BINGE-R #21: Billions + Three Oscars Best Picture Winners
Streaming Service: Stan
Availability: All 12 episodes now streaming
The pungent story of a self-serving battle for supremacy between a hedge fund billionaire and a powerful federal U.S. Attorney, Billions look at first glance like a throwback to a previous television era, when flawed patriarchs filled the frame. But the dual lead roles are played so intelligently by Damian Lewis, who brings a vigour and contrary opaqueness to Wall Street guru Bobby Axelrod, and Paul Giamatti, whose prosecutor Chuck Rhoades has a vituperative dedication, that the punch and counter-punch of their struggle has a satisfying psychological weight.
In the show’s first season the pair fought themselves to a standstill, having each wounded the other. In the first three episodes of the second season they’re reloading, which allows the creators of Billions, screenwriters Brian Koppelman and David Levien along with financial journalist Andrew Ross Sorkin, to delve into their respective worlds. The show takes a pithy pleasure in documenting the shortcuts and nomenclature of power. As Chuck tells a scheming regulator: “Don’t serve rabbit food to an elephant and ask if he’s full.”
The new season’s biggest problem is that the show’s most intriguing character, Wendy Rhoades (Maggie Siff), Chuck’s wife and dominatrix as well as Bobby’s in-house shrink and advisor, has removed herself from each man’s sphere of influence. The third episode, where an unctuous rival of Bobby’s temporarily hires her to annoy him doesn’t duplicate the tension Wendy’s reach previously provided. Several new characters do add to the cast, including the non-binary gender identifying actor Asia Kate Dillon as Bobby’s brilliant new intern, who adds to Billions’ visual feel for the intimate physicality of these people.
What endures, helping the series rise above being a feud between two privileged white dudes, is the always palpable sense that beneath the public gestures and intimidating dialogue both Chuck and Bobby know that they’re forever hanging on by a string; you don’t need to see a Wall Street poker tournament to know that sometimes these protagonists are bluffing. The threat of oblivion makes them desperate and truthful, and enriches the drama. “I am a survivor, and I will do whatever it takes to avoid my fate,” declares Bobby, and those are the words of someone who knows that ultimately there’s no exit.
>> Bonus Binge: If you want more of Damian Lewis, Netflix has the first three seasons of Homeland, the espionage thriller where he plays a captured U.S. Marine turned by Al-Qaeda who returns to America and the attention of Claire Danes’ highwire CIA agent.
THREE BEST PICTURE OSCAR WINNERS
The Academy Awards are less than a week away and I was happily surprised to find that five of this year’s nine Best Picture nominees are actually up to accepting the glittery accolade: Arrival, Hell or High Water, La La Land, Manchester by the Sea, and Moonlight. Frankly, the list of previous victors contain more than a few mistakes, but here are three prior winners of the Academy Award for Best Picture that remain essential.
The Godfather (Netflix, 1972, 177 minutes): Mario Puzo’s paperback about a 1940s New York mafia clan was a pulp success, but Francis Ford Coppola turned it into virtuosic examination of ambition, commerce and ultimately damnation. “I believe in America,” is the very first line spoken, and the bloody, binding transfer of power from the ageing Don Corleone (Marlon Brando) to his youngest, seemingly straight, son, Michael (Al Pacino) is told with personal insight and public notation that’s now iconic in the cinema. Cinematographer Gordon Willis conjures a shadowy world that appears to draw on the very souls of these gangsters, and the film remains one of the all-time greats.
The Hurt Locker (Stan, 2009, 131 minutes): The only Best Picture winner directed by a woman – which is an ongoing travesty – Kathryn Bigelow’s Iraq War drama is about an American bomb disposal expert, Sergeant First Class William James (Jeremy Renner), who is essentially addicted to the adrenalin rush of disarming ordnance and confronting death. In his breakthrough role Renner gives his soldier a cavalier intensity, but Bigelow masterfully matches the resulting tension to a precise sense of geography and framing whose certainty is far scarier than any jumbled, jarring scene a lesser director might offer. A long sequence with Ralph Fiennes’ British mercenary and a sniper turns distance into unforgettable dread.
The Silence of the Lambs (Netflix, 1991, 118 minutes): So many hackneyed serial killer films were released in the wake of Jonathan Demme’s commercial and critical success that they’ve obscured how compelling it is. First seen climbing upwards over an obstacle – a quest that endures throughout this horror-thriller – Jodie Foster’s FBI trainee Clarice Starling is sent into the field to question an incarcerated monster, Hannibal Lecter (an immaculate Anthony Hopkins) who might be able to shed light on a current case. He is drawn to her with almost respectful attraction, as in Demme’s camera, which always focuses on Starling’s intimate reaction before revealing a nightmarish tableau. It’s a movie of terror and momentum, so cannily constructed you can’t escape it.
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