“House of Cards” (Final Season)–A Different Shuffle

House of Cards Season 6

In the earlier five seasons of House of Cards, Frank Underwood (played by Kevin Spacey) represented the Machiavellian Chief Whip then Vice President, and then President. As he manipulated his fellow party colleagues, foreign prime ministers (principally Russia), we witnessed the dark truths of American politics by a despotic megalomaniac.

Now, in Season 6, Frank Underwood is dead, but we don’t know how.  His widow, Claire Underwood (the phenomenal Robin Wright) is President and has inherited her dead husband’s enemies.

Dealing with the aftermath of her husband’s death, and declaring that “the reign of the middle-aged white man is over”, Claire clashes with corporate moguls, the Russian prime minister, and her own vice president.

Trying to forge her own path as President, Claire takes no prisoners and feels no regret. But Claire’s late husband still casts a long shadow. “Frank’s legacy” is the cornerstone of the series finale.

House of Cards Season 6

The powerful ending of this season of House of Cards is dramatically sharpened and has an even darker theme: gender issues and patriarchy infused with a stench of misogyny. Claire’s dark secrets venomously boil over, ratcheting towards an ignominious confrontation with Doug Stamper, Frank Underwood’s obsessively devoted acolyte who cannot forgive Claire for what he imagines she is doing to Frank’s legacy.

Overlaid with the backlash of the first female President, we see Claire have to disassociate from her husband’s despicable acts. Nevertheless, her political enemies delight in accusing her of being guilty of Frank’s sins.

Frank’s reach is beyond the grave. As Claire’s enemies come close to impeaching her, Claire does what she and Frank did the last time they got close to defeat: she manufactures a crisis. Claiming that terrorists are attempting to acquire a nuclear bomb, she creates a military standoff between U.S. and Russian troops in Syria.

It’s the thunderous theme of House of Cards: Power is fragile– and we watch as the powerful can be brought tumbling down by the smallest misstep. Claire’s own reign is ultimately doomed to fail, playing a near-impossible game, but as we watch we don’t know how or when.

House of Cards in its final season ends on a dramatically different, more ambiguous and amoral note, than any of its previous seasons or its BBC predecessor. What Frank and Claire did may not really be out of the ordinary. House of Cards is more about the undetected, malignant form of insatiable power: more difficult to expose and defeat.

Totally unexpected, this season of House of Cards is a different and more frightening look at unhinged power. Robin Wright is a marvel to behold!

 

Note:  I have reviewed Seasons 1-4 previously.

 

“Baby Driver”–For Millennials

Baby Driver movie review
[Originally published for Blog Critics, July 3, 2017]

The highly praised feature film Baby Driver, starring newcomer Ansel Elgort as Baby, tells the story of a millenial car driver getting in and out of trouble while trying to capture the love of his life. Baby drives fast and furiously, shifting gears and tapping tunes he hears on this iPod (yes, an iPod) on his steering wheel while waitng for the criminal types he chauffeurs around to complete their heists–robbing banks and the post office.

Baby’s boss, Doc, (the incomparable Kevin Spacey in a role not deserving of his talent) is owed a debt from Baby, providing the motivation for the young getaway driver’s awful choices in job options and companions. One of the criminals, Buddy, (played by Jon Hamm, again, a waste of this actor’s abilities), seems to empathize with Baby at times, instead of humiliating him. A psychopathological maniac, Bats (Jamie Foxx, what were you thinking?), provides much of the gratuitous gore. A kindly foster father (played by C J Jones) offers one of the only heartbeats indicating humanity.

Baby Driver is first and foremost, about, sensational car chases and these are some of the most choreographed this viewer has ever seen. The cars rev up to mostly 70’s music with preposterous outcomes and perfect timing for comic effect. Furthermore, Baby has tinnitus, which he drowns out with his iPod, providing killer timing and the graceful rhythms his body dances to while walking, weaving in and out of the crowd as if driving on the streets of Atlanta.

A car-centric crime drama, with the actors timing their movements to the soundtrack, Baby Driver features constant, often glamorized violence. There are several mass shootings, with machine-gun deaths choreographed to music. You’ll also see several car accidents with splintering glass and bloody dead bodies, sudden deaths, blood, and gore. Many of the characters eventually die sudden, terrible deaths. Female characters are stereotypes, ogled by both the characters and the camera.

While this movie will continue to receive accolades and become a box office hit (released June 28), its target demographic–millennial guys–may be sufficient to gather some award nominations. The main actor, Ansel Elgort, holds the viewer’s attention, a babyfaced Patrick Swayze, who will almost certainly have more challenging roles offered in the future. Similar to “Drive”, Baby Driver has less story and convincing dialog. I would not recommend this one to non-millennial viewers. We are the wrong demographic.

 

“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.

 

 

 

 

“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).

 

 

“House of Cards”–Season 2: The Main Course

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House of Cards–season 2

I just binged on the second season of  the Emmy-award winning “House of Cards,” the Netflix-produced political saga starring Kevin Spacey as Frank Underwood and Robin Wright as his wife Claire as it continues its narratively complex drama– even better than 2013’s!  (See my February 2013 review of the first season, “House of Cards”–A Bulimic Buffet for Couch Potatoes?)

In this riveting thriller of political ambition, power, and hubris of Shakespearian proportions, we see the Underwoods cement their lethal relationship as the über power couple on the Beltway, energized by each other’s ruthlessness. Determined to leave no enemy unharmed, the two share everything:  strategy, tactical maneuvers, and annihilation without mercy. But both Claire and Frank have backstories, hinting at the damage that has been done to them.  Their wounds remain unhealed.

Claire and Frank Underwood pursue power without any internalized sense of obligation, morality, or responsibility resulting in the viewer’s fascination and fear of the Underwoods’  impending path of destruction. Frank is unmoved by barbecue vendor Freddy’s refusal to patronize a new butcher who tortuously slow-bleeds the hogs.  Slow-bleeding hogs do not even register on Frank’s radar, a  Vice President who wants policies made his way, and only his way.

In episode after episode of this alarming drama, this pair of frightening anti-heroes–nonetheless earn our reluctant admiration for their brilliant understanding of human psychology.  They can visualize motivations and blind spots even their foes are not fully aware of. Consequently, the Underwoods seem to have no worthy adversary except each other.

In the season finale, Frank is alone in the Oval Office –or rather, talking to us, the viewers on camera.  He taps twice with his ring, a lesson his father had taught him: knock once to toughen your knuckles for a fight and once for good luck.

Prepared, with bare-knuckle fighting almost certainly in his future, Frank knocks twice on the desk in the Oval Office.  But will Claire be the one he has to fight, the blind spot for him? The one he can’t overcome?  We’ll have to wait until February 2015 to see how this immorality play unravels, and how the toy soldiers Frank loves to create symbolize a challenge to his game.

“House of Cards” — A Bulimic Buffet for Couch Potatoes?

Why wait a week to watch another episode when an entire buffet is available?  A lot has been written recently about “binge-watching” the practice of sitting on the couch or in bed to gorge on an entire season or a majority of episodes of a television series in one batch.  The bulimic viewer was not possible before Tivo, DVRs and Netflix video streaming (aka Instant Queue). Netflix has given us 13 episodes of “House of Cards”, a reinterpretation of the 1990 BBC miniseries which starred Sir Ian Richardson as a conniving Parliamentarian who rose to the level of prime minister before meeting his fate.

This 2013 “House of Cards” is the first foray into developing original television content exclusively for Netflix members. What has been the unintended outcome of the release of all thirteen episodes of “House of Cards” on February 1 is that the critical reviews of “House of Cards” have been more about “binge-watching” and less about the plot of this powerful political minidrama.

With the genius of Beau Willimon, (the Oscar-nominated screenwriter of “The Ides of March”) and David Fincher (Oscar-nominated for directing “The Social Network”) we have a set of twisted plots worthy of Machiavelli or the Borgias. “House of Cards” has been transformed into a contemporary American narrative about a vengeful Beltway insider, US Congressman and House majority whip Frank Underwood.  Hailing from a nowhere town in South Carolina, Underwood masterminds the destruction of all those who blocked his appointment to Secretary of State.

Set in present-day Washington, D.C., Underwood (Kevin Spacey) decides to inflict his volcanic temper and impalpable revenge upon those who betrayed him.  With lethal self-centeredness he is successful in every detail.  Underwood and his wife Claire (exceptionally played by Robin Wright), epitomize an über power-hungry couple who stops at nothing to conquer everything.  Each needs the other in order to be lethal.   Ruthless and cunning, Frank and Claire bask in the shadowy world of greed, sex, and corruption, severing all ties with anyone who stands in their way.  Nothing and no one are beyond their grasp, no matter whom they hurt.  Both exploit even the good qualities in others to set them up for manipulation and debasement.

While I personally like watching more than one episode at a time, if the story is tightly woven and meticulously written, I want to savor every tasty morsel.  “House of Cards” has such biting dialog, stunning character work and a provocative exploration of contemporary politics that an “all-you-can-watch” buffet of episodes may result in indigestion. Use portion control in feasting on this series.

 

“Margin Call”–Soulless Capitalism at Its Finest

An onslaught of “Occupy Wall Street” movies has been released in the last two years–think “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps”, “Too Big to Fail”, “Up in the Air”, The Company Men”–in the wake of the financial meltdown of 2008.  “Margin Call” deserves to be among the classics,  which have focused on greed, power, and the vacuum resulting from gutting regulatory compliance. (My favorite among recent classics is “Glengarry Glen Ross”.)

The brainchild of director and screenwriter, J.C. Chandor, “Margin Call” is a slowly unfolding narrative about a risk management analyst, Eric Dale  (beautifully played by Stanley Tucci), on his way out of corporate America along with eighty percent of an unnamed broker/dealer (=Lehman Brothers??) who must lay off all but the most ambitious (and ruthless) employees.  Tucci’s character hands off a flash drive to a young analyst, Peter Sullivan (the remarkable Zachary Quinto of “Heroes” and “Star Trek” fame).  Sullivan is left with the unenviable task of realizing that the broker/dealer he works for is over-leveraged, based on  faulty assumptions of a proprietary predictive algorithm for mortgage securities. How timely is that?!

In an impeccable cast including Demi Moore as the embittered woman executive who has played by all the rules in a male-dominated company only to be the scapegoat, Kevin Spacey owns this movie.  While there are portraits of a range of power players all trying to survive in a game where only a few can continue to triumph, Kevin Spacey’s  character, Sam Rogers, is the conflicted, morally ambivalent trading floor manager whose curdling resentment of where he is and what he must do results in a deeply tragic, heartbreakingly lonely figure.

John Tuld (=Fuld of Lehman Brothers perhaps), the  CEO, denies that disastrous speculation is the death of his company.  In a brilliant, riveting scene Tuld (the almost-always villainous Jeremy Irons) announces the firm has no choice but to liquidate its mortgage securities by the end of the next trading day — a strategy that will destroy the financial well-being of  millions of Americans in the process.  There is no moral–only a logistical– dilemma for the corporation. How to avoid a devastating margin call translates to how fast can they dump the worthless paper they have been holding before word gets out on the street? They frantically start selling to customers knowing that what they are selling is worthless.

Although the film belongs to Spacey, Irons faces Spacey and indifferently mutters:  “It’s all just the same thing over and over; we can’t help ourselves. And you and I can’t control it, or stop it, or even slow it. Or even ever-so-slightly alter it. We just react. And we make a lot of money if we get it right. And we get left by the side of the road if we get it wrong. And there have always been and there always will be the same percentage of winners and losers. Happy foxes and sad sacks. Fat cats and starving dogs in this world. Yeah, there may be more of us today than there’s ever been. But the percentages-they stay exactly the same.”

Those may be the most memorable, debilitating and cold-blooded lines to ring in your ears long after the film has ended. I can’t stop thinking about them!

 

“Swimming with Sharks”–Taking a Dive from the Corporate Ladder

Our son graduated from college about a year ago and has had several internships in the entertainment industry, mainly reality TV and independent movies, while he searches for his next career step. One of his former supervisors recommended “Swimming with Sharks”, for an insider’s view of what working as a low-level assistant for a studio exec is really like. This colleague also stated that the movie did not exaggerate!

While billed as a comedy, this film is anything but funny. Guy (played by Frank Whaley, a vastly underrated TV supporting actor) is a recent college graduate who lands a job as personal assistant–more accurately, “go-fer”–to Buddy Ackerman (Kevin Spacey), an abusive, egomaniacal movie studio exec who withers Guy’s enthusiasm, professional integrity, and most importantly, his self-esteem. Battered by a relentless siege of humiliating and vitriolic attacks, Guy only half-heartedly stands up to Buddy because of his eagerness to climb the ladder of success. This movie is an engrossing but cynical portrait of what soul-selling is required for some individuals to attain their coveted company promotion.

When I first watched “Swimming with Sharks”, the tyranny of Buddy Ackerman was so vile and so over-the-top, that I sympathized entirely with Guy, the poor nebbish trying to please his boss with every cell in his body. Perhaps the most memorable lines are the words of “advice” Buddy gives his young assistant: “I was young too, I felt just like you. Hated authority, hated all my bosses, thought they were full of shit. Look, it’s like they say, if you’re not a rebel by the age of 20, you got no heart, but if you haven’t turned establishment by 30, you’ve got no brains. Because there are no storybook romances, no fairy-tale endings. So before you run out and change the world, ask yourself, ‘What do you really want?'”