My latest batch of reviews are still on a delay, as these are mostly movies I finally caught up with that came out this summer, but there are couple of recent releases in here too, such as Cold War and 22 July. I’m slowly making my way up to the present. Dig in!
INCREDIBLES 2 * * * (Dir. Brad Bird)
I was a little worried that a sequel to 2004’s now classic The Incredibles would be a slight rehash of the first one, especially once it was clear that the decision was to pick up the story from the exact moment it left off. But I should have had a little more faith in writer-director Brad Bird, whose animated films (The Iron Giant, Ratatouille and The Incredibles) have always been a shining example of the medium, far above what others are doing in it (even within the realm of Pixar itself, his are a cut above). So I’m happy to report that Incredibles 2 is a delight- clever, fun and this time focused on the women, giving Holly Hunter’s Elastigirl center stage and Violet a bigger role, while moving Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson) and Dash to the side to give it a timely, 2018 kind of feel. Even though the film does pick up right where the last one left off, the Parr family continues to feel authentic and familiar in its problems- after being moved into hiding again, Helen wonders if she should be the one to get a job this time and support them while Bob takes care of the kids. She gets her chance when businessman Winston Deaver (Bob Odenkirk) and his sister Evelyn (Catherine Keener) recruit her to launch a PR campaign and become an advocate for re-legalizing superheroes. So while Elastigirl takes the spotlight, Bob does the Mr. Mom thing, which is pretty hilarious and leads to some amazing Jack-Jack feats (the baby with the powers of a god, basically), and the sophistication of the script and social commentary never talks down to kids, making the movie truly one for adults as well, in the vein of the first. The villain in this sequel isn’t as good as Jason Lee’s Syndrome, and I think the action scenes aren’t quite as memorable either (and feel a bit frantic in the ending sequences), but the movie is never less than entertaining and is a lovely companion piece to the original. I don’t know if a third one is planned, but now that superheroes are out in the open, how about aging everybody up this time, to mine some new material out of the family dynamics with the kids at different ages? I know I’m no writer, but I can’t let go of the potential that idea would have.
LEAVE NO TRACE * * 1/2 (Dir. Debra Granik)
In her first feature film since 2010’s Winter’s Bone, Debra Granik has crafted another tale about outsiders, people struggling along the fringes of society, more or less hidden away from the wider world. Thomasin Mackenzie has a breakout role as Tom, a teenager living with her father Will (Ben Foster) an Iraq War vet with PTSD (possibly undiagnosed), who has chosen to be homeless and live on public land in the pacific northwest outside Portland, Oregon. He and Tom sleep in a tent and live minimally, occasionally going into town to buy some groceries and basic necessities, and Will makes some money by using his VA connections to sell prescription drugs to other homeless veterans in the park. Eventually they’re caught by the authorities and placed on public assistance, since keeping Tom out of school and denying her choices in life constitutes neglect on Will’s part, and though he puts on a show of adapting, it’s only temporary, as he’s back out in the woods as soon as he can get there, dragging Tom along with him. Mackenzie is wonderful as the meek, intelligent Tom, who loves her dad and only wants to please him, but she can’t help but long for normalcy and the company of other people. Ben Foster conveys Will’s misery and depression with authenticity and very little dialogue, but since we never find out exactly what happened to him or why he feels he has to live this way, his utter selfishness and failure as a parent is the main takeaway from his character. His insistence on forcing his only child to endure a vagabond life comes across as selfish, self-indulgent and neglectful. He has no consideration towards how his own actions will negatively affect his daughter in her formative years, and yet the movie wants you to feel his pain and sympathize with his plight the way Tom does. Well, to be honest, I couldn’t. All I could see was his refusal to accept the help of others and his irresponsibility in choosing to wallow in his own misery at the expense of his daughter’s development and future. It’s one thing to choose to ruin your own life, but it’s quite another to deny your child the opportunity to build one of her own. In spite of sensitive direction and terrific performances, the resolution to this story is open-ended and feels vaguely dissatisfying.
BLACKKKLANSMAN * * * 1/2 (Dir. Spike Lee)
For anyone whose worldview was shattered on November 9th, 2016 to the idea that we no longer lived in a racist country, BlacKkKlansman, Spike Lee’s best film in years, serves as a reminder that times are cyclical, and this so-called great nation of ours has a long way to go yet. Ostensibly a period film that doesn’t play like one, this movie is a gut punch, a potent shot in the arm that relays the wild true story of Ron Stallworth, the first black cop on the Colorado Springs police force, played by John David Washington (son of Denzel), who infiltrated and exposed members of the KKK in the 1970’s. The crazy plot involved Ron talking to its members on the phone while his Jewish partner Philip “Flip” Zimmerman, played by Adam Driver, met with them in person, taking on much of the risk himself. Lee takes this story and makes it incredibly current, juxtaposing the horrific rhetoric of the KKK with the black power movement of the 70’s as Ron meets Patrice (Laura Harrier), a Black Student Union activist and hears the rallying cry of Stokely Carmichael while moving to get in deeper with the Klan. Washington and Driver are both excellent as partners in the scheme, but this is Lee’s movie all the way, as the sprawling, sometimes messy screenplay is always fraught with incredible energy, urgency and the freshness of both its time and ours. At times moving, funny and always entertaining, this is not the work of an aging director, but one with much to say that we still need to hear, now more than ever and this is not the time for subtlety. No, this is the time for action and Lee takes it, even in the film itself. We hear and see the echoes of our ugly past informing our present horror as Lee ties the insurgent racism of Charlottesville directly around Trump’s neck in a powerful closing montage. I can’t think of a more relevant, timely American movie and it’s nice to know that 29 years after Do the Right Thing, if we have to keep hearing the same messages, Spike Lee is still here to deliver them, with style, energy, humor and righteous passion.
CRAZY RICH ASIANS * * (Dir. Jon Chu)
John Chu’s Crazy Rich Asians got a lot of attention this year for being the first big studio film starring an all Asian cast since 1993’s The Joy Luck Club, a shameful 25-year gap that should never have existed. As such, this is a film that puts together a big ensemble of talented actors, but unfortunately gives them subpar material. There’s a bright energy to this romantic comedy, but the general formula is so thin, cliche-ridden and predictable from beginning to end that it outweighs the energy the cast brings to it. Constance Wu (from TV’s Fresh Off the Boat) stars as Rachel Chu, an NYU economics professor whose boyfriend Nick (Henry Goulding) is the oldest son of an extremely wealthy family from Singapore, and who is now taking her home to meet the relatives. As a lowly American, Rachel is not the right fit for Nick, especially in the eyes of his mother (Michelle Yeoh, bringing the only hint of gravitas and depth to this movie), who wants her son to move back home, take over the family business and marry the “right” woman. With a plot like that I’m sure you can connect the dots to where this is headed, in typical rom-com fashion, though this movie is less comedic than it should be. Most of it is solid luxury porn, as Rachel experiences the vast everyday riches of this elite Singapore family, wallowing in the production design, costumes and luxurious surroundings of what might as well be royalty. There’s a superficial shallowness to it all, however, as the message seems to be that Rachel ought to do everything she can to fight her way into this world, and there’s little exploration of her relationship with Nick, so the romance at the center of the story hardly feels like the heart of it. By the time the movie ends, you can see every cliche and every bit of dialogue coming a mile away, and the celebration of mass wealth for its own sake is mildly nauseating.
22 JULY * * * (Dir. Paul Greengrass)
In 2011, a right wing terrorist and white nationalist named Anders Breivik attacked the country of Norway, detonating a bomb in the capital of Oslo and killing 69 people at a summer camp for teenagers on the island of Utoya in a mass shooting. The massacre received global attention for its horrifying nature and the rarity with which these types of attacks (mass shootings) occur in European countries. Paul Greengrass has now made a film based on that event and its aftermath, which he also wrote (adapted from the book One of Us, by Anne Seirstad), and it is an intense, visceral experience in the first half, recreating the shocking events with as much sensitivity as possible, yet with Greengrass’s typically aggressive camera work and sense of immediacy. The film plays as a docudrama, mostly following one of the teen victims, Viljar Hannsen, who is shot five times and miraculously survives, suffering painstaking physical therapy as he recovers enough to testify against Breivik at his eventual public trial. The movie speaks to the dangers of right wing extremism, as Breivik operates as a lone wolf, yet was a harbinger of things to come all over the world, as the rise of the alt-right and resurgence of fascism in response to the increasing multicultural world has shown us in the years since. After the compelling first half, Greengrass settles into less familiar territory for him, as the movie starts to sag a bit in the middle while Breivik begins court proceedings and scenes become a bit scattered. It halfheartedly follows a government inquiry into what went wrong on the day (with unsatisfying resolution) and is less bold in its hesitance to make surefire statements about how to handle right wing propaganda, the political climate that leads to this extremism, or even a firm endorsement of the rule of law in handling this problem. Instead we follow Viljar as he struggles to recover and Greengrass stays on the less thorny footing of sympathy for the victims and their families in the wake of tragedy. There’s a semblance of political undercurrents in this movie, but less of a strong grasp on how to approach the underlying meaning of it all- perhaps British director Greengrass wanted to stay away from making declarative stands in a foreign country out of respect for the real life victims, but I sense a greater desire to say something in this film that doesn’t quite get said. I wish it had. This is an important story to tell, not just for what happened, but for what it foresaw, and now is not the time to be ambivalent.
COLD WAR * * * (Dir. Pawel Pawlikowski)
Pawel Pawlikowski’s Cold War is a 1950’s set love story that could have easily been made in the 50’s or 60’s- it’s a glossy, black and white tribute to the kinds of tortured relationships filmmakers like Michelangelo Antonioni or Jean Luc-Godard explored in their day. As such, the material feels a tad familiar, even if told with a smooth, controlled hand and fabulous performances from actors Tomasz Not and especially Joanna Kulig, whom the camera adores. Set in post-war Poland, we meet piano player Wiktor and singer-dancer Zula, who are part of a touring dance troupe, as they fall in love and try to escape the Communist government of the new Soviet Union. Zula and Wiktor get separated and meet up occasionally in different countries over the next decade, as their love remains passionate yet difficult to sustain in the face of oppression and Zula’s constant dissatisfaction. Pawlikowski’s last film, the Oscar-winning Ida, was also a stark, black and white experience that kept you at a distance from its main character and felt like an homage to Ingmar Bergman’s work, while this one, as I mentioned earlier pays its nods to the Italian and French New Wave directors. Though it’s gorgeously photographed and well acted through a brisk 80 minutes, it’s hard to invest emotionally in what feels mostly like a technical exercise. I enjoyed it for what it was, but wished it amounted to a little bit more in the end.