Incredibles 2

It will come as no surprise to anyone who’s read this blog before that The Incredibles is my favorite Pixar movie, and actually one of my favorite movies period.  It has the exact right mix of satiric and serious tones, which it needed to be both a parody of spy movies and a surprisingly sophisticated exploration of family dynamics.  The writer and director Brad Bird fulfilled the promise he showed when he directed The Iron Giant.

If there is a criticism to be made of Incredibles 2 it’s that it’s a little too much like the first film.  It deals with many of the same issues of family dynamics, and its look is the same retro sixties style and also some of the humor.  Really, does anybody get “new math” jokes anymore?

But you know what?  I don’t care.  Incredibles 2 is a great movie and a welcome return to form for Brad Bird, after a couple of sub-standard outings in live action films.

The plot picks up right where the first movie’s left off.  Mr. Incredible, voiced by Craig T. Nelson, Elastigirl, voiced by Holly Hunter, Frozone, voiced by Samuel L. Jackson and the two kids, Dash (Huck Milner) and Violet (Sarah Vowell) try to stop The Underminer, voiced by John Ratzenberger, who uses his tunneling vehicle to rob a bank and create chaos and destruction in the city.  Unfortunately, they are unable to stop him and are arrested themselves, setting back the cause of legalizing superheroes.

Hoping to reverse those laws are the brother and sister team of Winston and Evelyn Deavor, voice by Bob Odenkirk and Katherine Keener.  They inherited a company from their father and turned it into a large powerful conglomerate, largely due to Evelyn’s inventions and Winston’s marketing genius.  Winston wants to use that savvy to convince the world to legalize supers once again.

The plan is to start small; just one hero will go out and save the day somehow.  They decide that Helen, Elastigirl, is the ideal choice, since her style of fighting doesn’t involve punching everything into submission, creating maximum destruction.  This leaves Bob alone to deal with the kids, which is arguably the more difficult task.  Dash has a math test.  Violet is mooning over the guy in her class who asked her out but can’t remember who she is now because his mind had to be wiped when he saw her in costume but without her mask.  And then there is the baby Jack-Jack who is beginning to exhibit an amazing array of powers.

Complications ensue as Bob struggles with unfamiliar domesticity and Helen is determined to show that she can handle the role of lone superhero as well as her husband.  Both grow and learn equally.

The visuals are good and the animation is up to Pixar’s standards.  This movie is cast almost perfectly with most of the actors from the first film returning.  They had to get a new Dash, presumably because the kid who played him in the first movie grew up over the intervening years.  Anyway, the performances are really good, capturing the nuances of the characters.

Hopefully, we won’t have to wait another fourteen years for Incredibles 3.

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Ocean’s 8

Once again it is the women’s turn to take over a summer movie franchise.  Debby Ocean, played by Sandra Bullock, is Danny Ocean’s sister.  At the beginning of the film she gets out of jail and picks up her life of crime right where she left off.  She gets in touch with her old partner Lou, played by Cate Blanchett, and talks her into a scheme to steal a legendary diamond necklace that’s been in Cartier’s vault for over thirty years.  Debby has been planning the job for the entire five years she’s been in the slammer.

They pull together a team of specialists, who are all women and carry out the heist.

That’s really all you need to know.  There isn’t much to this movie.  It’s a summery piece of confection, only meant to entertain you on a hot afternoon.  This it does brilliantly.

The performances are skin deep and that’s all they need to be.  Pacing is brisk as is usual in this kind of film.  The script is clever with good dialog and clever plot twists.

There is nothing heavy about this film, no great themes or deep subtexts to examine.  I suppose I could say a few words about the phenomenon of women taking on establish franchises, but I believe I’ve covered that in earlier reviews.

So, all I’m left with is Ocean’s 8 is an enjoyable film and you should go see it.

Solo: A Star Wars Story

Ron Howard is a conventional director.  This means a couple of things.  First of all, he works within the Hollywood system; he’s a solid part of the establishment who does not challenge the rules.  Secondly, he doesn’t take many chances when he makes a film.  Most of the time, that makes for uninspiring art at best.  But Howard is such a talented and experienced filmmaker that he has on occasion made great movies within the Hollywood formula.  Plus, I’ve never seen a bad Ron Howard movie, but then again, I’ve never seen How the Grinch Stole Christmas.

If you think about it, this ability to produce quality work within constricting guidelines should make Howard an ideal candidate to helm projects in the genre of mega-continuities like Marvel or Star Wars.  He won’t buck, or fight when the producers want him to put in a scene that won’t become clear until another movie.  He will be more than willing to make the tone of his film conform to others in the series.  Working with characters established in previous movies won’t phase him.

Of course, he’s also an established director with a long list of his own projects that he wants to get through.  So, it was something of a rare situation that he had the time in his schedule to take the helm of Solo: A Star Wars Story when series producer Kathleen Kennedy decided that the original directors, Phil Lord and Chris Miller, were not making the film she wanted for the second Star Wars spinoff movie, after Rogue One.

The film in question is not going to be numbered among Ron Howard’s best, nor is it anywhere near the best of Star Wars.  It’s a decent entry into both of those lists, somewhere in the middle.  The tone of the film is surprisingly heavy for a heist movie and yet things never get as serious as they do in Rogue One.  The cinematography mostly goes for dark overcast skies and murky interiors.  Despite the roguish nature of the main character, there aren’t many moments of levity in the script.  I wouldn’t call it jarring; it doesn’t draw you out of the story, but it is something that occurred to me as strange thinking about it afterward.  It wasn’t what I expected.  But the film is good enough that I didn’t mind.

The plot is immaterial to any discussion of the film’s merits.  It has twists, betrayals and lots of action.

Taking over the vest and the blaster from Harrison Ford is Alden Ehrenreich who has a roguish smile and even though it’s not THE roguish smile, it suffices.  Doing the role his own way is probably a better choice than trying to copy Ford.

Emilia Clarke as Qi’ra doesn’t really sell the motivation for her actions in the film.  Woody Harrelson, as Tobias Beckett, Han’s mentor is, as he always is, excellent.  He’s not stretching, here, but it’s fun to watch.  Donald Glover is channeling Billy Dee Williams as Lando Calrissian and doing it brilliantly.  He’s one of the best things in the film.

Solo: A Star Wars Story is a good, not a great movie.  You should see it in the theater because it is a pretty film with great special effects.  It’s a good way to spend a hot summer afternoon.

Avengers: Infinity War

The summer blockbuster season arrives earlier every year and usually with a bang.  Avengers: Infinity War, looks to be the biggest of the summer behemoths, at least in terms of spectacle and epicness.  Solo: A Star Wars Story may give it a run for its money, but my guess is that Marvel will end up taking the crown.  It is, after all, the climax to all 18 previous films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  Or at least the first part of that climax. That’s a huge build-up and an uncommonly good one.

Most of these films deal with a megalomaniacal villain intent on destroying all or a significant part of the world and needing one of the Infinity Stones to do it.  That’s not the case here.  Thanos, played by James Brolin, wants to destroy half the universe and he needs all six of the Infinity Stones to do it.

There’s a difference.

Okay, you’re not going to see this movie because of the subtle and meaningful plot.  You’re going for the spectacle of over twenty CGI-enhanced superheroes throwing down with…oh who cares who they throw down with as long as there are punches, explosions, flying and great special effects.  All delivered with Marvel’s light touch and melodramatic tone.  Give me some popcorn and save the nuance for Oscar season.

All the things that are consistent and good about MCU movies are present here.  The effects are seamless and incredible.  So much so in fact I would strongly encourage you to see this in 3D.

The performances are universally excellent.  All these actors are old hands at playing these roles by now.  Not everybody is given a lot of space for characterization but that’s not really necessary at this point.  I wonder, however, if this movie would stand on its own.  I suspect that it probably wouldn’t.  It doesn’t matter, as I’ve said many times before, the whole MCU is one large work and Avengers: Infinity War is merely a part of it.  To judge it or any other movie in the series as an individual film (although many of them hold up quite well) is to miss the point.

One performance that is worth mentioning is James Brolin as Thanos.  It is hard to imagine a more powerful or crueler villain, and yet Brolin makes you…if not like, at least respect him.  His plan is insane and genocidal but, if you understand his worldview, you can see how he thinks he’s the good guy making a hard choice.

My joking at the beginning of this review aside, this is a pretty good script by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely.  There are some funny one-liners sprinkled in with the heavy moments and imaginative fight scenes.  The interplay between the characters is entertaining, especially the relationship between Dr. Strange and Tony Stark, a classic confrontation between two men used to dominating the room.  There are callbacks to great moments in the other films but no exact repeats of circumstances or results, like you see in other series.

Summer is here and there is no better movie to kick it off with than Avengers: Infinity War.

Ready Player One

I’m pretty plugged into much of pop culture.  Many TV shows and movies have played out in front of my eyes.  But one thing I’ve never been interested in is playing video games.  For some reason it never appealed to me.  It may be that they came into their own when I was too old to become obsessed with them.

So, there is probably a lot about Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of Ernest Cline’s novel Ready Player One that I’m missing.  References, allusions and Easter Eggs are probably all going right past without me noticing.  But, of course, the true test of a movie is if it can move you even if you don’t understand everything about the setting.  Ultimately all stories are about people.

Ready Player One takes place in a dystopian future where external reality is grim.  As the main character, Wade Watts, played by Tye Sheridan, says in the narration, it is a time when people have given up on solving the world’s problems and are simply trying to survive.  Or more accurately, escape.  Most people spend almost all of their time in a virtual reality called the Oasis.  This is an extrapolation of online gameplaying environments, adding in the element of virtual reality.  The Oasis is an immersive second world, limited only by the imagination of the people inhabiting it.  It’s not simply a game.

The Oasis was invented by James Halliday, played by Mark Rylance, who dies and leaves his immense fortune and control of the virtual world to whoever can solve three tasks he has designed into the fabric of the artificial reality.  The search for the solution to these puzzles has gone on for years.  People have formed clans, teams that share information about whatever progress they’ve made.  But after all that time, nobody has solved even the first puzzle, and interest in the challenge has faded.

Still intensely interested, however, is IOI, a corporation run by Nolan Sorrento, played by Ben Mendelsohn.  IOI wants to take over this powerful tool and monetize it to a maximal extent.  Sorrento figures he can cover 80% of people’s screens with advertising.  The Oasis can be used for social control if it falls into the wrong hands and there are fewer worse hands than IOI.  This is a company that runs debtor prisons for people that owe it money.

When Wade, in the form of his online avatar, Parzival, figures out the first puzzle, with help from his friends Aech, played by Lena Waithe, Art3mis, played by Oliva Cooke, Sho, played by Philip Zhao and Daito, played by Win Morisaki, they become celebrities and targets.  So not only must they attempt to solve the other two pieces of the puzzle, they must also dodge IOI’s agents both inside the Oasis and outside.  IOI is willing to do anything at any cost to win this.

Obviously Ready Player One is a visual treat and you need to see it in a theater.  Most of the story takes place in the Oasis, so there are computer generated marvels that are astounding.  The pace is lively, stopping for characterization only minimally.  In fact, it feels rushed in places especially where they are tying up loose ends at the end.  The performances are fine in what is really not a film you go to for great acting.  Although, the great Mark Rylance achieves it.

Ready Player One is Steven Spielberg in popcorn mode.  It is perhaps not his best but it’s far from his worst.

Oscar Picks 2017

When the nominations were announced, I was in great shape.  I’d seen every film I needed to see and this annual Oscar pick entry was ready to be written.  What’s more I had extra time since the Academy delayed the ceremony a few weeks because of the Olympics.  So, I’m watching the curling yesterday and a promo comes on announcing coverage of the closing ceremonies tonight.  A quick look at the calendar confirmed that the Oscars will be handed out next Sunday.

If procrastination were an Olympic event, I would win the gold every time, assuming I got around to entering.

I think I’ll tinker with my formula this year.  In the past few years, I haven’t said who I predicted would win, only who I thought should win.  My predictions would only be based on the thoughts of others who in most cases are entertainment reporters who interview Academy voters and have a good idea of which way the winds are blowing.  They are also more experienced in knowing what the results of the various critics’ awards and other awards leading up to the Oscars mean.  That felt like stealing.  It occurred to me, however, that if I just sited my source it would probably be OK.  I’d feel better, at least.

So, I’m going to tell you who the favorite is, according to Goldderby.com.  They give each nominated film betting odds.  Now I’ll tell you up front that I’ve never been into gambling so my understanding of betting odds is—shall we say—not intuitive.  I am quite capable of characterizing a race as being a runaway when it is in fact close.  If I make a blunder like that, feel free to laugh at me.

Looking at the list of nominees this year, I have to say that there are a lot of really good films there.  However, there isn’t one that stands head and shoulders over the rest, at least not for me.  Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri is probably going to win in half the acting categories and it could have a big night.  But The Shape of Water is in contention as well.  Those are worthy films but I don’t really feel strongly for them.

On to the picks:

 

Supporting Actress

Favorite is Allison Janney for I, Tonya at 2/7

My pick is Allison Janney

 

It’s the year of the difficult mother.  Janney’s transformative portrayal of Tonya Harding’s awful mother was amazing to watch.  For a long time, Laurie Metcalf led this category, playing the mother in Lady Bird and should would be a worthy winner as well.  In fact, I could live with any of the nominees in this category.

My pick, however, is Allison Janney.

 

Supporting Actor

Favorite is Sam Rockwell for Three Billboards at 2/11

My pick is Sam Rockwell

 

In this category I would eliminate Christopher Plummer for All the Money in the World and Woody Harrelson for Three Billboards.  Those are two decent performances by good actors but they are not roles that tested the abilities of those actors.  I wouldn’t mind if Richard Jenkins won for The Shape of Water or if Willem Dafoe won for The Florida Project.  But I feel that Rockwell captured the theme of redemption in Three Billboards perfectly.

 

Actress

Favorite is Frances McDormand for Three Billboards at 2/13

My pick is Meryl Streep for The Post

 

Because Meryl Streep is a legendary actress with many great performances in her past, she gets nominated every year.  Often it is not deserved but this year it is.  Her Katherine Graham perfectly captures a woman caught up in the backwash of changing times.

I would eliminate Saorise Ronan.  She failed to make her character likeable.  I could live with McDormand, who is such a heavy favorite at this point that her name is probably already etched on the base of the award, and Sally Hawkins for The Shape of Water.  Margot Robbie would be a close second for my choice of who should win.

 

Actor

Favorite is Gary Oldman for Darkest Hour at 1/10

My pick is Gary Oldman Darkest Hour

 

Is it wrong of me to punish Timothee Chalamet for being in Call Me by Your Name, the worst movie I saw last year?  Probably, but here we are.  He’s out!  I could live with Daniel Day-Lewis for The Phantom Thread, even though I didn’t like that movie either, Daniel Kaluuya for Get Out, and Denzel Washington for Roman J. Israel, Esq.  But Gary Oldman became Winston Churchill.  He also is a very heavy favorite.

 

Director

Favorite is Guillermo Del Toro for The Shape of Water at 1/10

My pick is Guillermo Del Toro for The Shape of Water

 

There were severe problems with tone in The Phantom Thread so I’m eliminating Paul Thomas Anderson.  Christopher Nolan led this category for a long time but Del Toro passed him and is now the prohibitive favorite.  Nolan’s odds are currently 20/1.  He is in second place.  I could live with him, Greta Gerwig, even though I didn’t like Lady Bird, or with Jordan Peele for Get Out.  But Del Toro created an incredible world in The Shape of Water.  His command of the language of film is astonishing.

 

Picture

Favorites are Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri at 7/5 and The Shape of Water at 2/1.

My pick is Dunkirk

 

This is a two-picture race.  The Shape of Water is nominated in most of the technical categories, so if it starts winning those that momentum may carry it through to the evening’s climax.  Three Billboards is heavily favored in two of the four acting categories so my guess is that it will wind up with the big golden doorstop at the end of the night.  There are three films that don’t belong is this category.  Call Me by Your Name is an insufferable gab-fest.  Phantom Thread, I’ve already addressed and Lady Bird miscalculates the likeability of its main character.  I could live with Three Billboards, The Shape of Water, Get Out, The Darkest Hour, and The Post.  Dunkirk was a sensory experience that perfectly captured the fog of war.  It had performances by mostly unknown actors that evoked sympathy even though the script didn’t include any hint of characterization.  It was all surface but somehow managed to be deep.

 

And there you have it for what it’s worth.  As always, make some popcorn and enjoy the ceremony.

Black Panther

There are probably many reasons why most of our classic adventure fiction heroes are white males.  But of course, the most important reason, and probably the only one that fully explains it is prejudice.  The creators and distributors of this stuff have traditionally been white men and their perception of their audience has been that it is composed of the same.  If these creators thought about it at all, they probably would have concluded that as a whole minority groups didn’t have money to support heroes that looked like them.

This issue has been with us for years and there has been a lot of pressure for more diversity in the action/adventure genre.  Often this takes the form of casting a minority actor in a role that was originally a white male.  This can work if the conditions are right.  There is no reason that Dr. Who can’t be a woman, or black for that matter.  That possibility is built into the premise of regeneration.  (However, he/she must be English.)  Recently in comic books, Thor and Iron Man have been women.  Spider-Man has been a black Hispanic.  They found ways to make this work without violating the concepts of the original premise.

Adventure heroes last and are popular because they’re cool.  And part of that coolness is their identity.  Anybody can wear the Iron Man suit, but Tony Stark is irreplaceable.  Therefore, I think the best way to increase diversity is not to co-opt old heroes but to create new ones and infuse them with their own coolness.

Marvel actually tried to do this in 1966 when Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created the Black Panther.  This was the height of the Civil Rights movement and those two were never ones to let a trend go by unexploited.  Over the years T’Challa has persisted but he hasn’t really captured the coolness that adventure heroes need to become permanent fixtures in the culture.

Until now.

The MCU’s newest entry, Black Panther is a triumph of coolness.  The main credit for this goes to Chadwick Boseman who plays the role with thoughtful compassion and vulnerability.  When the character first showed up in Captain America: Civil War, I knew he could carry his own movie.  Boseman is a charismatic actor who has a big future ahead of him.

The rest of the cast is made up of a who’s who of current African-American stars.  They all do a fine job filling out the well written characters.  Even the main villain, Erik Killmonger, played by Michael B. Jordan, has a compelling motivation for his actions.

The excellent script was written by Ryan Coogler, who also directed, and Joe Robert Cole.  It deals with heavy themes that resonate with current events.  The Wakandans have all this power due to their good fortune to be in a country that has the only source for vibranium, the rarest and most powerful metal on Earth.  But for centuries they have isolated themselves, believing that the source of their strength would be taken from them if the world at large knew of it.  It is a technologically advanced nation that pretends to be a backward third world nation.  But there are some in Wakanda who are beginning to believe that it is their duty to use their great power to help oppressed Africans around the globe.  This is the theme that the plot revolves around.  What results is a pretty good tale of palace intrigue.

Coogler, whose previous films were Creed and Fruitvale Station, keeps the pace moving and draws out those tremendous performances from his talented cast.  The effects are, of course, great and the costumes and sets are an exciting mixture of modern and traditional African.

Black Panther isn’t just a competent entry into the MCU, it is one of the best.  And I suspect that it will be wildly popular.  At the showing I saw, the audience applauded, not just at the end, but also as the film was starting.

The creators of the Black Panther, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, were Jewish, which means they knew what it was like to be a minority, but not specifically African-American.  Coogler, Cole and Boseman are black and intimately familiar with the African-American experience.  They make Black Panther real.

And most importantly, they make it cool.

 


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