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.

Hulu review: Sam Raimi’s “Spider-Man 3” (2007)

Not only did this abortion of a movie kill Tobey Maguire’s Spider-Man, it also spawned Marc Webb’s The Amazing Spider-Man (2012) reboot, a franchise which lasted all of two films.

Yes, it really is as bad as the reputation that precedes it.

If you don’t know what not to watch next, Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 3 (2007) is available to stream on Hulu. The filmmaker is also part-responsible for Ivan Raimi and Grant Curtis’s script.

That sixty-three percent of positive reviews aggregated via Rotten Tomatoes is a passing grade for a failure of a superhero film.

One year after Raimi’s Spider-Man 2 (2004), the time is right for an uncharacteristically vain Peter Parker (Maguire) to propose to the struggling (not to mention jealous and selfish) Broadway actress Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst), whose star flickers as Spider-Man’s rises.

Harry Osborn (James Franco), Flint Marko (Thomas Haden Church), Eddie Brock (Topher Grace), and their sisters all do battle with Spider-Man.

Ad interim, an extraterrestrial parasite falls to Earth on a meteorite and bonds itself to Peter, teasing out the dark side of his powers, jeopardizing his humanity, and whispering disastrous hairstyling advice into his ear.

To be fair, Spider-Man 2 was the all-time greatest of its genre until the release of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (2008), so any sequel was all but destined to fall short (much like Nolan’s own The Dark Knight Rises (2012), as a matter of fact).

And Spider-Man 3 comes its closest to working in the first act, with the conflict between Peter and the New Goblin mounting to a critical pitch throughout the course of the (accidental) trilogy.

Once Harry succumbs to amnesia (yes, seriously), the soap operatic melodrama drowns the drama in so much curdled cheese, and the tightly wound tension wets its pants in a flaccid anticlimax.

Even the laughably miscast Grace as Venom could have seduced Peter into killing Harry under Raimi’s horror auteurship (which distinguishes the hospital setpiece in Spider-Man 2), but, instead, we get a superfluous Sandman, and an underused Gwen Stacy (Bryce Dallas Howard).

Consequently, the character arcs are oversimplified into the most thoughtlessly digestible versions of themselves.

That’s why this critic strained to synopsize this overcrowded picture.

It’s an opportunity missed – Peter could’ve lost MJ after murdering Harry, and then Raimi could’ve directed a sequel about Gwen, with the splendidly computer-animated Sandman as the antagonist – and it’s an opportunity sorely missed, because Maguire is Spider-Man.

His boyish screen persona satisfies the comic book wish fulfillment of a nerd becoming a superhero, as opposed to the hipster supermodel that is Andrew Garfield; Tom Holland is the best of both worlds, and he may not be what Sony deserves, but he is what they need right now.

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.

Hulu review: ABC’s “Desperate Housewives” (2004-2012)

When the First Lady of the United States references your series for a White House Correspondents’ Dinner joke, you know you’ve got an instant classic on your hands.

If you don’t know what to watch next, ABC’s Desperate Housewives (2004-2012) is available to stream on Hulu. Marc Cherry’s mystery comedy-drama was a ratings juggernaut over the course of its run. It is the longest-running hourlong television show with all-female leads.

Set on Wisteria Lane, the primetime soap opera is narrated by Mary Alice Young (Brenda Strong) after she commits suicide.

The ensemble cast are Mary Alice’s friends and neighbors: the recently divorced girl next door, Susan Mayer (Teri Hatcher); the overwhelmed mother, Lynette Scavo (Felicity Huffman); the WASP-y Bree Van de Kamp (Marcia Cross); and the adulterous Gabrielle Solis (Eva Longoria).

Each season turns along a central mystery at its axis (the inaugural season being the circumstances which led up to Mary Alice’s death) as these four titular housewives come to grips with love, motherhood, and friendship.

Like Showtime’s Dexter (2006-2013) and HBO’s Game of Thrones (2011-2019), Desperate Housewives should’ve ended after its fifth season, but went on for eight instead. The first five mysteries are the most bingeworthy.

After the infamous time jump between the fourth and fifth seasons, it holds itself to be self-evident that Cherry could only develop these characters so much.

Visiting them five years into their future is a gimmick which sticks the landing for a staff of writers whose reputation precedes them for setpieces and cliffhangers, but it’s one that cannot be outdone.

Susan, Lynette, Bree, and Gaby become not who we know them to be when we initially befriend them, which is organic to their dramatic trajectories, but they begin to feel like strangers in the final three seasons.

These last seasons fail not because they’re bad, but because they’re forgettable, which a soap never should be. The sixth-season “witness protection program” twist is yawningly predictable, and this reviewer can’t recall what even happens in the seventh and eighth seasons.

Not every program can be AMC’s Breaking Bad (2008-2013), quitting while they’re still ahead, and Desperate Housewives is in the business of generating viewership, not crafting high art, which it does well, even if it’s what’s keeping it on life support past its expiration date.

If true genius in entertainment is to be found in knowing one’s limitations, then a visit to the campy, twisty, addictive fun of Wisteria Lane won’t overstay its welcome as long as you don’t plan on moving in there.