Sunday 3 February 2013

Netflix Original Series - HOUSE OF CARDS - Review & Analysis

If you're a regular reader of this blog, you will know that I have been a constant advocate of giant changes to the way that Film & TV are distributed in the modern era -- and now it seems my prayers have been answered by none other than Netflix.

'House Of Cards' is a thirteen episode TV-series. Actually, it's more like a thirteen hour movie. Released solely on Netflix, through all of its worldwide territories, on the same day. Every single episode is available. Immediately.

That's why I'm loving Netflix right now, because they have their finger right on the pulse. Bringing back 'Arrested Development'? Yes please. The common myth in the world at the moment is that people have no attention spans -- we can't get our minds away from Twitter for more than four minutes at a time. But across the world this week people are staying glued to their screens all day, soaking up 'House Of Cards'.

And this isn't mindless junk, it's gripping drama. Expertly written in a way that's engaging yet fascinatingly mysterious. After ten episodes you know what's going on yet realise you don't actually have a clue what's going on. Exactly what is Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) up to? And why am I suspicious of Claire Underwood? (Robin Wright).

There used to be a clear line between film and television; the glory was all in the motion pictures. Then the best screenwriters began turning their backs on the big screen, to focus on the small one. It was where they could find the creative freedom to tell their stories. The actors rapidly followed. It's no surprise that people spend weekends on TV Box-Set Marathons; because they're created by the best writing, producing, directing and acting talent in America. They look just like movies, yet they last way longer and the characters are so much more developed.

With 'House Of Cards', you realise just how blurred the lines have become. David Fincher and Kevin Spacey took this on by choice, because it was the best medium in which to do this story. When you sign up with a TV Network, you have an hour a week, and depending on who the broadcaster is, you're liable to be have your show ripped apart by distracting commercials every five minutes.

Everybody hates the way TV works, it's just there's never been another choice.

But now that Netflix is funding and distributing its own projects, the future has truly arrived, and this might just be the death of television, and it'll affect movies too. If people have the time and inclination - they can watch 'House Of Cards' in one sitting. Block out a day, order some pizza, and sink into the story for thirteen hours. That's powerful. After seeing this, nearly every Film Director in Hollywood will be wanting a similar opportunity. The chance to do something intelligent and in-depth, online. The audience potential is huge. This thing is WORLDWIDE, and IMMEDIATE!

I've written a lot about how illegal streaming is growing because it gives the people what they want in the way they want it. And by that, I don't mean free stuff; I mean easy access, and complete control of how to absorb the content. We don't want the dumb commercials anymore and we don't want to be drip-fed content. We love nothing more than settling down with four seasons of our new favourite show.

That's why the simultaneous release of all thirteen episodes is genius. We're engaged more than ever when the content is GREAT, when a show is truly worth it. That's why 'The West Wing' has gone on to such legendary status, because people are still discovering it, staying up all night binge-watching, and then recommending it to their friends. Same for 'The Wire', and 'Lost', even 'Friends'!

This is one of Kevin Spacey's finest performances. His turn as Francis Underwood is immensely gripping--- you find yourself rooting for him despite his evidently evil machinations.  Robin Wright is unerringly cold and calculating as Francis' wife, Claire Underwood. Together they make a chillingly perfect team.

Another standout performance was given by Kate Mara, who I've seen in bits and pieces over the years, most recently in the film '10 Years', which I wrote about previously.  But this is surely her best screen work to date. She begins as an atypically ambitious young journalist, but the character develops in far more fascinating directions through each episode -- until by the end, you'd hardly recognise her from the Zoe Barnes we met at the beginning. To say too much more would surely be on spoiler territory, so I'll just say that I was hugely impressed with how Mara portrayed her character, and I can't wait to see more of her work.

Same goes for Corey Stoll, who plays Congressman Peter Russo. This poor character is completely controlled and ruined by Francis Underwood. Russo, already an alcoholic, fumbles through each episode desperately struggling for even an inch of control or self-respect. He's a riveting character, and feels all-too-real which is a credit to Stoll's great acting.
As you'd expect when David Fincher is involved, the show is stylishly shot. When Fincher directed the Aaron Sorkin penned 'The Social Network', the screenwriter often said, "He made scenes of people talking about typing look like bank robberies". That's what you get with Fincher - he makes the boring fascinating. 'House Of Cards' is thirteen hours of Kevin Spacey walking in and out of rooms, having small conversations and then walking out again -- yet it's all so atmospheric and compelling.

This is one of those shows where, in many ways, not a lot happens. But the characters are so absorbing that you go along with it, based on faith. Because you know this is all leading somewhere. 

WARNING: The next two paragraphs are potentially mildly spoiler-ish. Maybe best to skip over them if you haven't watched the show.
The unfortunate thing, from my point of view, is that come the end -- you are led absolutely nowhere. The final episode, which promises so much -- ends flatly. The end result, which you may have had an inkling of near the very beginning (or something close), begins to fall into place in the final few episodes. In the last three parts, once we get a sense of what Francis' intentions are -- the show flattens, loses its zip. The final episode, which promised so much, delivers exactly what is expected, in an almost casual manner -- offering no excitement, no intrigue, no sense of denouement. 

It seems likely that the final episode is designed to leave us wanting more, begging for Season 2, but to this end, it falls short. When you're gifted a thirteen episode story at once, when you watch a character weave his way in and out of situations in search of a goal -- to not deliver on that in the end, in a satisfying way, is majorly disappointing. You don't end watching this show excited and hungry for more, you end it flatly; wondering why it didn't deliver a killer punch. You don't feel satiated.

Spoiler alert over, you're safe. 

Netflix could really be onto something. Original content, delivered immediately and cheaply to the hungry consumer: this is exactly what we want. Will it become commonplace? Perhaps; but the material has to be excellent, and it has to be expertly put together. If not, there'll be tons of thirteen hour shows where nobody gets past the thirty minute mark. 

This time, they had Fincher and Spacey, they were in safe hands. And in 'Arrested Development', it's hard to imagine they could fail. But new and original productions will be more risky. Netflix could, potentially, revolutionise the industry, bringing us wildly creative projects from the best minds in the business. 

It's a risk that I hope they continue to gamble with. 

'House Of Cards' is, I would say, a big success. Hugely compelling, with fantastic performances from some of the top actors in the industry. As a model for how things can be done in the new world; online and immediately accessible, this feels like the future. In fact, it feels like where we're at, right now.

My personal opinion is that the first series ends poorly, that the audience are not given the ending they deserve after keeping faith for thirteen long hours. It will be interesting to see if other viewers agree with me. If I'm right, then the team behind the project may have misfired; because word of mouth will undoubtedly suffer. I think 'House Of Cards' is a great experiment with so much about it that is fantastic; but do I recommend you give up thirteen hours to watch it? Not necessarily. I'm not sure the journey will take you where you want to go. 

But the journey that Netflix is just beginning; I'm along for the ride.

Care to share?

Tuesday 29 January 2013

Tuesday's Song

This piece of music has come to encapsulate everything I feel about World War 2. That's strange in itself because, I have absolutely no idea what I feel about it. But I do feel, to the point where I just want to cry.

Over sixty million people were killed, which was over 2.5% of the world population, can you imagine? Just think of all the wonderful people you've never met, because they were never born, because of this devastating war. 

In school we were taught in a simple way: England were victors, Nazis were bad, and Europe saw lots of fighting.

But there's so much more to it. 

Like, my Grandparents. The role they played. Heroes to me in every sense of the word. 

But there were heroes on the other side, too. That's what I realise whenever I see a war film now. I've lost the sense of "Hey, we won!" and am left thinking, holy shit, a huge chunk of humanity was wiped off the face of the Earth. 

War still rages. Genocide exists. And you realise as you get older that who you think are the good guys are very rarely the good guys. 

And I don't even know what I'm saying. 

I just know that this piece of music captures how I feel about war. Sadness, and heroism, and senselessness, and mourning. And so many other things. 

This piece makes me think of people I know. People I knew. People I never came across. The billions of humans who were effected by this giant tragedy of a war, and its repercussions that still play out in the world today. 

But there is something beautiful about this piece of music. And there's something beautiful about remembering all those who came before us. The angels who fought for good, and those who perished because of evil ideas. 

It's crucial we remember. It's crucial we feel. It's crucial we love. 

Care to share?

Monday 28 January 2013

Monday's Song


We're great at making things complicated. We get into endless conversations and disagreements about our over-caffeinated modern lives.

But at the end of the day, it still comes down to this: find that one person and make them happy.

We've lost sight of that. My generation, we don't know what we're doing. We hide behind computer screens, send cryptic text messages, and get endlessly mixed up in casual dating.

But of course, no-one really wants casual dating, or being non-exclusive or any of the crazy things we've come up with to protect ourselves. We're the most privileged generation in human history, and we handle it with narcissism, we fall in love with our possessions. There's an episode of 'Boston Legal' where a character falls in love with an iPhone. Six years ago, it seemed funny, now it just seems realistic.

Make someone happy. Such an alien concept to us. How often do we do it?

Sure, we do a good deed and then say, "Didn't you notice? Didn't you see the effort I put in?" I told you, we're narcissists. We do things for the validation.

But maybe it can be a lot more simple than that.

"It's so important to make someone happy. Make just one someone happy."

The song resonates because it cuts through the bullshit. Makes you realise you've gone five years without tending to the relationships in your life.

Is there someone you could make happy? Would you want to? Maybe the risks seem too high, but what is the alternative? What do you want your life to be about?

Care to share?

Thursday 17 January 2013

Training Yourself As An Artist

1. Practice makes perfect.

2. What I mean is, the more you practice, the more tools you have in your box. You become highly skilled and develop expertise.

3. But it can so easily lead to autopilot. You use your tools, the work is passable, but nobody truly connects.

4. All the great writers and directors, they had a golden moment, genuine magic was created. You can't force that moment just by picking up new tools.

5. So you must have life experience. Imagination is great on its own, but it's at its best when mixed with genuine insight.

6. Every great piece of art needs insight. That's what makes your favourite movies your favourite movies.

7. We can't have insight every day. I think when I started this blog, I had unique perspective, something different to say. I'm a better blogger now, I have so many tools -- but the fresh insights are harder to come by.

8. That's why you have to live more, and be open to influence and new ways of thinking.

9. You have to let go. When you define yourself by your profession all day long, you're a bore. Go for a walk around a lake with someone, and while you're there, completely drop the identity you've built for yourself as 'writer', 'actor', etc. They're just words, mental concepts. Above all, you're a human!

10. Eat healthy.

Care to share?

Question From A Reader, re: Film School

Kid, I need your help. I'm a young filmmaker - 15, actually. Of course, the question of film school is popping up, within my own mind and my parents. My parents believe producers and studios won't give a filmmaker millions of dollars to produce a film if they don't believe he can do it. They say a film school degree will show them I know how to produce a film, how to make them money. 

What's the truth?

Thank you for answering. It's a question that's been plaguing my mind for some time now. Cheers, 


It's all about your track record. If you make a movie for $300 and it wins some awards, someone will give you $2000. If you make that movie and manage to sell a heap of copies online and make $5000, then a producer will think "this kid is profitable!", and more money will come your way.

It's never a flowing stream. It's never easy. When it comes to film financing, and getting hired by studios, it's all about business. Whether you went to film school or spent your entire teens and early twenties fishing, they don't really care. They want to know -- can you make them money? 

At least, that's how it is when a lot of money is involved. 

With smaller, independent film producers, they often care more about art. They want to put something great into the world. And sure, you need a great track record, but not so much a financial one. It's more about your reel. How many people have you inspired? How many festivals have your films been in? How many people are clambering to work with you? 

I have been paid well to write, and paid reasonable amounts to direct -- although not at the big-budgets your questions imply. But I know many people who have done, some of whom are at the top of the pile in Hollywood. And you know the one thing nobody EVER asks them when they're being hired? "Where did you go to film school?"

Film school is a tool. It's a place to meet like-minded people. A place where you have permission to sit in a tiny room all day with a pretty girl watching French New Wave movies. Can it help? Of course! You have access to so much equipment and so many amazing people. But it doesn't guarantee a job. 

Despite what I say, many will no doubt have completely opposite opinions. Truth is, there are people who walk out of top Film Schools straight into big directing jobs. Just like there are random kids from Spain who win a competition and then are signed up immediately, having never been near a film school. 

As the old wisdom goes, there are no rules, and nobody knows anything. Figure out your path and follow it. Somewhere between everyone's advice, your parent's hopes and your own intuitions, you'll find the answer. I hope you come back here and share it! 

Care to share?