INCREDIBLES 2**** Simply…incredible


JOYOUS. HYSTERICAL. BRILLIANTLY well written. Gloriously well directed. The real world sharply observed. All that from a cartoon. It’s the incredible Incredibles 2, a movie about superheroes with more real world insights that most other movies and definitely more than any other superhero movie. Ever.

The action starts pretty much where the last one (waaay back in 2004) ended. Like the X Men, the superheroes have been outlawed. And even though they’re just thwarted the nasty Underminer, it’s not because they’re a danger to society or even because they’re different. The problem, as pointed out by the sharp suited, sweet talking Winston Deavour (Bob Odenkirk), is that they don’t offer a compelling enough narrative to woo and win the hearts of people (and lawmakers). It’s not a failure of substance, it’s simply a failure of PR.

Which pretty much sums up our world.

So, for a user-friendly, appealing icon of superhero repositioning, PR guru Winston focuses on the sympathetic, sexy mom, Mrs. Incredible aka Elastigirl, aka Helen Parr (Holly Hunter).

This is much to the chagrin of Mr. Incredible, Bob (Craig T Nelson), her newly downgraded – to babysitter in chief – husband. After a few PR friendly battles, in full throttle with her version of the Batmobile, Helen must take on a far more malevolent foe, Screenslaver. This villain has hacked into the screens and brains of others to create a fake, if believably false narrative…all intending to subvert the truth and doom the heroes.

And in other news of Brexit…

The real battle though is at home where dad must deal with his bruised ego, his daughter’s puppy love agonies, his son’s maths test and the gob-smacking explosion of baby Jack Jack’s emerging and unchecked superpowers. JJ can not only teleport through dimensions, but has machine gun laser beam eyes, can multiply herself and turns into a ferocious flaming demon when angered (mainly thru lack of cookies).

Mom doesn’t think dad can do it without her (typical!). But he does (typical dad superheroism!)

This wild, exuberant romp, amped up by Michael Giacchino’s Bond-esque score, is peopled with the people we all recognize: the gawky, gushing teenage fan, Voyd (who can also bounce people through portals in space), the haughty designer diva, Edna (turned babysitter), the emasculated superman, the petulant daughter etc. And it whooshes by a smorgasbord of hot off the news themes: female empowerment, the power of branding, unemployment, political lobbying, opinion manipulation the rule and misrule of the law. For starters.

This is a kids’ movie?

Holly Hunter (such a distinctive voice) heads up a strong cast of characters (including Catherine Keener, Isabella Rossellini and Samuel. L. Jackson). And is only outshone by Sophia Bush (Mainly Chicago Fire and Chicago PD) as the blushing, self-conscious, shy, gawky teenager, Voyd. In her, Pixar’s fabulous cartoonists’ skills, spearheaded by Art Director Josh Holtsclaw (Cars 3) and Production Designer Ralph Eggleston (Inside Out, Wall-E) simply take your breath away…all under the superb conductor’s baton of director/writer Brad Bird. Mr. Bird (who is also the voice of the fashion diva Edna) helmed the last decent MI outing (Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol) as well as the original Incredibles.

I say Oscars all round

 

INCREDIBLES 2. Dir. and writer: Brad Bird. With: Craig T Nelson (Gold, Book Club), Holly Hunter (Top of the Lake, Saving Grace), Catherine Keener (Sicarion2: Soldado), Bob Odenkirk (The Post), Samuel L Jackson, Sophia Bush. Cinematographer: Mahyar Abousaeedi (The Good Dinosaur). Composer: Michael Giacchino (Jurassic Word; Fallen Kingdom). Production Designer: Ralph Eggleston (Finding Nemo). Art Director: Josh Holtsclaw (Cars 3)

 

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LEAVE NO TRACE**** Leaves a huge footprint


This is the world of people who live off the grid…those who leave no trace. The story follows a few months in the lives of a father, Will (a stoic Ben Foster) and daughter Tom (Thomasin McKenzie) who have set up permanent camp deep in the heart of a dense, verdant forest in Oregon. They forage for food, topped up by occasional visits to the city; the traffic and noise and crowds there stand in stark contrast to the peace and calm of their almost Edenic forest home. Their relationship is affectionate and loving. He is obviously a caring and responsible father. She’s a bright, happy daughter; one well tutored by him. This is what home is all about.

When they’re discovered by the State – which goes out of its way to respect and take care of them – their pastoral ‘freedom’ from social convention is shattered and they’re forced, if only briefly, to conform. To the State, they’re homeless, and a home (and job) must be found; to them, their Hobbit-like retreat was home. This house where they’re relocated feels like a cage (“We can still think our own thoughts” are Will’s comforting words). And not unexpectedly, they soon steal away once again into the obscuring woods in the hope of recapturing their lost tracelessness, to rebuild their own idea of home.

Director Debra Granik (in her first feature-length movie since the fabulous Winter’s Bone) presents us with her two protagonists and their mission to drop out, with a quiet intensity but almost without editorial comment or censure…as if father and daughter were no more than two innocents, heroically freeing themselves from the compromises and constraints of civilization. But as the story slowly unfolds and we get glimpses of Will’s PTSD (He sells his drugs on the black market to earn what little cash they need) we realise that his is an escape not from civilisation per se, but from some private trauma. His daughter, thirteen-year old Tom, who evolves from child to carer, is simply an innocent victim of what is no more than an act of supreme paternal selfishness. For despite his genuine care and protectiveness, this escapism is really an act of deep irresponsibility. It isn’t intentional. He is probably not for a moment aware that what he thinks is best for them, is probably (marginally) only good for him. Thus do parents, even unintentionally, blight the lives of their kids. She isn’t even old enough to be aware that the idyll of her life is headed for the disaster of abandonment.

As she did so magnificently in Winter’s Bone, director Granik’s calm observing eye conjures up a very real, very strange world. Will and Tom aren’t the only ones living off the grid. We’re introduced to others – those who can no longer live within the confines and dictates of social convention. They’re mostly warm and caring, looking after each other, building their idea of community (In other words not freaks or weirdoes).

But they’re all adults, living a life they chose, perhaps willing a retreat to innocence, not a child innocently trapped in a life chosen for her.

New Zealander Thomasin McKenzie is a terrific ‘newcomer’ (She’s appeared in small parts in a number of minor movies as well as Astrid in The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies). The chemistry between her and Ben Foster carry the movie…give it a spirit that’s spellbinding. I’m sure we’ll be seeing much more of her intelligent expressive face in the near future (as we did after Jennifer Lawrence’s breakout performance in Winter’s Bone). Let’s hope we also see more from Debra and not have to wait another ten years.

 

LEAVE NO TRACE. Dir. (and screenplay): Debra Granik. With: Thomasin McKenzie, Ben Foster (Hostiles, Hell or High Water). Screenplay: Anne Rosselini (Winter’s Bone) based on the novel from Peter Rock, ‘My Abandonment’. Cinematographer: Michael McDonough. Production Designer: Chad Keith

 

 

 

 

OCEANS EIGHT** Less and ocean, more a puddle


OTHER THAN (IN my case) a problem with a Virgin Media and a stiflingly hot house, there really is no good reason to make the effort to see this trifling, if intermittently entertaining, bauble. The good news is that (for Hollywood at least) it’s a radical departure from the norm: a non ‘chick flick’ movie with an entirely female cast of leads. (Sadly this great initiative didn’t extend to the production crew: the director, DP, writer, composer, production designer etc. were all male. You don’t want to rush things in Hollywood)

The story follows the path laid down by the original Steve Soderberg Oceans Eleven. There are a duo of leaders (in this case, wise cracking, super cool George Clooney as Danny Ocean and a junk food munching Brad Pitt have been replaced by the Botox mask of who might be Sandra Bullock as Danny’s sister and her subservient second in command, Cate Blanchett). They plot the heist (an impossibly expensive Cartier necklace to be worn on the exquisite throat of Anne Hathaway during the annual Met ball), gather the rag-tag crew and pull off the heist with aplomb and well-courtiered sangre froid.

It’s a pale imitation of the original. Gone is the very smart script from George Clayton Johnson that helped to flesh out a bunch of delightful characters with whom it was such a pleasure to spend a few hours. Gone too is the foil. Andy Garcia was such a nasty piece of work that we rooted for Danny and gang to deliver his comeuppance. And gone is the tension…those multiple occasions when things seemed to be heading south.

Oceans Eight has a few early cons (Sandra Bullock pulling off a clever, massive store-aided shop lift) that are great fun. But the details of the heist are so silly and the characters so underwritten that, apart from a tremendous performance from Anne Hathaway, the entire enterprise just drags along to its unsurprising conclusion. Director Gary Ross (of Hunger Games) plods through the action, drearily lit by Eigil Byld (In Bruges).

The big disappointment though was Sandra. Her usual buoyancy and comic timing seemed off…perhaps hiding under the face-filling need to stay forever thirty.

Let’s please not have an Ocean’s Nine. This franchise wore out its shelf life after the lacklustre self-referential Oceans Eleven. More Oceans would probably violate some clause in the Geneva Convention

 

OCEANS EIGHT. Dir: Gary Ross. With: Sandra Bullock, Cate Blanchett, Helena Bonham-Carter, Rihanna. Writer: Gary Ross. Cinematographer: Eigil Blyd. Production design: Alex DiGerlando

 

SICARIO 2: SOLDADO**** Bloody. Good


THE SCORE THAT drives this unflinching examination of State sponsored amorality is all deep, basso-profundo atonal notes. Like the memorable “ta da” that heralded the approach of Jaws, the building intensity of Sicario 2: Soldado is accompanied by a sound that seems to emerge, like the soldados, from hell…like the hoary breath of a slowly rising demon. “As dark as the swoon of sin”

Here, even in the arid deserts of Mexico where the sky is a canopy of endless blue, there really is no light. Everyone wears shades, as if the sun were an offence to these moral troglodytes. Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) and Alejandro (Benicio del Toro) have been reunited to disrupt the Mexican cartels whose operations have evolved from ‘mere’ drug running into people and (they think) terrorist trafficking. After a brutal series of suicide bombs in Kansas, the war on drugs has been folded into the war on terror. And the very particular skills sets of Matt and Alejandro have been unleashed by a (typically) gung-ho, revenge boasting Secretary of State (Matthew Modine). Their mission is to start an inter-cartel war that’s free from any restraints. (“Restraints”? Matt says to an ‘enemy combatant’ he’s arrested in Africa: “We only use waterboarding where we can’t torture. But this is Africa.”) The plan is to kidnap the daughter of one kingpin (The one who killed Alejandro’s family) and frame the act on another.

Who let the dogs out!

The story focuses almost entirely on Matt, Alejandro and their team. There is no attempt to personify (or for that matter, demonise) the enemy combatants. They, and their families remain as they’re seen by the authorities: faceless people who are there to be summarily exterminated in a never ending war…machine gunned in the heart of Mexico City or drone bombed in the heart of Africa.

The point writer Taylor Sheridan (who scripted the first Sicario) and director Stefano Sollima (The TV series Gomorrah) are making is that this elite squad (of DEA and Army professionals)…these “soldados” are, like the cartel gunmen, just another group of sicarios –  “hitmen”. To them, the sanctity of state lines simply do not exist: they punch into any country with impunity and indifference, and arrogantly kill whoever’s on the Kill list. This is the grubby underbelly of 007 in the real world.

Their only rule is to leave no trace…that can be traced back to the authorities. The sicarios do the dirty work. The blood is on their hands (and faces and hair and everywhere). The politicians (enabled by a clear-sighted, cynical middle person, played by Catherine Keener) keep their hands clean.

The story turns when a chink of moral, human sunlight enters, just as the casual kill list becomes its darkest. Director Sollima teases out the ironies as an unbidden moment of conscience (Alejandro the kidnapper slowly becomes a father figure, as he did in the first Sicario) potentially compromises the mission. In flight with his kidnap victim cum daughter (an expressive and convincing Isabel Moner from Transformers: The Last Knight), the taciturn Alejandro becomes almost chatty, using expressive sign language to communicate with a deaf and dumb family that helps him out. Their simple human decency and goodness moves him. It’s as though the silences of their communication carry more moral worth than all the shouted threats and political platitudes that precede it.

But to this muscular administration…this group of macho warriors, these tough men who brush away bullet wounds without feeling pain, the concept of having feelings at all, let alone a conscience is not an approved emotion and it (and Alejandro) must be eliminated.

Welcome Sicario 3.

Director Sollima does not (or chose not to) demonstrate the kinetic action reflexes of director Denis Villeneuve’s Sicario 1. The overall feel is darker, more brooding and with a very physical, tangible sense of place. The director’s observing eye and Dariusz Wolski’s magnificent cinematography leave you with a real feeling of having been there: there at night in the no-man’s land just north of the border, raked by slicing helicopter beams; or there in the crowded bus stops where fee-paying refugees jostle for spaces in suffocating trucks; or there in any one of the bustling border towns with their carnival mix of celebrating gringos and Mexican desperadoes.

Movies like this (classified as “action” for want of a better word) never quite make it to the Oscar nominations…just more fodder for the long hot A/C seeking cinema-goers. That’s a pity; for it address and frames one, increasingly dominant slice of modern Americana that we’d all be much happier to pretend is just a movie: the never ending symbiotic knit of venal politicians, lawless law enforcers and murderous gangsters.

There’s a President for that

 

SICARIO 2: SOLDADO. Dir: Stefano Sollima. With: Benicio del Toro, Josh Brolin, Isabel Moner, Catherine Keener. Writer: Taylor Sheridan (Wind River, Hell or High Water). Cinematographer: Darius Wolski (All the Money in the World, Alien: Covenant, The Martian). Composer: Hildur Guonadottir (The revenant). Production Design: Kevin Kavanaugh (Nightcrawler, The Dark Knight Rises)

 

 

JURASSIC WORLD: FALLEN KINGDOM*** Back for more roars


It seems churlish to talk about humans in this uber animal movie. But I’ll do so, if only fleetingly: on a human level (judged by behavior that has some semblance to reality) this movie makes no sense. There were numerous WTF moments that writers Colin Trevorrow (Jurassic World) and Derek Connolly (Kong: Skull Island) were, seemingly, just too lazy to worry about. The impulse seemed always to “get to the action” and minimize motivation, common sense etc. After all, it’s difficult enough trying to tell the same story twice with the same actors and a tick box of “must have” franchise tropes (the sadistic big game hunter who dies nastily, the evil rich genius, the endangered kid, stampeding dinosaurs, dinosaur wrangling etc. though sadly without John Williams’s music) and still try to seem original.

That said, the fundamental premise of dinosaur chaos as an expression of human hubris and greed gone feral, remains alive and well and, despite it all, pretty damn exciting.

The original cute pair, Owen Grady (Chris Pratt) and Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard), along with a fleeting glimpse of Dr. Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum), are reunited through some vague and entirely meaningless premise to return to Isla Nublar. Their mission, like Noah’s, is the rescue of as many species of dinosaur as they can from an impending volcanic eruption (predicted by better vulcanologists than there are either in Hawaii or Guatemala). Except… there are more sinister moves afoot, which include the creation of a weaponised super Dino: a sort of raptor/T Rex chomp fusion.

After a slow beginning where the characters pretend to yield to irresistible motivations, once the chomping begins and the volcano explodes, the action becomes non-stop. And, despite the repetitions from the original Jurassic World, itself an imitation of Jurassic Park with its own multiple imitations and iterations, there are some stunning hold-your-breath set pieces. Spaniard J.A. Bayona who gave us the tremendously convincing “The Impossible” (about the 2004 tsunami in Thailand) gives full vent to his sense of delirious mayhem in an extended peek-a-boo chase between humans and animals in a vast multi storied (and anarchically destroyed) mansion. Finally, all that dangerous science, crooked oligarchs and villainous hench-men come crashing down beneath the fury of Jurassic de-extinction.

And what was once a contained amusement park threat (spoiler alert) is now unleashed roaring into an unsuspecting world. JW3 is probably already in the planning stage.
The next time only the Avengers can save the world.

 

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom. Dir: J.A. Bayona (A Monster Calls). With: Bryce Dallas Howard, Chris Pratt, Jeff Godblum, Daniella Pineda, Toby Jones. Writers: Colin Trevorrow, Derek Connolly. Cinematographer: Oscar Faura (The Imitation Game, The Impossible). Production Design: Andy Nicholson (Divergent. Gravity)

 

SOLO: A STAR WARS STORY**** Ron Howard in fine form


Solo: A Star Wars Story is Ron Howard’s exhilarating entry into the Star Wars alumni with this swaggering Western (complete with low slung gun holsters, high-tech stage coaches, honkey tonk saloons and high noon shoot-outs)…all set in a galaxy far far away, a long long time ago.

It’s everything Star Wars:The Last Jedi wasn’t: the characters, led by the swaggering Alden Ehrenreich (from “Hail Caesar”) as Han Solo and the rakish Donald Glover as Lando Clarissian are charismatic and engaging, unlike the dour, boorishly angst-riddled Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). The story is straightforward and focused (unlike the multi-tiered confused narratives of …Last Jedi, that wander forever aimlessly like drunks). The yawningly dull aerial battles are kept to a minimum and there are elements of genuine tension and excitement.

In short, compared with the leaden …Jedi, Solo… is fun. It levitates. More than this, it’s visually spectacular. There’s a big-screen, epic feel about director Howard’s stunningly realized wastelands of dingy equipment and ragged cities.

The story hangs around a love affair. Han and his girlfriend Qi’ra (Emilia, mother of dragons, Clarke, who convincingly transforms from the ingenue to the imperious) are young lovers (juvenile delinquents really) who attempt to bribe their way out of the light and freedom deprived city of Corellia. There they’re indentured to a vast aquatic centipede. Han escapes, but not Qi’ra. As is only right, he makes it his mission to return and rescue her. It’s a long return journey that takes him via a stint as a fighter-pilot (thrown out for insubordination), a thrilling heist onboard a high speed, abyss-clinging train, near death from a black hole type vortex and encounters with a wide range of (mainly unsavory and unscrupulous) characters including the 190 year old Chewbacca.

But the Qi’ra he finally reunites with only seems the loving girl he once knew. Much has changed. And not for the better.

Father/son writers Lawrence and Jonathan Kasdan offer enough plot-heavy excitement to keep you gripped while feeding out those many ‘origin’ storylines that perhaps only the die-hards would ever have wondered about, but which are nice the discover…such as how Han met Chewie (He’s thrown down a muddy cave to face Chewie aka ‘the beast’, whose guttural language he understands), the origin of his name (He belongs to no tribe and is thus dubbed “Solo”), and his first encounter with a rag tag group who evolve into the Empire-defying rebel forces.

While these origin myths are being spooled out, we’re introduced to an eclectic group of engaging characters: among whom are Woody Harrelson’s untrustworthy Beckett who becomes a sort of thief mentor to Han; the slick, smooth voiced gambler/hustler, Lando (in the person of the protean Danny Glover) from whom Han wins the famous Millennium Falcon; Beckett’s kick-ass girlfriend Val (a wasted Thandie Newton almost unrecognizable under a large wig) and the most fascinating of them all, a hip-swinging, sassy female droid pilot, LD-37 (Phoebe Waller-Bridge) convinced that Lando has the hots for her.

Thing is, Lando, Han and Beckett are really only expressions of that archetypal lovable rogue, Brett Maverick. His slick, wise-ass, gunslinging spirit hovers like a blessing over this joyful enterprise

 

SOLO: A STAR WARS STORY. Dir: Ron Howard. With: Alden Ehrenreich, Woody Harrelson, Emilia Clarke, Donald Glover, Thandie Newton, Joonas Suotamo. Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Paul Brettany. Writers: Lawrence Kasdan (Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Raiders of the Lost Arc)), Jonathan Kasdan. Cinematographer: Bradford Young (Arrival), Production Designer: Neil Lamont (Edge of Tomorrow; Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens)

BREAKING IN***B Movie Master Class


Every so often, a body needs some calorie rich, sugary, finger-lickingly luscious junk food to escape from the daily starvation diet of Trump and Brexit. And this smartly plotted, fast-paced story of suburban mom turned protective lioness delivers its B movie delights in spades. This isn’t just a case of woman power, but Black Woman power.

Said powerful Black Woman, Shaun (Gabrielle Union) is a typical middle class mom with two sassy kids (dad’s stuck in the office) who has to make the long journey upstate (I assume it’s “upstate” as everything seems to happen there). She’s meeting an estate agent who’ll help her sell her, estranged, father’s country pile. 

And what a pile it is: multiple rooms including a panic room, state of the art multi-screen security, bullet proof glass windows further reinforced by remote controlled steel shutters. Oh, and there’s a drone that can glide around the house spying on all and sundry. This is country pile as fantasy fortress.

It also has a vault with $5M in cash. (her dad was up to no good)

And the knowledge of all that cash is ample enough motivation to warrant a break in. It’s potentially a simple enough job for a small team of thieves: break in to an empty house, find the vault, crack it open and steal the money. They’re the typical team of thieves: the soft-spoken leader, Eddie, whose blood has long turned to ice (Billy Burke from the TV series “Zoo”), the experienced lock-smith un-fussed about slicing throats (Mark Furze), the naive ex-con panicked that a simple heist is turning into murder (Levi Meaden from “Pacific Rim:Uprising”) and the truly wild-eyed desperado hungry for blood (Richard Cabral whose entire movie CV is that of killer types).

Why did mom and two kids need to turn up? They’ll just have to deal with them.

From the moment she arrives, bickering kids in tow, all awed by the high tech luxury of the house, mom begins to notice that things aren’t quite right. There’s an empty unwashed coffee cup, a smashed photo and was that a noise in the basement?
All the elements are there to unleash the frenzy of action that follows. No element in the spare plot is irrelevant. No observed object in the home, from the drone to the wonderful surround-sound system to various knives, will not find a small starring role in the unfolding story.

So the (mainly) thought-through plot from writer Ryan Eagle (“The Commuter”, “Rampage”) makes it clear why mom, who’s locked out of the house doesn’t just run to the police, why there are only ninety minutes to get the job done, why the thieves don’t simply kill the kids etc. OK, most moms simply can’t take down four ruthless killers. But hey, you never know. Some moms can simply transform into Jason Bourne when their kids are in danger. And this one in the hands of experienced B movie director James McTeigue (“Survivor”) sure does it in style.

You won’t fall asleep.

Two wonderful pieces of dialog bookend in movie: At the beginning when one of Eddie’s team commits a particularly nasty murder, his take on the mother, Shaun, is prescient: “Shit. Now she’s gone from being a frightened mom to a desperate woman,” he says. “And that’s dangerous”. Her words at the cathartic finale offer a marvellous (if clichéd) wrap-up to it all: “You picked the wrong fucking house to rob”

If you need a quick shot of anti-blues adrenaline, this is the right f-ing movie to see.

It joins a noble list of B movie masterpieces: “No Escape” with Owen Wilson, “Deep Blue Sea” with LL Cool J, “The Foreigner” with Jacky Chan, “Anaconda” with J Lo, “The Shallows” with Blake Lively, and “Run All Night” with Liam Neeson etc.

SPOILER ALERT:

Of course, in the real world, when the cops arrive and fine four black persons in a wealthy person’s house with five white persons dead…their troubles will only now have begun

 

BREAKING IN. Dir: James McTeigue, with: Gabrielle Union, Billy Burke. Written by: Ryan Engle. Cinematography: Toby Oliver (“Get Out”)