House of Cards – Season 4, Episode 1

The long wait is over (nearly a year for me). House of Cards returned to Netflix today to open its 4th season. Though all the episodes are available, I will only discuss the past season and the opener in this post. This is not a full recap, but there are some spoilers – so you’ve been alerted.

When I had finished last season, I was sure (looking ahead) that Kevin Spacey‘s President Frank Underwood would be facing a difficult year. There was the Presidential election to deal with and Underwood’s rival, Heather Dunbar, played by Elizabeth Marvel, was a way tougher opponent than the usual straw men that Underwood pushed around, stepped on, or sent packing as if they mattered not. Of course they mattered, otherwise why would Underwood have bothered.

Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly) returned from the presumed dead and eventually, he not only resumed his role as Underwood’s chief-of-staff, fixer, bagman, and aide-de-camp; that is, after Remy Danton stepped aside and moved to a less stressful (and better paying) job in the private sector, a position made available by the maneuverings of Underwood’s Press Secretary Seth Grayson, but Stamper also joined his boss the President in that not so exclusive club known as I Am a Murderer, after he disposed of the bothersome (in Stamper’s mind) Rachel Posner.

Now Rachel had gone off the grid, like Jason Bourne did in India, only in her case it was somewhere in the Southwest and would have remained so, but Stamper put the screws on Gavin Orsay to bend the FBI rules and discover her whereabouts via facial recognition software, so he could thereby remove the last possible impediment to making sure Congressman Peter Russo’s demise remained as reported – a suicide.

On top of everything else, as season three ended,

The First Lady, Claire Underwood announced to her husband Frank, I am leaving you.

So of course, I was taken completely by surprise when this, the fourth season, opened in a prison cell –

the one where Lucas Goodwin was incarcerated. Goodwin, as you may recall, worked with Zoe Barnes until she had an unfortunate collision with a fast-moving Washington Metro train at the hands of Francis Underwood to open Season Two. Goodwin did not witness Zoe’s murder, but he knew enough about Zoe and Underwood to raise many questions. Goodwin got sent to prison after he was duped into committing a cyber-crime, a crime that was arranged by the big-nosed guy from the FBI, and his operative, Gavin Orsay.

More than a few folks said at the time, that this Lucas Goodwin would be a key person down the road, and be at least an involved player in bringing down Frank Underwood. Which is all fine and good, but in this the opening stanza of the 4th season – Goodwin appeared in 4 separate scenes – 2 in his cell, one with his lawyer, and then again, in a safe house that he would occupy under a new identity.

As his attorney would say – the government is not your enemy. The government is protecting you. I’m not sure why – unless, Goodwin has told them what he knows about Barnes and Underwood.

To me, this undercuts any drama that might have arisen when we learned that Goodwin was no longer in jail. I think it was a mistake to reveal this in the first episode of the season. In fact it was an even bigger mistake to open the episode with him.

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House of Cards: Chapter 17 (Ep 2 x 04) Recap/Review

****some mild spoilers ahead****

The 4th episode of House of Cards second season was much more of a concentrated episode. All of the most important and more serious activity was loaded into just two main segments and two lesser sections. Believe it or not, even though a white powder was sent in a package to the Democratic section of the Capitol Building, which would result in a full-scale quarantine of the Capitol, that was only for background.

Of course, one outcome of the quarantine was that Frank Underwood was trapped in an office with Donald Blythe, who announced within seconds of shaking hands with Frank, that he would not side with Frank on the pending HR934, the entitlements bill, and that he wouldn’t change his mind – no matter what. The other was that Frank would not be able to get home for the Ashleigh Banford interview that was set up by the Underwood’s new flack – Connor Ellis.

Back at the Underwood home, Claire was prepping for the interview with Ashleigh Banfield. Banfield is a real life TV Journalist who works for CNN. She’s sort of the Barbara Walters of this era. And today, as I write this, Banfield is dealing with having received death threats on Twitter for her views on the Michael Dunn murder trial in Jacksonville.

But not to mix fact and fiction, the Claire Underwood/Ashleigh Banfield interview is one of the two major, two person dramas that will play out before our eyes. The other being the battle of wills, feelings, and votes between Donald Blythe and Frank.

There’s a major difference – Claire’s interview was a choice that she made when she agreed to do the interview. On the other hand, Frank and Blythe didn’t have a choice – after all a quarantine is a quarantine. They were in the right place at the wrong time.

As the quarantine worked it self through the prescribed protocols, Frank and Donald were soon moments way from coming to blows.

But with Ashleigh directing the course of the interview, Claire would eventually reach a the place known as The Great Reveal. Claire would tell Ashleigh, and a sizeable portion of the American public why she and Frank were childless, and that she was once pregnant, and that she terminated the pregnancy by an elective abortion. She would further reveal that the pregnancy was the result of a sexual assault when she was in college.

This scene was a great example of Robin Wright’s acting skills. There is value in not just what she says, or how she says it. Watch carefully for the expressions, the pauses, even when she needs a break. We can offer Wright a lot of kudos for this scene. And if she was playing Banford, then she is just as great at manipulation as Frank Underwood himself.

Ashleigh probed even deeper, and before long, Claire would reveal the name of the rapist , the newly commissioned General Dalton McGuinness. Of course this was explosive news to the American public – Claire stated that Frank’s career could now be in jeopardy, that she expected to not only be reviled and have her faith questioned, but there also could be death threats.

Ashleigh stated that they would have to take a break, as the network would have to contact McGuinness for a response. While that was happening, another woman phoned in – a soldier once under Guinness command, to tell that she had been raped by him too.

This was truly powerful television.

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House of Cards: Chapter 16 (2 x 03) – Recap/Review

House of Cards nearly collapsed under the weight of being ludicrous in this episode (Chapter 16). While I did appreciate the continued jousting going on between Frank Underwood and Raymond Tusk, I didn’t much care for the Senatorial One-Upsmanship where Frank, and his advisers outplayed the Republicans on the field of parliamentary procedure.

There are two kinds of Vice Presidents...

There are two kinds of Vice Presidents…

Having Senators carried in while manacled and handcuffed just didn’t create the kind of tension that this show is noted for. But that was the end game. The runup with Frank dueling with Key Republican senators like Hector Mendes, Donald Blythe, and Curtis Haas was kind of fun as we get to see Frank in his finest cooking mode. But a fight over entitlements and retirement age adjustments is far from scintillating.

However, there was a very key aside made by Frank just before the opening credits rolled.

The cult of Tusk. Membership one. That one disciple just happens to be the most powerful man in the free world… for now.

The Cult of Tusk. Membership one....

The Cult of Tusk. Membership one….

As you know, or at least have thought of, Frank is aiming for greater proximity to the Presidential ear. Likely to be fine tuned, and tweaked, with the Presidency itself as the ultimate goal.

Meanwhile some newly born sub-stories come into focus:

1) Claire Underwood is about to hire a pr person, one Connor Ellis.

Christina: ..takes us back to the Ice Age President Walker: Oh, I like that, Linda?

Christina: ..takes us back to the Ice Age
President Walker: Oh, I like that, Linda?

2) Claire Underwood notices how close the President and Christina (who worked with Peter Russo) seem to be. Cozy and intimate are the terms used by Frank and Claire as they discuss it. Neither Claire nor Frank believe that there’s anything going on.
3) Lucas Goodwin makes contact with the super hackers
4) Lucas approaches Janine Skorsky, who has moved to Ithaca, NY and is teaching. She declines his entreaties, but some how, I don’t think this is the last we will see of her.

Soon, actually somewhere slightly past the 31 minute mark, we get another key aside by Frank:

Tusk is blocking my way. Goodwin at my heels. There can be no false steps now. The higher up the mountain, the more treacherous the path.

5) Frank’s Doberman, otherwise known to us as Doug Stamper, is keeping close tabs on Rachel Posner, the prostitute that kept company with the victimized and deceased Congressman, Peter Russo. I’m not sure why Stamper, or Frank, have not suggested that Posner go away permanently rather than being stashed in a Maryland suburb working at a call center.

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House of Cards: Chapter 15 Episode 2 x 02 Recap

Frank Underwood: Well it’s always a coin toss with the Chinese. But sometimes, standing your ground is better than giving in.They respect you more when you give a show of strength.
President Walker: Are you changing your mind on this Frank?
Frank Underwood: I think it is important that you do what you think is best. The American people voted for you as President. Not me, and not Raymond Tusk.

How easily the words flow from Frank.

Chapter 15 (Sn 2 Ep 2) of House of Cards opened with the pre-credits swearing-in of Francis ‘Frank’ Underwood as Vice President of the United States. It was a private ceremony conducted in Frank’s home. But not so private that we didn’t get to see it. Frank had refused to move to the official VP Residence at One Observatory Circle, so his home needed to be fitted out with the necessary communications, surveillance, and security measures. As one of the attending Congressmen said: It’s like a war zone in here.

The swearing-in went off without a hitch and the main parts of it had already been seen on the Season Two Trailer. However it did serve as introduction to the two men who would be competing for Frank’s old job as the Majority WHIP. Given that House of Cards (HOC) likes to include small seemingly innocuous, or unimportant scenes, that might later turn out to be instruments of foreshadow, we must record that the camera work, writing, and direction had Frank take a good, long look at a CCTV camera being installed in one of the rooms. You heard it here first.

We also got a good look at the squabbling Howard and Wes both vying for the WHIP position. Frank called it cat-fighting.

From there we get the marvelous opening credits which I never tire of watching. I always seem to wait for (and enjoy) that passing train which zips by so fast, that you can miss it with a blink. From there, we start off with the meat and potatoes of this episode which are basically:

a) the terrible trio of Raymond Tusk, Secretary of State Catherine Durant, and Frank Underwood head into the deep end of the pool, using trade talks, and other key subjects with China, like government sponsored cyber-attacks, theft of intellectual property (software) and so forth with the intent and purpose of Frank looking to replace Tusk’s influence over President Garrett Walker with his own. Frank doesn’t tell this to Catherine, but we can easily see how he twists her arm without her being even aware of it. And Tusk won’t say anything to Walker either – with the exception being that he suggests something of a soft-pedaling with China. Tusk’s business interests trump any concern he might feel about the public perception of Walker.

b) The battle for the WHIP position will bring Jackie Sharp into a key focus and prominence. You will remember that she’s Frank choice over Frick and Frack (Howard and Wes) the dueling Congressmen. Jackie will have to toss Teddy Havermeyer under the bus to become a valid contender even though he’s willing to back her. Wes will bow out in exchange for Ways and Means, and Teddy being embarrassed enough to step down. Even though Jackie likes Teddy who is played by David Clennon (once and forever the Prince of Darkness from his days as Miles Drentel on thirtysomething) she has to do it. Frank easily sidesteps her concerns.

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House of Cards: Season Two – Opening Episode

The latest storm in Washington has dropped about nine inches of snow. This is about double the usual monthly average for February and the nation’s capital, and it is only February 14th. By the way, there’s another storm on the way.

Speaking of stormy weather, that is, the kind that is brought on by the machinations of one Francis ‘Frank’ Underwood, soon to be a former Congressman on the Netflix TV Series House of Cards, because he’s about to be named, then confirmed, and installed as the nation’s Vice President – he’s back. House of Cards Season Two was launched today.

As Underwood has stated in the Season Two trailer: One heartbeat away from the Presidency and not a single vote cast in my name. Democracy is so-overrated.

The above was Underwood speaking to us. This was a usual event in Season One, but we had none of it this time until the end of this Season 2 first episode.

Not everyone likes it when Underwood breaks the 4th wall and speaks to us. But I love it. While I understand intellectually, that he is not speaking to me and me alone, somehow when it happens, this is how I think of it.

Quite near the end of this episode, we get our first Underwood aside.

Did you think I’d forgotten you? Perhaps you’d hoped I had?

For those climbing to the top of the food chain, there is but one rule:
Hunt or be hunted.
Welcome back.

Yes he’s back, and having watched and absorbed the season opener, I am now faced with a decision. Shall I pace myself, and view one episode per week or one per day? Or shall I binge-watch and race through this second season in a matter of hours instead of weeks.

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The Conspirator

Why is it that so many of the best historical period films have executions. Sir Thomas More, played superbly by Paul Scofield, in A Man for all Seasons met the axeman’s blade at the cost of his head. The film garnered six Oscars. Braveheart walked away with 5 Oscars and Mel Gibson as William Wallace died as his body was being pulled apart screaming ‘freedom‘. Anne Boleyn (Anne of the Thousand Days) was beheaded; and Joan of Arc was burned at the stake.

Robert Redford’s The Conspirator is another such film. Taken from the pages of American history, Redford and a new outfit, The American Film Company, have just released The Conspirator, a recreation of the assassination of American President Abraham Lincoln on April 14th, 1865, and the aftermath which resulted in a trial and execution of the conspirators.

The film pays an enormous amount of attention to costumes, make up, lighting, period homes and furnishings. In short the production simply oozes value. The stars are James McAvoy as Frederick Aiken, the passionate defense attorney, Robin Wright as Mary Surratt – the accused, Tom Wilkinson as Reverdy Johnson, a Senator from Maryland, Kevin Kline as Secretary of War, Edward Stanton, Danny Houston as Joseph Holt, the government’s prosecuting attorney, and Colm Meany as General Hunter, the presiding justice of the military tribunal that tried Mary Surratt.

Lincoln’s assassination occurs minutes into the film, and shortly thereafter John Wilkes Booth is shot dead in a barn. You can consider all of this as just the appetizers. The film spent no time in showing us the planning or the detection, or the apprehension of the conspirators. The meat and potatoes of the film is the trial.

Tom Wilkinson plays a US Senator and a lawyer. He’s really a talented actor. He was British General Cornwallis in Gibson’s The Patriot, and he was a lawyer who met a nasty fate in the George Clooney film,  Michael Clayton. Here he begins as the lead counsel for the defense, appointed by Kline’s Secretary of War. He asks McAvoy’s Aiken to sit as second chair, but once he got a good sense of the lay of the land regarding the trial he bowed out.

Senator Johnson: The military trial of civilians is an atrocity…

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The Pledge

Nearly a decade ago, on January 19th, 2001, a film directed by Sean Penn was released. The cast was very impressive starting with a nearly unrecognizable Benicio Del Toro who was joined by Aaron Eckhart, Patricia Clarkson, Tom Noonan, Helen Mirren, Michael O’Keefe, Mickey Rourke, Vanessa Redgrave, Sam Shepard, Robin Wright, and … Jack Nicholson.

To be honest, I didn’t know anything about this film when it popped up in the middle of the suggested film list for me provided by Netflix. The title is The Pledge.

Simply, Jack plays a retiring sheriff in Reno, Nevada. While he and his friends were at his retirement party, a gruesome murder of a young child was discovered. Jack only had hours to go before his official retirement date, but he went out on the call.

A little 8 year girl had been brutally raped and killed. When no one wanted to go and tell the parents, Jack playing Jerry Black, stepped up and went to see them. This is when we got one of the most unusual shots in the history of film.

The Larsons, Margaret and Duane, (Clarkson and O’Keefe) were the parents of the slain little girl. They ran a turkey farm. We see them at work in the turkey ‘barn’ as Nicholson arrives. This barn is about the size of a basketball court and filled with young turkeys who are just milling about  in all their wall-to-wall splendor. Nicholson enters at the far end of the shot and he has to wade through these thousands of live turkeys. We hear the sounds of these gobblers but we don’t hear Nicholson or the Larsons. From our perspective it may as well have been pantomine.

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