Posted in Television

Come Together

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Finally.

Two Starks in the same place–and at the same time.

Was there a dry eye in the house when Sansa Stark and Jon Snow were reunited at Castle Black? Their mutual astonishment was beautifully played–not a beat too short, nor a beat too long (Kudos to Sophie Turner and Kit Harrington, who are giving terrific performances this season). As they contemplate the present situation, their states of mind couldn’t be further apart. He’s grown weary of the fight; she, showing more and more of her mother’s grit, is determined to retake the North from Ramsay Bolton. Nevertheless by the end of the episode, with his family and Castle Black under threat, he’s back in the fray.

The tenor of this season of GoT has been unlike any other. Despite Melisandre’s magic and Bran’s warging, there’s a new sense of groundedness. Bran and Arya are no longer children; more essential perhaps is that Sansa is longer a pawn. There’s also a feeling of convergence, of an end in sight; in fact the show runners have indicated that there may only be two more truncated seasons of GoT. But more than that it seems having burned through the five “Fire and Ice” novels, the show’s spirit, not just its plot, has been freed in a fundamental way.

However not every storyline shares the blessing of creativity. The show runners may love Ramsey Bolton, his smirk and his weekly brutality show, but all have worn out their welcome. I realize “Less is more” is not exactly GoT’s motto, but as far as Ramsey’s concerned, its application would be most welcome.

On a more positive note this episode served as an excellent tutorial on how to negotiate common interests. Wonder of wonders, the Lannisters and the Tyrells agreed to join forces to break the High Sparrow’s hold on King’s Landing and free Margaery and Loras (Good luck with that). More ominous, though, is the deal Tyrion struck with the Masters of Yunkai, Astapor and Volaris. Sadly, I think Grey Worm and Missandei are right. I sense that our favorite Lannister has seriously misjudged the situation—the Masters’ “best interests” are likely more complicated than he thinks, and his support in Meeren seems to be wearing thin. Dragons to the rescue?

Speaking of deals, Littlefinger has returned, still playing both ends against the middle. His end game has seemingly not changed—claim Sansa and through her, rule the North. Although he’s promised Sansa to the rather simple Robin Arryn, the Lord of the Vale is only Littlefinger’s tool. It takes no effort to foresee that Lord Baelish will drop the kid (literally) once he’s no longer of use. I find it somewhat amusing that Petyr Baelish is a virtual personality clone of Tommy Carcetti, the insatiable politician Aidan Gillen played in another superb HBO series, “The Wire,” without the homicides, of course. Obviously the passage of centuries, albeit in reverse, has not withered his charms.

A few final random thoughts:

Brienne almost stole the show. Whether making her entrance into Castle Black to Thormund’s astonishment, stating that she’ll neither forgive nor forget Renley’s murder, or being revolted by the table fare of the Night’s Watch (or Edd’s manners–it was hard to tell), she just shone.

In the prison scene with Loras, Natalie Dormer as Margaery never looked more like the young Diana Rigg. Great casting for this grandmother/granddaughter team.

Dany does it again! Evidently you don’t need dragons’ eggs to survive a killing fire. Danaerys Stormborn had a definite plan from the start: the smirk she wore throughout that ripe Dothraki judgment scene just said it all.

Onward, “Game of Thrones”!

Posted in Television

In Stark We Trust

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Eyeing the Past: The Three-Eyed Raven and Bran Stark

We “Game of Thrones” fanatics never doubted it for a minute.

The build-up was tremendous. Try as she might, Melisandre seemingly could not bring Jon Snow back to life. Not really surprising, considering his chest was riddled with wounds. But the pay-off came in a bit of delayed action mojo when we finally saw Jon draw his first agonized breath, eyes wide open in shock. Let the games begin!

This last scene of Episode 2, “Home,” was a superb bookend to what we saw at the beginning of the show. In a surprise move, Bran Stark, missing since Season 4, made his reappearance. Although now in late adolescence, he’s still under the tutelage of the Three-Eyed Raven. Bran is a young man of many talents, not the least of which is his ability to warg, i.e., leave his crippled body and inhabit another, fully ambulatory. He’s since added time travel to his skill-set, and in a poignant sequence he watches his father and Uncle Benjen as young children learning sword play. Bran’s stroll down memory lane at Winterfell affords us a glimpse not only of Lyanna, whose rape and murder presaged the events of the GoT saga, but also the teen-aged stable boy Hodor, who not only can speak, but whose name is actually Wilys. I can’t wait for more Winterfell back story.

In a move that made me jump, Ramsey Bolton knifed his father to death upon learning of the birth of his half-brother. Apparently the assurance from Daddy Roose that “I’ll always consider you my firstborn” wasn’t good enough. In a way I was disappointed. Given Roose’s role in the Red Wedding, I was hoping the show runners would save him for a revenge killing by one of the Stark kids. Lady Stoneheart, where are you?

Ramsey’s dispatch of Walda Frey and her son via unleashed hounds underscored my growing Ramsey fatigue. I get it—he’s so villainous that the show runners are forced to up the grue ante every week. But they’ve made Ramsey so awful that he’s becoming a parody of himself. There’s always been an element of not-quite camp with Ramsey and pronouncements like “I always wanted to be an only child” following the murder of his half-brother undermine the tone of his actions, and not in a good way. I relish black comedy, but I much prefer the badinage of Varys and Tyrion. The wit displayed is far sharper.

Speaking of which, I was glad to see:

–Tyrion making new friends. Nothing like cultivating Daenerys’ left-behind dragons to create a reptilian air force.

–Arya finally getting off the schneid and evidently undertaking Step Two toward becoming No One.

–More scenes in the North with Sansa and Brienne. It’s always magical to see the snow falling in the mists of Winterfell.

–Theon Greyjoy, maimed as he is, heading home to vie for the kingship of the Iron Islands. A coming struggle between Theon and his sister should prove far more interesting than the doings of the Sand Snakes.

–The ongoing clash of the Lannisters and the High Sparrow (jonathan Pryce), a wonderfully passive-aggressive villain (Not a few will cheer when he finally gets his). A repentant Tommen’s reliance on the once again empowered Cersei makes a wonderful addition to the mix. Good times should shortly ensue.

“Game of Thrones” now seems fully under way once more. Sunday can’t come soon enough.

Posted in Television

Yup, It’s Back

Finally, After Four Seasons
Finally, After Four Seasons

“Game of Thrones” returned last night and the interwebs have been sizzling with commentary. Although I’ve stayed away from episodic reviews for the last few years since I prefer to discuss each season as a whole, a couple of thoughts have prompted me to take to the blog.

At long last the playing field is leveled between those who have read the books and those like myself who have not (While I own all five, I’ve only been able to make it through the first so far while skimming the others, post-episode, as supplemental material). Although no one knows what’s going to happen, it seems both the strengths and weaknesses of “Game of Thrones” will continue, though the span of George R.R. Martin’s novels ended with the finale of Season 5.

A major pitfall that “Game of Thrones” may not be able to avoid is one shared by every television series that’s been on the air past two or three seasons: the loss of an ability to surprise. I don’t mean the ability to shock—GoT will always have that if only by upping the grue factor, as witness what happened to that idiot Martell heir last night (shish kabob head, anyone?), or by depicting the grossest barbarity (Shireen burned at the stake). Surprise comes when a character shows an unsuspected side, or when an uncontrolled event occurs. While “Game of Thrones” seems to prefer the latter (the Red Wedding, Daenerys surviving the fire only to reveal three baby dragons perched on her shoulders), the former is certainly more rewarding: Jaime’s relationship with Brienne, Tyrion’s murdering his father (I didn’t suspect that he’d have it in him). The sight of what appears to be a mature Bran Stark in the promo for the next episode was in fact a wonderful surprise, and hopefully an indication of good storytelling to come.

Speaking of which, I was not happy to see the repetition of themes I thought GoT had done to death in prior seasons. Daenerys is once again faced with the dilemma of avoiding Khal widow exile (Don’t the Dothraki appreciate this girl’s an empress on the move?), and Arya’s struggles to prove worthy, only this time with Little Orphan Annie eyes, tediously continue (I liked it so much more when she and the Hound were roaming the country, killing bad guys). Although I usually find the Night’s Watch tiresome by this point, I thought last night’s scenes were intriguing. For the record I think Jon Snow is only momentarily dead, and that he’ll be revived next week by Melisandre’s drained life force (Poor thing had to take to her bed to regenerate her mojo).

For me the best developments were Sansa and Theon’s escape, their rescue by Brienne and Podrick (When is this kid going to be knighted already? He’s as adept as Brienne with a sword) and finally the payoff of Sansa and Brienne’s mutual pledges. I initially disliked Sansa—being boy-crazy over Joffrey showed a horrendous lack of judgment, and Arya was always the more interesting Stark sister anyway—but at long last she’s become her mother’s daughter. Very cute that Podrick had to prompt her with the correct words for her ritual acceptance of Brienne’s vow, but given what Sansa’s been through it’s no wonder she couldn’t remember.

I’ll leave you with a thought to ponder: Who would win in a death match? Cersei Lannister or Claire Underwood?

See you next week.

Posted in Movie Reviews

Up In The Air

 

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2009’s “Up in the Air,” currently making the rounds on cable channels, seems to be one of the most effortless movies ever made. It’s one of my favorites among recent films despite several plot inconsistencies. But the pluses so outweigh the minuses that the worth of the journey is never in dispute.

WARNING—SPOILERS FOLLOW

Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) is a top gun with CTC, a consulting firm specializing in career transitions, i.e., its reps do the corporate lay-offs for their downsizing clients. Needless to say, this entails a lot of face-to-face blow-off from the newly unemployed, played here by both actors and recently laid-off civilians. But Ryan seems to love his work. He knows the best rib joint and hotel in every city in the country, and, as he proudly tells us in voice-over, he’s on the road, or more accurately, “up in the air,” 300 days of the year. It’s only when he touches the ground at his corporate home in Omaha that life, if you can call it that, becomes complicated. But the bubble Ryan lives in is shortly to be punctured by two different women: Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga), a fellow corporate nomad he meets in a hotel bar, and Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick), a hot-shot Cornell Business School grad hired by the head of CTC (Jason Bateman) to revolutionize the company’s methods. When his boss insists he take Natalie on his next road trip to show her the nuts and bolts of the firm’s operations, Ryan’s reluctant compliance really gets the film underway.

Fortunately “Up in The Air” is more than just a take on the recent Depression recession. It has within its running time one of the subtlest, funniest and most charming movie scenes in recent memory. A bit of background: Natalie has just been dumped by her boyfriend via text message. Ryan and Alex try to comfort her, but a great deal more is going on. The scene provides us with a lovely moment of insight into each of these characters, courtesy of  wonderful writing by Jason Reitman (who also directed) and Sheldon Turner, and expert performances by all three actors. It’s not surprising that each of them received an Oscar nomination: Clooney for Best Actor and both women for Best Supporting Actress.

23 year-old Natalie begins her lament thusly: “When I was 16 I thought I’d be married by now, maybe have a kid, corner office by day, entertaining at night…”, followed by an itemization of how her now-ex “fit the bill,” ending her list of virtues with “a nice smile.” Sensing that Alex may think that needing a man in her life may be retro, she tries to regain ground with “I don’t want to sound anti-feminist. I mean, I really appreciate everything your generation’s done for me.” Alex’s smiling, non-sarcastic rejoinder, “It was our pleasure,” cracks me up every time. But what makes this scene so memorable is her response to Natalie’s question of what she–Alex–thinks the perfect man would be like. Vera Farmiga strikes exactly the right note—her expression and delivery are perfect as she shows us wistfulness combined with hard-earned wisdom: “You secretly pray that he’d be taller than you…not an asshole…enjoys my company…comes from a good family. You don’t think about that when you’re younger. Likes kids. Wants kids. Is healthy enough to play with his kids…And please, let him earn more money than I do…You may not understand that now, but believe me, you will one day. Otherwise that’s a recipe for disaster [Ryan chuckles in recognition]. That he have some hair on his head, though that’s not a deal breaker these days…And [smiling at Ryan] yeah, a nice smile. A nice smile just might do it.”

Natalie ends this reverie with “Wow, that’s depressing. I should just date women.” Watch George Clooney’s reactions to Alex’s quick response: “Tried it [He shoots her a look]. We’re no picnic ourselves” [His expression? Priceless]. But the payoff comes with Alex’s reply to Natalie’s “I just don’t want to settle.” Alex: “You’re young. Right now you see settling as some sort of a failure…By the time someone is right for you, it won’t feel like settling. And the only person left to judge you will be the 23 year-old girl with a target on your back.” It’s a wonderful moment. Vera Farmiga’s amusement never for an instant tips over into condescension. It’s as if she’s affectionately bucking up her younger self.

Emotional journeys are as much in play in “Up in The Air” as physical ones. Super-efficient Natalie, advocate of firing people via Skype in order to eliminate huge corporate travel budgets, loses some of that assurance when confronted with the end reality of what she does for a living. On her learning tour with Ryan, she’s left gasping in panic when the first employee she fires in person declines career counseling because “There’s a nice bridge near my house. I’m going to jump off it.” Being dumped by her fiancé provides another life lesson. Ultimately it’s satisfying to see Natalie practice what she preaches to Ryan as she heads for a job in San Francisco, her original employment destination before she followed the boyfriend to Omaha. Though we don’t learn who her new employer is, we hope it’s in a more humane business than CTC. Natalie’s earned it.

Ryan’s journey is something of a paradox. The man who won’t buy when he demands Natalie “Sell me marriage” during a debate on relationships steps up to do exactly that when his sister’s fiancé gets cold feet on their wedding day. The man who evidently lives on a diet of random hook-ups and encounters with an obliging neighbor finally wants to be with someone more than anything he’s valued in the past, whether it’s hitting that mark of 10 million air miles or speaking at the most exclusive motivational conference in the country. The scene in which Ryan and Alex have a phone conversation after he learns she’s got a husband and family should be required viewing for anyone who thinks George Clooney can’t act. He’s listens so quietly yet the sense of betrayal is enormous—it’s all in his eyes. For a man who makes his living essentially reading other people, that betrayal sounds on both personal and professional levels.

Despite its excellence, “Up in The Air” does have a few nagging faults. How did Ryan know where Alex lived? Did she give him her address? That’s pretty chancy, given her situation. And how does a married woman shake off spending a weekend with her husband and two kids to go away for a wedding as her boyfriend’s plus one? (She must be the breadwinner and he’s a stay-at-home dad, maybe? We never find out.)

Some clues to Alex may be found in the extras on the “Up in The Air” DVD. There’s some Ryan/Alex dialog that was cut which seems to indicate that Alex is not only falling for Ryan but is somewhat torn about it. It’s a shame this was excised, because it makes her later remark to Ryan,”You were a parenthesis” ice-cold indeed, and seemingly coming out of nowhere. But all things considered, a relatively minor issue in a film that’s one of the smartest in the last ten years.

Posted in Television

At Home With the MacBeths

Woman of the Hour
Woman of the Hour

CAUTION: SPOILERS ABOUND (YOU NEED TO ASK???) 

In this election year no dream appears beyond reality, yet Season 4 of Netflix’s “House of Cards” fulfilled the wildest one yet: Claire Underwood grabbed the brass ring as her husband’s running mate, an achievement denied to even as savvy an operator as Eva Peron.

But is this a good move by the House of Underwood? If he’s reelected, she’ll be a constitutional heartbeat away, in prime position to grease the skids for his demise, whether politically or–gulp–literally. Yes, she’s that ambitious, and her futile attempt to grab a Congressional seat in no way dampened her desire. Frank senses it too, otherwise why the recurring nightmare of that horrendous death match?

While we’re on the subject of bodily harm to Chief Executives, if you don’t think that assassination attempt was totally orchestrated, boy, do I have a bridge in Brooklyn for you. So many details beg so many questions: Why was Lucas Goodwin there, let alone armed? The latter fact was so out of character—words were always his weapon of choice. The omission of Janine’s name from his suicide note was indeed strange; was this a clue that the letter may have been a forgery? And perhaps the ultimate tip-off: Meechum, not Lucas, fired the first shot. “House of Cards” is so twisted I can easily see either Frank or Claire setting this up: Claire, for obvious reasons; Frank, to gain sympathy so he could move ahead in the polls, though I imagine he had hoped the cost would have been a flesh wound, not a shredded liver. Of course we can’t eliminate from the list of suspects any of the enemies the Underwoods made on their way up, but it’s more delicious to think both Frank and Claire had motive and opportunity.

Season 4 left us with a great deal to mull over, but before we do I have a couple of issues that need airing. First, why were so many important scenes shot in half light? It felt like “House of Cards” was living in a perpetual gray dawn. But for me the biggest error was the omission of a recap of what led to the resignation of Frank’s predecessor, President Walker. The events Tom Hammerschmidt investigates in Season 4 happened back in Season 2. For the life of me I couldn’t remember who Lanagin was, or why those travel records were significant, let alone Meechum’s involvement in their alteration, or the details of Raymond Tusk’s role in Frank’s ascension to the Presidency. I love “House of Cards,” but I do work for a living—I don’t have time to revisit an entire season’s worth of episodes in an effort to locate key events. A “Previously on ‘House of Cards……'” would have been welcome indeed.

So in no particular order let us consider:

Claire and Tom Yates. This has been on the horizon for eons. I don’t see good things ahead, no matter how healing he may be for her. Discord is already apparent: “That’s the first time you’ve lied to me since you stopped lying to me.” Whoever would have predicted that Mickey Doyle (and his giggle) could turn into such eye candy?

A great star turn by Ellen Burstyn as Claire’s mother. I wish we had had more of her and her relationship with Claire. Let’s hope for some flashbacks next season.

Cathy Durant, imminent under-the-bus victim. I suspect once she’s out of the administration she’ll have a great deal to say about Claire’s honing her way into the negotiations with Petrov.

Jackie Sharp and Remy Danton. They’re finally free, and I suspect (hope) we haven’t seen the last of them. Ditto Heather Dunbar, ex-President Walker (love Michel Gill’s speaking voice) and Kathleen Chalfant as the Katherine Graham stand-in.

Doug Stamper. I can’t remember when I hated a character so much. What is it he’s got going with the Widow Moretti? Is this out of genuine guilt or will he marry her for insurance?

The Conways, aka the Underwoods in embryo form. Will is as ruthless as Frank and plays the game almost as well, but it’s obvious Hannah’s blood runs at a considerably warmer temperature than Claire’s. I’ve got one request for the showrunners, though—stifle their annoying kid.

So the nastiness has been ratcheted up to an extreme, all the more to relish the Fall of the House of Underwood. We seem to be well on our way. The boat is leaking in numerous places: Frank has started a war against ICO to scare the electorate into giving him a full term; Tom Hammerschmidt’s story just broke; and perhaps most damaging of all, Aiden’s technology is now in the hands of the feds who will shortly realize the full extent of Frank’s domestic surveillance.

It’ll be agony to wait another year to see how this unravels.

Posted in Television

Farewell Downton Abbey

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A Well-Deserved Round of Applause

After six seasons and an hour-and-a-half grand finale, it’s over.

“Downton Abbey” rode off into the sunset last night to join other beloved British imports—“Upstairs, Downstairs,” the Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries, all the “Prime Suspect” shows, and a host of other series that have graced PBS. Much was crammed into that “Downton” Christmas episode; in fact all the loose ends were tied up with the speed and thoroughness of a NASA launch checklist.

I’m surprised “Downton Abbey” lasted as long as it did. While the first season was superb, soap opera tropes began to appear with some regularity in Season 2: Matthew’s miraculously regaining his ability to walk; the fortuitous death of his fiancée, leaving him free for Lady Mary (I have to confess I flipped the channel from the Super Bowl to “Downton Abbey” just to see the season ender in which he finally proposed. I almost had to turn in my New York Giants hoodie over that move). With Matthew’s death we lost that important outsider’s viewpoint. He was the character we identified with—the unexpected heir, the middle class stranger suddenly in the midst of all that wealth. It might have made for a stronger, less predictable “Downton Abbey” had his portrayer, Dan Stevens, not left the show. However, what remained was still entertaining if perhaps not quite as engrossing as before.

During the previous months I made it a point to avoid spoilers since I really did want to be surprised by the final events of the show. But little seemed startling, with the exception of Carson’s forced retirement (if anyone seemed able to go on forever, it was he), and the return of Lady Rose and Atticus for Edith’s wedding. Other developments, if not surprising, were still satisfying—Mary’s pregnancy, Moseley’s promotion to full-time schoolteacher (and his broadly hinted-at courtship of Miss Baxter), Miss Edmunds’ catch of Edith’s wedding bouquet (with Tom as the sure-to-be groom), Barrow’s appointment as the new butler of Downton Abbey. Other events were just plain delicious: Spratt’s skill as Edith’s “agony aunt” and Isabel’s out-muscling that nasty daughter-in-law, the former Miss Cruikshank, with Violet’s help, in order to marry Lord Merton (who, for someone first diagnosed as suffering from pernicious anemia, looked suspiciously more robust than he had in a long time).

You may recall that several weeks ago I predicted the final outcome of “Downton Abbey,” so let’s see how my unspoiled guesses match up to reality:

  1. Robert’s belly pain turns out to be serious but is cured by the superior medical technology afforded by the county, thus ending the interminable hospital debate. Bingo–I get 1 point!
  2. Anna carries the baby to term and gives birth to a healthy child. Another point.
  3. Edith marries Bertie Pelham, the guy who stayed up all night to get that issue of the magazine to press. Ditto. Kudos to Mary for setting this up, though Edith may have a tough row to hoe with that gorgon of a mother-in-law (I wouldn’t have left Marigold with her on a bet). Here’s hoping a “Downton Abbey” movie really happens, just to see Edith’s story continued.
  4. Daisy marries the new footman who wants to go back to the land (and who’s been avoiding Thomas like the plague), and they move in with Mr. Mason, eventually assuming the leasehold.  Half a point since the only thing settled was Daisy’s move to the farm, though she was certainly ogling Andy plenty by the end of the finale.
  5. Isabel and Dr. Clarkson finally end up with each other. Wrong! Minus one point.
  6. Marigold’s identity is revealed but Mary knew it all along. Half a point since Mary didn’t intuit—she only learned the truth by eavesdropping.
  7. Mary ends up with Henry Talbot, race car driver, though I’m still hoping Charles Blake, the agriculture expert who previously joined her in pig slop, stages a last-minute intervention. He’s such a better match for her. Another point, but these two have zero chemistry. I still say Charles would have been much better for her.
  8. Tom becomes an auto magnate and eventually stands for Parliament. Right church, wrong pew. He’s not a magnate yet. Score a quarter point.
  9. Violet, as always, has the last word. And she did!