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):