Tag Archives: pain

House of Cards – Season 2

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Review:

House of Cards – Season 2

**** stars (of 4)

By Christopher Pickhardt

Having just finished House of Cards season two a couple nights ago I felt it was necessary to express how much I admire this show. From the very first episode of season one I was hooked – enthralled is more like it. And season two is even better…SO much better. I didn’t think that was possible.

I love political movies; the ins and outs of Washington, the corruption, the intrigue – it is all so captivating. Here in House of Cards, we are given an ever broader view of just how dirty that town is. I will concede that this is a fictional depiction of how American politics works and there are surely some extremes and liberties displayed, which serve the drama and tension of the story-line. However I am certain that a good amount of what we see here actually does go on.

Politics is just a dirty, power-hungry enterprise which is ripe with favors, alignments and concessions on all sides. In many ways Washington is a circus populated with puppets, puppeteers and figure-heads that fight in public and shake hands over laughs and bourbon in private. In effect, the joke is on us – the PEOPLE who buy into the farce that is American politics.

Our vessel for this look into the political matrix is the diabolical and determined Frank Underwood, played brilliantly by Kevin Spacey. This is his world and anyone who gets in his way is toast. Spacey is pitch-perfect in this role and he commands every scene with vigor and a steadfast determination which he shares with his audience when he often breaks the fourth wall to verbalize his inner monologue. He is the most charming, intelligent monster we have seen on screen in recent memory. It is rare that you find yourself both rooting for and against the show’s protagonist – who in turn also serves as the antagonist to other characters. That is a very interesting dichotomy and probably why the show is so intriguing.

Spacey’s supporting cast is also magnificent – lead by the always wonderful Robin Wright – who is doing her best work here as his equally-calculating wife Claire. Together they plow through Washington, doing anything and everything necessary to accomplish their goals and often stepping on people to get there. Casualties are all over the House of Cards canvas, with some truly shocking moments and unexpected twists and deaths. Michael Kelly is excellent also as Underwood’s right hand man Doug Stamper who exemplifies a mix of creepiness, servitude and blind allegiance; vowing to do whatever his master commands. Is season two, he is given a lot more time to flesh out this character and man, does he have problems to sort out. Raymond Tusk (played by Gerald McRaney) is given a lot more to do this season as well; his role serving as a fantastic manifestation of the supreme capitalist – a billionaire corporate tycoon maddened by power and hungry for the ear of President Walker. Michael Gill who we see a lot more of this season (as said President Walker) does a terrific job of showing us a man who is being played on all sides and at every turn by his supposed allies. At times he is almost paralyzed and it is not until he learns to show some strength, that he begins to regain his footing as the Commander in Chief.

I imagine many, if not all presidents in real life are in similar situations as Walker finds himself here – caught in the middle of dire national issues, foreign scandals and inter-office politics all the while hoping to do what he feels is right and possibly trusting the advice of people who may or may not have his best interests at heart.

This is an amazingly compelling show on all levels and I hate that I must now wait a year for season three. The perils of binge-watching are truly a double-edged sword. I can’t wait for that theme song, that incredible score, to kick in once again; which precedes a whole new chapter in Frank Underwood’s journey to the top. This is one of the few shows that I sit through the opening credits for EVERY time. I just love the score that much and adore all that GREAT time-lapse footage of the streets of Washington. It is such a cool introduction montage and I am thankful to David Fincher for creating that for us (not to mention, overseeing the show itself).

I know this program is based on a popular BBC series (and novel) of the same name, which I am very interested in becoming familiar with. I imagine the inner-working of the British Parliament must be just as intriguing, if not more, than the inner bowels of Washington, but I hesitate to venture into that material in fear of potential spoilers for the American House of Cards I have become so enchanted by. I am sure this version deviates from the British source material, but I am sure there are enough similarities that could possibly ruin certain big revelations down the road. So, I guess I will wait for the American run of House of Cards to play out then maybe I will visit the BBC version. Alas, the waiting is indeed the hardest part.

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Black Swan

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Review:

BLACK SWAN

Rated: R

**** stars (out of 4)

Black Swan is an intensely absorbing psychological decent into madness with Natalie Portman as Nina, a ballet dancer who is beginning to crack under the building pressure which comes with taking the arduous lead in a new production of Swan Lake. The pressure to be perfect is commonplace in the ballet; especially in New York City where after many seasons in the background, Portman’s Nina is finally given the chance to shine in two challenging lead parts, as the White and Black Swan roles respectively.

Nina’s mother Erica (Barbara Hershey), an ex-ballet dancer herself-turned painter, is overjoyed by her daughter’s ascension to the top of the ballet food chain but adds a layer of unneeded pressure onto her daughter’s already heavy shoulders. This coupled with the stern bluntness of the production’s seasoned director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel); an intimidating genius who is not shy about flaunting his sexuality to his dancers, makes for an incredibly claustrophobic atmosphere for Nina. Additionally, Leroy urges Nina to be less rigid and uninhibited in the sexual arena to further immerse her in her roles. The film wades in sexual awakening and expression through most of the middle act, slowly building to a crescendo as Nina herself explores her primal hunger which has been dormant and very necessary for her to embody the essence of the Black Swan.

It is here that the film really immerses us in Nina’s mental spiral and we witness with her, the constant anguish of striving for perfection: the mental, emotional and physical discipline and constant fear of failure. The thrill and excitement of carrying the production on her shoulders eventually gives way as the pressure builds to growing anxiety and paranoia at the thought of being replaced by an understudy named Lily (Mila Kunis), who drops into the production out of nowhere both as friend and foe. Their relationship develops as adversaries, morphs into friendship and then jerks into darkness in ways I will not spoil but ones that will leave your eyes glued to the screen and in your thoughts well after you have left the theater.

All this weighs on Nina day and night as she pushes herself to be better with the looming production’s opening night just weeks and eventually days away. She dances, sleeps, bleeds and cries – that is her routine as she takes the spotlight. Nina knew it would be hard taking the lead after many seasons under the shadow of Leroy’s original prodigy and now retiring Beth (Winona Ryder), but as Nina slips deeper and deeper into mania, her grips on reality begin to crumble beneath her.

Black Swan features easily the best performance of the year by Portman and should ensure her the Oscar in a couple months. She trained for over a year for this film and it shows – physically and emotionally. She brings a heartbreaking realism to the role of Nina, a tortured girl whose desire to be perfect consumes her. Portman has come a long way since that little girl in The Professional (1994) and proves she is more than just a pretty young face. Like her performances in Closer (2004) and in last year’s Brothers, she shows us her vulnerability and her inner fire. I admire her dedication to the part and the discipline of training to be a ballerina. It is probably the hardest and most strenuous of the performance arts, as the physical toll your body takes alone is grueling, not to mention the constant mental and emotional turmoil that undoubtedly comes with it.

The supporting performances are all great as expected. The always cunning and menacing Vincent Cassel gives us another memorable character as Thomas; the sexier than ever Mila Kunis shows us another side of her we have not seen yet and Winona Ryder is powerful as Beth (it is good to see her back in films after several years out of the spotlight). And Barbara Hershey also delivers a terrific performance as Erica, an artist and mother struggling with lost dreams in light of her daughter’s realization of her own and as she lives vicariously through her daughter, she also sinks into the realm of madness in her own way.

This is another wonderful film by director Darren Aronosky who gave us the outstanding Mickey Rourke film The Wrestler a couple years ago (my favorite of Aronosky’s films) . He is one of the most absorbing directors working today; always different and inventive. He favors handheld camera work (The Wrestler was entirely handheld), vibrant imagery and stories about people rather than intricate plots (although his characters inner monologues can be very rich and complex). Here, he orchestrates the physical and mental world of a ballerina in turmoil perfectly and like in The Wrestler, Requiem for a Dream and π, Aronofsky gives us a likable protagonist with demons who descends into darkness.  He is obsessed with the mind and with human behavior and chooses to examine us as a species in diverse walks of life and afflictions. I read that initially a few years ago, Aronofsky wanted to make a film about a wrestler that falls in love with a ballerina. I am sure that would have been an interesting film, but I am happy things turned out the way they did.