Zootopia

Zootopia looks great and has spectacular voice work, but it lacks the magic that would elevate it to the top rung of Disney animation work. Zootopia’s plot exposition and message causes it to fall short in the pure fun and laughter departments. But don’t let those slight qualms stop you from seeing it.

Judy Hopps (Gennifer Goodwin) is a bunny whose farmer parents (Bonnie Hunt and Don Lake) encourage her to set her personal ambition bar low and settle. Judy, however, wants to move to the city of Zootopia and join the police force.

Zootopia looks like a cross between Shanghai and the Capitol in The Hunger Games. This fauna universe is divided into zones that include a rain forest, a desert and a wintry world, as well as the downtown area. It’s a city where all the animals coexist peacefully because the predators have somehow mellowed out.

After Judy becomes an officer, her boss Chief Bogo (Idris Elba) limits her work to issuing parking citations. She does her best, writing hundreds of tickets each day. On the street, she encounters a nemesis, soon to become an ally, Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman), a fox.

Zootopia has two main messages. #1. Don’t get in a hurry when you visit the license office—especially in Zootopia where the DMV is staffed by sloths. (See trailer at top of this post.) #2. You can overcome stereotypes and be who you want to be. Judy, a bunny, is typically too small to be a cop. And Nick, a fox, turns to a life of deception because, well, foxes are scheming hustlers.

The film’s story centers around a group of predators who have reverted to their violent ways and are being caged on the edge of town. What’s causing them to go back to their instinctive states? Judy goes to work to solve the mystery and Nick pitches in.

Since this animal world is a metaphor for our human society, I wonder who the suddenly-wild-and-dangerous-again predators are supposed to represent. I don’t dare speculate here for fear of offending a particular race or ethnic group.

A few more of the talented voice cast members who populate Zootopia are Tommy Chong, J.K. Simmons, Jenny Slate, Alan Tudyk, Octavia Spencer and, as a singing Gazelle called Gazelle, Shakira.

Zootopia, like the best animation efforts of the past few decades, has fun stuff for adults as well as kids. I suggest you view the film as a light amusement and don’t worry about messages or metaphors. Zootopia is not an all-time great, but it’s pretty good!

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Gift

Creepy and suspenseful, The Gift is filled with people and actions that are not what they always appear to be. As secrets are revealed, outcomes remain in question.

Simon (Jason Bateman) and Robyn (Rebecca Hall) are a married couple who have just moved to Los Angeles from Chicago. For Simon, it’s a return to his former stomping grounds. They encounter one of Simon’s old high school classmates, Gordo (Joel Edgerton), while shopping. Gordo begins dropping off a series of gifts at the couple’s front door.

Simon is dubious about Gordo’s aggressive gifting but Robyn is welcoming. The couple invites Gordo over for dinner. Gordo drops by during the daytime when Simon is at work. Robyn invites him in for tea. When Gordo invites them to his place for dinner and steps out for a moment, Simon teases Robyn about her supposed attraction to Gordo (and his to her).

As some of the couple’s past difficulties are revealed and their relationship with Gordo stumbles, tension builds. Robyn jogs, she reaches out to neighbors, she works from home, she attempts normalcy, but there’s an underlying unease.

One source of unease is the couple’s ongoing difficulty having a baby. When Robyn becomes pregnant, there’s relief. But more revelations and troubles lurk nearby.

An uncredited character in The Gift is Simon and Robyn’s hillside home where most of the film’s scenes take place. It’s a cool mid-century modern house, with lots of glass and great views. Despite the home’s appeal, it’s not the ideal abode for a woman who has Robyn’s concerns.

Joel Edgerton not only stars as the creepy Gordo, he also wrote and directed The Gift. He was crafted a movie that works, keeping the anxiety at a low simmer with occasional crescendos of distress. Like Shrek says about ogres and onions, The Gift has layers, as do its characters.

Because you won’t just dismiss it, but will talk about it later, this film is (to use the old radio spot cliché) The Gift that keeps on giving.

Horrible Bosses 2

 

Horrible Bosses 2 reminds me of a Saturday Night Live bit that fizzles. HB2, like those misfired SNL sketches, has a ridiculous setup and plot, actors you like who are wasting their talents and a handful of chuckles that make it almost palatable.

When you’re watching SNL, you hang in because you know the bit that’s dying will be over soon. With Horrible Bosses 2, you keep waiting for it to get better and hating yourself for having chosen to watch it.

Here’s the setup: After plotting to kill their bosses in the 2011 Horrible Bosses, Nick (Jason Bateman), Kurt (Jason Sudeikis) and Dale (Charlie Day) have decided to start their own company so they won’t have to deal with bad bosses again.

They develop a product called the Shower Buddy. They show it off on TV. The bit features a visual sexual joke that was done much better in the Austin Powers movies. The TV host (Keegan Michael-Kay) is stunned by the name of their company which sounds like a slur: Nick-Kurt-Dale.

After Burt Hanson (Christoph Waltz) and his son Rex (Chris Pine) back out of a deal to buy all their Shower Buddys, the trio decide to take drastic action. Here’s where the plot, which centers on kidnapping, becomes ludicrous.

Part of the scheme involves breaking into Julia Harris’s (Jennifer Aniston) to steal laughing gas. As the break-in is underway, she shows up to conduct a sexual addiction self-help group. The hilarity here is minimal, as it is throughout much of the film. (If you enjoyed hearing Aniston talk dirty in the first film, there’s more for you here in HB2. I’m not a prude but I felt kind of embarrassed for her.)

Also in the film is Kevin Spacey, as a horrible boss now incarcerated for crimes committed in the first film. When the trio visits him in prison for business advice, he provides a laugh or two with his profane putdowns. Jamie Foxx plays a hood who participates in the kidnapping.

Honestly, I found the outtakes at the end of the film to be the funniest part of Horrible Bosses 2.

Before you put down good money to see Horrible Bosses 2, take a moment to consider what else is available at your local movie house. There are better options. (Scroll down through this review site for a few good suggestions.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

This Is Where I Leave You

 

This Is Where I Leave You tries hard but falls short. The film waffles between being a story about Judd’s (Jason Bateman) breakup with his wife Quinn (Abigail Spencer) and being an ensemble piece about a family whose father/husband has just died. It tries to be a comedy but is only partially successful. It tries to touch our emotions but is only partially successful.

The cast of TIWILY is impressive. The adult children of Hillary Altman (Jane Fonda) are Judd, Wendy (Tina Fey), Paul (Corey Stall) and Phillip (Adam Driver). Kathryn Hahn plays Paul’s wife Alice. Connie Britton is Phillip’s lover, Tracy. Wendy’s husband Barry (Aaron Lazar) gets very little face time.

The movie opens with Judd catching his wife cheating with his boss (Dax Shepard) who is an outrageous testosterone-fueled satellite radio host. This is where he leaves his wife. Soon after, dad leaves his family behind. So there’s your title.

When the siblings come home to bury their dad, mom tells them that his last wish was that the 4 of them spend a full week in the house. One might expect hilarity to ensue here, but the humor is weak and the film is not as funny as hoped for. TIWILY has its moments, but the overall chuckle factor is rather low on the scale.

Yes, there are those relatable family moments when long-buried memories and resentments resurface. There are those moments when perceptive family members figure out that another isn’t being completely honest. There are reconnections with the past, including Judd’s fling with Penny (Rose Byrne) who just happens to be working at the family’s sporting goods store.

Shawn Levy, who directed the Night At The Museum movies, Date Night and one of my kids’ favorites, Big Fat Liar, is director for TIWILY. He does a nice job of squeezing in numerous characters and plot points with only a handful of each getting shortchanged.

I keep comparing this film with 2005’s The Family Stone, which presented both the emotional moments and the funny stuff better. This Is Where I Leave You is not a “bad” film. If you’re a fan of Jason Bateman or Tina Fey, you’ll enjoy seeing them onscreen. But TIWILY is a middle-of-the-pack movie that, for me, inspires deep feelings of indifference.

 

Bad Words

Bad Words is one of those funny little movies that is definitely not for everyone. It has a ridiculous concept, an obnoxious lead character and a charming kid.

Guy Trilby (Jason Bateman) is a 40-year-old proofreader with an encyclopedic knowledge of words. He finds a loophole in the rules and enters a spelling bee in Columbus, Ohio, which he wins. He moves on to the national finals where the story picks up steam.

On the plane ride to LA, Guy meets and immediately disses a young boy of Indian descent (Rohan Chand) who ignores the putdowns and maintains his upbeat attitude.

Dr. Bernice Deagan (Allison Janney) runs the spelling bee. She is just as upset at Guy’s participation as are the parents of the kids in the bee. Dr. Bowman (the 82-year-old Philip Baker Hall) is the emeritus leader of the bee. He co-hosts the national telecast of the finals with Pete Fowler (Ben Falcone).

Jenny (Kathryn Hahn) is Guy’s sponsor and occasional lover. She has an online news outlet for which she is covering him and his wacky mission. She works to discover his reasons for crashing this party to which he is not welcome.

Other than his talent for spelling, Guy has no obvious redeeming social values. He is an absolute dick. He is rude to everyone: the kids, their parents, Jenny, the hotel staff, etc.

Eventually Guy becomes a friend to the young boy with the perky spirit. He takes him out for a night of totally inappropriate debauchery. Is sabotage his ulterior motive?

Bad Words delivers a few big laughs and several chuckles. Guy’s bad behavior, especially the terrible things he says to people, is often shockingly impolite. An actor less likeable than Jason Bateman would offend greatly. Guy is a total jerk but because it’s Bateman in the role, audiences are more likely to cut him a break.

Bad Words is Bateman’s competent debut as a director. The script is by rookie Andrew Dodge.

Viewers who appreciate its outrageous story and its mean-spirited humor have already championed this film. There are critic blurbs galore. But Bad Words is a movie with a central character who is hard to embrace and cheer for. That, for me, makes this movie hard to like. See Bad Words at your own risk.