Tuesday, February 25, 2014

House of Cards Teeters

The second season of House of Cards has been available for only 10 days and already I fear discussing its 13 episodes might be old news. Such is the nature of our changing viewing habits and the way we "binge" our way through long-form television.

If you're the rare individual who is rationing out this series and haven't yet completed it, then I must warn you that this post will reveal "spoilers" and you should probably not be searching out any more House of Cards discussions until you're up to date. For the rest of us, we must address the pertinent and unavoidable question: how does this season compare to the first? 

I'll say it exceeded the debut season in terms of focusing on the show's main underlying theme - the sacrifice and cost of gaining power. We already knew that Frank Underwood stops at nothing as he continues his blood-splattered march to the Oval Office, but taking out reporter Zoe Barnes - his former lover - in the first episode was a harsh reminder of his moral-free determination. 

While Barnes was Frank's pawn in the first season, President Walker takes over that role in the second. Almost every interaction between the two ends with Frank successfully manipulating the President. Scene after scene, he pledges his loyalty and respect to the Commander and Chief, offering to jump in front of a political bullet for him, all the while shooting us knowing glances as if to say: "can you believe this gullible fool?" By mid-season you feel that Walker's fate is sealed.

Another reason why I enjoyed this season more was the addition of Molly Parker, who Canadians should recognize from a long resume of independent films such as Wonderland and Kissed. The B.C. native plays the unflappable Jackie Sharp, a military veteran and Frank's successor as congressional whip. There are moments when you think she'll take on Frank, but eventually she succumbs to his poison-dipped promises.

Frank's only true adversary this season is billionaire mid-westerner Raymond Tusk. The two start out sparring over the President's attention, but soon it's an all-out war that ends with Tusk giving testimony in a hearing that eventually sinks Walker and ostensibly paves Frank's road to his ultimate goal. Will Frank's winning streak ever be snapped? 

The season ends with a glimpse of problems to come for Frank. The death of his henchman/Chief of Staff Doug Stamper signals a loose end that Frank will have to tie up, meaning Rachel Posner - the young sex worker they used to frame Peter Russo in Season 1 - is in immediate danger. It will be interesting to see how he goes about "eliminating" problems next season as President. No more rendezvous on subway platforms. 

For me the most powerful scene of Season 2 belonged to Claire Underwood. I spoke of the sacrifices and costs of the Underwoods' quest for power; nothing epitomized this more than Claire's breakdown on the staircase after talking with the first lady over the phone. Usually she shows steely reserve, but this moment accentuated the lying, manipulation and resulting isolation of her actions. It's a rare moment of humanity from the Underwoods. And it doesn't last. Soon after she is ripping on Frank to stay the course and not put their goals in jeopardy. 

A subplot that didn't work for me was the "hacker" Gavin Orsay. Apparently the writers couldn't think of a way to make this character interesting, so in place of decent dialogue he is given a guinea pig to constantly play with and terrible taste in music. It's unclear where he stands for season 3 since he was attempting to blackmail the now-dead Stamper. Still, he knows about the plot to get rid of journalist Lucas Goodwin, so there's potential for him to be a problem for Frank. 
And I guess that's what I'm looking forward to for Season 3 - problems for Frank. Despite some damaging shots to Claire's character and his tussles with Tusk, Underwood never seemed truly challenged in Season 2. Everyone was a piece on his model army playground and the outcome never felt in doubt. However, if obtaining the presidency is, metaphorically speaking, adding that last card to the teetering house, then we know what must inevitably happen next.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Buona Fortuna

It's unlikely that any director would be audacious enough to attempt an outright remake of a Fellini film, but if there was ever a spiritual successor to the great Italian director's masterpiece, La Dolce Vita, it would be Paolo Sorrentino's The Great Beauty (La Grande Bellezza).

This is a film that's not easily described in terms of story and plot. In fact, in that regard it might be a disappointment to some, as evidenced by a few walkouts during the screening I attended. The film is more of a meditation on existential topics such as aging, love, art and the main character's relationship with Rome, the Eternal City.

The film swirls around its star Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo), a weary writer and socialite much like Marcello Mastroianni's iconic Marcello Rubini character in La Dolce. Gambardella, like Rubini, floats around parties looking for amusement among the city' wealthy eccentrics. He wrote an important book - The Human Apparatus, nearly 40 years ago - that is still a topic of discussion. When asked why he never followed it up, he blames a preoccupation with Rome's nightlife.

Sorrentino gives us good reason to believe him. The party scenes are throbbing exhibitions of hedonism and abandon that include knife throwers, child painters, dwarves and a beautiful blonde heiress who takes Gambardella home only to find him gone after leaving the bedroom momentarily to fetch some nude photographs. "I could no longer afford to spend time doing things I did not enjoy," his voice-over tells us. It becomes clear where Gambardella's time has gone.

But Gambardella's existential crisis is triggered by news of an old girlfriend's death and soon the writer is smoking cigarettes and walking the Roman streets taking stock of what it's all added up to. A brief romance with a middle-aged stripper quickly unravels, his indifferent journalism career is without passion, and suddenly he is plagued by memories of that girlfriend from his youth. She rejected him. Yet, according to the girl's husband, never stopped loving Jeb. Nothing will haunt a man like the one who got away.

A recommendation for watching the Great Beauty - or any Fellini film for that matter - is to give yourself over to the experience instead of expecting something from it. I won't pretend the film didn't go on about 20 minutes more than I needed, especially the scenes involving the nearly-dead nun that felt superfluous to the film's melancholy tone. We get it, he's facing questions about mortality. But even when the "plot" is going nowhere you can bask in the cinematography of sun-drenched Rome.

Ironically, it is the Eternal City that Jeb blames his inefficiencies on. Instead of inspiring him to writing great works of art, it has captivated him to the point of inertia. "Rome makes you waste a lot time" he rues. It's a moment of self-condemnation, but I think I speak for many when I say that's the kind of problem you wouldn't mind having.

Servillo has delivered a fine acting performance; equal to Mastroianni's turn in La Dolce. You never grow tired of watching him saunter through the city in his cream-coloured Italian suits and slicked-back hair. The film is nominated in this year's Oscar foreign language category and to that I say "buona fortuna!"

Monday, February 3, 2014

Remembering Philip Seymour Hoffman

It was shocking to wake up yesterday and learn of the untimely passing of Philip Seymour Hoffman. As a film lover, I'd barely had time to process the disturbing developments regarding Woody Allen before being hit with this tragic news.

I assume others like myself were unaware of Hoffman's struggles with addiction. Sure, he sometimes looked like a guy who indulged in vices, but I don't recall any of the typical gossip or rumour that usually surrounds celebrities who struggle with substance abuse. It's a cold reminder that just because we follow these actors and watch them on the big screen, we shouldn't fool ourselves into thinking we truly know anything about them. 

Hoffman leaves behind a legacy of diverse and difficult film characters. The 46-year-old was a rare breed of Hollywood actor who continually challenged himself and his audience with the roles that were not always likeable, but nonetheless compelling and believable. There was no such thing as a typical Philip Seymour Hoffman film. 

I'd like to share a few of my favourite films by him, in no particular order. He was a prolific worker and didn't constrain himself to leading roles, even though his star power eventually called for it. He would often appear in smaller parts, stage productions and his passing will certainly spur me on to seek out some of his lesser known works. 

Boogie Nights (1997)

This where I was first introduced to Hoffman and right away I knew this was a guy who didn't shy away from a challenge. He played Scotty J., the porn production assistant who harbours a deep crush on Mark Wahlberg's Dirk. Hoffman played the part with sensitivity, self-loathing and desperation and you could argue it was the first role that really turned some heads.

Although he had briefly appeared in Paul Thomas Anderson's debut Hard Eight, he solidified their union with Boogie Nights. The two would go on to form a fruitful partnership of director and muse, culminating with the head-scratching epic, The Master.  

Almost Famous (2000) 

Having spent a good many years as a music critic, of course a portrayal of Lester Bangs is going to win me over. Hoffman plays Bangs as a mentor to the young rock journalist in Cameron Crowe's autobiographical recount of his days as a Rolling Stone scribe. 

Today, Crowe posted a few words about Hoffman's scenes in the film, calling it the "soul of the movie." I remember seeing it and thinking Hoffman was the only truly authentic rock n' roll element of the movie, and the only guy who actually looked like he existed in the 70s. 

Along Came Polly (2004)

Hoffman will likely be remembered best for his ability to play unhappy characters who you can't help but like. Along Came Polly is no different. Though it's basically a goofy rom-com vehicle for Ben Stiller, Hoffman absolutely steals every scene as Sandy Lyle, a grace-less former child star who goes through life with a massive chip on his shoulder. 

He plays Stiller's best friend and their scenes together - especially on an outdoor New York basketball court - are a thing of beauty. Hearing Hoffman howl "Make it rain" every time he bricks a shot is pure comedic gold. Also, his scene giving Stiller relationship advice while draining a pizza slice of its grease will forever be lodged in my brain.

Owning Mahowny (2003)

The number of Hollywood films shot on location in Toronto are countless. But how often does the plot of the film actually take place in Canada with the city allowed to play itself? This was a rare treat in which Hoffman played Dan Mahowny, a squirrelly Toronto banker who starts embezzling money to feed his crippling gambling addiction. 

Hoffman nailed the subtleties of the role and the stodgy Canadian banker culture. His ability to balance the keep-your-head-down and don't-rock-the-boat worker mentality with the secret life of a uncontrollable gambling addict, was an incredible dual persona performance. There's a scene near the end where Hoffman fiddles with a broken rear-view mirror in his frozen car that captures a quintessentially Canadian moment.

The Master (2012)

Although I admit to having emerged from the Master wondering what the hell just happened, I was sure about one thing: Hoffman was brilliant in it (whatever it was). His character of Lancaster Dodd was a riveting combination of evil genius, cult guru, shaman and snake oil salesman.

It was the apex of Hoffman's powers - to make you intrigued by characters who are dysfunctional and detestable; to bring to life these kinds of pained characters; to make them flesh and blood, and have you care about them and even cheer them on. It was a wondrous gift and his absence leaves a gaping void in the cinematic landscape. Thank you, Philip Seymour Hoffman.