House of Cards Falls Down

Ugh. I missed a Friday posting because I apparently have the plague. I’ll try and stay on top of things this week if I can stop hacking up a lung. Three seasons of House of Cards is currently available on instant Netflix

House of Cards

 

House of Cards (2013-5) – Rated TV-MA

This Emmy-winning original thriller series stars Golden Globe winner Kevin Spacey as ruthless, cunning Congressman Francis Underwood, who will stop at nothing to conquer the halls of power in Washington D.C. His secret weapon: his gorgeous, ambitious, and equally conniving wife Claire (Golden Globe winner Robin Wright).

I loved the original BBC miniseries House of Cards (1990) and its two followups, all currently available on instant Netflix. It was a brilliant updating of Shakespeare’s Richard III, complete with breaking the fourth wall. Star Ian Richardson was a marvel. It was so perfect that I approached Netflix’ Americanization of the series with some trepidation.

I need not have worried. Kevin Spacey is an absolute delight as Francis Underwood. Robin Wright makes for a marvelous Claire Underwood/Lady MacBeth. The changes in politics do not undermine the story at all. The first two seasons of House of Cards are marvelous exercises in the use of power.

This brings us to the recently released third season of House of Cards. Bless Netflix for releasing their series a season at a time. My wife and I far prefer to binge on series than to watch from week to week. The third season/series of the BBC House of Cards was not as good as the first two but was a fine and fitting end to the series.

The third season of Netflix’ House of Cards is just awful. Let me clarify. The show itself isn’t awful per se and Kevin Spacey, Robin Wright, and the rest of the cast are still superb. It just appears that whoever wrote the first two seasons disappeared and was replaced by a hack or certainly someone who did not understand what made the first two seasons work.

Francis and Claire Underwood were able to manipulate their way to the top through various acts of subterfuge, backroom deals, blackmail, and the devotion/ambition of various underlings. Third season Francis is no longer bright, much less brilliant, and goes out of his way to alienate everyone who could possibly help him. Stamper, one of the more fascinating characters from previous seasons, is given enormous screentime while at the same time is essentially sidelined for the entire season. We get to watch him eat, go to AA meetings, sleep, and generally wait over and over again for someone to use him.

One of the writers comes up with the America Works program, clearly someone fresh off a course on Roosevelt’s New Deal. The Russian premier is a Putin-like thug. There are some callbacks to previous seasons but mostly ones that will have you scratching your head as you thought that topic had already been settled. There are so many moments where the screenwriters spent all their time figuring out if they could do something, without stopping to think if they should.

Third season Francis is basically a high-functioning idiot and Claire is little better. No spoilers but I will say that they have Claire do something (several somethings actually) that no First Lady has ever done. It doesn’t smack of bold writing so much as fantasy land. Do yourself a favor and stop at the end of season two.

BBC, Netflix, and House of Cards

* Netflix has added an odd new feature. If you search on particular networks (NBC, Comedy Central, MTV, Discovery Channel), there will be a hyperlink at the top of the page asking to take you to “Genre:NBC”, “Genre:Comedy Central”, etc. Most of the major networks aren’t there yet but it is a neat new feature. BBC is only there as BBC comedy so far.

* Speaking of BBC, they are planning to launch a video download store a la iTunes or Amazon. No word yet on whether this will be global. BBC states that it will be for “a relatively modest fee”. So far though download prices for movies on iTunes, Amazon and the others are ridiculously high, especially for a product with no resale value. Heck for catalog titles (i.e. non-new releases), they are often more expensive than their DVD (and sometimes Blu-Ray) counterparts.

House of Cards

“Set in Britain’s Houses of Parliament, this political satire follows the career of a ruthless MP (Ian Richardson) whose election campaign has been plagued by a number of mysterious deaths. The politician’s scheming knows no bounds, and he manages to ensnare a member of the royal family in his quest for power. This series was controversial in Britain for its close depiction of Prince Charles’s actual life.”

Netflix calls this three seasons but it is actually three different mini-series. The first, House of Cards, details Francis Urquhart’s rise to power. The second, To Play the King, details Urquhart’s power struggle with a Prince Charles-type character and the third is The Final Cut. House of Cards is excellent, To Play the King is brilliant, and The Final Cut is very good but a little haphazard as if it were a but rushed.

Ian Richardson is amazing as the scheming Francis Urquhart. He consistently breaks the fourth wall with snarky asides and is wonderfully ruthless. The supporting cast is wonderful as well but everyone plays second fiddle to Ian, even the earnest Michael Kitchen as the King. Don’t worry if the politics are a bit different from those in the U.S., this is great fun and not that hard to follow.

I’m really looking forward to Netflix’ remake of this next year with Kevin Spacey in the lead. It also stars Kate Mara and Robin Wright and, according to imdb, is being directed by David Fincher.

The Fourth Protocol – Weapons of Mass Destruction week

This is Weapons of Mass Destruction week. The Fourth Protocol is currently available on instant Netflix.

The Fourth Protocol

PASS: The Fourth Protocol (1987) – Rated R.

“In an effort to shatter NATO alliances, Russian spy Valeri Petrofsky (Pierce Brosnan) plots to explode a nuclear bomb in Britain and blame the act on America. It is up to British agent John Preston (Michael Caine) to foil the plan, despite the skepticism of his superiors. Based on the book by best-selling author Frederick Forsyth, this well-crafted espionage thriller also stars Joanna Cassidy as a second Russian agent.”

“He is armed with a bomb.” – “How big a bomb?” – “Atomic bomb.”

Director John MacKenzie does a capable job here. Unfortunately that is the best that can be said. This is a typical by-the-numbers Cold War spy thriller. There is no particular flair or artistry involved.

Author Frederick Forsyth helped write the screenplay from his novel. The script is very literate but there is very little life or passion in it. It is strange that with so much attention to detail, the antagonists assemble the atomic bomb with their bare hands, including handling the radioactive material.

Gasp! John Preston (Michael Caine) is a rogue agent who does not play by the rules! In one scene he notably stares at a countdown timer as it reaches 007. He is a little past his prime here but always enjoyable.

Pierce Brosnan (post-Remington Steele, pre-James Bond) is our primary antagonist. He drives a  motorcycle with the tag C700 OBL (yet another 007 reference). Joanna Cassidy is his cover “wife”.

Ian Richardson is the only standout in a good cast. He is simply superb in his brief screen-time as Sir Nigel Irvine. While I have not reviewed them yet, his starring role in The House of Cards trilogy is extremely highly recommended.

The rest of the cast is quite good as well though they seem somewhat wasted. Julian Glover is the priggish boss, Brian Harcourt-Smith, who refuses to believe any evidence simply because he hates John Preston. Michael Gough plays outgoing boss, Sir Bernard Hemmings (so we have both of the recent Alfreds, faithful butler to Batman). Ned Beatty plays Borisov.

None of the action is exciting. A car does a 180 degree screech to a halt so Preston can grab a train. A van hits two other cars to pull out of a traffic jam. Ho hum.

There is nothing wrong with this thriller (well other than that it is not very thrilling) but there is nothing special about it either. In spite of the good cast, I cannot really recommend this.

People Watch: Matt (Max Headroom) Frewer has a small part here as Tom McWhirter. He puts quite the twang into his voice. Frederick Forsyth cameos as a radio newsreader.