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.

What we know so far about Vince Gilligan’s “El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie” (2019)

Netflix has dropped a teaser trailer for Vince Gilligan’s El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie (2019), with authorities interrogating Skinny Pete (Charles Baker) as to the location of Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul), according to The Guardian. Taking place after Jesse’s escape in a stolen Chevrolet El Camino at the end of AMC’s Breaking Bad (2008-2013), the only painstakingly curated, spoiler-free details Netflix will release about the film are that for Jesse to have a future, he must face his past. The picture will be uploaded to Netflix October 11, and it is anticipated to be broadcast on AMC as well.

The Obamas produce a Netflix documentary about globalization

Kolhatkar-AmericanFactory
Michael Moore praised American Factory at a recent Museum of Modern Art showing. (Image Courtesy: The New Yorker).

Netflix will upload Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert’s American Factory (2019) on Wednesday, with Barack and Michelle Obama’s Higher Ground Productions picking up the documentary after its premiere at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, according to The New Yorker. The subject of the film is a General Motors plant in Ohio that closed in 2008 and reopened as Fuyao Glass America under a Chinese investor, and the culture clash between management and the employees. It marks the first release for the Obamas’ newly minted production company, which has also scheduled a Frederick Douglass biopic, a drama about women and people of color set in post-World War II New York, and an educational series teaching nutrition to preschoolers.

Netflix review: Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds” (2009)

Once upon a time… in Nazi-occupied France…

If you don’t know what to watch next, Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds (2009) is available to stream on Netflix. The war film was nominated for eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture.

Christoph Waltz won Best Supporting Actor for his portrayal of SS Colonel Hans Landa.

The movie strings three storylines like Christmas lights around the premiere of a fictitious National Socialist propaganda piece in World War II Paris.

A Jewish American paramilitary group called “the Basterds,” led by First Lieutenant Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), scalps German soldiers.

British Royal Marine Lieutenant Archie Hicox (Michael Fassbender) rendezvouses with the Basterds as part of his government’s plan to assassinate the Nazi leadership in attendance at the showing of Doctor Joseph Goebbels’s (Sylvester Groth) Stolz der Nation (1944).

And Shosanna Dreyfus (Mélanie Laurent), a French Jew whose family was massacred by Hans, masquerades in Paris as the gentile theater owner hosting the Nation’s Pride debut, plotting her own justice against the Third Reich.

If Kill Bill (2003-2004) is a revenge fantasy for women and Django Unchained (2012) is the same for Black Americans, then Inglourious Basterds and its alternate history of Jewish vengeance makes up something of a trilogy with these two companion pieces.

Tarantino is a master of this subgenre, and the grand finale of Inglourious Basterds exhibits his genius for this niche at its most cathartic.

There is something to be said, however, about his attempt at empowerment through aestheticized violence. Such exploitative filmmaking can horrify the audience with images of fascists getting burned alive, when the narrative is intended to dramatize a triumph over their ideology.

It’s not that they don’t deserve it – it’s that the wrong crowd could sympathize with them.

Furthermore, the twice-nominated auteur (Best Director and Best Original Screenplay) indulges in some of his more infamous weaknesses as a filmmaker and screenwriter, such as inconsistent pacing and self-gratifying dialogue.

Notwithstanding, Tarantino inspires in Waltz a star-making performance, which, together with his other Oscar-winning turn in Django Unchained, testifies to his range as an actor, from unlikable characterizations to the likable.

But the star who shines brightest in Inglourious Basterds is Laurent. Shosanna is one of the director’s finest creations, and though her screen time runs brief relative to her castmates, she steals the show.

She is a tragic figure who deserves better, an intersectional survivor of racism and misogyny (which go hand in glove in far-right zeitgeists like Nazi Germany) who wins in the end anyway.

Her arc towers at the center of Tarantino’s theme of reclaiming cinema to literally destroy the Nazis after they appropriated and perverted the art form to construct Nazism through their propaganda machinery.

Shosanna speaks to the hearts of Tarantino’s fellow cinephiles with a power unlike any other monologist throughout his filmography, and even though she doesn’t get her happily ever after in this quirky fairytale of Hitler’s France, she still gets the last laugh.

Martin Scorsese’s new movie to premiere at New York Film Festival

Martin Scorsese’s Netflix-produced The Irishman (2019) will premiere as the opening-night picture September 27 for the New York Film Festival at Alice Tully Hall, according to Deadline Hollywood. The crime drama reunites Scorsese with Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci for the first time since Casino (1995), and stars De Niro as Frank Sheeran, who admitted to killing twenty-five men – including Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino) – for Pennsylvania Mafia boss Russell Bufalino (Pesci). The movie cost Netflix more than a hundred million dollars, and the streaming service anticipates a theatrical release (like they did with Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma (2018)) later this fall.