House of Cards

House of CaA few weeks ago one of my Twitter followers asked me if House of Cards was a good show.  I took a little while to figure out how to respond, because to answer that question requires a bit more than a simple “Yes” or “No.”  The brainchild of David Fincher, Kevin Spacey, and a heap of computer-powered data mining, Netflix’s reimagining of the classic British television drama is an interesting concoction.   It’s good in the sense that the production is slick, the acting is top-notch, and the plotlines are appropriately deep and intricate for this type of political thriller.  But House of Cards is much more than that, and even though I finished watching the series I’m still not sure exactly what to make of it.  It’s interesting, compelling, and often entertaining but unfortunately a host of other adjectives would be appropriate as well: creepy, sleazy, disgusting, and at times downright repugnant.

The show stars Kevin Spacey as a puppet master of sorts, the House Majority Whip pulling the strings of various beltway heavy-hitters while secretly pursuing an agenda of his own.  His Frank Underwood character, a Democrat from South Carolina’s 5th district, is as slimy and smarmy as they come: one episode delivering a moving eulogy for a young girl in front of a faithful congregation, using just the right mix of smiles and scriptures to work himself into the hearts and minds of the assembled masses, all the while becoming increasingly entangled in any number of conspiracies to ruin the lives and careers of anyone who stands in his way back in Washington.  Few things are beneath him, from drugs to extortion to murder, though he remains well-nigh untouchable as the wizard behind the political curtain while finding ways to manipulate his fellow Washington cockroaches into doing his bidding.  It’s an entirely cynical take on DC politics, gutting the optimistic heart The West Wing and replacing it with a dark mechanical lump of coal, and after every single episode my wife and I quickly fired up Parks and Recreation as a lighthearted palette-cleanser.

That’s not to say House of Cards is not a well-made show.  In many ways it genuinely is a good, if not great, made-for-internet-television production.  Easily holding its own against its weighty counterparts on networks like HBO and Showtime, House of Cards plumbs the sordid depths of Washington politics like few other productions (celluloid, digital, or otherwise) have done so.  At the start of the series, Underwood is at the apex of his political game, wielding his political power and acumen like a scalpel in the hands of a master surgeon.  He of course has his sights set much higher up the political ladder, but to reach them requires winning a dangerous game of chess that even he might not be ready for.  One of his key pawns in this high-stakes match is Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara), a hotshot reporter-turned-blogger whom Underwood uses to plant stories and sway public opinion through media manipulation.  But as one would expect in a show of this pedigree, Underwood and Barnes’ political relationship quickly becomes personal, though capriciously self-serving, and we quickly get the sense that Netflix is aiming to one-up HBO in their quest to shovel as much gratuitous sex as possible into the living rooms of their subscriber base.

House of CardsAlso at play in this grand political scheme is Underwood’s wife Clair (Robin Wright), with whom he shares an unsettlingly open relationship.  She runs the Clean Water Initiative, a nonprofit whose goals aren’t entirely in line with her husband’s, and serves as the closest thing House of Cards has to a moral center.  Poor Peter Russo (Corey Stoll) is the empty-headed fool who bandied about by Underwood like a nerf gun with the sole purpose of helping the Democrat from Dixie reach his lofty ambitions.  We get a front row seat to Russo’s doomed career both as a congressman and then gubernatorial candidate–a political self-immolation aided by Underwood who provides not only the match but the gasoline.  But alas, Russo’s political corpse is another rung to be stepped on if the ladder is to be climbed, and so up Underwood goes.  This is tragedy on a grand scale, and in that sense House of Cards succeeds admirably.  Of course there is a host of other players in Underwood’s clever game, from union bosses to vice presidents to the owner of a local barbecue joint, and it is often compelling to watch all the various threads come together–or unravel, as is often the case.

So why the bum rap?  Evaluating House of Cards is tricky because it’s hard for me to separate the content from the delivery. Despite the Oscar-worthy performances, intricate and well-developed plotlines, and compelling characters, I find it hard to recommend the show because it is so overpoweringly bleak.  It’s an interesting show, but not an enjoyable show.  Engaging but not satisfying.  Worth watching, though not what I would consider good.


VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Have you seen this movie? Rate it!
Rating: 0.0/5 (0 votes cast)

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2011)

David Fincher closes out of his Facebook to take on a remake of the Swedish film The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, based on the first installment of a trilogy of novels.  I sat through this film, encompassed by the calculated grim atmosphere, taken in by the stylish cinematography, and ultimately slapped around by the incessant violence.  Ignore the snowy landscapes.  Dragon Tattoo is utterly and completely the anti-Christmas film of the season as it so proudly advertises.

Daniel Craig plays investigative journalist, Mikael, undergoing a major setback in his career that has him crawling out from an under a lawsuit.  As an escape for Mikael, he accepts an invitation to a Swedish island from aging Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer) to unearth a 40-year-old missing person case—Harriet Vagner (Henrik’s niece), a young girl who was abducted and likely murdered—her body was never found.  Mikael leaves his boss and lover (Robin Wright) back at the office to isolate himself in a tiny house on the island where he studies old photographs and police investigation reports, while also conducting interviews of the family members scattered within close radius on the island.

Meanwhile, Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara) is introduced as an intelligent, and mightily troubled 24-year-old woman working as a private investigator.  Her life has been and continues to be flooded with trauma.  She undergoes sexual abuse from an overseeing guardian responsible for withholding her monetary earnings, and generally is mistreated by all the men that occupy her life.  She’s cold, quiet, pierced, tattooed, gothic-looking, bisexual, and every adjective that might make a 65-year-old white businessman uncomfortable.  Midway into the film, she partners with Mikael, both professionally and otherwise, to piece together the puzzle of the long-missing Harriet.

David Fincher, an auteur when it comes to such material, displays a deft hand for sinking audiences into uncomfortable darkness.  Zodiac, Seven, The Game, and others have become his bread and butter, so it’s no surprise that he’s drawn to The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.  This is almost certainly his darkest film yet.  What holds him back from greatness here is the source novel which screenwriter Steven Zaillian attempts to translate over a very, very long 2 hour and 40 minute runtime.  If the mystery were as engulfing as it ought to be, the film might not be as tough of a sit, but the film meanders before sinking its teeth in, and treads water for 30 minutes after the film climaxes.  While Fincher often had me enraptured in the film’s most piercing and horrific sequences, the whole is missing a few pieces.

Both Rooney Mara and Daniel Craig commit to their roles completely, especially Mara.  She’s uncomfortable and intoxicating in the role.  Craig has a cool confidence that exudes James Bond (go figure), and offsets his internal desperation.  However, their teaming happens much later in the film than I was anticipating.  And their sexual affair threw me for a loop.  Not because Craig is about twice her age, but because the spark between the two is missing.  There’s no chemistry, there’s no heat, and even less plausibility.  The character of Lisbeth wields her sexuality like a weapon, but there’s little buildup between her and Mikael.

It must also be noted that the film unleashes some of the most shocking scenes ever filmed.  Fincher’s eye never shies away from the graphic nature of the story.  Nothing goes implied here.  It’s all onscreen.  I’m guessing the novel did the same.  Anyone interested in seeing this film needs to be prepared for some horrific depictions of torture and rape.  It’s blood-curdling, and stomach-twisting.  The scenes emphasize the horror endured by Lisbeth and that has shattered here trust in men, until Mikael offers her a first brushing of kindness that draws her to him.

Where does that leave me with this film?  I walked out of the screening without the slightest guess as to how I responded to it.  I know it’s certainly not in line with Fincher’s best work.  The chemistry between the leads was also lacking, or simply not amped up enough.  No amount of onscreen intimacy can generate chemistry.  However, the performances were right.  The mood of the film carried me through.  The cinematography captured the ugliest corners of this cold world.  The film’s ending left me wondering where the characters go next.  I cringed, I looked away, but I was also pulverized by this film.  And I don’t know if that’s good or bad.  I’m certain that’s what Fincher wanted.  I won’t ‘recommend’ this film to anyone.  It’s impossible to enjoy, there is only enduring.  But overall, the film does exactly what it’s designed to do in a compelling way.

VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Have you seen this movie? Rate it!
Rating: 1.0/5 (1 vote cast)

The Social Network

Mark Zuckerberg is the youngest billionaire in the world.  How did he do it?  Well, I think we all know full well what he did as most of you probably have your Facebook profile open as you read this.  The mere introduction of social networking changed the way people live their lives and communicate, in much the same way that the internet and e-mail changed communication in their fruition.

Today, hundreds of millions of lives are paraded to users and viewers of social networking sites, and Facebook stands out among crop.  I can remember the early days of MySpace until it became old news once Facebook hit the web.  When I joined Facebook, it was university-based, meant exclusively for college students.  Not long after, the site was opened up to high schools, and ultimately to anyone.  Now it has become a staple in society that anyone and their grandmother uses.

It is safe to say that Mark Zuckerberg has forever changed the world and our way of communication.  That is no small feat for a man in his 20s.  And while his story may be profound, I had my doubts that a feature film portraying his rise to success would be anything but a dull seminar of comuter mumbo-jumbo.  Even when the established director David Fincher came on board to helm the project, it is clear this makes for a striking departure from his previous thrillers Zodiac, Seven, and Fight Club.  How could the story of a young web page designer translate into an exciting drama?

Bringing in writer Aaron Sorkin changed things.  Responsible for A Few Good Men and Charlie Wilson’s War, Sorkin has a knack for biting, intelligent dialogue.  The Social Network survives because of two main ingredients: the fact that the subject couldn’t be more than timely, and the fact that Sorkin’s writing is nothing short of stunning.  Many viewers may be quick to dismiss this as what I feared it to be: a lot of techy computer babble.  The dialogue is so fresh, however, and so perfectly tuned that I became drawn to these actors simply speaking intelligently (which is rare for a Hollywood film these days, especially involving youth).  The characters, while most of them not likable (including Zuckerberg’s character), are sizzling without our approval.  Even when the script veers into instances of detailing uploading, downloading, hacking, lines of computer code, formulas, and so much more I wouldn’t even begin to comprehend, Sorkin doesn’t try to bring his audience to school.  He brings us into the lives of these characters, and David Fincher utilizes the talents of his actors to present the creation of a website as profound and impacting.

Jesse Eisenberg (Zombieland) plays the socially awkward Harvard student, Mark Zuckerberg.  Desperate for acceptance of his peers, he has trouble channeling his colliding intelligence and self-consciousness when in conversation.  This keeps him from enjoying intimate relationships (as evidenced in the film’s opening scene) and invisible to exclusive school clubs.  Even when his best friend, Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield), spends countless hours trying to get into these clubs through his own embarrassment, Mark mocks him out of jealousy.  The ‘day of Mark’ eventually arrives, as three Harvard club members, including the Winkelvoss brothers (Armie Hammer) “built of brawn” (as Ron Burgandy would say), recruit Zuckerberg to design a unique home page exclusive to Havard students.  Whether or not Mark’s creation would be an act of defiance and resentment against these club members remains a gray area, but eventually over many sleepless nights the design of “the facebook” comes to light with the help of Eduardo and his checkbook.  Ignoring the Winklevoss phone calls and e-mails, Zuckerberg launches the site and it becomes an instant hit with unseen potential.  Eduardo wants to find advertisers, but Mark wants to keep it clean and think bigger.  Enter former Napster co-founder Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake) to tempt Mark into eating the forbidden fruit and turn Facebook into the hottest thing the world has seen, while leaving Eduardo in the dust.  According to Parker: “A million dollars isn’t cool. You know what’s cool? A billion dollars.”

These events ultimately lead Mark to a double lawsuit, one led by the Winklevoss brothers claiming Mark stole and capitalized on their idea.  The other lawsuit comes from Mark’s own best friend, Eduardo, seeking a pricey settlement after being sabotaged out of his original shares.  The movie cuts between deposition proceedings with this back story that leads up to Mark being the richest 24-year-old on the planet.  The material is handled extremely well as written by Sorkin.  He will be budding heads with the Nolan brothers for screenplay of the year.

Fincher applies a deft visual aid to Sorkin’s words.  The movie is gorgeously shot and continually exciting.  His four leads in Eisenberg, Garfield, Timberlake and Hammer deliver very distinct and engaging performances.  Eisenberg has sort of become the alternate-Michael Cera, but with the Zuckerberg role he has a chance to one-up his usual socially-awkward characters and make Mark a total jerk whose desires for friendship and status ultimately cost him the one friend he has.  Garfield is the heart of the film as the unknowing financial key to Mark’s early success in designing Facebook.  His performance details a sympathetic soul looking to share in the success he and his best friend collaborated on only to lose out to a fierce competitor: Mark’s jealousy and envy.  By the time Timberlake arrives, he gets to portray one of those juicy playboy roles that all actors dream of.  He’s like the Mark Wahlberg of The Departed, only Timberlake doesn’t need a running sarcastic mouth to be cool.  Each actor, big and small, complete this arresting movie.  However, as good as it is, it certainly isn’t for everyone.  If you haven’t been captured by the Facebook phenomenon, or have little interest in the digital landscape of society, then The Social Network may not seem like such a big deal.  Only once in a while does the film get lost in its information uploading.  That doesn’t keep it from being very good.  Is it the real story?  Is Mark Zuckerberg portrayed in a harsh light?  I really don’t know, but the lawsuits are real, and everyone has their side of a story.  Fincher and Sorkin attempt to capture multiple angles, and they do so quite successfully.  The Social Network is a writing and acting explosion of fine craftsmanship.

VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Have you seen this movie? Rate it!
Rating: 4.5/5 (2 votes cast)

Alien 3

Alien3The third entry in the Alien franchise has been the series’ whipping boy ever since its release in the early 1990s.  Whereas the fourth film, Alien Resurrection, is such an oddity it’s more of a redheaded stepchild than a true Alien movie, the third film walks a fine line between terror and action–the hallmarks of its two predecessors–and though it ultimately succeeds at neither one, it is a compelling film and certainly worth watching.  Much has already been written about how the movie more or less betrayed fans by eliminating Hicks, Newt, and for all intents and purposes, Bishop, the main characters from Aliens, and re-imagining the action heroine Ripley as a brooding emo girl.  Add to that the film’s notoriously problematic production (including a walkout by first-time director David Fincher near the end of the shoot) and one could easily dismiss this as a throwaway sequel far better suited for the $5 Wal-Mart DVD Bargin Bin than on the shelf of any true science fiction fan.  However, despite these shortcomings I have found Alien3 to be far better than most people give it credit for.  Is it a worthy sequel to Aliens?  Not exactly.  But it is a good film, and worth a second look for those who have not seen it in a while or dismissed it altogether.

Where Alien set a new benchmark for realism in science fiction films, as well as a reinvention of monster movies that continues to influence filmmakers today, and Aliens set the gold standard for action films that has yet to be topped (save perhaps by the the director himself with Terminator 2), Alien3 excels at nothing in particular and introduces nothing really new into the franchise.  But in place of groundbreaking filmmaking, David Fincher brought incredibly deep thematic elements into the mix for the first time ever.  Essentially starting with a clean slate on a dirty planet, Fincher uses the Alien mythology as a backdrop from which to examine heavy themes of life and death, spirituality and salvation, and a look into human nature that bears a striking similarity to Golding’s “Lord of the Flies.”

Alien3 Ripley

Sigourney Weaver reprises her genre-busting role as Ellen Ripley sans perm.

As the movie begins, Ripley’s escape pod from Aliens has crash-landed on Fiorina “Fury” 161, a prison planet run by the infamous Weyland-Yutani corporation from the first two movies.  The planet is all but forsaken, and only a handful of men are still around to “keep the pilot light on.”   These men, we are told, are all convicted murders, rapists, and generally nasty human beings who are kept in check by the ill-tempered warden Andrews (Brian Glover) and a spiritual guru-of-sorts named Dillon (Charles S. Dutton).  In essence we see humanity at its worst:  criminals devoid of any contact with the outside world, struggling to maintain a sense of order and decency lest they slip into anarchy.  They have all taken vows to maintain a sort of peace and order in the prison, and despite the lack of a true disciplinary force, they all realize the consequences should they get out of line.  Venerable actor Charles Dance is along for the ride as Clemens, a medical officer who has made some very costly mistakes years ago that continue to haunt him.  It’s a motley crew to be sure, and a rich tapestry from which to present a tale about morality and humanity.

During the opening moments we see an image of a cross silhouetted against the setting sun as debris and junk rolls across the landscape surrounding the prison–a harbinger of the thematic elements that will be explored in the film.  Dillon’s pastoral leadership of the prisoners, from his refusal to let them break the Third Commandment to his moving spiritual eulogy during the cremation of Ripley’s fallen comrades, is a stark contrast to the gun-toting reluctant leader Ripley was in the second film.  (In fact, the entire cremation/birth scene has some serious parallels to Coppola’s masterful baptism scene in The Godfather.) Dillon in essence shepherds the prisoners–a task warden Andrews, not one to upset the order or cause ripples in the water, is all to happy to have him do.  But how does one deal with a metaphysical God and satan when a very real monster is literally killing off inmates one by one?  The idea of rebirth, both spiritual and physical, is also very prominent in Alien3.  It is only through the death of a host that the alien can live, but the prisoners on Fury 161, all serving life sentences, are essentially dead anyway and it is only through death at the hands of the alien that they are set free from this mortal coil.  Ripley, with an alien queen implanted inside her, must decide whether the good of the one outweighs the good of the many, and is in fact the only human on the planet that the alien will not kill.  Elements of David Fincher’s classic directorial style are present in abundance:  a notoriously dark color palette, a cast of tragically flawed characters, and an ending that could hardly be classified as happy (not quite as bleak as the ending of Se7en, but close).  A typical action/horror film this is most certainly not.  And while Fincher lays it on pretty thick, at least there is a message and a subtext here, unlike many action blockbusters.

Alien3 Dillon

Dillon, the spiritual leader of the gang of prisoners.

But for all these high marks, there are serious flaws in Alien3 that are hard to overlook.  There are only a couple characters who are even close to relatable, and I must admit that in all my times of re-watching the movie I never felt a true emotional connection with anyone in it.  In any survival movie there must be someone whom we want to survive, but virtually everyone in Alien3 (including Ripley, unfortunately) is so unsympathetic that watching the film is akin to reading a report filled with bullet points about the tragedies that ensue when letting killer aliens run amok on a bleak prison planet.  It’s a tough bit of oil to swallow, to be sure, especially after the brilliant Ripley/Newt relationship from Aliens.  The prisoners are almost indistinguishable from one another, and possess nothing in the way of distinct personalities–a transgression that is compounded by the fact that they all look virtually identical thanks to their tattered brown clothes and shaved heads.  And as if to salt the wound, Fincher’s alien looks like a sock puppet compared to James Cameron’s ultra-realistic living, breathing xenomorphs in Aliens (with one notable exception).

For those who dismissed the film years ago, I urge you to give it another shot–you might find yourself pleasantly surprised.  For those who never saw it, by all means give it a rental.  While not exactly a worthy successor in the franchise, there is far more to this film than people often give it credit for.


VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Have you seen this movie? Rate it!
Rating: 3.3/5 (3 votes cast)