Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Catch Up: Hail, Caesar!, Zootopia, Batman vs. Superman

Let the catch-up commence with the first of a couple minibursts of loose, overdue thoughts on the movies of months past.  Here we go, fast and furious and all of that stuff:

Hail, Caesar!
In the Coen Brothers' filmography, Hail, Caesar! is a relatively minor work, but one custom made for cinephiles harboring a deep love of Golden Age Hollywood history.  We follow studio fixer Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) through studio backlots, shady deals, and houses in the Hollywood Hills as he works to cover up an ever-mounting pile of would-be scandals and fiscal blows.  Eddie's biggest problem is that the studio's biggest star, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) has gone missing - kidnapped? Drunk? - from the set of an over-financed epic.  Along the way, though, we're shown a world of communists, tainted starlets, hired beards, arranged couples, and misplaced actors. Everyone is in their own little closet, everyone has something they're struggling to hide from the gossip columnists pounding at their doors.   The Coens have the skill to compress a decade of Blacklist tensions into one neat little dark comedy, and Hail, Caesar! sparkles with lovingly crafted send-ups of dead American genres and old school superstars.  Channing Tatum's Gene Kelly-esque dance number is a highlight, as is an appropriately star making performance from (soon to be young Han Solo) Alden Ehrenreich.

We shouldn't have been surprised when Zootopia turned out to be one of the rare talking-animals-wearing-clothes-and-cracking-wise movies to actually be good. After all, Disney's animation studio have been in close quarters with Pixar for years now, and have slowly been working towards beating their sister-studio at its own game.  Still, it's surprising just how good this film is.  There's something effortless about the visual inventiveness of the all-animal dystopia crafted here, and the film guides us through a world where we learn just enough to believe the system and never think to question the underlying logic of the social hierarchy established.  We follow a lovable, tiny rabbit named Judy Hopps (voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin) on her quest to become the first-ever bunny cop.  Though it sounds silly on paper, Judy's struggle to establish herself in a field traditionally unfriendly to her kind winds up being the perfect vehicle for a film to tackle - deftly, cleverly, and hilariously -  real world issues of race and gender inequality.  Zootopia is brilliant in every sense of the word: it's inventive, playful, and - don't misjudge it -  bound to be one of the smartest films this year in any genre, for any age group.

Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice
Maybe it's because my expectations were toilet bowl low on this one, but I can't claim to hate Batman vs. Superman as so many seem to.  After the total exhaustion that was Man of Steel's near endless second half, Zack Snyder's return to Metropolis (and arrival in Gotham) felt significantly more balanced and clear-eyed in its vision of how best to put a modernized Superman on the screen.  The overwrought world-saving is noticeably less, and there are gestures towards making the DC Universe both a little more open to the absurdity of its characters and just a little more fun (see: dumb monster, attempts at jokes, Wonder Woman's theme music).  Unfortunately, many of these gestures fall flat in this run and the film feels bloated, unnecessarily grim, and poorly -- particularly in an era dominated by Disney/Marvel's friendly, human heroes.  Too much of the effort here has gone into set pieces and heavy handed world building, not enough attention has gone to making us care about the characters. Snyder and DC are doubling down on weaving origin stories we already know by heart and forcing conflict where we know better.  It's a lot of set-up without much to make us care about the next act, and it's time for Warner Brothers to rethink their approach to this material.

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