ZOOTROPOLIS****Animals R Us


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KIDS’ ANIMATED MOVIES continue to be the best adult comedies around. Zootropolis (or Zootopia as it was called in the US) is a charming, brilliantly animated morality tale of inclusion and diversity. In a futuristic (presumably after Planet of the Apes has reached its natural conclusion and only animals rule the world) city of anthropomorphic animals, a tiny bunny dares dream the impossible dream… of becoming a cop.

Even her parents try to dissuade her: bunnies do bunny things, like farming carrots (or, presumably, also turning up as chocolates at Easter). But determination will out and she eventually realizes her dream of living in the big (wonderfully imagined) city as a cop. But bunnies aren’t meant to be cops, so she’s marginalized and given traffic duties, well away from the action.

Like it or not, prejudice is alive and well.

However, the action finds her and, despite her own prejudices about their slyness, she finds herself in cahoots with a fox.
Naturally, they both transcend their biases, confound their doubters and solve the serial crimes plaguing the city, where predators, after years of evolution, appear to be reverting to type.

It’s a tale simple enough for kids, or maybe even Trump supporters, to understand: free yourself from prejudice; judge others by their actions, not the color of their fur, do what’s right, and lift yourself above your baser instincts.

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First of all, the animation – a sort of quasi-realistic cartoon style – is extraordinary. The look is richly 3D. You can almost touch the fur on the animals, even as the animators don’t pretend to replicate reality (as, say in Life of Pi). The residents on Zootropolis live in various climate zones; Directors Byron Howard (Tangled) and Rich Moore (Wreck It Ralph) being a fluid, stylish direction to the tale; and their team of production designers (David Goetz and Dan Cooper) glide us through wintery landscapes, dense tropical jungles, arid deserts, and towering cities to give a bigness to the whole production.

And, as we’ve come to expect from these ‘kids’ cartoons’, the writing (by Howard, Moore and a team of ten) is smart, clever, and very funny. The ‘human’ emotions on display (via the likes of Ginnifer Goodwin, Jason Bateman and Idris Elba) are also a lot more credible than, say Zoolander or any of the gross out frat boy excesses that so often nowadays passes for comedy.

Which of course begs the question: why is kid animation becoming so much more sophisticated and well written (the Toy Stories, Minions, Inside Out etc) while adult comedy (Ride Along 2, Zoolander 2, Fifty Shades of Black, Dirty Grandpa, Daddy’s Home… need I say more?) continues to degenerate into such dumb, loud, cringe-inducing, pre-pubescent rubbish?

The outsiders’ view is that Pixar, Disney and Dreamworks realize that kids are extremely non-bullshit savvy; and the 35-40 year olds who accompany them want smart fare too…so the bar is high. But the adult fare seems set to the lowest common denominator where mindless regression is the only ambition.

No mistake here: Hollywood producers (theoretically) know their audience, so maybe there’s a third perspective: Hollywood adult comedies have finally and seamlessly merged into the Republican debates.

And that’s no laughing matter.

 

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BATMAN v SUPERMAN***Packs a Punch


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DESPITE THE FACT Zack Snyder gave us one of the worst films of some time (300) and a dull as dishwater Superman (Man of Steel), his new DC Comics blockbuster (it’s that time of year), Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is, if over-long and over-stuffed, a thrilling, operatic re- engagement with the Batman and Superman franchises.

DC Comics must have been suffering from Marvel envy. Marvel’s Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, Avengers, Spiderman, multiple TV shows and, of late, Deadpool franchises have been raking in the money. For DC Comics, what with the Christopher Nolan/Christian Bale Batman trilogy long past, only a tepid Superman (nobody remembers Brandon Routh as Superman in Superman Returns) to count on, and with JJ Abrams tied up with Star Wars, it must have been a desperate board that turned to Zac once again.

This time, the producers paired Zack and his group of regulars (Larry Fong, the cinematographer and Patrick Tatopoulis, the production designer… 300 was rubbish, but it was lovely to look at) with a strong writing team (David Goyer who wrote the story of The Dark Knight Rises and Chris Terrio from Argo) and a tremendous ensemble cast. The result is that a potential gimmick (a la Alien v Predator) has been transformed into a delight.

The story centers around what Bruce Wayne (himself an unregulated vigilante) considers to be an existential threat to humanity: the rise in popularity of an equally unregulated vigilante who is also an immortal alien with a strong God complex: Superman.

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To Bruce, this is a man who could, at a whim, destroy us all. We are ushered into the story via the concluding scenes of from the previous Superman movie (his battle against Zog): scenes of massive destruction and untold loss of human life. Zac makes a clear visual link to the fall of the twin towers, as an anguished, pissed off Bruce rushes into the engulfing cloud of debris. In his despair, a mission coalesces: rid the world of Superman. Man must kill off the God.

Into this drama of egos, enters the twitchy, crazy Lex Luthor, a man in possession of enough Kryptonite to destroy the man of steel, and bent on unleashing the forces of hell. Just to round things up, an avenging angel (Wonder Woman) joins this mythic battle of man v God v The devil.

Good Easter fare.

Zack plays the story without a trace of irony (though the writing is often laugh out loud witty) and his cast is uniformly excellent. batman-v-superman-dawn-of-justice-ben-affleck

Ben Affleck, much criticized when this casting was announced is a tremendous Batman. He’s sullen, driven and haunted by nightmares. He’s also the most ruthless Batman ever. Henry Cavil, whose performances as Superman and the man from U.N.C.L.E have been more wooden than a lumberyard full of ply-wood, actually exudes what passes for real emotion. His Superman is a man more of anguish than of steel. His powers weigh him down, and he’s burdened by responsibility. His love interest, Lois Lane is a feisty, fearless Amy Adams…a damsel in distress who refuses to be a damsel in distress. mgid-ao-image-mtv

Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor is a treat. His Luthor (usually played as a comic buffoon) is part Mark Zukerman (charming, young man of the people) and part Keith Ledger’s Joker (wide-eyed, demented). It’s a frightening mix. images-3

And absolutely holding her own in this class of talent is a (relative) newcomer: the Israeli born Amazonian beauty, Gal Gadot (From The fast and Furious movies) as the fierce, badass Wonder Woman (who fortunately has shed her naff Stars and Stripes one piece bath suit for something more befitting a warrior princess). Even Jeremy Irons, in the smaller supporting role as Alfred adds gravitas to the ensemble.

So all is well in the blockbuster world. DC Comics is back in business (after all the name…Dawn of Justice is a nod to the, no doubt, soon to be released Justice League ensemble) to ensure Marvel isn’t the sole super-power around.
At least I think all is well…except for (spoiler alert) Clark Kent, who is dead.

And what of Superman?

 

ANOMALISA***** Puppet Mastery


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HERE’S A STORY where – like the best of cinema – the idea and the style of its execution are so wedded together that you can’t imagine one without the other. Charlie Kauffman (Synedoche, New York, Eternal Sunshine of the Eternal Mind, Adaptation, Being John Malkovitch etc) has always delivered deeply philosophical movies that slam us into his wild, weird imagination.

In Anomalisa, using a style of puppetry that’s both hyper-real and clearly ‘false’ (we see the hinge points in the faces), and with one core voice (that of Tom Noolan’s) as the voice of all the characters, male and female, but for the two central protagonists, the movie makes us feel that we’re being led through a story entirely from within the consciousness of the lead character, Michael Stone (voiced by David Thewiis).

And David’s consciousness is… fucked, to put it politely. He is a totally demotivated motivational speaker newly arrived in Cincinnati to give a speech on motivating better service. Go figure. We get a perspective of his emotional state from the very beginning when he’s in the aircraft en route to Cincinnati. He glances through the window to the turbulent clouds outside and notices another aircraft, just like the one he’s in, flying alongside. One minute it’s there; the next minute it’s gone. Perhaps this is David himself…physically present, but emotionally, spiritually gone, like the vanishing aircraft.

We follow David’s progress almost in real time as he arrives, engages in banal chit chat with a taxi driver (“check out the chilli” he tells him) and checks in to a typical, faceless, soulless hotel. (It’s called the Fregoli Hotel…which is actually the name of the disease David’s suffering from in which people all merge into the same person). He has a perfunctory phone call with his wife and son, from whom he clearly feels estranged, and then, having gotten over that, he calls up an old girlfriend, Bella (who he’d unceremoniously dumped eleven years ago). They meet in the hotel bar. She’s confused, concerned about the added pounds she put on, depressed, seeking out some sort of explanation for their peremptory separation, not sure why he called her up etc. All as you’d expect from a meeting of this sort. But her voice and the voice of the waiter bringing the drinks is the same voice. It’s as if to David, everyone has become the same person. Even meaningless conversations between different people are repeated verbatim (he is urged to try the chilli by multiple persons).

His world has been reduced to a simple binary state: David and non-David; ‘me’ and ‘non-me’.

But they are also all, like him, faceless puppets (and at one point in a dream, his own face, his prepared mask, falls off, revealing the inner core of a frozen grin/grimace.). To him, and despite their past, Bella’s not anyone special; just another inhabitant in his world of interchangeable beings. No wonder, he doesn’t seem to be able to compute her emotional trauma…if all people are the same, all emotions must be the same as well… all equally meaningless, equally irrelevant. Only the physical intimacy of sex (which really is all he’s looking for) can, possibly lift him out of his funk, his extended breakdown.

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And then, in search of a voice that he hears outside his room (it’s a different voice…the potential of meeting someone ‘real’) as he bangs on the doors of the hotel’s endless nightmare corridor, he meets Lisa. She’s a star struck fan, sharing a room with her more glam friend. Lisa is (to him) shy, retiring, with about zero self esteem and mortally embarrassed by a scar on her face, which she hides with a cascade of hair. Her attempts to hide her scar/face attract her to him. Here’s someone who has a ‘real’ face. She also – literally – has her own voice (that of Jennifer Jason Leigh).

She’s an anomaly. Hence the title.

Lisa introduces a new dimension to the troubled consciousness of our ‘hero’. To the world of ‘me’ and ‘non-me’ now comes ‘her’.
It’s love at first sight…someone who, if only fleetingly, gets him away from himself (which may be all that love is). He peels her away from her friend and they make love. And that’s pretty weird: not people making love, but people-esque puppets making love. But sex is not the desired, romantic route that can transform his perspective. When it comes down to it, it’s just sex. And the morning after, what seemed like an anomaly, an existential liberation from sameness, is revealed to be nothing more than the icky intimacy of someone with scrambled egg in her mouth as she talks.

This is Kauffman’s continued genre of what might be called intimate dystopia: a perspective not of a future world in collapse, but of a present when the human consciousness is reduced to emptiness… to the triteness of empty jingles and lives lived by the dictates of how-to books.

And the fact that it’s all told through puppetry makes it weirdly watchable, because every gesture and unconscious tic become flashes of keen observation…we become that much more aware of the characters physical presence even as we’re slumming it in their mental world. Far from distracting the viewer, the use of animation/puppetry both enhances and changes how we ‘read’ the story and engage with the ideas at play.

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It’s extraordinary, and quite brilliant.

And much praise must also be paid to Duke Johnson (a specialist in stop motion animation who shares directorial credits) and his specialist cinematographer Joe Passarelli for this very special treat of a movie

 

HAIL CAESAR!*** I Came, I Saw, I Yawned


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ALL THE ELEMENTS are there for a wonderful, and nostalgic screwball comedy in Hail Caesar! – the Coen Brothers’ affectionate homage to the golden era of Hollywood.

The story is largely built around a few days in the life of the production head of Capitol Studios, Eddie Mannix…manic? ( A charismatic Josh Brolin).

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It’s his job to placate an invisible powerbroker in New York, manage the direction of his many productions, and at the same time hide the peccadillos of his wayward stars (DeeAnn Moran – Scarlett Johansson as America’s virgin and an Esther Williams type – is pregnant; Gloria DeLamour –Natasha Bassett- is about to be raided for doing a nudie shoot, and his big ticket star, Baird Whitlock – George Clooney – who may be a Rock Hudson-esque closet queen, has gone missing, maybe on a bender). It’s all crippling him with guilt. His mandate of maintaining appearances at all costs comes down to his own small peccadillo of smoking behind his wife’s back. In the world of Tinseltown tales, image is all.

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We see peeks into Eddie’s multiple simultaneous productions, all of which are spot-on perfect: DeeAnn Moran is the mermaid-tailed centre-piece of one of those synchronised swimming extravaganzas…except her bulging stomach is beginning to prove troublesome (Mannix must dream up a plausible story to account for the arrival of her child: adoption? marriage to someone the public will approve of? No one mentions abortion, which, duh, you’d think would be obvious);

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Burt Gurney – Channing Tatum – is a brilliant singing, dancing sailor who hoofs it in a dreamy routine straight out of South Pacific (except that he’s part of a new group of Hollywood communists…more trouble for Eddie);

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Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich from Blue Jasmine) is a Ricky Nelson type crooner who the studios want to cast against type as an urbane sophisticate; and Baird (all looks and no brain) is the heroic star of the eponymous Hail Caesar!, a The Robe/The Greatest Story Ever Told type production with a cast of thousands. But he’s kidnapped by a group of communist writers who call themselves The Future.

And thereby hangs a tale.

Poor Eddie, he’s up against the past, with the warring gossip columnist twins (Tilda Swinton and Tilda Swinton) digging up the dirt on Baird, and now also up against the future (the advent of TV, the collapse of the Hollywood Studio system, his own job security, and of course this shadowy group of recognition seeking, equality demanding pre-Blacklist commie writers). Lockheed is courting him and offering him a better image of the future…one that’s secure. It’s an ‘out’, and it’s awfully tempting. Will he be tempted?

And amidst all this happy mayhem, there are some outlandishly funny moments (in particular an hysterical attempt by snooty Brit director Lawrence Lorenz – a pitch perfect Ralph Fiennes – to coach simpleton Hobie Doyle into appearing sophisticated and articulating his words with that peculiarly fake semi British accent that represented Hollywood classiness back in the 50’s).

But for the large part, Hail Caesar lacks the verbal dexterity of a Woody Allen (which it tries to ape in some of the silly discussions about God and Communism), or the screwball plotting of, say a Some Like it Hot. The mish mash of a plot – more loosely connected vignettes than plot per se – never really builds to any sort of punch line and our fearless hero – George Clooney – wearing his Oh Brother Where Art Thou ‘stupid face’ is embarrassing.

George has done some marvelous work in the past: The Descendants, Up in the Air, Michael Clayton, Good Night, and Good Luck etc. But Hail Caesar! falls into his group of ‘really bad crap’: Tomorrowland: A World Beyond, The Monuments Men, Fantastic Mr. Fox, The Men Who Stare At Goats

As for the Coens, their recent creds are almost beyond reproach (Bridge of Spies, Inside Llewyn Davis, True Grit, Burn After Reading, No Country for Old Men etc). Let’s hope this is an aberration from which they can quickly recover.

At least, even during its (many) moments of humourless tedium, the look of the movie, shot be the peerless Roger Deakins (Sicario, Unbroken, Prisoners, Skyfall etc) is always engagingly watchable