Thursday, April 28, 2016

Movie Reviews: Zootopia, Batman v Superman, The Jungle Book, The Tale of Princess Kayuga, 20 Feet From Stardom

Zootopia: A funny and interesting addition to the Disney canon. I think I enjoyed it more because I literally knew nothing about the movie before seeing it, other than its name, promotional poster, and that it was well received by both critics and the IMDB public.

The story takes place in a world where a) everyone is an anthropomorphic hoofed, rodent, or jungle mammal: no simians or marsupials (I may have missed one); b) animals once had an uncivilized past, where predators preyed on prey, but now animals are civilized: they wear clothes, talk politely, and have human-like jobs, if their physique is suited to it. The city Zootopia is divided into climatological and size-scaled zones. Somehow this city has a single police force, made up of large, imposing prey animals with a few predators mixed in. 90% of the population is prey; 10% are predators.

The story is about a rabbit from the country who decides to be on the Zootopia police force, and somehow manages to get onto it. The large imposing captain assigns her to traffic duty, since he doesn't think a rabbit can do much actual police work. She runs into a fox who is a con artist, and together they end up looking for a missing mammal and a mysterious case of one or more predators that may have relapsed back to their vicious animal state. It's essentially a buddy cop/detective story.

Other than its humor, the movie's major goal is to teach political correctness. It features a strong and brave female protagonist without any hint of a love angle, which is a breath of fresh air for a children's cartoon. The fox is captivating, too; he's not really a criminal, he's just a con artist, buying low and selling high. Like all modern Disney movies, the visuals are spectacular. The story is coherent and entertaining. One scene with sloths working at the DMV (M = mammalian) is particularly funny. There are several denouements. There are references to other Disney movies and other movies in general (The Godfather features prominently), and one rather odd scene in a mammal "nudist" colony where the animals don't wear clothes. The female protagonist is shocked at the nudity, but when the animals bend over or spread their legs there is just a blank expanse of flat monochromatic surface.

The movie has heavy-handed tolerance, anti-stereotyping, and anti-racism messages: don't jump to conclusions about animals based on their type or history. I counted at least half a dozen cellophane-veiled translations of PC messages about stereotyping, cultural self-definition, appropriation, racial insensitivity, and so on, all within the first few minutes of bunny arriving in the city and all using the same language you will find in numerous YouTube videos about blacks, Muslims, and so on (at least it's a nice break from the "be brave" and "family/love matters" that pretty much dominates every other Disney movie). A not very deep analysis of the actual messages of the movie are more muddled. I can't discuss it without giving away the plot. but some of the PC messages seem to contradict each other and sometimes I wasn't sure if they were saying what they thought they were saying, since what they were actually saying didn't make much sense given the biology or situation on screen. Nevertheless, the context was always clear.

No reason not to bring everyone to see it: it has some good messages and it might make for some interesting discussion afterwards.

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice: You've probably already heard everything you need to know about this movie. Batman is upset about the collateral damage caused by Superman in his battle to save the world from Zod (in the previous Superman movie). He thinks that Superman is too powerful and too reckless. Meanwhile, Superman thinks that Batman is too much of a vigilante and not following the rule of law. Lex Luthor arranges for them to fight, for some reason, and then sics a Big Bad Boss on both of them. In this movie, Superman and Lois Lane are lovers, which, if you read Man of Steel, Women of Kleenex, you would know is impossible.

I didn't watch the previous Superman, since it looked unrelentingly grim. This movie is also unrelentingly grim, and the setup is unbelievable, so there is little to the movie other than the fights. Superman and Batman are both powerful and acting outside the law. It is ridiculous for everyone to hate on Superman when he obviously saved the world. Unlike the superior Batman trilogy, the moral quandary in the movie (whether absolute power corrupts absolutely) is cursorily raised but not really dealt with.

Plus, you know that no one important is going to get hurt, or if one does, he/she is just going to come back to life again, just like they do in the Marvel movies, so the fight is without tension, a senseless spectacle of booms and crashes. Lex Luthor is ok when he is not overly annoying, but it's hard to see why Superman doesn't put him on ice very early on. Wonder Woman is the best part of the movie, catalyzing the only humorous and/or less grim verbal exchanges, but she has little on screen presence; if she was the main protagonist, the movie would have been much, much better (she has her own movie coming soon). Amy Adams is forgettable as Lois Lane. Holly Hunter is good as a politician, but also on screen for too little time.

Watch it if you like that kind of thing. It won't be on my replay list.

The Jungle Book (2016): I fail to understand the need for reboots and reworkings that we are seeing nowadays. While this movie is ok, it is entirely unnecessary, just like last year's unnecessary new version of Cinderella. Still, it's very well executed, and some of the story is original. Neel Sethi as Mowgli is the only human on screen, and he is on screen the entire movie. Since he likely had to act the entire movie in front of a green screen, his performance is most impressive.

They reuse lines and the occasional snippet of songs from the original movie. I suppose if you never saw the original, the line reuse won't be noticeable. But the two songs taken from the first movie are halfhearted - only a verse or two without the accompanying music, and their presence makes no sense in context, given the seriousness of the movie.

The story is a combination of the original movie and the original book, filling in many of the grimmer aspects of the story. Mowgli is a human child who somehow has survived in the wild, raised by wolves and a panther. He wanders around with a bright red cloth around his waist (a) why is is still bright red? b) wouldn't it attract attention from predators? c) why does he feel the need to wear this when it doesn't protect his body from the elements?). There is little fun to be had; the exception is Bill Murray's Baloo, and his scenes are out of place given the rest of the story. Something is off with the timing of his lines. I blame either the director or the editor. Shere Khan is nasty but oddly not as frightening as the cartoon one in the original. The final battle is insane and doesn't make sense, at least to me. Mowgli has skills with axes, cutting, and ropes that even a trained boy scout would find difficult, and it's impossible to believe that he would have learned these living with the wolves.


The Tale of Princess Kaguya: It's always good to step away from Disney once in a while to see what else is possible in the world of animation. Disney creates ever-more beautiful and realistic animation, but always in the same way; like a single art movement, without variance. There is no artistic difference between Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Zootopia; they're just on a spectrum of drawing talent. (There are a few exceptions to this: Fantasia and the original 101 Dalmatians had some distinctive animated styling.) Disney's stories, on the other hand, while they are getting better, are still mostly insipid. The best you can say is that some are touching and some are very funny. The messages are always simplistic and boring: be brave. Be true to yourself. Family is important. Don't be judgemental. La la la.

Kaguya is a stunning piece of art. Every frame is a absolutely gorgeous: pause is at any moment and you could frame it. Looks, of course, are not enough (c.f. Song of the Sea). The story is also lovely and mythical, and feels ancient: a peasant finds a miniature girl and a pile of gold when he cuts into a bamboo tree. He raises the girl and takes her to live in the city as a princess using the gold. Various suitors compete for her hand, while she pines for the ordinary life of her childhood. There is much more to the story than that, but it is complex, and yet simple enough to understand on many levels.

Admittedly, the story is sometimes slower than the frenetic pacing of a Disney movie, and may test the patience of modern children. Set in an ancient Japan, the young peasant children spend a lot of time roaming around naked (anatomically correct, although tastefully presented), which is also something you won't see in a Disney movie. I wasn't thrilled with the ending, but I can't really complain about it, as it suits the story well enough.

20 Feet From Stardom: The idea of hearing about the backup singers of famous singers is a good one. This movie is a documentary with interviews of both the famous singers and their backups, with a bit of some of their backgrounds. The cinematography is fine, and the movie is filled with good music clips, but it's nothing more than a shallow praise of a few of these singers, particularly black backup women singers.

It seems like there were a whole lot of interesting stories that could have been told but weren't. They very briefly mention that backup singers were all white until so and so came along, so there might be something interesting to say about racial barriers and so on, but the movie doesn't go there. They briefly mention that some early records with a backup singer's vocals were incorrectly attributed to the famous singers instead, so there might be a story there, too, but other than a shake of the head, the movie doesn't go there either. The movie didn't cover how they became backup singers (except cursorily), how much they are paid, what their relationship with the famous singers or with each other are like, or any other interesting questions. After 2/3 of the movie basically saying nice things about some women and going nowhere at all, I gave up.

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