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.

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.

Amazon Prime review: Colin Trevorrow’s “Jurassic World” (2015)

Who knew one of the pop artistic masterpieces of our time would be about Bryce Dallas Howard running through a jungle in high heels?

If you don’t know what to watch next, Colin Trevorrow’s Jurassic World (2015) is available on Amazon Prime. The filmmaker cowrote the science fiction adventure film, the closest to authorship one is apt to come across in the blockbuster landscape.

Indeed, it ranks among the top ten highest-grossing pictures of all time.

Zach Mitchell (Nick Robinson) and his brother, Gray (Ty Simpkins), travel to Isla Nublar to visit their aunt, Claire Dearing (Howard), the overworked operations manager for Jurassic World who foists them off onto her assistant, Zara (Katie McGrath).

During their visit, a genetically engineered dinosaur called the Indominus rex makes its escape and terrorizes the theme park. Together with her ex-lover, Owen Grady (Chris Pratt), the Velociraptor handler, Claire must find her nephews before the Indominus rex does.

Rian Johnson’s Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi (2017) is to its respective series what Jurassic World is to its own. In a world where we grow up knowing Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker’s father, how is a director to subvert our expectations again?

Correspondingly, for a generation raised on Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park (1993), is it possible to feel what it’s like to lay eyes on dinosaurs for the first time again, as contemporaneous viewers did?

In the eyes of audience surrogate Zach, a bored teenager stuck babysitting his brother, more interested in the girls around him (even though he has an offscreen girlfriend) than he is in the dinosaurs, Jurassic World is old news.

As a result of such indifference, the park modifies a never-before-seen attraction, the Indominus rex. But, as always with Jurassic Park, playing God and exploiting nature for capital come at a devastating price.

The Indominus rex is as postmodern a villain as Catherine Tramell, Ghostface, and Heath Ledger’s Joker, killing for the sake of itself, creating conflict because life would be a static, existential purgatory without it.

Doctor Henry Wu (franchise alum B.D. Wong) designs a predator to kill not for survival, but because it can, to entertain an overstimulated public. To quote Ghostface himself, “Motives are incidental.”

And in a Tarantinoesque gesture, Trevorrow incorporates his product placement into his world-building. Brand names from our popular culture have plastered their logos throughout the storefronts of Jurassic World, despite the tragedies of the past, or even because of them.

In other words, the text knows it’s a text, and the Indominus rex exists because all watchable cinema has need of an Indominus rex, and Jurassic World the subject and Jurassic World the representation are both in the business of turning a profit.

As self-referential as the movie is, its storytelling still leaves a lot to be desired. Zach and Gray off-handedly introduce a divorce plot thread between their parents, Scott Mitchell (Andy Buckley) and Karen Dearing (Judy Greer), amounting to exactly nothing.

In addition to Howard’s infamously impractical shoes, it would have been more feministic if Claire’s relationship with Owen were platonic, as an alternative to the male-gaze wish fulfillment of the patriarchal hero getting the damsel in distress at the end.

These offenses are nowhere near as egregious as the fate of Zara. It is a gratuitous sequence, and worse, played for laughs. As unsympathetic a character as Zara is, she doesn’t deserve to be “punished” as women too often are in media.

Still, part of this popcorn flick’s wizardry is that it isn’t so much “style over substance” as the style IS the substance, and, if mainstream Hollywood fetishizes violence, then Jurassic World is only giving the people what they want.

Amazon Prime review: M. Night Shyamalan’s “Glass” (2019)

M. Night Shyamalan enjoyed somewhat of a revival since The Visit (2015) and Split (2016), never quite meeting the triumphs of The Sixth Sense (1999) and Unbreakable (2000), but still at least becoming watchable again.

As for Glass (2019), the third in a trilogy with Unbreakable and Split, the faults of his authorship stand in relief against these two stronger entries.

If you don’t know what to watch next, Glass is available on Amazon Prime. The psychological superhero thriller got largely negative reviews, with only thirty-seven percent of critics aggregated via Rotten Tomatoes praising the film.

The filmmaker also wrote, co-produced, and made a cameo appearance in the picture.

Unbreakable hero David “The Overseer” Dunn (Bruce Willis) and Split villain Kevin Wendell “The Horde” Crumb (James McAvoy) are institutionalized at the same Philadelphia facility as The Overseer’s nemesis, Elijah “Mister Glass” Price (Samuel L. Jackson).

There, Doctor Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson), a psychiatrist who specializes in treating patients who believe they’re superheroes or otherwise superhuman, studies the three characters.

But Mister Glass has a plan for escape, and with The Horde in his reach, an alliance between the two could spell doom for the city The Overseer can no longer protect.

The premise is the highlight of the movie – three of Shyamalan’s finest creations conflicting against one another in a setting evocative of the ambiguous realism making Unbreakable a masterstroke of suspense.

It would’ve done the same for Split, if not for a denouement which decisively answers the question, “Does The Beast exist?” when no answer is what gives Unbreakable its staying power.

For the first time since Unbreakable, the audience asks themselves if The Overseer, The Horde, and Mister Glass really are players in a comic book, or if they’re suffering from a collective delusion of grandeur; debating the truth of the text warrants devoted re-watches.

But Shyamalan makes the same miscalculation at the end of Glass as at the end of Split, except worse, unleashing a veritable Pandora’s box of absurdity onto his world-building that no amount of mystery could ever close again.

And he might not have made this error if he hadn’t marketed himself as a brand after the success of The Sixth Sense, the Wellesian wunderkind, the lovechild of Sir Alfred Hitchcock and Steven Spielberg whose signature style orbits the climactic twist (even at its most contrived).

It’s the reason why auteur theory, developed in postwar Europe as part of the French New Wave by early film critics obsessed with studying Hollywood directors, is problematic and borderline fallacious in the inherently collaborative world of moviemaking.

Shyamalan is indisputably talented – The Sixth Sense is one of the best of all time – but The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable are greater than their twists, and even Hitchcock knew his limits. Hitch cast himself in cameos, but he never delivered a line, and he didn’t pen a word of dialogue.

His greatness lay in knowing when to take “no” for an answer.

If Shyamalan had an executive to answer to, or a seasoned screenwriter to ground his concepts into the dramatically satisfying, Glass might have lived up to its “super” potential.

What it is instead, is a delusion of grandeur.

Amazon Prime review: Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer’s “Pet Sematary” (2019)

Sometimes, the book is better.

Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer’s Pet Sematary (2019) is available on Amazon Prime, and if you don’t know what to watch next, this one is better left alone.

An adaptation of the 1983 novel of the same name by Stephen King as well as a remake of the 1989 Mary Lambert cult classic, the supernatural horror film was released to a mixed reception. Just fifty-seven percent of critical reviews aggregated on Rotten Tomatoes are positive.

Doctor Louis Creed (Jason Clarke) relocates from Boston to Maine with his wife, Rachel Goldman (Amy Seimetz), daughter, Ellie (Jeté Lawrence), and son, Gage (Hugo and Lucas Lavoie).

New neighbor Jud Crandall (John Lithgow) warns the family about the pet cemetery in the local woods, where children bury their dead animals in the hope that they will come back to life, even if demonic forces are at play.

Once tragedy strikes the Creeds, Louis is faced with the opportunity to play God, and must live with the consequences of it.

The movie is not without its redeeming qualities. As an adaptation and a remake, it is confronted with scaring the audience as horrifyingly as did the original, and it does so through its own edits to the twist and turns in the source material.

For example, the denouement harkens back to Frank Darabont’s The Mist (2007), one of the superior King interpretations.

Otherwise, the picture is a mediocre and forgettable affair. The pacing is better suited for King’s literary medium, which is empowered to internalize the themes of death more vigorously than the cinematic arts can articulate.

Pet Sematary isn’t so much an embarrassment against its production team as it is a waste of the viewer’s time.

They just need to let it die.

Amazon Prime review: Adam McKay’s “Vice” (2018)

To quote one of this reviewer’s film professors, “George Bush wasn’t evil. He was just an idiot.”

If you don’t know what to watch next, Adam McKay’s Vice (2018) is available on Amazon Prime. The biographical comedy-drama was nominated for eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture.

Greg Cannom, Kate Biscoe, and Patricia Delaney won for Best Makeup and Hairstyling.

Narrated by Kurt (Jesse Plemons, a fictional War on Terror veteran), the film charts the career of former Vice President of the United States Dick Cheney (Best Actor nominee Christian Bale), as well as his marriage to Lynne Vincent (Best Supporting Actress nominee Amy Adams).

President George W. Bush (Best Supporting Actor nominee Sam Rockwell) only runs for office to please his father, former President George H.W. Bush (John Hillner), and so delegates executive power to his vice president.

Cheney’s Machiavellian political ambition leads to party polarization in America, the rise of ISIS in Iraq, and historically low approval ratings for himself.

McKay is the recipient of three nods from the Academy as co-producer, director, and writer of the original screenplay. In addition, editor Hank Corwin was up for an Oscar.

The two collaborated together on The Big Short (2015), another historical black comedy for which McKay, Corwin, and Bale were nominated (with McKay and Charles Randolph taking home the trophy for Best Adapted Screenplay).

The Big Short also marks another critique of the Bush years, namely the financial crisis of 2007 and 2008.

McKay and Corwin’s creative partnership is as vital as the professional chemistry between Martin Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker, with Corwin cutting satirical meta-references from beyond the fourth wall into McKay’s production.

This stylization underscores the absurdity of the apocalyptic incompetence in the Bush Administration that empowered an Antichrist like Cheney to reign supreme across the post-September 11 geopolitical hellscape.

The cosmetic Oscar is well-earned, as the star-studded cast transform themselves under McKay’s direction into their characters so unrecognizably, the line between “parodical imitation” and “masterful tour-de-force” is crossed.

Bale, Adams, Rockwell, Steve Carrell (Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld), Don McManus (Chief of Staff to the Vice President David Addington), and Camille Harman (consultant Mary Matalin) all characterize Cheney and his inner circle with a gravitas that transcends appearances.

But Vice speaks with Plemons’s voice, and his Iraq and Afghanistan vet is one of many victims of Cheney’s plunder, one of the best candidates to tell this story.

But not the best.

It would have been more morally sound to hear from an Arab or Muslin arbitrarily detained and tortured at one of the U.S. government’s international “black sites.”

Furthermore, the movie’s farcical tone begs the question: is it artistically just to turn eight years of corruption and war crimes into a punchline?

As tempting as it is to make fun of Bush (who once used the word “misunderestimated” in a sentence), his regime’s record of human rights violations is no laughing matter.

“Irregardless,” Vice as an historic document is strikingly relevant to the Trump era, and if that means we learned nothing from our recent past, then maybe the joke is on us.

Amazon Prime review: Jordan Peele’s “Us” (2019)

Once upon a time, there was a girl, and the girl had a shadow…

If you don’t know what to watch next, Jordan Peele’s Us (2019) is available on Amazon Prime.

The psychological horror film had the all-time second-best opening weekend for a live-action feature after James Cameron’s Avatar (2009), and the third-best behind Andy Muschietti’s It (2017) and David Gordon Green’s Halloween (2018), but the best for an original horror script.

Peele, who won the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for his directorial debut, Get Out (2017), is also the screenwriter for Us.

On Rotten Tomatoes, ninety-four percent of critical reviews aggregated for Us are positive.

Lupita Nyong’o and Winston Duke star as Adelaide Thomas and Gabe Wilson, who visit the family lake house in Santa Cruz with their children, Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Jason (Evan Alex).

Adelaide is doubtful about the trip because of the mysterious, traumatic event which befell her at the beach when she was a child. Their first night there, a family of four strangers invade the Wilsons’ home and reveal themselves to be their doppelgängers as the Wilsons fight for survival.

Together, Us and Get Out showcase not only Peele’s genius for the horror genre, but also his talent for filmmaking in general.

His background in comedy does not arrest his passion for horror, but rather refines it with laugh-out-loud dialogue that endears you to the cast all the more devastatingly when the terror comes to claim them.

Us is as rich with subtext as its predecessor, yet speaks with a voice all its own. Where Get Out is a slow-burn suspense thriller, Us is a fast-paced horror show.

Nevertheless, between the two, Get Out is the superior movie, but only because it is so difficult to meet, much less exceed. Get Out is one of the greatest pictures of our time, and one of the most important horror pictures ever, a once-in-a-lifetime masterpiece.

This isn’t to say that Us isn’t still a scissor’s cut above the competition, because it is. Nyong’o’s dynamic performance alone, characterizing both hero and villain, deserves multiple viewings in order to truly experience each layer of nuance she delivers to this dual role.

In a way, Us is more subtle and sophisticated than Get Out, a thematic cocktail of motifs and visual metaphors and double meanings as open to interpretation as a hall of mirror is infinite with reflections.

Us might have been stronger, in fact, if it was more ambiguous, but as it is, it is still a horror piece more lovingly choreographed than the mainstream, cheaply-shot Hollywood release made for no other reason than to rake in an easy profit.

And that twist ending will echo through you forever.