Netflix review: Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight” (2008)

Between the comic book taking Hollywood by storm in the decade since the release of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (2008) as well as the embarrassment of pale imitations in its wake, you can be forgiven for growing desensitized to the one that started it all.

Truly, it is easy to forget there was a world before 2008 where the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences nominated only five nominees for Best Picture every year, and popcorn flicks were hardly ever among them.

With Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther (2018) lighting up this year’s Oscars and Todd Phillips’s Joker (2019) generating buzz over next year’s ceremony, we would do well to remember the late Heath Ledger was the first to collect such recognition on behalf of the superhero.

If you don’t know what to watch next, the sequel to the director’s own Batman Begins (2005) is available to stream on Netflix.

In addition to Ledger’s posthumous Best Supporting Actor victory as the Joker, the superhero film was also honored for Richard King’s sound editing, alongside six other nominations.

The director coproduced and cowrote the endeavor.

In this outing, Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) strikes up an alliance with Gotham City Police Department Lieutenant James Gordon (Gary Oldman) and District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) to defeat the Falcone Crime Family and retire from being Batman.

Using the Caped Crusader’s vigilantism to their advantage, Jim, Harvey, and assistant DA Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal) arrest and charge corrupt Hong Kong accountant Lau (Ng Chin Han) and form a RICO case against mob boss Sal Maroni (Eric Roberts).

Out of desperation, the Mafia hires the Joker (Ledger), a psychopathic bank robber, to assassinate Batman, thus jeopardizing the normal life Bruce strives for with ex-lover Rachel (who is dating Harvey).

Nolan’s commitment to practical special effects is the stuff timeless cinematic spectacle is made of – even at eleven years old, the movie is no less a visual force to be reckoned with than it was back in its day.

On top of its agelessness, it democratizes itself to universality, a majestic blockbuster entertainment as well as a cerebral artistic meditation on the politics of anarcho-chaos, the legal philosophy of good versus evil, and the genre-bending of noir, epic, and comic book adaptation.

Its unpretentious sentiment that the “high” and “low” moviegoing publics need not be mutually exclusive is a feat of popular filmmaking ahead of its time.

And the dramatic power of Ledger’s performance meets the thematic and technical payloads of the production at large. He has drawn criticism from DC fans for his loose interpretation of the supervillain, but if that’s the case, then Ledger’s characterization is superior to the canon.

With dragonfire, he breathes life into one of the most iconic screen antagonists ever, blazing through every shot in which he is and casting a shadow over every frame in which he’s not.

It is a shame that Nolan’s masterpiece purports such a conservative worldview, particularly at a time in American history when conservatism was propagating crimes against humanity on a global scale.

The capitalistic wish fulfillment of a billionaire saving the world with his wealth is even more tone deaf when he invades the privacy of an entire city to do it (even if his surveillance system self-destructs upon “mission accomplished”).

Moreover, the Joker’s terroristic non-motivation subscribes to the Republican myth that al-Qaeda attacked the United States on September 11 because they’re “evildoers,” not anti-interventionists (this is not to rationalize terrorism, but rather to call out against the oversimplification of it).

That said, it does call Batman’s heroics into question, and challenges whether the ends really do justify the means. These shades of gray are what color the greatest film of its genre, its franchise, and its auteur’s filmography.

This revisionist experimentation may fail to a mediocre degree in Marc Webb’s The Amazing Spider-Man (2012) and Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel (2013), but as Robert Pattinson takes up Ben Affleck’s mantle, the Dark Knight’s most daunting rival will forever be The Dark Knight.

Amazon Prime review: HBO’s “Chernobyl” (2019)

Between AMC’s Mad Men (2007-2015) and HBO’s Chernobyl (2019), Jared Harris specializes in playing characters who meet a very specific fate.

If you don’t know what to watch next, Chernobyl is available on Amazon Prime. Showrunner Craig Mazin also wrote the historical drama, with Johan Renck directing. Both of them won Primetime Emmy Awards for their efforts, as well as Outstanding Limited Series.

The crux of the miniseries is the April 1986 Chernobyl nuclear plant disaster in Pripyat, the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. The characters encompass the bureaucrats behind the scenes of the meltdown in addition to its aftermath on the ground.

First responders, volunteers, and miners digging a tunnel under the compromised reactor are all spoken for here.

This USSR fable is altogether Hollywood in its presentation, not only for its production value, but also its characterization.

It is a post-September 11 American imagery to cast the firefighters on the scene, their health forever tainted from their own self-sacrifice, failed by the very government they serve.

Moreover, such dramatic democratization calls to mind Akira Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress (1958) as popularized through George Lucas’s Star Wars (1977), with commoners leading us across this epic narrative of institutional corruption and environmental apocalypse.

The aestheticism hums with an intoxicating foreboding as punishing as the decay which both literally and figurative eats away at the characters.

This verisimilitude bridges the temporal and geographic gulf between the Soviet Union and the contemporary United States, and, with the political and natural degradation facing us today, the themes of the show are allegorical in their implications.

Bearing witness to the ruination of these historical figures may make the audience wish to turn away, but its import to our own cultural trajectory is impossible to ignore.

It has always struck this critic as silly, though, when English-speaking actors play non-English-speaking roles (especially when it’s accented). In our shrinking world, the network had the resources to cast Eastern European players.

Modern viewers are media-savvy enough to read subtitles.

But it can be read as a textualization of the rhyme this team is conducting between East and West, between past and present, a way to set the tragedy in a world which more closely resembles our own.

Netflix review: A&E’s “Bates Motel” (2013-2017)

Sir Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) is the perfect film. When Gus Van Sant remade it in 1998, it was shot for shot because the only way to make the myth of Norman Bates is the Master of Suspense’s way.

Showrunners Carlton Cuse, Kerry Ehrin, and Anthony Cipriano opened this lightning in a bottle when they adapted a contemporary prequel for Hitchcock’s classic slasher to television.

But, then again, Hitch risked everything, too, when he produced Psycho.

If you don’t know what to watch next, A&E’s Bates Motel (2013-2017) is available to stream on Netflix. The psychological horror drama was nominated for three Primetime Emmy Awards. One of them was for Vera Farmiga, starring as Mother herself, Norma Bates.

After the death of his father, a teenaged Norman Bates (Freddie Highmore) moves from Arizona to the fictitious White Pine Bay, Oregon, to run a motel with his overbearing mother, as well as sickly classmate Emma Decody (Olivia Cooke).

Shortly thereafter, Norman’s half-brother, Dylan Massett (Max Thieriot), arrives unannounced to make a name for himself in the local drug trade.

With all the danger and dysfunction surrounding him, Norman grows more and more unstable, until the final season loosely interprets the narrative of Psycho.

Bates Motel is better than it has any right to be. Norman, the shy, awkward mama’s boy, could lazily be mischaracterized as the quirky, misunderstood boy next door you knew back from high school.

He isn’t.

The series is an unsexy character study of a voyeuristic serial killer with an Oedipus complex.

Conceivably, Norman is cast as the deuteragonist to Norma’s protagonist, the drama revolving around a mother’s (tragically futile) desperation to save her son from himself, and protect the people around him, too.

One could submit Norma is an antihero for much of the show.

She enables Norman’s obsession with her, fails Dylan as a parent, and lies and manipulates her way through the violent, criminal underbelly of White Pine Bay.

This would be a myopic assessment, because, ultimately, she redeems herself.

She institutionalizes Norman even though she’s no less codependent on him than he is on her, she ends up in a healthier relationship with Dylan despite her favoritism toward Norman, and, if the police can’t be trusted, then what choice does she have but to play the game for her family?

Norma is not always likable, but she is always sympathetic. She suffers from many symptoms of borderline personality disorder, and she’s an abuse survivor without constructive coping mechanisms, but her matriarchy is dynamic and adaptable enough to evolve.

Psycho is composed with unspoken undertones that Norman is the true victim, and his mother is to blame for his murders for the crime of being too domineering. Bates Motel lays the culpability where it belongs, squarely at Norman’s feet.

Farmiga’s sensitive tour-de-force is the justice her character deserves, which is why Bates Motel is one of the most ethically written antihero’s journeys in the Golden Age of TV, even going so far as to downplay the incestuous subtext.

The production is as masterful as the drama. John S. Bartley was up for the Emmy for Outstanding Cinematography for a Single-Camera Series, and Chris Bacon, Outstanding Music Composition for a Series. Bates Motel does Hitchcock’s iconic aesthetic proud.

Additionally, the meta-writing subverts modern audience expectations the same way Psycho did for contemporaneous viewers in a world where we all know about the shower setpiece (whether we’ve seen it or not).

Bates Motel finds a new way to shock us, and modernize the misogynistic spectacle for feminist consumption.

It deserves more than its network. Sometimes, the dialogue cries out for a curse word. But that’s only a minor complaint.

Bates Motel, even for a Psycho purist such as this critic, is well worth the stay.