cards

House of Cards: Season 3 (TV Review)

Frank Underwood is the President of the United States.

And he is still just as vicious as he has always been.

In the third season of the Netflix original series, House of Cards, we go into the Oval Office to see how Underwood handles the responsibility of being the most powerful man on Earth, and one half of the most powerful couple in the world.

cards2Although something has changed in this season: people are starting to stand up against him. Finding it difficult to get things done with the bureaucracy of the White House and Congress, Frank needs to go to different lengths to get things done. Only now, every move he makes is very visible in the media, and he is constantly questioned about his actions. It provides us with a new look at the way he deals with things with a ton of problems in his face.

Season 3 provides us with some continuing story lines, some of which aren’t completely necessary. I could have lived without the story of Doug trying to hunt down Rachel, to get revenge for the attack in the woods. While it really created and rounded the character of Doug, at times it felt like it was filler, as we waited to get back to the good stuff with Frank and Claire.

Some of the best scenes revolve around Underwood and his meetings with the Russian president as they try to negotiate (several times) over issues in the Middle East, a UN mission, problems in the United Nations Security Council, and with near constant manipulation of one another. It makes for good TV, and it provides us with someone who is not afraid of Underwood, and is not afraid of using his own tactics against him.

cards3We also get a continued look at the media, this time with Frank allowing a book to be written about him that is supposed to promote his idea for America Works, an all-inclusive plan to eliminate unemployment in the country. Here we are provided with an almost sensitive side to Frank, along with perhaps the weirdest scene in the entire series, during one of his late night meetings with the author he has hired to write the book.

New competition rises for Frank, as the primaries begin before the upcoming general elections. This creates the usual back alley deals and tricks in order for him to get where he wants to be. It also exposes us to one of the better characters on the show, Jackie, played extremely well by Molly Parker.

cards4House of Cards provides us with the entertainment that we are used to: a ruthless power couple constantly trying to expand and maintain their grip on power. This season is a little different than usual, in that Frank has now achieved everything he had wanted. He sits in the most powerful chair, so what could be next for him?

Legacy.

The third season is easily watchable, with a consistently strong script, good acting (highlighted of course by the lovably evil Kevin Spacey), and excellent directing. While not every part of the season is must-watch TV, the central story line remains exciting and entertaining, and we are always left to wonder how this man is able to get so many things done. He is good at what he does, and still is not afraid to stomp on whoever gets in his way.

Friends

Friends: Seasons 3-4 (TV Review)

By the time seasons 3 and 4 of Friends rolled around, it was a full-on cultural phenomenon. Everybody knew the names of the 6 characters on the show; everybody had their favorite. The “Rachel” cut was the most popular hair style among women, and people began to mimick the catchphrases of the characters from the show.

At this point, Rachel, Monica, Phoebe, Joey, Chandler, and Ross had become a part of our lives.

friends6And the show was still rolling, able to produce consistently funny episodes along the way, while starting to veer off into the ridiculous, but only a little bit to start with.

Some of the central plot highlights in these seasons include:

  • the Ross and Rachel blowup. Rachel begins working in fashion, and Ross is incredibly jealous. This leads to him cheating on her, their breakup, and the running gag of, “We were on a break.”
  • Joey meets the possible girl of his dreams, and actress in a play he is working on.
  • Phoebe meets her half-brother.
  • Monica dates Pete the Millionaire.
  • Chandler falls for Joey’s girlfriend.
  • The potential getting back together of Ross and Rachel, which ended with a Season 3 cliffhanger. This lead to some funny fights. “18 pages. Front and back!”
  • Phoebe becomes the surrogate mother for her brother’s triplets. (One of the more annoying and insane stories ever to be on Friends, but it was a way to mask that Lisa Kudrow was really pregnant during filming of this season).
  • Monica gets a head chef job.
  • Ross meets Emily, and their whirlwind relationship ends with them getting engaged. The season ends with Ross’ wedding to Emily, which includes Rachel deciding at the last minute that she still loves Ross and has to tell him. She never does, but on the altar, Ross says Rachel’s name instead of Emily’s, setting up the major plot line for Season 5.

friends8The stories in these season of Friends become more serialized, which worked in truly making it Must-See-TV. Nobody wanted to miss an episode, because the plots ran together for several episodes at a time. It got viewers hooked, but it also lead to us having to endure some of the crazier stories.

Either way, during season 3 and 4, Friends was rolling along. It was still quite funny, and the characters had only begun their development into complete caricatures of themselves. This would get worse as the show wore on, but at the time, everybody was enjoying the ride.

During the first four years, there are so many truly memorable episodes, that it is really worth going back over them again, to watch them in order.

One annoying thing about Friends on Netflix though…the theme song. Since the show always had a lead-in prior to the opening credits, you have to manually fast forward through the theme song so that it doesn’t completely ruin your life.

First world problems, I guess.

simmons3

“Now I Can Die in Peace” (Book Review)

Bill Simmons is my favorite sports writer.

Over the course of his career, he has produced a ton of work, and much of it is focused on the teams that he loves the most: the Patriots, the Celtics, and the Red Sox.

simmonsHis writing can be long-winded, and is always extremely biased, but it can also be very funny, and he truly does care about what he is writing about. He has managed to create a great career as a sports writer, and still manages to love the game he writes about.

Really, there is nobody better to write about the 2004 Red Sox than Bill Simmons.

Over the course of the book, which is now in its third edition, he has accumulated articles that not only chronicle his pained history as a Red Sox fan, but his infatuation with the team, and the ups and downs of the ’04 season that culminated in the historic World Series win for the first time in 86 years.

simmons2The articles do well to show really how painful some of the memories of the Sox are for their longtime fans, and also show their nature of loving then hating someone on the team. The overractions are constant, the idolization of athletes is continual, and it is constantly fun to read.

One of the best parts about Simmons’ writing is the endless pop cultural references, and the tons of footnotes that he adds to his work. It is hilarious, and often spot on. His consistent use of The Shawshank Redemption as a means to compare things is always right, and gives us a firm ground for comparison in many of his articles.

Simmons takes us through the hurt, and the torture, of so many Red Sox moments of infamy: from the harrowing losses over the years, to the players leaving town for greener pastures, leaving behind them a rabid fanbase that wants nothing more than to celebrate a World Series victory with their beloved team. He takes us through the panic-inducing 2004 ALCS, where the Sox fell into a seemingly insurmountable 3-0 hole against the mighty, and hated, Yankees.

And he does it so expertly that he has created a true page turner of a book, even though we already know the ending.

The connection that Simmons has with the team is incredible, and at points, it becomes a book that is more about the relationships he has with people because of the Sox, than about the Sox themselves. His father plays a major role in so many of his stories, and his article after the Sox finally won is something that can truly tug at the heartstrings. Simmons is a versatile writer, who is easily able to make us mad along with him, or vividly recount the tale of a game that we watched, or make us actually laugh out loud while reading.

The '04 Series win was kind of a big deal.

The ’04 Series win was kind of a big deal.

There are tons of books about baseball, and many of them are very well done. Now I Can Die in Peace provides us with a little something more than others, specifically others that have chronicles the championship run: it has soul to it, and that soul comes from an endless passion for the team that the author has.

For any Red Sox fan looking to relive some pain and some glory, this book is a must read. For fans of other teams, it offers a great look at how the team came to be where it is today, now a team that has won 3 championships in the last 10 years.

watch

“Go Set A Watchman”- Massive Literary News

55 years after one of the greatest American literary works, To Kill A Mockingbird, was published. In those 55 years, Mockingbird has become one of the most beloved books ever, and one of the most read. It is one of those amazing works, where it transcends generations, and becomes a novel that people will go back to time and again, to relive the adventures of Scout Finch, as she makes her way through the confusing world created for her in Maycomb.

For many people, their exposure to Mockingbird came to them in junior high or high school English class, where they were required to read the book for the first time. And maybe they liked it right off the bat. Maybe they didn’t. Part of the magic of the novel is that it is one that is forever in the back of our minds.

Scout.

Scout.

We know Scout, and we watched her grow up during the Tom Robinson trial. We know Boo Radley, the mysterious neighbor who taught us more about understanding and judgement than we may even choose to acknowledge. And we know and love Atticus Finch, the ultimate literary father figure, to the point where his film character is considered to be one of the great film heroes of all time. We read the book, and re-read it, and wanted Atticus to be a part of our lives somehow, to have a man of that kind of honour to be our guides in the world.

To Kill A Mockingbird is special, without any doubt.

It is perfect, and untouched, in a way. The author, Harper Lee, never published another novel in her life. Mockingbird was the height of her career, and she has had a good life because of it. The characters of Maycomb are always there for us, on our book shelves, where our tattered copy of the novel sits, always ready for another adventure, each time we decide to pick it up.

This past week, it was announced that Harper Lee would be publishing a new book.

A sequel.

To one of the greatest novels of all time.

This is massive news.

And it is scary news.

Nerdy question: Will the cover say "The Sequel To..."?

Nerdy question: Will the cover say “The Sequel To…”?

It was announced that the manuscript for Lee’s first novel (which she actually wrote before Mockingbird) has been rediscovered, and will be published in July of 2015. The title of the book is Go Set A Watchman, and it takes place 20 years after the events of Mockingbird. Scout, now an adult, returns to Maycomb to reunite with her father, and deal with her childhood in the small southern town, and the events that were so paramount to her development as a person.

It is interesting that Watchman was written before Mockingbird. The publisher at the time was taken with the flashbacks to Scout’s youth, and encouraged the young author Lee to write an entire novel on Scout’s time as a child. This, of course, became To Kill A Mockingbird. Harper Lee herself has noted that she was a young writer at the time, but that Watchman is a “pretty decent effort.” We can only hope.

watch3There are reasons to be scared of this novel coming out. It is taking us back to characters that we love so much, and we will crack the pages of the new novel hoping that everything is going to work out alright for them, and that the original book will not be ruined by the new one. At the same time, knowing that it was written prior to the original book, we can take solace in the fact that Lee has not been trying, and failing, at writing a sequel for all of these years, decades, and finally has come up with something that she feels satisfied with. Knowing that she had already created an adult version of Scout gives me relief, because then the events of Mockingbird will serve to develop that character that was already written.

There is the potential for magic with Go Set A Watchman. We will get to see the character that we loved all grown up, as she was originally meant to be seen.

So what will have become of Scout? Will she have followed in her father’s footsteps and taken to law in order to make the world a better place? Will she have taken the lessons taught to her by Atticus and become a truly great person? What is her relationship with Atticus like, now that she is an adult?

There are a ton of questions, and in a few short months, there will be answers.

One thing that I have considered, with a bit of horror, is what is going to happen with Atticus? He was a bit older for a father of a young girl. Is he going to die in this novel? Even thinking about that is scary. I guess we will have to wait and see.

Atticus Finch, one of the most beloved characters ever.

Atticus Finch, one of the most beloved characters ever.

There is no question that we can already pencil in Go Set A Watchman as the year’s best selling book, and rightfully so. Almost immediately after the announcement of the publication, it was launched into a Top 10 selling book, based on pre-orders alone.

The release of this book is more than a long-awaited sequel, or even a long-awaited book from a beloved writer. It is an event of great cultural significance.

Naturally, there is division in readers on what to expect for the book. It can be something great. Or it is something average. It was, after all, never published in the first place. Or it could be something that we read, just because of Mockingbird, but it will be nothing special in itself.

All I have to say is…who cares?

watch4Harper Lee is publishing a new book, and while it will probably never live up to the astronomical success of her first novel, it will be something that we will be able to cherish (hopefully) for as long as we have loved Mockingbird.

My pre-order has been in since the moment I heard the news.

I can’t wait to read it.

spartacus2

Spartacus: Blood and Sand (TV Review)

Spartacus: Blood and Sand gives viewers pretty much everything they could want: cheesy fun, mixed in with a ton of blood and a lot of nudity, along with some pretty solid story lines to keep the whole thing moving forward.

The story is centered on the lead-up to the events that we know are going to happen with the legendary gladiator Spartacus, and his leading of a slave rebellion during the time of the Roman Empire. In order to get there, Spartacus takes us back to the beginning, from when he was captured, trained up as a gladiator, and makes his legendary name in the arena.

spartacus3Around these central events are all of the intrigue in the smaller Roman town of Capua, where there are plenty of good guys, and many more bad guys and gals, in a similar vein to what transpires in King’s Landing on Game of Thrones. Everybody is after somebody, and there is revenge and plots all over the place. They are pretty entertaining in Spartacus, however, and keeps us coming back for more.

spartacus4As for the violence, well, it is definitely there, but in a manner that I was not expecting. It is far cheesier and more cartoony than I would have expected. Some of the scenes in the show border on the ideas presented in a film like 300, with the gloomy backgrounds and people superimposed in front of green screens. But for some of the more real shots, the blood is obviously (painfully so) fake, making me wondering if that was a conscious decision, to bring a little levity to the intense battle scenes, or used as a cost saving measure, or what. It doesn’t look good, but it doesn’t take away from the very strong action scenes in the show. In fact, after a couple of episodes wondering if they are going to up their CG blood budget, you just kind of get used to that kind of blood being spilled, and learn to accept it.

With any show set during Roman times, you’re going to need a lot of nudity. And Spartacus: Blood and Sand delivers this in spades. There is no shortage of cleavage, an astronomical amount of naked breasts, some full on orgy scenes, a casual amount of full frontal nudity, and plenty of men running around in next-to-nothing, or simply nothing for a few scenes.

Great cleavage everywhere!

Great cleavage everywhere!

The show has a very good looking cast, both males and females, and there is plenty there to keep the casual viewer entertained. The females, led by Lucy Lawless (Xena!), play games with one another in order to rise through the ranks of Roman society. They are as backstabbing as the men are, and can often be even more vicious. If you have ever felt like you wanted to see Xena in the nude many times, then Spartacus may just be the one for you.

One of the strengths of the show is that it consistently gets better as the season rolls along. While it starts off as a one of those shows where you wonder if it is going to be worth soldiering on through, it gets better and better as the characters are able to come into their own, and begin to own the fancy dialogue written for them. It takes a while to get to know everybody, and get to the point where we somewhat care for them, but when it does, the show really takes off. The second half of the season is significantly better than the first half, making it one well worth sticking to until the end. The treachery gets more intricate, and it gets better.

One of the more unfortunate things about the series, of course, was the death of its star. Andy Whitfield, who played Spartacus increasingly well as the series progressed, died of cancer before they were able to make the second season with him. By the end of Blood and Sand, he had really become Spartacus, and definitely excelled in the role. I wonder if I will continue to watch the series past this first season, simply because I know that he is no longer around.

Spartacus is a fun watch. There is enough of everything that it can keep people going back for more, or just letting Netflix run with it, in order to binge watch the first season. This is an interesting show, and even the perceived weaknesses get better as you move forward. Well worth a watch.

interview

The Interview (Film Review)

So much controversy, over so little.

When The Interview was set to be released to theaters, it created such a stir that North Korea was deeply offended, and there were threats of terrorist attacks if the film was shown in the local cinemas.

So Hollywood backed down, instead making The Interview nearly immediately available through other sources, like via download and on Netflix, ensuring that people would get to watch the film, and capture the buzz that was surrounding it.

interview3Well, when all is said and done, I can understand why the North Koreans would be upset about the film, as it does not portray them in a very flattering (or unrealistic, mind you) light. And the majority of the film is making fun of their leader. So I guess there’s that as well. But at the end of the day, The Interview is some harmless fun that has a couple of funny moments, while the rest of the film kind of falls in to exactly what you would expect it to be.

James Franco and Seth Rogen are TV people, the on-air talent and the producer, who have the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to interview the reclusive Kim Jong Un, leader of North Korea, since he is a big fan of Franco’s TV entertainment news show. Since they will be closer to the man than anybody else, the CIA recruits them to try and assassinate the leader.

Seems easy enough, until Franco gets to know Kim, and begins to really like him- or at least the facade- of him.

Seth Rogen;James FrancoThe Interview is not really a hilarious comedy, although there are a couple of funny scenes. Franco and Rogen are always pretty good together, as we’ve seen in other films, stemming back from their days together on Freaks and Geeks, and Franco in particular plays (overplays) his part to some mild laughs. His first day spent with Kim is pretty funny, to be honest. Rogen plays his usual character, only with fewer great lines than he might be used to. He almost plays the straight man to Franco’s eccentric character.

As far as creating a message, there is nothing really new here. We know the way that things work in North Korea, and it is unfortunate the plight of the people there, living under a dictatorship full of lies and propaganda. The Interview provides us with no new insights or thoughts on how to deal with the questions in North Korea, it uses it more to poke fun at a country that we view as being backwards.

Through and through, The Interview is a 3/5 film. It has its moments of enjoyment, but there is really nothing special here. It gained popularity mostly from the controversy surrounding it, but like most films based on negative buzz, there isn’t much substance there once all is said and done. It is worth a casual watch, just to see what all the fuss is about, but not much more than that.

friends

Friends: Seasons 1-2 (TV Review)

There may be little point in writing anything about Friends, one of the most popular network sitcoms of all time. But with its recent release of the full 10 seasons on Netflix, it warrants another viewing, and a few notes on the early years of the show we are so familiar with.

Going back and re-watching the early episodes of such a classic show offers a few points that may have been forgotten as the show dragged on towards its conclusion, essentially becoming a drama with the occasional giggle thrown in.

friends2Seasons one and two of Friends offers some definitely hilarious moments, and some excellent episodes. The show could change from goofy and fun, and was always able to drop in the right amount of seriousness to keep viewers endlessly entertained. There is little doubt that during its initial run, the will-they-or-won’t-they relationship of Ross and Rachel was one of the best on television. Binge watching on Netflix takes some of that away, as there is no waiting to see what is going to happen next between the two of them. I recall waiting in agony to see what would happen after Rachel goes to meet Ross at the airport, or what would happen with Julie, or how they would react to their first kiss, or the fallout from The List.

The writers of the show did a good job in managing to wait about a season and a half before getting the two central characters together. In a current era where we can guess from the pilot episode which characters are going to hook up (think of New Girl, or The Mindy Project), Friends really did keep us on the edge of our seats waiting for the inevitable love connection between the two.

It is nice that a new generation is able to watch the show. For those who missed the initial run on TV, they can now see the whole thing, and “get it” whenever someone who is now in their 30s or 40s makes a reference to an episode, or to a character. This is a major advantage of Netflix, and it has ensured that Friends will remain a part of our popular culture for a long time to come.

friends3As for the episodes themselves, the first couple of seasons offer up some of the best single episodes that the entire series had to offer. There are some classics, including when Joey and Chandler get their chairs, and refuse to leave their newly found comfort for any reason. Or when Chandler gets Eddie as his new roommate. Or the one where nobody is ready, and Joey brought the term “going commando” into the popular lexicon. There is the museum date between Ross and Rachel, or the flashback episode to Rachel and Monica’s prom.

There is something comforting about watching these episodes again, because they are so familiar. We know the six characters of the show, because we grew up with them on Thursday nights. It is kind of nice knowing that they are always there now, with a quick scroll through your Netflix list, and that you can bang out a few episodes here and there, whenever you feel like it.

friends4The first two seasons of Friends offers us the best view of the characters, as well, before they essentially became caricatures of themselves as the series plowed along. Sure, Joey is still a little dumb at the beginning, but it was a new joke, and was still funny before his complete buffoonery in the later seasons. And Phoebe is always weird, and kind of the most annoying of all of them, but there is something endearing about her at the beginning, before the convoluted story lines of her family start creeping into the show too much. They were all such distinct and new characters, and looking back at seasons one and two, we see so much of the gang in the sitcoms that have followed, with too many other shows trying to capture some of the magic that made Friends such a massive success.

I remember the debates on who the funniest character was, or the Rachel vs. Monica debate taking over from the ages old question of who was hotter, Betty or Veronica. How every person in the world, seemingly, knew the theme song inside and out, and how it quickly became impossible to watch the intro to the show without clapping at the appropriate moment. How Rachel’s haircut became a phenomenon, perhaps one of the most copied hair styles of all time. Everybody from the 90s knows what a “Rachel” cut is, and probably knew at least one friend in their real lives who tried to rock it. This show launched the careers of the actors into super stardom, even if it never really lasted for any of them.

That famous haircut.

That famous haircut.

Now, Friends offers some great 90s nostalgia, and that is never a bad thing.

For original fans of the show, it is nice to go back to Central Perk, and remember the episodes with shocking clarity. For those who have never seen it before, it is a must-see, since along with Seinfeld, Friends created a massive pop cultural hit that helped to define the 90s for millions of people.