Netflix review: David Lean’s “Doctor Zhivago” (1965)

The Golden Age of Classical Hollywood effectively ended with the Paramount Decree in 1948, when an antitrust United States Supreme Court divested the studios of their theater holdings.

Forced to compete for screen space to compensate for the lost revenue, producers and executives resorted to gimmickry to attract audiences.

Then, with the advent of television around the same time, the cinematic arts were faced with an identity crisis as they recalibrated into technically ambitious, colorful melodramas TV simply couldn’t emulate at the time.

David Lean was the master of such large-scale spectacles, and his Doctor Zhivago (1965) is one of the last of its kind before the Second Golden Age of Hollywood took root later in the decade.

If you don’t know what to watch next, Doctor Zhivago is available to stream on Netflix. The epic romantic drama is based on the 1957 novel of the same name by Boris Pasternak, which was banned in the Soviet Union, so shooting largely took place in Spain.

It was nominated for ten Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and won five, all technical.

Functioning as a narrative framing device, KGB Lieutenant General Yevgraf Andreyevich Zhivago (Sir Alec Guinness) believes he has found the daughter of his half-brother, Doctor Yuri Andreyevich Zhivago (Omar Sharif), and his lover, Larissa “Lara” Antipova (Julie Christie).

It is the late 1940s or early 1950s Soviet Union, and as Yevgraf tells Tanya Komarova (Rita Tushingham) the story of Yuri’s life, we learn, via flashback, about his marriage to Tonya Gromeko (Geraldine Chaplin) during the Russian Revolution, and his love affair with Lara.

Lara’s husband, Pavel “Pasha” Antipova (Tom Courtenay), is a Red Army commander, and Yuri – a poet at heart – must flee for his life with his family when the new Communist government condemns his art as anti-leftist.

At a three-and-a-half-hour runtime with a period piece dramatization spanning two generations over half a century in a setting as culturally and historically rich as Russia, Doctor Zhivago is over the top and larger than life in all the best ways.

Freddie Young’s Oscar-winning photography as well as Maurice Jarre’s award-winning score mix together into a heady cinematic cocktail with the drama of Robert Bolt’s Best Adapted Screenplay.

The USSR of Doctor Zhivago sweeps across the screen as continentally as the Russian Empire itself. And, politically, it is a bold piece of filmmaking to come out of Cold War Europe (the picture is not a Hollywood production, but, rather, British and Italian).

It decries the totalitarian Soviet Union at a time when tensions between East and West were heating up in Vietnam.

For such a commercial feature, cashing in on that era’s craze for Technicolor, CinemaScope releases, what sets it apart from, say, Viktor Fleming’s Gone with the Wind (1939), is its commentary on a contemporaneous superpower.

Conversely, though, the movie depoliticizes the title character from page to screen. In the book, Yuri supports the Revolution, just not the direction it takes.

In an effort to make him a more marketable hero to Western viewers, Lean offers a more unambiguous anticommunist critique, which oversimplifies Pasternak’s source material into a capitalistically friendly cash grab.

It stops short of becoming right-wing propaganda, though, which is why Doctor Zhivago has aged into a classic for the old-fashioned streamer. It is excessive and self-indulgent, but only because there’s more for the cinephile to get lost in.

As one of the highest-grossing releases of all time (adjusted for inflation), it is an important part of cinematic history as the events it reconstructs are world history.

Netflix review: Robert Altman’s “Gosford Park” (2001)

With all the British period drama trappings of Michael Engler’s Downton Abbey (2019) as well as the “whodunit” flare of Rian Johnson’s Knives Out (2019), Robert Altman’s Gosford Park (2001) is just as relevant to contemporary cinephiles as it was at the turn of the millennium.

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

The mystery black comedy social satire won Downton Abbey writer Julian Fellowes the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay out of seven nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Supporting Actress for Helen Mirren and Maggie Smith.

The auteur also co-produced the ensemble picture.

Set in November 1932 England, industrialist Sir William McCordle (Michael Gambon) invites his extended family over for a weekend shooting party at their country estate, Gosford Park. Everybody is a suspect when the loathsome Sir William is murdered.

Alternating between the perspectives of the wealthy guests and their impoverished servants, who all have secrets to hide, this comedy of manners is as much about its setting as it is its mystery.

Altman’s signature style is more auditory than it is visual, and Gosford Park ought to have been nominated for its sound design.

As with his MASH (1970), the cacophonous dialogue overlaps to a sometimes unintelligible degree, which is not only true to life (seldom do people wait for cues to take their turn speaking) but also externalizes the chaos of the setting.

For MASH, it’s wartime Korea; in Gosford Park, it’s the imperialist West.

The script deftly deconstructs postindustrial-capitalist classist themes through the microcosm of an Agatha Christie murder mystery. It is ethically written, too – victim and perpetrator alike get the justice they deserve in the end.

With billionaires like Donald Trump and Michael Bloomberg running for President of the United States after buying the silence of women, Gosford Park is no less timely for its age or setting.

For its genre, though, the editing is less than ideal. At close to two and a half hours, the runtime runs counter to a genre that values tight pacing. Every scene in a thriller must lead into the next; Gosford Park was not recognized for its editing, and it shows.

But the scene-padding in Gosford Park develops its cast of characters literarily, and if it’s too much of anything, it’s too much of a good thing.

Netflix review: Joel and Ethan Coen’s “No Country for Old Men” (2007)

Between Raising Arizona (1987), Barton Fink (1991), Fargo (1996), The Big Lebowski (1998), and The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001), the Coen Brothers are proprietors to a quirky filmography.

As blackly comedic as they are, one would not foresee their masterpiece to be one of the most nihilistic mainstream Hollywood releases of our time.

While some of their humorous proclivities are underpinned here, No Country for Old Men (2007), by and large, is as bleak a tragedy as you are ever to see on the silver screen.

And it is their penchant for playing by their own rules that sees them subvert generic expectations to anarchic effect here.

If you don’t know what to watch next, No Country for Old Men is available to stream on Netflix. Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay Academy Award winners Joel and Ethan Coen also co-produced the neo-Western crime thriller.

The adaptation of the eponymous 2005 novel by Cormac McCarthy took home the Best Picture Oscar as well.

In 1980 Texas, pronghorn poacher Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) finds a briefcase full of two million dollars at a drug deal in the desert gone bad. When he takes the cash and runs, hitman Anton Chigurh (Best Supporting Actor Javier Bardem) is hired to pursue him.

Burned out Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) tries to get to Llewelyn before Anton does.

No Country for Old Men is infamous for its anticlimactic resolution, but those who dismiss it misunderstand what the Coens are saying about the subject matter at hand. The viewer’s sadistic desire to see Llewelyn or Anton killed makes us no better than Anton himself.

This ethically violent film literally punishes the audience for creating a world where Anton Chigurh can play death incarnate, which is the difference between tasteful, artistic onscreen violence versus that which is gratuitous and exploitative.

It is an ambiguous movie speaking with a voice you have to listen for in silence, rather than finding yourself deafened by it. Skip Lievsay was up for Best Sound Editing, and Lievsay, Craig Berkey, Greg Orloff, and Peter Kurland, Best Sound Mixing.

The film was robbed of both – it produces ear-splitting suspense with little to no music.

And this is thanks in no small part to Bardem’s iconic performance. Anton Chigurh is a force to be reckoned with, and the mere sight of him spells certain doom for all but every character to share a scene with him.

In fact, toward the latter part of the runtime, many of his killings occur offscreen because we don’t need to see them to know another one bites the dust; that’s how powerful his evil is.

But for all its philosophizing and social commentary, No Country for Old Men is better suited to literature than film. In its Golden Age, Classical Hollywood formulized the Fordist assembly line.

No Country for Old Men is dramatically unfulfilling, though thematically rich – the greatest pictures are the ones that can do both.

If you are possessed of the patience for an acquired taste, then No Country for Old Men will garner multiple viewings out of you. It will interrogate the Anton Chigurh within you, punish the Llewelyn Moss inside you, and depress the Ed Tom Bell in us all.

The only small comfort it offers is that the world isn’t getting worse, because it’s always been a hellscape.

Netflix review: James Wan’s “The Conjuring” (2013)

James Wan stumbled upon a cinematic universe which kicked off with the one that started it all, The Conjuring (2013). All told, The Conjuring Universe has put out eight features in seven years, as well as five shorts. The mythology has spawned sequels, prequels, and spinoffs.

In a world where the past decade of horror has been defined by The Conjuring, where it’s nigh impossible to remember life before it, it might be disappointing to hear it’s not worth the hype.

If you don’t know what to watch next, The Conjuring is available to stream on Netflix. The supernatural horror film purports to be based upon an historical Rhode Island haunting from 1971.

Eighty-five percent of critical reviews aggregated through Rotten Tomatoes are positive, which is about five or six percent too high.

Set in Harrisville, Roger Perron (Ron Livingston) and his wife, Carolyn (Lili Taylor), move into a farmhouse with their five daughters.

Once demonic activity befalls their home, they enlist the aid of paranormal investigators Ed Warren (Patrick Wilson) and his wife, Lorraine (Vera Farmiga), to combat these evil forces.

But the witch who cursed the land, Bathsheba Sherman (Joseph Bishara), sacrificed her child to the Devil before killing herself, and possesses Carolyn to do the same, using the franchise mascot, Annabelle the doll, to attack the Warrens’ daughter, Judy (Sterling Jerins); however, the Warrens cannot exorcise the property without approval from the Vatican, and the Perrons are not Catholic.

As far as horror auteurs go post-Wes Craven’s Scream (1996), one of the last masterpieces of the genre until Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook (2014), Wan has done more to mold horror in his own image since his directorial debut, Saw (2004), than any of his contemporaries.

The maestro of jump scares, his are more effective than the lazy imitations paling in comparison against them because his are accompanied by honest-to-God horrific imagery.

Wan is a filmmaker who lovingly crafts the horror he directs, which is more than can be said for the studios that cynically slap together uninspired releases for the slower months of the year for no other reason than that the genre is so cheap to make that it almost always yields a profit.

Like, say, the other Conjuring entries.

And The Conjuring is a progression from the absurdly stylized, unwatchably edited Saw. Wan’s atmospheric aesthetic raises the hairs on the back of your neck like there’s something watching you over your shoulder. Terrors rise up the screen like nightmares ascending from Hell.

But all the film’s style is in service to a cliched, forgettable narrative. The story of a family unwittingly moving into a haunted house is told competently, but not altogether originally (plus, five daughters are too many to develop sympathetically in two hours of runtime).

Wan need not reinvent the wheel if this is the trope he wishes to visit, but, something more self-aware would have been cleverer.

As overrated and underwhelming as The Conjuring is as opposed to, well, Scream and The Babadook, it is still above average for its time. It is an important genre moment, and fans will find they could study a lot worse.

If you’re going to sit through any Conjuring Universe titles, this is the one.

Netflix greenlights Bradley Cooper’s Leonard Bernstein film, with all-star producers

Netflix has acquired the rights to the untitled Leonard Bernstein biopic Bradley Cooper will direct, star in, and produce, from a screenplay he co-wrote with Academy Award-winning scriptwriter Josh Singer, who wrote Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight (2015), according to Deadline. Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, and Todd Phillips are all set to produce, with Netflix determined to ride its own wave of star-driven prestige success from this year’s Best Picture nominees, Scorsese’s The Irishman (2019) as well as Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story (2019). Cooper’s sophomore effort will cover thirty years of marriage between Bernstein and his wife, Chilean-born actress Felicia Montealegre.

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.