We Bought a Zoo opens with the voice of Dylan Mee (Colin Ford) narrating glimpses of his journalist father Benjamin's (Matt Damon) worldly adventures. Ben's been embedded with violent dictators covered with killer bees and flown through the eye of a hurricane but as Dylan explicitly states "nothing prepared him for this one"—the "this one" being the titular purchasing of a zoo on the brink of closure. Director Cameron Crowe (Jerry Maguire Almost Famous) has never been one for subtly but that's never been the goal. We Bought a Zoo drops the cynicism wears its heart on its sleeve and doesn't mind laying it on thick in an effort to move you which it does—whether you like it or not.
Six months after his wife's death Ben still doesn't have a grasp on how to be a good parent. He struggles to throw together bagged lunches for his daughter Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones) watches Dylan downward spiral into school expulsion reluctantly accepts lasagnas from the sympathetic family friends and grieves over iPhoto montages of a life that once was. Every corner of his home conjures up familial memories prompting Ben to hightail it out of town. After a desperate house hunt Ben sets his sights on a stunning country home that comes with one twist: it's the home to lions and tiger and bears (oh my!).
Along with its diverse collection of fauna Ben's new zoo sports a colorful cast of staff members including Peter MacCready the temperamental Scottish maintenance man Robin the laid-back handyman with a monkey on his shoulder and Kelly the young committed animal handler (Scarlett Johansson). Ben inspires his team with motivational speeches (and signed checks) and together they work to rebuild and reopen the park.
We Bought a Zoo explores its themes of loss and renewal on the surface with cartoony characters hammy dialogue and a score by Jónsi of Sigur Rós that steers you towards an emotional destination. But it all works thanks in large part to Matt Damon's charm and a general air of niceness to the whole package. Damon is one of the few stars capable of playing a Regular Joe. Watching him have his butt kicked by zoo chores is delightful while he adds true gravity to the dramatic moments. Whether he's butting heads with his morose son in a screaming match or tearing up over his inescapable past Damon digs deeper than Crowe and Aline Brosh McKenna's (The Devil Wears Prada 27 Dresses) screenplay. The rest of the cast manages to elevate the material too—Johansson keeps herself down to Earth; Thomas Haden Church as Ben's skeptical brother Duncan knocks every joke out of the park; And the young Elle Fanning inspires once again as Kelly's bubbly tween cousin who falls for the disgruntled Dylan (although no one seems to have a problem with a 12-year-old spending her days working/living at a zoo; her parents are completely out of the picture).
The movie doesn't take unexpected turns or make profound statements but it succeeds in its goal of tugging the audience's heartstrings. The world of We Bought a Zoo is one where everything works out if you persevere have hope and open yourself up to love. That's not reality but rather inspirational thinking. Perfect for the holiday season.
Today is a happy day, because Leonardo DiCaprio and Martin Scorsese are back in business for the fifth time. Vulture reports that they are re-teaming for The Wolf of Wall Street, a tale of greed and excess in the free-spending days of the 1980s. The project had been set up at Warner Bros. where DiCaprio's Appian Way company is set up. At one point, Ridley Scott was set to reunite with his Body of Lies star for the film; that was after it appeared that Scorsese wouldn't be able to fit it into his busy schedule.
However, the project has since left the studio and Scott departed, leaving an opening for Scorsese to jump back in. According to the source, DiCaprio's manager Rick Yorn has secured private funding for the film and it will be made independently, which is an interesting prospect since neither DiCaprio nor Scorsese has made a true "indie" in sometime (let's face it, they don't need to. What studio wouldn't want to be in business with them?)
Scorsese's Boardwalk Empire collaborator Terrence Winter has penned a screenplay based on Jordan Belfort's 1990 novel of the same name and DiCaprio will play the multi-millionaire twentysomething who goes from profitable playboy in the days of Reaganomics to federal-convict thirtysomething banned from the securities business for life in 1994. My biggest concern about the film is it being dated. Oliver Stone's iconic 1987 film summed up the period quite well and its sequel, last year's Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, failed to ignite a national discussion like the original did 24 years ago. I'm not so sure America will be interested in following a money-grubbing sex addict at a time when its citizens are losing their homes and pride.
If the railway thriller Unstoppable looks familiar it’s only because its director Tony Scott and star Denzel Washington partnered just over a year ago on another railway thriller The Taking of Pelham 123. In Unstoppable the train is granted a bigger slice of the narrative pie than it received in Pelham serving not only as the film’s principal setting but also its primary villain. Stocked with a payload of dangerous chemicals Train 777 (that’s one more evil than 666!) hurtles unmanned towards a calamitous rendezvous with the helpless residents of Stanton Pennsylvania. Surely an upgrade over a hammy John Travolta no?
On whom can we depend to put a stop to this massive killing machine this “missile the size of the Chrysler Building ” in the ominous words of Rosario Dawson’s station dispatcher? Not the entry-level clods (Ethan Suplee and T.J. Miller) whose ineptitude originally set the train on its fateful path. (In a chilling testament to the potential dangers posed by the obesity epidemic a chunky Suplee runs to catch up with the coasting train in the hopes of triggering its emergency brake before it leaves the station only to collapse in a wheezing heap unsuccessful.) Certainly not their supervisor (Kevin Dunn) a middle-management goon more concerned with impressing his corporate superiors than ensuring proper rail safety. And most definitely not the parent company’s feckless golf-playing (the nerve!) CEO whose disaster-containment strategy is dictated purely by stock price.
No sooner or later the burden of heroism must fall on the capable shoulders of our man Denzel. As Frank Barnes a resolutely competent locomotive engineer on a routine training assignment with a reluctant apprentice (Chris Pine unshaven) he emerges as the only force capable of preventing the Train of Doom from reaching its grisly destination. Of course in any train-related emergency such as the one depicted in Unstoppable a litany of things must go wrong before the task of averting disaster becomes the sole responsibility of the engineer of another train. And screenwriter Mark Bomback (Live Free or Die Hard) trooper that he is takes care to cycle through every single one of them lest we question the believability of such a scenario. Because believability is so important in films like this.
Denzel’s most formidable foe in Unstoppable it turns out is his own director. As an alleged “old-school” filmmaker Tony Scott largely eschews the usage of CGI but he embraces almost every other fashionable action-movie gimmick occasionally to nauseating effect. When the camera isn’t jostling about or zooming in and out jarringly it’s wheeling at breakneck speed across a dolly track; countless circling shots of key dialogue exchanges give the impression that we’re eavesdropping on these conversations from a helicopter. No static shots are allowed and cuts are quick and relentless giving us nary a moment to catch our breath or recover our equilibrium.
These are the tactics of an insecure director one with startlingly little faith in his material or his performers. As Unstoppable nears it climax we’re invested in the action not because of the incessant play-by-play of the TV reporters who’ve converged on the scene — a ploy mandated by Scott’s frantic style which by this point has left the story teetering on incoherence — but because of our almost accidental bond with the film’s protagonists who despite the director’s best efforts have managed to make just enough of an imprint on our consciousness that we’d prefer they not perish in a fiery train wreck.
After being cursed by delays The Wolfman Hollywood’s latest spin on the popular werewolf myth finally bares its ugly fangs in theaters this week. Predictably the film is a train wreck of a debacle -- one would expect nothing less from a notoriously troubled production that saw its original director Mark Romanek abandon ship just two weeks before the start of shooting -- but The Wolfman’s problems stem less from the late-game addition of helmer Joe Johnston who at the very least delivered a terrific looking film (its gorgeously eerie Victorian aesthetic evoking a palpable exquisite sense of dread is by far its best feature) than from the misguided efforts of its producer and star Benicio Del Toro.
The Wolfman is the brainchild of Del Toro an ardent horror fan who conceived the film as an homage of sorts to the low-budget “monster movies” from the ‘30s and ‘40s that he loved dearly as a child. It’s fashioned as a loose remake of 1941’s The Wolf Man a film that both established Lon Chaney Jr.’s performance as the definitive take on the character and introduced aspects of the werewolf legend now considered sacrosanct. The notion that a werewolf can be felled by an item made from silver for example owes its origin to The Wolf Man.
But Del Toro feels all wrong in the role of Lawrence Talbot the prodigal son of a 19th-century English aristocrat whose fateful encounter with a bloodthirsty lycan the same creature that brutally murdered his brother just days prior triggers his unwitting initiation into the accursed tribe of feral man-beasts. Del Toro's resume of low-key understated performances marked by a muttering often imperceptible delivery in films like Traffic and The Usual Suspects suggests a skill set better suited to playing another famous movie monster one significantly less loquacious than his character in this movie. Seriously -- the guy should have remade Frankenstein instead.
Playing an American-bred (but English-born we’re told) character in an 1890 setting looking uncomfortable in period attire surrounded by such “proper” British actors as Sir Anthony Hopkins and Emily Blunt and fully annunciating all of his line readings for the first time that I can recall Del Toro appears hopelessly out of place in The Wolfman.
Things only get worse unfortunately when Del Toro’s character transforms into the dreaded werewolf. Each time the moon is full the film transitions with increasing ridiculousness from a somber Victorian drama into a hard-core horror flick replete with grisly shots of torn flesh exposed spines and severed limbs. The first overly gruesome attack triggers a kind of nervous laugh more from the shock than anything else. The second invites an amused uneasy chuckle which soon snowballs into an outright belly laugh. And the effect soon spreads to the dialogue the outrageous gore rendering the film's mannered melodrama strangely hysterical.
Of all the Wolfman players only Hopkins seems to get the joke reveling in his manipulative mischief as Talbot's inappropriately glib stoutly aloof father. If only he'd let his castmates in on it.
Max Payne started life as a popular 2001 videogame and now the dark dreary material has morphed into feature film that tries to give a back story for the tortured title character. Payne’s (Mark Wahlberg) wife and newborn baby are tragically killed and now Max a DEA agent is involved in the investigation of a series of murders that could provide a link to solving the mystery of his family’s demise. Demons in the form of a winged serpents haunt Max -- but nothing real or imagined will stand in the way of his quest. He teams with a beautiful Russian mobster and assassin Mona Sax (Mila Kunis) whose sister Natasha (Olga Kurylenko) is also killed giving equal reason to seek revenge. Complicating matters is Max’s mentor B.B. (Beau Bridges) an ex-cop who now does security for a large pharmaceutical company which may hold the key to the mystery. Forces -- both real and hidden -- are hard at work to keep Max who is clearly fighting his inner demons from reaching his goal. Wahlberg is earnest and knows how to kickass but the murders of his young wife and baby which is meant to give emotional heft to the character is really not enough to connect us to this guy. Still he does quite nicely in the numerous action scenes and is at home playing a DEA agent. Mila Kunis so appealing in Forgetting Sarah Marshall shows a saucier side here and has great potential as an action mama perhaps the kind of ball-buster Aeon Flux should have been. Olga Kurylenko who is also in the new James Bond film Quantum of Solace is well-used in the few scenes she has and Prison Break’s Amaury Nolasco is convincing as a tough ex-vet who now has drifted into the drug underworld. Beau Bridges has a tricky role he pulls off without tipping the story over while the other Bridges in the film -- rapper-turned-actor Chris “Ludicris” Bridges -- is an Internal Affairs detective who seems to sense something serious going on with Max. John Moore has been clearly influenced by the Matrix and new Batman movies creating a dark and ominous New York City with winged creatures reminiscent of the mythological Valkyrie roaming the grey skies. These creatures are apparently meant to physically represent the tortured thoughts in the mind of Max Payne. This creature feature aspect does not exist in the videogame and it’s an interesting if not entirely plausible addition from the mind of writer Beau Thorne. Moore invests his visuals with equal doses of reality and fantasy in an uneasy mix that has you wondering what’s real and what’s Memorex. Subjective POV camerawork and slow-motion shots sometimes give us the feeling we are watching Matrix but the stylistic touches do seem to be in line with the character’s journey. Moore has laid on the visual effects effortlessly particularly in the creation of the creatures who haunt Payne’s subconscious life.