A roundtable chat with the cast and crew of Amazon’s “The Man in the High Castle”

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A couple of strange things happened last summer. You might remember them. First, the people of the United Kingdom decided to leave the European Union. Then, the Republican Party’s base chose to nominate a reality TV star and alleged billionaire for the presidency of the United States. When this writer found himself in a San Diego Hilton ballroom for Comic-Con roundtables with an executive producer and five cast members of “The Man in the High Castle,” Brexit was a certainty and the dystopian Republican convention had just wrapped. Even so, the election of vulgar reality TV star turned racist demagogue Donald J. Trump to the world’s most powerful political position seemed scary, but kind of unlikely. Yup.

In any case, these two events made for some interesting conversation, considering that “The Man in the High Castle” is the deliberately paced, lavishly produced Amazon TV series drawn from Phillip K. Dick’s dark, reality-bending 1963 science fiction masterpiece. Set in an alternate reality 1962 America some years after the totalitarian Axis powers of Germany and Japan have won World War II and subdivided the nation into a Nazi-dominated East Coast, a Japan-controlled West Coast, and a no-man’s land in the middle, the show portrays the lives of a number of characters caught up in a series of tragic and terrifying events. They are largely spurred by the existence of strange films that seem to show a world where the Allied powers of the U.S. and the UK had actually won World War II. By the end of the first season, it had become clear that other parallel realities would factor into the story’s next phase.

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2016 Holiday Gift Guide: Television

Television fans must love the holidays, because it’s the one time of year when studios unleash a host of massive box sets collecting their favorite dramas and comedies. But while we like to devour an entire TV show just as quickly as the next person, sometimes a little self-discipline is required, which is why we’ve devoted most of this year’s guide to some less time-consuming (and more affordable) suggestions. If you don’t find anything for your friends and family here, a Netflix gift card works just as well.

Click the links within the write-ups to purchase each product online, and check back throughout the week for more additions to our Holiday Gift Guide.

American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson

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There’s been a lot of great television this year, and FX’s “American Crime Story” is right up there at the top. Though most people of a certain age remember the media circus surrounding the so-called Trial of the Century, “The People v. O.J. Simpson” manages to feel like an entirely fresh experience, revealing things about the case you may not have known before while also recapturing all the infamous moments. Told largely from the perspective of the lawyers, the show examines topics like race, gender, celebrity and the criminal justice system and how each one affected the outcome of the trial. There’s hardly a dull moment throughout the show’s debut season, including the excellent bottle episode “A Jury in Jail,” which details the mental and physical strain placed on the jurors throughout the lengthy court case. At its core, however, “American Crime Story” is just a really excellent actor’s showcase that features award-worthy performances by Sarah Paulson, Courtney B. Vance and Sterling K. Brown, among others. The series is so engrossing and expertly cast that it’s like watching the murder trial all over again, only this time, with an unrestricted view of the chaos and drama.

The Night Of

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The Night Of” was originally supposed to star James Gandolfini before the actor’s untimely death, but within the first few episodes of the HBO limited series, it’s hard to imagine anyone other than John Turturro in the role. The veteran character actor is so riveting as the down-on-his-luck attorney that it seems a near-certainty he’ll walk away with an Emmy for his performance. He’s that good, and the same could be said for the rest of the cast, including co-star Riz Ahmed and supporting players like Bill Camp, Michael Kenneth Williams and Peyman Moaadi. However, what really elevates “The Night Of” beyond the typical crime drama is the superb writing by co-creators Richard Price and Steve Zaillian, which delivers a probing examination of the systemic problems in the U.S. criminal justice system (from the police, to the prisons, to the lawyers) and how one crime can affect the lives of not only the accused but the people connected to them as well. Though the actual investigation feels a bit rushed, and the series doesn’t hit as many highs in the later episodes, “The Night Of” is an excellent piece of filmmaking that challenges the way we watch television and tell stories.

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Blu Tuesday: Sausage Party and More

Every Tuesday, I review the newest Blu-ray releases and let you know whether they’re worth buying, renting or skipping, along with a breakdown of the included extras. If you see something you like, click on the cover art to purchase the Blu-ray from Amazon, and be sure to share each week’s column on social media with your friends.

“Sausage Party”

WHAT: The food at Shopwell’s supermarket has been raised to believe that going home with a customer is the greatest honor they can achieve. But when a horny sausage named Frank (Seth Rogen) is informed that the whole thing is a ruse, he embarks on an adventure to uncover the truth about humans and what really happens to food when it leaves the store.

WHY: “Sausage Party” isn’t a very subtle movie (the dialogue is laced with so much profanity that it feels like it was written by a bunch of prepubescent boys who just learned about swear words), but what the comedy lacks in maturity it makes up for with some clever commentary on faith, sexual temptation and the Palestine/Israel conflict. No, seriously. Unfortunately, that isn’t enough to disguise the fact that the film is essentially a one-joke affair. Vulgar food puns and visual gags abound throughout its brisk 89-minute runtime, but apart from the movie’s villain (a literal juiced-up douche who sounds like a “Jersey Shore” reject) and the totally bonkers finale, most of them fall flat. Although “Sausage Party” feigns subversiveness on the surface, it’s actually quite formulaic underneath all that foul-mouthed depravity, and kind of boring too. Nevertheless, Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg deserve enormous credit for convincing a major studio to release an R-rated film about talking food and religion, because despite the letdown, it’s so wonderfully stupid and strange that you have to see it at least once.

EXTRAS: The Blu-ray release includes featurettes on the voice cast and Alan Menken’s opening musical number, an interview with co-writers/producers Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg about the pitching process, alternate line readings, a gag reel and more.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

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Blu Tuesday: X-Men: Apocalypse, The Purge: Election Year and More

Every Tuesday, I review the newest Blu-ray releases and let you know whether they’re worth buying, renting or skipping, along with a breakdown of the included extras. If you see something you like, click on the cover art to purchase the Blu-ray from Amazon, and be sure to share each week’s column on social media with your friends.

“X-Men: Apocalypse”

WHAT: When a powerful mutant named En Sabah Nur (Oscar Isaac) reawakens in 1983 after thousands of years in hibernation, he recruits Magneto (Michael Fassbender) and three other mutants to join his side as he attempts to destroy the world and remake it in his image. Standing in his way his Professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and his X-Men, including Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult) and new students Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) and Cyclops (Tye Sheridan).

WHY: “The third one is always the worst.” That’s an actual line of dialogue from Bryan Singer’s “X-Men: Apocalypse,” and though it’s technically referring to “Return of the Jedi,” it could just as easily be applied to the latest installment in the long-running superhero franchise. Messy, overstuffed and generally dull, there’s so much wrong with “X-Men: Apocalypse,” beginning with its titular villain. Not only is the all-powerful mutant surprisingly unimposing, but the movie completely wastes Oscar Isaac by burying him under layers of makeup and giving him very little to do. The same goes for stars Michael Fassbender, James McAvoy and Jennifer Lawrence, none of whom look particularly interested this go-around, as well as the young X-Men, who are well-cast but get lost in the shuffle of the crowded ensemble. What initially seemed like the franchise’s biggest asset (its deep roster) has quickly become its Achilles’ heel. There just isn’t enough time to service all of these characters, and yet that doesn’t stop Singer from cramming as many as possible into the story. Although “X-Men: Apocalypse” has a few good moments (including yet another fun Quicksilver set piece), it’s so far behind what Marvel is doing with their movies that Fox would be better off handing over creative control (see: Sony and Spider-Man) and reaping the benefits.

EXTRAS: In addition to an audio commentary by director Bryan Singer and writer/producer Simon Kinberg, there’s an hour-long making-of documentary, deleted scenes, a gag reel and more.

FINAL VERDICT: SKIP

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Blu Tuesday: American Crime Story, Now You See Me 2 and More

Every Tuesday, I review the newest Blu-ray releases and let you know whether they’re worth buying, renting or skipping, along with a breakdown of the included extras. If you see something you like, click on the cover art to purchase the Blu-ray from Amazon, and be sure to share each week’s column on social media with your friends.

“American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson”

WHAT: A dramatic retelling of the O.J. Simpson case, in which the former NFL superstar turned actor (Cuba Gooding Jr.) was tried on two counts of murder for the 1994 deaths of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown-Simpson, and her friend, Ron Goldman.

WHY: There’s been a lot of great television this year, and FX’s “American Crime Story” is right up there at the top. Though most people of a certain age remember the media circus surrounding the so-called Trial of the Century, “The People v. O.J. Simpson” manages to feel like an entirely fresh experience, revealing things about the case you may not have known before while also recapturing all the infamous moments. Told largely from the perspective of the lawyers, the show examines topics like race, gender, celebrity and the criminal justice system and how each one affected the outcome of the trial. There’s hardly a dull moment throughout the show’s debut season, including the excellent bottle episode “A Jury in Jail,” which details the mental and physical strain placed on the jurors throughout the lengthy court case. At its core, however, “American Crime Story” is just a really excellent actor’s showcase that features award-worthy performances by Sarah Paulson (as lead prosecutor Maria Clark), Courtney B. Vance (as flashy defense attorney Johnny Cochrane) and Sterling K. Brown (as Clark’s second chair, Christopher Darden), among others. The series is so engrossing and expertly cast that it’s like watching the murder trial all over again, only this time, with an unrestricted view of the chaos and drama.

EXTRAS: There’s a retrospective on the real-life trial featuring interviews with the cast, crew and show consultants, as well as an interactive timeline.

FINAL VERDICT: BUY

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