House of Cards (Netflix): Season 6

DO NOT WATCH THIS SEASON… BUT if you already did (like me), you “wasted 6 hours of your life” (as my lil bro complained over Thanksgiving)! The writing is beyond bad, some plotlines go nowhere, and (new) characters are underdeveloped. Annette (Diane Lane) and Bill (Greg Kinnear) Shepherd are billionaire tycoon sibs hell bent on taking down Pres. Claire Underwood (Robin Wright). As girls, Claire and Annette grew up together in rural Texas, so there is a natural rivalry; we also learn that Annette once had a fling w/ Frank. Some of you may wonder who could be the father of Annette’s 20-ish son? 

Spacey is out, so MUCH so that we don’t even hear his voice on recordings (which Doug Stamper discovered). Doug is back and in (potential) danger in the early eps from Claire; Michael Kelly (he liked one of my tweets- YAY!) does a fine job, as expected. I was esp. happy to see Janine (Constance Zimmer) back, BUT she doesn’t get much to do. Tom (Boris McGiver, now diminished in his job (formerly he was “The Hammer”) gets a few scenes; he laments the downfall and conglomeration of the news biz. Campbell Scott is back (he’s now VP) and so is Patricia Clarkson (an indie movie darling, BUT totally misplaced on this show). Claire wants the former spy around as a gal pal /confidante/roomie. A few characters return in brief scenes, incl. former VP Linda (Sakina Jaffrey). 

As for Robin Wright, she does what she can w/ the (bad) material. Of course, she looks incredibly fit and gorgeous (DUH!); this season her wardrobe is more militaristic in style and coloring. Claire projects coldness, resilience, cunning, and strength- even becoming more violent! But as I’ve noted before, strong actors (no matter how much they try), can’t save a series or movie that is poorly written and laughably implausible. 

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National Theatre Live: Frankenstein (2011) starring Benedict Cumberbatch & Jonny Lee Miller

[1] Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein has lasted because of the profound themes in her story – the morality of science, parental responsibilities, man’s vanity, the removal of the divine from creation etc. Nick Dear’s writing takes these all on, keeping the story’s political punch alive. 

[2] …great comic timing in his depiction of the more playful parts of the Creature’s growing pains, and real tendresse and anxiety as the Creature battles his own internal conflict between love and revenge.

-Victoria Sadler (Huffington Post, 10/29/13)

Frankenstein (adapted by Nick Dear from Mary Shelley’s novel) returned to movie screens this past week (10/22 & 10/29) just in time for Halloween. I almost forgot that this was on (until I looked up my local movie listings this afternoon)! In my audience, I saw several older couples (as I’d expect to see at live theater), along w/ two young ladies (Japanese), and a few other women in their 20s and 30s. Filmed in 2011 at the National Theatre in London, this (sold-out) production has been seen by about 500,000 worldwide. Directed by Oscar winner Danny Boyle, Frankenstein features Cumberbatch and Miller (who seem to be good friends; both have played Sherlock) alternating between the roles of Victor Frankenstein and the Creature. FYI: I saw the version where Cumberbatch (long before he was a household name in either the UK or US) was the Creature.

[1] …it’s rather like seeing The Tempest rewritten from Caliban’s point of view.

[2] Cumberbatch’s Creature is unforgettable. “Tall as a pine tree,” as the text insists, he has humour as well as pathos… But there is also an epic grandeur about Cumberbatch. As he quotes Paradise Lost, his voice savours every syllable of Milton’s words…

-Michael Billington (The Guardian, 2/23/11)

Wherever the Creature goes, people scream in fear and/or beat him, until he comes upon the hut of a blind man, De Lacey (veteran actor Karl Johnson). This is a poor former professor (w/ a lot of old books) who lives w/ his farmer son, Klaus, and daughter-in-law, Agatha. De Lacey is kind and gentle w/ the Creature, teaching him in secret for about a year. The Creature clears away rocks (so the couple can till the soil) and fetches wood for making fire. The old man even tells the Creature that if he “is a good man,” then someday he’ll have someone to love. One day, De Lacey insists upon introducing him to the family. It goes wrong- quickly and like the “emperors and heroes in the stories” he’s read, the Creature vows “revenge.”

I should be Adam. God was proud of Adam. But Satan’s the one I sympathise with. For I was cast out, like Satan, though I did no wrong. And when I see others content, I feel the bile rise in my throat, and it tastes like Satan’s bile! -The Creature explains to Victor 

The central question of this story: Who is the real monster- the Creature or Frankenstein himself? The young scholar Frankenstein rejects his creation, cursing it and throwing it out into the streets (along w/ a notebook of experiments). While Victor has been engaged to Elizabeth (a pretty, strong-willed, yet empathetic Naomie Harris), he barely speaks w/ her or shows any kind of affection. The outcast/lonely Creature desperately wants someone to love, asking Victor to make “a mate” for him. At first, Victor is repulsed by the notion, but quickly becomes intrigued at the thought of “the perfect woman.” They shake hands (strike a bargain) and Victor goes off to England, then Scotland, to do his work. From here, the play gets even darker in tone! (Now I’m curious about the original book.)

[1] Using the first 30 minutes to display the creature gradually “building” his own personality, Dear places the “voice” and troubled psychological aspect of the creature right at the centre of the adaptation, with Dear smartly showing Frankenstein and the towns people’s interactions from the outcast point of view of the creature. Whilst the screenplay does show that Frankenstein and the towns people turn the creature into “the monster” that they fear, due to being focused on the permanently damaged exterior and not the welcoming, and repairable interior of the creature.

Benedict Cumberbatch gives an unexpectedly subtle, vulnerable performance, with the opening of the film solely focusing on the creature rising from the dead, allowing Cumberbatch to place the viewer deep inside the skin of the character, thanks to Cuberbatch slowly showing the creature transform from being speechless and native, to using human skills such as lying to his deadly advantage.

[2] An intense, must-see thrilling performance from both Cumberbatch and Miller. The dialogues filled with static chemistry, a beautiful and perfect mix between beauty and horror, a destabilized yet animated stage that shows all facets of life and death. A hypnotizing and cutting-edge play, a real work of art that is absolutely not to be missed.

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

SPOILER-FREE Review: Killing Eve – Season 1 (BBC America)

Based on the novellas by Luke Jennings [published in 2017] and written by Phoebe Waller-Bridge (Fleabag), Killing Eve centers on two women; Eve (Sandra Oh) is a bored, whip-smart, pay-grade MI-5 security officer whose desk-bound job doesn’t fulfill her fantasies of being a spy; Villanelle (Jodie Comer) is a mercurial, talented killer who clings to the luxuries her violent job affords her. -Summary from BBC America

Remember Det. Bobby Goren’s pursuit of the literate/world-traveling serial killer- Nicole Wallace- on several eps/seasons of Law and Order: Criminal Intent? Bobby and Nicole shared a strong connection (chemistry), though they were on different sides of the law. Now you’ve got a hint of this (unique) thriller, which is mostly a character-based drama centered on a  married/middle-aged MI-5 security officer, Eve Polastri (Canadian actress of Korean heritage- Sandra Oh- best known for Sideways and Gray’s Anatomy) and multi-lingual/sociopath killer, Villanelle (Jodie Comer, a Brit from Liverpool). Oh’s character is a Brit, though raised in the US (so has an American accent).  

Though this is a drama, there is (dark) humor laced throughout each of the 8 eps, thanks to Waller-Bridge, a multi-talented Brit in her early 30s. Yes, women are at the forefront (and behind-the-scenes) of Killing Eve! I was esp. pleased to see veteran actress Fiona Shaw as Carolyn Martens, Eve’s superior officer. The man who acts as a sort of handler/manager for Villanelle is called Konstantin (Kim Bodnia, a Danish actor). Both he and Shaw have strong onscreen presences, toughness, and some (unexpected) moments of lightness/fun. Eve’s easygoing husband (a teacher) is Niko (Owen McDonnell, an Irish actor who works mainly in theater); he and Oh have the type of natural chemistry you’d see in a long-married couple. Their marriage is put under strain as Eve goes into fieldwork, dangers escalate, keeps secrets, and becomes obsessed w/ Villanelle.  

As some critics have noted, the breakout star of Killing Eve is Jodie Comer. She’s young, tall, blue-eyed, (conventionally) pretty, yet NOT skinny (athletic figure). What sets her apart are her big/bright blue eyes and luminous face (which she twists into many expressions). I see a LOT of potential in this actress. Vilanelle, like MANY real women, likes real food (ice cream, fresh bruschetta, champagne, etc.) And she has a keen eye for fashion, too. How good is this show? Well, it was picked up for a second season (even before the pilot aired), then Oh was nominated for a Best Actress Emmy (the first for an Asian-American woman). Check it out ASAP (I saw it last week at the BBC America web site)!

 

The Dinner (2016) starring Richard Gere, Laura Linney, Steve Coogan, & Rebecca Hall

[1] Nobody can accuse The Dinner of being unambitious, but I would like to accuse it of being an ambitious mess. 

[2] What happens when your are face to face with a clear moral dilemma? Can you bury your integrity in lies? Surely, such a deception will haunt you if you have a conscience. Self interest makes it harder to do the right thing, and this test will be faced by everyone at some point in their life.

[3] The enablers… are not helpful. They help perpetuate the problem via denial and/or self-interest. Unfortunately, this is how many families deal with mental illness: by winging it and not bothering to look up symptoms of abnormal and/or destructive behavior, and/or to consult with experts when these behaviors emerge.

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

A former high school history teacher, Paul Lohman (Steve Coogan- an Englishman I’d only seen in Philomena) and his wife/cancer survivor, Claire (Laura Linney- one of my faves), meet at an exclusive restaurant w/ his older brother/congressman, Stan (Richard Gere), and his much younger wife, Kate (Rebecca Hall). Paul (who sees the negative side of life) obviously doesn’t want to be there; he has a very strained relationship w/ Stan and thinks that this food is extravagant. The plan is to discuss over dinner how to handle a crime committed by their teenage sons, Mike and Rick. We see in flashbacks the teens harassing a homeless woman, throwing garbage at her, then setting an ATM building on fire (w/ her inside). This was filmed, uploaded online (by Stan’s adopted black son- Beau), and made the local news. The boys have not been identified yet; the parents are very anxious about how this will affect their future.

Stan’s tireless assistant, Nina (Adepero Oduyo from 12 Years a Slave) is in the sitting room, holding his calls. Stan is a very busy man, running for governor and trying to pass a mental heath bill (partly b/c his own family has been affected by this issue). Kate is the one who truly knows Stan’s kids, as she has time for them (his ex-wife Barbara, played by Chloe Sevigny, has run away to India). We learn that the brothers’ mother was abusive, esp. to Paul. Stan was favored and had to be “the man of the house” (since their father was “checked out” emotionally). Paul lost his job after he lost his cool (in front of his class), cursing and insulting them. He was placed on meds, though stopped taking them (wanting to “feel like my old self”). Claire noticed that he was hiding the pills, yet didn’t say anything. 

This film has an interesting premise and tries to tackle big issues: morality, loyalty, mental illness, family dysfunction, and different fears (losing a spouse to illness, losing a child to jail, etc.) It’s not effectively put together, unfortunately. The sound design is bad (at times), the camera moves around (for no reason), and the editing is choppy. The characters turn out to be unlikable, yet not in an entertaining way. (A few viewers mentioned that the play Carnage tackles some of the same issues, but in a more interesting way.) The ending of the film is very abrupt- it’s as if the producers ran out of money! 

The author of the book “The Dinner” (Herman Koch) walked away from the European premiere of this film in early 2017. The Dutchman did not wish to stay for the after-party to talk to the director (Owen Moverman), cast members, or audience. Koch thought the scriptwriter had transferred his cynical story into a moral tale. He esp. disliked the movie’s reference to themes like American violence and the stigma of mental illness. A Dutch film came out in 2013, then an Italian one in 2014; both were well received and nominated for many awards.

I think it needed to be trimmed down. I loved the performances, esp. Rebecca Hall; I think she’s great in everything. I wasn’t bored. I was exasperated on some occasions. 

-Comments from Mark Kermode’s review (see below)

 

Vertigo (1958) starring James Stewart & Kim Novak

Hitch was quite upset at he failure of the film when it was first released; he blamed this on James Stewart for “looking too old” (nearly 50 y.o.) to attract large audiences. Bernard Herrmann’s musical score was inspired by Wagner’s Tristan & Isolde which is also about doomed love. This film was the first to use computer graphics. The second-unit cameraman (most likely) invented the famous zoom/out and track/in shot to convey the sense of vertigo to the audience. 

Let’s not probe too deeply into these matters, Kim. It’s only a movie. -Director Alfred Hitchcock explained to actress Kim Novak (when she asked for more info on her character’s motivation during a scene)

John “Scottie” Ferguson (Stewart) is a middle-aged/retired/detective who suffers from acrophobia. He is a bachelor who is still good friends w/ his former fiance, Midge Wood (Barbara Bel Geddes), who works in fashion merchandising (being an artist). An old friend from college, Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore), calls Scottie to his office (in the San Francisco shipyards) and asks him to follow his wife, Madeleine (Kim Novak). Gavin explains her unusual behaviors and fears she is losing her mind, though he hasn’t discussed the matter w/ any medical professionals. Scottie is skeptical, BUT agrees after seeing the beautiful Madeleine. 

Stewart would NOT be one you would think of portraying a voyeur and a stalker, yet he pulls it off so well. As one viewer commented (see #TCMParty on Twitter): “Vertigo shows how versatile Jimmy Stewart could really be. That’s the sign of a great actor.” Another movie fan tweeted: “This is where Jimmy’s ‘nice guy’ persona becomes so effective. It’s esp. painful to see him reduced to this.” He enables viewers to sympathize w/ him, even as we cringe at his character’s actions and decisions. 

Hitchcock set his film in San Francisco, a city well known for its unique topography and hilly landscape, in order to add a further torment to Scottie’s life and emphasize the debilitating nature of his vertigo. Location shoots were done at the Big Basin Redwoods State Park and the Spanish mission at San Juan Bautista. Hitch spent a week filming a brief scene where Madeleine stares at a portrait just to get the lighting right. After Judy has been made over into Madeleine, she and Scottie kiss; the actors were on a revolving circular platform (a la Gone with the Wind). 

Vertigo is full of scenes where the colors have been saturated or changed to create a special feeling. Hitchcock even went so far as to openly dye some frames is bright unnatural colors. He played around with colors in all his color films, but never as much as in this one. -Excerpt from IMDB review

Much is done with color and light in this film; you will notice it (even upon first viewing). I noticed more tonight- my second time viewing it fully. An astute viewer noted: “Am noticing for the first time that each scene is pretty monotone – yellow, red, redder, green, blue.” The lighting changes when important events occur. Here are some examples: 1) When Scottie first sees Madeleine in the restaurant, the light around her becomes unnaturally bright. 2) While Scottie is listening to the story of Madeleine’s ancestor in the bookstore, it gets very dark; once he exits, it brightens again. 3) When Scottie first sees Judy made over as Madeleine, she is lit by a ghostly green light (the reflected light from the neon sign outside). On this point, a viewer tweeted: “Bathed in the color green… the ghost of Madeleine is wiping out Judy’s identity.”

There’s a dark sexiness to the film that lends the film an air of mature and serious art. Barbara Bel Geddes’ tragic Midge practically throws herself at Stewart’s Scottie Ferguson, while Novak’s “Madeleine Elster” seems rather matter of fact when she realized that Ferguson had completely undressed her after saving her from death. Later, as Judy Barton, her real identity, she shows a frank knowledge of pickups, sizing Ferguson up as a masher. Judy, it seems, has been around the block once or twice. Where earlier Hitchcock movies played coy with sex, here he tackles the subject head on, and it adds to the film’s mature atmosphere. -The Hitchcock Report blog

The words “power” and “freedom” are repeated three times in the movie: 1) In the beginning, Gavin longs for the old San Francisco b/c there was more power and freedom. 2) At the bookstore, the elderly history buff explains that, in Carlotta Valdes’ time, a man could just throw a woman away b/c he had more power and freedom. 3) During the climax, John suggests that after the murder was completed, Gavin left Judy b/c he had more power and freedom (w/ his wife’s fortune). 

[1] Vertigo is Alfred Hitchcock’s most discussed, dissected and critically reappraised film…

[2] This movie is so deep that you could write a thesis on it and keep adding to it from time to time… Hitchcock really gave his all in this picture… it’s about the ultimate love… wanting to achieve the ultimate love, and, as happens in life, never having love turn out to be the way we want it to be…

[3] If a flaw is to be found, I would say that the script developed for the film was probably not the most friendly for the audience. This film is certainly not for everyone, as it’s slow pace and heavy darkness in the subject may turn off people familiar with Hitchcock’s lighter films as his usual dark humor is not present here…

[4] Hitchcock is in his very best form creating hypnotic scenes and a general sense of unease and dread in even the most banal of situations. A particular favourite of mine is the extended (largely silent) segment where Stewart follows Novak for the first time. Nothing much happens, but the atmosphere of these scenes is enough to keep you on the edge of your seat!

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews