JLo: All-American Hustler

It’s almost undeniable that the most All-American event on the cultural calendar is the Super Bowl: a championship football game adored for its TV ads, its excessive snack food rituals, and its pop music spectacle intermission. There’s a reason why so much emphasis is placed on who will sing the National Anthem that kicks off the game every year (and how well they did or didn’t perform); the event is just as much a celebration of American culture as it is a championship football game. I’ve gradually stopped watching football over the years as pro wrestling, the Oscars, and RuPaul’s Drag Race have replaced it as my competitive sports events of choice, but even I still tune in for the Super Bowl Halftime Show most years due to my overriding interest in pop culture at large. This year was a great one! Whoever booked the game’s intermission entertainment made great use of its Miami venue by featuring Latinx entertainers like Shakira & Bad Bunny, representing an often-overlooked facet of the American cultural fabric that’s been especially politically charged under the xenophobic reign of the Trump Presidency. The centerpiece of this celebratory Latinx protest display was a pop music medley from singer-dancer-movie-star Jennifer Lopez, whose section of the show took the biggest, most direct political jabs of the event – while also conjuring Lopez’s most recent onscreen persona as a modern marvel of Cinema in particular.

The reason I’m talking about football & pop music on a movie blog is that JLo’s Halftime Show performance was greatly influenced by her recent movie-stealing role in the film Hustlers. Adapted from a New York Magazine article chronicling a real-life series of crimes, the film is a post-2008 Financial Crisis period piece about a ring of strip club employees who drugged & fleeced their wealthy Wall Street clientele for tens of thousands of dollars. Told in a flashback style directly borrowed from GoodFellas, the film is ostensibly aligned with the POV of its top-billed narrator character, played by Constance Wu. In practice, Wu is the lead performer in name only. As soon as Jennifer Lopez saunters onto the screen to perform a strip routine to Fiona Apple’s “Criminal,” the movie is entirely her show. Both the audience & Wu herself are fixated on the spectacle of the almighty JLo as she shows us the ropes – first on the gymnastic basics of working a stripper pole, then on the basics of fraudulently running up transactions on an unconscious client’s credit card. Some of Wu’s fixation on JLo’s Stripper Queen persona is explained to be a result of her character’s Mommy Issues (a refreshing change of course from cinema’s usual Daddy Issues fixation among macho narrators), but that almost feels like overkill. It’s self-evident; no explanation necessary. Even much-advertised cameo roles from major pop music personalities like Lizzo & Cardi B do little to distract from JLo’s nuclear charisma. She just casually walks away with the entire movie tucked into her overpriced designer handbag, never breaking a sweat.

Early in Hustlers, Constance Wu’s narrator pontificates that “This whole country is a strip club,” drawing a parallel between her industry’s sexual hustling to the “stolen money” of Wall Street’s own daily hustles. Nothing could better illustrate America’s function as the world’s largest strip club than JLo performing from atop a stripper pole at the Super Bowl Halftime Show. Bringing her newfound exotic dancer skills from the Hustlers set to that All-American pop music venue was a brilliant maneuver, as she then had an entire nation gawking at her in awe the way Wu & Hustlers‘s (much smaller) audience had already been on the hook. And what did she do with this amplified, captivated audience? She redirected our eyeballs to Latinx children posing in cages on the football field, peeling back the pop culture escapism of Super Bowl spectacle to refresh our horror with ICE’s abuses in the ongoing refugee border crisis. JLo even emerged from one of her many onstage costume changes during her short set in a fur coat/body suit combo outfit that directly recalled her Hustlers costuming, except redesigned to resemble the American flag. In the movie, she welcomes Constance Wu into the warmth of her coat, purring “Climb into my fur.” On the stage, she opens her All-American fur in the same fashion, only to reveal that it’s a Puerto Rican flag on its reverse side – further emphasizing the Latinx prominence in America’s DNA that’s often dismissed by the country’s falsely “patriotic” right-wing goblins. This whole country is a strip club, and it was wonderful to see it get so flagrantly hustled by a performer who’s been in her prime for decades, with no signs of slowing down.

The only way Jo’s Halftime Show performance could have been more blatantly political is if she had ripped a picture of Donald Trump in half, à la Sinead O’Connor on SNL (although the political effectiveness of either performance is up for debate). The only way it could have been more directly tied to her movie-stealing, Oscars-snubbed persona in Hustlers is if she had looked directly into the camera to ask the entire country, “Doesn’t money make you horny?” You can even see her Hustlers persona echoed in how easily she steals the show from Shakira, who’s just as capable of a singer & dancer as Constance Wu is an actor. Shakira is both a sex bomb & a total goofball, positively lighting up that Super Bowl stage with her spectacular hip gyrations, her to-the-camera tongue-wagging, and her comically over-the-top song selections (like choosing to open with the werewolf anthem “She-Wolf”). As the first & longest sustained performer on that stage, Shakira should technically be positioned as the central star of the Halftime Show, with Lopez slotted as a special guest star. Instead, as with in Hustlers, JLo’s blinding charisma easily overpowers Shakira’s own formidable presence – emerging as the de facto star of the show. If the Super Bowl is going to stand as an annual distillation of American culture, it’s only appropriate that the event acknowledge the country’s Latinx contingent through artists like Shakira & JLo as well as the hedonistic exploitation & excess detailed in Hustlers – both of which are American as fuck. It’s your patriotic duty to give it a watch even if you care way more about movies & pop music than you care about football:

-Brandon Ledet

Zootopia (2016)

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As I explained when reviewing the much-loved Inside Out last summer, I have a complicated relationship with CG animation. I typically find the medium’s general look to be uninteresting & its tendency for easy pun humor to be a relatively lazy waste of ensemble voice talent. It’s often difficult for me to differentiate between absolutely dire properties like Norm of the North & The Angry Birds Movie and more prestigious pictures like all of Pixar’s non-Cars output. Still, every now & then a film will sneak past my defenses. Despite the film’s flat, Puzzle Bobble-esque visual palette & simplistic modes of characterization, I found Inside Out to be an impressive feat in worldbuilding, a remarkably well mapped-out personification of how the inner mind acts & develops. The buzz for Inside Out was fairly massive, though (mostly due to its reputation as a Pixar release), so liking that movie wasn’t really much of a surprise. What really caught me off-guard was how much I enjoyed the latest Disney-produced CG animation Zootopia. After a horrendous ad campaign that has driven me to near-unbearable frustration with merciless repetition of its sloths-at-the-DMV gag (Get it? Because the DMV is slow! Like sloths! Haha. Ha.) & Disney directly reaching out to furries (seriously), I was prepared to hate Zootopia, or at least to brush it off as a trifle. Instead, it won me over wholesale. This is a really great, truly enjoyable film, one that even manages to feel Important without ever feeling overly didactic. Honestly, despite myself, I enjoyed it far more than I did Inside Out, which is supposedly the “smarter” picture.

The reason I enjoyed Zootopia so much is that it takes Inside Out’s meticulous attention to worldbuilding & applies it to a complicated narrative with themes that extend far beyond its own setting’s structure. Inside Out gets sort of lost in its own headspace. Zootopia maps out a metropolis-sized amusement park of interwoven, animal-themed neighborhoods (Tundra Town, The Rainforest District, etc.), but uses that intricate sense of setting as a launching pad instead of an end goal. Much like with George Miller’s surrealist classic Babe 2: Pig in the City, Zootopia follows a small animal taking on a giant metropolis far beyond her limited resources. As the film’s bunny cop protagonist navigates neighborhoods designed for animals that range in size from elephants to mice, it’s near impossible not to sit in awe of the thought & care that went into the film’s setting (or to get lost in how cute the mouse-sized miniatures can be). However, that setting isn’t the film’s main focus, but merely a platform meant to host an exploration of the film’s true focus: institutionalized racism & other forms of prejudice. Our fearless bunny cop protagonist, Officer Judy Hopps (voiced by Once Upon a Time’s Ginnifer Goodwin), attempts to earn respect in a system that doesn’t want her, repeatedly kicking in shut doors with the boundless enthusiasm of a Leslie Knope. Because of her size & heritage, her dream of being a Brannigan-esque supercop is often shot down just because she’s the wrong species. Even her parents advise her to abandon her goals, trying to sell her “the beauty of complacency” & the idea that “It’s great to have dreams just as long as you don’t believe in them.” Hopps refuses to stay in her predetermined place as a milquetoast carrot farmer, though, and pursues earning respect as an exceptional officer of the law. Her journey takes the shape of a missing person case that recalls noir-style mysteries of yesteryear & eventually dismantles (or at the very least disrupts) the very system mean to break her spirit. Officer Hopps might weave through various animal-themed neighborhoods with impressive attention to detail & constantly-shifting perspectives, but the intricate worldbuilding is meant to serve the purpose of her story, not the other way around.

As for the anti-prejudice allegory at the heart of Zootopia, it’s a metaphor that probably works best without being examined too closely. There are plenty of direct references in the film to recognizable, real-world issues (such as racial-profiling in the modern day police state & workplace politics that devalue contributions from women), but no one systemic underdog group works as a direct correlation to the film’s interspecies politics. This isn’t a film solely about racism or sexism or any other specific kind of institutionalized prejudice. It’s a film that addresses all of these issues in a more vaguely-defined dichotomy (kind of the way The X-Men have been metaphorically worked into all kinds of social issue metaphors over the decades). Zootopia structures its anti-prejudice moralizing around the way various species of “vicious” predators & “meek” prey have been conditioned to stereotype & alienate one another. Small animals can’t get giant cops to care about their misfortunes. Coded language (such as calling an animal of a more disadvantaged species “articulate” as a compliment) raise tensions between disparate groups. Well-meaning victims of prejudice are revealed to be just as guilty of wrongly (and constantly) judging a book by its cover. Zootopia is at its smartest when it vilifies a broken institution that has pitted the animals that populate its concrete jungle against one another instead of blaming the individuals influenced by that system for their problematic behavior. A lesser, more simplistic film would’ve introduced an intolerant, speciesist villain for the narrative to shame & punish. Zootopia instead points to various ways prejudice can take form even at the hands of the well-intentioned. It prompts the audience to examine their own thoughts & actions for ways they can uknowingly hurt the feelings or limit the opportunities of their fellow citizens by losing sight of the ideal that “Anyone can be anything.” It’s there that the film finds a beauty in endless diversity & a destructive force in institutionalized prejudice that both extend far beyond a cartoonishly simplified message like “racism = bad, so you shouldn’t be racist”.

It’s hard for me to say for sure if audiences, particularly children, are likely to find Zootopia funny. The gags that worked best for me were stray references to ancient media like The Godfather & REM. I was also amused to hear the always-welcome voices of Jenny Slate, Idris Elba, and Jason Bateman included in the cast (if nothing else, so that people I find entertaining could cash in on some of some of those sweet, sweet Disney dollars). For the most part, though, the film is more poignant than it is humorous. Despite what the film’s never-ending sloth DMV advertising campaign might’ve been trying to sell you, this is not a film that lives or dies by an onslaught of animal puns & exaggerated, species-based attributes. It’s much closer to the heartfelt, earnest end of the Disney spectrum. The production company/financial titan has become so adept at emotional shorthand that Zootopia had me constantly crying throughout its runtime, tearing up at the most saccharine of character beats (such as, say, a hopeful bunny rabbit defiantly ignoring her naysayers because “Anyone can be anything”) as soon as five or ten minutes in. The impressive thing is that Disney is able to wield this tonal power while both undermining the racial & gendered stereotypes of its own past and bitterly teaching the lesson that “Life isn’t a cartoon musical where you sing a song & all of your insipid dreams come true.” There were a few aspects of Zootopia that didn’t land for me: an insufferably shitty pop song performed (twice) by Shakira, a stray foxes-are-like-this-bunnies-are-like-that gag or three, some uncomfortable aspects of the anti-prejudice metaphor played for cutesy humor, etc. For the most part, though, the film is massively impressive (for a CG animation starring cute, talking animals). The attention-to-detail in its setting, the narrative stakes of its central mystery, and the overall theme of the ways institutionalized prejudice can corrupt & destroy our personal relationships all amount to a truly special, seemingly Important film. Pint-sized audiences might not squeal with laughter, but they might actually learn something a little more complex & nuanced than Inside Out’s assertion that “It’s okay to be sad sometimes” (which is a valid lesson for kids to learn, just one with a much easier path to success).

-Brandon Ledet