Veep (2012 – )


Created by: Armando Iannucci
Starring: Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Anna Chlumsky, Sufe Bradshaw, Tony Hale, Reid Scott, Timothy Simons, Matt Walsh, Kevin Dunn and Gary Cole

Leave it to Armando Iannucci, the man behind the critically acclaimed BBC series The Thick of It, to add some genuine humour to the traditional American sitcom without having to copy the popular mockumentary style that has almost become a prerequisite for success (not that there’s anything wrong with that; three of my favourite comedies follow the style, if not more).  Veep is a 30 min look into the office of the first female, yet innocuous, American Vice President, Selina Meyer, played with characteristic hilarity by Julia Louis-Dreyfus and her fumbling support staff.

What I like: While most critics panned the show’s first season with reason, almost anything Julia Louis-Dreyfus does makes me laugh.  From Elaine, to Christine (in a much underrated and under watched series) and now Selina Meyer, Louis-Dreyfus manages to continually transform herself to suit her characters, an almost impossible feat for sitcom actors.   The show also brings back a loveable face in Tony Hale, of Arrested Development fame, as Meyer’s “bag man” whose character is pleasantly reminiscent of Buster Bluth.  The supporting cast is stacked with eccentric and funny characters who are constantly trying to avoid image catastrophes.  It is a winning combination.

What I don’t like:  Only through my research did I realize that what made Armando’s The Thick of It, so popular was his flagrant use of profanity that, as one critic put it, turned “swearing into poetry”.  He does the same thing here but with a lesser payoff.  The f word often substitutes for, or unnecessarily overpowers, a punch line.  Perhaps the swearing is supposed to add something to a show that fits cleanly within its genre but it does not distract us from the fact that each episode follows a formula of stock characters finding themselves in compromising situations.  However, with the White House as the backdrop the stakes are higher and funnier for each blunder, like a press release photo of a hostage recovery operation that features Meyer distracted by her phone because all the other publishable options were unflattering to the President.

My rating:   Julia raises the bar, yet again.

IMDb : 7.1         metacritic: 72%

Airs: Sundays on HBO.  Season 2 returns June 2.


House of Cards (2013 -)


Created by: Beau Willimon,  adapted from the BBC series of the same name that was based on the novel by Michael Dobbs.

Starring: Kevin Spacey, Robin Wright, Kate Mara, Kristen Connolly, Michael Kelly, Corey Stoll, Sakina Jaffrey, Larry Pine, Nathan Darrow, Sandrine Holt, Constance Zimmer, Michael Gill and many more.

I should have known this series about Francis Underwood, the Majority Whip who vengefully manipulates his way up the White House ladder, was based on a) a book and b) a BBC series.  This is not your average American Political Drama.  It has the literary feel of the BBC with exceptional character development, the mood of a David Fincher movie (who directed the first two episodes) and the intrigue of a well thought out crime novel.

What I like:  The series deftly presents itself as a modern tragedy.  There is a dark, eerie feel to the setting that mirrors the action.  The dialogue is poignant without being verbose and the characters are ambitious to a man but with humour and complexity.  Kevin Spacey relishes his role as the puppet master and he should, because our eyes follow him in anticipation of his next aside.  Robin Wright masks her ambitions and fears with masterful stoicism.  All told, the show is excellently executed.

What I don’t like:  House of Cards is too smart to rely on cliff-hangers to engage audiences  and it unfolds slowly to develop each plot or character with precision.  However, it does prevent me from watching the next episode immediately.  I have no trouble taking time off between episodes, something I couldn’t do with Damages though the characters on that show had less redeeming qualities.  Also like Damages, there is really no character to root for, least of all the smug young journalist who might be intended to engage our sympathies but does not.  My lack of emotional investment might also explain why I only watch one episode at a time, despite the fact that Netflix made the entire first season available in one shot.

My rating: Not sure how it can get better but I have a feeling it will.

Airs:  Season One is available on Netflix.

IMDB: 8.9

Metacritic: 76%

The Place Beyond the Pines (2013)


Directed by: Derek Cianfrance
Written by: Derek Cianfrance, Ben Coccio, Darius Marder
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Eva Mendes, Bradley Cooper, Ben Mendelsohn, Mahershala Ali, Rose Byrne, Gabe Fazio, Bruce Greenwood, Ray Liotta, Emory Cohen and Dane DeHaan

Is Ryan Gosling as good as we think he is or does he just manage to get his hands on the best scripts?  Yet again, the young star hits it out of the park. Derek Cianfrance’s second feature tells a meandering story about the devastating impact of a motorcycle stuntman’s decision to rob banks in order to provide for his young son.  The story studies four main characters over two generations and while at times I had to reorient myself, once I found my bearings I was engrossed.

What I liked: There is something truly magical about these characters.  What makes this movie memorable is the choices the characters make and while we may not always understand these choices, we do understand what motivates them, which is not only engaging but poetic, if disturbing.   What I find so exceptional about Gosling’s performance is the depth of character he continues to bring to each new role, and there have been many in the last couple of years.  It is astounding how he manages to create a unique sense of character in every project he undertakes.   Finally, Cianfrance’s plot is riveting because it surprises.  It is refreshing to find a movie that deviates from expectations without disappointing its audience and I commend his effort for the movie’s realism, power and causality.

What I didn’t like:  Unlike Cianfrance’s last film, “Blue Valentine,” whose scope was narrowed to one day in the life of two people, “The Place Beyond the Pines” feels like such a panoramic view that my emotional connection to the characters was somewhat diluted.  I feel this is the fault of the movie’s broad strokes, more so than the performances, because my eyes were glued to character after character wondering what each would do next.  While others have commended the transitions from one story line to the next, I felt the transitions quite jarring and I sometimes felt I was watching three movies in one.  However, as I mentioned above, once I reoriented myself, I was wholly engaged.

My rating: Cianfrance is an auteur.

IMDB: 7.7

Rotten Tomatoes: 81%

The Big Wedding (2013)


Directed by: Justin Zackham
Written by: Justin Zackham, Jean-Stéphane Bron (motion picture “Mon frère se marie”)
Starring: Robert de Niro, Susan Sarandon, Diane Keaton, Topher Grace, Katherine Heigl, Robin Williams, Amanda Seyfried, Ben Barnes

You know a movie isn’t very good when critics use ‘all star cast’ as a euphemism for no plot.  At least that’s what I discovered when I tried to find something to say about this romantic wedding comedy.  Other than the famous faces that populate it, there is absolutely nothing memorable or forgivable about this 89 minute cliche.  The worst part is that they tried to modernize a tired genre that desperately needs reinventing but forgot to update the dialogue and punch lines at the same time.

What I liked: The location is beautiful.  I wouldn’t mind getting married at the lakeside property where it was shot.  Robin Williams was sort of funny.  Topher Grace delivered a couple of funny lines.  I’m curious to know if the original French version had the same punch lines that just didn’t translate well or if Hollywood butchered what could have been a fun romp.

What I didn’t like: Everything.  From the forced story, the clichéd dialogue and expected crises, to the undedicated cast, the sloppy editing and the laboured jokes. I groaned at every new scene and rubbed my forehead with each punch line.  However, in fairness to Zackham, he clearly targeted and reached a certain audience because my theatre was roaring with laughter and I just didn’t get it.  Maybe I’m too young to appreciate the trite sex jokes delivered by Sarandon, de Niro and Keaton and felt they were too old, or respected, to be convincing.  My feeling throughout was that Zackham must cringe when he watches this film.

My rating: I wish I could unsee every minute of it.

IMDB: 5.1

Rotten Tomatoes: 8% (Yup. That’s an 8. Top critics gave it a 4%)