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.

Amazon Prime review: Netflix’s “House of Cards” (2013-2018)

Perhaps because of Donald Trump’s years in Hollywood, Beau Willimon anticipated his presidency with Netflix’s House of Cards (2013-2018).

He shares so many traits with Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) and Claire Hale Underwood (Robin Wright), it’s barely even hyperbolic anymore.

Or maybe it takes a specific cluster of narcissistic, antisocial personalities to chase power over others.

Either way, it makes for good TV.

If you don’t know what to watch next, House of Cards is available on Amazon Prime. The political thriller is a remake of BBC’s House of Cards (1990), which, in turn, is an adaptation of the 1989 Michael Dobbs novel of the same name.

It is the first original online-only web television series to be nominated for major Primetime Emmy Awards.

Set in Washington, D.C., President Garrett Walker (Michael Gill) and White House Chief of Staff Linda Vasquez (Sakina Jaffrey) renege on a promise to appoint Democratic Congressman and House Majority Whip Frank Underwood of South Carolina to Secretary of State.

Together with his equally power-hungry wife, Claire, and right-hand henchman, Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly), an incensed Frank blackmails Democratic Congressman Peter Russo (Corey Stoll) of Pennsylvania and seduces ambitious young reporter Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara).

Through manipulation, betrayal, and murder, Frank and Claire climb all the way up to the White House.

Frank and Claire Underwood are two of the greatest antiheroes in the Golden Age of TV, and the way they hijack our democracy predicts what the current administration is up to today.

The inevitable parallels can be drawn between the Underwoods and Bill and Hillary Clinton, what with Frank’s Southern Democratic charm and Claire’s haircut.

But this only underscores the brokenness not of a political party, but an entire system where public figures like Donald Trump and Frank Underwood can scheme their way to the top, not because it’s what the American people want, but because it’s what they want.

What begins as a deceptively dry (though realistically written) dispute over an education bill slow-burns its way into the Underwood political machine threatening a proxy nuclear war against Russia in the Middle East.

The metamorphosis from the world in House of Cards to our own world is a psychological rollercoaster ride.

And Frank may be the star, but it’s Claire who steals the show. Lady Macbeth reborn, Claire’s aloof, Hitchcock blonde persona is her own proverbial house of cards behind which slithers a reptile even more apocalyptically cold-blooded than her husband.

She is a femme fatale, a conqueror, a usurper who waits for her husband to lose the games men play so she can inherit the oligarchy to which Frank auctioned off America to the highest bidder.

Except for this thematic turn of events is purely accidental. The accusations to come to light against Spacey as part of the #MeToo movement, (some of which were made by crewmembers on the House of Cards set), forced Willimon to write Frank out between the fifth and sixth seasons.

The penultimate cliffhanger, therefore, amounts to nothing, and the unplanned loss of the series lead could be alienating to some – the finale feels like something out of another show altogether.

But they call it “movie magic” for a reason, because Spacey’s firing was divine intervention. It was the best thing to happen to this series, since it casts Spacey as a Hitchcockian false protagonist for Claire.

If an antihero has to get his comeuppance for his character arc to be ethically written, then Frank deserves to know his story was Claire’s story all along.

Hulu review: Christopher McQuarrie’s “Mission: Impossible – Fallout” (2018)

Only a franchise with a set of rules written by Brian De Palma in 1996 could be this absurd and watchable at the same time.

If you don’t know what to watch next, Christopher McQuarrie’s Mission: Impossible – Fallout (2018) is available to stream on Hulu.

The action spy film is a follow-up to the fifth installment in the series, McQuarrie’s own Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (2015), making him the first filmmaker to return and direct more than one of these movies.

McQuarrie also wrote the screenplay and co-produced alongside star Tom Cruise as well as Mission: Impossible III (2006) director J.J. Abrams.

Set two years after the events of Rogue Nation, Impossible Mission Force agent Ethan Hunt (Cruise) is tasked with buying three stolen plutonium cores in Berlin before a terrorist group known as the Apostles can on behalf of a mysterious client known as John Lark.

The mission goes awry, so CIA Director Erica Sloane (Angela Bassett) assigns Special Activities Division operative August Walker (Henry Cavill) to supervise Ethan as he tracks down the plutonium.

Meanwhile, former MI6 agent Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson) is hellbent on assassinating Rogue Nation villain Solomon Lane (Sean Harris) to prove her loyalty to the intelligence agency, even though he is the key to finding the missing plutonium.

Ethan Hunt is the American answer to England’s James Bond, and, while Bond is the more classic hero, Ethan is the more consistent.

He is not the womanizer Bond is, and, though he finds himself in “exotic” locales, his adventures are not quite as colonizing as Bond’s are, in that he is genuinely a world-saving hero, not a blunt instrument of imperialization.

The continuity between the Mission: Impossible flicks also develop his arc more, and that Cruise is the only actor to play him also further humanizes him, whereas Bond is more of an icon than a character.

As with any action picture, the staging of the set-pieces is imperative, and, in Fallout, the choreography is balletic.

Cruise prides himself on performing his own stunt work, and so the spectacle on display is more ageless than an overreliance on CGI which would become dated, not if, but when. McQuarrie has earned the right to helm the next two sequels.

As much pure dumb fun as Mission: Impossible is, it may be more “dumb” than “fun” for some. Ethan’s increasingly convoluted mission reveals can be laughable, and the longer he survives his escalating stakes (such as nuclear apocalypse), the greater the suspension of disbelief.

Then again, the ridiculousness is all part of the entertainment value, and Mission: Impossible is anything but self-serious.

In fact, it is its sillier flourishes that attract its cult following, and if you “get” it, you’re in for a ride.

Netflix review: Sam Mendes’s “American Beauty” (1999)

Sam Mendes would go on to direct another critique of suburbia after his American Beauty (1999), Revolutionary Road (2008). Together, the two are companion pieces – one sees the death of its leading man, the other, its leading lady.

Revolutionary Road, the later release in Mendes’s filmography (and starring his then-wife, Kate Winslet), marks a maturation of his “suburban prison” theme.

Meaning American Beauty is the more immature film.

If you don’t know what to watch next, American Beauty is available to stream on Netflix. The drama was nominated for eight Academy Awards and won five, including Best Picture as well as Best Director.

Best Original Screenplay winner Alan Ball was inspired by the “Long Island Lolita” media scandal.

As a framing device straight out of Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950), Lester Burnham (Best Actor Kevin Spacey) narrates the movie from beyond the grave after his murder at the hands of an unknown assailant.

He is a middle-aged magazine executive who is unhappily married to a real estate broker, Carolyn (Best Actress nominee Annette Bening), and father to an angsty teenager named Jane (Thora Birch).

Around the same time Colonel Frank Fitts (Chris Cooper) moves in next door with his repressed wife, Barbara (Allison Janney), and voyeuristic filmmaker son, Ricky (Wes Bentley), Lester becomes infatuated with Jane’s cheerleader friend, Angela Hayes (Mena Suvari).

American Beauty is frequently cited as among the worst Best Picture winners of all time, and its age has sullied it to a degree. Spacey’s own perverted past, which came to light during the #MeToo movement, makes his characterization of the pedophilic Lester a little too “realistic.”

That the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science celebrated him with an Oscar is further proof of the predator culture in Hollywood.

But, even if somebody else played Lester, the picture would still be flawed. It is a toxic masculine power fantasy for pedophiles.

Carolyn is an offensive caricature of career women, Ricky is a vehicle of wish fulfillment for Hollywood artists who objectify, fetishize, or otherwise obsess over their “muses,” and Frank proliferates the homophobic myth that male homophobes are closeted gay men.

Still, like the rose for which it is named, American Beauty is one of the most dramatically, aesthetically, and overall cinematically “beautiful” films ever made, thorns and all.

Conrad Hall’s Oscar-winning cinematography externalizes Lester’s perversion for the audience as poetically as such imagery can be photographed.

Coupled with Thomas Newman’s Heavenly nominated score and Mendes’s stage-like direction, it is some of the most striking non-CGI camerawork ever put to celluloid.

And Spacey’s line delivery is at times lyrical. His final voiceover never fails to raise chills. His performance is unethically good in that it is sympathetic, but, to the critical media consumer, it is still well worth the watch.

But it is Ball’s script that Spacey reads with such musicality, and what a script it is. It can be in equal measure comedic and stirring. Its satirical tone rings sharply inside us as a dark, sinfully watchable mood, as though pricked with… well… an American beauty.

For better or worse, American Beauty is a feat of American filmmaking out of a Hollywood dominated by abusive, older men. Its production value is impeccable, if not its ethos. At least Lester gets what he deserves at the end.