Hulu review: FX and Audience Network’s “Damages” (2007-2012)

Let’s face it: the Golden Age of Television is a sausage fest. The antihero dances perilously close to making folk heroes out of the violent white male. Female sociopathy is largely uncharted territory.

Consider Patty Hewes (Glenn Close) the exception to the rule.

If you don’t know what to watch next, FX and Audience Network’s Damages (2007-2012) is available to stream on Hulu. The legal thriller won two Primetime Emmy Awards during its run for Close’s portrayal of Patty.

It has also been nominated twice for Outstanding Drama Series.

Fresh out of law school, Ellen Parsons (Outstanding Supporting Actress nominee Rose Byrne) is offered a job at Hewes & Associates, a competitive (but infamous) litigation firm.

Her boss, Patty, is something of a legal vigilante, taking the law into her own hands if it means cutting down to size men who abuse their power.

Each season focuses on a different lawsuit from both sides of the case, with nonlinear framing devices generating binge-worthy suspense through central mysteries.

The relationship between Patty and Ellen mirrors that of Jesse Pinkman and Walter White, or Christopher Moltisanti and Tony Soprano, or Don Draper and Peggy Olson.

The mentor is toxic and abusive, while the protégé is the moral foil, coloring the conflicts between them in shades of morally gray.

But the mother-daughter dynamic between Patty and Ellen is distinctly feminine across a writerly landscape where women written by men all too often sound like they’re written by men – Patty may be a study in antisocial personality disorder, but she is still a survivor of misogynistic oppression, just like Ellen.

Patty also echoes Walt, Tony, and Don as the boss from Hell. To become the self-made success story of the American Dream they all are, each one of these characters, in his or her own respective ways, was forced to become something inhuman.

Indeed, those in power around them are no less self-serving, manipulative, and corrupt, and Patty does what she must to survive.

Which brings us to our next comparison: Patty and Daenerys Targaryen. Like Daenerys, Patty faces off against antagonists even more unlikable than herself, and so we empathize with her by comparison.

But unlike Daenerys, Patty is an ethically written female antihero, in that she is never presented as a “fallen woman” too emotionally unstable to do the right thing with her own power, but, rather, she beats the men around her at their own game.

Even though Patty holds her own with the boys (unlike Daenerys), Damages would be one of the classics had been canceled after its third season.

The transition from the thirteen-episode seasons on FX to the ten-episode seasons on DirecTV marks a change in pace and tone like something out of a different (and lesser) show.

Even the greatest series are in the business of making money, and that means staying on the air until they are no longer profitable, no matter how slow and painful a death that may be.

But for the first three-fifths of its run, Damages is one of the all-time best, which is more than can be said for almost every other series out there. Like Close herself, it is not talked about enough. And its parallels to real-world cases makes it that much more watchable.

Netflix review: Gore Verbinski’s “The Ring” (2002)

“Seven days…”

If you don’t know what to watch next, Gore Verbinski’s The Ring (2002) is available to stream on Netflix. The supernatural horror film stars Naomi Watts, Martin Henderson, as well as Brian Cox.

Ehren Kruger’s screenplay is a remake of Hideo Nakata’s Ringu (1998), which is an adaptation of the 1991 novel Ring by Koji Suzuki.

Set in Seattle, teenaged Katie Embry (Amber Tamblyn) dies seven days after watching a cursed videotape, and her friend, Becca Kotler (Rachael Bella) is institutionalized upon witnessing it. Katie’s aunt, Rachel Keller (Watts), an investigative journalist, looks into the death.

Once Rachel watches the tape, she receives a phone call telling her she’ll die in seven days.

The Ring popularized the American remake of the Asian horror flick, and for good reason. Eastern storytelling differs from Western storytelling enough to put off even the most literate fans of Hollywood horror.

With this zeitgeist commodifying the crosstalk between the United States and the Asian market in the 2000s, it has ushered in the “Asian New Wave” of the 2010s, culminating in Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite (2019) becoming the first non-English language film to win Best Picture.

Such is the power of The Ring. Like Wes Craven’s Scream (1996) before it, it is as mystifying as it is horrifying. Its cast of characters is written and performed as paranormal sleuths trying to outwit the evil force, not just warm bodies waiting to get killed.

That is what makes us care when the horrors befall them. As with James Wan, the horror maestro of our time whose jump scares are actually scary, every frightening image in the cursed videotape is meaningful.

They are not grotesque for the sake of itself – they three-dimensionalize the vengeful spirit until we are as afraid for her as we are afraid of her.

The resolution, however, is ambiguous to the point of being barely intelligible. While it works better than a storybook “happy ending” would have, it still leaves too many loose ends for comfort.

Even when opening up to the possibility of a franchise, though, a good ending will answer more questions than it asks, or, at least, it’ll raise questions we can answer for ourselves.

Like Katie, dare yourself to watch The Ring, and like Samara, it’ll crawl out of the screen at you.

Amazon Prime review: Yorgos Lanthimos’s “The Favourite” (2018)

One of the greatest films of its year features this scene.

If you don’t know what to watch next, Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Favourite (2018) is available on Amazon Prime. The period black comedy was nominated for ten Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Original Screenplay. Olivia Colman won for Best Actress.

Set in 1704 England, Anne, Queen of Great Britain (Colman), is an invalid and incompetent monarch. Her “favourite,” Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough (Best Supporting Actress nominee Rachel Weisz) – yes, that Churchill – is the de facto ruler of the empire.

But when Sarah’s younger, impoverished cousin, Abigail Hill (Best Supporting Actress nominee Emma Stone), shows up looking for a job, a bitter rivalry ensues between these two ambitious women for the queen’s “favour.”

Lanthimos is the leading absurdist of his craft, and The Favourite is his most commercial effort without losing any of his voice, which is how it was showered with such attention from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Compared to his The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017), this satire, though just as alienating to audiences on Rotten Tomatoes, is still more laugh-out-loud anachronistic than it is chuckle-to-yourself uncomfortable.

But it balances these more ridiculous themes against such subtextual social commentary as the desperation of the lower class to climb out of their plight as well as the blind eye the upper class turns to that plight so they can race ducks and lobsters instead.

And the auteur directs out of his three leading ladies equally tragicomic tours de force, but none more so than Colman. She caricaturizes Queen Anne hysterically, but also sensitively.

It would not come as a surprise to this critic if the performer studied up on borderline personality disorder in preparation for this role.

In addition, Robbie Ryan’s cinematography aestheticizes the film with its signature photography. The wide-angle lenses are like watching the subjects through a fishbowl.

Not only is it visually unique, but it is also artistically eloquent; time may distance us from this cast of characters, but we can still see their conflicts reflected back at us as if they are our own, even as history warps it.

While The Favourite does not presume to be historically accurate, its source material is still a character assassination. It is loosely based upon Sarah Churchill’s memoir, which is (understandably) biased against Queen Anne.

All parties involved are long dead, but still, is it ethical to knowingly and purposefully misrepresent historical figures?

Or maybe The Favourite is meant to be read as a parody of this hyperbolically bitter artifact of poison-pen revenge – either way, it is a treat for those who acquire the taste for it.

Netflix review: David Fincher’s “Panic Room” (2002)

David Fincher’s Gone Girl (2014) is one of the masterpieces of its decade. But it was nominated for only one Academy Award, which it didn’t even win. It attests to its auteur’s Hitchcockian themes on the human condition as well as his Kubrickian manifestation of them.

With his Panic Room (2002), he tightens this style into a single setting with a two-hour runtime, and the final product is an artisanal entertainment.

If you don’t know what to watch next, Panic Room is available to stream on Netflix. The thriller stars Jodie Foster, Kristen Stewart, Forest Whitaker, Jared Leto, and Dwight Yoakam. Scriptwriter David Koepp also coproduced.

Recently divorced Meg Altman (Foster) and her eleven-year-old diabetic daughter, Sarah (Stewart), move into a four-story Upper West Side New York City brownstone.

The house’s previous owner, a reclusive millionaire, had a “panic room” built in to hide from home invaders, complete with concrete, steel, surveillance cameras, a PA system, and a separate phone line.

The night the Altmans move in, Junior (Leto), the millionaire’s grandson, along with Burnham (Whitaker), an employee for the house’s security company, and Raoul (Yoakam), a hired gun, break in to steal three million dollars of bearer bonds locked in a floor safe under the panic room.

The claustrophobic mise-en-scene is redolent of the obvious influences, most notably Sir Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope (1948), Dial M for Murder (1954), and Rear Window (1954).

If good artists borrow and great artists steal, then a filmmaker could do much worse for a source of inspiration than the greatest director ever.

But it’s so much more than the generic tropes alone that makes Fincher a top contender for the Hitchcock of our time – it’s the ways in which he suspends our everyday mundanity as we recognize it outside of the film with as much tension as he does the mirrors of it inside the film.

And, for many Americans the year after the September 11 attacks, suspicion and surveillance became their reality. At times, Fincher rearranges the board so that Meg and Sarah are the predators in this cat-and-mouse game.

Do the ends truly justify the means, as the United States government claimed when they abducted and tortured Arabs and Muslims throughout human rights “black sites” across the globe, or are the ends only there to satiate the sadistic survival instinct within us all?

However, with two white women in trouble occupying the titular panic room, is this really a narrative we needed during the War on Terror?

Fincher would go on to subvert this template expertly in Gone Girl, but here, he promotes the ideology that justifies authoritarian breaches of privacy to begin with. Additionally, violence against women is too frequently used to sensationalize and titillate in conspiracy thrillers.

All in all, Panic Room is Fincher before his masterwork, which is powerful cinema nonetheless. It is a paranoid, high-concept thrill ride. Its ensemble also elevates the pulp fiction.

Netflix review: David Lean’s “Doctor Zhivago” (1965)

The Golden Age of Classical Hollywood effectively ended with the Paramount Decree in 1948, when an antitrust United States Supreme Court divested the studios of their theater holdings.

Forced to compete for screen space to compensate for the lost revenue, producers and executives resorted to gimmickry to attract audiences.

Then, with the advent of television around the same time, the cinematic arts were faced with an identity crisis as they recalibrated into technically ambitious, colorful melodramas TV simply couldn’t emulate at the time.

David Lean was the master of such large-scale spectacles, and his Doctor Zhivago (1965) is one of the last of its kind before the Second Golden Age of Hollywood took root later in the decade.

If you don’t know what to watch next, Doctor Zhivago is available to stream on Netflix. The epic romantic drama is based on the 1957 novel of the same name by Boris Pasternak, which was banned in the Soviet Union, so shooting largely took place in Spain.

It was nominated for ten Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and won five, all technical.

Functioning as a narrative framing device, KGB Lieutenant General Yevgraf Andreyevich Zhivago (Sir Alec Guinness) believes he has found the daughter of his half-brother, Doctor Yuri Andreyevich Zhivago (Omar Sharif), and his lover, Larissa “Lara” Antipova (Julie Christie).

It is the late 1940s or early 1950s Soviet Union, and as Yevgraf tells Tanya Komarova (Rita Tushingham) the story of Yuri’s life, we learn, via flashback, about his marriage to Tonya Gromeko (Geraldine Chaplin) during the Russian Revolution, and his love affair with Lara.

Lara’s husband, Pavel “Pasha” Antipova (Tom Courtenay), is a Red Army commander, and Yuri – a poet at heart – must flee for his life with his family when the new Communist government condemns his art as anti-leftist.

At a three-and-a-half-hour runtime with a period piece dramatization spanning two generations over half a century in a setting as culturally and historically rich as Russia, Doctor Zhivago is over the top and larger than life in all the best ways.

Freddie Young’s Oscar-winning photography as well as Maurice Jarre’s award-winning score mix together into a heady cinematic cocktail with the drama of Robert Bolt’s Best Adapted Screenplay.

The USSR of Doctor Zhivago sweeps across the screen as continentally as the Russian Empire itself. And, politically, it is a bold piece of filmmaking to come out of Cold War Europe (the picture is not a Hollywood production, but, rather, British and Italian).

It decries the totalitarian Soviet Union at a time when tensions between East and West were heating up in Vietnam.

For such a commercial feature, cashing in on that era’s craze for Technicolor, CinemaScope releases, what sets it apart from, say, Viktor Fleming’s Gone with the Wind (1939), is its commentary on a contemporaneous superpower.

Conversely, though, the movie depoliticizes the title character from page to screen. In the book, Yuri supports the Revolution, just not the direction it takes.

In an effort to make him a more marketable hero to Western viewers, Lean offers a more unambiguous anticommunist critique, which oversimplifies Pasternak’s source material into a capitalistically friendly cash grab.

It stops short of becoming right-wing propaganda, though, which is why Doctor Zhivago has aged into a classic for the old-fashioned streamer. It is excessive and self-indulgent, but only because there’s more for the cinephile to get lost in.

As one of the highest-grossing releases of all time (adjusted for inflation), it is an important part of cinematic history as the events it reconstructs are world history.

Amazon Prime review: George Lucas’s “Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope” (1977)

George Lucas’s fellow movie brat, Steven Spielberg, may have invented the summer blockbuster with his Jaws (1975) two years before, but it is Lucas who’s responsible for the multimedia franchise as we know it today.

The Star Wars saga is a hotbed for sequels, merchandise, and derivative works, and it all started with a relatively modest passion project from a young auteur.

It birthed a new era of filmmaking.

And it killed the Hollywood Renaissance.

If you don’t know what to watch next, Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (1977) is available on Amazon Prime.

The epic space opera was nominated for ten Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Original Screenplay, and won eight, including two special Oscars. The auteur also penned the script.

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, Galactic Imperial Senator Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) flees an Imperial Star Destroyer under the command of Darth Vader (David Prowse, voiced by James Earl Jones) after stealing the plans to the Empire’s Death Star for the Rebellion.

Vader captures Leia’s starship, but not before she dispatches two droids, C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) and R2-D2 (Kenny Baker) to the desert planet of Tatooine bearing a message for retired Jedi Master Obi-Wan “Ben” Kenobi (Best Supporting Actor nominee Sir Alec Guinness).

The droids are discovered by farm boy Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), the son of Obi-Wan’s apprentice, Anakin Skywalker, who enlists smugglers Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) to fly Obi-Wan to the Death Star so they can rescue Leia.

Originally titled Star Wars, it can be an obstacle to divorce A New Hope from the mythology that is its legacy for this critic, who was born into a world already saturated with Star Wars and has no way of remembering a time before it, or experiencing it how audiences did upon its release.

Except for Irvin Kershner’s Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back (1980), all Star Wars films are inferior to A New Hope. Knowing the downturn the saga will take before even going into the one that started it all, it can be a lot to ask to fall in love with it at first sight.

Regardless, A New Hope is an imaginative Wild West fairytale set in outer space, a prototypical hero’s journey explored through a once-in-a-lifetime creative mind.

Like the commoners in Akira Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress (1954) and the “cripples, bastards, and broken things” in HBO’s Game of Thrones (2011-2019), the good guys here are two bickering robots, an orphan, an eccentric old man, and two criminals.

As for the villains, they are not the Emperor himself, but, rather, his bureaucratic henchmen. It goes to show even the unlikeliest person can do the right thing, and even the lowest government official can be an oppressor.

And in the hands of any other screenwriter, Princess Leia would be a damsel in distress. Instead, she is an assertive, straight-shooting leader who saves herself, and her rescuers (none of whom “get the girl” at the end).

It’s almost enough to make up for the movie’s lack of intersectional diversity.

But Star Wars is more praiseworthy than A New Hope. Unethically, Lucas has revised each rerelease of his masterpiece beyond recognition to retroactively co-opt it into the mythos he wove around it, thus bastardizing the version that his fans first obsessed over.

When you unleash a work of art into the world, it belongs no longer to you, but, rather, to the audience it inspires – otherwise, of what worth is that inspiration?

Revisionism aside, Lucas may be the worst thing to happen to his own creation, but he’s also the best, like how Star Wars is the best and worst thing to happen to cinema.

Love it or hate it, if moviemaking has always been about making money, then Star Wars is important, and Lucas was forward-thinking enough to singlehandedly anticipate the zeitgeist even as we know it today.

To all the viewers who made it one of the top grossers of all time (adjusted for inflation), A New Hope is a nostalgic, childlike dream bringing strangers together, and that is what keeps them coming back to the series again, hoping (in vain) to relive that movie magic for the first time.

Hulu review: Paul Verhoeven’s “Basic Instinct” (1992)

With only fifty-three percent of reviews aggregated through Rotten Tomatoes praising Paul Verhoeven’s Basic Instinct (1992), this Hitchcockian classic of its time is an underrated and misunderstood film.

If you don’t know what to watch next, Basic Instinct is available to stream on Hulu. The neo-noir erotic thriller was nominated for the Academy Awards for Best Film Editing and Best Original Score.

It was the fourth-highest-grossing release of its year, despite a divided critical reaction and public protests from gay rights activists.

Set in San Francisco, troubled homicide detective Nick Curran (Michael Douglas) investigates the murder of Johnny Boz (Bill Cable), who was stabbed to death with an icepick during sex with a mysterious blonde.

The prime suspect is crime novelist Catherine Tramell (Sharon Stone), Boz’s bisexual girlfriend, who wrote a book about the killing before it was committed and claims an obsessive devotee is setting her up.

As Catherine lures Nick into her world of sex and drugs and violence, his relationship with police psychiatrist Doctor Beth Garner (Jeanne Tripplehorn) grows increasingly deadly.

Douglas may get top billing, but Stone is the star of the show. She carries herself with confidence and intelligence and just the right amount of danger.

The most recognition she engendered for her star-making turn was a Golden Globe nod because audiences fail to take her seriously after the infamous interrogation scene.

Like Emilia Clarke in HBO’s Game of Thrones (2011-2019), Stone is more talented than people are willing to give her credit for, and there’s more to her performance than the beauty that meets the eye.

This is due to Verhoeven’s direction. Stone reprises her role in Michael Canton-Jones’s Basic Instinct 2 (2006), but even though it’s the same actor playing the same part, Catherine Tramell is borderline unwatchable in the sequel.

Verhoeven characterizes Tramell as the postmodern femme fatale, who seduces and kills with no loftier motive than that she looks good doing it.

The movie was controversial upon its release for its representation of bisexual women, and while there is something to be said about Hollywood’s lengthy history of demonizing lesbians, and while Basic Instinct exploits lesbianism for the male gaze, it is still ahead of its time sexually.

Catherine and her lover, Roxy Hardy (Leilani Sarelle), are both feminine.

Conversely, in Lisa Cholodenko’s The Kids Are All Right (2010), not only do Annette Benning and Julianne Moore conform to “butch” and “femme” gender roles, respectively, but the more feminine of the two also is the one to have an affair with Mark Ruffalo.

Narratively, though, Basic Instinct is overlong, convoluted, and repetitive. In the end, what the central mystery boils down to is an elaborate revenge plan the villain would have had to be nigh clairvoyant to cook up.

Logically, the drama demands more than its fair share of suspension of disbelief.

But Basic Instinct is more… well… instinctual than it is rational, and, for that, it is cinema at its most dreamlike.