Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Holiday movie roundup: The Big Short; James White; Joy

The holiday season is a time for gifts, and in 2015, the multiplex delivered its usual assortment of delightful treasures and lumps of coal. Due to time and space constraints (OK, mostly time), the Manifesto is providing shortened, capsule-like reviews for the numerous theatrical releases we saw during the holidays. We'll begin with three movies today, followed by an additional three next week.

Let's dive right in, beginning with a comedy about utter disaster.

The Big Short
The Big Short is a docudrama about a dark time in recent American history, when millions of people lost their homes, their jobs, and their faith. Did I mention that it's a comedy? That seems absurd, but cognitive dissonance is this movie's stock in trade, and it proves an appropriate response to an insane situation. Director Adam McKay (best known for Anchorman, plus some lesser Will Ferrell comedies), adapting Michael Lewis's best-selling book, recognizes that humor is the perfect mechanism for conveying outrage. The Big Short is a laugh riot, but it is also a screed, coursing with fury and indignation. It makes you laugh, but its primary purpose—its reason for assembling such a bevy of cinematic talent into a movie about something as dry as financial markets—is to make you angry.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Star Wars: Episode VII—The Force Awakens: Getting the Cantina Band Back Together, with New Faces at the Fore

Daisy Ridley and John Boyega in "Star Wars: Episode VII -- The Force Awakens"
Amid all the majestic sights and sounds of Star Wars: The Force Awakens—the dogfights and lightshows, the exotic environments and the aircraft careening through outer space—no image hits harder than that of a stormtrooper's helmet smeared with blood. That shot, which comes during an otherwise typical firefight early in the film, clubs you with the force of a wampa ice creature, and it establishes that director J.J. Abrams is invested in bringing the humanity back to this towering franchise, with its legions of fans and its box-office dominion. The Force Awakens is as loud and actively busy as any Star Wars movie—this is the series' seventh episode, in case you needed reminding—but it's also rooted in its characters, trading George Lucas's unparalleled mastery of action (and utter disinterest in actors) for some good old-fashioned storytelling. Obi-Wan Kenobi once remarked (somewhat infamously) that stormtroopers shoot straight. Abrams shows us that they bleed.

And so do filmmakers. The digital effects of The Force Awakens are impressively invisible, but you can still see the sweat that Abrams poured into this production, the heartfelt labor of a true fanboy. He's undertaken quite the challenge, tasked both with servicing the masses of ticket-buyers who consider Star Wars their personal property and with propelling the franchise forward into uncharted space. It's a line he straddles with extreme caution, but he mostly gets it right. The Force Awakens is not the best Star Wars movie, nor is it the most dazzling. But it remains a sturdy, highly satisfying production that flashes glimmers of true greatness, and it skillfully advances the series' mythology while simultaneously reuniting us with old friends long gone. This may not be the work of a Jedi master—Abrams is more of a tinkerer than a virtuoso—but then, it's the everymen who made Star Wars so appealing in the first place.

Friday, December 18, 2015

From Clone Wars to Death Stars: Ranking the First Six Star Wars Movies

Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker in "The Empire Strikes Back"
I like the Star Wars movies.

That may appear to be a banal assertion of preference—after all, every cinephile makes it his business to like or dislike individual motion pictures—but nothing involving this behemoth of a franchise is ever quite so simple. To be sure, Star Wars is deeply embedded into our divisive popular culture, and there are undoubtedly two distinct camps of moviegoers who classify as fans or non-fans. But for the former, what exactly are we fans of? At times, it feels like George Lucas's saga of good and evil has morphed from a sextet of discrete films into an altogether different beast, a shape-shifting leviathan of toys and memes and videogames and literary spinoffs and special editions and virulent fan petitions. This is a perfectly happy consequence of the series' success, and I don't begrudge my brethren (OK, and myself) from using their passion to transform a half-dozen films into the cultural equivalent of an AT-AT, implacably marching toward its goal (merchandising!) and crushing everything in its path. At the same time, the franchise has grown so monolithic that it's become increasingly difficult to evaluate the Star Wars movies as, well, movies.

I am hardly immune to this phenomenon. As with many men (and plenty of women) of a certain age, I grew up obsessed with Star Wars, which was a staple of my childhood (and, almost assuredly, a harbinger of my cinematic taste). But because I came to the franchise so young, I didn't watch the original trilogy so much as absorb it, to the point that it simply became a strain of my movie-viewing DNA. To wit, I don't even remember when I first saw the Holy Trilogy (though I do remember how—my father dutifully recorded the first three films from their HBO broadcasts onto VHS tapes before such practice was popular). And I certainly don't remember experiencing what I've now learned to be one of cinema's all-time most stunning reveals: that [redacted] is [redacted's] [redacted]. That was simply a piece of information that I grew up knowing, like my home address or Ty Cobb's career batting average. The three much-maligned prequels, which I actually watched in the theater in high school and college, are of course different, but I still inevitably filtered them through my childhood conception of the first three films.

Friday, December 4, 2015

Creed: With a Legend in His Corner, a Young Man Enters the Ring

Sylvester Stallone and Michael B. Jordan in "Creed", a sequel to "Rocky"
The main character of Creed is an aspiring boxer striving to make a name for himself, and to evade the giant shadow cast by his father, a former legend of the sport. And Creed itself is on a similar mission. This movie, which was directed by Ryan Coogler from a script he co-wrote with Aaron Covington, is the sequel to Rocky, the winner of the Oscar for Best Picture in 1976 and one of the most beloved sports films of all time. (Technically, it's the sixth such sequel, but let's forget about those intervening installments for the moment.) That fact poses a monumental challenge for Creed: It must pay tribute to its predecessor while also standing as its own, fully realized creation. That it passes the first test is no great feat; as soon as Sylvester Stallone eases into the frame, shoulders sagging from the weight of playing the American icon that defined his career, the film instantly connects with its cinematic ancestor. What is more surprising—and more satisfying—is how Creed establishes itself as an enjoyable boxing movie in its own right. It doesn't break much new ground, but it doesn't need to. Like its hero, it relies on a combination of agility and determination to deliver a rousing experience that is simultaneously comforting and exhilarating.

As its title suggests, Creed is not primarily about Stallone's Rocky Balboa, the Italian-American prizefighter who captured the hearts of Philadelphia (and the rest of the country) 39 years ago. Its protagonist is instead Donnie Johnson, played by Michael B. Jordan, the former television actor from The Wire and Friday Night Lights who finally broke out two years ago in Coogler's earnest drama, Fruitvale Station. Donnie is a bright young man who works a desk job at an unspecified Los Angeles corporation, where he has just earned a promotion. Despite his relative success, his heart isn't in finance, and he moonlights as a boxer in Tijuana, where he routinely pummels opponents at seedy underground rings. That's where we first meet Donnie as an adult (the film begins with a quick prologue that illustrates his penchant for roughhousing as a child), the camera approaching him cautiously from behind, observing the muscles rippling down his back as he psychs himself up before delivering a brisk, savage beatdown of an unworthy foe. As soon as Donnie lands the knockout blow, he starts to remove his gloves before the fight is even called, a silent indicator of both his talent and his arrogance.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

The Good Dinosaur: Lost Lizard, Seeking Family, Finds a Friend

A giant lizard and his boy, in Pixar's "The Good Dinosaur"
To say that The Good Dinosaur is a mediocre Pixar movie is to praise it with faint damnation. For the past 20 years, the pioneers of computer-generated animation have been churning out imaginative, provocative entertainments on a regular basis, with nary a dud in the bunch; hell, the studio released a stunning masterpiece on the human condition just five months ago. So if you find yourself grumbling that this latest entry fails to climb to the extraordinary heights of Pixar's (now owned by Disney) greatest films, remember that we grade these movies on a curve. An easygoing charmer, The Good Dinosaur may not be as transcendent as Wall-E or Finding Nemo—in fact, it doesn't come close. But it remains a durable and intermittently astonishing work, with typically splendorous animation and an emotionally satisfying third act. Two decades ago, Toy Story rewrote the playbook on how animated movies can be made. The Good Dinosaur is less revolutionary—it plays by the rules—but its by-the-book approach has its own gentle appeal.

The film boasts a tantalizing premise that seems novel, until you realize it's just window-dressing for a typical lost-boy narrative. It ponders a scenario, conveyed economically during a silent prologue, where the meteorite destined to wipe out the dinosaurs actually missed the Earth, resulting in a planet where giant lizards and humans coexist. That universe is rife with possibilities—one of which, sheer disaster, formed the backbone of the biggest-grossing movie of 2015—but the primary characters are essentially dinosaurs in name only. The hero is Arlo (voiced, in an irritating whine, by Raymond Ochoa), an anthropomorphized apatosaurus (think brontosaurus, but with a longer neck) and the runt of a family of mild-mannered herbivores. They live a peaceful farming life on a sun-dappled field that's only a shade removed from Little House on the Prairie. Arlo's father (Jeffrey Wright) is a stoic but warmhearted patriarch, while his mother (Frances McDormand) is a cliché of maternal kindness. Arlo himself is somewhat useless, too weak to perform hard labor and too fearful to stop small pests from harming the crops. Arlo's perpetual petrifaction prevents him from "making his mark", which, as his father tritely explains, involves planting a muddy footprint on the side of a corn silo.