Thursday, March 31, 2016

Review: "I Saw the Light"

I wanted to love this movie but did not. I admired it, enjoyed it, will certainly recommend it to you. But love is too big a word.

Tom Hiddleston plays country music legend Hank Williams, who died in 1953 at the age of just 29, leaving behind dozens of songs that are still iconic -- “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” “Move It on Over,” etc. He died long enough ago, right at the start of the information age, that he seemingly belongs to a different epoch, sliding in somewhere between history and mythology.

“I Saw the Light” was written and directed by Marc Abraham, a longtime producer who directed one other feature, the overlooked 2008 drama, “Flash of Genius.” It’s based on a biography by Colin Escott, George Merritt and William MacEwen.

The film adaptation lands as a fairly conventional music star bio, charting Williams’ slow rise to fame and gradual decline due to ill health, poor choices and barrels full of alcohol.

Parts of the story are very strong, others less so, but we’ve seen it all before -- the boozin’ and druggin’, stretches laid up in a hospital bed, the birddogging with a revolving door of beautiful young women, while the resentful wife back home complains about how he’s always on the road singing for their supper.

I did learn a few things about Williams I didn’t know before, like that he had spina bifida, causing lifelong pain that spurred him toward drink. Or that, at the height of his fame, he recorded under the pseudonym of Luke the Drifter, a fictional half-brother, spouting pastoral recitations about life and loss. They didn’t sell very well, but he did it just because it gave him an outlet for thoughts he couldn’t express in his honkytonking tunes.

Hiddlesston is very fine in the role, and I’m sure he will get some consideration when the next awards season rolls around. He plays Williams as a man who is simultaneously very self-aware and a mystery to himself. He does the things he does because it’s the way he was made, even if it causes himself and others pain. He was the man who smiled at everybody and sang about tragedy and heartbreak.

“I show it to them. So then they don’t have to take it home,” he grudgingly explains to a mystified reporter.

The actor sounds really, really good singing in the movie. I’m not sure how much he sounds like Hank Williams. Not enough twang and moan to pass as authentically hillbilly. Hiddleston is a Brit, after all, and even Americans north of the Mason-Dixon line struggle with the Southern sound. But I believed him as somebody people would pay money to hear.

Elizabeth Olsen plays Audrey Williams, his first wife and manager, and she’s anything but the usual wallflower. She’s depicted as tough, smart, self-preserving, edging into domineering. Audrey wanted her own singing career but didn’t have the pipes -- “She sounds like a damn billy goat!” is how one heckler puts it -- and blames him for not helping her along. They cause each other plenty of strife, and at some point she checks out emotionally. We can’t really blame her.

The film’s biggest misstep is to break up the story with supposed archival interviews of actual figures in Williams’ life, like producer Fred Rose (Bradley Whitford). Abraham tries to employ this as a tool to relay the expository stuff as seamlessly as possible. But it still comes across as a lame “Behind the Music” knockoff.

 “I Saw the Light” is a solid biography, but it doesn’t really stand out from the pack. Like “Ray” and “Walk the Line,” the film is good at capturing the essence of an artist but has trouble bending a big, untidy life into a straight narrative line.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Review: "Marguerite"

An oddly moving portrait of an artist, “Marguerite” is about a famous singer who cannot sing.

Because she is wealthy and titled, 1920s French society has politely applauded Baroness Marguerite Dumont at drawing room recitals and private performances for years, while they snicker into their brocaded gloves. Thus, she has no awareness of her utter lack of talent.

In the opening sequence, director Xavier Giannoli, who co-wrote the script with Marcia Romano, shows us a talented young opera singer, Hazel (Christa Theret), who has been hired as a warm-up act for Lady Dumont’s performance. She is astonished at the pomp and circumstance, the fine musicians hired, the elaborate costumes and whatnot. Marguerite makes a grand entrance, opens her mouth, and…

How bad is she? Imagine a caterwauling ostrich… an untalented ostrich.

The filmmakers usher us into Marguerite’s cloistered world, and show us how such an elaborate delusion can sustain itself. Marguerite (Catherine Frot) is frumpy, fiftysomething, rather dim. But she loves opera more than anyone alive, collecting rare scores, lavishing her money upon artists, practicing hours every day.

The strange power of this movie is that it shows us someone so laughable, so ridiculous, and then shows us the grace inside her soul. Marguerite may not have a speck of talent, she may be vainglorious and pretentious, but there is a kind of purity to her devotion to something she will never attain.

"Perfection is not about doing a great and beautiful deed. It's doing what one does with greatness and beauty,” intones her devoted manservant, Madelbos (an excellent Denis Mpunga).

He should know, having served Marguerite for years, acting as her shield against any unkind words. Madelbos may fight against the truth, but he is not ignorant of it – he hands out wads of cotton for the servants to stuff their eyes during her practices. He’s part Svengali, part facilitator, even taking risqué photos of Marguerite costumed for famous roles.

Meanwhile, her husband Georges (André Marcon) sustains a poisonous love/hate relationship with Marguerite. He married her for her money, and is completely mortified by what her singing does to his status, but cannot bring himself to level with her.

Instead, he finds ways to be absent, physically and emotionally, from her life. This includes a temperamental sports car that tends to break down, leaving him stranded before her performances. (Assisted by a little of his own sabotage when called upon.) One senses he only bought the car as a way to excuse himself.

Sylvain Dieuaide plays Lucien Beaumont, a young writer and art critic who sneaks into Marguerite’s recital and writes a mocking review dressed up in flowery vagaries. She mistakes this for flattery and seeks him out to thank him, initiating a friendship built upon deceit that somehow flourishes into something genuine.

Michel Fau is a hoot as Pezzini, an aging peacock of an opera singer brought in to teach Marguerite and prep her for a big public recital. His expression when she begins her audition is one for the ages. Teetering upon financial ruin, he constantly wavers in the choice between retaining the Lady’s generosity or his artistic reputation.

Frot is divine in the lead role, radiating loneliness and need. She continually brings the character up to the edge of seeming realization, then backs her into the mist of lies that surrounds her like a spiritual aura. Not surprisingly, she won the French equivalent of the Oscar for her performance.

The film is an eclectic mix of seriousness and silliness – the latter including a training montage, accompanied by jumpy music, which could’ve come straight out of a “Rocky” movie.

It’s far from perfect; the movie doesn’t seem to know what to do with the Hazel character, eschewing the obvious “All About Eve” scenario, and opts to misplace her for the middle.

But “Marguerite” raises subtle, scratchy questions about the relationship between art and artist, wife and husband, patron and beneficiary. Is it better to be a successful fraud or a ridiculed true believer? Perfection can take many forms.

Monday, March 28, 2016

Reeling Backward: "Some Came Running" (1958)

"Some Came Running" is one of those films that seemed to have the pedigree for sure success. After "From Here to Eternity" revived Frank Sinatra's Hollywood career, with an Oscar win for his supporting performance in the adaptation of James Jones' hit debut novel, they re-teamed the author and actor.

It was a pretty common thing back in that era. If a film clicked, studios were happy to order up another version utilizing the same actors, writers, directors -- even stories so similar they were a virtual remake.

In some ways "Running" is an unofficial sequel to "Eternity," about a soldier who comes home after the war and has trouble fitting in with his hometown and family. Although here Sinatra isn't playing his hotheaded character from "Eternity," but something closer to Montgomery Clift's remote loner.

It's an interesting picture in several ways, but overall it's rather draggy and narratively discombobulated. At 2½ hours it unsuccessfully tried to cram too much of the book into the movie. (Arthur Sheekman and John Patrick wrote the script.) Which isn't surprising, given that Jones' sprawling novel tipped the scales in excess of 1,200 pages.

(Jones was not known for brevity. "Eternity" was 864 pages, depending on the printing; "The Thin Red Line," which has twice been adapted to the screen, was a relatively spare 510 pages.)

Sinatra plays Dave Hirsh, who just got out of the Army and wakes up on a bus as it's arriving in his hometown of Parkman, Indiana. (The city is fictional; the film was shot almost entirely in picturesque Madison.) He had no intention of going there, but won $5,500 in a high-stakes card game in Chicago that ended in violence. To save his skin, Dave's buddies put him on the bus, the voucher for the dough safely nestled in the crotch of his pants.

It's his first time home in 16 years. A lot has happened to Dave in those years, but Parkman hasn't changed at all.

It's still a seemingly idyllic place, with the town fathers organizing a huge Centennial celebration to mark the founding, but with a seedy underbelly poorly concealed. The teens dress and talk nice but drink and fool around; the local gossips can spread information about each other (true or not) faster than buzzing bees; Dave's brother Frank appears to be an upstanding businessman but struggles with a sham marriage and an attraction to his young assistant.

Dave and Frank don't get along. When their parents died Frank, who's quite a bit older, didn't want Dave messing up his impending marriage and placed him in a boarding school for charity orphans. Dave grew up rough, traveled around doing odd jobs, and made something of a name for himself as a writer, penning two books that were critical if not commercial successes. These included characterizations some felt were thinly disguised versions of town residents -- including Frank's shrew wife (Leora Dana).

So he returns to Parkman as something of a combination of the town's black sheep and conquering hero.

Played by the great character actor Arthur Kennedy, Frank doesn't quite know what to do about Dave's return. A glad-hander and smooth talker, Frank inherited his bustling jewelry store from his father-in-law, using it as the first of many stepping stones to respectability. One could easily imagine him running for mayor in another 10 years.

He's quite put out that Dave promptly deposited his poker winnings in "the other bank," aka not the one on whose board Frank was recently appointed. This was a deliberate act to needle his big brother -- though I'm a bit unclear on how Dave knows about Frank's doings. Anyway, the siblings quickly take to bickering, then non-communication.

Dave does fall in with some new people, though. He's annoyed at being forced into a dinner with Professor French (Larry Gates) and his daughter, Gwen (Martha Hyer), who's a high school English teacher and literary critic. Both Gwen and Dave smell an obvious set-up, trying to pair up the prodigal son with the old maid.

But in that way that only happens in movies, the two meet, clash, and within a day have decided they are irrevocably in love.

Or... not so much. Fouling up the works is Ginny Moorehead, an idiotic floozy whom Dave met in Chicago on the night he left. Apparently he charmed her, convinced her to join him, then promptly forgot all about her in his boozy blackout. He gives her money to return, but Ginny decides she's smitten and decides to hang around Parkman, quickly securing a job at a factory and a reputation around town.

An old boyfriend (Steve Peck) follows her, following Dave, stirring up trouble.

Ginny was one of Shirley MacLaine's earliest roles and the one that earned her first Oscar nomination. She's a compelling but cloying figure, dumb as a brick and always struggling to catch up with the whip-smart Dave. He tries everything he can to get rid of her, but eventually succumbs to her modest charms, setting up a love triangle.

Normally in this kind of movie the wayward hero eventually lays aside the bad habits -- drinking, gambling, self-doubt -- that are personified by Ginny and turns to a figure like Gwen who inspires his nobler instincts. Gwen even dusts off one of Dave's old stories and has it published in The Atlantic, reviving his prospects as a writer.

But that doesn't happen here. Gwen is mortified by Dave's exploits turning up in the local paper and chatter. When Ginny shows up in her classroom offering to step aside for the sake of Dave's happiness, Gwen is shocked to discover the man she loves associating with a dimwitted trollop. She promptly gives Dave the boot, and in one of his drunken binges offers to marry Ginny, which she joyfully accepts.

Dean Martin also turns up as Bama Dillert, a professional card player who befriends Dave and invites him to join in his traveling game of poker, making the tour to Indianapolis, Terre Haute and the like. It's a quintessential Dean role, a hard-drinking con man who never removes his garish hat and lives by his own internal moral code.

Bama is a charmer because he never tries to charm anyone, offering take-it-or-leave-it friendship to Dave and dismissing as "pigs" any woman who would tie him down -- which as far as he is concerned is just about all of them.

It was the first onscreen pairing of Sinatra and Martin, and more or less marked the start of the Rat Pack pictures. As much as I enjoyed Martin as Bama, his character is a prime candidate for culling in the adaption process. The same goes for Dave's niece, Dawn (Betty Lou Keim), who has many of the same problems with her father as Dave does, and starts to act out. Similar sentiments for Nancy Gates as Edith Barclay, Frank's employee and seductee, who should also have been written out.

Sinatra earned some of the best notices of his career for this performance, but I'm not a fan. He was not a particularly contemplative actor who could show you what's going on inside the character's head, and Dave's journey happens mostly on the interior. I can't help but think what a Brando or Montgomery Clift could have done with this part.

Director Vincente Minnelli doesn't help him out with paucity of close-up shots to help us see the turmoil. Perhaps his mind was more on "Gigi," which came out the same year and earned him the Academy Award for direction.

Minnelli seemed mostly interested in making the most of the film's CinemaScope visuals, with lush colors and complex camera techniques. The final sequence of the Centennial celebration, as Dave and Ginny are tracked as they walk through the crowd while being stalked by her Chicago beau, is reminiscent of the opening scene of "Touch of Evil," also from 1958. It's often cited by filmmakers and historians, including Martin Scorsese and Peter Bodanovich, as a watershed bit of cinematography. (William H. Daniels deserves some of the credit.)

Perhaps the decision to keep the camera farther away from the lead actor was intentional given the picture's romantic ambitions. I've written about this before, but physically Sinatra was the human equivalent of a "20-foot car." That's a vehicle that looks great far away or medium distance, but its dings and nicks show up more glaringly the closer you step to.

With his multiple scars, deformed ear and acne-pitted cheeks, Sinatra was no longer the baby-faced crooner who made the girls swoon. His hairline was rapidly fleeing, and despite the use of concealing makeup his balding crown shines prominently in many of the shots. By the following year he'd successfully transitioned into toupee acting.

Since I was often bored during the movie, I wondered exactly how old the character of Dave was supposed to be. Both Sinatra and Kennedy were in their early 40s when the movie was made, so the idea of one brother being significantly older doesn't hold much air. My guess is Dave is around 30, but with Sinatra's creaky looks and stiff acting he seems closer to 50.

"Some Came Running" the book was savaged by critics, though the movie fared better -- more than it deserved, I deem.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Video review: "The Hateful Eight"

“The Hateful Eight” struck many observers as a sharp departure for writer/director Quentin Tarantino, who tends to love freewheeling stories with lots of locations, walk-on bit characters and sudden twists of the plot. “Eight” was essentially a bunch of strangers stuck in a single room for three hours, the tension slowly ratcheting up.

(The blood, however, pools much more quickly.)

But in a lot of ways it’s a return to the form of “Reservoir Dogs,” Tarantino’s first feature film, which relied heavily on enclosed spaces in which violent characters try to make sense of shifting loyalties.

It’s not quite in the top tier of Tarantino films, like “Dogs” and “Pulp Fiction.” But it firmly belongs in that second rank, along with “Django Unchained,” boasting plenty of entertaining face-offs and spouted soliloquies. For a three-hours picture, it goes by pretty quick.

The set-up is simple. Eight (for now) people are trapped by a terrible blizzard in a remote Wyoming cabin sometime in the years after the Civil War. They struggle to figure out who is not who they say, who’s loyal to who, and who deserves to be gunned down.

Answer to that last question: all of them, for one reason or another.

They include an infamous bounty hunter who always brings his quarry in alive (Kurt Russell); his current “client,” a foul-mouthed lady gangster (Jennifer Jason Leigh); a proud and decrepit ex-Confederate general (Bruce Dern) searching for his lost son; a black Union officer who’s also turned to the bounty hunting game (Samuel L. Jackson); a former rebel raider who claims to be the new sheriff at the closest town (Walton Goggins); a prissy British hangman (Tim Roth); a near-silent cow puncher (Michael Madsen); and Bob (Demián Bichir), a mysterious Mexican almost completely hidden by his coat, hat and beard.

Various alliances form, natural and otherwise, then break apart. The bounty hunters have an easy affinity for each other, and those on the side of the Confederacy soon square off against the Union loyalists.

Each character gets at least one moment where they step to the fore of the rhetorical stage, but there’s no single protagonist. Perhaps closest is Jackson’s Major Marquis Warren, who gives a long speech that’s notable for both its righteous anger at the injustice of slavery and the absolutely filthy way he goes about gaining some small measure of revenge for it.

“The Hateful Eight” is a long, blood-soaked but engaging dance through Western tropes.

Oh, and don’t forget to keep an ear out for Ennio Morricone’s Oscar-winning musical score.

Bonus features are nothing to brag about. Tarantino is among a number of high-profile filmmakers who are disdainful of participating in promotional material. (Despite the mountains of press they do when their movie is coming out.)

There are exactly two featurettes: “Beyond the Eight: A Behind-the-Scenes Look” and “Sam Jackson’s Guide to Glorious 70mm.”



Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Review: "Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice"

Ironically, the best thing about "Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice" is the part that first drew fanboys' wrath.

Ben Affleck is brooding and magnetic in the nth iteration of Batman, playing a Bruce Wayne who's grayer and grimmer than we've seen before. His dark knight has been at it for decades, is worn around the edges, harbors grave doubts about whether his vigilantism has had any lasting positive effect on Gotham City. But he keeps plying away at it because he simply doesn't know any other life.

And Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman is a hoot, showing up late in the going to bring a welcome muscular female presence to the superhero game.

What's wrong is... well, just about everything else.

This is a hot, hot mess of a movie. It's overstuffed with CGI light shows, incomprehensible hand-to-hand fight scenes, extraneous characters and a giggling head villain who seems like the filmmakers are trying to channel a diluted version of the Joker.

The entire premise, captured in the title, is that the DC Comics universe's two greatest heroes are on a fatal collision course, when of course we know they're just going to wind up joining forces in the end.

(No spoilers here; the trailer shows as much.)

This is basically an "Avengers" origin story, as we lay the foundation for the formation of the Justice League. Aquaman, the Flash and Cyborg are all briefly glimpsed as part of the hidden community of "meta humans." You may recall the boys tussled quite a bit in the first "Avengers" flick before laying aside their beefs; this one just draws that portion out a little further.

I'm not going to get bogged down in an argument about which comics pantheon of heroes is better, Marvel or DC. (It's Marvel.) But the Marvel folks carefully planned out their cinematic adaptation, taking years and multiple solo movies with individual heroes to lay the groundwork.

Director Zach Snyder, who also helmed 2013's "Man of Steel" reboot of Superman starring Henry Cavill, feels like a lone wolf freelancing as he goes. Somewhere in the past there was a pitch meeting in which the studio was sold on the idea of Batman and Superman fighting. Then screenwriters Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer were told, "Go find a way to make it happen."

And what does happen isn't terribly convincing. The idea is that thousands of people died in the epic throwdown between Superman and General Zod, so Bruce Wayne comes to view him as a threat that must be eliminated. He's constantly tinkering down in his Batcave, tiredly jousting with loyal butler/major domo Alfred (Jeremy Irons, utterly wasted), coming up with new contingencies.

Meanwhile, Lex Luthor has been reimagined as a sniggering Zuckerberg-style boy billionaire, gleefully mucking around with other people's lives. He's played by Zuckerberg's cinematic alter-ego, Jesse Eisenberg, doing that pinched-voice, hyper-fast talking, neurotic thing he does. He's tracked down some kryptonite, and not only is he determined to use it to kill Superman, he's manipulating Bats into doing it for him.

Superman, who was kind of a drab bore in his own movie, fares even worse when he's splitting the screen time. He comes across as a detached demigod, willing to serve as mankind's savior but not terribly thrilled about it. Cavill is often asked to just stand there and react as other more interesting characters tell him what he should be thinking or doing.

Amy Adams, as reporter/love interest Lois Lane, is summoned back to damsel herself into some distress whenever things slow down too much.

I admit, after decades of Superman lore the one thing I still don't get is the Clark Kent alter ego. He really doesn't seem to serve any useful purpose. As Kevin Smith noted in "Clerks" so many years ago, Superman is who he really is, and Clark is the disguise. Every minute he spends in the newsroom of the Daily Planet, bickering about stories with editor Perry White (a dyspeptic Laurence Fishburne), you want to shout at him, "YOU COULD BE OUT SAVING LIVES RIGHT NOW!!!"

(Plus, the whole "now you see him without glasses, now you don't see him with glasses" thing is just aggravating as hell. Every movie asks you to suspend disbelief, but that's demanding we levitate it into the stratosphere.)

What a colossal disappointment. What a squandering of time and talent. What a way to launch a multiverse with a total faceplant.

Except Batman. Be yourself, but if you can be Batman, always be Batman. Especially if you're as good at it as Affleck.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Video review: "The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2"

Prepare to be shocked: I actually read all of the “Hunger Games” novels by Suzanne Collins, most of them prior to their movie version coming out.

Prepare to be even more shocked -- shockeder? -- I actually enjoyed them.

So when I pile on these films, it’s not out of dismissive distaste for young adult fiction in general or this series in particular. It’s out of… well, not love exactly. But at least like, which is genuine if not overly exuberant.

The biggest problem with “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay -- Part 2” is the “Part 2.”

This series, like other science fiction and fantasy genres (Harry Potter, The Hobbit, Twilight) takes the artistically craven idea of splitting up the last book into two different movies. It’s a transparent -- and successful -- attempt to wrangle twice the ticket sales from the same amount of story. Having come along already for two, three or more movies, fans are unlikely to bail. So it’s “print your own money” time.

This is the sort of decision made by accountants rather than storytellers.

While decently engaging, there simply isn’t enough narrative in Collins’ “Mockingjay” to justify nearly five hours’ worth of movie. The result is an overlong bore with surprisingly few action scenes or emotional thrills.

As the story opens, heroine Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) is leading a small team of rebels into the heart of the Capitol District to overthrow the nefarious President Snow (Donald Sutherland), who kept the outlying districts in line by making their youngsters fight in gladiator-style games lapped up by the jaded television viewing masses.

The city has been laden with high-tech traps -- mutants, fireballs, snares, etc. -- so they’re essentially traversing through another iteration of the Hunger Games.

Complicating things is the presence of Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), a fellow contestant from Katniss’ home district who was kidnapped and brainwashed by Snow. They faked a romance, and even a pregnancy, to earn the adulation of fans and become the first-ever couple to jointly win the Games. But now Peeta lives in a state of induced paranoia, and thinks Katniss is the cause of all his pain.

It’s hard to lead an assassination effort when a member of the team is trying to kill you, too.

Fold in the shifting schemes of the insurgent leader (Julianne Moore) and the mysterious machinations of the chief Gamemaker (the late and sorely missed Philip Seymour Hoffman), and you’ve got a confusing mishmash of loyalties and threats.

While “Mockingjay” the book built up to a serviceable crescendo in both plot and character development, the second half of the movie adaptation is surprisingly dull. Not enough action happens to keep us engaged, and the talkie scenes in between feel like labored filler.

Big budget, multi-part film franchises should continually raise the stakes and suck us ever further into the story. “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay -- Part 2” limps to a drawn-out ending.

Whatever you want to say about the quality of these films, they’ve consistently been released on video with top-drawer bonus features. This time is no exception.

There is a full commentary track with director Francis Lawrence and producer Nina Jacobson; an eight-part, feature-length documentary touching on virtually every aspect of the production, from special effects to casting; a photographic look at the behind-the-scenes journey; costume sketches; an exhibition from past fictional Panem Games, and more.

You can also buy “The Hunger Games Complete 4-Film Collection,” which includes 14 hours of bonus content from all the movies, including 139 featurettes and dozens of deleted scenes, many of them never seen before.



Thursday, March 17, 2016

Review: "The Divergent Series: Allegiant"

"Twilight" did it. "Hobbit" did it. So did "The Hunger Games." Ditto "Harry Potter." So are you really surprised the "Divergent" series took the jaded path of splitting up the final book in the young adult series into two movies?

It's easy math: 1 novel ÷ 2 films = twice as many tickets.

I'll say this about the science fiction/fantasy franchise: at least they don't try to stretch it out too far. While "The Divergent Series: Allegiant" is the weakest of the three films, it's a fairly tight two hours without a lot of fat in it. There's enough story here to carry things along -- unlike some of those other series mentioned above.

It's still a rather goofy affair, with Chosen One savior Tris Trio (Shailene Woodley) finally breaking out of the prison of post-apocalyptic Chicago to embrace the brave new world beyond. What she finds is merely a continuation of the Darwinian experiment she left behind, with various power-hungry blocs trying to wipe each other out.

When last we left them, the five factions had overthrown the dictator-like leader played by Kate Winslet. It's a world divided into different groups by abilities and disposition. A few, like Tris, are "divergent," meaning they contain more than one faction's qualities.

Rather than being mutants needing a little genocide, it turns out they're actually the successful conclusion of a centuries-long scientific trial by a group calling itself the Bureau of Genetic Welfare. Led by smiling Director David (Jeff Bridges), they're rescuing kids living on the fringes of the wasteland. While most humans on war-torn Earth are genetically "damaged," David thinks he can fix them by studying the makeup of the pure Tris.

Mentor/snugglebunny Four (Theo James) is suspicious of the whole setup, and glowers handsomely at David monopolizing Tris' time. Meanwhile, Peter (Miles Teller), the devious dude who keeps betraying Tris & Co. only to be let back into the fold time and again, is brought along to do this thing. Teller, playing to the material, smirks and skulks admirably.

Also tagging along is Caleb, Tris' brother played by Ansel Elgort, who was her boyfriend in "The Fault in Our Stars," and ain't that creepy. A studious sort who briefly sided with the bad guys, he's given a job by the Bureau using their advanced technology so he can snoop on anybody, anywhere, doing anything. (Which is a strange gig to give to the new guy in town.)

Hovering around the edges are Naomi Watts as Evelyn, Four's (very) distant mother and leader of the new order back in Chicago. She's about to face off with Johanna (Octavia Spencer), who's spent decades leading the pacifist faction but is ready to pull out the big guns at the drop of a hat.

There are some cool new gizmos to play around with -- memory tablets so you can live another person's experiences, flying drone discs so warriors can see all around them, a gooey orange serum when you want to make somebody forget everything.

Director Robert Schwentke, who also helmed the last film, stages his action scenes crisply and is careful to keep the talkie scenes only as long as absolutely necessary. A foursome of screenwriters were brought in to adapt the book by Veronica Roth ... well, half the book, anyway.

The problem with "The Divergent Series: Allegiant" is that, unlike the first two movies, the stakes never seem that high. The story has become a repetitive switchback in which each new group presents itself as the saviors, only to make the same mistakes everyone else did. Sort of like certain YA book adaptations.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Review: "The Bronze"

Tonya Harding meets Tracy Flick from “Election” meets “Fargo” Chief Marge Gunderson -- that’s our first impression of Hope Annabelle Greggory.

Melissa Rauch stars in and co-wrote (with husband Winston) this comedy about a has-been Olympic gymnast that aims to set a new standard in foul-mouthed raunch.

It’s not as outwardly crude as, say, the “Hangover” movies. But Hope Annabelle -- don’t you dare short her a name! -- may just be the most purely nasty protagonist we’ve seen onscreen in a while.

Heck, even the lead in “Bad Santa” finds his mushy heart in the end. When she arrives at her version of the Niceville depot, Hope Annabelle still calls a guy with a facial tic “Twitchy” -- and this is the fellow she’s in love with.

Directed by Bryan Buckley, the movie walks a careful line to keep the character from becoming too unlikeable … and sometimes falters from that line. We’re caught between laughing at Hope Annabelle and cringing at her hateful antics. It works in stretches, until it doesn’t.

Rauch is a hoot, and I admired the way she could bring to a life a character so defined by utter bile. I went to college for two years in Oberlin, a few clicks south of Amherst, so I can attest she got the pinched-vowels accent and big-fish-small-pond chutzpah down pat.

The setup is HA (sorry, tired of spelling it out) was a darling of the 2004 Olympics as a teen gymnast in the Kerri Strug mold. She came back from a torn Achilles to land the U.S. team a bronze medal. It earned her the requisite 15 minutes of fame, a tour with “Dancing with the Stars” and the seemingly eternal gratitude of her hometown of Amherst, Ohio.

HA has reacted to this generous outpouring with … an incredible sense of self-importance and delusion. Now 30ish and long washed up from competition, she still wanders around town dressed in her red, white and blue jumpsuit from 2004, milking the local retailers for free Sbarro’s, sneakers, sundaes and weed.

She swears and tosses insults like a dyspeptic sailor, and nobody ever really takes offense. I guess when you’re the biggest star to ever come out of a small town -- as in “Welcome to Our City, Home of So-and-So” -- people will tolerate a mountain of abuse.

Pointy-chinned and petite -- deceptively so, as we’ll see -- HA has got the immovable blonde bangs and permanent sneer of a spoiled brat who never grew up. She still lives with her long-suffering single dad (Gary Cole), a postal worker who sacrificed to raise a champion. Now the champ breaks into his mail truck to steal cash out of envelopes and makes a pretense of looking for a job.

When her tough old Slavic coach dies, HA receives a letter saying she’ll receive a large inheritance -- but only if she coaches the town’s rising young gymnastics star, “Mighty” Maggie Townsend (Haley Lu Richardson, impossibly pert) in the upcoming (fictional) Toronto Olympics. She’s torn, since if successful the ingénue’s star will eclipse her own.

Riding along is Ben (Thomas Middleditch), who runs the decaying old gym and clearly has a long-simmering thing for HA, which she returns with contempt and later with… slightly less contempt.

The film wisely keeps the actual gymnastics stuff to a bare minimum, with stunt doubles as needed. Sebastian Stan plays a smarmy old Olympics flame-turned-rival in the coaching game.

Speaking of body doubles, they pretty obviously use some for a crazily gymnastic sex scene that seems like they’re trying to do a human version of the one with puppets from “Team America: World Police.” I think this is intentional, though, with the apparent decoys adding to the comedy quotient.

For the record, Rauch has said in interviews that’s really her. But the bounty of conveniently placed shadows, hair dangling over faces and cutaways to shoulders-and-up closeups of Rauch leave me a Doubting (Peeping?) Thomas.

In the end I admire the pluck of “The Bronze” more than the movie itself. It’s heartening to see a movie go really out there in tone. It’s better when they stick the landing.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Reeling Backward: "From the Terrace" (1960)

"From the Terrace" is not particularly well remembered, but it's an interesting example of midcentury melodrama. It addresses the topics of marital infidelity and divorce in a bold way you generally didn't see in that era. It casts a gimlet eye on the accepted practice of putting business ahead of love and family.

And it stars husband-and-wife team Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward in the third of their 10 onscreen appearances together.

Newman plays Alfred Eaton, a young go-getter from a fractured family determined to make his own high place in the world. Woodward plays Mary St. John, the unobtainable daughter of an old-money clan whom he pursues relentlessly and then abandons for his work once they're married.

Though Mary is ostensibly the villain of the piece, it's a much more nuanced portrait of an unraveling marriage, with Alfred bearing an equal share of the responsibility for its descent from joy to neglect to poison. He consciously puts her in a distant second place behind his job, first as co-founder of his own aeronautics company and then as worker drone for a prominent financier.

At first Mary defends Alfred from her friends' taunts about abandoning her. But as time marches on she grows more resentful, insisting that she has a right to socialize while he's away for months at a time -- and emotionally absent even when home. Eventually she reignites an affair with Jim Roper (Patrick O'Neal), the dashing doctor to whom she was engaged before Alfred stole her away.

By the end she's a shrewish harpy gleefully throwing her cheating in her husband's face. Her idea of rapprochement is offering an open marriage where they can each sleep with whomever they want. Woodward is icy and effective in the role, a platinum blonde hairdo offsetting her less-than-angelic demeanor.

It's an atypical performance for Newman, who at this stage of his career usually played earnest young men or charming rascals. Here he's a repressed sort, a guy who secretly craves the affection he never got from his parents. It's essentially a portrait of a hero who falls onto the wrong path. He quickly realizes his mistake, but rather than correct it he's determined to carry through no matter what.

He ends up as rather a grim figure, hectored on the job by Old Man MacHardie (Felix Aylmer) and harried at home by Mary. Indeed, the film's middle section can be rather hard to get through, and at just shy of 2½ hours the movie is much longer than it needs to be. It was written and directed by Mark Robson ("Champion," "The Inn of the Sixth Happiness"), based on the novel by John O'Hara.

Some of the best stuff is at the beginning, when Alfred returns home from World War II. His father is a nouveau riche owner of a Pennsylvania steel mill. Terrifically played by Leon Ames, Samuel Eaton is an old-school tyrant who emotionally checked out of the family a dozen years earlier when his older son died of cystic fibrosis. The great Myrna Loy plays the mother, who's turned to drink and the arms of another man for comfort. One of her favorite habits is to board a train to anywhere and drink herself into a stupor.

Expecting a hero's welcome, Alfred returns to a lost mother and a father who's openly hostile to his presence. He rejects dad's assumption that he'll follow into the family business, instead opting to establish a private plane manufacturing company with Lex Porter, an old-money pal (a superbly WASP-y George Grizzard).

Samuel tries to warn his son that unless he puts up half the seed money himself, Alfred will always be treated as the lesser partner -- a prediction that turns out exactly so. It's his way of offering the dough himself, but there's too much pride and resentment between them for the message to get through. The elder Eaton is too used to keeping the younger in his place.

"You're not big enough to even walk in my shadow. And you never will be!" he thunders.

Perhaps the film's most pivotal scene takes place when father Eaton tries to explain to Alfred why he's been so uncaring toward him. It's a soul in pain reaching out, trying to make amends. But he loses himself in a quagmire of regret over his lost boy, which Alfred interprets as another brick in the wall of shunning him. Dad suffers a heart attack and dies soon after.

Of course, the lesson is that Alfred's father only cared about wealth and status, and it brought him to a low end. But the son can't see it, and like so many sons with chips on their shoulders, unwittingly starts down the same path himself.

The film picks up again in the third act with the introduction of the character of Natalie Benzinger, the daughter of a mine owner who comes to represent for Alfred all the opportunities he eschewed for a life of warmth and family. They begin a tentative affair while he's assessing the mine for purchase by MacHardie.

At first Natalie rejects his overtures because he's married, but comes to recognize the streak of nobility and empathy under Alfred's hard, crusty exterior. She's played by Ina Balin, who received a Golden Globe nomination for her resonant performance.

There are too many twists and turns of the plot in "From the Terrace" -- including the machinations of MacHardie's son-in-law, Creighton Duffy (Howard Caine), whose business affairs are tied up with Alfred's old buddy Lex. He tries to blackmail Alfred with evidence of his affair with Natalie.

It's a classic example of filmmakers adapting a novel and failing to pare down the characters and narrative to the beating heart of the tale. But there's still a vibrant pulse in this film, an odd mix of dourness and elation that subtly encourages us to seek our own bliss.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Video review: "The Big Short"

Fresh off its Oscar win for Best Adapted Screenplay (and a strong late bid for Best Picture), I’m hoping more people will give “The Big Short” a look. I’ve no doubt many potential ticket buyers took one look at the subject matter – high finance rebels who foresaw the real estate bubble bursting – and said, “No, thanks.”

What they need to know is how smart, funny and downright entertaining this movie is. While its primary fuel is anger at a rigged system, the film uses comedy as its entry point.

Consider Adam McKay, director and co-writer, whose previous credits include lowbrow comedies “Anchorman,” “Step Brothers” and “The Other Guys.” And Steve Carell as Mike Baum, a cartoonishly loud and obnoxious money manager. Even Ryan Gosling, Brad Pitt and Christian Bale, actors not normally known for eliciting laughs, are funny and engaging in an ensemble cast with no real traditional lead.

What’s most astounding is how the film takes a complex subject and breaks it down into digestible bites. The problem began when financial institutions started packaging risky mortgages as assets to be traded and sold. There’s no real single villain, just a system in which everyone looked the other way -- including the government’s watchdogs -- in order to maintain the appearance of financial stability.

Hilarious and bitter, “The Big Short” is a heist movie in which we’re the ones getting fleeced, and the good guys are the ones pointing to the crime who get dismissed as loons.

Bonus features are pretty decent, though you’ll have to buy the Blu-ray upgrade to get them: the DVD contains none.

These include five making-of documentary shorts: “In the Trenches: Casting,” “The Big Leap: Adam McKay,” “Unlikely Heroes: The Characters of The Big Short,” “The House of Cards: The Rise of the Fall” and “Getting Rea: Recreating an Era.” There are also several deleted scenes.



Friday, March 11, 2016

Review: "10 Cloverfield Lane"

So people are excited about "10 Cloverfield Lane" because it was made in ultra secrecy and has been touted as a sorta-sequel to "Cloverfield," the 2008 found-footage hit thriller about giant monsters attacking the Earth, both of which were produced by "Star Wars" and "Star Trek" wunderkind J.J. Abrams (though he didn't write or direct either).

It's about people stuck in an underground shelter after some kind of attack has rendered the air above toxic. John Goodman plays the guy who built the place and runs it like a dictator, Mary Elizabeth Winstead is his guest/captive, and we're trying to figure out if his story is legit or he just kidnapped her.

The movie is reasonably enjoyable and engaging as a popcorn flick, though it often thinks it's being coy when really it telegraphs its punches pretty badly. Start with the title treatment in the opening credits, where the L's at the beginning and end of "Cloverfield" extend upward and downward, respectively becoming the "1" in 10 and the "L" in Lane.

"See?" the movie nudges us. "I'm the next chapter."

So how much of a sequel is this film, really? My normal inclination is not to blab too much about a movie that so obviously cherishes its secrets. But I feel like the filmmakers and promoters are engaging in some major trickery-dickery here.

So I'll just give a straight answer: Not so much.

"Lane" started as a completely original script by John Campbell and Matt Stuecken called "The Cellar," and over time got slathered with some Cloverfield sauce. Damien Chazelle of "Whiplash" was brought in to punch up the script. Dan Trachtenberg, who has various credits for technical work, makes his debut in the director's chair.

There are thematic similarities between the two films, but there's little continuity in the stories. It's questionable if they even take place in the same fictional universe.

Let's be blunt: The title is more about marketing than fidelity to an artistic impulse. "Cloverfield" was a low-budget ($25 million) science fiction film that made a bunch of money. "10 Cloverfield Lane" is an ultra-low-budget movie ($5 million) that falls more in the horror/mystery territory, which typically generates little buzz or ticket sales. It's the sort of movie that comes out in March and is usually quickly forgotten. Now it's guaranteed to have a big opening at the least.

I don't begrudge Abrams & Co. for a little chicanery to pump interest in their movie. But I'm certainly not going to go along with the ruse.

Winstead is the best thing about the movie. She's a wonderful actress who, like Brie Larson, has toiled from a young age doing often spectacular work ("Smashed") in movies that don't reach the public consciousness. She plays Michelle, a typical cinematic heroine: smart, independent, kind of disconnected from others.

As the story opens she's just walked out on her boyfriend, leaving behind her house keys and an engagement ring, but taking a bottle of single-malt scotch. While driving she hears some stuff on the radio about mass blackouts in cities, then a truck smashes into her and knocks her car down a hill.

She wakes up in a blank grey room, a brace on her knee, blood matted on her head and an IV in her arm. She's been stripped of most of her clothes, and the brace is handcuffed to the wall. Needless to say, she's freaking out. But Michelle manages to retrieve her clothes and phone from a pile in the corner, showing us she's resourceful and tough. Alas, no cell signal.

Then Howard (Goodman) shows up, and she's obviously thinking about twisted torture/rape/death scenarios. Howard, burly and bearded and wearing a sidearm, gives her few reasons for comfort. He's not overtly threatening, but issues dark warnings about her being thankful for his generosity and hospital. I saved your life, Howard insists.

Eventually Michelle earns tiny portions of freedom, and knowledge. They're in an elaborate underground bunker Howard built over the last few years. He's an ex-Navy man who worked on satellites and has some kooky ideas about alien invaders. The Martians' weapons will make the Russian arsenal look like sticks and stones, he insists.

One of the film's problems is that Howard's paranoia and malevolence should gradually grow over time, but the filmmakers turn him up to Full Kray-Kray right away. He's got the squirrelly stare, hand fidgets, sudden rages, etc. This serves to spoil impending surprises, which I'll not share.

Anyway, Howard insists the air is poison and they'll have to stay for a year or two -- at least. He's got plenty of provisions, an "aquaponic" air filtration system, some DVDs and VHS tapes, puzzles and board games.

There's also a sidekick: Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.), a young local yokel who helped Howard build the shelter. He's got a busted shoulder received (he says) while forcing his way into the shelter after the attacks started, which took the form of biblical flashes of light far off.

Pretty soon a dynamic establishes itself: Michelle doubts Howard's story, even after Emmett verifies parts of it; Howard's behavior becomes even more strange and volatile -- he insists that the trio not touch each other, for instance; and Michelle recruits Emmett, a dim ex-jock type, into launching an escape plan.

I'll stop here with the plot description, since that's all you need to know and this is usually the dullest stretch of any film review.

Random aside: I was bothered that Winstead's character spends the entire time in the shelter barefoot, while Emmett and Howard always wear clunky shitkicker boots. We see her own shoes in the pile of clothes when she first wakes up, so how come she never puts them on? Is this a visual token of her subservience and vulnerability? A comment on Howard's archaic views on gender roles? A nod to the foot fetish demographic?

"10 Cloverfield Lane" is a pretty decent standalone film. It's got some solid scares and chills, along with a few dead spots. It's 105 minutes long and would have been better at 95.

As a sequel, though, it's a total con job.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Video review: "The Peanuts Movie"

A lot of people sighed -- or even “Aaauugh!”ed -- upon hearing they were making a feature-length version of Charles Schulz’ beloved “Peanuts” coming strip. The fact it was happening years after his death, and using computer-generated animation instead of traditional hand-drawn, led many to automatically conclude it was an egregious violation of the notoriously shy artist’s wishes.

(I guess the four previous films, forty-five television specials, short-lived TV series, mini-series, motion comics, documentaries, video games and uncountable horde of toys and Snoopy stuff wasn’t enough of a clue on how Schulz felt about merchandising his creation.)

Codswallop. Co-written by Schulz’ son and grandson, “The Peanuts Movie” is a true iteration of the beloved comic strip, with a few modern razzle-dazzles.

This is your father’s Oldsmobile, but with something beefier under the hood and some blingy dubs. It looks shinier than the old TV shows, but the sweet sentiment with an acerbic aftertaste is all there.

Heck, they even brought back Bill Melendez from the dead (via archival recordings) to do the voices of Snoopy and Woodstock.

It’s sort of an origin story/greatest hits of Charlie Brown (voice Noah Schnapp), who gets to meet the mythic Little Red-Haired Girl for the first time when she moves in across the street. The familiar gang is all here: fussbudget Lucy, oddly wise blanket-coddler Linus, Schroeder, Peppermint Patty, Franklin, Marcy, Pig Pen and so on.

Wallflower Charlie embarks on a mission to get the girl’s attention, and through a series of unlikely events actually manages to become the most admired kid at school – for awhile. Meanwhile, Snoopy is off doing imagined(?) battles with the Red Baron, his own lady poodle love in peril.

It’s an engaging story with a gentle message about being yourself and persevering through adversity. Charlie Brown is a self-doubting antihero who fails frequently at his endeavors, but always picks himself back up to give it another try.

He may never connect with that football, but striving at the chance is always better than giving up.

Video extras are pretty decent, though they’re definitely aimed more as entertainment/activities for kids than behind-the-scenes goodies for grownups.

They include bonus snippets of Snoopy; a drawing tutorial; three music videos, two with Meghan Trainor; a behind-the-scenes music video featurette with Trainor; a playlist of familiar Peanuts music; and “You’ll Never Grow Up Charlie Brown,” a documentary about Charles Schulz and the history of the Peanuts gang.

Most of these are available on both the DVD and Blu-ray versions, except for the last three items listed above, which are exclusive to Blu-ray.



Thursday, March 3, 2016

Review: "London Has Fallen"

"Olympus Has Fallen" was a wildly preposterous but extremely well-done action/thriller about North Korean terrorists taking over the White House, foiled by a gritty lawman straight out of the John McClane mold. The sequel is even more ridiculous, and returns Gerard Butler as the Secret Service agent who mows through brown people while offering taunts and one-liners.

"Olympus" director Antoine Fuqua, a master at tense action scenes, abandoned ship to direct the boxing movie "Southpaw" instead. So Iranian director Babak Najafi takes over, best known for "Easy Money II: Hard to Kill," which tells you how well he's known.

The result is a reasonably engaging flick that carries itself with energy once the action gets going. The setup and occasional talkie scenes are DOA, though.

Butler is Mike Banning, a disgraced agent who failed to rescue the First Lady years earlier but redeemed himself by saving the life of President Benjamin Asher during the Korean assault. He's played by Aaron Eckhart, who rocks a skinny suit even better than the real POTUS (though the Anderson Cooper haircut they gave him deserved a veto).

His role is essentially damsel in distress, who occasionally gets tough enough to get the hero out of a tight spot.

As the story opens Banning is back in the good graces as Asher's pet agent, taking daily jogs around the White House grounds together that escalate into races, which Banning always wins because he's nobody's punk, you punk. Banning's got a baby on the way and is ready to quit the presidential detail for the quiet life, but then disaster strikes again to underline his True Purpose in Life.

The British Prime Minster has died suddenly following an operation, so world leaders gather to pay tribute. It's all a trap, years in the making by Aamir Barkawi (Alon Aboutboul), a Pakistani arms dealer and terrorism supporter who's righteously upset about Western forces killing his daughter in a drone bombing.

The elaborateness of the attack is impressive, with virtually every nook and cranny of the U.K. police force, emergency responders and anti-terrorism forces infiltrated with assassins. Most of the presidents and prime ministers are wiped out within minutes, though Banning and his Secret Service boss (Angela Bassett) manage to get Asher away.

The story is all chase-chase, in which Banning and Asher are pursued in cars, helicopters and on foot, then a second chase-chase in which they go on an unlikely offensive. Waleed Zuaiter plays Barkawi's son, Kamran, who's running things on the ground while daddy titters at the Vice President (Morgan Freeman) via video from the homeland.

To really get under Kamran's skin, Banning mispronounces his name as "Cameron," which is really a low blow.

Banning's M.O. is to sneer at his enemies, which causes them to go crazy, throwing all their assembled forces his way, which... does not seem like a very good strategy for protecting a president.

The action scenes are chaotic and gripping, and Banning's death toll is somewhere in the high dozens at least. He gets shot or stabbed from time to time, but shakes it off like any man's man who runs on "bourbon and poor choices."

If the last movie was slightly jingoistic, this one ratchets the rhetoric up to near Trump-ian territory. Banning brags to a guy whose neck he's about to snap that America is bigger than any one man, and we'll still be here a thousand years from now, yada yada, which would be more convincing if it weren't coming from a Scottish actor laboring through contorted vowels to sound like a Yank.

"You hear that?" he growls over a radio to the bad guy, slowly slipping his knife deeper into a terrorist as he screams. "That's the sound of your brother dying."

"Was that really necessary?" Asher asks afterward. You could say the same about this whole film.

Review: "Zootopia"

A middle-shelf offering from the Disney animation empire, "Zootopia" is a message movie in which the message sometimes overpowers the film's entertainment value. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but these 'toons are primarily viewed as fodder for families with small children -- and mine, 2 and 5, got a mite restless during the middle.

They still enjoyed it, though parents might like this one more than their kids will.

Ginnifer Goodwin voices Judy Hopps, a chirpy go-getter from the sticks who dreams of becoming a police officer in the big burg of Zootopia. Only one problem: she's a cute little bunny in a world largely ruled by big critters. Most rabbits, like her Ma and Pa (Bonnie Hunt, Don Lake) are relegated to boring farm work. Of course, she doesn't listen and strives to become more than she is.

If the movie's major theme weren't obvious enough, the song lyrics clue us in: "Where You Can Be Anything," "Try Everything," etc. Shakira does the voice of ruling pop star Gazelle.

In this alternate-reality universe, the animals kept evolving into upright talkers who set aside their bestial ways. (Unlike last year's similarly set up "The Good Dinosaurs," humans are nowhere in sight at all.)

But there are still some unspoken divisions, mostly between former predators and their prey. Lions, tigers, wolves and the like tend to be in positions of power, like the Mayor (J.K. Simmons), Leodore Lionheart. Nobody actually eats anyone anymore -- their exact food sources are left a little vague -- but even among the former prey, the bigger, tougher animals (elephants, rhino, rams) tend to get their way.

Zootopia is a colorful, visually astounding place, split up into different habitats and even temperature zones. Given the large degree in size variation among the denizens, there are all sorts of accommodations. Judy, used to being the teeniest mammal around, is suddenly transformed into a colossus when she chases a thief into the Rodentville neighborhood.

Judy's boundless enthusiasm is dashed when the surly police chief, a growling buffalo named Bogo (Idris Elba), assigns her to write parking tickets. She also has a run-in with Nick Wilde, a sly fox voiced by Jason Bateman. He's running a nice scam where he buys massive frozen pops from the elephant store, melts them down and freezes them into tiny confections he sells to the gerbil-folk at markup.

As you can see, Zootopia is a seemingly wonderful place with lots of problems underneath. The creatures tend to assign themselves roles based on stereotypes. So cynical Nick, always written off as the tricksy troublemaker, finally decided to play along.

The main storyline is something of a red herring, about predators suddenly turning savage again. Judy is given 48 hours to run down a missing otter, and hustles Nick into helping her in return for not busting him for his quasi-legal shenanigans. Various shifts occur in the relationship, from antagonism to cooperation to friendship to betrayal to... well, you'll see. Jared Bush and Phil Johnson wrote the (not terribly) original screenplay.

"Zootopia" is directed by Byron Howard and Rich Moore, both Disney veterans who've directed solid features before. Moore and Johnston previously worked together on "Wreck It Ralph," and I'd put this film in the same category quality-wise. Some of the throwaway jokes are real gems, such as an unexpected crime boss who's pure Vito Corleone -- micro-sized.

I appreciated the theme of following our better instincts. "Fear always works," the villain intones -- an ominous warning that can be seen reflected in much of our public discourse these days. It's a noble sentiment, pounded perhaps a bit too hard.