Les Incroyables!

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Out of the four animated pictures Brad Bird wrote and directed, The IncrediblesThe Incredibles is my least favorite. But of course, Brad Bird is of an incredible (pun not intended) animation case where every single film he directed could fit a favorite spot for anybody and not get a blink from me.* Although, one has to admit it took the world maybe a tiny while to recognize that, as his masterful directorial debut The Iron Giant was a massive box office as a suspected result of Warner Bros. Feature Animation failing to market the film after clashing with Bird and trying to force him to add more “marketability” to it. Clearly that experience embittered Bird enough to take his ball and go to Pixar Animation Studios – then already earning its brand recognition as the high water-mark for contemporary animated storytelling – where he already had a friend in co-founder John Lasseter from their education at CalArts.

That ball happened to be a pitch on a domestic drama between a family of superheroes developing personal anxieties, developed by Bird to eventually become the full concept of a post-superhero society outlawing the superpowered crime-fighters for their collateral damage and the family’s attempts to conform into a mundane suburban existance with their relocation and government-mandated identities. And that family is the Parrs: made up of cocky child speedster “Dash”iell (Spencer Fox), teenage invisibility-and-force-field-capable outsider Violet (Sarah Vowell), stretchable housewife worn thin Helen (Holly Hunter), strongman Bob (Craig T. Nelson) whose weakness is midlife crisis, and baby Jack-Jack to round it off. The character and family metaphor behind all of their powers is impossible to miss, but it’s certainly not 2-dimensional. Their home life is in fact the very core of the narrative and grants it thematic richness, especially in terms of Bob’s painful nostalgia for old times and Helen having to deal with it. Back in the day, Bob and Helen were among apparently beloved superheroes, the two of them known as Mr. Incredible and Elastigirl respectively. And we’re introduced to this and other facts in an opening sequence that’s a rolling Rube Goldberg machine of setpiece after setpiece (with subtle expositional setups) while Mr. Incredible keeps himself busy with non-stop crises just before a big night, just before Bird masterfully brings the momentum to a screeching halt as the government pulls its shutdown in comedic black-and-white newsreels slowing us down to see the dead-eyed Bob fifteen years later with the story proper.

When it first came out in 2004, we just at the very cusp of superheroes carving out their own reserved spot in the annual cinematic discussion. They had an increased presence in the wake of the X-Men and Spider-Man successes, but we weren’t yet at the post-2008 surge into a pop culture environment where superheroes have now become an overwhelmingly permanent fixture on mainstream cinema. Back then, The Incredibles had earned the immediate fanfare that Bird desired from audiences and critics, generally considering it to be just another knock-out in Pixar’s early run of masterworks, but that doesn’t acknowledge what’s most fascinating about The Incredibles as a project was how distinguishable it was from the rest of Pixar’s output at the time.

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Not least of which in the visual design of the film, with Bird already coming to the studio with a conceit of the movie taking place in a world reminiscent of the 1960s and having Lou Romano and Ralph Eggleston give us a world of sleek shape-based metropolises that embody the pop art of that long-gone era of the idealized nuclear family, right down to Tony Fucile and Teddy Newton’s character designs. In general, the ending credits of the incredibles have a bold “POW” to its aesthetic that works as a cheatsheet to what the movie was going for, but those are flat silhouettes against the brilliant dimension given to the solid-block-without-feeling-blocky human beings (thanks also to some wise lighting conceits like a whole lava dining room demanding fiery chiaroscuro close-ups and silhouette wide-shots).

They look like comic strip illustrations that are given definition simply by the fact that they are 3-dimensional, like Mr. Incredible’s linear jawline and exaggerated torso. It’s a precursor to the later Lasseter-era Walt Disney Animation Studios CG films of the 2010s and a boon to the animated format Bird indulges in for this movie considering how it dives headfirst into the idea of being a cartoon than anything else Pixar made to that point. Pixar’s preceding release for instance, Finding Nemo, came bragging (very deservedly) about the photorealism of its water animation even if (very textured) cartoon fish were inhabiting that ocean. There is no room for photorealism in The Incredibles, the aesthetic wants to simplify everything from the trees to the cars to the chairs (and yet still finding room to make a costume designer’s home extravagant). And it’s because of that simplicity, the way it looks dynamic without demanding much from the eye, that The Incredibles feels like it held up the best out of any of pre-2010s movies. It certainly has a few shots (mostly moving or involving background “extras”) that feel paper-thin but it mostly retains the same sort of power 14 years since its release.

It’s not just mood and tone that the craftsmanship of The Incredibles gives to itself, it’s also strong storytelling. Despite the bright red tights of the family zipping through the exotic volcano location with futuristic Bond villain lair for a good part of the second half of its efficient 115-minute runtime, most of the first 45 minutes mutes its colors to zombie greys and whites for his insurance office or unexciting browns and faded greens for the Parr household. The very difference in energy once Mr. Incredible sets off on an hired adventure that the rest of his family must confront/rescue him about is night and day, mirrored by the climax of the family’s tense relationships with each other before they find themselves working together.

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And it’s not just visually, Michael Giacchino’s feature breakout as a composer yielded one of the most beloved Pixar scores, a blasting fun John Barry homage (Barry originally being offered the part) informing the pulp attitudes of its adventures and the mysterious element of Bob’s early attempts to keep his superheroing secret from his family, but it’s not even present for much of the first half save for a perilous attempt at reliving the glory days with partner-in-crimefighting Lucius “Frozone” Best (Samuel L. Jackson), until the secretive Mirage (Elizabeth Peña) approaches him with an assignment and the music begins whispering dreams of valiance building until up to the full bombast of the rest of the score. And the Oscar-winning sound design like-wise just fills the florid island environment within which the Incredibles chase and battle with the expected bird calls and forest brushes and alarming gunshots, but the powers of the children in particular get this unreal quality of quick pitter-patter for Dash’s speed (met in one brilliant surpise with a xylophone cue that may be my favorite moment in Giacchino’s score) and Violet’s force-fields augment and distort the dialogue taking place within them with a flanged muffle.

My word, The Incredibles is such a fully-realized work of art that I find it impossible to find elements not to exhaust regarding it, barely having time to recognize the A-game of the entire voice cast with some playing to their expected strengths (Hunter, Peña, Jason Lee as a role I feel like describing in detail would be a spoiler even for a movie this old) and some filling side-lined characters with charisma (Jackson and Bird himself as the superhero’s tailor Edna Mode). Or unpacking the further observations it makes about government or society, including the film’s infamous skirting with Objectivism (though Bird claims it was unintentional, I find the reading valid though I can’t say I consider The Incredibles to be Randian). There are so many angles to look at The Incredibles for and almost all of them are ones that demand your admiration that when I call back to the opening of this review acknowledging it is my least favorite of Bird’s animated features, I hope my enthusiasm for it illustrates just how much further we have witnessed Bird ascend.

*Ideally from anybody, but it seems like Incredibles 2 is sadly getting a very muted dismissal as “good but not as good”. Watch this space later for me to get back to that. And the general consensus appears to be that all four animated projects are superior to Bird’s two live-action films, the phenomenal Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol and the forgettable Tomorrowland.

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Time Is a Flat Circle

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I really hope this trend keeps on rolling. This interest mainstream cinema has been having since 2013 with science fiction films largely focused on character-intimate narrative and involving space or extra-terrestrial life. It’s been around before but I can’t recall a previous streak of annual tentpole after tentpole interested in supporting character arcs with as much hard science fiction as they can make palatable. Gravity kicked that off and remains the best of the bunch largely on the merit of its technical achievement in putting the viewer in the position of a space castaway, Interstellar used relative time to make us feel heavily for the domestic drama of the Coopers, The Martian was a hip-hip-hoorah bit of showing-off just how smart and resourceful humans can be and the achievements of international cooperation, and now Arrival is the closest return to the quality of Gravity, without really being thaaat close to reaching it.

Needless to say, I would like to see this trend keep on rolling because all four movies are pretty darn likable, if not for the exact same audience (I have not seen that many people enthusiastic for all four of these movies). And they all despite their faults (like the fact that Interstellar‘s script is… out there) have a tendency to encourage more thought on scientific concepts in their themes, even if they’re not really that in-depth and the closest of the four to hard sci-fi is the most commercial crowd-pleaser, The Martian.

But Arrival is still one of those pleasant intellectual sci-fi films and, wouldn’t you know it, it doesn’t even have to leave Earth. Based on the short story “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang, Arrival‘s script by Eric Heisserer is pretty straightforward with its premise and only allows itself to get in-depth on the minutia of the academic elements during its first half.

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This time around out of the bunch of 2010s science fiction, the aliens have arrived and for once they’ve arrived in 12 different locations around the globe rather than just the United States, but of course, our focus is on the spaceship floating above Montana. Every single one of those nations with a spaceship in its vicinity takes the sudden and unannounced arrival seriously enough to try engage their ship individually and apparently they’re all having trouble getting the message across to the extra-terrestrial septapods and back, so on behalf of the US government, Col. GT Weber (Forest Whitaker) and Agent Halpern (Michael Stuhlbarg) enlists linguistics professor Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) to try to figure out a way to communicate with the septapods despite their language being marvelously designed as a strictly visual one, basically a ghostly black ink circle. Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), a recruited theoretical physicist, turns out to be the most receptive of Louise’s colleagues to her methods and findings and proves to be an invaluable aid to their mission as the tensions between the aliens and nations (and between the nations themselves) start ticking down behind them.

And so for the most part, the action remains between the US military’s base right below the giant sleek yet stonish alien ship and the interior of the alien ship itself when Louise, Ian, and company are able to enter daily to attempt communication and man, the ship is the biggest surprise of the film to me in all of its weird treatment of gravity, its cavernous interiors that the humans explore separated by a screen from a foggy infinite where the septapods reside. It’s all obviously the work of ambitious CGI that still retains a real-world grounding and tangibility in its natural and low-key look. Even despite its fantastical make-up. And once again there’s that messy-looking language that still retains recognizable patterns so that we can identify certain phrases without being as educated as Louise or Ian.

Those moments inside the ship are the true interesting elements of the procedural that is the first half of Arrival, while the moments in the base with Weber and Halpern are there to remind us that there’s a fire lighting under Louise’s ass to make this film a race against time. It’s reminiscent enough of Contact without being an out-and-out spiritual sequel.

And that’s all enough to make the movie worth stopping this review and checking out if you want to because… semi-warning: I don’t want to spoil the movie and I won’t. But I’m going to be implying things that might be able to figure out what happens in its second half, so… be warned)

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Ah and then there’s the real shocker of the movie where it reveals just how cheekily it has been messing with our chronological association of moments and from there… well, I can see how some people have a problem with it. Arrival‘s treatment of Louise as a character sinks low to a sort of conservative-esque reduction of her life, a very gender-role-based attitude about where her destiny lies (which is not helped by the fatalistic attitude the movie has about people’s lives via the same twist). One of my friends promised me that “want to make a baby?” would be one of the worst lines I’ve ever heard and in the context of the movie, I guffawed in the theater at its inopportune placing in the most emotional point of the film (I understand it also is placed there to give autonomy to Louise as a character, but its an inorganic way to do so and very much goes against its fate-based attitudes).

It’s also the sort of twist that doesn’t hold up to much scrutiny the more you overthink it. The drive back was spent in discussion of just how tangled the movie’s premise becomes when the first half is looked back on through the lens of the second half. It’s not nearly as successful a finale as I like to pretend it is.

BUT! It’s still the sort of structural sleight-of-hand I love a movie to pull off, the kind of subjective tricks that Joe Walker’s editing should be shamelessly proud of. And Adams is no slouch in giving a movie a human element, as even when Louise distracts herself with her workload, she has a vacant depression looming over her punctuated by flashbacks of her late daughter. And so when Adams is carrying your humanity, you can bet its going to work as emotional release, just as much as it works as cinematic manipulation. So I don’t regret liking and I don’t regret telling people to go see it. It’s as worthy a piece of character drama mixed with sci-fi as Interstellar and Gravity (and much cleaner than their scripts too, but y’know… Interstellar) and a very impressive work of science fiction craftsmanship in almost all regards (the fact that I barely find space to mention how Bradford Young continues to be the best new talent on the camera, yet feel compelled to mention it says a lot), putting Denis Villeneuve on better terms with me after too many films I dislike. Two hours could be spent in worst ways that learning how to talk to aliens, especially when it says some pretty radical things about time to begin with.

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