IR Film Review: INCREDIBLES 2 [Pixar/Disney]

The aspect of superheroes, even those within the animated world, have to change…in spite of themselves. The interesting permeation of Pixar in many ways is that it was around before. The texture of its life always resides in heart. Which is why in certain parts of “Incredibles 2”, there is the perception of paying homage to the superheroes and real life heroes it emulates. The aspect of loss at one point in the film is straight out of Batman mythology. Another line a direct homage to the original “Ghostbusters”. But while the film moves with inherent pace and rhythm, there isn’t that sense of wonder in even one sequence that rivals the loss or elation in “Inside Out” or “Up”. Granted there are some great comedic moments and even utterly subtle moments…most involving Jack Jack, the baby. The kid steals the show including a specific face off with an unnamed rodent. The aim too is different.

This installment plays a little more to adults although kids will get a kick out of it. Even the color pallette is slightly different. There is even a Tomorrowland kitsche to the design which no doubt is director Brad Bird’s influence considering that he made both “Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol” and “Tomorrowland” in terms of live action since his last “Incredibles” film. That influence is understood since it shows his growth as a filmmaker but also maybe a loss of wonder in certain ways. The seeming ode to 60s James Bond films has its angle but nevertheless almost feels banal in certain ways. The inspiration comes into play at certain point especially when Aunt Edna (played by Bird himself) comes into play. Ultimately “Incredibles 2” is a more than steadily and effectively made sequel that hits all the right notes. There simply wasn’t that epiphany or longing moment.

However interestingly enough, that does find its way into “Bao”, the Pixar short film that precedes it which plays on a metaphor for an Asian mother who fashions the perception of her raising her son through the vision of a dumpling. Like previous Pixar shorts, it crosses borders because it is basic sans dialogue. However, unlike some others, there is an almost weirdly contextual end to the short which is unclear. So even though it hits the notes correctly, its ultimate resolution is slightly skewed which leaves it slightly confused in an overarching way. So the two films themselves are indeed an interesting mirror paradox of each other with “Incredibles 2” being an indeniably effective sequel missing a little something and “Bao” having its something but losing it in the final moment because of a lack of story clarity. Pixar has always valued story above everything so the takeaway is intriguing.

B

By Tim Wassberg

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IR Film Review: OCEAN’S 8 [Warner Brothers]

The movement of wit and style in “Oceans 8” is palpable. Sandra Bullock and Cate Blanchett dance like maneuvering cats across the screen in one of those pairings that decidedly needed to happen and one wonders why it took so long. Granted this is based off the basis of the Oceans films. Despite this, director Gary Ross is no Steven Soderbergh. There was something classically beautiful about “Oceans 11”. This movie has glimpses of that but much of it is done in a matter of fact style and decidedly unlike an old school heist film which the first Oceans felt like. Blanchett has the aspects of old school Bogie and Bullock Dean Martin but the overall heist almost seems too much in the real world without the true stylistic touches needed (beyond the music). We feel aspects of Bullock & Banchett as a team with the other 6 (most specifically Sarah Poulson’s character –- whose fence should have movie of hers all her own). All of these characters are fully formed. But everything serves the heist plot which itself in ultimate structures has holes despite the reassurance from Bullock’s character that she has thought everything through.

In the beginning of the film, like “Oceans 11”, you see these light ticks in the characters which is what makes Bullock so engaging on screen…that humor. Speaking with her mouth full which Blanchett coes back with a quick quip about her being Ukrainian. Lightning fast. Then it simmers down when those little bits should have been amped up. Easy to do in a scene and improv would have worked. There doesn’t seem to have much of it allowed here. They probably were not let go within the characters enough to really let loose. Again the texture is that this is a heist pure and simple with details that need refining.

Hathaway as a specific form of the mark seems to have more fun than anyone though she is utterly overplaying the character, albeit on purpose, but it almost seems out of sync. Bonham Carter as a designer has the reverse issue. Even in a more subdued character one was hoping for more acidic wit that she is known for no matter what she does. Even one look in “Sweeney Todd” from her conveyed a lifetime. Again it might have just had to do with control of the director. The characters that truly play it up and get that balance right is Awkwafina and Rhianna. They come off as effortless in many ways. But like Casey Affleck and Scott Caan in “Oceans 11”, they were just mechanizations to the plot, not the focal point. Bullock and Blanchett have to do the heavy lifting but that incessant banter that marked the Clooney/Pitt interaction could again have been played much more up between Bullock/Blanchett since they are every bit on that level.

In terms of story structure there is a lot of similarities to 11…and this is on purpose. They also don’t overuse that connection which could have been easily done but also key it in enough to make it work. Certain misdirects and coincidental connections are simply at times too convenient in terms of the plot and not in an undeniable way. Now against all this, the film is fun to watch as the play is going. But when reflected more on how it works, it crumbles a bit. Again that is not the fault of the actors but of the script and, to a more specific point, the direction. However, it is tall order considering the film it is being compared to. The most apt reference at times to make with this is perhaps to “Red”. Everyone in that film knew they were playing a slick farce and racheted it up. John Malkovich especially). The people here are aware for sure but the plot takes over too much to really let that shine and take it to another level. The set up at the Met Gala is inspired. The actors perfect to a T. But plot and direction simply not quite up to par.

B-

By Tim Wassberg

Fest Track Film Review: COLD WAR [Cannes 2018]

The essence of the beauty shown in “Cold War” [Poland/Competition] about the texture of lost love finding its way is less “Doctor Zhivago” in many ways but with certain psychological stylings that would have benefited “Red Sparrow” which seemed too caught up in the plot to formulate why the characters do what they do: survival. Zula (played with delicious cadence and intelligence by Joanna Kulig), is always looking out for number one, even though her heart leads her off in certain directions against her will. She doesn’t want anyone to tell her what to do but the balance of that and becoming just enough of a talent to survive is essential from her first audition in the Soviet Union for a peasant opera. The teacher/judges including her doomed lover Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) see something but are not sure what. Her past and its consequences becomes revealed in certain structures but the fact that much of it is left to speculation fuels her mystery. It also explains many of her later actions in terms of logic but also meaning

While the beauty of the folk beginning with the operatic music is inherently interesting, it is when they cross over into Berlin and then to the West as an act, that the film truly understands its plight. The infusion of the smoky rooms of the jazz and standards against the classical basis in the theater show the inherent discrepancies that for many people is hard to truly understand. Zula is a revelation in these circumstances because you feel the uncertain passage of time. It is only in the final moments that the film necessarily loses its grip on reality…not because of the decisions made but because of the lack of control at times on the character’s part which is a simply written choice perhaps for the sake of metaphor. The stilted contradiction of love and the reasoning behind it are sound because of the nature of the world, specifically at that time in concern to gender roles and even more specifically, political roles.

Director Pawel Pawlikowski’s visual approach starts with the use of the 1:33 aspect ratio (like his previous film “Ida”) as well as the black & white texture. While the lack of color it creates an almost dreamlike dreariness in the country sequences, its stark capture of the inherent black tones in the frame and in the city, especially during the performances, allow the audience to see Zula at her most vulnerable giving the film a sense of purpose. This idea is buoyed by the irony of the beauty of the peasant music Zula helps sing versus the standards that show her growth and embrace of Western culture yet the irony of the claustrophobia and shadows in the frame display a deeper chasm in what the world actually was in that time. The aforementioned ending moves the music to a stark change meant to display a certain degradation of sorts which again makes sense for the story but slows the actual cadence. All in all, though Kulig is a presence on screen with both a biting wit but also a classic beauty that belies the turmoil underneath.

B+

By Tim Wassberg

IR Film Review: SXSW FILM FESTIVAL 2018 [Austin, TX]

The texture of many interviews in requisite Midnight and genre categories rendered the viewing of movies for review a little lighter than usual but two films squeezed in with a nature of inventiveness but also a throwback to genre for both.

Upgrade Director Leigh Whannell, know for the SAW films, takes a stab at science fiction under the Blumhouse model with surprising success. Speaking at the Q&A after the film, he acknowledged the texture of ‘The Terminator” as an influence but the inference moves with a much more complex fabric in terms of the human quotient. Owing more in certain terms to Schwarzenegger revenge movies though with more visual flair, the aspect of the lead character being a man not in control of his own body is an interesting existential dilemma. Simply because it was on Comet recently, “Monkey Shines” comes to mind because it involves the protagonist having to think of his life differently. Here after losing his wife in assassination hit and being paralyzed, Grey, an analog man in a near future world, is given a second chance through the aspect of an almost autistic scientist who injects with a thinking spine computer who can only be heard by Grey. The misdirection and notion of what we are seeing really makes it work especially in the action scenes which in the way they are done considering the physical structure of what is being presented is quite ingenious and undeniably brutal. The push forward again culminates in an existential dilemma that only a logical computer bent on survival could make. While there is inherent suspension of disbelief required at times, the pace and tone is pinpoint while allowing some black humor to shine through with exceptional results, especially on a budget.

Elizabeth Harvest This film pushes slightly on an adjacent part of the spectrum with nods to “Ex Machina” as well as the recent “Annihilation” and again it examines an existential journey but one where the person searching for their identity is not very clear on who they are anyways. It revolves around three major players: a newlywed (played by Abbey Lee from “Mad Max: Fury Road”), a significantly older Ciaran Hinds (as her scientist genius husband) and Carla Gugino (whose actual role changes throughout the film). The aspect of stillness and repetitiveness is approached for the necessity of invention and not in a “Groundhog Day” type of way. To reveal the twist is to reveal the movie but suffice to say the psychological element of imprisonment, either self imposed or self created encircles the entire proceedings. The essence of the focus and what it truly means beyond ego is done in a very simple yet complicated manner. The director is Sebastian Gutierrez who is known for writing the film “Gothika”, another film which was based on the misdirect of perceptions but also for directing films like “Electra Luxx” & “Women In Trouble” that subvert genre (along with frequent collaborator Carla Gugino). But like “Upgrade”, the reduced budget allows for simplicity of invention and not spoon-feeding the audience beyond essential and letting many of the characters motivations remain mysterious if unsolved.

By Tim Wassberg

IR Film Review: PACIFIC RIM – UPRISING [Universal]

The essence of “Pacific Rim” in its original form lay in the otherworldlyness that always underscores a Guillermo Del Toro film. The fact that all the characters were just the slightest bit off without over-dramatizing the situation. The fact that they were slightly off center. The scenario in the first film was life or death…a world in fear that has to battle against the monsters from the deep. There was also an inherent darkness to the proceedings. Even in certain Godzillas movies and definitely Akira, the viewer got a sense that the world might actually end. That sense of dread or even consequence seems missing here..the human toll.

Granted this is a large robot movie but especially with a huge sequence towards the end the sheer destruction without perception of life including the pulling down of certain buildings lacks a certain depth. Even “Colossal” understood its texture in a larger space. John Boyega of recent Star Wars fame takes on the role of Idris Alba’s son here. Jake’s father Stacker Pentecost was lost during the Kaiju encounter and now Boyega’s character runs in the aftermath.

“Uprising” is a story about the redemption of a hero and granted here Boyega is more likable than as Finn in SW who always seems to be running away until he is caught red handed. The true heart comes though in the form of a teenage girl Amara who possesses technical know-how and a brazen personality but with a lack of social interaction. It is a perfect perception of youth today and her interaction with the Jaeger Academy works well as does her eventual authority.

The twist of the movie interceding with the villain tries to integrate the idea of Del Toro body horror in a way but it doesn’t quite work because the tone is off. Is the film fun in many ways…sure…but fulfilling in the world it creates…not so much. Even the perceived villain who dominates the business end of the film delivers only in the final minutes giving the climax a muted feeling in a way. What results is a spectacle with nacent stakes…or at least those felt in the gut.

D

By Tim Wassberg

IR Film Review: RED SPARROW [20th Century Fox]

“Red Sparrow” is like some of the Cold War thrillers they made in the 90s but with higher resolution and a female lead. It takes to task the idea of power and uses it as a structure mechanism for Jennifer Lawrence’s Dominica, a Sparrow forced into duty at the hands of an ultimately paradoxical but conniving uncle played by Matthias Schoenaerts who is Deputy Director for the State Service in Russia. The movie has a classical beauty to it and understands the sides it is playing. It is new territory for Lawrence for certain, embracing the power of manipulation and sexuality in concert with the mind. But the inherent texture is that her character never loses sight in what she is doing by either manipulating the audience, her would-be captors or her would-be manipulators on either side. The essence ultimately is that she gets to live her life above suspicion but inherently lonely. There are essences of “La Femme Nikita” and even the more recent “The Villainess” at Cannes. However the pull of Dominica’s loyalties is never quite clear despite that this is part of the construct. Where does the innocence end and the manipulation begin? The genius at times of Lawrence in this movie is that she can switch in the midst of a scene from one side to another. There were brief glimpses of it in “XMen: First Class” but as she grows older it becomes more pronounced. She can never truly disappear, but like Sharon Stone before her, she can walk the line with inherent control.

“Red Sparrow” is ultimately not about resolution but survival in many ways and the bereft elements of character that betray those in the business of espionage who want more than their country will give. Joel Edgerton plays an American CIA officer who gives just enough emotional weight to believe that Dominica might be able to escape. But ultimately the grounded angle comes in the form of Jeremy Irons, an iconoclast of these multi tiered characters from “The Mission” to “Reversal Of Fortune” to “Dead Ringers” who allows just the right amount of plot support to make it work. The key essence of a spy in all elements is that you don’t know they are a spy even if they tell you so, whether you are seducing for information or telling a mark specifically what they want to hear. The music within the movie inherently beginning with the ballet at the beginning precludes the fall which is interestingly enough a parallel to “Black Swan” which was more bathed in metaphor. “Red Sparrow” is told with a straight forward texture while the murky nature of its characters snakes underneath with a taste of dread. It doesn’t rely on large car chases to make its point but in close contact with scenes that bite and allow for the understanding of characters that perhaps have no choice but one.

B-

By Tim Wassberg

IR Film Review: ANNIHILATION [Paramount]

The essence of “Annihilation” comes from the structure that we might be taken over or changed and have no concept of the texture of our transformation. Like “Ex Machina”, director Alex Garland examines the idea of the existential. What is interesting is that you don’t usually see it in a big budget movie. Having talked with Portman over the years, I can understand in many ways how come this idea appealed to her and especially with Garland coming off something like “Ex Machina”. The movie has its own pace to be sure and does take a while to move but that is somewhat the texture of its madness. It doesn’t want to explain which is why the paradox of the film structure and even the music can be misleading. Watching how the movie is told in an essence of flashback can almost be seen as lazy. Some of the dialogue too obvious. But the use of time (which in many essences could have been used to greater effect) has potential. Again “Ex Machina” was working in a more confined space where the darkness just lurks. Annihilation moves it a bit out in the open which might work against it. It is the ethereal and the notion of self that swells in the final moments and the metaphor it is showing that stays with the viewer. It is a trick of the mind in many ways.

 

Like “Mother”, it is a movie that is very true to its identity but a little out of sync with the current blockbuster mentality. You are watching Portman work her way through the dissolution of her character but within the canvas of “The Shimmer”. Make no mistake, it is wonderful to see her back in this kind of world. Like Jodie Foster before her, she imbues the struggle with intelligence, as if her instincts are fighting against it. Oscar Isaac, who did some great work in “Ex Machina”, knows the key here is moving like a wave past Portman which makes her performance swell. Great supporting actors like Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tessa Thompson (more subdued and nuanced than her Ragnarok performance) and Gina Rodriguez offer a definite groundedness.

The fact that the female actors permeate the meat of this film as the team that we follow gives the pace a sense of introspection that would be missing if even one male was interspersed. A scene inside an abandoned house with a lost cry of a comrade is eerie in what it portends. That said, the film doesn’t include as many spine tingle moments as “Machina” did. Like “Machina” as well though, “Annihilation” will wander better the more it is watched, especially with the scenes involving The Lighthouse. It is a continual evolution of a filmmaker interested in bigger ideas with genre constructs that doesn’t need to convene to an idea of reality. It is more about where we are going versus where we have been.

B+

By Tim Wassberg