“House of Cards”, Season 4: Still Stacks Up

House of CardsReleased on Netflix on March 4, “House of Cards: Season 4” grabs viewers yet again—primarily because of the spectacular rise of Claire Underwood (the incomparable Robin Wright). Equal to her husband Frank as a partner in crime (Kevin Spacey at his best), Claire’s rapid and ruthless ascension to power left this viewer breathless. For better or worse, this is a marriage like no other portrayed on television.

Season 4 weaves in past stories, corpses, ex-lovers, and accomplices at lightning speed, to remind us that what Claire wants most in life is to be significant: to be recognized for the power she has, with or without her husband. All of Claire’s hunger and dissatisfaction arise in fury as the woman scorned.

This season revels in the seesawing of the Underwoods: pulling together, then ripping apart. separating and reuniting, as the ultimate power couple realizes they are an inseparable force.   Formidable beyond measure, stronger when united, the Underwoods are nothing less than a molecular structure whose chemical bond creates a new element.

For the first time  Claire’s backstory helps us understand why she had become the person she is. A brilliant narcissistic mother (played by the elegant Ellen Burstyn) reveals the fractured relationship between mother and daughter, which has damaged Claire. Far more than the one-dimensional ice queen, Claire compartmentalizes her life in order to maintain control. For both of the Underwoods—as revealed in their backstories—power is their identity, in the absence of family love and acceptance.

As Claire, Robin Wright smoothly and with little affect cuts through their path to survival with increasingly more perilous Macchiavellian strategies . They have merged into a singular, ruthless force determined to be unstoppable.

In the final two lines of Season 4 we have a jaw-dropping moment, demonstrating Claire’s shift in strength, resilience, and as a catalyst for Frank. Two terse sentences uttered by Frank, but equally imaginable as spoken by Claire, frightened and stunned this viewer..   The paradigm and plot have shifted radically in Beau Willemon’s continued brilliance as a screenwriter. The newest season of House of Cards is indeed binge-worthy.

 

 

 

 

“Blindness” –Seeing is Believing

 

Blindness

Based on a popular novel by the Portuguese Nobel Prize-winning author Jose Saramago, Blindness (2008) is a dystopian tale of survival in the face of a pandemic.

 Blindness opens with an affluent Japanese businessman suddenly blocking traffic during rush hour. Inexplicably blinded, he is unable to continue driving and a seemingly good Samaritan offers to help him. When they arrive at the Japanese man’s upscale apartment, however, the “good Samaritan” steals his car and escapes. Soon the entire city is overtaken by a pandemic of “white blindness”, like driving in a snow storm. The pandemic becomes global.

The tale of survival begins. Quarantined in an abandoned mental asylum, the rules of society soon come to a screeching halt with the powerful preying on the weak. Only one woman (Julianne Moore), whose husband (Mark Ruffalo) ironically, is an eye doctor now blinded— is the witness to horrific acts. Keeping her sight a secret, she guides the blind, surviving what has become a totalitarian government imposing ruthless measures on the blind in order to maintain control and subjugation. Meanwhile, the residents are becoming increasingly hopeless and desperate, fearful of their circumstances, and taken advantage by a tyrannical “Ward 3” leader (Gael Garcia Bernal). The insurrection against the despot results in chaos and brutality towards each other.

Blindness depicts the difference between civilized society and a totally barbaric one as the thinnest of boundaries. The norms of society are fragile and easily broken. Blindness, like Lord of the Flies, raises the question: What would I do in such a situation? A thought-provoking and well-executed film!

“Truth”—And Nothing But

 

Truth“Truth” (2015) somehow stayed under the radar last year. A compelling newsroom docudrama , “Truth” reminds me of “All the President’s Men” and the Watergate scandal.

Opening with the September 2004 “60 Minutes” episode, Dan Rather accuses President George W. Bush of receiving preferential treatment in the National Guard in the early 1970s (Vietnam War era) as a result of his father’s connections.  Photocopied memos provided by a confidential source were the main evidence for Rather’s accusations.

But Mary Mapes is the true hero. Producer of “60 Minutes”, Mapes had just won the Peabody Award for breaking the story of the Abu Ghraib torture and the story of Senator Strom Thurmond’s unacknowledged biracial daughter. Mapes did the research within the constraints of hard- to-verify dated documents.

Both the validity of the documents and the credibility of the source came almost immediately under attack. After days of defending the story with forensic specialists, Rather made an on-air apology stating that a “mistake in judgment” had been made. CBS did not acknowledge the documents were forgeries but that they could not confirm they were not. Nonetheless, the firestorm resulted in Dan Rather’s “retirement”. Mary Mapes never worked in TV news again.

Starring Robert Redford as Dan Rather and Cate Blanchett as Mary Mapes, “Truth” raises the question: “What is truth? And how do we know?” In an exceptionally well-developed narrative, much like a crime drama, the viewer follows the clues and the trail to the usual suspects. In perhaps one of the most cruel tactics to discredit Mapes, a conservative talk show host interviews her alcoholic and abusive father who states he is ashamed of what his daughter has become: a feminist with an axe to grind.  Emotional manipulation arises when facts are slim or too complex to be easily grasped.   Although told from the perspective of Mapes, different versions of events are presented so the viewer has to draw his or her own conclusions.

“Truth” is based on Mapes’ 2005 memoir “Truth and Duty: The Press, the President, and the Privilege of Power.” It’s a 12-year-old case, but the wounds are still unhealed.

Worth seeing.

 

Footnote: Some at CBS News were “angry” with the film’s implication that news executives were pressured to revoke the story by corporate owner Viacom, which had a business incentive to remain on friendly terms with the Bush administration. Although the financial backers of “Truth”, CBS Corporation did not promote or advertise the film.

“Room”—No Haven or Home

 

Room

Based on the searing novel by Emma Donaghue, “Room” is a movie both disturbing and compelling. For five-year-old Jack (amazing Jacob Tremblay), Room is his home, a 11 x 11 foot shed where he was born, after his teenaged mom (Brie Larson, in her Academy Award winning role)—was kidnapped, imprisoned and sexually assaulted daily by Old Nick.

Told from the little boy’s point-of-view, Jack seems unaware that Room is a prison. For Jack it is his home, a seemingly safe haven filled with all he knows and with the security of the only parent he knows. Jack’s world is exclusively his Ma and Room. They share a bed, toilet, bathtub, and old television. The only window is a small skylight. In this sealed environment, Ma heroically tries to shelter Jack from their circumstances: telling stories, creating toys from egg shells, and weaving imagination into their daily routine.  Room seems normal for Jack since he knows nothing else.

They are captives of a man they call Old Nick, Jack’s biological father, who abducted Joy seven years prior, and routinely rapes her while Jack sleeps in the wardrobe, sometimes only pretending to do so. In an interesting plot twist, Ma leads Jack to believe that Room and its contents are “real,” and that the rest of the world exists only on their television.

As a psychological thriller, Room demonstrates immense control… a cinematic pioneer focused on very brutal subject matter. As a viewer I had misgivings about witnessing the torment of a young mother and her child. However, the violence and trauma are suggested, not visual scenes, which results in an even more compelling psychological depiction of what is home, family, and survival.

A tour-de-force well worth seeing!

“Brooklyn” — New World vs. Old

Brooklyn

“Brooklyn”, nominated for a 2016 Academy Award for best picture in a list of much more intensely themed dramas, is an easy movie to fall in love with. A classic boy-meets-girl coming-of-age movie, set in the early 50s and reminiscent of movies of that era. Two young immigrants meet in Brooklyn and fall in love, yet the young woman still yearns for the country and home she left behind. Based on Colm Toibin’s novel of the same title, “Brooklyn” conveys a specific historical time and worldview but the wounds and dilemmas are universal.

Saoirse Ronan plays Ellis, a young Irish woman who has few options back home in the Green Isle. Adventurous but devoted to her widowed mother and sister, she feels unanchored, desperate to find a more welcoming environment in which to navigate her adulthood. Tender-hearted, gentle, and hesitant in speech, Eilis soon falls in love with a young Italian immigrant whose culture is every bit as new to her as living in Brooklyn.

The film “Brooklyn” is much more than a coming-of-age tale, however. It is a story of choosing between the family one grows up in and the one created as an adult. Brooklyn symbolizes new frontiers of freedom and opportunity with little regard to the economic decision Eilis makes. Eilis must find her own identity while choosing between two value systems and two futures.

Ronan, nominated for Best Actress, (and cast in “Atonement”, “Lovely Bones”, and “The Grand Budapest Hotel”) gives a stunning performance as the innocence-lost maiden who has to understand what truly is the nature of home. Her moral choices are somewhat predictable but the dilemma is a universal one—choosing another’s happiness over one’s own, deciding on one’s own future first, or trying to have both. This young twenty-two year old actress is a pleasure to watch as she gains confidence one small victory at a time.

The overarching theme is one of possibility (which can be frightening) and independence(which can be depressing and isolating) versus the tradition and comfort of family. The known vs. the unknown. These are universally relatable. Many have to make the decision of what path to take. These aren’t the life-and-death stakes we see typically in the movies but they’re the decisions that often dictate fates.  “Brooklyn” is classic!

“The Revenant”—Back from the Dead

 

Revenant 2By now almost every movie lover knows that The Revenant , winner of 3 Golden Globe Awards, and nominated for 12 Academy Awards, has been described as an endurance test so tortuous some crew members quit. “Revenant” connotes bringing back from the dead and that is exactly what happens in this three-hour film. Hugh Glass, the real-life tracker and fur trapper, managed to survive what was almost unsurvivable, but permanently changed.   Pushing the boundaries of physical stamina,   Leonardo DiCaprio is almost certain to win the Academy Award for his raw and harrowing portrayal of Glass. The viewer comes out asking “How could he possibly do that?” But The Revenant is so much more than a struggle of man against nature, primal and intense, or a tale of vengeance.

Directed by Alejandro G. Iñárritu (of Birdman, Babel, and Amores Perros fame), The Revenant is an extraordinary feat of film making. Astonishing cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki, filming in natural light and shadow, expresses eloquently the harsh but beautiful environment. In some clips more black and white than color, the visual brilliance replaces dialogue and character in conveying emotion and the heart of darkness. Witnessing Glass’s journey from hell, we are more like voyeurs. So uncomfortably close to what we see, we even see –almost feel- the actor’s breath frosting the camera lens.

Revenant 1

The action scenes are so visceral you feel as if your bones are cracking. Spectacular simulation of these sequences belie the fact that these are, in fact, artifices.

While The Revenant pushes the boundaries of film-making, suggesting the eloquence of classic silent movies, it is almost mythic in its balance between the brutal beauty of nature and human’s disruptive role in it. DiCaprio gives a virtuoso performance, the best of a formidable career. This is a narrative without words, a film of pictures and physicality that is unforgettable. As an author, I left the theater reflecting on the power of the scene when words will not suffice.

 

 

 

“Year of the Monkey” (February 8–January 27, 2017)—Anything Can Happen !

 

 

Monkey2016Happy New Year –Chinese Style! Although the Chinese New Year 2016 doesn’t officially begin until February 8, 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 February 8. Many now celebrate during the first two weeks of January.]

As the Year of the Sheep comes to an end and the Year of the Monkey arrives, 2016 will be a year of invention and improvisation, unpredictability and unexpected change. The Year of the Monkey is considered the most volatile in the twelve-year cycle.

The Monkey is considered intelligent, witty, and inventive. The ninth animal in the Chinese zodiac, the Monkey is also believed to be a magnificent problem-solver and independent high achiever. Clever and nimble, monkeys are playful, energetic creatures who move from activity to activity, swinging from branch to branch. Though honored in Buddhist tales, the Monkey is also famous as an irrepressible trickster.

All animals in the Chinese zodiac have a dark side too. The problem-solving in the Year of the Monkey can turn opportunistic and untrustworthy, unscrupulous and devious, capricious and misguided.

Some may gamble, speculate, take unnecessary and highly risky chances but for some there will be ingenious outcomes. Business can thrive in surprising ways under the Monkey’s optimistic and shrewd influence.  Anything can happen. Everything is in flux.

Communication also takes on a humorous, even mischievous and light-hearted side as an antidote to the stressful changes which will occur. Some risks will have astonishing results and unconventional solutions are needed to solve old problems. Daring to be different leads to success but  tremendous effort is also required. Now is the time for bold action; even the wildest ideas may succeed.

Remember this year will reward individualistic and highly original enterprises. A lot of global economic growth due to entrepreneurship can be expected in the Year of the Monkey. Also expect a lot of life changes. The Year of the Monkey 2016 is a good year to break free and take calculated risks as there is nothing more powerful or rewarding than following your instincts, passion and intuition. This is the best year for changing jobs in the next decade! Don’t look back!

 

 

 

“Carol”—A Salty Portrayal

Carol

 

The Academy-Award nominated film, “Carol”, starring Cate Blanchett in the title role and Rooney Mara as Therese, a department store “shop girl” deals with a lesbian romance set against the closeted and intolerant era of 1950s America. First titled “The Price of Salt” (and retitled “Carol” in 1990) , the novel was controversial when first published in 1952 prompting the author, Patricia Highsmith, to use a pen name. Other books of the time exploring the same subject, tended to have the heroine devolve into suicide or madness, if lesbianism was even hinted at .

Highsmith apparently drew from her own experience to portray that even a very wealthy woman had to stay under the radar. “Carol” ferociously depicts the discrimination and personal torment that lesbian women faced in the fifties. The romance between Carol and Therese is the major plot, as well as the entrapment in a society’s mores that doesn’t allow them to love.

This could easily have been one of the best movies of 2015, but it is not. I liked it but it wasn’t as good as it could have been. The family dysfunction beautifully displayed at Christmas time (symbolic of family and stress) is not balanced. What should have been a torrid love affair implied between Therese and Carol falls flat. The chemistry between the two actresses was glaringly missing.

Tightly controlled and magnetic performances by Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara (as well as Kyle Chandler as the offended husband of Carol) are slowed down by director Todd Haynes (of “Far From Heaven”) who seems to focus on visual scenes at the expense of the storytelling. “Carol” expresses not only a story about two generous souls falling in love but also the mindset of a society entrenched in hard-hearted “values”.

 

 

“Short Term 12” —Fostering Care

 

 

Short Term 12

In this 2013 film debut by Destin Cretton, we see Grace (Brie Larson) as a counselor in a group home for “at-risk” youth,–Short Term 12— a facility for “transitioning” out adolescents into the world. Grace is a beautiful, extremely vulnerable case worker who relates to everyone in the Short Term 12 residence. She struggles in a precarious balancing act between being a surrogate parent/friend/disciplinarian on the one hand and being a “professional” without emotional attachment to the young residents. We do not know Grace’s secret, but as viewers, we know she has personal demons.

Short Term 12c

Mason (poignantly played by John Gallagher, Jr. from television’s “Newsroom”) is a fellow counselor and product of the foster care system himself. Passionately in love with Grace, he eventually peels away at Grace’s defenses. Jayden, a young newcomer to Short Term 12, who has suffered and has also built almost insurmountable defenses to protect herself, is assigned to Short Term 12. Grace, who involuntarily identifies with Jaden, slowly chips away at the emotional distance between them as as Mason does with Grace. The major plot is now set.

Marcus, one of the oldest residents at Short Term 12, is about to be emancipated, but dreads life outside the group home. Talented and well-liked, Marcus is –as are all the young wards of the state—deeply wounded, dumped there as garbage by family members. The overriding theme in “Short Term 12” is the damage that dysfunctional families inflict on teenagers, jeopardizing their chances for future stability.

A riveting bird’s-eye view of a group home for troubled teenagers, “Short Term 12” has the feel of a documentary, a series of scenes of adolescents both lost and scrambling to make sense of the world they’ve been thrown out of and then back into. Larson gives a luminous breakthrough performance that foreshadows her next major role in “Room”, for which she has been nominated this year for Best Actress by the Academy Awards. (She won this year’s Golden Globe in that category). Just as Jennifer Lawrence astounded in her breakthrough role in “A Winter’s Bone”, this young actress will undoubtedly also amaze us in future films.

Lending subtlety and layers to a very flawed character, Brie Larson evokes, for the viewer, both sympathy and frustration with her choices. If the editing and tightening of the narrative had been more accomplished, I would consider “Short Term 12” a masterpiece. However, filmed in only 20 days by a newly-minted film graduate, it nonetheless is an engrossing study of young adolescents and adults who deserve much more from society and family. A wonderful human drama.

“Spotlight” –Illuminating Corruption and Cover-up

SpotlightIn this Academy Award-nominated film, Spotlight (on my Top Ten Films for 2015) reveals the 2002 exposé into the Catholic Church’s cover-up of child molestation and rape by priests taking place over two decades.

Unflinching in its focus, “Spotlight” underscores a subtle outrage and sense of resignation about the power of institutions. We watch as the “Spotlight “ team—named for undercover exposés of difficult-to-prove cases– chases down leads; goes through archives with missing documents; and interviews priests, judges, and victims. The investigative Spotlight team at the Boston Globe is defined by their tenacity as they overcome powerful political interests committed to crushing their investigation.

Investigative journalism seems so “old-school” in our sound-bite, entertainment culture, but Spotlight deftly recognizes the heroism of the Boston Globe’s team, in a similar fashion to “All The President’s Men”. Igniting an almost unbelievable, worldwide scandal, the Boston Globe clearly demonstrates a conspiracy on the part of the Catholic hierarchy to protect priests while silencing the victims and their families. The impact on a predominantly Catholic city, the guilt of those who chose to ignore its victims and the adversarial response of the Catholic Church are not the major themes of “Spotlight”.

“Spotlight” excels at building up the sense of injustice and outrage over the young victims who have no voice. Only the Catholic archdiocese and the legal system that is entwined with it have the powerful voice of defense and obfuscation. Despite the fact that we all know the repercussions of this narrative, seeing it through the eyes of these reporters has its own power.

The ensemble cast–John Slattery, Rachel McAdams, Brian d’Arcy James, and Mark Ruffalo as the main reporters, and Liev Schreiber and Michael Keaton as their editors—keeps the focus on the true story of institutional corruption and cowardice that fails the young victims of sexual abuse. Perhaps one of the most unforgettable and stunning scenes is between Rachel McAdams (playing a reporter) and a priest who tries to explain his motivation for child rape. McAdams’s quiet, perfectly calibrated and understated response is truly an award-worthy performance in and of itself.

Like its predecessor “All The President’s Men”, “Spotlight” is a paen to the courage of journalists who feel compelled to tell a story full of ugliness that few want to see.

[As a postscript I would have also liked to see the voice of a young victim in flashback, and the toll incurred on him as a young adult when he finally comes forth to tell his story. The victims all had unhealed wounds, based on secrets and lies they had to endure for decades.]

“Bridge of Spies”—Channeling the Cold War

 

Bridge of Spies

The second collaboration between Steven Spielberg and Joel and Ethan Coen, who co-wrote the script with Matt Charman, “Bridge of Spies” lands a place in my “Top 10 Films of 2015” list.

In this historical drama, “Bridge of Spies” takes place during the heat of the Cold War—1957–Tom Hanks stars as the American attorney, James Donovan, who is asked to defend Soviet spy Rudolf Abel (the formidable Mark Rylance) and later to negotiate the exchange of the downed US pilot Gary Powers for Abel.

The story is ripped from the headlines of fifty-nine years ago, Donovan, despite massive public disapproval, CIA obfuscation, and threats against his family, refuses to ignore Abel’s constitutional rights for a fair trial. Donovan’s wife, Mary (Amy Ryan) meets eyes with her embattled husband and, in that look, Donovan understands the high stakes in taking the moral position to which he tenaciously holds on. It’s startling when it happens. Fight for justice or for the safety of one’s own family?

When we are introduced to Abel, he is a soft-spoken man who spends the majority of his days painting. Occasionally he will journey to the local park, paints in hand, to take in the beauty of the day. His gentle manners and quiet demeanor lull the audience into caring about him. Abel is also occasionally followed by various members of the United States government. When the U2 spy plane piloted by Francis Gary Powers is shot down over Russia and Powers is declared a spy, Donovan is designated to lead secretly the negotiation for the prisoner exchange.

Hanks gives another star-turn performance as Donovan. Solid, representing American core values, he would dominate the film if not for Mark Rylance who mesmerizes. He is amazing here. Rylance manages to command the viewer’s attention with facial and body gestures alone and very few lines of dialogue,. The supporting cast is equally strong, from Alan Alda as Donovan’s boss to Amy Ryan as Donovan’s wife.

The film’s cinematography is also visually brilliant. East Berlin in 1957-1960 is recreated down to the razor wire on the wall. The mood of the screenplay by Charman and the Coens is perfectly captured.

Hank’s performance as Donovan is unflappable, displaying a tenacious determination beneath an affable charm and a stoic belief that everything can be resolved without bloodshed or ill feeling. He smiles and flatters, banters and cajoles while never taking his eyes off the prize. Mark Rylance provides a perfect counterweight to Hanks. His Rudolf Abel is silent and withdrawn. HIs words seem rationed and measured, following one-by-one from his lips: “Are you never afraid?” demands Donovan. “Would it help?” Abel replies.

A mixture of thriller, courtroom drama and history lesson, “Bridge Of Spies” makes for a riveting and unforgettable movie.