Going back to 2008’s Bolt, Disney Animation Studios has been on something of a roll, one rivaled only by its sister company Pixar. In terms of pure entertainment value, the works such as Tangled, Wreck-It Ralph, Frozen, Big Hero 6, and the upcoming Moana, have been varying degrees of great. But with its latest film, Zootopia, the Mouse House is daring to make their message a bit more overt, because it seems fairly clear to me that this work is tackling prejudice (some have said it’s about racism, but I think it goes deeper than that). Right off the bat, the film makes it clear that the world as we know it has gone to the animals, but in a good way. And in the city of Zootopia, creatures that have historically been predators or prey theoretically live in harmony.
We meet our heroine, the rabbit Judy Hopps (voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin), who grew up in a community of mostly rabbits, growing carrots with her parents (Bonnie Hunt and Don Lake) and her hundreds of brothers and sisters. But Judy’s dream was to be police officer in Zootopia, despite the fact that there are no bunny cops on the force. Certainly okay with being a groundbreaker, Judy makes it through the academy and becomes the city’s rabbit cop, although her chief (Idris Elba, playing a yak or water buffalo or something like that) saddles her with being a glorified meter maid, despite the fact that there is a rash of mammal disappearances in the city and every set of eyes would be useful.
Throughout Zootopia, the idea that society is dictating what Judy is capable of is a powerful and resounding message. More than once, Judy is told to know her place and limitations, she is discounted often, and it’s clear that her “kind” isn’t wanted on the force. She makes friends with Assistant Mayor Bellweather (a lamp, voiced by Jenny Slate), a fellow little person, who makes certain that Judy’s needs on the force are met to some degree. It helps that Bellweather has the ear of the Mayor (J.L. Simmons, voicing a lion, as God intended), so Judy doesn’t easily vanish into the woodwork of the police station.
Deciding to do a little investigating about a missing animal named Duke Weaselton (Alan Tudyk), Judy enlists the help of a con artist fox named Nick (Jason Bateman), who seems to be connected to the underworld of Zootopia and proves useful in tracking down the missing creature. At the same time, some of the missing animals (all classified as predators) are being found again but having gone wild and attacking smaller animals, leading some to believe that something in their DNA makes them likely to go wild again and triggers a citywide panic about one particular class of citizens. The panic that ensues results in predators being looking at sideways, distrusted and otherwise mistreated, and the themes of the film rise to the surface in a fairly bold and enlightened manner.
Directed by the combo of Byron Howard, Rich Moore and Jared Bush (from a screenplay by Bush and Phil Johnson), Zootopia works as a mystery, as a chase movie, a comedy (perhaps the weakest of its virtues), and most significantly, it succeeds as a film that illustrates to people of all ages that setting limits on other people is an injustice to them and yourself. The film also works as a visual exercise. The city of Zootopia is divided into climate regions, which makes for some very funny visual gags and allows the characters to seem like they’re doing a bit of adventurous globe hopping, when in fact they are just going across town. I especially liked when Judy stumbles into a neighborhood made up entirely of tiny rodents, making her appear like a giant of Godzilla-like proportions, stomping down the street with creatures scurrying at her feet.
Once fully revealed, the secrets behind the kidnappings and animals going wild aren’t especially interesting, but the journey is completely worth taking. The filmmakers aren’t screaming their message through a megaphone; they simply make it clear that judging someone by appearance or species is a bad idea. The friendship chemistry between Judy and Nick is pretty great with her endless optimism countered by his cynical, snarky delivery. I couldn’t help but notice that Nick bears more than a passing resemblance to the animated 1973 Disney version of Robin Hood. That’s a good thing, because I love the look and movement of that character. Above all else, Zootopia passes the most important test of all—adults will love it just as much as the kids that inevitably will be dragging them to the theater to see it. This is an easy movie to really like.
LONDON HAS FALLEN
Gerard Butler has had a rough couple of weeks. Last week’s Gods of Egypt was an unmitigated failure on a creative level and as a piece of fantasy entertainment. And this week, he steps back into the role of Secret Service agent and presidential protector Mike Banning, last seen saving President Benjamin Asher’s (Aaron Eckhart) ass in Olympus Has Fallen. This time around, the slightly mellower Banning is expecting his first child with wife Lynne (Radha Mitchell, in an utterly thankless part) and is best buds with the president.
When the British Prime Minister dies unexpectedly, the leaders of the free world are called to London’s St. Paul’s Cathedral, making that single location a prime target and Banning’s job exponentially more difficult with so many security teams in place and a host of London’s finest surrounding the venue. But before too long, the enemies of all that is righteous in the world are opening fire on the arriving leaders, knocking out several key players and putting the president and Banning on their heals looking for a place to hole up until the city is safe. It becomes clear that this is a highly organized attack not just from a few extremists but also paid-off locals posing as police (or maybe actual police), forming something of a small army.
Still in place back at the White House, getting infrequent updates from Banning are the likes of Morgan Freeman’s Vice President Trumbull, Robert Forester as General Clegg, and poor Melissa Leo as Defense Secretary McMillan, who was so brutalized in the first film and is given zero lines of on-screen dialogue in this film. (I’m fairly certain we hear her voice off camera in one scene.) Also in the mix are Jackie Early Haley, Sean O’Bryan, and, of course, Angela Bassett as head of security Lynne Jacobs, who is also traveling with the president.
It seems a bit strange that London’s streets are almost immediately evacuated once the chaos ensues, leaving Banning and the president largely to themselves as they run around looking for hiding places, while dozens of armed villains are in hot pursuit. More impressive (although no more probable) is watching highly recognizable buildings and other structures throughout downtown London get leveled by bombs set off within minutes of each other. The culprit behind these attacks is weapons dealer Aarmir Barkawi (Alon Moni Aboutboul), whose family was nearly wiped out when a bomb dropped by drone hit a wedding he was attending years earlier. Aboutboul is a solid actor, but he doesn’t come across as nearly as menacing as some other recent terrorist types in movies, perhaps because he’s largely sitting out the actual hard work.
London Has Fallen is directed by Iranian filmmaker Babak Najafi (Easy Money II: Hard to Kill) and not seasoned action pro Antoine Fuqua, who directed the first film. Najafi has a fairly confident approach to his direction, and there’s certainly no lack of expert camera movement or storytelling ability. But so much of what we see feels like standard-issue, going-through-the-action-motions output; once the buildings come down near the beginning, there’s nothing special about what follows. Butler still appears steely eyed and single minded in his approach to protecting the president—kill first, figure out the rest later. He gets to torture a bad guy or two for information, for those of you that miss “24,” and last-minute saves seem to be the order of the day a few too many times.
London Has Fallen just feels somewhat ugly, cruel and brainless, despite a strong set up. Not to single out Butler, since he’s certainly not the reason the film doesn’t work, but he is at the center of a story that doesn’t feel well considered or in any way plausible. That said, if you just feel like you need a heavy dose of explosions and senseless violence and thought Deadpool was a little too sophisticated for your tastes, this film might be your cup of tea, as long as you don’t mind it a bit on the bitter side.
WHISKEY TANGO FOXTROT
Despite an almost aggressive attempt to insert unnecessary elements into the story of journalist and reluctant war correspondent Kim Baker (Tina Fey), I found myself still largely enjoying her story of discovering and reporting from Afghanistan in the mid- to late 2000s. The real-life Kim Barker (note the slightly different spelling of her last name) worked for the Chicago Tribune and was actually a print journalist (unlike the broadcast reporter we see in the film), but beyond that many of the details of her time spent in the Middle East remain faithful to her memoir, The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan, which is a pitch-black account that includes situations that are so ridiculous as to be laughable if they also weren’t so dangerous and sinister.
In this version of Barker/Baker’s story, she takes the job as a war correspondent in an attempt to save her job, heading to Afghanistan with no idea what’s going on in the country or who the major players are. She relies heavily on the kindness of strangers, including her driver/interpreter/guide Fahim (Christopher Abbott of James White; and yes, it’s a bit strange to have a white actor playing the part, but he also happens to be quite good in the role), as well as a motley crew of fellow journalists, all staying in the same hotel. Among these hard-drinking writers are Tanya (Margo Robbie, one of the few women among the journalists), who is thrilled to have another woman around, and Iain (Martin Freeman), who specializes in inappropriate speech, gestures, everything.
As Baker gets more and more integrated into the Afghan struggles, she becomes a regular feature on both sides of the equation. She’s frequently among the troops, overseen by Gen. Hollacek (Billy Bob Thornton), as well as a high-ranking Afghan official (Alfred Molina), who seems interested in her socially, as well as professionally. The directing team of Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (Crazy, Stupid, Love; Focus) keeps the humor balanced with the more awful aspect of a nation being torn apart by both Americans and the Taliban, and as a result they sometimes soften their cuts when something more direct might have worked better.
Screenwriter Robert Carlock (who has also written for “30 Rock,” “Saturday Night Live,” and most recently “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt”) has a great eye for details that elevate the authenticity of the proceedings. But he also undercuts the inherent drama of the story with a wedged-in love story between Kim and Iain that in no way adds to the anxiety she feels when he is taken hostage by the Taliban.
Keeping the hits and misses glued together into a cohesive piece is Fey’s personal-best acting performance, which doesn’t lean on her gifts as a comic actor and allows her to go a little deeper than she has been required to as a performer in the past. By the time she is called back to the United States, Kim is almost manic with caring for the situation in Afghanistan, not wanting to leave for fear that whoever replaces her won’t understand the details as well as she does. It’s a melancholy moment that caps a rough-and-tumble film that gets a little more right than it does wrong. As in most things, let Fey be your guide. She and fellow producer Lorne Michaels have a solid handle on what works and who doesn’t but is still acceptable in a mainstream Hollywood film that’s daring to be a little offbeat and ragged. It’s not a groundbreaking work, but it gets the job done.
To read my exclusive interview with Whiskey Tango Foxtrot subject and former Chicago Tribune reporter Kim Barker, go to Ain’t It Cool News.
Part of the reason disaster movies (especially ones rooted in nature) are considered escapist entertainment is that the probability of the catastrophe in question seems impossibly low and therefore not a likely threat in the world we live in. But what if the disaster were not only probable but inevitable—even likely to happen soon in the place portrayed in the film you’re watching? If that prospect only adds to the thrills, then run, don’t walk, to The Wave, Norway’s Best Foreign Language Film submission for this year’s Oscars, from director Roar Uthaug (whose name sounds like a scary sound effect).
Set in the country’s Sunnmøre region, the village of Geiranger is a world-famous tourist destination, thanks to it being nestled amid countless mountains, including the Åkerneset mountain peering over the quaint homes and resorts like a patient executioner. But about 100 years ago, one of the region’s hundreds of unstable mountain faces came crashing down into the fjord, sending an 80-meter tsunami straight for Geiranger, killing dozens. Since then, an elaborate early-detection system has been put in place, and the local warning center is staffed by a skilled team of geologists, but never having been truly tested by another disaster, there’s no really telling how much warning the village would get.
Among the geologists is Kristian (Kristoffer Joner), who is working his final shift at the warning center, on the eve of him moving his family to the city, where he has accepted a job working for an oil company for more pay and presumably a lot less danger of death by tsunami. But just before he leaves, there are indications that something isn’t quite right upriver, and Kristian and a colleague fly to an especially harrowing crack in the mountain to see if there are any indicators that something is about to break off. Seeing nothing overtly suspicious, he heads back and begins to gather his family. Having missed the day’s ferry, the family is forced to stay an extra night, which of course means disaster is mere hours away.
Rooting The Wave in science and locating it somewhere where this mess is likely to happen in a matter of years, if not sooner, gives the film (written by John Kåre Raake and Harald Rosenløw-Eeg) a great deal of immediacy and palpable tension that many larger-scale films don’t. That being said, once the rockslide occurs and the flood makes its way down the fjord to the village (10 minutes and counting) the filmmakers have no qualms about going full-on Hollywood. People are outrunning waves and rushing water and swirling debris and other certain-death objects like they were born to do it.
At one point just before all hell breaks loose, Kristian and his young daughter Julia (Edith Haagenrud-Sande) are separated from wife Idun (Ane Dahl Torp) and mopey teenage son Sondre (Jonas Hoff Oftebro), meaning we already know that the main objective of the latter half of the film is going to be to bring the family back together again, which is impossible…except it isn’t. Does it matter that Idun works at a resort hotel at the end of the line for the tsunami? Absolutely not? As a result, a great deal of the film’s good will built on the use of actual science and facts is lost to dramatic license.
That being said, the sprawling, devastated landscape (built practically and otherwise) of the village after the flood is jaw-dropping in its vast scale and eeriness. Director Uthaug also isn’t afraid to riddle the waters with dead bodies to make a point about the extent of the damage that will likely occur when this happens in real life. And it’s this blending of the believable with the somewhat absurd that give The Wave an edge over the typical disaster film. I cared more about the fates of these characters than I did in, say, a film like San Andreas (the two films are remarkably similar in their stories), which I also liked, more for its scale than anything else.
It also seems clear the filmmaker is as in love with the region, and sees his film as more of a cautionary tale than empty blow-’em-up entertainment. By the time the thrill ride begins, you’re already so invested in the human element and the location that it hurts that much more when either is damaged. It’s such a simple idea, it’s hard to believe no other filmmaker has thought of it, ever. Ahem! So, if you’ve always believed that disaster movies as a genre have been missing one crucial element—subtitles—The Wave is your ticket to Valhalla. The film opens today in Chicago at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.