Old movie review: Shotgun Stories is downright Shakespearian

About ten minutes into Jeff Nichols’ 2007 movie Shotgun Stories, I asked my husband, “Am I crazy, or is this, like, Shakespeare?”

Check it out: In rural Arkansas in the heat of summer, a woman knocks on the door of a shabby house. Her son opens, and she announces, “Your father’s dead.” The three brothers inside take this news in various ways, according to their natures. They next turn up at the funeral held by the dead man’s newer wife and his four newer sons, who enjoyed comfort and security after their father gave up alcohol, took up religion, turned his life around — and abandoned his first family entirely. The oldest son interrupts the eulogy to tell the world “You think he was a good man. But he wasn’t,” and he spits on the coffin. The upgraded family doesn’t take kindly to affront, and they take their revenge — and the bitter feud inevitably unfolds from there.

“He made like we were never born,” says the oldest son; and then he spends the rest of the film showing the world that, now that the father is dead, the first son is here, and he will not retreat. It is as if he cannot. Later, when his estranged wife finds out that there was a fight at the funeral, she asks him, “You think that was wise?” and he answers, “Doesn’t matter.” All the men in the movie are caught up in a violent drama that rolls out inexorably, as if it’s beyond anyone’s control. It is very hard to fault them for any of the choices they make, even when they will clearly lead to suffering, because they are behaving as one must in their world. It is as if the death of their father abruptly demands a higher, more elemental way of responding to the world — acting, rather than just enduring. (At the same time, at least some of the sons want the next generation to have something different.)

The three sinned-against sons are drawn in a few deft strokes that make fully-realized characters: One ambitious but prideful, one passive but single-minded, and one meek but intensely loyal. They are, you gradually realize, named “Son,” “Boy,” and “Kid,” (even the family dog has a more human name), while the upgraded family of sons are named after the father and after apostles. There is even a “fool,” a meth cooker named “Shampoo,” who cruises in and out of scenes delivering news, badgering, and instigating more drama. We never even see the father, dead or alive, but we know him well, through the memories of the seven sons he left behind.

There may possibly be an Old Testament/New Testament story being played out between the two families, working through themes of fathers who abandon us and yet somehow ordain our every move. I need to watch it again, because I know I missed a lot the first time around. Here’s a trailer that gives a pretty fair overview, although it doesn’t include the other two brothers, which is a shame:

What’s extraordinary about Shotgun Stories, and what also blew me away in Mud, the other Jeff Nichols movie I’ve seen, is the sense of place. Rarely, rarely have I seen such a true and real and immediate world through the lens of a movie camera. When the three brothers slump dejectedly in the street of their cracked, tired old town, I feel like I’ve lived there all my life and I’m sick to death of it. When Son reaches down to clear out the drainage pipe in the fish farm where he works, I feel the mindless weariness of it my sore elbow and my damp shirt cuff. I see exactly which parts of the tract home were fixed up by Son’s fed-up but not heartless wife, and which parts have fallen under the fate-haunted influence of the three brothers. The movie is clearly filmed on a shoestring, but it doesn’t look cheap, just true. Remarkable.

What I haven’t mentioned is how funny the movie is, in unexpected spurts. The third son, Boy (Douglas Ligon), a gentle, pudgy, part-time basketball coach who lives in a van down by the river, tries at one point to hook up a full size air conditioner to his van; and ever since his attempt, his radio will occasionally start blaring cheesy power ballads, and there’s nothing he can do about it. He endures this several times, at the worst possible moments, and it is only after the fourth time that he thinks to turn the volume down. But it is Boy who eventually becomes the center of the action after Son can’t protect his brothers anymore.

The casting is, as in Mud, impeccable, and the acting is flawless. Michael Shannon as Son is tremendous, infuriating and heartbreaking at once, his face conveying three layers of emotion for every word he tightly utters. Like the dead father, the shotgun of the title barely makes it on screen. Instead, you see scars of the past, and are waiting throughout the entire movie to see whether or not it will go off again, and what will come of it all. You will not be able to take your eyes away.

We saw this movie on Netflix streaming. Rated PG 13. Some violence and fleeting foul language; very intense in mood; suitable for teenagers. Highly recommended!

World’s okayest mom’s list of tolerable kid’s TV shows

Last week, we chatted about some children’s TV shows that are so good, I’ll sit and watch them myself, rather than just let a glowing screen raise my kids while I shoot up in the kitchen, or whatever it is I do all day.

Here, now, is the B list: shows my kids enjoy, which don’t make my gnash my teeth with guilt. But I won’t sit and watch it, not with both eyeballs. So my reviews may be a slightly on the useless side, since I haven’t exactly seen them.

As with the A-listers, these are all either on Netflix Streaming or Amazon Prime Streaming.

***

Masha’s Tales (Netflix)
This seems to be a Russian show dubbed into English, and it’s a spinoff from a show called Masha and the Bear, which we haven’t seen.

I think it’s a sort of fractured fairy tales thing, with a nutty little girl narrating the action. I like it because the narrator is an actual little girl, who occasionally endearingly stumbles over words, but who is very naturally dramatic and witty in her delivery. The music is often taken from great classical composers, too, so that’s excellent. It’s somewhat frenetic, but not too loud or obnoxious.

Wonder Pets (Amazon)
Popular for a reason. Whoever came up with the concept (I heard it was opera lovers) really was brilliant. Three kid animals who go on adventures all over the world in their homemade Flyboat to save baby animals in danger, and they sing lots of songs (and recitatives) along the way. This show is really quite dear to me, even if I won’t quite sit and watch it myself. One time, one of the kids asked the toddler what a sheep says, and she said, “Oh sheepy-hoo?”

They’ve locked down all the clips online, so this video is a clip of the game, not the actual show. Gives you the general idea:

It’s mildly witty and sweet, not screamy, not sassy, and the “photo-puppetry” animation, which imitates a child’s scissor-and-paste job, does not induce seizures. Lots of songs I don’t mind having in my head. I also enjoy the real kid voices, not supertrained America’s Kidz Got Singing-type voices.

Octonauts (Netflix)
This one violates a bunch of my “standards,” such as they are. I guess there are some animals and maybe some vegetables who go down in a submarine and have adventures, and also learn about the ocean? I am not sure. The animation is a big nothingburger, and I none of the characters seems especially interesting. I think they may learn a thing or two about the ocean.

However, for reasons I can’t explain, I LOVE the “Creature Report” song.

Creature report!!! I sing it to myself all the time. It’s just a good song!

Avatar: The Last Airbender (Amazon)

When a bunch of my kids requested handmade costumes of these characters for Halloween, I thought I was really gonna have to watch it, but I just fumbled through. It’s one of those shows that is just completely exhausting to me. First there is some teen drama and moping, and a few wisecracks and martial arts and sad parts, and then, in almost every episode, there is some version of a mystical volcano of light exploding and turning the mountain inside out, which triggers a lava of sound which causes the air to vibrate until it rains fire which makes everybody’s eyeballs turn into mirrors and unlocks the key to the mystery of the giant doors of ultimate power; and then, things start to get cuh-razy. Or so it seems to me. Here is a clip I chose at random:

All of my kids love this show (they are ages 18 to almost 2). I hear them laughing their heads off, and getting all somber together, gasping and shouting at the exciting parts. So, that’s why I let them watch it.

Martha Speaks (Netflix)

Pretty cute. It’s based on the books by Susan Meddaugh, which are funny and a little weird, and the cartoon seems to have preserved the spirit of the books pretty well. I like the theme music. I think it’s educational in some way, I guess for vocabulary or something.

I like how Martha is a smart dog who can talk and make jokes, but then Skits is just a regular old dumb dog.

Word Girl (Netflix)

The kids haven’t actually seen this show in a while, but I always tolerated it very well. It has some funny side characters, like Lady Redundant Woman and Sid the Evil Sandwich-Making Guy.

Someone put some effort into this one. It’s very PBS.

Barbie: Life In the Dreamhouse (Netflix)

I come pretty close to actually watching this show, which is genuinely entertaining. Barbie, Ken and their friends and frenemies go about their busy life, going on plastic camping trips, solving fashion and friendship problems, and throwing parties. The humor comes in because they are actual dolls, and they know it, so there’s no end of jokes about their articulated joints, their ability to make bake by flipping a stovetop over, Barbie’s agelessness and inexplicable number of careers, etc.

There are lots of references to other movies, and it’s very silly, but devoid of sexiness. My only objection to this show is that, being about Barbie and her friends, it is screeeeeeamy. Someone is always screaming or squealing or shrieking. It makes sense for the plot, but I can only deal with hearing a few episodes at a time.

I’m reluctantly including My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic (Netflix) for that reason. They did actually bother to write it, and the messages of cooperation, flexibility, teamwork, and friendship are perfectly fine. Some of the plots are witty or bizarre, with funny cameos and unexpected subplots. Here’s one of the songs from one of my kids’ favorite episodes:

But the screeeeeeaming, squeeeeeeealing, and shrieeeeeeeeking. Yikes. This one gets limited play time.

Teen Titans (oops, it turns out this isn’t available for free streaming after all!)
This show is so dang stupid. I don’t know what the appeal is; but, like Avatar, my kids all love it and get along when they’re watching it (and occasionally ask for Halloween costumes based on it), so I don’t object.

It is a flashy, silly “band of superheroes” cartoon of some kind, and some of the characters have emotional problems. One is purple and sad, and one is goofy and green. The theme song gets stuck in my head for this one, too, but I’m less thrilled about that. Sometimes the theme song is in Japanese, I guess.

The Adventure of Tintin (Amazon)
If you like the Tintin books by Hergé — and, oh, we do — there is no reason on heaven or earth that you would dislike these cartoons,

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NZsK4UDoo4o

except that they have this marvellous Canadian veneer of dullness that helps you just zo-o-o-o-o-o-o-one out. Wooah! Wooah!
***

Welp, that’s my list. Hope you were able to get something done while you read it with one eyeball. What do you tolerate at your house?

6 animated kid’s shows I’ll sit and watch myself

Here are six animated shows my kids are always happy to watch. Not only do I not object, I’ll sit and watch it with them, because they’re genuinely entertaining, and the creators knew what they were about. We get our TV through DVDs, or by streaming Netflix or Amazon Prime.

Shaun the Sheep

Shaun the Sheep belongs in a category with The Three Stooges, The Marx Brothers, and the heyday of Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck. Miraculously evocative stop-motion animation by Aardman, the folks who made Wallace and Gromit, it serves up the clever and ridiculous adventures of a band of thrill-seeking, British sheep who never get tired of outwitting (and sometimes colluding with) poor Bitzer, the faithful, scrupulous working dog, who, with his knit cap, his terry cloth wristband, and his everlasting to-do list, manages the farm and fruitlessly strives to please the irascible farmer. There’s always a mild rebellion afoot, mainly consisting in eating all the pastries, ordering pizza, and putting underwear on their head.

In this episode, Bitzer loses control of a bottle of glue:

There’s plenty of pure slapstick (complete with special theme music for those times when you’re getting beat up by pigs, and those times when you’re balancing on top of a runaway rolling object) and well-conceived stock characters (the winsome lamb Timmy; the ponderously ravenous Shirley; the trio of malicious pigs; the dreaded visiting niece; some unnervingly canny crows, and the occasional curious alien); but the show also allows itself some fleeting peeks into the characters’ interior lives. In one animated filler between episodes, Bitzer in human mode throws a stick, and then, becoming pure dog, bounds after it. And then he tries to take it away from himself, but growls and resists, because he is a dog. Brilliant, impeccably crafted, immensely satisfying. No words, but the sheep bleat, Bitzer whimpers and barks, and the farmer mumbles, rants, and hollers their way through unmistakable dialogue.

Four seasons, originally on CBBC, available on Amazon Prime.

***

Puffin Rock

Just a little lullabye of a show. There’s a tiny paradise on Puffin Rock, a wild island off the coast of Ireland, where the puffins, little Oona and her baby brother Baba, explore their little world, make friends, have some mild adventures, and always end up safe and happy. Here’s a taste:

Narrated by the cozy, corduroy voice of Chris O’Dowd (Roy of The IT Crowd), the show is pretty and atmospheric, giving you the sense you’ve put your head out the window to feel the breeze and smell the salt air. Gentle and lovely, with child voice acting that doesn’t grate or irritate.

Two seasons, 26 episodes, available for streaming on Netflix.

***

Ronja the Robber’s Daughter

Amazon Prime original series. We’ve seen the first two episodes of this new Studio Ghibli anime series (released January 2017), set in Medieval Scandanavia(ish), based on a 1981 book by Pippi Longstocking author Astrid Lindgren, and directed by Goro(son of Hayao) Miyazaki, narrated by Gillian Anderson.

I’m into it so far, with some reservations. Unlike my kids, I’m not a huge anime fan, but the ickier aspects (some sentimentality around children, weird pacing, sometimes jerkily animated facial expressions) aren’t overwhelming in this show. The animation is mixed, sometimes blocky, sometimes brilliant; some of the watercolored scenes are gorgeously atmospheric, and the sound effects go a long way to creating an arresting, believable world. It’s offbeat and funny enough that I’m invested in watching the rest of the series.

I just about died watching the robber and his band of toothless, muscled henchmen trying to coax their adored baby girl to eat her cereal; and I got a real chill from the harpies swirling around the castle while the mother labors to give birth to Ronja. Here’s that scene (not in English, though, sorry! The Netflix series is dubbed into English):

The mother is a huge pain in the neck, and I hope she gets taken down a few pegs, or just fades out of the story. Looking forward to getting back to this show.

***

Pingu

Sweet and hilarious adventures of a penguin named Pingu, his baby sister Pinga, his erratic friend the seal, his affectionate but stodgy father, and his loving but harried penguin mother. The show is done in appealingly fingerprinty claymation, and the dialogue is inspired gibberish. Pingu acts exactly like every little boy I’ve ever met. He has spectacular ideas that backfire on him; he tries to evade his pesky little sister, but deep down he loves her passionately; and when he’s bored, he just staggers around making noise and hitting stuff.

He does dumb stuff and then repents, and his parents bug out and then forgive him. Real, warm family and community relationships played out deftly without sentimentality. Entertaining and endearing.

160 five-minute episodes (1986 to 2000), originally from Switzerland, now available on Amazon Prime

***

Batman: The Animated Series

A lovingly-designed homage to 1940’s noir, a complete feast for the eyes, with real suspense and actual stories. The creators of this series put together a “writer’s bible”, including guidelines like “The humor in our version of Batman should arise naturally from the larger than life characters and never tongue-in-cheek campiness … Dry lines in tough situations and occasional comments about the outlandishness of costumed villains is certainly within the realistic context of our vision of Batman.” And the Joker makes jokes, but he is scary.

No Robin, no partnering with the police, no origin stories. Batman is grim and strong, and doesn’t lean too much on gadgets. When it’s funny, it’s really pretty funny (as in “Almost Got ‘Im”). Each episode has three acts, with a set-up, story development and increased tension, and then climax and resolution. Did I mention how it looks? It looks so good. I’ll share the opening sequence, because it’s a work of love and captures the show so well.

This show, true to its style, includes truly sinister people, nail-biters and cliff hangers, and female characters in skin-tight clothes, so caveat viewer. If you watch any animated Batman, let it be this one.

Five seasons, (1992-1995), now available on Amazon Prime

***

Sarah and Duck

This British animated show is made by people who really, really remember what it’s like to be a six-year-old. The matter-of-fact Sarah, a polite problem-solver, is accompanied by her slightly less patient friend, Duck, as they navigate adventures like becoming queen of the ducks, cheering up friends, going for a ride on the sea bus, and baking with ingredients that talk back.

The simple, big-headed characters came straight off your kid’s artwork on his fridge; and the plot lines and characters will ring true to anyone who’s listened to an imaginative kid tell a story. Weird and charming, devoid of sassiness and preching, it gives a very relatable model of considerate friendship. In this clip, Sarah and Duck fill in for the Bread Man:

Character include the daft scarf lady and her long-suffering handbag, a family of squeaky, cheerful shallots, and the moon. The music is also top notch.

Two seasons, originally on CBeebies, available for streaming on Netflix.

***

Next time: Shows that I will watch with half an eyeball while I’m working, and that I won’t mind too much if my kids watch.

 

 

Reading, watching, listening to …

I’m reading …

When You Are Engulfed In Flames by David Sedaris

cabbage cruz

Sedaris is the master of the short, comic, grotesque personal essay.  Are his rambling ideas connected, or is he just really good at making it seem like they are? I don’t know, but I die of envy. A little David Sedaris goes a long way, though, and the essays in this collection are not quite as tight and sharp as some of his other works – but still, very funny stuff, enough to make me snort while I’m reading in bed.  An excerpt from “What I Learned”:

It’s been interesting to walk around campus this afternoon, as when I went to Princeton, things were completely different. This chapel, for instance—I remember when it was just a clearing, cordoned off with sharp sticks. Prayer was compulsory back then, and you couldn’t just fake it by moving your lips; you had to know the words, and really mean them. I’m dating myself, but this was before Jesus Christ. We worshipped a God named Sashatiba, who had five eyes, including one right here, on the Adam’s apple. None of us ever met him, but word had it that he might appear at any moment, so we were always at the ready. Whatever you do, don’t look at his neck, I used to tell myself.

It gets a little more R-rated than that in other essays; caveat lector.

 

I’m watching …

Disney Animated Shorts on Netflix streaming.  An overall entertaining collection with good animation, including:

“John Henry,”
“Lorenzo,”
“The Little Matchgirl,”
“How To Hook Up Your Home Theater,”
“Tick Tock Tale,”
“Prep & Landing: Operation Secret Santa,”
“The Ballad Of Nessie,”
“Tangled Ever After,”
“Paperman,”
“Get A Horse!”
“Feast,”
“Frozen Fever” which even the kids thought was kind of weird. Adorable animated snot monsters? Sure, why not.

“Feast,” which premiered before Big Hero 6, is just wonderful, especially if you have a dog. Very beautifully rendered, sweet, deft, and funny. Also, I appreciate the fact that Pixar consistently says, “Psst, babies don’t actually ruin everything!”  (It’s not about kids, it’s about a dog (well, really it’s about love, like all Pixar films); but it shows a happy family as the natural progress of love.)

We have a bunch of pukey kids at home, and these are keeping them happy, but they are skipping past the little introductions before each short.

For Halloween, the little kids watched Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, which features actual Bela Lugosi and Lon Chaney, Jr.  Benny, 3, was almost overcome with terror; the rest of us watched with one eyeball and let the other eyeball rest. This movie is a bit of a puzzle for us, as my husband and I are both convinced that we only show it to the kids because the other one desires it. I don’t even like Abbott and Costello, so I guess that settles that. Why would you watch Abbott and Costello instead of the Three Stooges? Other than Lon Chaney, Jr.?

The older kids were too worn out to deal with the scary DVD we rented, Diabolique, so we watched Army of Darkness again.  Still funny. But the next day we went to Mass and I told my son I was going to write the grandparents’ names in the Book of the Dead, “UM, I mean ‘Book of the Deceased.’”

This is the kind of thing that gets us quietly taken off the LifeTeen email tree.*

*Not really. They are very  nice.

 

I’m listening to …

a bunch o’ Sibelius, because it’s his birthday, and I’ve had just about enough. I do like singing hymns set to “Finlandia,” though, unless the words they choose are “This is my song.”

My country’s skies are bluer than the ocean,
and sunlight beams on cloverleaf and pine;
but other lands have sunlight too, and clover,
and skies are everywhere as blue as mine:
O hear my song, thou God of all the nations,
a song of peace for their land and for mine.

And God is like, “That’s your song, eh? That’s your song? Check yo’ Unitarian privilege, mah people!”

What, are you saying God is racist? That’s just weird.

Netflix, Microsoft, and the Working Mom

512px-Woman_teaching_geometry

Certainly Netflix and Microsoft are thinking of their bottom line, but they also seem to realize that their employees are people, not just cogs. Women (and men, of course) are capable of giving real attention both to work and to their children — but work and children can both be done better if working moms feel less torn, less rushed, less guilty, and less like every aspect of her life is getting short shrift. These are not impossible goals.

Women can’t have it all, and neither can men. Working and raising a family means making sacrifices — but, if employers are willing to be more flexible and imaginative, those sacrifices don’t need to be intolerable. The goal of making life easier for working moms is a very pro-life goal.

Read the rest at the Register. 

***

Frank Underwood and Andy Sipowicz meet God

This is the season where House of Cards lost us.

For the first few seasons, the writers managed to keep up the with complicated, deliberately heavy-handed game they were playing. But when we got to season 3, episode 4, my husband and I watched quietly, and then reached the same conclusion: “Hey, remember Frasier? That was a good show. Let’s watch Frasier.

Here’s what pushed us over the edge. It made sense, at first, that a guy like Frank Underwood would start to falter as soon as he actually achieves everything he’s been striving for — no more worlds to conquer, etc. — but boy, things fell apart fast. I feel like I was seeing highlights from a longer show, and key developments have been left out. One minute, he’s on top of the world; next minute, people are suddenly sick and tired of him for being horrible all the time; next minute, Lady Macbeth is throwing Heavily Symbolic Eggs around and they’re having Heavily Symbolic Sex, again, because it’s TV, and who’s going to argue with that?

Then suddenly he’s mad at his father, and then even more suddenly, he’s shaken to the core because he hung around in Arlington Cemetery for a while; and then, most suddenly of all, he finds the time to stroll over to the local church and hold a Socratic dialogue with the bishop about he meaning of justice. Here’s the scene (warning: they show some pretty heavy duty blasphemy, which is upsetting to see):

Hmmm, really? Up until now, Francis Underwood has been vigorously secular and, more importantly, ruthlessly practical, in a show which has only ever used religion as a minor and lazy plot pusher (church! It’s where you go when you’re a loser, and possibly a secret lesbian). But with zero warning, this guy suddenly strides up to God, shoutss at him, and spits in his face, ZOW! And then God topples over, POW! And he winks at the camera and makes a third grade valentine-grade pun about it all, YOW!

Here we have the common error: the director thinks he’s delivering High Drama à la Irony Flambé, and instead serves up a steaming bowl of “Wocka wocka!” He could have achieved the same thrills and chills for the audience by, for instance, having a dog run in on his hind legs and shriek at Francis, “IT JUST DON’T ADD UP!” That would have made me gasp, too. No need to go smashing crucifixes.

It’s not my religious sensibilities that were offended, although that’s also the case. The problem is that you gotta earn these moments, with careful character development and exquisite pacing, and by planting seeds ahead of time so that the sturm und drang are at least plausible, rather than just sturmy. If you want to expose some interior turmoil, you have to do it in a way that is natural to the character — ideally, in a way that actually shows you something about the character, as well as what’s on his mind.

Perfect example of this? NYPD Blue’s season finale of season 7, “The Last Round Up.” Sipowicz is in the hospital yet again, facing the death of yet another son. His life has been a tangle of unearned suffering and humiliation and undeserved blessings and rewards. He is one part Job, one part Phillip Marlowe, one part the person we wish we could be, one part the person we’re afraid people will find out we actually are — and as such, especially the Job part, he has certain things to say to God.

So how do they let the viewer in on his state of mind? If you’re Frank Underwood’s writer, you channel Francis Ford Coppola’s dumb cousin, and assume that everything that happens with stained glass in the background is, by definition, highly effective cinema.

But if you’re David Milch, you do something subtle and brilliant (and I couldn’t find a clip online anywhere, expect for piratey looking sites): desperate with fear and grief, Sipowicz finds himself in the hospital chapel, and the only other guy in the room is deaf. Sipowicz has become more tolerant and enlightened in the last several years, but you can only push him so far; so in his rage and despair, he rails against the foreign grunts and mutterings of the deaf man as he prays — until Sipowicz realizes, to his disgust and relief, that no one in that room can hear him, besides God himself. So he speaks aloud, and he says exactly what’s on his mind.

The only time we ever hear Sipowicz being totally honest is when he’s alone with someone he hates — some revolting criminal locked in an interrogation room — or with someone he loves, likes one of his long-suffering wives. And to Sipowicz, God is both of these, the unquestionable authority and the inexcusable criminal. It doesn’t really matter whether he actually believes in God or not: The scene gives you everything you need to know about his thoughts, and the presentation is so absurdly natural, just the kind of painfully ridiculous scene that a homicide detective wades into every day. No gimmicks were necessary to break down the third wall. Oh, it all adds up!

The writers of House of Cards, on the other hand, have written themselves into a bit of a dilemma. Since Francis has been speaking directly and sincerely to the camera since the first episode, it’s almost impossible to have him reveal anything that will shock us. So they had to ratchet everything up by putting him right at the foot of the cross, challenging God face to face. To viewers who will cheer anything that looks edgy, it’s a daring and hilarious move. To anyone who expects the show to deliver what it promises, and who have been making the effort to understand who Frank Underwood really is,  it’s a craven trick, and lands with a splat.

I really liked Frank Underwood’s speech from an earlier episode, where he tells Americans, “You are entitled to nothing.” It’s a message the writers of House of Cardsneed to hear.

***

NYPD Blue is available for streaming (free for Amazon Prime members). Here is “The Last Round Up.”
House of Cards is available for streaming on Netflix. 

House of Cards – Which version hits harder?

For the first time I can remember ever, I am looking forward to Valentine’s Day.  Netflix will be releasing season two of House of Cards, hooray!  I didn’t like every single thing about this series, but it was always interesting, and sometimes brilliant. It was juicy. I liked it.

After we binge-watched season one, we went ahead and found the original, British version, and enjoyed that, too — although, predictably, in a different way.  James Fallows at The Atlantic (who hastens to reassure us that he’s “not a subscriber to the ‘Oh, the Brits do it all so much more suavely’ school”) thinks that the British version edges out the American one:

There are lots of tough breaks in Kevin Spacey’s House of Cards, but in the end there is a kind of jauntiness to it. People kill themselves; politicians lie and traduce; no one can be trusted — and still, somewhere deep it has a kind of American optimism. That’s us (and me). USA! USA!

It’s different in the UK version. Richardson’s Francis Urquhart reminds us that his is the nation whose imagination produced Iago, and Uriah Heep, and Kingsley Amis’s “Lucky Jim” Dixon. This comedy here is truly cruel — and, one layer down, even bleaker and more squalid than it seems at first. It’s like the contrast between Rickey Gervais in the original UK version of The Office and Steve Carell in the knock-off role. Steve Carell is ultimately lovable; Gervais, not. Michael Dobbs, whose novel was the inspiration for both series, has told the BBC that the U.S. version was “much darker” than the British original. He is wrong — or cynically sarcastic, like Urquhart himself.

I’m not so sure “optimism” is the right word for the American version; and I think I agree with Michael Dobbs that the American version is darker.

The British version is most certainly more naked.

You know how British TV and movies are allowed to use actors who have real faces like real human beings, rather than the uniformly plasticized sparkle people that populate American casts.  Oh, that dry British hair! Oh, those British pores! The story is presented the same way:  one vile action after another, right there on screen.  You are fairly sure that when Francis speaks directly to the camera, he means every word he says.  Maybe I’m just too dumb to catch on (and maybe I’m missing some nuance, not knowing anything about British politics) but the British version often appeared strangely artless to me, with its constant replaying of the scream “Daddyyyyyyy!”  On the other hand, when you watch the final episode, you see that the whole series has been building, with very British patience and reserve, to . . . well, the final episode. You gotta watch it.

The American version

has more ambiguity — characters are more in flux, and their motivations are more confused — which leaves the viewer in a much more precarious place.  When Francis speaks to us, we are really not sure that he’s telling us, or even himself, the truth.  At the same time, the show aims for a level of purely entertaining stylization, signaled with the blood-and-thunder opening sequence and the bombastic theme music. It is clearly setting out to relish every last sleek, cynical second, and occasionally seems a little taken aback (yes, the show itself. Look, I watch TV when I’m tired) when it dips into true horror — which makes those moments all the more horrible. Oh, I was so glad when that awful little reporter suddenly decided to clean up her apartment. That was good.

Anyway, very interesting stuff, right up my alley.  Have you seen both? What do you think?