“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!