“Zootopia” had already wowed critics and won near-universal praise by the time I took to my local theater for a screening. Waiting for the lights to dim, my fear was not that the film would not be good – it’s hard to argue the quality of the best reviewed film of the year - but that the film would fall victim to the sky-high expectations such overwhelming positivity inevitably creates. Within five minutes, any such reservations were blown to shreds. What a film this is: thoroughly funny, sincerely heartfelt, and most importantly, timely of message.

The stage is set (literally) when young Judy Hopps declares to classmates and parents gathered for a school play her big dream: she will be Zootopia's first bunny cop. Schoolyard bullies mock her and her parents urge her to take up the much safer family farm business, but Judy is undeterred. Fast forward; little Judy has beaten the odds and grown up to become Officer Hopps, but on her first assignment finds a new detractor in her boss, Chief Bogo, who relegates her to traffic duty. Bogo is relentlessly antagonistic of his newest recruit. Who needs a bunny cop?

Meanwhile, all is not well in Zootopia: predator citizens are disappearing. Some appear to be reverting to their old instincts - going "savage" - and attacking fellow Zootopians. The cases have gone cold and ZPD investigations abandoned. When a distraught wife comes begging for help only to be brushed off by Bogo, Judy strikes a deal with him: she can have two days to solve the case; if she fails, she resigns. Her chances are slim; her only lead is a clever fox named Nick. Water, meet oil.

"Never give up on your dreams" is a very Disney sort of lesson; the film could have stopped there, content to be a skin-deep success, but it doesn't. The relationship between Nick and Judy anchors the film's soul. Judy is immediately distrustful of Nick. Her parents raised her to be wary of foxes. Her childhood bully was a one. She wears fox repellent spray on her hip. You might expect Judy to learn the familiar lesson of "don't judge a book by its cover." You wouldn't be wrong, but "Zootopia" has something much bigger to say.

Zootopia is described as a city where all mammals live together in harmony, but do they? Parallels between Zootopia and our own society run deep. Judy's skeptical attitude towards Nick is one he has seen a hundred times before, a position I suspect more than a few in the audience will themselves identify with. Chief Bogo views Judy's hiring as political and not based on the merits of her abilities, a charge not dissimilar from some made about certain college admissions. There are others, but I don't want to spoil the impact of how they unfold. Suffice it to say that by reflecting current real world issues into this universe, "Zootopia" delivers a broadly powerful, never preachy lesson on tolerance and the danger of prejudice. Crucially, the film does not pass judgement; it invites reflection.

A big reason why this all works so well  is how incredibly likable Judy and Nick are. Ginnifer Goodwin and Jason Bateman deliver winning performances, buoyed by superb animation that brings depth of expression to characters for whom it is equally important to know what they're thinking as what they're saying. Judy's can-do, chipper attitude is infectious. She says she wants to make the world a better place and we believe her. Nick is sly, smart, quick-witted, and a perfectly pessimistic foil to Judy's wide-eyed optimism. From the very beginning, you're rooting for them to see past their differences even as they root against each other. "Zootopia" earns every smile and each tug at the heart.

I've made it all sound very serious, but "Zootopia" delivers heaps of laughs alongside it's moving message. The details of society's anthropomorphic translation are nearly perfect and made the most of by a smart, razor sharp script. Zootopia is brilliantly realized and vibrantly animated. The train-ride introducing the city and its biome based districts is dazzling. It's all backed by a score that serves up nods to "The Godfather" and Adam West's "Batman," to 70's funk and 90's montage music. From top to bottom, "Zootopia" is a celebration of diversity

Walt Disney Animation Studios has been on a roll in the last decade, producing several films that I consider among not only my favorite animated films of all time but favorite films period. This is at least as good as the best of them. It might be better. "Zootopia" is consistently funny and wholesome in its appeal to be our best to each other. If I had kids, this is the kind of film I'd be rushing them to see.

Score: 5/5

Editor's Note: "10 Cloverfield Lane" is a film best seen blind. I've avoided spoilers and all but some basic plot and character details from early in the film, but you may want to consider seeing the it before reading below. Proceed at your own peril.

"10 Cloverfield Lane" is a relentlessly suspenseful thriller that has been called a spiritual successor to 2008's "Cloverfield." Aside from some shared themes, this is a very different movie. Sprawling New York City ruins are traded for the claustrophobic intimacy of a bunker 40 feet beneath the end of the world. When heroine Michelle first wakes in the bunker, we know only a few facts of the events transpiring beyond its padlocked door. We know less about the man who holds the keys. The uncertainty is anxiety-inducing. There's no rampaging monster in "10 Cloverfield Lane;" there might be something much worse.

In the opening scenes of the film, Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) packs a bag and hits the road, leaving a ring and whatever else of her life she couldn't carry behind for good. She drives through the night, bound for who knows where, until she is sent careening off the road when another vehicle smashes into her. The sequence is harrowing. You know a movie is going to be good when the opening titles elicit gasps from the audience.

When Michelle wakes, she is locked deep below ground. Howard, played by John Goodman, pulled Michelle from the wreckage and brought her to this, his personal, self-sustaining Noah's ark. He believes his flood has finally come in the form of a massive, civilization ending attack, origin unknown. Emmett (John Gallagher, Jr), a local and the bunker's only other resident, is his good-natured disciple. Michelle asks to leave. Impossible, they tell her; the air is poison. She asks to call her family, but why bother? They're surely dead. Michelle is not convinced.

The fate of the world above is one of the mysteries that unfolds during the film, but in same way "Cloverfield" is not a movie about a giant monster, "10 Cloverfield Lane" is not a movie about the end of the world. The tension in this film is propelled by Michelle's uncertainty; the less certain she is, the more anxious we feel. There's nothing she feels less certain about than her self-proclaimed savior and his intentions.

There's something off about Howard. He talks at length about his generosity and repeatedly demands gratitude from the bunker's two other residents. He is obsessed with rules, describing desired behavior with words like obedience. He seems to despise Emmett. At times, Howard is genuinely frightening; even in scenes where he is absent, his domineering presence permeates the bunker, owing entirely to John Goodman's brilliant performance. His delivery is simple and matter-of-fact, but somehow evasive. You can see the gears turning in Howard's head without ever coming close to understanding what he's thinking. He's almost impossible to read - a potentially unstable enigma who isn't obviously friend or foe. This is the gripping mystery at the heart of "10 Cloverfield Lane."

Goodman's performance steals the show, but his two cast mates are up to the challenge of matching him. Winstead shows off an impressive range in her portrayal of the headstrong and smart Michelle, notably in her first bunker scene, where Michelle wakes to find herself chained to the wall. Michelle's struggle to understand what has happened and then her anguish as she concludes she is being held captive is gut-wrenching. Gallagher's Emmett is kind and funny, injecting much needed levity to an otherwise nerve-wracking film. He and Michelle share a natural chemistry that makes him immediately likable, but this is a film about uncertainty and paranoia and the film invites us to question even his trustworthiness.

The film's already tense script is elevated by top notch music and sound direction. This is composer Bear McCreary's first feature film and it's a knock-out, unsurprising when you consider his previous work on "Battlestar Galactica" and "The Walking Dead." The music oozes atmosphere. The opening scene is entirely free of dialogue, leaving the score to do the heavy lifting of mood setting. By the end of the sequence, I was already gripping my drink a little harder than usual. Generally, sound plays a crucial role in the film's tension. I don't typically notice sound design, but my heart skipped a beat every time a door opened in "10 Cloverfield Lane." It's outstanding.

What else can I say about this excellent film? The ending has been the source of some controversy. I don't dislike the ending, but do understand the complaint. Without spoiling anything, I'll simply note that the finale starts with a shift in tone and generally doesn't play to the strengths of the film that preceded it. For me, "10 Cloverfield Lane" recovers by the time the credits roll. I left thrilled and excited to see it again.

"10 Cloverfield Lane" is tense and tight, the kind of thriller that makes you forget to breathe. I strongly recommend you see this movie.

Score: 5/5

Holy smokes, has 2016 been an eventful year. I decided I wanted to write words about movies on this here blog at the start of the year. In the two months since, I was cast in a play, changed jobs, and moved across the country. All the activity has been great, but it's seriously cramped my movie-opining style. I've got very-late reviews of six Oscar nominees and a couple of new releases that I've been sitting on in various states of completion with no time to finish up. Yikes!

I'll be pushing that somewhat dated content over the next week or so peppered with a few non-review posts and reviews of newer films and I'm optimistic that with the stage curtain closed, boxes nearly unpacked, and job transition finished I'll have more time to dedicate to this, my intended-to-be-weekly writing hobby.

Anyway, enough of excuses - on to the movies! There are 11 new nationwide releases in March. 

In Theaters March 4


At a Glance: "Zootopia"  is the first feature from Walt Disney Animation Studios since 2014's "Big Hero Six." Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) is the first rabbit to join the Zootopia police force. When some of the city's mammal citizens begin "going savage," Judy hops (so punny!) at the chance to prove herself by unraveling the mysterious cause.

Initial Thoughts: Since I'm a week late on this article, we already know how this turned out. "Zootopia" has earned positive reviews from all but two of 145 critics on Rotten Tomatoes. This is just the latest in a string of critical hits from the same people behind "Frozen," "Wreck-It Ralph," "Tangled" and others. If you're a fan of animated features, this is a must-see.

Recommended Hype Level: Five..................of.....................five.................

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

At a Glance:  In its 2011 review of "The Taliban Shuffle," journalist Kim Barker's memoir of her time as a war correspondent in Afghanistan and Pakistan, The New York Times calls the book hilarious and notes that Barker "depicts herself as a sort of Tina Fey character." Fast forward to 2016 and the release of "Whiskey Tango Foxtrot," the film adaptation of the aforementioned memoir which stars (who else?) Tina Fey. Perfect.

Initial Thoughts: Tina Fey is a national treasure. I've never disliked any of her films (happily I haven't seen the widely panned "Admission") and I'm not expecting that trend to change. "Whiskey Tango Foxtrot" has critics  somewhat split. My uneducated guess is the sticking question is whether or not the film reaches the source material's soul - humorous presentation of stark truths - or if it sheds that to be merely a standard or better-than-average comedy. My gut tells me this will be, at worst, not as good as it could have been, but nowhere near bad.

Recommended Hype Level: Four of five jokes about women drivers that I won't make because I know better.

London Has Fallen

At a Glance: "London Has Fallen" is the somehow even less probable sequel to 2013's "Olympus Has Fallen," in which the White House is overtaken by a gang of impoverished North Koreans. In this installment, the president and bodyguard Gerard Butler flee a terrorist organization through the besieged streets of London. The series features the world's least competent security forces and was inspired when the writers marathoned the most ridiculous episodes of "24." Probably.

Initial Thoughts: If you're looking for stupid entertainment, you will get at least 50% of what you want from this movie. To be clear, this isn't the kind of movie that strives for greatness. It knows what it is - brainless action - and I'm not going to hold that against it. What I will hold against it is the cliche ridden trailer that concludes with some truly terrible CGI. 

Recommended Hype Level: Two of five somber exclamations of "Oh my God."

The Other Side of the Door

At a Glance: Set in Mumbai, a grieving mother learns of a ritual that allows her to speak to her dead son through the closed door to the world of the dead. When she opens it in desperation not to lose him again, she unwittingly lets through his spirit, pursued by the malevolent god of the dead.

Initial Thoughts: How many jump scares did you count in that trailer? Like January's "The Boy" and "The Forest," I'm fearful that an otherwise interesting premise will be ultimately wasted by a shallow film that relies far too much on cheap scare tricks rather than real horror.

Recommended Hype Level: Two of five fingers pointing ominously in your direction.

In Theaters March 11

10 Cloverfield Lane

At a Glance: Everything I've seen suggests the less you know about this film going in, the better. Here's the one sentence synopsis from IMDB: "After getting in a car accident, a woman is held in a shelter by two men, who claim the outside world is affected by a widespread chemical attack." Don't go Googling - there's spoilers everywhere.

Initial Thoughts:  This trailer is extremely my jam. It suggests shared characteristics with most of my favorite films (e.g. "Ex Machina") from last year: a small cast and confined interior setting. These films forwent spectacle for an emphasis on character dynamics that resulted in deeply believable relationships and unrelentingly gripping tension. The trailer's composition is masterful, and while "trailers lie" is a solid rule of thumb, I can't help but be intrigued. 

Recommended Hype Level: Five of five <REDACTED> and <REDACTED>.

The Brothers Grimsby

At a Glance: After 28 years Nobby Butcher tracks down his baby brother Sebastian, who happens to be MI6's top agent. After botching a mission (thanks to Nobby), the two go on the run. In order to clear his name and finish the mission, Sebastian will need the help of his dimwitted brother.

Initial Thoughts: Which do you suppose is the purpose of the big "SACHA BARON COHEN IS BACK" at the start of the trailer: Selling point or warning? I'm going with warning. SBC is much better in other people's movies than his own, at least lately. His recent screen writing ventures have misfired as often as they've landed, and the shock-gross out humor that this film seems to clearly lean on won't carry it very far.

Recommended Hype Level: Two of five jokes will be funny.

The Young Messiah

At a Glance: "The Young Messiah" is Biblical drama adaptation of "Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt," by Anne Rice - yes, that Anne Rice - which depicts a seven-year old Jesus learning about the truth of his identity. As his presence and powers grow, so too do the dangers his family faces.

Initial Thoughts: I want to give "The Young Messiah" a little more credit than I gave "Risen" for it's premise. The Bible is largely silent on Jesus' childhood, so the film benefits from an original take on a well-known figure in an imagined pivotal time in his life. Even so, there must surely be some limited dramatic capability - we know how it all works out in the end, so can we really be that invested in threats we know will be overcome? I was prepared to give this a 4-hype factor in the spirit of Easter, but critics were not permitted to see the film until opening day and review embargoes are almost never a good thing.

Recommended Hype Level: There's a rule against giving Jesus a hype figure, right? (3 of 5 though)

In Theaters March 18

The Divergent Series: Allegiant

At a Glance: The third film in the now (regrettably) four-film-three-book Divergent series follows Tris and Four as they escape the walled city of Chicago, only to learn that trust and truth are no easier outside the walls.

Initial Thoughts: Film franchise finales being split into multiple parts is a trend that needs to die, particularly when the films in question are mediocre to begin with. Fortunately, the trailer gives so much away you could probably just outright skip this one and catch the final installment next year. This trailer features some truly eye-roll inducing moments that don't do much for my sense that the series started just "okay" and is getting progressively worse with each installment. Call me pessimistic, but I half expect "Allegiant" to descend into full blown melodrama. 

Recommended Hype Level: Two of five factions divided by a single personality trait.

The Little Prince

At a Glance: "The Little Prince" is the feature film adaption of the beloved story by Antoine de Saint-ExupĂ©ry. A young girl (Mackenzie Foy) being forced to grow up too fast befriends an elderly aviator (Jeff Bridges), who recounts his experiences with a prince from a faraway asteroid. 

Initial Thoughts: I love an animated film that does interesting things with its visuals and the split animation style (CG for the main narrative and stop-motion for The Aviator's memories) looks gorgeous. "The Little Prince" has already opened in some international markets, where it has enjoyed both critical and commercial success; the film is France's most successful animated export of all time. The biggest question is whether or not the soul of the source survives the addition of a new narrative frame which almost certainly takes center stage.

Recommended Hype Level: Five of five James Franco Foxes.

In Theaters March 25

My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2

At a Glance: This sequel to the 2002 original finds Toulas and Ian dealing with marital problems as their daughter prepares to leave for college. When Toulas' parents learn they were never officially married, the Portokalos family pulls together for another big fat wedding. 

Initial Thoughts: I've never seen the original fat wedding, much to the wife's chagrin. I don't really have much to add other than "the trailer looks cute."

Recommended Hype Level: 4 of 5 big fat greek baklavas. 

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

At a Glance: Batman and Superman face off in the second installment of DC's Cinematic Universe (the first since 2013's "Man of Steel"). This is the jumping off point for an announced slate of at least ten feature films, Warner Brothers answer to the wildly successful Disney/Marvel film franchise. Henry Cavill returns to the role of Superman and Ben Affleck stars as Batman.

Initial Thoughts: I'm excited to see this. That said, I can't help but worry Warner Bros is putting the cart before the horse in its rush to catch up to Disney. The first Avengers film was preceded by five feature films that established the characters independently before their first ensemble outing. When they finally appeared together, we already knew who they were and could skip the background. In addition to Affleck's Batman and Jesse Eisenberg's Lex Luthor, "Batman v Superman" will introduce Wonder Woman, Aquaman, and Cyborg in an attempt to lay groundwork for the future Justice League film. With so many characters appearing for the first time the risk of overcrowding and underdevelopment is real.

Recommended Hype Level: Four of five canisters of Superman Repellent Bat-Spray.
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