Now Playing — Incredibles 2

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Incredibles 2 essentially begins at the precise point its exemplary predecessor ends. The Parr family, super-powered individuals who have largely refrained from costumed heroism because of legal prohibitions, spring into action against the villainous Underminer (voiced by John Ratzenberger), who has burrowed up from beneath the street, in a manner reminiscent of the Mole Man. The close of The Incredibles implied that vigilantes were allowed to once again do their thing, but that’s emphatically not the case, and the opening of the sequel suggests why that may be the case. The battle in the heart of Metroville leaves a lot of destruction behind with little to show for it. The bad guy got away, and, as the authorities explain to the sullen superheroes, the bank the Underminer robbed was fully insured. The do-gooders’ intervention compounded the mayhem and exacted no justice.

As in our world, though, superheroes have fans. One of them is wealthy industrialist Winston Deavor (Bob Odenkirk), who believes a strong PR campaign can bring superheroes back into the good graces of the law. He enlists Helen Parr, a.k.a. Elastigirl (Holly Hunter), to suit up again, equipped with a body camera created by his sister, electronics whiz Evelyn Deavor (Catherine Keener), believing that Elastigirl’s heroics will be better appreciated by the citizenry if they can see the adventures literally from her point of view. That leaves Bob Parr, a.k.a. Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson), at home with the offspring, Violet (Sara Vowell), Dash (Huckleberry Milner), and baby Jack-Jack (Eli Fucile), whose cornucopia of unpredictable powers are just starting to manifest. Helen gets the spotlight, and Bob faces his own challenges as Mr. Mom, from Violet’s boyfriend woes to Dash’s new math homework to Jack-Jack’s tussles with wildlife.

Writer-director Brad Bird returns for Incredibles 2, his first animated effort since Ratatouille, released in 2007. Although Pixar has gotten into the franchise biz and had incentive to revisit the Incredibles characters no matter what, rendering this computer world without Bird’s involvement is inconceivable. It is such a clear, boisterously vivid expression of Bird’s fascinations, including society’s chronic undervaluing of excellence and the unique brand of nostalgic futurism that swirled like gnats around his 2015 bomb, Tomorrowland. Presumably anyone could have dropped these figures into a suitably imaginative tale and had a shot at creating an entertaining diversion (and, in truth, Bird’s primary plot is a little uninspired, especially in a revelation of villainy so predictable, I suspect even a good chunk of youthful target audience will see it coming). But Bird brings to Incredibles 2 its soul, resounding with charm and sincerity.

Just as importantly, Bird demonstrates an enviable command of the pure mechanics of cinema. His well-established deftness with action sequences in solidly in place, but he elevates it further with a stunning visual sense. The infinite pliability of computer animation leads to Bird washing the screen in lush, rich colors, as if the entirety of the film takes place during a perfect sunset. In collaboration with cinematographer Mahyar Abousaeedi (a Pixar veteran), Bird gives Incredibles 2 a look unseen outside of Roger Deakins’s dreams. The music by Michael Giacchino is a constant reward, and the voice cast is exceptional, especially Hunter and Nelson. Sequel or not, animation or not, Bird is not coasting, and his team is equally committed.

The film is funny, thrilling, smart, and warm. It lacks the snap of invention that made the first outing with the Parr clan a clear Pixar peak, but that’s to be expected. The excitable readings of its embedded politics impose more weight on Incredibles 2 than is actually there. In way that mirrors the Marvel movies that exploded betwixt its two installments, Bird’s new film has little agenda beyond entertaining. In fulfilling that mission, it is indeed super.

Now Playing — Hereditary

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There are plenty of gruesome elements to go around in Hereditary, the feature film debut of writer-director Ari Aster. As the title implies, though, the most unsettling portions of the film center on the way family can weigh on a person. That’s true of long histories — the sort of heavy ancestry that gets passed down through the generations — but it’s even more present in the small (or not so small) slights and interpersonal infractions that accumulate over time, constructing a wall of wounded emotions that is all but impenetrable.

Toni Collette plays Annie Graham, an artist who specializes in miniatures. She’s busily preparing for an upcoming exhibition when her mother dies, seemingly ending one chapter of family history that included deep resentments, mental illness, and other resonant tragedies. A glumness permeates the house, and Aster does a skillful job of depicting how the foreboding and the mundane often run together. The Graham family lives in a sprawling house in the woods, but the shadows across their psyches are far deeper than those in the corner of rooms encased in dark wood.

Unsurprisingly, Collette is marvelous in the leading role, ferociously commanding a character whose inner troubles manifest in a hard-edged nervousness. As supernatural manipulations began to infiltrate her existence, it’s wholly understandable that she’d grow a little jumpy. In a beautiful morsel of insight, Collette’s Annie is also jittery and unnerved by a chance encounter with an acquaintance in an art store parking lot or even interactions with her immediate family members. Aster’s film adheres politely to many horror film conventions, but it builds uncertainty in detailed characterizations that leave motivations and other undercurrents more difficult to discern. Hereditary feels like it can zing off in any direction at any moment, even as its storytelling is tightly controlled.

Playing Annie’s teenaged son, Peter, Alex Wolff takes roughly the opposite tack as Collette, often withdrawing into tense stillness, making the few explosive moments all the more effective. The film’s most powerful scene belongs to him, due to Aster staging the immediate aftermath of a pivotal, horrific incident with daring restraint. The fierce understatement inherent to that scene carries over to much of the film, and it’s easily the greatest strength of Hereditary. It’s minor missteps come more often when it pushes into the floridly broad, seeking a fevered quality that isn’t needed. (There are exceptions, such as the very ending, which earns its sternly measured bacchanal quality.) The smaller Aster keeps the film, the better it is. Bombast makes an impression, but the more insidious erosion of safe reality can haunt the soul.

Now Playing — Solo: A Star Wars Story

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Back when I first started penning movie reviews — not just as a personal hobby, but to foist upon Central Wisconsin radio listeners — I made an effort to approach each cinematic offering purely as its own entity, doing the best I could to jettison preconceptions as the auditorium lights went down and the trailers started to unspool. It was an era of sequels, though not really franchises. There was still a vague conception that films with a number affixed at the end of the title still needed to convey a cogent story to a eager newcomer. Assessing the film entirely on the basis of what appeared within its procession of frames seemed the right thing to do.

It’s an open question in my mind as to whether the goal is still viable, or indeed laudable, at least when it comes to major studio efforts that are as much about extending a brand as telling a story. If the films themselves are built with the greatest priority given to outcomes largely detached for achieving singular entertainment experiences, maybe it’s fitting to meet them as business ventures more than earnest art. Why would I try to judge the loveliness of one jigsaw piece when it’s the whole puzzle that counts?

Implausible as it may be, there are surely some people who come at Solo: A Star Wars Story with only the vaguest conception of the character who gives the film its title. I’m not one of them. Although I’m far from obsessive about the mythos created by George Lucas and nurtured by countless others since (more and more, I’m pleased to remain apart from that particular subset of fandom as it’s overrun by fragile crybaby bullies with terrible taste), I carry with me volumes of information about the Millennium Falcon’s roguish pilot. I smile with recognition when the Kessel Run is mentioned. I know the correct spelling of Wookiee.

Continuing to stake out my place on the Venn diagram of Solo target audience members, I also felt no particular need to have the vaguer portions of the character’s history sketched in. Circling back to the Lucasfilm business plan, I find the continued clinging to established characters and scenarios to be a significant creative flaw, especially in spinoff features taking place a slightly longer time ago in that galaxy far, far away. I’ve long since hit my quota on Death Star plots, thanks.

And yet I have to admit the nostalgia elements of Solo largely worked for me, though not because of chummy winks to the audience. To the filmmakers’ credit, they largely avoid reliance on the style of revival filmmaker that offers cheap congratulations on mere recognition, like cinema is an ongoing pop quiz. The elements that excavate the acknowledged past of these characters and this universe — the first meetings, the adventures previously name-checked — work because they’re actually dramatized effectively. It never occurred to me that Han Solo’s very name might require an origin story, but the moment worked for me anyway, mostly due to Alden Ehrenreich’s emotional authenticity when it happens.

It is Ehrenreich who is charged and cursed with playing the title character. He’s all but doomed to failure with a broader public disinclined to accept in the role anyone other than Harrison Ford (who, it’s worth noting, is great in Star Wars and almost laughably indifferent in the other three films in which he donned the stylish space vest). Too bad for them. Ehrenreich is pretty great, charming and flinty, playing Solo with the bravado found in the other films, but before he had the experience to back it up. In particular, Ehrenreich taps into the moments of wonder of a young man escaping dire beginnings to take mighty strides across the universe. Of course, Ehrenreich also spends about half the film helplessly watching Donald Glover nimbly steal scenes as a young Lando Calrissian. But no one should be expected to achieve anything more than runner-up status with that level of competition.

The screenplay is co-credited to Lawrence Kasdan (scribe on two films in the original trilogy and then J.J. Abrams’s revival of the series) and his son, Jonathan Kasdan. There’s and old pro sturdiness to the storytelling, with setups and payoffs that are teeter between predictable and satisfying. The movie skews away from the fantasy-film-in-disguise that was Lucas’s inclination and to a Western with six shooters that fire lasers, an understandable pivot given Lawrence Kasdan’s history as the writer and director of Silverado and Wyatt Earp. It’s a nifty idea, but director Ron Howard can’t quite make it snap. The Star Wars universe version of a train heist in the early portion of the film is emblematic of the conceit’s lack of total realization.

Just as I once did my best to forget about preceding films, I always tried to set aside my background knowledge about production turmoil. The entertainment press was more limited before the internet cracked open a cavernous space forever needing new, excited content, but I took in as much of it as I could. As I sat in a theater, I often had a notion as to whether a set was blissful or fraught, if the studio felt they had an Oscar contender or a dreaded dud. The scuttlebutt was fair game in the eventual review, especially if it offered potential explanation for how a film went wrong or captured some elusive spark of ingenuity. In the viewing experience, though, I wanted to be guided by the art in front of me rather than the gossip about its creation.

Since the high drama of Star Wars film production is reported on with a breathless urgency exceeding that afforded breaking news on rampant government corruption, I know more than I care to about the troubled trek of Solo. In that context, Howard’s pedestrian assurance plays as a small miracle of filmmaking craft. Maybe the work of the preceding directing team Phil Lord and Chris Miller wasn’t as bad as the executives believed, but by at least one account Howard’s shooting efforts account for nearly three-quarters of the finished product. That’s no small matter, and it takes only a quick perusal of last year’s The Snowman to see how badly a salvage job can be botched. If that’s faint praise, it’s still praise.

There’s no way for me to see Solo while voiding out my experience and knowledge, and I’m sure that’s something I should want to do. What was my bygone attempt at moviegoing purity achieving, really? In ways small and large, all art builds on the art that came before. Just because a Star Wars movie is purely popular entertainment doesn’t automatically negate the validity of its drawing from the past and finding some extra charm in the familiar, if it accomplishes these tasks with a touch of inspiration and wit. Solo is no masterpiece, but I’d say it beat the odds.

Now Playing — Avengers: Infinity War

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When I was still a kid and started my long, tumultuous relationship with superhero comic books, one particular issue loomed large for me. X-Men #137 was a double-sized offering with a story entitled “The Fate of the Phoenix!” It was the culmination of an extended storyline that found long-time character Jean Grey manipulated into evil acts against her teammates as her Phoenix-force-enhanced powers swelled to cosmic levels. The import of the comic is expressed bluntly by the words emblazoned across the bottom of the cover: PHOENIX MUST DIE! By the time I got my hands on it, the shocking turn was well-known. It didn’t matter. This was major, major stuff.

Fans possessing hearty backgrounds with comic books have been quick to assuage the fretting of those whose familiarity with Marvel’s lineup of superheroes is limited to the cinematic. What appears final on screen likely isn’t, they insist, probably with a steel mesh underlay of cynicism. The most dire outcomes might not be evaded, but they can be erased with greater ease than one might reasonably expect. In the Marvel Universe, mortality is a social construct.

Avengers: Infinity War, the latest installment from the rampaging and relentless Marvel Studios, is laden with burden. It isn’t quite the culmination of ten years of storytelling. That arrives one year hence, with the release of the fourth Avengers film. But the big, grand ending is revving up. And it feels like it. Practically every toy has been pulled out of the chest and strewn around the playroom, as if sugar-high toddlers have been told they can have one more afternoon of fun before everything is loaded into cardboard boxes and carted off to Goodwill, gone forever.

The burden is also apparent in the self-defeating insistence on raising the stakes ever higher. The intergalactic marauder Thanos (Josh Brolin, in a motion capture performance) finally moves forward with a plan he’s been stewing over since the big screen bow of Earth’s mightiest heroes, collecting a half-dozen celestial jewels, plugging them into the tasteful settings on a clunky metal gauntlet, and using the resulting omnipotence to implement a plan that at least half the citizens of the universe would decisively vote against. Once just a couple of baubles are in place, Thanos has robust enough abilities to manipulate time and matter that felling foes is as easy as a waggle of his fingers. But there still needs to be a movie, packed to the edges of the frame with rock-’em-sock-’em battles, and so the devastating effects of the enchanted metal mitt are highly variable.

Given everything loaded into Avengers: Infinity War, co-directors Anthony and Joe Russo are required to perform the equivalent of a quintuple Axel. There’s a little wobble to the execution, but it’s amazing that they’ve tried it at all. The filmmakers impressively make space for far more major characters than any one piece of cinema should be expected to bear. Working from a screenplay by fellow Marvel regulars Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, the Russos mix and match well, developing joyful, clever interplay between the heroes, including those who commute in from feeder films with distinctly different tones.

Like the sprawling team-up comics of days gone by, the appeal lies in the sheer volume of the proceedings. Save perhaps galaxy guardian Gamora (Zoe Saldana), none of the characters is granted an arc of any real substance. Instead, the film is often the equivalent of superstars in the “We Are the World” recording studio, stepping forward for their moment then receding into the mass. And as with that bygone charity single, an understanding of the preceding, outside work of the assembled is necessary to extract any enjoyment out of the experience. We’re long past the at which there’s any news flash quality to observations about the Marvel film’s inability to stand alone, but the expansiveness of Infinity War heightens the usual flaw. If a character has a simple hook — like the comic literalness of Drax (Dave Bautista) — they fare pretty well in the movie. For those figures of greater nuance and depth — Captain America (Chris Evans) or Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), for example — there’s no time available to give them their due. It creates an inversion of how this is supposed to work, with the least well drawn characters proving to be most impactful.

All those years ago, “The Fate of the Phoenix” was important to me because its sense of finality felt real. It was a reasonable belief. Yes, characters that seemed to meet their maker would often return several issues later, recounting an improbable tale of escape. The most cataclysmic twists of fate, however, weren’t overturned on appeal, and it seemed likely that Jean Grey would be in that number. That assumption proved quite incorrect. Brand, as it happens, overrules the emotional integrity of narrative. The Russos can declare, “All in,” but the release schedule of Marvel Studios calls their bluff. Avengers: Infinity War is fun and raucous, but it’s bereft of deeper feeling, undermined by the very model of interconnection that makes it possible.

Now Playing — Ready Player One

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Steven Spielberg is the dream director for the film adaptation of Ernest Cline’s novel Ready Player One. He’s also arguably a terrible choice for the near-future cotton candy dystopia of a puzzle quest across a virtual landscape of pop culture ephemera. Cline’s crummy book is a mash note to the mass entertainment landscape of the nineteen-eighties, much of which Spielberg shaped, either directly or as a mighty influence.

It’s been a creative lifetime since Spielberg operated as that melding of narrative mastery and brand savvy.  His own distant history is clearly what informed his decision to take on the project, and he’s taken every opportunity to explain his view of the film as a respite from the Oscar-friendly historical dramas that he’s spent the last decade presiding over from a canvas chair with “DIRECTOR” screen-printed across the back. Spielberg knows how to make Ready Player One, and he paces the film with the assurance of muscle memory. But he also lacks either a passion for the geek culture it wallows in or the stomach to pass judgment on the intellectual emptiness of sweeping bygone art up like a pile of glittering casino chips.

In the film, Tye Sheridan plays Wade Watts, a young man living in the impoverished misery of a trailer park so overpopulated that the undesirable domiciles are stacked up like drunkenly-placed Jenga blocks. Like most in the world, he finds escape within the immersive field of digital play known as the Oasis, a creation of entrepreneurial coder James Halliday (played wonderfully, of course, by Mark Rylance). Upon his death, Halliday announced a treasure hunt within the virtual world. Whoever solved the various riddles and challenges would inherit the trillion dollar platform.

Cline funneled his own obsessions into the pages of the story, and Spielberg does a remarkable job of filling the frame with familiar figures and mementos from a wide swath of films, television shows, and video games.  Not since The Lego Movie has a film offered such a compelling reason to stand up and applaud the legal teams who sorted through the tangled complexities of licensing rights. The film moves briskly and confidently enough to help avoid a devolution into mere reference spotting. There is arguably only one instance when the film plunges deeply into a singular preceding pop touchstone. The sequence avoid indulgence because it also represents Spielberg at his most obviously engaged, likely because it’s servicing his own fandom by paying tribute to a favorite director he’s already honored onscreen at least once before.

In Spielberg’s hands, Ready Player One is enjoyable, but it’s also uneven. Some of that is because the shortcomings of the source material can’t be entirely shaved away. There are problems that belong solely to the film, though, such as instances of flat humor, a lack of emotional heft, and several performances that are lacking (Sheridan, most notably, but also, I am pained to note, Lena Waithe). For the spectacle flung onto the screen, the film feels like it’s exactly what Spielberg essentially admitted it is: a diversion. He’s interested in finding out if he can still zip out a goofy fun adventure, but not all that concerned about seeing if he can still make a movie like this into something that has greatness in its frames.

Now Playing — Black Panther

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In the unlikely even there were a few outliers who still doubted the enormous scope — and corresponding influence — of the extended exercise in filmmaking known as the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the recently released “class photo” should have put things decisive perspective. The official ten-year anniversary of Iron Man clanking onto screens for the first time will be marked, almost to the day, by the next Avengers movie. But Black Panther may be a more fitting measure of how far the studio has come in its improbable journey.

In its first decade as the decision-makers behind which properties are transferred to the screen — and how precisely the characters are interpreted — Marvel has taken some justified guff for leaning on white male protagonists, even as the opportunity was there to easily add some diversity into the mix. At the very least, Scarlett Johansson’s take on Black Widow seems like as prime a contender for a solo outing as any of the other characters who’ve been given a name-in-the-title showcase for the last five years or so. Given that progression, the arrival of Black Panther has loomed large since it was promised as part of Marvel’s long-range promotional forecasting.

Bearing an added social weight that no movie should have to bear, Black Panther meets the most joyously hopefully expectations and comes close to exceeding them. Wisely, director Ryan Coogler (who is co-credited on the screenplay, with Joe Robert Cole) sets aside the increasingly prevalent trend of mixing and matching the various action figures of the Marvel Universe to concentrate on heavy-duty world-building within the title character’s home nation of Wakanda.

Chadwick Boseman has already been introduced as African royalty T’Challa, who dons a costume to strive for justice as the Black Panther. While Boseman doesn’t bring much more to the character than the bright charisma he displayed in Captain America: Civil War, the actor has enviable ease in front of the camera, generating automatic intimacy in every scene. There’s a certain generosity to the performance, as well. While I haven’t done the math, I suspect Black Panther introduces more significant new characters than any Marvel movie since Guardians of the Galaxy. Boseman leans back and leaves room for other actors (Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Letitia Wright, and Winston Duke are all marvelous), operating with the confidence of king. To be fair, he may also be conserving his energy so he’s prepared to share the screen with Michael B. Jordan, Coogler’s favorite actor who is given the gift of the strongest villain role in the MCU to date. With no slight to Boseman, it’s reasonable to assume that Jordan would have been Coogler’s first choice for Black Panther, but Eric “Killmonger” Stevens is a solid consolation prize.

Coogler works with his team to bring a remarkable amount of lovely, inventive craft to the movie. The art direction, costume design, and cinematography (by Mudbound Oscar nominee Rachel Morrison) are all exemplary. And there’s an admirable attempt to introduce slightly more nuanced geopolitical motivations into the traditional tussle of good and evil. Even with all those layered components, Coogler also takes advantage of the freewheeling possibilities within this sprawling fictional world of superpowered beings to get exuberantly playful in his storytelling. In the middle of everything, Coogler delivered a stealth Marvel version of a James Bond movie, and it’s flat-out wonderful.

Years ago, I wrote a generous, positive review for a Robert Townsend movie called The Meteor Man, in which he played an inner city superhero. Although I didn’t have the ideal terminology to express the viewpoint at the time, I explicitly championed the film in part because I recognized that representation matters. The same concept factors into the impact of Black Panther. It doesn’t erase some of the usual middling issues that come with most superhero movies, like the little plot holes that exceed reasonable suspension of disbelief or the still nearly-inevitable moments when the action devolves into a digitally rendered beehive of indiscernible kinetic hash. But it does give the moments of stirring heroism an added emotional heft.

In its cinematic fundamentals, Black Panther is among the upper tier of Marvel movies. In the manner in which it meets its greater, grander demands, it is something more. Simply put, it matters.

Now Playing — Phantom Thread

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It’s probably not one-hundred percent correct to say that Phantom Thread is unmistakably a Paul Thomas Anderson film, but it sure feels right. The new cinematic offering is meticulously crafted, resolutely erudite, psychologically complicated, packed with insightful acting, and careens into compromised territory before it’s through, mildly undone by the filmmaker’s ambition to instill the unconventional when a more straightforward approach would do just fine.

Phantom Thread is set in London in the post-war tepid rejuvenation of the nineteen-fifties. Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) is a revered fashion designer, with an elite client list and an ire raised by the most delicate affronts against his preferred routine. His professional and personal existence is kept in order by his spinster sister, Cyril (Lesley Manville). When he follows the completion of an especially demanding garment by taking a holiday, he becomes enamored with a waitress named Alma (Vicky Krieps). Reynolds aggressively woos her, incorporating her into his life as lover, model, muse, and dutiful worker bee.

The film largely operates as a triptych character study. With elegance and aplomb, Anderson renders the intertwining codependency. There’s a cunning to the explorations built into Anderson’s screenplay. The individual characters’ reactions reactions fold and flow like well-draped fabric. Day-Lewis and Manville are both enlivened by the undulating nuances handed to them, giving every last line reading shadings of surprise and thrilling discomfort. They are obviously and wonderfully driven by discovery.

Phantom Thread proceeds with a highly refined, classic Hollywood sensibility (Anderson has acknowledged a debt to Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca), imbuing a timeless air about it, a quality further enhanced by Anderson’s cinematography and Jonny Greenwood’s lovely score. Even the film practically begs to push through to the last frame of its final reel, Anderson takes the obsession onscreen to a heightened level that feels off in comparison to the rest of its narrative wisdom. No matter how well-mannered the storytelling, Anderson always seems to want a point in which he sends amphibians tumbling from the skies. The third act turn in Phantom Thread isn’t as provocative as that, but it relies on a version of the characters that rings false (and, maybe more damningly, it is forecast with a painfully obvious plot point, hardly the sort of misstep to which Anderson is prone). It’s as if the normal machinations of flawed people doesn’t strike Anderson as daring enough. The audience must be tested.

For me, the chief disappointment is how easy it would be to cleave out the offending plot digression. Every bit of it could be removed, and the pathologies of the characters would remain in place, and would likely read as more intriguing. The ideas that drive the film would be even more profound. I’m sure Anderson and his most devoted adherents would strongly disagree, but the film loses its way when it most strains to expose the darkness of the soul. Phantom Thread is greatness, undercut.