Tuesday, March 18, 2014

The Failures of 2013, Part I: Shyamalan, "Anchorman," Meryl Streep, and Oprah

Earlier in the Manifesto's Review of 2013, we looked at the unmemorable movies of the year. Those movies were lackluster not because they were bad but because they barely tried to be good; they were inoffensive and harmless, meaning there was no reason to remember them. This post will highlight the flip side of the coin and examine movies that actually strove to be good but flopped in their attempt. In a way, these are nobler pictures in that they're failures of misguided ambition and strenuous effort rather than of complacent mediocrity. But they're failures all the same.


After Earth. People love to hate M. Night Shyamalan. That's partly his fault, because he's made some pretty bad movies, particularly the heartfelt-but-laughable Lady in the Water and the flat-out dreadful Last Airbender. But it's also a testament to his distinctive personality as a filmmaker. Shyamalan has his flaws—he's a terribly stiff writer, and his direction of actors is equally mannered—but he's also a unique visualist with a gift for precise framing and strikingly off-kilter imagery, as he illustrated in Unbreakable and (especially) the unfairly maligned The Village. With After Earth, both his talents and his failings are on prominent, wince-inducing display. The movie is an impressive exercise in world-building, and the quest narrative affords Shyamalan the opportunity to create some fleet and exciting set pieces, most memorably when his poisoned and paralyzed hero must fall forward onto an upturned syringe in order to inject himself with antidote. Of course, the circumstances of that poisoning are murky and nonsensical, and therein lies After Earth's problem: It's dumb. Shyamalan has always possessed too heavy a hand, and After Earth is a particularly lugubrious affair, with a childish story that alternates between ponderous and risible. That miasma of sufferance extends to the actors; the typically charismatic Will Smith seems to have been prohibited from expressing emotion, while his son, Jaden, simply can't carry a big-budget action movie (possibly because Shyamalan seems incapable of coaxing a compelling performance from any thespian, much less a teenager). Still, ignoring the appalling special effects—which seem to have been lifted from one of those Cinemax soft-core flicks about hot scientists who capture BigfootAfter Earth can be a treat for the eyes. But you may want to plug wax in your ears.

Jaden Smith in "After Earth"


Ain't Them Bodies Saints. On paper, David Lowery's swooning homage to Terrence Malick reads like it can't miss. Starring Casey Affleck (arresting as ever) and Rooney Mara (tender and tentative), the movie putatively relays the exploits of an escaped convict scrambling to return to his long-lost love, the woman who actually committed the crime that resulted in his imprisonment. But Lowery is less interested in telling a crime saga than in evoking a mood, one drenched in sweltering Texas heat and repressed longing. And so, Ain't Them Bodies Saints shuns its potboiler elements, instead presenting us with scattered fragments: scenes that bleed into each other, shadowy antagonists whose presence is unexplained, a plot that meanders before ultimately disintegrating. It's all sumptuous and dreamlike and frightfully dull. An intriguing sequence pops up here and there—it's always refreshing when movie characters actually shoot and miss—but however painstakingly crafted those moments, Lowery obstinately refuses to stitch them together, and what remains is a limp phantasmagoria of irrelevant beauty. Ultimately, Ain't Them Bodies Saints is personified in its depiction of a sympathetic sheriff, played by Ben Foster with uncommon decency and inhuman patience. He may be understanding and thoughtful, but he's also deeply inauthentic, and after a time you wish he would drop the act and just fucking shoot someone already.

Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck in "Ain't Them Bodies Saints"


Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues. I don't begrudge Adam McKay and Will Ferrell for making a sequel to Anchorman. They waited nine years, and as uneven as the final product feels, there's at least the sense that it's the product of genuine artistic affection rather than lazy commercial calculation. They made this movie because they wanted to, not because they had to. But that's also somewhat troubling, because the first half hour of Anchorman 2 is possibly the most stifling 30 minutes I spent at the theatre all year. It's certainly the least funny. The comedy, so fresh and unpredictable in the original, feels horribly strained; jokes that are lifeless to begin with become downright moribund, thrashing in death throes as they're stretched far beyond their shelf life. Anchorman 2 is haplessly eager to please, but it falsely equates stupidity with hilarity, pummeling its audience with one moronic gag after another. Thankfully, things improve considerably once the movie acquires an actual plot—which also functions as a surprisingly sharp satire of modern network news—and the cameo-laden climax is suitably zany and chaotic, even as it blatantly copies its predecessor. Still, for someone who spent the past decade casually quoting the first film in everyday conversation, the sequel's scattershot humor is dispiriting. Paramount recently released a new cut of the movie, purportedly featuring hundreds of new jokes while also adding 20 torturous-sounding minutes. That's the studio's prerogative, but the fact that McKay and Ferrell could so easily create a rejiggered version speaks to their fundamental sloppiness and indiscipline. Those qualities may sound brave and rebellious, but it's the original Anchorman that proudly celebrates defiance. Anchorman 2 is just an indictment of incoherence.

David Koechner, Paul Rudd, Will Ferrell, and Steve Carrell in "Anchorman 2"


August: Osage County. John Wells' adaptation of Tracy Letts' Pulitzer-winning play fancies itself an anthropological study of human misery. In the style of Eugene O'Neill, it cloisters a number of hot-tempered personalities under the same roof, then stands back and lets them eviscerate one another, hoping to illuminate social truths about the fragility of marriage and the recursive nature of familial strife. Insofar as evoking misery goes, the movie succeeds, because spending time with these people feels an awful lot like Hell. Yet there's no truth to be gleaned here, no larger lessons to be learned. There is just the incessant slinging of cruel revelations ("You cheated on your wife!") and foul insults ("Your son is dimwitted!"). To be sure, there's nothing inherently wrong with movie characters behaving badly. The problem with August: Osage County is that the bad behavior feels mechanical, the product of a string-pulling writer (Letts penned the screenplay) who apparently believes that the surest route to pathos is the scrupulous accrual of nastiness. And so, there is much screaming, swearing, and crying throughout the film, but these boisterous displays of anger rarely resemble genuine emotion. We have no sense of these characters' grander identities—they are simply mean to each other because the screenplay demands it. The cachet of Letts' play allowed Wells to compile a remarkable cast, and the actors are game; in addition to Meryl Streep's typical magnetism as a pill-popper, I most enjoyed Julianne Nicholson's quiet yearning and Benedict Cumberbatch's charming (and atypical) awkwardness. But after watching Streep's umpteenth drug-fueled tirade, I became less transfixed than envious—she clearly had the good stuff, and I needed a valium.

Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts in "August: Osage County"


Blue Caprice. I have no philosophical objection to filmmakers dramatizing tragedy (Munich was one of my favorite films of 2005), but if you're going to dredge up past horrors, you'd better have a damn good reason. Alexandre Moors' brooding reimagining of the Beltway sniper shootings—or, more accurately, of the twisted bond between the psychotic man and malleable boy who committed the killings—declines to depict the actual shootings that terrorized the D.C. community in 2002. This restraint is both a virtue and a limitation. In refusing to simulate the killers' senseless violence, Blue Caprice avoids the taint of exploitation, and it shields Moors from reflexive accusations that he's trading on real suffering for commercial gain. But the lack of visible chaos also saps the movie of urgency. Essentially, Moors hinges the film's persuasiveness on the authenticity of the father-son bond that develops between the manipulative older man (Isaiah Washington) and the impressionable teenager (Tequan Richmond) who ultimately pulls the trigger. That bond, however, feels forced and artificial. We're left to believe that the youth is spellbound by his benefactor's erratic rants about ripping apart society's fabric, but despite the electricity of Washington's performance, the devotion rings hollow. Plot-wise, Blue Caprice lurches rather than glides, and that roughness drains it of its all-important credibility. A movie like this should terrify its viewers and force them to agonize over how such a calamity could have happened, yet this half-formed, grungy film induces frustration rather than fear. The chief horror of the sniper killings was that they seemed so random and pointless, but with its loose subplots and ineffectual character dynamics, Blue Caprice ends up feeling much the same.

Isaiah Washington in "Blue Caprice"


The Heat. Pairing Sandra Bullock with Melissa McCarthy was an inspired idea. Bullock isn't my favorite actress, but she's an Oscar-winner, and she exudes a natural professionalism that contrasts beautifully with McCarthy's anarchic disgust for convention. You'd think you could just put them on the screen and let them riff off of each other, then build an entire movie from the conflict and pandemonium that ensue. That's apparently what director Paul Feig thought too, because The Heat is little more than a flimsy excuse for his two actresses to continually belittle one another. It's fine for a movie to place its plot in the background (or, in this case, to essentially ignore plot altogether), but to do that the comedy needs to really zing. Yet while McCarthy again proves to be a spectacularly gifted mudslinger—she takes genuine glee in verbally assaulting others—the jokes in The Heat quickly grow stale. That's partly because there's really only one joke—Bullock is uptight and kowtows to authority, whereas McCarthy is crazy and wildly disrespectful—and the actresses can only mine so much comedic gold from such an exhausted vein. Feig, of course, directed Bridesmaids, but what made that movie work was that it actually committed to exploring its heroine's gnawing anxiety, finding humor in her maniacal descent into despair. The Heat doesn't commit to much of anything beyond the idea that McCarthy analogizing Bullock's vagina to a musty old attic is funny. That sounds spry, but The Heat just wants to bludgeon you, and after listening to variations on the same joke for 90 minutes, your laughter will give way to groans of pain.

Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy in "The Heat"


Lee Daniels' The Butler. I'll say this for Lee Daniels: He isn't scared to try things, and he certainly doesn't feel constrained by the standard notions of cinematic propriety. His prior feature, The Paperboy, was a feverish, batshit-crazy piece of swamp trash that infamously featured Nicole Kidman urinating on Zac Efron. The Butler isn't as objectively lunatic, but it's still a wildly ambitious overreach, a movie that seeks to compress the entire civil rights movement into a two-hour narrative about feuding fathers and sons. And for all of its many flaws, it's undeniably entertaining, from the questionable stunt casting (is that Robin Williams as Dwight Eisenhower?) to the massive scope (it begins with a vicious murder in the 1920s and proceeds all the way to Obama's ascendance) to the shrill, overheated arguments. And The Butler's goal—to distill the struggles of all of black culture into an intimate portrait of familial conflict and conciliation—is a worthy one. But it's a losing proposition, and as Daniels name-checks every historical event surrounding the era—let's see, here we have college students enduring abuse during sit-ins, and here's Martin Luther King, Jr. delivering sage advice, and, wait, did someone just join the Black Panthers?—the movie begins to take the shape of the world's liveliest Wikipedia page. Daniels has no problem aiming high, and here he's shooting for that crown jewel of 1990s revisionist history, Forrest Gump. The problem is that, where Robert Zemeckis and Tom Hanks were in on the joke, The Butler plays things completely straight, and the result is an overstuffed sermon, one that sadly wastes fine work from Oprah Winfrey as the protagonist's irascible wife (Forest Whitaker is less successful, burdened by the oppressive gravity of the title role). The movie pays proper reverence to the significance of its subject matter, but it fails to frame that subject with any degree of nuance. Still, it's never dull, and in the end, The Butler is a bloated, messy testament to the theory that failures make better films than unmemorables do. This is two failures in a row from Daniels; I remain thoroughly intrigued by what he'll bring us next.

Oprah Winfrey and Forest Whitaker in "Lee Daniels' The Butler"


More to come.


Previously in the Manifesto's Review of 2013
The Unmemorables: The Least Memorable Movies of 2013 (Part II)
The Unmemorables: The Least Memorable Movies of 2013 (Part I)
The Worst Movies of 2013

Monday, March 17, 2014

March Madness 2014: Gators and Shockers and Bairstows (and Jabari Parker)

There's a great throwaway scene in Major League when the immortal Bob Uecker is growing increasingly frustrated by the combination of the Indians' poor play and the city's utter disinterest in the team. He's doing his solo radio show, and he knows nobody's listening anyway, so when he struggles to locate the sponsor he's supposed to be plugging, he just gives up: "Christ, I can't find it. To hell with it!"

Well, that's pretty much how I feel analyzing this year's March Madness bracket. I didn't watch quite as much college basketball in 2013–14 as in years past—which is to say that the number of hours I spent glued in front of my television dipped from "coma-inducing" to "merely socially unacceptable"—but I'd like to think I'm fairly knowledgeable about a fair number of the 68 teams competing for the national title. Yet at no point during this season did I watch a team and think to myself, "That squad is definitely making the Final Four." Well, that isn't strictly true, but the one team that did inspire those thoughts recently lost its second-best player—who has been repeatedly compared to Hakeem Olajuwon—to something called a "spinal stress fracture". Thanks a lot, Joel Embiid; you just robbed the Manifesto of its one surefire Final Four pick.

But to hell with it. The Manifesto soldiers on. As I've mentioned in the past, increased parity in college basketball may wreak havoc on predictions—don't be surprised if, by Thursday afternoon, your precious bracket resembles the defunct distillery that Beth and Daryl torched on a recent episode of The Walking Dead—but it sure makes for an entertaining two weeks of hoops. On to the picks (here's a blank bracket for reference).


SOUTH ("The Open Road")
The bottom half of this region features some intriguing matchups. The top half, not so much.

The top seed: In case you haven't noticed, Florida hasn't lost in awhile. Since a one-point loss at Uconn on December 2, the Gators have won 26 games in a row, including a one-point nail-biter against Kentucky to win the SEC Tournament. The Gators clearly pass the so-called "eye test"; they're a balanced team led by three seniors in point guard Scottie Wilbekin (SEC Player of the Year), slashing forward Casey Prather (shooting a ridiculous 62% from the floor), and low-post bruiser Patric Young. They also have one of the best three-point marksmen in the country in Michael Frazier (currently drilling 45% from deep). And while they don't block many shots, they play good team defense and force a ton of turnovers, which is why they're 11th in the nation in defensive efficiency. Offensively, though, the Gators are good but not great. They don't shoot the three that well aside from Frazier (37%, 78th in the country), they're turnover-prone (Wilbekin's assist/turnover ratio is a middling 2.1), and they're a horrible free-throw shooting team (Frazier and Wilbekin are the only regulars above 68%), which could bite them in close games (and nearly did today against Kentucky). Still, the Gators' record speaks for itself, and they've proven they can win close games. Whether that's skill more than luck remains to be seen. If the basketball gods are good, they'll get a sweet 16 matchup with ...

The high flyers: This VCU team can be fun to watch. They're sixth in the country in defensive efficiency, and unlike their in-state counterparts in Charlottesville, they don't do it with patience and discipline. There's a reason Shaka Smart's defense is called "Havoc"; VCU wins by speeding up the game, and they lead the country in both steals and forced turnovers. They're loaded across the board with long, aggressive athletes, most notably Rondo-esque point guard Briante Weber (leading the nation with a ridiculous 3.5 steals per game). But if you can slow them down, wow do they struggle to score. The Rams rank 162nd in offensive efficiency, and while they rebound at a decent rate, they're absolutely dreadful shooters, both from the floor and the line (270th and 256th in those percentages, respectively). That could make things interesting when they face ...

The unflappables: It's difficult to judge Stephen F. Austin based on their numbers, given that they didn't exactly play the toughest schedule in the world (281st). But the Lumberjacks have won 28 straight games, and they've done it through patience and ball movement on offense and ball-hawking tenacity on defense. If VCU rattles them, they're in trouble, but if they can keep their composure, slow down the pace, and force the Rams to make jumpshots, they're making noise.

The revolutionary: Overall, I'm not a huge fan of this UCLA team. They're sloppy on defense, they have no rim protection, and they're wildly undisciplined (future lottery pick Zach LaVine will make 2-3 spectacular plays per game, then immediately follow those up with horrific decisions). But if you like basketball, you're going to want to watch Kyle Anderson play the game. He's a pure, pass-first point guard (6.6 assists per game, 6th in the country), but he's also a dead-eye shooter (48% from three). That's all fine, but he also pulls down 8.8 rebounds per game (fifth in the country in defensive boards per contest). Oh, and he leads the team in blocked shots, just for fun. How does he do that? Because he's six-foot-nine, that's how. They don't make basketball players like Kyle Anderson anymore. The Magic Johnson comparisons are crazy, but they're also sort of apt. Watch him play.




The fraud: Look, Aaron Craft is a great defensive player, and Ohio State is a great defensive team. But the Buckeyes are just painful to watch on offense. They shoot a putrid 33% from three (256th), and their free-throw shooting isn't much better (69%, 209th). Plus, it's not as though they create many second opportunities, as they rank 214th in offensive rebound percentage. Put simply, this team can't score. I desperately want to pick Dayton to beat them, but I don't think Dayton is very good. But there's no way they're getting past ...

The sandbagger: O.K., Syracuse had a rough past month, losing five of their last seven games. But it's crucial to remember that Jerami Grant was injured for most of those games, and if there's one thing Jim Boeheim has never cared to do, it's to develop his bench. Grant, however, looked healthy against NC State, and if the perpetually exhausted C.J. Fair (37.9 minutes per game) can start making some of his floaters again, the Orange will be a tough out. Even when they struggle to score, they still rebound (9th in offensive rebound rate), they force turnovers (fifth in steals), and they take excellent care of the ball (fourth in turnovers per game, thanks to the imperturbable Tyler Ennis, who may actually be an alien). And they're also lucky because ...

The crippled contender: As I suggested earlier, if Joel Embiid were healthy, Kansas would be my pick to win the title. (For the record, they're my pick most years, including last year (when they lost to eventual runner-up Michigan in overtime), 2011 (when they lost to VCU during its Cinderella run to the Final Four), 2010 (when Northern Iowa, wait, what?), and 2008 (when they actually won). They recruit well, and Bill Self is a good coach. Moving on.) But Joel Embiid is not healthy. Technically, he hasn't been ruled out for the entire tournament yet, but if I just turned 20 and were projected to be the top overall pick in the NBA Draft, I'm not rushing back from something called a spinal stress fracture. Andrew Wiggins has been absolutely possessed lately, but he isn't polished enough just yet to take over games consistently, and I can't trust a team that just lost its defensive identity and is also playing Naadir Tharpe 30 minutes per game. Which means we need to keep our eye on ...

The big guy: Don't worry, he's not exactly hard to miss.

Alex Kirk of the New Mexico Lobos

But seriously, New Mexico is an intriguing team. The awesomely gigantic Alex Kirk is, obviously, a presence in the middle, but Aussie frontcourt mate Cameron Bairstow is the real threat, a multi-talented 6'9" forward who impacts the game on both ends. I don't know if they have the horses to beat Kansas—I can definitely see Kirk and Bairstow both picking up two fouls within the game's first three minutes—but if Wiggins has one of his cold nights and the mercurial Wayne Selden follows suit, the Jayhawks could be looking at an early exit.


The Picks
Play-in game: Albany over Mt. St. Mary's.

Sweet 16: Florida over Pitt, UCLA over Stephen F. Austin, Syracuse over Ohio State, New Mexico over Kansas.

Regional final: FLORIDA over Syracuse.




WEST ("The coin flip")
Why do I feel like this region comes down to one matchup involving the #9 seed? Intrigue awaits.

The top seed: This just in: Arizona is not as good without Brandon Ashley. The 6'8" forward gave them another athletic forward who could knock down mid-range shots, run the floor, and bang inside. But they're still a good team—their four losses (all after Ashley got hurt) came by a combined 16 points—with a loaded roster, including a freakshow freshman forward (Aaron Gordon, somehow shooting 48% from the field and 44% from the line), an imposing center (Kaleb Tarczewski, somehow averaging less than one blocked shot per game), a steady point guard (T.J. McConnell, averaging 5.5 assists to just 1.8 turnovers), and a spectacularly untrustworthy shooting guard (Nick Johnson, yuck). They're well-coached, they're athletic, they rebound (third in defensive rebound rate), and they're the best defensive team in the country in terms of points allowed per possession. So why do I desperately want to pick them to lose in the second round to ...

The wildcard: I'm dying to pick Oklahoma State to make the Final Four. They have the talent, as they've surrounded star Marcus Smart with a legit second option (Markel Brown, good for two eye-popping players per game), a post presence (LeBryan Nash, accepting third-banana status), a sharpshooter (Phil Forte, 45% from three and 87% from the line), and a rim protector (Kamari Murphy). They also have swagger; Smart is a tenacious two-way player, and his energy is infectious. But they also have Travis Ford, and I don't think he has any control over this team. They just make too many dumb plays, and their offensive execution never seems to maximize their considerable talent. The Cowboys are the ultimate "can beat anyone, can lose to anyone" team. That makes them a legit threat to Arizona, but it also makes them a dicey Final Four proposition.

The temptation: I picked Wisconsin to make the Final Four last year as a five seed, and that didn't go so well. They're a two seed this year, but overall, not much has changed. They still take excellent care of the ball (second in turnover rate), they pass and cut beautifully, they never foul (second-fewest fouls per game), and they still have the sneakily talented but weirdly underused Sam Dekker. They aren't going to beat themselves. But they also aren't going to blow teams out, partly because of their lack of athleticism but also because they're actually a mediocre three-point shooting team (37%, 57th). Besides, why pick a bunch of farm boys from Wisconsin when you can pick a bunch of farm boys from ...

The great white hope: Creighton! The Wisconsin of Nebraska, the Bluejays led the country in offensive efficiency, and you probably know why. Doug McDermott's NBA future is an open question, but his collegiate excellence is not. The senior dropped 27 points per game this season while putting up insane shooting percentages of 53/87/45, and it's not as though he flew under the radar; teams schemed to stop this guy, and it didn't matter. Still, the Bluejays aren't a one-man band. Ethan Wragge is one of the best-shooting big men in the country (47% from three!), while 6'5" Grant Gibbs actually shoots the three-ball a tick better. In fact, as a team, Creighton shoots a preposterous 42.2% from three, easily the best mark in the country. Sure, they're a mediocre defensive club, and they might lack the athletes to keep pace with a frisky team like Baylor, much less Arizona. But if McDermott gets hot, there's no stopping him. There's a reason—besides alliteration—that they call it March Madness.


The Picks
Sweet 16: Arizona over Oklahoma State, San Diego State over North Dakota State, Creighton over Baylor, Wisconsin over Oregon.

Regional final: CREIGHTON over Arizona.

(Note: This is where predicting 67 games in advance can get weird. If Arizona actually plays Creighton in the Elite Eight, I think Arizona will win, because the Wildcats are just too athletic for the Bluejays. But I'm less sold on Arizona's chances of making it to the Elite Eight, since they'll first have to muscle past not just Oklahoma State but also a relentless San Diego State squad. Creighton, on the other hand, has an easier road, and if 'Zona gets upset early, I don't see anyone else stopping Creighton. Glad we cleared that up.)




MIDWEST ("The slugfest")
This region is flat-out mean. Going into selection Sunday, roughly 10 teams were bandied about for potential number one seeds. Four of them are in this region. Be afraid.

The top seed: Yes, Wichita State hasn't played the toughest schedule (111th), but it's not as though the Shockers have been squeaking by. They beat teams up, which is why they're one of only two teams to rank in the top 15 in both offensive and defensive efficiency (more on the other team in a moment). They aren't flashy, and they don't shoot the three all that well (35%, 154th), but they're ferocious on the backboards (2nd in defensive rebound rate), and they have one of the country's most dynamic point guards in Fred VanVleet (putting up some McDermott-esque shooting percentages of 50/82/45 while doing most of the ball-handling). They seem destined for a Final Four rematch with ...

The fear factor: Remember how I said Wichita State was one of two teams that ranks in the top 15 in offensive and defensive efficiency. The other is Louisville, only the Cardinals don't just rank in the top 15 in both categories; they rank in the top three (third in offense, second in defense). Now, part of that is probably because Rick Pitino has no compunction about running up the score against the likes of Rutgers and South Florida, but still, this team is scary. They're second in the nation in steals, they take surprisingly good care of the ball (11th in turnover rate), and they simply don't let opponents make threes (fourth in the country at 29%). Russ Smith is as electric as ever, but he's also improved his decision-making and shot selection (he's shooting a shocking 48% from the floor, up from 41% last year and 35% the year before), while Montrezl Harrell has transformed from a pure brawler into legitimate offensive threat who also terrorizes opponents on the glass. Oh, and they're coached by one of the greatest collegiate basketball minds of all-time. A matchup of Louisville's violent aggression against Wichita State's more contained tenacity would be thrilling. We should root for this. Of course, that would mean ...

The enigma: Before Wichita State faces Louisville in the Sweet 16, it may first have to handle Kentucky, as the selection committee apparently enjoys placing legitimately dangerous teams in the 8-9 matchup so #1 seeds don't have too easy a route. And look, Kentucky has talent. They get to the line a ton (second-most free-throw attempts per game), they devour the offensive glass (best in the nation in offensive rebound rate), and they protect the rim (6th in blocked shots). But they're horrific when it comes to taking care of the ball, and the Harrison twins seem prone to selfish play, while would-be superstar Julius Randle doesn't get nearly as many touches as he should. This is a dangerous team, but it's also a young, sloppy, and inconsistent team, one that's likely to fold when facing a disciplined, veteran Wichita State squad. Besides, there's another freshman in the region who's more deserving of the public's attention ...

The passion of the freshman: Mike Krzyzewski's teams have been slipping on defense ever since Shelden Williams graduated, but this year's Duke squad is an alarming case. The Blue Devils rank 110th in defensive efficiency, largely because they don't block shots (3.1 per game, 219th) and get killed on the glass (218th in defensive rebound rate). That's partly an intentional tradeoff, of course, since Duke is the second-best offensive team in the nation by points per possession, and they sacrifice size and strength for range shooters (11th in three-point percentage) and smart passers (ninth in turnover rate). Still, if Duke is going to win the title, it's going to be because Jabari Parker wills them to it. The freshman phenom is a below-average interior defensive player at this point in his career, but he's a once-in-a-generation talent on offense, someone who can score from anywhere on the floor and combines explosive athleticism with great touch and a brilliant overall feel for the game. Rodney Hood is a terrific second banana, and Rasheed Sulaimon is growing more confident, even though Quinn Cook is inexplicably ceding time to Tyler Thornton (he's averaging 26 minutes over the last 12 games, which leads me to believe he has incriminating photos of Steve Wojciechowski). Still, this is Parker's team. As a player, he's been compared to Carmelo Anthony, who memorably led Syracuse to the title in 2003. I can't think of a better way to make those comparisons stick.




The rematch: Duke killed Michigan at Cameron in December, stifling Nik Stauskas (who didn't make a shot from the floor) and generally making the Wolverines miserable. But Duke's defense has slipped since then, while Michigan has honed its offensive system, one that features a lot of off-ball cutting and more passing than dribbling. In fact, Michigan plays a lot like Duke: They shoot the three well (39%, 13th) and they rarely turn the ball over (19th in turnover rate), but they're an atrocious shot-blocking team (293rd), and they seem legitimately afraid of hitting the offensive glass (261st in offensive rebound rate). They also seem to be trying to eliminate the free throw from the game; they foul less than any other team in the country, but they also rank 301st in free throw attempts per game. With Michigan, it all comes down to shooting, which means it really all comes down to Stauskas. The Big Ten Player of the Year is a creative offensive player and a terrific passer in the pick-and-roll game, but he's also prone to droughts. Caris LeVert is a fine complementary player, but Glenn Robinson III has shied from the spotlight, so if Stauskas is misfiring, the Wolverines are in trouble.

The obligation: A few years ago, Wofford made the tournament, but I declined to mention the Terriers in my analysis. (They lost to Jimmer Fredette's BYU squad in the first round.) This angered my friend Brent, a devoted Wofford alum who's also one of the Manifesto's most loyal readers. This year, Wofford faces Michigan in the first round as a 15 seed. They rank 174th in offensive efficiency, 224th in shooting efficiency, 324th in free-throw attempts, 214th in opponents' shooting percentage, and 347th in blocked shots (out of 351 qualifying teams). They also put up all of those numbers while playing in the robust Southern Conference, leading to a strength of schedule of 270. I don't like their chances.


The Picks
Play-in games: Texas Southern over Cal Poly, NC State over Xavier, Iowa over Tennessee.

Sweet 16: Wichita State over Kentucky, Louisville over Saint Louis, Duke over Iowa, Michigan over Arizona State.

Regional final: WICHITA STATE over Duke.


EAST ("The junk pile")
What a dump.

The top seed: I'll say this for Virginia: They defend. The Cavaliers are fourth in the nation in defensive efficiency, and while they don't force many turnovers (123rd in forced turnover rate), they make scoring very, very difficult, plus they finish off their possessions with a rebound (5th in defensive rebound rate). Akil Mitchell is a load inside, and Malcolm Brogdon is a pest on the perimeter who also happens to be their only playmaker on offense, unless you count the wildly overrated Joe Harris. Basically, Virginia tries to make the game as unpleasant as possible, which is why they rank 346th in possessions per game. It's a smart strategy, given the team's lack of firepower, but it's a dicey proposition against high-level competition. Like, you know ...

The hidden juggernaut: Much uproar ensued when Louisville was handed a four seed, but at least the Cardinals lost their games at full strength. Michigan State was racked by injuries for most of the year, but they still managed to finish 12-6 in a competitive conference. Now, they're healthy, and they're looking unstoppable. Gary Harris has been spotty from deep this year (36%), but he's still a silky-smooth shooting guard, while Branden Dawson does the dirty work and Adreian Payne is that rare breed: a difference-making athlete who can shoot the three. I still can't fully trust point guard Keith-Not-Luke Appling, but he's settled down a bit in his senior year, and he's a competent offensive player, though the Spartans are still better when running things through Payne and Denzel Valentine. I've underestimated Tom Izzo's teams in the past (and at my peril), and this one is hardly flawless, particularly given their terrible free-throw shooting (how does Appling shoot 66% from the line?). Still, other than perhaps Florida, this is as complete a team as I can find in the field.

The rest: I want nothing to do with the bottom half of this bracket. Villanova is the two seed, and they haven't beaten a ranked team since November. Uconn is frisky, but if Appling is untrustworthy, Shabazz Napier is the stuff of nightmares. North Carolina has two above-average players in Marcus Paige (who weirdly sleepwalks through first halves) and James Michael McAdoo (who can't stay out of foul trouble). St. Joseph's doesn't rank in the top 80 in either offensive or defensive efficiency. The only team I sort of like is Iowa State because they have some horses in Melvin Ejim and DeAndre Kane. Still, if you're looking for a team to come out of this bracket, stick to the top half.


The Picks
Sweet 16: Virginia over Memphis, Michigan State over Harvard, Iowa State over North Carolina, Uconn over Villanova.

Regional final: MICHIGAN STATE over Iowa State.




FINAL FOUR
Semifinal #1 (Florida vs. Michigan State): Florida has been strong all year, but Michigan State is peaking at the right time. I'll take the Spartans.

Semifinal #2 (Creighton vs. Wichita State): First of all, CBS will do everything possible to ensure this game doesn't actually take place, including hiring Jeff Gillooly to break Doug McDermott's leg if necessary. Anyway, too much defense here from Wichita State.

Championship (Michigan State vs. Wichita State): I'm tempted to take the Shockers here, but I don't think they match up well with the Spartans' size and quickness. Michigan State is your 2014 national champion.

Or, you know, not. Now's when the fun starts. Enjoy the madness.

Monday, March 3, 2014

2013 Oscars: Show recap ("12 Years a Slave" holds off "Gravity")

The Manifesto was overdue for a good night. After hitting on a paltry two-thirds of my predictions each of the past two years (14-for-21), I hit on all but two categories at the 2013 Academy Awards, finishing 19-for-21 for a success rate of 90%. Now, did I do that well because the awards were thoroughly predictable, or because I'm a prognosticating genius? I'll let you decide.

As for the show itself, you know what? It could have been worse. I'm not a huge Ellen DeGeneres fan, but after last year's Seth MacFarlane fiasco (for the record, I liked him), the Academy needed to bring in someone safe and inoffensive. By those guidelines, DeGeneres did her job. Her opening monologue was generally funny, and her overall demeanor was enthusiastic, playful, and non-threatening. The majority of her jokes landed, and the ones that didn't were earnest and warmhearted rather than mean-spirited. Her act wore a tad thin as the show went on (and on and on)—particularly the pizza bit, which was strained to begin with and gradually turned into a complete train wreck as it continued—but that's more indicative of the defunct nature of the hosting gig in general than any specific failure on DeGeneres' part.

Of course, the show itself is still a good hour too long, and a number of segments this year—particularly the two "heroes" montages, not to mention Pink's well-rendered but spectacularly out-of-place tribute to The Wizard of Oz—felt beyond pointless. But at this point, it seems as though the Oscars have given up on being memorable and are simply striving not to be awful. It's all a matter of expectations, and as John Cusack suggested long ago in Say Anything, "If you start out depressed, everything's kind of a pleasant surprise." By that measure, the 2013 Academy Awards were sort of a success.

On to the winners themselves. Following up on my buddy Kalich's request, I'm including my preferred choice along with my original prediction and the actual winner. In order of presentation:


Best Supporting Actor
Predicted winner: Jared Leto—Dallas Buyers Club (confidence: 4/5)
Preferred winner: Michael Fassbender—12 Years a Slave
Actual winner: Jared Leto—Dallas Buyers Club

No surprise here. Leto's speech was astonishingly grandiose, but he seemed to mean it, and at least he said something rather than just thanking 50 different people.

Following this, Jim Carrey introduced the first entirely unnecessary montage of the night, a random ode to animation, which became even weirder in that the award for Best Animated Feature didn't immediately follow. On the plus side, Carrey's bitterness at never having received an Oscar nomination remains a perennial highlight. I wouldn't be surprised if the Academy just put a hit out on him already.


Best Costume Design
Predicted winner: The Great Gatsby (confidence: 2/5)
Preferred winner: American Hustle
Actual winner: The Great Gatsby

Further proof that glitz is gold. By the way, American Hustle came away empty-handed tonight, meaning David O. Russell's last two movies have combined to rack up 18 Oscar nominations ... and one actual Oscar. Weird.


Best Makeup and Hairstyling
Predicted winner: Dallas Buyers Club (confidence: 4/5)
Preferred winner: American Hustle (which wasn't nominated, but still)
Actual winner: Dallas Buyers Club

Nice try, Jackass.

This award was followed by Harrison Ford presenting the first of three mini-montages featuring clips from three Best Picture nominees. On the plus side, credit to the Academy for condensing these clips into sets of three, rather than stretching things out with individual tributes to each of the nine nominees. On the minus side, Ford could not have been less interested and may have been completely hammered. Either way, I think he was more disgusted tonight than when Warner Bros. made him do additional voiceover narration for the original cut of Blade Runner.


Best Animated Feature
Predicted winner: Frozen (confidence: 5/5)
Preferred winner: Frozen
Actual winner: Frozen

Nice attempt by Kim Novak to inject some suspense by stuttering before making the announcement. Either that or she's just old.


Best Visual Effects
Predicted winner: Gravity (confidence: 5/5)
Preferred winner: Gravity
Actual winner: Gravity

Not exactly a shocker. Also, can Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Emma Watson just do everything together from now on? I'm not seeing a downside to this suggestion.


Best Documentary Feature
Predicted winner: The Act of Killing (confidence: 1/5)
Actual winner: 20 Feet from Stardom

Thus ended my dream of running the table. Stupid documentaries. That said, the show received a jolt of life when one of the subject backup singers from 20 Feet from Stardom unapologetically burst into song during the speech. The Oscars could use a bit more of that level of spontaneity.


Best Foreign Language Film
Predicted winner: The Great Beauty (confidence: 1/5)
Preferred winner: Blue Is the Warmest Color (which also wasn't nominated, but again, still)
Actual winner: The Great Beauty

Kaboom! Who says you need to watch movies in order to predict the Oscars? In related news, I'm looking forward to actually seeing The Great Beauty later this month once it arrives on Netflix.

Shortly after this, Michael B. Jordan and Kristen Bell made a brief presentation about the scientific and technical awards. Thankfully, Jordan nobly declined to call out the Manifesto for inexcusably failing to address his magnificent, emotionally rich performance in Fruitvale Station when discussing this year's Best Actor race. My bad Mike, thanks for taking it easy on me.


Best Sound Mixing
Predicted winner: Gravity (confidence: 4/5)
Preferred winner: Gravity
Actual winner: Gravity

In space, no one can hear you scream, but everyone can witness your impressive sound design. Or something.


Best Sound Editing
Predicted winner: Gravity (confidence: 5/5)
Preferred winner: Gravity
Actual winner: Gravity

Moving right along. Also, Samuel L. Jackson isn't as funny with Naomi Watts as he is with when he's clowning around with The Avengers.


Best Supporting Actress
Predicted winner: Jennifer Lawrence—American Hustle (confidence: 1/5)
Preferred winner: Jennifer Lawrence—American Hustle
Actual winner: Lupita Nyong'o—12 Years a Slave

Dammit. This was the one category where I really went for it, and I flopped, meaning it's the second year in a row where Jennifer Lawrence has fucked me (last year, it happened in reverse when I expected her to lose). With that said, Nyong'o is terrific in 12 Years a Slave, so I can't be too upset.


Best Cinematography
Predicted winner: Gravity—Emmanuel Lubezki (confidence: 4/5)
Preferred winner: Gravity—Emmanuel Lubezki
Actual winner: Gravity—Emmanuel Lubezki

It's comforting when those three lines above all read the same thing. Also, kudos to Bill Murray for throwing a shoutout to his old friend Harold Ramis when presenting this award. Nicely done.


Best Film Editing
Predicted winner: Gravity—Alfonso Cuarón, Mark Sanger (confidence: 2/5)
Preferred winner: Captain Phillips—Christopher Rouse
Actual winner: Gravity—Alfonso Cuarón, Mark Sanger

At this point in the night, Gravity had racked up five Oscars, while 12 Years a Slave had one, so you know Steve McQueen and Brad Pitt were starting to sweat. Also, when the orchestra cut Cuarón off, I dearly wished he'd just said, "It's cool, I'll see you in an hour when I win Best Director, assholes."


Best Production Design
Predicted winner: The Great Gatsby (confidence: 2/5)
Preferred winner: The Great Gatsby
Actual winner: The Great Gatsby

Sure, Academy voters may be too easily seduced by big, brawny set design, but at least they seem to vote for each award on its merits. The Great Gatsby was poorly received critically, but from a design perspective, it was a smash.

This award was eventually followed by the "In Memoriam" montage, which rightly concluded with the legendary Philip Seymour Hoffman. That itself was followed by a fairly muted Bette Midler singing "The Wind Beneath My Wings", which was well-meaning but completely redundant.

And then, we had John Travolta introducing Idina Menzel to perform "Let It Go" from Frozen, only he flat-out butchered her name as "Adele Dazin". Whoops. Worse, while Menzel showed off her tremendous pipes, she rushed the tempo, as though she couldn't wait to get off the stage. Still, of the four songs performed live tonight, this was the highlight. Karen O. (of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs) and Ezra Koenig (of Vampire Weekend) did a fine job with "The Moon Song", but it's hardly the type of song to be performed on a gigantic stage. U2 could have used a bigger amp and some heavier percussion on "Ordinary Love". And Pharrell Williams was suitably energetic in delivering "Happy", but the performance overall felt grating rather than invigorating.


Best Original Score
Predicted winner: Gravity—Steven Price (confidence: 3/5)
Preferred winner: Her—William Butler, Owen Pallett (aka Arcade Fire)
Actual winner: Gravity—Steven Price

Sure, it was off-kilter and distracting, but I don't care: Jamie Foxx's a cappella rendition of the Chariots of Fire theme was a classic. Oh, and Gravity was now up to six statuettes.


Best Original Song
Predicted winner: Frozen—"Let It Go" (Kristen Anderson-Lopez, Robert Lopez) (confidence: 3/5)
Preferred winner: Frozen—"Let It Go" (Kristen Anderson-Lopez, Robert Lopez)
Actual winner: Frozen—"Let It Go" (Kristen Anderson-Lopez, Robert Lopez)

Whew. Also, speech of the night! This is proof that just a small amount of preparation can yield a memorable and truly entertaining speech, rather than just a numbing string of thank-yous.


Best Adapted Screenplay
Predicted winner: 12 Years a Slave—John Ridley (confidence: 3/5)
Preferred winner: Before Midnight—Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke, Richard Linklater
Actual winner: 12 Years a Slave—John Ridley

If Philomena had won here, Brad Pitt would have just walked out. As is, the second victory for 12 Years a Slave kept things suspenseful. Also, did Ridley forget to thank McQueen in his speech?


Best Original Screenplay
Predicted winner: Her—Spike Jonze (confidence: 1/5)
Preferred winner: Her—Spike Jonze
Actual winner: Her—Spike Jonze

Yes! Remember, I only cared about two categories tonight—Best Original Song and Best Original Screenplay—and justice was served both times. And sure, Jonze whiffed hard on his ambitious acceptance speech, where he weirdly pretended that his collaborators were up on stage with him, but at least he tried something new. (It also resulted in one of DeGeneres' best ad-libs, pointing out that Jonze is a former skateboarder who "has hit his head against concrete countless times"; she then casually applied the lip balm that she'd stolen from Lupita Nyong'o earlier in the evening. Well-played.)


Best Director
Predicted winner: Alfonso Cuarón—Gravity (confidence: 4/5)
Preferred winner: Alfonso Cuarón—Gravity
Actual winner: Alfonso Cuarón—Gravity

Sydney Poitier tried his best, but his struggles in introducing this award made me nostalgic for three years ago, when Kirk Douglas absolutely killed the room with his exaggerated senility. Anyway, that's a whopping seven Oscars for Gravity. Could it land the big one?


Best Actress
Predicted winner: Cate Blanchett—Blue Jasmine (confidence: 5/5)
Preferred winner: Cate Blanchett—Blue Jasmine
Actual winner: Cate Blanchett—Blue Jasmine

Naturally, and with a genuinely moving speech to boot.


Best Actor
Predicted winner: Matthew McConaughey—Dallas Buyers Club (confidence: 3/5)
Preferred winner: Leonardo DiCaprio—The Wolf of Wall Street
Actual winner: Matthew McConaughey—Dallas Buyers Club

McConaughey certainly didn't attempt to abide by convention in his speech, and that's fine with me, even if he seemed like he was in the middle of one of his hallucinations from True Detective. Far more importantly, he dropped an "alright alright alright" at the end. God bless him.


Best Picture
Predicted winner: 12 Years a Slave (confidence: 2/5)
Preferred winner: Her
Actual winner: 12 Years a Slave

Sorry, Gravity, you'll have to settle for winning the second-most Oscars ever for a non-Best Picture winner (seven, one behind Cabaret's eight). I'll admit that I was pulling for Gravity at the end of the night, but I suspect history will view 12 Years a Slave favorably. Props to Pitt for swiftly ceding the stage to McQueen.


So that was the 2013 Oscars. My predictions went well, the show didn't go horribly, and the movies were pretty fucking great. Until next year.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Oscars 2013: Prediction roundup

I wrote earlier that, as obsessively as I analyze the Oscars, I tend not to care who actually wins. This year, that's true with the exception of two categories: Best Original Screenplay and—much to my amazement—Best Original Song. If my preferred nominee fails to scoop the statuette in those areas, you'll likely hear my wail of anguish all the way from suburban Denver. Otherwise, I'm looking forward to a competitive, unpredictable night.

Below you'll find my predictions in each of the 21 feature categories (as always, I'm declining to predict the three shorts). The predictions are organized by level of confidence, so for the first four, I advise you to pick something else in your pool.


Best Documentary Feature
Will win: The Act of Killing (confidence: 1/5)
Should win/worst snub: [abstain]

Best Foreign Language Film
Will win: The Great Beauty (confidence: 1/5)
Should win: [abstain]
Worst snub: Blue Is the Warmest Color

Best Original Screenplay
Will win: Her—Spike Jonze (confidence: 1/5)
Should win: Her—Spike Jonze
Worst snub: Inside Llewyn Davis—Joel Coen, Ethan Coen

Best Supporting Actress
Will win: Jennifer Lawrence—American Hustle (confidence: 1/5)
Should win: Jennifer Lawrence—American Hustle
Worst snub: Emma Watson—The Bling Ring

Best Costume Design
Will win: The Great Gatsby (confidence: 2/5)
Should win: American Hustle
Worst snub: Blue Jasmine

Best Film Editing
Will win: Gravity—Alfonso Cuarón, Mark Sanger (confidence: 2/5)
Should win: Captain Phillips—Christopher Rouse
Worst snub: Disconnect—Lee Percy, Kevin Tent

Best Picture
Will win: 12 Years a Slave (confidence: 2/5)
Should win: Her
Worst snub: The Spectacular Now

Best Production Design
Will win: The Great Gatsby (confidence: 2/5)
Should win: The Great Gatsby
Worst snub: Oblivion

Best Actor
Will win: Matthew McConaughey—Dallas Buyers Club (confidence: 3/5)
Should win: Leonardo DiCaprio—The Wolf of Wall Street
Worst snub: Tom Hanks—Captain Phillips

Best Adapted Screenplay
Will win: 12 Years a Slave—John Ridley (confidence: 3/5)
Should win: Before Midnight—Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke, Richard Linklater
Worst snub: The Spectacular Now—Scott Neustadter, Michael H. Weber

Best Original Score
Will win: Gravity—Steven Price (confidence: 3/5)
Should win: Her—William Butler, Owen Pallett (aka Arcade Fire)
Worst snub: Oblivion—M83

Best Original Song
Will win: Frozen—"Let It Go" (Kristen Anderson-Lopez, Robert Lopez) (confidence: 3/5)
Should win: Frozen—"Let It Go" (Kristen Anderson-Lopez, Robert Lopez)
Worst snub: The Great Gatsby—"Young and Beautiful" (Lana del Rey)

Best Cinematography
Will win: Gravity—Emmanuel Lubezki (confidence: 4/5)
Should win: Gravity—Emmanuel Lubezki
Worst snub: 12 Years a Slave—Sean Bobbitt

Best Director
Will win: Alfonso Cuarón—Gravity (confidence: 4/5)
Should win: Alfonso Cuarón—Gravity
Worst snub: Spike Jonze—Her

Best Makeup and Hairstyling
Will win: Dallas Buyers Club (confidence: 4/5)
Should win: [abstain]
Worst snub: American Hustle

Best Sound Mixing
Will win: Gravity (confidence: 4/5)
Should win: Gravity
Worst snub: Frozen

Best Supporting Actor
Will win: Jared Leto—Dallas Buyers Club (confidence: 4/5)
Should win: Michael Fassbender—12 Years a Slave
Worst snub: Sam Rockwell—The Way, Way Back

Best Actress
Will win: Cate Blanchett—Blue Jasmine (confidence: 5/5)
Should win: Cate Blanchett—Blue Jasmine
Worst snub: Adèle Exarchopoulos—Blue Is the Warmest Color

Best Animated Feature
Will win: Frozen (confidence: 5/5)
Should win: Frozen
Worst snub: Monsters University

Best Sound Editing
Will win: Gravity (confidence: 5/5)
Should win: Gravity
Worst snub: Her

Best Visual Effects
Will win: Gravity (confidence: 5/5)
Should win: Gravity
Worst snub: Pacific Rim

Oscars 2013: Best Picture ("Gravity" faces off against "12 Years a Slave")

And here we go. In my estimation, this is the most intriguing Best Picture race since at least 2005 (when Crash stunned Brokeback Mountain), and probably the most openly competitive since 2004 (when Million Dollar Baby held off The Aviator). Even more intriguing, if the night pans out the way I expect (admittedly, it usually doesn't), the winner should remain a mystery right up until the actual announcement. Here's to some actual suspense at the Oscars.

NOMINEES
American Hustle
Captain Phillips
Dallas Buyers Club
Gravity
Her
Nebraska
Philomena
12 Years a Slave
The Wolf of Wall Street

WILL WIN
Let's be clear: Only three of the nine nominees have a shot here, and those three are American Hustle, Gravity, and 12 Years a Slave. It's tempting to rule out American Hustle because Gravity and 12 Years a Slave tied at the Producers' Guild, but that's actually why I think it has a chance. I suspect American Hustle to be ranked #2 on a considerable number of ballots, so if the two heavy hitters split votes for #1, then it could make like that Siamese fighting fish in From Russia with Love, letting the top dogs tire each other out before suddenly darting in for the kill. (Also, poor form on the PGA's part for actually letting things end in a tie, which I'd previously assumed was unconstitutional. Where are we, Canada?)

So that's a possibility, but overall, this still seems to be a showdown between Gravity and 12 Years a Slave. The latter already won at the Golden Globes and the BAFTAs, but it isn't unprecedented for a film to achieve that daily double and then lose at the Oscars (previous winners of that dubious honor include Atonement, Brokeback Mountain, The Aviator, and Sense and Sensibility). What's more interesting is how the two movies stack up in the Oscar race as a whole. If we assume that my predictions in the remaining categories are correct—a hilariously charitable, undoubtedly erroneous assumption, but just bear with me—then excluding this category, 12 Years a Slave will only take home one Academy Award (for Best Adapted Screenplay), whereas Gravity is walking away with seven. Random trivia alert: Not since The Greatest Show on Earth in 1952 has the Best Picture winner received only one additional Oscar. Of course, it's entirely possible that I'm selling 12 Years a Slave short in other categories—for example, Lupita Nyong'o is basically in a coin flip with Jennifer Lawrence for Best Supporting Actress, with most pundits backing Nyong'o—but the expected quantitative gap between the two movies remains significant. Can 12 Years a Slave flex its muscle in the Best Picture race while receiving so little support in the ancillary categories?

Well, probably. Hell, Argo only won three total Oscars last year, and it had no difficulty cruising to the Best Picture trophy. But let's flip things around. In my view, the critical question is this: Are Academy voters ready to award Best Picture to a bombastic, effects-driven, 3-D blockbuster such as Gravity, especially at the expense of a sober, prestigious, undeniably Important historical film such as 12 Years a Slave? I just don't think so. Gravity is universally acclaimed in a technical sense, but in the end, I expect voters to view it through that narrow prism—as a work of stupendous craftsmanship, not as a terrific movie. 12 Years a Slave wins Best Picture.





SHOULD WIN
We're on the clock here, so let's break these nine nominees into four tiers:

Tier 4: Thanks for coming, the kids' table is over there. Dallas Buyers Club, Nebraska, and Philomena are all well-told stories that don't really break any new ground. Dallas Buyers Club is a straightforward redemption saga that stumbles in its efforts to broaden its scope and acquire political heft, but it's redeemed by Matthew McConaughey's committed, slippery lead performance. Philomena is narrower in scope and more effective as a result, and it smoothly blends a mismatched buddy comedy with a quietly powerful story of loss and forgiveness. Nebraska is the most angular and interesting of the three it that it declines to sand its rough edges, but in the end, it's really a heartwarming fable about familial devotion. All three are fine movies; none is worthy of a Best Picture nomination.

Tier 3: You're fucking crazy, but I love you anyway. American Hustle and The Wolf of Wall Street arrived in theatres within a week of each other, and if you watched them back-to-back, you could be forgiven for thinking you just saw the same movie twice. That's unfair, of course, as the two are actually quite different. American Hustle is a free-wheeling caper that divides its attention equally to every member of its delightfully colorful ensemble, whereas The Wolf of Wall Street is singularly focused on its protagonist's numbing lust for power. But stylistically, both embrace chaos, and both occasionally teeter into absurdity. They're also both a ton of fun, not only darkly humorous but also stealthily moving. They may not achieve classical notions of cinematic perfection, but it's their disdain for such notions that makes them great.

Tier 2: Prepare for your soul to be shattered. Captain Phillips is a tense, gritty, pulse-pounding action picture that feels entirely self-contained, with no larger agenda than simply placing you in the headspace of a smart-but-overmatched hero and making you quake with his fear. So it's all the more astonishing that this no-frills thriller delivers an emotional gut-punch in its closing moments, one that haunts you long after you gingerly shuffle out of the theatre. 12 Years a Slave wastes no such time in swinging its emotional sledgehammer, hitting you again and again with the sheer horror of its protagonist's unfathomable predicament. Yet both pictures employ subtle craft in addition to brute force in order to achieve their ends, Captain Phillips with whip-smart editing and visual immediacy, 12 Years a Slave with agonizingly long takes and fluid, restrained cinematography. They're powerful reminders that movies can not only tell painful stories about noble, overpowered individuals but can also make us share in the hurt.

Tier 1: Beauty comes in many hues. If you've been following my analysis of Gravity's Oscar chances, you may have picked up that I'm a rather ardent supporter of the film. Its technical prowess is beyond reproach, but I don't view Alfonso Cuarón's space saga as mere digital brilliance. Like all great directors, Cuarón uses various filmmaking tools—in this case, revolutionary 3-D camerawork, remarkable special effects, and immersive sound design—to articulate a narrative, and Gravity's story is beautiful and deceptive in its simplicity. Two astronauts are lost and want to get home. That's it. And from that skeleton, we bear witness to an epic journey of horror and hope, and a swooning paean to human endurance. Gravity is a movie about the fear of death, but watching it is a deeply life-affirming experience, and at its triumphant conclusion, I wanted to stand up and cheer. How extraordinary that a computer-generated motion picture about objects in space can feel so thrillingly, humanly alive.

But as much as I love Gravity, on my hypothetical ballot, I'm casting my Best Picture vote for Her, Spike Jonze's elegiac love story of man and machine. Conceptually speaking, it could have played as laughable (as evidenced by the adroit spoofs that popped up here, here, and here), but Jonze bathes his futuristic character study in warm, golden tones of unvarnished sincerity. Her functions beautifully on myriad levels—as an insightful exploration of the messiness of marriage, as a sharp satire of our dependence on technology, as a searching and soulful dissection of human loneliness. At its core, though, Her is about love and loss, and that its primary relationship is one between human and computer in no way diminishes its heartbreaking depiction of unfulfilled longing. There isn't a more thoughtful or touching movie to have reached screens this decade. How could I possibly vote for anything else?





MY IDEAL BALLOT
With the Oscars now concluding, the Manifesto will return shortly to its Review of 2013, which will eventually wrap up with its top 10 list. Stay tuned, and in the meantime, enjoy the Oscars.


Previous Oscar Analysis
Best Director
Best Actor
Best Actress
The Best of the Rest
Best Supporting Actress
The "Gravity" Categories
Best Adapted Screenplay
Best Original Screenplay
Best Supporting Actor
Best Original Song

Oscars 2013: Best Director (where Alfonso Cuarón can breathe easy)

It's curious that, in a year that features the most compelling Best Picture race in nearly a decade, this category is virtually sewn up. So it goes in a strange, exciting year at the Oscars.

NOMINEES
Alfonso Cuarón—Gravity
Steve McQueen—12 Years a Slave
Alexander Payne—Nebraska
David O. Russell—American Hustle
Martin Scorsese—The Wolf of Wall Street

WILL WIN
You know the rule: The victor here is usually the director of the ultimate winner for Best Picture. Well, except for last year, when Ben Affleck wasn't even nominated for Argo. Or in 2005, when Ang Lee won for Brokeback Mountain, only to see his film inexplicably lose to Crash. Or in 2002, when Roman Polanski won for The Pianist despite not having set foot in the country since the 1970s. Or in 2000, when Steven Soderbergh won before Traffic fell to Gladiator. Or in 1998, when Steven Spielberg scooped up his second Best Director trophy, then watched in horror as Shakespeare in Love pipped Saving Private Ryan.

O.K., you get the point: The synergy between the winners of Best Picture and Best Director is significant, but it isn't sacrosanct. And this year, we could be looking at another split, because although 12 Years a Slave appears to have a slight edge for the top prize (though that's no sure thing—more on that in my next post), Alfonso Cuarón is the overwhelming favorite here. He triumphed at the BAFTAs, the DGA, and the Golden Globes; the only two filmmakers to pull off that triple feat and fail to win the Oscar are Ang Lee in 2000 (for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) and the aforementioned un-nominated Affleck last year. More importantly, whereas the four nominated films in this category are ensemble efforts that spread the credit around, Gravity is undeniably the work of an auteur at the height of his powers. That's the kind of movie that wins Best Director.

If I were contractually obligated to back a challenger, I'd probably go with either McQueen (in the event that 12 Years a Slave dominates the night) or Russell (who's becoming something of a mainstay in this category). Thankfully, I am not so contractually obligated. Cuarón takes his first, well-deserved Oscar.


SHOULD WIN
This is a somewhat amorphous category in that there's no real consensus about what "Best Director" really means. That's one of the reasons there's such strong historical overlap with Best Picture: When in doubt, voters just pick their favorite movie. For my part, I tend to ask two questions. First, to what extent is the nominated film a byproduct of directorial vision? Second, how successful is the director in executing and articulating that vision?

Evaluating the nominees by that standard, Alexander Payne is the only one who doesn't really belong. Nebraska is a fine film, and it shares a kinship with some of Payne's earlier pictures, particularly About Schmidt. But there's no strong sense of authorship here, no distinctive flair or personal signature. Again, that doesn't make Nebraska a bad movie—it's a sharply observed tale of family loyalty and dysfunction. But its success derives as much from its sensitive performances and well-constructed screenplay as from Payne's overall command.

The remaining nominated films are all indubitably the work of forceful personalities, for better or worse (mostly better). Martin Scorsese has never done anything halfheartedly, and The Wolf of Wall Street is arguably the apotheosis of his lifelong commitment to chronicling American greed. Ironically, it's this steadfast devotion to excess—and outright disdain for moderation—that holds him back from greatness, not because he inappropriately glorifies his protagonist's unconscionable behavior (if anything, he condemns it), but because The Wolf of Wall Street is far too bloated and self-indulgent to be a truly great movie. But it is a greatly entertaining one, and it's gratifying to confirm that as this legendary director enters his seventies, he has lost none of his moviemaking verve.

David O. Russell isn't ashamed to honor (or rip off?) Scorsese in American Hustle, most notably in the movie's opening passages, which use voiceover to trace the narrative development of three different characters. But despite the two films' structural similarities, their makers pay tribute to different gods. Where Scorsese worships at the altar of controlled excess, Russell is an avowed believer in chaos. American Hustle, like Silver Linings Playbook before it, is unashamedly freewheeling and frenzied, and to wander down its rabbit hole is an experience both bracing and exhausting. But this should not suggest that Russell is undisciplined. On the contrary, he maintains just the right measure of control over his proceedings, and the result is a movie that feels liberated and committed to artistic freedom but never spills into outright anarchy. It's a breathtaking and daring gambit, and that American Hustle succeeds as thoroughly as it does is testament to Russell's continuing confidence as a filmmaker.

There is nothing so unruly or exciting about 12 Years a Slave, an exacting, merciless depiction of a dark period in American history whose arrival feels long overdue. What is exciting is that Steve McQueen surprisingly proved to be the perfect man for the job. I wasn't a huge supporter of McQueen's first two features, Hunger and Shame, primarily because his ruthless, dispassionate approach to filmmaking resulted in a callous disregard for his characters. He applies the same formal rigor to 12 Years a Slave, but this time his unforgiving style feels deeply compassionate as well as intellectually scrupulous. Slavery is such an emotionally heated and combustible subject for a movie that to sensationalize it would feel tawdry and manipulative. McQueen wisely takes the opposite tack—he simply lets the horrors speak for themselves, observing them with an anthropological detachment that, paradoxically, seems like a form of kindness. It's a marvel that such an unrelenting display of cruelty can feel so humane.

But McQueen is still just playing for second. In my earlier breakdown of Gravity's Oscar chances in various technical categories, I suggested that even those viewers who take issue with the movie's storytelling and dialogue seem to acknowledge that it's a phenomenal piece of actual filmmaking. That's because they aren't willfully blind. Gravity is just a 90-minute movie about a couple of astronauts who get lost in space, but it's also something much more than that. From its ravishing opening shot—in which a spacecraft slowly orbits into our view while the camera glides and dances around it—the film forces us to expand our preconceived notions of cinematic possibility. It seems implausible that a movie like this even exists, yet here it is, in all its big-budget, high-concept glory. Virtually every frame is rendered with exquisite, painstaking care, and that nurturing attention to detail, combined with its director's staggering ambition and revolutionary technique, transforms something as mundane as a movie into visual poetry. Watching Gravity made me feel slack-jawed, the kind of unique awe that only watching moving pictures on a screen can produce. Alfonso Cuarón, more than anyone else, is to thank for that experience. Giving him an Oscar seems a rather trivial way to celebrate such a monumental accomplishment, but it's the best we can do.





MY IDEAL BALLOT
Alfonso Cuarón—Gravity
Paul Greengrass—Captain Phillips
Spike Jonze—Her
Steve McQueen—12 Years a Slave
David O. Russell—American Hustle

Three of my five ideal selections landed on this year's Oscar ballot, which is a rare but welcome occurrence. Greengrass ratchets up the tension in Captain Phillips early on, then sustains it through sharp cross-cutting and a restless (but not overly shaky) camera. Jonze brings just the right melancholic touch to Her, a soaring love story that is nevertheless beautifully, sadly grounded in reality.

My ideal winner: Alfonso Cuarón—Gravity.





Also deserving: Joel and Ethan Coen—Inside Llewyn Davis (for turning one musician's bad week into a moving commentary on human failure); Abdellatif Kechiche—Blue Is the Warmest Color (for bottling heartbreak); Park Chan-wook—Stoker (for infusing his pulp narrative with magnificent craft); James Ponsoldt—The Spectacular Now (for observing his characters' foibles with both compassion and discipline); Denis Villeneuve—Prisoners (for not holding back); Edgar Wright—The World's End (for puncturing his bawdy humor with sly insight and dark pathos).


Previous Oscar Analysis
Best Actor
Best Actress
The Best of the Rest
Best Supporting Actress
The "Gravity" Categories
Best Adapted Screenplay
Best Original Screenplay
Best Supporting Actor
Best Original Song

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Oscars 2013: Best Actor (can DiCaprio knock off McConaughey?)

During my senior year of high school, my friends and I played Madden together after school. It was more fun than it sounds, if just as dorky. We adopted the Cleveland Browns as our franchise, only we created versions of ourselves and placed those avatars into the game, resulting in a freakishly talented roster that routinely rolled over teams by 50-plus points. (My particular avatar was a wide receiver in the Ed McCaffrey mold who won the MVP after racking up roughly 200 catches for 5,000 yards and 40 touchdowns.) The Browns hadn't been this relevant since the halcyon days of Jim Brown and Milt Plum. It reached the point where we even used Madden's ingenious feature that allowed you to compete against teams from the past, slaughtering juggernauts like Bill Walsh's West-Coast 49ers and Pittsburgh's Steel Curtain. We were the Dream Team of Madden folklore.

What does all of this have to do with this year's Best Actor race? Well, the competition this year is so loaded that the category is basically the Oscars' version of my old unstoppable, self-created team from Madden. Four of the five nominees deliver downright superlative performances (the fifth isn't half-bad), while at least a half-dozen contenders who failed to crack the ballot are just as deserving. If you plugged 2013's Best Actor field into the Academy equivalent of Madden and let it face off against Oscar categories of yesteryear, this year's quintet would jump out to a 35-0 first quarter lead before the computer "accidentally" reset the game due to unexplained system failure. If there's ever a category that could hope to justify the indefensible switch from "And the winner is" to "And the Oscar goes to", it's this one.

NOMINEES
Christian Bale—American Hustle
Bruce Dern—Nebraska
Leonardo DiCaprio—The Wolf of Wall Street
Chiwetel Ejiofor—12 Years a Slave
Matthew McConaughey—Dallas Buyers Club

WILL WIN
I could tie myself in knots here, but I'm just picking McConaughey. Ejiofor won the BAFTA (where Dallas Buyers Club failed to receive a single nomination), while DiCaprio has the whiff of a frisky upset pick who happens to carry a superior movie. But McConaughey won at both the Golden Globes and SAG, he dropped a startling amount of weight (the Academy loves physical transformations), and his career is peaking at the perfect time. (Seriously, have you been watching True Detective? The dude is out-of-this-world good in that show.) He's hardly a lock, but at this point, it seems foolish to pick against him.





SHOULD WIN
Of the five nominees, Bruce Dern's performance in Nebraska is the only one that didn't blow me away, but that's partly by design. It's a steadfastly unsentimental portrayal, and to his credit, Dern flatly refuses to romanticize his crotchety codger. (When asked why he impregnated his wife despite not necessarily wanting children, his indignant response is, "'Cause I like to screw!") He also does a brilliant job conveying the onset of dotage without overdoing it, frequently just staring into space for no reason and responding to questions with an aggravated bark of "What?". Yet as persuasive a portrait as Dern paints, he fails to traverse much of an arc; Nebraska derives its catharsis from Will Forte's emotional journey, not Dern's. It's unfair to penalize him for accurately reflecting his character's obstinacy and inability to change, but it's also difficult to connect to a performance that operates so resolutely on a single plane.

As Ron Woodroof, Matthew McConaughey traverses a far more archetypal arc in Dallas Buyers Club, the well-told story of one man's redemption. Yet McConaughey is equally crafty in declining the temptation to oversell his journey toward salvation. At least, that's true figuratively; literally, his transformation is right there on screen, where you can see the ribs of this American beefcake poking out through his gaunt, skeletal frame. But there's considerably more to McConaughey's acting than mere dieting. He approaches his partnership with Jared Leto's drag queen more out of shrewd entrepreneurship than moral compassion, and he flashes cruelty even when ostensibly behaving with kindness, as when he bullies a bigot into acknowledging Leto's humanity. For the most part, however, this is a warm, soulful performance, rich with detail and wily intelligence. Dallas Buyers Club is nominally a movie about AIDS, but McConaughey's multi-faceted work suggests hidden depths that the movie can't quite fully explore.

Little is left unexplored in 12 Years a Slave, least of all the ceaseless suffering of its protagonist. The marvel of Chiwetel Ejiofor's performance is that he maintains his character's dignity while repeatedly revealing the extreme indignity of his predicament. His farmhand, Platt, is subjected to unimaginable punishment throughout the film, and Ejiofor—through a combination of robust physicality and deeper emotive technique—makes you feel the sting of every lash. Yet Platt is also disturbingly smart and pragmatic, and there's a sly sense of subterfuge in Ejiofor's work, the sense that Platt is manipulating his situation the best he can, despite having the deck so severely stacked against him. It's a beautifully layered performance, and in refusing to (as Platt puts it) fall into despair, Ejiofor conveys not only the dogged resolve of keeping hope alive but also the exhausting, agonizing costs of clinging to that hope.

There's nothing so painful about Christian Bale's performance in American Hustle, one of the most purely enjoyable portrayals this now-legendary actor has ever submitted. I say "legendary" with complete sincerity, but I'm still not sure I'd call Bale a movie star, his gruff incarnations of the Dark Knight notwithstanding. Most movie stars, from Cruise to Clooney to the next actor on this list, wield their general charisma as an actorly tool, and we derive pleasure from watching them adapt their supersized personas in a manner that distinguishes each role. But Bale is different. He simply inhabits his characters, and each new performance is wholly distinct from the last. Watch American Hustle, and then watch The Fighter. You're telling me the schlubby, flabby Irving Rosenfeld and the jumpy, crack-addled Dicky Eklund are played by the same actor? It doesn't seem possible.

But it is, and there's more behind it than Bale's extraordinary physical commitment. (McConaughey earned headlines for his weight loss, but let's not neglect Bale's paunch. That unflattering belly, combined with his once-in-a-lifetime combover, prompted my father to gape in amazement during American Hustle's opening scene, "Who is that? ... That's Christian Bale?!" Note that we'd seen the guy literally two weeks earlier in Out of the Furnace.) His real genius lies in his ability to magnify his characters' personality traits, and in American Hustle, that trait is abiding, heartbreaking decency. Irving is a two-bit conman who cheats on his wife, but there's an undeniable nobility about him, whether it's in his heartfelt courtship of Amy Adams or his peculiar insistence on keeping jobs small and working them "from the feet up", as though he's adhering to a private moral code. Being a David O. Russell movie, American Hustle is primarily a hoot, but Bale brings true pathos to the picture; his scenes with Jeremy Renner, the half-corrupt politician he inadvertently sacrifices to his ravenous police overlords, carry a hint of tragedy. Irving may be a smalltime huckster, but Bale's wondrous, generous performance suggests that perhaps the movie should have been called American Hero.




Jordan Belfort, the greedy, wealth-obsessed central figure in The Wolf of Wall Street, is decidedly not an American hero. Or perhaps he is, given that he accumulates money, power, and sex, objects that every young man dreams of achieving. Or maybe he just seems heroic, given that he's played by one of America's great movie stars in Leonardo DiCaprio. Martin Scorsese's picture has been criticized—unfairly, I would argue—for glorifying the excesses it depicts, but to the extent that position is defensible, it's likely rooted in the magnetic, effortlessly seductive nature of DiCaprio's performance. Jordan is a whoremonger, a drug addict, and a swindler. He is also stupendously likable and easy to cheer for, and it's startling how easily DiCaprio makes Jordan's vices seem enviable rather than contemptible. (Not since Denzel Washington in Training Day has an actor made being bad look this good.) This is not to suggest that his work is self-congratulatory; on the contrary, DiCaprio's work is entirely scrubbed of vanity, and he cunningly spikes his natural charisma with canny self-deprecation. (The much-celebrated Lemmon 714 scene not only highlights DiCaprio's prodigious gifts as a physical comedian but also affords him the rare opportunity to look like a complete idiot.) All told, he concocts a character of staggering success whose selfish and buffoonish tendencies only make him all the more laudable. So when people whine about The Wolf of Wall Street's deification of sinful behavior, they aren't entirely wrong. They're just focusing on the wrong god.

Well shit, I need to pick a winner, don't I? Frankly, I'll be happy if anyone other than Dern takes the Oscar, but for my hypothetical vote, it's a race between Bale and DiCaprio. And for the same reason I selected Cate Blanchett over Amy Adams, I'm picking DiCaprio. In my view, Bale gives the greatest of many great performances in American Hustle, but that movie remains an ensemble piece, whereas DiCaprio is the towering figure who anchors The Wolf of Wall Street on his own. It's hardly a perfect movie, but the performance is as perfect as it gets.





MY IDEAL BALLOT
Christian Bale—American Hustle
Leonardo DiCaprio—The Wolf of Wall Street
Tom Hanks—Captain Phillips
Oscar Isaac—Inside Llewyn Davis
Joaquin Phoenix—Her

Hanks delivers his best work in over a decade, and his final scene is unequivocally the most powerful two minutes that 2013's cinema had to offer. Isaac imbues his wayfaring artist with deep melancholy while also exhibiting a rich and full-bodied singing voice. Phoenix embodies the mundanity of everyday existence and elevates it to the height of an epic love story.

My ideal winner: Leonardo DiCaprio—The Wolf of Wall Street.





MY IDEAL BALLOT: SECOND TIER
Daniel Brühl—Rush
Chiwetel Ejiofor—12 Years a Slave
Ryan Gosling—The Place Beyond the Pines
Ethan Hawke—Before Midnight
Matthew McConaughey—Dallas Buyers Club

Brühl does the impossible and creates an interesting character in a sports movie, one who balances his obsessive desire to win with a refreshingly logical approach to his craft. (For the record, he is in no way a supporting actor in Rush, no matter what Universal would have you believe.) Gosling is a delightfully ambiguous anti-hero, compelling our interest while also frightening us with his coiled intensity. Hawke slips into his three-quel character with inveterate ease, demonstrating a nuanced mastery of passive-aggressive marital combat.





Also deserving: Aniello Arena—Reality (for making the maddening fascinating); Christian Bale—Out of the Furnace (yeah, he's pretty good); Leonardo DiCaprio—The Great Gatsby (ibid); Steve Coogan—Philomena (for being a prick); Benedict Cumberbatch—The Fifth Estate (for refusing to play nice); Alexis Denisof—Much Ado About Nothing (for supplementing his intelligence with absurdity); Hugh Jackman—Prisoners (for jettisoning his parachute and just going for it); Mads Mikkelsen—The Hunt (for his silent agony); Miles Teller—The Spectacular Now (for his nimble behavioral shifts).


Previous Oscar Analysis
Best Actress
The Best of the Rest
Best Supporting Actress
The "Gravity" Categories
Best Adapted Screenplay
Best Original Screenplay
Best Supporting Actor
Best Original Song