Sunday, February 23, 2014

HOUSE OF CARDS - Season Two - Chapter Twenty Six

PLOT SUMMARY: Former White House Chief of Staff, Linda Vasquez (Sakina Jaffrey) testifies in front of a judiciary committee on behalf of President Walker (Michael Gill) and speaks openly about her disagreement with Vice President Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey).  He continues to support the President publicly while Majority Whip Jackie Sharp (Molly Parker) organises the campaign against Walker.  Vasquez and Walker spin against Frank, but he offers Vasquez her job back if she'll ask Raymond Tusk (Gerald McRaney) to destroy Tusk on the stand.  But Frank and Seth Grayson (Derek Cecil) pre-empt Walker's play and arrange a secret meeting with Tusk trying to persuade him not to take Walker's offer of a pardon.

Megan has attempted suicide and refuses Claire Underwood's consolation.Meanwhile, the hacker Gavin Orsay (Jimmi Simpson) tells Stamper he has his phone records and knows about Rachel Posner (Rachel Brosnahan).  Stamper drives Rachel out to some woods, believing she has betrayed him: he chases her through the woods, but she attacks him with a rock and kills him

Frank writes a deeply manipulative letter to President Walker, offering to resign  and take the fall, resulting in Walker asking him to whip the votes to prevent the impeachment.  Frank does so, but in such a way as to garner tacit support from politicians who would gain in his presidency.  Meanwhile, Jackie asks Remy to voluntarily testify against Tusk, with the vague promise of a White House job. Cornered, he agrees, but is pre-empted by Tusk who finally stops pleading the fifth when he realises his offer of a pardon if worthless, and says that he did funnel money, but that he didn't believe it to be illegal. This is the nail in the coffin for Walker, who faces impeachment and low approval ratings. He resigns, hands back Underwood his incriminating letter, and Frank is sworn in at Camp David. He solves the China trade dispute by handing Xander Feng (Terry Chen) back to the Chinese, revoking the asylum papers that hadn't actually been processed yet. Finally, we see President Underwood as the 46th President, wearing a newly forged class ring, in the Oval Office. 

COMMENTS: This is a superb end to the season, in sharp contrast to season one which utterly left us hanging.  In a sense, Netflix should call the show to an end here, neat, elegant, final, but of course they won't. It's their equivalent of Mad Men - a high prestige water-cooler series.  Things that didn't sit well with me - would any man wily enough to become POTUS not suspect Frank's false humility?  And please god, tell me Walker was smart enough to keep a copy of the letter!  Still, looking forward to the new season. More on Grayson, Gavin Orsay, Rachel and other ghosts in the past - and to see how much havoc Frank can unleash as President. It was also a pleasant surprise to see a girl get the better of a political operator, although I'll miss the conflicting Stamper, superbly acted by Michael Kelly. 


AT MIDDLETON is a gentle romantic comedy starring Vera Farmiga (BATES MOTEL) and Andy Garcia (OCEAN'S ELEVEN) as two middle aged parents who fall in love while taking their kids (Taissa Farmiga and Spencer Lofranco) on a tour of Middleton College.  The romance plays as a conventional odd couple love story, with Garcia playing a conservative doctor and Farmiga playing the more free spirited Edith. There are lots of rom-com conventions at play here. They meet in an argument and are initially dismissive of each other. There are lots of cute scenes where they discover they like each other.  There's even the classic "he's afraid of heights but she'll help him" skit that we saw between Ryan and Marissa in The O.C.  And yes, there's a cute and irreverent scene involving chopsticks.  I also wouldn't have picked these two actors for a movie that involves physical comedy. 

And yet, and yet... There's something about these two actors that is authentic and the character of the doctor in particular is deeply sympathetic.  And I also like that the children are given a story arc, but not an easy cheesy love story.  The daughter in particular is fascinating - a high achieving kid who wants to study with a famous professor - and the meeting between the two is really worth watching.  So I wouldn't say that this film is a must-watch but for a lazy Sunday afternoon it's somehow more than it seems.  And by the way, the R rating is utterly unwarranted. 

AT MIDDLETON has a running time of 99 minutes and is rated R.  The movie is available to rent and own in the UK and USA and will be released in Spain on March 13th.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

HOUSE OF CARDS - Season Two - Chapter Twenty Five

PLOT SUMMARY:  Special Prosecutor Heather Dunbar (Elizabeth Marvel) has been tipped off on the First Couple's therapy and interrogates staunch hold-out Reverend Thomas Larkin (Tom Galantich).  President Walker (Michael Gill) confronts Vice President Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey): he knows Frank set him up on the marriage counselling.  Frank celebrates the fact that he has isolated the President. When confronted by Secretary of State Catherine Durant (Jayne Atkinson), Frank argues that she has as much to gain by Walker's removal and manipulates her into offering Xander Feng (Terry Chen) asylum in exchange for confirmation on the money laundering scheme. This alienates Durant from the President and puts her firmly into Frank's camp.  That the President was proscribed anti-depressants becomes public and congressmen start calling for impeachment. When subpoenad by Dunbar, Tusk (Gerald McRaney) pleads the fifth amendment. The Walkers hold a press conference to defend their marriage and getting therapy, while Frank publicly supports them.

Meanwhile, Majority Whip Jackie Sharp (Molly Parker) pressures Megan Hennessey (Libby Woodbridge) not to support Claire Underwood's Bill, manipulating her into thinking that Claire is making Megan take the heat on the issue. Claire adopts false humility and drops the Bill, offering to negotiate with a cynical Jackie.  Claire then tells the First Lady (Joana Going) that she dropped the Bill because of Jackie, but they fall out anyway. The Underwoods then ask Jackie to whip the vote for an impeachment to avoid a mid-term catastrophe.

Elsewhere, Hacker Gavin Orsay (Jimmi Simpson) blackmails Agent Green , the FBI-White House liaison,  into dropping the charges against him and Lucas Goodwin. And on the personal front, Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly) pressures Rachel Posner (Rachel Brosnahan) to get rid of her lover and room-mate Lisa Williams (Kate Lyn Sheil) which she does. 

COMMENTS:  Great, great pure political episode, with the Underwoods' long game paying off and a superb cliffhanger on whether Jackie will accept their offer (I'm assuming yes.)  I'm assuming the payoff for the increasingly conflicted Stamper, however, might be in season three.  I love that we've seen Claire play the game as well as Frank, and that her cynical use of the sexual harassment bill was just a ploy all along -  something to give up to Jackie in reconciliation. I can't help but think that this kind of detailed political writing is what you get when Beau Willamon is back as the screenwriter.  The only disappointment was not seeing anything of the the suspicious Gavin. 

Friday, February 21, 2014

HOUSE OF CARDS - Season Two - Chapter Twenty Four

PLOT SUMMARY: Vice President Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) testifies in front of Special Prosecutor Heather Dunbar (Elizabeth Marvel) as to how far he knew foreign money laundering into PACs.  At first he denies everything, but then Frank tells President Walker (Michael Gill) that he's going to go public on the back-channelling. This alarms the president because that's an impeachable offence. Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly) says he acted without the Vice President or President's knowledge but Underwood takes responsibility for his actions anyway.

Meanwhile, the Japan-China dispute escalates with the USA's Samarium stockpile down to two months. Daniel Lanagan (Gil Birmingham) complains to Remy Danton (Mahershala Ali) that he's already been offered a plea if he testifies against Ray Tusk but Remy tries to persuade him not to take it.  Remy investigates Jackie Sharp (Molly Parker) on the pretense that his lobbying firm might be about to hire her, and shady PR man Seth Grayson (Derek Cecil) is in cahoots with Stamper.  Claire Underwood (Robin Wright) dodges an investigation by journalists, and she pressures Megan Hennessy (Libby Woodbrige) to speak out to support her floundering Bill.  Finally, investigative journalist Ayla Sayyad (Mozhan Marno)  links President Walker to the money laundering. 

On the personal front, Doug Stamper attends a recovery meeting and Frank becomes suspicious, but remains supportive, just. He then voyeuristically catches Rachel Posner (Rachel Brosnahan) and Lisa Williams (Kate Lyn Sheil) having sex.  And Claire's bodyguard Edward Meechum (Nathan Darrow) instigates a threesome with Frank and Claire. 

COMMENTS:  A holding episode where political relationships realign for the final stretch and the structure of the house of cards becomes evident.  I find the relationship between Stamper and Frank touching, though, and along with his genuine love for Claire, this has been the real game-changer this season in softening Frank, or at least making him feel less like a robo-political-operative. The only other thing of note is that I really now want to see what Grayson is up to. He's proving to be a far more charismatic character than Remy Danton. With the personal storylines,  I certainly didn't see the threesome coming, and I guess that provides some shock value, but it seems to be there more for titillation than anything else. 

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

HOUSE OF CARDS - Season Two - Chapter Twenty Two

PLOT SUMMARY: Rib shack owner Freddy Armstrong (Reg E Cathey) wakes up to the news of the scandal breaking and meets with his new business partner. With his newfound wealth he offers his son a job and a home.  His son bristles at the offer despite what it would do for his son. 

Claire Underwood (Robin Wright) begs Adam Galloway (Ben Daniels) to deny the affair and taking the photograph and he agrees. He also reveals that he's living with someone. Claire and Vice President Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) give a press conference to deny the affair.  Claire undercuts Adam's denial by saying that they commissioned the sleeping portrait and that he must have been intimidated by the press. He objects he was made to look like an idiot but she protests that the story needed to be 'messy' to be 'credible'.  Galloway refuses to play ball and releases a recent picture of Claire in the shower. In response, PR agent Seth Grayson (Derek Cecil) hires an out of work model to cut her hair and pose as the woman who was really having an affair with Adam Galloway.  The Underwoods finally meet with Galloway and tell him not to underestimate their marriage, and to play ball, which he does. 

Journalist Ayla Sayyad (Mohzan Marno) tracks down Ray Tusk (Peter Bradbury) who, angered, asks lobbyist Remy Danton (Maharshala Ali) to release more dirt on Frank and Claire. That story is to reveal that Freddy served time for manslaughter. Frank refuses to distance himself, against Seth and Claire's advice. Freddy refuses to take Frank's money - but he needs to sell the rib shack to bail his son.  

COMMENTS: So, this is the episode directed by Jodie Foster and written by executive producer Beau Willamon. And what an opening! Freddy lighting up a cigarette on the flaming scandal-sheets. I like that Foster/Willamon take us away from the Capitol and into the reality of living in Washington, and the strength of Reg E Cathey's performance here.  I'm not sure that I found the whole need to make the photo denial 'messy' credible.  Further on, kudos to Frank in not throwing Freddy under a bus. But this is actually the first political miscalculation he makes insofar as Freddy's son is political kryptonite.  Overall, all I can say is that Foster elicited some strong performances and that, thank god, she allowed the DP to actually light the scenes. 

HOUSE OF CARDS - Season Two - Chapter Twenty One (spoilers)

PLOT SUMMARY:  Vice President Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) and White House Chief of Staff Linda Vasquez (Sakina Jaffrey) face off over a bridge that Frank needs the President (Michael Gill) to approve of.  Frank needs the bridge to buy off a group of Native Americans that he's playing off against Daniel Lanagan (Gil Birmingham), and his backer, Ray Tusk (Gerald McRaney). Frank both manipulates the President into approving the bridge, without knowing what it's for; Vasquez into resigning; and the President into accepting. 

Meanwhile, Lisa (Kate Lyn Sheil) turns up at Rachel's (Rachel Branathan) apartment having been threatened by a meth-addict friend, and reveals her own past heroin-addiction. Rachel offers to take her in, and they start an affair. 

Lobbyist Remy Danton (Mahershala Ali) courts Claire's disgruntled ex-employee. He also courts a photographer who used to work for Adam Galloway (Ben Daniels), Claire's former lover. Remy also denies that he knows how the Republicans are getting the money to Majority Whip Jackie Sharp (Molly Parker).  Jackie offers to consider having a proper relationship. She continues to block Claire's Bill. 

Claire Underwood tries to persuade another rape victim to go before the press to aid the passage of her bill. She befriends the First Lady (Joana Going) but is clearly trying to get the President (Michael Gill) to publicly back the Bill. She also suggests the Walkers see a marital therapist - Reverend Thomas Larkin (Tom Galantich). 

COMMENTS: Women seem to be just putty in Claire's hands! It's almost embarrassing watching the First Lady crumble. And how can Rachel be so credulous? I remain suspicious of her new flat mate. And also of Netflix's motives in including a gay love affair between two hot chicks. Ah well. I'm also falling into boredom at the whole Remy Danton investigation and indeed, the Adam Galloway affair. It feels too much like grist for the plot rather than something actually original and captivating. Shame. 

HOUSE OF CARDS - Season Two - Chapter Twenty (spoilers)

PLOT SUMMARY: As the mid-terms approach attack ads sponsored by a PAC are skewering President Walker (Michael Gill) and his Cabinet. Frank discovers they are being funded by Ray Tusk (Peter Bradbury) via Native American casino owner Daniel Lanagan (Gil Birmingham). Frank realises that Tusk was bankrolling the majority in Congress all along, using Lanagan as a front, but can't tell the President for fear of looking incompetent. Stamper stakes out Lanagan's casino and hooks up with a recovering addict waitress. He finds a large group of rich Chinese gambling there and follows the trail to uncover Tusk's massive investments in rare earth metals in China. Stamper negotiates with Xander Feng (Terry Chen) to double-cross Tusk and fund the Democrats instead of the Republicans. Back in Washington, Frank attempts to buy-off Lanagan, but he says Tusk can offer more, causing Frank to really lose his temper.

Frank makes nice with the President, and the two couples have dinner with each other.  Claire Underwood's legislation is going to Congress sparking an argument over media strategy between Seth Grayson (Derek Cecil) and Connor Ellis (Sam Page). We realise that Seth is working with Remy when he asks for Connor to be lured away with a lucrative private sector job.  But even more tantalising, Seth gives Remy up to Frank and offers to become a double-agent getting back via Remy to Tusk.

Meanwhile lobbyist Remy Danton (Mahershala Ali) and Majority Whip Jackie Sharp (Molly Parker) continue to sleep with each other and we discover that she is stalling in finding co-sponsors for Claire's bill because she apparently does not want a media storm before the mid-terms. 

Claire's plan to set Mrs Walker against presidential aide and Peter Russo's ex-lover Christina has worked: the First Lady voices her suspicions and demands for her to be relocated but the President refuses. At dinner, the two couples eat ribs from the rib shack owned by Freddy Armstrong (Reg E Cathey), where Frank likes to eat. He was interviewed by the press earlier in the day and is now being offered lucrative deals to put his name on barbecue sauce. 

COMMENTS: Ok so now we're truly enmeshed in the high political arts and I love it!  Frank realises that Ray has created the majority he whipped, and in that momentary aside to camera, I feel there's almost a newfound respect!  I love the double-dealing with Feng and the way in which Frank elegantly handles the President.  I also like the sidebar that Remy and Seth are in cahoots  - and it makes me suspect his relationship with Jackie. And also, what really WAS up with that tattoo.  Now, is it plausible that Seth would give up Remy so easily?  So is this an attempted double-cross?  Remy is working for Tusk and so has an unlimited bankroll.  Should we truly believe that Seth really wants power instead? And is Frank that credulous?  Finally, I love the delicious irony of Frank telling the President that he's 'never going to survive his first term' if he doesn't relax!

Stylistically as we reach half way in the season, I have three things to see. One, I need more of Frank talking and reacting to camera - it plays to all of Kevin Spacey's strength.  Two, what's with the under-exposed broodingly unlit photography?  It's like Godfather II in here.  I know you're going for mood and moral obscurity but this is ridiculous. Third, cheaply ripping off the BBC TV series Sherlock's device of showing text messages as bubbles doesn't suit the elegant adult look of the show. 

HOUSE OF CARDS - Season Two - Chapter Nineteen (spoilers)

PLOT SUMMARY: Vice President Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) manipulates President Walker (Michael Gill) into secretly buying and stockpiling Samarium in order to bypass the Chinese trade boycott and prevent an energy crisis. He plots to undermine the return of Ray Tusk (Gerald McRaney) to the President's good graces.   Ray confronts Frank and asks if he is deliberately trying to sabotage the President (an astute guess). In a comedic aside, Frank stresses about making the first pitch at a high profile baseball match.  However, as he's on the verge of pitching the ball, the lights cut out, and of course it's Ray who's blackmailing the President by shutting down his power plants.  Frank urges the President to take control of the plants. 

Meanwhile, Lucas Goodwin (Sebastian Arcelus) is in prison, facing charges of breaking into the data center, and the naked pictures of Zoe found in his apartment are used against him. We realise that Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly) is orchestrating the trumped up charges.  Aware that Lucas' ex-editor Tom Hammerschmidt (Boris McIver) is still investigating Zoe and Peter's death and Rachel's disappearance, Frank calls him in and mockingly warns him off. Meanwhile, Stamper's men threaten to implicate Janine Skorsky in Lucas' crimes Constance Zimmer unless she testifies against him.  As a result, she tries to persuade him to take the plea. 

Claire Underwood (Robin Wright) manipulates Presidential aide and Peter Russo's ex-lover Christina Gallagher (Kristen Connolly) into a brash offer of service to the First Lady, Patricia Walker (Joana Going).  And lobbyist Remy Danton (Mahershala Ali) and Majority Whip Jackie Sharp (Molly Parker) have a one night stand.  Ex-hooker Rachel Posner (Rachel Brosnahan) is now working in a daycare centre run by her friend Lisa, the evangelist (Kate Lyn Sheil). Rachel attempts to seduce an obviously attracted Stamper. 

COMMENTS: Not much to like in this episode of horse-trading and general threats.  I'm not massively convinced by the chemistry between Jackie and Remy and I grimace at the idea that the relationship might become a major plot arc. The Lucas-in-jail story seems to go through its machinations - again not  much to see here except pious earnest angst.  It feels like half a season since I cared about Janine. The only really clever scene was the final one between Rachel and Stamper - I'm really not clear how far she's playing him and that's fantastic. 

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

HOUSE OF CARDS - Season Two - Chapter Eighteen (spoilers)

PLOT SUMMARY: Vice President Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) engages in back-channel diplomacy with Chinese businessman, and partner of Ray Tusk (Peter Bradbury), Xander Feng (Tony Chen).  Interestingly, Feng asks Frank NOT to drop the currency manipulation charge in the WTO because it's convenient for the Chinese senior leadership to blame the move to a free floating currency on the US. Claire Underwood's communications advisor Connor Ellis (Sam Page) leaks the news of the backchannel diplomacy to the press, implicating Feng. The President is torn between Tusk and Frank - the former telling him to continue talks and the latter arguing to break them off. He decides to pull out but in doing so accuses Frank of making a mess. 

The late Zoe's ex-lover Lucas Goodwin (Sebastian Arcelus) continues to investigate the murder, but is lured into breaking into a server facility by his hacker ally Gavin Orsay (Jimmi Simpson), himself under coercion from Doug Stamper's (Michael Kelly) associates at the FBI.

Claire Underwood gets closer to the First Lady (Joana Going) and wins her support in her advocacy.   Meanwhile, communications specialist Seth Grayson (Derek Cecil) fools a widow into giving up the records of Claire's abortion and destroys them on the understanding that he usurps Connor Ellis after a convenient few months and a private sector job offer. The Underwoods reluctantly agree because inasmuch as Seth is untrustworthy, at least he's not incompetent, like Connor. 

COMMENTS: Ok - hands down the coolest opening - from perverse sexual practices to a Civil War re-enactment! And slavery may have been called many things, but nothing as cynical as "Avoid wars you cannot win and never raise a flag for an asinine cause like slavery."  Other than that, the machinations of the trade talks with China are not massively interesting but I suppose need to be put into play to prepare for the forthcoming Tusk-Frank civil war.  I also do not give a frack about Lucas (still).  But this Seth character is interesting, although I balk somewhat at Claire's apparent credulity at taking in someone who tried to extort her (or indeed, leaving evidence of abortion out in the open in the first place). How come the ever-efficient Underwood's didn't trick that widow themselves, years ago? And finally, amid all that cynicism, something very touching about Frank burying his ring in the ground of the Overland Campaign. With that, and the defence of Claire, he is becoming rather more human this season, even as he commits murder. 

Monday, February 17, 2014

HOUSE OF CARDS - Season Two - Chapter Seventeen (spoilers)

PLOT SUMMARY: As Claire Underwood (Robin Wright) prepares for a live TV interview with her new PR man Connor Ellis (Sam Page), Vice President Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) scrambles for the votes to avoid the government shutdown. The trade is to accept a bump in the retirement age in five years time, and is brokered by the new Majority Whip Jackie Sharp (Molly Parker) and lobbyist Remy Danton (Mahershala Ali.) Jackie makes a ballsy move, refusing to trade for votes and demanding loyalty.  Meanwhile, we get to know the hacker, Gavin Orsay (Jimmi Simpson), an FBI informant. A White House assistant opens an envelope apparently containing anthrax, causing an immediate evacuation of the Capitol. Frank is sequestered in his office with Donald Blythe (Reed Birney) - the Democratic congressman disappointed with him cutting education funding - as cell coverage is blocked and the vote is delayed.  This forces Claire to do the live interview on her own, at Frank's urging, and with her reluctance.  She describes a vivid memory of being taken by her father to Dealey Plaza. However, drawn on the question of why they don't have children, and she admits she had an abortion on live TV. Needing to justify why, she admits to having been raped by General Dalton McGinnis, to Frank's evident surprise. In the second ad break, Claire calls another victim of Dalton McGinnis who publicly accuses him.  As the episode closes, Frank serenades Claire as they smoke on their steps. 

COMMENTS: I'm not a massive fan of the device of the government lock-down, and I'm guessing that reintroducing Donald Blythe as a significant character will make more sense to viewers binge-watching seasons 1 and 2 concurrently. And as for Jimmi the supposedly hard-ass hacker - what a bag of over-the-top writing and nonsense - the face-slap, the "I keep a gerbil to remind me how close I am to death" line.  Complete idiocy.  Still, for all that the dynamite in this episode once again resides with Claire, and her explosive live interview revelations.  Once again, it's chilling to see her exploit her rape, but then again, her attacker does deserve to be outed (although preferably this would've been in a court of law - it's not a perfect world.)  The key question is how far Claire planned to make the accusation and how far Frank knew - it appears to have been spontaneous, but I guess we'll discover more.  At any rate, this episode has radically changed my perception of their marriage - and the deep abiding connection they share. 

Sunday, February 16, 2014

HOUSE OF CARDS - Season Two - Chapter Sixteen (spoilers)

PLOT SUMMARY: Vice President Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) is trying to broker a bipartisan agreement to avoid a government shut-down on the eve of the State of the Union address.  He is blocked by businessman Ray Tusk (Gerald Mcraney) and has to endure the jibes of President Walker (Michael Gill) but succeeds by forcing the recall of all non-voting politicians.  Unbeknown to Frank, trouble is brewing.  The late Zoe's lover, journalist Lucas  Goodwin (Sebastian Arcelus) allows a mysterious hacker access to his newspaper's servers and arranges a meet-up in hopes of getting Zoe's cellphone records.  Meanwhile the ex-hooker Rachel (Rachel Brosnahan) is now working at a call centre, closely monitored by Doug Stamper. Against his threats to talk to no-one, she contacts her mother and joins a Church. And in an enigmatic scene, Jackie Goodwin (molly Palrer) has a tfloral tattoo enlarged, perhaps each poppy represents the scalp of a felled rival?  

COMMENTS: Behind the camera, this episode changes hands to director James Foley (the marvellous GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS) and playwright Bill Cain, and the actions shifts to a slower pace in the corridors of Washington power broking. The writers keep the action relevant focussing on a potential government shut-down and we see Frank endure the taunts of the President as he edges near the centre of the frame.  There are no whizz-bang moments here and I was curiously underwhelmed by what should've been the high tension thrills of seeing Lucas trying to nick his newspaper IT chief's phone and communicate with the hacker. Compare the phone-calls he gets from his hacker with the contact from Deep Throat in ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN.  This series just falls ways short.  In fact, by far the creepiest things in this episode were Jackie getting her tattoo extended - what the frack is that all about? - and Rachel being befriended by the evangelical on the bus.  Are they setting Rachel up for a Lancel Lannister style religious conversation after which she spills the beans? Or is the friendly Christian a plant? Either way, that's where my interest now lies. Also, disappointing not to see more on Claire's inner psychology.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

HOUSE OF CARDS - Season Two - Chapter Fifteen (spoilers)

Molly Parker as Jackie Sharp

PLOT SUMMARY: Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) is sworn in as President, while his house is upgraded with security features and his wife Claire (Robin Wright) interviews a new PR man called Connor Ellis (Sam Page).  Jackie Sharp (Molly Parker) denies her interest in becoming Majority Whip but under Frank's goading stoops to revealing that her friend and rival, Ted Havermeyer (David Clennon) has a disabled bastard daughter. Claire reveals to Frank that she was the man who raped her in college was the man Frank is about to install as a new General - Dalton McGinnis (Ray Bradbury). Frank's reaction seems one of genuine hurt and protection - his initial response it to refuse - but in the end he pins a medal on the man's chest. Frank manoeuvres the president (Michael Gill) into taking personal responsibility for the failure of Chinese trade talks, against Ray Tusk's advice, to Frank's delight. 

Meanwhile, the late Zoe's lover, journalist Lucas Goodwin (Sebastian Arcelus), tries to convince the police to reopen the case into her death, openly accusing Frank of her murder, but the CCTV footage shows no murderer - Frank obviously new his camera angles. Next, he reaches out to his ex-boss Tom Hammerschmidt (Boris McGiver), again accusing Frank, but Tom also fobs him off.  As a last resort, Lucas makes contact with a hacker to try to get hold of the phone records that will link Zoe to Frank and Frank to Peter Russo.   

COMMENTS: I have no interest in the banal Lucas peddling his accusations around town. And  I have less interest in Jackie's moral high-handedness in telling Ted she's going to let out the story of his love-child.  And President Walker is so easy to manipulate it's almost dull. The real meat of this movie is Claire's description of her rape and Frank's reaction to realising it was Dalton McGinnis. In a relationship that often seems about mutual gain and ambition - cool and efficient - it was a wonderful surprise to see Frank's visceral reaction - his need to violently protect and avenge his wife. In a man so used to letting morality slide to get what he wants, the fact that Frank does have a moral boundary is fascinating. But what's even more fascinating and chilling is that Claire, even as she reveals her pain and anger, tells Frank that he'll use that hate to sharpen his political appetites, but not on revenge.  She seems to have less moral sensitivity than him - telling him matter-of-factly that he will exploit the anger her rape has caused to further his ambitious plans.  It's a tour de force of writing and acting. 

Friday, February 14, 2014

HOUSE OF CARDS - Season Two - Chapter Fourteen (spoilers)

PLOT SUMMARY: As Season Two opens, the Majority Whip Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) is on the verge of being made Vice President and needs to clean up the mess from last season and shore up his power base. The first involves eliminating anyone on the trail of the murder of wildly self-sabotaging Congressman Peter Russo (Corey Stoll) by pushing journo-blogger and ex-lover Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara) under a train. It also involves Frank's sidekick Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly) riding hooker Rachel Posner (Rachel Brosnahan) out of town. The second task sees Frank corrupting the rising political star Jackie Sharp (Molly Parker) by giving her the dirt on her two rivals to become the new Majority Whip. On the other side of the bed, Claire Underwood (Robin Wright) explores the possibilities of an over-40s pregnancy, and buys off her disgruntled former employee Gillian Cole (Sandrine Holt) by offering her the leadership of CWI.

COMMENTS: I spent much of last season railing against how this version of House of Cards was less subtle, less dark and less fast paced than the British original. This left me with nothing but rage and disappointment. So this season I have vowed to ban the original (also available on Netflix, and reviewed on this site) from my thoughts, and to take Season 2 on its merits. The opening episode certainly packs a punch - a punch that should've arguably been the climax of season 1. But no matter: it was wickedly fun to watch Frank and Claire clean up their mess from season 1. I loved Frank's corruption of the all-too-easily corrupted and ambitious Jackie - but wasn't it a bit naive to just let her sit at his laptop? And I also love that Claire is now trying to get pregnant - a move I can only presume is motivated by being the perfect political wife - just as she wants Frank to give up smoking. She seems to change her mind after threatening to let Gillian's baby "wither and die inside her" - a far more chilling moment than Zoe's murder.  I'm really fascinated to learn more about her psychology - giving up a child and CWI - what does she get in return? 

But of course, the real test of this episode is how you deal with the murder of Zoe. Personally, I felt it didn't have the power of the original UK series (I know!) because the relationship between Frank and Zoe had never been as psychologically warped and intimate as between Mattie and Frances. There was something casually efficient - bureaucratically necessary about Zoe's death - whereas in the UK version, Mattie has more than an air of the bunnie boiler about her. Still, I suppose as an indictment of cool ambition, this version has the virtue of being All About Business. My only other gripe is that in the age of CCTV is killing someone in a metro station really wise? The mysterious be-hatted figure walking against the rushing crowd?  Also, what's with the lack of straight-to-camera snarky commentary from Frank until the end - and what a relief when it returns!

Friday, February 07, 2014


DALLAS BUYERS CLUB is a mediocre meandering film that just happens to contain two highly committed captivating performances.

The movie is inspired by the true story of Ron Woodruff, a good ole boy from Texas with all the associated bigotries, who was diagnosed as HIV positive in the mid-80s. It was an unforgiving era of paranoia about the AIDS epidemic, when doctors approached you with masks, and your community shunned you.  Add onto this the macho culture of a Texan rodeo town, and you have a desperate man, consigned to the margins, with a deep-grained prejudice toward his fellow victims.  What follows isn't a schmaltzy emotional enlightenment, a la PHILADELPHIA.  When Ron becomes close to Rayon, a pre-op transexual, it's because he needs an in to the gay subculture where he can peddle his under-the-counter anti-HIV meds, partly to finance his own use. To be sure, there are hints and flashes of a deeper understanding, and maybe affection, blighted only by Rayon's drug use, but this isn't that kind of movie.

What kind of movie is it? I'm not sure, and I'm not sure the writers are either.  At times, it feels like an odd couple dramedy with a mean old homophobe discovering his heart.  And at other times, it feels like they're trying to make an ERIN BROCKOVICH type issues move - equally concerned with Ron's fight against Big Pharma, and its rigged clinical trials pushing AZT as a treatment.  In the final act, the movie even pushes Ron into a courtroom drama, where he is demanding the right to take other medications that have not been approved by the FDA.  And the movie kind of fizzles out, and we learn that the Big Bad AZT actually wasn't so bad at all, apparently. Which is a bit of a damp squib conclusion.

By this point I'd come to the conclusion that DALLAS BUYERS CLUB was not a film with a unique and powerful directorial vision that director Jean Marc Vallée's debut feature had.  It's best viewed as a delivery vehicle for two great performances. The first of these is the least surprising: Matthew McConaughey has reinvented himself as a boundary-pushing character actor of the highest quality in BERNIE, KILLER JOE, MUD, THE PAPERBOY and  now here.  He doesn't shy away from showing the cold selfish arrogance of Woodruff, even in his supposedly reformed state, but also never lets him become a monster or a saint. It's a nuanced and fantastic performance.  The second great performance is from Jared Leto, as the pre-op transexual Rayan - vulnerable, world-wise, loving, damaged.  Both deserve the awards-season plaudits they're getting. So, is this a genuine BEST PICTURE contender? No. Is is worth seeing? Yes.  Beyond doubt.

DALLAS BUYERS CLUB has a running time of 117 minutes and is rated R in the USA.

DALLAS BUYERS CLUB played Toronto 2013 and was released last year in the USA and Canada. It was released last month in Portugal, the Netherlands, Singapore, France, Israel, Italy and Finland.  It was released early this month in Belgium, Germany, Denmark, Estonia, the UK, Ireland and Mexico. The movie opens this weekend in Australia and Greece; on February 20th in Hong Kong, New Zealand, Slovakia, Brazil and Japan; and on February 27th in Argentina, Paraguay, Turkey and South Africa. The movie opens on March 6th in Hungary, Serbia and Sweden; on March 14th in Spain and Poland and on March 21st in Norway.

DALLAS BUYERS CLUB has been nominated for six Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, Best Editor, Best Make-up and Best Original Screenplay.  It won the Best Actor and Supporting Actor Golden Globes for Drama.