Good Movie Redeems Bad Week

The headlines in politics and entertainment over the past several days have been disheartening – sometimes, downright maddening, And I know a movie can’t make the world go away, but a good one at least lets you think about something else for a couple hours.

Some weeks, it seems, can only be redeemed by a Friday night in with a glass of wine, your favorite takeout, and a good movie, and I was able to start this weekend by indulging in all three.

The movie I’m talking about is The Meyerowitz Stories, Noah Baumbach’s new film. Reading some Twitter conversation about the New York Film Festival on Friday (it played there), I was reminded that it was also watchable on Netflix – so that immediately became my Friday night plan.

I was predisposed to like Meyerowitz because I haven’t met a Noah Baumbach film I didn’t like. Frances Ha and Mistress America in particular are two films I could watch endlessly; as a young woman finding her way and making her life in New York, hardly a week goes by without something in real life echoing a moment from one of those movies.

Like those two, Meyerowitz is about Manhattan artist types, but I found its characters a lot more lovable. Especially Danny Meyerowitz, played by Adam Sandler, who’s perfect in the role. He’s warm, particularly in scenes with his daughter (played by Grace Van Patten, who I’d never seen in anything before this and also gives a fantastic performance). They capture a father-daughter relationship in which he’s clearly an authority figure and advice-giver, but they’re also friends, and he values her advice, too. I loved their scenes together.

Danny Meyerowitz is also too proud to ask for help, but not too proud to accept it. I liked that about him. I wouldn’t say this is a huge spoiler, but there are a couple instances in the film where Danny accepts help from his wealthy brother, Matthew (played by Ben Stiller). Given what you come to know about the brothers over the course of the film, I got the sense Matthew’s generosity is somewhat guilt-driven – he’s the sibling who escaped New York and got out from under the thumb of their difficult father (played by Dustin Hoffman), and is only beginning to understand the weight Danny bears in dealing with him day-to-day. But as the story progresses, their relationship deepens, and the film ends with Danny accepting a particularly special gift from his brother – one that would require more than monetary sacrifice on Matthew’s part.

Maybe I’m making it out to be too dramatic; it’s not like Matthew goes to the guillotine for him. But it was touching, and I felt as proud of Danny for accepting the gift as I did of Matthew for offering. And honestly, only now as I’m writing this am I realizing how much affection this film made me feel for its characters.

It may get lost in the shuffle of awards season because it’s a Netflix release, and it’s coming out a little before the crush of Oscar bait, but Adam Sandler deserves special attention. This is such a warm, wonderful film, though, that its awards potential shouldn’t matter. See it anyway and be moved by a great family story and a great New York story.

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All My Random Thoughts on House of Cards, Season 3

Where do I start with House of Cards? I finished season three last night – that’s record binge-viewing time for me – and each time I think about it, new theories, thoughts and questions pop into my head. This was such an intriguing season, and it was definitely my favorite of the three so far.

I realized a few episodes in that this was my favorite season of HoC because it’s the season that can be most easily compared to The West Wing. This New York Times Magazine Beau Willimon profile from last year made a perfect connection between the two – that each generation gets the political show representative of its moment – and, yes, even last year as Vice President, Frank entered the realm of the White House. But now he’s really in the White House, and his supporting cast more closely mirrors that of The West Wing.

Throughout the season, I found myself comparing House of Cards characters with their West Wing counterparts. The Underwood-Bartlet comparison doesn’t amount to much, or at least it didn’t to me. The one I found myself thinking about most often was Remy (Underwood’s Chief of Staff) and Josh Lyman (Bartlet’s Deputy Chief of Staff). It actually didn’t dawn on me until right now, as I write this, that Josh is never actually Bartlet’s Chief of Staff – he’s only the deputy in that administration. But I think the comparison holds; Josh and Remy are more comparable than Leo and Remy, age-wise, so maybe that’s why it sprang to mind, but I also think Josh does more Remy-like things than Leo. Anyways.

This is where I couldn’t get it out of my mind: When it’s clear the hurricane has turned and the America Works program will die because Frank’s signed that bill, he leaves the situation room and asks Remy what can be done to stop it and get the AmWorks funding back. Remy doesn’t know what to do, and basically tells Frank it’s hopeless. Faced with the same situation and the same amount of time, Josh Lyman would have gotten the bill back, rescued AmWorks, and given Donna a condescending explanation of whatever Constitutional loophole he used to accomplish the previous feat.

On a more peripheral level, I’m always interested in the way different politically focused shows and movies concentrate on different players. I mean, I get it – each show chooses who they want to tell the story through – but I just wonder how those decisions are made, and why. There is no Toby Ziegler or Sam Seaborn in HoC (or at least no depiction of their counterparts, because the real Sam and Toby would probably flee the country if Frank Underwood was president). In the same way, The West Wing never had (if my memory serves) a U.N. Ambassador present during tense moments in the situation room.

Aside from the ease with which West Wing comparisons can be made, HoC season three was my favorite because for a long time, we don’t know where it’s going. Season one, these characters and this story are brand-new, and we don’t even know what we could assume. Season two, it’s fairly obvious Frank will become President. But season three, Frank is President. So where will it go?

I loved watching Frank struggle with the day-to-day issues of the presidency, rather than make the broad-strokes moves to get there in the first place, which we saw in the first two seasons. You remember he actually has a job to do. But even though that’s why I loved the season as a whole, it’s also why the ending left me dissatisfied. It felt like the finale concentrated on storylines that hadn’t been considered much at all in the previous 12 episodes. Of course Doug has to find Rachel, and of course we have to get some idea of what’s going on with the Underwood marriage (this Vulture piece articulates a lot of frustrations I had with the season’s end, as far as Frank and Claire’s relationship), but I was disappointed we didn’t get a closer look at how Heather Dunbar narrowly lost the Iowa primary, or get some idea where Jackie Sharp’s headed next, now that she’s done campaigning and admitted unhappiness in her marriage.

Slightly disappointing ending aside, though, I still thought this was a fabulous season. These are my other lingering, random thoughts:

  • End of episode two, when Claire cracks those two eggs into a pan. WHAT DOES IT MEAN.
  • Even if there weren’t direct comparisons to all the characters, there were some moments that reminded me of West Wing Frank’s visit to the bishop reminded me of when Toby went to chat with his rabbi. Heather Dunbar’s surprise announcement of her candidacy reminded me of CJ’s surprise when that awful Peter Lillianfield gave a surprise press conference about alleged drug use among White House staffers.
  • I liked Thomas Yates, the author Frank hired. But I will never love a writer on this show as much as I loved Janine Skorsky.
  • This scene – Frank sings a little ditty for guests after the Petrov dinner – is straight out of my fever dream.

frank singing!

  • The dialogue between Claire Underwood and Michael Corrigan, as they negotiate in his prison cell, is insanely good. As is the dialogue between Frank and Claire later that episode, when they’re fighting on the plane.
  • This show reminded me how House of Cards season one really introduced me to the greatness of Kevin Spacey, who is now one of my most beloved actors. I’d seen him in movies before this show, but I remember watching the first season and then wanting to know all of his other stuff. I watched L. A. Confidential not long after finishing season one, and it’s now one of my favorite films. I kind of forgot until this weekend how HoC was responsible for my love of Spacey.

So, I’m sure tons of other thoughts and theories will come to mind as I chew on this season and discuss with others. Here’s to season four.

Spoiler Alert!

For several months, I’ve been chewing on the idea of how a “spoiler alert” has changed in television now that we’re all watching whatever we want whenever we want to watch it. Since I finished the second season of House of Cards this weekend – fans of the show seem to be walking on eggshells to avoid having the show spoiled for them, or spoiling it for someone else – I thought about what the concept means for that show and for TV viewing habits in general. (Actually, this topic got some media play last month when Jennifer Lawrence had Homeland spoiled for her, but I still feel like there’s a lot to it.)

Not to be meta, but I guess this IS a spoiler alert if you haven’t finished House of Cards. In the very first episode, Zoe Barnes, a journalist who figured prominently in the first season, is pushed in front of a D.C. Metro train and dies. Just like that.

When I first saw the episode, I did not believe she really died. Honestly. I thought she was going to miraculously survive with severe injuries, or the show was going to take some strange supernatural turn and have Zoe come back as a ghost. Kate Mara had been everywhere promoting the show’s new season. On TV, in GQ…I thought there was no way Netflix would let her promote the show so heavily only to have her killed off in the first episode. How could she have done all that press and kept the secret to herself?!

(Seriously, props to Kate Mara. I could never keep a secret like that for so long.)

Technically, any show could use a star to promote a new season and then kill him/her off right away. House of Cards just seems even more prone to spoilers, with its all-episodes-released-at-once distribution model. I was talking about the show with friends tonight, and one person had to leave the room voluntarily because she hasn’t finished and doesn’t want anything to be spoiled. Googling “House of Cards episode recap” turns up dozens of articles with headlines that basically read: “SPOILER ALERT HOUSE OF CARDS SEASON 2 EPISODE 5 OH MY GOSH DON’T READ IF YOU HAVEN’T WATCHED BECAUSE SO MANY CRAZY THINGS HAPPEN!” Which, as a fan of the show, I appreciate, because I really would like to discover surprises for myself. House of Cards doesn’t air at 9pm EST/8pm CT like most other shows. Since no one really knows when others are watching it, people are taking caution not to spoil anything. With a show that airs on actual television, there’s little concern for spoiling because, hey, you could have watched it at 9pm EST/8pm CT like the rest of us. If you find out something you didn’t want to know, that’s your fault for not avoiding the Internet.

Spoiler alerts reach a whole new level now because Netflix, HBO Go, Amazon, etc. give us instant access to shows that ended months, years, or decades ago. Last spring, I started watching The West Wing and inadvertently had the show spoiled for me right off the bat when I looked at the show’s Wikipedia article. I knew from the get-go that the President had multiple sclerosis, that Josh and Donna became a thing and that Zoe Bartlet was kidnapped.

That, of course, was my own fault. I should have known the article would spoil a lot for me. But at what point do we expect that everyone has the same frame of reference for TV shows? Who’s already finished a series, and who’s just discovering it?

I don’t think every television review needs to come with a “SPOILER ALERT!” headline. I don’t expect anyone to keep The West Wing a secret from me because most people finished it eight years ago. This whole concept is just fascinating – the way it changes our viewing habits and the way it alters our conversations about what we watch. In one circle of friends, you could have two people who binge-watched House of Cards, one who’s halfway through the series, and a handful who don’t care at all and have a different TV obsession altogether. Instead of one big conversation about the same show, we’ll have a few tiny conversations about a few shows. And as long as the people who are still working through House of Cards don’t find out that FRANK BECOMES PRESIDENT, I suppose that’ll have to do.

I Love You, Toby Ziegler

I know this puts me about seven years behind the times, but I’ve spent an embarrassingly large portion of my last three weekends watching The West Wing on Netflix. I’ve never been much into politics or television dramas, but since I went through a brief Washington, D.C. obsession after reading a Ben Bradlee biography and watching House of Cards (and because my sister kept telling me how The West Wing was God’s one and only gift to television), I decided to give it a go.

The West Wing really is God’s one and only gift to television. (Well, maybe not the only gift. There’s also 30 Rock.)

Toby Ziegler, the Director of White House Communications on the show, has emerged as my favorite member of the Bartlet administration. What can I say? I’m a sucker for TV characters who speak with a biting wit, point out grammar mistakes and love pie.

My all-time (so far) favorite Toby moment, not included in the above montage:

I’m not an expert on political dramas or Aaron Sorkin shows, but I can’t get enough of The West Wing and the way it’s a drama mixed with a bit of workplace comedy. Another thing that intrigues me about this show (actually, about a lot of TV shows) is how it blends reality and fiction. Jay Leno, a real-life celebrity, shows up at a benefit for a fictional president. Real-life newspapers report on real-life political issues as they play out in a fictional White House. It’s not completely made-up, but it’s not completely real, either. I get it – this is TV, and of course Jay Leno would attend a benefit to support a president who stars in an NBC show – but the interplay between real and fictional issues and characters is intriguing.

I’m only on the second season, so there’s plenty more obsession to indulge. Let the Netflix binge continue.