Thursday, March 15, 2018

Thoroughbreds: Horsing Around, with Mai Tais and Murder

Anya Taylor-Joy and Olivia Cooke in "Thoroughbreds"
It is an exhilarating feeling, watching the work of a first-time director who operates with absolute confidence, with an imperceptible clarity of vision. As someone who’s only been going to the movies for a few decades, I’ve felt that sensation just a handful of times—during personality-fueled debuts like Brick, Being John Malkovich, and Michael Clayton—but I like to imagine that the cinephiles of yesteryear experienced something similar when they wandered into the theater and settled themselves for a screening of The Maltese Falcon or The 400 Blows or Blood Simple. I felt stirrings of it watching Thoroughbreds, the bold and provocative first feature from writer-director Cory Finley. I have no idea where Finley’s career will take him; maybe he’ll ascend, maybe he’ll flame out. I do know that with this impossibly gripping movie, he’s made one hell of an entrance.

Speaking of entrances, Thoroughbreds begins with a doozy, a short and sharp cold open that instantly announces its seriousness of intent as well as its formal rigor. We open with a direct shot of a horse, its alien snout practically poking through the screen, before turning to the face of a teenage girl, regarding the animal with a mixture of curiosity and indifference. The lighting is dark, the mood eerie, so by the time the camera reveals a large, glittering knife, our nerves are already on edge.

Friday, March 9, 2018

Red Sparrow: Can You Trust Anyone? Nyet!

Jennifer Lawrence as a Russian spy in "Red Sparrow"
In the deeply silly and agreeably entertaining Red Sparrow, Jennifer Lawrence plays a Russian ballerina who transforms into a devious and lethal spy. If you think that sounds like a stretch, you’ve never seen Lawrence act. Having previously applied her prodigious talents to a number of American Everywomen—housewives and mothers, travelers and strivers—here she dons an ushanka and a Russki accent, soldiering forward in a chilly, vodka-soaked Europe. It’s a ridiculous part, but Lawrence is just too damned good to let it go to waste. She initially plays it big and bold—savoring every morsel of Russian diction and leaning into every absurd revelation—only to sneak up on you with her intelligence and vast feeling. All good actors can play well-written roles convincingly; here, Lawrence turns an outrageous conceit into a real character.

That’s more than I can say for Red Sparrow, an implausible thriller that, despite a capable cast and a tone of deadly self-seriousness, struggles to transcend its narrative shortcomings. But while the movie has significant problems—it is too long, too scattered, and too convoluted—it is never less than watchable. Star power can go a long way, and so can sleaze.

Monday, March 5, 2018

Oscars 2017: Show Recap

Sally Hawkins and Doug Jones in "The Shape of Water"
For a self-referential ceremony that exists mostly to celebrate itself, this year’s Oscars were different. Well, not entirely; in its bold strokes, last night’s telecast kept to the same basic rhythms—the clips, the songs, the montages—that the Academy Awards have been refining for the past nine decades. But many of the speeches and presentations that highlighted this year’s show were decidedly of the moment. At a time when Hollywood is facing a long-awaited reckoning, many of Tinsel Town’s brightest stars used show business’ glitziest stage to speak frankly on the issues that continue to engulf the industry. In that sense, at least, this was not your grandfather’s Oscars.

Beyond that, it was a perfectly decent show, which is to say that it was too long, too dull, and too stiff. In his second straight turn as host, Jimmy Kimmell delivered a decidedly adequate performance, with a few hits—in addition to a dry and well-paced opening monologue, his jet ski bit was an inspired touch, with many winners referring to it in their speeches—a few duds, and one ghastly misfire (the insufferable and interminable Wrinkle in Time bit). He seemed to minimize his own presence this year, which served the tone of this year’s Oscars well; with so much attention on diversity—of sex, of race, of orientation, of national origin—there is only so much that a straight white male host has to say. And at least the predictable callbacks to last year’s envelope fiasco were kept to a dull roar.

For my part, I did rather well in terms of my predictions, hitting on 18 of 21 categories, a marked improvement after my atrocious score last year. And while I often preferred one of the losing nominees (as is usually the case), it was difficult to begrudge most of the winners.

On to a quick recap of the awards, in order of presentation:

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Oscars 2017: Prediction Roundup

James D'Arcy and Kenneth Branagh in "Dunkirk"
With all of our category-specific analysis in the books, here are each of the Manifesto’s predictions for the 21 feature categories at this year’s Oscars. (Sorry, I ignore the shorts.)

Best Actor
Will win: Gary Oldman—Darkest Hour (confidence: 5/5)
Should win: Daniel Day-Lewis—Phantom Thread
Worst omission: Tom Hanks—The Post

Best Actress
Will win: Frances McDormand—Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (confidence: 4/5)
Should win: Saoirse Ronan—Lady Bird
Worst omission: Jennifer Lawrence—mother!

Best Adapted Screenplay
Will win: Call Me by Your Name—James Ivory (confidence: 4/5)
Should win: Molly’s Game—Aaron Sorkin
Worst omission: Wonder Woman—Allan Heinberg

Best Animated Feature
Will win: Coco (confidence: 5/5)

Best Cinematography
Will win: Blade Runner 2049—Roger Deakins (confidence: 2/5)
Should win: Blade Runner 2049—Roger Deakins
Worst omission: The Lost City of Z—Darius Khondji

Best Costume Design
Will win: Phantom Thread (confidence: 3/5)
Should win: Phantom Thread
Worst omission: The Great Wall

Best Director
Will win: Guillermo del Toro—The Shape of Water (confidence: 4/5)
Should win: Christopher Nolan—Dunkirk
Worst omission: Denis Villeneuve—Blade Runner 2049

Best Documentary Feature
Will win: Faces Places (confidence: 1/5)

Best Film Editing
Will win: Dunkirk—Lee Smith (confidence: 3/5)
Should win: Dunkirk—Lee Smith
Worst omission: Lady Bird—Nick Houy

Best Foreign Language Film
Will win: A Fantastic Woman (Chile) (confidence: 2/5)
Worst omission: The Villainess (South Korea)

Best Makeup and Hairstyling
Will win: Darkest Hour (confidence: 5/5)

Best Original Score
Will win: Phantom Thread—Jonny Greenwood (confidence: 1/5)
Should win: Dunkirk—Hans Zimmer
Worst omission: Wonderstruck—Carter Burwell

Best Original Screenplay
Will win: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri—Martin McDonagh (confidence: 1/5)
Should win: Lady Bird—Greta Gerwig
Worst omission: Dunkirk—Christopher Nolan

Best Original Song
Will win: Coco—“Remember Me” (Kristen Anderson-Lopez, Robert Lopez) (confidence: 2/5)

Best Picture
Will win: The Shape of Water (confidence: 1/5)
Should win: Lady Bird
Worst omission: War for the Planet of the Apes

Best Production Design
Will win: The Shape of Water (confidence: 3/5)
Should win: Blade Runner 2049
Worst omission: Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

Best Sound Editing
Will win: Dunkirk (confidence: 2/5)

Best Sound Mixing
Will win: Dunkirk (confidence: 2/5)

Best Supporting Actor
Will win: Sam Rockwell—Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (confidence: 4/5)
Should win: Woody Harrelson—Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Worst omission: Idris Elba—Molly’s Game

Best Supporting Actress
Will win: Allison Janney—I, Tonya (confidence: 3/5)
Should win: Laurie Metcalf—Lady Bird
Worst omission: Sofia Boutella—Atomic Blonde

Best Visual Effects
Will win: Blade Runner 2049 (confidence: 1/5)
Should win: War for the Planet of the Apes
Worst omission: Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

Oscars 2017: Best Director and Best Picture

Sam Rockwell and Frances McDormand in "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri"
In analyzing this year’s Oscars, we’ve already tackled 19 of the 21 feature categories in the following posts:

The little techies
The big techies
The supporting actors and the screenplays
The lead actors

Once more unto the breach:


Paul Thomas Anderson—Phantom Thread
Guillermo del Toro—The Shape of Water
Greta Gerwig—Lady Bird
Christopher Nolan—Dunkirk
Jordan Peele—Get Out

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Oscars 2017: Best Actor and Best Actress

Gary Oldman, set to finally win an Oscar for "Darkest Hour"
So far in our Oscars analysis, we’ve looked at the technical categories (big and small), the screenplays, and the supporting acting races. Today, we’ll run through the two lead acting categories.

Before getting to the nominees, it’s worth noting that one of these two fields is dramatically deeper than the other this year, and it isn’t the one you’d traditionally expect. Thirteen years ago, in analyzing the acting races for the 2004 Oscars, A.O. Scott lamented that, while one could easily compile an alternative quintet to the five men vying for Best Actor, “no such alternative list present[ed] itself” in the Best Actress field. This disparity stemmed, of course, not from any sort of chromosomal difference in talent between male and female actors but from the regrettable lack of strong leading roles for women.

It would appear—and given that I’m talking about Hollywood, I say this with a measure of skepticism—that things have changed. This year, the Best Actress race is positively loaded, highlighting five exceptional performances while leaving out perhaps a dozen more that merited consideration. On the men’s side, there were still a number of impressive star turns, but it was surely less torturous for Academy members to cull their list to a final five.

Does this mean that Hollywood has solved its diversity problem? Yeah, um, not quite. The majority of big-budget movies still star and are marketed toward men, while the percentage of female directors working in the industry remains appallingly low. But if nothing else, this year’s Best Actress race proves (as if it were in doubt) that Hollywood is loaded with gifted women who can dazzle us when given the chance. With luck, soon more of them will receive the opportunity to display their talents behind the camera as well as in front of it.

On to the Oscars themselves. Let’s lead with the less impressive category:

Oscars 2017: The supporting actors and the screenplays

Allison Janney, a likely Oscar winner for "I, Tonya"
Having previously looked at the technical categories, both big and small, we’re now moving on to the heavy hitters in this year’s Oscars:


Call Me by Your Name—James Ivory
The Disaster Artist—Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber
Logan—Scott Frank, James Mangold, and Michael Green
Molly’s Game—Aaron Sorkin
Mudbound—Virgil Williams and Dee Rees

Monday, February 26, 2018

Oscars 2017: The big techies

A scene from the visually stunning "Blade Runner 2049"
With the Oscars on Sunday, we’re running through our predictions and preferences for all 21 feature categories. Yesterday, we looked at eight below-the-line fields; today, we’re continuing with some more high-profile technical categories. And by “high-profile” I mean “ones I care about”.


Blade Runner 2049—Roger Deakins
Darkest Hour—Bruno Delbonnel
Dunkirk—Hoyte van Hoytema
Mudbound—Rachel Morrison
The Shape of Water—Dan Laustsen

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Oscars 2017: The little techies

A scene from Pixar's "Coco", likely Oscar winner
Who cares about the Oscars? Nobody, and also lots of people. It’s silly to ascribe too much importance to a self-congratulatory festival, but at the same time, the Academy Awards can help raise the profile of good movies and the talented people who make them. As long as you don’t take them too seriously, you just might end up enjoying yourself.

Plus, the Oscars are an opportunity for uninformed speculation, which is always fun. Over the next five days, we’ll be predicting the winners in the 21 feature categories (sorry, I ignore the shorts). These prognostications are the result of tireless data mining and thorough research. Or I’m just winging it.

Today, we’re running through eight below-the-line fields that can easily swing your office pool if you don’t pay attention. Let’s dig in:

Friday, February 23, 2018

Black Panther: With Great Power Comes Great Villainy

Lupita Nyong'o, Chadwick Boseman, and Danai Gurira in "Black Panther"
Early in Black Panther, Ryan Coogler’s bold and thorny new film that is the eighteenth entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the titular hero asks his young sister, Shuri, why she’s bothering to upgrade an already elegant technological system. Shuri—played by an impish, scene-stealing Letitia Wright—responds with huffy wisdom: “Just because something works doesn’t mean it can’t be improved.” The MCU has its faults—low-stakes storytelling, visual sameness, an exponentially swelling character base—but as mega-franchises go, it’s pretty good, churning out suitably entertaining products that are typically funny, professionally made, and well-acted. What’s gratifying about Black Panther is the way it operates within the MCU’s preestablished confines (the groaning Stan Lee cameo, the post-credits scenes) while simultaneously seeking to push beyond them. In raw terms, it isn’t the MCU’s best movie—its hero is too bland, its story too busy—but it may be its most interesting. And in an era where carefully packaged formula rules the cinematic roost, an interesting superhero movie is something to savor.

It also helps dispel the myth that personal filmmaking and corporate oversight are somehow incompatible. With Black Panther, Coogler continues to tackle the themes of racial strife, familial loyalty, and youthful conflict that animated his previous features, the heartfelt docudrama Fruitvale Station and the boisterous boxing picture Creed. But he has also made—and I mean this sincerely rather than pejoratively—a comic-book movie, complete with bright colors, complex mythology, and CGI-inflected rumbles. His estimable achievement is to weave these elements into a cohesive vision. Black Panther is packed with excitement and ideas, but it never feels choppy or overstuffed.