Incredible really is the word for Brad Bird’s Incredibles 2, a thoughtful, intelligent, hilarious and visually stupendous sequel to Disney Pixar’s first superhero adventure. It was always a curiosity how this was going to do; so many sequels that arrive a decade after their beloved predecessor can feel vague or disjointed by the gulf of time. This one jumps right back into the hot seat like it never left, feeling both new and organic as a continuing story and reminiscent of the first outing’s magic. Literally dropping us right back near the ending we remember where a little mole dude called the Underminer creates new trouble for our heroes, a gigantic bank robbery sequence sets the stage for the film to come as well as the ongoing and and now more complex issues that superheroes face in the eyes of the public and in the favour of the government. The real joy of the film comes from the family dynamic though, particularly between Bob ‘Mr. Incredible’ Parr and the kids. When an influential tycoon (a peppy Bob Odenkirk) and his techie sister (silk voiced Catherine Keener) develop a new promotional program to put supers in the positive spotlight, they recruit Susan ‘Elastagirl’ Parr (Holly Hunter) as their front runner. This pus Bob in the stay at home Dad seat, and in those sequences the film really finds a fresh voice, showcasing some hilarious and poignant sequences. The visual fireworks come full blast as Elastagirl battles a mysterious enemy called the Screenslaver and runs about the city with all kinds of gadgets including a souped up new motorbike. Samuel L. Jackson’s Frozone is back too, and there’s a whole new gallery of interesting supers all brought into the fold by Odenkirk’s character. Edna Mode returns too, still hysterically voiced by director Bird himself. The magic of these films is that they’re not just flashy gloss or simply Disney fireworks, there’s actually themes to work through and things to ponder on their journey. I admire the addressing of media manipulation and collusion in how the supers are represented in the news, something that’s commonplace in the states today, as well as the raw angst of being a parent and trying to protect your young while simultaneously saving the world and rocketing around between very dangerous situations. This one is a winner, a little more dense and story heavy than the first was, but still knows how to have a great time in the action department, from chases aboard both a runaway subway train and a massive luxury ocean liner in the fast paced third act. Still feels as classy, cool and entertaining as the first, with a retro futurist vibe, striking tactile animation and a script packed with wit and innovation.
In this cynical and jaded world in which we live in idealism and optimism are often mistakenly equated with naiveté or stupidity. This may explain why Tomorrowland (2015) tanked so spectacularly at the box office and was roasted over the coals by critics. Based on the Walt Disney theme land of the same name, the film champions dreamers and creativity. Hoping for a repeat of the successful adaptation of the Pirates of the Caribbean ride into a wildly popular movie franchise, the studio brought in director Brad Bird, fresh from the box office hit Mission: Impossible: Ghost Protocol (2011), screenwriter Damon Lindelof (Prometheus), and cast George Clooney to anchor the film in a supporting role opposite Britt Robertson (The Longest Ride) as the young lead. The studio certainly had all the right elements in place but dropped the ball when it came to marketing Tomorrowland, which is staggering when one realizes how many millions of dollars were spent promoting it in a cryptic way that was completely unnecessary. After all the dust has settled and the post-mortems have been made, the question remains, is the film any good? Obviously, the answer is very subjective. I, for one, loved it.
The film starts in the past – the 1964 New York World’s Fair to be exact as young John Francis Walker (Thomas Robinson) gets off a bus lugging a track bag containing a jetpack he invented. Frank shows it to a man named David Nix (Hugh Laurie) with the hopes of winning $50 in a contest. Alas, Frank admits that his invention doesn’t exactly work. Nix asks him what its purpose is and how would it make the world a better place to which the young boy responds, “Can’t it just be fun? … Anything’s possible.” Nix doesn’t understand what that means and Frank tells him, “If I was walking down the street and I saw some kid with a jetpack flying over me I’d believe anything’s possible, I’d be inspired. Doesn’t that make the world a better place?”
Therein lies the film’s central theme and overriding message: anything is possible if you have the imagination to think of something and the perseverance to make it happen regardless of those that tell you no. Armed with this determination and a small pin with the Tomorrowland logo on it, given to him a by little girl named Athena (Raffey Cassidy), Frank sneaks aboard the “It’s A Small World” ride and finds himself transported to a futuristic cityscape known as Tomorrowland. It’s a wondrous utopia that Bird takes us briefly through when Frank, with the help of a robot and a moment of well-timed clumsiness, gets his jetpack to work and flies around so that we (and he) can admire this shiny chrome and glass paradise.
After this brief teasing taste of this world, we are taken back to the present and meet Casey Newton (Robertson), a young woman that uses gadgets she assembled to delay the demolition of a NASA Launchpad thereby prolonging the inevitable loss of employment that will befall her father (Tim McGraw), an engineer. Casey is a dreamer that believes “the tiniest of actions could change the future,” as she tells her little brother Nate (Pierce Gagnon). She explains to him that it is hard to have ideas and it is easy to give up.
During the day, Casey endures classes taught by doom and gloom teachers and is surrounded by apathetic classmates. At night, she continues her one-person crusade to save her dad’s job until she’s finally caught in the act and arrested. Her father bails her out and among her possessions she finds a Tomorrowland pin. Touching it instantly transports her to the futuristic place; however, it only lasts for a few minutes and then no longer works. Naturally, she wants to experience more of this world and finds a store in Houston, Texas that claims to have a pin for sale. The store turns out to be a trap and Casey is rescued by Athena who looks like she hasn’t aged a day since 1964. She promises to take Casey back to Tomorrowland and save it, adding cryptically, “They built something they shouldn’t have.” In order to do so, they have to travel to Pittsfield, New York where Frank (Clooney), now all grown-up, lives like some crazed recluse, and has the ability to transport them to Tomorrowland. It won’t be that easy because Frank is no longer the optimist he once was; he’s now a bitter man existing on the fringes of society.
Britt Robertson plays the film’s protagonist and has the difficult challenge of portraying an irrepressible optimist surrounded by cynics without coming off as a caricature. She does this by instilling Casey with a passion for adventure fueled by curiosity and imagination. There is a sincerity to her performance that feels genuine while also having a knack for physical comedy, like when she figures out what the pin does through trial and error, and verbal comedy, like when Casey first meets Frank and they trade insults.
Not usually cast in summer blockbusters, George Clooney is excellent as a man who has given up hope and lost his idealism. His world-weary crabbiness acts in sharp contrast to Casey’s youthful optimism and their initial scenes together have an amusing tension as she isn’t sure if he can be trusted and vice versa. As the film progresses and they spend more time together, Casey begins to chip away at Frank’s cynicism.
Hugh Laurie plays the film’s antagonist, but wisely doesn’t portray him as such. Nix believes in what he’s doing is right and that’s what makes him dangerous. Laurie brings just the right amount of condescension to the role so that you want to see Casey and Frank defeat him. Raffey Cassidy plays quite the scene-stealer as Athena, with her posh British accent and direct way of talking. Her diminutive stature also makes her an unlikely action hero and yet she gets to jump around, beating up evil robots. Athena, Frank and Casey make for odd traveling companions as they go from Florida to New York to France.
Thanks to Claudio Miranda’s atmospheric cinematography and the best visual effects money can buy, Tomorrowland is a visually stunning film. Naturally, the Tomorrowland scenes, populated by people flying around in jetpacks, hovering trains and rockets, is the most impressive-looking, but a close second is Paris where Miranda bathes the Eiffel Tower in warm light as it is transformed into a massive Steampunk vehicle fueled by Nikola Tesla’s technology. When post-mortems were conducted on why Tomorrowland failed commercially and critically, one reason cited was that not enough time was spent in the titular place. This seems rather odd when we are given substantial teases early on and then the last 40 minutes takes place entirely in the futuristic city. There is something to be said for the less is more approach and the screen-time devoted to Tomorrowland is just right.
While most films are largely immune from film criticism these days, especially with the passing of Roger Ebert, writers just don’t have the influence they had many years ago, some reviewers foolishly attempted to argue that Brad Bird’s film, along with his others, espoused the beliefs of notorious conservative thinker and writer Ayn Rand. Other critics rose to the film’s defense and rightly pointed out that Bird wasn’t inspired by Rand but actually Walt Disney, which make much more sense.
If anything, Tomorrowland’s high profile commercial demise only confirms in the minds of Hollywood studio executives’ minds that to bankroll original films is folly and that they should go on cranking out reboots, remakes and sequels. One can already see this in Bird’s next gig – a return to the safe confines of Pixar to make a sequel to his beloved animated film The Incredibles (2004). It is also disheartening to see a film featuring a smart, resourceful female protagonist fail, especially in the current climate where Hollywood insiders scrutinize the success of every aspect of a film (or lack thereof) and analyze what it means.
That being said, Bird and his collaborators should be commended for getting this passion project made. Tomorrowland exists and will have the chance to outlive its detractors, where its box office failure will eventually mean little, and go on to inspired like-minded dreamers that find themselves identifying with Casey as opposed to the Nixs of the world. Bird’s film is a rare wakeup call against the negativity that permeates our culture, from the doom and gloom headlines that dominate any given news cycle to fashionable pessimism that permeates our culture.
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You wouldn’t have blamed a young Bill Allen if he had believed that the road to a thirty year career as an actor would be quick and easy. After all, his first few projects seemed to point towards early success. He earned his SAG card playing the lead in a movie where his supporting co-stars were Oscar winners, Hollywood legends, and two young unknowns named Miguel Ferrer and George Clooney; he had key roles in films by directors like Robert Altman and Oliver Stone; and he hung out with soon-to-be-famous actors like Lou Diamond Phillips, Brad Pitt, and Brandon Lee.
But Allen would ultimately find his career defined by a film that was barely seen when released and relegated by Hollywood to the VHS dustbin….where it became a classic and made Bill Allen a cult hero. Because Bill Allen, you see, is the guy who played Cru Jones. THE Cru Jones.
In case you weren’t a teenager obsessed with the growing sport of BMX (bicycle motocross) in the 1980s and early 1990s, it should be explained that Cru Jones was the hero of the film RAD, directed by the legendary Hal Needham (Smokey and the Bandit), a veteran widely regarded as the industry’s greatest creator of on-screen stunts. Though rather formulaic (and a bit laughable today for its distinctively 1980s styles), RAD featured elaborate and at the time revolutionary BMX stunts and riding performed by many of the pioneers of the movement at their prime. In the era before the X-Games and viral videos brought BMX to home screens, RAD showed young people all across the country how to execute (and not execute) moves that inspired a generation of extreme sport enthusiasts. Never mind that the film didn’t get a very wide release and poor reviews at the box-office: within a few years, RAD was one of the most-rented VHS films of all time. Teenagers who couldn’t afford to buy the film outright (this was in the days when VHS tapes sometimes retailed for $60 or more) rented it, watched it, and replayed it endlessly to study the stunts, as well as to revel in the underdog story of a bad kid made good by the sport of BMX.
“There are people who have named children Cru Jones,” says Allen with a laugh today, “boys and girls – I hear about one every week. There’s a porn star, and a boutique in Argentina named Cru Jones.” Now grown up, the kids who first rented RAD thirty years ago – like superfan Comedy Central host Daniel Tosh, who swore on the air that “Cru” has a place on his show as long as Tosh.O is on the air – have given Allen new moments in the spotlight, and allowed him to reflect on just what a strange journey a life in show business has afforded him.
Allen doesn’t deny that some good fortune allowed him to escape a somewhat grim world of limited possibilities in suburban Dallas, where he grew up. Never particularly ambitious – and prevented from playing sports or doing anything dangerous because of his smaller size – Allen had a family friend with a lofty idea about making a film about a jockey. Suddenly Allen’s size and interest in acting found him as the film’s unlikely lead on set in Kentucky. The director convinced legendary stage and screen performer Jose Ferrer, along with many other veteran notables, to take parts in the film, which lead to Ferrer bringing along his own two sons and nephew Clooney to make their own screen debuts. The film was never completed, but it also introduced Allen to veteran film actor Adam Rourke (The Stunt Man with Peter O’Toole are among his many credits). Looking for a way to make a sober living after a rough life in Hollywood, Rourke returned to Dallas along with Allen and began a film acting class that ran successfully for several years. It is there that Allen landed a role in Robert Altman’s acclaimed Streamers, and met lifelong friend Lou Diamond Phillips as a fellow member of Rourke’s class.
Upon arriving in Los Angeles, Allen was, in his own words, “young, with an agent, a SAG card, and a look I could exploit,” and quickly found work on television in shows such as Hotel, Amazing Stories, and Family Ties, and in a key role with opposite Tom Cruise in Born on the Fourth of July. When Needham was casting RAD, a film to be co-produced by Talia Shire and co-starring recent Olympic gold medalist Bart Conner, he happened to catch an episode of Hill Street Blues that Allen guest starred in, and within a few days Allen was hired as the lead and off to Canada. Allen recently collected many of his stories, including many behind-the-scenes stories about the making and promotion of RAD, in his memoir, My RAD Life, where he explains the heady rush of making another major film, his disappointment in the film’s initial reception, and his eventual transition from hot new actor in town to a regular working professional.
A love for the stage led him to form a theatre company with friends Brandon Lee and writer/director John Lee Hancock (The Blind Side, Saving Mr. Banks), allowing him to not only refine his craft, but join a blues band for one aborted stage production. A longtime harmonica player and blues aficionado since childhood (Dallas was an is a hotbed of blues music, and Allen grew up idolizing locals like Stevie Ray Vaughn and T-Bone Walker), Allen’s band, the Pipefitters, toured nationally and performed several times on television, with old friend Lou Diamond Philips fronting the band. That love for music continues: recently Allen worked with his brother Sherman to produce and perform on a tribute CD (The King of Clubs) for longtime Texas bluesman Bugs Henderson.
RAD was in the rearview mirror for Allen, but came roaring back into view with the advent of social media. “I was blissfully unaware of what was going on with the movie,” remembers Allen, “because of my career in music, but something definitely was going on.” Because RAD has never been available on DVD (and VHS copies are increasingly rare), fans often arranged special screenings and invited Allen to attend. At one such screening, director Needham (who passed away in 2013), noted to Allen that of all the films he had ever made, RAD had the most remarkable and profound impact over time. That’s reflected in the film’s current rating on “Rotten Tomatoes.” Though saddled with a “0%” rating from the few critics who reviewed the film, it has an amazing “91%” from fans and “amateur” critics – the most profound discrepancy in the website’s database of over 10,000 films.
For the last several years, Allen has been content working on his music and making a life with his wife, Carol, as well as doing regular acting work (he was seen in an episode of Breaking Bad and has appeared twice on Tosh.O). But recently, he’s found great peace and good fortune in embracing the role that was almost forgotten in a film that refuses to be. “I own the batsuit, and they can’t take it away from me,” he jokes. He plays a key role in a new BMX-themed film Heroes of Dirt, directed by one of the RAD generation, Eric Bugbee. Released in US theatres in the fall, it will make it to DVD and VOD on December 8.
Allen, Bugbee and the Heroes of Dirt production team are also deep into developing a new film inspired by RAD. That’s going to mean getting back on the bike – he’s busy studying both motorcycle and BMX with longtime pro Martin Aparijo (one of the stunt bikers featured in the original RAD), determined to do more of his own stunts this time around. He’s also developing a traveling BMX / 80s Rock live performance tour, combining nostalgia and extreme biking for a whole new generation of fans. Not bad for the kid who wasn’t allowed to ride a bike – but now counts airplane piloting and power-parachuting among his hobbies. On or off his bike, there’s no question that Allen is always going to find someone who wants to meet the real Cru Jones – and he’s happy to give the people what they want.
Episode 8 is now live! We discuss the current theatrical release of Brad Bird’s TOMORROWLAND, and our feature film of the week, Tod Williams’ THE DOOR IN THE FLOOR as well as our top five performances of Jeff Bridges and Kim Basinger! Enjoy everyone!