Skip to main content

We don’t submit to terror. We make the terror.

House of Cards
Season Four

(SPOILERS) Well, it’s a massive step up from the middling third season, mostly hitting its targets in making Claire (Robin Wright) as steely and reptilian as President Frank (Kevin Spacey). As such, Season Four of House of Cards is somewhat superior in the first half, when the Underwoods are at sabotaging loggerheads with each other, rather than the resumption of the new united front in opposition of Republican, selfie-obsessed pretty boy Will Conway (Joel Kinnaman) in the second. It’s a particularly nice touch to have her stare into the camera in the final shot too.


Mostly this show is as politically disconnected a fantasy as The West Wing, merely replacing altruistic motives with Machiavellian ones. Frank and Claire have no one calling their shots, perpetuating the notion of an Oval Office that actually issues edicts and exerts control. But there are occasional neat touches along the way.


If Conway’s strangely garbled Google-esque search engine election-rigging formula never really convinces as anything that would work (which is probably why the writers are so vague about what exactly Pollyhop can do and how it keeps him ahead), and Frank’s countermeasures CIA surveillance is a crude grab at invoking Snowden topicality without really being remotely relevant, and ICO is just the latest forlorn attempt at making capital from a fictionalised War on Terror, at least the final curtain, as the President, backed into a corner, goes to war as the only way out, is appropriately, ruthlessly cynical (“We don’t submit to terror. We make the terror”). The only problem is that, for every time the makers come up with something neat, they miss something even better. I fooled myself for about 10 minutes into thinking the hostage abduction might be a false flag designed to gain capital as part of a ruse to undermine Conway, but it was just more sub-Homeland terrorists-on-home-turf nonsense.


The Frank and Claire Show, with her running for VP (the kind of unlikely conceit that actually just might work, given public appetites for gloss over substance, but just as likely really wouldn’t – you’d have to completely love them as a celebrity couple to get public onside) looks more and more like a parallel with the Clintons, with all the skeletons attempting to break open the closet doors. Against that, her relationship with Tom Yates (Paul Sparks) is a little laboured, and the kind of thing, in its extended form as the US show is, that reminds you this kind of material works so much better as a finite, focussed satire; that they’re wrapping it up after five seasons is probably as much about Spacey wanting to do other things as getting out while the going is good and there are still a few storylines left to plot.


The assassination attempt on Frank made for good dramatic capital for a few episodes, even if I never really bought into Lucas (Sebastian Arcelus) being brought to the brink, and the whole deathbed hallucinations thing was dreadfully overplayed. Which lead into the Big Bad of the season, and, while his arsenal of hooks isn’t terribly convincing, Kinnaman really delivers as Conway; it’s one of the best roles he’s had, in fact.


But, while House of Cards manages to be more-ish in a manner a number of Netflix shows just plain aren’t (the Marvel run, and I’ve mentioned I’m really struggling to summon enthusiasm for Bloodline Season Two), and it’s nice that it leaves characters for a while and then returns to them, there is a sense that rather than a shrewdly devised and calculated schematic for a show that wants to be as elegant and poised as this one, it’s actually going around in a lot of circles (Boris McGiver’s Tom Hammerschmidt picking up the investigation into Frank again), often spinning its wheels and patching up holes rather than ploughing ahead with intent. What I’d have liked more of is the unlikely, and the idiosyncratic, like the Damian Young’s offbeat NSA data scientist listening to rap on his headphones as he fucks people’s lives up.


The show has definitely proved it works best when making the Underwoods devilish equals, be that as opposing forces or working symbiotically, showing off both sides at various stages of the season. So, however the final chapter goes, and possibly nervously so without Beau Beaumont running things anymore, it needs to keep that in focus.


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Life is like a box of timelines. You feel me?

Russian Doll Season One
(SPOILERS) It feels like loading the dice to proclaim something necessarily better because it’s female-driven, but that’s the tack The Hollywood Reporter took with its effusive review of Russian Doll, suggesting “although Nadia goes on a similar journey of self-discovery to Bill Murray’s hackneyed reporter in Groundhog Day, the fact that the show was created, written by and stars women means that it offers up a different, less exploitative and far more thoughtful angle” (than the predominately male-centric entries in the sub-genre). Which rather sounds like Rosie Knight changing the facts to fit her argument. And ironic, given star Natasha Lyonne has gone out of her way to stress the show’s inclusive message. Russian Dollis good, but the suggestion that “unlike its predecessors (it) provides a thoughtfulness, authenticity and honesty which makes it inevitable end (sic) all the more powerful” is cobblers.

We’re not owners here, Karen. We’re just passing through.

Out of Africa (1985)
I did not warm to Out of Africa on my initial viewing, which would probably have been a few years after its theatrical release. It was exactly as the publicity warned, said my cynical side; a shallow-yet-bloated, awards-baiting epic romance. This was little more than a well-dressed period chick flick, the allure of which was easily explained by its lovingly photographed exotic vistas and Robert Redford rehearsing a soothing Timotei advert on Meryl Streep’s distressed locks. That it took Best Picture only seemed like confirmation of it as all-surface and no substance. So, on revisiting the film, I was curious to see if my tastes had “matured” or if it deserved that dismissal. 

Mountains are old, but they're still green.

Roma (2018)
(SPOILERS) Roma is a critics' darling and a shoe-in for Best Foreign Film Oscar, with the potential to take the big prize to boot, but it left me profoundly indifferent, its elusive majesty remaining determinedly out of reach. Perhaps that's down to generally spurning autobiographical nostalgia fests – complete with 65mm widescreen black and white, so it's quite clear to viewers that the director’s childhood reverie equates to the classics of old – or maybe the elliptical characterisation just didn't grab me, but Alfonso Cuarón's latest amounts to little more than a sliver of substance beneath all that style.

Rejoice! The broken are the more evolved. Rejoice.

Split (2016)
(SPOILERS) M Night Shyamalan went from the toast of twist-based filmmaking to a one-trick pony to the object of abject ridicule in the space of only a couple of pictures: quite a feat. Along the way, I’ve managed to miss several of his pictures, including his last, The Visit, regarded as something of a re-locating of his footing in the low budget horror arena. Split continues that genre readjustment, another Blumhouse production, one that also manages to bridge the gap with the fare that made him famous. But it’s a thematically uneasy film, marrying shlock and serious subject matter in ways that don’t always quite gel.

Shyamalan has seized on a horror staple – nubile teenage girls in peril, prey to a psychotic antagonist – and, no doubt with the best intentions, attempted to warp it. But, in so doing, he has dragged in themes and threads from other, more meritable fare, with the consequence that, in the end, the conflicting positions rather subvert his attempts at subversion…

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

We’re looking for a bug no one’s seen before. Some kind of smart bug.

Starship Troopers (1997)
(SPOILERS) Paul Verhoeven’s sci-fi trio of Robocop, Total Recall and Starship Troopers are frequently claimed to be unrivalled in their genre, but it’s really only the first of them that entirely attains that rarefied level. Discussion and praise of Starship Troopers is generally prefaced by noting that great swathes of people – including critics and cast members – were too stupid to realise it was a satire. This is a bit of a Fight Club one, certainly for anyone from the UK (Verhoeven commented “The English got it though. I remember coming out of Heathrow and seeing the posters, which were great. They were just stupid lines about war from the movie. I thought, ‘Finally someone knows how to promote this.’”) who needed no kind of steer to recognise what the director was doing. And what he does, he does splendidly, even if, at times, I’m not sure he entirely sustains a 129-minute movie, since, while both camp and OTT, Starship Troopers is simultaneously required t…

Even after a stake was driven through its heart, there’s still interest.

Prediction 2019 Oscars
Shockingly, as in I’m usually much further behind, I’ve missed out on only one of this year’s Best Picture nominees– Vice isn’t yet my vice, it seems – in what is being suggested, with some justification, as a difficult year to call. That might make for must-see appeal, if anyone actually cared about the movies jostling for pole position. If it were between Black Panther and Bohemian Rhapsody (if they were even sufficiently up to snuff to deserve a nod in the first place), there might be a strange fascination, but Joe Public don’t care about Roma, underlined by it being on Netflix and stillconspicuously avoided by subscribers (if it were otherwise, they’d be crowing about viewing figures; it’s no Bird Box, that’s for sure).

Now we're all wanted by the CIA. Awesome.

Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (2015)
(SPOILERS) There’s a groundswell of opinion that Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation is the best in near 20-year movie franchise. I’m not sure I’d go quite that far, but only because this latest instalment and its two predecessors have maintained such a consistently high standard it’s difficult to pick between them. III featured a superior villain and an emotional through line with real stakes. Ghost Protocol dazzled with its giddily constructed set pieces and pacing. Christopher McQuarrie’s fifth entry has the virtue of a very solid script, one that expertly navigates the kind of twists and intrigue one expects from a spy franchise. It also shows off his talent as a director; McQuarrie’s not one for stylistic flourish, but he makes up for this with diligence and precision. Best of all, he may have delivered the series’ best character in Rebecca Ferguson’s Ilsa Faust (admittedly, in a quintet that makes a virtue of pared down motivation and absen…

Can you float through the air when you smell a delicious pie?

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)
(SPOILERS) Ironically, given the source material, think I probably fell into the category of many who weren't overly disposed to give this big screen Spider-Man a go on the grounds that it was an animation. After all, if it wasn’t "good enough" for live-action, why should I give it my time? Not even Phil Lord and Christopher Miller's pedigree wholly persuaded me; they'd had their stumble of late, although admittedly in that live-action arena. As such, it was only the near-unanimous critics' approval that swayed me, suggesting I'd have been missing out. They – not always the most reliable arbiters of such populist fare, which made the vote of confidence all the more notable – were right. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is not only a first-rate Spider-Man movie, it's a fresh, playful and (perhaps) surprisingly heartfelt origins story.