Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice – Review

batman v superman

We all love superheroes, and we for the most part love superhero movies.  At this point in cinematic history, nearly every comic book hero has made their way to the silver screen, and many of them have made it there alright.  But, there seems to be something in recent years that we’ve grown to enjoy more than the average superhero flick, and that is the Superhero team-up.  What could be better than one super hero in their own film than a movie full of multiple superheroes.  And not just any superheroes, but the world’s most popular.  This was effectively pulled off when Marvel Studios created The Avengers (2012), a big screen realization of a superhero team made up of their all-star gallery of icons.  Pulling together Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, the Hulk, and a slew of other popular comic characters, The Avengers was a superhero movie unlike any other seen before and it became a dream come true for fans across the world.  Naturally, this translated into record breaking box office for parent studio Disney, who continued to support further adventures of these superheroes with an entire in movie universe that connects everything together.  The Marvel Cinematic Universe has become an unprecedented success across the board and of course it has inspired many of Marvel and Disney’s rivals to follow in their footsteps with their own collection of characters.  I’ve written before about the building of cinematic universes, and how it seems to be the current trend in Hollywood to build movies around multi-narrative arcs as opposed to contained in stand alone features.  This certainly has worked well for Marvel, but is their long time competitor DC Comics capable of doing the same as well?

DC made the decision in the wake of The Avengers success to give their own impressive cast of superheroes an epic team-up.  Certainly DC is not working without precedent here; the Justice League of superheroes has existed for decades in the comics.  Sadly, we’ve just never seen the crossing of paths brought to the big screen until now.  Warner Brothers, which is partnered with DC, have long tried to get their superheroes together in the past; namely with their two biggest stars, Batman and Superman.  Ideas were floated around as far back as when Tim Burton was still involved with the Batman franchise, and during his brief flirtation with Superman before that project fell apart.  In the early 2000’s, George Miller of Mad Max fame was signed on to develop a Justice League feature, but that too fell apart as well.  Fans abroad and in Hollywood held out hope for an eventual realization of the potentially explosive confrontation between Batman and Superman.  With Christopher Nolan’s epic Dark Knight Trilogy reinvigorating DC’s brand on the big screen, there seemed to be more hope that some of their more neglected heroes would finally get their due.  Of course, a new direction for the Superman franchise was needed and that came in the form of Man of Steel (2013).  Man of Steel stands on it’s own as an origin film, but in the wake of The Avengers, this was also intended to be the starting off point for DC’s master plan to bring the Justice League to the big screen.  Unfortunately, while many fans embraced the plan, they were less than happy about the execution (I for one seem to be one of the few defenders of the film, which I saw as flawed but still noteworthy).  With their follow-up, Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, DC hopes to jump earnestly into their grand plan and finally give us what we’ve always wanted and that’s Batman and Superman on screen together, face to face.  But, is it a plan that worked?

The story starts off focusing on Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck), the alter ego of Batman, as he witnesses the destruction of Metropolis that made up the finale of Man of Steel.  As Superman (Henry Cavill) fights the villainous General Zod (Michael Shannon) and creates untold destruction in their wake, Bruce does what he can to help people on the ground.  As he witnesses the devastation around him, he develops a resentment towards Superman.  A couple years later, Bruce finds that he’s not alone in that resentment, as the world becomes torn between viewing Superman as a savior or a menace needing to be stopped.  One of those who shares the same belief is another billionaire with plans of his own named Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg), who has gained access to the wreckage of Zod’s space ship as well as an artifact found within, a large sample of Kryptonite.  Luthor, upon learning the destructive effects that the element has on Kryptonian cells, intends to use it as a weapon to subdue Superman and have him bow to authority.  But, Batman has plans for the Kryptonite as well and he steals it from LexCorp, along with secret data files that Luthor has collected regarding the existence of “Meta Humans” like Superman, also living among us.  Batman uses his cunning and ingenuity to build the weapons he needs to take on the seemingly indestructible Superman, but what both he and Superman fail to realize is that they are both being coaxed into destroying one another by Luthor, who’s got diabolical plans at work against both heroes.  And to make things even more complicated, a wild card comes late into the film in the form of Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), who’s got her own issues to deal with between the other two.

As you can tell from my attempt at a plot summary, there’s a lot of story crammed into this movie, and that as a result turns into one of the movie’s main faults.  I wouldn’t say that Man of Steel had a solid grasp on the narrative either, but it at least was held together in the end by a definable threat and a clearly defined purpose in the character’s motivations.  The problem with the awkwardly titled Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice is that it never seems to find it’s focus, and that sadly makes it a step backwards as a follow-up to Man of Steel.  This is a problem that I attribute to director Zack Snyder, who has proven time and again to be a filmmaker who favors style over substance.  If there is something to value in this movie (and there is) you have to dig through a lot of unnecessary nonsense to get to it.   Snyder clearly knows how to stage an action sequence and thickly lay on the loud explosions, but when you don’t understand the motivations of the characters or have a grasp on who’s doing what, all it does is turn the movie into a bunch of noisy mayhem.  There’s a sequence midway through the film that features Batman chasing down a truck filled with mercenaries in his Batmobile, and it is so heavily overblown with CGI trickery and overused pyro effects that I had no idea what was going on and as a result didn’t care.  In fact, all it made me think of was how much better the Batmobile sequence in Batman Begins (2005) was in comparison, which used actual, on-set vehicles as opposed to CGI ones.  This extends to pretty much every action sequence in the movie, which unfortunately makes the movie feel shallow as opposed to engaging.  There are a handful of good action moments here and there, but it only makes you wish the rest of the movie had been given the same kind of effort, instead of just assuming that special effects will be the answer to everything.

But the lack of focus isn’t the worst aspect of Batman v. Superman.  There is one thing that nearly makes this movie an outright disaster, and his name is Lex Luthor.  This is without a doubt the worst iteration of the iconic villain that we’ve ever seen put on film.  Everything about the character, from the casting of Jesse Eisenberg, to the way he’s performed and written, to even his appearance is absolutely wrong.  I had my doubts very early on with the casting of Eisenberg as Luthor and boy did they come to fruition here.  For some reason, Zack Snyder wanted to make Lex a quirkier villain that spouts one-liners and acts off-kilter.  I can imagine that what Warner Brothers and Zack Snyder had in mind was a anarchistic, rebellious young villain that you could market to an atypical superhero movie audience, much like how Heath Ledger’s Joker became an icon after the release of The Dark Knight (2008).  It’s a cynical ploy to make a highly quotable, meme generating character who you could slap onto a T-shirt and make hip to young, rebellious audiences, and it fails miserably.  I found Lex Luthor to be so obnoxious here, and any time this movie ever gains some depth and traction in it’s story, he ends up butting in and spoils the momentum.  Never have I seen such a mishandled villain in an superhero movie; except maybe The Mandarin in Iron Man 3 (2013) or The Rhino in The Amazing Spiderman 2 (2014).  I don’t particularly blame Eisenberg though; we’ve seen him act well before in other movies, like The Social Network (2010).  In fact, I find it weird that he comes off more menacing as Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg than he does as here as Lex.  Out of all the problems in this movie, the villain comes out as the biggest misfire.  Man of Steel at least benefited from a villain that was intimidating, thanks to Michael Shannon’s incredible work as Zod.  In this, it’s hard to take the plot seriously when the villain is so pathetically drawn.

But, aside from all the bad things about this movie, it’s not an outright disaster either.  There are still some praiseworthy elements that help to shine a light through all this mess.  Primary among them is the portrayal of Batman himself.  I’m about to say something that I never thought I’d ever say, but Ben Affleck saves this movie.  That’s right, I’m as amazed as you are.  A lot of naysayers decried the casting of Affleck in the role of Batman, especially after the critically acclaimed work done by Christian Bale in The Dark Knight trilogy.  But, thankfully, this is a much different Batman than what we’ve seen before, and Ben Affleck proves to be perfectly chosen for the role.  This is a grizzled, world-weary Batman who has protected Gotham City for over twenty years at the time of the movie’s setting.  He’s seen so much chaos around him and even the deaths of friends and allies, and it’s all taken it’s toll.  Ben brings that out very well in his performance, and as a result, he’s able to convey the motivations of the character much better than anyone else in the movie.  I also want to praise the work put into the Batman outfit too.  Taking a cue from the design from Frank Miller in his iconic The Dark Knight Returns comics, this is one of the best Batman suits ever created.  Couple that with the fact that at 6′ 3″, Ben Affleck is also the tallest actor to play the role of Batman and you’ve got probably the most physically imposing Caped Crusader we’ve ever seen.  But, even outside the suit, Affleck is still effective and surprisingly subtle in the role of Bruce Wayne.  He also has the benefit of working opposite Jeremy Irons as his trusty butler Alfred, who is likewise perfectly cast and the two have probably the best chemistry in the entire movie.  Despite all the movie’s shortcomings, I’m happy to say that it does do right by Batman, and considering that he’s been my favorite superhero since childhood, it kind of makes it worth it in the end just to see that legacy live proudly on.

The remaining cast is kind of a mixed bag.  While not quite as engaging as Affleck’s Batman, Henry Cavill still does okay as Superman.  He never does the red and blue a disservice, and occasionally shows moments of greatness as the character, but at the same time, this movie kind of gives him nothing to do either.  At least in Man of Steel we saw a little bit more of the humanity in the character, and the struggle with identity that defines much of what he does.  Sadly, this movie turns him into more of a symbolic character rather than an identifiable one.  Much of the film deals with the ramifications of what Superman represents in our world, being a God-like figure among men, and whether or not he can be trusted.  It’s an interesting concept to bring up for debate in the movie, but Superman never really gets a voice in that debate, and instead he turns into a pawn in the overall plot.  Some people didn’t like the drastic measure of killing that Superman was forced into in Man of Steel, but I thought it brought out a great moral dilemma in the character and it brought a genuine emotional performance out of Cavill too.  I just wish that translated over more here, because Superman is much less interesting this time.  Worse yet, I hated the way they portrayed Lois Lane here.  In Man of Steel, she was both smart and resourceful, as well as undaunted by her circumstance.  Sadly, she’s relegated to more of a damsel in distress role, which is a significant step backwards for the character.  On the other hand, despite minimal screen-time, Gal Gadot does stand out as Wonder Woman, who finally has made it to the big screen.  She could have easily been portrayed poorly (Snyder’s been know to do that with female heroes), but there’s a moment late in the final battle where Wonder Woman is thrown to the ground and before she picks her sword back up, she has a smile on her face.  That to me perfectly embodies Wonder Woman; a warrior who welcomes a challenge.  She’s a minor player, but one that makes the most of her time on screen.

So, is Batman v. Superman worthy of your time.  Well, if you hated Man of Steel, I don’t think this film will win you over either.  It solves some of the problems of it’s predecessor, but in the process it creates a whole bunch of new ones, and overall, I think it’s lack of focus and convoluted plot actually makes it a weaker film.  The over abundance of CGI is a problem and it robs any urgency in the action sequences.  Not to mention that it completely misfires with the villain at it’s center, who I cannot take seriously at all.  The movie is only at it’s best when it actually takes a breath and allows the characters to develop, which sadly happens very rarely.  This is exactly what you don’t want to do with a franchise movie that’s supposed to be the launching point for a grand, multi-narrative shared universe.  Marvel has done such a remarkable job not just making the big Avengers team ups work, but also in allowing each of the characters enough time to shine on their own stand alone flicks. Batman v. Superman is a pale imitator by comparison because it puts the value in the grand plan rather than the story.  It’s shameless studio mandated storytelling, and it rings hollow as a result.  Some of this could have been brilliant, and on occasion it is, but Zack Snyder doesn’t seem to grasp the balance that this kind of venture needs.  That being said, there were quite a few things that I did like in this movie, and they mostly all revolve around Ben Affleck’s extremely effective Batman.  This movie at least gives me confidence in the actors playing the roles, and I can’t wait to see them work in their own stand alone features (Wonder Woman comes first next summer, and hopefully it’s great).  I especially can’t wait for more of Affleck as the Bat.  But, if DC wants to compete with Marvel and make their superhero team-ups just as effective, they should probably have someone more capable at the helm than Zack Snyder, because with Dawn of Justice, he’s just steering this ship into more troubled waters.

Rating: 6.5/10

Collecting Criterion – Hoop Dreams (1994)

hoop dreams victory

When it comes to film-making, there is no more remarkable place to find a compelling story committed to celluloid than in the documentary form.  Fictional movies can tell great stories, but with a definite sense of control over what we see.  A documentary on the other hand finds the drama in real life and if done well can be more captivating than any other kind of movie out there.  Documentaries can tell all kinds of stories; funny, heartwarming, heartbreaking, and even devastating.  And the reason why so many stay with us is because through following real people and showing real places, documentaries reveal to us an element of truth that other cinema can’t.  Sure, documentaries also have the power to manipulate, and not all for the better (just look at the political propaganda pieces from firebrand filmmakers like Michael Moore or Dinesh D’Souza).  But, what I’ve always found fascinating about the documentary form when it’s at it’s best is the way that film-making finds great drama in the unexpected and hidden parts of life.  There’s something about the presence of a camera that brings out things you never expected and with a precise editing job, you can find a narrative that you never realized was there before.  I’m sure no one thought a competition between two rival Donkey Kong enthusiasts would turn into a David vs. Goliath battle of wits like the one we saw in The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (2008) or that an in-depth interview with a Government Intelligence officer would turn into an international incident and a pivotal turning point in America’s surveillance policy as it happened in CitizenFour (2014).  That’s the magical power of documentary film-making, and it’s important place in cinematic history is well reflected by some of the inclusions in the Criterion Collection.

Criterion includes many influential and important documentaries within it’s library.  Some of the more notable inclusions are the works of the Mayles Brothers, Albert and David, whose Gimmie Shelter (1970, Spine #99) documented the legendary Altamont concert set up by the Rolling Stones where an attendee was stabbed to death by the Hell’s Angels biker gang that were used as security, a moment caught on the Mayles’ own camera.  D.A. Pennebaker’s documentation of The Complete Monterey Pop Festival (1968, #167) also captured the introductions of rock legends like Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin to the world.  In an all-together different documentary style, Criterion also includes the controversial anti-Vietnam War documentary Hearts and Minds (1974, #156) and the equally unflinching Harlan County, U.S.A. (1976, #334) which documented the often-times violent tension seen in a coal mining community during a year long strike.  Many other acclaimed documentarians have also been highlighted by the Collection, including notable filmmakers like Agnes Varda, Errol Morris, Terry Zwigoff, Louis Malle, and even Orson Welles (in his later independent years).  But, if there’s something that the Criterion brand is especially great at, it is putting the spotlight on films that are especially deserving of more recognition, and that’s exactly what they did to one of the late 20th century’s most monumental documentary features.  It’s an epic story about hardship, family, and the dissection of the American dream, and it centers amazingly enough around the sport of Basketball.  So, with March Madness going on right now, I felt it was appropriate to highlight the documentary wonder that is Hoop Dreams (1994, #289).

Hoop Dreams is epic in both size and story, and the fact that it came to be that way was unexpected to everyone, including the filmmakers.  When director Steven James and producer Peter Gilbert began their project of documenting the lives of inner-city kids trying to pursue a career as professional basketball players, they only expected it to end up as a 30 minute special that would air on PBS.  Five years and 250 hours of footage later, they ended up with an amazingly complex story that ended up filling 3 hours of run time.  The film documents the lives of William Gates and Arthur Agee, two boys from poor housing projects in Chicago.  It starts with them as high school freshmen, both with aspirations of becoming star athletes in the NBA.  They get recruited into the same prestigious high school that their idol Isiah Thomas attended, St. Joseph’s, but academic difficulty causes Arthur Agee to fall behind and he ultimately is dropped out of school and from the team.  Afterwards, Agee returns to the projects to attend his local, state run school while Gates remains at St. Joe’s, barely clinging on academically and always under pressure to perform as the only black kid in a predominately white institution.  As the boys grow older, we see them deal with the harsh reality of what it’s like to pursue a dream and ultimately fall short.  Agee deals with behavioral problems in school, a drug-abusing father who causes economic woes for his family, and a lack of humility that ultimately isolates him from teammates and friends.  Gates on the other hand falls victim to high standards that ultimately put a strain on his health, due to long commutes to school and grueling hours of practice, that ultimately leads to injuries and a loss of respect among teammates.  By their senior years, the two boys mature into more seasoned and intuitive athletes and as they ultimately reach some of their goals and make the transition into college, they take a look back and examine if the dream of NBA fame is ultimately what they want in the end.

The brilliance of Hoop Dreams is the way that it captures so many different themes within the central narrative.  Yes, it’s ultimately about pursuing dreams and reaching for goals, but it touches upon so much more than that.  The film was made during the late-80’s and up through the early 90’s, a period of social and cultural upheaval for many people, especially those in poorer, racially segregated communities.  In Hoop Dreams, you see Agee and Gates deal with racial, class and economic division, the ongoing threat of gang violence and drug abuse in their homes, huge disparity in educational standards based on where they live, and just all around bad luck thrown in their way.  For both of the boys, basketball is more than just a game; it’s a way out.  What also occurred during this era of gang and drug proliferation in the inner cities was the rise of Sports culture as a whole.  Both ESPN and NIKE came into their own during the 1980’s and with them the rise of the marketing of Super Sports All-Stars.  It was the era of “Bo Knows Best” and “Wanna Be Like Mike” and larger than life figures who dominated their sports like no one before.  At the time for many African-American youths in America, sports figures were the only role models around for them to look up to, and that in turn made many inner-city black kids believe that their only ticket out of their poor communities was through athletics.  Unfortunately, the world of athletics is a far more competitive one than the media at the time would have led us to believe, and many young men fell short of their dreams with nothing to fall back on.  This reality is ultimately what’s at the center of Hoop Dreams and it’s that realization of dreams versus reality that both Agee and Gates come to as they evolve from boys to men that ultimately resonates when you watch the film.

Not that it’s all that makes this movie great.  Steven James remarkably is able to create this whole tapestry of the society that these kids exist within, and makes everything around them an integral part of their growth as people.  One great subplot in the story is Arthur Agee’s mother Sheila making her way through nursing school before ultimately receiving her certification by the film’s end.  Her struggle to break out of her situation and make something of herself is a nice parallel to the struggle of her son and it’s a bright point that gives hope to everyone involved about what their futures might be.  The movie also works perfectly as a sports film, with the games that the two boys compete in playing crucial significance to the growth of their character.  When they ultimately play in the state championship tourney by their senior years, you really feel the weight of what has led up to this moment.  By the end, you see that both boys had talent that could have taken them far, but life and society put up different paths for them to take, and whether or not they took them it would determine what kind of person they would be.  It’s a grandiose story of universal truths found in a small corner of American society that rarely gets seen and that’s what makes Hoop Dreams so memorable.  When it premiered at Sundance in 1994, it was immediately praised by the critical community.  Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel in particular championed this film relentlessly on their nationally syndicated program, hoping to give the movie the due attention that it deserved.  Amazingly, the film was overlooked by the Oscars, and it exposed some of the unfair nomination processes that the Academy had; in particular, the Documentary category at the time was not voted on by other Documentary filmmakers.  The Hoop Dreams snub forced the Academy to change it’s voting practices, and that in itself was a positive change for the better thanks to this movie.

Criterion once again delivers a worthy presentation of a film deserving of a special edition.  Documentaries are an interesting class of film compared to their Hollywood counterparts, in that there is a more relaxed standard of picture quality that they are judged by.  For most documentarians, their only option of film stock is lower quality, grainy 16mm, or in some cases the even more low-grade 8mm.  But, the strength of a documentary is not how polished it looks but rather what it captures on screen, and therefore documentaries can get away with having a shabbier appearance.  Hoop Dreams has even more of a handicap in the visual department because it was shot on video tape as opposed to film.  This gives the movie a mostly home video look which may put off some viewers more used to a more film like experience.  But, despite the limitations of the source, Criterion has done it’s best to make the high definition picture of this movie look as good as it possibly can be on blu-ray.  The results come out looking great and live up to the high Criterion standards.  The high-definition transfer was made in collaboration with the Sundance Film Institute, the UCLA Film & Television Archive and the Academy Film Archive, so you know that this movie went through a lot of restorations in order to get it to it’s highest quality possible.  With approval from director Steve James , this is about the best possible picture we’ll ever get for this film.  The sound quality is also perfectly balanced given, the limitations of the source.  Overall, it’s a prime example of how to give a documentary the proper preservation it needs.

Criterion has also supplied a wealthy set of bonus features that also enrich the experience.  The most substantial feature in the set is a documentary called Life after Hoop Dreams, which gives us a much needed update of where Arthur Agee and William Gates are today.  Both men, now in their forties, never did make it into the NBA, but as the documentary shows, their lives haven’t fallen apart as their dreams of fame faded away.  Both of them, as we learn, finished college and earned a degree, and they’ve in turn used their skills to give back to their communities, as coaches, entrepreneurs, and even as a pastor in William Gates’ case.  Watching these once troubled youths turn into well adjusted adults in the wake of this movie is a very pleasing turnout and makes it’s inclusion here very worthwhile.  There’s also an engaging commentary track from the filmmakers, and it’s fascinating to listen to them discuss the process of documentary film-making based on their experience with this project, especially in how their small, simple special evolved into this giant undertaking.  Another interesting feature is a collection of excerpts from the Siskel & Ebert show, tracking the critical reception of the movie.  The advocacy for the film by the two famed critics is recognized by many as one of the elements that helped to popularize the movie across the nation, and these excerpts are a way of acknowledging their help.  Ebert in fact named Hoop Dreams as the Top Film of the 1990’s, and director Steve James would pay back the kindness many years later by spotlighting the life and career of Roger Ebert in the also acclaimed documentary Life Itself (2014).  Rounding out the features is a music video tie-in as well as a theatrical trailer.  Overall, it’s a solid presentation with some very worthwhile features that compliment the movie perfectly.

Hoop Dreams may seem like a hard sell at first glance.  A 3 hour documentary about inner-city kids who want to play professional basketball?  But, when you do finally give it a look, you will find an engrossing, multi-layered drama that will keep you interested the whole way through.  What ultimately makes this movie so fascinating are the kids themselves.  We see Arthur Agee and William Gates grow and mature and learn what the American dream is really like.  The movie also teaches us a lesson about the all too common barriers we set up in society with regards to what a person can achieve based on their race, their class, or their level of education.  The movie also allows us to see that fame and glory are not without cost and hardship.  In a world that values super stars, we don’t see enough of the sometimes ugly ladder that people end up climbing in order to get there, and Hoop Dreams is just one reflection of how so many who seek a way to the top often never make it.  More over than that, the movie just overall represents a high point of documentary film-making, and the often amazing way it can capture the unexpected drama of human life.  The late great Albert Mayles once said, “The natural disposition of the camera is to seek out reality,” and Hoop Dreams is a perfect illustration of that notion.  The filmmakers never set out to capture this amazing, grandiose story, but as the years went by and more and more interesting things happened in front of them as they continued to roll film, they ended up with a story that was better than anything they could’ve imagined.  That’s the power of documentary film-making; the ability to capture life’s crucial moments unexpectedly.  You can’t do that with purposely staged events and rarely with talking head interviews.  Hoop Dreams is life unfolding in front of our eyes and that is the most epic kind of story that can ever be shown on the screen; and plus, it’s got some great basketball in it too.

hoop dreams criterion

No Movie Too Small – Short Films and Why they Should Matter

world of tomorrow

We all go to the movies either for entertainment, or for escape.  The business requires a consistent flow of titles to choose from, and at the very least, they must hold our attention for an hour or more.  Given the complexities of production, it’s really a miracle of the industry that full length features have become the norm.  Anyone in the film industry will tell you that it’s a long process getting a film made, and the fact that they have to produce a minimum of 90 minutes of content that feels cohesive is quite daunting every time they do it.  It’s probably why full length features are the most valued form of entertainment made today, and it’s not an undeserving distinction to have.  But, what does that say for a different kind of market that specializes in shorter, more compact films.  The Short Movie market is somewhat undervalued in the film industry compared to it’s bigger counterpart.  They are usually little seen by the public at large and really only get spotlighted at the various festival screening or rediscovered many years later in some university’s video library.  Sadly, this leads to a reputation that Short films are worthless in the grand scheme of things and are better left out of the conversation when discussing the extensive work done by filmmakers and actors.  But, I would argue that Short films are not just worthy of the spotlight, but are even more deserving of praise than most full length films.  In Short Films, you see an exciting burst of creativity and experimentation that is rarely seen in Hollywood today, and that’s why they are much more than the scant few minutes in total that they run.

We all know the kinds of movies that we classify as a short film.  These are the films that usually run a half hour or less, were made on a shoe-string budget, and tell an intimate and sometimes unusual story.  Because of these elements, short films have a decidedly non-Hollywood feel to them, and that partially contributes to the lack of prestige that they usually get.  The Academy Awards try their best to give some of these films their due, but even then, most people dismiss that part of the show as the “who cares” awards.  But, honestly, people should care.  If it were not for the hard work and thought put into these short movies, the big ones would cease to be relevant.  Many of the innovations made in cinema over the years got it’s start in short subject features, including advances in CGI technology and camera techniques, as well as being the incubator for rising talent both in front and behind the camera.  Some of the most successful filmmakers today got their start making short films before they advanced to feature length, and it’s usually the shorts themselves that propelled them forward.  Short films allow people a bit more freedom than what the industry allows and in this industry that is something that is valued highly among artists.  Not only that, but the short film market that runs through multiple channels like film festivals and streaming services also opens up the door to multiple diverse voices that normally would not be heard or seen in the more restrictive full length market.  So, while the movie going public might show apathy towards Short Films overall, these same movies could be among the most important made today, and should be valued more as a result.

Short films haven’t always been a niche market in Hollywood however.  For a time in it’s early history, short movies were just as common as the full length features.  When people went to the movies in the early days, they weren’t just paying for one film, but an entire program filled with newsreels, cartoons, and yes, even short subjects played along side their featured presentation.  The short movies (or two-reelers, as the industry called them) were not particularly geared for narrative purposes.  More often they were part of on-going series, either for light entertainment or for educational purposes.  This was the realm of the Three Stooges and Laurel & Hardy; vaudeville acts that allowed their patented routines to play out in quick, hilarious sketches.  Serials were also present in those days, allowing for on-going, feature length narratives to play out over several weeks, giving theaters an extra reason for repeat business with their audiences.  These films were popular, but far from unconventional.  More often than not they were cheap to make and were often taken for granted by the industry.  As long as they filled a program lineup at the movie theater, Hollywood cared little how they looked or sounded.  Once television took hold, viewing habits changed and the short film disappeared from the local theaters.  Over that time, a short film more or less evolved into the experimental, closed off market place that we know today: cut off from the machine of Hollywood and somewhat liberated at the same time.

There is one area of Short film that did remain a part of the Hollywood system, at least some of the time, and that’s the animated short industry.  Today, when we look at the short films that gain the most attention, it is usually the ones that are animated. In fact, the only time you will see an short feature shown in theaters across the country nowadays is when it’s attached to an animated film; a small little call back to the early days of theater programming.  Disney and Pixar are two animation giants that still practice this today, and it’s not hard to see why; both studios built their foundations on the success of their early shorts and would not be here had those been a failure.  In fact, both Disney and Pixar’s mascots are characters that were born and popularized out of short cartoons; Mickey Mouse for Disney and Luxo Jr. for Pixar.  But, it’s not just these giants that continue the practice of keeping short cartoons in the spotlight.  Dreamworks and Blue Sky have recently gone into the practice of promoting their upcoming features with introductory shorts released in advance, such as the “Scrat” shorts that are released in preparation of each upcoming Ice Age movie.  Animated shorts are also the best way for up-and-coming animators to make a name for themselves.  Aardman Studios gained notoriety in the stop-motion world through their critically acclaimed Creature Comforts (1987) and Wallace and Gromit shorts, long before they started making features.  And an independent animator named Don Hertzfeldt is making some of the boldest and unique films today solely with the use of hand drawn stick figures, such as his recently nominated World of Tomorrow (2015).  So, while short films have been closed off for the most part from the industry, it’s in the animation field that we see the most continued interaction and spotlight between the two markets.

But, that’s not to say that live action shorts have no connection with today’s film industry.  In fact, the short film market is where the filmmakers of the future are often cutting their teeth and finding their voice.  For many, the short form is where most filmmakers begin, either shooting home movies with their friends when they are young, or working with a collaborative team during their studying at film school.  Film school movies sometimes can feel like it’s own class of film in a sense, because it shows the filmmaker’s learning curve documented in bold experimentation.  If made available, many of you should check out as many student films as you can.  In them, you see how filmmakers, writers and actors that are still learning the trade make use of their limitations and tell their own story their own way.  Having gone through the film school experience myself, I saw first hand the value that a film short has in developing a filmmakers skill.  It teaches you how to manage a story due to the shortened time frame, makes you rethink the stories you want to tell and find new avenues to present them, and above all, it teaches you how to manage expectations.  Sometimes an idea might be too big to contain in a short, but small ideas can also expand beyond what was these limitations as well.  Sometimes we see student filmmakers turn their shorts into features after making a name for themselves, sometimes based on their own works from school.  Fresh new filmmaker Damien Chazelle took his low budget short Whiplash and turned it into an Oscar-winning feature.  Neill Blomkamp likewise took his experimental, resume builder Alive in Joburg (2005) and expanded it into the box office hit District 9 (2009).  So, short films can often be the place where small beginnings can turn into huge possibilities.

And that’s why Short films tend to be where you see the most exciting and diverse stories told on film today.  Looking at the live action shorts nominated this year at the Oscars, you see a wide array of stories told, some that Hollywood itself seems to shy away from too often.  You have Ave Maria, a culture clash comedy set in one of the most war torn areas of the world (the West Bank); Shok, a story about two boys caught up in the ethnic cleansing of Kosovo during the 90’s; Everything Will Be Okay, a story about child abduction told through the eyes of the abducted child; Stutterer, a story about a man who is unable to express himself because of his speech impediment; and Day One, the story of a female interpreter for the US Army starting her first ever tour in  Afghanistan.  And these were only the five finalists selected out of the many that were eligible for the Academy Award.  I try to watch all the nominated shorts every year and it always strikes me how these films are so unafraid to tackle harder issues in a subdued and honest way, as compared to the way that Hollywood would take these issues on.   Perhaps it’s the independent nature of the market that allows for the creative freedom, but the amazing thing I always find is the boldness of the stories told.  These are films made by filmmakers who clearly believe in what they are doing.  They are not cynical or commercial; they are the kinds of movies that make us think afterwards.  And in these shorts, we see the ultimate purpose that all filmmakers want to have, which is to tell stories that matter.  They don’t always have to have a message, but they still need to resonate and that comes out of a full investment on the part of the storyteller.  That’s why I often look at the Shorts as a film-making safe haven, where the industry nonsense is stripped away allowing pure film-making to blossom.

But, at the same time, the short format is not entirely disregarded in the industry.  There are many avenues taken by filmmakers to work in a short film form, and its not always related to story.  Sometimes great film-making can rise out of little things like music videos and even commercials.  Yes, even these can be classified as short movies, though certainly worlds away from the awarded ones we see in film festivals and attached to full length features.  Though they come out of a different industry all together, music videos do require the same level of film-making skill behind them, and sometimes even require a more complex level of production.  While many filmmakers never rise out of the music video world, a couple have made a name for themselves in this market and have since developed into acclaimed filmmakers on their own.  Few remember this, but director David Fincher developed his very unique style while making music videos like Madonna’s Vogue and George Michael’s Freedom, long before he brought it to the big screen with movies like Seven (1995) and Fight Club (1999).  Spike Jonze likewise gained notoriety for his experimental videos for the Beastie Boys and Fatboy Slim, before Hollywood allowed him to make Being John Malkovich (1999).  Sometimes even established filmmakers can turn to these shorter experiments as a refresher for their own styles.  Michael Jackson was noteworthy for attracting big time filmmakers to make his music videos, like Martin Scorsese who directed his Bad video, or Francis Ford Coppola, who directed Captain EO, which played in Disney parks around the world.  And I’m sure that many of you probably never realize that some of the commercials that you watch everyday on TV had been crafted by the likes of the Coen Brothers or even David Lynch.  It shows that the short form is a highly valued format of storytelling for all filmmakers and is often where many of them find the freedom to try new things.

So, despite seeming small compared to their full length brothers, short movies should not be undervalued.  In many ways, it’s the short film market that enables the feature film industry to flourish at all.  In it, we see the emergence of new voices and well as new techniques, and the creative freedom to let these elements flourish.  Short films are certainly valued in some way by the industry, who do look at Shorts for inspiration or new talent, as well as venue for established pros to get experimental, but audiences still seem to disregard the short film format a little too much.  I don’t know if it’s because they view short films as not worth their time because in their eyes length means quality, or if because short films have just developed a reputation over time as being pretentious fare.  Yes, there are some short films that are a little full of themselves, but no more so than any other form of entertainment, especially full length features.  I think presentation has affected the way short films are viewed by the public over time.  Animated shorts are thankfully still widely seen, but that’s only because they have the benefit of their full length brethren to carry them.  Live action shorts don’t have that kind of support and are only seen when you seek them out.  Sadly, quite a few great shorts fall through the cracks and fade into obscurity.  One wishes that Hollywood would bring back the kind of programming that they used to have, but that is unlikely because viewing habits have changed.  For those who want to see the great short films that have yet to be discovered, there are many that have thankfully ended up on places like YouTube or Vimeo.  Itunes and other streaming services also make newer shorts more widely available as well.  And in the rare cases, I highly recommend trying to see these shorts on the big screen whenever possible.  Though short in length, these films do end up having a big impact, and it’s sometimes in some of the most unexpected ways.

Zootopia – Review


The animated movie market is an often perilous road for filmmakers.  On the one hand, it can generate amazing success if one of your films hits with an audience, but on the other hand, you must always be aware of changing tastes in the market.  The unfortunate thing for animation producers is the long gestation period it takes to make an animated film; it can sometimes take 4 or more years to go from development to final product.  And this is even more complicated when you are continually releasing a movie every single year.  For a lot of animation studios, it’s a tough act to pull off; being able to retain high returns with every release.  The unfortunate result is that we find more and more animation studios that are less willing to take risks with their movies; choosing to play it safe and reliable rather than pushing the envelope.  That’s why so many animated films today tend to be formulaic and not groundbreaking, because that enables them to have broader appeal to the average viewer.  Occasionally, you do get a studio like Pixar that does achieve long-standing success by continually challenging themselves with every movie; much like how they managed to do for much of the 2000’s.  But even their success pushed them to the limit and now they are starting to be bit by the formula bug (movies like BraveCars 2, and The Good Dinosaur all falling victim to it).  But, while we do see some giants of animation fall, we’ll also witness the rise of another to fill that gap in quality entertainment, and surprisingly enough it’s tried and true Disney Animation that seems to be the ones delivering right now.

Of course, Disney has had it’s share of pitfalls throughout it’s long history.  In fact, they have usually emerged as the trendsetters of both the right ways and the wrong ways to build an animated body of work.  Coming out of a dark, aimless period in the couple decades after Walt Disney’s death, the Disney Animation Studios enjoyed a massively successful Renaissance period that started with The Little Mermaid (1989) and went all the way through to The Lion King (1994).  At this point Disney believed that they worked out the formula on how to make hit movies year after year, but that proved not to be the case.  Pocahontas (1995), The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996) and Hercules (1997) all failed to match The Lion King‘s success and Disney once again found themselves loosing their edge, and they couldn’t reverse course quickly due to the lengthy developments of their movies.  In this time, CGI animation became the rage, thanks to Pixar’s Toy Story (1995), and with the release of Chicken Little (2005), Disney was forced to follow suit in this new era, abandoning the hand drawn medium that their studio was built on.  But, as Pixar, Dreamworks, and all the other animation studios have gone back in forth terms of quality as of late, Disney has continued to refine their art with every film and are once again finding themselves at the top of the pack by doing what they’ve always striven to do and that’s to make quality entertainment for all audiences.  This manifested in a big way with Frozen (2013), Disney’s biggest animated hit ever, but the best thing about this new era of Disney animation is that they are once again taking chances with their films again, both in their content as well as in their art.  And the boldest expression of this so far may be seen in their new film, Zootopia.

Zootopia takes place in an alternate reality where human beings do not exist and that it has been all other species of animals that have evolved over time and built up civilizations.  In the titular city of Zootopia, animals live and work together in harmony with each other, functioning not unlike most other modern societies.  We meet Judy Hopps (voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin) a spunky rabbit from the country trying to make a life in the big city as the first bunny police officer ever.  Unfortunately for her, she receives little confidence in her abilities from her superior, Chief Bogo (voiced by Idris Elba), who places her in parking meter management.  But, opportunity rises when an abduction case falls into her lap, and with the support of higher up officials in City Hall who want their inclusion program in the police force to work, she is given a chance to solve it by Chief Bogo, but only with the ultimatum that she completes it in 48 hours.  Judy diligently pursues any leads she can find and her only hope of solving the case rests with the trustworthiness of a con artist fox named Nick Wilde (voiced by Jason Bateman).  Forced together by their situation, Judy and Nick uncover a conspiracy in the city of Zootopia that is turning the normally civilized citizens into savage, feral beasts, and along the way they must learn to trust one another, despite the fact that they are natural enemies to begin with.  And so, they travel all across the four districts of Zootopia, encountering rodent mafias, a DMV run by sloths, and all other big city obstacles that fall in their way of uncovering the truth, including their own innate prejudices.

Zootopia, to say the least, is a very enjoyable animated film that’ll appeal to audiences of all ages.  There are visual gags galore and a touching story about friendship at it’s core.  But, what I actually took away the most about this movie was not the humor or the lush visuals; it was actually something that usually becomes a flaw in most other animated movies and that’s the socially aware message.  It’s not suggested clearly in any of the advertisements of this movie, but there is actually a very poignant statement made in this film about the nature of bigotry in modern society.  Animated movies  have tackled issues of racism, sexism, and class-ism before, but never quite as profound as it is in Zootopia, and it’s actually quite refreshing.  In the movie, both of our main characters have suffered discrimination in some way, sometimes in very cruel acts.  Judy deals with it by overcoming her limitations and proving her worth, while Nick embodies all the negative stereotypes that are associated with his kind and makes them work to his advantage.  It is only by working together that Judy and Nick manage to tackle discrimination head on, even facing the consequences that their own underlying prejudices that threaten their fragile alliance and eventual friendship.  It’s a profound message that I was surprised to find in such a supposedly silly cartoon.  Despite the best intentions of a society of animals to create a peaceful coexistence together, underlying bigotry still sets people apart and keeps good ones from ever being fully accepted in the society that they deserve to be a part of.  Sure, the cast is filled with animals, but this is an issue that is all too real in our human world, and I’m happy to see this movie tackle it head on.

Sadly, the strength of that message also leads me to my one complaint about the movie, and that’s it’s cop out finale.  I thought that the message of the film was so strong, being that bigotry is the worst enemy of a civilized society, that the movie could stand on it alone, having the characters’ biggest challenge be something larger than any of them could ever defeat.  In other words, this movie could have been a masterpiece if it had broken from the Animated movie formula and have society at large be the film’s antagonistic force instead of standard villain.  But, unfortunately, the movie does have a villain, and a fairly weak one at that.  I won’t spoil the eleventh hour reveal, but it kind of cheats the message of the movie by explaining away a societal woe through an over-arching conspiracy.  Someone in the movie turns prey against predators in a ploy to create an idealized society that favors one class over the other and in turn helps to elevate their own stature.  Given that this movie took over four years to make, I doubt that the filmmakers could have foreseen the rise of Donald Trump, but the revelation in this movie does have the benefit of mirroring current events.  Still, it felt like a cheap excuse to close up plot threads to give the characters a happy ending, whereas I think the movie would have benefited from a more bittersweet finale.  Yes, the main characters come together and solve their differences, but it would have made better sense that the larger issue of the injustice because of bigotry is left unresolved, because it would have made the lesson more profound.  Still, it’s welcoming that the message is here at all and delivered in such a well executed way.  In that sense, I can forgive the film for not sticking the landing in the end.  I just wish they hadn’t gone through that step, thereby minimizing their intentions.

Apart from the film’s message, there is also a lot to love about the visual presentation of Zootopia.  This is a beautifully realized world that is filled with so many clever details.  Just like The Lego Movie (2014) I will bet you that this will be an animated film that audiences will watch again and again just to catch all the peripheral little gags and details in every frame.  Movies that depict alternate worlds like Zootopia have been done before (Cars).  In fact, Disney has used the anthropomorphic animal society aesthetic twice before in their history (1973’s Robin Hood and 2005’s Chicken Little).  But few if any of those predecessors have had this kind of attention to detail devoted to them.  You can tell that the filmmakers devoted a great amount of effort to make this world both authentic and visually stimulating.  It’s so stimulating in fact that you often feel like the filmmakers are holding back as they share it with us.  The movie feels like it merely scratches the surface of this lush, fully realized world and I wouldn’t be surprised if a sequel allows us to explore more of it in the future, because I’m sure that there is plenty of Zootopia yet to be seen.  And that is a mark of a good movie, leaving us wanting more.  For what we do see, it does serve the story well and much of the entertainment value is in picking up the visual gags whenever they appear, like characters using iPhones with a carrot logo on it instead of an Apple, or the little animal versions of contemporary brands; like Mousey’s instead of Macy’s.  Another visual detail that I’m glad that the filmmakers took into account is the fact that all animals are to scale in this movie.  It’s not like other Disney films where we see a four foot tall mouse named Mickey walking around.  No, here Judy Hopps is a normal sized rabbit who sometimes has to deal with animals many, many times her size, including elephants.  It’s details like that which really helps Zootopia stand apart from it’s other like-minded predecessors.

One other bright spot is the well-rounded cast.  Judy and Nick make a great pair of protagonists and their voice actors bring them to life perfectly.  It seems only natural for a slick talking actor like Jason Bateman to play a sly fox con artist, and the role plays perfectly to his strengths.  The more revelatory performance though comes from Ginnifer Goodwin as Judy Hopps.  She commands the role wonderfully, making Judy one of the more compelling heroes seen in any recent Disney film.  Originally, the focus of the film was going to be on Nick Wilde, playing upon the idea of what happens when a fox steps into a society run by rabbits; which could have been an interesting tale in itself, but the filmmakers wisely put the focus more on Judy, because it helps the underlying message of the movie better.  It flips the expected result by having the prey persecute the predators for being different, and that’s more profoundly explained through the eyes of a happy-go-lucky little rabbit who doesn’t recognize her own bigotry at first, because she’s only viewed the world before as the underdog.  Goodwin plays both of those character aspects perfectly and it’s a performance that can illicit laughs from the audience in one moment and tears in the next.  The leads are also given great support from an impressive roster of voice actors including Idris Elba, J.K. Simmons, Nate Torrence, Jenny Slate, Bonnie Hunt, Octavia Spencer, and even Tommy Chung (hilariously playing a naturalist hippie yak).  Pop star Shakira even pops up as a singer named Gazelle, who is exactly what you’d expect her to be.  I also have to give special props to veteran voice actor Maurice LaMarche for his hilarious Vito Corleone impression manifested in the body and voice of a shrew, making it one of the movie’s funniest gags.  For a movie to become a hit, it needs characters that you’re willing to follow, and Zootopia benefits from a very strong cast.

Overall, I would say that Disney is continuing their hot streak with Zootopia, which may very well be their most assured and resonant movie in recent memory.  I’ve been a Disney fan for most of my life and because of that, my quality standards are usually a bit more stringent than other people.  You’ve got to remember, I grew up during the Renaissance period, when it looked like Disney could do no wrong.  That period is still a high water mark for me, and despite the overwhelming success that Disney is enjoying right now, I still have some reservations about their so-called recent “masterpieces”.  I’m one of the few people out there who didn’t fall in love with Frozen for example; I thought it was just okay and nothing special.  At the same time, I feel like the ones that take a chance with their message and visual aesthetic are the Disney movies that I respond to more as an adult.  Wreck-it Ralph (2012) is in my opinion the most underrated Disney film in recent memory, and I felt that Big Hero 6 (2014) had a lot of great elements too, although like Zootopia it suffers from a lackluster villain.  But, taking into account all the elements that I judge a Disney film by, Zootopia gets more right than wrong, and it actually may be my favorite movie of theirs since they’ve switched over to computer animation.  Zootopia is a culmination of all the lessons that Disney has learned about how to make a good CGI animated movie and it represents them reaching the peak of their abilities at this moment.  At the same time, it also just stands on it’s own as a solid story with a compelling lesson at it’s center.  The fact that it addresses the issue of systemic bigotry in modern society makes it almost essential viewing, especially for younger audiences.  If this movie can inspire the youngest among us to not prejudge somebody because they are different, or place blame on them for the same reason, then it will have done something that few other movies have done and that’s to change the world.  And this is something that Zootopia should absolutely be praised for in the end.

Rating: 8.5/10