INCREDIBLES 2 (2018)

June 12, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. In 2004 THE INCREDIBLES became the 6th Pixar film in a row to dominate the box office, and also the 6th straight to “WOW” us with a combination of animation, story, action and characters. All these years later, Brad Bird, the creative force behind the original, is back with the much anticipated sequel. Mr. Bird’s career over those years has featured a blend of other animation (RATATOUILLE, 2007) and live-action (MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – GHOST PROTOCOL).

Bird is not the only returnee for the sequel. Also back is the entire Parr Family: Holly Hunter as Elastigirl/Helen/Mom, Craig T Nelson as Mr. Incredible/Bob/Dad, Sarah Vowell as Violet, Huck Milner as Dash, and Eli Fucile as baby Jack Jack. The story picks up not long after the original ended. “Supers” have been outlawed, and the Parrs are in some type of Super Protection Program – similar to Witness Protection. Of course when one is a superhero, doing the right thing just comes naturally, and the opening scene finds them battling their old nemesis Underminer (voiced by Pixar good luck charm John Ratzenberger, who voices a character in each of the studio’s films). Our heroes stop the crime, but cause significant damage to the city. This leads to our first social commentary when the powers that be scold the Parrs and inform them that the banks have insurance, and it’s cheaper to let the criminals get away so that the damage is minimized.

As superheroes non-grata, the Parrs try to go “straight” and live a normal life. That is until a powerful brother and sister corporate duo offer a proposal. Winston Deavor (Bob Odenkirk) and Evelyn Deavor (twist that pronunciation just a bit, voiced by Catherine Keener) want to generate a PR plan to help rebuild the reputation of supers. The idea is to make Elastigirl the public face of the program by having her wear a body cam to show off her heroic deeds (in this age of ‘pics or it didn’t happen’). She’s chosen over Mr. Incredible for economic reasons, and he’s relegated to stay-at-home parent (or as we called Michael Keaton in 1983, MR. MOM – an unacceptable sexist term these days).

Elastigirl enjoys her time in the limelight, while Bob doesn’t much like being just Bob. Plus he can’t understand why they changed math, as he gets frustrated trying to help Dash with his homework. He’s also challenged with Violet’s teen angst over a boy, and even moreso over the discovery that Jack Jack has POWERS! In fact, Jack Jack has multiple powers, but as a baby, he has little control – though his battle with a raccoon is not a segment you’ll soon forget.

Also returning is Frozone – voiced by Samuel L. Jackson (minus his trademark “MF’er), and costume designer Edna Mode – voiced by director Bird. Other new voices include (Odenkirk’s fellow “Better Call Saul” castmate) Jonathan Banks as Rick Dicker, Isabella Rossellini as the Ambassador, and Sophia Bush as Voyd, one of the new generation supers (which includes Reflux – one you’ll just have to experience).

The big new villain causing problems for Elastigirl is ScreenSlaver, who hypnotizes large groups of people through their screens – more social commentary on our dependence on technology and the addiction/affliction we have toward device screens. The flood of superhero movies over the years since THE INCREDIBLES exposes the not-so-complex story in this one, but it’s terrific that the film keeps much of the original look and feel, and yet brings something new … baby Jack Jack is a star!

Filled with the beautiful colors and art design we’ve come to take for granted from Pixar, the film also features some of the best action sequences you’ll see in any movie. The train sequence with Elastigirl is simply spectacular – as is the final action sequence. It’s also nice to see the flip in gender roles as Mom (Holly Hunter) takes the lead. Michael Giacchino returns as the composer and he blends in a touch of James Bond theme with his wonderful work. If the film needed extra credit (which it doesn’t), certainly the inclusion of a “Jonny Quest” clip would qualify. Family films don’t get much better than this, and even though it runs 2 hours, the closing credits feature the theme song for each of the superheroes, and could easily have been a short film unto itself.

Speaking of short films, a Pixar tradition is to include one before new releases. This time it’s BAO, a Chinese mother/son and food-oriented story from director Domee Shi (animator on INSIDE OUT)

watch the trailer:

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THE POST (2017)

December 25, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. It’s the first time a movie marquee has read “Spielberg-Streep-Hanks”, so expectations are sky high – and rightly so. The result is level of cinematic preciseness we don’t often see. As an added bonus, it also features both historical and contemporary relevance – the type of relevance that forces us to consider where we stand and what type of society we prefer. So for the price of a ticket, we get Hollywood star power, a history lesson, and current societal commentary … now that’s a holiday bargain!

Meryl Streep stars as Katharine (Kay) Graham, the first female publisher of a major U.S. newspaper, and she delivers her most nuanced performance in years … that of a conflicted woman coming to grips with her immense power at a time when many men believed she lacked the capacity for making such far-reaching and weighty decisions. Tom Hanks slides into the loafers of Ben Bradlee, the hard-charging editor of Ms. Graham’s newspaper, The Washington Post. The role fits Hanks like a glove, and he even brandishes Bradlee’s trademark growling speech pattern. Bradlee is laser-focused on what he believes is the right thing to do, and steadfast in his commitment to the cause.

Of course, the dilemma faced by these two involved the Pentagon Papers scandal of 1971. The film kicks off with a quick timeline of the political maneuverings that led to, and escalated, the Vietnam War. When Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys) leaked documents from the Defense Department’s study on decision-making during the Vietnam War, and the New York Times published some of the pages, the ramifications were numerous and the fallout was ugly. The complicated web of deceit and bad decisions spanned 5 Presidential administrations (Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon). It became obvious that those in power continued a war they knew we couldn’t win. The cover-up was widespread and the string of lies were delivered by many. The government lost the people’s faith, and then tried to crush the free press that had exposed its dirty secrets.

It’s only been a couple of years since SPOTLIGHT won the Oscar for Best Picture, and now that film’s Oscar winning writer Josh Singer teams with Liz Hannah on a script that is elevated by an extraordinary cast and crew. We get the real feel of the organized chaos of a newsroom, and it’s a thing of beauty. The clacking of typewriters, exuberant phone conversations, and a cloud of cigarette smoke all blend to create the fabric of an institution designed and intended to deliver the truth. As with all things, it’s never quite so simple. We learn of the historical collusion between press and politics, as reporters and editors commingled with politicians, only to draw the line when deemed necessary. Both sides have flaws, yet as citizens, we simply can’t tolerate the government manipulating and even quashing the free press – a free press designed to protect the governed, not those that govern (per the Supreme Court decision).

Steven Spielberg has delivered a master class of ethics vs legalities vs political power, touching on not just the responsibilities of all parties, but most crucially on the conflicting objectives of a free press (making money) and the government system (getting elected) it is charged with holding accountable. Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski (two time Oscar winner, SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, SCHINDLER’S LIST) captures the authenticity of the newsroom, the intimacy of private discussions, and the fascinating look back at typesetting machines and a newspaper delivery system that silently forces us to recognize the power of today’s internet.

As you would expect, the supporting cast is remarkable and deep. Bradley Whitford, Bruce Greenwood (as Robert McNamara), Alison Brie (Kay’s daughter), Carrie Coon (reporter/editor Meg Greenfield), Sarah Paulson (as Bradlee’s wife), Jesse Plemons (attorney Roger Clark), and Michael Stuhlbarg (as NY Times publisher Abe Rosenthal) all bring realism to their roles. Two particular standouts are Tracy Letts (Ms. Coon’s real life husband) as Kay Graham’s trusted advisor Fritz Beebe, and Bob Odenkirk as The Post reporter Ben Bagdikian who meets with Ellsberg.

Gender inequality of the era is front and center for many scenes – sometimes even a bit too showy or distracting. The prime example is the scene where Ms. Graham is leaving the Supreme Court through a sea of silently admiring women – an unbelievably disproportionate crowd make-up. The gender point is made clearly through the position of Kay Graham and her actions, and no further proverbial slaps upside the head were required for the audience to “get it”. A rare Hindenburg joke is tossed in, and Bradlee is referred to as a pirate … two attempts to lighten the mood on a story that deserves serious attention. Composer John Williams’ score is never over the top, and perfectly complements the various conversations throughout. The film is quite clearly meant to impress how history repeats itself = those in power believing they are above all, while the free press tries to expose the abuses. It also makes the point that we as citizens must remain vigilant in our pursuit of the truth, as all sides have an agenda … sometimes it’s as complicated as covering up bad decisions, while other times it’s as simple as driving up the stock price. With its cliffhanger ending, Spielberg’s film could be viewed as a prequel to the fantastic 1976 film ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN, and that’s pretty lofty company.

watch the trailer:


BOULEVARD (2015)

July 9, 2015

boulevard Greetings again from the darkness. The tragic death of Robin Williams last year left a void in the world of comedy, and his absence is also felt on the big screen where his dramatic skills were often underappreciated. His final non-comedic role comes courtesy of a film that is probably not worthy of his talents, but leaves us with a reminder of what a skilled actor he was.

The premise feels at once a bit dated and also timely. Williams plays Nolan, a 60 year old man who works at his comfortable bank job (of 26 years), goes home each day to his comfortable suburban home, to a comfortable marriage to his wife (Kathy Baker) with whom he no longer shares a bed or much of anything else. He also periodically stops off to put a straw in the ginger ale for his near comatose father with whom he has never had much of a relationship. His entire life is a façade of comfort and life lived well enough.

Are you happy?” That seemingly odd and innocent question from his boss sets Nolan off on a path of awakening. It turns out that since he was 12 years old, Nolan has suppressed his true identity as a gay man. A spontaneous u-turn on the titular Boulevard sends Nolan on a collision path with Leo (Roberto Aguire), a young male prostitute with whom he quickly bonds … through only talking and self-identification.

It’s this awakening that brings a level of modern-timeliness as Nolan’s story is not so different from that of Bruce/Caitlyn Jenner who has dominated the recent media with the late-in-life shift in persona. They are sixty-plus year old men who have evidently each lived a lie for much of their lives. It’s difficult for many of us to relate to, but clearly it’s a real thing, and director Dito Montiel and writer Douglas Soesbe capitalize.

The best and most uncomfortable scenes occur with Ms. Baker and Mr. Williams avoiding the issue through years of practice, and also the scenes with Mr. Williams and Bob Odenkirk who plays his long-time friend and confidant. These are three strong actors who work well with each other.

There is really nothing wrong with the film … it’s slow pace designed to match that of Nolan’s life … but the Nolan and Leo segment just never clicked, leaving me struggling with a third of the story. It’s about a man who is totally not comfortable in his own skin, and lives a somber and unfulfilled life right up until the point where he takes a leap. It’s not that he takes a leap, but rather the specific leap he takes that just didn’t click for me. Still, it’s a performance from Williams that is worth watching – in fact, must be watched if you are a Robin Williams fan.

watch the trailer:

 


NEBRASKA (2013)

November 24, 2013

nebraska1 Greetings again from the darkness. Director Alexander Payne has proved yet again that he has a remarkable eye for characters, and no need to bury those characters deep in plot. About Schmidt, Sideways, and The Descendants provided us with characters we could laugh with, cry with and feel with. His latest is his first film which he did not write, but it’s clear that he and screenwriter Bob Nelson are similar type people watchers.

What you notice immediately is that this film and its characters move at their own pace. There is no rushing or urgency. They do nebraska2things and say things in due time. Or not. What you also notice is that the camera does the same thing. Filmed in stark black and white, the camera is exceedingly quiet and still … just like the characters and landscape. We can thank Director of Photography Phedon Papamichael, who also worked with Payne on Sideways and The Descendants. Even the score is a bit offbeat. The blending of trumpet and guitar is rare, yet seems to fit just right.

Bruce Dern is 77 years old and in his sixth decade of acting. While I have liked him quite often – and really liked him in The King of Marvin Gardens (1972) – this may be his best performance and best role yet. Dern’s Woody Grant is an alcoholic, nebraska4and hard of hearing, and crotchety, and isolated. More seriously, he seems to be in the early stages of dementia given his insistence on walking to Nebraska to collect his “winnings” from a mass marketing mailing similar to Publishers Clearing House. With minimal dialogue, we “get” Woody. That’s thanks to Dern’s physical performance and ability to emote through simple gestures. We feel his quiet desperation in the search for meaning in a life that is slipping away. He just wants to be somebody before the end.

The delivery mechanism is a road trip shared by Woody and his very patient son David (Will Forte). We sense David looks at the trip as an opportunity to connect for the first time with his dad, and maybe even get some life questions answered along the way. On the trip, other family members join in, including Woody’s other son Ross (Bob Odenkirk), and Woody’s colorful wife Kate (June Squibb). The trip takes them to Woody’s hometown where they cross paths with other family and old friends.

nebraska3 Woody’s insistence that he is about to be a millionaire brings out the “true self” in those whose paths they cross. Many of his old friends are truly happy for him and wish him nothing but the best. Others aren’t so kind. True colors can be hard to watch, especially as shown by Woody’s old partner Ed Pegram (Stacy Keach), and other family members who are just after “their fair share” of the loot. The movie excels in these moments … watching a fiery Kate put these vultures in their place, while defending the husband she has spent the whole time badgering is priceless.

Ms. Squibb delivers the film’s funniest lines, but she also gives a depth to Kate that adds the level of realism. Will Forte is surprisingly effective given his “Saturday Night Live” background, but we never lose sight of Bruce Dern (and his hair). The characters we see are grounded rural midwesterners who live their life from day to day, depending heavily on family and friends. Their interpersonal skills are quite different than what is found in metropolitan areas, and those born and raised in heavily populated areas may struggle to relate.

The film should garner Oscar nomination consideration in multiple categories, and Mr. Dern is probably a shoe-in for a Best Actor nom. So slow down and share this trip from Montana to Nebraska … while I can’t promise a prize of one million dollars, you will definitely be rewarded.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you enjoy character driven dramatic comedies based on people you might know (if you know people in the rural midwest)

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: your sense of humor is more likely to parallel that of Adam Sandler or Will Ferrell than Sideways or About Schmidt.

watch the trailer:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UT5tqPojMtg