TRUST THE SHOT, THE JAPANESE ZEN MASTER SAID
On THE INCREDIBLES 2, SICARIO: DAY OF THE SOLDADO and LATE SPRING
It’s nice that, in the middle of all the serialised big-budget spectacle or dumbed-down comedies, American cinema can still come up with the odd little gem or the decent blockbuster. Which is why when you look at something so miles above the competition like The Incredibles 2 and ask: where is this coming from?
I’ve always had a hard time with the original Incredibles because it didn’t move me in the same way other Pixar films like Monsters, Inc. or Finding Nemo or even Cars had. It’s one of the odd early-run Pixars I admired but couldn’t wrap my heart around, and re-watching it before the sequel I kind of understood why: At the time, I was looking at it the wrong way. It’s really not a kids’ movie at all, but a sort of mutant comedy of remarriage wrapped inside a James Bond retro-spoof-homage you can take the kids to, pushing the envelope of animation as a storytelling form.
Brad Bird followed that up by taking the reins of the troubled Ratatouille and by shifting to live-action with uneven results. His Tomorrowlandhas to be one of the strangest and most fascinatingwannabe-blockbusters ever produced in Hollywood, literally molting its skin as a merchandising tie-in to turn into a weighty meditation on disillusionment and hope.
It’s not really a surprise to find that the frosty response to Tomorrowland and the state of the world today end up seeping into The Incredibles 2, a sequel nobody really asked for (except Pixar’s new overlords Disney) but that turns out to be – for me - better than the original film. Alright, it is a mess: Bird has always got so much stuff to fit in his films that he can’t seem to bring anything in under two hours, and still leaves a lot unsaid or unexplored. And yet, organically, it not only works, it actually makes sense together.
The premise has the well-meaning but lumbering Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson) being asked to step back from his duties for being too much of a bull in a china shop. Instead, his wife, the smaller, more astute Elastigirl (Holly Hunter) becomes the public advocate for bringing super-heroes back into society. So it is that the man stays home taking care of the kids, the wife becomes the take-charge provider, and a mysterious villain called the Screenslaver comes in useing television-enabled hypnosis to exert mind control over whoever comes into unwitting range.
Female empowerment, social critique and fear of technology all rolled into one, with a somewhat alarmingly Ayn-Randian (but not entirely off the mark) swipe at super-heroes thrown in for good measure. The Screenslaver rants against the populace’s “here we are, entertain us” couch-potato desires, with super-heroes being an excuse for people to no longer take responsibility for their own decisions and actions.
More to the point, the Screenslaver’s rant runs on in the background, hoping maybe nobody will notice, while on-screen Elastigirl does a Spiderman through the city’s high-rises. Lest we forget, The Incredibles 2 comes from the conglomerate that owns the premier super-hero entertainment producer in the world, Marvel. Could the Screenslaver be Bird’s own rant against the landscape of infinite sequels and storylines he now has to work in, since – after all – it is said in the middle of a sequel?
Regardless, it’s a breath of fresh air to actually enjoy a blockbuster that as a sense of fun instead of just going through the motions. “The family that fights evil together stays together”, I guess, especially when there’s a baby (the hyper-active Jack-Jack) still finding out what exactly it is he can do to the amazement of everybody else (who had no idea he was developing powers). Pixar’s ever-spot-on voice cast (with Hunter taking the lead and Catherine Keener not far behind) just relishes Bird’s often priceless dialogue (“Is she having adolescence?”), and some of the best gags are only seemingly throwaway (“Oh, I missed his first power!” “Actually, his first 17.”).
Plus! The return of scene-stealing designer Edna Mode (“GALBAKI????”); Michael Giacchino’s swinging sixties spy score; production designer Ralph Eggleston’s eye-catching modernist-inspired designs. See? You can make a fun super-hero movie that isn’t just a little piece to slot in a wider puzzle and actually questions the whole concept of super-heroes in the process. And you can take the family to it.
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There’s no such levity in Sicario: Day of the Soldado, which isn’t so much a sequel to Denis Villeneuve’s 2015 gut-punchof a moral thriller as it is a parallel tale of the “black ops” world. It’s worrisome that even something as apparently self-contained as the original Sicario can get spun off into a sequel (or maybe even, God forbid, a cinematic universe...), but at least Day of the Soldado does not take the cynical grab-the-money-and-run option.
Though Villeneuve has been replaced by Italian TV veteran Stefano Sollima, making his US debut, original screenwriter Taylor Sheridan is back; if you know his other works (David Mackenzie’s justly acclaimed Hell or High Water and his own Wind River) you’ll realize he’s continuing to work his beat of real-life moral dramas. And even if Day of the Soldado shifts occasionally into more conventional tropes, it’s clear Sheridan has enough intelligence, enough thoughtfulness, to more than make up for it.
Sicario dealt with an FBI agent (Emily Blunt) unmoored from the conventional rulebook of law enforcement after making a deal with a group of US secret operatives. The new film discards Blunt’s character entirely to focus on that squad, headed by the returning Josh Brolin, and especially on its major “active”: the secretive Mexican assassin embodied, rather than played, by an equally returning Benicio del Toro. Del Toro doesn’t so much act the part (whose name is, actually, heard only once in the entire two hours) as he inhabits it: managing his physical presence, modulating the tone of voice, the eye contact, a head movement, a small stretch of the leg, while never losing sight of Alejandro’s constant, impenetrable inscrutability.
Del Toro is at the center of the story as the US government launches a covert operation to neutralize jihadis coming in through the Mexican border. The terrorists are coming in with the complicity of the narco cartels, who mix them through in their illegal immigration trips; the opening suggests the theme of collateral damage in a somewhat overly gung-ho mode.
But it’s after the initial 30-minute exposition that Day of the Soldado really gets going, and it gets going really well. As the script moves down the hierarchy - from a silver-haired Matthew Modine as a result-oriented Secretary of Defense with a Marine Corps flag in his office to the boots-on-the-ground team of Brolin and Del Toro – Day of the Soldado gains a precise focus on the real-life consequence of the broad-stroke policies enabled by the officials. This is by making Del Toro cross the paths of two kids whose lives will forever be changed by their cartel connections, though neither of them had any idea of what they were getting themselves into.
With all this talk of screenwriting and acting, it’s easy to forget, and probably unfair, to forget that there is a director orchestrating the violent mayhem and the narrative gears. Sollima cut his teeth doing Mob dramas for Italian TV so he knows how to pay out line, even if he passes his American exam with proficiency rather than invention; there’s none of the Canadian Villeneuve’s deterministic solemnity, but also no shying away from the moral doubts that everyone – yes, even the kids - show at some point.
I do wonder if we needed another Sicario, and Day of the Soldado ends in a way that is both smart in how it restarts the cycle of violence and ill-advised in how it sets the story up for another film. Still, this is definitely not just a lazy recycling cash-in, but a stand-alone film with issues worth looking at.
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If there’s something the venerable Japanese master Yasujiro Ozu always did, and especially in his post-WWII golden years, was recycle his own plots and stories. 1949’s wondrous Late Spring is a case in point. It’s the tale of Noriko, played by the radiant Setsuko Hara (one of those faces, like Garbo’s or Falconetti’s or Marlene’s, made for the big-screen close-up), who resists her family’s attempts at marrying her off since she doesn’t want to leave her widowed father alone. This kind of comedy of marriage was a constant leit-motif in Ozu’s late-period work, and in fact his final film, An Autumn Afternoon, is almost a remake of Late Spring.
But you don’t, and you can’t, care less. No matter the specifics of the period (post-WWII Japan, the constant, unspoken presence of the war), family was always at the core of Ozu’s films, and the grown-up daughter leaving the nest to start her own life is a universal theme that the director always explored with infinite elegance, wit and delicateness. Hara, in the first of her six collaborations with Ozu, is superb as the selfless daughter whose devotion hides a strange selfishness; so is another regular of the director, Chishu Ryu, who plays the father with quiet and equally selfless resignation.
What really matters, though, is the remarkable way in which Ozu gives screen form to the elation and anxiety of the situation. Like in the long Noh theatre sequence, where a lot is said throughout without anyone even uttering a word of dialogue; or in the way the camera always lingers on the sets for a while longer, after everyone leaves (sometimes even before anyone enters the frame). There’s a sense of almost off-handed precision in the timing, exquisitely and almost imperceptibly dilating and reconfiguring the rhythms of the story; those apparently harmless additional beats slow down what starts off as a comedy into a wistful meditation on the passage of time and the meaning of home.
Trust the shot. That is a lesson not enough film directors have learnt, and one that explains why Ozu, more than half a century after his death, remains one of the great storytellers of cinema.