Movie review: Incredibles 2 (2018)

Often sequels are a bad idea. Incredibles 2 is not one of those bad ideas. The movie is quite engaging and entertaining. I loved the expressions on Baby Jack-Jack’s face, the ways he kept his dad up all hours of the night, and his stay with Aunt Edna—the family’s designer of their superhero suits. I liked Aunt Edna (aka Edna E Mode) too.

At the opening of the movie, our superhero family is in the midst of saving the world: father Mr. Incredible, mother Elastigirl, daughter Violet, son Dash, and baby Jack-Jack. (In all fairness, Jack-Jack wasn’t involved in any world saving. Yet.) They, of course, save the day. But the villain gets away. And the world doesn’t rejoice.

In fact, supers—as superheroes are called—are illegal. Throughout the world. They are banned due to the damage they inflict on the world.

But a billionaire businessman of a telecommunications company approaches them, offering to be their sponsor of sorts. His late father loved superheroes and had phones with direct lines to them. This is before the supers were banned. According to this businessman (Winston Deavor), all supers need is good PR. Then the public would come to their senses and make supers legal again.

How to run this PR campaign? Well, Mr. Incredible is all gung-ho to get started. But no, no. As a man, Mr. Incredible would not do as the face of the campaign. But his wife, Elastigirl, would. An interesting twist of events that parallels the rise of female superheroes in other recent movies, female politicians in the US, and women actors. Yes, 2018 was the year of the woman, even cartoon women.

The PR campaign is rather a commentary on the role of women in movies. Once upon a time, a lead role by a woman, especially in action movies or ones involving heroes that save the day, was unheard of. Strong women were not seen as good box office draws—until actually it turned out that they were. Incredibles 2 clearly pokes fun at this with the PR campaign that focuses on putting Elastigirl front and center.

It really isn’t all that radical for a wife and mother to be working or the sole breadwinner. This is the late 2010s. But I felt that I had fallen down a wormhole back to the 1980s. (In fact, I had. The Incredibles movies are set in the 1960s/1970s.) Mr. Incredible was crushed that he wouldn’t be out there battling villains. He had to take second seat to his wife and relinquish the limelight to her.

He belatedly offered to stay home and take care of the kids: helping them with their new math homework, fixing relationship problems, and watching the baby constantly. He seemed to be a bit insecure and nurse a fragile ego. And, of course, there were jokes about the work to care for kids as not being hard work (until he actually had to do it).

The daughter Violet deals with her own relegation to the stereotypical lesser female role. She and her brother Dash are left to care for the baby. And then Dash leaves her to babysit. (Later she arranges things so he has to look after the baby while she goes off to fight the bad guys.)

All in all, Incredibles 2 was an enjoyable watch. I already miss Elastigirl answering a call from Dash about where his shoes were while she was on her motorcycle chasing bad guys, or Mr. Incredible staying up all night to learn new math so he could help Dash do his homework.

And I miss the artistic Edna Mode with her large glasses, pageboy haircut, and kimono. She is the quintessential creative designer type.

She causally notes that Mr. Incredible’s way of placating Jack-Jack and preventing him from transfiguration by giving him a cookie is not a good solution. “Any solution involving cookies will inevitably result in the demon baby.”

Her solution is a creative one. Whenever Jack-Jack bursts into flames from anger, his superhero suit encases him in a fire retardant. “The fire retardant is blackberry-lavender, darling. Effective, edible, and delicious.”

I am already looking forward to another sequel. I hope it doesn’t take as long as the last one (fourteen years). I need more Edna in my life.

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Movie review: The Incredibles (2004)

Action movies. Animation. The two come together in The Incredibles. Either genre has die-hard followers—think of the influx of action movies in the past decade or the movies of Hayao Miyazaki such as Spirited Away. I occasionally enjoy a well-made action or animated movie, but I am not a rabid fan of either. (Well, Spirited Away might be the exception.)

But I LOVE The Incredibles.

I am not sure why it took me so look to watch this 2004 film. Perhaps because of the oversaturation of action, super-hero movies and the fan-base that goes with them. (I do tend to shy away from the latest fads gripping popular culture until years after the hubbub has died away.)

The Incredibles is set in the 1960s—home décor screams the colors and designs of that era and the division of labor by sexes suggests it too. Superheroes abound in the world but after the destruction that accompanies them saving the world, they are banned. Outlawed. The supers are relocated in witness protection programs. They start their lives over as ordinary people, blending in as much as possible.

Sandwiched between saving the world and this ban, Mr. Incredible marries Elastagirl. They fully embrace their non-superhero identities as The Parrs.

The movie fast forwards fifteen years. The ban has long been in effect. Bob (Mr. Incredible) is slowly being crushed under the weight of being a normal Joe, a cog in the corporate wheel. Helen is a stay at-home home with three kids in a house with avocado-colored décor. (Yes, the 1960s.)

Bob occasionally gets together with his former superhero colleague Frozone. The two friends go bowling, which is actually code for listening to police scanners. They try to respond to dire situations without getting caught. Sometimes they are not so lucky.

Bob ends up fired from his job where he approves or rejects insurance claims—he is suppose to reject all but finds ways to help customers get approval. (Probably a background in helping others is NOT good for excelling at rejecting insurance claims.) His firing isn’t the only secret he keeps from his wife Helen.

He is contacted by Mirage, a former superhero, about a new gig—capturing a robot gone rogue. He jumps at the chance to be Mr. Incredible again. All is well until it turns out that the guy behind the request is a former fan that he spurned—a geeky kid now all grown up with technological toys.

Meanwhile, Helen has discovered that Mr. Incredible’s old suit had been repaired. Curious she calls up Edna Mode, the ultra-hip designer of their suits, to have a chat. Helen learns that Edna designed new suits for the entire family. With a tracking device linked to the suits, Helen finds Mr. Incredible, now a captive on a volcanic island owned by the formerly spurned fan. (Could this be a more 1960s action movie plot? James Bond anyone?)

The family unites to battle the foe, which spills over from the island to the mainland. Clearly, they are violating the ban on superheroes. In the end, they vanquish the foe, only to have another one appear. But that foe, it appears, is for another movie.

My favorite part of the movie? Edna Mode. Her character is such a delight. (She does kind of have a cult following it seems.) She has some of the best lines. “I never look back, darling. It distracts from the now.” She is adamant on her designs. Capes are out. She calmly lists all the superheroes who died thanks to capes that got caught in something or other. And you do not argue with Edna. When she asks you to stop by in an hour, you stop by in an hour. To do otherwise is unthinkable.

The benefit to watching a popular movie years after it released? The sequel is already out. No fourteen years of waiting for it. More Incredibles and Edna Mode awaits.

Movie review: Pawn Sacrifice (2015)

Genius and madness go hand in hand. Or at least that is the common assumption. Bobby Fischer certainly had his eccentricities. Pawn Sacrifice shows them all as well as the arrogance and the mistreatment of others that accompanied them.

The movie depicts Bobby’s obsession with chess at a young age. His mom takes him to a chess master in the city to either develop his skills or in hopes that his obsession will burn out. In any case, his love of chess doesn’t end but consumes him. He becomes more demanding and bombastic as he gets older, often making impossible demands on those around him.

The movie portrays him as a prima donna. He often acts as a spoiled brat and throws tantrums. Not paid enough, he doesn’t show up for a match. Not quiet enough for him to think during a match, he walks out.

Why was this tolerated? It was the Cold War and Fischer of Russian descent was a pawn in the fight to prove that the West was better. Other races occurred in space and defense. And then there was the battle to dominate chess. Fischer was another person sacrificed in the proxy wars between the US and the USSR.

Fischer’s erratic behavior presumably pointed to a mental illness. But rather than get help, others around him sought to use him for their own “patriotic” ends. Fischer manages somehow to be even-keel enough to outlast the 1972 World Chess Championship without the matchup ending in him walking away or forfeiting.

Pawn Sacrifice is well made but a rather sad look at a chess master who devoted his life to chess, was a pawn in other’s wars, and was bedeviled by paranoia and anti-Semitic beliefs—made even more tragic by his own Jewish heritage. In the closing frames, the movie touches on his adult life after the 1972 championship, leaving me with a profound sense of sadness about Bobby and the futility of the Cold War.

Movie review: Shadow of the Vampire (2000)

Shadow of the Vampire is a creative story about the filming of the famous 1922 silent film Nosferatu. The movie takes quite a bit of liberty with the facts but has an engaging and somewhat spooky storyline.

Nosferatu was F. W. Murnau’s masterpiece, a German film about vampires that took Bram Stoker’s Dracula as its inspiration. (Stoker’s widow would not give Murnau the rights to make a movie based on the book.)

In Shadow of the Vampire, Murnau is an egomaniac, driven to make the perfect film no matter what the cost. And the cost, it turns out, is huge. He keeps his cast and crew in the dark about some scenes, locations, and most importantly, the actor playing Count Orlok (his movie version of Count Dracula). Orlok, he pronounced, will be played by Max Schreck, a certain actor that no one else knew. Schreck would stay in character the entire time, never coming out of character even when no filming was taking place.

People thought Schreck/Count Orlok odd, but no one thought much of it. Not even when cast members had to be replaced because Orlok was attacking them to drink their blood. This is not to say that the cast and crew weren’t weirded out by Orlok—they were. But no one really thought anything was amiss.

And then during one drug-induced bout of honesty, Murnau confides in some crew members about Orlok’s true nature, where he found him, and what he promised him. The crew members who heard the truth were horrified. But not horrified enough to try to prevent the inevitable from happening.

The film follows many of the shots and scenes in the original Nosferatu. Murnau shoots Gustav approaching the castle, Gustav and Orlok looking over and signing the contracts, and Orlok attacking Greta. The original story is spooky enough but the storyline of the new movie adds a new layer on top, more horrifying than scary.

Once the crew is in the know about the truth—that Murnau made a deal with Orlok—they go along. That is almost more horrifying than the deal that Murnau made—if Count Orlok acts in his movie, in the end, Murnau will give the vampire Greta, the female lead. In the end, those in the know become victims of the vampire too. All the while Murnau films—one death after another—until the vampire is killed by the rising sun.

Shadow of the Vampire truly sports an unusual storyline and is populated with outstanding actors. If you are a fan of Nosferatu, the vampire genre, or horror, you will likely enjoy this movie. The horror revolves around how far one man will go for glory and others will go as passive enablers. The movie resonates with history. Just a decade or two after the movie takes place, Germans would be passive enablers of Hitler. Horror indeed.

Movie review: Taxi to the Dark Side (2007)

The topic of torture may seem passée. Until you remember that War on Terror has still not ended and GITMO still exists. In some respects, nothing has changed since late 2001.

Taxi to the Dark Side won Best Documentary Feature at the Oscars in 2007 and it is easy to see why. The film uses the kidnap, torture, and murder of a Pakistani taxi driver as a springboard into examining the use of torture by the United States in the War on Terror.

Dilawar, who earned a living by driving a taxi for his remote Pakistani village, disappeared in 2002. Five days later he turned up dead after having been tortured by US forces. His death certificate, which had been given to his family, listed homicide as the cause of death. Homicide at the hands of Americans. (The death certificate was in English. The family did not know the listed cause of death until a reporter read it to them.)

Dilawar had no rights, no hearing, no trial. He was considered a threat, picked up, interrogated, and tortured—to the point that his legs were described as “pulpified”. If he had lived, his legs would have needed to be amputated.

Taxi to the Dark Side proceeds to interview soldiers who were responsible for the treatment and torture of detainees at the Bagram detention center. They did not have clear rules or guidelines to follow. They did not follow field manuals. Nor the Geneva Conventions. Vague instructions trickled down from above that allowed, even encouraged, what could only be called torture. At the end of the documentary, we learn that these soldiers were eventually made scapegoats, tried, and in many cases convicted of torture. Higher-ups were never charged.

The techniques used at Bagram made their way to Abu Ghraib, the infamous prison in Iraq where similarly horrible atrocities were carried out. The documentary does not sugarcoat anything that was done. Graphic pictures and short videos show the torture.

Experts such as lawyers, military personnel, and psychologists appear in the documentary, explaining how torture came to be the norm and how the Geneva Conventions were ignored. Torture was defined however higher-ups in civilian and military leadership wanted to define it, which let them state with a straight face on camera that the US does not torture. All of the techniques that were used were never officially approved but were on lists of techniques to use that circulated among detention facilities worldwide.

Fascinating was the bit about how these techniques came to be. Decades earlier psychologists looked into the best ways to essentially break someone. In recent years, putting people in isolation has been recognized as inhumane treatment—isolation can mentally unhinge people and have lasting psychological effects. Related to extended isolation is the use of sensory deprivation. Psychologists discovered, and the US started to use, techniques of sensory deprivation to destroy people.

The use of sensory deprivation explains the use of hoods on detainees (and the use of goggles underneath these hoods) as well as mittens. The hoods, not to mention the goggles, were never about transporting prisoners safely. Without input from your senses, you start to loss contact with reality, which has profound effects on your mental health. Within a couple days, you start to hallucinate.

The basic arguments against torture are also laid out in the documentary: torture doesn’t work and it violates our American principles. Despite the evidence that torture leads to misinformation at best and the realization that torture defies basic human rights upon which our American principles are built, over a third of Americans still condone its use—even after the Abu Ghraib scandal!

That Americans would still condone torture in large numbers is shocking to me and a profoundly depressing realization. If we are fighting the War on Terror to preserve America and its principles, but doing so violates our principles, what is the point of the war? If we do not have our principles, what do we have?

Another disturbing point brought up in the documentary is that Guantanamo was touted as a place to put people that the US captured on the battlefield. But in fact, most of the people who have called Guantanamo home have been people that our allies have handed over to us, not people that we captured. By some accounts, 95% of detainees were handed over by our allies. By other accounts, this number is only 93%.

And by allies, I mean Afghani warlords and Pakistani authorities. For money. They handed over people, and we gave them money for these people no questions asked. The abuse of such a system is enormous. How many detainees have been there for years or decades because someone had a grudge against them back in Afghan (or as one person mentioned, someone wanted their poppy field and turned them in in order to gain possession of the land)?

Moazzam Begg, a British citizen, was one such person. Begg was seized in Pakistan and taken to Guantanamo Bay where he spent 20 months being tortured. Eventually the British government was able to gain his release.  Begg is interviewed throughout the documentary.

The horror is that not only is US torturing people, which goes against our principles, our military rules, and the Geneva Conventions, but the US is giving people money in exchange for detainees. It is the body count phenomena in Vietnam all over again.

Unlike in Vietnam, success in the War on Terror is not necessarily counted how many people we have killed, but how many people we have locked up. To prove that we are winning, we have to inflate the body count. Here, let us pay you to give us people whether they are involved in terrorism or not. Guilt isn’t important. Numbers are. Just like in our criminal justice system where we value people—anybody—being locked up more than administering justice and getting the right people locked up.

Experts in gathering intelligence speak in the documentary about how misleading information gathered from torture really is. Building rapport is a much more successful technique to extract legitimate information.

One intelligence expert explains how a typical rapport building session goes. The thing is, he states, the life of the person detained is over. They know it. You know it. What is important to the detained person now is negotiating with captors about the things that matter to him: his family. You offer to do things for his family, to take care of them, to give his children education…only if he cooperates. That method of intelligence gathering, the expert explains, is highly successful.

But rapport building does not make for good TV. A small point made in the documentary bears some thought. Popular culture touts not rapport building but torture as a legitimate way to extract information. The ticking time bomb scenario, where we must extract information immediately to save hundreds or thousands or millions of American lives, is a common theme. Would you justify torture if it meant saving lives? Rather a hypothetical question for a situation that has never occurred. But this scenario and the justification of torture has permeated our culture thanks to its portrayal in media and entertainment.

Ironically the use of torture is putting millions at risk rather than making them safer. The more we torture people, the more we create people opposed to the US and willing to attack the US as revenge for the torture and mistreatment that they endured. Since 2001 we have been creating future terrorists because of how we have treated people from Islamic cultures. We reap what we sow, and the chickens will come home to roost.

In the process, we are losing what we are trying to defend. America was founded on rule of law and certain freedoms. We have betrayed this and continue to do so. Without these rules and freedoms, such as habeas corpus, which states that we cannot be detained indefinitely without a hearing, what are we? How is American democracy different from a dictatorship or authoritarian regime?