Friday, March 25, 2016

BATMAN V SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE Tries So Hard to Be an Event That It Forgets to Be a Movie


- Batman vs. Superman. For decades, this has been a conflict, a contrast, that has captivated the imagination of comic book fans. It's light vs. dark, fear vs. hope. Gotham vs. Metropolis. An ordinary man with an extraordinarily nightmarish childhood vs. a superpowered alien who grew up with a Rockwellian, idyllic upbringing. A rich city playboy vs. a country boy journalist. Vigilante vs. Hero. And yet ... two men who are, ultimately, two sides of the same coin. Two men who believe in truth and justice. Two men who live by a moral code. Two men who never give up. Two men who fight the same battle. There is rich thematic territory to explore in pitting Batman vs. Superman. And over the years, many a comic book and animated adventure has mined that iconic relationship in order to produce memorable stories.

But BATMAN V. SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE ... well, it has almost zero interest in any of those things. From watching this movie, from listening to interviews with director Zach Snyder - what's clear is that the bedrock upon which this movie was created is the fight between Batman and Superman in Frank Miller's seminal 1986 graphic novel The Dark Knight Returns. Snyder is an acolyte of Miller's work - he adapted 300, after all - and he seems to be a fan of that period of comics deconstruction (he also adapted that *other* big superhero deconstruction of the mid-80's, Watchmen). But increasingly, it feels like Snyder's affection for Miller and Moore is mostly just surface level. He likes the "kewl-factor" of those comics, but doesn't seem to get the context, the themes, or the subtext. As a pre-teen, I devoured those books. The shock factor of seeing R-rated interpretations of iconic superheroes blew my mind. But even then, I recognized what Moore and Miller were going for. They were subverting decades of superhero mythology - deconstructing aspects of superheroes that readers took for granted and placing them in the context of the politics of the 1980's. In The Dark Knight Returns, the "American Way" that Superman had long stood for had become corrupt and fascist, and Superman became a mere tool of that nightmare-America's government. Batman - now a grizzled, zero-%$&%'s-giving anarchist - comes out of retirement to fight the system. Ultimately, Batman and Superman throw down. And it's a fight for the ages. We actively root for Batman to win - it's his story, after all. And we smile and grin as the wily vigilante pulls out every trick in the book to humble the god-like Kal-El. But in BATMAN V SUPERMAN, Snyder takes that iconic battle and replicates it devoid of context. There's no real clash of ideologies here. There's no real thematic contrast between our heroes or what they represent. This Batman wants to hunt and kill Superman because he deems him (however misguidedly) responsible for the destruction and the resulting casualties that took place in Man of Steel. He views Superman as too much of a potential threat to let live. But even as he grits his teeth and decides to slay Superman, this Batman mows down people left and right while careening in the Batmobile through the streets of Gotham. This Batman brandishes a gun throughout what seems like half of the time he's onscreen in costume. This Batman kills (or as Snyder deemed it in an interview, he "manslaughters."). So where then, is the contrast?

In BATMAN V SUPERMAN, Gotham is indistinguishable from Metropolis. Both could essentially just be called Snyderville - perpetually dark, gloomy, and grey - lacking in any real personality or distinguishing characteristics. The movie is set 18 months after the events of Man of Steel - and we are told that - aside from some vocal pundits and protesters - people generally seem to have come around to the idea of Superman. I mean, there's a giant statue of him in Metropolis. But we are never really shown a Superman who is a man of the people. Most of the people we actually see in this movie - save for Lois Lane - seem to actively hate him. And Superman's personality seems to reflect that. Rather than serve as an optimistic contrast to Bruce Wayne's glumness, this film's Clark Kent can go toe to toe with Bruce when it comes to brooding. Snyder and his writers seem to actively not want to show a Superman being Superman. Aside from one moment of (misguided?) heroism in the film's final act, this Superman at times feels more like the fascist version from The Dark Knight Returns. Not for any real thematic reason - just because that's the version, I guess, that Snyder thinks is cool. Or at least, most palatable to his particular sensibilities.

It's funny, because in a world where multiple versions of DC Comics characters litter the pop-cultural landscape, the flaws of these movies often highlight the strengths of the other versions of the characters that are out there. When Superman Returns came out, its retread version of Lex Luthor - yet another spin on the sleazy used-car-salesman of the Donner films - made Smallville's tortured businessman version of Lex seem definitive in comparison. By the same token, BATMAN V SUPERMAN's dour Man of Steel makes the still-finding-its-groove Supergirl TV show seem to sparkle in comparison. Whatever flaws it may have, Supergirl overflows with palpable affection for its lead character and what she (and in turn, her iconic cousin) represent. There's no questioning that the show has an abundance of superheroic heart.

And where then is the beating heart of BATMAN V SUPERMAN ...? It's very, very hard to find. In retrospect, the relative lack of anything that could pass for real human emotion in this film makes Snyder's first DC movie, Man of Steel, start to look even better in comparison. I liked Man of Steel a lot. I graded it highly. It had fantastic action, a strong cast, and a pretty solidly-conveyed thematic through-line. It was Clark Kent's journey towards embracing the Superman identity after being confronted with his Kryptonian past. Simple, easy - and the foundation of a pretty damn good piece of sci-fi superhero pulp. But where Man of Steel took Clark on a pretty understandable character arc and plot trajectory, BATMAN V SUPERMAN jumps around with wild abandon - playing very fast and loose with things like character motivations, plot, and theme.

You can almost see the various hands reaching through the screen trying to mold this movie into something that fits their vision. You can imagine Snyder essentially working backwards from the big Batman/Superman smackdown, setting up a loosely-related collage of scenes meant to add some kind of mythic gravity to the heroes' first encounter. You can see screenwriter Chris Terrio (Argo) - brought in late in the game to polish things up - trying to somehow turn Snyder's comic book pulp into high-minded political-thriller allegory. And you can see the DC and Warner Bros brain-trust giddily - but awkwardly - shoehorning in all sorts of setup for future DC movie installments. This is "Dawn of Justice" - and so we get little glimpses of the rest of the DC pantheon, almost entirely unrelated to the actual plot of this movie - meant to prime us for what is to come in the years ahead.

The result is a movie that, for much of its running time, feels like an unwieldy mess. The first hour or so of the film is edited together so strangely - it almost feels like no one could agree how the movie should open, and so we're just left with no real opening. I won't spoil anything, but I'll just say that the movie begins with a truncated flashback to Batman's iconic origin story, followed by an extended revisit of the end of Man of Steel from Bruce Wayne's perspective, quickly followed by an extended scene of Lois Lane in Africa ... and then a bunch of other stuff before we ever see either Batman or Superman in costume. It's sort of shocking how all-over-the-place the movie is right out of the gate, and how long it takes to find any sort of real footing.

But what quickly becomes apparent is how thin most of the characters' motivations are in the movie. I talked a bit about the relative incoherence of Batman's decision to try to kill Superman (with a kryptonite spear, no less). But that incoherence extends to the entire fight between Superman and Batman. Look, comic book fans have long grown used to the trope of two heroes coming to blows without exactly having great reason to go at it. But here, it just feels like two action figures have been moved into place. In theory, Lex Luther is supposed to be the Machiavellian master manipulator of the confrontation. But Jesse Eisenberg's Lex never really makes any sense in this movie. His Lex is a jittery, half-insane madman on a perpetual sugar high. And what, exactly, he's trying to do and why is pretty vague - frustratingly so.

The thing is, BATMAN V SUPERMAN constantly fumbles the ball both on a macro and micro level. There are big picture issues - like how the big Batman/Superman fight begins on a nonsensical note and ends on an eye-rolling silly and sudden one. But there are *tons* of smaller issues that elicit WTF moments throughout the film. After Batman and Superman have called a truce, Lois Lane disposes of Batman's kryptonite spear by ... throwing it in a random abandoned building's flooded basement. Then, finding that casually-tossed-aside Ultimate Weapon becomes a major plot point in the movie's final act. "Hey, remember that all-powerful super-weapon that you tossed in a random building - now, if we don't find it, the world ends!" Is that really what this movie boils down to? Similarly, you know how I mentioned the film's odd, occasional inclination to become some sort of political thriller? Those moments pretty much all fall flat, and they add up to a whole lot of nothing. For example, the movie introduces the idea that Lex Luthor's anti-Superman plot is actually backed by the US government - but then never really resolves that notion or wraps it up in any meaningful way. There's also a pretty baffling sort-of dream sequence where Superman has a vision of his dead father, that seems to exist just because they wanted to squeeze Kevin Costner in here. It's a real head-scratcher as to why this scene happens when it does, and what it is exactly.

But hey, this is BATMAN V SUPERMAN - none of this stuff really matters if the movie gives us big moments of heroism that reinforce why these characters are icons - right? Well, for some reason the film continually undermines itself in this regard. There's a mind-blowingly strange sequence, for example, where Batman chases down criminals to a much-discussed secret boat (yep) that may be carrying a clandestine shipment of kryptonite. As Batman catches up with the boat, he's intercepted by Superman (this is the first time they meet), and Batman does his whole "do you bleed?" line. Superman quickly flies away, Batman stands around muttering, and then, well, that's it. What about those nefarious criminals and their kryptonite-carrying boat? Who cares! In this movie, Batman and Superman would rather trade lame taunts than fight crime, apparently. There's another moment in the movie that seems poised to be pretty great. Superman is called to testify before a Senate Committee to defend himself and his role in the destruction he caused in Man of Steel (the movie is very hung up on the ending of Man of Steel - I mean, sure, some critics didn't like it, but let's move on). But Superman is clearly going to give some great speech here, right? Some movie-defining Big Moment where Superman says earnestly that, my god, he may be an alien by birth, but he was raised to be an American - and really, he's just here to help. Or something. But in a moment that seems to literally embody the movie being pulled apart at the seams by the various parties involved in its conception, that potential Big Moment is interrupted by a giant explosion, and we're back to more brooding and people hating on Superman. And to make matters worse, the explosion is another part of Lex's weird master plan that never quite makes sense - unless you just go with the idea that he's actually insane - basically The Joker - and that nothing he does makes sense and is just intended to cause chaos (but is that really Lex Luthor?).

Eisenberg goes for it with his Lex. I can't really fault him for going big and over-the-top, because that's essentially what the script demands of him. But it does sort of irk me that this is now yet another big-screen Luthor who does not at all resemble the best and most iconic versions from the comics and animated series. The irony, of course, is that the DC Comics version of Lex that was a villain to Superman but a semi-respected businessman to the public - a guy who once ran for and won the DC Universe presidency - feels shockingly plausible and relevant today in the age of Trump. But worry not, there's no real sense of the zeitgeist being reflected in this movie (the movie's sensibility is much more rooted in the Frank Miller 80's and X-TREME 90's). More importantly, there's no real sense here that this is a Lex Luthor who could plausibly be Superman's greatest enemy. He's a Lex who is so brazenly a criminal that there's no endgame for him here except to end up dead or in jail. Lex has one really good moment in this movie where he threatens Lois and forces Superman to act to save her. It's a classic villain scene. Lex vs. Superman. It's too bad that we don't get more of that - or that we don't get a true clash of philosophies between Lex and Clark. What makes Lex a great villain in other mediums is that he's convinced that Superman is actually an existential affront to humanity. Here, Lex does a lot of semi-incoherent babbling - but there are no real shades of grey to him. He's just criminally insane. He's a Batman villain more so than a Superman one - a guy who should probably be locked up in Arkham Asylum. But ultimately, Lex is pretty marginalized in this movie. He's more background noise than anything else, and it's never exactly clear to what extent a.) it's his influence that's directly influencing Batman's decisions here, and b.) to what extent Lex himself is being manipulated by outside forces.

So yeah, there are a lot of "outside forces" in this movie. If you've read up on any of the pre-release hype pieces or if you're a big DC Comics fan, then it's pretty clear as to who the Big Bad is that BATMAN V SUPERMAN hamfistedly alludes to throughout its running time. But to what end? It's a pretty big game-changer if we're to believe that Batman and/or Lex are being expressly controlled and manipulated throughout the film by this other villain. But we never really know for sure. What we do know is that Batman has a few hallucinatory, seemingly prophetic dreams throughout the film - dreams that seem completely random and tangential to the plot, except to slightly reinforce Bruce's paranoia about Superman being dangerous. But is Bruce being in some way mind-controlled? Is Lex? Unclear. So what these sequences amount to is one crazy, Zach Snyder-at-his-Snyderiest actionfest, in which a machine gun toting Batman shoots his way through a horde of alien invaders like he's suddenly found himself in a sci-fi version of The Raid. Oh, and in the dream, Superman is evil. Presumably it's all portents of things to come in Justice League. But it also feels like Snyder got a little too caught up in the presumed kewlness of OMG YOU GUYS IT'S BATMAN BEING LIKE THE PUNISHER, BUT WITH ALIENS. BUT JUST KIDDING IT'S ALL A DREAM. OR IS IT? Suffice it to say, too much of this movie feels like a corporate-mandated ad for Justice League and the other DCU movies. I mean, Marvel has perfected the post-credits "wait, there's one more thing!" tease. But when your entire movie feels like a tease, well, that's not so good. This is especially true in the sort-of-lame previews of other Justice Leaguers like The Flash, Aquaman, and Cyborg. We see hints of them in action via ... computer files stolen from Lex Luthor. Seeing Wonder Woman point and click on computer files is not exactly the most dramatic way to introduce us to The Flash or Aquaman. And it's not helped by the fact that both of the aforementioned characters are super bro'd-out looking - like what would happen if Image Comics re-imagined the characters circa 1997. It's all pretty underwhelming.

So what works in the movie? There are moments. There are definitely moments. In all honesty, there are some really good things about the whole Batman side of the movie that could bode well for a future Affleck-centric Bat-film. For one thing, Affleck is pretty darn good as both Bruce Wayne and Batman. My biggest fear about Affleck - that he was just too genial and bro-next-door seeming to be the Bat - was mostly erased here. Voice modulation and the best-looking live action Bat-suit ever help make him look and sound like, well, Batman. And as Bruce Wayne, Affleck feels sort of like the more old-school playboy-adventurer guy from 70's and 80's comics, and I dig that. Best of all, the new version of Alfred - played to droll perfection by Jeremy Irons - is great. Irons and Affleck have a fantastic chemistry, and probably my favorite, most geek-out-worthy moments in the movie are some of their exchanges. Batman also gets to really be Batman here in a way he never was in the Nolan movies. He's a detective. He does cool martial arts and fights like he does in the Arkham videogames. He grapples from building to building. He can move his neck. All the surface-level Batman stuff, Snyder gets pretty much right. It sounds simple - but so many Batman movies have sucked so hard in that regard that seeing a Batman who really moves and looks like Batman is a big sigh of relief. Of course, my enthusiasm for this Batman was somewhat dampened by him being written to be an emotionally unstable crazy person, who one minute decides to kill Superman and the next decides they're BFF's - whose main weapon seems to be guns (dude - no!), and who kills (sorry, "manslaughters") on a whim. But the point is, the ingredients are there for a pretty good Batman movie to come out of this - *provided* we get some better writing for the character.

I'll mention the score here, too. I love Hans Zimmer's themes from Man of Steel, and everytime they get play here I feel like the material becomes slightly elevated. Zimmer's Superman theme just brings an instant sense of gravitas to the table. I think the score here is overall pretty strong and adds a lot.

I also think the last hour of the movie really picks up the pace and starts to find more of a groove - and it delivers some fairly epic superhero brawls. Once we get Batman, Superman, and Gal Godot's Wonder Woman all in action together, taking on Doomsday, the movie devolves into sheer comic book spectacle - and this is where Snyder feels most at home. Though the Doomsday brawl has some really stupid and nonsensical beats to it, it's undeniably fun and has the look of some sort of Alex Ross painting brought to life. Even just seeing Wonder Woman in action and being awesome is cool, in and of itself. This was a *long* time coming, so it's no surprise that Wonder Woman's big entrance is a huge audience applause moment - it's a collective realization of "it's about damn time!" Wonder Woman doesn't do much other than fight and look cool in this film, but she's kickass enough to leave you anticipating what a WW movie might be like with Gal Gadot in the lead.

The thing is, there are these isolated moments of coolness in the movie. Although this film makes me question his storytelling a bit, I will still defend Snyder as a guy who can do really great, mythic, stylized imagery. And certain shots in the film are really powerful and really cool. But they are cool in a very out-of-context way - these aren't moments that ultimately add up to anything, or that feel dramatically earned. In our packed theater, people applauded when Batman kicked ass, when Wonder Woman debuted, when Doomsday hulked-out and began his rampage. But it felt like applauding things that we already had a pre-attachment to - applause from mere recognition. When I reflected back and thought about what the sum total of those scenes was, I kept coming up empty. Everything that was satisfying in the moment was satisfying only on a purely surface level. There was no substance here. When the movie tries to have substance - when Holly Hunter's senator talks about her stance on Superman, when Lex rambles about pop-philosophy stuff about gods and man, when Batman pontificates about whether he's a hero or criminal  - it all feels random, largely meaningless, and, often, mildly pretentious. At the same time, there just isn't a story here that works as a cohesive whole. What we get feels like a greatest-hits mash-up of stories like The Dark Knight Returns, The Death of Superman, Injustice, and a few others - except without the original works' emotional or thematic resonance.

What you're left with is a feeling of apathy towards whatever comes next. With Man of Steel, the tone worked okay given that it was an origin story -  I interpreted that film's greyscale darkness as depicting a pre-Superman world. It was a journey towards the light. But the darkness - both visually and tonally - of BATMAN V SUPERMAN is so relentless that it left me thinking: "Really? *This* is what the new DC cinematic universe is going to be like?" The weird thing is that the storylines and characters that this movie hints at for Justice League are some of the most out-there and cosmic in DC's library. On the Marvel side, we've seen movies like Guardians of the Galaxy full-on embrace the cosmic loopiness that Jack Kirby brought to the company's cannon. Will DC/Warner dare to do the same? Or will be forced to endure "extreme," pseudo-edgy versions of Jack Kirby's New Gods? It's hard to imagine how it will all work. But I do worry about a world in which all of DC's cinematic characters have an inherent sameness. I mean, if Batman and Superman - two polar opposites - can be made into mirror-image grim-dark avengers, then what hope does the rest of the DC Universe have?

Ultimately, BATMAN V SUPERMAN feels like a movie that desperately wants to be important. Not in terms of theme - but in terms of being an unmissable flag-planting for DC/WB - a stake in the ground laying all the cards on the table for what is to come in DC's answer to the Marvel movie empire. Many cards are laid out - no question there. A flag has definitely been planted, for good or ill. But what they forgot to do was make a good movie - and as a card-carrying, life-long DC fanboy, well - that's a damn shame.

My Grade: C

Thursday, March 24, 2016

10 CLOVERFIELD LANE Is a Fun, Clever Trip to the Twilight Zone


- 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE is essentially the much-talked-about JJ Abrams "mystery box" in movie form. From the way it was marketed - with a stealth release of its trailer and a title that only added to the movie's mysteriousness - to the substance of the story itself, 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE is the living, breathing embodiment of the Abrams aesthetic. But while this sort of breathlessly cryptic marketing and storytelling can really backfire when it feels forced, what we get here is something that feels much more organic - built from the ground-up to be a relatively simple Twilight Zone-like tale. Sure, there are some parts of the story that feel tacked-on (not surprising, given that the film started as something else, and only later became part of the thematically-linked Abrams-verse). But mostly, this is a pretty sleek, straightforward morality play that actually over-delivers on what was promised - thanks to some absolutely killer performances, and a tightly-scripted plot that provides plenty of pay-off, in ways both big and small. As someone who loves The Twilight Zone and Twilight Zone-esque stories, this was, overall, a very pleasant surprise.

The set-up here is really well done, and presents some pretty intriguing questions off the bat. The movie starts by introducing us to Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), fleeing from her boyfriend after the two get into an off-screen fight. The implication is that Michelle is a runner - she gets out of Dodge when the going gets tough. Suddenly though, her life takes a turn for the insane. As she drives down an empty road, past fields and farmland, another car swerves into her path and collides violently. Michelle then wakes up in a bunker, disoriented. The bunker belongs to Howard (John Goodman), an intense man who alternates between genial and scary. Howard claims that he saved Michelle, because the world outside has gone to hell. Some sort of attack has happened. The air is poisonous. People are dying. But Howard saw this all coming, and was prepared. He claims he came across Michelle after her crash, and saved her by bringing her to the bunker. Another guy is there too - Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.), a young man who'd helped Howard build the bunker. Emmett claims he took refuge there when the attacks began. But the question remains: did Howard really save Michelle, or did he kidnap her? And regardless, did these attacks really happen as he claims? Is the air really poisonous? And who (or what) did the attacking?

The movie really sings when it focuses on being a psychological thriller. One of the key reasons is that both Mary Elizabeth Winstead and John Goodman are freaking great here. This is definitely the best that Winstead has been since Scott Pilgrim vs. The World - and it feels like, finally, another movie has really given her the chance to shine. Her character, Michelle, is written fairly straightforwardly - and in some ways she is sort of the stereotypical, hyper-competent "final girl" that we've seen in countless horror flicks. But Winstead really makes Michelle a hero whose every move we hinge on. Winstead's eyes tell the tale. She's constantly thinking, plotting, planning. And we can see it all in her eyes. Winstead brings a cerebral intensity to the film that is to be commended - and she knows just how to toe the line between seriousness and self-awareness that the movie demands. Meanwhile, this is legitimately the best John Goodman performance in *years.* Goodman is at the height of his powers here - doing a variation on the lovable/scary dynamic he used to make The Big Lebowski's Walter an all-time cinematic icon. Goodman's Howard keeps you guessing - and every time you think you've got him figured out, Goodman throws a new wrinkle into the mix to make you wonder. Goodman makes Howard an intimidating presence, but at times he's also funny as hell. It's just an absolute tour de force performance, and I'd go so far to say that Goodman actually elevates the whole movie up a notch by sheer force of will. He brings his A-game here, and man, there's not much better than John Goodman's A-game.

The other real key to the movie's success is that director Dan Trachtenberg infuses the film with a fun, well-thought-out sense of videogame-like puzzle logic. At times, the movie takes on the trappings of a game in the way that Michelle surveys her surroundings figures out how to navigate a situation via conversation, items/tools, and routes for escape should the need arise. The movie has a couple of direct homages to various games, but overall, it really embraces the adventure-game aesthetic in a way that keeps you invested in Michelle's actions at all times. More so than in other movies of this nature, there's often direct A-to-B payoff in how events play out. Michelle hears someone mention an item, thinks about how she could use that item to her benefit, manages to steal the item, and then uses it in a clever way. In that sense, 10 CLOVERFIELD WAY is an incredibly videogame-like movie - but in a very cool (non-annoying/pandering) way.

So what doesn't work as well? Mostly, it's all the other "stuff" that has more to do with the fact that "DUDE! This is JJ Abrams' Presents: A New Cloverfield Movie!" - i.e. the stuff that gets away from the real meat of the story. A less problematic but still slightly-annoying example of this is all the time it takes for Michelle to get some very basic answers about her situation. We don't ever (thank god) reach Lost-like levels of no one asking the right questions and no one answering anything. But there are times in the movie's first act where you do sort of want to shout out "Come on, just ask for answers already!". Mostly, the movie is clever in the way that it withholds information for dramatic effect. But it does stumble at times.

What really sort of hurts the movie though is its final act. No spoilers here, but I will say this: while the big finale does more than deliver on the expected Cloverfield-brand spectacle, it honestly feels like too much. It was telling to me that I was somehow less invested in the film's big CGI-infused action bits than I was in its much-better-executed paranoid-thriller bits. The final act goes on too long, and it feels tacked on - like it's from a different movie entirely. And it forces Winstead to go from plucky, capable hero to Unstoppable Badass in a way that does not feel organic at all. That said, I would have been mostly okay with it if the tone of the final act was different. I mean, the entire movie is essentially a big-screen Twilight Zone episode, and yet somehow, the ending goes optimistic/sentimental on us. What?! If ever there was a movie that demanded a dark, bleak, The Mist-like ending, this is it. As it stands, the ending is more of an eye-roller than an exclamation point. I found it really odd (it might sound strange to say that a "good" ending is a bummer, but in this case, it's true).

Overall though, 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE really impressed me. The meat of the movie - a paranoid sci-fi tinged parable - is extremely well done. Winstead and Goodman absolutely crush it, and help elevate the movie. It helps that they have a pretty clever, tension-filled script to work with. Dan Trachtenberg is also a director to keep an eye on - even though most of the film is set in a confined space, he makes every location a part of the puzzle. He really wrings maximum intensity out of the scenario presented. Some of the divergences into Abrams-ville derail things a bit (the ending in particular), but overall this is a movie well worth checking out. If the Cloverfield franchise is now going to be a modern day, cinematic Twilight Zone - then that's something to be excited for, and this is a nice way to kick things off.

My Grade: B+

Monday, March 14, 2016

ZOOTOPIA Is Thematically-Ambitious Animation That Deals In Messy Metaphors


- ZOOTOPIA is one of the most thematically-ambitious animated Disney movies ever made. It's a dense film with *a lot* to unpack from its narrative. Some will watch it only on a very surface level, ignoring the socio-political overtones and choosing to simply enjoy the film as standard-issue Disney fare. And certainly, many (kids in particular) will be too busy admiring the film's eye-popping, colorful world and fantastically-designed characters to read too much into the text. At the same time, the movie's social commentary is pretty overt and hard to miss. The film exists in a fantasy world filled with anthropomorphic animals - but the parallels to our world are very much apparent. In theory, I want to give a lot of credit to a movie bold enough to have this much on its mind. And in many ways, ZOOTOPIA works. The movie feels "important" in a way that your average Disney movie doesn't. But I also came away unsure that the movie's message entirely makes sense or holds up when looked at through a real-world lens. By trying to tackle so many issues, themes, genres, and narrative threads ... I couldn't help but wonder if perhaps Zootopia, for all its strengths, bites off a bit more than it can chew.

What works best about ZOOTOPIA is its core narrative - the story of plucky Judy Hopps - a young rabbit who decides to leave her small-town farm life to try to make it in the big city of Zootopia - becoming the first ever rabbit cop. Judy is diminutive as compared to most of the rest of the police force, but what she lacks in size she makes up for in drive, determination, and can-do attitude. Judy grew up in an environment where there were still residual tensions between the two dominant types of animals: predators and prey. Even though predators had long stopped hunting and eating other animals, there was still tension between the two groups. However, Zootopia was supposed to be a place where those tensions evaporated - lost in a big-city melting pot where anyone can be anything. But when Judy finally arrives there, she realizes that the city is not quite the tension-free paradise she'd imagined. Other animals still prejudge her for being a rabbit, constantly calling her "cute." Bigger animals still prejudge her for being a smaller animal. And all the while, tensions mount between predators and prey. A new drug on the streets has been causing some predators to "go savage" and attack prey.

So yeah - there's *a lot* going on here. Even just genre-wise, ZOOTOPIA is in turn a small-town/big-city fable, a police drama, a neo-noir crime story (yes, really!), an action movie, and a parable about racism and prejudice.

But through it all, the likability of Judy Hopps keeps the movie's momentum strong. And again, when the film focuses on Judy's personal journey, it really soars. Ginnifer Goodwin provides Judy's voice, and she's great - helping to make Judy really come to life. Ultimately, what makes Judy so interesting is that she isn't just a perfect protagonist. She falls prey (no pun intended) to some of the same prejudices and misconceptions as other characters in the movie. As her arc progresses, Judy has to learn some hard lessons about her own misguided preconceptions about other animals.

Where things become strange though is in the way the movie tries to have its cake and eat it too. Aside from Judy, the other main character here is Nick Wilde - a sly fox voiced by Jason Bateman. When Judy first meets Nick, he's revealed to be a con-artist criminal running various scams around Zootopia. In other words, he's exactly what one would expect a fox to be. But Nick's arc is about overcoming the limitations of what you were always told you were supposed to be, and becoming something more. Nick was always told that foxes behaved a certain way, and so he did. Only with Judy's urging does he realize that he can be more than just a con-man and scam-artist. As he helps her solve the mystery of what's happening to Zootopia's predators, he becomes a better person. What strikes me as a little off though is how, on one hand, the movie is about these animals transcending the stereotypes that they conform to - but on the other hand, having a lot of fun with showing animals 100% playing out those stereotypes. Even as the movie takes pains to show us how there's more to Judy and Nick then just being, respectively, a rabbit and a fox, it also gets a lot of jokes out of animals acting exactly according to preconceptions. Wolves being wolves, mice being mice, sloths being sloths, and even a gang of animal mobsters ripped straight out of The Godfather. ZOOTOPIA really is an anything-goes salad bowl of made-up, real-life, and pop-culture stereotypes. But at times, the movie is having too much fun playing *to* those stereotypes to remember that it's supposed to be about characters defying them.

The film also drops in a lot of moments clearly meant to invoke real-life instances of racial and cultural tension. There are moments that evoke prejudice against African-Americans, against Muslims - and moments that similarly evoke the ways politicians play on those kinds of fears of the "other" to amass supporters and power. It's pretty remarkable that this sort of stuff made it into a Disney movie. And again, I give ZOOTOPIA a huge amount of credit for daring to take on this kind of weighty stuff head-on. But the desire to mix all of these sorts of real-life examples of prejudice together, and to do so inside a fantasy world with its own backstories and "rules," can make things very messy. Without harping on this too much, the clearest example of this messiness is in the film's central conflict between predators and prey. On one hand, the film clearly and visibly will equate this conflict to the kinds of real-world cultural conflicts that are visible today in American society (and Zootopia itself, no question, is a fantasy version of America and its melting-pot ideals). But on the other hand, in Zootopia's universe, there was a time when predators did in fact hunt and kill and eat prey. So as much as predators in the present have disavowed this behavior ... is it really that unreasonable, if you're prey, to fear animals that at one time were genetically programmed to hunt and eat you? It makes for a dicey metaphor. Now, I don't think the animals of ZOOTOPIA are meant to have a one-to-one correlation with any particular real-world races or religions. But the inclusion of so many moments that do evoke our reality muddy the waters.

So does ZOOTOPIA work simply as a movie about following your passion and not listening to artificial limitations that people might place on you? Yes. But there is more on the movie's mind than just that, and the more layers it adds, the more muddied the message becomes.

Thematic issues aside though, ZOOTOPIA is sort of amazing in terms of how far it strays, genre-wise, from a typical Disney adventure story. The movie, on the whole, is pretty dark. It's got plenty of scenes that will potentially scare the crap out of young kids - a nightmarish moment that shows captured predators being experimented on in a prison-like lab. Moments where animals go savage to horrifying effect. Not to mention, the movie's got lots of pretty adult references - a direct nod to Walter and Jesse's meth-cooking on Breaking Bad, the aforementioned mafia-movie call-backs, and an extended scene at a hippie commune (led by a stoner yak voiced by Tommy Chong) where clothes are discouraged and the animals proudly flaunt their nakedness. As Judy and Nick work their case, the movie takes on the trappings of a classic film noir - with the two encountering one shady character after another. It's like a mix of Inherent Vice and a 90's-era LucasArts adventure game. The movie relentlessly genre-blends. There are big, gorgeously-directed set-piece action sequences - which range from Judy pursuing a crook through various parts of Zootopia to her and Nick evading bad guys through a lush rainforest. There are moments of police procedural, moments of slapstick comedy, pop-culture references and parodies aplenty, and moments that take the form of a storming-town hall social-justice passion play. Like I said, this movie is nothing if not ambitious.

It also looks amazing. The animation is some of the most vibrant and detailed I've yet seen, and the character design is top-to-bottom awesome. The diversity of the movie's various environments is also pretty mind-blowing, and they all, in their own way, look fantastic. There's the gleaming cityscape of Zootopia, the sprawling fields and open sky of Judy's farm-town, the overgrown vegetation of the rainforest district, and the list goes on.

ZOOTOPIA is so jam-packed with characters, ideas, and ambition that it's easy to lose sight of the movie's (very well-done) core. Like I said, it works extremely well at its most basic level - as an eye-poppingly colorful parable about how anyone can be anything. That basic message resonates, and it's a simple yet powerful one for kids and adults alike. And Judy Hopps is the perfect combination of likable, capable, and flawed to deliver it. But I do think that the movie shoots for the moon, but misses the mark. It's a very good movie that badly wants to be *great.* It just doesn't have the clarity of vision to get there. Still, you've got to give ZOOTOPIA props for aiming high.

My Grade: B+