Thursday, March 23, 2017

Kong: Skull Island: Doing the Monster Mash, Upriver in Vietnam

Brie Larson and Tom Hiddleston take a gander at King Kong in "Skull Island"
One of the lasting lessons of Jaws was that shrouding your monster in mystery elevates its threat level; over the film’s first half, we grow to appreciate the terrifying power of its man-eating shark, but we don’t actually see the beast for well over an hour. Kong: Skull Island may aspire to the heights of classic ’70s cinema, but it deems this particular piece of Spielbergian wisdom to be hogwash. Here, we glimpse the titular ape almost instantly, and while he’s obscured by shadow during the prologue, by the time the first main set piece rolls around, we’re treated to the sight of King Kong in all his massive glory. He’s big, he’s mean, and you had better believe that he’s going to knock your puny little helicopter right out of the sky.

Subtle and suspenseful, this is not. But while Kong: Skull Island is undeniably blockheaded, its bluntness is also kind of disarming. Here is an unpretentious big-budget movie that is unapologetic in its prioritization of action and spectacle. If you want thoughtful storytelling or complex characters, go to the art house. Here there be monsters.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Logan: For Ailing Hero, a Road Trip and a Reckoning

Hugh Jackman returns one last time as the Wolverine in "Logan"
The most valid criticism of Marvel movies is that they’re all the same. That’s an exaggeration, certainly, but there’s an undeniable whiff of formula that pervades the MCU, a familiarity that sometimes slips into complacency. The oversized casts, the pithy banter, the FX-laden fight scenes, the mundane aesthetic, the cameos and the fan service and the post-credits stingers—all of these combine to form a brand that, while powerful and successful, threatens innovation and disdains originality. (My favorite MCU entry, Guardians of the Galaxy, is delightful in part because it is only tenuously connected to its eponymous universe.) Some of the individual titles are good, others are bad, but few even try to be great.

Logan, the seventh movie to feature Hugh Jackman as the Wolverine (ninth if you count his single-scene appearances in X-Men: First Class and X-Men: Apocalypse), is not a great movie. Its villains are bland, its action sequences are mediocre, and its pacing is occasionally sluggish. These are flaws that would cripple most comic-book movies. But Logan, which was directed by James Mangold from a script he wrote with Scott Frank and Michael Green, is not most comic-book movies. A welcome outlier in a cinematic landscape of alarming uniformity, it is decidedly unlike its peers: bold, thoughtful, and surprisingly powerful. Above all, it is distinctive.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Get Out: The Stepford Jives

Daniel Kaluuya in Jordan Peele's horror movie "Get Out"
The hero of Get Out suffers. Over the course of the movie, he is assaulted, humiliated, choked, tied up, shot at, and regularly deprived of his physical and personal liberty. It’s a crucible of pain. But nothing is more terrifying, more indignifying, than when he’s forced to hobnob at a fancy garden party with a bunch of rich white people.

OK, I’m exaggerating. But Get Out, the first feature by comedian Jordan Peele, is more than just another fright flick. It’s a film that examines, with insight, empathy, and anger, the challenge of being a black man in white America. Peele is not exclusively interested in making you jump out of your seat (though he proves plenty good at that). He also wants to clamp you to your chair and make you grapple with the current state of race relations in this country, to wrestle with his characters’ prejudices and maybe even your own.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Oscars 2016: A Tale of Two Winners, and a Night of Inspirational Disaster

In a shocking twist, La La Land was not the big winner at this year’s Oscars. But Moonlight, which actually (though not initially) won Best Picture, wasn’t the big winner either. Nor was Emma Stone, nor Casey Affleck, nor Best Animated Feature winner Zootopia, nor The Salesman director Asghar Farhadi (though his in absentia speech was pretty cool).

No, the big winner at the 89th Annual Academy Awards was Jordan Horowitz.

You probably don’t know Horowitz by name, but you almost assuredly now know him by sight. He’s one of the producers of La La Land, the one who—after realizing the historic, incomprehensible gaffe that concluded last night’s ceremony, when Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty erroneously announced La La Land as the recipient of Best Picture—handled the debacle with extraordinary grace. He could have ranted, cried, complained, or stormed off; if he had, it’s unlikely anyone would have blamed him. Instead, he kept his composure and, in a display of enviable courtesy, announced, “I’m gonna be really proud to hand this to my friends from Moonlight.”

That is the memory I will choose to take away from this year’s Oscars. Yes, it was crazy, inexplicable, and deeply unfortunate—even if you weren’t a fan of La La Land (and plenty of you weren’t), it was downright cruel to tease it with the gift of Best Picture only to suddenly wrench the trophy out of its grasp. But Horowitz made the best of a very bad situation. The official theme of last night’s ceremony was “inspiration”—that’s a tacky title, but as the telecast wrapped up its absurd conclusion, it was impossible to watch Horowitz and not be inspired by his humility and class.

Before running through the actual awards, a quick review of the overall telecast: It was fine. Jimmy Kimmell is hardly my favorite comedian, and many of his bits—the mean tweets, the candy dropping from the ceiling, the overlong segment with real tourists parading through the Dolby Theatre—fell flat. But his dry opening monologue cleverly downplayed the evening’s grandeur, and his inevitable political commentary was reasonably amusing, going for the funny bone rather than the jugular. (His extended feud with Matt Damon was excellent, culminating with his hilarious faux-appreciation of We Bought a Zoo.) The overall tone of Kimmell’s performance was one of understatement; he seemed to recognize that, yes, the Oscars are silly and stupid and self-aggrandizing and there are more important things going on in the world right now, but what the hell, we’re here, so let’s all enjoy ourselves. He even handled the envelope snafu with poise and wit, first name-checking Steve Harvey and then attempting to place the blame on himself. It wasn’t perfect, but it could have been a lot worse.

On to a brief recap of the show, with the awards listed in order of their presentation.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Oscars 2016: Complete List of Predictions

Ben Foster and Chris Pine in "Hell or High Water", which will not win enough Oscars
For your annotated pleasure, here are each of the Manifesto’s predictions for the 21 feature categories at this year’s Oscars. (Someday, I might start picking the shorts, but not this year.) For the record, I’m pegging La La Land to take home 10 Oscars (one shy of the record), but its total could range anywhere from 6 to 12.

Best Actor
Will win: Denzel Washington—Fences (confidence: 1/5)
Should win: Casey Affleck—Manchester by the Sea
Egregious snub: Colin Farrell—The Lobster

Best Actress
Will win: Emma Stone—La La Land (confidence: 4/5)
Should win: Emma Stone—La La Land
Egregious snub: Amy Adams—Arrival

Best Adapted Screenplay
Will win: Moonlight—Barry Jenkins, Tarell McCraney (confidence: 3/5)
Should win: Arrival—Eric Heisserer
Egregious snub: Love & Friendship—Whit Stillman

Best Animated Feature
Will win: Zootopia (confidence: 3/5)
Should win: Kubo and the Two Strings

Best Cinematography
Will win: La La Land—Linus Sandgren (confidence: 3/5)
Should win: La La Land—Linus Sandgren
Egregious snub: Sunset Song—Michael McDonough

Best Costume Design
Will win: La La Land (confidence: 2/5)
Should win: La La Land

Best Director
Will win: Damien Chazelle—La La Land (confidence: 5/5)
Should win: Damien Chazelle—La La Land
Egregious snub: Park Chan-wook—The Handmaiden

Best Documentary Feature
Will win: O.J.: Made in America (confidence: 4/5)

Best Film Editing
Will win: La La Land—Tom Cross (confidence: 2/5)
Should win: Arrival—Joe Walker
Egregious snub: Manchester by the Sea—Jennifer Lame

Best Foreign Language Film
Will win: The Salesman (Iran) (confidence: 2/5)
Egregious snub: Elle (France)

Best Makeup and Hairstyling
Will win: Star Trek Beyond (confidence: 1/5)
Should win: Star Trek Beyond

Best Original Score
Will win: La La Land—Justin Hurwitz (confidence: 3/5)
Should win: La La Land—Justin Hurwitz
Egregious snub: The Handmaiden—Jo Yeong-wook

Best Original Screenplay
Will win: Manchester by the Sea—Kenneth Lonergan (confidence: 2/5)
Should win: The Lobster—Efthymis Filippou, Yorgos Lanthimos
Egregious snub: The Witch—Robert Eggers

Best Original Song
Will win: La La Land—“City of Stars” (Justin Hurwitz, Benj Pasek, Justin Paul) (confidence: 3/5)
Should win: La La Land—“Audition (The Fools Who Dream)” (Justin Hurwitz, Benj Pasek, Justin Paul)
Egregious snub: Moana—“You’re Welcome” (Lin-Manuel Miranda)

Best Picture
Will win: La La Land (confidence: 4/5)
Should win: La La Land
Egregious snub: The Handmaiden

Best Production Design
Will win: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (confidence: 1/5)
Should win: Passengers
Egregious snub: Doctor Strange

Best Sound Editing
Will win: La La Land (confidence: 1/5)
Should win: Arrival

Best Sound Mixing
Will win: La La Land (confidence: 2/5)
Should win: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Best Supporting Actor
Will win: Mahershala Ali—Moonlight (confidence: 3/5)
Should win: Jeff Bridges—Hell or High Water
Egregious snub: Alden Ehrenreich—Hail, Caesar!

Best Supporting Actress
Will win: Viola Davis—Fences (confidence: 5/5)
Should win: Naomie Harris—Moonlight
Egregious snub: Lily Gladstone—Certain Women

Best Visual Effects
Will win: The Jungle Book (confidence: 4/5)
Should win: Doctor Strange
Egregious snub: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Oscars 2016: Best Director and Best Picture

Meet your Best Picture winner, America
So far in our Oscars analysis, we’ve looked at the odds and ends, the big techies and screenplays, and the acting categories. Today, we’re wrapping things up with the two big prizes.

For a cheat sheet with all of our predictions, click here.


Damien Chazelle—La La Land
Mel Gibson—Hacksaw Ridge
Barry Jenkins—Moonlight
Kenneth Lonergan—Manchester by the Sea
Denis Villeneuve—Arrival

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Oscars 2016: The Acting Categories

Viola Davis, hopefully not reacting to her upcoming Oscar win for "Fences"
Thus far in our Oscars analysis, we’ve looked at categories both miscellaneous and technical, as well as the screenplays. Today, we’re running through everyone’s favorite fields: the acting categories. Let’s begin with the easiest race to predict and progress to the hardest.


Viola Davis—Fences
Naomie Harris—Moonlight
Nicole Kidman—Lion
Octavia Spencer—Hidden Figures
Michelle Williams—Manchester by the Sea

Davis. Move along.

As the remainder of this column reveals, 2016 produced an odd gender split in terms of high-caliber performances. In a refreshing change from the norm, cinema was flooded with outstanding portrayals from leading ladies; however, the number of quality star turns by men was relatively low. Conversely, my personal ballot in the Best Supporting Actor field runs 15 names long, whereas my corresponding ballot for supporting actresses is alarmingly thin.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Oscars 2016: The big techies; the screenplays

Jennifer Lawrence in "Passengers", a dual Oscar nominee
The Manifesto’s analysis of the 2016 Oscars continues. Yesterday, we checked in on eight different miscellaneous categories. Today, we’re finishing up the technical fields, analyzing five categories that I’m a bit more passionate about. And due to time constraints, we’re also looking at the two screenplay races. Let’s dive in.


Arrival—Bradford Young
La La Land—Linus Sandgren
Lion—Greig Fraser
Moonlight—James Laxton
Silence—Rodrigo Prieto

For casual moviegoers and Oscar-watchers, this year’s awards season has inevitably (and obnoxiously) centered around the question of whether La La Land, the clear Oscar frontrunner, is actually a good movie. (Spoiler: It is.) But for the historians, one key subplot underlying this year’s ceremony is whether La La Land will match (or even surpass) the existing record for Oscar wins, which is currently shared by Ben-Hur, Titanic, and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (11 apiece). What’s interesting about La La Land is that, for all its magnificent craftsmanship, it isn’t your typical below-the-line showstopper; it doesn’t have the sheer size of Titanic or Lord of the Rings, nor the bravura special effects work of Gravity (which took home seven trophies despite losing Best Picture to 12 Years a Slave).

Monday, February 20, 2017

Oscars 2016: The odds and ends

A scene from "Zootopia", the favorite to win the Oscar for Best Animated Feature
Welcome to Oscars Week! Over the next four days, we’ll be predicting the winners for each of the 21 feature categories at this Sunday’s Academy Awards. Today, we’re starting with some below-the-line fields—these categories don’t exactly capture the attention of mainstream movie audiences, but they could wreak havoc on Oscar pools. Let’s dig in.


Kubo and the Two Strings
My Life as a Zucchini
The Red Turtle

With due respect to My Life as a Zucchini and The Red Turtle (both of which are purported to be very good), this is a three-picture race. And while Kubo and the Two Strings has the strongest critical love and Moana has the best soundtrack, Zootopia is the clear favorite. It’s lively, it’s charming, and it’s woke.

I haven’t seen My Life as a Zucchini or The Red Turtle, a failure that’s due to lack of distribution, not lack of interest. In any event, the remaining three are all good movies. (Frankly, I’m just relieved that the lousy Secret Life of Pets wasn’t nominated.) Moana is a slight but empowering story with some terrific songs, while Zootopia is a vibrant caper that doubles as a surprisingly powerful social commentary. But Kubo and the Two Strings is the best of the bunch, a scary and darkly beautiful tale of perseverance, triumph, and loss.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Ranking Every Movie of 2016 (all 108 of them)

Much like these two, we watched a lot of movies last year
Following up on yesterday’s top 10, it’s time for the Manifesto’s silly annual tradition of ranking every movie we watched in the past year. This is an undeniably foolish exercise, but it’s useful as a recordkeeping function. Plus, it makes people angry, which is always fun.

Click on the hyperlinks to read my review for a particular movie. Per usual, for each film, I’m parenthetically adding the director’s name, as well as its Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic scores; both of those metrics are deeply problematic, but they do tend to reveal whether I conform to or diverge from the critical consensus. In addition, as a new feature this year, I’m noting if each movie listed is currently streaming on Netflix, Amazon Prime, HBO Go, or Hulu. So, even if you’re one of those worthless oafs who never goes to the theater anymore, this list can still provide you with some helpful viewing recommendations, free of charge.

That’s about it. Here are the Manifesto’s rankings of every movie we watched in 2016 (with the unfortunate caveat that I’ve still yet to see Toni Erdmann):