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.

Amazon Prime review: Victor Fleming’s “Gone with the Wind” (1939)

Even though 1946 was commercially the most profitable year in film history as GIs came home from the war in a celebratory mood, 1939 was artistically the richest for classical Hollywood.

Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) exemplifies filmmaking as the great American art form; Ernst Lubitsch’s Ninotchka (1939) represents all the Western culture and history European refugees brought to Golden Age Hollywood in the wake of World War II; Victor Fleming’s The Wizard of Oz (1939) did for color film what Alan Crosland’s The Jazz Singer (1927) did for talkies.

Conceivably, it was because it was the year Adolf Hitler invaded Poland, and the world, already in the throes of the Great Depression, needed an escape more than ever, so these creatives were inspired to lead the way to a more beautiful reality through the visceral medium that is cinema.

Whatever the case may be, it was Fleming’s own Gone with the Wind (1939) which took home the Academy Award for Best Picture that year.

If you don’t know what to watch next, Fleming’s other Technicolor classic is available on Amazon Prime.

The epic historical romance is an adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning 1936 Margaret Mitchell novel of the same name (with scriptwriter Sidney Howard taking home the Oscar).

In addition to its ten Academy Awards, including Best Director, the film is also the highest-grossing movie of all time (when adjusted for inflation).

It’s 1861 Georgia, and sixteen-year-old Southern belle Scarlett O’Hara (Best Actress Vivien Leigh) has a crush on Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard), who, despite leading her on, has eyes only for his cousin, Melanie Hamilton (Best Supporting Actress nominee Olivia de Havilland).

As Scarlett manipulates her way closer to Ashely over the next twelve years, she encounters the Charlestonian rogue Rhett Butler (Best Actor nominee Clark Gable), who loves her as obsessively as she loves Ashley.

All around them, the American Civil War and Reconstruction take the torch to the only way of life Scarlett has ever known, until, like the passage of time, it, too, is gone with the wind.

No other anecdote from the tempestuous production better encapsulates the contradictory cinematic importance as well as intersectional regression of the feature than Hattie McDaniel’s Best Supporting Actress win for the role of Mammy, the O’Hara family’s housemaid.

Though she was the first black person to win an Oscar in the history of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (and a woman at that), she was segregated from the rest of the white attendees.

Furthermore, the “Mammy” media stereotype, named for her character, is not a positive representation.

The gender politics are just as turbulent. The iconic image of Rhett sweeping Scarlett off her feet immediately precedes a rape.

Bracketing this mis-romanticized moment in filmic history are scene after scene of the entitled leading man threatening or otherwise verbally abusing  the strong, financially independent leading lady, and worse still, it’s almost as if Scarlett deserves it because she’s such an antihero.

The nearly four-hour affair is technically dated as well. It belongs more to its producer, David O. Selznick of Selznick International Pictures, than it does its filmmaker.

Indeed, Oscar notwithstanding, Fleming’s directorial style is dwarfed next to Selznick’s megalomaniacal sweep.

Gone with the Wind is very much of its time, between its thesis that liberated American slaves were happier in subservient roles, Rhett’s spectacularized, brutal “punishment” of Scarlett, and its self-indulgent, melodramatic production value, but it is still a cinephilic must-watch.

Without it, Selznick might not have been able to recruit Sir Alfred Hitchcock stateside for Rebecca (1940), the auteur’s only Best Picture winner, and we might not have borne witness to the greatest Hollywood works ever created.

And without Hitchcock, we wouldn’t have auteur theory as we know it today.

Then again, the part the producer plays in a picture’s success is frequently overlooked and underappreciated (especially up against the director).

Darryl F. Zanuck, for instance, is the wunderkind behind many of the studio system’s early successes, such as William A. Wellman’s The Public Enemy (1931). As pedestrian as Fleming is here, Selznick’s genius makes up for it and then some.

Even under Fleming’s studio-interfered direction, Leigh delivers the first of two companion pieces which define her star persona. The second is Blanche DuBois in Elia Kazan’s A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), for which she earned her second Oscar.

Her progression from the vital, self-preservationalistic Scarlett to the poorly aged, defeated Blanche mirrors the multifacetedness of her artistry, personalized by the bipolar disorder she lived with all her life; truly, she was a worthy equal to her spouse, Sir Laurence Olivier (whose classicalism is as esteemed as Marlon Brando’s Method in A Streetcar Named Desire, and who starred in Rebecca alongside de Havilland’s sister, Joan Fontaine).

Gone with the Wind is nothing if not a technical magnum opus, even if it only redeems itself dramatically through Leigh.

Its cinematography, editing, and art direction were also showered with statuettes, and two honorary awards were set aside for the film’s use of coordinated equipment and color.

Sherman’s burning of Atlanta is an ode to practical effects – at eighty years old, the setpiece is more gracefully aged than many of the computer-generated fantasias churned out in our time.

And Gone with the Wind, as socio-politically indefensible as it is, is still a towering cinematic triumph. It is as watchable now as it was in 1939, all five acts of it, and it does illuminate how the penal code substituted slave labor for Scarlett.

Between this and D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915), another influential (and problematic) Civil War epic, Gone with the Wind and the survivalistic woman at its core marks the superior film.

It is a treasure from a lost moment in filmmaking, back when the studios were dream factories crafting fantasies with all the dependency of a Fordist assembly line, long before they became conglomerate-owned toy manufacturers rebooting and remaking focus group nostalgia.

It is a totem of a bygone era that united strangers all across the globe by the millions in a time of diplomatic and economic strife. It is a product of its time in all the worst and best ways, a filmmaking gilded age gone with the wind.

One critic’s take on the politicization of film criticism

The Guardian contributor Jessa Crispin writes that 2019 was a mediocre year for film, even though police departments issued warnings about mass shootings at premieres for Todd Phillips’s Joker (2019) because critics participated in an online moral panic over incel violence. According to Crispin, this overestimation of a movie’s sway over the course of real-world events has led to an overappraisal of releases such as Greta Gerwig’s Little Women (2019), with reviewers accusing filmgoers like Crispin of misogyny because she found it oversentimental. Crispin says shaming viewers into seeing certain titles for political reasons, even if the titles in question are poorly made, further divides audiences from the critic’s authority over the cinematic arts, and shifts the blame for nondiverse storytelling from the producers, where it belongs.

The advent of “extreme film criticism”

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Review aggregate sites such as Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic have also degraded long-form analysis. (Image Courtesy: The Los Angeles Review of Books).

With the rise of home video, film criticism (as per the French New Wave filmmakers behind the Parisian Cahiers du cinema in the 1950s) democratized, and to compete against the amateurs, professionals resort to “extreme film criticism,” according to the Los Angeles Review of Books. When AMC theaters screened all twelve Marvel movies leading up to the release of Anthony and Joe Russo’s Avengers: Infinity War (2018) that April, IndieWire reviewer David Ehrlich as well as The New York Times critic John Bailey subjected themselves to the thirty-one-hour marathon. Even this practice harkens back to François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, and Éric Rohmer, who would spend entire days at the Cinémathèque Française bingeing the American masterpieces over and over again.