Thursday, February 27, 2014

House of Cards

I finished season 2 of the Netflix series House of Cards last night and I feel confident in saying that it's one of the best shows on "TV". Where they go from here I can only imagine, and we'll have to wait another year or more before season 3 premieres, but House of Cards is undeniably going to go down as a landmark show in entertainment history, and a creative solidifier for Netflix as a rival to HBO as the go to place for adult TV.

Adapted from both the British novel and BBC series House of Cards, the US version is the first production from Netflix (the previously streamed show Lillyhammer was produced independently and only distributed by the company) and they got heavy hitters like David Fincher, Kevin Spacey, Oscar-winning writer Eric Roth behind the scenes, with Spacey taking on the lead role in front of the camera, and playwright and screenwriter Beau Willimon as show runner. Netflix's research showed that the previous format of "Appointment TV", wherein each episode of a show created talking points for people to gather around the water cooler to discuss while they waited for next week's episode, was not necessarily what people actually wanted. Viewing trends showed that people liked spending an entire weekend watching a season of Breaking Bad or Lost or even comedies like 30 Rock or How I Met Your Mother. Netflix decided their model would be to release an entire seasons worth of episodes on the same day. So on February 1st 2013, season 1 appeared to great acclaim and viewership. On February 14th 2014, season 2 "premiered" to the same. Research even showed that more than 600,000 people binge watched the entire second season over Valentine's Day weekend.

Spacey's role as Congressman Frank Underwood is the role of a lifetime for him. Underwood is pragmatic, cold, and calculating, but with a southern boy's charm and snake oil salesmanship. Spacey's tendency to seem arrogant or smug fits perfectly the role and he's better in it than he's been in anything before. As his equally (or maybe even more) cold wife Claire, Robin Wright has not a speck of Princess Buttercup in her anymore. Frank says in the first episode "I love that woman. I love her more than sharks love blood" and I think the choice of comparison is telling with these characters. He didn't say "more than kids love candy" or "plants love sunshine". Along the way of the two seasons we also get a cavalcade of great characters ranging from Kate Mara's nosy and ethically bendable reporter Zoe Barnes, to Corey Stoll's recovering alcoholic Congressman Peter Russo, lobbyist and former Frank Underwood employee Remy Danton played to perfection by Mahershala Ali, Michael Kelly as Underwood chief of staff Doug Stamper, and a wonderful Gerald McRaney as billionaire businessman Raymond Tusk, with whom Frank has a developingly antagonistic relationship (as tends to be a theme with Frank).

Every actor is terrific in their role, and the writing is wonderfully character based. Oftentimes, plots that would've been made into huge stories in other shows are glossed over here for how they affect relationships and the characters themselves. For example, in season 2 Molly Parker's Army veteran Congresswoman Jackie Sharp is being groomed by Frank to take over his spot as House Majority Whip after Frank got a new position at the end of S1. Frank is confident he can get her confirmed in congress, while she isn't as sure. Instead of a season long or even multi-episode long arc where we see them fight to get Jackie the position, the show simply cuts during an episode onto Capitol Hill where we see outside an office door "Office of House Majority Whip Jacqueline Sharp", because the show is more interested in what that title and power means to her in her life and in her relationship to Frank than it is in giving us a storyline of "will she be confirmed or won't she" and padding out the runtime or episode count of the season.
And that's how I think the show can survive beyond the two seasons that were initially planned (season 3 was recently confirmed, and then delayed while awaiting tax breaks from the state of Maryland) because it's not about the plot, it's about the people. Each character has their own motivations and quirks, which affects how they handle other characters and their motivations. The characters don't all talk the same, I found myself really enjoying the more flowery language given to Spacey, and the actors help them all feel like real people. It's a terrific show on every level, but I'd caution people that it may take two or three episodes to get hooked. They had the two seasons entirely mapped out and ordered from the studio, so they didn't have to worry about grabbing you in the first episode to make sure you come back next week. It was after the second episode for me that I found myself hooked. Now I'm kinda pissed I have to wait until next February or after (depending on how far back the production delay sets them) to see these people again.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

The Perks of Being a Wallflower

I love this genre of movies, the coming-of-age or the summer/year/vacation/whatever that changed your life. A few months ago I caught up to The Way Way Back, which was terrific and immediately went on my list of favorites of the genre. Now I've caught up to this movie and it goes right alongside as a favorite too.

Charlie is an incoming freshman at a Pittsburgh, PA high school. Shy, awkward, and with a history of mental illness. Charlie finds it hard to make friends. English teacher Mr. Anderson (an extremely warm and mentor-y Paul Rudd) asks questions to the class with no response, but sees Charlie writing down the answers in his notebook, even as he steadfastly refuses to draw attention to himself by raising his hand. Mr. Anderson, instead of pushing the kid to speak up, instead takes him under his wing by giving Charlie all the books that will change his life. Charlie also begins to grow when he has just enough courage to reach out to befriend Patrick, and thereby introducing himself to the beautiful Sam, Patrick's step-sister and the rest of their motley crew of friends. Or, as Sam tells Charlie when they're at their first party "Welcome to the island of misfit toys."

Emma Watson is luminous as Sam, I didn't question the accent for a minute, and although she's pretty, she's not too pretty to believe the character as being a real high school kid. Ezra Miller is tremendous as Patrick, being conflicted and extroverted and (as the movie states) trying to numb himself from all the pain he's feeling. And Logan Lerman, who I don't think I'd seen in anything before, was really good as Charlie, our "crazy" hero. They felt like real friends on the screen and it was a great feeling to watch.

I was surprised by how cinematic I thought it was, since it was directed by the novel's author, Stephen Chbosky, but it made more sense when I found out he'd gone to film school and graduated as a screenwriter before his career as a writer in print. The book is apparently told through a series of letters from Charlie to an unknown person, and I liked the way Chbosky adapted that to the screen, using that device as a narration to let us into Charlie's head.

A wonderful movie all around and one that I'm sure I'll watch again soon.

Are 'J' names the most manly or powerful?

I ask because it's always bothered me that John and Jack are the most common character names for the heroes in action movies. But then I started noticing other J's and it made me wonder the title question. For example, not all are action movies, but I still think it qualifies:

Arnold Schwarzenegger has played these characters:

John Matrix (Commando)
Julius Benedict (Twins)
John Kimble (Kindergarten Cop)
Jack Slater (Last Action Hero)
John Kruger (Eraser)
Jericho Cane (End of Days)
John 'Breacher' Wharton (Sabotage)

Stallone has played:

John Rambo (the 4 Rambo movies)
Sgt. Joe Bomowski (Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot)
John Spartan (Demolition Man)
Judge Joseph Dredd (Judge Dredd)
Jack Carter (Get Carter)
Joe Tanto (Driven)
Jake Malloy (D-Tox)
James Bonomo (Bullet to the Head)

Bruce Willis:

John McClane (Die Hard series)
Joe Hallenbeck (The Last Boy Scout)
James Cole (12 Monkeys)
John Smith (Last Man Standing)
Jimmy "The Tulip" Tudeski (The Whole Nine/Ten Yards)
Joe Blake (Bandits)
Jeff Talley (Hostage)
John Hartigan (Sin City)
Jack Mosley (16 Blocks)
Jimmy Monroe (Cop Out)
Jack Biggs (Set Up)
Joe (Looper)

Clint Eastwood:

Jed Cooper (Hang Em High)
John McBurney (The Beguiled)
Joe Kidd (Joe Kidd)
John 'Thunderbolt' Doherty (Thunderbolt and Lightfoot)
Jonathan Hemlock (The Eiger Sanction)
Josey Wales (The Outlaw Josey Wales)
John Wilson (White Hunter Black Heart)

Harrison Ford:

John Book (Witness)
Jack Trainer (Working Girl)
President James Marshall (Air Force One)
Joe Gavilan (Hollywood Homicide)
Jack Stanfield (Firewall)
Jack Goddard (Paranoia)

Tom Cruise:

Joel Goodson (Risky Business)
Jack (Legend)
Joseph Donnelly (Far and Away)
Jerry Maguire (Jerry Maguire)
John Anderton (Minority Report)
Senator Jasper Irving (Lions for Lambs)
Jack Reacher (Jack Reacher)
Jack Harper (Oblivion)

Keanu Reeves:

Jonathan Harker (Dracula)
Jack Traven (Speed)
Johnny (Johnny Mnemonic)
Dr. Julian Mercer (Something's Gotta Give)
John Constantine (Constantine)

So those are some of the big action stars, but then there's the many J characters played by Wesley Snipes, Mel Gibson, Chuck Norris, Steven Seagal, and others.

The actual names for action stars Jackie Chan, Jet Li, Jean-Claude Van Damme, and Jason Statham.

And of course the most famous characters of Jack Ryan, James T. Kirk, James Bond and Jason Bourne.

Why is J the most powerful and apparently common letter to start a name with?