“You want out of the hole? You should put down the shovel.” Incredibles 2

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Disney Pixar’s Incredibles 2, picking up 14 years (!) after the last film hit theatres, is about as subversive as a movie full of pixelated superheroes can be. This is the film our country needs right now. People will flock to this – Blue States on the coasts and Red States in the middle – and none will be the wiser that directing wunderkind Brad Bird has given us the ultimate Ray Bradburdy-esque allegory for our topsy turvy political times.

For instance, Holly Hunter’s Elastigirl – offered a Faustian contract by media-hack Winston Deavor (Bob Odenkirk) to publicly redeem superheroes who have been outlawed in the Incredibles’ flawlessly production-designed mid-century moment – queries, “To help my family I have to leave it. To fix the law, I have to break it.” Does that sound familiar … or what?! (I won’t even get into our present debate over the horror of separating immigrant families from their children at the border … oh, Elastigirl, how we need you right now.)

The first Incredibles surprised us all, billed as it was as a four-color throwback to superhero shenanigans of movie matinee yore. Yet, in reality, it was a brilliantly executed existential treatise on surviving in a world of ageist disposability and politically charged hypocrisy. In both films, Bird uses the titular Spandex’d family (homage as they are to Marvel’s own Fantastic Four) to explore thorny issues of identity politics, socioeconomic disparity, and xenophobia. (For those of you rolling your eyes, watch the first film again and tell me I’m wrong. In fact, I would argue that, taken together, The Incredibles are a far better “spiritual adaptation” of Alan Moore’s and Dave Gibbons’ seminal Watchmen than Zack Snyder’s slavishly literal 2009 film treatment of said graphic novel.)

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Bird has woven into both films an infectious love of 60s caper-television fare a la Mission: Impossible, The Man from UNCLE, and Jonny Quest, aided and abetted by his pitch-perfect musical soundtrack partner Michael Giacchino, whose shameless worship of Lalo Schifrin, John Barry, and Herbie Hancock is as obvious as the “i” on Mr. Incredible’s Buick-sized chest.

Of all Pixar’s storied output, The Incredibles films go the greatest distance, creating a self-contained universe of exceptional design and unimpeachable character and holding an outsized mirror to the heartbreaking flaws in our present reality.

Incredibles 2 is one of those rare sequels that meets if not exceeds its predecessor. This may be the Godfather 2 of Pixar flicks.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

The first film debuted before Marvel Studios’ ascent to cinematic glory, not to mention Marvel’s subsequent acquisition by Disney, and this sequel appears after the first major chapter of Marvel’s meteoric rise comes to a close with Avengers: Infinity War. Not sure what to make of that, but The Incredibles‘ wry, relatable commentary is arguably far more sophisticated than that of any other superhero flicks we have seen … or likely ever will. (I’m pretty sure this is the only superhero movie, let alone animated film, I’ve ever seen that has used the word “conflate” in a line of dialogue.)

We meet our heroes, one day following the events of the first film, as they continue to bump along in life – Olympian gods suffering through the mundanities of middle American subsistence. The super-family’s well-intentioned intervention of a bank heist goes awry, and they find themselves in the slammer and without the aid of their super-handler Rick Dicker, who has decided a life of retirement is preferable to one of damage control for a family of super-powered freaks. He observes ruefully, “You want out of the hole? You should put down the shovel.”

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

In Dicker’s absence, PR maven Winston Deavor steps forward with a scheme to celebrate Elastigirl and thereby rehabilitate the negative image “supers” have suffered in The Incredibles-universe for years. Mr. Incredible (with heart-breaking comic voice work by Craig T. Nelson) is left at home with a super-powered infant Jack-Jack (whose anarchic impulses yield increasingly zany and haunting consequences) as well as two angsty tweens: the invisible Violet and the speedster Dash. Oh, and Deavor’s sister Evelyn (a delightfully sardonic Catherine Keener) may or may not be on the side of the angels. TBD.

The movie touches on just about every zeitgeist issue hitting today’s headlines: women who have lived far too long in the shadows of men; the dilemma of finally finding one’s “moment” when the obligations of daily life make it impossible to actually enjoy it; a fear-mongering government whose reach far exceeds its grasp; and the unerring need of the media and elected officials to scapegoat the marginalized for all of society’s failings. Not incidentally, Incredibles 2 is a funny-as-hell, fizzy-a$$ bottle-rocket of entertainment.

Yes, fan-favorites Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson, all wisenheimer perfection) and Edna Mode (director Brad Bird doing double-duty as the voice of the fussy Edith Head-inspired “capes and cowls” designer) make their triumphant returns. Mode particularly enjoys a delightful sequence where her take-no-prisoners approach to fashion ends up yielding exceptional parenting tips to Mr. Incredible: “Done properly, parenting is a heroic act.”

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

The film’s antagonist declares in the movie’s final act that “superheroes make us weak,” asserting that our reliance on escapist fare prevents us from living our most authentic lives.

It’s a twisty and cynical bit of meta-commentary, embedded as it is in a film produced by a media empire (Disney’s) raking in billions from our foolhardy fantasies that Captain America will somehow save our hides from the real-life fascists ruining our country. Fair enough.

But all hail Pixar for yet again offering us – under the deceptive and intoxicating guise of family friendly entertainment – a healthy dose of philosophical medicine just when we desperately need it … a big gulp of fortifying spinach to counteract the real-life Krytonite sapping our spirits on a daily basis. (Yes, I just mixed my Popeye and Superman metaphors. Go sue me, Lex Luthor.)

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital). In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

“The failures of my generation are the opportunities of yours.” Fantastic Four (2015)

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

I’m an ornery pain. I’m the only person in America (or possibly the world) who didn’t like Frozen, yet I adored notorious flops The Lone Ranger and John Carter. I find prestige Oscar-winners like Crash or Birdman overrated messes, but I can watch Xanadu in an endless loop. (Though even I admit Xanadu stretches the acceptable limits of “guilty pleasure.”) When most of humanity flocks to something or flees from it, I’m always headed in the opposite direction. Hell, I even kinda liked Jonah Hex. You probably should just stop reading … now.

And it is with this context that we come to Chronicle-director Josh Trank’s reboot of Fantastic Four, admittedly a film that we, as a downward spiraling culture, did not need, given that the “First Family of Marvel Comics” already hit the silver screen twice in the past ten years in a pair of much campier, candy-colored offerings.

I suppose, given all of the hyperventilating sky-is-falling press over this late summer entry, I expected this new Fantastic Four to be a laugh-out-loud howler of a train wreck, not unlike that last Transformers movie (a movie I might add that nobody liked but still made a billion dollars). It wasn’t … at least not to me and the two other people in last night’s screening room.

I was pleasantly surprised that I actually, sort of, enjoyed myself. Word of warning: it is a very somber affair, but with zero gravitas and even less fun. However, the smart play Josh Trank makes (that is, before he completely disavowed his work on the flick in a Twitter rant a few weeks back) is in staging his film in a creepy, David Cronenberg-lite horror universe, where, say, being turned into a man on fire or a man made of rubber or a man made of orange rocks or a woman who can’t see her own hand is not necessarily a whimsical day at the park. It’s a logical approach, and Trank has cast his film with some of the best young talents in Hollywood, all acquitting themselves nicely.

Yet,  it’s not the glib August superhero escapist fare anyone expected in a post-Guardians of the Galaxy moment, not does it have the courage to be full-blown creep-fest either, so Fantastic Four just sort of floats dormant in some audience-confounding, foggy nether realm. In short, I liked the movie’s tone directionally and the cast in concept and the unrealized potential best, which is strange praise indeed.

Playing the titular heroes are Whiplash‘s Miles Teller (“Reed Richards”), House of Cards‘ Kate Mara (‘Susan Storm”), Fruitvale Station‘s Michael B. Jordan (“Johnny Storm”), and Turn‘s Jamie Bell (“Ben Grimm”). The cast’s standout, Bell has a criminal dearth of screen-time, but, in his few stoic minutes, he sets a beautifully glowering tone of disaffected youth that propels and enriches what passes for character development in the movie’s relatively brisk running time.

All that said, much of the film is a drag, but, for some reason, I found its dreary sensibility and general mopiness compelling. Nope, we did not need yet another origin story of these heroes, but that’s what we get. This time instead of rocketing into space, our intrepid foursome explore another dimension (where they gain their amazing abilities … er … deformities) while attending the Baxter Institute, a kind of Hogwarts for Science Geeks in Midtown Manhattan.

By far, the weakest part of the film is its villain Victor Von Doom, a Draco Malfoy without the charm or the pretty platinum hair. In the comics (goofy name notwithstanding), this is a character who can be so fascinating with his Oedipal complex, inferiority complex, God complex, and all around prissy pissiness. For the life of me, I can’t figure out why filmmakers haven’t figured out he is the proto-Darth Vader and deserves a film of his very own. Ah well. At this rate, between Toby Kebbell’s not-ready-for-The-CW posturing in this iteration and Julian McMahon’s pretty boy voguing in the prior films, we will be lucky if we see Dr. Doom selling mouthwash and toothpaste during Saturday morning cartoons.

The film is nothing but 90 minutes of set-up, which would be fine if there was a payoff, but the proceedings completely fall apart in the final act, a clutch of computer-generated nonsense in the “other dimension,” the “otherness” being some billowing clouds, a lot of steam, and goofy floating rocks. Our heroes have to stop Doom from blowing up our world or throwing us all into a black hole or giving us gas from cheap popcorn … or something. Wait, what was this movie about again?

And that’s a shame, because until the film’s final moments, I actually dug it. Maybe Fantastic Four will find a second life as a pleasant, dreary televised diversion on rainy Sunday afternoons, and maybe (one day) someone will finally give this classic family of four-color misfits the smart but zippy movie treatment they deserve. Or not.

Early in Fantastic Four, Reg E. Cathey – playing Franklin Richards, the stony-faced scientist father of Susan and Johnny Storm – rumbles ominously, “The failures of my generation are the opportunities of yours.” And, dammit, the Fantastic Four film franchise is giving us nothing but opportunities. Sigh.

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Reel Roy Reviews 2

Reel Roy Reviews 2

Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital)In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

“The world as it is … not how we’d like it to be.” Captain America: The Winter Soldier

As all the Marvel movies go, my hands-down favorites feature Captain America. So I approached Captain America: The Winter Soldier with some trepidation that it wouldn’t live up to my expectations. How wrong I was.

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

The first Captain America film did a lovely job borrowing nostalgic pixie dust from films like Dick Tracy and The Rocketeer, and director Joe Johnston grounded those proceedings in postmodern yet earnestly American messages of anti-bullying and of championing the underdog. The follow-up, directed by Anthony and Joe Russo, takes that Americana quilt-work and ups the ante, delving deep into the dark heart of post-millennial U.S. society.

In the years since September 11th, we have seen fear and anxiety chip away at the most American of values: tolerance and courage, freedom of thought and sincere kindness. The film attacks that dilemma square on, albeit with Marvel Studios’ now-trademark escapism, wit, and whiz bang effects.

I dare not spoil any of the twists and turns, and, while some have compared this sequel to 70s government conspiracy classics like Three Days of the Condor, it is more of a pulpy roller coaster ride than a tightly coiled potboiler. Regardless, it is smart and well done and expertly paced.

Chris Evans returns as Steve Rogers/Captain America, and, unlike his flippant work as another superhero Johnny Storm in The Fantastic Four series, he exudes a soulful sadness as a man quite literally out of his own time and depth. His heartache over an America that has strayed so far afield from his World War II-era “Greatest Generation” perspective is palpable.

The plot details the explosive corruption that runs through all levels of the S.H.I.E.L.D. organization – that CIA/Interpol-hybrid that has been a unifying element in all Marvel’s cinematic output. This sequel draws cleverly on thematic elements established in the first Captain America entry, specifically the Nazi villains’ monstrous notion that ethnic, spiritual, intellectual cleansing will bring about order in a chaotic world. Winter Soldier neatly turns that concept on its head, alluding to how some Americans today seem to share that same nefarious concept: that the only way to avoid anarchy, violence, and societal decay is to quite literally eliminate all those people who threaten “order” in their questioning of the powers-that-be.

Robert Redford is a fascinating and welcome addition to the Marvel Universe, playing Alexander Pierce, a Washington bureaucrat whose Machiavellian intentions are simultaneously noble and suspect. Bringing a nuance we don’t always get to see in these movies (with nary a glib moment), Redford telegraphs sincere, profound, and arguably misdirected concern for a world that he feels has gone totally off the rails. He is the kind of comic book heavy that only a steady diet of FoxNews and MSNBC could inspire.

The other supporting players, including Scarlett Johansson, Emily Van Camp, Cobie Smulders, Hayley Atwell, Frank Grillo, Samuel L. Jackson, Toby Jones, Jenny Agutter, and Anthony Mackie, rise to the material, providing gravitas and the occasional (much-needed) lighter moment (or two). Sebastian Stan as the titular Winter Soldier is a heaping helping of imposing glower, and he makes the most of a rather underwritten role (not unlike Tom Hardy’s Bane in Dark Knight Rises).

Unfortunately (and this is the only minor quibble I had with the film), the movie does little with the Winter Soldier’s fascinating, Terminator-meets-Manchurian Candidate back story. Hopefully, the inevitable third film will fill in those gaps.

Superhero flicks have, in aggregate, become an ever-expanding cinematic metaphor for the angst that blankets our planet – movies of note include Bryan Singer’s X-Men films (e.g. civil rights/tolerance), Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy (e.g. class warfare, Orwellian nanny states), and now both Captain America entries. These films employ a kind of four-color funnies code with larger-than-life heroes and villains standing in for the mundane, insidious cruelties we enact daily.

Samuel L. Jackson notes at one point early in the film, “This is the world as it is … not how we’d like it to be” – nailing a haunting fear and sadness most of us over 40 grapple with daily. Not sure where the movie Marvel Universe goes from here as the studio’s architects are clearly picking poignancy and punch over popcorn and pizzazz. But I for one can’t wait to see what’s next.

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Bonus! ( … apropos of nothing … )

This Thursday, April 10 at 7 pm, Common Language in Ann Arbor (317 Braun Ct.) will host a mixer. I will be signing books, and theatre colleagues from The Penny Seats (including Rachel Murphy, Lyn Weber, Rebecca Biber, Nick Oliverio, Barbara Bruno, and now John Mola) will offer interpretive readings of some of my wilder essays. Light refreshments will be provided. See you there! Nice coverage from Sarah Rigg and MLive here.

Thanks to Ryan Roe and the Tough Pigs: Muppets Fans Who Grew Up website for this shout-out to Reel Roy Reviews and my review of Muppets Most Wanted. Be sure to check out the site – it’s a lot of fun!

Finally, enjoy this video interview of yours truly from last week’s Legal Marketing Association conference. Thanks to Lexblog and the Lexblog Network and Kevin McKeown for this opportunity!

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Reel Roy Reviews is now a book! Please check out this coverage from BroadwayWorld of upcoming book launch events. In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the book currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan; by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan; and by Memory Lane Gift Shop in Columbia City, Indiana. Bookbound and Memory Lane both also have copies of Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series.