Monday, February 24, 2014

Inconceivable!

So Princess Buttercup married Humperdinck after all, and the Prince decided not to kill his Bride. Instead, Florin's newly-anointed power couple have conspired together in order to take the crown of Florin for themselves, and to consolidate power over Guilder. All that while having depraved three-way trysts with Count Rugen.

The Prince & Buttercup are not without problems, however: the Albino's body lays undiscovered in the fire swamp, having been clubbed by a bar wench for being too creepy. Who knows what the ROUS will do with the corpse. And Vizzini, with his wealth and acumen, has sided with the king and strives against them. Ultimately, though, Vizzini realizes that he cannot match Humperdinck's maneuvering. In a desperate gambit, he switches allegiance to Humperdinck. And the king, found to have visited Miracle Max one too many times, must step down.

Meanwhile, Westley still longs for true love, but his turn as the Dread Pirate Roberts has corrupted his soul, and he lives only as a mercenary to the highest bidder. Poor Inigo Montoya is gone, having been discovered dead under mysterious circumstances following a relapse into alcoholism. Did Humperdinck and Buttercup have him killed?

It looks like only Fezzik can save the day, but he has been curiously missing thus far. 

Oh, haven't you seen House of Cards?

(My mid-season review is here). 

Thursday, February 20, 2014

House of Cards, Falling Down: A Mid-Season Review

Obligatory notice: contains spoilers --the mgmt. 

House of Cards is a show that delights in its own cynicism, and Kevin Spacey's charm keeps his monstrous character perversely appealing and entertaining in spite of his abhorrent traits. His smiling, soulless portrayal of Francis Underwood alone makes the show worth watching. Halfway through season two, however, the rest of the drama is beginning to creak under its own weight.

Doug Stamper is an absurd character: on one hand, he is so extremely disciplined and loyal as to cover up not one, but two cold-blooded murders committed by his boss, manipulating the FBI to do so. Somehow, though, he is simultaneously sloppy and stupid enough to sleep with the one person who could truly bury Underwood. This contradiction strains credibility beyond belief.

The prostitute, the most expendable person in the chain that links Russo's death to Underwood, is still alive, and instead Underwood kills Zoe Barnes to protect himself. As happy as I was to see her go (she was just so annoying), it makes no sense. But if we accept it, still, there are problems: discouraging Rachel from getting involved with the church group seems extremely short-sighted: shouldn't Stamper let her forget her old life, and get her thinking about a new one? Tightening his grip on her seems surest way to get her to rebel. 

Here's another question: what is Claire's long game in sowing dissent between the President and the First Lady, using Christina Gallagher as her pawn? How do the Underwoods gain by fostering marital discord between the Walkers? It just seems like lazy intrigue, and beneath her as the shrewd and ruthlessly calculating woman introduced in the first season. Similarly, Remy Danton sleeping with Congresswoman Sharp is another example of soapy drama that doesn't seem to have much future.

President Walker has little charisma, no folksy charm, no fierce intellect, and lacks a convincing will to power. Why is he president? The show casts him as one of its weakest characters, which also strains credibility.

Apart from the Underwoods, one other bright spot of the show is Gerald McRaney's Ramond Tusk as Frank's primary antagonist. McRaney seems comfortable in the role of villainous rich eccentric, having done a turn as a similar character in Deadwood. Unfortunately, the show can't seem to maintain the quality of its antagonists: portraying Feng as a depraved billionaire seems like a hackneyed and superfluous trope.

I hope that the second half of the season addresses these shortcomings and answers my questions, because together they are sinking the show in my eyes right now. If I find no satisfying surprises and answers to these issues, I will be hard-pressed to tune in for a third season.

Final note: Netflix on Comcast sucks. Also, too.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Happy New Year, Part II: Quote of the Day Edition

"The sooner you start building your monster truck of life, the sooner you can start ramping and running over shit with it. Nobody is going to drive one up to your door and hand you the keys."

Friday, January 3, 2014

He's Still On The Hook

While catching up on some internet reading, I came across an old article the other day.
If you want to look kindly on Bush’s presidency, you can fairly say that, while he deserves significant blame for ignoring warnings of an Al Qaeda strike and the housing bubble, the disasters of his tenure were not entirely his fault. But what did he do? His economic policies exacerbated income inequality without producing prosperity. His massive increase of the structural budget deficit, which ballooned to over a trillion dollars before President Obama took office, left the United States less fiscally equipped to respond to the economic crisis he also left his predecessor. He initiated a costly war on the basis of both mistaken and deliberately cooked intelligence, and failed to plan for the postwar period. His policies not only ignored the crises of climate change and a costly and cruel health insurance system, but made both much harder to solve.
It came up because I was reading a more recent piece by Chait in which he unpacks recent comparisons that Obama has drawn to Bush the Lesser. Basically, Chait exposes this as so much nonsense.  He shows that Obama never enjoyed any support from the Republican party, whereas Bush did not face a sustained and unified opposition for the first five years of his presidency. This was not because Bush was less partisan or more centrist, but because democrats in Washington made a political calculation to negotiate in order to appear bipartisan and win concessions. As Chait argues, it was only when Bush began to push his second term agenda to privatize Social Security that democrats abandoned this posture.

Both pieces are worth a read.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Sunday, December 15, 2013

The Hobbit, Part II: Light My Fire

There might be spoilers ahead. I'm not sure; I haven't written it yet. I'm probably one of those reviewers that you should read after you've seen the movie. (And then you can say to yourself, 'this dude is full of it.')

Peter Jackson just cannot help himself. He is going to work a lengthy, physics-defying, CG-fueled carnival ride into his movies. Probably more than one. He's going to do it whether it serves the story or not. And at this point, there is nothing you or I can do to stop it. As it happens, these sequences are usually fairly entertaining as spectacle, but because they have no relationship to the laws of motion or to gravity as we know it, they tend to leave the viewer with a somewhat empty, unsatisfied feeling afterward. For better or worse, as a maker of blockbuster fantasy-action movies, this has become his style, his signature. So I just have to get over it: this is him, this is what he likes, and he made a gazillion dollars doing what he does; the chances that my complaints about it will be heard or heeded are exactly zero.

Last year I wrote a mostly positive review of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. Looking back, however, my review glosses over the film's shortcomings and emphasizes its strengths -- in short, it is a fan's review. Whatever, I guess: I make no apologies for being a Tolkien fanboy of the highest order, and I will always have a soft spot for PJ for having the vision and fortitude and audacity to make The Lord of the Rings. Many have said it before, but it bears repeating: it's easy to forget how big a risk that first trilogy was. So I approach his movies with gratitude.

All of this is prelude to discussing The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. I enjoyed the second installment of the Hobbit trilogy as an entertaining cinematic diversion. It's better than An Unexpected Journey: it opens briskly and sets a steady, uptempo pace that does not get bogged down with two opening sequences and endless exposition like the first film did. I left the theater well-pleased; I had a great time with the friends who joined me to see it. So that's a recommendation: it's a fun holiday movie for the gang.

But I suppose I should say more...

Once again, Jackson & Company teased out some interesting interpretations of the source material, and conjured a new character that fits pretty well into the narrative. But also once again, Jackson seems to believe that you can't have too much of a good thing. Insert witticisms about barrel-riding and ax-juggling and elf-assassins and molten-river-of-gold-boogie-boarding here. 

Jackson seems to have a lot of trouble translating Tolkien's antagonistic minor characters onto screen without turning them into villainous caricatures. In Return of the King, the noble but tragically flawed Denethor became a cartoonish bad guy. In Desolation of Smaug, Thranduil vamps his way through his scenes: he does not evoke an ancient and wise king who will join forces with the dwarves to put down the goblin army, nor hold Gollum captive, nor send his only son to represent the woodland realm later in the epic. He says, "a hundred years is nothing to an elf," but his arch, sullen countenance expresses anything but patience. I think Jackson would do well to study the antagonists in some of Hayao Miyazaki's films to discover subtlety for characters such as these. 

Another thing that bothers me is Jackson's camera work: he seems to be enamored of closeups shot with a wide angle lens, which leaves his subjects oddly misshapen and the screen cluttered. This might be right for orcs and goblins, but it just doesn't fit for Bilbo. It's too chaotic, and doesn't visually express the plain, sensible wisdom of Hobbit-folk.

When I first saw the trailer for Desolation, I was dumbstruck: the dragon looked bad. I thought, wtf, he looks no better than Draco, and Dragonheart is now seventeen years old. How could that happen? Hell, after that glimpse, I felt they might have given Vermithrax the nod in favor of what they came up with. Happily, my fears were unfounded. On screen, Smaug is fantastic; the cunning, terrible menace of the character absolutely dominates the last quarter of the film. And the decision to have the dwarves make a stand to reclaim their kingdom in an extended fight with the dragon was a smart one. It is the execution where this falls flat: once again, heavy reliance upon physics-free CG leaves the sequence light on dramatic heft.

In FotR, one of the reasons that the confrontation with the Balrog succeeds is that it is situated in a film that has plenty of set-pieces that do not rely solely on special effects. Here in Desolation, Gandalf's showdown with the Necromancer has no such grounding context; it's just another CG fireworks display, which significantly diminishes its impact. It's just more noise in a spectacle already turned up to 11.

After five movies, The Fellowship of the Ring remains PJ's strongest foray into Middle Earth. In FotR, I really felt transported -- New Zealand's primal beauty played a major part in establishing an otherworldly yet realistic setting. The subsequent films have slowly morphed Middle Earth into an almost wholly CG creation that might have been filmed anywhere. More's the pity.

What did you think?