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Review: An onslaught of retro-styled slapstick, 'Hundreds of Beavers' is mania from heaven

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Review: An onslaught of retro-styled slapstick, 'Hundreds of Beavers' is mania from heaven

A soulful silliness pervades the rootin’, tootin’ live-action cartoon “Hundreds of Beavers” from Milwaukee filmmakers Mike Cheslik and Ryland Brickson Cole Tews, merry pranksters who deploy a gleefully inventive lo-fi madness to their gag-stuffed wilderness comedy. Pitting a lovestruck fur trapper against a bucktoothed horde, this underground festival hit is a feverish fit of creative buffoonery — you haven’t experienced anything remotely like it.

Even though its influences are prominent — classic two-reel silent shorts, vintage berserk animation, even something like “Caddyshack” — the artful insanity on display is very much its own. All is ingeniously filtered through a modern comic sensibility that revels in the addictive punch of video-game worlds and filter-layered TikToks. At first, you’ll delight in the can-do energy of a crew of oddballs goofing around in subzero conditions. But considering the graphics work on display (there are more than 1500 effects shots), the takeaway is closer to astonishment: a teeming ambition to bring the absurdity as far as it can possibly go.

In other words, what’s on tap here is gonzo cinema moonshine, distilled from the corny legacy of every loopy genius from Buster Keaton and Tex Avery to Mel Brooks and George Miller. (What the hell, toss in Peter Jackson’s early ragtag gorefests, too.) And even though “Beavers” is feature-sized rather than Looney Tunes length, its woozy, giggly high of outlandish sight gags is remarkably sustained.

Styled as a retro, black-and-white photoplay with intertitles, sound effects, cranked-up speeds and jaunty music, “Hundreds of Beavers” ostensibly tells a story, but only insofar as a magician does, to simply contextualize your enjoyment of the tricks. When we meet impressively bearded Jean Kayak (the magnificently ridiculous Tews, who also co-wrote), he’s a successful maker of applejack, as an opening song informs us. But he also gets high on his own supply — cataclysmically so when a few overlooked beaver bites trigger the epic destruction of his operation.

A scene from the movie “Hundreds of Beavers.”

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Freezing, hungry and destitute, he proves about as successful as a famous hapless coyote at snaring game, until he is motivated by an attraction to the mischievous, knife-skilled daughter (Olivia Graves) of a grizzly furrier (Doug Mancheski). There’s also the elaborate animal-catching ingenuity of a mountain man (Wes Tank) who inspires him. But to meet his destiny as a fur-trapping legend, Jean must contend with a wily beaver population — often spied in teams of two, carting logs toward a mysterious location — who harbor their own plans for survival-of-the-fittest domination. (Add James Bond supervillain compounds and Spielbergian action to the referential stew.)

The swirl of cartoon physics and comic melodrama is fantastical and otherworldly, as if survivalists in the wild had access to home-movie equipment to chart their increasing delirium. Also on this fractured fairy tale’s jampacked menu are human-sized animal costumes, arcade graphics, pratfalls, pole dancing, adorable maggot puppets, Rube Goldberg designs, expressionist sequences and even a bar brawl with rodents. At its center, the rubbery Tews gamely serves up a wide range of pre-sound clownery, from deadpan reactions to crazy-eyed exuberance.

Is it exhausting? Of course. Cheslik, Tews and their crafty conspirators are the kinds of movie-nerd obsessives who prefer a feast to a well-balanced diet. But it’s a truly jolly overload of laughter, awe and head-scratching. It’s as if they took their wintry location seriously — to stop moving would surely mean death. So in lieu of us not getting to see the soon-to-be-deleted “Coyote vs. Acme,” you’d do well to satisfy your craving for knockabout lunacy by checking out “Hundreds of Beavers,” as visionary as any indie in many a moon, and a dam site (ahem) more fun.

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‘Hundreds of Beavers’

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 48 minutes

Playing: In limited release Friday, Mar. 15

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Movie Reviews

Civil War Isn’t the Movie You Think It Is

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Civil War Isn’t the Movie You Think It Is

Kirsten Dunst and Cailee Spaeny in Civil War.
Photo: Murray Close /A24

Americans sure do love to see their institutions destroyed onscreen. I remember back when it was sorta-kinda news that audiences applauded and cheered as aliens blew up the White House in Roland Emmerich’s Independence Day (1996). Since then, it’s been standard operating practice for blockbusters, particularly the disaster-y ones, to incinerate or otherwise defile a monument or an iconic government building. (We took a brief recess after 9/11 — “too soon,” etc. — but went right back to it once the cultural all-clear sounded.) Maybe because our institutions were deemed so secure and unchanging for so long, the idea that they might be ravaged by aliens, meteors, zombies, or Dylan McDermott became a naughty fantasy we were eager to see played out onscreen, over and over and over again. A variation on this kind of chaos has become all too real over the past few years, with more than 40 percent of the country in a 2022 poll saying they think a civil war is likely within the next decade. I’m not entirely convinced that the constant barrage of apocalyptic destruction on our screens is unrelated. We’ve been spectators to the fantasy for so long that we’ve come to imagine we’re participants in it.

Here’s another truth about repeatedly indulging in our fantasies: We become desensitized to them. What makes Alex Garland’s Civil War so diabolically clever is the way that it both revels in and abhors our fascination with the idea of America as a battlefield. No real monuments get done blowed up real good in this one. The spectacle this time is coyer but somehow all-consuming. What’s being incinerated in Civil War is the American idea itself.

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The film is set in what appears to be the present, but in this version of the present a combination of strongman tactics and secessionist movements have fractured the United States into multiple armed, politically unspecified factions. The president (Nick Offerman), we’re told, has refused to give up power and is now serving his third term; he’s dissolved the FBI, bombed American cities, and made a point of killing journalists on sight, or so we’re told. California and Texas have joined forces and become something called the Western Front. There’s also the so-called Florida Alliance. Smoke rises from the cities; the highways are filled with walls of wrecked cars; suicide bombers dive into crowds lined up for water rations; death squads, snipers, and mass graves dot the countryside.

How we got here, or what these people are fighting over, is mostly meaningless to Kirsten Dunst’s Lee and Wagner Moura’s Joel, two war journalists making the treacherous drive from New York City to Washington, D.C., for an exclusive, probably dangerous interview with the beleaguered president. Tagging along for the ride in their van are Jessie, played by Cailee Spaeny, a young, inexperienced photographer who aspires to a career like Lee’s, and Sammy (Stephen McKinley Henderson), an aging reporter who wants to go to the front lines in Charlottesville. Lee is vexed by both their presences. Jessie’s too young, and Sammy’s too old. The blood-soaked highways of the divided states of America are no place for either of them.

The journalists covering this war gather in hotel bars, get drunk, and loudly yuk it up with the jacked-up bonhomie we might recognize from movies set in foreign lands like The Killing Fields, Under Fire, and Salvador. They’re mostly numb to the horrors they’re chronicling. After the young Jessie is scarred by an early run-in with a man who threatens to shoot two unarmed, tortured, barely alive captives, Lee tells her that it’s not their job to ask questions or get involved: “We take pictures so others can ask these questions.”

One of the reasons Lee is such a legend in her field is because she has grown a protective shell around herself. She wants to get the picture. That’s it. She’s protective of Jessie but only to the extent that the girl will slow them down or upend their plans. “Would you photograph that moment, if I got shot?” Jessie asks. “What do you think?” Lee responds, as if the answer is obviously yes. But we also understand that Lee bears the psychological scars of what she’s seen. At night, alone in her bath at a hotel, she covers her eyes and revisits the horrors she’s photographed all over the world. “I thought I was sending a message home: Don’t do this,” she says of her earlier work. “But here we are.” Garland can be clunky and obvious with his dialogue, but Dunst can also make just about any line sound true. Her face tells one story, her words tell another; together, they bring this conflicted woman to life.

The film embodies Lee’s traumatized numbness to a degree. Garland knows how to build suspense, and he depicts astonishing violence with the requisite horror, but he also moves his film along in playfully provocative ways. After one ghastly sequence in which guerrillas shoot a weeping soldier, the director cuts to a montage set to De La Soul’s “Say No Go,” a song about a horrific subject that adds a peppy beat to the grisly images onscreen. (I was reminded of the way Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket cut to the Trashmen’s “Surfin’ Bird” right after a similar firefight.)

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Even the film’s episodic quality — it’s really just a ghastly travelogue through the war-torn Eastern Seaboard, with our protagonists confronted at each stop with some upsetting new incident — feels like a provocation. Part of shutting yourself off to such horrors involves being able to move past them, and Civil War, like its characters, glides past each monstrous vignette with unbothered brio. This can make the film feel weirdly weightless at times. Its characters are observers and nomads. If anything, they feel less invested in what they’re witnessing as the movie goes on.

Civil War’s lack of a political point of view, as well as its refusal to really identify the positions of its warring parties, has come in for some understandable criticism. But does any sane person really want a version of this film that attempts to spell out these people’s politics or, even worse, takes sides in its fictional conflict? (That sounds like it would be the worst movie ever made.) Garland does include flashes of real news footage from a variety of recent American disturbances, but he’s clearly done more research into media depictions of other countries’ war zones.

This is maybe his best idea, and why the film’s lack of political context feels more pointed than spineless: The conceit here is to depict Americans acting the way we’ve seen people act in other international conflicts, be it Vietnam or Lebanon or the former Yugoslavia or Iraq or Gaza or … well, the list goes on. In that sense, Civil War winds up becoming a movie about itself. Beyond the plausibility of war in the United States or the tragedy of such an eventuality, it’s about the way we refuse to let images from wars like this get to us. It’s more a call for reflection, an attempt to put us in the shoes of others, than a warning — not an It Can Happen Here movie, but a Here’s What It’s Like movie. It doesn’t want to make us feel so much as it wants us to ask why we don’t feel anything.

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TikTok (Taylor's version): Singer's music returns despite platform's dispute with label UMG

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TikTok (Taylor's version): Singer's music returns despite platform's dispute with label UMG

Swifties on TikTok can rejoice — for now.

It seems scores of songs from Taylor Swift’s catalog returned to the platform this week, just months after the singer’s label Universal Music Group threatened to pull its artists’ music over a licensing disagreement. The Times confirmed that hits from the Grammy winner’s “Midnights, “1989 (Taylor’s Version), “Fearless (Taylor’s Version)” and “Folklore” albums are among the snippets featured on her official TikTok page.

In a January open letter, UMG voiced several concerns about its licensing deal with TikTok, including the company’s proposed royalty rate for artists, TikTok’s content moderation and protections for musicians regarding AI-generated music.

“Ultimately TikTok is trying to build a music-based business, without paying fair value for the music,” UMG said in its letter.

TikTok countered the UMG letter, calling the label “self-serving” and alleging its actions were “not in the best interests of artists, songwriters and fans.”

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Neither representatives for UMG nor Swift immediately responded to The Times’ request for comment on Friday.

Word of Swift’s return to TikTok quickly spread on social media Thursday, as fans celebrated with .gifs, all-caps tweets and more on X (formerly Twitter).

“TAYLOR SWIFT SONGS ARE BACK ON TIKTOK??????,” one user tweeted Thursday.

While some Twitter users rejoiced in Swift’s TikTok comeback, others expressed concern over the other UMG artists whose catalogs remain off the app. Billie Eilish, Olivia Rodrigo and Ariana Grande are among the UMG artists whose music easily went viral on TikTok — but their music is no longer on their profiles.

“The music is currently unavailable,” reads a notice on both Eilish and Rodrigo’s pages. On Grande’s page, only a minute-long snippet of her duet on Lizzo’s “Good as Hell” remains.

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Swift’s return to TikTok comes just before she releases her forthcoming album, “The Tortured Poets Department,” next week. At February’s 66th Grammy Awards, where she took home the coveted prize for album of the year, Swift announced that new music was underway.

“I want to say thank you to the fans by telling you a secret that I’ve been keeping from you for the last two years,” she said. “Which is that my brand new album comes out April 19.”

Since her reveal, Swift has doled out more information about “The Tortured Poets Department,” including her track list, featured artists and the album art.

Times staff writer Wendy Lee contributed to this report.

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DeAr Movie Review: A messy relationship drama that lacks depth in writing

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DeAr Movie Review: A messy relationship drama that lacks depth in writing

As an adult, all of the childhood punishments become instant life goals. Everything from eating healthy, to heading to bed early, becomes an activity we work hard to incorporate into our daily lives. GV Prakash’s Arjun is one such adult who safeguards his eight-hour sleep like a baby and he is a light sleeper who wakes up even when a pin drops. Aishwarya Rajesh’s Deepika is the exact opposite. They get married, move in together, and all hell breaks loose.

When the trailer of DeAr revealed that the film is about how chronic snoring creates a rift between newlyweds, there were instant comparisons with Manikandan’s Good Night, which was released last year. The difference here is that it is the wife who snores. Despite a brilliant premise in hand where multiple issues could be addressed, the film completely wastes this opportunity. Instead, we are given a film that lacks focus and holds onto too many emotions rather than exploring the central theme.

Cast: GV Prakash, Aishwarya Rajesh, Kaali Venkat, Thalaivasal Vijay, Ilavarasu, Rohini, Nandhini

Director: Anand Ravichandran

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