Sunday, July 15, 2018

The Incredibles 2

Alternate Title:  Bird Food
One sentence synopsis:  The Incredible family struggles to get Superheroes accepted by the populace at large while facing down the threat of the mysterious Screen Slaver.

Things Havoc liked: It's hard to imagine the cinematic world that the original Incredibles was released into in 2004, a world wherein superhero movies were considered a risky proposition, cinematic universes did not exist, Marvel made bad movies, and Brad Bird was an ex-Disney animator, who had directed and written a well-regarded bomb called The Iron Giant, and whom Pixar was taking one of a series of massive gambles on in entrusting him with another animated picture to helm. Of course that gamble paid off, with Incredibles becoming one of the many sterling victories that led Pixar to dominate the animation landscape of the 00s. In the wake of its success, I, and others, wondered for years why Pixar never followed up on such a rich opportunity, particularly as other sequels such as Monsters University or the Cars followups came and went. I still don't know the answer, but I do know that here we are, fourteen years later, and Bird has finally come up with the sequel we all expected years ago.

Picking up exactly where the last film left off, Incredibles 2 continues the (mis)adventures of the Parr family, still struggling with the fact that superheroes like them are officially illegal. With their existence exposed yet again following the first movie, and their house destroyed by a supervillain, they come into contact with a pair of billionaire siblings who intend to see the laws against superheroes reversed through timely, high-profile actions and heroics. While Elasti-girl (Holly Hunter) goes out to fight crime, legally or otherwise, her husband Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson) must stay at home to take care of their kids, Violet, Dash, and Jack-Jack. This much the trailers reveal, and I wasn't exactly enthralled with the prospect, as the "bumbling Dad trying to take care of the house and kids" routine is a staple of bad sitcoms for a reason. To my surprise though, these sequences are probably the best ones in the film, full of sight gags and general madness enough to keep the movie moving. As with the first film, the characters are both well-drawn and well-animated (I apologize for nothing), and the movie doesn't spend a lot of time on Mr. Incredible's incredible shortcomings, instead going rapidly for mad science, the insanities of a superhero fashion designer (voiced again by Brad Bird), and battles between a superpowered baby, a raccoon, and physics. The best parts of Incredibles 2 are when the characters are just allowed to exist in their world together, as it was in the first movie.

Not that the rest of the movie is letting the side down, necessarily. Samuel L. Jackson's Frozone gets a much increased role, including impromptu babysitting support, which is always good for a laugh. The action, and there is quite a bit of it, is well-paced and orchestrated beautifully, with most of the work going to Elasti-Girl, and standout sequences involving a fistfight in a Faraday Cage covered in hypnosis-inducing screens, and an extended brawl in the innards of a cruise ship between a girl who can turn invisible and summon forcefields and another one who thinks with Portals. The voice-acting is top notch across the board (save for Nelson, who sounds tired and detached from his role), with all of the old standbyes returning for more, and the addition of everyone from Catherine Keener (second week in a row I've encountered her), to Johnathan Banks, Phil LaMarr, and (of all people) Isabella Rossellini.

Things Havoc disliked: If all of the above seems rather mechanical (here is what the movie is about, here is who is in it), I assure you, there's a reason.

I want to get out ahead and say that I didn't dislike Incredibles 2 at all, it's a well-made movie with decent-to-good animation, casting, and action. But I also want to get out ahead and say that it isn't much more than those things, a competent movie executed by a competent cast, crew, writer and director. And as to why that is, we have to go back to the creator of the Incredibles, Brad Bird.

You see, Brad Bird, moreso than most writers or directors in Hollywood, is obsessed with a single idea, that of special, uniquely gifted people who are hated and feared by the wider society around them. The Incredibles 1 was about this. The Iron Giant was about this. Tomorrowland was about this. And guess what, Incredibles 2 is... also about this. Granted, to a certain extent that makes sense, the first movie set up a world wherein supers were feared and rendered illegal, and dealing with the ramifications of that is an obvious way to take the story, but that's just it, it's an obvious way to proceed, and one that should have been re-thought. Incredibles is set in no discernible time, but seems to be focused on some kind of golden-age-of-comics era crossed with a comic book future, and that whole dynamic does not jive very well with sad parents contemplating homelessness for themselves and their children because their superpowers make them outcasts and pariahs. I don't mind a bit of tonal discord now and again, but Bird's continuing fixation on how put-upon the special people of the world are gets in the way of the story, and is one of the reasons he's often accused of being way too Randian in his fixations (trying to get a movie version of The Fountainhead produced doesn't help). I'm not going to go that far (Tomorrowland spent half its runtime rebutting such allegations by casting the Randians as the villains), but at this point, Bird has said everything there is to say on this subject, and it's becoming boring.

And when you take that subject out of the movie, there's just not much to Incredibles 2. The plot is... fine, I guess, but entirely predictable from beginning to end, with yet another villain who is not only telegraphed but out to get the Parr's because they resent special people for some reason (*yawn*). The progression of the story is pedestrian in the extreme, with everything happening because it makes sense structurally to happen. When the end of the movie comes, there's little-to-no emotional catharsis to anything, because the stakes have never been established in a way anyone can relate to, and if the MCU has taught us anything, it's that this is something great comic book movies need to be able to do. Incredibles 2 cannot, which in turn leads one to question automatically if it can be called a great anything.

Final thoughts:   I see why Incredibles 2 made a billion dollars and why it is popular, for there's nothing really wrong with it, but like most of the films I've seen in 2018 so far, there's not a lot really right with it either. The characters are engaging enough, particularly Violet, and the animation is generally engaging and occasionally interesting (though it does come with a warning about photosensitive epilepsy, so YMMV). But there's just not a lot within it that demands to be seen. Maybe that's faint criticism overall, but I'm just getting tired of movies that refuse to insist on a reason for their own existence.

Go see Incredibles 2 if you're interested. I, on the other hand, am moving on to smaller and better things. I hope.

Final Score:  5.5/10

Next Time:  Smaller and Better Things (I hope)

Monday, July 2, 2018

Sicario: Day of the Soldado

Alternate Title:  Once Upon a Time in Mexico
One sentence synopsis:  Alejandro Gillick and Matt Graver reconvene to start a war between two rival drug cartels by kidnapping the daughter of a cartel leader.

Things Havoc liked: The original Sicario, back in 2015, was a truly great film, as well as being my first introduction to Taylor Sheridan, a man who has gone on to dominate my best of the year lists with films such as Hell or High Water and Wind River. He wrote the original Sicario, a bleak, gritty, wonderfully-made film about the quasi-legal components of the battle against the Drug trade in the US and Mexico. Though Sheridan has become a world-class director as well as writer, he has returned to just the writing duties for this one, teaming up instead with Italian crime drama director (and former war zone news cameraman) Stefano Sollima. With pedigrees like that, you could not have gotten me into the theater fast enough.

So how's the sequel? It's good. Not great, but good, principally because so many of the original team are back for another round. Front and center is Benicio del Toro, reprising his central role as the lawyer-turned-hitman Alejandro Gillick. This is the role that brought del Toro to my good graces, and he's very good in it, dialing things back to a low burn as he takes on another job to make life difficult for the cartels that ruined his life. He's not as good, however, as the increasingly ubiquitous Josh Brolin, this time reprising the role of CIA fixer and hatchetman Matt Graver, the man who runs the circus which Gillick is a part of. Brolin is absolutely at home with this material, with a relaxed, sure approach that comes with the territory, as his character is the consummate military and wet work professional. Both actors dance through the weighty material they've given as though it's all just another day at the office, which it manifestly is. Younger actors, such as Isabella Moner and Elijah Rodriguez, play teens caught up in some aspect of the drug war and the cartels' business, the former as the conceited daughter of a cartel lord, who winds up becoming the fulcrum of events, the latter as a high-school kid from Texas who gets drawn into the web of Cartel human smugglers ferrying people into the US. All sides are covered in dirt here, as special forces and cartel assault teams comb the trackless wastes of Northern Mexico in search of their targets, and civilians are left to do the best they can in between the bombs.

I shouldn't have to tell you, then, that Taylor Sheridan's script is still as punchy as ever, with brutal action sequences alternating with the banal aspects of fighting this undeclared war on human traffickers and drug smugglers. Sheridan, the grand dean of modern westerns nowadays, turns this one into a parable-free tale of deception and bloodshed, keeping the polemics down in favor of a simple story of bad men doing bad things in a bad place. Though I had never heard of Sollima, the Director, he draws on a bountiful background in war reporting and crime drama to put this one together, and creates a film that feels effortlessly real throughout.

Things Havoc disliked: Which is all the more surprising, given that it isn't.

Sicario 1 was a superb film, precisely because the madness that was taking place was properly placed in a context that was entirely believable, with a blurry line between policing and military operations. Sicario 2 does not. It's a plot straight out of several video games I've played, in which a CIA wet work squad, at several points, engages in open warfare with Mexican cartels, police, and the state itself, all seemingly without consequences.

Look, I'm not a fool. A lot of shady shit goes down in the drug war, on all sides. This isn't about morality, or me objecting to how villainous the actions of our characters are or are not, it's about scenarios that just don't make sense. Mexico is not Somalia, not in the real world, and so armed military invasions of large portions of its territory are the sort of thing that doesn't fit with a scrupulously ripped-from-the-headlines sort of movie. A general action movie would have no trouble getting away with some of the things that occur in this film, but this is Sicario, this is the "real" war on Cartels right here, and so events like a PMC flying armed helicopters full of special forces to and fro across the border on a regular basis just don't fly.  It turns the movie from a plausible one into a violent fairy tale, at least in parts, robbing it of some of what made the original Sicario so great.

Final thoughts:   Day of the Soldado is a perfectly good film, though not the triumph that its predecessor was, a tense, gripping crime and violence-drama punctuated with just a little too much action and just a little too much suspension of disbelief to measure up to its illustrious predecessor. Still, with the year having been mostly a dud so far, there are far worse things to see in the theaters. Especially when it comes to subjects like drugs or illegal immigration, about which nobody has the slightest intention of speaking sense.

Final Score:  7/10

Next Time:  Time for Pixar to go back to the well.

Sunday, July 1, 2018

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom

Alternate Title:  That Explains the Laser-Raptors
One sentence synopsis:  Claire Dearing and Owen Grady attempt to rescue the dinosaurs of Isla Nublar from an impending volcanic eruption.

Things Havoc liked: To hell with both haters and critics, I liked Jurassic World, stupidity and all. I liked it because it was fun and adventurous and enjoyable to look at and managed to avoid pissing me off too terribly much. A lot of people did not like it, for they felt it exemplified all of the opposite qualities above, but nevertheless, the movie contrived to do almost everything that a Jurassic Park reboot could be expected to do, given that we no longer live in an age where a nearly-photorealistic dinosaur can alone be expected to sell a ticket. And so, while the trailers did not give me a lot of reason to hope, the fact that I did like the previous incarnation of this series, combined with the fact that Corvidae, my partner in crime, adores anything with dinosaurs in it, I felt I had to see this one. Besides, the worst-of-the-year list isn't going to fill itself.

I kid, I kid. Fallen Kingdom, despite doubling down on the previous movie's stupidity, is actually a pretty good film. Nothing great, nothing earthshattering, but a better movie than I anticipated it being, and the reasons for that vary considerably. Some of the credit belongs to the actors, particularly Chris Pratt, who continues to be an enjoyable leading man in most every film I've seen him in, and who manages to be considerably less of a douche in this film than he was intended as being in the previous. Newcomers to the series, particularly Justice Smith as an IT technician wrapped up in a situation far beyond his pay grade, Toby Jones (of the Captain America series) as an arms-dealer/auctioneer to the morally bankrupt, or Ted Levine (Buffalo Bill from Silence of the Lambs), as a great white hunter sent to oversee the operations on the island, all liven the film with their performances, Smith as a terrified college student, Jones as a sleazy mega-capitalist, and Levine as... well Levine as only Ted Levine can light up a role. Even Bryce Dallas Howard, whom I've never liked, improves on her showing this time around, though I still won't go so far as to say she's good. Some of the credit also belongs to the effects-work, which is stellar as always, showcasing us dinosaurs in all their glory and the myriad ways in which they ruin foolish humans' days. The art department, or whatever they call it these days, also deserves quite a bit, having once again turned much of Hawaii into the lush, insane death-trap that is the original island, or for outfitting the absurd Edwardian mansion/mad science facility that the climax of the movie takes place in.

But the majority of the credit for the non-suckitude of Jurassic World 2 belongs to Spanish director J. A. Bayona, of The Impossible and A Monster Calls.  Bayona, who was given the reigns of this one after Colin Trevorrow left for greener pastures, actually puts in a highly effective turn with this one, framing and shooting the movie with just the right balance of callbacks to the original films without ever devolving into kitch, with an arsenal of effective and tension-building long-take sequences, particularly a brilliantly-paced one involving a mass stampede and a subsequent sudden trip into the ocean, and a generally effective use of space, scene, and timing that is well beyond what a cash-in movie like this generally receives. I cannot pretend that I'd ever heard of Bayona previously, but I have to give props where they are due, it's one of the best directorial efforts I've seen since Infinity War, and it marks him out as a director to watch out for in the future.

Things Havoc disliked: None of the credit belongs to the scriptwriters.

Jurassic World was a stupid movie, but it knew that it was stupid, and played with its premise in a way that felt fun and interesting. Fallen Kingdom on the other hand stretches our patience with such things to its breaking point, finding yet another way to posit that weaponized dinosaurs are something that a good many someones with a lot of money feels is a good idea. Some of you may have thought that my little alt-title up above was a pure joke, but I ask you in this case, in what world does it make more sense to breed and train a dinosaur to kill anyone who has a laser pointer aimed at them, than it does to attach said laser pointer to a gun and shoot the people you train it upon directly? I am reminded of the scene in the Jackie Chan movie, The Tuxedo, in which a villain devises a secret, multi-billion-dollar compound which, when injected into someone, kills them via nanobots. Roger Ebert famously asked if there was a reason that injecting them with arsenic was not good enough, given the intent.

But back to Fallen Kingdom, which is a very stupid movie, involving very stupid decisions on the part of very large portions of the cast. I'm not talking about the basic fact that every single interaction with these dinosaurs on the part of anyone has resulted in catastrophe, there does need to be a movie after all, nor am I objecting to the movie's premise of a de-extinction rights campaign on the part of well-meaning environmentalists who wish to save the dinosaurs from their impending extinction. What I object to is the fact that, for the roughly fifth time in a row in this series, the heroes walk into the middle of a PMC camp staffed by grizzled, amoral mercenaries, and assume that all is to be comprised of peace and love. It's not that the moment-to-moment stuff is terrible, it's not, we're not in a horror movie here, but the plot is so irretrievably stupid that we can predict the entire thing by simply asking ourselves "what decision would the characters have to make to maximize the number of large teeth they are likely to encounter in the near future", and then watch as our wildest fantasies are realized before us.

Final thoughts:   Honestly, while Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom is a very dumb film, I actually expected it to be worse, assuming that the acting would be terrible, or the directing sloppy, or the effects sub-par, or the plot even dumber than it turned out to be. Given that none of the above actually happened, I'm actually in a rather awkward position vis-a-vis Fallen Kingdom, in that despite how dumb it is, I have to admit that I... actually kinda liked it, and I think that most people who go see it might find they like it as well.

If you demand that all of your movies be intellectual in nature, then you must at all costs avoid the latest Jurassic World movie, but if you're willing to turn off your brain and just watch some interesting characters go through a romp with a bunch of dinosaurs (or if you find the baby dinosaurs insufferably cute... as I and all those with a soul do), then I think you might find something to like, even in a movie as dumb as Fallen Kingdom.

Final Score:  6.5/10

Next Time:  Let's see what Taylor Sheridan's been up to, shall we?

The General's Post Summer 2018 Roundup

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