Archive | February, 2013

“I couldn’t possibly comment…” ‘House of Cards’ goes Stateside

27 Feb

House of Cards

 

THE FOLLOWING POST CONTAINS VIRTUALLY NO SPOILERS.

This month saw the online movie and TV streaming site Netflix take a step into the unknown. They commissioned, and on a single day in February released every episode of a 13-part drama, House of Cards, based upon the BBC’s 1990 series of the same name, itself adapted by Andrew Davies from Michael Dobbs’s novel.

Like its British namesake, Netflix’s House of Cards is a kind of quasi-Shakespearean political drama (including Fourth-Wall-Breaking asides to the audience), with the action transplanted from Westminster to Washington D.C. Our protagonist – and sort-of narrator – is Frances Underwood (Urquhart in the original), a scheming congressman and chief whip for the Democratic Party. Underwood (played in scenery-chewing mode by Kevin Spacey) is a master manipulator, a Machiavellian genius using everyone around him, from rookie congressmen to the US President himself, as his puppets and pawns.

In his schemes, he’s aided and abetted by wife Claire (Robin Wright), amoral Chief of Staff Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly) and an ambitious young reporter for the Washington Herald, Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara).

House of Cards

The series’ chief writer is Beau Willimon, who penned George Clooney’s 2011 political drama The Ides of March, and it’s produced – and it’s opening episode directed by – David Fincher.

The original series was an instant classic, and Francis Urquhart (played so brilliantly by Ian Richardson) is one of the most – if not the most – memorable TV villains of the last 25 years, so it’s inevitable that here in the UK comparisons, often unfavourable, will be made between the two.

That said, most of those comparisons will be pointless. Many of the changes made in the transatlantic crossing were absolutely necessary. Washington D.C. does not look like Westminster; the rooms in which dodgy deals are made won’t be as claustrophobic or as gloomy as their UK counterparts, so of course the US version will look “more slick”. Also, there’s a kind of baroque camp in the UK House of Cards that – besides Spacey’s performance – is largely missing from the US version, but only because that sensibility doesn’t often translate well to US drama.

Importantly, the show’s producers have kept what were perhaps the two most successful ingredients in the original – its sociopath anti-hero, and his asides – and made them work afresh. There are points, about two thirds of the way through, when either the writers or directors seem to forget this device, and that’s when, regrettably, it feels most like something we’ve seen before, a kind of misanthropic re-imagining of The West Wing.

"Release the hounds..."

“Release the hounds…”

It’s to Aaron Sorkin’s long-running, much-loved liberal fairy tale (let’s face it, we needed Jed Bartlet during the dark days of Bush) that any remaining comparisons will be made, particularly given that producer Fincher worked with Sorkin on The Social Network. Sadly, the writing in House of Cards isn’t quite at that level. Willimon, despite a background in theatre, doesn’t have Sorkin’s rapid-fire wit, and neither he nor his team of writers ever really engages with the actual politics – the conflicting belief systems – that fuel so much of what happens on The Hill.

We’re told that the Democrats are in power, but really… they could just as easily be Republicans. And okay, perhaps this is just a cynical way of saying, “What’s the difference?” And perhaps the main focus of the show isn’t political ideology but political machinations, but there were similar problems with The Ides of March. I get that Willimon is more interested in the machinations than ideology, I even get that there are many working in D.C. who feel the same way; I just don’t quite buy that politicians would sit around talking about politics so much without any real questions of ideology surfacing along the way. The end result is a series of scripts that don’t always ring true and – when they do tackle anything with political heft – feel a little trite.

Though, granted, nowhere near as trite as 24's President R. Kelly.

Though, granted, nowhere near as trite as 24’s President R. Kelly.

All this makes it sound as if I didn’t actually enjoy the series, but nothing could be further from the truth. The joy of watching a show like this on Netflix is that you can just lose yourself in it. The recent 6 part conspiracy drama Utopia was broadcast over 6 weeks by Channel 4, and I must admit that as gripping as it was, I struggled to keep up. Though we were given “previously on…” recaps at the beginning of each episode, there were simply too many characters and subplots for me to keep track of, given that seven days of watching and reading other things had fallen between each episode. Perhaps, I thought, it would have been better had Channel 4 broadcast the series over six consecutive nights.

I experienced no such difficulties with House of Cards. I started watching it last Saturday afternoon, and saw the final episode on Monday. While the dialogue may need tightening up a little, if there’s to be a second series, the story itself – much of it borrowed from the original – is gripping, and brilliantly layered. There is a kind of mid-series sag, particularly noticeable if you’re watching it in a marathon session, and I wondered why, given the freedom of a single-day release, Netflix chose to model it on the traditional US TV format of 13 episodes.

Still, this too is a minor complaint. The main reason for watching House of Cards, the one thing bound to keep people talking about it for some time yet, is its cast. Yes, Spacey is, as you may expect, excellent. The decision to make Underwood a Southerner struck me as curious, and Spacey’s accent wobbles a little in places, but he can steal any scene he’s in with a single glance.

House of Cards

Something that struck me, rewatching some of the 1990 series, was how much a tent pole Ian Richardson’s performance is. Oh, sure, the other actors are okay, but Richardson is the main attraction, and he runs away with not only any scene he’s in, but the whole bloody series. If the US version exceeds its forebear in anything, it’s in the quality of performances from its whole cast, in particular Robin Wright as Claire Underwood, and Corey Stoll, playing hapless, recovering alcoholic Peter Russo. The latter is an idealist US Representative who goes from Champion of the Common Man to semi-willing pawn faster than he can hoover up a line of coke, and Stoll (who played Ernest Hemingway in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris) makes for a sympathetic tortured soul, just about the only one in a world full of liars, cheats and scoundrels!

Wright plays the Lady Macbeth to Underwood’s Thane of Cawdor, but there are so many subtle layers to the characterisation and Wright’s performance, I could happily have watched a whole series centred around her. The Underwoods’ is one of the most fascinating onscreen depictions of marriage I’ve seen in a very long time, and the one area where the writing is at its strongest.

Fans of the UK series may find the conclusion of episode 13 an anticlimax, lacking the original’s macabre punch, and I felt the writers could have crafted something with more impact or a bigger cliffhanger, but it certainly left me hungry for more. Let’s hope Netflix commissions another series and – if the standard here is anything to go by – some wholly original drama too!

Whatever happened to the words “I don’t know”?

25 Feb

I Don't Know

When was the last time you heard someone in the public sphere admit they didn’t know something? I’m not talking about dodging or side-stepping a question when it was clear they didn’t have all the facts. I’m talking about the actual words:

“I don’t know.”

I’ve been thinking about this, and the truth is… well… I don’t know. I can’t remember. I cannot remember a single – let alone the last – time I heard someone admit they didn’t know something. Admitting you don’t know something, when asked a direct question, is seen as a weakness, even when it’s the most honest answer you can give. Better to rush to an answer, however mangled, however indirect it may be.

Of course, we expect this of politicians, who are too well-trained, and too used to our demands, to ever admit that they don’t know something. For a politician, saying, “I don’t know” is career suicide. Say “I don’t know”, and the next day every front page of every paper shows a picture of you, beneath the headline “I DON’T KNOW”.

The Sun

What I’ve noticed in recent years is that this inability to say those three small words has spread. Now, no-one says it, and the one thing exacerbating this beyond measure is social media. Twitter has accelerated the pace of major and minor events alike. We’re expected to digest all the facts and formulate our reactions and opinions in the time it takes to type 140 characters. Whereas 50 years ago we may have been allowed a few days, or even weeks to mull something over, now we’re given seconds. In a world of 60 minute news cycles, saying “I don’t know” is as good as saying “Duuuurrrr”.

But rushing to conclusions, regardless of nuance, heedless of the facts, and blind to whatever changes may come only generates lynch mobs and witch hunts. Who has time for investigations, inquiries and due process when the Court of Twitter demands an instant verdict?

In a relatively short space of time we’ve gone from “Everyone’s entitled to an opinion” to “Everyone’s opinion is valid” to “Everyone must have an opinion”.

Which is how shit like this happens.

Which is how shit like this happens.

At the trivial end of the scale, we have people predicting how good or bad Doctor Who’s 50th Anniversary special will be, when not one of them has read a script or seen a nanosecond of footage.

More seriously, we have people declaring their verdict in the Oscar Pistorius trial before the defense and prosecution have so much as made their opening statements.

Between Doctor Who and Pistorius, we have all those mid-range stories, the stuff that’s neither entirely trivial nor a matter of life and death.

Take Hilary Mantel’s recent lecture for the London Review of Books, in which she satirised the way the media and Royal Family have shaped and moulded the Duchess of Cambridge’s public image. Newspapers such as the Daily Mail and Telegraph, realising that their weird, obsessive, forlock-tugging sycophancy was the target, cherry-picked some choice quotes from the lecture and claimed Mantel had “attacked” the Duchess of Cambridge. Of course, as everyone who read it knew, she’d done nothing of the sort, but before you could blink we had British journalists – in fucking India – asking David Cameron what he thought of it.

"No no no. You've done your turban all wrong. You look like a surgeon. Here, let Rajesh do it for you."

“No no no. You’ve done your turban all wrong. You look like a surgeon. Here, let Rajesh do it for you.”

Rather than say, “I’m really busy touring India right now, so the truth is, I don’t know…” Cameron jumped straight onto the bandwagon with, “What (Mantel) said about Kate Middleton is completely misguided and completely wrong.” Within minutes, it seemed, Ed Miliband too had chipped in, saying he found Mantel’s comments, “pretty offensive”.

Would anyone, apart from the Telegraph and Mail, have been offended if Cameron or Miliband replied, “I didn’t read the lecture, so I’m not really qualified to comment?”

More recently still – in fact, within the last 48 hours – we have the case of the two young men from Manchester who claim they were refused a double room at a London hotel by a homophobic member of staff. Now, the known details paint a far-from-clear picture. The men arrived at the hotel around midnight, several hours after their original booking would have become subject to changes if the hotel was overbooked. They weren’t turned away from the hotel altogether, they were offered a family room.

So far, so Schrodinger’s Cat. Without being there, in the lobby, when they checked in, we can’t know what tone of voice was used, or what exact words were spoken.

And yet, based on a single tweet written by one of the two young men, Twitter erupted into a storm of righteous indignation. They were the victims of homophobic abuse, Thistle Hotels should be boycotted, something ought to be done.

Etc. Etc.

What confused – and worried – me was how quickly so many people I like and respect jumped in and picked a side before the hotel had a chance to look into it properly. And why? Because nobody can bring themselves to admit that they just don’t know. Essentially, they’re saying, “I don’t know what happened, but I care about this sort of thing, and I’m against homophobia [nothing wrong with any of that so far], but Twitter simply won’t wait for this to be dealt with by those directly involved, so HERE’S MY OPINION! HERE IT IS! NOW! RIGHT NOW! THIS IS WHAT I THINK!”

Modern life is hectic and stressful enough; we’re bombarded with information and requests from the minute we wake up to the second our head hits the pillow. Why add to that stress by deciding you have to have an opinion about absolutely everything?

I’ll start the ball rolling. These are the issues I have absolutely no opinion about, either because I just don’t know enough about them, or because my opinion, even if I did, would be invalid.

  • The Euro – Not a fucking clue. Is it a good thing? Is it a bad thing? No idea.
  • Climate Change – I’m not a scientist. Why the fuck should anyone care what I or anyone else who hasn’t dedicated their life to understanding it has to say about the matter?
  • Abortion – I’m never going to conceive. My partner’s never going to conceive. My opinion, if I had one, would be worthless.
  • Renewable Energy – Again, a bit like Climate Change, I haven’t got a fucking clue. Nuclear sounds good. Except there was that whole nasty business in Japan. But that was Japan, where they have earthquakes. We don’t have earthquakes. I DON’T KNOW.

There are probably others. In fact, there are definitely others. Think long and hard, and you’ll realise you have some, too. And then we can all hold hands, and say as one:

“I JUST DON’T KNOW.”

"Don't ask us. We haven't got a fucking clue."

“Don’t ask us. We haven’t got a fucking clue.”

3 Reasons Why Today’s Pop Music Is So, So Bad

22 Feb

One Direction Teenage Kicks

It’s been a busy month, here at Llewellyn Towers, with lots of “day job” work (copywriting) to plough through, and not one but two scripts to write, hence why things may have seemed a little quiet in the Forest of Beasts.

If you're wondering, it looks a bit like this.

If you’re wondering, it looks a bit like this.

I’ve spent much of the last week or so wondering what to write about next, and then along came the Brits.

Oh, the Brits. A blogger’s goldmine. Not since the days of Samantha Fox and Mick Fleetwood etc. etc. But seriously, did you watch the awards show? Awkward isn’t the word. Poor James Corden was lumbered with banter about as funny as Primo Levi’s If This Is a Man, One Direction managed to murder three whole songs in as many minutes, and – though I missed it while slipping in and out of a boredom-induced coma – I believe Sharon Osborne (60) made a rather embarrassing (not to mention icky) reference to Harry Styles’s 19-year-old cock.

Fun Fact: Sharon Osbourne can strip the flesh off a horse in under 5 minutes.

Fun Fact: Sharon Osbourne can strip the flesh off a horse in under 5 minutes.

Now, while I’m more than aware that the Brits aren’t now – and probably never were – very representative of contemporary music as a whole, they are a fairly good litmus of where pop music is at, and if last Wednesday is anything to go by, it’s dying on its arse.

Here are three reasons why I think that is:

1) It’s Annoying

“Well,” I hear you say. “You would claim that. You’re almost 35. Most 35-year-olds think pop music is annoying. And besides… There’s always been annoying pop music.”

What’s different about today’s annoying pop music is how mathematically precise the annoyingness has become. It’s as if producers and songwriters have worked out the exact formula for making a song drill its way into your brain like those horrible bugs from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.

No contemporary pop artist proves this more than Rihanna. Listening to a Rihanna song is like having flashcards rolled up and hammered into your skull by a hyperactive toddler.

“UMBRELLA! ELLA! ELLA!”

“Shine BRIGHT! like DIAMOND! Shine BRIGHT! like DIAMOND!”

Then there’s Justin Bieber, the Canadian Linda-Blair-in-Exorcist-II lookalike whose big breakthrough hit, here in the UK, was a song in which he sang the word “baby” over, and over, and over again, as if trying to hypnotise his pre-teen audience into submission.

Pictured: Justin Bieber, before he started turning into Gok Wan, and Linda Blair in 'Exorcist II'

Pictured: Justin Bieber, before he started turning into Gok Wan, and Linda Blair

Or how about Sean Kingston’s 2007 hit, Beautiful Girls, which featured him singing the word “suicidal” (“Sooo-i-cidal… sooo-i-cidal…”) on a loop, presumably in a bid to make the eponymous girls pity him enough to sleep with him? Because, let’s face it, if he wasn’t a pop star they wouldn’t exactly be swarming around him like something out of a Lynx commercial, now, would they?

2) It’s Boring

If it’s not been scientifically engineered to turn you into the kind of mindless, chuckle-headed oaf who stands, six-deep, at the bar of every Tiger, Tiger in the land, today’s popular music has been treated with a veneer of “sincerity” that’s about as convincing as Mel Gibson playing Tevye in a revival of Fiddler on the Roof. 

"Sunrise, sunset..." "NEXT!"

“Sunrise, sunset…” “NEXT!”

You see, there are two demographics still actually paying for popular music: Children, and the over-35s. RiRi and Bieber are aimed at the 12-year-olds, while for those of us a little grey around the temples there’s Mumford & Sons, Coldplay, Emeli Sandé and Ben Howard. Because that’s the kind of music we like. Safe, not too loud, not too emotional. The kind of music you can have on in the background during a dinner party, or while you’re doing the ironing.

Mumford

And even then, even though we’re told the lyrics are emotional and heartfelt (instead of them just being one word sung over and over), the whole thing has still been engineered to appeal to the very middle of the road, the widest possible audience. And yes, I know it’s a business, so of course this is going to happen, but our parents had Roxy Music, for fuck’s sake; a band who wrote love songs about blow-up dolls and threw bits of Wagner into the mix. And we’ve got fucking Coldplay?

3) It’s Safe

This, to me, is the worst crime of all. If I was a 35-year-old in 1925, there’s a good chance I’d have been a little scared of this “Jazz Music” that all the youngsters were raving about and dancing to in a most unseemly fashion. I mean, there were drug references in the lyrics, for crying out loud. If I was 35 years old in 1955, I’d have found Little Richard’s Tutti Frutti absolutely terrifying. Imagine being 35 in 1969 and hearing The Beatles, that mop-topped boyband who used to sing nice, inoffensive love songs, belting out Helter Skelter for the first time. Same goes for punk, hiphopacid house, just about everything, until now.

Right now there is nothing in popular music, at any point on the spectrum, that worries or surprises me. You have the likes of Calvin Harris and David Guetta churning out song after song which sound like they could (and perhaps should) have been recorded in 2002, while former grime stars Tinchy Stryder and Tiny Tempah have been rendered tame and not-in-the-least-bit frightening by cynically engineered “collaborations” with whichever singer or rapper they’re told to work.

Pop music doesn’t need to be avant-garde or dangerous or offensive, but it helps if we, the grownups, just don’t get it. Right now, we get it. We get it all.

With self-production and distribution of music now easier than ever, the time is perfect for something new, and startling, and absolutely baffling to my generation to come along and take us all by surprise.

So please… Young singers, songwriters and musicians. Surprise us.

Author

David Llewellyn is the author of six novels, most recently Ibrahim & Reenie, which you can buy here.

Spielberg’s ‘Lincoln’

8 Feb

Lincoln

Writing a political drama, for stage or screen, is notoriously difficult. For one thing, 95% of politics is interminable bureaucracy, and this hardly makes for edge-of-your-seat drama. For another, the language used by politicians is often very dull and/or evasive. How do you write political dialogue without it being as baffling as a foreign language movie without subtitles?

"I think that bald nun is asking Ming the Merciless if he'd rather play Cluedo."

“I think that bald nun is asking Ming the Merciless if he’d rather play Cluedo.”

When it’s done well, a political drama makes politics exciting. Aaron Sorkin’s work on The West Wing is a perfect illustration of this, wringing excellent, engaging drama from filibusters and the passing of bills, and when he left the show after its fourth season it really showed. Suddenly the dialogue was heavy with exposition, and the politics and the drama felt divorced from one another, so that the politics slowed the drama and the drama seemed pedestrian alongside the politics.

"But if we're not ready in time for the caucuses we'll have to... Wait. Are you snoring?"

“But if we’re not ready in time for the caucuses we’ll have to… Wait. Are you snoring?”

At the other end of the spectrum you have political dialogue that’s dumbed down to the point of being both trite and unconvincing. Here’s an example from the otherwise excellent Abi Morgan’s screenplay for The Iron Lady:

Michael Heseltine (to Geoffrey Howe): Your draft budget has been leaked, Geoffrey. They are baying for our blood.

Howe: Michael. You can’t simply buckle at the first sign of difficulty.

Heseltine: No-one is saying we have to buckle.

Jim Prior: But is this really the time to be making these spending cuts in the middle of one of the deepest recessions this country’s ever experienced?

Now, maybe it’s just me, but none of that sounds like something actual politicians would say. It’s too dramatic, the urgency of it sounds forced, and Jim Prior’s line is just syllable after syllable of info-dumping. This is dialogue that has been written for the benefit of those in the audience too ignorant, too young or too American to know anything about the context in which the scene is set.

"But Mrs Thatcher, Prime Minister of Great Britain from 1979 till 1990, the people are rioting against the poll tax, implemented in 1989 to replace house rates..."

“But Mrs Thatcher, Prime Minister of Great Britain from 1979 till 1990, the people are rioting against the poll tax, implemented in 1989 to replace house rates…”

With all this in mind, I didn’t know what to expect of Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln. Spielberg is, in my opinion, the world’s greatest living film director. What he isn’t is the world’s greatest chooser of scripts. There was every chance that his Lincoln could have felt like a well-made, well-acted Hallmark channel biopic.

It’s a good thing, then, that he hired Angels in America playwright Tony Kushner (who also co-wrote Munich) to adapt Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. It’s telling, too, that this is the book the film relies on most heavily, rather than a straight forward biography, because Lincoln is a very political film.

I don’t mean that it’s propaganda, as some borderline racist nutters would have you believe, or a hagiography, because it’s nothing of the sort. What I mean is that its primary concern is Lincoln’s politics, and how political machinations, both noble and – more often than not – a little sneaky and underhand helped pass the 13th Amendment.

I was expecting on-the-nose dialogue, sweeping shots of a CGI 1860s Washington, a stirring rendition of the Gettysburg address, and a hankies-at-the-ready climax at Ford’s Theater. I was pleasantly surprised that Spielberg delivers none of the above. This isn’t the US Civil War rewritten for twelve-year-olds. It’s a grownup film full of grownups talking about grownup things in a grownup manner. Though Lincoln’s sons Robert (played by Joseph Gordon Levitt) and Tad are featured, and though Spielberg can’t resist exploring the tensions between father and son (as seen in just about every other film he’s ever made), this isn’t a White House soap opera. The 13th Amendment is the film’s main focus, with family dramas its occasional window dressing.

Of course, the main draw for a general audience isn’t Kushner’s script, or the 13th Amendment, or even Spielberg’s direction, but Daniel Day Lewis’s portrayal of the 16th President. It goes without saying that physically, it’s uncanny. About half way through the movie I could no longer form a mental picture of the real Lincoln. What’s most impressive, however, is the warmth and wit Day Lewis and Kushner invest in him. This isn’t the booming, stentorian and animatronic Lincoln you might have seen at Disneyland…

It's far too easy to imagine this thing going all 'Westworld'.

It’s far too easy to imagine this thing going all Westworld.

Day Lewis’s Lincoln is charismatic and charming. It’s easy to understand why people might ally themselves to his cause, but also why others would turn against him. Contrary to what many critics might say, the film doesn’t shy away from tackling the moral ambiguities of Lincoln’s presidency, the ways in which he trampled over the US constitution to realise his aims. More surprisingly still, it even hints at Lincoln’s mysterious sexuality, by having the President’s (male) secretary ask him if he would like “company” in the middle of the night. (Lincoln famously shared his bed with his bodyguard whenever Mrs Lincoln was out of town.) Okay, that may fly over most people’s heads, but if you know anything about Lincoln you’ll know, and that’s the important thing.

The supporting cast here are similarly impressive, with James Spader on particularly fine form. His Falstaffian lobbyist, William Bilbo, is hilarious and vaguely sinister in equal measure, and serves like a double espresso whenever he’s on screen. Elsewhere, Spielberg populates his film with fascinating and craggy faces, from Tommy Lee Jones’s Thaddeus Stevens to Hal Holbrook’s Francis Preston Blair, and cinematographer Janusz Kamiński has a field day with this, shooting almost every scene as if it’s a painting by Joseph Wright of Derby.

Lincoln

Spielberg’s direction here is marvellously understated. I’m still not entirely sure about the way in which the assassination is handled. I would have, perhaps, preferred it had the film ended before Lincoln’s death, and the kind of double bluff of taking us to the theatre… except it’s a different theatre feels a little tasteless, a deliberate bid to surprise the audience where a surprise is neither wanted nor needed. Still, for the best part Spielberg relies not on trickery but on getting excellent performances from his cast, from letting the drama of the moment carry the scene rather than special effects or gimmicky editing.

If I have one more minor complaint – and it is very minor – it’s that Lincoln often feels a little stagy, as if we’re watching a filmed play rather than a film. Much of it is set in the dark and smoky backrooms of Washington, giving it a claustrophobic feel, so much so that it’s almost a breath of fresh air whenever the characters step outdoors… even when ‘outdoors’ means the corpse-strewn battlefield at Petersburg.

"Tell you the truth, boys, it's just nice to get out once in a while."

“Tell you the truth, boys, it’s just nice to get out once in a while.”

Still, this in itself feels like a brave decision, and I wonder if it’s a subconscious reaction, by Spielberg, against the computer-generated excesses of both Tintin and Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. We can only live in hope that he’s a little sick of working with green screen. If Lincoln is evidence of him going back to basics, I’ll look forward to whatever he does next.