“House of Cards” –On the verge of collapse

House of Cards Season 3

In Season 3 of Netflix’s award-winning series, “House of Cards”, the Beltway game is passing Francis Underwood (Kevin Spacey) by and only he seems not to know it. This season is wife Claire Underwood’s story. Whatever the subplots and character arcs, this series continues to hinge upon the tortuous dynamics between Frank and Claire Underwood. They’ve been combustible before, but never quite like this. And now it is Claire’s turn to get center stage.

All thirteen episodes again are ready for binge-viewing and, are made for devouring before catching your breath and dissecting the scenes. Claire (Robin Wright), equally matched in jugular-jabbing duplicity to her husband, still stands by her man, but unlike Alicia Florrick in “The Good Wife”, Claire has yet to bloom. Her impending blossoming will be her husband’s undoing.

Showing hints of vulnerability — mainly through the voice and eyes of newly hired presidential biographer Thomas Yates (Paul Sparks), Francis isn’t about to become anyone’s target. At turns revealing and concealing, Francis takes us on a journey to his inner hell. And author Yates is the catalyst for undoing the Underwood marriage and encouraging Claire to assert herself.

In an early episode, after first telling the camera that visiting his father’s grave makes him seem more human, Francis nonchalantly and joyfully urinates on the gravestone. In episode four he desecrates a crucifix while purportedly going to the cathedral for spiritual guidance.

“We’re murderers, Francis,” Claire tells him. “No we’re not,” her husband replies without affect. “We’re survivors.” Whatever it takes to survive is the only lesson worth mastering.

House of Cards 3

“House of Cards” is still playing with a full deck but the scabrous King and Queen are ready to collapse on each other, their marriage growing more wobbly in each succeeding scene. Spacey and Wright’s performances remain assured and extraordinary.

That Claire must ask her husband as a supplicant in her own eyes makes her vomit, and her growing popularity with voters is what Frank desperately needs at the same time he fears her influence. In a pivotal scene with an American radical imprisoned for his homosexuality, Claire sees the life she could have had, underscored later on by the presidential biographer Yates.

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The narrative’s dedication to Claire’s complex, perhaps inevitable, revolt against Frank keeps the series fascinating and surprising. This may just be the most well-written political drama ever produced for television or film by the incomparable Beau Willimon (of “Ides of March” fame).

Binge view if you can!

Note:  For my reviews of “House of Cards” season 1 and season 2, see February 11, 2013 (Season 1) and March 12, 2014 (Season 2).

 

 

“Life Itself”—A Beautiful Mind

Roger Ebert 2013
Roger Ebert 2013

Based upon the memoir by the same name, “Life Itself” is the autobiography of  movie critic extraordinaire, Roger Ebert. This documentary is as much about courage and loyalty as it is about the life of the most famous and brilliant movie critic we have known. Tremendously life-affirming and soul-stirring, “Life Itself” is a portrayal of a man so comfortable with himself that he is always in the present moment, in the face of tremendous challenges towards the end of his life.

That Roger Ebert is described by one friend as “nice, but not that nice” says it all: a personality who loved “big boobs”, booze, and being the center of attention as well as relentlessly following his passion for movies, the medium he considered unique in eliciting empathy in the viewer. Yet there is also the other Roger Ebert: whose remarkable marriage to his soul-mate, Chaz Hammelsmith, took place when he was fifty years old. Chaz’s devotion to Roger and his continuing enthusiasm in the face of dire health are part of why this movie works so well.

Chaz & Roger
Chaz & Roger Ebert

 

 

 

Ebert’s tenacious commitment to the cinema as an artistic expression like no other eventually elevated movie criticism to the stature of a Pulitzer Prize, which he won as the first and only movie critic to do so. His championship of emerging young filmmakers not only focuses on Martin Scorsese, Werner Herzog, and Errol Morris but also Ava Duvernay (director of “Selma”).

In addition to Ebert’s pioneering recognition of cinema’s contribution to the art world, “Life Itself” is the story of a beautiful mind who obstinately stood his ground against his colleague Gene Siskel in humorous and sometimes cantankerously acerbic banter. Also a homage to his dignity in the face of a painful cancer that severely limited his ability to critique the movies he so dearly loved, the film presents Ebert’s warmth and humor with an unfiltered intimacy at once painful and reassuring. Having lost all or most of his ability to speak, move, eat, or drink, the unflickering and mischievous twinkle in his eyes remains constant for a man who still sees beauty and joy in the world. That love of life with friends and family is the heart of this movie and what the viewer is privileged to witness.

A candid, sometimes brutally uncomfortable depiction of the end of an extraordinary individual’s life, this film is, nonetheless, a triumph to behold. “Life Itself” is truly “two thumbs up”.

“Wild Tales”—Nothing Tame About This

Wild Tales
Wild Tales

Nominated for the 2015 Academy Awards for Best Foreign Film (unfortunately losing to “Ida”), “Wild Tales” is like no other film I have seen in recent years. This dark series of six vignettes channeling “Twilight Zone” and “Black Mirror” is the surreal creation of Argentine writer-director Damián Szifrón and produced by Pedro Almodóvar (of “Volver” and “All About My Mother” fame). Grudges, minor insults, infidelity, and heinous crimes all lead to mayhem, revenge, and murder on a cataclysmic, sometimes savage scale.

While the first tale is my favorite, all six have scathing, psychological portraits of individuals who have a short fuse, a great sense of entitlement, and/or little capacity for forgiveness.

The characters of Wild Tales are unpredictable: civilized with good manners one minute and barbaric the next. Each of the Wild Tales is darkly humorous yet horrifying, signature trademarks of Almodóvar.

This movie plays to the viewer’s wish to enact revenge on anyone who’s ever wronged you, even a slight such as rude service from a waiter, a critical review, or someone driving irresponsibly on the highway.   We’re all familiar with those thoughts, but few of us act on them. The characters in this film do. The nuances are perfectly articulated, the observations primal, and the tragedies heart-wrenching and unexpected. In addition, “Wild Tales” is a social and political commentary on the divide between the have-nots and the have-a-lots, a chasm that reaches the breaking point in several of the tales. No one is tamed in ”Wild Tales”—it’s a jungle out there.

“Apparitions: Frottage and Rubbings from 1860 to Now” @ Hammer Museum (UCLA)

 

Dominick Di Meo-- "Untitled (numbers creatures)"
Dominick Di Meo– “Untitled (numbers creatures)”

This  pioneering exhibit—the first to focus on frottage as an art technique– currently ongoing until May 31, is a scintillating, deceptively simple display of approximately 100 artworks by fifty artists using the technique known as frottage (French: “to rub”).   Rubbing a textured surface with a pastel, charcoal pencil, crayon, or printer’s ink over paper or canvas on top of a textured surface, the artist creates a relief image. Associated with the surrealist movement, particularly Max Ernst (1891-1976) , these rubbed images add texture and imagery often as one layer of many in a composition. It is believed that Ernst was inspired by an old wooden floor where the grain of the planks was raised. In “Apparitions” several contemporary artists pay homage to Ernst’s wooden planks. Giuseppe Penone states: “I feel the forest breathing.”

Giuseppe Penone, " His Being Until the 49th Year"
Giuseppe Penone, 
“His Being Until the 49th Year”

Eileen Agar creates two different planks, suggesting the intertwining trees after death of the two lovers in a Greek myth.

Eileen Agar--"Philemon and Bancis"
Eileen Agar–“Philemon and Bancis”

“Apparitions” evokes the transient and dream-like images of frottage in a stunning exhibit ranging from medieval church rubbings and gravestones to the sophisticated and unexpected contemporary (post-1960) compositions that play with the cognitive blind spot in which people think about an object conventionally, and not as shapes (e.g. bolts and screws become body parts). Like photography, the technique borrows from the real world but infuses the rubbing with the imagination of the artist and the viewer. Highly influenced by Freud’s theories of psychoanalysis, frottage was a darling among Surrealists who considered it a semi-automatic process tapping into the subconscious. Frottage continues to be a popular and experimental practice today.

The Hammer Museum is the first museum to explore the contemporary impact of this technique. Key examples of the technique by artists from various periods and regions are wildly diverse, including provocative examples by  Roy Lichtenstein and Louise Bourgeois, Max Ernst and Jack Whitten.

Sari Dienes--"Composition in Black, Red and Green"
Sari Dienes–“Composition in Black, Red and Green”

Try to see “Apparitions” before it moves on to the Menil Collection in Houston from September 11, 2015, to January 3, 2016.

“Salamander”—Hiding Under a Rock

"Salamander" the movie
“Salamander” the movie

 

This Belgian drama twelve-part  TV miniseries, released through Netflix and BBC in 2014, is a crime thriller in the same league as the edge-of-the-seat series Wallander, Bridge, and The Killing.

A small private bank in Brussels, is robbed of 66 safe deposit boxes belonging to some of the most prominent statesmen in Belgium. A scandal is brewing since all are members of a secret society, code-named Salamander, dating back to the Second World War. A highly scrupulous police inspector Paul Gerardi (Filip Peeters) begins the investigation, unaware of the implications for himself and for national security. Suicides and murders are only part of the consequence of his detective work. The conspiracy has to be coaxed from under its rock of secrecy and the darkness of its immorality. “Salamander” is the story of one man against the establishment of corruption and wealth, carefully plotting his hunt for the perpetrators in a series of episodes with methodical revelations of clues. Gerardi’s life devolves into a nightmare for him and for his family.

“Salamander” is set for an English-language remake by Oscar-winning filmmaker and director Paul Haggis (of “Crash” and “Million Dollar Baby” fame). A second series is also being written by the Belgian film maker.

This TV series is both addicting and electrifying. “Salamander” is meticulous craftsmanship that should be retrieved from under its rock.

“Still Alice”—Unforgettable

Still AliceAdapted from neuroscientist Lisa Genova’s novel, “Still Alice” takes a straightforward look at the sad, terrifying and difficult-to-bear illness of Alzheimer’s. But bear it we must.

The story of Alice Howland (the remarkable Julianne Moore), a fifty-something linguistics professor happily married to a fellow intellectual (Alec Baldwin) and the mother of three adult children (the youngest superbly played by Kristen Stewart) could be a story about any of us. After receiving a diagnosis for Alzheimer’s, Alice attempts to deal with the challenges of the disease as intelligently and courageously as possible. The results are frightening, heartbreaking, and all too humbling as we see a woman who has relied on language for her professional career and personal identity, begin to lose her grasp on what is important and who she is. Growing increasingly distant, Alice may still be Alice in body, but the Alice her family, friends, and colleagues know is slipping away, a lost soul.

Julianne Moore (who has been nominated for the fifth time for an Academy Award], manages the role of Professor Alice Howland with grace and dignity. “Still Alice” is a restrained portrait of a highly successful woman struggling to retain some sense of self, while her family copes with the gradual disappearance of the wife and mother they’d always known and loved. The family is in a vortex of ambiguous loss: a state of knowing and not knowing the extent of loss from the ravages of Alzheimer’s. Films about terminal illness can be difficult to make. The inevitability of death from disease can either be banal or melodramatic, wallowing in misery or cheap emotional manipulation. This movie is neither.

“Still Alice” is a must-see, an unforgettable film even after Alice forgets.

“Foxcatcher”—Let This One Go

'Foxcatcher" the movie
‘Foxcatcher” the movie

“Foxcatcher” is director Bennett Miller’s explorations into the dark side of sports. Based on true events, “Foxcatcher” retells the dark and tragic story of the megalomaniac multimillionaire, John E. (“Eagle”) du Pont (played by the unrecognizable Steve Carrell). A failed wrestler himself, du Pont lavishes a fraction of his fortune onto the Schultz brothers whom he hopes will win the 1988 Seoul Olympics. Most of the scenes are shot near du Pont’s Foxcatcher estate in rural Pennsylvania.

Flattered by du Pont’s attention and financial support, Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) gradually views his benefactor as a father figure, becoming increasingly dependent on du Pont for approval and for his own sense of self-worth. We do not quite know Mark’s intellectual capabilities, an omission that prevents our understanding of his character. Tatum occasionally acts as if his character as a below-average IQ who is not only an emotionally vulnerable young athlete but unable to grasp the threatening situation he is in.

Stephen Carrell and Channing Tatum
Stephen Carrell and Channing Tatum

Some things money can’t buy. Only the older brother, Dave Schultz (a superbly underplayed performance by Mark Ruffalo) realizes the critical balance between competition and personal values and yet he too succumbs to the duPont mystique, partly for the sake of supporting his younger brother. DuPont himself, however, is not simply a philanthropist interested in patriotism and the gold-medal He was also a damaged, unlikeable and unstable person. Hints are revealed that du Pont’s relationship with his mother (a subdued performance by Vanessa Redgrave) is toxic, and that his every action is a reaction to her. From his own dysfunctional family experience, du Pont is bewildered by and incapable of understanding Dave’s devotion to his family and independence from du Pont’s financial control.

While the narrative is a tale of fury and tragedy, Carrell imbues DuPont with a personality so distant, emotionally remote, and obsessive-compulsive that we do not intuit his backstory in depth, at least not sufficiently to understand his need to compensate for a lack of love (blame it on the mother!) The camera slowly pans over acreage demonstrating great wealth and focusing on weapons and trophies, but the silent storm of du Pont’s psyche is not revealed in a dramatic enough way to justify the slow pace and the gaps in the psychological landscape. “Foxcatcher” could have been a high-quality film but let this one go.

“Headhunters” – Or, The Man Hunt

Headhunters
Headhunters

Based on the  2008 bestseller by Scandinavian novelist Jo Nesbø, Headhunters  is a crime thriller with more twists and turns than any similar film I’ve seen in the last ten years. Nominated for the 2013 BAFTA Best Foreign Language Film  and directed by the remarkable Morten Tyldum (also director of The Imitation Game), Headhunters will not disappoint!

The story opens with Roger, (Aksel Hennie), a successful headhunter, living a life of luxury far beyond his means. Never confident that his wife, a stunningly beautiful blonde, could really love his unremarkable self, Roger uses his wife’s clients and database to steal art to subsidize their expensive lifestyle and to keep her from leaving. But one painting he decides to steal belongs to Clas Greve, a military special-ops agent trained in GPS tracking. Greve (Nicolaj Coster-Waldau, who plays Jaime Lannister in HBO’s “Game of Thrones”) begins to unravel the heist and suspects that the seemingly respectable corporate recruiter is a thief by night.

Nicolaj Coster-Waldau
Nicolaj Coster-Waldau

To say more about Headhunters is to spoil the adrenaline rush of a techno-thriller cat-and-mouse game like no other seen on the silver screen. Bourne Identity eat your heart out. Headhunters pulsates with heart-pounding tension and surprising subplots, and has probably the most unforgettable outhouse scene ever!

Rent it on Netflix (video streaming) and get ready to join the hunt!

 

The Imitation Game—Breaking the Code Breaker

 

Benedict Cumberbatch
Benedict Cumberbatch

Alan Turing, a pivotal code breaker during World War II, was almost completely unknown until the release of this movie. A hero who contributed a master plan for breaking the German military codes, Turing ultimately sacrificed everything . He committed suicide in 1953 when his homosexuality was called out. Being gay was a crime punishable by imprisonment, not only in Great Britain but in most of the West.

For many years, breaking Enigma—the Nazi code believed to be unbreakable—was considered a top security secret under the Official Secrecy Act. The Enigma machine, brought to Bletchley where Turing lead the “brainiac” team, was finally disassembled and re-engineered by Turing and his co-workers. With the computational power of the Bombe, a  machine Turing co-developed,  the brainiacs came to understand the Enigma.  Turing is considered the father of modern computers.

Bombw
Bombe

“The Imitation Game” is named after the quest to differentiate machine from brain, coining the term “artificial intelligence”. It could as easily indicate the trials and tribulations of Turing as a child and as an indicted “criminal” for his homosexuality— “imitating” what conventional norms dictated in British society.  Additional plot points are introduced with the historical figure Joan Clark, (one of many women code-breakers at Bletchley, played in a confident, nuanced interpretation by Keira Kneightley) who adds a human interest element of friendship not based on sexuality but on mutual respect for mathematical genius. Kudos also to the excellent performances by the ensemble cast including Charles Dance , Matthew Goode, Rory Kinnear, and Mark Strong.

The drama and the personal sacrifices Turing made are a spellbinding narrative that flows seamlessly in this film. Benedict Cumberbatch, as the stuttering, socially inept Turing, is as much a thespian genius as Turing was a mathematical one.

The movie holds the audience’s attention due to the brilliant way Cumberbatch has inhabited Alan Turing’s psyche. His malaise amplifies the tension of the tragic consequences  he will have to endure for his sexual identity.

For those who wish to know more about the women code-breakers (more than 80% of the total brainiac team), watch “The Bletchley Circle”, a PBS series loosely based on these women after the war had ended.

[Note: “The Bletchley Circle” is a series of whodunits available on Netflix. And Alan Turing was finally “mercy pardoned” and acknowledged for his contributions to ending the Second World War  on December 23, 2013 by  Queen Elizabeth of England, but she did not pardon the other 60,000 imprisoned for similar charges of “gross indecency”.)

 

Top Ten Movies of 2014

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With the Golden Globe Awards now announced, I have taken a look back at the movie reviews I have written over the past year.  When I counted the reviews posted in 2014 (=28  this year about movies released in 2014), I wanted to see what would be my top ten favorites.  Again, it wasn’t easy, as both television and cinema have continued to produce phenomenal story-telling.

This list is not ranked –only my top ten for 2014, grouped by genre. These are movies I saw in 2014, not necessarily ones released in 2014. [Full disclosure: I have not seen “Selma”, “Wild”, “Still Alice” or “Foxcatcher” yet and some of the foreign films in the “independent” category were released before 2014.]

Indies and Foreign

1) Whiplash ( December 8, 2014 review) The parameters of artistic sacrifice in the face of a tyrannical teacher are questioned but not answered. Psychologically disturbing and thrilling all at once, we see a young prodigy become enslaved to his own ambition. These performances are not to be missed.

2) Lunchbox (July 9, 2014 review) This Indian film is  a quirky romantic tale of two very lonely and desperate people attempting to find something to live for.  A psychological study of loneliness and hope, “The Lunchbox” masterfully questions how much an individual is willing to risk to change his or her life.

3) Belle (May 26, 2014 review): A very moving personal account of a freewoman’s innocence in the face of the pervasive racist realities around her and  her courageous confrontation with societal forces, which refuse to accept her the way she wants to be.

4) Blackfish (April 19, 2014 review): The film maker begins work on this film after the death of  an experienced trainer by an orca while performing in the popular Shamu show.   Documentaries can still create change — and for SeaWorld the perception of  theme parks is forever changed by this film.

5) Boyhood (August 30, 2014 review): The decade-long time-span for shooting the story is in itself pioneering, but “Boyhood” is so much more.  This coming-of-age story is about all families, families we know and families we grew up in.

Thrillers:

6) “Gone Girl” (October 13, 2014 review):  Probably the blockbuster film of 2014, “Gone Girl” has received both critical praise and Oscar buzz since its debut on October 3. Like the novel, the film leaves you questioning how well you truly know those around you, perhaps especially the person you married. Are there secrets you may never know?

7) Incendies (September 24, 2014 review): This film, nominated for a 2011 Best Foreign Film Academy Award, still remains largely unseen. Incendies” tells the family saga  of twenty-something twins, who are determined to  know the mystery of their reserved mother’s life even though they have not had a warm, affectionate relationship with her. There is an unforgettable ending that is sure to shock any viewer.  To say more would be to ruin this film.

Biopics

8) Theory of Everything (December 20, 2014 review): A moving and inspirational biopic of the relationship between the cosmologist Stephen Hawking, and his first wife Joan, is a testament to strength of character, heroism,  and human values.  This film should win Oscars!

9) Imitation Game (forthcoming review on January 19, 2015) Another superb biographical drama, this time about the Enigma code-breaker and father of computer science Alan Turing, who sacrificed so much during the Second World War in order to bring that war to an end earlier than expected. Watch for my complete review on January 19!

 Comedy

10) Grand Budapest Hotel (April 14, 2014 review) Wes Anderson’s films have always been quirky, idiosyncratic and goofy originals. All of his trademarks combine to produce the ultimate wackiness in his humor. The absurdity that defines his style makes “The Grand Budapest Hotel” crazy and hilarious!

 

2015—Year of the Sheep, aka Year of the Goat or Ram (February 19, 2015—February 7, 2016) )

new-year-of-sheep-2015-chinese-zodiac-background-amazing-cool

Happy New Year –Chinese Style! Although the Chinese New Year doesn’t officially begin until February 19, many people start thinking of the animal sign on the first of the New Year.  [And much of Asia, including Japan, does not wait until Feb 19. Many now celebrate during the first two weeks of January.]

According to Chinese Buddhism, before the Buddha entered Nirvana only twelve animals came to pay homage. So, the Buddha honored them by naming a twelve-year cycle (=zodiac) after them. The sheep, the eighth animal in line to honor the Buddha, is recognized as a lucky animal with an artistic nature. Lucky because it doesn’t have to do farm work, sheep have freedom to look for any kind of grass without ever worrying about running out of food. Consequently, Chinese treat sheep as an auspicious animal sign.http://www.dreamstime.com/royalty-free-stock-images-year-sheep-chinese-new-black-silhouette-isolated-white-background-chinese-text-symbol-goat-image42203609

2015 is an exciting year and the Year of the Sheep is a highly creative period where people may express their artistic natures and find great pleasure in simply following their heart’s desire.  Also associated with a feeling of peace and contentment, world conflicts and political upheavals are predicted as less likely to become explosive globally as they did in 2014. Special interest in education as a way towards international peace and global prosperity will also be in sharp focus. Generally, the pace of life slows down a bit, and people become more caring. Volunteer work to help those less fortunate is highly recommended.Year of the Sheep 1

 

If the Chinese zodiac proves predictive, the year of 2015 will be a crucial one in which a highly volatile era is slowly losing its force and will be replaced by one that has high hopes for the future. According to the Chinese astrology, the Year of the Sheep encompasses many favorable planetary aspects we simply cannot ignore! Go create art and help others this year! Happy New Year!