The long-awaited sequel to The Incredibles has fun interrogating the gender divide, while Ethan Hawke excels as a pastor who is losing his faith in First Reformed
Incredibles 2 (PG) ***
First Reformed (15) ****
The Secret of Marrowbone (15) *
Pin Cushion (15) ***
Ex-Libris: The New York Public Library (12A) ****
It’s been a whopping 14 years since The Incredibles first hit cinemas. That’s a long time to wait for a follow-up film, especially one that did such a sly job of deconstructing the superhero tropes that multiplex audiences were only just starting to get to grips with. Since then we’ve had a solid decade of self-aware Marvel movies, various fourth-wall breaking comic book adaptations and so-many rooted-in-reality takes on superpowers that gags about monologuing and the impracticalities of wearing capes are no longer going to cut it. That seems like it might initially be a problem for Incredibles 2. Picking up seconds after the first film finished, its retro 1960s stylings feel very removed from current sensibilities and its superheroes-regulated-by-bureaucrats premise has long since become a genre cliché. But if this makes the film feel frozen in time rather than timeless, it’s a sign of how well constructed the characters are that it doesn’t take long to get swept up once again in the familial travails of Mr Incredible (Craig T Nelson), Elastigirl (Holly Hunter) and their super-powered brood.
Once again facing a life of white-collar drudgery as suburban alter egos Bob and Helen Parr, they’re soon thrown a life-line by telecom billionaire Winston Denver (Bob Odenkirk) and his tech-savvy sister Evelyn (Catherine Keener). Their long-held belief in the value of superheroes has convinced them to underwrite an experiment to rebrand the so-called “supers” as necessary and responsible guardians of everything good in society. There’s just one snag: Mr Incredible’s destructive tendencies are a liability so they want the more efficient and capable Elastigirl to front the relaunch.
Cue parenting role reversals and bruised male egos as Elastigirl inevitably excels at fighting crime without destroying the city and Mr Incredible – just as inevitably – finds it all a bit much holding the fort with an awkward teen, and exuberant tween and super-powered baby only just discovering his powers. As obvious as all of this may seem, the film’s good at interrogating the gender divide and returning writer/director Brad Bird avoids charges of tokenism by making the action-orientated elements of Elastigirl’s storyline properly meaty while delighting in the slapstick opportunities afforded by baby Jack-Jack whose nascent powers can’t help but derail his father’s best efforts at responsible parenting.
Paul Schrader has been off his game since his doomed prequel to The Exorcist, but the rightly revered screenwriter-turned-director is back to his best with First Reformed, an austere, brilliantly acted film about despair and possible redemption that echoes the lonely man in a toxic world theme explored in the likes of Taxi Driver and Hardcore. An emotionally ravaged Ethan Hawke takes the lead as Pastor Toller, a bereaved divorcee drawn into the world of eco-activism by a young pregnant woman (Amanda Seyfried) whose husband fears for the future of their impending child.
To say much more risks ruining the meticulously constructed story that follows, but as Toller’s long-brewing spiritual crisis is set on a collision course with the corporate corruption of his church, Schrader’s brilliance emerges in his formalistic rigour – denying us the salacious cinematic pleasures he’s embraced in the past without skimping on the hypnotic quality of those scuzzy avenging angel movies with which he made his name. Shot in boxy academy ratio, mostly in long takes with no over-the-shoulder shots, it’s a rare example of a film that serves up provocative ideas and also gives us the space to contemplate them.
Acclaimed for writing The Orphanage, Sergio G Sánchez makes his directorial debut with another ghost story; sadly The Secret of Marrowbone possesses none of the chilling tension of that earlier collaboration with JA Bayona. On the contrary, this American-set period horror film (about a family of orphaned British siblings hiding out in the titular country house) so thoroughly blows its big twist that the whole thing becomes laughable. A decent cast of up-and-comers – Sunshine on Leith’s George MacKay, The Witch’s Anya Taylor-Joy, Stranger Things star Charlie Heaton – are thoroughly underserved with a hokey plot that piles on so many twists to obscure the obviousness of the ending it’s hardly a surprise that Sanchéz can’t keep track of the various timelines he’s attempting to weave together.
Much more successful in upending expectations is British filmmaker Deborah Haywood’s debut feature Pin Cushion. Though this tale of an outcast mother and daughter (Joanna Scanlan and Lily Newmark) negotiating life in a new town starts off like some sub-Michel Gondry quirk fest (replete with animal costumes and twinkly fantasy sequences), Haywood makes good on the metaphorical significance of the title by quickly darkening the tone to reveal a far more disturbing and pointed story about the damage we inflict on one another than the one signalled by its squishy opening scenes.
Finally this week, Ex-Libris: The New York Public Library sees veteran documentarian Frederick Wiseman (National Gallery) revealing the inner workings of another public institution through extensive fly-on-the-wall observation.
The mesmeric three-hour result is testament both to the 88-year-old director’s unhurried style and the titular organisation itself: all human life is here – from celebrity artists and intellectuals to community groups and the homeless – and Wiseman’s film beautifully illustrates the thriving symbiotic relationship the library has with its many and varied users. ■