Posts Tagged ‘Brad Bird’

Here comes the first big catch-up release following the cessation of footballing hostilities for another couple of years – Brad Bird’s Incredibles 2. The first Incredibles came out in 2004, a geological age ago in cinematic terms. In that year, Marvel released Spider-Man 2, which was rather good, and also the Thomas Jane-starring version of The Punisher and the third Wesley Snipes Blade movie, which were not; meanwhile DC brought out the Halle Berry Catwoman, proving that they didn’t need Zach Snyder on the payroll to make terrible movies, and there was also Hellboy, possibly one of the best of the bunch but maybe a bit too quirky to really bust blocks. Along with The Incredibles, that makes six films in the genre in the year, only a couple less than in 2018. People complain nowadays about superhero fatigue but the fact is that these films have made up a big chunk of the landscape for a long time.

Fourteen years is a long gap between films (it would have been even longer, had the production period on Incredibles 2 not been unexpectedly cut by a year), and with it comes a significant level of expectation. In this case, the expectation seems to have been that it will contain some kind of commentary on either the superhero genre or our current fascination with it – it’s a Pixar movie, after all, and this studio does have a reputation for making very, very clever films.

The action picks up pretty much where the first film ended, with the Parr family of superheroes – consisting of mighty brick Mr Incredible (Craig T Nelson), stretchy Elastigirl (Holly Hunter), invisible girl Violet (Sarah Vowell), and speedster Dash (Huck Milner) – taking on the villainous Underminer, despite the fact that overtly superheroic activity has been banned for many years. That their encounter with the Underminer does not go entirely to plan, does not help the situation much, and leaves the family in somewhat dire straits financially.

However, it’s not all bad news, for the senior Parrs, along with their friend Frozone (Samuel L Jackson), are contacted by the Deavours, a wealthy brother and sister who are desirous of having the superhero ban lifted. The Deavours’ plan is to get superheroes some good press, for once, and their first step in doing so is to relaunch Elastigirl, mainly because she is likely to cause rather less property damage than her husband. But can the family cope with this change in their dynamic, as Elastigirl heads off to fight crime and Mr Incredible stays home to look after the kids, each one perhaps doubting the abilities of the other…

This is, as noted, a Pixar movie, so it almost goes without saying that it is almost supernaturally beautiful to look at and inspired in its design, retaining the retro sixties-style aesthetic of the first. It also handles the various tropes of superhero fiction with confident deftness, introducing a number of new characters and staging some brilliant set pieces and action sequences. From an aesthetic point of view, this film is another huge achievement for Pixar’s artists and animators.

However, that said – anyone looking for a subversive new take on the superhero formula (such as it is) will not find much meat to chew on. The film retains the same resemblance to Marvel’s Fantastic Four that caused the makers of the 2005 FF movie so many headaches (the two families of superheroes have largely the same power set), while the idea of the superhero ban (surely derived from Watchmen) is also central to the tale. But it doesn’t really do anything new in this respect, perhaps because Pixar and Marvel Studios are both ultimately subsidiaries of Disney, who – one would guess – don’t want to risk appearing to diss a genre which has earned them billions of dollars just this year.

Instead, the film’s central idea is basically the one of gender role reversal – Elastigirl goes off to fight crime, and finds herself caught up in the machinations of a supervillain called the Screenslaver, while Mr Incredible has to contend with various domestic crises, including the baby of the family unexpectedly developing his own superpowers. And, you know, as concepts go it’s okay, although it’s a bit less radical than you might reasonably hope for – early on there’s an interesting scene touching on some quite topical issues, such as how much you should accept the various injustices of the world, and the correct response to unfair laws, but none of this is really developed. Instead we get the Elastigirl-as-a-solo-heroine storyline, which is quite engaging and contains some stunning sequences, and the sitcom stuff with the rest of the family, which is consistently fairly amusing.

The thing is that it never quite sings, with the two plotlines continuing in parallel and not really informing one another much; obviously the stuff about a working mum (and a superheroine to boot) chimes quite well with the Unique Moment, but one has to remember that the long lead times on films like this mean that this is most likely a piece of serendipity more than anything else. It certainly doesn’t feel like a film making a big statement about feminism, or indeed anything else.

As I say, the production process on Incredibles 2 was cut short by a whole year when the film’s release date was brought forward to allow more time for work on Toy Story 4 – I can’t help wondering how much it has suffered as a result. It is, as I say, an incredibly beautiful and well-made film, but it does feel very saggy around the middle, possibly overlong, and it never really engages the emotions in the way that Pixar’s best work does – the supporting film, another wonderful little short called Bao, is much more successful in this respect.

Once again we find ourselves considering the extent to which a film studio can become a victim of its own success – Incredibles 2 is, by any objective standards, a very good film in many ways – often funny, well-played, with a brilliant aesthetic and strong opening and closing sequences. But as a Pixar movie, and especially as a sequel to The Incredibles, it’s just not quite up to the standard that I was expecting. A very good film, but not really a great one, and anything less than great coming out of Pixar really is slightly disappointing.

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I stopped watching the news on May 8th 2015, a bit over two weeks ago. Since then I haven’t watched a single TV bulletin, nor any breakfast television, nor even a topical comedy programme. I haven’t intentionally looked at a newspaper or visited a general news website. If I’ve been sitting on a bus or in a taxi and the news has come on the radio, there has been some discreet humming and putting of fingers in ears. What has occasioned all this? Well, the news promised nothing but grimness and despair, and I couldn’t face the prospect of feeling angry about things that were beyond my power to influence. I couldn’t stop caring so I just stopped looking. I wonder how many other people have found themselves in a similar position.

This sense of helplessness and resignation as far as the future is concerned is at the heart of Brad Bird’s Tomorrowland (trading under the not-at-all unwieldy title of Disney Tomorrowland: A World Beyond in some territories), a movie which I am tempted to describe as a technological fantasy rather than actual science fiction. This film is, in a very real sense, actually about the future as an idea (rather than just being a convenient setting) – how we view it, how we respond to it, and how we shape it.


At its heart is the fundamental disconnection between futurist views of the early 20th century, right up until about 1970, in which everything was chromium-plated and shiny, rocket-buses to the moon departed on an hourly basis, and so on – a Jules Verne, Arthur C Clarke, Gerry Anderson vision of benevolent technocracy. But these days, of course, think of the future and your mind fills with images of urban decay, environmental catastrophe, nuclear war, viral apocalypse, and the general collapse of civilisation as we know it. What happened? When did everyone decide the world was inevitably just going to get worse and worse?

Tomorrowland comes up with a fictional answer to this question. This film has managed to make it to UK screens with a minimum of advance publicity, possibly because it’s one of the few major releases this summer that isn’t a sequel, remake, or reboot (or it may just be that all the coverage has been in those news programmes I’ve stopped watching), and I found that going in relatively ignorant of what to expect added somewhat to the experience. In any case, this is a ferociously intelligent film which handles a complex story with great confidence and skill, and it doesn’t necessarily lend itself to an easy capsule review.

In the movie, Tomorrowland is the place where the future is made, a colony of scientists, artists, and other great thinkers. It is the kind of glittering metropolis, filled with monorails, jet-packers and robots, that has been part of our collective consciousness since the movie of the same name, and the nature of its relationship to the ‘real’ world of the movie is something I am not inclined to spoil. However, something is rotten in the state of the future, and it has grave implications for the real world as well.

Discovering all this is Casey (Britt Robertson), a bright teenage girl who spends her time trying to sabotage the demolition of old NASA launch platforms. She discovers a mysterious pin-badge which gives her visions of Tomorrowland, and it eventually leads her to reclusive mad scientist Frank Walker (George Clooney), an exile from the place who knows its dark secret. Together they set out on a journey that will take them back into Tomorrowland and lead to a confrontation with its governor, Nix (Hugh Laurie)…

Well, let’s get the mouse in the room out of the way first: yes, Tomorrowland is an element of the Disneyland theme park, and yes, the Tomorrowland of the movie does bear something of a resemblance to it – but, thankfully, this doesn’t really come across as an extended commercial for the Disney corporation’s holiday resorts. (In fact, references to Disney’s ownership of the Star Wars IP seem much more obtrusive – there’s an action sequence in a comic store where Star Wars collectibles are just a bit too prominent.)

This film is too angry to be a commercial, anyway. Well, perhaps angry isn’t quite the right word. Possibly ‘committed’ is better, or ‘passionate’. On one level the film tells a fairly familiar story, that of a ‘gifted’ person who makes the breakthrough from the ‘real’ world into a hidden one of mystery and adventure – think of the first Men in Black or The Matrix – the difference here being that the hidden world draws most of its cues from classic Golden Age science fiction. There are ray guns, jet packs, rocket ships and androids galore, not to mention a minor character named after Hugo Gernsback (the inventor of the name ‘science fiction’, amongst many other significant achievements).

All of this is basically just eye candy, however, surrounding the film’s central thesis, which concerns our expectations of the future and responsibility towards it. I hesitate to say that Tomorrowland is, on some level, Interstellar for a family audience, but the two films both treat the manned space programme as a totemic symbol of human ambition and optimism, and its decline as a damning indictment of society’s lack of self-belief. Tomorrowland is certainly scathing in its analysis of what’s gone wrong: giving in to despair is easier than taking responsibility for making something better. (At this point I found myself in the odd position of agreeing with the film even as it felt like it was having a go at me personally.) You can’t fault Tomorrowland‘s idealism, optimism, or commitment to its ideas.

Unfortunately, great and worthy ideas don’t necessarily make for a great and worthwhile movie, even when coupled to visuals as lavish and inventive as Bird has come up with here. The key question one has to ask is this: who is this film made for? Because I fear it will struggle to find an audience: for all that the script and performances are filled with wit and intelligence, it still feels a bit too dry and preachy to really appeal to a young audience, while adults may find it a bit, well, juvenile. Those in between will probably conclude that it’s just not cool to care any more. Too often Tomorrowland feels like it’s been written to service a theme, rather than characters or story – it’s a slightly too obvious parable, rather than a piece of entertainment with a message.

This is the main problem, next to which a few minor ones are less significant: the structure feels odd, with the actual breakthrough into the hidden world not really happening in earnest until the final act, while there is at least one major special-effects set piece that feels crowbarred in – and, more seriously, it’s strangely joyless when it should be enchanting and stirring.

Then again, that’s probably Tomorrowland in a nutshell – it’s so concerned with imploring the audience to be more hopeful and positive that it ends up being a lot less fun than it could have been. I rather imagine this is one of those films that won’t make much of an impact on the box office on its original release, but will be rediscovered and hailed as a laudable, flawed masterpiece in a few years time. There’s certainly very little wrong with its technical achievement, nor with its intentions. It’s just that the actual story isn’t quite up to the same standard as either, and in the end the story is the most important thing.

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I’ve always had a sort of soft spot for the Mission: Impossible movies, partly because I like the TV show but mainly because when the first film came along I was at a bit of a low ebb and generally not feeling very good about myself – Brian de Palma’s movie made me forget all that, really cheered me up, and somehow set the tone for a summer which ultimately turned out to be much better than I could have expected. As a result it may be that I am prone to grant subsequent installments an easier ride than I would usually in the case of vacuous studio cash cows possibly coming around the block once too often.

Which brings us to Brad Bird’s Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, possibly the most punctuation-intensive title for a sequel since the last Tomb Raider movie. If you think that sounds more like a computer game than a movie, then – hmm, your Jedi powers stand you in good stead.

It all kicks off with junior Impossibles Simon Pegg (Mission Specialities: Geekiness and Comic Relief) and Paula Patton (Mission Specialities: Decorativeness and Ticking Diversity Boxes) busting Tom Cruise (Mission Specialities: [deleted on the advice of our lawyers after a close reading of the libel laws]) out of a Russian nick (since the last movie Pegg has passed the exam letting him participate in the main plot). Cruise is in there for a reason, but we needn’t worry too much about that.

Cruise and his new team are required to infiltrate the Kremlin (parts of which appear to have been sneakily disguised as Prague Castle – oh, those Russians!) in search of information as to the identity of a nutty boffin intent on starting a nuclear war in the name of progress. (The whole film operates on this kind of level, in case you were wondering.) But the boffin is onto them, blows up the Kremlin (but not Prague Castle, thankfully) and pins it on Tom and the gang. Caught up along with them is honorary Impossible on secondment from HQ Jeremy Renner (Mission Specialities: Worrying and Having A Mysterious Past).

With the superpowers bracing themselves for war (not that anyone outside the team seems particularly exercised by this) and Tom and the Impossibles disowned and hunted by their own government (though not very hard on the evidence we’re presented with – there’s a Russian cop who keeps popping up, though), stopping the boffin from setting off the nukes is going to be a challenge. But, as Sir Tony observed a couple of sequels ago, it’s not called Mission: Difficult

Ghost Protocol proudly introduces itself as A Tom Cruise Production, and if productions take after their producers in the same way that pets take after their owners, it should come as no surprise to anyone that this movie is utterly bonkers. Not necessarily in a bad way, but you should sever all links with reality before taking your seat. The first couple of M:I movies, at least, were moderately implausible action thrillers with a techno bent – but somewhere along the line a border has been sneakily crossed and by any reasonable definition this movie is really very silly SF. Spider-Man-style adhesive gauntlets, magnetic levitation kits, laser saws, and holographic wallpaper – they’re all here.

To accommodate all the gadgets the script isn’t really very much more than a succession of massively implausible set-pieces – you may well have seen the one with Cruise hanging off the side of a hotel in Dubai, but there are a number of others of broadly the same character. Alarm bells may be starting to ring, but do not be too hasty – crucially, Pixar alumnus Bird knows how to put together a polished and intricate spectacle, and the movie’s money sequences all hold together with every impression of effortlessness. It all still boils down to the Impossibles hurling themselves down ventilator shafts, dangling out of windows, and pretending to be people they’re not (not so much business with masks this time round, however), but it’s done with the greatest of style and energy.

Unfortunately, although this is obviously not the kind of film in which the participants are gunning for acting awards, what it really needs in order to wholly satisfy as a piece of breathless entertainment is a protagonist who can really invest it with some warmth and humanity. And what it has is Tom Cruise. General perceptions of Cruise, whether accurate or not, long ago reached the point where they colour every film he makes – and shall we just say that this doesn’t synergise well with his playing an obsessive, slightly ludicrous figure, as he does here? It’s not even as though he gives much of a performance, anyway – he’s a clenched, impassive lump at the centre of the film (clearly a lump with a good personal trainer, of course), hardly showing any emotion for most of it. As a result, scenes (and a whole subplot) dealing with Cruise’s emotional life and history just seem a bit superfluous – it also feels as if they may be there just to explain how this film connects to Mission: Impossible 3, and I for one wasn’t that bothered about that.

Nevertheless, the rest of the team do sterling work in propping Cruise and the movie up. Jeremy Renner is, as usual, rock-solidly reliable in support. Simon Pegg’s increased visibility reflects the rise of his star in recent years – although it seemed to me he was almost doing a bit too much in the way of comic relief in an attempt to personalise the movie. Paula Patton also carries out her duties commendably (I’m not saying this is a film with somewhat unreconstructed attitudes, and will leave you to discover for yourself which of the four leads is the one required to do a scene in their underthings).

The last two Mission: Impossibles whipped by enjoyably enough without leaving much of an impression on me. It’s early days with regard to Ghost Protocol, but I enjoyed it at the time – a slick, silly, very professionally assembled piece of blockbuster product, with lots of nice bits (not least the unusual sound of Lalo Schifrin’s immortal theme played on the sitar). I’ve no idea whether this series has anything left in the tank – I suspect that will rather depend on Tom Cruise’s career trajectory – but Brad Bird’s achievements, at least, are rather impressive, and I’ll be interested to see what he does next.

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