropping of the atom bombs and all. And if they are fake, how have they fallen into this Nazi-ruled alternate America?

Juliana wants to find out about the newsreels because she hates the Nazis; Joe, because he’s a double-agent spy. Yeah, Joe’s a Nazi. I will repeat that: Gorgeous Boy Next Door Joe is a Nazi spy.

The portrayal of Joe pretty much encapsulates what troubles me about Man in the High Castle. Simply put, its exploration of race and racism is pretty … unexplored; it kow-tows and gives passing nods and echoes to contemporary 2015 politics and political correctness but it remains pretty unchallenging and (although made by Amazon Studios) standard Hollywood.  What we have here is a kinder gentler Nazi (“Nazism lite” if you will) and our obengruppenfuhrer and his friend are actually conscience-struck by what they “had to do in war.”  I understand humanizing a villain but the toning-down of the Nazi atrocities and the decision to “merely mention” them made me feel as if the filmmakers feared the mention of such realities would encroach on the happiness of viewers. God forbid we think White Supremacists actually hurt non-whites simply because they’re not Aryan!

There are a few scenes that are just plain questionable. We get a passing glimpse of a naked black woman prostitute (who does more for a certain white male customer “than a Japanese woman would.”) Okay, I’ll accept that a guy from a racist regime might have a thing for forbidden brown flesh. But really, does she have to be a prostitute? And is his dalliance with her really suppose to show us how free-thinking he is?

We get the exoticizing of Japanese culture and civilized spirituality — so much so that the Japanese are portrayed almost as victims although they are the oppressors. I cringe but accept the fact that the Japanese bad guys are spiritual good oppressors (using the I Ching to plan some of their tactics for instance) while the Germans are rational bad oppressors. It’s as if the screenwriter doesn’t know about the Japanese atrocities. This is where the writer in me wanted to include Japanese-Americans who had lost their property and homes because of internment camps. How interesting would it be to have them be troubled spies against the Japanese imperialists! This is what annoys me: seeing the story possibilities that were never even thought of by these filmmakers.

But what is most annoying is that Joe Blake, our main character Nazi, is never seen doing or thinking anything sneery or hateful toward Jews, the disabled, or Blacks. His character arc is primarily a love arc. Because he’s just so All-American “decent” to everyone he meets, he could become the idol of every contemporary racist who truly believes that racists are respectful, likable people. Those who want to “get America back” will totally identify with this guy. And then there is the plot convenience. I can accept coincidence in plotting. But I really do demand a better story arc for a guy who starts out as a Nazi spy. It would’ve been so good to see him in a flashback in some colony mistreating those who are not “of pure blood.”  Or even a glimpse of him being indoctrinated. As much as I bewailed the over-abundance of flashbacks in Netflix’s Daredevil, I’m bewailing the lack of backstory and flashbacks in Man in the High Castle.

It’s not a bad series; it’s just bland with excellent actors doomed to play stereotypical or bland characters. And I do love the soundtrack for this series. Porgy and Bess’ “Summertime” and “Sukiyaki” as background music? Hell, yes! Seriously, Joe, as a true child of the reich, show your upbringing a bit. No subtle racial sneering? Even to yourself? I wish the Nazi double-agent weren’t so darn decent. Shouldn’t we glimpse him sneering at blacks, Jews, disabled folks?

But, of course, all this is my reaction to it. It’s a good watch if one isn’t racially antsy as I am.

titans-300wAttack on Titan, based on the anime.

I was about forty minutes into this movie when it dawned on me that I should’ve live-tweeted it. I’m very witty when I live tweet.  And I have come to the conclusion that I am not as shallow as I thought I was. Even though two of my favorite Japanese actors are in this future “so bad it’s good” instant cult classic, I could not enjoy it. Apparently my movie soul needs something more than pretty faces.

When the story begins, Armin (Kanata Hongo — bias #2 ) and Eren (Haruma Miura — bias #1) are discussing the world outside. Eren, especially, feels stifled. And this is no mere youthful male bravado or a cheap attempt to impress his girlfriend Mikasa. Things are getting bad in the human world. That’s because the giants have encroached and are pushing past the three concentric high walls that protect the humans.

Well, wouldn’t you know? Just as they’re complaining, who should appear but the gigantic Titans? And what happens is the beginning of several battles. Think Battlefield: Los Angeles but instead of aliens, we have naked zombies with no genitalia.  No one knows how they propagate because they evaporate when they are wounded at the back of their neck along their spine.

This film has been universally panned. Lovers of the anime feel betrayed. And those of us who thought the original anime wasn’t too great won’t like it much either. But, there is a way to enjoy it and I will tell you how.

First, accept that there are no such elements as characters or even character traits. This is a deep truth you must accept and incorporate inside your innermost story-loving soul. Characters ARE their costumes, their schtick, their poses and their speeches. Think tableau. Think “How cool is this shot!” Remind yourself of Cloud Strife’s Buster Sword from Final Fantasy Advent Children. Think type and stereotype. There is the cold emotionless sensei/philosopher warrior who says deep things and laughs inscrutably as he teaches the angry uncomprehending young’un (whose girl he has apparently taken but that’s not really important.) Think iconic images; Ya know… the apple as a symptom of sexuality. Count how the loads of Germanic and Biblical and Norse imagery feel like they add up to some deep meaning then accept that they are really like Grimm, Sleepy Hollow, The Matrix, and Hemlock Grove where names, titles, words, are thrown out because the invocation of the name or the concept is sufficient

And love the weird mix of CGI and live action. Because, dear readers, it is indeed weird. Access your expertise on shoving, because passionate shoving requires skill and is a shortcut for all kinds of underlying tension. Embrace and love the chaos. Love especially the typical waif-girls that one tends to find in anime. Love the overwroughtness. Dear me! Are these characters overwrought! Very emotional these Titan fighters. Don’t upset yourself by thinking of context. Just accept that speeches, costumes, and poses are what passes for plot progression and personality and you’ll have a good time. Recommended. No, really, I recommend it. Have friends over and have a laugh.

bahubali-300wBahubali-The Beginning, Indian film simultaneously filmed in the Tamil and Telugu languages. English sub-titles 2 ½ hours; Directed by S S Rajamouli.

An Indian friend of the Telugu minority absolutely raved about this movie. I’m a sucker for a good rave so I figured I’d see it. Even if I lacked the regional fervor my friend has for the first Bollywood movie made in his language, I still enjoyed it.

In order to like this film, you have to love spectacle, myth, and larger than life warrior heroes. You also have to like musicals, because there is an abundant of song in this movie. And an occasional dance or two. But it’s not really oppressive, so never fear.

This film begins the tale of Bahubali, a great and noble prince. I will try not to tell you too much about the title character because I only spoil movies accidentally. Sufficeth to say there is a kingdom that is being ruled by an evil prince. The evil prince has chained a Queen, Princess Devasena, in the marketplace because of some offense to his great person. There is a lost child who is as strong as Samson and Hercules combined who is fated to find his destiny. There is a noble warrior/slave called Kattappa who is faithful to the chained Queen. And there is a kickass swordswoman named Avanthika who…well.. gives up all that pesky warrior girl stuff when she finds love. And that’s only in the framing story that takes place before we are plunged bach 50 years.

I love stories about fated heroes whose times have come. Because one just knows these destined ones are going to enter the world with aplomb. The introduction of our hero utterly fulfills the requirements. So much so that one wonders if the movie will be able to sustain all that wonderful gloriousness. I’ll just say it pretty much does.

The cinematography is just amazing! The grandeur and majesty of the country of Mahishmati makes the cities of Elfland pale by comparison. True, the citizenry is oppressed but the montage showing the beauty of the city and the oppression is so soaring that one is almost tempted to say, “Dang! Those oppressive kings knew how to live!” Despots back in mythical days had style… and I’m not speaking only of the Nebuchadnezzaresque golden statue he erects for his birthday.

So yes, this is a film for lovers of myth, warriors, and romance.

I especially found the little C.G.I. notice on the bottom of the left comforting. It popped up whenever some animal was being destroyed — usually because of machismo king. The one problem with the film is that the titles/captions lag behind a bit so one has to play catch-up and “match the words to the right speaker” but after a while one gets a hang of it. So, yeah, I enjoyed it. I’ll probably watch Bahubali — The Conclusion when it comes out in 2016. Recommended.

Carole McDonnell is the author of The Constant Tower, published by Wildside Books.

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