Friday, February 8, 2013

A David Fincher production: HOUSE OF CARDS

The whole innovation with putting the whole 13 episode season at once is almost an afterthought for me (I don't not see how amazing it is, just that I almost take it for granted, it's put together more like a 13 hour movie, ala Berlin Alexanderplatz or something). What astounds me so, one of the great first seasons of any show, is how much thought and effort were put into making this such a complex, brutal, extremely-darkly comedic and sometimes downright horrifying experience. 

Maybe it all comes down to the Frank Underwood character, Kevin Spacey's best role/performance since American Beauty (which says as much about his work here as it does his ups and downs since then). While it is an ensemble piece, and so much about it - Zoe Barnes, the gutsy, did-she-do-that reporter, Peter, the congressman who is a good soul but weak and stupid (maybe sympathetic to me though in the same way Anthony Weiner was - he could be fantastic, but his fuck-ups are tremendous), and Clair, Frank's wife, played with icy awesomeness by Robin Wright as a woman who *can* be nice and kind, or she can just completely be as ruthless as the worst boss you'd ever meet. 

But with Frank... oh man. It's like if you took the goodness of some of the West Wing characters (like Leo McGary, the John Spencer character), and just made it the flip of that. Suddenly we're in what is a David Fincher production - and his two first episodes show him sharp as ever with how to create a look that is his but darkly inviting - and there's the cold efficiency of a Social Network, or the tenacity (and always-enjoyable breaking-the-4th from our 'Narrator'), and yet its so dark you sometimes just have to cringe, like realizing Daniel Plainview is the tried and true "HERO" of There Will be Blood.

If it's like anything I could compare it to it's like the Godfather in the political realm - what will someone do to get to the top? Competitors have to be knocked out, of course, and you have to be a step ahead or even more ruthless than what comes around the corner. And having a second in command - a Tom Hagen in Doug Stamper to Underwood's Corleone - always helps, never hurts... or does it?

I can't rave enough about the show. And while I don't know what the future will bring - a second season is confirmed but a third, well, Netflix will just have to decide that for themselves with their mysterious algorithms (just saying that makes me think of the Social Network again, but nevermind). It's smart entertainment for, yeah, smart people. It thrills, but it doesn't stop to fly by character bits. You want to maybe hate a character like Frank Underwood, his evil is so present. And yet he's such a strong character - a fiery politician who measures nearly every word (well, 'nearly', unless debated on CNN, a very funny set piece in one of the episodes that is maybe all too realistic in today's politics when one has to be on all the time) - that you can't help but root for him. At times. The three dimensions present in almost all the major players here should give other, lesser, TV writers a guilty conscience.

In short, I feel as if I have experience a full course meal, with desert from the Cheesecake Factory, in terms of showing what Washington is like, or at least a slightly heightened version of things (though, and I may be cynical, I doubt it's far off despite being an adaptation of a novel and British mini-series).  

And lastly, if Fincher's buddy Steven Soderbergh is retiring to focus on TV... I'm guessing this is the sort of thing that keeps him aching to tackle something similar.  GO FOR IT! 

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Auf Wiedersehen, Mr. Soderbergh

And now, on the occasion of the presumed 'stepping down' of Steven Soderbergh from direction feature films for cinematic release (I must make that distinction since, as he mentioned in a recent New York magazine interview he won't be going ALL away - painting, theater, TV is still in the equation)... a ranking from best to least:

(and no, still haven't seen Kafka, nor his series 'K Street' that obscurely aired briefly on HBO)

Really damn great:

King of the Hill (go see this one, seriously, it's so underrated)
The Informant! (ditto)
Traffic (though it used to be #1, now I notice its flaws but I don't care)
Side Effects

Really damn impressive, if not great (just shy of it):

Out of Sight
The Limey
Ocean's Eleven
The Underneath
sex, lies and Videotape

Really damn good, if not totally impressive:

The Girlfriend Experience
Ocean's Thirteen
Gray's Anatomy/And Everything is Going Fine
Magic Mike
Eros (short film)

Really flawed, but damn interesting shards (and specks of greatness):

Ocean's Twelve
The Good German
Full Frontal
Yes: 9012 (concert movie from the 80's - cheesy and VERY 80's, but some of their numbers are shot well)

Um... eh:

Erin Brockovich (sorry, just not a fan, couldn't get with Roberts' character)
Bubble (I see its points, but its the only of his films that just shut me out emotionally)

Sail on, sailor, and hope you decide to pay a visit to the medium.  And just remember, as ol' Ingmar Bergman once said, theater is the faithful wife, film the wild mistress.

Steven Soderbergh's SIDE EFFECTS

(no relation to the Woody Allen book of the same name)

Um... Spoilers? Seriously, don't read on if you haven't seen the movie. And if you haven't yet, don't even watch any trailers if you can help it. Also if you haven't seen it... what are you waiting for? The Tatum ain't got all day... 

What elevates Steven Soderbergh's latest (and last?) feature film, Side Effects, from being a very good, unusually watchable Lifetime movie of the weekend to being fantastic popular art and entertainment (though neither should be mutually exclusive, one of Soderbergh's true gifts as a storyteller), is the inventive, always purposeful camerawork, the outstanding acting, and that Soderbergh himself takes this story fully seriously, so that we might as well. I didn't even fully realize it was a thriller until about 
halfway in when it became, for a short while, like a Law & Order procedural. In a way it's that, and it's still a "Lifetime" movie to give it that degradation, with this story of a woman who murders her husband as she was sleepwalking.... Or was she? Dun-dun-dun.... 

But I was always invested in the characters, and it's such a nasty lot of them that even the nicest one (Law) does some questionable things. By the end, I knew I was in the hands of a master once again... who, strangely, leaves this as his "final" film in cinema release. And the 'statement' of the film if there is on - big pharmaceuticals creating drugs that can possibly harm us quite a lot isn't obfuscated entirely either, at least to me - it's just that he and writer Scott Burns handle it with the care of genre filmmakers, so in a sense the material is heightened (such as slavery as the backdrop of a bloody western in Django Unchained). This doesn't need the clinical-procedural treatment of a Contagion

It needs to have a little pulp and a bunch of melodrama, and Rooney Mara giving it her fucking all, which she does, and Jude Law as the 'straight man' in this comedy of horrors. Even Catherine Zeta-Jones, who we haven't seen in a while all too sadly, gives it her all with a very cunning character, someone who keeps her cards perhaps too close to the chest. Perhaps there could have been more with her character, yes. Perhaps the 'twists' that come in the last like fifteen minutes are too good to be true. But you know what? Who cares if you're sucked into a world as dramatically rich as this one. 

In its own way this is a fine culmination of Soderbergh's sort of "genre" period he's been doing with Contagion, Haywire and Magic Mike - films that have style and flair, but you notice it in the little touches in camera movements, placement that may seem 'off' or colors that go askew, and just strong characters in the midst of heightened drama. With this director, in this desensitized cinematic landscape, I wouldn't want it any other way. 

...And if I can be a auteurist dickhead for a moment, little observation: Stevie started with video (Spader videotaping a vulnerable Andie McDowell) and ends with Law taping a vulnerable Mara.... OR IS SHE?!!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!??!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!??!?!?!?!?!?!?? to infinity !?!??!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!