Tuesday, July 18, 2017

The Big Sick: Funny Games, Then the Coma

Kumail Nanjiani and Zoe Kazan in "The Big Sick"
“There’s not just going to be a magic spark,” a mother tells her son early in The Big Sick. “You have to work at it.” Honestly, has this woman never seen a romantic comedy? One of our most durable and pleasurable genres, it is undergirded by the notion that cinematic serendipity—the meet cute, the screwball misunderstanding, the shop around the corner—is very real, and could happen to you. Well, what better way to illustrate this than by telling a true story? The script for The Big Sick, Michael Showalter’s sweet and sensitive new movie, was written by real-life couple Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon, and it chronicles their first date, ensuing courtship, and subsequent complications. Emily is portrayed by the terrifically talented and perennially underrated actress Zoe Kazan, but Nanjiani plays himself, lending further authenticity to a production already steeped in personal and locational detail.

Yet while the pieces are in place for The Big Sick to establish itself as a contemporary rom-com classic, it doesn’t quite do that—not because it’s a bad movie, but because it isn’t really a romantic comedy at all. Sure, there are plenty of laughs to be had, and for its first half-hour, the film executes the rom-com playbook with competence and conviction. As it progresses, however, The Big Sick becomes harder to pigeonhole. It operates, at varying times and often simultaneously, as a ruminative character study, as an exploration of the American immigrant family, and—most startlingly and most effectively—as a weepie.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Spider-Man: Homecoming: Local Schoolboy, Coming of Avenging Age

Tom Holland is the new Peter Parker in "Spider-Man: Homecoming"
Both Peter Parker and Spider-Man are great movie characters, albeit for different reasons. Peter’s appeal is one of drama and narrative; ignore the whole vigilante crime-fighting thing, and he’s the perfect embodiment of nerdy boyhood angst, a decent kid juggling the all-too-familiar teenage problems of school, work, and girls. But Spider-Man’s allure is distinctly cinematic. His particular abilities—the way he springs from one edifice to the next, the way his sticky webs lend his movements physicality and coherence—are uniquely suited to visualized heroism. When Peter struggles to muster the courage to ask a crush to a dance, you can empathize with how he’s feeling. When Spider-Man strains to yank two halves of a splintering barge back together, you can understand and anticipate what he’s actually doing.

Perhaps this blend of thoughtful characterization and dynamic action explains why Spider-Man: Homecoming is Sony’s sixth title to feature Spidey in the last 15 years. Or maybe the studio just likes making money. In any event, Homecoming cannily capitalizes on its hero’s twofold potential, even if it falls short of genuine triumph on both fronts. The gold standard for Spider-Man movies—and for all superhero movies, for that matter (hell, maybe for all movies, period)—remains Spider-Man 2, Sam Raimi’s transcendent fusion of bold adventure and plaintive desire. This ain’t that. But Homecoming, which was directed by relative newcomer Jon Watts from a script by a bevy of writers, is at least a quality effort, a spirited quasi-reboot that captures its hero’s quintessential pluck and delivers a few moments of exhilarating web-based suspense.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Baby Driver: Start Your Engines, and Your Jukeboxes

Ansel Elgort is an unflappable wheelman in Edgar Wright's "Baby Driver"
As much music video as movie, Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver is part symphony, part sonic assault. The music plays wall-to-wall in this giddy, extravagant thriller about a gifted getaway driver who’s paralyzed unless he’s blasting funk and soul into his ears by way of white earbuds hooked up to a rotation of oh-so-retro iPods. Stricken with tinnitus, the oddly monikered Baby (Ansel Elgort) can only concentrate when he’s listening to classic jams, the better to drown out the incessant humming. This fusion of underworld pulp and musical obsessiveness is Baby Driver’s raison d’être; there have been countless films about bank robbers and quite a few about wheelmen, but this is surely the first where the driver snaps at his cohorts to wait before commencing a heist because he needs to restart a song to regain his rhythm.

Baby’s condition is in part a clever conceit, an excuse for Wright—the pop-culture connoisseur who once interrupted a life-or-death action sequence in Shaun of the Dead while his characters discussed which old vinyl records were worth saving—to cram the film’s soundtrack with his favorite tunes, ranging from The Beach Boys to Queen to Young MC. Yet it’s also possible to view Baby’s affliction as a surrogate for his director’s own peculiar anxiety. A supremely capable and distinctive filmmaker, Wright here piles one flourish on top of another so that Baby Driver eventually reaches vertiginous heights, threatening to topple under its own weight of cinematic cool. It’s a blast, but it can also feel like style for its own sake, Wright working so feverishly to keep you entertained that he seems terrified of that inevitable moment when the music stops.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Cars 3: Vroom and Doom

A scene from "Cars 3", in which cars drive like cars.
Pixar’s best movies are so amazingly, miraculously good, their lesser efforts can become underappreciated by comparison. The common phrase “second-tier Pixar”—often applied to, say, the fairy-tale familiarity of Brave, the slobs-versus-snobs hijinks of Monsters University, or the poky adventure of The Good Dinosaur—necessarily implies a sense of relative failure, even if all of those films are variously rewarding. But the Cars movies are different. It remains vexing that the wizard studio—presumably motivated by merchandising rather than storytelling—has insisted on turning its least interesting property into a commodified, pandering franchise. (Of course, Pixar’s other trilogy is literally about products that are purchased for children, but the Toy Story pictures also happen to be great.) When the first Cars dropped in 2006, it immediately claimed the title of “worst Pixar movie ever made”, its airy pleasantness overshadowed by the string of ingenious hits that had preceded it. Five years later, Cars 2 took that title for its own; a stunningly stupid action-comedy centered on Larry the Cable Guy’s Mater (a character who makes Jar Jar Binks seem fascinating and three-dimensional), it wasn’t just a comparative disappointment—it was a legitimately bad movie.

Perhaps the nicest thing I can say about Cars 3 is that, following its release, the unofficial tally of “Bad Pixar Movies” remains stuck at one. That’s because this latest sequel—harmless and piddling, with just a whiff of thoughtfulness and originality—is too innocuous and well-meaning to be bad. But neither is it good enough to qualify as second-tier Pixar, a designation that confers with it an attempt at beauty, ambition, and imagination. Even the studio’s weaker films at least try to be memorable, but in its relentless congeniality, Cars 3 seems calculated to make as little impact as possible. No wonder its characters constantly drive around in circles.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

It Comes at Night: Something Toxic in the Air, and a Virus, Too

Christopher Abbott and Joel Edgerton in "It Comes at Night"
There are no zombies in It Comes at Night, unless you count the vacant, dead-eyed stares that regularly materialize on each of its characters’ stricken faces. An eerie shiver of a horror-thriller, it’s scary less for its shocks than its sober observations on human nature. When a body is burned in the film’s harrowing opening sequence, the corpse never reanimates, though it does emerge in a spooky, silent nightmare, darkened eyes shooting daggers of ill will. In this movie, the dead stay dead. Maybe they’re the lucky ones.

The second feature from writer-director Trey Edward Shults, It Comes at Night takes for its premise that all-too-plausible scenario that has beckoned to many an aspiring artist: the apocalypse. Doomsday has long fascinated filmmakers, who relish the chance to turn a universal fear—it’s the end of the world!—into a personal vision; the last few years alone have given us works as varied as the demolition derby of Mad Max: Fury Road, the steampunk allegory of Snowpiercer, and the bro-sploitation comedy of This Is the End. It Comes at Night is quieter than those movies, but it is arguably more unsettling. For Shults, the collapse of civilization creates the opportunity to explore how people relate to and value one another, pitting civic values against Darwinian impulses. The picture he paints, much like the ghastly mural that adorns one of the walls of the house where the action occurs, is far from pretty.

Friday, June 9, 2017

Wonder Woman: Lady First

Gal Gadot in "Wonder Woman"
As she rushes headlong across a barren wasteland toward entrenched enemy troops, the Amazon gathers speed and momentum, hair streaming behind her as she deflects oncoming bullets with a flick of her gauntleted wrists. It’s a sequence of breathless verve and grandeur, but it earns an extra meta kick thanks to its setting. The year is 1918, and the location is the western front in Belgium. This means, as students of military history surely know, that the Amazon is charging through not just any field but a particularly named stretch of mud: no man’s land. The metaphor is almost too perfect. Superheroes have done all sorts of impressive things in modern movies, but to my knowledge, this is the first time that a costumed warrior has obliterated both German soldiers and the Hollywood patriarchy in one gorgeously filmed swoop.

Perhaps I’m exaggerating. After all, the broader statistical data about women both behind and in front of the camera remain dispiriting, and just as Wonder Woman the heroine cannot win World War I on her own, Wonder Woman the movie—the first high-profile superhero film to feature a female director and star—cannot by itself cure an industry that continues to be plagued by sexism. But it’s a start. Still, advancements in representation aside, the question remains whether this movie, directed by Patty Jenkins, qualifies as a victory of artistry as well as diversity. Thankfully, Jenkins has made a spry and enjoyable adventure, if one accompanied by many of the flaws endemic to the genre. It’s far from great, but it’s mostly good enough.

Friday, June 2, 2017

Under the Streaming Radar: 20 Good Little-Seen Movies You Can Watch Right Now

Alison Brie and Jason Sudeikis in the underrated "Sleeping with Other People"
Every week, my father and I discuss which new movie(s) we’re going to see in the theater during the upcoming weekend. Last week, however, the conversation didn’t last long, as the two high-profile new releases—the fifth entry in a moribund blockbuster franchise and a big-screen adaptation of a hacky ’90s TV show—barely reached 50% on Rotten Tomatoes combined. Frustrated over the lack of quality options at the multiplex, my father grumbled, “Thank God for Netflix.”

Sarcasm aside, my father’s faux-religious praise for a multimedia company spoke to the behavioral trend that’s been emerging among American adults over the past decade: We don’t like going to the movies anymore. Of course, that isn’t strictly true; though the total number of tickets purchased may have stagnated, we still gave theaters more than $11 billion of our money last year, so let’s not eulogize the communal moviegoing experience just yet. But the appeal of the streaming service—a mode of viewing that combines a broad selection of options with the convenience of never leaving the couch—exerts a strong pull on many grown-ups (particularly those with young children). Why go through the hassle of hiring a sitter when you can just rip through three episodes of Master of None or Thirteen Reasons Why after the kids are in bed?

This impulse typically manifests in terms of television shows—the Manifesto’s most-read post to date remains a piece I wrote six years ago listing 10 great TV series available on Netflix (thanks to the vagaries of the market, six of those shows are now streaming on different services)—but there’s no reason it can’t be redirected toward feature films. And don’t even try arguing that you lack sufficient time to watch a full movie; if you can binge-watch an entire season of Stranger Things in two nights, I’m pretty sure you can find 90 minutes to watch a closed-end thriller.

To that end, the Manifesto has compiled the following list of 20 good movies that are currently available on widely popular streaming services. Now, obviously, this list is by no means comprehensive. First, in an effort to spotlight movies with a limited following, we’re focusing on under-the-radar releases; only two of the 20 titles highlighted below exceeded $5 million and the domestic box office, and none surpassed $15 million. Second, we’re not including any movies that we formally reviewed here over the past few years, as we’ll let those reviews speak for themselves. (I encourage readers to arm themselves with the invaluable JustWatch app and then scan our fully ranked lists of movies from both 2015 and 2016 to locate high-quality streaming titles. Relatedly, The Handmaiden is available on Amazon Prime.) And last, because modern audiences are scared of “old” movies, we’re restricting ourselves to films that came out this decade; just remember that cinema has existed for more than a century, and there are plenty of classic titles available to stream if you’re ever feeling nostalgic for the glory days of Bogart and Bacall.

Let’s get to it (and remember, thanks to the fickle nature of streaming content, availability of these titles is subject to change):

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Alien: Covenant: Still Meddling, Still Dying, but with Double the Robots

Katherine Waterston and Michael Fassbender in "Alien: Covenant"
During one of the best scenes in Alien: Covenant, a robot tells an antiquated model of himself why he was ultimately decommissioned. “You were too human,” the current version bluntly informs his predecessor. “Too idiosyncratic.” The explanation makes sense—the older model’s uncannily lifelike behavior unsettled his mortal masters—but it carries with it an undeniable sting of irony. Covenant, the sixth entry in the Alien franchise and the third directed by Ridley Scott, is a vigorous and impressive piece of mass-market entertainment, a finely calibrated horror film that boasts expert effects work and pulse-pounding set pieces. Yet it is also clearly the product of corporate assembly, a sequel to a prequel that ably perpetuates the series’ mythology but does so with minimal distinction or ingenuity. It’s a bit like that newly updated cyborg who lectures his elder counterpart: sleek and efficient, but not idiosyncratic enough.

Or maybe I’ve just seen too many Alien movies. If you haven’t watched Scott’s classic original (which is slightly overrated, but that’s a different discussion), you are likely to be gobsmacked by the spectacle of violent death and physical suffering that the director has arrayed before you. Setting aside Sigourney Weaver’s spunky and sexy performance, Alien achieved cinematic immortality for two reasons: its historically great tagline, and John Hurt’s upset stomach. Seeing as Covenant cannot hope to match the former (though “The path to paradise begins in hell” isn’t half-bad), it strives to one-up the latter. Throughout this movie, nasty critters burst out from within the insides of unsuspecting human hosts, spilling blood and splintering backbone in the process. Alien enthusiasts may have seen this before, but they likely haven’t seen it this excruciating and visceral.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Small-Screen Swagger: Six Shows Stretching the Boundaries of TV

Aubrey Plaza going bonkers in FX's "Legion"
Television used to be a safe space. It was a repository for the comfortable and familiar: the family sitcom, the police procedural, the doctor show. After a long day, we settled on the couch to bask in the routine pleasures of our favorite weekly programs—chuckling along with the laugh track, racing to uncover the killer, wagering on the survival of the patient. We didn’t watch TV to be challenged or jostled. We watched it to be soothed.

Here’s a decidedly cold take: TV has changed. Over the past several decades—the point of origin is a matter of dispute, but most critics cite the launch of The Sopranos in 1999—television has transformed into a multi-headed hydra of prestige entertainment, teeming with hard-bitten dramas and historical epics and anarchic comedies. (It’s also grown more cinematic, but don’t worry: This is not one of those insufferable think-pieces declaring that TV is better than movies, or vice-versa. (For the record, the only correct answer to the question of “Which is better, movies or TV?” is “Yes”.)) As competition expands and delivery options multiply, showrunners are capitalizing on this land of digital opportunity, developing series that are bigger, costlier, and riskier than anything we’ve seen before on television.

This can only be a good thing. Not every huge new TV show is a huge success—for every Game of Thrones or The Americans, there’s a Vinyl or a Bloodline. But there’s a heretofore untapped vein of possibility to the medium now, the sense that the next mind-blowing series is just one click away. What’s particularly gratifying is that creators are seizing the moment and pushing TV into uncharted territory. Emboldened by their compatriots’ achievements, showrunners aren’t just telling bigger and better stories; they’re telling them in new and exciting ways.

What follows are a half-dozen programs that are especially noteworthy for their ambition: the way they use the classic format of the TV show—a series of individual episodes that gradually accumulate a greater and more cohesive power—for breathtakingly novel purposes. These aren’t necessarily the best shows on TV, but they are among the most audacious.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2: Saving the World, One Wisecrack at a Time

Dave Bautista, Zoe Saldana, and Chris Pratt in "Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2"
In the middle of the hectic opening set piece of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol.2, the green-skinned alien Gamora reproaches two of her squabbling colleagues: “Can we put the bickering on hold till after we survive the massive space battle?” It’s a sensible request that comes from the troupe’s most sensible member, but at the risk of mansplaining (human-splaining?), allow me to point out the flaw in Gamora’s logic. Whereas the typical superhero extravaganza centers on its high-octane action sequences, the first Guardians of the Galaxy made its mark by inverting the formula; it emphasized writing and character, pushing its passable pyrotechnics into the background. With this franchise, the bickering isn’t ornamental—it’s the main attraction.

That canny focal adjustment made the original Guardians a welcome antidote, a rejuvenating tonic that helped offset the fatigue brought on by the glut of superhero pictures constantly invading the American multiplex. The challenge now facing James Gunn, returning as both writer and director, is how to reconcile the bracing freshness of the first installment with the rigid demands of the cinematic universe. The standard operating procedure for comic-book sequels is simply to take what worked the first time around, then blow it up to even greater dimensions, but spunky originality isn’t so easily amenable to magnification. How do you bottle lightning twice?

Thursday, May 4, 2017

The Lost City of Z: Unwelcome to the Jungle, But Pressing On

Charlie Hunnam in James Gray's "The Lost City of Z"
The soldier finds the mission underwhelming. Sure, he once trained with the Royal Geographical Society, but that was ages ago, and he barely remembers his studies. Why should he be the one tasked with mapping the border between Brazil and Bolivia? He’s a warrior, not a surveyor. Yet by the end of The Lost City of Z—the grand and grave historical epic from James Gray—the soldier’s reluctance has transformed into obsession. This touching, tragic film chronicles its hero’s gradual descent into something like madness, even as it acknowledges the nobility of his pursuit and the dignity of his character.

For all of the death and misery that it uncovers, The Lost City of Z is not exactly a downer. Gray, once known for his gritty thrillers, has of late developed an odd and interesting talent: He can make human suffering seem strangely beguiling. His Two Lovers put Joaquin Phoenix through the emotional wringer, but it also recognized the thrill of newfound romantic attraction. And while The Immigrant essayed the challenges facing Marion Cotillard’s woebegone traveler with unflinching directness, Gray’s lustrous craft shaded her predicament with tenderness and hope. Now with The Lost City of Z, he examines the ecstasy and the agony of mania—the fanatical need to prove yourself, no matter the mortal cost.

Friday, April 28, 2017

Free Fire: Shots Squeezed Off, Insults Catapulted

Armie Hammer, Brie Larson, Cillian Murphy, Sam Riley, and Michael Smiley in "Free Fire"
Near the end of David Mamet’s Heist, two rival criminal factions engage in a shootout on a pier. It’s a fairly unremarkable scene, except that standing in the crossfire is Bergman, an irascible fence played by Danny DeVito. As the bullets whiz past him, Bergman transforms from a tough-talking hoodlum into a conciliatory wimp, yelping in protest, “Put the fucking guns down, let’s just talk!” Free Fire, the latest whatsit from the English auteur/weirdo Ben Wheatley, essentially extends this bit of off-kilter gunplay to feature length. It assembles a motley crew of hooligans, junkies, and reprobates, then sets them loose on one another in a display of inept savagery that’s more pitiful than lethal.

That phrase might also describe Wheatley’s prior films, which have relied on showy extremism to enliven themes and narratives that are fundamentally banal. These include Kill List, a glum study of blue-collar ennui that morphed into a grisly and tasteless horror movie, and High-Rise, an initially fascinating but ultimately unwatchable satire that squandered a terrific cast in favor of incoherent montage. (I haven’t seen A Field in England, but Variety assessed it as combining “imagination-teasing ingenuity” with “a startling lapse in basic storytelling competence”, which seems to fit.) Qualitatively, Free Fire represents a dramatic improvement for Wheatley, but what’s most interesting is how he’s improved. No longer straining to confound audiences with his avant-garde brilliance, Wheatley has instead chosen to wield his gifts for the old-fashioned virtue of entertainment. Free Fire has little heart and even less depth, but compared to the arduous nature of Wheatley’s past works, its breezy emptiness is oddly refreshing.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Why You Need to Watch Netflix's "13 Reasons Why"

Katherine Langford is dead and hating it in "13 Reasons Why"
High school is a crucible. It can be at once wonderful and terrible, a paradise of joy and discovery and a battleground of spite and cruelty. It’s the claustrophobia—for four consecutive years, you spend an inordinately high percentage of your time stuffed into the same space, surrounded by the same people, chasing the same dream of escape. That pressure-cooker environment explains why every emotion, every experience, feels heightened: Every friendship is destined to last forever, every fight rends you in two, every romance is Shakespearean in scope. At times you wonder if you understand anything, but what you know for certain is that nobody understands you. And whenever something bad happens to you in high school, it doesn’t feel like a discrete event, a fleeting moment in the anthology of experiences that will shape you as a person. It feels like a cataclysm.

Perhaps I’m speaking only for myself. But I am also speaking for Hannah Baker, the stricken, haunted protagonist of Netflix’s sweeping, searing new drama, 13 Reasons Why. As played in a breakout performance by Katherine Langford, Hannah is the series’ focal point, its magnet for the emotional turbulence that so forcefully buffets the students of its nondescript suburban high school. Sad, sweet, hopeful, and scared, Hannah is in many ways a typical teenager—a drama queen to some, a wayward soul to others. She is the show’s lifeblood. She is also dead.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Your Name.: Trading Places, and Finding Feelings

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

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

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Ghost in the Shell: All That Glitters Is Not Code

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

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

Thursday, March 30, 2017

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

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

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

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Kong: Skull Island: Doing the Monster Mash, Upriver in Vietnam

Brie Larson and Tom Hiddleston take a gander at King Kong in "Skull Island"
One of the lasting lessons of Jaws was that shrouding your monster in mystery elevates its threat level; over the film’s first half, we grow to appreciate the terrifying power of its man-eating shark, but we don’t actually see the beast for well over an hour. Kong: Skull Island may aspire to the heights of classic ’70s cinema, but it deems this particular piece of Spielbergian wisdom to be hogwash. Here, we glimpse the titular ape almost instantly, and while he’s obscured by shadow during the prologue, by the time the first main set piece rolls around, we’re treated to the sight of King Kong in all his massive glory. He’s big, he’s mean, and you had better believe that he’s going to knock your puny little helicopter right out of the sky.

Subtle and suspenseful, this is not. But while Kong: Skull Island is undeniably blockheaded, its bluntness is also kind of disarming. Here is an unpretentious big-budget movie that is unapologetic in its prioritization of action and spectacle. If you want thoughtful storytelling or complex characters, go to the art house. Here there be monsters.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Logan: For Ailing Hero, a Road Trip and a Reckoning

Hugh Jackman returns one last time as the Wolverine in "Logan"
The most valid criticism of Marvel movies is that they’re all the same. That’s an exaggeration, certainly, but there’s an undeniable whiff of formula that pervades the MCU, a familiarity that sometimes slips into complacency. The oversized casts, the pithy banter, the FX-laden fight scenes, the mundane aesthetic, the cameos and the fan service and the post-credits stingers—all of these combine to form a brand that, while powerful and successful, threatens innovation and disdains originality. (My favorite MCU entry, Guardians of the Galaxy, is delightful in part because it is only tenuously connected to its eponymous universe.) Some of the individual titles are good, others are bad, but few even try to be great.

Logan, the seventh movie to feature Hugh Jackman as the Wolverine (ninth if you count his single-scene appearances in X-Men: First Class and X-Men: Apocalypse), is not a great movie. Its villains are bland, its action sequences are mediocre, and its pacing is occasionally sluggish. These are flaws that would cripple most comic-book movies. But Logan, which was directed by James Mangold from a script he wrote with Scott Frank and Michael Green, is not most comic-book movies. A welcome outlier in a cinematic landscape of alarming uniformity, it is decidedly unlike its peers: bold, thoughtful, and surprisingly powerful. Above all, it is distinctive.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Get Out: The Stepford Jives

Daniel Kaluuya in Jordan Peele's horror movie "Get Out"
The hero of Get Out suffers. Over the course of the movie, he is assaulted, humiliated, choked, tied up, shot at, and regularly deprived of his physical and personal liberty. It’s a crucible of pain. But nothing is more terrifying, more indignifying, than when he’s forced to hobnob at a fancy garden party with a bunch of rich white people.

OK, I’m exaggerating. But Get Out, the first feature by comedian Jordan Peele, is more than just another fright flick. It’s a film that examines, with insight, empathy, and anger, the challenge of being a black man in white America. Peele is not exclusively interested in making you jump out of your seat (though he proves plenty good at that). He also wants to clamp you to your chair and make you grapple with the current state of race relations in this country, to wrestle with his characters’ prejudices and maybe even your own.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Oscars 2016: A Tale of Two Winners, and a Night of Inspirational Disaster

In a shocking twist, La La Land was not the big winner at this year’s Oscars. But Moonlight, which actually (though not initially) won Best Picture, wasn’t the big winner either. Nor was Emma Stone, nor Casey Affleck, nor Best Animated Feature winner Zootopia, nor The Salesman director Asghar Farhadi (though his in absentia speech was pretty cool).

No, the big winner at the 89th Annual Academy Awards was Jordan Horowitz.

You probably don’t know Horowitz by name, but you almost assuredly now know him by sight. He’s one of the producers of La La Land, the one who—after realizing the historic, incomprehensible gaffe that concluded last night’s ceremony, when Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty erroneously announced La La Land as the recipient of Best Picture—handled the debacle with extraordinary grace. He could have ranted, cried, complained, or stormed off; if he had, it’s unlikely anyone would have blamed him. Instead, he kept his composure and, in a display of enviable courtesy, announced, “I’m gonna be really proud to hand this to my friends from Moonlight.”

That is the memory I will choose to take away from this year’s Oscars. Yes, it was crazy, inexplicable, and deeply unfortunate—even if you weren’t a fan of La La Land (and plenty of you weren’t), it was downright cruel to tease it with the gift of Best Picture only to suddenly wrench the trophy out of its grasp. But Horowitz made the best of a very bad situation. The official theme of last night’s ceremony was “inspiration”—that’s a tacky title, but as the telecast wrapped up its absurd conclusion, it was impossible to watch Horowitz and not be inspired by his humility and class.

Before running through the actual awards, a quick review of the overall telecast: It was fine. Jimmy Kimmell is hardly my favorite comedian, and many of his bits—the mean tweets, the candy dropping from the ceiling, the overlong segment with real tourists parading through the Dolby Theatre—fell flat. But his dry opening monologue cleverly downplayed the evening’s grandeur, and his inevitable political commentary was reasonably amusing, going for the funny bone rather than the jugular. (His extended feud with Matt Damon was excellent, culminating with his hilarious faux-appreciation of We Bought a Zoo.) The overall tone of Kimmell’s performance was one of understatement; he seemed to recognize that, yes, the Oscars are silly and stupid and self-aggrandizing and there are more important things going on in the world right now, but what the hell, we’re here, so let’s all enjoy ourselves. He even handled the envelope snafu with poise and wit, first name-checking Steve Harvey and then attempting to place the blame on himself. It wasn’t perfect, but it could have been a lot worse.

On to a brief recap of the show, with the awards listed in order of their presentation.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Oscars 2016: Complete List of Predictions

Ben Foster and Chris Pine in "Hell or High Water", which will not win enough Oscars
For your annotated pleasure, here are each of the Manifesto’s predictions for the 21 feature categories at this year’s Oscars. (Someday, I might start picking the shorts, but not this year.) For the record, I’m pegging La La Land to take home 10 Oscars (one shy of the record), but its total could range anywhere from 6 to 12.

Best Actor
Will win: Denzel Washington—Fences (confidence: 1/5)
Should win: Casey Affleck—Manchester by the Sea
Egregious snub: Colin Farrell—The Lobster

Best Actress
Will win: Emma Stone—La La Land (confidence: 4/5)
Should win: Emma Stone—La La Land
Egregious snub: Amy Adams—Arrival

Best Adapted Screenplay
Will win: Moonlight—Barry Jenkins, Tarell McCraney (confidence: 3/5)
Should win: Arrival—Eric Heisserer
Egregious snub: Love & Friendship—Whit Stillman

Best Animated Feature
Will win: Zootopia (confidence: 3/5)
Should win: Kubo and the Two Strings

Best Cinematography
Will win: La La Land—Linus Sandgren (confidence: 3/5)
Should win: La La Land—Linus Sandgren
Egregious snub: Sunset Song—Michael McDonough

Best Costume Design
Will win: La La Land (confidence: 2/5)
Should win: La La Land

Best Director
Will win: Damien Chazelle—La La Land (confidence: 5/5)
Should win: Damien Chazelle—La La Land
Egregious snub: Park Chan-wook—The Handmaiden

Best Documentary Feature
Will win: O.J.: Made in America (confidence: 4/5)

Best Film Editing
Will win: La La Land—Tom Cross (confidence: 2/5)
Should win: Arrival—Joe Walker
Egregious snub: Manchester by the Sea—Jennifer Lame

Best Foreign Language Film
Will win: The Salesman (Iran) (confidence: 2/5)
Egregious snub: Elle (France)

Best Makeup and Hairstyling
Will win: Star Trek Beyond (confidence: 1/5)
Should win: Star Trek Beyond

Best Original Score
Will win: La La Land—Justin Hurwitz (confidence: 3/5)
Should win: La La Land—Justin Hurwitz
Egregious snub: The Handmaiden—Jo Yeong-wook

Best Original Screenplay
Will win: Manchester by the Sea—Kenneth Lonergan (confidence: 2/5)
Should win: The Lobster—Efthymis Filippou, Yorgos Lanthimos
Egregious snub: The Witch—Robert Eggers

Best Original Song
Will win: La La Land—“City of Stars” (Justin Hurwitz, Benj Pasek, Justin Paul) (confidence: 3/5)
Should win: La La Land—“Audition (The Fools Who Dream)” (Justin Hurwitz, Benj Pasek, Justin Paul)
Egregious snub: Moana—“You’re Welcome” (Lin-Manuel Miranda)

Best Picture
Will win: La La Land (confidence: 4/5)
Should win: La La Land
Egregious snub: The Handmaiden

Best Production Design
Will win: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (confidence: 1/5)
Should win: Passengers
Egregious snub: Doctor Strange

Best Sound Editing
Will win: La La Land (confidence: 1/5)
Should win: Arrival

Best Sound Mixing
Will win: La La Land (confidence: 2/5)
Should win: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Best Supporting Actor
Will win: Mahershala Ali—Moonlight (confidence: 3/5)
Should win: Jeff Bridges—Hell or High Water
Egregious snub: Alden Ehrenreich—Hail, Caesar!

Best Supporting Actress
Will win: Viola Davis—Fences (confidence: 5/5)
Should win: Naomie Harris—Moonlight
Egregious snub: Lily Gladstone—Certain Women

Best Visual Effects
Will win: The Jungle Book (confidence: 4/5)
Should win: Doctor Strange
Egregious snub: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Oscars 2016: Best Director and Best Picture

Meet your Best Picture winner, America
So far in our Oscars analysis, we’ve looked at the odds and ends, the big techies and screenplays, and the acting categories. Today, we’re wrapping things up with the two big prizes.

For a cheat sheet with all of our predictions, click here.


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

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Oscars 2016: The Acting Categories

Viola Davis, hopefully not reacting to her upcoming Oscar win for "Fences"
Thus far in our Oscars analysis, we’ve looked at categories both miscellaneous and technical, as well as the screenplays. Today, we’re running through everyone’s favorite fields: the acting categories. Let’s begin with the easiest race to predict and progress to the hardest.


Viola Davis—Fences
Naomie Harris—Moonlight
Nicole Kidman—Lion
Octavia Spencer—Hidden Figures
Michelle Williams—Manchester by the Sea

Davis. Move along.

As the remainder of this column reveals, 2016 produced an odd gender split in terms of high-caliber performances. In a refreshing change from the norm, cinema was flooded with outstanding portrayals from leading ladies; however, the number of quality star turns by men was relatively low. Conversely, my personal ballot in the Best Supporting Actor field runs 15 names long, whereas my corresponding ballot for supporting actresses is alarmingly thin.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Oscars 2016: The big techies; the screenplays

Jennifer Lawrence in "Passengers", a dual Oscar nominee
The Manifesto’s analysis of the 2016 Oscars continues. Yesterday, we checked in on eight different miscellaneous categories. Today, we’re finishing up the technical fields, analyzing five categories that I’m a bit more passionate about. And due to time constraints, we’re also looking at the two screenplay races. Let’s dive in.


Arrival—Bradford Young
La La Land—Linus Sandgren
Lion—Greig Fraser
Moonlight—James Laxton
Silence—Rodrigo Prieto

For casual moviegoers and Oscar-watchers, this year’s awards season has inevitably (and obnoxiously) centered around the question of whether La La Land, the clear Oscar frontrunner, is actually a good movie. (Spoiler: It is.) But for the historians, one key subplot underlying this year’s ceremony is whether La La Land will match (or even surpass) the existing record for Oscar wins, which is currently shared by Ben-Hur, Titanic, and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (11 apiece). What’s interesting about La La Land is that, for all its magnificent craftsmanship, it isn’t your typical below-the-line showstopper; it doesn’t have the sheer size of Titanic or Lord of the Rings, nor the bravura special effects work of Gravity (which took home seven trophies despite losing Best Picture to 12 Years a Slave).

Monday, February 20, 2017

Oscars 2016: The odds and ends

A scene from "Zootopia", the favorite to win the Oscar for Best Animated Feature
Welcome to Oscars Week! Over the next four days, we’ll be predicting the winners for each of the 21 feature categories at this Sunday’s Academy Awards. Today, we’re starting with some below-the-line fields—these categories don’t exactly capture the attention of mainstream movie audiences, but they could wreak havoc on Oscar pools. Let’s dig in.


Kubo and the Two Strings
My Life as a Zucchini
The Red Turtle

With due respect to My Life as a Zucchini and The Red Turtle (both of which are purported to be very good), this is a three-picture race. And while Kubo and the Two Strings has the strongest critical love and Moana has the best soundtrack, Zootopia is the clear favorite. It’s lively, it’s charming, and it’s woke.

I haven’t seen My Life as a Zucchini or The Red Turtle, a failure that’s due to lack of distribution, not lack of interest. In any event, the remaining three are all good movies. (Frankly, I’m just relieved that the lousy Secret Life of Pets wasn’t nominated.) Moana is a slight but empowering story with some terrific songs, while Zootopia is a vibrant caper that doubles as a surprisingly powerful social commentary. But Kubo and the Two Strings is the best of the bunch, a scary and darkly beautiful tale of perseverance, triumph, and loss.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Ranking Every Movie of 2016 (all 108 of them)

Much like these two, we watched a lot of movies last year
Following up on yesterday’s top 10, it’s time for the Manifesto’s silly annual tradition of ranking every movie we watched in the past year. This is an undeniably foolish exercise, but it’s useful as a recordkeeping function. Plus, it makes people angry, which is always fun.

Click on the hyperlinks to read my review for a particular movie. Per usual, for each film, I’m parenthetically adding the director’s name, as well as its Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic scores; both of those metrics are deeply problematic, but they do tend to reveal whether I conform to or diverge from the critical consensus. In addition, as a new feature this year, I’m noting if each movie listed is currently streaming on Netflix, Amazon Prime, HBO Go, or Hulu. So, even if you’re one of those worthless oafs who never goes to the theater anymore, this list can still provide you with some helpful viewing recommendations, free of charge.

That’s about it. Here are the Manifesto’s rankings of every movie we watched in 2016 (with the unfortunate caveat that I’ve still yet to see Toni Erdmann):

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

The 10 Best Movies of 2016

Michelle Williams and Casey Affleck in "Manchester by the Sea"
Was 2016 a good year for cinema? Who can say? Each year at the movies is different, even if every year is also the same. The 100-plus theatrical releases that I watched over the past year were all distinct—admittedly, some were more distinctive than others—but they all contributed to that familiar emotional experience that is the movies, inspiring in me a vast array of feelings: disappointment and delight, frustration and pleasure, sadness and joy. And just as selecting 10 particular titles from a single year is a cruel and capricious task, evaluating a year’s disparate films as though they collectively form a cohesive whole is equally foolhardy. Put differently, 2016 was a good year insofar as it afforded us the opportunity to stumble into a darkened theater with the hope of seeing something vital and new. If that renders it the same as any other, well, that’s why we keep going to the movies.

In other words, I liked a good number of movies in 2016. I disliked many others, hated a handful more, and loved a precious few. These were my 10 favorites. (Note: Though I’ve done my best to see every critically acclaimed release, I have yet to see the much-beloved Toni Erdmann, as my local art house has been negligent with its bookings. I expect to see it within the next two weeks; if it ends up cracking my top 10, I’ll update this post accordingly.)

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

John Wick: Chapter 2: Back in Black, But Check Out the Color

Keanu Reeves returns in "John Wick: Chapter 2"
Midway through John Wick: Chapter 2, the title character and a deadly foe engage in a ferocious, no-holds-barred brawl, complete with pistols, knives, and fists o’ fury. This type of fight is entirely familiar to action fans, but what happens next isn’t; after the combatants crash through the plate-glass window of a hotel, their vicious duel to the death is interrupted by the establishment’s proprietor. “Gentlemen!” he sternly admonishes them, raising his voice just a hair. “Need I remind you that business will not be conducted on Continental grounds?” The men, shrinking in stature from lethal death-dealers to sullen schoolboys being tsk-tsked by their principal, dolefully nod in assent, then agree to buy one another a drink.

This is the glorious insanity of the John Wick franchise. It takes the standard elements of your typical actioner—the gunfights, the car chases, the vendettas, the retired hero yanked back down to the underworld against his will—and situates them within an extravagantly tricked-out universe, a world with its own peculiar codes, currencies, and dialects. In the realm of John Wick, when the villain decides to put a bounty on his nemesis, he doesn’t scream or snarl or deliver a sneering speech. No, he takes out his phone, calls “Accounts Payable”, and places an order with a receptionist, one of a fleet of prim bureaucrats who may as well be fielding customer-service requests. “Murder Incorporated” was a snappy moniker; in John Wick, contract killing requires a literal contract.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Split: His Minds Have Something Sinister in Mind

James McAvoy as, er, a lot of people in M. Night Shyamalan's "Split"
To call Split a comeback for M. Night Shyamalan is both accurate and somewhat troubling. The cinematic Icarus of the early twenty-first century, Shyamalan’s rapid ascent and subsequent plunge was difficult to watch. But his transgressions were sins of commission rather than omission—even when he was failing, he was always trying. Yet his most recent film, the found-footage flick The Visit, heralded a director who had diluted his ambition with pinches of modesty and self-awareness. That trend continues with Split, a lean and spiky movie that feels as though it could have arrived in the ’90s, before its creator let those “the next Spielberg” claims go to his head. This raises the question: Should we really be applauding filmmakers for abandoning their fearless attempts at the new and instead returning to the cozy confines of the familiar?

If it results in movies as taut and entertaining as this one, then yes. Split may be a pure, unvarnished genre exercise, but it’s a damn good one, a superlative example of twitchy suspense and tightly controlled craft. During his period of failure—which, in this critic’s view, spans from Lady in the Water to After Earth but definitely does NOT include The Village—Shyamalan tried all sorts of new things; they didn’t work. Split does many things—it frightens, delights, stumbles, and amazes—but most simply, it works.

Friday, February 3, 2017

Ranking Every TV Show of 2016: The Complete List

In 2016, we at the Manifesto watched 88 different TV shows. Now, we have ranked and written about them all. Here are those complete rankings—click on the header links to be transported to the particular page with detailed analysis of that group’s individual shows:

#s 88-71
88. House of Lies (Showtime, Season 5)
87. High Maintenance (HBO, Season 1)
86. Fear the Walking Dead (AMC, Season 2)
85. Baskets (FX, Season 1)
84. Idiotsitter (Comedy Central, Season 1)
83. One Mississippi (Amazon, Season 1)
82. Wayward Pines (Fox, Season 2)
81. Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll (FX, Season 2)
80. Vice Principals (HBO, Season 1)
79. Bloodline (Netflix, Season 2)
78. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (Netflix, Season 2)
77. Better Things (FX, Season 1)
76. Divorce (HBO, Season 1)
75. 11.22.63 (Hulu, Season 1)
74. The Walking Dead (AMC, Seasons 6.5 and 7.0)
73. Gomorrah (Sundance TV/Sky Italia, Season 1)
72. Downton Abbey (BBC, Season 6)
71. Daredevil (Netflix, Season 2)

The 10 Best TV Shows of 2016: Murder, Prison, Hell, and Politics

Sarah Paulson and Sterling K. Brown in "The People v. O.J. Simpson"
And here we are. After having already ranked 78 different TV shows from 2016, we finally arrive at the top 10. If you missed our prior posts, you can find them at the following links:

#s 88-71
#s 70-51
#s 50-31
#s 30-11

10. Game of Thrones (HBO, Season 6; last year: 4 of 62). The biggest, baddest show on television, Game of Thrones finally betrays a few hints of strain in its sixth season, groaning slightly under its own gargantuan weight. The series has become so diffuse, its talent for racing through subplots and leapfrogging across continents can be exhausting as well as exhilarating. Yet the occasional sense of fatigue does little to diminish the show’s staggering achievement, its unparalleled ability to rip off one sequence after another of eye-popping spectacle. A character’s metaphorical rebirth at the end of the season’s fourth episode is an utter triumph—by contrast, the subsequent episode concludes with devastating tragedy—while “Battle of the Bastards”, the show’s rare narrowly focused hour, is an unrelenting assault that is dynamically staged and expertly choreographed. And the first act of the finale, an agonizingly slow reveal of a terrorist plot, is perhaps the greatest extended suspense sequence I’ve ever seen on TV, all roiling tension and ominous music and suffocating fear. Yet Game of Thrones is more than a mere collection of awe-inspiring moments. It is an epic work of scrupulous detail and sweeping drama, and in continually deepening its mythology—in their first season working without the safety net of George R.R. Martin’s books, showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss acquit themselves just fine—it never neglects its characters. This is a show about kings and queens, pirates and dragons, but it’s also about the joy of friendship, the cost of perseverance, and the sting of loss. In other words, Game of Thrones is a story about real people, even if its universe is utterly, majestically otherworldly.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Ranking Every TV Show of 2016, #s 30-11: Queens, Singers, Lovers, and Monsters

Winona Ryder in the internet sensation "Stranger Things"
We’re nearly finished with our countdown of every TV show we watched in 2016. For prior installments, use the following links:
#s 88-71
#s 70-51
#s 50-31

30. The Girlfriend Experience (Starz, Season 1). Steven Soderbergh’s The Girlfriend Experience may be something of a cult classic, but I’ve never understood why, as I find the film to be ugly, pretentious, and deeply boring. (Admittedly, its tagline is terrific.) I can easily envision Lodge Kerrigan and Amy Seimetz’s television adaptation similarly turning into a cult classic, but for far more justifiable reasons. Chilly, chic, and fiendishly provocative, the series retains the fundamental premise of the movie—examining the mundane ins and outs of the call-girl biz—but invests it with a squirming, throbbing humanity. Its plotting is arguably too ambitious—it wastes far too much time at a heavy-duty law firm—but as a character study, The Girlfriend Experience is mesmerizing. That’s due almost entirely to Riley Keough, the Mad Max: Fury Road alum who delivers a performance that’s both enigmatic and explosive. Because the show disfavors hand-holding, Keough is forced to internalize most of her emotions, and she does so with aplomb, silently revealing her law student-cum-prostitute as a woman of fierce intelligence and indomitable pride. Starz renewed the series for a second season, but Keough won’t be returning; I wish her replacements luck.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Ranking Every TV Show of 2016, #s 50-31: Cops, Crooks, Cults, and Lawyers

Tom Hiddleston and Elizabeth Debicki in "The Night Manager"
Before continuing with our rankings, a quick reminder that this list isn’t a bell curve—the majority of the shows on this 88-item list are above-average. It’s a little nuts that I can comfortably recommend 50-plus television series from a single year, but welcome to #PeakTV.

If you missed the prior installments of the Manifesto’s 2016 rankings, you can find them at the following links:
#s 88-71
#s 70-51

50. The Path (Hulu, Season 1). Hey, cults! The Path takes itself extremely seriously, which I suppose makes sense, given that it’s a series about people who are abused, damaged, and deluded (either by others or themselves). Yet the show’s solemnity is something of a detriment, as its exploration of an alternative “community” lacks the necessary verisimilitude—there’s some batty chatter about “The Ladder” and some portentous discussion of complex hierarchies, but it all feels thinly sketched. But whenever The Path veers into melodrama, it becomes wildly entertaining. Aaron Paul is steady as a middle manager struggling with his faith (Michelle Monaghan is a bit shakier as a true believer), but it’s the stuff on the margins that really sizzles; a forbidden teen romance is the stuff of Shakespeare, while Hugh Dancy is absolutely mesmerizing as a power-hungry manipulator. I wouldn’t call myself a convert quite yet, but The Path’s first season exhibits the potential of a show that can get its hooks into you.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Ranking Every TV Show of 2016, #s 70-51: Musicians, Politicians, and Revolutionaries

Robin Wright and Neve Campbell in "House of Cards"
We’re counting down every TV show we watched in 2016. There were 88 of them. If you missed Part I, you can find it here.

70. Last Week Tonight (HBO, Season 2; last year: 55 of 62). Donald Trump’s improbable, meteoric ascendancy may have been terrible for America, but it was a boon for John Oliver. In our country’s buffoon-in-chief, Oliver located the perfect target for his particular brand of liberal scorn and flummoxed outrage. Yet while Trump allowed Oliver to be both funny and incredulous, his rise couldn’t entirely solve the fundamental problem with Last Week Tonight: Oliver’s smug pandering to his audience. You know the pattern by now: Oliver will make an incisive point about a political issue, then follow it with a tiresome, jokey analogy that provokes strained chuckles from his live attendees. (Example: In discussing the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, Oliver avers that Flint’s very name evokes disaster, then equates the city to Smurf Village, saying, “Never forget what happened there.” Ha, ha.) It’s frustrating, because when Oliver ignores his audience and just focuses on his topic, he can be an eloquent and powerful orator (though it helps if you agree with him). But his insistence on spiking his rhetoric with random sarcasm and irreverent humor invariably waters down his commentary. Last Week Tonight can still be provocative television, but it’s tempting to imagine the show stripped of its live audience, so that Oliver can riff without feeling obligated to satisfy his crowds.

69. Queen Sugar (OWN, Season 1). Without doubt, the very existence of Ava DuVernay’s Queen Sugar, which examines three black adults trying to revive their deceased father’s farm, is a victory for representation. (Even further, every episode was directed by a woman.) But that can only take a TV show so far, and as a piece of storytelling, Queen Sugar is both muddled and overcooked. A few subplots work nicely, but some—especially an accusation of rape involving a Kobe Bryant stand-in—are disastrous, and on the whole, the series never acquires the fine-grained realism that it so clearly desires. The racial and geographic specificity is there, but the characters are still shapeless.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Ranking Every TV Show of 2016, #s 88-71: Zombies, Gangsters, and Comedies

Alycia Debnam-Carey in "Fear the Walking Dead"
I have a confession to make. I should probably tell this to someone more qualified to process my shame—a friend, a rabbi, a shrink—but instead, I’m going to tell you. In the year 2016, I watched 88 different TV shows.

That’s right. Eighty-eight.

This is, of course, far too many television shows for any functional adult to watch in a given year. Yet it is also somehow not enough. When I started this project in 2014, I’d seen 50 shows that year; last year, I upped that total to 62. Now I’m at 88, and that gargantuan figure still constitutes a measly 19% of the year’s scripted shows. #PeakTV isn’t just a glorious era for the medium of television—it’s also inhumane.

But this is the world we live in, and I’ve made my peace with it. Each of the past two years, I’ve included a brief laundry-list of shows that I regretted not watching. This year, I’m done apologizing. If the forthcoming series of posts fails to include your favorite show, by all means yell at me about it; I’ll then politely remind you that I watched 88 freaking TV shows last year (for the record, I watched every episode of each show on this list—no pop-ins here), so I’m sorry that I couldn’t make room for your precious little SyFy drama or Adult Swim comedy. (Also, I’ll try to watch it next year, promise.)

Per usual, we’ll be releasing our rankings over five separate posts, with a new post dropping each day this week, concluding with the top 10 on Friday. As always, if you find yourself flabbergasted that I could somehow rank Show X above/below Show Y, please bear in mind that (1) ranking works of art is a fruitless and arbitrary exercise, and (2) my taste is better than yours.

Without further ado, here begins the Manifesto’s ranked list of every TV show we watched in 2016:

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Oscars 2016: Nomination Prediction Results

Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone in "La La Land", which tied a record with 14 Oscar nominations
After two straight years of hitting on 80% of our Oscar nomination predictions, the Manifesto improved dramatically this year, rocketing all the way up to… 81% (56 out of 69). The Academy’s choices proved relatively middle-of-the-road, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing—sure, I could (and, in this very post, will) quibble about a few candidates that were unjustly omitted, but for the most part, this year’s nominees constitute a respectable and enjoyable slate of movies. Just keep that in mind when you’re reading a bunch of “The Oscars are out of touch!” hot takes over the next month.

Here’s a quick look at the major categories in light of this morning’s announcement.

Hell or High Water
Hidden Figures
La La Land
Manchester by the Sea
Hacksaw Ridge

Analysis: I went low, they went high. Go figure. Still, although I incorrectly surmised that Hacksaw Ridge would fail to make the cut, I hit on my remaining eight guesses. With the caveat that I’ve yet to see Lion (this weekend!), it’s a strong Best Picture contingent overall; at least four of these nominees are likely to end up on my top 10 list, and the remaining are diverting at worst.

Current favorite: La La Land. The only potential challenger I see is Moonlight, but for it to make headway, the frontrunner is going to have to experience significant backlash. And by “backlash”, I mean something more potent than the current deluge of insufferable “think-pieces” that are popping up online like faux-insightful whack-a-moles.

Snubbed: The Handmaiden. This movie rules, and you are a bad person for not seeing it. (Also, broader distribution might have helped.)

Monday, January 23, 2017

Oscars 2016: Nomination Predictions

Amy Adams in "Arrival"
With the nominations for the 2016* Academy Awards being released tomorrow morning, it’s time for the Manifesto to unveil its official predictions. I’ve hit on a mediocre 80% of my predictions each of the last two years, so we’ll see if I can improve on that mark this year (I don’t have high hopes). Per usual, we’re only predicting nominations for 13 categories; we’ll have predictions for the winners in all 21 feature fields prior to the big show on February 26.

* Although most websites refer to these as the 2017 Academy Awards, all of the movies were released in 2016, so I prefer that nomenclature.

Hell or High Water
Hidden Figures
La La Land
Manchester by the Sea

Comments: As always, the challenge here lies in divining how many movies will be nominated for Best Picture, as the Academy’s preferential ballot allows for anywhere between 5 and 10. It’s typically either 8 or 9; given the relative dearth of passion plays this year, I’m going with the low end. The three locks are La La Land, Manchester by the Sea, and Moonlight, and I’m fairly confident in both Fences and Hidden Figures as well. Arrival and Hell or High Water are less certain, but they seem to have sufficiently broad support. (They’re also both terrific, though I shouldn’t let my opinions influence my predictions.)

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Silence: Keeping the Faith, But Losing His Way

Andrew Garfield and Yôsuke Kubozuka in Martin Scorsese's "Silence"
There are passion projects, and then there’s Silence, an enormous undertaking that the 74-year-old Martin Scorsese has been trying to make for more than a third of his life. Instantly announcing itself as a Very Important Film—it opens on a black screen to the chirping of crickets and croaking of frogs before the noise suddenly cuts out, rendering the title card eponymous—it is markedly different from the director’s most popular works. There are no avaricious gangsters, no amoral sinners, no Rolling Stones songs, no De Niros or DiCaprios. Independently, this stylistic departure is by no means problematic; filmmakers should hardly be expected to pigeonhole themselves within particular genres or methods. But Silence’s dissimilarities to the rest of Scorsese’s oeuvre go beyond topic or setting—other features that typically attend one of his productions are also absent. There is, for example, no joy, no humor, no entertainment, no energy. When viewed from a long distance, Silence reasonably resembles a hugely ambitious, sporadically staggering work of art. Only when you get up close and try to engage with it do you realize it’s the worst movie Scorsese has made in several decades.

Of course, that doesn’t mean all that much—even Scorsese’s relatively minor works (Hugo, Bringing Out the Dead) tend to thrum with vigor and excitement. But Silence, which chronicles the persecution of Christians in seventeenth-century Japan, is different. Scorsese has long grappled with the weighty themes and thorny contradictions of Catholicism, most notably in The Last Temptation of Christ, his gripping telling of the Crucifixion that concluded with an operatic and highly controversial detour. Yet where Last Temptation was robustly entertaining as well as intellectually fascinating, Silence betrays no interest in narrative momentum. The result is a cruel irony: Here is a film that was unquestionably a monumental labor to create, yet it exhibits no discernible effort to actually connect with its audience. It’s a violation of the very selflessness that Silence preaches; Scorsese has made this movie for nobody but himself.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Hidden Figures: Black Women Have the Bright Stuff

Janelle Monáe, Taraji P. Henson, and Octavia Spencer in "Hidden Figures"
In the opening scene of Rushmore, a math teacher asks Jason Schwartzman whether he might be able to come to the blackboard and solve an impossibly complex equation. Schwartzman’s character does so effortlessly and receives the adoring congratulations of his classmates, at which point Wes Anderson reveals that the sequence is a dream. Hidden Figures, Theodore Melfi’s sincere and sappy biopic of three black women who worked at NASA during the height of the Space Race, is essentially a feature-length version of this scene, minus the concluding fake-out. It fancies itself a hard-hitting historical drama, but it’s really a frothy, wish-fulfillment fantasy.

And what’s wrong with that? Hidden Figures may not trouble your mind or get under your skin, but it does provide a welcome, feel-good tonic for these troubled times. It insists, with disarming directness, that the evils of prejudice and entrenchment will always succumb to the virtues of hard work and human decency. Its period setting is one of extreme unease (as opposed to now?), but its tone is unabashedly wholesome and reassuring.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Fences: When the Walls Tumble Down, Resentments Bubble Up

Denzel Washington is a fearsome father in "Fences"
Denzel Washington is a rock. That’s true of both his body of work and his actual body. Physically, he’s built like a finely chiseled piece of granite, with broad shoulders, flinty eyes, and a handsome face that occasionally breaks into a broad, beaming smile. And commercially, few movie stars are so ruggedly reliable. (How many other actors could have carried The Equalizer to $100 million, much less inspired demand for a sequel?) Washington’s consistency is often mistaken for redundancy, given that he typically portrays heroic authority figures defined by their unwavering competence; even when he played against type in Training Day, he was supremely charismatic. But in some of his best roles (Courage Under Fire, Flight), he allows tendrils of doubt and weakness to creep through the façade of proficiency and strength. In Fences, Washington delivers a towering performance that represents the apex of this duality—never before has he seemed so indomitable and, at the same time, so broken.

Which is not to say that Fences is a great movie. In a sense, it is barely a movie at all. A faithful adaptation of August Wilson’s Pulitzer-winning play, Fences’ dogmatic fidelity to its source arguably renders it a better fit for the stage than the screen. The third feature directed by Washington, it consists of a series of dialogue-heavy scenes, the bulk of which could be neatly subdivided into a handful of acts. Action is limited, as is Marcelo Zarvos’ muted score. The majority of the chatter takes place in a single house’s kitchen and backyard, with a few additional locations mixed in for variety. The camera remains relatively passive; when it does move, it does so fluidly via the Steadicam, rather than the handheld style favored by many art-house filmmakers.