Friday, March 25, 2016


I'm usually down for a Disney movie, but the trailers for Disney's latest film Zootopia (2016) did not thrill me at all. They consisted of genuinely humorous blips featuring talking animals but not a single thing about plot. It's usually a red flag when a movie trailer doesn't tell you anything about the plot, or interesting details about the characters, or even innovative cinematography to perk one's interest. More often than not if a trailer says nothing about the story, it's because they're trying to hide the fact that there is none. Fortunately, I ended up seeing Zootopia and I loved it! It's full of delightful characters, stellar animation, and tackles touchy social issues in a tasteful way.
From the largest elephant to the smallest shrew, the city of Zootopia is an anthropomorphic  mammal metropolis where various animals live and thrive. When Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) becomes the first rabbit to join the police force, she quickly learns how tough it is to enforce the law. Determined to prove herself, Judy jumps at the opportunity to solve a mysterious missing person case. Unfortunately, that means working with Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman), a cynical con artist fox who is her only lead and who makes her job even harder.
Who doesn't like talking animals? Disney's been doing it for years. They're usually good at it to be honest. This is the first time anthropomorphic animals have been used to illustrate a complex and diverse society. It's a highly creative setting and atmosphere that is deliriously fun to watch. It also creates a safe environment to explore the complexities of race, privilege, and social stratification. There are generalizations made about different species; foxes are cunning and sneaky, elephants never forget, rabbits are passive and meek, cheetahs are fast and agile, etc. However, none of those traits are accurate to the specific characters we meet, and it's even a little offensive to them when they are stereotyped that way. We have those generalizations proven wrong by these characters time and again, showing that you can't make broad generalizations about people based on their appearance or standing in life. It also addresses the idea that our circumstances profoundly affect what we can and cannot do. It's not the ghastly sweet trope of "you can be whatever you want to be" which sounds nice but is effectively untrue. Zootopia acknowledges that life is more complicated than the cute slogans we often try to attach to it, and that we all have limitations and make mistakes. All of this is beautifully illustrated, symbolically, through these talking animals and their fascinating world setting. One of the best lines that demonstrate this is from Police Chief Bogo (Idris Elba), "Life isn't some cartoon musical where you sing a little song and all your insipid dreams magically come true. So let it go." This was also a delightfully playful jab at Disney's Frozen.
Another thing that sells this world setting so well is the animation. It's amazing! The detail is impressive and the designs are astounding. It is difficult to animate fur because each individual stand of fur needs to move on its own, such as when wind blows through the fur, when the fur it touched, or when the skin bunches as the body moves. It needs to move in such a way that it looks natural and like actual fur moves. Fur gets wet, mussed up, sticky, muddy, and physical contact between furry creatures happens a lot, and it all looks fantastic! In Zootopia the little details are astounding. My favorite is how the small stands of fur on top of Nick's muzzle bunch up on the rare occasion when he starts to bare his teeth. It looks so believable and lifelike, for a fox wearing a Hawaiian shirt and tie.
These characters are utterly delightful. Judy Hopps is an optimistic, bright-eyed character with high hopes. This isn't out of the ordinary for Disney, of course. Judy is expected to be naive or innocently stupid. While she is a good girl through and through, she's not a dumb bunny. She's intelligent and resourceful and regularly caused me to do a double take when I realized how she'd out witted or out talked characters who don't take her seriously. She's a fantastic character. Judy was a much needed and delightful change of pace from Disney's usual heroines. Unlike most of Disney's female protagonists whose stories revolve around romance or family loyalty, Judy's focus is on her dream career as a police officer and serving her city. Nick has a wily, dry wit and is crafty and sarcastic, not unlike how one would expect a fox character to behave. But he frequently shows a great amount of heart and depth, especially when we learn about his past and why he seems so emotionally detached. I loved these characters and I almost wish the movie had been longer so I could see them shine longer. It was fantastic to see two characters who form a strong friendship rather than romance for a change.
The story was that of a classic mismatched buddy cop movie. Judy and Nick get along like cat and dog at first, but are forced to cooperate to the mutual benefit of one another. The suspects keep changing and it keeps the audience guessing. As of this writing I have seen the movie twice in theaters (it's just that good) and knowing the end from the beginning allowed me to notice the little hints at the big picture. The ending is still a surprise, but it doesn't come out of the blue like some poorly written "whodunnit" stories do. The whole movie is really well structured, well written, and has plenty of action and gags to laugh at.
Zootopia is fun, funny, cute, charming, well written, and thought-provoking. The cast is great, the characters are lovable, the action is fantastic, the story is complex and entertaining, the theme is tastefully implemented, the animation is amazing, and it's suitable for viewers of all ages. I honestly can't think of a single negative thing to say about this movie. It's just so much fun! It's timely message about the harm of prejudice in the face of prevailing xenophobic political rhetoric is very much needed and welcomed. Zootopia is absolutely worth the cost of tickets at the theaters. This is the kind of movie we want to encourage Disney and other studios to keep making. I encourage you to go see this and to consider getting a copy on home video when it's available.

What's the best family-friendly "buddy cop" movie you've ever seen? Comment below and tell me all about it!

Friday, March 18, 2016

The Road to El Dorado Review

While browsing Tumblr and other social media outlets I'll occasionally see internet memes from Dreamworks' animated feature The Road to El Dorado (2000). I remember enjoying it when it hit theaters 16 years ago, so it put me in the mood to see it again. The animation has aged well, and it's still an amusing animated family film. The Road to El Dorado is not quite as good as I remember, but it certainly is fun.
Con-men Tulio (Kevin Kline) and Miguel (Kenneth Branagh) get hold of a map to the lost City of Gold, El Dorado. After stowing away onto one of the ships of the Spanish explorer Hernán Cortés (Jim Cummings), the pair escapes and eventually do find the city. There, a fanatically vicious high priest named Tzekel-Kan (Armand Assante) who has a religious fixation for human sacrifices, proclaims them to be gods in a scheme to win control of the city for himself. Meanwhile, they meet a beautiful woman named Chel (Rosie Perez) who helps them in their ruse to escape El Dorado with as much gold as possible.
I've got to give props to Kevin Kline and Kenneth Branagh for their roles as Miguel and Tulio. Both characters made the movie incredibly fun. The characters are experienced con artists who have well rehearsed "arguments" to distract people who catch on to their ruses, which get them out of trouble. They do this a couple of times in the movie, resulting in staged fist fights, slapping, and sword play which ultimately gives them a means of escaping. These moments are terrifically charming, and they make me wonder if Kline and Branagh were improvising these lines only to have them animated later on. I wouldn't put it past them, since both actors are very skilled and they seem to bounce off of each other magnificently; those scenes do have an improvised comedy quality to them. The characters felt a bit thin, but the actors did a remarkable job working with what they had to make them lovable.
The animation in The Road to El Dorado was pretty great. It's 2D cell animation, which was becoming a rarity then and is even more so now. The well- executed animation in this film gave it a classic feel that is a delight to watch. I remembered there being CGI monster toward the end that Tzekel-Kan had summoned, but as it turned out I was remembering it wrong; it's just a really well animated hand drawing. The animation does some creative things with the lighting and took some interesting creative liberties during some musical numbers. I can't say anything new or innovative was used in terms of the animation, but what it does is some solid, classic 2D cell animation.
It's quite annoying when an animated feature thinks it needs to include a musical number for every single bit of plot development. Yes, musical numbers can be great, but too much of them is overkill and can weaken the overall quality of the movie. The Road to El Dorado teeters on the edge of too much. The music was provided by Tim Rice, who did the musical numbers for Disney classics such as Aladdin and Beauty and the Beast, as well as Elton John, who provided the music for The Lion King. The music and songs in El Dorado are great, but their incorporation into the movie seemed awkward at times and unnecessary at other times. Most of the music was used to fill in a lack of dialogue during several montages. Few occasions had characters actually singing about something to move the plot forward, and when it did, it felt forced. The music was good, but the implementation didn't feel right, almost as if the producers felt an obligation to include songs for the sake of entertaining kids when the moment in the movie would have been fine without it.
The story in The Road to El Dorado wasn't exactly boring, but it was predictable. In other hands, the story might have centered more on Cortés, whose ship catches up to Tulio and Miguel in the New World. But this is a story of two pals who get caught up in events beyond their comprehension after being mistaken for gods. The story ultimately recycles a lot from The Man Who Would Be King; one likes being a god, the other doesn't. They intend to get away with as much gold as possible, but end up loving the people and try to defend them from harm from within and without the city of El Dorado. The story simply doesn't do a whole lot that you can't see coming from a ways off.
On the plus side the story doesn't suffer from one towering central figure who gets all the screen time (like many Disney animated feature films do). This liberates The Road to El Dorado for goofiness. There aren't any serious themes lurking about or uplifting lessons to learn. It's just a couple of con men in over their heads and their gal pal and a horse that sometimes is smarter than the other three put together. Since the horse doesn't speak, it's able to exploit the miming gifts of the animators. There is a moment where the two heroes and their horse are in a rowboat somewhere in the ocean off Central America. It looks like the end. Then a seabird appears, circles and lands on their boat. This is a good omen. Land must be near. Then the bird drops dead. Bad sign. Then a shark leaps out of the sea and snaps up the bird in one gulp. Piling gag on top of gag is the strategy of the film, not unlike The Emperor's New Groove. It's here for laughs, not to be profound. The movie doesn't take itself too seriously and we shouldn't either. That being said, the less you know about history, the better your chances of enjoying this movie.
The Road to El Dorado is a fun, light hearted romp of a movie that the whole family could enjoy. Most of the characters are flat, but they are in the hands of some fantastic actors who make their characters loveable. The story is hardly profound, deep, or innovative, but it isn't trying to be. It's just here to entertain and create a few laughs. It's a decent enough movie, but I would have thought it would have been forgotten eventually if not for the fact that humorous internet memes keep popping up here and there. It's a fun movie to look up and watch every once a blue moon or so, but unless you have kids that really love this sort of movie, it's probably not worth owning.

The Road to El Dorado took a number of creative liberties in their interpretation of historical events in order to tell a fun story. What are some other ridiculously misrepresented historical events depicted in movies in the effort to tell a fun story? There are good ones out there, right? Comment below and let me know!

Friday, March 11, 2016

Upside Down Review

Generally when we think of sci-fi stories or films we think of action, aliens, and disastrous effect of bizarre technologies. We rarely think of sci-fi in terms of drama or romance, but there are examples of those unusual stories in film such as A.I. Artificial Intelligence and The Adjustment Bureau. In 2012 a Canadian-French romantic sci-fi film was released and the trailer was positively fascinating. It took a while for me to get around to it, but the movie did not disappoint. Upside Down shows us an incredibly unique setting and some amazing camera work.
Ever since Adam (Jim Sturgess) and Eden (Kirsten Dunst) fell in love as teens, their bond has faced astronomical odds. The pair are separated not just by social class and a political system bent on keeping them apart, but also by a freak planetary condition: they live on twinned worlds with gravities that pull in opposite directions-he on the poverty-stricken planet below, she on the wealthy, exploitative world above. Their budding but illicit romance screeches to a tragic halt when interplanetary-border patrol agents catch them and Eden suffers an apparently fatal fall. But when, ten years later, Adam learns she is alive and working at a vast corporation whose towering headquarters connects their planets, he sets out on a dangerous quest to infiltrate the company and the upper world to reconnect with her.
Like so many sci-fi and fantasy movies Upside Down starts off with a prologue that simultaneously sets up the story and explains the physics of the twin world gimmick in ways that will more or less satisfy the average moviegoer, or at least keep them from asking pesky questions about the lack of orbits or how the twinned worlds can have sunrises and sunsets and the like. Unfortunately the writer-director Juan Diego Solanas has made the bizarre decision to explain these details entirely through Adam's voiceover rather than showing us how it works. That always bothers me since movies are a visual storytelling medium, so why not show us how things work rather than having a narration? But it serves its purpose and we quickly understand how the mechanics of this setting works and understand the risks our protagonists are taking right from the get go. The setting reminds me of the 1927 Fritz Lang movie Metropolis, in which society has been literally split into two unequal classes; the rich living in an impossibly luxurious city in the sky and ruthlessly exploiting the resources and labor of the working class that dwells below ground in poverty. The setting in Upside Down simply has fascinating and bizarre physics to further complicate the socioeconomic divide.
Another complaint that I have about the movie is the fact that there is a highly interesting setting, but a rather weak screenplay. This twin-world concept is a premise that could inspire any number of fantastical stories, but the screenplay is content to do a simple Romeo and Juliet retread about two lovers from opposite worlds fighting to be together. And since the young-lovers plot device is the main focus of this story, why needlessly complicate things with the even more cliché trope of amnesia and force the other to jump through hoops just to jog her memory? The screenplay also suffers from some dialogue that occasionally sounds unnatural, almost as if the script had gone through a couple of languages in Google Translate before finally being translated into English. That's not to say it's all bad, it just sounds somehow off from time to time.
But having said that, I am willing to overlook some amateurish storytelling if the movie in question is bold or stylish enough to make up for narrative shortcomings, and Upside Down is one such movie. Practically every scene is crammed full of visual marvels that range from an endless sea of office drones, to a grand ballroom with dancers twirling about on both the floor and the ceiling, to Adam escaping some flames by jumping up into a nearby river. My goodness, I don't know how many of these visuals were achieved. Probably with a lot of CGI, but it looks as though a whole lot of practical effects were incorporated as well. And it's not just the big special effects displays like Eden being lowered from Down Below to Up Top by a rope, making her resemble a balloon on a string. Subtle little things like having an item from the other world and having to rest it on the underside of the desk so it doesn't fall upwards are used with such casual nonchalance that it really sells the bizarre physics of the setting and makes it hard to take your eyes from the screen. The results are so stunning I would gladly take a couple images shown here over most anything from recent blockbuster epics any day. It's the kind of imagery where you could pause the movie at any given moment and just study the image as one might study a painting. Here's the trailer to give you an idea of what this movie looks like:

Upside Down is such a gorgeous movie to watch that I half expect Terry Gilliam to have wished he'd thought of some of the visuals used here. In spite of its wonderfully unique and fascinating premise and a talented cast, the story fails to offer much in the way of a compelling drama or romance to anchor it's dazzling visuals. It evokes no serious emotions other than awe and wonder at how beautiful it looks. The movie clearly had big dreams, but they never quite pan out the way it obviously hoped it would. I could see most viewers either interpreting this as some kind of crackpot masterpiece or dismiss it as one of the silliest pieces of cinema they've ever seen. I enjoyed Upside Down enough that I'd consider getting my own copy, but not because the story was good. It's just so darn neat to watch! As of writing this, Upside Down is streaming on Netflix and is by no means a waste of time to watch it there.

What are some other non-action sci-fi movies you've seen? Were they also worth watching? Comment below and let me know!

Friday, March 4, 2016

What We Do in the Shadows Review

I had a friend show me What We Do in the Shadows (2014) the other day. It's a mockumentary vampire movie from New Zealand that has a whole lot more wit and humor than it initially appears to have. Drawing from different vampire mythos, it puts together several mismatched varieties of vampires and has them cohabitating in a rented flat together. Interestingly, it makes some unexpected social commentary while showing us some absurd humor.
Follow the lives of Viago (Taika Waititi), Deacon (Jonathan Brugh), Vladislav (Jemaine Clement), and Petyr (Ben Fransham) - four flatmates who are just trying to get by and overcome life's obstacles-like being immortal vampires who must feast on human blood. Hundreds of years old, the vampires are finding that beyond sunlight catastrophes, hitting the main artery, and not being able to get a sense of their wardrobe without a reflection, modern society has them struggling with the mundane like paying rent, keeping up with the chore wheel, trying to get into nightclubs, and overcoming flatmate conflicts.
The concept of a documentary crew following around four mismatched vampires in their everyday lives is silly as can be and generates a whole lot of situational humor. Like many reality TV shows each of these vampires will speak to the camera about themselves and what they think of the situations they're in. Their insight is often interesting and sometimes ridiculous, such as lamenting the lack of a reflection to see how they look when trying to dress up for a night on the town. Other times it's about frustration with their flat mates about pulling their weight by helping to pay rent or doing the dishes. The absurdity of the situations this creative concept generates simply lends itself to hilarious situational humor. This movie is about the "real," mundane lives of vampires. Almost like a behind the scenes view of James Bond when he'd have to, say, go to the bathroom, shop for grocieries, or clean his house. All the things that would not be put into a Bond movie simply because it's not that interesting. Here, we are shown a behind the scenes look at the lives of vampires and all the banal things they have to do unrelated to being a monstrous creature of the night.
The four characters here resemble established vampire characters from pop culture. We basically have Count Orlok from the classic black-and-white film Nosferatu, Count Dracula, Lestat from Interview with the Vampire, and David from The Lost Boys. All have different values and means of hunting, each has different goals, and each one tries to keep the other in check for their collective well being. And blessedly, the characters in the movie even make fun of Twilight and how that it simply does not depict real vampires; that alone earns several bonus points in my book.
This was an independent film, and the visual effects and camera work are delightfully cheesy. Getting the characters to float in the air is obviously a simple means of wires attached to actors. What little CGI is used was not great, even though it was well implemented. One genuinely excellent bit of horror-style cinematography featured the camera following a victim through the vampire's flat as he tries to escape. The intensity of this scene was broken up with some silly antics such as Jemaine Clement's face superimposed on a black cat's head in a rather campy looking way. In one scene, two vampires get into a physical fight with each other and are tumbling around the hallway walls and ceiling, lunging at each other. Up until that point the special effects were so low quality that this scene caught me off guard and made me wonder how they did that. Having a rotating hallway set to create the illusion of the actors flying around the ceiling seemed a much more expensive stunt than what other visuals leading up to it suggested the movie had a budget for. There was a lot of shaky camera work to suggest an improvisational quality of this "documentary." It was a little annoying after a while, but fortunately it was not so erratic as to give me any kind of motion sickness.
What We Do in the Shadows is far from being preachy or taking itself so seriously as to have a deep meaning or philosophical idea holding it together. However, I saw this as commentary on male bonding. As adults, men don't seem particularly adept at making friends with other men these days. I could go on a nice long rant speculating why, but that's not the point. The vampires in What We Do in the Shadows are a small group of friends trying to get through life together and find women to have relationships with. Life keeps throwing challenges at them, but they keep going making the most of their situations. Even when arguments arise between them, they will make a display to try and intimidate the other (as vampires this takes the form of floating in the air hissing at one another), but neither of them want to actually come to blows with their flat mate and friend. I doubt anything new you hadn't seen before relating to male bonding would come of viewing this movie, but men being friends together in a heterosexual sort of way and sticking up for one another seems to be the unifying theme of the movie and it worked well.
What We Do in the Shadows was a funny movie. It's a cleverly constructed riot that delivers constant laughs from its premise without bleeding it dry. It's a smarter, fresher, and funnier take on vampires than I've seen for some time now. They do vampires right, even if it is in a humorous way. There are competent actors delivering some witty humor, a skilled director who knows what he's doing with camera work, and some deceptively skilled visual effects artists. It's well written enough that it's hard to tell how much of it was improvised or there was improvisation at all. What We Do in the Shadows is a good, solid movie that is worth seeing.