by Bill Hawk

Pixar/Disney, 2004, color, 115 mins.- Disney DVD

Craig T. Nelson: “Hey, come on, we’re superheroes - what could happen?”

Quite a lot, actually. In fact, the superhero life seems to feature a constant barrage of troublesome events, as we see when we are introduced to the world of strongman Mr. Incredible (voiced by Nelson), ice-slinger Frozone (voiced by Samuel L. Jackson), and stretchy Elastigirl (voiced by Holly Hunter). Incredible and main squeeze Elastigirl decide to try the marriage and family thing - and not a moment too soon, as lawsuits send the superhero community into government-sanctioned retirement. Years later, Mr. and Mrs. Incredible and their super-powered children are living in the obscurity of suburbia… and the Big Guy is pining for the good old days. So when he gets an offer to don his costume again, he squeezes himself back into it and reclaims some of the old glory. But this superheroic midlife crisis also sets the entire Incredibles clan - not to mention the rest of the planet - on a collision course with a deadly threat from Our Hero’s past. Fortunately, while the Good Guys may be a little rusty - or, in the case of the kids, inexperienced - they can still show the world what it means to be a hero.

Writer/director Brad Bird, who previously gave us The Iron Giant, teamed with the computer graphics wizards at Pixar to give us this picture, which swooped up two Oscars including Best Animated Feature. This is one of those parodies that are actually better than the real thing, thanks to clever writing and a constant flow of style and invention. It can be enjoyed by kids, and has the expected pro-family stance, but it also contains some decidedly non-sugarcoated stuff that even includes a few sharp jabs of cultural criticism. These two streams, kiddy and adult, merge to exhilarating effect as the Incredibles work together to kick Evil’s collective butt, in action sequences that showcase the possibilities inherent in animation. Mention must also be made of the voice actors, who expertly keep the story’s flights of fancy grounded in recognizable human emotions, with the abovementioned names being joined by the likes of Jason Lee, Elizabeth Pena, and even creator Brad Bird himself. If you’ve ever enjoyed comic books, science fiction, or Sixties spy movies - basically, if you have even one little geeky bone in your body - you will find this to be one of the coolest flicks ever made. Extras on the two-disc set include audio commentaries, shorts, deleted scenes, bloopers, and behind-the-scenes stuff.

20th Century Fox, 1949, B&W, 103 mins. - Fox Studio Classics DVD

Kirk Douglas: “Let’s try to keep Addy outta' this one.”

Hard to do, when the lady in question, voiced by Celeste Holm, both narrates the story and sets its pivotal event in motion, despite never appearing onscreen. On a sunny day’s outing in small-town America, three women - Jeanne Crain, Linda Darnell and Ann Sothern - get a letter from their unseen pal, advising them that she has flown the coop - and that she has taken one of their husbands with her. At first the trio take it as a joke, but then the doubts set in, and in a series of flashbacks we see the strained marriages that give rise to those doubts. Farmer’s daughter Crain feels like a hick in comparison to her moneyed and well-traveled hubby, the brassy Darnell is a gold digger who went after her rather unsophisticated boss, and spunky Sothern is hitched to a cultured schoolteacher who is less than thrilled with her job as a radio writer. All of the men folk have possible motives for leaving their gals - and all of them think highly of their pal Addy. When the three wives return to their homes, will one of them be empty? Or was it all just a gag? Let’s just say that the letter won’t be the only surprise in store for them.…

Old pro Joseph L. Mankiewicz added a couple of Oscars to his shelf for writing and directing this one, which shows its roots as a story from a women’s magazine but counter-balances its sentimentality with a good measure of wit. The three female leads are in fine form, bouncing wisecracks off of each other and deftly fielding the melodrama, aided by supporting player Thelma Ritter. The guys step up to the plate too, with Darnell’s Neanderthal-ish businessman Paul Douglas and Sothern’s teacher Kirk Douglas being the standouts. Douglas’ character in particular has a tough row to hoe, trying not to be resentful of his wife’s greater wage-earning power, but ultimately unleashing a scathing critique of radio programming that still rings true as a comment on commercial media. While the picture is dated in many ways, it capitalizes on elements of relationships and gender roles that still have some relevance - and it does so in an entertaining way. Extras on the disc include audio commentary and an A&E Biography on Linda Darnell.


MGM, 1942, B&W, 99 mins.- Warner Bros. DVD

Jack Benny: “Wait a minute - I’ll decide with whom my wife is gonna' have dinner and whom she’s gonna kill!”

When you’re a glory-hogging thespian who continually upstages your wife, it’s hard to stop… even when you find out that she’s part of the resistance movement in Nazi-occupied Poland. Before the invasion, Benny’s biggest problem was jealousy over mate Carole Lombard’s secret admirer and government censorship of his anti-Hitler play, but when their acting troupe’s fake Germans are replaced by the real thing, priorities get rearranged. At least until Lombard’s admirer, Robert Stack, shows up in Warsaw on a secret mission, and Benny’s suspicions flare up again. But the show must go on, and Benny joins his wife and the other actors in the performance of - and for - their lives. Making use of their Nazi costumes and their professional chutzpa, they clash with a double agent and match wits with the Gestapo. At stake are a number of things alluded to in the multiple meanings of the title - the future of their country, the solidity of Benny and Lombard’s marriage… and the ability of Benny to continue his unique portrayal of Hamlet.

Another polished item from producer/director Ernst Lubitsch, this picture is one of the classier examples of the mockery which was directed at Hitler’s gang during World War II. At the time, doing a comedic story with such a backdrop was controversial, and there are a number of “Did they just say that?” moments. The Nazis are shown to have their share of fools, but they are dangerous fools, and the actions of the Polish characters are as heroic as you’d expect from a wartime picture. What you might not expect is how fun it all is, with a terrific cast following the zigzags of the story and dropping as many verbal zingers as the Germans dropped bombs. Benny is particularly good, displaying the mixture of hamminess and restraint that made him a star. Matching him in every department is Lombard, who was never better, and who never graced the screen again, dying shortly after this film’s completion while doing her part for the war effort in real life. Tinged with tragedy this picture may be, but it’s still a darn good time, recommended for classic comedy fans. Extras are minimal, comprised of a couple of shorts featuring Benny.

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© Melt Magazine 2005