The Prism: ‘Incredibles 2,’ ‘Tag,’ ‘Gotti’

The latest Prism looks at all different sorts of families.

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Each week, 615 Film’s resident overthinker Cory Woodroof will attempt to reflect the week’s releases against each other, new or repertory, showing how they intersect and blend to bring forth ideas about themselves in part and as a whole. Maybe it’ll form a rainbow when we’re done – who’s to say; science has a mind of its own. Welcome back to The Prism.

Incredibles 2 starts out in bombastic fashion. We’re whisked right back into the action, as Mr. Incredible, Elasta-Girl, Violet, Dash and Jack-Jack all ward off the Underminder (yes, the mole-thief with the gigantic bulldozing contraption from the end of the first film), and nearly see the city’s town hall destroyed by a wayward drill. The Underminer slips away (fingers crossed for a third appearance), and so does the Incredibles’ short leash with the government.

That’s the magnificent mirror that Brad Bird lays out with his Pixar sequel – every punch, every force-shield, every explosion and bang, boom, pow comes with a reverse idea. Few filmmakers can make their films all at once spectacle and worth speculating over, but few filmmakers are Bird. Even if his newest super-family tale isn’t quite as novel and refreshing as the first, Incredibles 2 is still a showing of strength for what Bird does best, and a teeny-tiny reminder of what he’ll always need to be mindful of.

This time, a super-telecommunications company, led by a doting fanboy who knows all of the super-theme songs to our main heroes, has the power to change the public reception of what superheroes are to the public. Winston Deavor has puppy dog confidence, his inventive sister Evelyn the cool of a cat. Both want to reframe the lens on supers. After losing their government support, the Incredibles and Frozone can’t turn the offer down.

But, Elastigirl gets the main duties this time as the Deavors feel that she’s the most able to corral in public admiration (hint: she’s more careful and breaks less things). So, in a clever twist of fortune, it’s Helen who gets to solve the day’s mystery, and Bob who stays home to take care of his three kids. Helen digs deep into why a mind-controlling baddie named the Screenslaver is trying to disrupt the city’s media frequencies and rain down havoc; Bob has to solve Dash’s new math book, tend to Violet after boy drama and help solve baby Jack-Jack’s myriad of emerging powers. It’s as relevant to gender roles in 2018 as it is a showy “this is how it’s done” to all of 2018’s summer blockbusters.

The film brings over the original’s penchant for splashy, smart action sequences, all tinged with Bird’s imaginative flair (one fight between Jack-Jack and a feral raccoon works as vaudevillian slapstick as it does blistering creativity). Michael Giacchino keeps the heartbeat pounding and dancing with a rousing homage and interesting extension to his previous work on the series. And, of course, Bird’s ear for voice casting remains undefeated, with Bob Odenkirk, Catherine Keener, Isabella Rossellini and Sophia Bush all inspired choices to breathe life into their animated counterparts.

Though, this is a Brad Bird film, and of course we’re going to have some ideas, and, yup, some monologuing. The Syndrome/monologuing gag in the first Incredibles is such piercing meta-commentary, with Bird well-aware of his desire to say lots of things with his movies. Most of the time, his messaging is seamless (see three of the greatest animated films of all times, this film’s predecessor, Ratatouille, The Iron Giant). Those films can’t be touched; they are perfect blends of filmmaking and posturizing and are unmatched for what they do.

Bird’s other films, sans his Mission: Impossible installment, in which he takes a break from theory and just has fun with his skillset, verve a little too close into homily. Tomorrowland whizzes and sparks with ingenuity and heart until Preacher Bird gets up to deliver the message; it’s not that it’s not good sentiment, it’s just that it kind of slows the film down. Bird is in his zone when things are going at one hundred miles an hour – even his intimate dialogue scenes move fast because they’re so well-written and relatable.

In Incredibles 2, the director says plenty of pertinent things about gender roles in the family, about how societies can view things that awe and scare them, about how tough parenting really can be. But, it also wants to provide commentary on our addiction to screens, on our morality when it comes to how we view, uh, morality, on doing the right thing and the wrong thing, on media’s impact on our society. And, I guess on raccoons being awful, which should never reach the ears of our new friend in St. Paul.

Bird’s always right, even if it’s not quite as succinct as we’d hope. But all the great directors have their weak spots. Bird’s is trying to chew on too many ideas at once. But, make no mistake: Bird is one of our great directors, as important as anyone who’s come before him. If Tomorrowland winds up being his misstep, what a heck of a misstep to make.

Incredibles 2 isn’t The Incredibles; there’s no way it could be. It’s a bit more translucent with Bird’s vices, but it’s also a striking testament to his virtues. It’s a master at work with the family that put him on the map. Of course it’s a great movie. Don’t trust me? Take on one of Bird’s many mottoes, and see for yourself.

Tag

In Tag, a group of middle-aged men use a child’s game to keep their childhood alive. Does that even function as a metaphor if it’s not even thinly concealed?

The first film for director Jeff Tomsic, Tag earns points for being so exhausting, y’know, like a game of…you guess it – TAG! At least it’s honest marketing.

If it weren’t for Hannibal Burress, who slides into his glorious corner and pops out cheeky one-liners throughout to keep us all sane, this film would be a comedic wasteland. It’s manic concept – a rose-colored filter thrown over a game of professional tag where lifelong chums subvert any and all laws (American, human, comedy) to finally make Jeremy Renner it – the sitting king of this game of tag, who is never, well, it. But, remember, this is also a metaphor for not wanting to let childhood die. As nice a sentiment that is in theory, you almost want this movie to just move out of its parent’s basement and get a job already.

The Tag team (have mercy) is all game (woof) for the film – almost too much at times. Rick James did tell us cocaine is a hell of a drug, but in this movie, so is tag. Here, tag is a heroine-like highway to the danger zone that nearly destroys the lives of all involved. They leave their kids for it; spend uproarious amounts of money on it, threaten physical and psychological harm on others to get tag, relish that sweet, sweet tag once they finally aren’t it. In one moment, they nearly waterboard someone in the name of tag. All at once, tag is used as an excuse for crashing an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting and in faking a miscarriage. At any moment when tag thinks about growing up, tag doesn’t, because tag freaking rules, and you’re a nerd. I NEED TAG, BABY! SPRING BREAK!

But, remember, loudly, that *tag is a metaphor for keeping your childhood alive.*

There’s a reason we all grow up, you know.

By the film’s end, we’re forced to encounter an emotional development that can’t help but touch you (ah, hell, we’re the ones who are it, screw you, Tag). See, tag can also have heart. And, y’know, it does suck when you grow apart from your friends. You’re angry that you have to sympathize with such a universal truth, because everything that comes before it is a pretty flagrant counterpoint – you believe it is all at once necessary and dire to leave child-like things behind and be a responsible adult. This film advocates boring.

Judd Apatow already paved the ground out for cinematic man-children who need to grow up; they were films for a bygone era when we could all afford immature white men to have a wide canvass work out their feels, and learn that adults are things, too. Apatow found the humanity in that crude, messy awakening; Tag wants to only force itself to accept the social norms by film’s end. But, y’know, it’s sweet when it does, in an “Ooh La La” by The Faces and nostalgia sort of way. Manipulation can work in movies.

The families we make never really leave us, though time and distance will try to convince us otherwise, and there’s nothing wrong with wanting to keep childhood bonds alive. But, when you’re willing to abandon any sense of maturity and responsibility to keep it going, you miss the joys of adulthood. Tag’s a movie that doesn’t want to grow up.

Gotti 2

In Gotti, La Cosa Nostra is at the heart of everything mob boss John Gotti and his associates do. It’s said many times – at formal meetings, in darkened hush-hush summits in old cars, in fits of rage when someone tries to put the “NO” in La Cosa NOstra. The Gottis love family, whether it be by blood, or by pricked blood in a coronation to join the infamous New York-based Gambino crime family.

There’s a lot of love in this movie. Maybe a little too much.

Director Kevin Connolly (yes, “E” from Entourage) makes his take on the Gotti legacy a naval gaze at a ne’er-do-well, almost the cinematic equivalent of that neighborhood kid who always wants to follow around the cool gangsters, only to get a tussle of the hair and a “get a load of this kid,” before he’s sent off while the adults go do adult things.

That kid typically grows up to be a cold, hardened mob boss himself; Gotti knows no such maturity.

It’s a film that’s straining to be everything you’ve seen before in the genre, but with all the admiration and zeal toward the life that those films were wise enough to avoid. It’s clumsy with the way it tells its story – often trying to utilize three different perspectives at once, none of which ever make sense for the other, ending up in a “grandpappy tells five different stories at once” twist of logic. Too often, you’re twelve scenes away from the last time you fully understood what was going on. It’s like if The Godfather told its sprawling epic narrative with splices of the day of the Don’s daughter’s wedding throughout the movie, but also with running, fourth-wall breaking narration from Marlon Brando.

John Travolta can’t be knocked for giving the leading Gotti role everything he’s got. It’s a big ham sandwich of a performance, though it’s absolutely committed, and entertaining. He plays Gotti as a mini-god, with Old Testament anger and New Testament water-to-wine cajole, but also with the gusto of the Italian Chef on The Simpsons if one of his dishes were on fire. The rest of the cast fills in like Spingfield’s Fat Tony, and his gaggle of “Bada Bing” bad guys, or like people who won fan contests to be in the movie at a Godfather convention. Only Stacy Keach, who has been ordained to be intimidating, really stands out, well, besides Travolta, who’s hard to miss.

It’s not that Connolly’s film is downright trash; he’s got a good eye for sequencing when he’s able to settle on a sequence, and it’s not his direct fault that Pit “Mr. Worldwide” Bull’s lazy synth score and obvious musical cues often clash with the moments that he frames well. Too many scenes fizzle right before your very eyes when you imagine Pitbull in the corner, plucking away at a synthesizer and jamming out like he’s at Coachella. I suppose it’s not Gotti’s fault that’s what came to my mind at times, but I suppose it’s also not-not the film’s fault, either.

Mafia movies will always be a delicate walk, just because you don’t want to be too adoring of people who literally shoot bullets through people’s brains and distribute cocaine throughout communities as often as they toast to La Cosa Nostra and celebrate weddings (it feels like every good mafia movie has a wedding in it). These films don’t have to be sanitized; we all get curious about how these things worked historically. We crowd around the little window that looks into the basement where the mafia magic happens, where bosses are crowed and downed in equal fasion. Mob movies can make for great cinema. But, curiosity isn’t by itself worthy of art, which makes Gotti more informational than good.

Gotti is a movie you become curious about, but that’s only if you don’t know a ton about the Godfather of New York. It’s, at times, comic-tragedy in all the wrong ways, at other times, Goodfellas cosplay. It will only engage people who just are naturally inclined to think these people are more than cool in just a cinematic sense.

Connolly has a future as a documentarian; he peppers this film with fascinating clips of New Yorkers who mourn Gotti’s passing as they would any folk hero in their midst, suggesting it’s the government who is crooked, and that Gotti is their Robin Hood of the Five Boroughs. There’s a deeper exploration here to be had about how something like the Gambino crime family anchored itself into a community, and how the public, and the media, paint these infamous crime legends in their heyday and in the rearview.

And, there’s further analysis to be given to the treatment of Gotti’s son, who while guilty of crime, the film argues was used as a whipping post for the government to get its last lashes in to his family name. Is that exactly true? Who’s to say, but it’s an idea that would have been better explored outside of a pre-credit black screen text typed in what can only be described as Microsoft Word’s “Fuggedaboutit.”

Connolly would be an excellent steward for this introspection in documentary format, and Travolta a great narrator. That film might win an Oscar. Not Gotti, no. You can forget about that.

Perhaps this lackluster effort could produce something much better, like many changing of the guards in mafia movies. This story needs to stay in the family, but you’ve got to rearrange the furniture.

Right now, they’re in all the wrong places.

The Prism: ‘Adrift,’ ‘Action Point’

Welcome to our new weekly review column, The Prism.

Each week, 615 Film’s resident overthinker Cory Woodroof will attempt to reflect the week’s releases against each other, showing how they intersect and blend to bring forth ideas about themselves in part and as a whole. Maybe it’ll form a rainbow when we’re done – who’s to say; science has a mind of its own. Welcome to The Prism.

We’re all just out here trying to survive, right?

The cinema has long been a place of disaster-ridden escapism, with some macabre film executive long ago deciding that it would be fun to watch people survive in fictional (or “based on a true story”) scenarios on the big screen, so that the audience can munch on popcorn while an island-bound Tom Hanks laments at the loss of his volleyball companion Wilson, or poor park guests try not to become the early bird special for 65 million years plus crowd. Your big queen-size bed waiting for you at the end of the show makes it easier to stomach.

No masked slasher or ne’er-de-well gunslinger has amassed a higher body count than Mother Nature, and in Adrift, she comes to kill a sullen romance on the high seas.

Building a good romance is a bit like tossing dough to make a pizza crust. You’ve got to pound and roll the dough around to firm it up, but the deftest of touches completes the process in the air. You’ve got to do the leg work to cast the likeable leads, make sure the script doesn’t sick the starstruck lovers in dialogue that would come out better in chunks (yes, those chunks) and ensure that whatever journey the romantics go on doesn’t hold back the genuine lovey-dovey-ness of all of it.

Misery loves company, so it’s no wonder so many romances are predicated on an afternoon gone wrong. Adrift sends Shailene Woodley, who plays a carefree globetrotter with no set destination, with Sam Claffin, a carefree globetrotter with no set destination and a beard, into a tropical depression. The two meet on land in Tahiti, and drift into each other’s arms, their shared love of all things nautical and free-spiritedness the, ahem, anchor to their swoon. It sounds corny, but it’s a real story, and Woodley and Claffin have a comfortable chemistry with each other. It’s not exactly Bogart and Bergman, but you believe that these two make sense for each other. It makes sense that Miles Teller, Woodley’s real-life on-screen Bergman, was once cast in this role.

Baltasar Kormákur, whose ignored 2015 against-the-elements drama Everest will have you reeling the next time your morning hike hits a hill, has found a nice little niche in telling big stories that nest their humanity in little moments, and while Adrift is far from his best movie, it’s the best example of his patience. He’s not going to barrow you with waves and desperation every second – he wants you to care about the couple headed into the maelstrom, and care, you do. Everyone involved buys into the story, even if the story itself begins harder and harder to buy into once the switch gets flipped.

Well, there’s a bugaboo of a plot twist that nearly drowns the entire affair, though it’s not one the film exactly could’ve avoided. Y’know, real story and all. Once the ship goes sideways, and Woodley and Claffin are in survival mode, the film takes on an added layer of worry and weariness, and survival comes full circle. Here, the two lovebirds learn what it means to really love another person, for better or for worse. Both actors deepen the once-relaxed romance in the moments of turmoil, cementing in why they’re made for each other – the two haggle over whether Woodley can break her vow of killing and eating meat when fish becomes necessary for their diet at sea, they share awkward peanut butter salvation when a rogue jar washes into sight on the dingy, they sing together, they share fears of surviving their ordeal, Woodley tend to Claffin’s beat-up leg like it were her own. It’s what love is supposed to be; not just what they typically show you in those dime back disaster romances.

But, the waves continue to bellow against what works so well, because, once again, this is a real-life story, and this is a film where the creative minds involved decided to mix around scenes of the surviving at sea with scenes building up the aquatic ardor, and how they got to the aquatic accident. It’d be a simple fix to just put the film in chronological order, but it’s a dead weight as it’s composed. Again, *this is a real-life story,* and the film’s late twist bellies up like a catfish in a vat of chemical waste. But, that’s really how it went, so you’re appreciative and thankful that’s how the boat actually goes into dock. The real-life trauma endured isn’t ever lost on you, but one retroactively wonders if this would’ve have been better staying on the shelves at your local Books-a-Million from a story-sense. But, then you’d lose what’s in between. Certainly a quagmire for the Queequeg.

Adrift somehow survives the late reveal, and the awkward structure, to remain an alluring meditation on the kind of love that carries water. You might not make it all the way to shore, but you don’t regret setting sail with this kind of silent wisdom, and these lovely leads.

Survival can go past what we typically expect – how about surviving an afternoon New Jersey’s most dangerous amusement park?

In Action Point, the latest Jackass mini-reunion, the crotch-shots just don’t land as hard as they used to.

Make no mistake, it still hurts like a hill of beans to get pegged square in the family jewels and is still as funny as all get out when you’re not the bullseye. But, even ball jokes have an event horizon.

In the film, Johnny Knoxville, the merry king of Jackass’ crash dummy court, brings his old pal Chris “Party Boy” Pontius along for his latest shenanigans, all at once a piece of fan mail and a eulogy for a by-gone era where theme parks like Action Point could exist.

At Action Point, the only rule is to have fun. That sounds fine in theory, but when kids are falling through the slides and cutting their legs open, and are smoking at the ticket booth, and are flailing about like they’re at The Three Stooges’ version of Disney World, it’s fair to feel like a few rules would do this venture some good. It’s the Most Unsafe Place on Earth, just the way Knoxville and company like it.

The park’s story is told through Knoxville in aging makeup as the grandpop version of his main character D.C., because no actor loves to get decked out in elderly disguise and make a fuss like he does (not even Eddie Murphy). This character is the kind of old fogey who bemoans the era of the helicopter parent, and would love to take a flamethrower to anything “politically correct.” Early in the film, he spouts out a racially-crude epitaph, only to begrudgingly correct himself. At least he’s trying?

D.C.’s daughter comes into town for the summer, but so do the winds of change. A local business schmooze (Dan Bakkedall) named Knoblach (a name perfect for R-rated alterations) wants to tear Action Point down and use it for development land, and as the rickety park struggles to make end’s meat, D.C. and his band of “Shitbirds” (a little family of flunky, frolic-loving park employees) devise a plan to save their stomping grounds. If this sounds like a spec script that dropped into the back of some studio exec’s filing cabinet in 1983, you’d be right. The thing is a formulaic as doing the Macarena in neon pants.

Knoxville and company want to not only homage the raunchy 80s fight-the-man comedy, but, indeed, the times themselves, when you rubbed dirt on knee scrapes, didn’t mind your mouth and didn’t worry about having anything but a good time. Times change, and we get older. Hypersensitivity can be a blessing and a curse, and while it’s been refreshing and needed to adjust the way we view things like concussions, racial awareness and, particularly for this slice of film, the way we treat and view women, one does kind of get where Action Point is coming from – maybe we do need to loosen the stick in our butts just a hair, just enough to sit a bit more comfortably than normal. Trumpism pulled the stick right out and smacked progress in the face with it, so there are extremes to avoid, of course.

But, the film needed more duct tape to hold its shaky ends together. It’s a vapid affair, one that’s spliced together with Jackass-approved stunts (that was the key to the marketing campaign), a father-and-daughter routine performed as frequently as “Free Bird” is at country cookouts, pathetic attempts to meet the “R” threshold and enough rally the troops brouhaha to paint that Bill Murray recruiting poster from Stripes. It’s a pale comparison to what’s come before, and, let’s be real honest here for a second, what came before really wasn’t all that great in the first place.

Though, Action Point puts forth an anarchistic streak that feels good to shake around in, because, yeah, the man does suck, and screw that guy. And, it feels like an act of catharsis for Knoxville and Pontius, who have seen Father Time and Vine make their Jackass stunts impossible and irrelevant for modern audiences. Who wants to pay to watch a jackass when your next-door neighbor just uploaded his latest screw up to YouTube for free? These guys are getting older, and the evening sun is setting low. A few more days, and they must go.

Knoxville is the fixed point here, and it’s fascinating to watch him maneuver in the film. He takes his stunts in stride, but they feel lonelier than usual. Most of his big gags are surrounded by random young actors we don’t know, and while they, and we, laugh at the shenanigans, you miss the comradery of the Jackass days, where even the most painful of nipple pinches or trips on the ice were met with instant pats on the back or bear hugs. Those guys loved to get hurt, but they also loved each other. Knoxville looks a bit weary, a little tired, not quite as spry, but still somewhat game. A blooper in the closing credits shows one of the less-dangerous stunts taking a toll on Knoxville’s body. The crew applauds when he gets up, instead of running over to slap his butt and send him off for another go.

Something’s off.

The familiar pranksters have indeed thinned out, and Knoxville and Pontius are left to corral about in a mediocre studio comedy, and do their best to keep the spirit alive. The former’s swagger is reminiscent of John Wayne in his farewell film, The Shootist. There, a sickly cowboy ventures into town to effectively find his death bed, and is only greeted with friendly familiarity by Jimmy Stewart’s local doctor, who shoots the breeze with Wayne about the wilder days and offers him some medicine to make the dyin’ a little easier for the old pilgrim. Everyone else around either wants to kill him, or ogle at his former glories. He’s still got his shot, but it ain’t gonna last much longer.

Pontius reminds you a bit of Stewart here – he’s the goofy, loveable oaf who just hangs around because he’s supposed to be there, the kind of character who would show up on Jackass and blend in just fine. That architype doesn’t exactly work for most fictional movies (typically, characters need to serve something grander), but for something trying to desperately recapture whatever magic still exists in a nut shot, he’s more than welcome.

Action Point is Knoxville’s The Shootist, or perhaps his Unforgiven. It’s kind of a lukewarm movie, but it’s also got moments of beauty and melancholy for what it means for those involved. One in particular finds D.C. and his kid at a diner, where the latter begins to bring her insecurities about her father to the forefront. How can you take care of me, she asks, when you can’t quite seem to take care of yourself? The rugged days of being a beer-guzzling Peter Pan to a gang of Shitbirds have to come to an end at some point, right?

Knoxville looks her square in the face and shows his hand. It’s you who gives me fear, not the death-defying tricks and lack of a helmet, he quietly shares, the actor’s teary eyes transcending fiction and reality. You wanted to see a real stunt? Well, here it is, the actor’s finest moment, square in the middle of a movie where he also chases after a porcupine and gets pricked in the leg.

Knoxville is 47 now, an actor whose name isn’t actually “Johnny Knoxville.” He was born Philip John Clapp Jr., in Knoxville, Tennessee. Johnny Knoxville is a stage name, and one wonders if “Johnny Knoxville” the personality is long for his world. He treats Action Point like it’s a precious farewell, and in that moment of staggering vulnerability with his fictional daughter, shows why Knoxville the actor might have a second wind beyond the demands of what being “Johnny Knoxville” has always called for. He needs to play back that scene at the diner and use to leverage some more dramatic roles. He’s clearly got the chops for it, and drama doesn’t require you to take countless hits in Mr. Johnson’s sack of potatoes. He’s free to take a breather; nobody’s going to question the guy’s status as a gifted slapstick comedian anytime soon.

By the end of Action Point, Knoxville’s D.C. gets everything he wants – he sticks it to the jerk business guy, saves the spirit of the park (if not the land itself), and wins back his daughter. Through all the celebrating, though, you can’t help but wonder if this is really it for Knoxville and his jackassery. Just how many times can a guy approaching 50 be slung by a trebuchet into a wooden barn? That final blooper of him slowly recovering from a stunt gone awry is the last thing you see before the final credits roll. That doesn’t feel like an accident.

The Jackass-style of comedy has its place in comedy history, a hallowed one in the medium. But in an age where kids eat Tide pods, and snort condoms up the nose, and Dumbass Davy is trying to be Facebook’s billionth idiot savant in his dive onto the flaming cardboard table, perhaps it’s time professional stunt comedy is retired. It’s never going to go away in terms of media, but maybe that warning before each and every Jackass episode has lost its prohibitive edge. When we’re all jackasses, should anyone really be a Jackass?

If Action Point really is it, and Knoxville about to hang up the tricks for good, consider this as fitting a farewell vehicle as he could’ve asked for. There are scratches and dings all on the sides of the car, the wheels are flat, and the bumper is missing. But, Johnny Knoxville is not John Wayne, nor does doesn’t need a classic to go out on. Just a humdinger of a jalopy that makes loud “pow” sounds out of the tailpipe, is good for a giggle every now and again and has enough room for everybody that wants in.

That still doesn’t work as a great movie, at least in the format Knoxville and company might be physically able to endure nowadays.

There aren’t any more pranks in the valley.

Maybe that’s a good thing, for Knoxville, and for us.

That’s how you survive, and make that survival count.