Long Goodbye, The (1973)
★★★ / ★★★★
It is three o’clock in the morning when Detective Philip Marlowe (Elliot Gould) is woken up by his hungry cat. Out of food, he goes to the store to buy a can of his pet’s favorite chow and when he returns, his friend, Terry (Jim Bouton), with a huge scratch down his cheek, drops by and asks to be dropped off to Tijuana immediately. Marlowe agrees to help, but when he gets back to his apartment, three cops wish to ask him some questions involving Terry’s dead wife. Convinced that his friend is not a killer, Marlowe tries to clear Terry’s name which leads him to a woman named Eileen Wade (Nina van Pallandt), whose husband, a famous writer, had gone missing.
Based on the novel by Raymond Chandler, “The Long Goodbye” is an interesting breed of mystery because of its tendency to focus on the mundane, like how a cat jumps from a shelf, to a counter, and then to its owner’s shoulder or how its protagonist walks around so deep in thought that it appears as though he is sleepwalking. It creates a sort-of poetry between conversations that sometimes appear to be about one thing but really about something else entirely. Since it requires time and patience to get into its groove, the mystery is not quite so easy to figure out.
I loved the way Gould plays his character with such a dry sense of humor and an air of secrecy. From the moment we lay eyes on him, it is increasingly understandable why he has a cat instead of a girlfriend because most cats do not require much attention and affection. I am especially drawn to Marlowe when he is on the move: his shoulders a bit hunched and has the tendency to mumble things to himself that only he could decipher. Throughout, Marlowe surprises us with his high level of wit and intelligence, qualities that a person will likely not consider him to have simply by looking at him. In a way, his greatest weapon is his ability to appear ordinary so those who he find suspect will have their guard down.
The way it is shot is interesting because it is drained of colors that pop out. For this same reason, it can be exhausting to stare at various shadings of grey, black, white, and beige. While it is perhaps the point considering that it contains plenty of noir elements in the screenplay’s DNA, I found it challenging to be fully engrossed in the material when the detective is not in the foreground. It does not help that the other actors, though adequate, do not inject something special in their characters to inspire us to ask questions about them as people living specific lifestyles in ‘70s Hollywood.
Directed by Robert Altman, “The Long Goodbye” does not have a predictable trajectory. Though it might bore half of the audience with its seemingly unrelated side quests from the central murder plot, it all comes together in a way that makes sense without relying on flashbacks that hammer us over the head with what happened exactly. It trusts us to have retained the memory of the events along with their implications and the last-minute revelations simply fill in the gaps.
Sicario: Day of the Soldado (2018)
★★★ / ★★★★
The violence in “Sicario: Day of the Soldado” is so detailed, when a group of people on a pickup truck is shot with a submachine gun, particles of blood can be seen swimming in the dusty air. The camera lingers just enough so the thrill is turned into horror—a trait that separates the picture from standard action-thrillers that attempt to make a statement about the chess game of politics and the clandestine assignments that must be executed in order for the pieces to fall into place. Although not as strong as its predecessor, there is without question that the sequel is worth seeing, particularly by those who have become invested in the complex relationship between CIA agent Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) and black operative Alejandro Gillick (Benicio del Toro).
Particularly strong is the first half as Graver is given the task to start a war between the Mexican drug cartels when the United States government began to suspect that one of them transported Islamic terrorists across the border which resulted in a Texas store bombing. The viewers are asked to follow the plot through winding roads without many expository details regarding how and why certain things must be done. They simply must.
And yet—it is never confusing. There is a breezy flow and rhythm in Taylor Sheridan’s top-notch screenplay that is highly reminiscent of the 2015 predecessor. It makes the point of respecting the audience’s intelligence, attention span, and ability to follow multiple threads that are certain to collide with spectacularly brutal violence.
I enjoyed its restraint when it comes to the score and how it is used. Sometimes a solo cello is enough to underline the gravity of the situation, whether we are about to see an elaborate action sequence or when a man subtly looks at another a certain way. The skeletal but creepy score builds the mood without needing to push the viewer to feel a certain way. It does not need to when the powerful images speak for themselves.
Notice how shots are framed almost in an impersonal way. The aforementioned terrorist attack at a store is an excellent example as the camera remains a couple of feet outside of the building as three bombers enter the place of business, walk toward specific aisles, press the button, and explode. This is a smart direction by Stefano Sollima; he does not feel the need to place us into that store because with all the terrorist attacks in the U.S. today, which includes Americans who decide to pick up a gun and kill innocent people, it is more impactful to observe from the outside in. In a way, scenes such as this place us within those moments when we heard the breaking news or seen the news on television during or after such attacks.
Brolin and Del Toro are as captivating as they were in “Sicario.” Their characters do not say much but their body language say more than enough. There is palpable tension in Graver and Gillick’s fascinating relationship that is deeply rooted in respect, perhaps even admiration. Couple this with the nature of their occupations in which the equation can be changed at a drop of a hat, we wonder if these men would inevitably clash. And if they did, to what degree and would they be able to kill each other when absolutely necessary? Would we have to pick a side?
The film might have finished on a superior note had a minute or two been sliced off at the end. It is bizarre and uncharacteristic to turn our attention suddenly to a character who is far less interesting than Graver and Gillick. Perhaps the intention is to create a bridge between this installment and the next, but the spoon-fed information does not match the beauty of the story’s intrigue and mystery, certainly not its savage tone. It might have been a wiser choice then to end the film on a desert road as a bloody vehicle slows down toward the side of the road and hits a post. It works as a metaphor, too.
Under the Shadow (2016)
★★★ / ★★★★
“Under the Shadow,” an inspired horror picture written and directed by Babak Anvari, is the phrase “horrors of war” made literal. It is a patient, careful, and precise piece of work that fascinates from the moment it begins up until the very end because the viewers are not given a complete answer as to whether whatever is going on is simply in the heads of its characters or whether the paranormal occurrences are real. The final shot of the camera looking toward a clear blue sky despite the ruins all around captures the idea that the material is all about perspective.
There are not many scares but nearly all of them are effective. This is because Anvari understands common fears, ones that transcend culture, and he uses them to jolt us into paying attention when a thing busts out from nowhere, to creep us out when there is a suspiciously large negative space, and to terrify us when a creature from under the bed, real or imagined, is front and center. The writer-director is able to deliver a consistent, increasing tension by means of introducing another interesting piece just when we are about to recover fully from a previous encounter.
Set in a post-revolution Tehran in the late 1980s, we get a real sense of space and feeling. It is intriguing that the material works as a drama if the horror elements were taken away. Notice how the camera is unafraid to settle on faces thereby highlighting the humanity of this particular story. When the sirens go off and the residents of the building come running downstairs toward the bomb shelter, we feel a different type of fear as opposed to when the mother and daughter, Shideh (Narges Rashidi) and Dorsa (Avin Manshadi), respectively, are alone in their home, sleeping, and about to be terrorized awake by, presumably, ghostly supernatural forces.
Because I love horror films rooted in a specific culture, I wished, that the so-called Djinn was explored further for those unfamiliar with Islamic mythology. We learn a little bit about how it travels and what circumstances it is attracted towards, but the rest is up to us to interpret—which may not be as interesting given that western audiences are likely to inject western shadings to something that is specific to a certain culture. It is a disappointment that Anvari chooses not to provide more details about the Djinn given that nearly everything else about the work are specific yet detailed.
Unlike generic western horror films, “Under the Shadows” is not interested in being loud or ostentatious. Rather, it is interested in the quiet and the voices one hears, which may be coming from within, when one is stuck in a dark room, completely paralyzed out of fear due to the possibility that just few feet away a malevolent entity is simply waiting to be touched by the living, so that they, too, for a moment can feel alive. The picture offers some images that not only linger in the mind but stick there like gum.
Beatriz at Dinner (2017)
★★★ / ★★★★
Some will walk away from this picture wondering what it is all about. One might say it is about the rich versus the poor, the powerful against those without much power. Another might argue it is about how a person of color is treated in an environment where she is the minority. Yet a third person may claim it is about a selfless person suddenly finding herself face-to-face with the embodiment of greed. Like many films worth watching, “Beatriz at Dinner,” written by Mike White and directed by Miguel Arteta, is open to interpretation and yet it remains highly watchable because it is making a statement about the human condition. We relate to what’s unfolding on screen.
Salma Hayek plays the titular character, an alternative healer in just about every aspect of her life. It is easy or convenient to label Beatriz as weird or unconventional because she seems to function on a plane slightly higher than everyone else. Despite this, Hayek ensures that the character feels grounded, honest, and real. We almost wish to protect her. This is critical because the people she is invited by (Connie Britton, David Warshofsky) and those she meets at the dinner party (John Lithgow, Amy Landecker, Chloë Sevigny, Jay Duplass) are shallow, corrupt, and fake. It is a classic clashing of opposite beings, ideals.
I believe the picture is about microaggressions. Intense feelings are ignited inside the pit of the viewers’ stomachs as her fellow guests act as if she were less than. They don’t say that she doesn’t belong but they treat her exactly what they think of her. It is in the looks given, the words used to make a point, the manner by which the body language communicates disinterest when the brown person gets the spotlight as she explains what is on her mind. Even the caterer, also white, dares to interrupt Beatriz, fully aware that she is also one of the guests, when she is recalling a highly personal memory involving an animal she must kill.
Clocking in at about eighty minutes, the film is efficient in ensuring that we are on our toes when it comes to detecting micro-inequities. Notice that although the setting is quite palatial, when a group is on a circle, a wide angle shot is almost never utilized. It shows that although they occupy the same room, appearing to be talking about one thing, they are not on the same page. They fake being on the same page; they have become so accustomed to it that it is business as usual. Beatriz functions as our conduit. At times we almost feel her laughing to herself at the sheer ridiculousness of her company.
Although relatable on so many levels, especially if the viewer is a minority or a part of the working class, “Beatriz at Dinner” is not for everybody. Its sudden solemn turn toward the end might be considered to be hyperbolic if taken literally. But if taken from a satirical point of view, the statement it makes is smart and funny. It makes us wonder how much better our world would be if people capable of deep thoughts and feelings, coupled with the ability to take action or lead by example, were actually in charge.
★ / ★★★★
Tina (Alice Lowe) and her boyfriend, Chris (Steve Oram), are on their way out for a one-week road trip across England, but Carol (Eileen Davies), Tina’s mother, is not very happy about it. Carol worries her daughter does not know Chris well enough for them to spend time alone for such an extended period of time. Plus, Carol is convinced Chris is a murderer—even though he insists a prior incident was all a terrible accident.
“Sightseers,” directed by Ben Wheatley, has got the case of trying too hard to be a dark comedy. It possesses neither the edge nor the danger to pass as one. Halfway through, I found myself feeling bored and frustrated that it fails to move beyond a series of sketches where the set-up involves the couple crossing paths with strangers and the payoff is that bad things begin to happen. Though the sub-genre is unexplored for the most part, the film does not seem to have any sort of inspiration to make the experience of watching it enjoyable.
Lowe and Oram’s talents fit a more comedic niche. They pull off a few one-liners because they are not afraid to contort their faces to the point of silliness or not move them to make an impression that their characters are not the sharpest tools in the shed. I liked them as performers but the screenplay—written by them with additional material from Amy Jump—is not pointed enough as a satire of toxic relationships. The punchline is always someone getting hurt physically and it gets dull fast.
Tina and Chris are boring apart. Perhaps that is the point—some people, unfortunately, are convinced that they are not bright enough to captivate another person, let alone an entire room, or that they do not have anything special to offer. But it is no excuse for the characters to be boring together. Their sex life is supposed to be wonderful but we do not feel it. They are supposed to have a lot of things in common but we do not see them. Neither of them seem to have interior lives. So, aside from their sudden shifts in behavior, what makes them interesting?
The funny thing about dark comedies is that the filmmakers must understand how human psychology works. When they do not, it shows—and it is insulting. The film then becomes an exercise of hassling us for laughs instead of really earning them. In a way, the best dark comedies are also educational in that they give us insight into what may not necessarily be obvious to the viewer.
I tried not to reveal the so-called twist even though I am convinced it is not all that surprising. “Sightseers” is a toothless black comedy that consists of violent trivialities. Even the bloody affairs are executed with flatness and lifelessness.
★★★ / ★★★★
A Danish cargo ship on its way to Mumbai is seized by a group of Somali pirates. Though Orion Seaways has been made aware of the situation, several days pass by without any demand for ransom. When they finally make a move, the negotiator (Abdihakin Asgar) claims that the pirates want fifteen million dollars in exchange for the ship and the crew. However, a hostage situation expert (Gary Skjoldmose Porter) advises the CEO of the company, Peter Ludvigsen (Søren Malling), to offer below half a million.
“Kapringen,” written and directed by Tobias Lindholm, is unlike many other movies involving a hostage situation. Though it is thrilling, it does so not through a typical arc where we grow to care eventually for the characters by getting to know them deeply throughout the ordeal. Instead, there is a level of detachment in its approach which establishes a documentary-like atmosphere and sticks with it down to the very last second.
Worth noticing is the technique involving the phone calls between Ludvigsen and the negotiator. Each time the two communicate, the camera focuses on one side. In order to build the suspense, the camera focuses on a face—whether it be on Ludvigsen attempting to be tough and professional in a room full of men observing his every move, the cook (Pilou Asbæk) who is willing to beg his boss to pay up so he can see his family again, or Omar, the only Somali on board who can speak English and therefore the intermediary. By keeping it close and tight, we are forced to be in the moment and experience the pressure.
The picture is surprising in that it is willing to humanize the pirates. It is easy to paint them as gun-wielding, trigger-happy psychopaths. Instead, we get a few scenes showing the pirates and crew interacting as if there were not in a hostage situation. The fishing scene stands out because for a couple of minutes the two groups forget that one is in power and the other is being dominated. Their focus is on the activity, both groups are allowed to feel joy, exhilaration and camaraderie, and so there is a release in the tension.
When it is silent, a lot is said. The buzzing of the fly is a frequent symbol of foreshadowing and it is appropriate here considering that just about anyone in the crew is disposable. In addition, when the fly is followed to be swatted, notice that the camera moves but it does so in a fluid way. We are allowed to look at the surroundings—how increasingly filthy each room has become over the weeks of standstill.
“A Hijacking” may not be a flashy suspense-thriller but it is without a doubt an effective one. Its closing scenes are designed to stick in the mind of the audiences. I found them to be admirable and ambitious because with many movies of its type, once the good guys have won and the bad guys have gone cold, endings are thrown away like the whole experience has been nothing, just empty calories. Here, I appreciated that the material dares to take its time to deliver closing sequences that feel appropriate and that what he had seen has some value. If only more movies, no matter the genre, can follow its footsteps.
Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (2018)
★★ / ★★★★
You know there’s something wrong with a “Jurassic” sequel when you wonder why there isn’t more people being eaten by dinosaurs about halfway through the film. Although J.A. Bayona’s “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” is arguably the most impressive entry visually, particularly when the camera lingers on an animal’s rough skin and even the details of the crevices are eye-catching, it commands neither a compelling story nor a potent social commentary—surprising because the question of whether genetically engineered dinosaurs ought be saved from an island about to undergo a volcanic eruption is at the forefront initially. Everybody has—or should have—an opinion when it comes to animal rights, but the screenplay misses the boat completely in engaging with the complexities of the subject matter.
Yes, a summer a blockbuster can be both wildly entertaining and educational—at the very least one that inspires conversations, particularly questions regarding what if or when technology finally catches up to us. No, it is not too much to ask; perhaps we should hold more films accountable so that we do not receive the same generic rubbish that goes on autopilot every year.
In this day and age, playing with genetics is more commercial than ever—I know because I am in the field. If the screenplay by Derek Connolly and Colin Trevorrow were more scientifically curious, especially when it comes to science’s applications on our every day lives, the dialogue would have been more interesting rather than simply painting scientists as greedy or evil. Cue Owen (Chris Pratt) and Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard) eyeing one another longingly. Their relationship, whatever it is, goes nowhere in this installment.
Steven Spielberg’s “Jurassic Park” was so successful because the film was able to traverse the tricky balance of providing popcorn fluff and brain food. Here, however, the picture seems content in delivering spectacular special and visual effects but not necessarily modulating the audience’s more visceral reactions. Notice how busy the action sequences tend to be. While most of them take a moment or two of pause, they almost always end up with a jump scare and the inevitable extended chase. Its rigid adherence to the formula suffers from diminishing returns and I grew bored by the last third in which terrified characters run around a mansion where dinosaurs have escaped.
Aside from Owen and Claire’s flavorless main characters, even the supporting ones are a bore. This time around, a systems analyst (Justice Smith) and a paleoveterinarian (Daniella Pineda) are recruited to visit Isla Nublar and lend a hand on transferring the animals to a safer haven. Naturally, they find themselves unprepared and terrorized by the hungry beasts. Smith and Pineda’s characters are not written from an interesting angle. The original “Jurassic Park” has shown that side characters can function mainly as potential victims of dinosaur attack—siblings Tim and Lex quickly come to mind—but they must be so charming that the viewer roots for them anyway even when they make a last-minute dumb decision that puts everyone in further jeopardy. Here, the systems analyst and the paleoveterinarian make good choices and yet… they are dull. It should not be this way.
The picture promises a third “Jurassic World” installment and, I must say, I look forward to it. The way it is set up opens the door to limitless potential for exploration. Still, one cannot help but feel wary because this entry, too, shows potential to go beyond superficial entertainment—yet it does not. “Fallen Kingdom” is passable as a creature-feature film, but its many weapons in its arsenal are not utilized to set the bar high, to achieve greatness, or, at the very least, to become memorable. It seems content in delivering a safe spectacle.
★★★ / ★★★★
Robert Zemeckis’ “Allied” wears the spirit of a 1940s picture, so beautifully detailed in nearly every aspect. With its ability and willingness to unfold slowly, it dares us to appreciate the minutiae, from the material of clothing and how it matches with or contrasts against walls or sides of buildings to the subtle interior changes a character goes through upon learning information that might lead to a reassessment of a relationship. Here is a film that has an intriguing story to tell where no easy solution is offered. Had screenwriter Steven Knight been less ambitious, it would have turned out to be just another spy thriller and a hunt for a mole.
Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard portray an intelligence officer and a French Resistance fighter in World War II, Max Vatan and Marianne Beauséjour, who are assigned in Casablanca to assassinate a Nazi ambassador. It is apparent that the two experienced dramatic performers enjoy their roles for they infuse a high level of energy behind every body language and between exchange of words. And coating their enthusiasm for the roles is a frisky elegance, so joyous to watch and think about because these are characters who at times do not say exactly what they mean. They come across as real individuals who just so happen to belong in a world of secrets and lies where differences could mean life or death.
The first half of the film comes across as an extended exposition. Although it may bother or annoy less patient viewers who crave action from the get-go, I was completely enraptured by its rhythm, long silences, and knowing glances. The material provides a realistic situation of how people may act around one another when handling a top-secret government assignment. Equally important during this hypnotic first hour, we get to a chance to ascertain who is the better tactician depending on the occasion. Max and Marianne’s respective approaches to complete a task differ greatly sometimes. And through their differences we recognize specific reasons why are attracted to one another eventually.
Although still intriguing, the second half is less strong by comparison. With the story moving away from exotic Casablanca to London, the locales are not as exciting visually. Perhaps the intention is to shift our focus from environment to increasing internal struggles, particularly of Max receiving news that his wife is possibly a German spy, but there is a way to pull off such a strategy. One way is perhaps to amplify the human drama. Instead, the dramatic core, while able to offer surprising details at times with its elegant screenplay, it remains as subtle as a flickering ember rather than a full-on blaze.
The suspense is embedded in how much we have grown to care for the characters. This is a challenge because we go in with the assumption that it is going to trick us somehow, or try to at the very least, since, after all, it is an espionage picture. But because those behind and in front of the camera choose to treat the material seriously and with respect, genuinely committing to a sub-genre that is not foreign to a spice of melodrama, it works somehow. Those who jump in with an open mind will be pleasantly surprised.
Red 2 (2013)
★★ / ★★★★
Though Frank (Bruce Willis) and Sarah (Mary-Louise Parker) are attempting to live a life of normalcy by playing everything safe, both of them are not exactly happy with where their relationship is heading. Sarah wants a bit of adventure and Frank has not killed anybody in months. It is most opportune that Marvin (John Malkovich) appears at a Costco aisle and informs Frank that an international ruckus is about to occur. It involves Nightingale, a project they had been involved in back in ’79. Sarah is thrilled to join the elite CIA operatives but Frank would rather have her stay in a safe house.
Based on the screenplay by Jon and Erich Hoeber, “Red 2” accomplishes very little despite its characters gallivanting across the world while being hunted by assassins. While it retains some of the charm of the predecessor, the story needs to be cleaned up a bit. Perhaps it would have been better if one less city was visited or two supporting characters were written out. Make room for more or extended friendly banters or show more serious moments to suggest there is something more to the characters than being good at wielding weapons. Since it fails to go behind its skeletal framework, the twists and turns end up disorganized and unfocused rather than being genuinely surprising.
The revolving doors of several characters’ loyalties grate the nerves. Since it occurs too often, every time our protagonists are pushed to a corner, it becomes near impossible to feel like they are in any sort of real danger. While light entertainment is the film’s main purpose, changing the tone once in a while would have done it good—especially since it is a sequel and many of us already know what to expect. Its unwillingness to take a risk or try something new is a problem.
I still adored watching Helen Mirren fire guns and beat men into unconsciousness. She does it with so much verve and charisma. She commits to the character without being cartoonish. The right decision would have been to give her character, Victoria, and Ivan (Brian Cox) more substance. The older couple could have been an interesting contrast to Sarah and Frank—which feels too much like two teenagers falling in love or what they consider to be love. We get only a glimpse of the potential sounding board and it is played too cute.
The chases are visually stimulating but standard as a whole. On foot, guns are used too often but there is an entertaining sequence involving Frank being stuck in a file room. Though using a gun from an enemy becomes available eventually, he becomes resourceful in disarming those who wish to capture him.
“Red 2” is an unnecessary but harmless sequel. It offers nothing special but it is nice to see seasoned performers clearly enjoying themselves. Anthony Hopkins, playing a patient in a mental institution, stands out because he does not create a character around the lightness of the material. Bailey has his share of quirks but he is not defined by them.
Ladybird, Ladybird (1994)
★★★★ / ★★★★
After Maggie (Crissy Rock) sings a song at a karaoke bar, Jorge (Vladimir Vega), impressed by her performance, approaches and invites her for a drink. Though she is with friends, she accepts and the two sit in a quieter corner to talk. Within minutes, Maggie’s sadness, something that Jorge has detected, unspools: she tells the stranger before her that her four children have been taken away by Social Services. Very soon a court hearing will determine if Maggie could keep them or if the kids must be displaced.
Written by Rona Munro and directed by Ken Loach, “Ladybird, Ladybird” is an enthralling and educational exploration of a woman’s relationship with a social system. Whenever Social Services get involved and kids are taken away, it is easy to jump to conclusions and blame the parents. And why not? There is a pattern and there are many irresponsible parents out there who are not fit to raise a child. And yet more challenging is taking a step back and considering all the facts—information that we do not have when there is a big scene in our neighborhood. This film paints an entire history and makes sure that we have the relevant facts. Suddenly, the demarcation between right and wrong is out of focus.
The picture benefits greatly from Rock’s performance. Her capacity to jump between being personable and delivering explosive fits of rage, like turning on a light switch, without hitting a false note is scary and impressive. The way she plays Maggie, there is no doubt that her character is an angry person but there is also a lot of pain and hurt behind the screaming and hollering. Despite her volatile nature, we believe that she loves her children.
Maggie is likely a woman we see every time take a trip to the supermarket. You know, the one with so many kids but not enough hands to keep them from going all over the place. I’ve given a Maggie a dirty look and judged. Why bring your kids to the store when you can’t control them, right? This film inspired me to think twice. Great films makes us look within by placing us in someone else’s shoes and encourages us to be more sympathetic.
The director maintains control of the camera even if a scuffle turns into a tornado. At least these days, the inclination is to shake as to create the illusion of reality, to be “in the middle of the action.” Here, it is unnecessary to move the camera like so. The struggle occurs only after we have an understanding of the main players, what is at stake, and what it implies about the future. We yearn for an alternative but it is difficult to break the cycle.
In the film, there is a poem told orally, in Spanish, about a candle that lights other candles that have died out. The relationship between Maggie and Jorge can be viewed this way. What they share is good but, like real relationships, it requires a lot of work. Sometimes it burns. There is no villain here: not Maggie, not the Social Services, not even the nosy and racist neighbor. There is only our prejudice and how sometimes we might surprise even ourselves when reality is wrinkled and upside down.
Incredibles 2 (2018)
★★★★ / ★★★★
While the soulless “Cars” sequels are made solely to sell more toys, chugging out yet another mediocre entry approximately every five years, the follow-up to “The Incredibles” is released fourteen years later—and it shows. Notice right from the opening action sequence the numerous and seemingly superfluous details. For example, how light hits an object from a certain angle and the reflected light, its intensity, is adjusted based on tricky camera movements and hundreds of other factors, like shadows, around the object of interest.
This is one shot. Now imagine this love for detail and level of hard work throughout a handful of fast-paced battles or even when it is just two characters sharing a clever and funny conversation. Freeze every frame and it is highly likely that something in the background is changed even just a little. Pixar delivers yet another home run.
Sequels to animated movies tend to annoy me because most of them end up becoming just a rehash of what had worked in the original. “Incredibles 2,” written and directed by Brad Bird, is a shining exception, more within the veins of John Lasseter’s “Toy Story 2” than “Despicable Me 2,” “Hotel Transylvania 2,” or, dare I say it, even “Finding Dory.” I appreciated that this entry is actively interested in world-building: more superheroes are introduced, the politics of their legalization is explored a bit more, we get a villain who relies less on explosions and more on the long game of waiting to strike until all chess pieces are properly placed in order to optimize chances of victory.
Most importantly, the veteran writer-director is aware that the most effective weapon of the original is the Parr family dynamics—when they do not have their superhero suits on, when they are just a regular family dealing with regular things, like the pains of raising a toddler and babysitting, of being liked by a boy at school, struggling to get through math homework. The voice cast is top-notch. Craig T. Nelson and Holly Hunter, providing the voices for Bob and Helen, Mr. Incredible and Elastigirl, respectively, have such lovable chemistry. How they emote command such range.
For instance, when it sounds as though the dialogue is leading them toward a big argument, like whether or not Helen should accept a curious job that could eventually lead to the legalization of superheroes around the world, the material is capable of shifting suddenly toward sillier territory, like Bob’s jealousy of not being the client’s first choice. In the middle of the picture, I was convinced that the actors must have been in the same room while creating the exchanges because the final product commands dynamism—the kind that we do not feel in our bones when performers simply recite lines by themselves rather than aiming the words toward another person who is within an arm’s length. Context and subtext matter in voice work—especially when conflict is supposed to be convincing. Sarah Vowell, Huck Milner, and Eli Fucile provide voices of the Parr children.
Notice I have not detailed much of the plot. This is because the picture is not about the plot and so it is negligible in my eyes. Rather, the focus is on the colors, the energy, the painstaking details of animation, the visual jokes, the clever lines, the surprising and ironic situations. “Incredibles 2” delivers on providing a terrific time. I was in high school when its predecessor was released. I have a career now but this film, even though it has some familiar elements, inspired me to lean forward with my childlike eyes, a big smile plastered on my face.