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.

Amazon Prime review: Colin Trevorrow’s “Jurassic World” (2015)

Who knew one of the pop artistic masterpieces of our time would be about Bryce Dallas Howard running through a jungle in high heels?

If you don’t know what to watch next, Colin Trevorrow’s Jurassic World (2015) is available on Amazon Prime. The filmmaker cowrote the science fiction adventure film, the closest to authorship one is apt to come across in the blockbuster landscape.

Indeed, it ranks among the top ten highest-grossing pictures of all time.

Zach Mitchell (Nick Robinson) and his brother, Gray (Ty Simpkins), travel to Isla Nublar to visit their aunt, Claire Dearing (Howard), the overworked operations manager for Jurassic World who foists them off onto her assistant, Zara (Katie McGrath).

During their visit, a genetically engineered dinosaur called the Indominus rex makes its escape and terrorizes the theme park. Together with her ex-lover, Owen Grady (Chris Pratt), the Velociraptor handler, Claire must find her nephews before the Indominus rex does.

Rian Johnson’s Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi (2017) is to its respective series what Jurassic World is to its own. In a world where we grow up knowing Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker’s father, how is a director to subvert our expectations again?

Correspondingly, for a generation raised on Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park (1993), is it possible to feel what it’s like to lay eyes on dinosaurs for the first time again, as contemporaneous viewers did?

In the eyes of audience surrogate Zach, a bored teenager stuck babysitting his brother, more interested in the girls around him (even though he has an offscreen girlfriend) than he is in the dinosaurs, Jurassic World is old news.

As a result of such indifference, the park modifies a never-before-seen attraction, the Indominus rex. But, as always with Jurassic Park, playing God and exploiting nature for capital come at a devastating price.

The Indominus rex is as postmodern a villain as Catherine Tramell, Ghostface, and Heath Ledger’s Joker, killing for the sake of itself, creating conflict because life would be a static, existential purgatory without it.

Doctor Henry Wu (franchise alum B.D. Wong) designs a predator to kill not for survival, but because it can, to entertain an overstimulated public. To quote Ghostface himself, “Motives are incidental.”

And in a Tarantinoesque gesture, Trevorrow incorporates his product placement into his world-building. Brand names from our popular culture have plastered their logos throughout the storefronts of Jurassic World, despite the tragedies of the past, or even because of them.

In other words, the text knows it’s a text, and the Indominus rex exists because all watchable cinema has need of an Indominus rex, and Jurassic World the subject and Jurassic World the representation are both in the business of turning a profit.

As self-referential as the movie is, its storytelling still leaves a lot to be desired. Zach and Gray off-handedly introduce a divorce plot thread between their parents, Scott Mitchell (Andy Buckley) and Karen Dearing (Judy Greer), amounting to exactly nothing.

In addition to Howard’s infamously impractical shoes, it would have been more feministic if Claire’s relationship with Owen were platonic, as an alternative to the male-gaze wish fulfillment of the patriarchal hero getting the damsel in distress at the end.

These offenses are nowhere near as egregious as the fate of Zara. It is a gratuitous sequence, and worse, played for laughs. As unsympathetic a character as Zara is, she doesn’t deserve to be “punished” as women too often are in media.

Still, part of this popcorn flick’s wizardry is that it isn’t so much “style over substance” as the style IS the substance, and, if mainstream Hollywood fetishizes violence, then Jurassic World is only giving the people what they want.

Hulu review: CBS and NBC’s “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” (1955-1965)

“Good evening…”

If you don’t know what to watch next, CBS and NBC’s Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1955-1965) is available to stream on Hulu.

It aired on CBS from 1955 to 1960, NBC from 1960 to 1962 (when it was retitled The Alfred Hitchcock Hour and its runtime extended from twenty-five to fifty minutes), CBS again from 1962 to 1964, and NBC once more in 1965.

The Writers Guild of America named the anthology series on their list of best-written television shows, and Time ranked it as one of the greatest series ever.

Each episode is a short story adaptation, some of which Sir Alfred Hitchcock himself directed. The genres encompass everything from thriller to drama to mystery to horror to crime. A constellation of guest stars appears, and the Master of Suspense hosts every installment.

As showrunner and executive producer, Hitchcock’s economical genius for cultivating talented collaborators immortalizes the anthology’s classic legacy (overextended writer-director-producer-actors like M. Night Shyamalan would do well to limit themselves).

James B. Allardice wrote Hitch’s monologues for him, shading in the Master’s iconic profile with black comedy as sharp as a knife’s edge.

In many ways, the series constructs the more signature characteristics of Hitchcock’s pop cultural persona, which allowed him to market himself as a dependable brand that audiences could count on for transcendent entertainment.

One can’t help but feel, however, that Hitchcock was constrained by the puritanical broadcasting standards of the day.

Most episodes end with the criminal seemingly getting away with it, until Hitchcock fades in to tell us how they get caught – if he wanted that to be the way the short films end, wouldn’t that be the way they’re written?

Be that as it may, Hitchcock’s dark fantasies are at their least exploitative when such restrictions are in place, and thus at their most artful; this is a flawed filmmaking ego whose cinematic violence is an aestheticized wish fulfillment for his own abusive, impotent megalomania.

When his bad guys get what they deserve, he does, too.

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.

Amazon Prime review: M. Night Shyamalan’s “Glass” (2019)

M. Night Shyamalan enjoyed somewhat of a revival since The Visit (2015) and Split (2016), never quite meeting the triumphs of The Sixth Sense (1999) and Unbreakable (2000), but still at least becoming watchable again.

As for Glass (2019), the third in a trilogy with Unbreakable and Split, the faults of his authorship stand in relief against these two stronger entries.

If you don’t know what to watch next, Glass is available on Amazon Prime. The psychological superhero thriller got largely negative reviews, with only thirty-seven percent of critics aggregated via Rotten Tomatoes praising the film.

The filmmaker also wrote, co-produced, and made a cameo appearance in the picture.

Unbreakable hero David “The Overseer” Dunn (Bruce Willis) and Split villain Kevin Wendell “The Horde” Crumb (James McAvoy) are institutionalized at the same Philadelphia facility as The Overseer’s nemesis, Elijah “Mister Glass” Price (Samuel L. Jackson).

There, Doctor Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson), a psychiatrist who specializes in treating patients who believe they’re superheroes or otherwise superhuman, studies the three characters.

But Mister Glass has a plan for escape, and with The Horde in his reach, an alliance between the two could spell doom for the city The Overseer can no longer protect.

The premise is the highlight of the movie – three of Shyamalan’s finest creations conflicting against one another in a setting evocative of the ambiguous realism making Unbreakable a masterstroke of suspense.

It would’ve done the same for Split, if not for a denouement which decisively answers the question, “Does The Beast exist?” when no answer is what gives Unbreakable its staying power.

For the first time since Unbreakable, the audience asks themselves if The Overseer, The Horde, and Mister Glass really are players in a comic book, or if they’re suffering from a collective delusion of grandeur; debating the truth of the text warrants devoted re-watches.

But Shyamalan makes the same miscalculation at the end of Glass as at the end of Split, except worse, unleashing a veritable Pandora’s box of absurdity onto his world-building that no amount of mystery could ever close again.

And he might not have made this error if he hadn’t marketed himself as a brand after the success of The Sixth Sense, the Wellesian wunderkind, the lovechild of Sir Alfred Hitchcock and Steven Spielberg whose signature style orbits the climactic twist (even at its most contrived).

It’s the reason why auteur theory, developed in postwar Europe as part of the French New Wave by early film critics obsessed with studying Hollywood directors, is problematic and borderline fallacious in the inherently collaborative world of moviemaking.

Shyamalan is indisputably talented – The Sixth Sense is one of the best of all time – but The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable are greater than their twists, and even Hitchcock knew his limits. Hitch cast himself in cameos, but he never delivered a line, and he didn’t pen a word of dialogue.

His greatness lay in knowing when to take “no” for an answer.

If Shyamalan had an executive to answer to, or a seasoned screenwriter to ground his concepts into the dramatically satisfying, Glass might have lived up to its “super” potential.

What it is instead, is a delusion of grandeur.

Marielle Heller’s “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” (2019) reportedly moves TIFF to tears

Marielle Heller’s A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (2019) was a cause for nostalgic audiences at the Toronto International Film Festival to exit the theater with tears in their eyes and stories about Mister Rogers on their lips, according to The Daily Beast. Reviewer Richard Porton reports that Heller uses a pessimistic journalist named Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys), a fictionalized representation for the 1998 Fred Rogers profiler Tom Junod of Esquire, to balance the Rogers biopic with more nuance. Porton dismisses this attempt, writing that the movie still canonizes Rogers’s character, but praises Tom Hanks’s performance as the television host.

Hulu review: John Krasinski’s “A Quiet Place” (2018)

First, Alan Crosland’s The Jazz Singer (1927) popularized talkies. Then, Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation (1974) distorted a single recorded word of dialogue just enough to influence the remainder of the narrative.

Next, A Quiet Place omitted spoken lines altogether for a mainstream, feature-length release, and the findings of this experiment are some of the most radical in the renaissance following the release of Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook (2014).

If you don’t know what to watch next, John Krasinski’s A Quiet Place (2018) is available to stream on Hulu. The postapocalyptic science fiction horror thriller was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Sound Editing.

Krasinski also co-wrote, co-produced, and co-starred in the production.

Lee Abbott (Krasinski) and his pregnant wife, Evelyn (Emily Blunt), along with their children, Regan (Millicent Simmonds) and Marcus (Noah Jupe), are living in a world where almost all life has been hunted into extinction by alien creatures attacking anything which makes noise.

Fortunately for them, Regan is deaf, so the family knows American Sign Language and can communicate with each other in silence.

When one of the monsters kills the Abbotts’ youngest child, Beau (Cade Woodward), the rest of the family resolves to fight for themselves and one another.

Krasinski and Blunt are married with children off-screen, and so the filmmaker directs out of himself as well as his leading lady thoroughly personal performances, characterizing a husband, wife, father, and mother desperate to protect their home.

Simmonds is also deaf in real life, marking a sensitive casting choice for the disabled community. Rather than functioning as a handicap to overcome, Regan’s disability empowers her to survive.

What’s more, Krasinski’s directorial debut is a masterwork of its genre. Post-James Wan’s Saw (2004), jump scares have proven themselves to be most powerful when the sudden sound is paired with a horrifying image, instead of something cheaper and more mundane.

The hushed diegesis lends itself to effective jump scares like a dream (or a nightmare).

As progressive as the picture is with its positive, diverse (though not altogether intersectional) representation, and as much as it gets right about the scary movie formula, it is problematically regressive with what many critics interpret to be pro-life, pro-gun, conservative themes.

Some have even gone so far as to dismiss it as the antithesis to Jordan Peele’s social horror masterpiece, Get Out (2017).

Indeed, Evelyn still decides to give birth in spite of the mortal danger it poses to herself, and, by extension, her children.

While Lee’s altruistic parenting is good parenting, intentionalism is a critical fallacy, and it is irrelevant that Krasinski cites Get Out as a source of inspiration.

Art belongs not to the creator, but to the consumer, and one hopes Krasinski will learn throughout his promising career to handle his sociopolitical subtext with greater care.

A Quiet Place is important, effectual, “pure” cinema (according to the Hitchcockian school of thought), speaking to us with no words at all.