Friday, June 23, 2017

Cars 3: Vroom and Doom

A scene from "Cars 3", in which cars drive like cars.
Pixar’s best movies are so amazingly, miraculously good, their lesser efforts can become underappreciated by comparison. The common phrase “second-tier Pixar”—often applied to, say, the fairy-tale familiarity of Brave, the slobs-versus-snobs hijinks of Monsters University, or the poky adventure of The Good Dinosaur—necessarily implies a sense of relative failure, even if all of those films are variously rewarding. But the Cars movies are different. It remains vexing that the wizard studio—presumably motivated by merchandising rather than storytelling—has insisted on turning its least interesting property into a commodified, pandering franchise. (Of course, Pixar’s other trilogy is literally about products that are purchased for children, but the Toy Story pictures also happen to be great.) When the first Cars dropped in 2006, it immediately claimed the title of “worst Pixar movie ever made”, its airy pleasantness overshadowed by the string of ingenious hits that had preceded it. Five years later, Cars 2 took that title for its own; a stunningly stupid action-comedy centered on Larry the Cable Guy’s Mater (a character who makes Jar Jar Binks seem fascinating and three-dimensional), it wasn’t just a comparative disappointment—it was a legitimately bad movie.

Perhaps the nicest thing I can say about Cars 3 is that, following its release, the unofficial tally of “Bad Pixar Movies” remains stuck at one. That’s because this latest sequel—harmless and piddling, with just a whiff of thoughtfulness and originality—is too innocuous and well-meaning to be bad. But neither is it good enough to qualify as second-tier Pixar, a designation that confers with it an attempt at beauty, ambition, and imagination. Even the studio’s weaker films at least try to be memorable, but in its relentless congeniality, Cars 3 seems calculated to make as little impact as possible. No wonder its characters constantly drive around in circles.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

It Comes at Night: Something Toxic in the Air, and a Virus, Too

Christopher Abbott and Joel Edgerton in "It Comes at Night"
There are no zombies in It Comes at Night, unless you count the vacant, dead-eyed stares that regularly materialize on each of its characters’ stricken faces. An eerie shiver of a horror-thriller, it’s scary less for its shocks than its sober observations on human nature. When a body is burned in the film’s harrowing opening sequence, the corpse never reanimates, though it does emerge in a spooky, silent nightmare, darkened eyes shooting daggers of ill will. In this movie, the dead stay dead. Maybe they’re the lucky ones.

The second feature from writer-director Trey Edward Shults, It Comes at Night takes for its premise that all-too-plausible scenario that has beckoned to many an aspiring artist: the apocalypse. Doomsday has long fascinated filmmakers, who relish the chance to turn a universal fear—it’s the end of the world!—into a personal vision; the last few years alone have given us works as varied as the demolition derby of Mad Max: Fury Road, the steampunk allegory of Snowpiercer, and the bro-sploitation comedy of This Is the End. It Comes at Night is quieter than those movies, but it is arguably more unsettling. For Shults, the collapse of civilization creates the opportunity to explore how people relate to and value one another, pitting civic values against Darwinian impulses. The picture he paints, much like the ghastly mural that adorns one of the walls of the house where the action occurs, is far from pretty.

Friday, June 9, 2017

Wonder Woman: Lady First

Gal Gadot in "Wonder Woman"
As she rushes headlong across a barren wasteland toward entrenched enemy troops, the Amazon gathers speed and momentum, hair streaming behind her as she deflects oncoming bullets with a flick of her gauntleted wrists. It’s a sequence of breathless verve and grandeur, but it earns an extra meta kick thanks to its setting. The year is 1918, and the location is the western front in Belgium. This means, as students of military history surely know, that the Amazon is charging through not just any field but a particularly named stretch of mud: no man’s land. The metaphor is almost too perfect. Superheroes have done all sorts of impressive things in modern movies, but to my knowledge, this is the first time that a costumed warrior has obliterated both German soldiers and the Hollywood patriarchy in one gorgeously filmed swoop.

Perhaps I’m exaggerating. After all, the broader statistical data about women both behind and in front of the camera remain dispiriting, and just as Wonder Woman the heroine cannot win World War I on her own, Wonder Woman the movie—the first high-profile superhero film to feature a female director and star—cannot by itself cure an industry that continues to be plagued by sexism. But it’s a start. Still, advancements in representation aside, the question remains whether this movie, directed by Patty Jenkins, qualifies as a victory of artistry as well as diversity. Thankfully, Jenkins has made a spry and enjoyable adventure, if one accompanied by many of the flaws endemic to the genre. It’s far from great, but it’s mostly good enough.

Friday, June 2, 2017

Under the Streaming Radar: 20 Good Little-Seen Movies You Can Watch Right Now

Alison Brie and Jason Sudeikis in the underrated "Sleeping with Other People"
Every week, my father and I discuss which new movie(s) we’re going to see in the theater during the upcoming weekend. Last week, however, the conversation didn’t last long, as the two high-profile new releases—the fifth entry in a moribund blockbuster franchise and a big-screen adaptation of a hacky ’90s TV show—barely reached 50% on Rotten Tomatoes combined. Frustrated over the lack of quality options at the multiplex, my father grumbled, “Thank God for Netflix.”

Sarcasm aside, my father’s faux-religious praise for a multimedia company spoke to the behavioral trend that’s been emerging among American adults over the past decade: We don’t like going to the movies anymore. Of course, that isn’t strictly true; though the total number of tickets purchased may have stagnated, we still gave theaters more than $11 billion of our money last year, so let’s not eulogize the communal moviegoing experience just yet. But the appeal of the streaming service—a mode of viewing that combines a broad selection of options with the convenience of never leaving the couch—exerts a strong pull on many grown-ups (particularly those with young children). Why go through the hassle of hiring a sitter when you can just rip through three episodes of Master of None or Thirteen Reasons Why after the kids are in bed?

This impulse typically manifests in terms of television shows—the Manifesto’s most-read post to date remains a piece I wrote six years ago listing 10 great TV series available on Netflix (thanks to the vagaries of the market, six of those shows are now streaming on different services)—but there’s no reason it can’t be redirected toward feature films. And don’t even try arguing that you lack sufficient time to watch a full movie; if you can binge-watch an entire season of Stranger Things in two nights, I’m pretty sure you can find 90 minutes to watch a closed-end thriller.

To that end, the Manifesto has compiled the following list of 20 good movies that are currently available on widely popular streaming services. Now, obviously, this list is by no means comprehensive. First, in an effort to spotlight movies with a limited following, we’re focusing on under-the-radar releases; only two of the 20 titles highlighted below exceeded $5 million and the domestic box office, and none surpassed $15 million. Second, we’re not including any movies that we formally reviewed here over the past few years, as we’ll let those reviews speak for themselves. (I encourage readers to arm themselves with the invaluable JustWatch app and then scan our fully ranked lists of movies from both 2015 and 2016 to locate high-quality streaming titles. Relatedly, The Handmaiden is available on Amazon Prime.) And last, because modern audiences are scared of “old” movies, we’re restricting ourselves to films that came out this decade; just remember that cinema has existed for more than a century, and there are plenty of classic titles available to stream if you’re ever feeling nostalgic for the glory days of Bogart and Bacall.

Let’s get to it (and remember, thanks to the fickle nature of streaming content, availability of these titles is subject to change):

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Alien: Covenant: Still Meddling, Still Dying, but with Double the Robots

Katherine Waterston and Michael Fassbender in "Alien: Covenant"
During one of the best scenes in Alien: Covenant, a robot tells an antiquated model of himself why he was ultimately decommissioned. “You were too human,” the current version bluntly informs his predecessor. “Too idiosyncratic.” The explanation makes sense—the older model’s uncannily lifelike behavior unsettled his mortal masters—but it carries with it an undeniable sting of irony. Covenant, the sixth entry in the Alien franchise and the third directed by Ridley Scott, is a vigorous and impressive piece of mass-market entertainment, a finely calibrated horror film that boasts expert effects work and pulse-pounding set pieces. Yet it is also clearly the product of corporate assembly, a sequel to a prequel that ably perpetuates the series’ mythology but does so with minimal distinction or ingenuity. It’s a bit like that newly updated cyborg who lectures his elder counterpart: sleek and efficient, but not idiosyncratic enough.

Or maybe I’ve just seen too many Alien movies. If you haven’t watched Scott’s classic original (which is slightly overrated, but that’s a different discussion), you are likely to be gobsmacked by the spectacle of violent death and physical suffering that the director has arrayed before you. Setting aside Sigourney Weaver’s spunky and sexy performance, Alien achieved cinematic immortality for two reasons: its historically great tagline, and John Hurt’s upset stomach. Seeing as Covenant cannot hope to match the former (though “The path to paradise begins in hell” isn’t half-bad), it strives to one-up the latter. Throughout this movie, nasty critters burst out from within the insides of unsuspecting human hosts, spilling blood and splintering backbone in the process. Alien enthusiasts may have seen this before, but they likely haven’t seen it this excruciating and visceral.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Small-Screen Swagger: Six Shows Stretching the Boundaries of TV

Aubrey Plaza going bonkers in FX's "Legion"
Television used to be a safe space. It was a repository for the comfortable and familiar: the family sitcom, the police procedural, the doctor show. After a long day, we settled on the couch to bask in the routine pleasures of our favorite weekly programs—chuckling along with the laugh track, racing to uncover the killer, wagering on the survival of the patient. We didn’t watch TV to be challenged or jostled. We watched it to be soothed.

Here’s a decidedly cold take: TV has changed. Over the past several decades—the point of origin is a matter of dispute, but most critics cite the launch of The Sopranos in 1999—television has transformed into a multi-headed hydra of prestige entertainment, teeming with hard-bitten dramas and historical epics and anarchic comedies. (It’s also grown more cinematic, but don’t worry: This is not one of those insufferable think-pieces declaring that TV is better than movies, or vice-versa. (For the record, the only correct answer to the question of “Which is better, movies or TV?” is “Yes”.)) As competition expands and delivery options multiply, showrunners are capitalizing on this land of digital opportunity, developing series that are bigger, costlier, and riskier than anything we’ve seen before on television.

This can only be a good thing. Not every huge new TV show is a huge success—for every Game of Thrones or The Americans, there’s a Vinyl or a Bloodline. But there’s a heretofore untapped vein of possibility to the medium now, the sense that the next mind-blowing series is just one click away. What’s particularly gratifying is that creators are seizing the moment and pushing TV into uncharted territory. Emboldened by their compatriots’ achievements, showrunners aren’t just telling bigger and better stories; they’re telling them in new and exciting ways.

What follows are a half-dozen programs that are especially noteworthy for their ambition: the way they use the classic format of the TV show—a series of individual episodes that gradually accumulate a greater and more cohesive power—for breathtakingly novel purposes. These aren’t necessarily the best shows on TV, but they are among the most audacious.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2: Saving the World, One Wisecrack at a Time

Dave Bautista, Zoe Saldana, and Chris Pratt in "Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2"
In the middle of the hectic opening set piece of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol.2, the green-skinned alien Gamora reproaches two of her squabbling colleagues: “Can we put the bickering on hold till after we survive the massive space battle?” It’s a sensible request that comes from the troupe’s most sensible member, but at the risk of mansplaining (human-splaining?), allow me to point out the flaw in Gamora’s logic. Whereas the typical superhero extravaganza centers on its high-octane action sequences, the first Guardians of the Galaxy made its mark by inverting the formula; it emphasized writing and character, pushing its passable pyrotechnics into the background. With this franchise, the bickering isn’t ornamental—it’s the main attraction.

That canny focal adjustment made the original Guardians a welcome antidote, a rejuvenating tonic that helped offset the fatigue brought on by the glut of superhero pictures constantly invading the American multiplex. The challenge now facing James Gunn, returning as both writer and director, is how to reconcile the bracing freshness of the first installment with the rigid demands of the cinematic universe. The standard operating procedure for comic-book sequels is simply to take what worked the first time around, then blow it up to even greater dimensions, but spunky originality isn’t so easily amenable to magnification. How do you bottle lightning twice?

Thursday, May 4, 2017

The Lost City of Z: Unwelcome to the Jungle, But Pressing On

Charlie Hunnam in James Gray's "The Lost City of Z"
The soldier finds the mission underwhelming. Sure, he once trained with the Royal Geographical Society, but that was ages ago, and he barely remembers his studies. Why should he be the one tasked with mapping the border between Brazil and Bolivia? He’s a warrior, not a surveyor. Yet by the end of The Lost City of Z—the grand and grave historical epic from James Gray—the soldier’s reluctance has transformed into obsession. This touching, tragic film chronicles its hero’s gradual descent into something like madness, even as it acknowledges the nobility of his pursuit and the dignity of his character.

For all of the death and misery that it uncovers, The Lost City of Z is not exactly a downer. Gray, once known for his gritty thrillers, has of late developed an odd and interesting talent: He can make human suffering seem strangely beguiling. His Two Lovers put Joaquin Phoenix through the emotional wringer, but it also recognized the thrill of newfound romantic attraction. And while The Immigrant essayed the challenges facing Marion Cotillard’s woebegone traveler with unflinching directness, Gray’s lustrous craft shaded her predicament with tenderness and hope. Now with The Lost City of Z, he examines the ecstasy and the agony of mania—the fanatical need to prove yourself, no matter the mortal cost.

Friday, April 28, 2017

Free Fire: Shots Squeezed Off, Insults Catapulted

Armie Hammer, Brie Larson, Cillian Murphy, Sam Riley, and Michael Smiley in "Free Fire"
Near the end of David Mamet’s Heist, two rival criminal factions engage in a shootout on a pier. It’s a fairly unremarkable scene, except that standing in the crossfire is Bergman, an irascible fence played by Danny DeVito. As the bullets whiz past him, Bergman transforms from a tough-talking hoodlum into a conciliatory wimp, yelping in protest, “Put the fucking guns down, let’s just talk!” Free Fire, the latest whatsit from the English auteur/weirdo Ben Wheatley, essentially extends this bit of off-kilter gunplay to feature length. It assembles a motley crew of hooligans, junkies, and reprobates, then sets them loose on one another in a display of inept savagery that’s more pitiful than lethal.

That phrase might also describe Wheatley’s prior films, which have relied on showy extremism to enliven themes and narratives that are fundamentally banal. These include Kill List, a glum study of blue-collar ennui that morphed into a grisly and tasteless horror movie, and High-Rise, an initially fascinating but ultimately unwatchable satire that squandered a terrific cast in favor of incoherent montage. (I haven’t seen A Field in England, but Variety assessed it as combining “imagination-teasing ingenuity” with “a startling lapse in basic storytelling competence”, which seems to fit.) Qualitatively, Free Fire represents a dramatic improvement for Wheatley, but what’s most interesting is how he’s improved. No longer straining to confound audiences with his avant-garde brilliance, Wheatley has instead chosen to wield his gifts for the old-fashioned virtue of entertainment. Free Fire has little heart and even less depth, but compared to the arduous nature of Wheatley’s past works, its breezy emptiness is oddly refreshing.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Why You Need to Watch Netflix's "13 Reasons Why"

Katherine Langford is dead and hating it in "13 Reasons Why"
High school is a crucible. It can be at once wonderful and terrible, a paradise of joy and discovery and a battleground of spite and cruelty. It’s the claustrophobia—for four consecutive years, you spend an inordinately high percentage of your time stuffed into the same space, surrounded by the same people, chasing the same dream of escape. That pressure-cooker environment explains why every emotion, every experience, feels heightened: Every friendship is destined to last forever, every fight rends you in two, every romance is Shakespearean in scope. At times you wonder if you understand anything, but what you know for certain is that nobody understands you. And whenever something bad happens to you in high school, it doesn’t feel like a discrete event, a fleeting moment in the anthology of experiences that will shape you as a person. It feels like a cataclysm.

Perhaps I’m speaking only for myself. But I am also speaking for Hannah Baker, the stricken, haunted protagonist of Netflix’s sweeping, searing new drama, 13 Reasons Why. As played in a breakout performance by Katherine Langford, Hannah is the series’ focal point, its magnet for the emotional turbulence that so forcefully buffets the students of its nondescript suburban high school. Sad, sweet, hopeful, and scared, Hannah is in many ways a typical teenager—a drama queen to some, a wayward soul to others. She is the show’s lifeblood. She is also dead.