Tag Archives: Netflix

Return of House of Cards stacks up

Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright star in Season 2 of 'House of Cards.'

Robin Wright continues to fascinate in her Golden Globe-winning role opposite Kevin Spacey in Season 2 of ‘House of Cards,’ now streaming in its entirety on Netflix.

Season 2 of House of Cards, which began streaming in its 13-episode entirety Friday on Netflix, opens as House Majority Whip Francis “Frank” Underwood (Kevin Spacey) prepares to be sworn in as vice president of the United States (Secret Service codename: Little John). Frank’s ruthless path to this office has been a bloody one, and not just metaphorically: At the end of Season 1, Frank murdered a loose-cannon flunky, alcoholic Pennsylvania political hopeful Peter Russo, making it look like a suicide.
Even as Frank readies to claim his reward, however, his journalist adversaries – former mistress Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara) and her Washington Herald newspaper colleagues Lucas Godwin (Sebastian Arcelus) and Janine Skorsky (Constance Zimmer) — have started to notice the holes in the story of Russo’s “suicide” and begun to connect the dots back to Frank. As they uncover more and more facts, they start to wonder: What if Frank had a hand in it?
And worse: What if Frank suspects that they suspect?
That’s really all the set-up you need to start Season 2, assuming you’ve already seen Season 1. As for these new episodes, suffice it to say that if you worried Season 2 was going to feel like an artificial continuation of the first 13 episodes simply to milk a ratings cow for Netflix, you can relax. If the first season caught some of us off-guard with its taut, intelligent writing and acting, Season 2 continues that dizzyingly complicated narrative organically and naturally. House of Cards signals that its second season is playing for keeps by bumping off a major character in the first episode, yet while these hours deliver a full quota of “WTF?!” moments, these aren’t the soapy over-the-top melodramatics that make ABC’s Scandal such a campy water-cooler hit.
Season 2 introduces several new characters, none more fascinating than Molly Parker’s electrifying turn as Jackie Sharp, the junior congresswoman whom Frank manages to maneuver into his old position as House Majority Whip. Frank clearly plans to use Jackie as his Congressional cat’s paw, but after screening several episodes (I’m about halfway through this new season), it’s starting to look as if Jackie may be nobody’s fool.
As enjoyable as the new characters are, however, there are other rewards in the form of older characters from Season 1 who resurface, usually eager to get revenge on Frank. The House of Cards writers have done a superb job of interweaving these old characters with the newcomers, and it gives me a headache to imagine all the storyline diagrams that must be hanging on the walls of the writers room.
Of course, this thriller about a modern-day Macbeth and his Lady wouldn’t work without its two main stars, Spacey and Robin Wright, who won a Golden Globe Award for her work in Season 1 as Claire Underwood. Spacey’s performance is spot-on, but somehow it’s just not all that surprising to me: We’ve seen this Oscar-winning actor deliver multiple variations on this sly, manipulating bastard before now.
Wright, however, is a revelation in her every scene. Hers is a very subtle performance, but it’s one that suggests roiling tensions firmly tamped down under Claire’s icy blonde exterior. We learn quite a bit more about Claire Underwood and her turbulent past in Season 2 and, while it doesn’t give the character a gooey center, it does suggest that, at some point, this female glacier is going to melt in a very interesting way.
Like a great, sprawling novel, House of Cards just keeps getting richer and more provocative the deeper you venture into it. I advise you to set aside several hours before sitting down to view it. You may not plan to “binge-watch” these 13 episodes, but you’re going to find it very hard to stop once you start.
Molly Parker joins the second season of 'House of Cards' on Netflix.

The exceptional Moily Parker joins Season 2 of ‘House of Cards’ as junior U.S. Congresswoman Jackie Sharp, who replaces Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) as the House Majority Whip.

Sutton sparkles in Shrek the Musical on Netflix

Suton Foster stars in 'Shrek the Musical,' now streaming on Netflix.

Backed by the Pied Piper’s rats, Princess Fiona (Sutton Foster) declares that she’s a ‘Morning Person’ in ‘Shrek the Musical,’ now streaming on Netflix.

My thanks to the Broadway.com website for alerting me that Netflix recently acquired streaming rights to the home video release of Shrek the Musical, a stage adaptation of the 2001 Dreamworks animated comedy that gleefully skewered classic Disney cartoons. This lavish Broadway show opened shortly before Christmas in 2008 and got respectable reviews and eight Tony Award nominations, yet ran only a little over a year, roughly half that of the godawful 2010 musical version of The Addams Family, which most critics loathed.
The primary viewer interest in this title probably will center, as it did for me, on Sutton Foster, the two-time Tony Award winner who earned yet another nod in this show for her performance as Princess Fiona, whom the diminutive despot Lord Farquaad (Christopher Sieber) dispatches the ogre Shrek (Brian d’Arcy James) to rescue from a dragon. Foster picked up a lot of new fans last season with her delightful work in the too-shortlived ABC Family dramedy Bunheads, but if you, like I, never have seen Foster in a live stage performance, you owe it to yourself to see this show – because as good as this actress is on TV, the stage is clearly where her true north lies.
If you don’t believe me, check out the opening number to Act 2, called “Morning Person.” Up to this point in the show, Princess Fiona has gotten relatively little stage time (she’s been trapped in an offstage tower for most of the first act), and this song, a hilarious send-up of all those twittering Disney princess tunes, takes place on the first morning of her freedom. It starts out with Fiona duetting with a cheerful songbird who explodes under the force of Foster’s vocal belt, then builds steadily to a big Fosse-like number backed by a chorus of the Pied Piper’s rats. The song is just a parody, but Foster’s connection with both everyone on the stage around her as well as the audience in front of her is totally electric. This lady absolutely ignites under the stage lights, and it’s a complete joy to watch her at work.
This recording also includes all the other Tony-nominated members of principal cast, including, in the title role, Brian d’Arcy James, whom some viewers may recognize from his thankless role as Debra Messing’s TV husband in Season 1 of Smash. Come to think of it, you probably won’t recognize him, given that he’s buried under green prosthetic makeup, but thankfully this TV production gives you enough tight close-ups to capture what’s coming through his expressive eyes.
Sieber, another Tony nominee, brought audiences to their feet with his hilarious portrayal of a character that required him to perform the entire show on his knees. Daniel Breaker, a scene-stealer as Donkey, and John Tartaglia (a former Tony nominee for Avenue Q) as Pinocchio didn’t capture Tony nominations this time around, but still deliver crowd-pleasing performances.
Shrek the Musical on Broadway was a very expensive show and lost a substantial part of its investment. Subsequent productions on tour and internationally have slenderized the show significantly. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. The end of Act 1, which tries to translate in stage terms Shrek’s rescue of Fiona from the dragon, is kind of a frenetic mess.
In any case, this filmed production is probably the only chance you’ll get to see Shrek the Musical with all its bells and whistles intact, performed by a solid-gold cast of principles. This show is decent enough on its own terms (it wants to be Spamalot, but it just isn’t), yet I can’t imagine seeing it without the splendid stars of this recording, who absolutely work full-out to sell this material. And streaming a show that sold tickets on Broadway for more than $100 a pop for less than the admission price to a film at your local multiplex is a bargain by any measure.
Then again, when it comes to Sutton Foster, you can’t really put a price on talent like that, anyway.
(P.S.: If you don’t have access to Netflix, this production of Shrek the Musical is available on DVD and Blu-ray for under $20 from Amazon.com and other retailers).
Christopher Sieber stars as villainous Lord Farquaar in 'Shrek the Musical.'

Christopher Sieber’s role as Lord Farquaad in ‘Shrek the Musical’ required the actor to play the entire show on his knees.

A rusty reboot

Ironside - Season Pilot
Blair Underwood
Tonight NBC rolls out its very creaky reboot of Ironside, the 1967-75 NBC police drama that originally starred Emmy winner Raymond Burr as wheelchair-bound New York Police Detective Robert Ironside. It just may be the most baffling programming decision of the new fall season.
It’s been nearly 40 years since the original ended its run. That’s roughly two generations in TV audience terms and I doubt there has been any great groundswell of grassroots support for revisiting what always was a fairly unremarkable cop drama.
This new remake is far worse, a cliché-filled hour packed with stock characters and hammy acting. The usually reliable Blair Underwood takes the Burr role, which has been refashioned into a Serpico-like cop who isn’t afraid to break some rules to get the job done. I threw up in my mouth a little as I typed those last words, but sadly, they’re accurate.
Ironside has been confined to a wheelchair since he was nearly killed in a bust that went horribly wrong, an accident for which his former partner, Gary (Brent Sexton, The Killing), blames himself. Their now-tense relationship is the most interesting thing about tonight’s premiere, at least until it takes a turn for the weepy in the final moments of the episode.
Elsewhere, this “new” Ironside piles one trite police-show convention on top of another so relentlessly that you’ll get a headache from rolling your eyes so often. For the record, Ironside’s quirky team includes Pablo Schreiber, recently seen terrorizing Mariska Hargitay on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit and sexually harassing the inmates as Pornstache in the awesome Netflix prison drama Orange Is the New Black; Neal Bledsoe, who played Tom’s closeted Republican boyfriend in season one of Smash; and the usually charming Greek alumna Spencer Grammer, who just looks lost here.
Frankly, I don’t know how anyone could get lost in this show, because there’s not a moment anywhere that doesn’t seem painfully familiar.

Netflix’s ‘Orange’ is the new must-see series

Her brother David is well known in the TV industry as the co-creator of the comedy smash Will & Grace, but Jenji Kohan became a creative force on her own terms when she created Weeds, the audacious long-running Showtime dramedy starring Mary-Louise Parker in a Golden Globe-winning turn as widowed soccer mom Nancy Botwin, who started selling drugs to sustain her upper-middle-class lifestyle after her husband’s death.
Now Kohan is back with another noteworthy series: Orange Is the New Black, which began streaming all 13 episodes of its first season today on Netflix. Adapted from a similarly titled memoir by Piper Kerman, who carries an executive consultant credit here, this new show follows well-bred New Yorker Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) as she attempts to cope with a 15-month prison sentence for helping to transport a large sum of drug money for her erstwhile lesbian lover, Alex Vause (Laura Prepon, That ’70s Show).
The incident in question happened a decade ago, but Piper – who now is engaged to Larry Bloom (Jason Biggs), a nice Jewish writer who adores her – is charged and pleads guilty not long before the statute of limitations on the crime would have elapsed. Piper tries to put a good face on the situation, assuring Larry that she plans to use the time inside to improve herself via exercise and “reading everything on my Amazon wishlist.” She’s even gone as far as to study for her incarceration, poring over books advising new inmates on the best survival strategies (most of which turn out to be hooey).
Her prison counselor, Sam Healy (Michael Harney), tries to reassure her as well. “This isn’t Oz,” he tells Piper, referring to the gritty and violent HBO prison series of yore. “Women fight with gossip and rumors.”
Unfortunately, some of the inmates have other weapons at their disposal as well, such as bitter Russian kitchen manager Galina “Red” Reznikov (Kate Mulgrew in a startling and bold performance), whom Piper unwittingly and unwisely offends on their very first meeting. That prompts Red to withhold Piper’s access to food, both in the dining hall and in the visiting area vending machines, which mysteriously go out-of-order whenever Piper is nearby.
“I just didn’t expect to get punished while getting punished,” Piper complains to an inmate friend.
While Orange is different in terms of setting and characters, it shares creative DNA with Weeds in the way its central character is an upper-crust young white woman forced by circumstance to dive into a scary and potentially dangerous new world, as well as in its tone, basically a dark comedy with startling moments of violence or explosive drama.
I’ve seen two episodes, so I’m still trying to sort through the huge ensemble cast behind Schilling, but Constance Shulman as Zen-spouting Yogi Jones, Broadway musical veteran Beth Fowler as “killer nun” Sister Ingalls, Natasha Lyonne as recovering heroin addict Nicky Nichols and Uzo Aduba as the sweetly nutty “Crazy Eyes” who comes to Piper’s rescue all have broken out of the pack early.
There’s enough nudity and sexual activity to put this series solidly into the adult category, although somewhat surprisingly Orange Is the New Black is far less salacious than your garden-variety women-in-prison exploitation feature. Instead, this new show presents a diverse slate of complex characters (we learn how they got this way via flashbacks to their lives before prison) delivering sharp, clever dialogue that snaps and stings. Even before the series began streaming this morning, Netflix ordered a second season. Very highly recommended.
From left, Constance Shulman, Kate Mulgrew and Taylor Schilling (back to camera)

A long-awaited ‘Development’

Jason Bateman and Liza Minnelli
Seven years after Fox canceled the Emmy-winning and critically acclaimed sitcom Arrested Development, the battling Bluths are back in 15 new episodes, available for streaming starting today on Netflix.
The new episodes, which the service cheekily presents as “A Netflix Semi Original Series,” reunites all the original principal players from the show’s original 2003-06 run as well as bringing back several guest favorites (hello, Liza Minnelli as Lucille Two and Judy Greer as Kitty Sanchez!). This time around, though, series creator Mitch Hurwitz is less interested in telling a conventionally linear story than in filling us in on each individual member of the extended Bluth family, ideally to form a bridge toward an Arrested Development feature film he’s been envisioning for years.
With that in mind, each episode focuses on a single character, although other family members are, of course, tangentially involved. Obviously, that must have helped during production, since not all principles were required for every episode, and it doesn’t reduce the number of solid belly laughs per episode (each of which runs to close or over a full half hour, not the puny 21 minutes-plus currently afforded a sitcom on a commercial network).
Still, there’s a bit of a loss in not seeing all the Bluth-Funkes together more often. I didn’t actually realize that until episode three, when suddenly I caught myself grinning broadly at seeing Michael (Jason Bateman), George (Jeffrey Tambor), Lindsay (Portia de Rossi), Lucille (Jessica Walter), Gob (Will Arnett), Buster (Tony Hale) and Tobias (David Cross) all in a room together for the first time in these new episodes.
But then, Arrested Development never has followed the conventional sitcom rules. Where else could you learn that one of the principal female characters has fallen in love with an accidental member of Al-Qaeda who suffers from “face blindness” and runs an ostrich farm and think to yourself, “Yes, that sounds about right”? Or see a sexually ambiguous male character who has resolved to make a new start in his life do so by buying a new vanity plate for his car reading “ANUSTART”?
There are so many fresh surprises and brilliant jokes in these new episodes that I’ll leave fans to discover most of them on their own, but my heartfelt thanks to whoever had the inspired idea to hire Kristen Wiig and Seth Rogen to play the younger Lucille and George Bluth in recurring flashbacks, as well as 24 sweetheart Mary Lynn Rajskub as an “aura specialist” named Heartfire.
Waiter! More hot ham water, all around, on me!
David Cross and Porta de Rossi

Caution: ‘Hemlock Grove’ may be toxic to thrill-seekers

Bill Skarsgard and Landon Liboiron
Hemlock Grove, an original 13-part series that begins streaming today in its entirety on Netflix, is the service’s first foray into the horror genre, but despite the presence of Eli Roth (Hostel) at the helm, genuine shivers very rarely materialize.
Maybe it’s because its predecessor, House of Cards, was such an audacious dazzler, or because most of us impatiently are champing at the bit to see the long-awaited new season of Arrested Development due to start streaming in May, but based on the first three episodes Netflix made available for review, Hemlock Grove feels like little more than a listless place-holder.
Based on a novel of the same name by Brian McGreevy, who’s an executive producer on this TV adaptation, the series opens with the brutal murder of Brooke Bluebell (Lorenza Izzo), a beautiful high school cheerleader en route to a covert nighttime hook-up with her lesbian science teacher when she is savagely attacked and partly eaten by something horrifying. As in most werewolf movies, the attack initially is blamed on a large animal of some kind, but in this very weird semi-rural Pennsylvania town, human suspects aren’t exactly scarce.
Among them is Roman Godfrey (Bill Skarsgard, brother of Alexander from True Blood and Gustaf of the current Vikings), a handsome, ruthless preppie who cuts quite a sexual swath through the females of his community. Roman is the future heir to a family fortune that we see tangibly in the form of the Godfrey Institute for Biomedical Research, a sinister local think tank nicknamed The White Tower. Roman’s late father, J.R. Godfrey (Paul Popowich), bitterly blamed researchers there for having a hand somehow in the sad plight of his other child, Roman’s sister, Shelley (Nicole Boivin), a mute giantess who causes electrical sparks in times of distress. (To save time, let me assure you right here that I am not making up any of this stuff).
J.R. “committed suicide” while having a confrontation with his beautiful and enigmatic wife, Olivia (former Bond girl Famke Janssen), who was having an affair with J.R.’s brother, Norman (Dougray Scott). That affair is still in progress when Hemlock Grove opens, but Norman, a psychiatrist, feels positively lousy about it and frequently clashes (while dressed) with Olivia over the projects at their institute. He’s also not very happy to learn that his own daughter, Letha (Penelope Mitchell), is pregnant, allegedly by an angel. Seriously.
About the same time the murder occurs, gypsies Peter and Lynda Rumancek (Landon Liboiron, Lily Taylor) have moved to town and taken up residence in a relative’s abandoned trailer. Almost as soon as they meet at school, Roman senses something odd about Peter and begins to suspect that he’s a werewolf who killed Brooke. Peter, meanwhile, tells his mother that he’s pretty sure Roman is something called an Upir, a vampire spirit that historically has been bad news for gypsies. Against all odds, however, the two young men become friends, especially after they discover they have been having the same dream about a serpent devouring its own tail.
To report more would be to spoil the fairly meager surprises that pop up all too infrequently in this yarn. Maybe I was just too distracted by all the apparent plot holes and/or continuity gaffes to be drawn into the story.
For example, as the first murder is in progress, the victim inadvertently hits a speed dial button on her cellphone, calling her teacher-lover, who listens aghast to Brooke’s dying screams. During the investigation, the local cops note that the phone had been on when they found the corpse, yet no one ever bothers to talk to the last person called on the device. Later, when deputies find Roman and Peter hanging out near the small playhouse structure where the killing occurred, they angrily complain that the boys are disturbing a crime scene, yet there is no yellow crime-scene tape or other barriers around to keep away intruders.
As investigators warily begin to consider the unlikely prospect that a werewolf – or at least someone who believes he is a werewolf – might be behind the killing, one of them, Dr. Clementine Chasseur (Kandyse McClure), encounters a shirtless Peter and remarks on how hairy he is (sometimes regarded as a signifier of a werewolf in human form). Problem is, apart from long locks, some beard scruff and very light chest fuzz, Liboiron ISN’T notably hairy.
For a scene that takes place in a new age-y head shop run by a gypsy, the storefront exterior features a huge window sign advertising “Medicinal Marijuana” inside, which I’m not convinced you would likely find in a smallish conservative Pennsylvania town (Hemlock Grove actually was filmed in Ontario, Canada).
As for the performances, in the three episodes I saw, only Liboiron delivers consistently strong work. He’s so relaxed and thoroughly “present” in all of his scenes, however preposterous they are, that the show wakes up anytime he’s on-screen. Props, too, to young Skarsgard, reared in Sweden, for generally maintaining a credible American accent. I’m still trying to decide whether Janssen’s vaguely British accent is an acting choice she made to underscore Olivia’s exotic strangeness to those around her or whether it’s a plot point that will be revealed in a later episode.
I haven’t read McGreevy’s novel, so I can’t fairly judge how many of the problems in Hemlock Grove originated in his manuscript, but there’s certainly enough blame to go around. Maybe, just maybe, things turn around in the later 10 episodes I haven’t seen, but three episodes in, the series is woefully lacking in urgency or any compelling reason for me to stick around to find out.