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.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Your Name.: Trading Places, and Finding Feelings

Two teens trade places in "Your Name."
Part playful comedy, part wistful romance, part sci-fi mind-bender, Your Name. (yes, the period is part of the title) is a strange and beguiling experience. It’s a movie that nimbly hopscotches between tones and across genres, but it always demonstrates firm commitment to its characters. Visually, it’s a beaut, but the loveliest thing about it is its tenderness.

The ultimate intensity of Your Name.’s emotions sneaks up on you, given that the film initially scans as a poppy Japanese update on America’s cheesy ’80s comedies. Taki (voice of Ryûnosuke Kamiki), a high school student living in the clattering hub of Tokyo, is a typical teenage protagonist—comfortable with his male pals, awkward around his female crushes, and nursing a nagging worry that his existence lacks real meaning. The same is true of Mitsuha (Mone Kamishiraishi), a dreamer living in the country village of Itomori; she has a relatively peaceful life going to school and making traditional sake, but she longs for the bustle of the big city. Residing in decidedly different worlds, Taki and Mitsuha have no connection to one another, except for one little thing: Intermittently and inexplicably, their minds get swapped into one another’s bodies.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Ghost in the Shell: All That Glitters Is Not Code

Scarlett Johansson is a troubled android in "Ghost in the Shell"
Is Scarlett Johansson superhuman? In recent years, the one-time ingénue from Lost in Translation has played an assortment of otherworldly women who fit the bill—the sociologically curious alien of Under the Skin, the cerebrally enhanced anomaly of Lucy, the preternaturally gifted warrior of the Avengers films. (The only foe whom Black Widow can’t seem to conquer is the studio that refuses to green-light her own franchise.) But even beyond her portrayals of these exceptional characters, Johansson herself has demonstrated an uncanny, seemingly inhuman ability to dig, well, under the skin, to invest her fantastical creations with quiet longing and simmering grief. That talent proves crucial to Ghost in the Shell, yet another futuristic flick about a faux-human figure wrestling with the concept of her own identity. On the page, the film’s heroine is a fascinating but familiar archetype. Johansson makes her a character.

Good thing, too. Repurposed from the hit Japanese anime from 1995, Ghost in the Shell is a brisk and surprisingly contemplative affair, but it doesn’t have much original to say about the (in)human condition. It’s easy to perceive its central story—set in a glossy dystopia where man and machine have melded—as a greatest-hits compendium of classic science-fiction cinema. There’s a dash of the chilly aesthetic of Blade Runner, a pinch of the caustic irreverence of RoboCop (though lacking the broad comedy of The Fifth Element), a heaping of the cyberpunk chic of The Matrix. Yet despite its composite nature, the dark and sleek universe of Ghost in the Shell still manages to look and feel reasonably novel. It borrows, but it doesn’t steal.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Beauty and the Beast: A Provincial Remake, But Some New Magic Flickers

Dan Stevens and Emma Watson in Disney's remake of "Beauty and the Beast"
“You can’t judge people by who their father is,” Mrs. Potts sagely intones. This preoccupation with parentage is new to this version of Beauty and the Beast, Bill Condon’s half-enchanting, half-enervating remake of the 1991 animated classic. But while Mrs. Potts’ wisdom is undeniable—she speaks in the voice of Emma Thompson, after all—it is impossible to view this latest child of Disney without considering the long shadow cast by its progenitor. Every work of art must be judged on its own terms, yet the question lingers: Was there a genuine reason to make this movie, an artistic justification beyond the piles of cash that the studio is already raking in? Or, to turn another of Mrs. Potts’ observations into a question, is there something there that wasn’t there before?

Yes and no. Operating under the all-seeing mandate of a corporate overlord, Condon and his screenwriters, Stephen Chbosky and Evan Spiliotopoulos, have transported the original’s two-dimensional drawings into spit-and-glue live action with a predictable degree of fidelity. This immediately lowers the remake’s ceiling; imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but it is perhaps the laziest form of filmmaking. Yet this new incarnation of Beauty and the Beast, while expectedly faithful to the original, is not entirely a retread. Narratively, it has some additional backstory, which is arguably extraneous but which nevertheless adds heft to the movie’s thematic interest in the bond between parents and their offspring. Musically, beyond the instantly hummable hits from one of the biggest-selling soundtracks of the ’90s, it exhibits a handful of original songs, several of which are lousy but a few of which are actually pretty good. And of course, it features the services of a litany of estimable British and American actors, who help imbue an otherwise commercial enterprise with artisanal craft.

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

Ouch.
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.


BEST DIRECTOR

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