Thursday, April 19, 2018

Beirut: Watch the Terrorists, and Your Back

Rosamund Pike and Jon Hamm in the spy thriller "Beirut"
For a movie purportedly concerned with the strife and factionalism that have ravaged its war-torn central city, it’s telling that Beirut opens with a scene of hobnobbing luxury. The year is 1972, and we’re at a lavish dinner party where the host, Mason Skiles (Jon Hamm), is schmoozing effortlessly with his well-to-do guests. He’s regaling them with some Lebanese history, and while his tale—a loaded parable about uninvited immigrants chafing an entrenched citizenry—may be troubling, his tone is buttery velvet, his face all smiles. It’s a productive dissonance that proves to be an apt metaphor for Beirut itself, a film that strives to be profound and discomfiting and settles instead for being broadly, almost inadvertently enjoyable. As brokered compromises go, the Middle East has seen worse.

The most obvious source of this accidental pleasure is Hamm, who plays Mason with a twinkly intelligence that nicely complements his patented superiority and world-weariness. As sketched in Tony Gilroy’s uneven script—which punctuates that initial soiree with a fatal spray of gunfire before fast-forwarding ten years—the Mason of the present is a classic redemption case, a morose drunkard who scarcely resembles the cheery mingler from a decade earlier. Hamm articulates Mason’s superficial glumness well enough—and it doesn’t get much glummer than mediating labor disputes in a rainy Boston suburb—but he’s better at revealing the smooth operator underneath, the intuitive poker player who once served as one of his country’s top diplomats. Mason, who may be the highest-functioning alcoholic in recent cinematic memory, is too up on his game to be down in the dumps.

Friday, April 13, 2018

A Quiet Place: Staying Alive, with Mouths Shut and Eyes Open

John Krasinski and Noah Jupe in "A Quiet Place"
We begin with a stark title card: “Day 89.” A family prowls through a deserted pharmacy, the mother scanning labels on vials while the kids amble through the aisles and pluck goodies from the shelves. It’s a familiar scene to fans of apocalyptic fiction, the dusty sills and sparse surroundings recalling similarly ominous openings from movies like 28 Days Later and I Am Legend. The key difference here is that the characters, plainly well-versed in this foreboding new normal, take special care not to make any noise whatsoever. Yet before long, a mistake is made, a sound is blared, and in the blink of an eye and the rustle of some leaves, a life is taken.

And with this brief and riveting and ghastly cold open, A Quiet Place announces itself as an expertly conceived and executed horror film, perhaps the best of its kind since It Follows. Combining a knockout premise—stop, hey, what’s that sound?—with white-knuckle set pieces and a bracing degree of economy, the movie both elevates your pulse and digs under your skin. It’s scary, sure, but not so scary that it prevents you from admiring it as a polished, fiendishly inventive piece of pulp art.

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Isle of Dogs: Barking Mad, and Canines Too

Bryan Cranston leads a pack of tender beasts in Wes Anderson's "Isle of Dogs"
In Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs, a corrupt and bigoted politician mongers fear to stigmatize a vulnerable class of citizenry, which he then unilaterally deports to a faraway land for the supposed safety of his voter base, despite scientific data demonstrating that this marginalized sect poses no threat to the populace. Also, there are talking dogs.

Anderson’s films are typically too micro-focused to toy with big-picture ideas, but this isn’t the first time he’s dabbled in political allegory; his last movie, The Grand Budapest Hotel, smuggled a poignant anti-fascist message inside its candy-colored packaging. The politics in Isle of Dogs are more pointed, the parallels to contemporary figures more easily drawn. But it would be a mistake to reduce this whimsical, stupendously well-made film to its symbolic elements. Anderson’s themes may be partisan, but his exquisite craftsmanship knows no ideology, except maybe perfection.

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Ready Player One: For These Teens, It's Game On or Game Over

Tye Sheridan and Olivia Cooke in Steven Spielberg's "Ready Player One"
Stop me if you’ve heard this before: An intrepid young man, living in a dystopian future, must use his pluck and ingenuity to defeat a powerful villain whose mercenary greed threatens our hero’s livelihood, along with the rest of the planet’s. In so doing, he will assemble a ragtag team of similarly disenfranchised youths, one of whom will catch his eye as a potential love interest, another of whom will support him with weapons and wisecracks. Foes will be vanquished, bonds will be forged, and while setbacks will surely be suffered (tertiary characters may even be killed), in the end, the world will almost certainly be saved.

Ready Player One, the robust and flawed film adaptation of Ernest Cline’s immensely popular book, doesn’t so much follow this familiar script as live inside it. It envisions a universe where the very act of engaging with popular art—mostly playing videogames, but also watching movies and spotting references—becomes the fulcrum of its story. It’s a recursive premise that’s less interesting than it sounds, primarily serving as the excuse for a non-stop parade of pop-culture allusions and winking asides. And perhaps in an alternate dimension—maybe one reached by traveling through some sort of vaguely defined wormhole whose laws are breathlessly explained to us in a bout of foggy exposition—Ready Player One would have been a piece of hackwork that turned out to be a tedious, imitative slog. But in our reality, it’s better than that, because in our reality, it’s been directed by Steven Spielberg.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Unsane: One Blew Into the Cuckoo's Nest

Claire Foy in Steven Soderbergh's iPhone experiment "Unsane"
A daub of acid on an exposed nerve, Steven Soderbergh’s Unsane is a charmingly nasty piece of work, full of rich colors and garish shocks. It’s a proudly ridiculous B movie, one with little sense and lots of blood. Soderbergh has made far better films—just last year, he delivered Logan Lucky, a spry and surprisingly tender heist picture—but it’s still exciting to watch him dispense with any semblance of sensitivity and just slather on the gory carnage.

With the exception of the Ocean’s Eleven movies, no two Soderbergh productions are alike. Yet his restless career has followed something of a pattern, toggling between quirky, experimental features (Full Frontal, Bubble, Che) and more brusque genre fare (Haywire, Contagion, Side Effects). Unsane may be his first film that falls into both camps. In terms of plot, it’s pure pulp, a grisly tale of violence and murder. But while Soderbergh typically flaunts his smooth craftsmanship when making mainstream material, Unsane is different, carrying none of the elegant polish that heightens the Ocean’s films. Instead, it looks cheap and DIY, almost as though it was shot on an iPhone. Which, of course, it was.

Friday, March 23, 2018

Annihilation: Sights to See, But Beware of Monsters, and Humans

Natalie Portman & Co. head into the unknown in "Annihilation"
It’s called “the Shimmer”. A kind of holographic hemisphere, it is a translucent dome of shape-shifting light and iridescent color, steadily encroaching across an unspecified swath of lightly forested land. Nobody knows where it came from, and nobody knows what it is or why it exists. All anyone knows is that once you step inside it, you never come out.

This is the tantalizing setup of Annihilation, Alex Garland’s consistently stunning, occasionally baffling thriller. A film of beguiling beauty and nightmarish horror, it is first and foremost the product of an auteur with a distinctive vision. In Ex Machina, Garland showcased a talent for taking recognizable cinematic patterns and twisting them into distorted shapes that bled with a disquieting intensity. Here, he makes that metaphorical gift literal; in Annihilation, bodies mangle and mutate, contorting into indescribable forms that blur traditional lines—between flora and fauna, between human and animal, between earthly and otherworldly. Yet it’s all so gorgeously done that it presents an intriguing contradiction. Rarely has a movie simultaneously seemed so lovely and so demented.

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