Monday, February 25, 2013

OSCARS 2013 - Nobody Knows Anything

“When I was your age, television was called books.”
The typical post-Oscar water-cooler conversation is a bitch-fest about who wore what and who gushed most.* But we here at Movie Reviews For Greedy Capitalist Bastards are, in fact, far more concerned with who won what, whether the predictions were right, and who on the Hollywood Power List wins and loses. Coming off of the London Film Festival, I’d strongly tipped Ben Affleck’s ARGO for Oscar gold, on the basis that while it was “just” a straightforward thriller, it showed Hollywood producers’ saving the day, thus pandering to the infamous narcissism of the Academy.  When the nominations were announced and Affleck was snubbed for Best Director, the movie became the sure winner for Best Film purely on the basis that it would attract the sympathy vote.  This left the Best Director award dangerously unpredictable. Would Steven Spielberg, often overlooked, benefit from Affleck’s omission? We can all agree that LINCOLN is basically a vehicle for some great performances and a superb script, but there’s something admirable and almost shocking in the fact that the Master Purveyor of Schmaltz had the balls to show America’s most iconic president as a vote-buying, devious tyrant. .

It turns out that, despite watching well over 300 films last year, reading all the trades, and trying to read the runes, that I was almost comprehensively wrong in my predictions. In the event, the Academy almost took the earnest, gold-plated film-making of LINCOLN for granted, and shied away from the controversy surrounding the veracity of ZERO DARK THIRTY. Instead, they awarded prizes to Anne Hathaway, maybe because she wanted it so damn much; to Christoph Waltz, because he’s so damn cool; and to Ang Lee for LIFE OF PI.  This last choice is the one that intrigues me the most.  LIFE OF PI is the quintessential art-house film. With no marquee names and an impossible-to-categorize plot, the film is almost willfully obscure.  Worse still for a voter demographic that skews old and conservative, the movie has a pronounced anti-religious message and an ending that is,  to put it bluntly, a monumental downer. And yet, this is the movie that won the most Oscars, not least Best Director and the most prestigious of the technical gongs, Best Cinematographer for Claudio Miranda.

So, to put it bluntly, how did we all get it so wrong?  (And by we, I refer to the loose fraternity of cinephiles, critics, bloggers and rune-readers). Well, I guess that in the words of the famous William Goldman, “nobody knows anything”.  Nobody knows if a movie’s gonna be a hit. Nobody knows if a movie’s going to make money. If there were any kind of science to this thing, movies wouldn’t be, after airlines, the easiest industry in which to lose money.  But nihilism aside, I suspect that moving Oscar voting online probably skewed the voter demographic younger and edgier. Anecdotally, the e-voting was glitchy and hard to work around.  More substantially, maybe there was a sympathy vote for LIFE OF PI because the CGI studio that did the spectacular work on the movie’s virtual star, the tiger Richard Parker, went bankrupt the week before the ceremony.

Or maybe, it's just another example of the triumph of the Hive Mind over elite judgment? PR company Way to Blue analysed over one million social media mentions in the week leading up to the Oscars, to find that the British cloud chatter correctly predicted the four Majors – Best Film, Director, Actor and Actress – in sharp contrast to most film critics.   The message from the Oscars, as with the US Presidential Election, seems to be that pundits claim to know everything but know nothing; while the Hive Mind claims to know nothing but knows everything.  Which leaves us with the following score-sheet:

Life of Pi 4; Lincoln 3.
Rousseau 1; Hobbes 0.

*I think we can all agree that most of the actresses in white looked like they were wearing wedding dresses; Nicole Kidman needs to dress her age; and that if we were married to a fashion mogul, we’d have dressed better than Salma Hayek. 

Sunday, February 17, 2013


"A high camp B-grade thriller more akin to Dark Shadows than Oldboy."

What is that we love about the cinema of Park Chan Wook?  For me, there are so many things:  the carefully staged tableaux; the precise use of colour as symbolism; the willingness to mine the very darkest areas of human psyche - sexual violence, incest; the melodramatic plots of vengeance and redemption; the rich vein of black humour.  When you watch a Park Chan Wook film you know you will be taken somewhere unique and memorable.  Looking back now, it's been years since I've seen his work, but certain scenes are still vivid in my mind.  Lady Vengeance plunging her face into the redemptive white tofu.  Her daughter holding a knife to her throat, threatening her Australian adoptive parents to take her back to Korea.  Mr Vengeance slashing the Achilles tendons of his victim in the water.  The amazing, almost video-game shot, of Oh Dae Su violently dispatching the guards of the prison-hotel. 

All this should explain why I was left cold by STOKER.  It's Park Chan Wook's first American film, and is about as watered down and weak-minded as Wong Kar Wai's incredibly disappointing MY BLUEBERRY NIGHTS. I'm not sure whether something was literally lost in translation, or whether the American producers constrained Park Chan Wook's trademark hypnotic excesses.  Maybe it was the script by Wentworth Miller,  better known as the actor who played Michael Scofield in Prison Break - a script that teases us with the potential for deep dark sexual secrets, and taboo attractions but doesn't have the courage to take us deep into depravity.  Which isn't to say that STOKER is a subtle, discreet film. While it dances round the edges of chaos, it contains performances of high camp.  Both Nicole Kidman and Matthew Goode have line deliveries that are flat out funny, and not in a good way.  Too often scenes which should be menacing and uncomfortable are just absurd.

But to go back to the beginning, STOKER is not a horror film and certainly contains no vampires or references to Bram Stoker.  Instead, it plays like a high-camp B-grade thriller, akin to DARK SHADOWS.  We open with a kooky family in an isolated country house.  India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska) is a withdrawn emo teenage girl mourning the death of her father Richard (Dermot Mulroney).  Her alcoholic mother (Nicole Kidman) flirts outrageously with her mysterious brother-in-law, but Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode) seems transfixed on his niece instead. She resents him, but is also darkly attracted to him, and so chooses to overlook the strange and threatening events that seem to surround him.  Moreover, she is a slippery and unreliable point of view.  Is she fantasising, remembering, distorting the truth?  

All of this seems like a great set up for some truly messed up taboo familial craziness and violence, but sadly it all ends with a whimper rather than a bang.  By the time we got to anything faintly resembling craziness the movie had lost all credibility.  There was no emotional heft and investment similar to the Vengeance films, where I cared deeply what happened to the main characters. The only saving graces were Mia Wasikowska's finely modulated performance, cinematographer Chung Chung-hoon' luscious visuals and Nicholas deToth's editing.  There's a scene where Nicole Kidman's hair morphs into a field of grass.  It's the image that I'll remember in ten year's time, if I remember this poor excuse of a film at all.

STOKER played Sundance 2013 and will be released on March 1st in the UK, Ireland and the USA. It opens in Singapore and Taiwan on March 7th; in Greece, Italy and Romania on March 28th; in the Netherlands on April 11th; in Argentina and Iceland on April 19th; in Denmark on April 25th; in Belgium, France, Portugal, Brazil and Mexico on May 2nd; in Chile and Germany on May 9th; and in Australia and New Zealand on August 29th.

STOKER has a running time of 98 minutes and is rated R in the USA.

Friday, February 08, 2013


The first thirty minutes of FLIGHT is worth the price of admission: a brilliantly shot, unbearably tense sequence in which we see an intoxicated but brilliant pilot somehow arrest the freefall of a shattered airplane by turning it upside down and then gliding it to a semi-safe landing.  The rest of the movie is about how that pilot comes to turn with his addiction, and the undoubtedly strong performance from Denzel Washington as Captain Whit Whitaker, has its share of Hallmark Card moments and a superfluous ending.

As the film opens, Whip wakes up from shagging his stewardess, a fellow addict.  He takes cocaine to sharpen himself up from his mammoth hangover, takes a hit of Oxygen, strong coffee and aspirin on the flight to make the take-off, and ten drinks vodka while the plane is cruising.  There is no doubt in our mind that he isn't fit to fly, but also that his intoxication is partly what gives him the balls to land the plane safely.  This irony is paralleled in the final act of the film in which Whip has to give evidence before the investigating commission, but I won't say more for fear of spoiling the second scene of brilliant tension in the movie.

There is no doubt in our mind that it was the plane, rather than the pilot who caused the freefall.  The trouble is, neither the airline nor the manufacturer nor the pilots union wants to accept blame and Whip is caught in the middle.  He leans heavily on his crew and friends, and helped by a brilliant lawyer (Don Cheadle) to absolve himself of blame and cover up for his drinking.  In doing so, Whip is contrasted with Kelly Reilly's Nicole: his love interest who is trying hard to recover.  Reilly does well in a largely thankless role.  By contrast, James Badge Dale steals the show in a brief scene as a dying cancer patient, and John Goodman is good value in the complex cameo of the drug dealer who is at once funny and repellent. 

When FLIGHT is good, it's very good.  No doubt, Robert Zemeckis' experience in CGI (POLAR EXPRESS, A CHRISTMAS CAROL) contributes to the technical perfection of the opening plane crash sequence.  But the final act of the movie also betrays a schmaltzy Christmas Special vibe that undercuts much of the early grittiness.  If the movie only had the the discipline to end at Whip's moment of clarity, this would've been a film more worthy of Denzel Washington's performance. 

FLIGHT was released in 2012 in the USA, Canada, Kuwait, Russia and Turkey. It is currently on release in Israel, Portugal, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Lithuania, Norway, Spain, Sweden,  Belgium, Australia, the Netherlands, Ireland, Mexico, the UK, New Zealand, Argentina, Chile, Brazil and Finland. It opens on February 13th in France; on February 21st in Croatia, the Czech Republic, Hong Kong, Singapore, Bulgaria, Poland, Romania and Taiwan; on March 1st in Japan and on March 14th in Serbia.

FLIGHT is rated R in the USA and has a running time of 138 minutes.

Monday, February 04, 2013

HOUSE OF CARDS (UK) - part four

PLOT SUMMARY: The final episode covers the events of the Conservative Party leadership election.  Francis Urquhart (Ian Richardson) declares his candidacy, "reluctantly" persuaded by the clamour of his colleagues.  He eliminates the weaker candidates by dredging up scandal from their past. After the first ballot, Patrick Woolton (Malcolm Tierney), Michael Samuels (Damien Thomas) and Urquhart remain in the race.  Urquhart uses the sex tape with Penny Guy (Alphonisa Emmanuel) to blackmail Woolton into withdrawing.  Elegantly for Urquhart, Woolton thinks that because Penny was seeing Roger O'Neill (Miles Anderson), and he in turn worked for Lord Billsborough who is now backing Samuels, that it is Samuels who is behind it all.  Woolton therefore gives his public backing to Urquhart.  O'Neill, distraught that Penny left him, drinking increasingly heavily, is casually murdered by Urquhart, who stages an overdose.  Meanwhile, Mattie (Susannah Harker) listens back to her taped conversations with Urquhart and realises that he was behind it all.  She confronts him in the roof garden, he throws her off.  We do not know if he has been elected leader, but we do know that someone has picked up Mattie's tape recorder.

COMMENTS:  For those of us who grew up in the era of Tory sleaze the idea that extra marital conference shags were commonplace is easy to accept.  But the comment from Woolton's wife to "inform me if I need an HIV test" is very much of its time - at the height of the AIDS scare - and chillingly cool in its delivery.  The political machinations are handled beautifully and far more convincingly than in the remake.  However, I believe that Corey Stoll's depiction of Peter Russo emotional decline is far more convincing than Miles Anderson's O'Neill, and the subsequent murder is therefore less emotionally impactful.  That said, I love how Urquhart's actions are so very callous, his mischievous smile, his self-justifying, mocking, nasty soliloquy, and the final congratulatory full-mouthed kiss with his wife Elizabeth (Diane Fletcher).  I hadn't remembered that Urquhart was't actually elected leader at the end of this episode.  Maybe in my memory I just took it for granted because I'd seen the following series. So, to that end, the series has a more ambiguous ending that I'd thought, but still with more of a conclusion that the US remake. 

"This is an act of mercy. Truly. You know the man now. You can see he has nowhere to go. He's begging to be set free. He's had enough. And when he's finally at rest, then we'll be free to remember the real Roger. The burning boy in the green jersey. With that legendary, fabulous sidestep and brave, terrified smile."

HOUSE OF CARDS (UK) - part three

Elizabeth (Diane Fletcher) and Francis Urquhart (Ian Richardson).
PLOT SUMMARY: The race for the Tory party leadership begins, with Environment Minister Michael Samuels (Damien Thomas) and Foreign Minister Patrick Woolton (Malcolm Tierney) the front runners.   Francis Urquhart (Ian Richardson) ensures that both Mattie Storin (Susannah Harker)'s newspaper and the ex Prime Minister (David Lyon) back him.  He also sleeps with her, but is unaware that she has taped their conversations. Moreover, she is investigating the insider trading scandal, realises that Charles Collingridge (James Villiers) was framed, and that Conservative Central Office is implicated.  She turns to Urquhart for help, unaware that he is the one arranging for her to be scared off the case. She agrees to let "daddy" investigate.

COMMENTS:  Oh but this episode is so rich in dramatic irony.  The ex PM fawning over Urquhart, his loyal lapdog, when all the time it's Urquhart who set the hounds on him.  And then the irony of Urquhart actually rather liking and respecting Woolton, while simultaneously entrapping him in a honey pot.  And finally, Mattie trusting in "daddy" - harmless, crumbly old aristo - unaware that he is as rapacious as any new-monied Tory. The language is also a delight. Vicious, witty, layer upon layer of class hatred - simply delicious and menacing and building up our image of Urquhart as a ruthless man:

"His deepest need was that people should like him. An admirable trait, that... in a spaniel or a whore, not, I think, in a Prime Minister. And we've done him a favour, too, if he did but know it. He was in the trap and screaming from the moment he took office. We've simply put the poor bastard out of his agony."

HOUSE OF CARDS (UK) - part two

Ian Richardson as Francis Urquhart MP, at the despatch box.

PLOT SUMMARY:  Conservative Party Chief Whip Francis Urquhart (Ian Richardson) continues to seceretly undermine the Prime Minister Henry Colingridge (David Lyon) by planting tabloid stories attacking his brother; leaking confidential party polls showing how unpopular he is and putting the blame on the Party Chairman, Lord Billsborough (Nicholas Selby); and suggesting to the Foreign Minister Patrick Woolton (Malcolm Tierney) that he might run. He sets Woolton up for a fall by planting a bug in his ministerial box, and forcing Roger O'Neill (Miles Anderson) to pimp out his lover Penny Guy (Alphonsia Emmanuel) to Woolton.  Finally, the financial scandal Urquhart prepared for in the previous episode comes to fruition, implicating the Prime Minister's brother, and leading the Prime Minister to resign. Urquhart continues to brief Mattie Storin.  His wife, Elizabeth suggest to Francis that to be sure of Mattie's trust, he should sleep with her. Mattie, who has an Elektra complex, is open to his advances.

COMMENTS: Episode two is set almost entirely at the party conference, and shows the party at its most Machiavellian.  Urquhart is masterful at making the marionettes dance, and we enjoy his mastery. It's a lot more obvious than in the remake, where we gather slowly that Underwood is, via Stamper, pimping out Rachel. This version is far less apologetic and far less mysterious.  Underwood is hands off, whereas Urquhart listens into Woolton shagging Penny on his headphones. It strikes me that in contrast to the remake, we don't actually see Urquhart whip backbenchers to support a bill, and that's rather a shame.  I actually like the idea of seeing Underwood doing his day job, and passing legislation.  Still, there's much to enjoy here.  Mattie gathers strength and gumption in the face of her story potentially being spiked. I particularly enjoy Urquhart's taxonomy of the conference:  "A party conference can be many things. A show of confidence, an agonizing reappraisal, or, as in this case, a series of auditions by pretenders to the throne, while the lost leader withers before our eyes."

HOUSE OF CARDS (UK) - part one

Susannah Harker as the ambitious journalist Mattie Storin.
PLOT SUMMARY:  As the episode opens, the Conservative Party wins a general election albeit with a reduced majority. The Conservative Party Chief Whip, Francis Urquhart MP (Ian Richardson) is refused a promotion to Home Secretary, and urged on by his loyal and ambitious wife Elizabeth, begins to scheme to undermine the Prime Minister, Henry Collingridge (David Lyon).  Urquhart uses ambitious young journalist Mattie Storin (Susannah Harker) to plant stories of  dissension in the ranks and a potential leadership challenge.  The front runner seems to be the young Jewish Environment Minister, Michael Samuels (Damien Thomas).  Urquhart also demands the loyalty of the party's campaign manager, Roger O'Neill, in exchange for keeping his addiction to cocaine, and embezzlement of party funds under wraps.  Finally, Urquhart opens a bank account with dirty money in disguise. 

COMMENTS:  What strikes me about this episode is the depiction of all the prejudices that are especially British - class prejudice, anti-semitism and misogyny.  It really is an unpleasant world to inhabit to an extent that the US remake doesn't approach.  We see Urquhart as a man of privilege, shooting on his estate, and sense his profound sense of entitlement. Urquhart's wife is also far more of a Lady Macbeth figure than Frank Underwood's wife: she has no apparent career and pours her ambitions into him.  Mattie Storin is also more of a sure-footed ambitious journalist than in the US remake.  There are many lines and scenes that have been translated straight from the original series to the remake.  Urquhart offers the addicted O'Neill a scotch, but doesn't take one himself, setting up O'Neill with the line that "it's a little early in the day for me".  Underwood does the same to Russo.  Similarly, O'Neill's secretary calling him pretending to be the Prime Minister becomes Christina calling Peter Russo. But the scale is grander in the original: O'Neill brags to an entire room full of celebrating PR hacks, where Russo merely brags to one congressman.  

I suppose what I love about this episode is the economy of its storytelling and how quickly it's sets up the key relationships. I love its willingness to show the true grime in politics.  There's also a rich seam of humour that's entirely lacking in the remake. The best line is probably Francis rebuke O'Neil for his cocaine habit: the ironic detachment with which he says, "and I don't mean to be old fashioned, but isn't it illegal?"  Brilliant. 

HOUSE OF CARDS (UK) - introduction

Ian Richardson as the legendary Tory Chief Whip,
Francis Urquhart MP.
The original BBC House of Cards has an outsized impact on my political imagination, and indeed the political sensibility of the entire country.  Based on Michael Dobbs' novel, and adapted for the screen by Andrew Davies, it seemed to articulate everything that was dangerously glamorous and decadent about the Thatcher years: the rapacious greed, deep intelligence and sense of entitlement.  Many of the phrases used by its antihero, the Conservative Chief Whip Frances Urquhart, have become part of our everyday political discourse. And with the series being broadcast during the traumatic matricide that ignominiously ended The Iron Lady's reign, it felt like we were being taken right into the soiled heart of the Tory Party in its violent death-throws.  For me, and many others, House of Cards, frames the way in which we think of that era, in just the same way as Shakespeare's Richard III (newly disinterred) clouds our judgement of the real man.

Rewatching the series, available on Netflix, in the light of the US remake, one is reminded of its vitality, economy and wit.  What the US version lacked was its biting sense of humour, and sheer decadence.  There is a sense of grandeur and villainy and real menace that the modern version doesn't even try to approach, so that it's pivotal act of violence feels unearned. By contrast, Francis Urquhart always feels like a glamorous villain, and always feels dangerous. And as the series moves towards its dramatic, definitive final confrontation, everything feels frighteningly credible.  And all that, in under four hours.  By contrast, the Netflix series' attenuated, elongated, ultimately frustrating narrative feels wearyingly bloated. 

So I heartily encourage you to seek out the original series and enjoy what remains the apotheosis of political intrigue. It has dated remarkably well.  The basic means by which British politics is operated are still the same, and the Tory party - stuffed full of landed aristocrats - still the bastion of the elite.  One can only hope that a little of the prejudice toward Hesiltonian new money (he buys his own furniture, rather than inheriting!) and the anti-semitism has softened, but even there, one wouldn't want to speculate. 

Sunday, February 03, 2013

HOUSE OF CARDS - chapter thirteen

PLOT SUMMARY:  Congressman Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) returns to Washington, and tries to persuade lobbyist Remy Danton (Mahershala Ali) to convince Sancorp to mount a hostile takeover on Ray Tusk's nuclear companies.  Frank hopes this attack will prevent Tusk accepting the VP position because he won't want to put his assets in a blind trust.  However, it transpires that Danton has sold out Sancorp to Tusk, and that it's Tusk who is mounting a takeover bid on Sancorp.  Nonetheless, Tusk still endorses Frank, and as the episode ends, Frank has accepted the Vice Presidential role, although this has yet to be announced to the public.  He tells Claire (Robin Wright), but she does not tell him that she wants a baby and has sought medical advice. Meanwhile the Scooby Gang of Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara), Janine Skorsky (Constance Zimmer) and Lucas have tracked down the hooker, Rachel, who is still being controlled by Frank's fixer Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly).  He realises that they know about the Kern letter, the Russo arrests being over-turned and the other machinations.  As the episode, and series, ends, Doug is trying to call Frank to warn him, but he is out running with Claire. 

COMMENTS:  It would be an understatement to say just how angry I am at the piss-poor ending of this series of House of Cards. It utterly cheats the invested viewer out of any kind of closure and we should all boycott the now necessary series 2 in protest.  It's the worst kind of bullshit since the US series of The Killing, and shows that as slick, and well-acted as this series might have been, commercial interests have trumped simple good storytelling.  It also means that the original British series, with its desperately tense climax, remains the superior story.  

HOUSE OF CARDS - chapter twelve

PLOT SUMMARY:  Two stories work in parallel. In the first, Justine Sorski (Constance Zimmer) confronts Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara) with the fact that she knows Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) was feeding Zoe stories. They work together to uncover why dead Congressman Peter Russo didn't testify in favour of the shipyard, realising that Frank probably strong-armed him, and was arguably linked to the machinations to get Kern to resign as Secretary of State, and to get Terry Womack appointed House Majority leader.  In doing so, they are aided by Russo's former lover and aide Christina and a stripper called Echo.  Doug Stanhope realises they are on the case but promised Frank he can contain them.

Meanwhile, Linda (Sarakina Jaffrey) and Frank try to manipulate President Walker (Michael Gill) into nominating Frank for the Vice Presidency.  However, the President has duped Frank into flying to St Louis to vet billionaire Ray Tusk, all the while asking Tusk to vet Frank.  When Frank realises this, Tusk asks for a favour in exchange for a recommendation.  Frank decides to go after Ray's nuclear interests instead. 

COMMENTS:  As we move into the endgame, the net is closing in on Frank, but this episode is mostly set up.  The Scooby Doo gang is on the case, and retracing Frank's steps is rather dull. I also find it implausible that Lucas should think himself in love with Zoe when she's such an unlovable character. Indeed, it's one of the virtues of this series that it doesn't try to make the characters lovable.  Down in St Louis, I was far more amused by the thinly veiled portrait of Warren Buffett - the billionaire Tusk still living in his modest house. But even there, the idea of creating yet another obstacle for Frank to jump over seems a bit weak. We know he will, but have to wait till the next episode.  So all in all, I get why this episode has to exist - it's about the plot machinations that bring us to a final confrontation between Zoe and Frank. But it all seems rather pedestrian, and a bit disappointing from director Allen Coulter of Boardwalk Empire fame.

HOUSE OF CARDS - chapter eleven

Robin Wright at the London première
PLOT SUMMARY: Claire Underwood (Robin Wright) remains in New York with photographer Adam Gallworthy (Ben Daniels) but it is clear she will return. Zoe (Kate Mara) begins to confide in Lucas about the older man she was sleeping with to get her leads. However, the focus of the episode is on the fragile mental state of the now disgraced Congressman Peter Russo (Corey Stoll) as he continues to drink, and guilt-ridden, hands himself into a police station.  He is tracked down by Doug Stamper (Michael Kelley).  Meanwhile Congressman Frank Underwood's (Kevin Spacey) long game is revealed: he will persuade the Vice President to step in as candidate for the Governor's seat; and will himself become Veep, hoping in time to launch a Presidential campaign. He calls in his favour from Vasquez (Sarakina Jaffrey) and also tempts her with implied senior office.  To get his plan in motion, Frank stages Peter's suicide. It is unclear how complicit Doug is. As the episode ends, Claire is by Frank's side at a press conference mourning Peter's death.  

COMMENTS: Carl Franklin (HIGH CRIMES) directs another emotionally heavy episode, where Frank's true schemes are revealed.  The focus of the episode is Peter Russo's slide into a suicidal state and Frank calmly murdering him.  As usual, I just love Corey Stoll's believable, tragic performance as Peter - a character whose bad choices and self-indulgence could have been unlikable and unforgivable.  However, it is in this episode that I most feel the problems of Kevin Spacey's Frank Underwood as compared with the Ian Richardson Francis Urquhart.  In the British original, Urquhart was so manifestly evil that the grandeur of his plans and his murderous intent were no surprise.  He didn't go from honest citizen to murderer in one fell swoop - rather he had committed feigned insider trading, pimped out secretaries and generally done nefarious deeds all the way through the series.  This made him less plausible, perhaps, but made his final act of murder far less jarring.  I looked at Frank Underwood, by contrast, and wondered if US viewers, unfamiliar with the original series, would have guessed that he would go to such lengths based on the information contained in the preceding ten episodes  I'd be genuinely interested to hear what you all think. One final note about the bizarre opacity of Doug Stamper.  How far do we think he was complicit in the plan from the beginning - from grooming the hooker, to tracking down Russo?  And how far can his loyalty by questioned? If Claire rebelled, why not Doug? And how far does he know so much that Frank will have to murder him too?  We are all set for a gripping denouement. 

HOUSE OF CARDS - chapter ten

Kate Mara at the London première
PLOT SUMMARY: In the wake of the failed Watershed Bill vote, chief whip Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) takes the rap, sheltering Linda Vasquez (Sarakina Jaffrey) from President Walker's (Michael Gill) anger, and currying favour by persuading Gillian (Sandrine Holt) to help Vasquez' son get into Stanford.  Frank tells Claire (Robin Wright) in no uncertain terms that her charity is not as important as his political goals. She reacts by visiting Zoe (Kate Mara) before joining her ex-lover Adam Galloway (Ben Daniels) in New York.  Zoe (Kate Mara), disgusted and alienated from her apartment, sleeps with her ex-colleague, Lucas. Meanwhile Frank sets up Gubernatorial candidate Peter Russo (Corey Stoll) with Doug's hooker Rachel (Rachel Brosnahan), resulting in him falling off the wagon and blowing a radio interview. In the final scene, Peter goes awol. 

COMMENTS:  A good, tense episode focussing on the emotional fallout from Claire's betrayal in the last episode.  It was obvious that Claire would go to New York, but not that Zoe would sleep with Lucas, seemingly having a change of heart about her nakedly ambitious, heartless career choices to date.  It was also a surprise to see (presumably) Doug and Frank set Peter up for a fall, although one can't yet see to what end. Doesn't it look bad for Frank to have backed the wrong horse - a man so obviously in a fragile recovery?  I guess we have to wait and see who he plans to put into the gubernatorial race instead, and to what end that helps him.  Finally, Frank knows where Claire is.  Will he go and get her? Or just wait for her to return? I thought the acting in this episode was particularly top notch, especially as it didn't rely on zingers, or any dialogue at all, but rather long drawn out reaction shots. I loved Kate Mara's reaction as she does a double-take of her grimy apartment, seeing it through Claire's condescending eyes, tinged with her own bad choices and memories.  And  I loved the look on Corey Stoll's face when he drank his first shot, and I really hope he gets some awards love for this challenging performance. 

HOUSE OF CARDS - chapter nine

PLOT SUMMARY:  Gubernatorial candidate Peter Russo (Corey Stoll) goes on a bus campaign in Pennsylvania. At first he is undermined by the Vice President, but on Frank's advice flatters him into the fold. Back in Washington, reading a thinly veiled morality lesson from Janine (Constance Zimmer), Zoe (Kate Mara) dumps chief whip Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey). In retaliation  he withholds political scoops, until she resumes their transactions. 

Meanwhile, Frank tries to shepherd Russo's Watershed Bill through Congress despite Sancorp's heavy lobbying against it. Claire secretly scuppers the Bill in order to win Sancorp's help for her charity, when Frank fails to pull the necessary strings at State. Finally, Frank's chief of staff, Doug, gets the hooker, Rachel, her old job as a waitress back.

COMMENTS: I'm happy to see Frank back to his day job of scrambling the votes to get a bill through Congress. He has some superb lines: "I've often found that bleeding hearts have an ironic fear of their own blood," and "I can't lie: I despise kids. There, I've said it."  But he also has some duds. "Never slap a man while he's chewing tobacco." What does that even mean? 

As he breaks the fourth wall, he protests that he doesn't care about being dumped by Zoe, but I can't help but think his argument with Claire is a direct consequence of this. It's shocking to see such a tight career couple arguing, and one wonders what the ruthless Clare will do to him in return. Well, it turns out she screws him over. Is this turnaround from ideal career marriage plausible? I guess so. Their relationship has also been transactional.  So long as they both benefited equally it worked, but with Frank pulling rank over her projects, she fought back.   I wonder what Claire is thinking at this point.  Does she realise that Frank will be able to trace the defeat back to her?  He'll identify the "No" voters, berate them, and they will protest that Claire said he wouldn't mind.  

In a sense, Frank's marriage is therefore as transactional as his relationship with Zoe. Although one wonders if Claire and Frank even sleep together. As a side note, am I reading too much into the fact that Zoe calls Frank "Francis" for the first time - something that only Claire does - after she dumps him?

Finally, I don't really understand what Doug is still doing with the hooker. I hope it doesn't turn out to be something hokey, like she's Frank's illegitimate child.  All this heavy-handed talk of kids - Frank despising them; Claire sympathising with them; the President's chief of staff neglecting them; Gillian pregnant - is foreshadowing something....  

Overall, I loved the pace, the tension and the ambiguity of this episode.  It's no surprise to find that it was directed by James Foley of GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS fame. (Put the coffee down!")  And I loved the final line, "I want to know who lied".  Best episode in a while. 

HOUSE OF CARDS - chapter eight

PLOT SUMMARY: Congressman Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) goes to his alma mater in Charleston, a military college that's a thinly veiled version of The Citadel, for the dedication of his Sancorp sponsored library. He gets nostalgically drunk with his old friends, one of whom he may have had a homosexual affair with.  Claire (Robin Wright) travels with him, and while calling Adam Galloway (Ben Daniels) discusses her decision not to have children.  Meanwhile, recovering addict and gubernatorial candidate, Peter Russo (Corey Stoll) goes back to Philadelphia, only to be rebuffed by both is mother and the shipyard workers. Eventually, Peter is able to win their tentative support. 

COMMENTS: Once again, I find that when House of Cards leaves Washington, the pace slackens and the focus drifts.  These kinds of extended scenes away from the action only work if they serve to deepen our understanding of the characters.  I'm afraid that the Charleston scenes don't really add much.  The hint at a homosexual affair seems ill explored and there for a shock value that isn't really carried through. "You meant something to me" - oh, for heaven's sake, have the balls to say it. The same goes for the clumsy way in which the questions about biological children is introduced to Claire's conversation with Adam. Is she a beard? As for Peter's scenes on the docks, it made me realise how much more grounded and authentic The Wire's depiction of the dockers was, and how two-dimensional and basically uncaring this version is. 

HOUSE OF CARDS - chapter seven

PLOT SUMMARY: Congressman Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) turns his attention to Peter Russo's (Corey Stoll) gubernatorial campaign. The plan is to confess to his addictions and frame a recovery story. To do this, Frank uses Zoe, who in turn hands the puff piece to Janine Skorsky (Constance Zimmer), baiting her to leave the Tribune for Slugline. Frank also calls in his favour from the President, getting Linda Vasquez to lean on the Vice President to stop intervening in the allocation of his old seat. Russo has cold feet, but Christina convinces him to run, and they reunite. Meanwhile, Frank's sidekick Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly) bails out the whore he paid off earlier in the season. Zoe lobbies the owner of Slugline on Janine's behalf and gives her former colleague Lucas the cold shoulder. 

COMMENTS:  We're now into the episodes directed by Charles McDougall, who I respect greatly for his work on the seminal Hillsborough disaster fictional recreation, as well as the original Channel 4 Queer As Folk. That said, I found this episode rather slow - with neither political skulduggery nor emotional stakes. One can only hope it's laying tracks for a big finale to the second half of the season.  I feel like we wasted an episode going back and forth on whether Peter would run. Wasn't that what the powerful razor scene at the  end of the last episode was all about? And as for Doug's romantic attempt to save the beat-up hooker - dull and implausible that he would drag in Nancy. I also find it implausible that a) Janine would apologise to Zoe and b) that she would fall for her help in getting into or c) want to go to the risibly named Slugline.

As for the final scene between Frank and Zoe, my misgivings about the casting of Kate Mara as a sexy ingenue continue.  The final line about her wishing Frank a happy father's day could of course be interpreted in may ways.  Frank's metaphorical children - the people like Peter he keeps under his wing - maybe her. If it really does refer to a biological child I'll lose respect for Frank and for Beau Willamon's writing in having Frank make such a major damaging reveal in an offhand comment to a journalist. 

The things I liked about this episode were on its fringes.  I love the way in which recovery is handled. In fact, this is one of the few times I've seen a meeting on screen. Doug Stamper's share is superbly articulated: "fuck the zero" is the first line of this new series that matches the original's "I couldn't possibly comment". I also love the melancholy motif of the Vice President, sidelined, irrelevant, taking the President's chair in the Oval Office: a realistic dark backing to the satire of Ianucci's Veep. 

HOUSE OF CARDS - chapter six

Plot summary: A month has passed and the national teachers' strike causes President Walker to question Chief Whip Frank Underwood's (Kevin Spacey) judgement.  The pressure on Frank is exacerbated by Frank bungling a CNN debate with the union leader, Spinelli (Al Sapienza).  Undeterred, Frank refuses to gut the bill, and uses journalist Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara) to point the blame at Spinelli when a kid who should've been in school is shot on the street.   He then goads Spinelli into throwing a punch, which ensures his bill will pass. Meanwhile, a newly sober Pete Russo (Corey Stoll) starts recovery, making amends to Christina. He also starts his campaign for Governor, helped by Claire's proposal to redevelop the shipyard as an environmentally friendly development, generating thousands of jobs.  Separately, Claire hears the deathbed confession of Frank's former security guard, in which she explains the nature of their love and marriage. 

Comments:  I suppose it was inevitable that at the half way point of the series, we would have to see our anti-hero, Frank, brought low.  It's always a good test of how much you're invested in a character: how much you squirm when they stumble.  I  hated seeing Malcolm Tucker made irrelevant at the end of The Thick Of It season 3, and I could barely look at Frank's omnishambles.  This is a good thing.  Elsewhere, I'm a bit disappointed that the Zoe character, who was turning into quite an enjoyably manipulative player, seems to have been sidelined.  Similarly, Claire had seemed rather Machiavellian, and I had high hopes of the bodyguard's deathbed confession, but nothing revelatory happens there either. It all feels rather banal and slow-paced - maybe Schumacher's direction or just a mid-season lull?  Even the insults seem rather juvenile. Frank bully Spinelli: "I can smell the cock on your breath from here."  Where's Tucker when you need him?  I'm also starting to get rather tired of Beau Willamon flirting with shark-circling writing. Don't get me wrong: it's not as bad as the Homeland season 2 pacemaker assassination, but would Spinelli really have thrown a punch?

HOUSE OF CARDS - chapter five

Kate Mara as ambitious journalist Zoe Barnes.
Plot summary: While Frank (Kevin Spacey) appeases one of the teachers' unions, the other exacts revenge by picketing Claire's charity ball. The protesters are made to look callow in accepting food, but this may result in a nationwide strike.  Frank decides he will get the Philandering Philly elected as Governor.  Peter, abandoned by Christina, guiltridden over the shipyard job losses, gets wasted, leaving Frank to practice extreme tough love to get his head back in the game. Meanwhile, Claire (Robin Wright), frustrated at the loss of the Sancorp donation, booty calls Adam Galloway (Ben Daniels) to no effect. Zoe(Kate Mara) joins internet news portal Slugline, and goads Frank into taking blackmail photos of her as proof of trust. The Herald's editor, a stalwart defender of quality old media, is forced to resign by the proprietor. 

Comments:  I felt this episode was uneven and unfocussed, perhaps reflecting that the spotlight wasn't so much on Frank as on the two people feeling the consequences of the last episode's scheming: Claire and Congressman Russo.  I am full of admiration and wonder at Claire and Frank's marriage: open, honest and apparently anything goes so long as the other approves and can see the benefit to "us".  Imagine my relief when Frank dunks Zoe's iphone into a glass of water to erase the evidence of their meeting, and then my contempt for writer Beau Willamon when I realise all the evidence of their meetings is still hanging in the iCloud somewhere. Will this come back to haunt Frank at some point? 

As for Congressman Russo, I like Corey Stoll's depiction of his fragility, and wonder if maybe this is an Emmy-winning Supporting Actor role in the making.  This also raises the question of whether a series that airs on Netflix is even eligible. (The risible Lillyhammer meant we have yet to see a test case.)  Was Frank's tough love at the end of the episode plausible? I could see the sharks circling. I'm not quite sure the provision of the razor was impactful enough.  Overall, perhaps the weakest episode since the Peachoid.  Are we seeing the weaker quality of Joel Schumacher's direction? 

Saturday, February 02, 2013

HOUSE OF CARDS - Chapter Four

Writer Beau Willamon; Robin Wright (Claire); Kate Mara (Zoe);
director David Fincher; Kevin Spacey (Frank)
Plot summary:  Democratic Whip Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) does his job, trying to gather the votes to get his Education Bill passed. He secures the support of previously intransigent Speaker Bob Birch by framing David Rasmussen, the House Majority leader, for trying to sage a coup.  Rasmussen is manipulated into resigning, clearing the way for the first African American Majority Leader, thus gaining his votes from the Black Caucus, Terry Womack.  Frank buys Womack by making Peter Russo close down the shipyard in his district, thus allowing the base in Womack's district to remain open. 

Meanwhile, at the Washington Herald, the proprietor, Margaret, over-rides the Editor, Tom, and orders him to promote, rather than to chastise Zoe (Kate Mara) for doing TV interviews.  However, Frank manipulates Zoe into turning down the promotion to Political Editor so that he can continue to use her, apparently sexually too.  She appears to tweet her Editor's inflammatory response, and is fired.

Finally, we learn that Claire (Robin Wright)  cut the jobs at her charity because she was unsure of a donation from her husband's campaign contributors, Sancorp. Lobbyist Remy Danton (Mahershala Ali) doubles the donation, but Claire is aware this obligates Frank, and turns it down. The people for whom she procured the Jefferson Ball tickets step in. She is willing to flirt with her former lover, photographer Adam Galloway (Ben Daniels), to get a donation. 

Comments: I very much liked this episode.  Screenwriter Beau Willamon deftly handles four related but essentially disparate fields of battle. This is the first time we see the President, and also the the first time we see Frank actually doing his job, which is to Whip Burch into line and get the Bill onto the floor without concessions. 

We also get more colour on Claire, which had previously been the most vague and thus uninteresting storyline. She had an affair with the photographer, but how far is she now flirting with him to use him, or because she is genuinely tempted by him. I also love the ambiguity about whether Frank and Claire know about how far the other will go to use sex to get what they want, and whether this is okay by both of them as they both understand what power entails. At this point, my impression is that they are truly in love, and with no illusions about each other.  My only reservation is whether Frank would be so stupid as to get involved with someone as nakedly ambitious and manipulative as Zoe? 

On a more minor note, I loved the chillingly pragmatic attitude of Pete Russo's children, taking it for granted that their father will have a mistress.  And I also rather like Franks' interest in gaming - first person shooters, no less!

HOUSE OF CARDS - Chapter Three

Plot summary: Democratic Chief Whip Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) simultaneously tries to negotiate with Teachers' Unions on the education bill while travelling to his home state of South Carolina to contain the Peachoid crisis: a teenager died in a car crash while texting about it, and now her parents are threatening to sue. Frank manipulates the deeply religious mourning parents into "letting me help you", neatly sidestepping the machinations of his fourth district opponent.  "I've been elected in this district eleven times, did you think that was all luck and a handshake?"  Meanwhile, Frank's wife Claire (Robin Wright) manipulates a Bleeding Heart into joining her charity, and rising star  journalist Zoe (Kate Mara) meets the owner of the Herald who, friends with Durant, puts Zoe's piece on the front page.

Comments:  For me, this episode severely lost pace and interest when it left Washington for South Carolina.  Still, as Armando Iannucci shows so well in The Thick Of It and IN THE LOOP, part of the   weirdness of high political power is that one still has to contend with petty constituency business. I'm also sure I wasn't the only one who googled The Peachoid to see if it really existed, and was delighted to see that it did.  A better hook upon which to hang a political satire was never invented. Other than that, it was nice to see some nods to the current debate over Charter Schools, but I missed the "real" politics. Meanwhile, I still don't see where the Claire story is going, and that's irksome, and the attempt to see her spooked on her run through the graveyard was just odd rather than effective. The other thing that irks me is how blatantly thinly veiled the references to the Washington Post are, complete with a Kitty Graham-like female proprietor. I was almost expecting to hear a comment to "titties caught in the ringer".  No matter how good a TV series shapes up to be, there's something rather arrogant and question-begging about referencing the icons of the genre. 

HOUSE OF CARDS - Chapter Two

Plot summary: Chief Whip Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) manipulates the author of the leaked education bill into standing aside, allowing Frank to introduce and take credit for a revised bill.  Frank uses journalist Zoe (Kate Mara) to get Daniel Kern to withdraw as candidate for Secretary of State, by scurrilously bringing to light an old Op-Ed from his college days.  Frank then uses the Philandering Philly Congressman (Corey Stoll) to persuade the real writer of the controversial editorial to claim that Kern wrote the piece, sealing his resignation. Frank's final play is to have Zoe start the buzz that Catherine Durant should be Secretary of State.  Meanwhile, Claire (Robin Wright) sacks 19 members of staff.

Comments:  This episode is all about seeing Frank manipulate people to get what he wants, manoeuvring himself onto the Education Bill, and Kern out of State, earning the thanks of Durant and Vasquez into the bargain. It's swift, neat and clever. That said, there's something about the concept of leaking via physical meetings and text message that worries me.  Why doesn't anyone try to discover where the leak comes from? I know that the author claims he got his staffers to shred it, but still.  Would Frank really meet Zoe directly in a world of a hundred camera phones waiting to catch any odd meeting (as used so powerfully in Chapter One?)  There's something about a story of political leaking that seemed far more plausible in the 1980s when electronic tracking was de minimus.  Why doesn't anyone wonder where Zoe is getting her information and question her meteoric rise? Wouldn't the Editor-In-Chief ask for, if not her source, then more context?   

Once again, the charity storyline seems dull and irrelevant, other than showing what we already know - Claire has balls of steel: it had better pay off. 

HOUSE OF CARDS - Chapter One

Plot summary:  Despite helping the President-Elect come to power, Chief Whip Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) is overlooked for Secretary of State.  He feigns loyalty, agreeing to usher an education bill through Congress within the President's first 100 days. Instead, he scuppers it by leaking a radical left first draft through the press via an ambitious young metro reporter, Zoe Barnes, who crudely attempts to capture his attention sexually (Kate Mara).  Meanwhile, we learn that Frank's wife Claire (Robin Wright) runs a charity and appears loyal to him.  And we see Frank exert his power over Congressman Peter Russo (Corey Stoll), a philanderer and casual drug user.  

Comments: As expected, the writing and production values are slick and smart. Fincher's palette is cool blues and browns, the production design classic luxe.  Nowhere is this more epitomised in Robin Wright's beautifully groomed wife.  Spacey's Frank exudes power, but in a less overtly Machiavellian manner than Ian Richardson, which is less entertaining but more realistic.  I liked the subtle humour - the education guru sitting next to his book titled "Learning about learning" - the inaugural address seemingly lifted from a Whitney Houston song, "I believe the children are our future..."  
Stylistic choices that irked me?  Somehow, the device of having Frank break the fourth wall and speak to camera seems cheap in the wake of Don Cheadle in House of Lies.  I found the score to be derivative of the Scandinavian version of The Killing.  The debate about old versus new media in the thinly veiled Washington Post is old hat, and quasi Newsroom, which is never good. The visual depiction of text messages seems derivative of Sherlock.  And casting an actress who is clearly Asian to play the Latina Presidential Chief of Staff.

Overall, a promising start.  Not sure why we're spending so much time with Claire's charity or Peter Russo, but clearly track is being laid and I'm interested to see where it leads.

HOUSE OF CARDS - Introduction

In the early days, this blog started as a water cooler for my friends around which we could discuss the latest films.  Given the rush of emails, tweets and general hoop-la, I thought I'd break convention and review Netflix' new long-awaited new series, House of Cards.

I come to it with some prejudice: the original British novel by Michael Dobbs and subsequent TV adaptation penned by Andrew Davies and starring Ian Richardson is seen by many as the high water mark in Thatcher era TV.  It was scabrous, radical, dark, dark, dark.  Richardson's Francis Urquhart seemed like an embodiment of all that we saw as sinister (yes, even us Thatcherites) in the ruthlessly ambitious, free-market Thatcherite years. And, of course, his catchphrase, "You might think that, but I couldn't possibly comment" became the "Tuckerism"" of it's day.  The original House of Cards was part of a long and beloved tradition of high quality political satire and drama that the UK seems to excel at - stretching from Yes, Minister to Thick of It.  Having seen the latter defanged as HBO's Veep, I was sceptical about yet another US remake.

That said, one couldn't argue with the quality of the cast and crew.  David Fincher, master of visual style and complex technical material (THE SOCIAL NETWORK) at the helm; Beau Willamon, political playwright, doing the screenplay; Kevin Spacey in the Urquhart role, starring as the scheming Democratic Whip; and Robin Wright as his perfect political wife Claire.

So, on with the show: let's see if Netflix really is the new HBO.....