House of Cards (2013 -)

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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%

Broken City (2013)

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Directed by: Allen Hughes
Written by: Brian Tucker
Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Russell Crowe, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Jeffrey Wright, Barry Pepper, Alona Tal, Natalie Martinez, Michael Beach, Kyle Chandler, James Ransone and Griffin Dunne

Lisa Kennedy of the Denver Post summed it up perfectly when she called this movie, about an ex-cop turned private eye who finds himself in the middle of a political face-off, “deeply mediocre”.

She’s right, it’s not that Broken City is bad because it’s executed well and the cast is enough to keep it moving; but the story is unoriginal and vague; the characters are, to a man, underdeveloped; and the action is lacking.  Had certain scenes been drawn out and others been cut altogether this might have been a decent movie.

What I liked:  Mark Wahlberg is convincing as his staple salt of the earth action hero.  Russell Crowe is credible as the elusive mayor but, again, Hughes failed to get the most out of his all-star cast.  Overall, there isn’t much to recommend this movie other than that it’s watchable.   Props to Alona Tal (who plays Wahlberg’s dedicated assistant) for bringing some form of a connection and levity to the movie and Barry Pepper for adding a little complexity to his character.

What I didn’t like:  There is absolutely zero depth to the story and its characters, and while I could watch and be entertained by it, I ultimately walked away from it with a “meh”.  Hughes relies too much on the celebrity of his cast and does little to evoke any real emotion out of them.  A little more attention to character and detail might have made for a powerful character drama.

My rating:  Mindless entertainment at its most banal.

IMDB: 6.2

Rotten Tomatoes:  26%

Lincoln (2012)

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Directed by: Steven Spielberg
Written by: Tony Kushner (screenplay), Doris Kearns Goodwin (book)
Starring: Daniel Day Lewis, Sally Field, David Strathairn, James Spader, Hal Holbrook, Tommy Lee Jones,  Joseph Gordon-Levitt, John Hawkes, Jackie Earle Haley, Jared Harris, Joseph Cross, Tim Blake Nelson, Lee Pace and a host of others

Oscar Nominations:  Cinematography, Costume Design, Production Design, Original Score, Sound Mixing, Editing, Screenplay, Actor (Daniel Day-Lewis), Supporting Actor (Tommy Lee Jones), Supporting Actress (Sally Field), Directing and Picture.

The second movie I watched in the last 24hours is Lincoln, Steven Spielberg’s historical drama about the final months of Lincoln’s Presidency as the civil war rages and he attempts to unite the country and abolish slavery.   I would love to argue that the Academy went with the safe choice here, nominating it for twelve Oscars, more than any other film (Life of Pi is a close second with eleven), but I can’t.  I have yet to meet someone who hasn’t seen and enjoyed Lincoln.  It is a movie where the seasoned director and actor are at their best.

What I liked: Daniel Day-Lewis, from his voice to his walk to his gestures to his charm, is transformed.  No one in the actor category comes close to this performance and proves, yet again, that Day-Lewis may be the best actor of the last 15 years.  Like Zero Dark Thirty, the cast is teeming with recognizable faces but here, Spielberg’s (admittedly) first character drama offers each role a distinct personality and connection to the audience whether they are on screen for 2minutes or 2hours.  James Spader delivers as the only comic relief in the film.  The screenplay is excellent in presenting the complexity of both the politics and the characters, as are both the staging and tone of the movie.   The emotional weight of the story is felt throughout but Spielberg does well to play a light hand and add only subtle touches through editing and camerawork that remind of us of this moment’s historical impact.

What I didn’t like: Tommy Lee Jones is excellent, as always, but I have to wonder if he warrants a Best Supporting Actor nomination.  My feeling while watching the film was that this nod is more a sympathetic gesture towards what his character represents rather than his actual performance.  Sally Field is also commendable in her complexity but both, standing next to Daniel Day-Lewis, felt like performances.

My rating:  Likely Best Picture

IMDB: 7.7

Rotten Tomatoes: 89%

Argo (2012)

ImageDirected by: Ben Affleck
Written by: Chris Terrio
Starring: Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston, John Goodman, Alan Arkin, Victor Garber, Tate Donovan, Clea DuVall, Scoot McNairy, Rory Cochrane, Christopher Denham, Kerry Bishé, Kyle Chandler, Chris Messina, Zeljko Ivanek.

Nominations: Editing, Original Score, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing, Supporting Actor (Alan Arkin), Best Screenplay (based on previously produced material) and Best Picture.

Ben Affleck’s third feature is a solid political drama based on the 1980 CIA-Canadian mission to free six diplomatic escapees out of Revolutionary Iran by staging a fake film production.  The movie moves forward well and tells a good story with the help of strong performances, a little laughter and a suspense-driven final act.  I enjoyed it but would I rank it #201 on IMDB’s, now skewed, top #250 list? No.  That said, most people I know loved it.

What I liked:  The writing is excellent and Affleck does well to rely heavily on the plot as the story itself is the most interesting part of the movie.  Alan Arkin and John Goodman provide the comic relief and are a cut above the other performances.  The casting is near perfect and the 1980s feel of the movie works.  Finally, the movie moves smoothly forward because of the story and it gains momentum and crescendos into an excellent final act.  Had I left the movie early, I would be writing a different (and half-assed) review.

What I didn’t like:   Ben Affleck is commendable as the CIA Operative who takes responsibility for the lives of the six escapees but his performance felt too much like Affleck playing the hero and while I appreciated the sense of deep emotion beneath his impassive expression, perhaps there just wasn’t enough urgency until the final act to engage my attention completely.  That said, I tip my hat at his turn from Hollywood bad boy to serious filmmaker by letting the work speak for itself.  What I noticed most was the lack of true emotion or filmmaking creativity in the storytelling to make this film stand above the pack.

My rating:  I would give it my vote for best screenplay.

IMDB: 8.1

Rotten Tomatoes: 96%