Show Dogs (2018)

Show Dogs is the most bizarrely problematic talking animal film I’ve seen in theaters since the Kevin Spacey talking cat pic Nine Lives two summers ago. It’s so problematic, in fact, that its own studio has since censored scenes of the film deemed dangerous for children’s well-being, something I learned was going to happen a mere hour after I left the cinema. Dangerous, censored, transgressive art is far from the first descriptor that leaps to mind when you set expectations for a children’s movie starting Ludacris as a rapping Rottweiler, but the original unedited version of Show Dogs is now effectively a renegade, outlawed production officially deemed morally unfit for public consumption. Its uncensored form, which screened in theaters nationwide only for the span of a week, has been orphaned as a lost art scene moment, a cinematic event. Banishing its real-world evil back into the pits of Hell was a necessary action Global Road Entertainment should be proud of taking, as the message its deleted footage was sending kids was genuinely risking their safety. Its deletion is also beneficial to adults looking to the ill-advised production for a stray whiff of absurdism, raising the film’s value from sub-Air Bud atrocity to a The Day the Clown Cried type Holy Grail. Show Dogs is now one of the premier cinematic events of 2018, if not only for what footage it’s lost.

The rapping Rottweiler voiced by Ludacris is an undercover cop from a confusing universe where animals can talk, but humans don’t understand them. Their flapping CGI mouths form full sentences and they hold real jobs in offices and everything, but humans just hear barks & meows and so on. At one point a dog even complains, “Why can’t people understand what dogs say?” I don’t know; you tell us. It’s your confusing universe. Anyway, the toughest cop on the force is assigned to go undercover as a show dog (Hey, that’s the name of the show) in a heist plot to rescue a stolen, abused baby panda from underground dealers of rare & exotic animals. Keeping with the tropes of every buddy cop movie ever, he’s teamed up with another hard-ass hothead (Will Arnett in full TMNT mode), a human partner who must learn to collaborate with the canine cop & trust his instincts. The reluctant partners build a heist team meant to prepare the undercover pup for passing as a primped & groomed show dog, most notably including Natasha Lyonne as a pet stylist (with an incredible sense of style of her own; she looks fantastic here) & Stanley Tucci as a former Best in Show champion chihuahua with a snotty French sensibility. The team pull through to save the day, never discovered as frauds, and return the stolen baby panda back to its family (in captivity, weirdly). They even learn a few life lessons (and scar a few thousand children who caught the film early enough in its run) along the way.

The thread that has been removed from Show Dogs is one about grooming, but not the kind you might expect given the film’s setting. One of the cop-dog’s biggest hurdles in remaining undercover as a show dog is the Judge’s Inspection segment of the competition, in which dog show panelists must physically handle the dogs’ genitals. A street-tough police dog, Ludacris’s canine lead Max struggles to endure this indignity without instinctively turning around to bite the person invading his privacy. He’s coached out of this instinct by Arnett & Tucci, who train him to “go to his happy place,” mentally dissociating while his “private parts” are being handled without his consent. The climactic triumph of the film is a sequence in which he mentally transports to a psychedelic Eden where Arnett & Lyonne tell him he’s a good boy and reenact the climax of Dirty Dancing with him against a background of kaleidoscopic fireworks . . . all while his genitals are being inspected by a stranger. Can you see why this might be a dangerous life lesson to teach impressionable children? It wasn’t lost on the concerned parents of the mommy blogosphere. One (rightfully) alarmist piece written by Terina Maldonado of East Mesa Macaroni Kid gained enough traction to have Global Road Entertainment pull the footage from the film. The “happy place” tactic is explained in that piece to be a very real method that real-life child molesters use to “groom” their young victims into unquestioning compliance, a factoid I can’t believe I typed without vomiting. Maldonado’s account of Show Dogs is extremely (and understandably) fixated on this aspect of the film’s plot, making me assume it was going to be a consistent throughline throughout the film. Instead, it is (or was) contained to a single training montage & a climactic exchange with the dog show judge. At first, the limited amount of “private parts inspection” footage made me question just how potentially impactful the film’s grooming message really was. When the judge’s inspection is met with a dead-silent horror atmosphere where the soundtrack is overwhelmed by the dog’s pounding heartbeat, however, there’s nothing you can qualify the exchange as but a rape scene. In a kids’ movie. About talking animals. Evil, but also incredible that it ever screened at all.

The dark truth about Show Dogs is that even with the genital molestation/”happy place” narrative thread removed, the film is still deeply flawed on a moral level. At its heart, this is a film about toxic masculinity (You thought it was about adorable talking animals? Fool!), but it’s also a perpetuator of toxic masculinity. Max is “a street dog with a temper” that has to learn life lessons like “Maybe it’s not the worst idea to get some help,” which is a much more adorable sentiment to convey to kids than the one that’s been censored into oblivion. What’s uncomfortable about his gradual change of heart is the way this “alpha” dog (speaking of canine terms that have evil cultural contexts elsewhere) is characterized in opposition to the implied frivolity & vanity of the show dog world, something more femme than his masc sensibilities can handle without embarrassment. It’s weird enough that other dogs allude to the size of Max’s dick, that a lady-pigeon (voiced by Kate Micucci) fawns over his gruff masculinity in lines like “He can flip this bird any day,” and that he’s taught humility in a scene where Arnette & Lyonne wax his anus (again, without consent). What’s really fucked is where he & Arnett finally bond when the owner chooses to not force him to breed against his will with an over-the-top flamboyant pup voiced by RuPaul. Now, in-film, RuPaul’s character is gendered as a female dog, but the gag plays as bizarrely homophobic anyway, as his over-the-top vocal performance (which includes a number of Drag Race catchphrases) disgusts Max in a way that reads distinctly as gay panic humor. Like with all of Show Dog’s sins against good taste & morality, its homophobia & toxic masculinity are bizarrely complex to the point of absurdity.

There are plenty of standard, cheap camp thrills to be found in Show Dogs’s minor joys as a 2010s, theatrically released talking-dog movie, a leftover relic from another time. I could try to sell this movie to you as an absurdist joy for watching Ludacris’s talking cop-dog perform impossible acrobatic maneuvers through cheap CGI or deliver hacky one-liners like “This is ludicrous!” or “I’m about to take a bite out of crime.” The truth is, though, that minor pleasures like Shaq voicing a Zen sheepdog named Doggy Lama or CGI dogs dabbing are just background noise for the film’s main draw: its propensity for real-world evil. Even with its “private parts inspection” narrative rightly removed, Show Dogs still has a genuinely menacing, toxic undertone that’s impressive in both its audacity & its cluelessness. Although its absurdist joys are minor, it’s a movie that must be seen to be believed (especially its original, intact “grooming” cut), as it’s tough to fathom how this many people, from the executives at Global Road down to the on-set catering crew, allowed it to happen. It’s more of a man-made disaster than a feature film in that way and all we can do as audiences is rubberneck at the wreckage. Don’t allow children to gaze at this atrocity, however; what they see could be scarring.

-Brandon Ledet

The Lego Batman Movie (2017)

I don’t know if I can fully justify enjoying The Lego Batman Movie‘s tongue in cheek meta-commentary on the grim & gritty world of DC comic book adaptations while calling the same referential style of humor lazy & unfunny in Deadpool. It might just be that the jokes in Lego Batman were better written. It might be that the film’s visual craft better carried its dull stretches where the jokes weren’t landing. It might even be that DC is a target that really needs to be parodied in an irreverent, aggressively silly way (considering the gloomy hell pit it’s been mired in since Nolan & Snyder have shaped its modern image), while Deadpool‘s Marvel digs felt more inconsequential. No matter the reason, I felt like somewhat of a hypocrite laughing throughout The Lego Batman Movie for the same exact reasons I shuddered throughout Deadpool. I could try to make an argument that this animated triviality was more sincere or emotionally genuine that that accursed Ryan Reynolds vehicle, but I’ll always be saddled with the feeling of being made a hypocrite by my own sense of taste in this scenario.

One thing I can be certain of in my enjoyment of The Lego Batman Movie is that Will Arnett is brilliantly cast as the titular character; he’s probably the most inspired Batman casting since I first imagined Nic Cage in the role in my own head. Arnett’s naturally gruff speaking voice & leftover Gob Bluth hubris are perfect for the Batman/Bruce Wayne dichotomy. The 2014 Lego Movie was an adorable, infectiously energized pop culture mashup that allowed for all kinds of recognizable characters to share a single screen: C-3PO, Abraham Lincoln, Wonder Woman, Shakespeare, etc. Only Arnett’s Batman stood out enough to suggest he could justify his own spin-off, though. As a delivery on that promise, this quasi-sequel does a great job of both delivering more of the same & deepening the self-obsessed gloomy rich boy assholery that defines Arnett’s Batman as a character. He still shares the screen with an impossible array of crossover characters & finds fresh ways to take the wind out of Batman’s egomaniacal sails. We get to see much more of the loneliness, hurt, and grief that makes him such a selfish prick to begin with, however. The movie even opens that world to us without having to indulge in yet another retelling of the origin story sparked by his parent’s death (a restraint Snyder didn’t show in Dawn of Justice, unfortunately). Arnett’s Lego form is such a pure embodiment of Batman that in these reflective scenes of brooding over the past in his mansion & cave, he’s still wearing the costume & cowl. The movie makes his Bruce Wayne persona the disguise & Batman the natural default, which is both amusing & oddly insightful.

To make room for these introspective, parodic dives into Batman’s character, The Lego Batman Movie does little in the way of plot innovation. Like an episode of the 1960s Batman television series or the general ethos or Tim Burton’s Batman Returns, the game plan in this lego-ized version of a Batman plot is to just flood the screen with villains for the Caped Crusader to thwart. The Joker, Two-Face, The Riddler, Catwoman, etc. are joined by non-Batman villains like Sauron, Gremlins, Kong, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, and Dracula to provide a long line of in-the-moment obstacles for Batman to clear on his path to the end credits. Outside a couple well-casted performances (Jenny Slate as Harley Quinn, Zach Galifianakis as The Joker, etc.) there really isn’t much to hold onto in these external conflicts. Rather, it’s the emotional conflicts of Batman’s interpersonal relationships with friends & family (Alfred, Robin, Batgirl, himself) that drive to story. The Lego Batman Movie boasts fairly simplistic messages about learning to not be selfish & the value of asking for help that contrast with Batman’s self-absorbed rich boy nature as a vigilante who “karate chops poor people in a Halloween costume,” but that’s more than enough of a narrative structure to support the film’s true concern: self-referential goofs & gags.

The beautiful thing about this movie’s Batman nerdery is that it mostly focuses on Batman’s onscreen adaptations, as opposed to his life in comic books. There’s an inclusiveness to that kind of reference-based humor that I found constantly rewarding. From the opening heist sequence involving an “unnecessarily complicated bomb” that recalls The Dark Knight to the off-handed callback line, “You wanna get nuts?,” every inch of the script is crawling with heartfelt appreciation for Batman’s life in movies. References to less widely-loved properties like the (criminally undervalued) 1960s Batman: The Movie and even the 1940s serials are just as plentiful & thoughtful as the nods to Batman & Nolan. Much like The Lego Movie, The Lego Batman Movie does its best to capture the feeling of kids playing with toys on the living room floor, despite its nature as a corporate-sanctioned, CG-animated product deliberately designed to sell merchandise. Since I grew up a huge mark for Batman media (mostly thanks to Burton & The Animated Series), this particular version of smashing toys together actually resonated with my own memories of childhood playtime. That shared nerdery over Batman‘s cinematic past is likely a significant factor is why this indulgence in referential, tangential meta-humor worked so well for me while the same tactics in Deadpool left me absolutely cold.

The Lego Batman Movie is overlong for its paper thin plot & exhausting, gag-a-second style of post-ZAZ parody humor. It’s impressive how much of it works before that exhaustion sets in, however. I’m usually not at all a sucker for CG animation, but this Lego style has a cool, tactile stop-motion flavor to it that I really appreciate. The film’s knowledgeable assessment of Batman as a character can be impressive too, from commentary on his fear of familial love & his longterm relationships with supervillians to more shallow single-moment parodies where he literally shoots children in the face with merchandise or fights forgotten villains like Egghead & The Condiment King. The inspired casting of Arnett as Batman (and the alternate, improved universe where Channing Tatum plays Superman) is enough to carry the movie on its own, but it’s still endearing to see so much care & attention to detail poured into a property that appears to be all blatant commercialism from the surface. Maybe that intense fandom & craft is what’s missing for me in the meta sleaze of Deadpool, but, again, I’m really just grasping at straws trying to figure out why one of these movies worked for me while the other one didn’t. It’s a personal inconsistency that’s going to drive me mad until I can put a finer point on it.

-Brandon Ledet

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows (2016)

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I’ve been a loud defender of the Michael Bay production of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles since it first oozed into theaters two years ago. I went as far as to call the film “The Best Bad Movie of 2014” & “the last five years of bad taste in a nutshell”. High praise, I know. My point was that it’s the exact kind of campy cheese that in its own trashy way reveals & documents more about the blockbuster filmmaking landscape than a more prestigious property possibly could. It’s most useful in this world was as a perfect encapsulation of our worst cinematic tendencies, a cultural relic for future generations of schlock-hungry fools.

That trashy time capsule’s follow-up, a sequel titled Out of the Shadows, is just as enjoyable as the first Ninja Turtles film, but for an entirely different reason. Instead of pushing the brooding grit of the post-Dark Knight era of needless reboots to its most ludicrous extreme like its hilariously hideous predecessor, Out of the Shadows calls back to the light, fun, cartoonish energy that made the original Ninja Turtles trilogy such a nostalgia-inducing pleasure in the 1990s. I guess you could argue that banking on 90s nostalgia is a snapshot on where blockbusters are seated in 2016, but that’s not what makes Out of the Shadows special. Here’s what does make it special: a manhole-shooting garbage truck modeled after the franchise’s infamous pizza van toy; a pro wrestler that plays a tank-operating rhinoceros; a perfectly hideous realization of the villainous mech suit-operating brain Krang; etc. Given enough time, this is a film both silly & visually memorable (read: deeply ugly) enough to generate its own future nostalgia entirely separate from that of a previous generation’s (not that it was above playing the 90s cartoon’s theme song over the end credits). Kids are going to grow up loving this movie and its reputation will outlast the short-term concerns of however well it does or doesn’t do at the box office this summer. In that way, it’s a successful work of art.

I wasn’t quite so sure about Out of the Shadows during its early plot machinations. Early scenes of Megan Fox’s April O’Neil working “undercover” as a nerd (a hot nerd, as the leering camera insistently reminds you) and the titular turtles airlessly navigating a CGI cityscape are a cruel, dull bore. My enthusiasm picked up fairly quickly, however, thanks to the aforementioned pizza van/garbage truck. You see, this isn’t just a recreation pizza-shooting toy from my own youth; it’s one that adds the ludicrous appendages of mechanical arms that operate cartoonishly oversized nunchucks. Why? Why not. The film’s plot gets kicked into action by a highspeed prison break (complete with producer Michael Bay’s calling card excess of explosions) that frees the wicked Shredder from the temporary shackles he’s locked in at the end of the last film. A teleportation device places Shredder in the mechanical hands of the evil alien brain Krang, who opens up a world of purple ooze (you can’t get much more 90s than ooze, right?), interdimensional portals, alien warships, and all kinds of other high-concept wankery. The goal of these conflicts is, of course, to provide simple obstacles for the turtles to overcome, but I have great respect for the over-the-top, Saturday morning cartoon choices the film makes to set those targets up. It’s certainly a refreshing change from the too-dark-for-its-own-good villainy brought to the screen by William Fichtner in the first film, as amusing as that was to watch.

While we’re talking Krang, I’ll just go ahead & say he’s very close to being the greatest villain I’ve seen onscreen all year (the slight advantage goes to the much more naturalistic presence of Black Phillip there). An unholy combination of Yoda, Audrey II, and the oversexed gator from All Dogs Go to Heaven, Krang’s vocal performance is perfectly pitched in its over-the-top scenery chewing. He’s not alone. Tyler Perry’s signature yuck-em-up hokeyness is put to brilliant use as a low level villain mad scientist that’s less Dr. Frankenstein & more Neil deGrasse Tyson meets The Nutty Professor. Will Arnett returns to his role as the scaredy cat cad of the previous film, but is allowed far more breathing room to ramp up the pomposity. One of my favorite gags in Out of the Shadows is a scene where Arnett’s bagging his own breath in ziplocks to sell to schmucks impressed by his newfound celebrity as the turtles’ wing man. Pro wrestler Sheamus is perfectly cast here in his own corny way & probably could live out the rest of his life playing bit parts in kids’ movies without breaking a sweat. Tony Schaloub is still a hideous CGI sewer rat father figure. Megan Fox is still a hopelessly bland non-presence, but I began to find amusement in the way she constantly posed & mugged for the camera for absolutely no reason at all. Oh yeah, and Dennis “The Dummy” Duffy from 30 Rock drops by just because. These aren’t performances that are going to win any awards, but they are perfectly suited for kids’ media goofery. Actually, Laura Linney’s performance as a besides-herself police chief might be worthy of an award in a more serious film, but she’s always perfect so there’s no real surprise there.

I don’t want to oversell the shift in tones here. This is still the bloated, grotesque CGI spectacle people understandably pinched their noses at two years ago. As much as I enjoyed every bizarrely lovable second of Krang content in Out of the Shadows, he’s still a disgusting, digital depiction of a sentient brain literally mashed inside a giant, clunky robot. It’s gross. But, hey, kids love gross shit. The film makes a conscious effort to move away from the Dark Knight grit of its predecessor to take delight in such cheap, silly pleasures as watching a two ton warthog eat a trash barrel’s worth of spaghetti while his hairy CGI nipples jiggle. I got the same feeling watching Out of the Shadows as I did with last year’s excellent Goosebumps adaptation: kids are going to grow up loving it & that’s all that really matters. I’ll even go as far as to say that the film finds genuine pathos in unexpected places, namely the teen turtles’ anxiety over the way society treats them not as the good guys, but as hideous, mutant monsters (a feeling all teens share at some point, right?). I especially like the way the turtles describe themselves as “four brothers from New York who hate bullies & love this city.” It gives them a real Steve Rogers or Judy Hopps vibe I can genuinely get behind. That’s not what makes this film such a deliciously fun exercise in trash cinema delirium (that’d be Krang), but it was yet another admirable aspect of a remarkably silly, deeply ugly children’s film I had no business enjoying nearly as much as I did.

-Brandon Ledet