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View From The Couch


THE INCREDIBLES (2004). Aside from Fahrenheit 9/11, this Oscar winner for Best Animated Feature was the most topical release of 2004; for proof, check out a recent Observer article about a girls high school basketball team that withdrew from the finals because others complained that the team was too good and nobody else had a chance (by that token, should the New England Patriots have recused themselves from Super Bowl contention)? The vigorous embrace of mediocrity above all else currently grips this America that has become too lazy to think for itself (as witnessed by the ascendancy of FOX News), and writer-director Brad Bird smartly works this national tragedy into an animated superhero tale that's, well, pretty incredible. The bulk of the comic relief comes from costume designer Edna Mode, an Edith Head caricature voiced by Bird himself; the drama comes from the Incredibles, presented as the modern American family that's expected to conform to the societal status quo (i.e. blend with the bland) rather than champion its own uniqueness. The domestic conflicts triggered by their suburban ennui give way to an acceptance of their individuality and, consequently, an ability to pool their resources as both crime fighters and family members. It's emotional without being sticky-sweet, and just one of the reasons why this gem, for all its kid-friendly sops, feels like one of the most mature movies currently gracing the New Releases shelf. Extras on the two-disc DVD include audio commentary by Bird and his team of animators, deleted scenes, "Incredi-Blunders" (bloopers), secret files on various superheroes, and a new cartoon short titled Jack-Jack Attack.
Movie: 1/2
Extras: 1/2

LADDER 49 (2004). It was probably inevitable - perhaps even desirable - for a post-9/11 movie to be made that celebrated firemen, but did it have to be as dull as this one? If there's an original moment in this tedious (if earnest) drama, I must have been rubbing my eyes for a nanosecond and missed it; instead, director Jay Russell and writer Lewis Colick have managed to cram just about every overused melodramatic device into this one picture. Basically, only three types of scenes exist in the film: domestic interludes between good-hearted fireman Jack Morrison (a beefy Joaquin Phoenix) and his family, macho antics down at the firehouse between the avuncular station captain (a beefier John Travolta) and his men, and action scenes between the firefighters and their incendiary adversary. In an effort to elevate all these men to the level of heroes, Colick has stripped them of most traits, in effect leaving us with a roomful of cardboard characters (only Robert Patrick, as the outspoken senior member of the team, is allowed any complex shadings). The firefighting scenes are competently presented but tend to blur into each other - for all its faults, the mediocre Backdraft at least made similar set pieces exciting - and the movie's 115 minutes are stretched out long enough to accommodate not only a karaoke sequence but at least two music-backed interludes designed more to fill out the CD soundtrack than advance the plot in any interesting fashion. DVD extras include audio commentary by Russell and editor Bud Smith, deleted scenes, a feature on real firefighters, and the music video for Robbie Robertson's "Shine Your Light."
Movie: 1/2
Extras: 1/2

STAR TREK: FIRST CONTACT (1996). Unlike most long-running movie franchises, which tend to have their ups-and-downs (e.g., the James Bond flicks), the now-defunct Star Trek film series managed to proceed on a remarkably even keel. Practically every chapter was lovingly and imaginatively brought to the big screen, and the vast majority proved to be grandly entertaining flights of escapism - even to non-Trekkies like me. First Contact, the eighth in the series and the best of the Next Generation entries, followed suit: Like other installments, it's a brainy bit of sci-fi spectacle, with an occasionally draggy moment no match for the engaging characters, exciting storyline, and overall air of goodwill. The plot is too convoluted to sufficiently explain here, but suffice it to say that the Enterprise crew realizes it must travel back in time to prevent the dreaded Borg (among the all-time great Trek villains) from drastically altering the future of our planet. All of the Next Generation regulars are here (including Patrick Stewart as stalwart Captain Picard), backed by an unusually strong slate of guest stars: Alfre Woodard, James Cromwell and chilling Alice Krige as the Borg Queen. After approximately 40 years, the franchise seems to have run its course (at least until some hotshot Paramount executive comes up with a novel way to milk it some more - Indiana Jones and the Enterprise of Doom, anyone?), but rest assured the series will live long and prosper on DVD. Extras in the two-disc set include audio commentary by actor-director Jonathan Frakes, various making-of specials, features on the Borg Collective, and a tribute to the late, great Jerry Goldsmith, who created the score first used in Star Trek: The Motion Picture and later recycled as the theme music for the Next Generation show.

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