House of Cards – Season Five
I mentioned it in my review of season four, but House of Cards might be the best drama on television. Ever. The way season five wrapped up left me a little bit underwhelmed, and the season on the whole wasn’t perfect, but it’s still binge television at its absolute best. This review will have spoilers because it’s impossible to talk about a show like this without them.
Story-wise, the season started in a slightly awkward fashion due to when season four ended. We were right in the middle of the election, with news of Francis’ past wrongdoings finally coming to light. I loved the whole “focus on the terror” narrative that the Underwoods played to, but it did seem like America’s reaction was a little too trusting. Then again, we’re all idiots so who knows? I wasn’t a fan of how they just completely dropped the Conway story once Frank “won” the election. That battle was primed to explode and we never really got to see the two of them go head to head directly. Conway definitely started unraveling at the end, and while it made sense to get Frank back into the White House, I would have liked Conway to play some further part as the season went on. This show historically tries not to focus on any Republican characters, and that can get a tad annoying. But still, relatively small potatoes to the major bombshells that continued throughout the season.
I have a small issue with Claire. In the first few seasons, she was always more the voice of reason, helping steer Frank away from the complete darkness that seems to inhabit his soul. She didn’t always succeed and he certainly didn’t always listen, but the two of them made it work. I found the short stint where they were directly opposing each other and she was considering divorce to be the lowest point for the show; I’ve always felt like things work best when they’re a team, despite some underlying tension always being there. And look, I’m not faulting Claire for wanting to step out from Frank’s shadow. He doesn’t respect her like he says he does, and she clearly makes a much better president. But I hate how they made her turn on him at the end of the season. I was really looking forward to seeing them enact Frank’s plan, with her operating inside the White House and him manipulating things from the private sector. Now, it’s become very clear that things are over between them, and season six will likely focus on them trying to take each other out. I also wouldn’t be surprised if that was the final season, because I’m not really sure where they go from there, other than to extend that storyline another season or two. I have to be honest and say I’m less interested in that, but I’m sure it’ll still be awesome in many ways.
One thing I did love in season five was that they finally got rid of Thomas Yates. Nothing against the actor, he did a fine job, but I just hated that character. He was boring, and brought out a weakness in Claire that I didn’t find interesting. He also just never really served a story purpose, other than some vague threat that he would put their past out there for the whole world to see. Good riddance. I also enjoyed how the show weaved its many disparate storylines together throughout the season. There’s a lot going on in House of Cards, with the war on ICO, Frank’s past transgressions, the manipulation of the election, the back and forth with Russia, the war council, Stamper continuing to cover things up, Frank and Claire’s love lives causing drama, and the show does a masterful job of making small, seemingly unimportant things matter in the grand scope. And even if they don’t matter now, you better believe that they’ll be coming back to cause some chaos. I may have enjoyed elements of season five less than in previous seasons, but given that I watched the whole thing over the course of two days, I’d say I’m still pretty into the show.
Hey look, it’s a bad video game movie! I’m sure everyone is surprised. But in all seriousness, it seemed at first like Assassin’s Creed might come out okay. They had big stars like Michael Fassbender, Jeremy Irons, and Marion Cotillard attached, and the game developer/publisher Ubisoft seemed behind the project 100%. Even the first trailer didn’t seem terrible, despite the fact that they completely changed how the Animus worked for the sake of the movie and abandoned any attachment to the video game stories.
But then the movie came out, and our worst fears were realized. Assassin’s Creed was yet another bastardization of a favorite video game franchise with clearly no love or care put into it. I wasn’t even going to bother watching the movie, but I was bored one weekend and my curiosity overcame me. I like Michael Fassbender, and at least the action, choreography, and cinematography should be good, right? Sadly, no. There are no redeeming qualities to this movie.
The acting is stiff and lifeless, the story makes very little sense and is surprisingly hard to follow, and the Apple of Eden, the MacGuffin everyone is chasing, gets no more explanation other than “it’ll stop people from being violent.” Not only is that lame as hell, but the mechanics behind how it works are never described, so that when the big bad finally gets his hands on it in the climactic scene and tries to use it, the glowing green bubble that appears around him seems even more stupid and pointless than you’d expect. In the final scene, there seems to be a vague setup for a sequel, but to be honest I can’t be sure because by that point I had no idea what was going on or why I should care. The motivations and changes alliances of Marion Cotillard’s character in particular never make sense.
The movie does its best to give some nods to the video game series, but these seem more contractual than purposeful. Someone is thrown from a high building into a bale of hay, the assassins almost exclusively fight with their hidden blades, and there’s a scene where Michael Fassbender’s character has visions of his other assassin ancestors where you see people that look vaguely like characters from the games. I seriously don’t understand why they didn’t try to replicate one of the stories from the games, particularly Assassin’s Creed II with Ezio. I understand having to make some changes during the transition to film, but this movie really only bears resemblance to the games on the most surface of levels. Fans of the video game franchise will find very little to enjoy here, and the casual viewer will find absolutely nothing.
Telltale’s Guardians of the Galaxy – Episode One
Remember when Telltale’s The Walking Dead came out, and everyone was blown away by a studio finally getting storytelling and choice right in a modern adventure game? And then Telltale games started popping up all over the place, and the brand suffered? Sure, there have certainly been standouts since then (Tales from the Borderlands and The Wolf Among Us were particularly great), but nothing in recent years has matched the success of that first season. Unfortunately, that trend continues with the first episode of Guardians of the Galaxy.
There just isn’t much here to like. The standout moment was definitely the fight against Thanos, and I was hoping that combat would be a bigger element of this series than it has in the past. The quick time events haven’t always been stellar or engaging in the previous series, but slowing down time and executing multiple button presses at once makes things feel more involved in this episode. The voice performances and character designs are fine; they feel familiar for fans of the movies but still establish the game as being its own thing. The writing and story definitely fall short, however. There are a ton of cringe-worthy jokes in Tangled Up in Blue.
Comedy is really tricky in video games. Timing is the most important aspect of the joke, and when that timing is variable, the delivery suffers. Such is the case in this game. I think I chuckled once or twice, but that’s it. The story centering around yet another MacGuffin is also disappointing. Seriously, can writers not come up with new ideas anymore? This project reeks of being rushed out the door to capitalize on the success of the films, and that’s even more true when looking at how the game performs. It’s sadly become a common state of affairs with Telltale games, but I spent most of my time just waiting for the whole thing to fall apart. Characters pop in and out of view, the game freezes during transitions, there are far more load screens than there should be, and the character movement just looks very stiff and unnatural.
I’ll probably continue to play this series for at least another episode, but I’m not excited about it. It’s weird to now live in a world where I don’t always care about a Telltale games release. I still haven’t played their Minecraft or Batman series. I know there’s still stuff to like in most things they do, but the Telltale name doesn’t have the cache that it once did. I think if they took a little time off, rebuilt their engine, and really thought about what projects made sense for them, they could come back and deliver the experiences we’ve come to expect. But until then, most of their games will continue to be a “I’ll play if I get some extra time” kind of deal for me. And that’s a shame.
My wife and I checked this one out on a whim, mostly due to it not being a depressing drama and the fact that it starred the now hotly sought after Michael Keaton. Good for him. I knew going in that the movie was about the founding and expansion of McDonald’s, and that it was mostly based on fact. I was actually shocked after the fact to see that it hadn’t reviewed well at all, because I really enjoyed the movie.
Michael Keaton is fantastic as the ambitious, conflicted, mostly an asshole Ray Kroc. Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch are both great as the founding McDonalds brothers, as well. They bring a sense of sincerity and naivete that works as a perfect foil for Keaton. The story follows Kroc’s rise and takeover of McDonald’s into the world-spanning behemoth that it is today. From a thematic perspective, it’s kind of horrifying to see just how powerful money can be. There’s really nothing the rich and powerful can’t do when they want something.
Reading through other reviews, there was a common theme from critics, saying they were disappointed that the movie didn’t completely destroy the character of Ray Kroc. History shows us that he did in fact make a hostile takeover of McDonald’s, screwing over the rightful owners in the process. The critics wanted the movie to show how awful of a human being Kroc was, and found Keaton’s portrayal too multi-dimensional. They also thought it celebrated capitalism too much. To me, these are completely ridiculous arguments. Not only would it be impossible to leave this movie thinking Kroc was the hero of the story, but showcasing the good and evil in characters makes for interesting viewing. I loved how I kind of felt bad for Kroc in the beginning of the film, as he clearly had talent that wasn’t being utilized to its fullest. Sure, at his core he seems like a pretty shitty person, but the entire point was to be able to see why he did what he did. The movie is most definitely not a celebration of Kroc or people like him, but it’s good to show both sides of the story. That’s what good writing does.
I’m not trying to get up on my high horse here, but it’s just annoying to see “professional” movie critics projecting their personal feelings and bias onto a movie like this. Aren’t the best villains the ones with which you can empathize? The mustache twirling, world dominating villains are a thing of the past, as they should be. Life is more complex than that, and I think modern movies should reflect this. The Founder does a great job with this, and I’m just sad that it wasn’t rewarded. All that said, Ray Kroc seems like a shitty person and it pisses me off that McDonald’s makes such damn good fries.