Hulu review: Paul Feig’s “A Simple Favor” (2018)

Can you keep a secret?

If you don’t know what to watch next, Paul Feig’s A Simple Favor (2018) is available to stream on Hulu. The black comedy mystery thriller stars Anna Kendrick and Blake Lively. It is based on the 2017 novel of the same name by Darcey Bell.

Stephanie Smothers (Kendrick) is a widowed single mother who vlogs.

She befriends Emily Nelson (Lively), a fashion PR director as well as wife to English professor Sean Townsend (Henry Golding), after a playdate between their sons, Miles Smothers (Joshua Satine) and Nicky Townsend (Ian Ho).

When Emily disappears, Stephanie tries to solve the mystery.

All fictional genres are governed by their respective rules of writing, especially in film, which is edited according to an assembly-line formula as cutting as journalism, but the beats of suspense are arguably the most rhythmically drummed.

Jessica Sharzer’s script marches along its tightrope of tension with nary a misstep, a whole as much greater than the sum of its parts as a jigsaw puzzle. This female-led noir, written by two different women, feminizes a stereotypically misogynistic tradition of storytelling.

And leading the charge is Lively, the femme fatale herself. Even with a male filmmaker behind the camera, she is not objectified under the male gaze – in fact, her costumery, though sexy, is borderline androgynous, stylizing her sex appeal without exploiting it.

Through a look on her face, Lively can charge even just a line of dialogue into a livewire.

Kendrick dynamizes, too, as the unreliable narrator with secrets of her own. She chases her candy-coated vlogger persona with an ominous subtext which unsettles every foundation she lays for this closet where she hides her skeletons.

Stephanie is as psychologically complex as any noir antihero, but in a way that doesn’t masculinize her.

Now, for all the movie’s generic pleasures, its comedy dulls its sharp edges. The climactic fart joke is anticlimactic, and, as with many age-diverse casts, the child actors try too hard (which is not to judge them, but the adults who write and direct their characters).

This isn’t to say humor and crime are mutually exclusive, but, where, say, David Fincher’s Gone Girl (2014) satirizes the “missing white woman” media narrative ingeniously, A Simple Favor is apolitically set in white, upper-middle-class suburbia.

Still, no picture is above reproach, and while A Simple Favor isn’t perfect, like Stephanie and Emily, it’s picture perfect.

Netflix review: Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver” (1976)

In 1981, John Hinckley, Junior, shot then United States President Ronald Reagan in an attempt to impress Jodie Foster. His stalkerish obsession with the actress began at the release of Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976), when she was still only just a child star.

The would-be assassin even sported Robert De Niro’s mohawk from the film.

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

The neo-noir psychological thriller was nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actor for De Niro, Best Supporting Actress for Foster, and Best Original Score for Bernard Herrmann.

It is based off the diaries of Arthur Bremer, who shot presidential candidate George Wallace in 1972.

Travis Bickle (De Niro) is an insomniac Vietnam War veteran living in New York who works as an overnight cabbie.

He becomes infatuated with Betsy (Cybill Shepherd), a campaign volunteer for Senator Charles Palantine (Leonard Harris), and befriends Iris “Easy” Steensma (Foster), a twelve-year-old runaway prostitute whom he fixates upon saving from herself.

As the city falls apart around him, Travis’s mind descends into madness right along with it, until he resorts to violence in his desperation to connect with the women in his life.

The filmmaker cinematically externalizes Travis’s broken psyche via the setting, thanks in no small part to Herrmann’s atmospheric composition.

Herrmann, whose most iconic work is featured in Sir Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), also scored Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane (1941) as well as Hitchcock’s own Vertigo (1958), both of which are in competition for greatest film ever made.

The songsmith died in his sleep Christmas Eve 1975, after going home from finalizing Taxi Driver.

But a cinematic character study such as this is a marriage between the musical in addition to the dramatic arts, and De Niro proves to be a bedfellow worthy of Herrmann, and, for that matter, Scorsese.

If an actor is only as good as their director, then Scorsese and De Niro’s partnership is a match made in Heaven.

Scorsese’s rapport with editor Thelma Schoonmaker speaks to his understanding of film as a collaborative medium, and his Cape Fear (1991) is his most cathartic concert with De Niro, capturing him at the capstone of his Method acting.

Travis Bickle festers at the more sympathetic end of the spectrum, a product of his ultraviolent environment.

As for Foster, even at Iris’s age, she could be counted upon to hold her own against De Niro. She is all at once childishly innocent and aged beyond her years, something for Travis to live for but also something for him to kill for.

She is the foil reflecting back at us our (anti)hero’s journey from ticking time bomb to celebrated media vigilante, and it would be rhapsodic, if not for its real-world consequences (for which Foster is not to blame).

Brian De Palma’s Carrie (1976) is the last New Hollywood masterpiece, and this critic writes this knowing Taxi Driver came out the same year, because it is not Scorsese’s masterwork (that honor belongs to GoodFellas (1990)).

The auteur almost quit filmmaking over the Reagan shooting. While Hinckley probably would have turned to terrorism anyway with or without Taxi Driver, his fetishization of Foster and his plan to get her to notice him were both informed by the movie, leading one to wonder…

…Does Travis get what he deserves from Scorsese?

Again, this is an artistic judgment of the director, not a legal one; no artist is anything other than human, and at least he doesn’t take the power of his craft lightly.

Fascist propagandists employed motion pictures to Nazify Germany, and, though militant antisemitism existed before cinema, Doctor Joseph Goebbels still articulated this far-right ideology for Adolf Hitler and his followers.

It’s his reverence for the art form where Scorsese’s genius comes to life, and a movie that can change the course of history itself is an essential study for any cinephile.

Amazon Prime review: HBO’s “Sharp Objects” (2018)

The 2012 novel Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn should have won the Pulitzer Prize, or, at the very least, a National Book Award, for its postmodern black comedy of manners on marriage and relationships.

David Fincher’s 2014 adaptation of the same title, from a script by Flynn herself, was likewise snubbed at that year’s Academy Awards.

Flynn, a hybrid between Stephen King and Sir Alfred Hitchcock, Missouri’s answer to King’s Maine, debuted in 2006 with Sharp Objects, and mainstream literature as well as popular genre fiction have found a lovechild in her, too.

If you don’t know what to watch next, HBO’s Sharp Objects (2018) is available on Amazon Prime.

Marti Nixon’s psychological thriller miniseries was nominated for three Primetime Emmy Awards, including Outstanding Lead Actress in a Limited Series of Movie for Amy Adams, Outstanding Supporting Actress for Patricia Clarkson, and Outstanding Limited Series.

Flynn herself executive produced.

Recently released out of a Chicago hospital for self-mutilation, alcoholic crime journalist Camille Preaker (Adams) is assigned to cover multiple child murders in her hometown of Wind Gap, Missouri.

The visit forces her to reunite with her estranged mother, Adora Crellin (Clarkson), a small-town socialite.

As the mystery unfolds, the troubled Camille finds herself losing the battle with the demons from her past.

Camille is one of the great antiheroes in the Golden Age of Television, as desperately needed a woman for this archetype as Norma Bates.

Across a pseudo-feminist landscape of problematic superwomen who do not so much empower women with humanization as pander to their pocketbooks for corporate fat cats who run Hollywood from the other side of the glass ceiling, Adams’s turn is a breath of fresh air.

She is as flawed as any noir protagonist, but not at the expense of an ethical characterization.

What makes her a sympathetic leading lady are her faults, for she is as much a victim of Wind Gap’s violent misogyny (which is symptomatic of the slave state’s Confederate history) as the girls whose murders she’s compromising her own mental health to help investigate.

A contemporary Southern Gothic murder mystery in the same vein as William Faulkner and Daphne du Maurier, the quasi-Italian neorealistic setting calls to mind the juxtaposition of ancient Roman artifacts against postwar modernization in the aestheticism of Federico Fellini.

The production constructs a morose tone through the overexposed lighting of the cinematography and the suffocating diegesis of the soundtrack, provoking the same numbing mood as the traumatized main character between her broken interactions and dark flashbacks.

The Crellin family is the most dysfunctional this side of Tennessee Williams, even though they’re just as picture perfect. Anchoring this dichotomous image is Clarkson.

Adora recalls Blanche DuBois in the tradition of Scarlett O’Hara herself, Vivien Leigh, the aging Southern belle in a changing world, using her fading beauty to dress up the ugliness of Southern American culture in moth-eaten clothes.

Clarkson is an icy Hitchcock blonde where Adams is a psychologically tortured noir antihero.

But a filmic adaptation of Flynn’s book might have been stronger.

The episodic format of the miniseries pads some scenes for runtime until they’re filler, with subplots from secondary characters who pale in comparison to Camille’s character study and the murder mystery as a framing device.

Granted, at two and a half hours, Gone Girl still makes a meal of its source material, but not one frame of the final product belongs on the cutting room floor; the same can’t be said about Sharp Objects.

But if Sharp Objects is guilty of any sin, it’s being too much of a good thing.

Some would call it and its writer misogynistic, and the case could be made against the “false accusation” narrative in Gone Girl (though one could argue it’s a critique of “white woman gone missing” feminism), but Sharp Objects is not unsympathetic toward Camille, or even Adora.

To the critical viewer, it is more an indictment of its setting than its cast (like many Great American Writers, Gillian Flynn trained in the unsentimental, lowest-common-denominator mass appeal of commercial journalistic storytelling).

She is possessed of a Hitchcockian pragmatism for dolling up such universal themes of the human condition as sex and death with timeless craftsmanship and mastery, casting all her Tarantinoesque pulp fiction through the same literary lens as her masterpiece.

Hulu review: Roman Polanski’s “Rosemary’s Baby” (1968)

In response to the moral panic surrounding the youth counterculture of the Cold War, with Communism threatening to indoctrinate pro-Kennedy children against their pro-Eisenhower parents, a cycle of “demonic child” films were released in the 1960s and 1970s.

Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968), William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973), and Richard Donner’s The Omen (1976) constructed a zeitgeist around Brian De Palma’s Carrie (1976), the last New Hollywood masterpiece.

But Carrie isn’t Satanic, and the three productions that are, are said to be cursed – indeed, the year after Rosemary’s Baby came out, the director’s pregnant wife, Sharon Tate, was murdered at the hands of Charles Manson’s cult of… well… Devil-worshipping hippies.

If you don’t know what to watch next, Rosemary’s Baby is available to stream on Hulu. The psychological supernatural horror picture is the auteur’s own Academy Award-nominated  adaptation of the same-titled 1967 novel by Ira Levin.

Ruth Gordon won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her portrayal of creepy neighbor Minnie Castevet.

Rosemary (Mia Farrow) and Guy Woodhouse (independent filmmaking pioneer John Cassavetes) move into an apartment in New York City.

A struggling actor, Guy befriends the elderly Minnie and Roman Castevet (Sidney Blackmer) right before he tells Rosemary he wants a baby.

Rosemary experiences a lucid nightmare about an incubus raping her in front of the Castevets and Guy the night they try to conceive, and that’s only the beginning of the the paranoid, conspiratorial dread Rosemary lives during her pregnancy.

Polanski honed the craftsmanship behind his atmospheric tension with his Nóz w wodzie (1962), one of the most impressive debuts ever put to film, a feature much like Rosemary’s Baby where the Hitchcockian terror lies not in the bang, but in the anticipation of it.

In Polanski’s and the Master of Suspense’s hands alike, the most familiar moments throughout the everyman’s day become fodder for the most cinematic anxiety (which makes it all the more real).

They are inherently European artists, learning how to do more with less on the postwar continent without all the American isolationism and atomic imperialism shielding Hollywood from such ruination.

Perhaps Polanski’s Generation X Antichrist was born from being next-door neighbors to the far-left Soviet Union.

And the both of them reached their fullest potential when they came West.

Rosemary’s Baby paved the way for Francis Ford Coppola’s Hollywood Renaissance masterwork, The Conversation (1974), the most significant sound film since Alan Crosland’s The Jazz Singer (1927), with its cloak-and-dagger mystery.

Carrie, too, owes its iconic twist ending to this Levin interpretation, the novelist also having written The Stepford Wives in 1972 as well as Sliver in 1991.

What keeps Polanski obsessing over these neurotic themes, notably in Repulsion (1965, which would go on to inspire Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan (2010)) and Chinatown (1974), is his childhood as a Holocaust survivor, as expressed through The Pianist (2002).

Rosemary’s Baby is the drama of a gaslit woman who suspects she’s the target of evil incarnate and turns out to be right about the people organizing against her.

The darkness tantalizes everyone around her via their most destructive characteristics, until Rosemary herself succumbs, too.

But Polanski himself is an abusive man.

In 1977, the filmmaker was arrested and charged for drugging and raping a thirteen-year-old girl in Los Angeles, ultimately fleeing to France in 1978 before he could be sentenced and avoiding all countries likely to extradite him to the United States.

Whether one can support a creative’s work without condoning their behavior, is up for debate, but whichever side you land on may color your interaction with the movie.

But how horrifying it is that a Polish Jew’s family was killed by white supremacists the year after he shot Rosemary’s Baby. It makes this tale of Lucifer’s bride all the more personal for its director.

And that much more powerful for its audiences.

Netflix review: AMC’s “Better Call Saul” (2015-)

To spin off AMC’s Breaking Bad (2008-2013) is to ask lightning to strike twice.

Vince Gilligan captured that lightning in a bottle with his masterpiece, and he corked it at its zenith, when the business of television characteristically pressures showrunners to push series past their expiration dates until every possible penny can be squeezed out of them.

It is only fitting for the network to ask Gilligan to open the bottle back up again and release some more of the lightning that lit up the sky on AMC, but even a genius of Gilligan’s caliber would be hard-pressed to cast a new spell with the same magic as he did the first time.

If you don’t know what to watch to watch next, AMC’s Better Call Saul (2015-) is available to stream on Netflix.

It has been nominated for twenty-three Primetime Emmy Awards over the course of its run, and the series premiere set the record for highest-rated scripted premiere in basic cable. Creators Gilligan and Peter Gould also executive produce the crime drama.

Set in Albuquerque, 2002, Bob Odenkirk reprises his role as Jimmy McGill, a con artist struggling to legitimize himself as an attorney under the shadow of his successful older brother, Chuck McGill (Michael McKean), with the support of love interest Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn).

Meanwhile, retired police officer Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks) first involves himself in the Salamanca cartel via drug lord Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito).

All of this culminates toward Jimmy’s transformation into Saul Goodman, with a framing device of flash-forwards to his life after Breaking Bad as a Cinnabon manager in Omaha named Gene.

If Breaking Bad is a tragedy with comedic undertones, then Better Call Saul is a comedy with tragic undertones. This complementariness is the shaft through which Better Call Saul mines from the mythos of its parent show while at the same time standing on its own two feet.

It justifies its existence in its own right, without any opportunistic, exploitative excess.

For that reason, fans of Breaking Bad may not necessarily be fans of Better Call Saul.

The respective compositions may reach the same production value – cinematographer Arthur Albert shoots TV’s two most cinematic programs on location in a sweepingly photogenic New Mexico – but they sing with two different (yet harmonistic) voices.

Better Call Saul is much slower-paced than the addictive, bingeworthy Breaking Bad, with less explosive payoffs.

Lovingly cut montages of mundane moments abound, none of which are filler, but all of which may be hard to swallow for someone expecting more of the same from Breaking Bad.

In a similar vein, Jimmy McGill’s descent into Saul Goodman is as sociopathic as Walter White’s (Bryan Cranston) into Heisenberg, if not as violent, and that is where the text’s brilliance flickers.

Jimmy is such an adept conman, he could scam the uncritical thinker into sympathizing with him.

He ruins reputations, careers, and lives over his deception and manipulation, no matter how zippy his one-liners are, and there ought to be no straightening his crooked path in our minds, because Jimmy’s own rationalization further evinces his antisocial personality.

Warts and all, Better Call Saul is a character study of an antihero as great as any other in the Golden Age of TV. In fact, it’s in a class all its own because of its dark humor.

We may have yet to see how it ends, but, in Gilligan’s hands, who engineered the most perfect series finale of all time for Breaking Bad, it only does what every worthwhile spinoff should and gives you more to look forward to.

Amazon Prime review: Stanley Kubrick’s “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb” (1964)

Between Iran, North Korea, Russia, and the United States, the threat of nuclear holocaust needs to be laughed at again.

If you don’t know what to watch next, Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) is available on Amazon Prime. The political satire black comedy was nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Picture.

As producer, director, and co-adapter, the filmmaker himself was up for three out of the four.

Paranoid that the Soviet Union is fluoridating American water supplies to poison our “precious bodily fluids,” General Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden), the Burpelson Air Force Base commander, circumnavigates the Pentagon and orders a nuclear strike against the USSR.

In the War Room, General Buck Turgidson (George C. Scott), President Merkin Muffley (Oscar nominee Peter Sellers), and their scientific adviser, the former Nazi German Doctor Strangelove (also Sellers), scramble to stop Jack from triggering the Soviets’ “doomsday machine.”

Meanwhile, Group Captain Lionel Mandrake (once more Sellers), a Royal Air Force exchange officer, discovers the general’s code to call off the mission, but only after a surface-to-air missile destroys the radio equipment for Major T.J. “King” Kong’s (Slim Pickens) B-52.

In keeping with his style of adapting literary works, Dr. Strangelove is Kubrick’s interpretation of Red Alert by Peter George.

The Writers Guild of America ranked it as the twelfth greatest screenplay ever written, and it was among the first films selected for preservation at the United States Library of Congress’s National Film Registry in 1989.

With ninety-eight percent of critical reviews aggregated through Rotten Tomatoes praising the movie, it is Kubrick’s highest-rated title on the site.

Although this critic still regards A Clockwork Orange (1971) as the auteur’s masterpiece, Kubrick’s versatility with genres is readily apparent in this dark comedy, listed as number three on the American Film Institute’s “100 Years… 100 Laughs.”

A unifying theme throughout all of Kubrick’s works, despite their diversity, is a cerebral, pessimistic take on the human condition. The picture’s resemblance to the nuclear brinkmanship coloring international diplomacy today immortalizes Kubrick’s Cold War art.

But that he can alchemically make of it an entertainment suggests there is hope to be found, even if we must create it ourselves.

The signature Kubrickian style exists not only in the topical fabric of the text, but also in the aesthetical presentation.

The crazy-eyed “Kubrick stare” will never make you laugh more nervously than when you see Sellers construct it via the titular Doctor Strangelove, transcending across genres.

Each frame is blocked as rigidly (which isn’t to say “lifelessly”) as a painting, summoning a cold, sterile, perfectionistic mise en scène.

And the performances under Kubrick’s direction are equally controlled according to his genius; just ask Malcolm McDowell from A Clockwork Orange or Shelley Duvall from The Shining (1980) how “method” a filmmaker he was.

Neither Scott nor Pickens knew their performances were being played for laughs, conflicting a tension against the absurdity of their material, and Sellers makes the most out of his three roles, even though he was only cast in them because of studio interference and not authorial intent.

Scott refused to ever work with Kubrick again when he saw the final product.

Kubrick’s dramatic immersion could be physically as well as psychologically abusive, but it’s only because he was a creative obsessively devoted to fine-tuning his craft, with an ear for soundtracking and an eye for literature, who did so much for filmmaking with so few films.

That said, the representation in this film (or lack thereof) dates it somewhat. Buck’s secretary and mistress, the unnamed Miss Scott (Tracy Reed), is the only female character in the cast, and even then, again, she’s his nameless assistant and lover.

As the only person of color, King’s lieutenant, Lothar Zogg (James Earl Jones), plays second fiddle, too.

But not all representation is good representation, and only white men could be fragile enough to end the world over a pissing contest.

Hulu review: Mike Gabriel and Eric Goldberg’s “Pocahontas” (1995)

Beginning with Ron Clements and John Musker’s The Little Mermaid (1989) and ending with Kevin Lima and Chris Buck’s Tarzan (1999), the Disney Renaissance is to Disney what the Hollywood Renaissance is to Golden Age Hollywood.

Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise’s Beauty and the Beast (1991) may be the first animated film ever eligible for the Best Picture Academy Award, but Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff’s The Lion King (1994) is the studio’s masterstroke.

With Mike Gabriel and Eric Goldberg’s Pocahontas (1995), the overpowered media conglomerate attempts to recapture the prestige of Beauty and the Beast as well as the success of its predecessor, The Lion King, the top-grossing traditionally animated movie of all time.

Ambition paints every frame with all the colors of the wind, but ambition can also dance perilously close to pretension, and one misstep can spell disaster.

If you don’t know what to watch next, Pocahontas is available to stream on Hulu.

The animated musical romantic drama won Best Original Song for “Colors of the Wind,” and composer Alan Menken and lyricist Stephen Schwartz were honored a second time that year with the Oscar for Best Original Musical or Comedy Score.

The eponymous hero would go on to become the first Native American Disney Princess and the first woman of color to lead a cast of Disney characters.

Set in 1607, Captain John Smith (voiced by Mel Gibson) sails with the Virginia Company to the New World in search of adventure.

Once landing in Tsenacommacah, he meets and falls in love with Pocahontas (Irene Bedard, with Judy Kuhn as the singing voice), the free-spirited daughter of Chief Powhatan (Russell Means, with vocals from Jim Cummings).

But the greedy, genocidal Governor Ratcliffe (David Ogden Stiers) is obsessed with pillaging the Powhatan tribe’s land for gold, and his conquest threatens to make a tragedy out of the star-crossed lovers’ forbidden romance.

Artistic liberties are taken in almost all works of historical fiction – to quote Sir Alfred Hitchcock, “Drama is life with all the dull bits cut out” – but the sanitization and whitewashing found in Pocahontas have aged the text poorly.

The real Pocahontas was not a “magical minority,” but, rather, a child bride, and the colonizers didn’t make peace with her people after she learned how to speak English by “listening with her heart.”

As for John Smith, his “exploration” was more correctly an “invasion,” an “imperialization,” and it shouldn’t have taken a “noble savage” like Pocahontas to humanize First Nation people in his eyes (through her sexuality, no less).

This problematic, post-Kevin Costner’s Dances with Wolves (1990) white savior narrative of exotification crystallizes at its most egregious in the musical number, “Savages.”

The back-and-forth parallelism of the song conflates the white supremacy of the European settlers alongside the self-defensive resistance from the indigenous groups, drawing a false equivalency between the two that the First Americans were as intolerant as the British Empire.

Intentionalism is a critical fallacy, and Disney’s white liberal, apologistic intentions here are irrelevant.

If the true story of Pocahontas is too upsetting for their key demographic to understand without reducing the Powhatan culture to something that existed only for white men to appropriate it, then it’s a story that never should be told to children.

But, for what it is within the context of the Disney canon, Pocahontas is an epic entertainment. The soundtrack raises goosebumps, and the animation is as colorful as the signature song.

Apolitically, the love story between John Smith and Pocahontas is one of the most mature and affecting in the Disney universe, and, hey, if nothing else, Ratcliffe is shown to be more villainous than Powhatan.

If your child is too young to learn the real history behind Pocahontas, then at least take care to teach them what reel history means. The insultingly oversimplified themes of the picture will be digestible enough to entertain them, but the more harmlessly so, the better.

And as far as Disney fare goes, its family-friendliness is just as accessible for adults looking to enjoy a more grownup tale of intercultural (though largely fictionalized) romance, as it is for kids looking to sing along to some catchy tunes.