Billions: Season Six

DVD REVIEW:

Paramount/CBS;
Drama;
$33.99 DVD;
Not Rated.
Stars Paul Giamatti, Corey Stoll, Maggie Sif, David Costabile, Condola Rashad, Asia Kate Dillon, Daniel Breaker, Jeffrey DeMunn.

Some major cast changes for its sixth season would otherwise offer the prospect of a refreshing new perspective to Showtime’s “Billions” if its writers weren’t so set in their proclivities.

For its first five seasons, “Billions” focused on the efforts of crusading government attorney Chuck Rhoades (Paul Giamatti) to take down ultra-rich hedge fund guru Bobby Axelrod. With Axe having fled the country, Rhoades sets his sights on the billionaire who conquered Axe’s empire, Mike Prince (Corey Stoll).

Prince hopes to re-energize Axe’s troops with a new mission to pursue investments based on bringing positive social change. Unlike Axe, whose money-making schemes frequently bordered on the shady and abusive, the image-conscious Prince seems motivated by benevolence. Among his efforts are bringing an Olympics to New York City and funding a universal basic income program. His efforts would beautify the city, revitalize infrastructure and stimulate the local economy.

Prince’s arrival also alters the power dynamics within Axe’s former company as they adjust to the new paradigm, particularly Axe’s old right-hand-man, Wags (David Costabile), who will do whatever it takes to prove he’s an ideal sycophant for whomever is in charge, and Wendy, Axe’s former motivational coach and Chuck’s ex-wife, who questions her purpose in the new company.

Rhoades, being the vindictive bureaucrat that he is, strives to quash all of Prince’s plans solely on the theory that simply being a billionaire must make Prince a criminal worthy of a takedown. Rhoades is also out for a bit of revenge given that he teamed with Prince to set up Axe’s fall, only for Prince to manipulate the situation to take over Axe’s companies and facilitate his escape.

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The show remains a riveting drama of Machiavellian proportions, filled with engaging character performances, sharp dialogue and a panache for pop culture. But the sixth season’s 12 episodes are a bit of an uneven roller coaster as story arcs veer from one scheme to the next with minimal transitions, and plot twists that demonstrate the writers aren’t willing to accept the obvious messaging of their own storylines.

Rhoades’ unchecked ego and abuse of power make him one of the biggest villains on television today. Yet the show still seems to want to view him as something of a hero, the embodiment of lingering anti-capitalist sentiments that hypocritically infuse the entertainment industry.

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As the cat-and-mouse game between Prince and Rhoades plays out, Rhoades makes it his business to interfere in everything Prince attempts, like a typical statist who can’t abide the concept of private money doing public good when it diminishes what he can control. On the verge of being outmaneuvered by Prince’s political alliances, Rhoades then appeals to broad populism and class warfare, hoping to convince his constituents that societal improvements are only worthwhile if they stem from the government.

What’s especially disappointing about season six is that until the final episodes of the season, Prince’s biggest flaws seem to be a misguided devotion to stakeholder capitalism, which is annoying, but it’s his money. Then the writers let Rhoades and his minions off the hook by gradually revealing facets of Prince’s character and business practices from seemingly out of nowhere for no other real narrative reason than to keep the show treading in the moral gray area it’s been swimming in since it began. There are no heroes and villains when it comes to power — there are just those who benefit and those who get screwed.

Hollywoodland

BLU-RAY REVIEW: 

Street Date 8/25/20;
Kino Lorber;
Drama;
$24.95 Blu-ray;
Rated ‘R’ for language, some violence and sexual content.
Stars Adrien Brody, Diane Lane, Ben Affleck, Bob Hoskins, Robin Tunney, Kathleen Robertson, Lois Smith, Caroline Dhavernas, Molly Parker, Zach Mills, Jeffrey DeMunn, Joe Spano.

Given how much the current entertainment landscape is dominated by superhero movies and TV shows, it’s easy to forget the genre only came into prominence in the last 20 years or so. Even when Hollywoodland first hit theaters in 2006, the era of the superhero movie was just in its infancy, and still two years away from the dawn of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

So, looking at Hollywoodland now, it’s hard not to see the film as a fascinating time capsule of a time when comic book fare was considered kids’ stuff, and actors decried being too closely associated with a single character.

Hollywoodland delves into the story of George Reeves, the actor best known for playing Superman on TV in the 1950s who died under mysterious circumstances from a gunshot wound to the head in 1959. Officials ruled it a suicide, but there were enough shenanigans surrounding his life that the specifics of his death have sparked numerous conspiracy theories that linger on to this day.

Rather than adopt a strict biopic or docudrama approach, Hollywoodland frames Reeves’ story as a case taken on by a hotheaded (and completely fictional) private investigator named Louis Simo, played with smarmy aplomb by Adrien Brody. Simo is hired on by Reeves’ mother (Lois Smith), who doesn’t buy the official reports. So Simo dips his toes into the waters of 1950s Hollywood to uncover the seedier aspects of show business, with Reeves’ story told in flashback.

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Reeves (Ben Affleck) dreaded the prospect of playing Superman on a show for kids, but he needed the money. Like most actors, he dreamed of a career in pursuit of serious art, but after a bit role in Gone With the Wind he mostly struggled to get noticed on the big screen. Superman made him a star, and he seemed to hate every minute of it, particularly during a disastrous screening of From Here to Eternity in which the audience can’t help but yell Superman catch-phrases at the screen every time Reeves appears.

To top it off, Reeves finds himself wilting as the kept boy-toy of Toni Mannix (Diane Lane), wife of notorious MGM honcho Eddie Mannix (Bob Hoskins). He doesn’t seem to mind her tryst, however, seeing as how he accompanies them on a double-date with his own mistress. But Toni also doesn’t use her connections to help Reeves advance his career, furthering some resentment.

So the questions arise over how Reeves was shot. Did Eddie order it, to protect his wife? Was in an accident during an argument between Reeves and his fiancée (Robin Tunney)? Or did Reeves, in pain from years of nagging injuries and emotionally drained from the stress of his career, simply put a gun to his head?

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The screenplay bounced around in the early 2000s until landing at Focus Features (indie arm of Universal). During production, it was known as Truth, Justice, and the American Way, a phrase so connected to Superman that it’s hardly surprising Warner Bros., which controls the film rights to the DC characters, would make Focus change it to something more generic, which likely dampened the film’s box office fortunes. Further, with Warner releasing Superman Returns in 2006, Hollywoodland was forbidden from even using the Superman logo in marketing the film — leading to the shot in the trailer (also included on the Blu-ray) of Affleck looking at himself in costume in the mirror with a chest noticeably missing the iconic ‘S.’ Superman imagery was allowed in the final film however, though the filmmakers had to re-create the famous opening sequence to the TV show as Warner wouldn’t license it to them.

Another scene depicts the likely apocryphal story of a child approaching an in-costume Reeves at a promotional event and asking if he can shoot him with a gun to watch the bullets bounce off. Played as a tense moment in the film, the screenplay ingeniously manages to connect it to the larger plot. But the scene is also memorable for its sense of whimsy in how it adopts the anything-goes imagination mashup that was classic Hollywood — Reeves is performing for kids as Superman at a Wild West stunt show, stopping a pair of bank robbers of the type he would never find himself fighting in the comics.

The use of the film noir structure, another homage to classic Hollywood, sets Simo up as a mirror to Reeves, reflecting on his own career as he untangles the fate of his case subject. As noted in a newly recorded commentary track by entertainment journalist Bryan Reesman, What emerges is the parallel story of two men striving to become more than what anyone around them is willing for them to be, and struggling to take stock of the things in their lives actually worth living for.

Reesman also finds a lot of interesting contrasts between Reeves and Affleck, who unlike the man he’s playing had no problem stepping into the realm of comic book heroics. Affleck had played the title character in Daredevil in 2003, but the film was too poorly received to blossom into the franchise that perhaps the actor expected it too when he signed on.

But Hollywoodland also came at the tail end of the first phase of Affleck’s career, with audiences tuning out as he appeared in a string of brainless actioners and tepid comedies (including the infamous Gigli). Hollywoodland represented something of the first step of a reinvention, as he wanted to demonstrate he could handle more serious fare, and, indeed, he earned a Golden Globe nomination for Best Supporting Actor, in addition to wins at the Saturn Awards and Venice Film Festival, among a slew of accolades.

The next year, Affleck would make his feature directorial debut with 2007’s acclaimed Gone Baby Gone, following up with 2010’s The Town and 2012’s Best Picture Oscar winner Argo (for which Affleck was snubbed for an Academy directing nomination after winning the DGA trophy). The career boost would culminate in his casting as Batman for 2016’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and a couple subsequent DC films. Given his scenes as Reeves making and promoting the “Adventures of Superman” TV series, Affleck would probably be the only person to wear both the Superman and Batman costumes on the big screen. He’d also reunite with Diane Lane in BvS, where she would play, of all people, Superman’s mother.

While Hollywoodland wasn’t much of a financial performer upon its release, it’s still fondly remembered for its cast and subject matter, particularly among fans of superhero movies.

In addition to the interesting Reesman voiceover, the Blu-ray also carries over all the extras from Universal’s old DVD release of the film, including an informative commentary by director Allen Coulter, three featurettes and a handful of mostly unremarkable deleted scenes.