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.

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.

Netflix review: Steven Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List” (1993)

The Holocaust film can be like television: when it’s good, there’s nothing better; when it’s bad, there’s nothing worse.

There is Liliana Cavani’s erotic psychological drama, Il portiere di note (1974), the love story between a concentration camp survivor and her guard (yes, you read that correctly), which exploits the Shoah the most offensively this critic has ever seen.

Then, there is Agnieszka Holland’s Europa Europa (1990), a subtle, sometimes satirical study of racial politics in Nazi Germany.

As for Stephen Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1993), it may be the most well-known of its ilk, but is it one of the greatest?

If you don’t know what to watch next, Schindler’s List is available to stream on Netflix. The historical period drama won seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture as well as Best Director, out of twelve nominations.

Steven Zaillian’s Best Adapted Screenplay is based upon the 1982 novel, Schindler’s Ark, by John Keneally.

It is World War II Poland, and Oskar Schindler (Best Actor nominee Liam Neeson), an ethnic German from Czechoslovakia, opens an enamelware factory in the Kraków Ghetto.

Together with black marketeer Itzhak Stern (Sir Ben Kingsley), the businessman bribes local Nazi insiders and and hires Jews because he can pay them less, effectively saving them from the death camps.

Meanwhile, SS-Untersturmführer Amon Göth (Best Supporting Actor nominee Ralph Fiennes) supervises the construction of the Plaszów concentration camp, terrorizing Kraków.

John Williams’s original score, Michael Kahn’s editing, Janusz Kamiński’s cinematography, and Ewa Braun and Allan Starski’s art direction are the rest of the Oscars the movie took home, in addition to its sound, makeup, and costume design nods.

As with any Spielberg vehicle, it is a technical revelation. Its black and white photography contributes to the documentarylike, newsreel realism of its setting, inviting audiences into the Final Solution like few mainstream releases have before or since.

For all its feats of filmmaking, this Spielbergian epic is minimalistic by the director’s standards, which plays to the picture’s strengths.

As a member of the film school generation, his feature-length debut, Duel (1971), is his New Hollywood masterpiece, over Jaws (1975), which would be, if not for the corporatization of filmmaking its groundbreaking “summer blockbuster” status is responsible for.

But these two works force Spielberg to do more with less, keeping him from crossing the line from “crowd-pleasing” to “sentimental” and “saccharine” like he’s known to do, and this sugarcoating would have crippled Schindler’s List.

Still, it has been criticized for peripherizing Holocaust victims in favor of mythologizing a German capitalist. While Schindler’s heroism is indisputable, and came at the price of his safety, he was still an opportunist first, almost more of a sympathetic antihero.

The cast of Jewish characters are dehumanized into an unindividualized horde of props for his redemption arc – one of them would have made for a more sensitive protagonist, such as Stern.

But Spielberg is shrewdly commercial above all else, and Schindler’s List is much too important a moment in cinematic history to fade into obscurity because of a Semitic leading man; as wrong as it is, how many readers out there can say they’ve even heard of Europa Europa?

This is a story the masses need to hear, and it is a story that needs to be celebrated. With far-right ideologues rising to power globally as the memory of fascism dies off with the generation that lived it, streamers would do well to rediscover Schindler’s List.

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.

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.

Netflix review: Rian Johnson’s “Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi” (2017)

With a hero from a desert planet who goes on to help destroy a galactic fascist’s superweapon, J.J. Abrams’s Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens (2015) can be read as a companion piece to George Lucas’s Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (1977).

In a similar vein, Rian Johnson’s Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi (2017) aims to be as game-changing a sequel as Irvin Kershner’s Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back (1980), but as it shoots for the moon, where does it land among the stars?

If you don’t know what to watch next, Star Wars: The Last Jedi is available to stream on Netflix. The epic space opera was nominated for four Academy Awards. The filmmaker also served as scriptwriter.

Rey (Daisy Ridley) arrives on the planet Ach-To to train in the Jedi arts with exiled Master Luke Skywalker (Mark Hammill) so she can defeat Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and his master, Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis).

At the same time, Resistance pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) flees a First Order dreadnought with a comatose General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) and Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo (Laura Dern); Poe plans to fight, but Holdo plots an escape.

Poe sends former First Order stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega) and a mechanic named Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran) to Canto Bight to rendezvous with the hacker DJ (Benicio del Toro) so he can deactivate the First Order’s tracking device.

It is refreshing to see a popular entertainment franchise like Star Wars and all its self-contained stylistic formulae churn out a “critic’s film” to be deconstructed through an authorial lens.

From a postmodern context, it is the most thematically ambitious release in the saga (not to say “ambition” always translates to “success”), and it needed to be after The Force Awakens inaugurated the third trilogy with a beat-for-beat revisit to A New Hope.

If The Empire Strikes Back is most remembered for its “big reveal,” then The Last Jedi is defined by its subverted expectations.

That said, as a sequel to The Force Awakens, The Last Jedi fails to satisfy some of the foreshadowing introduced in its parent film. While this is intentional, dramatically, it’s still… well… unsatisfying.

Maybe these films would have better consolidated this experiment with the mainstream myth that is the Star Wars universe if the same director had shot both of them.

In any case, the overarching poetry of Star Wars is the past rhyming with the present, and using the Rotten Tomatoes audience reception score for a litmus test, The Last Jedi complements The Empire Strikes Back as the movie even more beloved than A New Hope, the one that started it all.

Netflix review: Showtime’s “Dexter” (2006-2013)

Dexter Morgan is remembered alongside Jaime Lannister and Patty Hewes as one of the greatest antiheroes in the Golden Age of Television, and for a time, all three of these characters were flying high.

But in the end, none of them could stick the landing.

If you don’t know what to watch next, Showtime’s Dexter (2006-2013) is available to stream on Netflix. The crime drama mystery series is James Manos, Junior’s, adaptation of the 2004 novel Darkly Dreaming Dexter by Jeff Lindsay.

Leading man Michael C. Hall and guest start John Lithgow both won Golden Globe Awards in 2010 for their portrayals of the Bay Harbor Butcher himself and the iconic Trinity Killer, respectively.

Dexter is a forensic blood spatter analyst for the fictional Miami Metro Police Department moonlighting as a serial killer who murders other serial killers.

His adoptive father, the late Detective Harry Morgan (James Remar), secretly raised him to act on his violent sociopathy as a vigilante.

In order to blend into the civilian crowd, Dexter enters a relationship with the fragile Rita Bennett (Julie Benz) as part of his double life, and because his adoptive sister, Debra Morgan (Jennifer Carpenter), works homicide at Miami Metro, his criminal lifestyle threatens all he has.

The show overstays its welcome by about three or four seasons, but for the first half of its run, it is both a playful dark comedy as well as an astute psychological thriller, fashioning a sharp character study of a psychopath whose victims deserve it.

At its best-written, Hall’s dry voiceover narrates Dexter’s truth, when so much of the character’s life is performance. At its worst, it is repetitive, lazy exposition for onscreen events we can already see for ourselves.

The supporting cast is unevenly characterized also, sometimes to satisfactory effect, only for most of their promising developments to be forgotten about in service of some contrived new conflict.

Filler abounds in the later seasons, and, sometimes, the lattermost villains are unmemorable (the cliched Eastern European hitman, “the Wolf” (Ray Stevenson), in the seventh season; the been-there-done-that “Brain Surgeon” (Darri Ingolfsson) in the eighth season).

Other times, they’re ridiculous (the laughable “Doomsday Killer” (Colin Hanks) in the sixth season).

Much ink has been spilled about the finale, which could’ve been passable without the whack at an ambiguous, open-ended coda tacked onto the end.

To the showrunner’s credit, it is uncanny that Dexter could salvage enough material for its fourth (and best) season after a second season that would have been the last season for any other drama.

While can be argued that it should have ended with the bloody, poetic climax of the fourth season, one of the most game-changing twists of all time, the fifth season is still watchable.

Too bad the same can’t be said for the sixth season.

Even then, there are still two more seasons to go before it’s put out of its misery.

Dexter is a classic example of TV milking its appeal dry until it becomes a pale shadow of its former self, rather than blowing out on a high note like AMC’s Breaking Bad (2008-2013).

It is a cautionary tale that any premise, no matter how ingenious, will be known for how unwatchable it becomes past its shelf life.

For the masterpiece it could’ve been, quit bingeing at the fourth season, and for more of what makes it entertaining, the fifth season.

For the example it’s made of itself in TV history, subject yourself to the slow, painful end.