Sunday, November 28, 2004

"Incredibles" is just that


directed by Brad Bird
with the voices of Craig T. Nelson, Holly Hunter, Jason Lee, Samuel L. Jackson, and others

No doubt about it, Pixar has done it again. Those folks have yet to make a bad movie: scratch that, they have yet to make a movie that isn’t affirmatively good. But “The Incredibles” also marks a departure from its predecessors, and not just because of its PG rating. It’s the first of the bunch to convey mixed messages and unresolved conflicts just beneath its shiny happy exterior. I say this with all due respect to a terrific film that is at least twice as sophisticated and ten times as entertaining as most of the live-action features currently playing in theaters. Like its hero, Mr. Incredible, it doesn’t quite fit into the skin-tight suit in which it’s expected to work its magic, but forges ahead anyway with terrific energy and surprisingly light-footed grace.

The premise of “The Incredibles” is sharply witty without any of the self-conscious smugness that mars equally clever movies such as “Shrek” (an advantage that I contend Pixar has shown consistently over Dreamworks in the computer-animated feature department). In a nutshell, the superheroes of the world are forced into government-funded anonymity, reminiscent of the FBI’s Witness Protection Program, when aggrieved Joe Schmoes begin suing them for the collateral damage resulting from their rescues. (Incidentally, as a de facto lawyer myself, I have to say the under-twenty seconds of screen time given one of the Joe Schmoe’s attorneys is scarily realistic.) Included among the reshuffled heroes are, of course, Mr. Incredible, renamed Bob Parr, and his wife, Helen, formerly known as Elastigirl for her marvelous rubber-like flexibility.

Fifteen years later, we see the Incredibles occupying an incognito bourgeois existence that’s as incisive a caricature of suburban conformism as anything in recent film. “Bob” has basically flatlined as an insurance claims adjuster, crammed in a dreary gray cubbyhole of a cubicle, who covertly guides customers to find the loopholes in their policies. He’s also succumbed to the middle-aged spread. Helen is less obviously catatonic as a suburban soccer mom, but then she has her hands full trying to rein in their offspring, two of whom have superpowers they don’t know what to do with. Rambunctious Dash can run faster than the blink of an eye, but can only find outlet for his energy in pulling pranks on his teachers. His older sister, the painfully shy Violet, can disappear at will and surround herself with force fields, but only uses these abilities to hide from people. (Only the baby, Jack Jack, appears normal, and there’s more to him, too, than meets the eye.) Helen preaches conformism to her children, for the sake of “fitting in,” even as her husband surreptitiously defies this family gospel by moonlighting as a superhero with his old pal Lucius, aka Frozone—the only times he shows a spark of life.

In due course, our hero snaps at work and is laid off, then lured into an alternate, much sexier job that utilizes his superpowers for a mysterious employer. Rather unwisely, he doesn’t tell his family anything about this career change. He subsequently discovers that his employer, who calls himself “Syndrome,” has been nursing a lifelong grudge against superheroes and elaborately plotting their collective demise. Helen, meanwhile, discovers her husband’s been up to something, and faithfully tracks him to Syndrome’s island hideout. The kids, as kids do, sneak along for the ride.

Well, you can guess where the story goes, though that doesn’t make it any less of a delight to watch. Visually, “The Incredibles” has a highly stylized, sleekly minimalist look that sets it apart from the other Pixar productions. At the same time, it gets every minute detail right—from the blond flip and tailored gray suit of Mirage, the seductive female agent who recruits for Syndrome, to the snap and pop of bubble gum in the open mouth of a kiddie neighbor who observes firsthand that the Parrs aren’t quite what they seem to be. The animators’ witty touches are well matched by the script, which reaches a high point with the appearance of the Incredibles’ friend and ally, the pint-sized yet formidable fashionista Edna Mode (hilariously voiced by director Brad Bird).

Yet the ultimate message “The Incredibles” conveys is a bit blurred. Several reviewers have commented on the film’s not-so-subtle Ayn Randian subtext. Certainly it mounts a pointed attack on a society’s suffocation of individuality and superior ability. (How accurately this critique reflects the actual state of our society is debatable, though the outcome of the recent presidential election might suggest...ok, I’ll stop there.) The heroes are punished for exercising their special powers, where they should be thanked and praised, and they stand in danger of being submerged by a rising tide of mediocrity epitomized in the villain’s triumphant cackle: “If everyone is special, then no one is!”

However, there’s another message that comes through just as strongly, which softens the movie’s hard-edged homage to rugged individualism. And that is the hubristic folly of trying to go it alone, without the support of those who love and need you. Early on, Helen berates her husband for being selfishly hung up on his glory days and only wanting to be a superhero once again. Impossible as it is not to sympathize with him, there’s a ring of truth to her complaint that’s borne out by the arc of the story. It’s Mr. Incredible’s attempt to revive his solo identity as Mr. Incredible that lands him in trouble and unwittingly precipitates the impending disaster Syndrome plans to spring on the world. And it’s only with the help and support of his family (all in matching uniforms) that he’s able to defeat the forces of evil. Put another way, we’re talking good old-fashioned “family values” here. It may not take a village, but it sure takes a family to save the world.

All this may be reading entirely too much into a family flick that is at bottom a romp in Pixarland. But “The Incredibles” is nothing if not a movie “for all ages,” and like the best of these, it lends itself to multiple levels of interpretation. The fact that some of these interpretations lie in tension with each other is a testament to its sophistication. And sophistication—like superheroes—is something we need more of in this world, not less.

RATING: *** 1/2

ALSO SAW... (Capsule review only)

directed by Marc Forster
starring Johnny Depp, Kate Winslet, Julie Christie, Radha Mitchell, and Dustin Hoffman

Loosely based on the real-life story of the genesis of “Peter Pan,” “Finding Neverland” stars Depp as J.M. Barrie and Winslet as Sylvia Llewelyn-Davies, the mother of four boys who inspired him to write the play that would become his best-loved work. It’s a sweet movie, unexpectedly melancholy rather than schmaltzy, but also curiously listless—despite lovely understated work by Depp and a suitably steely performance by the venerable Christie as Sylvia’s dragon lady-mom. Winslet is competent, though she looks far too healthy to be Barrie’s consumptive and platonic muse. I couldn’t help wondering how the movie would have played if she had switched casting with the reed-thin, wistfully pretty Mitchell, who plays Barrie’s estranged wife. Hoffman barely registers as Barrie’s supportive but skeptical producer. All in all, what I would call "almost" a good movie...but not quite.

Rating: ** 1/2

Sunday, November 21, 2004

The Misadventures of Miss Jones


directed by Beeban Kidron
starring Renée Zellweger, Colin Firth, Hugh Grant

I know I’m not the first to say this, having read some pretty harsh reviews of Bridget Jones’s second cinematic outing, but I have to say it anyway: This movie is a waste of everyone’s time. By “everyone” I mean both the people who made it and the people who have seen it or plan to see it.

The plot is nonsensical—one long string of silly non sequiturs and pointless contrivances cobbled clumsily together. (How closely it resembles Helen Fielding's novel in this respect I can't say, not having read either "Bridget Jones's Diary" or "The Edge of Reason.") The main character has become a caricature of herself. She bears no resemblance to the Everywoman all women, and many men, loved from the first movie. And whether it’s bad lighting, bad makeup, bad camera angles, or Renee showing her age (or weight gain), she looks thoroughly unappetizing from start to finish. In BJD, she had an unquenchable glow that made her utterly endearing. Here, that crinkle-cornered look of appeal in her eyes begins to take on a tinge of desperation, as if she can’t quite believe she’s come to this. For every Bridget Jones Moment that makes you laugh despite yourself, there are two or three that will make you cringe. (You know you’re in trouble in any movie when someone starts leading a chorus of Madonna’s “Like a Virgin.” And yes, that includes "Moulin Rouge.")

There are just two—count ‘em, two—redeeming features to this misbegotten sequel. One is Hugh Grant, looking devilishly sexy as Bridget’s forbidden fruit and nailing every line he drawls with pitch-perfect insouciance. The other is his ridiculous fight with the equally dishy but tighter-lipped Colin Firth, which lands them both in a London fountain. That fight alone is almost worth the price of admission. It also, however, points to the basic problem of the movie as a whole: “The Edge of Reason” isn’t a sequel; it’s a retread that ends up feeling like a shoddy knockoff. It has all the elements of the original—or at least approximations—but none of the charm. In this respect, it reminded me a little of “Legally Blonde 2”—only I didn’t have anywhere near the affection for “Legally Blonde” that I did (and still do) for “Bridget Jones’s Diary.” The best thing I can say about Bridget Jones 2 is that it’s ultimately too forgettable to affect my continued enjoyment of Bridget Jones 1.

RATING: ** (barely)

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Continuous hell is pretty cool

directed by Andy Lau
starring Andy Lau (a different one!), Tony Leung, Anthony Wong, Eric Tsang

(Note: Although this movie was released in Hong Kong in 2002 and followed in rapid succession by two sequels, all of which are currently available on DVD, it played in L.A. for the first time this past weekend at the AFI film festival. It is unclear whether Miramax has any plans for wider release, although an American remake is said to be in the works. Boo Miramax!)

The central conceit of “Infernal Affairs” is at once brilliantly simple and simply brilliant. A Hong Kong gang honcho called Sam (Eric Tsang) sends several young recruits to infiltrate the police force by entering and training as cadets. One of them, Lau, quickly rises to the top of his class. Meanwhile, a bona fide cadet in the same academy, Yan, is chosen by police superintendent Wong (Anthony Wong) to go undercover and infiltrate—you guessed it—Sam’s gang. Years later, their paths cross when the police nearly seize a transaction between Sam and some Thai dealers. The police tip comes from Yan (Tony Leung), who’s become Sam’s right-hand man; the tip-off to Sam, from Lau (played by Andy Lau, not to be confused with director Andy Lau), now an officer working directly under SP Wong. Both Sam and SP Wong figure out that each has planted a mole within the other’s ranks, and each instructs his own mole to discover the identity of the other.

The possibilities of this premise are endless, and director Lau exploits both its inherent symmetry and its inherent tension to create a tautly paced, smartly underplayed thriller about dual identity multiplied by two. In one of the movie’s best moments, a confrontation between Wong’s task force and Sam’s gang following the failed drug bust, the scene at first calls to mind a game of chess, with all the black-shirt pawns on one side and all the white-collar pawns on the other—until a pregnant pause explodes into a single, sudden gesture of violence (a rhythm that recurs in later, climactic junctures). In that moment, as the two bosses call each other on their respective moles, we realize for neither the first nor the last time that the parallel storylines of Yan and Lau are really part of an infinite loop. (The title of the movie is a clumsy translation of the Buddhist concept of "continuous hell," a torment reserved particularly for traitors.) Later, in another terrific sequence, Yan catches a glimpse of Lau conferring with Sam and trails him down a shadowy Hong Kong-noir alley, only to be called back by his own boss—at which point Lau, who knows he’s being followed, starts following his follower.

The obvious idea here is that we can’t clearly separate pursuer from pursued, cop from gangster, insider from outsider, any more than they can. Each has spent so long in disguise that his sense of identity has become blurred. In searching for each other, they're also searching—with equal urgency—for themselves. But while the blurring between the two is thematically perfect, emotionally it’s somewhat unbalanced. Not that the movie probes particularly deeply into either man’s internal conflicts: all we know is that Lau doesn’t show signs of any—though his otherwise-oblivious girlfriend is writing a novel about a man with 28 personalities (hint, hint)—and that Yan is seeing a psychologist without telling her much of anything. Yet the haggard Yan is infinitely more poignant than the clean-cut, impassive Lau—partly because of Leung’s wonderfully haunted eyes, which he used to such harrowing effect in films like “In the Mood for Love,” partly because of his personal connection with SP Wong, who cuts a far more sympathetic and compelling paternal figure than his oily criminal counterpart. As it is, both Yan and Lau appear to be cultivating purely instrumental relationships with Sam, while Lau’s attitude towards Wong is opaque at best. The movie might have been stronger if it had established more grounds for divided loyalties.

There’s a twist, of course, but it’s ultimately a silly twist that does nothing to advance our understanding of either adversary. In fact, it may leave many viewers feeling cheated in the latter regard. Fortunately, “Infernal Affairs” doesn’t rise or fall by the convolutions of its plot, but rather by the mirroring of its two central characters. And that has rarely, if ever, been so neatly executed.


Friday, November 12, 2004

The O.C. Report

After a slow start last week, back with a bang. And we're treated to the spectacle of Ryan actually TALKING, Caleb getting sloshed and then arrested, and Jimmy getting sloshed and proposing marriage, among other juicy bits. I am satisfied, though still waiting for Marissa to throw more lawn furniture around.

Random observations:

What is it about yard guys and gardeners? From "Sex and the City" to "Desperate Housewives" (which I don't watch, but have heard features a hunky gardener) and now to the "O.C." you've got all these hot guys tending to more than the lawns. My theory: they're all domesticated descendants of Lady Chatterley's lover. I need to get myself a gardener - or a cabana boy.

Not that I think Marissa's boy toy is all that. Summer's new beau, on the other hand, is kee-YUTE. Not that I don't love you, Seth, but IMO she traded up.

Summer had the best speeches in this episode, hands down. She really told it like it is to both Ryan and Seth. And ya know what, she's absolutely right. They can't just disappear and expect the girls to pick up where they left off.

Plus I think Ryan's been more than a bit of a jerk to Teresa. He shouldn't have gone with her if he had absolutely no feeling for her. There were other ways to help her with a child. And the fact that he's not making sure she's ok after supposedly miscarrying but instead running after Marissa is inexcusable.

Ryan as an architect, though - I like it. "Words aren't really my thing," he says. Really, we hadn't noticed...

Good old Sandy, coming to the rescue again - and for Caleb no less. I thought he would, and not because of Julie's threats. Though boy, was she scary when she threatened him. Someone remind me again why people find her attractive?

Lines of the week:
"I'll just brood silently over here." -Ryan
"He's just a non-neurotic WASP version of me!" -Seth
"Now if you'll excuse me, I'm gonna go find a hot dog stand to stand on." -Seth

Non-related comment on "The Apprentice," which I also caught tonight: Clearly no one on Apex has a chance in hell of winning this thing. That team is a black hole for all inspiration, energy, and leadership - people with a spark of any of these qualities go there to die. Apex? More like Nadir. If I were a betting woman, I'd put my money on Wes. Dark horse: Andy. Of the women, only Sandy has a fighting chance, but I don't think she has what it takes.

Sunday, November 07, 2004

Post-Election Musings: The Limits of Tolerance

So I’ve been holding off holding forth on Decision 2004, mainly because I wanted a few days to allow my partisan passions to cool into a more reflective frame of mind. And so I have, though I’m still walking a pretty narrow ledge between profound depression and impotent rage. Mostly depression, though, because it’s not as if the election outcome was a surprise in any way. It’s been clear for years now that a disquieting cultural rift has been growing and deepening between the “blue” and “red” areas, the coasts and the middle, the urban and the not-so-urban. Especially the latter, which just reinforces my long-held conviction that people in this country would empathize with each other a lot better if everyone from an area of under 100,000 population were required, before the age of 15, to spend at least one year of his or her life in a city of more than 1 million, AND VICE VERSA. The bobos need to send their kids to the breadbasket, too. (Speaking of bobos, I think a sequel should be written to David Brooks’ book titled “Bobos in Hell,” or maybe, if you’re more optimistic, “Bobos in Purgatory.”)

Unfortunately, given where we are now, there’s no impulse on either side to try to bridge the gap. The conservatives don’t have to and don’t want to—they feel vindicated. The liberals, appalled by the message coming from the heartland, don’t want to and don’t see how we can, even though it’s now clear that we’re going to have to if we want to stay alive politically. Morally, ours is an ideology of tolerance, if that isn’t an oxymoron, which is never going to win over those who think we’re tolerating things that are absolutely wrong and need to be wiped out.

Whether we can win back enough of the Bush voters depends on how many of them regularly vote based principally on whether the candidate or his party shares (or appears to share) their views on abortion, gay marriage, religion in schools & public institutions, and pop culture, rather than on their economic well-being. As a driving factor, the latter lost out to the former this year—clearly. We have to hope it doesn’t every year. This year may just have been a tipping point, what with gay marriage and attacks on the Pledge of Allegiance and the Ten Commandments, and who knows, maybe even Janet Jackson’s breast. That said, I find it ironic that after mobilizing the religious right and appealing to the moral sensibilities of the people closer to the middle, Bush set as the first priority of his second-term agenda...the privatization of social security. Um, we’ll see how that one works out for him.

But there was also a third factor in this mix—the fear of terrorism, which also tilted in favor of Bush. And here is where I am frankly at a loss. Bush and company waged war in a country that had nothing to do with the attacks of 9/11, and now thousands of people are dying in Iraq without any indication that a stable, viable democracy is being established. Our intelligence system still sucks, and Osama is still at large. How in hell is the guy presiding over this mess a fitter leader to protect our country than Kerry? Bring in the fourth factor—personality, which I think in the end was what decisively skewed this country towards Bush. Notwithstanding his poor performance in the debates and even poorer track record in Iraq, Bush still has a lock on the I’m-a-simple-Godfearing-guy-who-sticks-to-his-guns-and-takes-the-devil-by-the-horns image, at least in 51% of the public eye. It goes hand in hand with the moral values that also fired up his supporters: that Iraq is fundamentally a moral crusade. To my mind, this is a really scary perversion of Wilsonianism.

What the Democrats need is someone with more charisma than Kerry (who has about as much as a rock), more comfort with his religious faith (yep, sorry, fellow agnostics and secular humanists, this country’s never gonna elect someone like us), and a hell of a lot more eloquence in framing why the Democrat vision of how this country should be governed is the right one. Paging Barack Obama—in about twenty years, perhaps? Edwards I don’t think has it. Hillary, definitely not, though I do love the woman and would personally vote for her.

In the meantime, I fear for our country. Not so much because of Bush alone, though his administration makes my blood curdle on a daily basis: I expected him to win, though maybe not by such a decisive margin. What I didn’t expect was for the Republicans to increase their power in the Senate as well as the House. In the words of a mentor, we can anticipate legislation the likes of which we have not yet seen, not to mention a Supreme Court and federal judiciary who are going to do their damnedest to reverse every trend set in motion by the New Deal and the Warren Court. If you think that is a good thing, then there is nothing more to be said. But I do not.

Wow, that was a long ramble. I might just as well have pointed to a few good op-eds—there have many excellent pieces on why the Dems lost on all fronts. I haven’t yet figured out how to establish active links in this blog, but there’s a great, admittedly intra-party ongoing dialogue on Slate on “Why Americans Hate Democrats,” the best of which, in my opinion, is Diane McWhorter’s “Morality is the new race”:

Also check out Thomas Friedman’s Nov. 4 N.Y. Times op-ed on the “Two Nations,” at, and Thomas Frank’s Nov. 5 NYT op-ed, “Why They Won,” at

"Sideways": Not much of a trip


directed by Alexander Payne
starring Paul Giamatti, Thomas Haden Church, Virginia Madsen, Sandra Oh

This is not a review so much as a reaction—because at this point I’ve read far too many reviews of “Sideways,” most of them positively incandescent, and am a little tired of reading about the wonderful pinot noir metaphor at the center of the film. For my part, I have to admit I was somewhat disappointed. Oh, the movie’s funny, all right, and Payne’s eye for sociocultural detail is as sharp as ever. And he does his best to make the two protagonists full-bodied, richly developed characters rather than satirical targets. But whether it’s the fault of Payne or Rex Pickett, the author of the novel—it’s certainly not the fault of the actors, who are uniformly excellent—the movie just doesn’t do it for me because its protagonists are so unappealing.

Miles (Giamatti), the oenophile and failed writer, is the kind of person for whom the phrase “sad sack” was invented. Jack (Church), the lothario and failed actor who’s about to get hitched, brings a whole new meaning to the word “cad.” Neither really changes throughout the meandering course of this road-trip-through-wine-country flick, and it’s a tribute to the two actors that they made me care about their characters at all. Their only redeeming grace is their mutual affection and loyalty as friends, which does come across as genuine; individually, there’s not much to choose between them. Miles is a shade more sympathetic than Jack (for anyone who’s ever botched a move or drunk-dialed an ex, some of Giamatti’s scenes will make you wriggle in painful empathy), but remains doggedly unlikable because he’s so mopey and yet so pretentious at the same time. Jack’s exactly the opposite—you like him despite himself, despite or perhaps because of his hoggish sense of entitlement, but in the end you just can’t feel any sympathy for him even when his facade cracks: all your sympathy goes to the women he’s using and deceiving without even realizing that’s what he’s doing. “Election,” still Payne’s masterpiece, was better in this regard, even if it was much more pointedly a satire than “Sideways,” partly because Matthew Broderick’s Mr. McAllister seemed to have plenty good reason to hate Tracy Flick, and actually did something about it, even if it was the wrong thing.

The women of “Sideways” are given shorter shrift as characters, not because they’re thinly sketched but because this story’s really about the men. That would be ok if the men were a little more worth our while. Still, both Maya, Miles’ love interest, and Stephanie, Jack’s fling, are vividly portrayed by Madsen and Oh, respectively. Madsen is quietly luminous, Oh spunky and sexy, and both are entirely too good for the losers they’re paired up with. How often that’s true in real life, I won’t venture to say.

RATING: ** 1/2