Thursday, June 14, 2018

INCREDIBLES 2: Predictable Plotwise, But Still A Solid Sequel

Opening tonight at a multiplex near everybody:

Dir. Brad Bird, 2018) 

t the screening of this long awaited sequel, there was a mini-featurette before the movie began in which the film’s stars – Craig T. Nelson, Holly Hunter, and Samuel L. Jackson – stress more than once that while it’s been 14 years since the original, this’ll be well worth the wait. For the most part it is.

Mere months after the events of the first installment, we catch up with the crime-fighting Parr family – Bob/Mr. Incredible (Nelson), Helen/Elastigirl (Hunter), Violet (Sarah Vowel), Dashiell/”Dash” (Huck Milner), Violet and Jack-Jack Parr (Eli Fucile) – as they are trying to thwart a bank robbery by the returning supervillain, the Underminer (voiced by Pixar regular John Ratzenberger).

This results in a pretty thrilling, funny and gorgeously animated opening sequence involving the Incredibles, with the help of the icy touch of Lucius Best/Frozone (Jackson), pulling together to stop a ginormous drilling machine from reaching its Metro Bank destination, and the follow-up is off to a great start.

Things settle down a bit when the premise is introduced by a couple of new characters, telecommunications CEO Winston Deavor (a slick Bob Odenkirk), and his tech saavy sister, Evelyn (a more energetic than usual Catherine Keener). The Deavors wants to arrange a campaign that will make the use of super powers legal again, and recruit Elastigirl to go off and fight crime in the dangerous city of New Urbrem, while Bob stays home to take care of the kids to his great disappointment.

But while stranded at home, Bob learns that Jack-Jack has an array of super powers (17, he says at one point) including being able to shoot lasers out of his eyes, teleport through walls, turn himself into fire, and change into a scary red monster (sort of a like a fiery Tazmanian Devil) if he’s denied a cookie.

Since Odenkirk’s Winston is such an unabashed fanboy of the Incredibles who knows the words to all of their individual theme songs, he stands out as a candidate for the film’s secret bad guy, but gladly screenwriter Bird knows that would be too obvious.

As for the film’s up front villain, there’s the Screenslaver, dressed in black with big goggles like a cartoon Kylo Renn, who can hypnotize people through their screens. There’s also the thread that the secret baddie (I won’t Spoil their identity) has devised glasses that control the wearer in order to frame them doing acts of evil.

That’s a pretty predictable plotline that’s been done to death, but the action and laughs come so fast and frenetically in the film’s last third, which is set on runaway ship headed to crash into New Urbrem, that it really doesn’t get in the way of the extreme entertainment factor.

Sure, the overall world of the INCREDIBLES doesn’t feel as fresh as it did in 2004 (still looks really cool though), but despite its formulaic flaws, it’s a joy to spend time with these characters again on another fast paced ride. INCREDIBLES 2 is a solid sequel that should please the many big fans of the first one, as it did a casual fan like me. Thanks for the update, Bird, Pixar, and all the great voice talent – see you in another 14 years!

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Friday, June 08, 2018

Paul Schrader’s Profoundly Powerful FIRST REFORMED

Now playing:

FIRST REFORMED (Dir. Paul Schrader, 2018) 

Paul Schader’s 21st film as director is his most vital work since 1997’s AFFLICTION (though I do admire his somewhat wacky 2002 Bob Crane biopic, AUTO FOCUS). FIRST REFORMED tells the intense tale of Pastor Ernst Toller, a minister at a tourist church (historical because it was once a stop on the Underground Railroad) in upstate New York where he preaches sermons to pews with only four or five people.

Toller’s temple of the title is figuratively in the shadow of a megachurch that owns it, Abundant Life headed by celebrity preacher Pastor Jeffers (Cedric The Entertainer, credited as Cedric Kyles). A young pregnant woman, Mary (Amanda Seyfried) seeks out Toller in hope of having him counsel her husband, Michael (Philip Ettinger), an environmental activist who wants his wife to have an abortion because he can’t stand the idea of bringing a child into such a doomed world.

After their first discussion, in which we learn that the Pastor lost his son in the Iraq war and that destroyed his marriage, Toller researches what Michael is tormented by – the overwhelming scientific predictions of environmental disaster - and it triggers an existential crisis that gets worse the more glasses of whiskey he downs (he drinks more than his character in the 2012 horror film SINISTER, and that’s saying a lot), and comes to a horrible head when Michael commits suicide.

A 250th Anniversary celebration is being planned for Toller’s church, but Jeffers and one of Abundant Life’s corporate sponsors, represented by CEO Edward Balq (Michael Gaston) are concerned about the troubled chaplain after has his choir sing Neil Young’s Young’s pro-wildlife/anti-fracking anthem “Who’s Gunna Stand Up?” at Michael’s funeral.

Having found out that Balq is a climate change denier whose oil company is responsible for much of the area’s pollution, Toller plots a deadly end to the Anniversary event involving a suicide vest over his body wrapped in barbed wire.

From this description, I’m sure you can grasp that is a seriously dark and disturbing experience, but it’s a fascinating, immersive one as well that’s as watchable as it is unpleasant to process.

I originally wasn’t a fan of Hawke (his work in such films as DEAD POET’S SOCIETY and REALITY BITES didn’t rub me well), but he’s really grown into one of the most interesting actors of his generation. His work here is intricately stoic, but with instances of emotion (such as when he tells a woman, played by Victoria Hill, that he once had an affair with that he despises her), that can really get you in the gut.

FIRST REFORMED is the first movie in a long while that I want to read the screenplay of as it plays like a piece of literature in its thoughtful depiction of a complete crisis of fate.

The ending may baffle many audiences – it did a number on me – but it’s a profoundly powerful one. Many critics are comparing the film to Martin Scorsese’s 1976 landmark TAXI DRIVER, which Schrader wrote, a valid comparison for sure, as the films’ themes and tones are close in feeling. But Toller is a different kind of creature than Travis Bickle, created to reflect an even more dangerous world.

It’s impossible for Schrader’s incredible work here to make the same mark as that undeniable classic as the cinematic landscape is infinitely more cluttered, but I predict that in time, FIRST REFORMED will be considered as being in the same class.

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Thursday, June 07, 2018

HEREDITARY: The Film Babble Blog Review

Opening tonight at a dark, scary multiplex near us all:

(Dir. Ari Aster, 2018) 

Writer/director Ari Aster’s first feature-length project, HEREDITARY, begins with one of my favorite shots I’ve seen this year at the movies. The camera closes in on a dollhouse in a room full of miniature sets, until one of the house’s rooms seamlessly blends into a shot of the real room it’s modeled after - a teenage boy’s bedroom.

The teenager, Peter (Alex Wolff), is a member of a classic nuclear family made up of his parents Annie and Steve Graham (Toni Collette and Gabriel Byrne), and his sister, Charlie (Milly Shapiro) who live in a nice house somewhere in the woods of Utah (at least that’s where it was shot). We meet the Grahams on the morning of the funeral for Annie’s mother, and the feeling of grief is palpable in the film’s tense tone.

Later, Annie, who’s profession is as a maker of the miniatures used in the opening, sees an apparition of her mother in her workshop, the first such instance of the supernatural which makes her research the subject and suspect that her mother kept some creepy stuff secret from her.

Annie keeps her own secret from her family about going to support group meetings in which we learn of her father’s grim death. Meanwhile, her son, the pot smoking Peter, schemes to go to a party in hopes of scoring a date with a classmate (Mallory Bechtel), 
but is forced to take his 13-year old sister along. 

While Charlie is unattended to, she eats some cake that has nuts in it (we were told earlier about her allergies) and starts to go into anaphylactic shock *. Peter frantically drives to get Charlie to the hospital, but she gets killed in a grisly accident in which she gets decapitated. 

What’s really f-ed up is that Annie makes a miniature diorama of the accident scene, complete with a doll’s bloody head in the road in back of a toy car, and, for obvious reasons, this freaks out her husband Steve played by Byrne, who superbly relays exasperation and concern for his loved ones.

Peter begins seeing apparitions of Charlie, while Annie meets a woman at a meeting (Ann Dowd – Aunt Lydia from The Handmaid’s Tale!) who holds séances to communicate with the dead, and we witness drawings being made by ghosts, the mother and son going into violent trances, and feel the undercurrent of a conspiracy decorated with satanic imagery.

HEREDITARY is top notch horror, but it’s through its strong depiction of strained family drama that makes it the powerful experience it is. Collette, no stranger to creepy kids and ghosts since her breakthrough performance 20 years ago in THE SIXTH SENSE, acts her ass off here. She’s enthrallingly committed to her role in every moment, which made me simultaneously scared for her and scared of her throughout.

Filmmaker Aster has named such vintage horror flicks as THE INNOCENTS, ROSEMARY’S BABY, THE EXORCIST, and THE SHINING as inspirations, but the film feels more in line with such recent psychologically disturbing works as THE WITCH, KILLING OF A SACRED DEER, and IT COMES AT NIGHT (all titles from this film’s studio, A24).

With a debut that’s as dark and twisted as it is brilliantly inspired, Aster’s career as a new master of the macabre is off to an extremely scary start.

* Before the screening I went to at the newly opened Alamo Drafthouse Cinema in Raleigh, a rep did an intro and said that during the movie they will pass out pieces of cake - “if anyone has nut allergies don’t eat it” she warned. How’s that for synergy?

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