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.

Netflix review: Robert Altman’s “Gosford Park” (2001)

With all the British period drama trappings of Michael Engler’s Downton Abbey (2019) as well as the “whodunit” flare of Rian Johnson’s Knives Out (2019), Robert Altman’s Gosford Park (2001) is just as relevant to contemporary cinephiles as it was at the turn of the millennium.

If you don’t know what to watch next, Gosford Park is available to stream on Netflix.

The mystery black comedy social satire won Downton Abbey writer Julian Fellowes the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay out of seven nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Supporting Actress for Helen Mirren and Maggie Smith.

The auteur also co-produced the ensemble picture.

Set in November 1932 England, industrialist Sir William McCordle (Michael Gambon) invites his extended family over for a weekend shooting party at their country estate, Gosford Park. Everybody is a suspect when the loathsome Sir William is murdered.

Alternating between the perspectives of the wealthy guests and their impoverished servants, who all have secrets to hide, this comedy of manners is as much about its setting as it is its mystery.

Altman’s signature style is more auditory than it is visual, and Gosford Park ought to have been nominated for its sound design.

As with his MASH (1970), the cacophonous dialogue overlaps to a sometimes unintelligible degree, which is not only true to life (seldom do people wait for cues to take their turn speaking) but also externalizes the chaos of the setting.

For MASH, it’s wartime Korea; in Gosford Park, it’s the imperialist West.

The script deftly deconstructs postindustrial-capitalist classist themes through the microcosm of an Agatha Christie murder mystery. It is ethically written, too – victim and perpetrator alike get the justice they deserve in the end.

With billionaires like Donald Trump and Michael Bloomberg running for President of the United States after buying the silence of women, Gosford Park is no less timely for its age or setting.

For its genre, though, the editing is less than ideal. At close to two and a half hours, the runtime runs counter to a genre that values tight pacing. Every scene in a thriller must lead into the next; Gosford Park was not recognized for its editing, and it shows.

But the scene-padding in Gosford Park develops its cast of characters literarily, and if it’s too much of anything, it’s too much of a good thing.

Netflix review: Joel and Ethan Coen’s “No Country for Old Men” (2007)

Between Raising Arizona (1987), Barton Fink (1991), Fargo (1996), The Big Lebowski (1998), and The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001), the Coen Brothers are proprietors to a quirky filmography.

As blackly comedic as they are, one would not foresee their masterpiece to be one of the most nihilistic mainstream Hollywood releases of our time.

While some of their humorous proclivities are underpinned here, No Country for Old Men (2007), by and large, is as bleak a tragedy as you are ever to see on the silver screen.

And it is their penchant for playing by their own rules that sees them subvert generic expectations to anarchic effect here.

If you don’t know what to watch next, No Country for Old Men is available to stream on Netflix. Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay Academy Award winners Joel and Ethan Coen also co-produced the neo-Western crime thriller.

The adaptation of the eponymous 2005 novel by Cormac McCarthy took home the Best Picture Oscar as well.

In 1980 Texas, pronghorn poacher Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) finds a briefcase full of two million dollars at a drug deal in the desert gone bad. When he takes the cash and runs, hitman Anton Chigurh (Best Supporting Actor Javier Bardem) is hired to pursue him.

Burned out Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) tries to get to Llewelyn before Anton does.

No Country for Old Men is infamous for its anticlimactic resolution, but those who dismiss it misunderstand what the Coens are saying about the subject matter at hand. The viewer’s sadistic desire to see Llewelyn or Anton killed makes us no better than Anton himself.

This ethically violent film literally punishes the audience for creating a world where Anton Chigurh can play death incarnate, which is the difference between tasteful, artistic onscreen violence versus that which is gratuitous and exploitative.

It is an ambiguous movie speaking with a voice you have to listen for in silence, rather than finding yourself deafened by it. Skip Lievsay was up for Best Sound Editing, and Lievsay, Craig Berkey, Greg Orloff, and Peter Kurland, Best Sound Mixing.

The film was robbed of both – it produces ear-splitting suspense with little to no music.

And this is thanks in no small part to Bardem’s iconic performance. Anton Chigurh is a force to be reckoned with, and the mere sight of him spells certain doom for all but every character to share a scene with him.

In fact, toward the latter part of the runtime, many of his killings occur offscreen because we don’t need to see them to know another one bites the dust; that’s how powerful his evil is.

But for all its philosophizing and social commentary, No Country for Old Men is better suited to literature than film. In its Golden Age, Classical Hollywood formulized the Fordist assembly line.

No Country for Old Men is dramatically unfulfilling, though thematically rich – the greatest pictures are the ones that can do both.

If you are possessed of the patience for an acquired taste, then No Country for Old Men will garner multiple viewings out of you. It will interrogate the Anton Chigurh within you, punish the Llewelyn Moss inside you, and depress the Ed Tom Bell in us all.

The only small comfort it offers is that the world isn’t getting worse, because it’s always been a hellscape.

Hulu review: Adrian Lyne’s “Fatal Attraction” (1987)

After Steven Spielberg’s Jaws (1975) engendered the summer blockbuster and George Lucas’s Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (1977) changed franchise merchandising forever, the American New Wave came crashing down in a cascade of Reaganomic conglomeration.

The profit motive has always been the driving force behind filmmaking, but in the “Greed Is Good” 1980s, with the Cold War between Western capitalists and Eastern Communists heating up to a fever pitch, almost nothing of artistic note was released the entire decade.

It is as low a valley in cinematic history as the ultraconservative Eisenhower years at the end of classical Hollywood’s golden age, when the studios invested more into spectacular gimmicks than artistic expression to compete against television for viewership.

So, through no fault of its own, Adrian Lyne’s Fatal Attraction (1987) is oft overlooked in critical circles because of the decadent zeitgeist surrounding it, but, like its leading lady, it does not deserve to be ignored.

If you don’t know what to watch next, Fatal Attraction is available to stream on Hulu. The psychological thriller was nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture as well as Best Director.

Best Adapted Screenplay nominee James Dearden reimagined the script from his own British short, Diversion (1980).

Dan Gallagher (Michael Douglas, who won Best Actor that same year for none other than Gordon “Greed Is Good” Gekko in Oliver Stone’s Wall Street (1987)) is a New York attorney with a loving wife named Beth Rogerson (Best Supporting Actress nominee Anne Archer).

While Beth and their daughter, Ellen (Ellen Hamilton Latzen), spend the weekend in the country with Beth’s parents, Howard and Joan Rogerson (Tom Brennan and Meg Mundy), Dan indulges in an affair with editor Alexandra Forrest (Best Actress nominee Glenn Close).

Dan dismisses the tryst as a one-night stand, but the stalkerish Alex develops a psychotic obsession with him that threatens to destroy his life as he knows it.

Between Fatal Attraction and Lyne’s companion piece, Unfaithful (2002), wherein the wife (Oscar nominee Diane Lane) is the cheating spouse and the husband (Richard Gere) kills the homewrecker (Oliver Martinez), the filmmaker is the king of the erotic domestic noir.

The three women nominated under his directorship (Close, Archer, and Lane) speak to the humanity and multiplicity with which he characterizes them.

They fluctuate from Close’s hysteria to Archer’s heartache to Lane’s shame, and all of them suffuse these respective, pulpy dramas with a cathartic, tragic whole greater than the sum of its parts.

Close is an artist who deserves greater stardom than she’s been given (like a damn Oscar, for starters), and, unfortunately for her (but thankfully for the rest of us), she created in Alex a villain so classic, nay, so iconic, it typecast her for the remainder of her career.

Alex is all at once a revelation and an enigma, who can communicate so much through a look on her face but can raise just as many questions with what’s left unsaid.

Such subtext, read from between the lines of dialogue, suggests a force of nature of psychopathy so much more than just an over-the-top cautionary tale for adulterous men.

And her fellow nominee, Archer, is written at the apex of this love triangle from Hell, the altruistic promise-keeper to Douglas’s narcissistic oath-breaker, the pragmatic protector to Close’s sadistic predator.

Foreshadowing is the piano we see hanging by a frayed rope above the cast’s heads in a suspense picture, and Archer is the one hacking away at it with a knife.

When Dan tells Alex he’ll kill her if she tells Beth about them, he doesn’t because he’s the one to tell Beth; when Beth tells Alex she’ll kill her if she ever comes near her family again, Alex calls her bluff, Beth stays true to her word, and the “fatal attraction” is consummated.

Bolstering the production’s writing, directing, and editing is Michael Kahn and Peter E. Berger’s award-nominated editing. Their cuts are as sharp as the edge of Alex’s blade, pricking shocked gasps out of you even after repeat viewings.

The jump scare where Beth emerges from the shadows behind Dan to touch his shoulder as the camera slowly closes in on him, Alex’s crazed cassette tape playing on voiceover, is captured not through a loud noise or a heavy-handed musical cue, but with Hitchcockian claustrophobia.

Although Douglas wasn’t up for an award here, he is very much in his element.

If this is a companion piece to Paul Verhoeven’s Basic Instinct (1992), wherein he also juggles a devoted brunette (Jeanne Tripplehorn alongside a homicidal blonde (Sharon Stone), then is the master of playing the sleazy everyman.

This morally gray characterization is what distinguishes Fatal Attraction from, say, Steve Shill’s Obsessed (2009), because Dan and Alex actually have sex, thus painting the film’s antihero and antagonist in unsympathetic and sympathetic shades, respectively; we voyeuristically share in Alex’s motivations, and this conflicting internalization sparks hotter tension.

As unfeelingly as Dan uses Alex for his own greedy pleasure before throwing her away, the film does seem to demonize Alex for feeling too much. Psychology academics diagnose Close’s performance as symptomatic of borderline personality disorder.

Statistically speaking, the mentally ill are more likely to be victims of violent crime than perpetrators of it, which is why the original “Madame Butterfly” denouement, though anticlimactic, is preferred by many critics (including Close herself).

Also, women are less often stalkers than men.

That is why, for all its flaws (one of which is the pains it takes to age Jennifer Lopez’s student (Ryan Guzman) so their fling is less morally ambiguous), Rob Cohen’s The Boy Next Door (2015) is a more realistic interpretation of the Fatal Attraction formula than Fatal Attraction.

The intersection between Alex’s mental health and gender is all the more unfortunate when one considers how the film punishes her and her unborn child, even though Dan is the one who plays with her life like it’s nothing.

And the Fatal Attraction formula isn’t even the Fatal Attraction formula – Clint Eastwood’s directorial debut, Play Misty for Me (1971), did it first.

In it, Eastwood hooks up with a knife-wielding Jessica Walters, who slashes her own wrists when he dumps her and then comes after his love interest (Donna Mills)… sound familiar?

Especially after the more sensationalistic finale made it into the final cut, Fatal Attraction all but plagiarizes Play Misty for Me.

But the thing about Fatal Attraction is that it surpasses the campy, auteuristically amateurish Play Misty for Me, and Obsessed and The Boy Next Door are surpassed by both.

As with David Fincher’s Gone Girl (2014) to come after it and Sir Alfred Hitchcock’s films to come before it, Fatal Attraction isn’t taken more seriously because it’s a genre movie.

But it ought to be reevaluated as one of the only truly “great” releases of its time, for its attention to detail in addition to its transcendent filmmaking.

Netflix review: James Wan’s “The Conjuring” (2013)

James Wan stumbled upon a cinematic universe which kicked off with the one that started it all, The Conjuring (2013). All told, The Conjuring Universe has put out eight features in seven years, as well as five shorts. The mythology has spawned sequels, prequels, and spinoffs.

In a world where the past decade of horror has been defined by The Conjuring, where it’s nigh impossible to remember life before it, it might be disappointing to hear it’s not worth the hype.

If you don’t know what to watch next, The Conjuring is available to stream on Netflix. The supernatural horror film purports to be based upon an historical Rhode Island haunting from 1971.

Eighty-five percent of critical reviews aggregated through Rotten Tomatoes are positive, which is about five or six percent too high.

Set in Harrisville, Roger Perron (Ron Livingston) and his wife, Carolyn (Lili Taylor), move into a farmhouse with their five daughters.

Once demonic activity befalls their home, they enlist the aid of paranormal investigators Ed Warren (Patrick Wilson) and his wife, Lorraine (Vera Farmiga), to combat these evil forces.

But the witch who cursed the land, Bathsheba Sherman (Joseph Bishara), sacrificed her child to the Devil before killing herself, and possesses Carolyn to do the same, using the franchise mascot, Annabelle the doll, to attack the Warrens’ daughter, Judy (Sterling Jerins); however, the Warrens cannot exorcise the property without approval from the Vatican, and the Perrons are not Catholic.

As far as horror auteurs go post-Wes Craven’s Scream (1996), one of the last masterpieces of the genre until Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook (2014), Wan has done more to mold horror in his own image since his directorial debut, Saw (2004), than any of his contemporaries.

The maestro of jump scares, his are more effective than the lazy imitations paling in comparison against them because his are accompanied by honest-to-God horrific imagery.

Wan is a filmmaker who lovingly crafts the horror he directs, which is more than can be said for the studios that cynically slap together uninspired releases for the slower months of the year for no other reason than that the genre is so cheap to make that it almost always yields a profit.

Like, say, the other Conjuring entries.

And The Conjuring is a progression from the absurdly stylized, unwatchably edited Saw. Wan’s atmospheric aesthetic raises the hairs on the back of your neck like there’s something watching you over your shoulder. Terrors rise up the screen like nightmares ascending from Hell.

But all the film’s style is in service to a cliched, forgettable narrative. The story of a family unwittingly moving into a haunted house is told competently, but not altogether originally (plus, five daughters are too many to develop sympathetically in two hours of runtime).

Wan need not reinvent the wheel if this is the trope he wishes to visit, but, something more self-aware would have been cleverer.

As overrated and underwhelming as The Conjuring is as opposed to, well, Scream and The Babadook, it is still above average for its time. It is an important genre moment, and fans will find they could study a lot worse.

If you’re going to sit through any Conjuring Universe titles, this is the one.