Hulu review: Roman Polanski’s “Rosemary’s Baby” (1968)

In response to the moral panic surrounding the youth counterculture of the Cold War, with Communism threatening to indoctrinate pro-Kennedy children against their pro-Eisenhower parents, a cycle of “demonic child” films were released in the 1960s and 1970s.

Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968), William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973), and Richard Donner’s The Omen (1976) constructed a zeitgeist around Brian De Palma’s Carrie (1976), the last New Hollywood masterpiece.

But Carrie isn’t Satanic, and the three productions that are, are said to be cursed – indeed, the year after Rosemary’s Baby came out, the director’s pregnant wife, Sharon Tate, was murdered at the hands of Charles Manson’s cult of… well… Devil-worshipping hippies.

If you don’t know what to watch next, Rosemary’s Baby is available to stream on Hulu. The psychological supernatural horror picture is the auteur’s own Academy Award-nominated  adaptation of the same-titled 1967 novel by Ira Levin.

Ruth Gordon won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her portrayal of creepy neighbor Minnie Castevet.

Rosemary (Mia Farrow) and Guy Woodhouse (independent filmmaking pioneer John Cassavetes) move into an apartment in New York City.

A struggling actor, Guy befriends the elderly Minnie and Roman Castevet (Sidney Blackmer) right before he tells Rosemary he wants a baby.

Rosemary experiences a lucid nightmare about an incubus raping her in front of the Castevets and Guy the night they try to conceive, and that’s only the beginning of the the paranoid, conspiratorial dread Rosemary lives during her pregnancy.

Polanski honed the craftsmanship behind his atmospheric tension with his Nóz w wodzie (1962), one of the most impressive debuts ever put to film, a feature much like Rosemary’s Baby where the Hitchcockian terror lies not in the bang, but in the anticipation of it.

In Polanski’s and the Master of Suspense’s hands alike, the most familiar moments throughout the everyman’s day become fodder for the most cinematic anxiety (which makes it all the more real).

They are inherently European artists, learning how to do more with less on the postwar continent without all the American isolationism and atomic imperialism shielding Hollywood from such ruination.

Perhaps Polanski’s Generation X Antichrist was born from being next-door neighbors to the far-left Soviet Union.

And the both of them reached their fullest potential when they came West.

Rosemary’s Baby paved the way for Francis Ford Coppola’s Hollywood Renaissance masterwork, The Conversation (1974), the most significant sound film since Alan Crosland’s The Jazz Singer (1927), with its cloak-and-dagger mystery.

Carrie, too, owes its iconic twist ending to this Levin interpretation, the novelist also having written The Stepford Wives in 1972 as well as Sliver in 1991.

What keeps Polanski obsessing over these neurotic themes, notably in Repulsion (1965, which would go on to inspire Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan (2010)) and Chinatown (1974), is his childhood as a Holocaust survivor, as expressed through The Pianist (2002).

Rosemary’s Baby is the drama of a gaslit woman who suspects she’s the target of evil incarnate and turns out to be right about the people organizing against her.

The darkness tantalizes everyone around her via their most destructive characteristics, until Rosemary herself succumbs, too.

But Polanski himself is an abusive man.

In 1977, the filmmaker was arrested and charged for drugging and raping a thirteen-year-old girl in Los Angeles, ultimately fleeing to France in 1978 before he could be sentenced and avoiding all countries likely to extradite him to the United States.

Whether one can support a creative’s work without condoning their behavior, is up for debate, but whichever side you land on may color your interaction with the movie.

But how horrifying it is that a Polish Jew’s family was killed by white supremacists the year after he shot Rosemary’s Baby. It makes this tale of Lucifer’s bride all the more personal for its director.

And that much more powerful for its audiences.

Netflix review: AMC’s “Better Call Saul” (2015-)

To spin off AMC’s Breaking Bad (2008-2013) is to ask lightning to strike twice.

Vince Gilligan captured that lightning in a bottle with his masterpiece, and he corked it at its zenith, when the business of television characteristically pressures showrunners to push series past their expiration dates until every possible penny can be squeezed out of them.

It is only fitting for the network to ask Gilligan to open the bottle back up again and release some more of the lightning that lit up the sky on AMC, but even a genius of Gilligan’s caliber would be hard-pressed to cast a new spell with the same magic as he did the first time.

If you don’t know what to watch to watch next, AMC’s Better Call Saul (2015-) is available to stream on Netflix.

It has been nominated for twenty-three Primetime Emmy Awards over the course of its run, and the series premiere set the record for highest-rated scripted premiere in basic cable. Creators Gilligan and Peter Gould also executive produce the crime drama.

Set in Albuquerque, 2002, Bob Odenkirk reprises his role as Jimmy McGill, a con artist struggling to legitimize himself as an attorney under the shadow of his successful older brother, Chuck McGill (Michael McKean), with the support of love interest Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn).

Meanwhile, retired police officer Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks) first involves himself in the Salamanca cartel via drug lord Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito).

All of this culminates toward Jimmy’s transformation into Saul Goodman, with a framing device of flash-forwards to his life after Breaking Bad as a Cinnabon manager in Omaha named Gene.

If Breaking Bad is a tragedy with comedic undertones, then Better Call Saul is a comedy with tragic undertones. This complementariness is the shaft through which Better Call Saul mines from the mythos of its parent show while at the same time standing on its own two feet.

It justifies its existence in its own right, without any opportunistic, exploitative excess.

For that reason, fans of Breaking Bad may not necessarily be fans of Better Call Saul.

The respective compositions may reach the same production value – cinematographer Arthur Albert shoots TV’s two most cinematic programs on location in a sweepingly photogenic New Mexico – but they sing with two different (yet harmonistic) voices.

Better Call Saul is much slower-paced than the addictive, bingeworthy Breaking Bad, with less explosive payoffs.

Lovingly cut montages of mundane moments abound, none of which are filler, but all of which may be hard to swallow for someone expecting more of the same from Breaking Bad.

In a similar vein, Jimmy McGill’s descent into Saul Goodman is as sociopathic as Walter White’s (Bryan Cranston) into Heisenberg, if not as violent, and that is where the text’s brilliance flickers.

Jimmy is such an adept conman, he could scam the uncritical thinker into sympathizing with him.

He ruins reputations, careers, and lives over his deception and manipulation, no matter how zippy his one-liners are, and there ought to be no straightening his crooked path in our minds, because Jimmy’s own rationalization further evinces his antisocial personality.

Warts and all, Better Call Saul is a character study of an antihero as great as any other in the Golden Age of TV. In fact, it’s in a class all its own because of its dark humor.

We may have yet to see how it ends, but, in Gilligan’s hands, who engineered the most perfect series finale of all time for Breaking Bad, it only does what every worthwhile spinoff should and gives you more to look forward to.

Amazon Prime review: Stanley Kubrick’s “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb” (1964)

Between Iran, North Korea, Russia, and the United States, the threat of nuclear holocaust needs to be laughed at again.

If you don’t know what to watch next, Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) is available on Amazon Prime. The political satire black comedy was nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Picture.

As producer, director, and co-adapter, the filmmaker himself was up for three out of the four.

Paranoid that the Soviet Union is fluoridating American water supplies to poison our “precious bodily fluids,” General Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden), the Burpelson Air Force Base commander, circumnavigates the Pentagon and orders a nuclear strike against the USSR.

In the War Room, General Buck Turgidson (George C. Scott), President Merkin Muffley (Oscar nominee Peter Sellers), and their scientific adviser, the former Nazi German Doctor Strangelove (also Sellers), scramble to stop Jack from triggering the Soviets’ “doomsday machine.”

Meanwhile, Group Captain Lionel Mandrake (once more Sellers), a Royal Air Force exchange officer, discovers the general’s code to call off the mission, but only after a surface-to-air missile destroys the radio equipment for Major T.J. “King” Kong’s (Slim Pickens) B-52.

In keeping with his style of adapting literary works, Dr. Strangelove is Kubrick’s interpretation of Red Alert by Peter George.

The Writers Guild of America ranked it as the twelfth greatest screenplay ever written, and it was among the first films selected for preservation at the United States Library of Congress’s National Film Registry in 1989.

With ninety-eight percent of critical reviews aggregated through Rotten Tomatoes praising the movie, it is Kubrick’s highest-rated title on the site.

Although this critic still regards A Clockwork Orange (1971) as the auteur’s masterpiece, Kubrick’s versatility with genres is readily apparent in this dark comedy, listed as number three on the American Film Institute’s “100 Years… 100 Laughs.”

A unifying theme throughout all of Kubrick’s works, despite their diversity, is a cerebral, pessimistic take on the human condition. The picture’s resemblance to the nuclear brinkmanship coloring international diplomacy today immortalizes Kubrick’s Cold War art.

But that he can alchemically make of it an entertainment suggests there is hope to be found, even if we must create it ourselves.

The signature Kubrickian style exists not only in the topical fabric of the text, but also in the aesthetical presentation.

The crazy-eyed “Kubrick stare” will never make you laugh more nervously than when you see Sellers construct it via the titular Doctor Strangelove, transcending across genres.

Each frame is blocked as rigidly (which isn’t to say “lifelessly”) as a painting, summoning a cold, sterile, perfectionistic mise en scène.

And the performances under Kubrick’s direction are equally controlled according to his genius; just ask Malcolm McDowell from A Clockwork Orange or Shelley Duvall from The Shining (1980) how “method” a filmmaker he was.

Neither Scott nor Pickens knew their performances were being played for laughs, conflicting a tension against the absurdity of their material, and Sellers makes the most out of his three roles, even though he was only cast in them because of studio interference and not authorial intent.

Scott refused to ever work with Kubrick again when he saw the final product.

Kubrick’s dramatic immersion could be physically as well as psychologically abusive, but it’s only because he was a creative obsessively devoted to fine-tuning his craft, with an ear for soundtracking and an eye for literature, who did so much for filmmaking with so few films.

That said, the representation in this film (or lack thereof) dates it somewhat. Buck’s secretary and mistress, the unnamed Miss Scott (Tracy Reed), is the only female character in the cast, and even then, again, she’s his nameless assistant and lover.

As the only person of color, King’s lieutenant, Lothar Zogg (James Earl Jones), plays second fiddle, too.

But not all representation is good representation, and only white men could be fragile enough to end the world over a pissing contest.

Hulu review: Mike Gabriel and Eric Goldberg’s “Pocahontas” (1995)

Beginning with Ron Clements and John Musker’s The Little Mermaid (1989) and ending with Kevin Lima and Chris Buck’s Tarzan (1999), the Disney Renaissance is to Disney what the Hollywood Renaissance is to Golden Age Hollywood.

Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise’s Beauty and the Beast (1991) may be the first animated film ever eligible for the Best Picture Academy Award, but Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff’s The Lion King (1994) is the studio’s masterstroke.

With Mike Gabriel and Eric Goldberg’s Pocahontas (1995), the overpowered media conglomerate attempts to recapture the prestige of Beauty and the Beast as well as the success of its predecessor, The Lion King, the top-grossing traditionally animated movie of all time.

Ambition paints every frame with all the colors of the wind, but ambition can also dance perilously close to pretension, and one misstep can spell disaster.

If you don’t know what to watch next, Pocahontas is available to stream on Hulu.

The animated musical romantic drama won Best Original Song for “Colors of the Wind,” and composer Alan Menken and lyricist Stephen Schwartz were honored a second time that year with the Oscar for Best Original Musical or Comedy Score.

The eponymous hero would go on to become the first Native American Disney Princess and the first woman of color to lead a cast of Disney characters.

Set in 1607, Captain John Smith (voiced by Mel Gibson) sails with the Virginia Company to the New World in search of adventure.

Once landing in Tsenacommacah, he meets and falls in love with Pocahontas (Irene Bedard, with Judy Kuhn as the singing voice), the free-spirited daughter of Chief Powhatan (Russell Means, with vocals from Jim Cummings).

But the greedy, genocidal Governor Ratcliffe (David Ogden Stiers) is obsessed with pillaging the Powhatan tribe’s land for gold, and his conquest threatens to make a tragedy out of the star-crossed lovers’ forbidden romance.

Artistic liberties are taken in almost all works of historical fiction – to quote Sir Alfred Hitchcock, “Drama is life with all the dull bits cut out” – but the sanitization and whitewashing found in Pocahontas have aged the text poorly.

The real Pocahontas was not a “magical minority,” but, rather, a child bride, and the colonizers didn’t make peace with her people after she learned how to speak English by “listening with her heart.”

As for John Smith, his “exploration” was more correctly an “invasion,” an “imperialization,” and it shouldn’t have taken a “noble savage” like Pocahontas to humanize First Nation people in his eyes (through her sexuality, no less).

This problematic, post-Kevin Costner’s Dances with Wolves (1990) white savior narrative of exotification crystallizes at its most egregious in the musical number, “Savages.”

The back-and-forth parallelism of the song conflates the white supremacy of the European settlers alongside the self-defensive resistance from the indigenous groups, drawing a false equivalency between the two that the First Americans were as intolerant as the British Empire.

Intentionalism is a critical fallacy, and Disney’s white liberal, apologistic intentions here are irrelevant.

If the true story of Pocahontas is too upsetting for their key demographic to understand without reducing the Powhatan culture to something that existed only for white men to appropriate it, then it’s a story that never should be told to children.

But, for what it is within the context of the Disney canon, Pocahontas is an epic entertainment. The soundtrack raises goosebumps, and the animation is as colorful as the signature song.

Apolitically, the love story between John Smith and Pocahontas is one of the most mature and affecting in the Disney universe, and, hey, if nothing else, Ratcliffe is shown to be more villainous than Powhatan.

If your child is too young to learn the real history behind Pocahontas, then at least take care to teach them what reel history means. The insultingly oversimplified themes of the picture will be digestible enough to entertain them, but the more harmlessly so, the better.

And as far as Disney fare goes, its family-friendliness is just as accessible for adults looking to enjoy a more grownup tale of intercultural (though largely fictionalized) romance, as it is for kids looking to sing along to some catchy tunes.

Netflix review: Steven Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List” (1993)

The Holocaust film can be like television: when it’s good, there’s nothing better; when it’s bad, there’s nothing worse.

There is Liliana Cavani’s erotic psychological drama, Il portiere di note (1974), the love story between a concentration camp survivor and her guard (yes, you read that correctly), which exploits the Shoah the most offensively this critic has ever seen.

Then, there is Agnieszka Holland’s Europa Europa (1990), a subtle, sometimes satirical study of racial politics in Nazi Germany.

As for Stephen Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1993), it may be the most well-known of its ilk, but is it one of the greatest?

If you don’t know what to watch next, Schindler’s List is available to stream on Netflix. The historical period drama won seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture as well as Best Director, out of twelve nominations.

Steven Zaillian’s Best Adapted Screenplay is based upon the 1982 novel, Schindler’s Ark, by John Keneally.

It is World War II Poland, and Oskar Schindler (Best Actor nominee Liam Neeson), an ethnic German from Czechoslovakia, opens an enamelware factory in the Kraków Ghetto.

Together with black marketeer Itzhak Stern (Sir Ben Kingsley), the businessman bribes local Nazi insiders and and hires Jews because he can pay them less, effectively saving them from the death camps.

Meanwhile, SS-Untersturmführer Amon Göth (Best Supporting Actor nominee Ralph Fiennes) supervises the construction of the Plaszów concentration camp, terrorizing Kraków.

John Williams’s original score, Michael Kahn’s editing, Janusz Kamiński’s cinematography, and Ewa Braun and Allan Starski’s art direction are the rest of the Oscars the movie took home, in addition to its sound, makeup, and costume design nods.

As with any Spielberg vehicle, it is a technical revelation. Its black and white photography contributes to the documentarylike, newsreel realism of its setting, inviting audiences into the Final Solution like few mainstream releases have before or since.

For all its feats of filmmaking, this Spielbergian epic is minimalistic by the director’s standards, which plays to the picture’s strengths.

As a member of the film school generation, his feature-length debut, Duel (1971), is his New Hollywood masterpiece, over Jaws (1975), which would be, if not for the corporatization of filmmaking its groundbreaking “summer blockbuster” status is responsible for.

But these two works force Spielberg to do more with less, keeping him from crossing the line from “crowd-pleasing” to “sentimental” and “saccharine” like he’s known to do, and this sugarcoating would have crippled Schindler’s List.

Still, it has been criticized for peripherizing Holocaust victims in favor of mythologizing a German capitalist. While Schindler’s heroism is indisputable, and came at the price of his safety, he was still an opportunist first, almost more of a sympathetic antihero.

The cast of Jewish characters are dehumanized into an unindividualized horde of props for his redemption arc – one of them would have made for a more sensitive protagonist, such as Stern.

But Spielberg is shrewdly commercial above all else, and Schindler’s List is much too important a moment in cinematic history to fade into obscurity because of a Semitic leading man; as wrong as it is, how many readers out there can say they’ve even heard of Europa Europa?

This is a story the masses need to hear, and it is a story that needs to be celebrated. With far-right ideologues rising to power globally as the memory of fascism dies off with the generation that lived it, streamers would do well to rediscover Schindler’s List.

Amazon Prime review: Sir Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” (1960)

The essentiality of this film cannot be understated.

Not only did it popularize the slasher subgenre, the 1950s gimmickry its marketing genius of a filmmaker employed to promote it also changed our theatergoing habits to what we know them as today, coming in at the beginning and taking care not to spoil the end.

It is such an unflawed project, Gus Van Sant had to reshoot it shot for shot when he remade it in 1998.

And it still isn’t the Master of Suspense’s greatest work.

If you don’t know what to watch next, Sir Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) is available on Amazon Prime. Hitchcock himself produced this adaptation of the 1959 novel of the same name by Robert Bloch.

The psychological horror piece was nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Supporting Actress for Janet Leigh, Best Director, Best Cinematography, Black-and-White, and Best Art Direction – Interior Decoration, Black-and-White.

Marion Crane (Leigh) is a real estate secretary in Arizona who wants to marry a divorced California hardware store owner, Sam Loomis (John Gavin), but can’t because of his alimony debts.

When Marion’s boss, George Lowery (Vaughn Taylor), asks her to deposit forty thousand dollars for a client, Tom Cassidy (Frank Albertson), Marion takes the cash and runs.

During a dark and stormy night, she stops at the Bates Motel outside of Sam’s town, where the proprietor, Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), lives with his mentally ill mother, Norma (Virginia Gregg, Paul Jasmin, and Jeanette Nolan).

After Hitchcock’s masterpiece, Vertigo (1958), underperformed at the box office, he filmed the far more commercial North by Northwest (1959).

Its success saw him personally bankroll the sexualized, bloody Psycho because the studios were still governed under the waning, puritanical censors of the era.

Hitch is an auteur who authors more with less, and he cut costs by using the television production crew for CBS and NBC’s Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1955-1965).

Resultingly, Psycho was released in black and white at a time when Hollywood was photographing its motion pictures with Technicolor CinemaScope to compete against TV, but it snagged the movie its two black-and-white Oscar nods.

Yet another reason why Hitchcock’s Psycho humiliates Van Sant’s is because Van Sant cinematographed it in color, but Psycho is a story which aches to be told in black and white, all looming shadows and German Expressionistic contrasts.

It externalizes for the viewer the antisocial psyche that the Gothic Bates Motel is a metaphor for.

And Hitchcock’s classical training in European art history groomed him to curate the iconic “shower setpiece.” It is to Western montage what Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925) is to the East.

And he did it all without one line of spoken dialogue, harkening back to his studentship in silent, “pure” cinema, visceral sight and sound, conjured through his creative partnerships with editor George Tomansini as well as composer Bernard Herrmann.

The Master’s laissez-faire direction for his actors gets Leigh to deliver a performance which speaks to her acting chops and star power.

Her false protagonist is so devastatingly characterized, so effectively publicized as the star of the show, the shock value behind her exit stage left at the end of the first act humanizes her three-dimensionally.

The bolt of lightning that is Marion Crane courses across generations.

Leigh’s own daughter, Jamie Lee Curtis, turns in the prototypical scream queen for John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) because of her mother’s tour de force, and the top-billed Drew Barrymore is killed off in the first scene of Wes Craven’s Scream (1996).

But Leigh’s lungpower is not what develops Marion into a sympathetic antihero.

The most suspenseful moments of the film are the least violent: when Marion is lying to the highway patrol officer (Mort Mills); and when Norman is fibbing to Private Investigator Milton Arbogast (Martin Balsam).

They stammer their way along their interrogations while we know what they’re trying to hide and what’s at stake for these audience surrogates if the authorities figure out what we already know.

This communal guilt between character and consumer is a verisimilitude the artist perfected in Rear Window (1954), with James Stewart’s voyeuristic protagonist caught in the act by Raymond Burr’s villain.

We all carry secrets we would die to protect, even the most polite company we would least suspect, and Hitchcock, with his well-documented phobia of authority figures, knows how to manipulate and exploit this universal right of passage for the human condition.

Psycho is even progressive for its time. Its depiction of Marion’s sister, Lila Crane (Vera Miles, who inspired Vertigo after Hitchcock’s muse, Princess Grace Kelly of Monaco, chose marriage over her collaboration with the Master), is proto-feministic.

Lila is an independent, intelligent deuteragonist who doesn’t use her sex appeal to get ahead.

Even according to queer theory, the text holds up more so than some of its genre fellows, like Brian De Palma’s Dressed to Kill (1980), making it clear the homicidal, perverted Norman is not “trans” just because one of his dissociative identities happens to be his mother.

But for everything Psycho gets right about its Freudian character study, that it subscribes to Freud at all counts against it. Norman’s mother is not to blame for his Oedipus complex, no matter how much she smothered him.

His personality would be much more nuanced and developed if the spoon-fed exposition delivered as dated psychoanalysis by Doctor Fred Richman (Simon Oakland) were more subtextualized.

If anything, though, it goes to show that Freudianism makes for better fiction than it does psychology.

Psycho is a study in the craft and technique that made Hitchcock’s cult of personality among the first to inspire the school of thought known as auteur theory.

The fact that Vertigo bests it is because only he could create something greater than perfection.

Netflix review: Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight” (2008)

Between the comic book taking Hollywood by storm in the decade since the release of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (2008) as well as the embarrassment of pale imitations in its wake, you can be forgiven for growing desensitized to the one that started it all.

Truly, it is easy to forget there was a world before 2008 where the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences nominated only five nominees for Best Picture every year, and popcorn flicks were hardly ever among them.

With Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther (2018) lighting up this year’s Oscars and Todd Phillips’s Joker (2019) generating buzz over next year’s ceremony, we would do well to remember the late Heath Ledger was the first to collect such recognition on behalf of the superhero.

If you don’t know what to watch next, the sequel to the director’s own Batman Begins (2005) is available to stream on Netflix.

In addition to Ledger’s posthumous Best Supporting Actor victory as the Joker, the superhero film was also honored for Richard King’s sound editing, alongside six other nominations.

The director coproduced and cowrote the endeavor.

In this outing, Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) strikes up an alliance with Gotham City Police Department Lieutenant James Gordon (Gary Oldman) and District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) to defeat the Falcone Crime Family and retire from being Batman.

Using the Caped Crusader’s vigilantism to their advantage, Jim, Harvey, and assistant DA Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal) arrest and charge corrupt Hong Kong accountant Lau (Ng Chin Han) and form a RICO case against mob boss Sal Maroni (Eric Roberts).

Out of desperation, the Mafia hires the Joker (Ledger), a psychopathic bank robber, to assassinate Batman, thus jeopardizing the normal life Bruce strives for with ex-lover Rachel (who is dating Harvey).

Nolan’s commitment to practical special effects is the stuff timeless cinematic spectacle is made of – even at eleven years old, the movie is no less a visual force to be reckoned with than it was back in its day.

On top of its agelessness, it democratizes itself to universality, a majestic blockbuster entertainment as well as a cerebral artistic meditation on the politics of anarcho-chaos, the legal philosophy of good versus evil, and the genre-bending of noir, epic, and comic book adaptation.

Its unpretentious sentiment that the “high” and “low” moviegoing publics need not be mutually exclusive is a feat of popular filmmaking ahead of its time.

And the dramatic power of Ledger’s performance meets the thematic and technical payloads of the production at large. He has drawn criticism from DC fans for his loose interpretation of the supervillain, but if that’s the case, then Ledger’s characterization is superior to the canon.

With dragonfire, he breathes life into one of the most iconic screen antagonists ever, blazing through every shot in which he is and casting a shadow over every frame in which he’s not.

It is a shame that Nolan’s masterpiece purports such a conservative worldview, particularly at a time in American history when conservatism was propagating crimes against humanity on a global scale.

The capitalistic wish fulfillment of a billionaire saving the world with his wealth is even more tone deaf when he invades the privacy of an entire city to do it (even if his surveillance system self-destructs upon “mission accomplished”).

Moreover, the Joker’s terroristic non-motivation subscribes to the Republican myth that al-Qaeda attacked the United States on September 11 because they’re “evildoers,” not anti-interventionists (this is not to rationalize terrorism, but rather to call out against the oversimplification of it).

That said, it does call Batman’s heroics into question, and challenges whether the ends really do justify the means. These shades of gray are what color the greatest film of its genre, its franchise, and its auteur’s filmography.

This revisionist experimentation may fail to a mediocre degree in Marc Webb’s The Amazing Spider-Man (2012) and Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel (2013), but as Robert Pattinson takes up Ben Affleck’s mantle, the Dark Knight’s most daunting rival will forever be The Dark Knight.

Amazon Prime review: HBO’s “Chernobyl” (2019)

Between AMC’s Mad Men (2007-2015) and HBO’s Chernobyl (2019), Jared Harris specializes in playing characters who meet a very specific fate.

If you don’t know what to watch next, Chernobyl is available on Amazon Prime. Showrunner Craig Mazin also wrote the historical drama, with Johan Renck directing. Both of them won Primetime Emmy Awards for their efforts, as well as Outstanding Limited Series.

The crux of the miniseries is the April 1986 Chernobyl nuclear plant disaster in Pripyat, the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. The characters encompass the bureaucrats behind the scenes of the meltdown in addition to its aftermath on the ground.

First responders, volunteers, and miners digging a tunnel under the compromised reactor are all spoken for here.

This USSR fable is altogether Hollywood in its presentation, not only for its production value, but also its characterization.

It is a post-September 11 American imagery to cast the firefighters on the scene, their health forever tainted from their own self-sacrifice, failed by the very government they serve.

Moreover, such dramatic democratization calls to mind Akira Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress (1958) as popularized through George Lucas’s Star Wars (1977), with commoners leading us across this epic narrative of institutional corruption and environmental apocalypse.

The aestheticism hums with an intoxicating foreboding as punishing as the decay which both literally and figurative eats away at the characters.

This verisimilitude bridges the temporal and geographic gulf between the Soviet Union and the contemporary United States, and, with the political and natural degradation facing us today, the themes of the show are allegorical in their implications.

Bearing witness to the ruination of these historical figures may make the audience wish to turn away, but its import to our own cultural trajectory is impossible to ignore.

It has always struck this critic as silly, though, when English-speaking actors play non-English-speaking roles (especially when it’s accented). In our shrinking world, the network had the resources to cast Eastern European players.

Modern viewers are media-savvy enough to read subtitles.

But it can be read as a textualization of the rhyme this team is conducting between East and West, between past and present, a way to set the tragedy in a world which more closely resembles our own.

Netflix review: A&E’s “Bates Motel” (2013-2017)

Sir Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) is the perfect film. When Gus Van Sant remade it in 1998, it was shot for shot because the only way to make the myth of Norman Bates is the Master of Suspense’s way.

Showrunners Carlton Cuse, Kerry Ehrin, and Anthony Cipriano opened this lightning in a bottle when they adapted a contemporary prequel for Hitchcock’s classic slasher to television.

But, then again, Hitch risked everything, too, when he produced Psycho.

If you don’t know what to watch next, A&E’s Bates Motel (2013-2017) is available to stream on Netflix. The psychological horror drama was nominated for three Primetime Emmy Awards. One of them was for Vera Farmiga, starring as Mother herself, Norma Bates.

After the death of his father, a teenaged Norman Bates (Freddie Highmore) moves from Arizona to the fictitious White Pine Bay, Oregon, to run a motel with his overbearing mother, as well as sickly classmate Emma Decody (Olivia Cooke).

Shortly thereafter, Norman’s half-brother, Dylan Massett (Max Thieriot), arrives unannounced to make a name for himself in the local drug trade.

With all the danger and dysfunction surrounding him, Norman grows more and more unstable, until the final season loosely interprets the narrative of Psycho.

Bates Motel is better than it has any right to be. Norman, the shy, awkward mama’s boy, could lazily be mischaracterized as the quirky, misunderstood boy next door you knew back from high school.

He isn’t.

The series is an unsexy character study of a voyeuristic serial killer with an Oedipus complex.

Conceivably, Norman is cast as the deuteragonist to Norma’s protagonist, the drama revolving around a mother’s (tragically futile) desperation to save her son from himself, and protect the people around him, too.

One could submit Norma is an antihero for much of the show.

She enables Norman’s obsession with her, fails Dylan as a parent, and lies and manipulates her way through the violent, criminal underbelly of White Pine Bay.

This would be a myopic assessment, because, ultimately, she redeems herself.

She institutionalizes Norman even though she’s no less codependent on him than he is on her, she ends up in a healthier relationship with Dylan despite her favoritism toward Norman, and, if the police can’t be trusted, then what choice does she have but to play the game for her family?

Norma is not always likable, but she is always sympathetic. She suffers from many symptoms of borderline personality disorder, and she’s an abuse survivor without constructive coping mechanisms, but her matriarchy is dynamic and adaptable enough to evolve.

Psycho is composed with unspoken undertones that Norman is the true victim, and his mother is to blame for his murders for the crime of being too domineering. Bates Motel lays the culpability where it belongs, squarely at Norman’s feet.

Farmiga’s sensitive tour-de-force is the justice her character deserves, which is why Bates Motel is one of the most ethically written antihero’s journeys in the Golden Age of TV, even going so far as to downplay the incestuous subtext.

The production is as masterful as the drama. John S. Bartley was up for the Emmy for Outstanding Cinematography for a Single-Camera Series, and Chris Bacon, Outstanding Music Composition for a Series. Bates Motel does Hitchcock’s iconic aesthetic proud.

Additionally, the meta-writing subverts modern audience expectations the same way Psycho did for contemporaneous viewers in a world where we all know about the shower setpiece (whether we’ve seen it or not).

Bates Motel finds a new way to shock us, and modernize the misogynistic spectacle for feminist consumption.

It deserves more than its network. Sometimes, the dialogue cries out for a curse word. But that’s only a minor complaint.

Bates Motel, even for a Psycho purist such as this critic, is well worth the stay.