Monday, March 30, 2015
It is so easy to make a bad horror movie, and so hard to make a good one. Any filmmaker can momentarily shock audiences with a monster bursting from the closet or a killer slashing from the shadows. But It Follows, David Robert Mitchell's tense, terrifying second feature, is a master class in horror precisely because of what it doesn't do. It doesn't simply rely on a familiar pattern of "Boo!" moments, punctuating moments of dark silence with sudden screams. Instead, it develops a sustained, unrelenting sense of dread, building on its clever premise in smart and tantalizing ways. It chokes you with fear, but it never cheats.
It also serves as a showcase for Mitchell's undeniable craft. His formal command is evident right from the film's killer opening sequence, in which a teenage girl, Annie (Bailey Spry), bursts from her house in the twilight hours, wearing heels and looking panicked. She stumbles along the street as her neighbors inquire concernedly, and Mitchell's camera begins a slow 360-degree turn, eventually relocating Annie as she hightails it in her car, with the soundtrack (by electronica outfit Disasterpeace, aka Rich Vreeland) blaring synths ominously. The following morning, Annie is lying dead on the beach, her bloodied body mangled at an awkward angle, and it's clear that death is stalking this nondescript Detroit suburb.
It's an exhilarating rush of an open, and its edgy energy allows It Follows to downshift and establish its characters without stalling out. And so, we meet Jay (Maika Monroe, recently seen running like hell from Dan Stevens in The Guest), whom we first see lounging comfortably in her aboveground pool, casually swatting away the attentions of a pair of Peeping Toms. They aren't the only ones ogling Jay, as her childhood friend, Paul (Keir Gilchrist), shoots furtive glances at her while his sister, Yara (Olivia Luccardi), quotes Dostoevsky from her seashell-shaped e-reader. But Jay has started dating Hugh (Jake Weary, channeling a young Joshua Jackson), a casually handsome stranger, and after a night cavorting on the beach, they have sex in the backseat of his car. It's a dreamy sequence, bathed in starlight and suffused with teenage pheromones, at least until Hugh suddenly smothers Jay with chloroform.
Is Hugh a rapist? No, just a plot device. When Jay wakes up, she's bound to a chair, but Hugh doesn't want to hurt her; he just needs her to listen while he briskly delivers some critical information. That's a drag, but every horror movie has to outline its supernatural rules, and It Follows is blessedly brief in its exposition. (It's also more arresting than most info-dumps, given that Jay receives the distressing news while tied up, with Monroe's frenzied eyes communicating her utter terror.) Apparently, Jay is now being followed by an indescribable thing—the titular "It"—a demonic force that can take the form of any person and that moseys toward its quarry at an implacable walk, visible only to those it's hunting. The kicker: The only way for Jay to rid herself of It is to—and the Catholics are going to love this one—have sex, thereby temporarily passing the curse on to the carnal recipient. (Emphasis on "temporarily": If the creature kills Jay's new lover, it will again set its sights on her.)
It Follows is hardly the first movie to intertwine sex and death, but it's downright audacious in its decision to make the link so apparent, and to place the power squarely in Jay's hands. As a result, the movie doubles as a sort of sexual Rorschach test, producing a subtext that reads differently depending on your point of view. Social conservatives might view Jay's predicament as a metaphorical indictment of her promiscuity, while feminists could argue that her ability to use sex to cast off the hex is a message of empowerment. For my part, as a narrow-minded critic who perceives everything in relation to other movies, I view the film's de-facto weaponization of sex as a sly subversion of standard horror tropes. The convention of the genre, born in classics such as Halloween and A Nightmare on Elm Street, is that the lustful are slaughtered and the virginal are spared. But It Follows allows Jay to wield her sexuality as the instrument of her salvation. True, sex got Jay into this mess, but it could also be her saving grace. The choice is hers, yet it's a choice fraught with complications both moral and practical: Is it fair to ask the smitten Paul to carry her supernatural baggage and thereby grant her a brief reprieve? What about Greg (Daniel Zovatto), the hunky boy who lives across the street? Or should she just seduce a stranger, as Hugh did to her?
Of course, Jay isn't initially inclined to sleep with anybody; she's too busy questioning her sanity and trying to suppress her mounting paranoia to contemplate offloading her curse onto an unsuspecting suitor. But once she starts seeing It—always masquerading as a different person, but always lumbering toward her with that inexorable walk—she begins to think twice. That's why, in order for It Follows to work, it needs to credibly terrorize its heroine, pushing her to a believable breaking point.
And in this, it succeeds spectacularly. It Follows is not an especially complicated movie, but it unsettles both its characters and its audience with extraordinary technique and commendable patience. Combining crisply controlled camerawork with that chilling Disasterpeace score (which owes an obvious debt to John Carpenter's legendary music for Halloween), Mitchell generates remarkable mileage from his simple premise. The notion that anybody in the room might be a remorseless killer is frightening on its own, but what makes it brilliant is that it lets Mitchell toy with visual perspective. The key is that, regardless of the form that It takes, only Jay can see It—none of her friends can. As a result, any time Jay spots someone walking toward her, she's immediately paralyzed with fear and uncertainty, wondering if it's a harmless person or the phantom intent on consuming her.
That's scary enough for Jay, but Mitchell—who also wrote the screenplay, and whose first feature, The Myth of the American Sleepover, was a scattered but similarly piercing look at teenage sexuality—has more in store for the rest of us. Unlike the typical horror movie—which relies on tightly framed close-ups to create anxiety, bracketing you into close corners with the protagonist—It Follows routinely employs widescreen, Hitchcockian compositions. In so doing, Mitchell often places Jay in the foreground, then holds the shot while someone emerges behind her; because Jay can't see the approaching figure, we're poisoned with her own paranoia, unsure ourselves whether we're witnessing a friendly face or a malevolent force of evil.
It's a bold, distinctive approach, but it results in a tradeoff: Mitchell is so rigidly disciplined that he rarely petrifies viewers with sudden jolt-scares (though he does indulge in a shocking moment or two). In a sense, It Follows adopts a quality-not-quantity approach to horror. It does not regularly catapult you out of your seat as did James Wan's The Conjuring, and it may not quite have you constantly shutting your eyes as did Jennifer Kent's The Babadook. But I'm more than comfortable with that sacrifice, because the looming threat of It's arrival is pervasive, spawning an atmosphere of unspeakable tension. And when that tension periodically erupts, the results are gripping and electric. Stunningly enough, the movie's most harrowing scene takes place in broad daylight on a sun-dappled beach, where a languid, idyllic afternoon suddenly turns deadly. The film's climax, meanwhile, is a bravura episode of terror set at an indoor pool, where Mitchell combines expert framing with low-key special effects to create a singularly horrifying encounter with an invisible foe. (As an added bonus, the characters here actually behave intelligently, unlike your typical horror-movie buffoons.)
Crucially, none of this would work—and indeed, Mitchell's ruthless craft would perhaps feel a bit sadistic—if it weren't for Maika Monroe's enormously sympathetic lead performance. Powered by such a delicious premise, It Follows runs the risk of losing sight of its characters, and apart from Paul, the supporting players here are blurry and vague. But this is Jay's story, and Monroe brings her to frantic, ferocious life. Jay is by turns tremulous and defiant, helpless and calculating, and Monroe's tender, persuasive portrayal makes us care about her fate.
At the moment, however, I'm more worried about my own fate. I fear that this movie will lurk in my subconscious for some time, and that when I stand on a darkened street corner or amid a thronging crowd, I will be forcefully reminded of its sinister genius. To remedy this, I'm adopting the pass-it-on logic of It Follows, and I'm urging you to go see it. Maybe, once you do, it will finally stop following me.
Monday, March 16, 2015
Before the Manifesto gets to its annual obsessive analysis over the March Madness field, let me just tell you the only two things you really need to know about this year's NCAA men's basketball tournament:
1. You're a fool if you pick anyone other than Kentucky to win the NCAA title.
2. Kentucky is unlikely to win the NCAA title.
Now, if those two statements seem flatly contradictory, recall the abiding randomness of college sports. For example, last year, you may remember Shabazz Napier leading Uconn to the title (alternatively, you may choose not to remember this), but you probably don't remember Uconn needing overtime to defeat St. Joseph's in the first round. I'm not trying to diminish Uconn's achievement (much as I'd like to); I'm just pointing out how incredibly hard it is to win six consecutive college basketball games in March. That's what's so crazy and so exciting about postseason tournaments, no matter the sport: The best team isn't always the championship team.
And let's be clear about this: Kentucky is the best team. This is barely even up for debate. Sure, they played in a relatively soft conference, but they demolished their opposition, and they did it on both ends of the floor. You've probably heard about Kentucky's ferocious defense, but the Wildcats are a skilled offensive team too, with multiple inside-outside threats that allowed them to rank 10th in the country in offensive efficiency. They're big, they're fast, they can shoot, and they can score.
But about that defense: Kentucky leads the country in defensive efficiency this year, yielding just 80.8 points per 100 possessions. To put that in perspective, TeamRankings has data going back to the 1998 season, and no team in the past 17 years has even come close to that mark. This is a historically dominant defensive team. Teams shoot a ridiculously low 35% against them (best in the country), including a putrid 27% from three (2nd), and things don't get much easier when you get into the paint, where they block 13% of their opponents' shots (2nd). These guys are monsters.
But will they win? I honestly doubt it. Look, if the question is which of the 68 teams in the field has the best chance of winning the title, Kentucky is the only logical choice. (Vegas is currently giving even money on bets for a Wildcat march to victory.) But if you're asking me whether I'm taking Kentucky or the entire rest of the field, I'll go ahead and take the remaining 67 teams. Only one squad gets to cut down the nets, and in the end, it probably won't be Kentucky. But they're still the sensible pick.
And now that my head is spinning, on to the region-by-region analysis. Here's a blank bracket so you can follow along.
MIDWEST ("The Foregone Conclusion")
The top seed: As I mentioned, Kentucky is good. Their defense is absurd, with Karl-Anthony Towns and Willie Cauley-Stein combining to block four shots per game, but they're also incredibly balanced on offense, with six players averaging at least eight points (and none playing more than 26 minutes per game). The Harrison twins are still a bit error-prone (and Aaron shoots way too many threes, given that he hits at just a 30% clip), but the Wildcats actually improve once they bring on Devin Booker (43% from three) and Tyler Ulis (42% from three, 3.5/1 assist/turnover ratio). And given the team's incredible depth (even after losing Alex Poythress), John Calipari can immediately yank a struggling player for a reserve without fear of downgrading his talent. The best way to beat the Wildcats is to get Towns into foul trouble (to neutralize their strongest post presence), take incredibly good care of the ball (to prevent easy transition buckets), and pray that they miss a bunch of threes. It's never a good strategy when prayer is involved.
The strangers: I used to watch a ton of Maryland when they were in the ACC. Now that they're in the Big 10, I barely see them play, and what I have seen hasn't cleared much up. But looking at their profile, I have to wonder: How the hell did this team win 27 games in a power conference? The Terrapins somehow rank 73rd in the country in both offensive and defensive efficiency. They average a pitiful 10.9 assists per game (279th), they don't force turnovers (15% rate, 294th), and they don't rebound. The one thing they do reasonably well is shoot free throws (76%, 14th), led by freshman stud Melo Trimble, who gets to the line seven times per game and knocks down 87%. Their best player is senior Dez Wells, one of those undersized college forwards who bulls his way to where he wants to go while also somehow making half of his threes. But beyond Trimble, Wells, and lanky forward Jake Layman, they're woefully short on weapons. Still, those are three good college basketball players, and despite all of their flaws, I still like Maryland more than the other three teams in their pod. Go figure.
The shooters: If you like high-scoring basketball, you should root for Notre Dame, because the Irish can flat-out shoot. They lead the country in points per possession, with four different players hitting on better than 40% of their threes. They also take incredibly good care of the basketball, turning it over on fewer than 13% of their possessions (4th). And they have one of the game's premier creators in Jerian Grant, an attacking swingman who's as capable of making plays for others as he is for himself. What they don't do, however, is play defense. The Irish rank 158th in defensive efficiency, largely because they allow opposing teams to rebound 29% of their misses (185th). This is what happens when you start the 6'5" Pat Connaughton at power forward. Still, Grant is a terrific talent, and if Connaughton and Steve Vasturia are on their game from the perimeter, Notre Dame could be a tough out.
The scorned: It's almost too good to be true. The possibility of Wichita State getting a rematch against an undefeated Kentucky team—following last year's instant classic when the Wildcats outfought an unbeaten Shockers squad—is just tantalizing. And the Shockers should have even more motivation because, despite being ranked in the top 12 for most of the season, they somehow got stuck with a measly 7 seed. The problem is that this year's Wichita State team just isn't that good. Fred VanVleet and Ron Baker are solid perimeter players, but the loss of CleAnthony Early kills the inside-outside threat that made the Shockers so good last year. They win with defense and rebounding, ranking 8th in defensive efficiency and 9th in defensive rebound rate, and they could definitely frustrate teams with their physical play. It's just unlikely that they have the firepower to make a deep run. But they could pose a legitimate threat to...
The snakebit: Life just isn't fair for Kansas. Last year, they lose star freshman center Joel Embiid just before the tournament. This year, not only is post threat Perry Ellis hurt (he hasn't looked remotely healthy since he's returned from a knee injury), but highly touted freshman Cliff Alexander hasn't played since February 23 due to an ongoing "investigation" by the NCAA into his eligibility. (My guess: Alexander used a friend's HBO Go password to watch Game of Thrones, meaning he "obtained a benefit" in violation of NCAA rules. Just a theory.) And now, they might have to face an angry Wichita State squad in the second round in Omaha? That's a bum rap. The Jayhawks still have the horses to make a run, assuming everyone plays at a high level. But beyond some surprisingly steady play from Frank Mason, this Kansas team is the definition of mercurial. Whether it's silky-smooth slasher Kelly Oubre, athletic guard Wayne Selden, or sharpshooter Brannen Greene, the Jayhawks don't lack for ability, but they suffer from severe bouts of inconsistency. Without Ellis' reliable post presence, Kansas will need its supporting cast to be at their best, and while any of them could carry the Jayhawks on any given night, they're just as likely to flame out or disappear.
Play-in game: Manhattan over Hampton.
Second round: Kentucky over Cincinnati, Maryland over West Virginia, Notre Dame over Texas, Wichita State over Kansas.
Regional final: KENTUCKY over Notre Dame.
EAST ("The crapshoot")
The top seed: Look, I watch an unhealthy amount of college basketball, but I barely tuned in to check out Villanova this year. The only games I really paid close attention to were their three-point road win against Butler and their thrashing of Xavier in the Big East title game. I do know that they're a balanced team, with a capable scorer in Darrun Hilliard, a sweet shooter in Josh Hart (47% from three), and two interior horses in JayVaughn Pinkston and Daniel Ochefu. But beyond that, I'm clueless. They're like that scene in the third season of Sherlock, where Holmes looks at a woman who's involved with [redacted] and sees only a parade of question marks, realizing that he can't read her at all. If I pick Villanova to win, it's basically because they're a #1 seed that won a lot of their games. If I pick them to lose, it's because I don't know enough about them. Let's just move on to a team that's more exciting. You know, a team like...
The heroes: Northern Iowa! Sure, the Panthers may not have that many impressive wins on their resume, and they got murdered when they waltzed into Wichita for their rematch against Wichita State. But they're a strong defensive unit, ranking 18th in defensive efficiency, and they can shoot, drilling 40% from three as a team (11th). They also showcase one of the premier players in the country in Seth Tuttle, a cross between Boris Diaw and DeMarcus Cousins who can handle the ball, bang in the post, and shoot the three (43%). Other than crowning a national champion every year, the whole point of March Madness is to introduce terrific players from small schools to the nation at large. Tuttle is one of those guys. He can do damage, especially against a team like...
The fraud: I didn't even like Louisville before they lost starting guard Chris Jones. Sure, they're monstrous on defense as always, but they're a horrific shooting team, making an inconceivably low 30% of their threes (312th), not to mention a pathetic 66% of their free throws (281st). It's not like they pound the ball inside either; both Terry Rozier and Wayne Blackshear chucked up five threes per game, even though both shoot below 33%. If the Cardinals play Northern Iowa in the second round, you might need to hide the kids, because the first to 40 will probably win.
The wounded: When Justin Anderson was healthy and playing out of his mind, Virginia was probably the nation's best hope to beat Kentucky. But Justin Anderson is no longer healthy, and when he is playing, he's probably harming his team. The Cavaliers are still defensive juggernauts, but they basically need Malcolm Brogdon to play at an NBA level to keep pace with opposing teams. Brogdon is capable of doing that, as he demonstrated in the second half against North Carolina last week, but it's a lot to ask him to shoulder the load every night when the Cavs' grind-it-out pace (of 351 qualifying schools, they rank 348th) places so much importance on every possession. The good news for Virginia is that...
The mess: None of the remaining teams in the bottom half of this bracket is especially imposing. Providence has an elite scorer in LaDontae Henton, but they don't play defense. Oklahoma is fearsome when they're clicking, but they don't defend either, and Buddy Hield too often strays from confident to reckless. Michigan State can play with anybody, but only when Denzel Valentine channels Magic Johnson. None of them is likely to keep their head above water when Virginia's defense clamps down.
Play-in game: Dayton over Boise State.
Second round: Villanova over NC State, Northern Iowa over Louisville, Oklahoma over Dayton, Virginia over Michigan State.
Regional final: NORTHERN IOWA over Virginia.
SOUTH ("The Shootout")
The top seed: Here's what Duke can do: score. Their strategy is simple; they surround the best offensive player in the country in Jahlil Okafor with a quartet of shooters and slashers. If you double-team Okafor, he's such a good passer that you're likely yielding an open three to Quinn Cook or Tyus Jones or a layup to a diving Justise Winslow or Amile Jefferson. If you don't double-team Okafor, he will systematically annihilate you, and he won't even need to try that hard. Seriously, the college game hasn't seen a post player this polished since Tim Duncan. So, that's what Duke can do. Here's what they can't do: defend. Between shoddy perimeter footwork and nonexistent shot-blocking, Duke ranks 91st in defensive efficiency, allowing 95.8 points per 100 possessions, or a whole 15 more than Kentucky. Speaking of which, remember how Kentucky has the best defensive rating of any team for as long as TeamRankings has been keeping stats since 1998? Well, no team since the '98 season has won the championship while allowing as many points per possession as Duke does. Call me a pessimist, but this does not bode well for Duke's title chances.
The recidivists: Last year, Stephen F. Austin finished the regular season 31-2 before entering the tournament as a 12 seed, at which point they knocked off fifth-seeded VCU. This year, the Lumberjacks are a meager 29-4, and they enter the tournament once again as a 12 seed. Like I'm really not picking them to beat Utah? The Lumberjacks are one of the best-shooting teams in the country, ranking seventh in offensive efficiency, and they have not one but two Southland Players of the Year on their roster (Thomas Walkup won this year, while Jacob Parker took honors last year). Utah is a good team, but Stephen F. Austin just doesn't lose in the first round.
The 50-percenters: Fun fact: The Eagles of Eastern Washington rank 9th in offensive efficiency but 299th in defensive efficiency, good for the second-highest difference among all tournament teams (16th-seeded Lafayette has the highest, in case you were interested). That's not exactly giving equal effort on both ends of the floor. But they play Georgetown, a mediocre offensive team with a history of tournament failure. You're telling me the Eagles couldn't get in a shootout with the Hoyas and break their spirit with a few killer threes? You're telling me it isn't destiny for Stephen F. Austin to play Eastern Washington in the second round as CBS frantically tries to bury the game on truTV?
The sprinters: I wish Iowa State had landed in Virginia's region, because a matchup between two of the most differently paced teams in the country would have been fascinating. But while the Cyclones love to run, they aren't exclusively a fastbreak team. They're talented on offense all-around, featuring a steady point guard in Monte Morris (he of the 4.9/1 assist/turnover ratio), a Kenneth Faried-like rebounder in Jameel McKay, and two athletic shooters in Naz Long and Dustin Hogue (40% and 44%, respectively). Most importantly, they have Georges Niang, an incredibly versatile forward who does all the things Draymond Green used to do for Michigan State while also standing three inches taller. The Cyclones should probably ditch their recent habit of falling behind before charging back—they've improbably overcome double-digit deficits in five straight games—but they have the firepower to hang with anybody, including...
The sorta fairytale: The Cinderella slipper may have stopped fitting Gonzaga a long time ago, but only because Mark Few molded the program into a behemoth. But they still haven't made a Final Four, and until they do, they'll continue to be perceived as the mid-major-that-couldn't. They certainly have the talent this year, led by rock-solid senior guard Kevin Pangos, dual-threat Kentucky transfer Kyle Wiltjer, and shifty USC transfer Byron Wesley. Those guys can all score, which is why the Zags rank fourth in the country in offensive efficiency and second in effective field-goal percentage. But they also lock down on the other end, holding opponents to an effective field-goal percentage of 44% (9th). I'd be more optimistic if Gary Bell Jr. weren't shooting a career-low 41% or if freshman big man Domantas Sabonis (yes, Arvydas' son) could carve out more minutes. Still, the pieces are in place; now it's time for Few to bring back the magic.
Play-in game: North Florida over Robert Morris.
Second round: Duke over San Diego State, Stephen F. Austin over Eastern Washington, Iowa State over SMU, Gonzaga over Davidson.
Regional final: GONZAGA over Duke.
WEST ("The Battleground")
The top seed: Traevon Jackson getting hurt was the best thing that could have happened to Wisconsin. As he showed down the stretch in the final of the Big 10 Tournament, Bronson Koenig is a more explosive offensive player, and with Nigel Hayes suddenly draining threes, there just aren't any weak spots on the floor for the Badgers. Frank Kaminsky's NBA future is questionable, but he's a dominant college player, and if X-factor Sam Dekker plays as well as he can, Wisconsin can hang with anybody. They're second in the country in offensive efficiency, largely because they never make mistakes (11% turnover rate, 1st), and they somehow never get their shot blocked (4% block rate, also 1st). They also foul less than any team in the country, and despite their perceived dearth of athleticism, they're vacuums on the glass (79% defensive rebound rate, 3rd). This is an impressive squad on both ends of the floor. Of course, you could say the same about...
The other top seed: In retrospect, the kerfuffle about whether Arizona or Wisconsin deserved the final #1 seed didn't much matter. Sure, Arizona theoretically has a slightly tougher road to the regional final (though frankly, I'd rather face third-seeded Baylor than a surging North Carolina squad in the Sweet 16), but everything remains aligned for a rematch in the Elite Eight between the Wildcats and the Badgers. And right now, as good as Wisconsin is, the Wildcats are arguably even better. Everyone knows about their defense, which ranks fourth in the country in points allowed per possession, thanks largely to their nation-leading 82% defensive rebound rate. But Arizona also shoots a stunning 49% from the floor (6th), and while they don't shoot the three well (36%, 94th), it hardly matters because they rarely take any (14 per game, 327th). Basically, Arizona just relies on its enormous front line of Brandon Ashley, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, and Kaleb Tarczewski, as well as the heady decision-making of T.J. McConnell. Freshman phenom Stanley Johnson can still be erratic, but he's undeniably explosive, and when Arizona is playing well, they look like a pro team. It'll take that kind of effort to beat Wisconsin.
The rest: Hey, there are other teams in this region too! A rematch between Wisconsin and Arizona may seem inevitable, but given the randomness of March Madness, we can hardly ignore some of the other contenders. Arkansas has some firepower with SEC Player of the Year Bobby Portis, though it'll be interesting to see if the high-flying Razorbacks get frustrated in the first round against Wofford's deliberate pace. (Arkansas ranks 10th in possessions per game; the Terriers come in at 318th.) As mentioned, North Carolina is awfully hot right now, and if Justin Jackson can emerge as a third threat behind Marcus Paige and the perennially underappreciated Brice Johnson, they could make Wisconsin sweat. Baylor is, as ever, freakishly large and athletic—Rico Gathers, the country's leading rebounder among power conference teams, often looks like he's a high school athlete who wandered into a game between sixth-graders—but Scott Drew is hopeless is his attempts to control them. And if there's one reason to watch the play-in games, it's to check out BYU's Kyle Collinsworth, who has racked up an astonishing six triple-doubles this season, tying him with Shaquille O'Neal for the all-time mark in a career.
Play-in game: BYU over Mississippi.
Second round: Wisconsin over Oregon, North Carolina over Arkansas, BYU over Baylor, Arizona over Ohio State.
Regional final: ARIZONA over Wisconsin.
Semifinal #1 (Kentucky vs. Arizona): If this matchup actually comes to fruition, it'll be the game of the tournament. Of course, you could say the same thing about Kentucky playing Wisconsin. Kentucky is the pick either way.
Semifinal #2 (Northern Iowa vs. Gonzaga): Think this would be the primetime game, or the early game? I'll take Gonzaga.
Championship (Kentucky vs. Gonzaga): As I said, there's no point in picking against Kentucky. Just don't be surprised when they lose.
Enjoy the madness, everyone.
Wednesday, March 11, 2015
The movie opens with a fateful incident: After some waitstaff clean up the crumbs following a posh event, one of them glumly clambers onto his bicycle, pedals off toward home, and suddenly gets run off the road by a burly black SUV. From there, Human Capital flashes back six months and replays the events leading up to this hit-and-run from the perspectives of three different characters. The first is Dino (an excellent Fabrizio Bentivoglio), a middle-class real estate broker with a newly pregnant wife, Roberta (Valeria Golino—yes, that Valeria Golino, from Rain Man and Hot Shots!), and a teenage daughter, Serena (Matilde Gioli, very good). One sunny day, Dino drops Serena off at her boyfriend's house—a palatial estate with its own clay tennis courts and indoor pool owned by Giovanni (Fabrizio Gifuni)—and, seduced by the opulence towering before him, decides to invest his life savings (and then some) in Giovanni's "can't-lose" hedge fund. The second main character is Giovanni's wife, Carla (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi), a dilettantish former actress who hopes to use her husband's bottomless cash flow to renovate a defunct local theater. And the third is Serena herself, a restless young woman who has grown disenchanted with Giovanni's buffoonish son, Massimiliano (Guglielmo Pinelli), and finds herself drawn instead to Luca (Giovanni Anzaldo), an outcast with a sensitive soul and unstable temperament.
These are, needless to say, three very different people, with wide discrepancies in wealth, age, and social status. But Virzi's screenplay, which he co-wrote with Francesco Bruni and Francesco Piccolo (adapting a novel by American author Stephen Amidon), weaves its protagonists together through the common threads of dissatisfaction and desire. They may want different things—Dino covets money, Carla craves purpose, Serena seeks only love—but they all want something. Human Capital explores the manner in which these three discontented individuals try to add meaning to their lives, even as it also attempts to keep us guessing as to its central mystery, namely, the identity of the driver who injured that poor, lonely cyclist. The police suspect Massimiliano and accuse Serena of covering for him, though her furtive behavior—as well as the laws of screenwriting—suggest that someone unexpected is culpable.
But that's for later. First, we must bear witness to our trio's hopeless struggles toward self-improvement, and none of Human Capital's characters is more hopeless than Dino. With his queasy laugh and pale-grey moustache, he is an absolute parasite, thrashing helplessly for the nearest host. He finds one in Giovanni, with whom he ingratiates himself thanks to his semi-pro background in tennis. He is so smitten with his new doubles partner's creature comforts that he skillfully manipulates his banker into granting him a sizable loan—with his house as collateral (sure, it's in Serena's name, but of course that's her signature, why even ask?)—then promptly plunks the proceeds down into the hedge fund. (When one of Giovanni's lawyers dutifully informs him that the fund is illiquid and that he should anticipate some risk, Dino waves him off without a second thought.) It is hardly a spoiler to reveal that his investment does not perform as promised, but Human Capital generates friction not just from Dino's pitiful predicament but from his impotent reaction. He is unfailingly obsequious even when despondent, and Bentivoglio's performance brilliantly paints him as a squirrelly sycophant in way over his head.
Bentivoglio is so convincingly pathetic that the movie begins to sputter when it shifts away from Dino and toward Carla. Her inclusion in the story make good thematic sense, as otherwise Virzi would be guilty of tarring all of his wealthy characters with the same black brush. (To wit, consider the rest of Carla's family: Giovanni is an amoral shyster, while Massimiliano is an idiotic pig.) But her sudden obsession with the theater feels less like a burning passion than a manufactured plot point, as does her dalliance with a sleazy, pompous professor.
Yet if Carla's journey exposes the thinness of Human Capital's supporting characters, Serena's confirms the richness of it leads. She is the movie's lone sympathetic figure, and Gioli's delicate and sensitive performance somehow packs a lifetime of suppressed longing into her handful of scenes. It's fitting, then, that Serena's storyline, suffused with sadness and anguish, concludes with a ray of hope that shines through the film's abiding darkness. (Less fitting is Virzi's inexplicable decision to undercut the gentle beauty of the film's final shot with some numbingly redundant and expository title cards.)
Human Capital's tripartite structure—it repeatedly visits identical moments from different characters' perspectives—could have felt trite, but Virzi demonstrates enough technique to prevent things from becoming stale. He makes good use of music, whether it's a pop song blasting during one of those overlapping sequences that prevents it from feeling repetitive, or the unsettling use of Vivaldi's "Four Seasons". (On the latter count, he recalls Ruben Östlund's Force Majeure.) And while he mostly employs a handheld camera for maximum intimacy, he delivers a few stylistic flourishes, such as a sex scene that's backlit by figures from a classic film being projected in the background.
That's a nervy scene, and Human Capital is a gratifyingly ambitious movie, even if it is not an entirely successful one. (The David di Donatello Awards, Italy's equivalent of the Oscars, clearly disagreed, handing the film 19 nominations and seven trophies.) The resolution of its central mystery is a letdown—one that transpires only thanks to a clumsy plot contrivance—and its stinging attacks on the aristocracy aren't as barbed as Virzi intends them to be. But despite the apparent artificiality of its structure and the one-dimensionality of its supporting characters, Human Capital is dependably entertaining, with strong lead performances and a satisfying sense of purpose. It wants you to feel thoroughly shaken, but you'll have to settle with being agreeably stirred.
Sunday, March 8, 2015
You have to hand it to Andy and Lana Wachowski: They don't do things halfway. The Matrix was a heroic work of maniacal vision, but even their lesser movies, like the vibrantly colorful Speed Racer and the cockamamie, sporadically delightful Cloud Atlas (which they co-directed with Tom Tykwer) felt like products of artistic aspiration rather than dutiful commercialism. Now they return with Jupiter Ascending, a grandiloquent space opera that attempts to fuse the galaxy-trotting mythology of Star Wars with the familial treachery of Shakespeare. It is a labor of love, with emphasis on the labor. Like all of the Wachowskis' films (with the exception of their first feature, the taut, terrific crime thriller Bound), this one strains for greatness; unlike their early catalog, it is ultimately weighed down by its own leaden seriousness. An enormously ambitious undertaking, Jupiter Ascending glistens with flop sweat, and you can sense the frantic desperation of its creators. It's a valiant effort, which is another way of calling it a noble failure.
Not a typical one, though. There is far too much visual splendor and painstaking world-building on display here to dismiss Jupiter Ascending as yet another trifling, noisy, wannabe franchise-starter. After a ludicrous prologue set in Russia, we begin on a faraway planet, where Kalique and Titus Abrasax (Tuppence Middleton and Douglas Booth), two royal siblings dressed in finery, talk idly about the colonization of distant worlds. They are interrupted by their elder brother, Balem (a campy, scenery-munching Eddie Redmayne), who appears suddenly by stepping through a shimmering void in the air. The three speak in the thin politeness that masks bitter jealousy, and their social hierarchy is made clear when Titus casually asks Balem if he might consider parting with one of his more valuable properties. "What's it called? Earth?"
So it is, though when we first return to the third body in our solar system, its purported value seems thoroughly inflated. That would certainly be the opinion of Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis, doing her best), who grumbles "I hate my life" when she is roused each morning by her mother (Orphan Black's Maria Doyle Kennedy). Possibly the most well-kept maid in cinematic history, Jupiter lives a Cinderella-like existence, unhappily scrubbing toilets and squabbling with her boisterous extended family. She harbors the simple dream of buying a telescope, and so she grudgingly agrees to her cousin's plan to sell her eggs for cash.
At that point, Jupiter's seemingly insignificant existence turns strange in a hurry, and the Wachowskis start strutting their stuff. First, Jupiter witnesses a quartet of twitchy, bug-like aliens called Keepers attack one of her wealthy clients, only for them to magically wipe the incident from her memory. Then, in a harrowing scene in a hospital room, Jupiter's kindly doctors and nurses are revealed to be those same Keepers, sent to do Balem's murderous bidding. She is saved only by the grace of Caine Wise (Channing Tatum, poorly cast), a muscle-bound wolf-like hunter with pointy ears, a bull neck, and souped-up boots that allow him to fly. His initial rescue of Jupiter is a brisk bit of movie mayhem, but it's nothing compared to the laser show that soon follows, when Caine must again protect Jupiter from a horde of Balem's assassins, this time while airborne in downtown Chicago. It's a sequence that occasionally feels weightless, but the special effects are top-notch, and the Wachowskis' roving camera evokes the tumbling feeling of freefall, especially when Caine and Jupiter suddenly leap out of his spacecraft. Brandishing a shield that looks like a holographic surfboard, Caine soars and swoops with those nifty magic boots, their gleaming fluorescent-blue lights looking like shooting stars streaming across the night sky, and for a moment you lose yourself in the Wachowskis' absolute command of high-tech cinematic wizardry.
But only for a moment, as Jupiter Ascending quickly crashes back to Earth. Caine whisks Jupiter to temporary safety in the form of a remote farmhouse owned by Stinger (the ever-reliable Sean Bean), who provides some obligatory exposition about the vast scope and history of the universe. (Today on did-you-know: Aliens killed off the dinosaurs.) Despite her seemingly humble origins, Jupiter is actually the genetic reincarnation of Balem's mother, which means not only is she galactic royalty—she actually owns the Earth. That's why Balem, our world's ostensible landlord, is so obsessed with destroying Jupiter; her existence threatens his stranglehold on a planet that is actually a farm that aliens routinely harvest for human skin, which apparently allows them to live for millennia. As the lead character from the Wachowskis' seminal achievement might say: whoa.
OK, so this is all tough to swallow, but the goofiness of Jupiter Ascending's storyline isn't crippling in itself. The problem is that the Wachowskis are so devoted to their scrupulous world-building that their mythology overwhelms their characters. Jupiter and Caine both feel like ciphers—the unwitting savior and the strong-but-melancholy warrior—and the romance that flowers between them feels thoroughly manufactured. It doesn't help that the lead performances feel off, especially Tatum's. He's proven recently that he's a versatile actor with a light touch, but he's wrong for the brooding part of Caine, delivering a flat, sullen portrayal bereft of his usual verve. For her part, Kunis is effectively flabbergasted, but she never sells Jupiter's transition from doe-eyed nobody to steely heroine.
But all is not lost. Freed from the burdens of perfunctory romance, the movie's supporting cast has a great deal of fun. Bean is always a treat, while both Booth and Middleton cut appealing figures as entitled gentry (he smarmy, she serene). Better yet is Redmayne, creating an indelibly haughty villain of whispery malevolence.
The real stars, though, are the Wachowskis and their eye-popping visuals, especially once the movie departs the humdrum Earth and shoots up into space. The myriad environments of Jupiter Ascending are dazzling in their rich detail, a wondrous combination of computer-generated opulence and spit-and-glue construction. There are also some moments of delightful oddness, as in a bizarre sequence where Jupiter must visit an endless stream of bureaucratic departments to receive the proper paperwork before ascending her throne. This interlude feels yanked out of Terry Gilliam's Brazil (in related news, Gilliam himself plays one of the bureaucrats), and its satiric tone clashes with the rest of the film's self-seriousness, but it's at least witty and memorable.
Sadly, the same can't be said of Jupiter Ascending's tedious final act, which involves a litany of action scenes that are disappointingly insoluble. They typically involve Caine—either piloting a spaceship or simply helmeted and propelling himself through space with those spectacular boots—hurtling toward an inferno of some sort, desperate to reach a certain point in space before being swallowed up in fire (think the Millennium Falcon escaping the Death Star). The other characters' stressed expressions, along with Michael Giacchino's pounding score, suggest that he's performing some sort of daring physical maneuver, but on screen it's all a crystalline blur, with chaos standing in for clarity. Even worse is the movie's dreadful denouement, a sputtering conclusion that suggests the script's final pages were misplaced. For all the energy the Wachowskis invested into creating this story, they apparently expended little thought how to end it.
Yet as flawed as Jupiter Ascending may be, its failure is one of overreach rather than indifference. That alone is admirable. And there is, without doubt, the specter of a good movie lurking somewhere within this overwrought mess, a stirring saga of self-discovery and triumphant heroism set against the backdrop of brilliantly realized worlds. (There is also some potentially interesting allegory—whether about eugenics, environmentalism, or even vegetarianism—that never quite bubbles to the surface.) But that tantalizing possibility, and the film's actual visual magnificence, only makes the Wachowskis' botched execution all the more dispiriting. The Earth may indeed be but a speck within an incomprehensibly large universe. But its people still matter, a truth that the Wachowskis—in their feverish attempt to journey beyond our planet's confines and into the great beyond—seem to have forgotten. Maybe the Keepers wiped their memory too.
Friday, March 6, 2015
David Cronenberg is a profoundly talented filmmaker, and he's never made a normal film. But originality isn't itself a good, and as gifted as Cronenberg may be, his ability to heighten the natural language of cinema—to create movies saturated with intrigue and weirdness—can work both ways. When he starts with a strong premise and an intelligent screenplay, he can make operatic marvels like The Fly, A History of Violence, and Eastern Promises. But give him a leaky script and false characters, and his instinctive intensity will only magnify the material's flaws, resulting in stultifying dreck like Crash, Spider, or Cosmopolis. It's this innate capacity for augmentation—for blowing up a picture to gargantuan size—that makes Cronenberg perhaps the worst possible choice to make Maps to the Stars, a half-baked Hollywood satire that gradually morphs into a tacky horror movie. With a less capable director, Maps to the Stars would have been little more than a harmless bore. Under Cronenberg's lurid stewardship, it's a fascinating atrocity.
The movie begins as a disorienting blur, introducing us to its major players and forcing us to discern their connections ourselves. We meet Agatha (Mia Wasikowska), a burn victim clad in a black dress and matching elbow-length gloves, who arrives in Los Angeles and immediately hires a chauffeur, Jerome (Robert Pattinson, who headlined Cosmopolis), to whisk her to the homes of various celebrities. Then, we're suddenly inside one of those homes, where 13-year-old Benjie (The Killing's Evan Bird), a Justin Bieber-like child star, speaks lewdly with his mother, Christina (Olivia Williams). His father, Stafford (John Cusack), appears briefly and babbles about Tibet, then disappears to engage in a bizarre training session—an apparent combination of massage and hypnotherapy—with Havana (Julianne Moore), a hysterical actress with severe mommy issues.
It's a bit confusing at first, but even if the logistical connections between these characters aren't readily apparent, they clearly occupy the same metaphorical space. That's initially evident in their toxic entitlement and derision, whether it's Havana attending a lavish party and gossiping with a producer about just how an actress lands all her roles (it involves a sex act that would make even the hardiest pornographer blanch), or Benjie bickering with his producers over the details of his latest lazy sequel. At this point, Maps to the Stars feels like a thin rip-off of The Player, Robert Altman's legendary inside-baseball look at Hollywood's soulless machinery. There's lots of cute name-dropping—when Christina casually compares Benjie's substance-abuse troubles with those of "Drew", you're expected to know that she's talking about a young Drew Barrymore—that's supposed to make the movie feel plugged-in, but it comes off as petty, as though the film is anxious to prove its knowhow while simultaneously skewering the industry.
But even if Bruce Wagner's script seeks to pepper the stale target of celebrity vanity with body blows, Cronenberg seems minimally invested in Maps to the Stars' shrill satire. He's really making a creepy mood piece, which is why his characters share other, stranger similarities. For example, both Benjie and Havana are plagued by visions of dead people: Benjie of a lymphoma patient he dutifully visited in the hospital, and Havana of her mother, Clarice (Cronenberg regular Sarah Gadon), whom she remembers not as an adult but as a teenage sex kitten from her role in an exploitative black-and-white cult classic called Stolen Waters. Clarice mysteriously died in a fire, thus linking her with Agatha, whom we eventually learn is Benjie's sister and who suffered her scars when she attempted to burn herself and her young brother alive years ago. And Agatha and Benjie are both fond of randomly quoting snippets from "Liberty", a poem by Paul Eluard. (Paul Thomas Anderson is also name-checked, suggesting that "Liberty" is this movie's "Wise Up".)
This is all very silly, and it's hardly meant to be taken seriously. But while Cronenberg seeks to let us in on the joke, it's difficult to determine what that joke is, beyond the facile observation that celebrities have their own social codes and twisted values. This mostly manifests in revolting behavior. After Havana hires Agatha as her personal assistant, she learns that Agatha is sleeping with Jerome (he's a wannabe actor too, of course), and so she swiftly seduces him herself. And when she learns that a rival actress' young son has died (thereby allowing her to usurp a long-coveted part), she responds by feigning grief, then immediately bursting into a rendition of "Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye". For his part, Benjie gets high on GHB and inadvertently shoots and kills a friend's dog.
How awful! How incorrigible! I suppose. But as outrageous as various events in Maps to the Stars may be, they rarely possess any impact beyond bland shock value. That's partly because, as talented as his cast is, Cronenberg requires them to deliver dual performances, both buying into his self-aware schlock while also standing above it. It's a virtually impossible task, and the only one who pulls it off is Wasikowska, who somehow invests Agatha with the desired combination of artificiality and grace. The rest veer too strongly in one direction or the other, favoring either cartoonish flamboyance (as is the case with Moore) or numb literalism (as goes for Cusack and Pattinson). (Bird, frankly, is just bad.)
Because Maps to the Stars is a David Cronenberg movie, there is plenty of impressive craft on display. In addition to Peter Suschitzky's sleek cinematography and Howard Shore's appropriately ominous score, Cronenberg supplies a number of striking images: a figure on fire glimpsed through glass; ghostly children diving into a pool and disappearing; those black-and-white glimpses of Stolen Waters that ooze with repressed sexuality. Yet the fullness of these images only underscores the utter banality at the film's core. Cronenberg can dress up anything to look sexy or menacing (or, preferably in his case, both), but even he can't disguise a narrative of such relentless stupidity.
As Maps to the Stars slides into its ludicrous final act, Agatha, a paranoid schizophrenic, ditches her meds and assumes her rightful role as crazed killer. The instrument of her mayhem: the statuette for a Golden Globe. As that bronzed trophy runs slick with blood, you can hear Cronenberg chortling to himself. But even if you can't sympathize with Agatha's victim—possibly because, thanks to Wasikowska, Agatha is the only character in the film who is remotely sympathetic—you can nevertheless feel her pain, the sense of being bludgeoned over and over by a towering figure who has absolutely nothing to say.
Sunday, March 1, 2015
A breezy, sexy, ultimately empty crime caper, Focus is a victim of its own sleight of hand. It is so intent on hoodwinking its audience and disguising its characters' motivations that it doesn't entertain so much as tease, constantly taunting us with one version of events before yanking out the rug again and again. It's the kind of movie where nothing is what it seems. That does make things unpredictable, since no viewer could possibly anticipate Focus' sudden twists and hairpin curves. But following this movie's labyrinthine structure becomes less a tantalizing task of puzzling things out than a tedious exercise of wait-and-see. When you're constantly on guard for the next big surprise, nothing is truly surprising.
Here's the good news: For its first 40 minutes or so, Focus is a blast. The ageless Will Smith stars as Nicky, an inveterate con man who decides to tutor Jess, a fledgling pickpocket played by the fast-emerging Margot Robbie (last seen heating up the screen in The Wolf of Wall Street and set to appear next summer as Jane in Warner's Tarzan reboot). They make a pretty pair, he with his relaxed handsomeness, she with the pale blue eyes and curves that need no introduction. Their difference in years may consternate some viewers—at 46, Smith is nearly twice the age of the 24-year-old Robbie, and his goatee now betrays the slightest whispers of grey—but his charisma hasn't waned, and it's easy to buy the mutual attraction that quickly leads them tumbling into bed. It's a romance that operates on surface appeal rather than real heat, which proves problematic once Focus tethers its twist-and-turn plot to the notion that Nicky, typically such a cool customer, has fallen desperately in love.
But that's for later. At first, what really turns Nicky and Jess on is not sex but theft; for its easygoing first act, Focus is all about the art of the steal. Jess, hungering to prove her light-fingered mettle, follows Nicky from New York to New Orleans, where he and his partner, Horst (a very good Brennan Brown), lead a team of roughly 30 small-time crooks who work in magical unison. Jess proves a quick study, and before long she's artfully bumping into marks on the street, apologizing profusely while casually pilfering their wallets, then deftly handing the goods to a passing teammate. This is not entirely plausible—it seems that, for every regular Joe in the Big Easy, there are roughly six of Nicky's confederates operating in concert—but it's fun to watch, and writer-directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (whose previous feature was the terrific Crazy Stupid Love) show off some dynamic snap in a montage of effortless, expertly coordinated larceny. But it's all small potatoes, and at one point, Jess asks Nicky if he's ever contemplated a long con, the kind where scrupulous planning yields a retirement-sized payday. He shoots her down flat: keep it small, sell everything, never risk.
If only he were telling the truth. The remainder of Focus involves Nicky embroiling himself in a series of absurdly improbable long cons, first featuring a million-dollar bet at the Super Bowl, then an even more outrageous scam involving Formula One drivers in Argentina. The issue here isn't the cockamamie plot. It's that, as the movie's contrivances pile up and its twists beget more twists, it becomes increasingly clear that nothing on screen is what it seems. At one point, Jess confronts Nicky about his shape-shifting motives, complaining that she'll never be able to trust him. Neither can we, but more importantly, we can't trust Ficarra and Requa. Their favorite trick—replaying footage of past events with the benefit of new information, thereby demonstrating what was really happening the first time around—gets old in a hurry, and it only reinforces their smoke-and-mirrors approach. Eventually, Focus collapses under its own manufactured weight, like a stylish house of cards with a rotted foundation.
Not that the movie is entirely lacking in allure. Ficarra and Requa may not be great filmmakers, but unlike their point-and-shoot approach in Crazy Stupid Love, they flash some panache here, such as a strange silent sequence where a hulking anonym purchases a series of protective items, then crashes his car at high speed for reasons that swiftly become clear. They also generate one visually gasp-worthy moment—a striking shot of Robbie, clad in a clingy red dress and matching lipstick, descending a staircase bathed in blue—that appears plucked from a Michael Mann film. And Focus confirms what Wolf of Wall Street fans already suspected: Robbie is a star. I'm not sure yet whether she's a great actress, but her screen presence is undeniable (she looks pretty good in a bikini too, in case you had doubts), and her easy chemistry with Smith hints at the kind of movie Focus could have been, had Ficarra and Requa focused on characters instead of shocks.
I'm by no means suggesting that a sharp plot twist is inherently fatal to a film's success. The best recent capers—in particular, Steven Soderbergh's Ocean's Eleven and Tony Gilroy's woefully underrated Duplicity—featured final-act reveals that carried legitimate thrills of surprise. But those movies worked because their twists derived organically from their characters and their base narratives. Yet apart from its delightful opening act, Focus doesn't even have a base narrative; it's all about heaping one surprise on top of another, with no underlying core to give it any meaning. You might gain casual enjoyment from this movie, with its talented, good-looking actors and exotic locations, but you will eventually grow exasperated with its sweaty desire to fool you. On that score, you can trust me, which is more than I can say about anyone or anything in Focus.