Monday, March 14, 2011

The Manifesto's Guide to March Madness 2011

In the 2004 remake of the movie Alfie, Jude Law plays a Manhattan playboy who casually sleeps with dozens of women but resists a real relationship, partly because he's British and good-looking and just can't pass up banging countless hot chicks, but more because he can't be with a woman without seeing her flaws. "Hair on her arms," he grumbles about one former fling, dismissing an otherwise knockout blonde due to an excess of follicles. He even throws away guaranteed happiness with a perfect 10 played by Marisa Tomei (still in her extended and perhaps infinite prime) just so he can maintain some nebulous sense of masculine freedom. It's a classic character study of a commitment-phobe: Every time Alfie sees something good, he winds up running the other way.

Well, that's exactly how I feel about college basketball this year. Every time I think about backing a potential NCAA tournament champion, all I can see are its flaws. The main difference between Alfie and me – well, other than the fact that he got laid six times a week, whereas I spent roughly four hours every day watching basketball for the past three months – is that Alfie was an idiot who couldn't appreciate the beauty of what sat right in from of him. I, however, am not so deluded, as the objects of my affection – namely the 68 teams vying for this year's NCAA title – are all more flawed than the characters in The Social Network.

Let's just take a sampling of the top contenders: Ohio State has no killer instinct. Kansas has character issues. Pitt lacks a creator. North Carolina has no depth. Duke relies too much on perimeter shooting. Notre Dame has no inside scoring. Texas is coached by Rick Barnes. UCLA can't bring John Wooden back from the dead.

Of course, that this year's top-tier teams are all impressively flawed is hardly surprising in the current era of college basketball, in which the dynasties of old have been replaced with an oppressive sense of parity. Take away home-court advantage, and virtually any team can lose on any given night. From a fan's point of view, this makes college hoops tremendous fun these days, as the competition invariably results in games that are both highly unpredictable and closely contested. But from a prognosticator's perspective, it's a nightmare. How are you supposed to pick a team to win six consecutive games in March when every time you look at that team, all you see is how many different ways it can lose?

Here's the rub: I am an obsessive basketball fan, and never have I watched more basketball in my life than I have this year. Yet paradoxically, I have never felt less confident in making my picks. The 2011 NCAA Tournament is that much of a crapshoot.

And let's not forget the inherent randomness of March Madness. I picked fifth-seeded Butler to reach the Final Four last year, which is easily one of the greatest achievements of my entire life, up there with going undefeated in the regular season in high school tennis for three straight years, along with that one time I watched 11 consecutive episodes of "24" without ever leaving my sofa. Everyone thought I was insane for picking Butler, and the Bulldogs came within that shot of winning the championship.

Here's the thing though: Butler almost lost last year ... to Murray State in the second round. That game was tied at 50 with less than a minute left, and if Gordon Hayward hadn't deflected a last-second pass, my purported fortunetelling brilliance might have crumbled into dust faster than Julian Glover at the end of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. That's just how the tourney works.

But that's why it's so much fun. The odds of me correctly forecasting this year's Final Four are roughly equivalent to the odds of the NCAA tapping Jim Calhoun to teach an ethics seminar, but that just makes it a more worthwhile challenge. So here we go with the Manifesto's official guide to March Madness, region by region. (Here's a blank bracket so you can follow along.)

The jungle: This region is absolutely loaded. The selection committee is taking plenty of (deserved) flak for some of its questionable inclusions (UAB?) at the expense of more worthy clubs (Colorado?), but its inability to evenly apportion the best teams across the four regions represents its biggest failure. Kentucky is one of the scariest teams in the country – they have an RPI of 7 and just demolished all comers in the SEC Tournament – and they're a four seed? Unacceptable.

The top seed: Ohio State is a good basketball team. They feature one of the only true low-post scorers in the country (freshman Jared Sullinger), a point guard whose play is so poised that his favorite band has to be The Hold Steady (freshman Aaron Kraft), a lights-out three-point shooter (Jon Diebler, who canned a preposterous 17 of 20 threes during a two-game stretch earlier this month), a sturdy swingman who can score in the mid-range (William Buford), and an experienced glue guy who does all the little things and never complains (senior David Lighty). They're well-coached, they defend, and they can score both inside and out.

That said, for such a complete team, the Buckeyes have an alarming tendency to allow opponents to hang around. Six of their wins were by five points or less, not to mention their recent overtime squeaker against Northwestern in the Big Ten Tournament. On the plus side, this means that they've proven they can win close games and won't buckle under pressure. On the minus side, it illustrates that they lack killer instinct, which could bite them against stronger competition. Just keep that in mind when you're considering filling them in as your national champion.

The enigma: Ever since much-maligned point guard Larry Drew "transferred" midseason (assuming his teammates didn't make him an offer he couldn't refuse), North Carolina has looked like one of the best teams in the country. Kendall Marshall is a smart point guard with superb court vision, John Henson and Tyler Zeller are forces in the paint (defensively and offensively, respectively), and alleged phenom Harrison Barnes – perhaps upon glancing at the draft boards on and realizing he was slipping out of the top 10 – suddenly started showcasing the skills that made him the top recruit in this year's class. It's an impressive team, if a thin one (the drop-off in talent from the aforementioned four studs to the team's remaining regulars is precipitous).

Yet the Tar Heels frequently look disinterested and lethargic, turning their talent on in spurts but sleepwalking for long stretches of games. This lackadaisical play came to a head during the ACC Tournament, when Carolina fell behind by 19 points to Miami before storming back, then trailed virtually the entire game against Clemson before Barnes invoked the spirit of Michael Jordan and dropped 40 points to lead another impossible comeback. They tried a similar tactic in the final against Duke, only their second-half run stalled when Barnes missed an open three that would have cut the lead to seven, and the Blue Devils subsequently pulled away. The lesson is simple: If you're as talented as the Tar Heels, you can relax against teams such as Miami and Clemson and get away with it, but you can't do it against high-caliber competition. And that's why they won't be able to beat Ohio State.

The impostor: The Big East landed 11 teams in this year's field, easily a record for a single conference. As a result, you might think a sensible strategy would be to ride as many Big East teams as possible. So why can't I watch Big East basketball without reflexively covering my eyes like I'm watching the scourging scene from The Passion of the Christ? Every Big East game this year seemed to involve two teams that (1) played aggressive defense, (2) were extremely athletic, and (3) executed their half-court offenses as if they were high school JV clubs. With the exception of a composed Notre Dame squad, every team in the Big East is a nightmare to watch on offense. (I remember watching Villanova-Syracuse with my friend Beale, and the quality of play was so bad, Beale kept screaming every five minutes as if he had Tourette's.) West Virginia is no exception. The Mountaineers landed a five seed because of their conference, but it doesn't make them any good.

The headliner: Mark it down: A potential Sweet Sixteen matchup between Ohio State and Kentucky may be the most exciting game of the entire tournament, much less the third round. As I've mentioned, this Kentucky team scares the hell out of me. Terrence Jones is a tremendous talent who can score from anywhere on the court, Josh Harrellson may be the best per-minute rebounder in the country, Doron Lamb and Darius Miller defend and make plays, and Brandon Knight ... well, Brandon Knight is a bit of a wildcard, but he can carry the team when he's on. I was all set to take Kentucky as my sleeper pick for the Final Four until the committee decided the Wildcats should face the top overall seed in the Sweet 16. Damn them.

The snub: Georgia was widely considered a bubble team that lost its chance to make the field of 64 68 when it lost to Alabama for the second time (thanks to an unforgivable timeout from coach Mark Fox that made Chris Webber's gaffe in the '93 championship game look innocuous by comparison). Somehow they landed a freaking 10 seed. Meanwhile, UAB played one ranked team all year (and lost) and somehow squeaked in.

Now, on paper, the two teams with the best case for making the field over the likes of Georgia and UAB are Colorado and Virginia Tech. But the snub that really breaks my heart is Saint Mary's, because I was all set to take the Gaels to the Elite Eight behind the play of Mickey McConnell, possibly the best player in the country no one's ever heard of. Everyone raves about Jimmer Fredette, and rightly so, but McConnell's shooting percentages (51% from the field, 46% from three, and 91% from the line) are reminiscent of Steve Nash. He's a heady player who always makes the right decision and consistently gives his team a chance to win. America deserved to watch him play in March.

The Picks
Play-in games: Texas-San Antonio over Alabama State, Clemson over UAB.

Sweet 16: Ohio State over George Mason, Kentucky over Clemson, Syracuse over Xavier, North Carolina over Washington.

Regional Final: OHIO STATE over North Carolina.

The jumble: At first glance, this region appears weak. Duke was the lowest-ranked #1 seed, San Diego State plays in the Mountain West and played a creampuff nonconference schedule, and Uconn finished 9-9 in regular season play in the Big East. But let's not forget that the regional final takes place in Anaheim, where San Diego State could have a major crowd advantage. Furthermore, as with Kentucky, Texas is a ferocious #4 seed (I'd pegged them as a #2 seed heading into the selection show). Overall, it's probably the second-weakest region, but it's closer in caliber to the strong Southwest than it is to the embarrassingly bad Southeast.

The top seed: This Duke team is not quite an elite ballclub, but neither was last year's, and all that team did was win the title. The Blue Devils have a Player of the Year candidate in Nolan Smith, a triple-threat guard who defends and doesn't shrink from big moments. They have two sharpshooting guards in Seth Curry and Andre Dawkins, plus a pair of athletic bigs in the Plumlee brothers, both of whom have come on of late. And they have Mike Krzyzewski, which is usually (though not always – see the St. John's debacle from earlier this year) a good thing.

They also have Kyle Singler, my favorite college player since J.J. Redick and potentially one of the best all-around players in the country. I say "potentially" because, for all of the things Singler does well – he's turned himself into an elite perimeter defender, he's offensively versatile in that he can out-quick bigger defenders and out-muscle smaller players, and he's an absolute iron man (he hasn't played fewer than 36 minutes in a game since mid-February) – he won't be truly complete until he discovers who illicitly sold his jumpshot on eBay (he's shooting a horrendous 10% from three over his last nine games). For Duke to win six straight games, they'll need Singler – one of the best players in the school's history – to produce on both ends of the floor.

But Singler's shooting woes embody Duke's Achilles' heel as a unit: They're a perimeter team. Smith is a capable penetrator, especially when driving to his right, but he's as likely to drive-and-kick as he is to finish at the rim, meaning Curry, Dawkins et al. need to be able to knock down open shots. As with most Duke teams, this one's loaded with players who can shoot (including Ryan Kelly, a steady sophomore who's primed for a big season next year), but they're also liable to go cold, and when that happens, they're in trouble.

The incalculable loss: I don't have too much to say about Kyrie Irving. When your team loses the best player in the entire country eight games into the season due to some mystifying toe injury and still lands a number one seed, it's been an impressive season regardless of how it turns out. Suffice it to say that if Irving were healthy, Duke would win the championship. That is not an opinion.

(And if Irving just happens to pull a Willis Reed in the Final Four ...)

The mirage: Don't get me wrong, Kemba Walker is a talented basketball player, and Uconn's blitzkrieg through the Big East Tournament was an astonishing display of athleticism and determination. But that doesn't change the fact that the team simply isn't that good. They have no inside scoring, their perimeter players are wildly inconsistent (three of their regulars shoot less than 40% from the field), and their halfcourt strategy seems to be, "Let's pass the ball around for 28 seconds, then let Walker create". There's a reason they lost four out of their last five regular season games.

Now, it's tempting to think that a player of Walker's caliber can carry a team that plays solid defense and scores in transition. I can buy that for 3-4 games, but six? What happens if he gets in foul trouble? What if a smart team throws a box-and-one at him and forces Shabazz Napier and Roscoe Smith to make plays? What happens if he simply has an off night? He can't win the title by himself.

The nightmare matchup: If a duel between Ohio State and Kentucky is a dream matchup for a general basketball, a contest between Duke and Texas is downright terrifying to Blue Devil fans. This Texas team is athletic, they rebound (ranked fifth in the nation), and as my buddy Mike pointed out, they'll have two tough defenders (Dogus Balbay and Cory Joseph) to throw at Nolan Smith. That they're the only team to beat Kansas at Kansas in the last two years is not an accident. If Rick Barnes weren't involved, I'd be picking Texas to reach the Final Four.

Of course, such a nightmare might remain a mere spectre that haunts my dreams, because Texas might lose to Oakland in the first round. The Longhorns have lost four of their last eight games, including an epic choke against Colorado in which they blew a 22-point lead and played as if God had turned on the "CPU Assist" button in favor of the Buffaloes. Am I really supposed to pick this team to make the Elite Eight? Are we sure there have to be eight teams in the Elite Eight?

(Seriously, can you believe that a year ago there was talk of expanding the tournament field to ninety-six teams? Given this slate of mediocre clubs, I'd be willing to consider reducing the number of eligible teams to 48.)

The farce: Remember that hilarious SportsCenter commercial in which Kenny Mayne and Stuart Scott play basketball with a bunch of kids and flip out whenever the kids did something wrong? I think of that commercial whenever I watch Derrick Williams play on Arizona. A potential top-three pick in the draft (how many freakishly athletic 6'8" forwards shoot 60% from three?), Williams playing in the Pac-10 is like Peyton Manning playing in a Pee Wee league. By all accounts, he's a good teammate, but I can totally see him snapping the next time Kyle Fogg throws up a brick. "When I pass it to you, give it right back. GIVE IT BACK!"

The Picks
Sweet 16: Duke over Michigan, Texas over Arizona, Uconn over Cincinnati, Temple over San Diego State.

Regional Final: DUKE over Temple.

(For the record, I've flip-flopped roughly 35 times on the outcome of that Duke-Texas game. I'm likely still not done.)

The right stuff: This is a strong, well-balanced region – not as loaded as the East, but not as barren as the Southeast. With the exception of Georgetown landing a #6 seed (because Chris Wright is supposedly coming back completely healthy from a broken hand, sure), I can't say a bad thing about this region. And that's rare for me.

The top seed: Part of me thinks that Kansas is the most complete team in the country; part of me thinks the Jayhawks would rather be playing beer pong than focusing on winning a national championship. But when in doubt, I tend to choose talent over character, and make no mistake – Kansas has talent. Brady Morningstar and Tyrell Reed combine to form a steady backcourt, Thomas Robinson is a load inside, and Marcus Morris might be the most underrated player in the country (and he still won Big 12 Player of the Year). They would probably be my clear favorite if Bill Self weren't constantly jerking freshman stud Josh Selby around like he's trying to emulate Jon Voight in Varsity Blues. Still, as long as they keep their heads in the game, the Jayhawks will make it to Houston.

The quiet ones: Notre Dame is hardly an imposing team on the court and would be an afterthought in the overall tournament picture, if it weren't for the irritating fact that they hardly ever lose a game. In a conference defined by athleticism and toughness, the Irish make their living through patience, execution, and perimeter shooting. Could they get riled against a hard-nosed Florida State squad? Sure. Could they ride Ben Hansbrough's decision-making and court savvy to a Final Four berth? It's entirely possible. Basically, I have no idea what to make of them.

The noisy ones: Purdue features one phenomenal talent (JaJuan Johnson, a high-flying big man with shooting touch), one sturdy senior who's capable of taking over a game (E'Twaun Moore), and a bunch of gritty role players who defend, hustle, and generally make life miserable for the opposing team. That's exactly the kind of roster that can give Notre Dame problems, and it's also a roster that has no chance of beating Kansas. Sometimes, things just shake out that way.

The lucky ones: By all accounts, VCU has no business playing in the tournament. They've lost five of their last eight games, they beat one ranked team all year, and they finished third in the Colonial. So why do I feel like they could parlay their good fortune into a serious run, at least beating an overrated Georgetown squad and possibly making Purdue sweat?

The unlucky ones: I like Louisville. I like Kansas more.

The Picks
Play-in game: VCU over USC.

Sweet 16: Kansas over UNLV, Louisville over Richmond, Purdue over VCU, Notre Dame over Florida State.

Regional Final: KANSAS over Purdue.

The wasteland: What a mess. Are the people who placed the teams in this region the same people who are currently negotiating the NFL's labor dispute? I honestly think that the East and the Southeast engaged in secret trade talks, whereby the Southeast sent Kentucky and North Carolina to the East in exchange for Florida, Wisconsin, and the right to host the top overall seed in 2013. There's no other explanation for this putrid collection of teams.

The top seed: If this year's NCAA Tournament were Super Mario Kart, Pitt would be Luigi. It's a team that does everything reasonably well but nothing extraordinarily well. They play defense, they rebound, they're physical, they have one dead-eye shooter (Ashton Gibbs), and they have a sneakily talented all-around player in Brad Wanamaker. And yet, no one on this Pitt team scares me. It's one thing to have a balanced squad; it's another not to have a go-to-guy in crunch-time. Can a team with no stars really make the Final Four?

The fraud: I've been secretly rooting for Florida to do well in the regular season, just so they could get a high seed and inevitably choke in the tournament. I certainly got the first half of my wish, as the Gators inexplicably landed a two seed. The only problem is that every other team in their half of the region is as bad as they are. Nevertheless, I dislike this team. They're led by two guards (Kenny Boynton and Erving Walker) who don't like to pass, make bad decisions, and are inefficient shooters (Boynton shoots just 38% overall and 33% from three). Their big guys are talented but don't get enough touches because their guards don't share the ball. And their best player, small forward Chandler Parsons, is a liability in close games because he shoots 56% from the free-throw line. And they could feasibly reach the Final Four. The Southeast is that bad.

The scouting report: Alright, here's the Manifesto's take on BYU's Jimmer Fredette: Obviously he's a remarkable collegiate player who deserves to be National Player of the Year. But what's his pro stock? Fredette has two major strengths: unlimited shooting range, and an uncanny ability to wriggle into the lane and get his shot off against bigger players. The first should translate just fine to the NBA, but the second will not – Fredette just won't be able to create his own shot at the next level. But that doesn't mean he won't be a reliable scorer off the bench. He's a willing passer with decent vision, and if he works on his defense (given his size, he'll need to defend shooting guards), he could be a valuable role player on a good team. Just don't expect him to drop 52 points against NBA defenses.

In any case, as good as Fredette is, BYU is obviously toast without Brandon Davies. Ever since Davies – the Cougars' lone athletic big man and leading rebounder – was suspended for engaging in some hanky-panky that violated the university's honor code, the team has been in a tailspin, and there's no reason to expect that to change against a high-energy team such as St. John's. That'll teach Davies to have consensual sex with his girlfriend.

The great unknowns: In case you couldn't tell, the amount of college basketball I've watched over the past few months could charitably be described as "unhealthy". And yet, I never managed to catch either Utah State or Belmont. I did, however, watch plenty of both Kansas State and Wisconsin, and I saw more than enough to know that I'm not backing either team against an opponent who's won 30 games. All hail the second-round matchup between 12 and 13 seeds!

The vendetta: Every year, I predict Michigan State to lose in the first or second round, always citing their poor regular season performance. And every year, they advance further than I predict, reaching the Final Four six times in the past 12 years. Well guess what? I'm picking against them again this year. They lost 14 games this season, and they haven't won three in a row since November. You will have to kill me, Tom Izzo. I'm like Lee J. Cobb in 12 Angry Men – I am the last holdout. I will never vote for you while I am alive.

The sleeper: I recognize that ritual requires me to pick at least one team from this wretched region to reach the Final Four. I've already written off the top five seeds (Pitt, Florida, BYU, Wisconsin, and Kansas State). St. John's is intriguing, but the Red Storm are too inconsistent to win four straight games in March. UCLA hails from that wilderness called the Pac-10. Butler doesn't have Gordon Hayward anymore. I'm tempted to write in "Saint Mary's", but ESPN's bracket interface won't let me. Which means I'm left with ...

... Old Dominion.

Sure, it's a stretch, but it's not unfathomable. Old Dominion is good. They've won 13 of their last 14 games. Their only bad loss all season was to VCU. They play a brutal, suffocating zone. They're seventh in the nation in rebounding. And if they pull off a win against Pitt in the second round (basically a home game for ODU in D.C.), the entire New Orleans crowd will be vigorously behind them in the region's final two games.

Besides, I'm taking three #1 seeds in the other three regions, so I need to shake things up a little. It's that kind of year.

The Picks
Play-in game: UNC-Ashville over Arkansas-Little Rock.

Sweet 16: Old Dominion over Pitt, Utah State over Belmont, St. John's over BYU, UCLA over Florida.

Regional Final: OLD DOMINION over St. John's.

Semifinal #1: The only reason I'm picking Duke to get past Texas is that Mike Krzyzewski might be able to out-coach Rick Barnes. He won't be able to do the same to Thad Motta. Ohio State over Duke.

Semifinal #2: If I have the balls to pick Old Dominion to make the Final Four, doesn't that mean I should ride them all the way and back them to beat Kansas? No.

Championship: In a battle between the two most talented teams in the country, I'll take KANSAS' depth and balance over Ohio State's firepower.

And that's a wrap to the Manifesto's guide to March Madness 2011. I look forward to getting most of this wrong, but no matter what happens, I still have this from last year.

Monday, March 7, 2011

2011 gets off to a hot start

I call it "December Syndrome". It's the strategy whereby movie studios, believing that Oscar voters have short memories, wait to release their best films until as late in the year as possible. Case in point: Of the 10 Best Picture nominees in 2010, four arrived in theatres in December, while only one (Toy Story 3) was available to the public at large prior to July. Similarly, of the past 14 Best Picture winners, eight were released in December, while only two (Gladiator and Crash) came out in the first half of the year.

It's hard to blame studios for sticking with a pattern that works, and as long as voters keep paying homage to movies released late in the season, the months of October through December will continue to constitute a glut of cinematic glory. But the unfortunate byproduct of December Syndrome is that it turns the multiplex into a veritable wasteland for the first half of the year. If you crave high-quality entertainment prior to the summer solstice, you'd better be prepared to burrow into your Netflix account

The months of January through April are particularly barren. Indeed, over the past eight years, of the 80 movies that have appeared on the Manifesto's annual top 10 lists, only five (Adventureland, Duplicity, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, and Sin City) were released prior to May in their respective years. Obviously that's just one viewer's subjective opinion, but I think it paints a fairly representative picture of the cinematic calendar, and it suggests a rather sober truth: Good movies just don't come out early in the year anymore.

Or so I thought. Happily, 2011 is showing signs of reversing the trend. Not only have I already seen two excellent movies this year; I saw them on back-to-back days. Of course, this is hardly dispositive evidence – for all I know, I won't see another good movie until the final Harry Potter film arrives in July. But this past weekend's one-two punch of Rango and The Adjustment Bureau represents one of the best weekends I've had at the theatre in years. Naturally, the two films could hardly be more different, though they do share one trait: They're both stupendously entertaining.

Rango, which is Gore Verbinski's first feature since the third installment in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise (one of the Manifesto's favorite trilogies, and Exhibit A of the massive gulf between my own taste and that of proper critics), is a magnificent curiosity, both agreeably familiar and wildly original. On one level, it's a traditional western about a solitary drifter played by a movie star (Johnny Depp) who rides into a dusty town that's rife with corruption and who must save the citizenry from seemingly certain doom. On another level, it's an animated movie about a lizard with theatrical aspirations who receives a vision quest from a nearly-severed armadillo and whose travails are narrated by a mariachi quartet who just happen to be owls. So it's safe to say you've never seen anything like Rango, even if you've seen it a hundred times before.

Part of the fun of Rango – and the movie, much like Verbinski's Pirates films, provides just so much fun – lies in its gleeful homage to the classic westerns of yesteryear. In creating the aptly named town of Dirt, the art department concocts a landscape of dust, drought, and tumbleweeds, while the saloons are so shadowy and menacing that you half-expect to walk into a gunfight between Lee Marvin and John Wayne. The plot, in which nefarious evildoers have drained the town of its water supply, instantly recalls Chinatown, while Rango invariably finds himself partaking in gun duels in the sun. Depp's drug-addled character from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas makes a sudden appearance, while Clint Eastwood's archetypal gunslinger from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (voiced flavorfully by Timothy Olyphant) drops in for a rueful cameo, poncho and all (in a coy postmodern touch, he's even referred to as "the man with no name").

Having more fun than anyone is composer Hans Zimmer, who, fresh off soundtracking the dream worlds of Inception, delivers an aural pastiche that pays obvious tribute to the timeless spaghetti scores of Ennio Morricone. Zimmer is best known for his brawny, electronic-infused scores on movies such as The Dark Knight, but his work on Rango is entirely classical, if jovial. He has the gall to ape the famous "Rise of the Valkyries" sequence from Apocalypse Now, only replacing the brassy trumpets with a banjo, while his main theme features a lilting flute. It's some of the most innovative and colorful work in his storied career.

But apart from its sly send-ups of past films, Rango has virtues all its own, most notably in its wacky, off-kilter personality. The voice work is strong, especially Depp, who showcases the same offbeat sensibility he brought to Capt. Jack Sparrow, along with Bill Nighy as the malevolent Rattlesnake Jake, a venomous villain whose rattle doubles as a machine gun. John Logan's dialogue is full of delightful non sequiturs ("Irrelevant! Obfuscation."), with the owls serving as a demented Greek chorus. (My personal favorite: "And so the stranger basks in the adulation of his new friends, sinking deeper into the guacamole of his own deception.")

Visually, the movie is resplendent. The first animated film from George Lucas' Industrial Lights and Magic, Rango is dazzlingly bright but also grimy and gritty, as befits its western locale. The textures are beautifully detailed, from the title character's scaly skin to the dust motes that clutter the frontier. Moreover, Verbinski brings a maestro's discipline to his action sequences, which are energetic but not disorienting, meaning we can actually comprehend who's going where.

Rango isn't perfect. The ultimate resolution is a bit ordinary for a film of such sparkling verve, and the romance between Rango and his designated love interest never quite pops. But those are quibbles. When a film treats its audience to a shot such as the one below – an image that encapsulates the epic sweep of an entire genre that also happens to feature a lizard riding a chicken – we're hard-pressed not to bask in the glory of the sunset.

The Adjustment Bureau
carries a whiff of Rango's gung-ho spirit, though it channels that energy in markedly different ways. On the surface, it's a dystopian metaphysical thriller about a man fighting against his own fate. The forces working against him are, quite literally, the agents of God, and the film addresses such weighty philosophical topics as predestination vs. free will and the fundamental flaws of humanity. It's a high-concept picture that occasionally seems as though it was scripted by a devotee of 2001: A Space Odyssey who did a bit too much LSD.

Yet the best and most important scene in The Adjustment Bureau is entirely bereft of any element of science-fiction, philosophy, or even action. It takes place in a hotel bathroom and involves an ordinary, mundane conversation between a man and a woman. Or it would be mundane, were it not for the crackling chemistry between Matt Damon and Emily Blunt, who play David and Elise, the two lovers at the epicenter of the movie's vertiginous spiral. It's a simple meet-cute – he's practicing his speech in the men's room, where she's hiding from security – that transforms into an exhilarating patter between two intelligent, sexually hungry people who are irresistibly and forever drawn to each other. There's just one problem: God doesn't approve.

The reason The Adjustment Bureau works so well is that it anchors its metaphysical goofiness in the problems and feelings of very real people. The basic thrust of the movie is that David, upon falling in love with Elise, learns that powerful forces are determined to keep them apart, only he refuses to acquiesce – that is, he is simply incapable of giving up on his true love. Accordingly, the success of the entire film hinges on that opening scene. If we are honestly to believe that David would do everything in his power (and a few things beyond his power) to reunite with Elise, then the bond that forms between them must be both pure and visceral.

And Damon and Blunt play it perfectly. In both the initial meet-cute and a chance encounter (or is it?) on a bus shortly thereafter, they instantaneously exude lust, longing, and actual love. It helps that they're both spectacularly good-looking; in our minds, keeping such bastions of beauty apart would be nothing short of sinful. But it's more about the electricity that surrounds them. George Nolfi's dialogue buffets the characters' words back and forth like a fencing match, and the actors seize on the dialogue. David, a young and already jaded politician, can sense the presence of authenticity, and Damon plays this recognition with baffled, awestruck wonder. Blunt, for her part, is an absolute firecracker, commanding her foil's attention with the slightest lean of her lithe body. Watching them, we recognize that they're meant to be together.

Except, of course, they're not. David quickly finds himself face-to-face with an army of "case officers" clad in monochrome suits and clutching books that seem to be continually writing themselves. Their affiliation is ambiguous, but their powers are unassailable, and their message is equally clear: Stay away from Elise.

What follows is a dizzying series of improbable events, buttressed by some philosophical ruminations on world history and the nature of man. All of this is preposterous; it is also tremendous fun. You can't put a price on the exchange between David and a particularly severe adjuster named Thompson (an effective Terence Stamp), when David wonders what happened to free will, and Thompson replies, "We tried free will. Didn't work.".

Yet I don't mean to imply that I'm mocking The Adjustment Bureau. It is, to its great credit, a movie about big ideas, and it approaches those ideas with a seriousness that's generally anathema to the multiplex. Nolfi, adapting a short story by sci-fi legend Philip K. Dick and also making his directorial debut, shows an ability to ask probing, academic questions while constantly pushing the pace and upping the stakes. He also expresses his ideas visually, such as in a magnificent shot in which the camera lingers on two lovers sprawled on a bed in apparent bliss, then pans down to reveal a figure watching over them with questionable intentions.

Casting is crucial in any movie that stakes its success on romantic chemistry, and The Adjustment Bureau gets it right. Damon served as the ideal Jason Bourne because he could be both intense and oddly blank, and that latter quality informs his character's cynicism toward politics; it also allows him to bounce from playing the sleepwalking, speechifying candidate to the earnest, smitten champion. Blunt has the more challenging role because she's required to exude exasperation and confusion as well as emotion, and she nails it – the fear on Elise's face when her world is suddenly turned upside-down is hauntingly real. Meanwhile, John Slattery slips into the well-oiled shoes of a high-level adjuster with supreme ease.

For a movie that takes as many nervy chances as The Adjustment Bureau does, it's unsurprising that not all of them work. The final voiceover is far too on-the-nose and should have been excised, while some of the plot contortions feel forced. But perhaps that sense of narrative suddenness is only fitting in a film that has the temerity to suggest – with a straight face, no less – that we're all moving along some preordained path that can be continuously adjusted.

Walking out of the theatre, I gushed to my father how much I enjoyed the movie, and he stoically replied, "Well, you're a romantic". Indeed I am, and a hopeless one at that. My three favorite films of the past decade were Atonement (a love story between an aristocrat and her gardener), Spider-Man 2 (a love story between a superhero and the girl next door), and Wall-E (a love story between two robots who can't talk). There's something singularly satisfying about watching a movie that properly captures the giddiness of falling in love and the desperation of losing that feeling. The Adjustment Bureau, for all its metaphysical ambitions and penetrating societal insights, is at its heart about the existence of love and its transcendent value. It's about a simple, cockamamie belief that's so crazy it has to be true: Love can change the world.

And that was my weekend at the movies. I never imagined I'd say this, but if the rest of 2011 can keep pace with the first weekend in March, it's going to be an awfully good year.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Oscars Analysis 2010: Recap

For someone who's completely obsessive about the awards handed out at the Oscars, I'm somewhat indifferent about the actual Oscars themselves. That's because the Academy Awards telecast, often dubbed the "Super Bowl for women", is a showcase for high fashion ("you're talking about fashion? you?"), banal stargazing, and inoffensive self-congratulation, absolutely none of which interests me. Don't get me wrong, I still view the Oscars as the most important event of the year in terms of cinematic recognition; I just think the show itself is a bit of a bore.

That said, this year's telecast has taken a relentless drubbing of criticism, and I'll venture that it wasn't that bad. Yes, James Franco was lifeless and disinterested, the original song performances remain a gigantic snooze, and most of the speeches were bland and uninspired. But the show had its share of moments, including Robert Downey, Jr.'s and Jude Law's rat-a-tat chemistry, Kirk Douglas reaching back for a mid-90s fastball, Billy Crystal's welcome cameo, and Jennifer Lawrence showing up in a stunning red dress and sending thousands of horny teenagers to their laptops to desperately Google "Jennifer Lawrence Esquire photo shoot". Plus Anne Hathaway did her damnedest to compensate for Franco's apathy with an abundance of boisterous energy, most memorably in an amusing rendition of Les Misérables' "On My Own". So while the 2010 Academy Awards telecast was hardly memorable, it was by no means a catastrophe.

(Personally, my favorite moment came during the Best Actress presentation, when a friend of mine, who shall remain nameless in order to protect his identity/relationship, texted me, "Whoa, who the fuck is Jennifer Lawrence and why is she so hot?" To answer the first question, she's the highly talented star of Winter's Bone, and although only 43 people in America saw that movie, mainstream audiences will have the opportunity to savor her this summer as Mystique in X-Men: First Class. To answer the second, I'll let that photo shoot speak for itself.)

Regardless, I tune into the Oscars for the awards, not the spectacle. As far as my predictions turned out, I – much like the show – delivered a thoroughly mediocre performance. I hit on 15 of 21 categories, and while that's hardly a disastrous showing, it's two off from my 17-for-21 mark at last year's Oscars. That said, it was a relatively difficult slate this year, so it's hard to be too disappointed. Besides, next year I can devote countless hours to the same pursuit in an effort to bounce back. (As if I needed an excuse.)

Alright, let's put a bow on the 2010 Oscar season and rip through the categories, with some brief (no, really) commentary for each. In order of the presentation of the awards:

Best Art Direction
Predicted winner: Alice in Wonderland
Actual winner: Alice in Wonderland

This was an early victory for me, as I had been concerned about a broad sweep in the technical categories for The King's Speech. I needn't have worried in that regard, as the high-prestige drama failed to pick up a single craft award.

Best Cinematography
Predicted winner: True Grit – Roger Deakins
Actual winner: Inception – Wally Pfister

Probably my biggest whiff of the night (I had labeled my confidence in True Grit as 3/5). I was convinced poor Roger Deakins would get off the schnide, but the Academy went with the more technically impressive picture overall. I had my issues with certain areas of Pfister's photographical style, but the film's visuals on the whole are magnificent, so I can hardly complain.

Best Supporting Actress
Predicted winner: Hailee Steinfeld – True Grit
Actual winner: Melissa Leo – The Fighter

The lone major category that was up for grabs, and I choked. Unfortunately, Leo's legacy will likely be that she dropped an f-bomb during her speech, when she really should be remembered for robbing Hailee Steinfeld. On the plus side, Kirk Douglas' meandering, unapologetically senile presentation of the award was phenomenal.

Best Animated Feature
Predicted winner: Toy Story 3
Actual winner: Toy Story 3

No bragging points here, as another victory in this category for Pixar was an absolute lock. For what it's worth, I cracked up at Justin Timberlake's confession to Mila Kunis, "I'm Banksy," even if I was only one of eight people in the country who laughed.

Best Adapted Screenplay
Predicted winner: The Social Network – Aaron Sorkin
Actual winner: The Social Network – Aaron Sorkin

It wasn't the only victory of the night for The Social Network, but it was the most important, as well as the most deserved.

Best Original Screenplay
Predicted winner: The King's Speech – David Seidler
Actual winner: The King's Speech – David Seidler

I'll admit that after Inception's surprise victory for cinematography, I was pulling for an upset here, but it wasn't to be. Kudos to first-time winner Seidler for perhaps the line of the night, when the 73-year-old informed the audience, "My father always said to me I'd be a late bloomer". Indeed.

Best Foreign Language Film
Predicted winner: Biutiful
Actual winner: In a Better World

I had absolutely zero confidence in my pick here, so I'm hardly surprised I was wrong. I look forward to catching up with Susanne Bier's latest, highly regarded film on Netflix in 2014. Also, Russell Brand and Helen Mirren showcased more chemistry in presenting this award than James Franco and Anne Hathaway displayed in the entire show.

Best Supporting Actor
Predicted winner: Christian Bale – The Fighter
Actual winner: Christian Bale – The Fighter

I should hope so.

Best Original Score
Predicted winner: The Social Network – Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross
Actual winner: The Social Network – Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross

Probably my best call of the night, as many pundits had pegged The King's Speech here. It was at this point that I started talking myself into David Fincher winning for Best Director. I hate it when I talk myself into things.

Best Sound Mixing
Predicted winner: Inception
Actual winner: Inception

The most technologically savvy movie of 2010 had no difficulty grabbing its share of Oscars, as it actually tied The King's Speech with four.

Best Sound Editing
Predicted winner: Inception
Actual winner: Inception


Best Makeup
Predicted winner: The Wolfman
Actual winner: The Wolfman

My favorite part of this category was when they showed clips of Benicio del Toro's various transformations, and my mother covered her eyes and groaned, "Tell me when it's over". I remember doing the exact same thing while watching The Fountain, only I had to keep my eyes covered for an hour and a half.

Best Costume Design
Predicted winner: The King's Speech
Actual winner: Alice in Wonderland

Prior to the ceremony, I'd likened The King's Speech performance at the Oscars to that of Slumdog Millionaire, which used its coattails to bring in eight total trophies. As it turned out, the more appropriate doppelganger was No Country for Old Men, which also won for its screenplay, director, and one of its actors but failed to garner any additional awards (you know, other than Best Picture). And the similarities between the two movies pretty much end there.

Best Documentary
Predicted winner: Inside Job
Actual winner: Inside Job

Ha! Take that, Banksy! And I hadn't even seen any of the nominees. Then again, perhaps that indicates that my fervent efforts to watch effort Oscar-nominated movie (outside of this category) is simply a waste of time. I don't want to think about this, let's just move on.

Best Visual Effects
Predicted winner: Inception
Actual winner: Inception

You were expecting something else? Also, Downey, Jr. and Law absolutely demolished their presentation and made a strong case for hosting next year. Then again, it's probably easier to come off as winning and natural when you're only on stage for three minutes as opposed to three hours.

Best Film Editing
Predicted winner: The King's Speech – Tariq Anwar
Actual winner: The Social Network – Kirk Baxter, Angus Wall

Kudos to the Academy here for not just tagging along with the Best Picture frontrunner and recognizing the superlative editing work in The Social Network. Poor Fincher must have considered himself the favorite for Best Director at this point.

Best Original Song
Predicted winner: Tangled – "I See the Light" (Alan Menken, Glenn Slater)
Actual winner: Toy Story 3 – "We Belong Together" (Randy Newman)

Boring song. Decent speech. Whatever. This category can get lost.

Best Director
Predicted winner: Tom Hooper – The King's Speech
Actual winner: Tom Hooper – The King's Speech

And this represented the one true moment of suspense on Oscar night. Following moderately surprising victories for editing and original score, The Social Network had positioned itself, if not to walk away with the big prize, then at least to see its mastermind receive recognition. No such luck.

Best Actress
Predicted winner: Natalie Portman – Black Swan
Actual winner: Natalie Portman – Black Swan

Anyone else disappointed that Mila Kunis didn't present this award as well?

Best Actor
Predicted winner: Colin Firth – The King's Speech
Actual winner: Colin Firth – The King's Speech

A friend of mine gambled on the Oscars, which can be sensible in certain situations. But it made me wonder: How high would the odds have had to be for me to pick someone other than Colin Firth here? I think I would have required a 500-to-1 return on my investment before even considering wagering on someone else. And I still probably would have chickened out.

Best Picture
Predicted winner: The King's Speech
Actual winner: The King's Speech

The actual award was a foregone conclusion, but the presentation itself featured some interesting moments. The first was the Academy's curious decision to have the climactic scene from The King's Speech act as the voiceover while showing a montage of clips from the 10 nominees, almost as if they were saying, "Look, you know what's winning as well as we do, and there's no point pretending, so we might as well have some fun with it".

The second was Steven Spielberg's remark that the losers in the Best Picture race would go on a list of films that included The Grapes of Wrath, Citizen Kane, The Graduate, and Raging Bull. (I would have been more impressed if he'd mentioned Saving Private Ryan, then just stalked off the stage in a huff.) It may have been innocuous, but if you were feeling cynical, you could argue that it suggested that The King's Speech, for all its gloss and prestige, is less likely to achieve cinematic immortality than losing nominees such as Inception or The Social Network. In any case, it was an intriguing end to an otherwise predictable night at the Oscars.

And that's a wrap. Thanks for following the Manifesto's coverage this year, and here's to doing it all over again in 2012.