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Daily Reads: The Michael Bay Movie That Explains Donald Trump, ‘Zootopia’s’ Dicey Central Metaphor, and More

Daily Reads: The Michael Bay Movie That Explains Donald Trump, 'Zootopia's' Dicey Central Metaphor, and More

Criticwire Daily Reads brings today’s essential news stories and critical pieces to you.

1. The Michael Bay Movie That Explains Donald Trump Better Than “Idiocracy.”
While it’s become common parlance to compare America’s current political climate to the likes of “Idiocracy,” there may be another movie that explains the rise of Donald Trump even better. The Washington Post’s Alyssa Rosenberg examines Michael Bay’s “Pain & Gain” as an explainer for politics today.

Over the past couple of weeks, the strongest line of critique to emerge against Trump is that he’s a fraud, that his business success is a mirage and a front, that his claims to deal-making prowess would prove ephemeral and that he doesn’t believe anything that he says. But the backlash to those attacks has also been ferocious, as Trump voters fiercely reject the counsel of former party leaders such as Mitt Romney and John McCain. If this is mystifying to some observers, the obvious answer is that his supporters don’t care if Trump is a fake; they find him appealing and inspiring anyway. “Pain & Gain” is a movie about that kind of thinking, about the disgust it inspires in response and about the unbridgeable gap between two very different visions of America. “Pain & Gain” is set in Miami in 1994 and 1995, and as Ed Harris says in a voice-over toward the beginning of the film, “Unfortunately, this is a true story.” It follows Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg), a personal trainer who wants to make more of his life, as he decides to extort one of his clients, Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub), a plan that escalates into torture and murder. Eventually, a retired private investigator named Ed DuBois (Harris) gets curious enough to take Victor’s case. DuBois’s pursuit of Lugo makes for an entertaining detective story, but it’s also a contest between two radically different understandings of the American idea. Lugo is driven by a kind of bewildered grievance, a confusion that all the work he’s put into bodybuilding hasn’t earned him the respect, the material goods and romantic success he believes should be his under the terms of the American social contract. “If you’re willing to do the work, you can have anything. That’s what makes the U.S. of A. great. When it started, America was just a handful of scrawny colonies. Now, it’s the most buffed, pumped-up country on the planet. That’s pretty rad,” Lugo insists in the monologue that kicks off “Pain & Gain.” “Most people say they want to look better. Not everyone’s willing to do whatever it takes to achieve it. All of my heroes are self-made: Rocky, Scarface, all the guys from ‘The Godfather.’ They all started out with nothing and built their way to perfection. The way to prove yourself is to better yourself. That’s the American Dream. I have no sympathy for people who squander their gifts. It’s sickening. It’s worse than sickening. It’s unpatriotic.” Throw in some references to “losers” and “low-energy” people and Trump could use this as a stump speech.

2. “Zootopia’s” Dicey Central Metaphor.
The new Disney movie “Zootopia” ostensibly tackles systemic prejudice and police brutality within its cute animal kingdom world, but unfortunately the central metaphor involving “predators” and “prey” doesn’t make a whole lotta sense once you break it down. Vox’s Todd VanDerWerff explores “Zootopia’s” dicey central metaphor.

In his review of the film for RogerEbert.com, critic Matt Zoller Seitz says it would be just as possible for racist viewers to leave “Zootopia” and believe the film bolstered their point of view, despite how obviously it would prefer you think otherwise. (Birth Movies Death’s Devin Faraci makes a similar argument.) There’s some truth to what Seitz and Faraci are saying. For one thing, many of “Zootopia’s” gags rely on what are, for all intents and purposes, animal stereotypes: Sloths are slow, bunnies multiply, etc. For another, the use of the word “predator” — which carries all kinds of bad connotations when it comes to American race relations — is poorly coded when you make the leap from “Zootopia’s” specific universe to ours. The most natural line to draw between the two is that “Zootopia’s” predators stand in for black men in our world, and one needs only look at the resurfacing of Hillary Clinton’s “superpredators” clip from the ’90s to know why that’s potentially inflammatory territory. But all of this pales in comparison to the fact that when you scrutinize “Zootopia’s” core metaphor for even a second, it struggles to make sense on a literal level. Yes, the film’s message is that Judy learns to trust Nick, even though he’s predator and she’s prey. But on some other level, we all know that an actual rabbit is right to be afraid of an actual fox — and that muddies the movie’s message considerably. “Zootopia” tries to cover for this by saying that in its world, predators and prey used to have a biologically antagonistic relationship, but both sides have evolved past that relationship to arrive at this new, more enlightened future. (It also never reveals what, exactly, predators eat, which is disquieting to think about.) The problem, as you can see, is the movie’s suggestion that at one time prey animals were right to be suspicious of predators — and might still be, if things were to change just enough (say, due to a secret chemical formula being used as part of a conspiracy to cause fear and suspicion of predators, which is what’s happening in the film). Apply this lesson to our world, and it becomes all the more troubling. Yet there’s really no way for “Zootopia” to tell this particular story, about animals, without encountering this specific problem. As a crime story, the film needs the threat of real danger to create dramatic stakes. And as a morally instructive fable, it needs to examine these issues of prejudice. But the fact remains that the more you think about “Zootopia’s” main metaphor, the more it falls apart on a level that correlates to our reality.

3. “Zootopia” is the Inversion of “Wreck-It Ralph.”
Though there is a case for “Zootopia,” mainly that it upends stereotypes by examining how flimsy they really are and insisting that the animals are more than the sum of their biases. For the A.V. Club, Josh Spiegel compares “Zootopia” to another animated movie that instead argues in favor of one-dimensionality, “Wreck-It Ralph.”

“Zootopia,” like “Wreck-It Ralph,” owes a creative debt to the early work from Pixar Animation Studios, whose head honcho John Lasseter now works as a top advisor at Walt Disney Animation Studios as well. (One article noted that when the concept for “Zootopia” — basically just the real world, but with anthropomorphized animals only — was pitched to Lasseter, he was so thrilled that he lifted the idea man, co-director Byron Howard, in the air like Simba in the “Circle Of Life” scene of “The Lion King.” Oh, to be a fly on the wall for that meeting.) These films create environments out of whole cloth; “Wreck-It Ralph’s” idea of video-game characters having lives of their own when humans aren’t looking is similar to the conceit of “Toy Story,” while “Zootopia’s” anthropomorphized citizens recall the denizens of the human-free world of “Cars.” Both films have a mismatched-buddy-comedy sensibility: In one, a rabbit and fox put aside their differences to be friends; in the other, a villain and a sugary-sweet princess do the same. The central characters also struggle to be perceived by others as more than their stereotyped role: Ralph, from the first scene, wants to be seen as more than just the “bad guy,” and Judy wants her minute stature and genus to not deter anyone from seeing her as a serious police officer. Where the two films differ, to “Zootopia’s” immense credit, is in the resolution of these arcs. By the end of his story, Wreck-It Ralph learns that wanting to be more than his identity of building-crushing villain would cause the destruction of his life, and the lives of every other video game character in the arcade where his game, “Fix-It Felix Jr.,” is housed. In the climax, Ralph commits an act of sacrifice both to end the chaos he inadvertently created by jumping into another game, as well as to save his friend, the playfully obnoxious Vanellope Von Schweetz, from the “Sugar Rush” racing game. He dives from the clutches of a hybrid human/alien insect to cause a fatal explosion while reciting the mantra of Bad-Anon, the villain support group he attends on his off time: “I’m bad, and that’s good. I will never be good, and that’s not bad. There’s no one I’d rather be than me.” When he first hears the mantra, Ralph rebels against the notion of his predestined role; when he utters it in the finale, he’s embraced the slogan’s tenets fully. Ralph survives this leap of death, of course, and winds up treated with less disdain by the other occupants of “Fix-It Felix Jr.,” who previously ostracized him from their fun dance parties. But he’s still the bad guy: His role is outside of his control, and trying to change that, as the mantra suggests implicitly, would be bad. The only difference between the opening and closing scenes isn’t that Ralph gets tossed in the mud; it’s that he smiles before being hurled off the building. Judy Hopps, in many ways, seems like she might be on a similar journey from the opening scenes of “Zootopia” (a film co-directed by Rich Moore, who directed “Wreck-It Ralph”). Everyone in her small town of Bunnyburrow, even her well-meaning parents, scoffs at, or flatly doubts, her dreams of becoming a police officer in the big city of Zootopia; only predators work as police officers, not any prey, even if the latter comprise 90 percent of the Zootopian population. Judy faces adversity even after her dream, on a surface level, comes true, thanks to being part of a Zootopia Police Department diversity initiative: Her first assignment turns her into a glorified meter maid, writing parking tickets from dawn to dusk. Initially, Judy attacks the lowly job with a Leslie Knope-esque brio, dedicating herself to writing 200 parking tickets by lunch, barely breaking a sweat in the process. The not-exactly-Herculean task is offset by her parents’ ecstatic joy when they realize she’s been placed in the safest possible scenario by her ZPD superiors.

4. How Nick Kroll, Joe Lo Truglio, and Thomas Lennon Ended Up in a Terrence Malick Movie.
Terrence Malick’s latest film “Knight of Cups” features plenty of comedy veterans in small roles, passing through the frame while Christian Bale’s Rick numbly takes in his surroundings. For GQ, Calum Marsh interviews Nick Kroll, Joe Lo Truglio, and Thomas Lennon about their experiences working with Terrence Malick.

I got a call from my agency saying that Terrence Malick was interested in having me and my buddy and comedy cohort Tom Lennon be in a scene in his movie. We were like, “Yeah, wow, holy smokes.” There’s a good chance that Malick saw a “Reno 911!” clip that Tom and I were in. I assume that’s how it went down: A reel was shown to him and he responded to it. But I love that image, though: Terrence Malick sitting on the couch and really digging, like, “Wet Hot American Summer.” It makes sense that someone who makes such serious movies would love to watch people run around and make fools of themselves. It’s a nice balance, creatively. Terrence gave me and Tom papers, twelve typed pages, that had different phrases on them — poetic, fragmented phrases. I pored through because I wanted to read everything he was willing to give us. But it was more about a feeling of the scene rather than dialogue. It seemed like it could have been phrases from Greek poetry, or like a play. It was just imagery, and it was so overwhelming. It’s not like you’re reading a scene that you can register immediately. You just look at the paper and you think: “Okay, Terrence Malick just gave this to me.” I’m sitting with an iconic director. We’re just about to shoot. What am I supposed to be doing? This paper doesn’t tell me! There’s a lot to absorb. A lot of it you’re just pushing aside. After Terrence walked away, Tom said, “I can’t look at this. It makes no sense.” He was right, it didn’t. Malick described us as “sirens” to Christian Bale’s character, that are trying to kind of beckon him back into this world of Hollywood. I remember one time he told me to just start yelling, “The walls! The walls!” in a scene. I didn’t really know what he meant by that, but I was a little too intimidated to ask. I think maybe he wanted us to know we could just say anything, and that was his way of expressing that. I don’t know. I remember Terrence wanted us to take water guns, squirt guns, and kind of just go through the crowd and start squirting — to get into a little squirt-gun fight. I was like, “Okay.” I got a little wet. Then, after the take, I went to the assistant director and asked if wardrobe was around, before the next take. There was some kind of misunderstanding, though, because wardrobe then thought I was uncomfortable and wanted to put on dry clothes. I was like, “No no no, but in terms of continuity, I was dry when we started the take.” The cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki, looks over and just starts laughing. He’s like, “Continuity?! Haha!” Suddenly I had an idea of how this movie was working and how Terrence works.

5. Can IMDB’s Ranking System Be Trusted?
The long-running film database IMDB famously has a top 250 list of “best movies” that democratically collects the votes of over 65 million registered IMDB users. Though it may seem like this would be an interesting list to examine as a metric of users’ taste, dig a little deeper and you find out that it’s rigged. For Mel Magazine, Jonny Coleman examines IMDB’s ranking system and wonders if it can ever be trusted.

If you’re wondering why the top 15 of the IMDb Top 250 is missing oft-lauded classics like “Casablanca,” “Dr. Strangelove,” “Citizen Kane,” “Psycho,” “Vertigo,” and “2001: A Space Odyssey”  —  we only have IMDb to blame. Their overall goal is to wring as much engagement as possible from each user, from time spent on the site to visits per day, to boost ad revenue. Thus, the secret IMDb algorithm is rigged to keep its most loyal users rewarded: your votes only count if you vote a lot. Meaning, you only get to rank a film once (on a scale of one to 10, though you can change your grade of a film at any time), and if you vote on enough movies, your grades are factored into the Top 250. But they don’t disclose how many votes you need in order to qualify as a “regular” voter. (In the FAQ, they write: “To maintain the effectiveness of the Top 250 Rated Charts, we deliberately do not and will not disclose the criteria used for a person to be counted as a regular voter.”) In some ways, this maintains some integrity in The Top 250, as it’s much harder to create duplicate dummy accounts and get away with ballot-stuffing. But, it also means the votes of casual fans or people who are too busy to engage as much (including the busy industry professionals who have better things to do) are not included in the rankings, even if they make a few of them. Like many other websites’ algorithms (anyone remember the failed Netflix algorithm challenge?) the company doesn’t want to let you know how the sausage gets made (and declined to comment for this article), creating mystery and mystique around the list and the brand. Thus, there are plenty of online threads (like here and here) dedicated to debating how the list works on a technical level. What do we know about the inner mechanics of The IMDb 250? They call their algorithm “a true Bayesian estimate,” which is a complicated system that increases the importance of the average rating the more votes are cast. IMDb is, essentially, trying to keep new movies from having artificially high ratings. That doesn’t mean they’re succeeding, which might explain why “Deadpool” currently has a higher ranking than “Citizen Kane”  —  no joke.

6. Pondering the Mediocrity of Two Academy Award-Winning Films: “The Official Story” and “Spotlight.”
On the MUBI Notebook site, Keith Uhlich’s “On MUBI Off” column exploring one film streaming on the MUBI site and another streaming off-site, trying to find connections or relationships between the two. For his latest installment, Uhlich examines two Oscar-winning films: “The Official Story,” which won Best Foreign Language Film in 1986, and “Spotlight,” the latest Best Picture winner.

A week out from the most recent Academy Awards, I’ve finally caught up with both this year’s Best Picture winner, about which more below, as well as, thirty years late, the Best Foreign Language Film of 1986. Neither is particularly bad. Neither is especially good. I think there are ways, however, in which their mediocrity (how they court genial palatability, despite their inflammatory and enraging subject matter) is interesting to ponder. The overarching subject of Luis Puenzo’s “The Official Story” is the fallout from the Argentine Dirty War. Between 1974 and 1983, the militarized right-wing government exterminated a number of left-leaning dissidents and their supporters. Families were torn apart, and a number of children, too young to grasp the situation, were kidnapped and placed with families more sympathetic to those in power. Puenzo’s film filters these experiences through the character of bourgeois schoolteacher Alicia (Norma Aleandro), introduced singing along to the Argentine national anthem and then shown lecturing a classroom of teenage boys on the importance of history. Upfront, the film announces its didactic aims—a fair approach. But Alicia’s pedantry feels forced and predigested, rather than arising naturally from the situation. It’s acted for the audience’s benefit, so the movie’s honorable perspective and goals can in no way be mistaken. (Not even setting the opening section in a classroom lends it legitimacy.) Alicia is Puenzo’s naïve mouthpiece; it’s clear her glass-house beliefs about her country and her life will be shattered by story’s end. Further complicating the situation is her suspicion that her adopted daughter, Gaby (Analia Castro), is likely a kidnapped child, though Alicia’s husband, Roberto (Hector Alterio), changes the subject every time she raises the possibility. The family scenes are mostly superficial soap opera, with a few exceptions because Puenzo keeps a looser rein on his child actors. There’s an excellent sequence in which a magician at Gaby’s birthday jabs a long needle toward a dove that he’s made appear out of thin air, acting as if he’s going to pop the bird like a balloon. The kids’s reactions are unguarded, sometimes terrifyingly so; one boy screams with such raw intensity that it feels like Puenzo has inadvertently photographed the moment when a child first becomes aware of death. That casually captured aside says more about the horrors of societally-sanctioned oppression than almost anything else in the movie. Puenzo — who shot “The Official Story” just after the military regime crumbled, though still under strenuous and secretive conditions—is trying for a potent mix of emotive melodrama and gritty verisimilitude. He even has his semi-stunned heroine walk in front of an actual protest rally held by the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, a group of women whose children were disappeared by the military regime. Yet in context, the gesture feels shameless, doc-like window dressing in support of a fictional cipher’s slow-dawning enlightenment. A larger problem is that Aleandro, a leading light of the Argentine stage and screen, is all surface, her varied tics and tears never cohering to reveal character, and making the finale, in which the tension between Alicia and Roberto finally boils over, land with a wet noodle thunk. It doesn’t help that the actress is shown up early on in the movie by Chunchuna Villafañe as Alicia’s cynical friend Ana, who has a powerful confessional monologue about her own torture and rape during the Dirty War. It’s a scene so vivid and brilliantly performed that it exposes the well-meaning reductiveness of the rest of the film. Good intentions beget, as they so often do, lifelessness.

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