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.
Few of the powerful men who helped shape America in the 20th century are as polarizing as J. Edgar Hoover considering the peaks and valleys of his nearly half-century-long reign as the director of the FBI and his closely guarded private life. However while there is much to debate about whether the heroism of Hoover’s early career outweighs the knee-jerk paranoia that clouded the end of his run at the Bureau and about what really turned on this lifelong bachelor one aspect of Hoover’s life is inarguable: this was a man who possessed a rare gift for establishing and maintaining order. Everything that fell under his control was meticulously kept in its place from the fingerprints on file in the FBI’s database to the cleanly shaved faces of his loyal G-Men.
It’s an unfortunate irony then that J. Edgar the biopic focused on this ruthlessly organized administrative genius is such a sloppy awkwardly assembled mess. Its lack of tidiness hardly suits its central character and is also shockingly uncharacteristic of director Clint Eastwood. The filmmaker’s recent creative renaissance which began in 2003 with the moody Boston tragedy Mystic River may not have been one defined by absolute perfection—the World War II epic Flags of Our Fathers for example is no better than an admirable mixed bag—but it comes to a grinding halt with J. Edgar Eastwood’s least satisfying and least coherent effort since 1999’s True Crime. There’s no faulting the attention paid to surface period details—every tailored suit and vintage car registers as authentic—but on the most fundamental level Eastwood and writer Dustin Lance Black (an Academy Award winner for Milk as off his game as Eastwood here) haven’t figured out what kind of movie they want to shape around Hoover’s life. For two-thirds of its running time J. Edgar devotes itself to an overly dry recitation of facts about its title character which is about as viscerally thrilling as reading Hoover’s Wikipedia page and then makes a late-inning bid for romantic melodrama totally at odds with the bloodless history-lesson approach favored by the preceding 90 minutes.
The non-chronological narrative structure Black adopts to tell Hoover’s story only adds to the overall disjointedness. Star Leonardo DiCaprio is first seen caked in old-age makeup as Hoover conscious he’s nearing the end of his tenure at the Bureau dictates his memoirs to an obliging junior agent (Ed Westwick). As Hoover describes how he began his career the movie jumps back in time to depict that origin giving the false impression that the dictation scenes with old Hoover will act as necessary structural connective tissue. Instead Black eventually abandons the narrative device altogether leaving the movie rudderless in its leaps backwards and forwards through time. As a result the shuffling of scenes depicting the young Hoover achieving great success alongside his right-hand man Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer) and those portraying the aging Hoover abusing his power by wire-tapping progressive luminaries (such as Martin Luther King Jr.) that he mistrusts feels frustratingly arbitrary. There’s no real rhyme or reason to why one scene follows another.
DiCaprio does his best to anchor the proceedings with a precise authoritative lead performance. Although his voice is softer than Hoover’s he mimics the crimefighter’s trademark cadence with organic ease and more importantly he manifests Hoover’s unbending fastidiousness in a number of ingenious details like in the way that Hoover reflexively adjusts a dining-room chair while in mid-conversation. But Black’s limited view of Hoover as a tyrannical egotist—the script is close to a hatchet job—denies DiCaprio the chance to play a fully three-dimensional version of the FBI pioneer. Hoover is granted the most humanity in his scenes opposite Hammer’s Tolson which are by far the most compelling in the movie. Possessing no knowledge of the secretive Hoover’s romantic life Eastwood and Black speculate that Hoover and Tolson’s relationship was defined by a mutual attraction that Tolson wanted to pursue but Hoover was too timid to even acknowledge. Hammer so sharp as the privileged Winklevoss twins in The Social Network is the only supporting player given much to do—Naomi Watts’ talents are wasted as Hoover’s generically long-suffering secretary while poor Judi Dench must have had most of her scenes as Hoover’s reactionary mother left on the cutting-room floor—and he runs with it. His mega-watt charisma is like a guarantee of future stardom and he’s actually far more effortless behind the old-age makeup than veterans DiCaprio and Watts manage to be.
While the unrequited love story between Hoover and Tolson is clearly meant to provide J. Edgar with an emotional backbone the movie takes so long to get to it that it feels instead like an afterthought. Where in all the dutiful historical-checklist-tending that dominates the film is the Eastwood who flooded the likes of The Bridges of Madison County Letters From Iwo Jima and last year’s criminally underrated Hereafter with oceans of pure feeling? He’s a neo-classical humanist master who has somehow ended up making a cold dull movie that reduces one of recent history’s most enigmatic giants to a tiresome jerk.
The age-old debate over fate vs. free will has been and always will be a tough theme to crack in any medium but with the benefits of modern filmmaking technology the theory can be explored in ways that Philip K. Dick never imagined. However when one relies too heavily on spectacle to tell a story a piece of cerebral science fiction can quickly become just another action extravaganza. In this day and age there’s a fine line between the two; The Matrix walked that tightrope with style and grace while Next never found its footing in the first place. Fortunately the precious work of novelist Dick has for the most part been treated with respect by Hollywood (the aforementioned Nic Cage dud notwithstanding) but that doesn’t necessarily mean movies based on his stories are completely faithful to his vision.
Case in point: George Nolfi’s directorial debut The Adjustment Bureau an adaptation of Dick’s short story “Adjustment Team.” The film stars Matt Damon as David Norris a successful businessman and rising political candidate who after a chance encounter with the girl of his dreams (Emily Blunt) loses a crucial election. He happens to run into her on a Manhattan bus the following week before finding his office swarming with masked men who are “adjusting” everyone inside. Richardson (John Slattery) the man in charge captures Norris who unsuccessfully flees the scene after seeing behind “a curtain he wasn’t even supposed to know existed” as the enigmatic figure puts it. From that point on Norris must live with the knowledge that he (and we for that matter) is not in control of his own life. Rather the choices he makes fit perfectly into “The Plan” that’s been written by “the Chairman”.
In relation to my earlier statement I have to say that Nolfi’s picture looks stunning but his natural urban aesthetic doesn’t overpower the story. Sleek contemporary production design and elegant costumes characterize the high-concept story and the wraithlike agents who shape our destinies. Topically we’re dealing with some heavy material but Nolfi and editor Jay Rabinowitz move the action along at a brisk pace that keeps you engaged and entertained without having to try. The film is properly proportioned as a chase thriller romantic adventure and sci-fi fantasy and thankfully no component overshadows another.
Setting the film in the world of politics and big business helps make its larger-than-life revelations a bit more accessible (as do appearances from Michael Bloomberg Jon Stewart and Chuck Scarborough) while providing sub-text about the corruption involved in elections and campaigns (there are conspicuous shades of The Manchurian Candidate in the movie) but the writer-director often tries too hard for broad appeal. For a film with existential implications as severe as they are here the dialogue is at times hokey and superficial. Dick’s source material is far more abstract and Nolfi for the sake of commercial success panders to the palette of soccer moms and mallrats.
What’s worse is his unwarranted exposition of the Bureau a shadowy organization whose major allure is anonymity. Some secrets are best kept and less can be so much more when crafting a mysterious atmosphere; Nolfi reaches that level of magnetic curiosity but squanders it as he reveals the truth about the Bureau and its grand scheme. On the other hand he brushes over the technical lingo between agents Harry Mitchell (Anthony Mackie) McCrady (Anthony Ruivivar) and others without explanation perhaps hoping that the ambiguous terminology will fool you into thinking that his script is smarter than it really is.
Even though Nolfi’s allegorical conclusions are uncomfortably ham-fisted the chemistry between Damon and Blunt alone is enough to enchant you; this is one highly watchable cinematic pairing that should be revisited as soon as possible. Their innocent relationship blossoms organically and together they make it seem as natural on screen as it is for their star-crossed characters. Even if you have a hard time believing in higher powers or manipulative Orwellian forces you’ll have faith in David and Elise’s fated relationship one of the most captivating couplings I’ve seen on the big-screen in some time.
Invincible is Rudy and The Rookie all rolled into one. Set in the mid-‘70s Mark Wahlberg stars as the real-life Vince Papale a blue-collar Philadelphian down on his luck after his wife leaves him. His only solace is playing football with his cronies and rooting for his beloved Philadelphia Eagles who are in a real rut. Newly hired head coach the legendary Dick Vermeil (Greg Kinnear) decides to infuse some new blood into the team by holding open tryouts. All of Vince’s friends think he’d be perfect and urge him to go for it. He does makes it and is soon playing with some of his idols much to their chagrin. I mean who is this punk anyway? Sure he’s got some excellent instincts but can he really be a NFL player with no experience? Yes in fact he can proving to all those regular Joes out there you can live the dream. Yeah yeah. Unfortunately none of the actors really add anything either. Wahlberg is definitely a natural to play this kind of role having already done so in Rock Star. At least in Invincible he gets to show off some of his athletic abilities rather than just his bare chest in black leather pants. But the performance is run of the mill. As is Kinnear who as Vermeil takes on the headaches of turning a losing team into winners all while his supportive wife sweetly reassures him he’s doing the very best he can. Seen it. To their credit some of the supporting actors—including Kirk Acevedo (The New World) Michael Kelly (Dawn of the Dead) and Michael Rispoli (Mr. 3000)—paint a convincing picture of genuine camaraderie between local Philadelphians. And Elizabeth Banks (The 40 Year-Old Virgin) rounds things out as Vince’s cute love interest (and eventual real-life wife) who knows a few things about football by golly. You’d think Invincible would be a no-brainer feel-good kind of sports flick. It’s based on a real-life person has that whole underdog thing going for it and it’s football. What could go wrong with that? Nothing really besides the fact it’s been done about a hundred times over—and has now been left in the hands of newbies. First-time director Ericson Core a former cinematographer and writer Brad Gann are clearly green doing things by the play book line for line. It’s scary helming a feature film for a big studio like Disney who had such sport hits like The Rookie and Remember the Titans. Perhaps Core wanted to go more out on a limb but was reigned in. Who knows? The football scenes are definitely the highlight and Core handles the action well. I mean you do want Papale to prove himself the natural athlete he truly is and make all his homies proud. But the rest of it is just blah.
Based on an autobiographical novel by British author Nick Hornby about his obsession with football (soccer to us American folk) Fever Pitch gets a stateside makeover. Of course the term "sports fanatic" takes on a whole new meaning when you're talking about an avid Red Sox follower. I mean it takes a special kind of person to unconditionally love a baseball team that until last year was considered cursed because it hadn't won a World Series since 1918. This is what business consultant Lindsay Meeks (Drew Barrymore) learns when she meets and falls for Ben Wrightman (Jimmy Fallon) a charming happy-go-lucky high school math teacher who also happens to be a Red Sox nut. Since they fall in love during the winter Lindsay is already hooked once summertime rolls around and she witnesses how truly deep Ben's obsession goes. That's OK she can handle it. She's an ambitious workaholic bucking for a promotion and can relate. But really she can't. Ben's level of commitment to the team goes way beyond what she expected and Lindsay realizes she needs more from him than he seems willing to give. Can Ben give up his beloved Bosox--even as they enter into one of the most incredible seasons in baseball history--just so he can be with his beloved? Ah the course of true love never runs smooth.
It took her awhile to find her true calling but Drew Barrymore has finally cornered the market on sweet and appealing romantic comedies. The Wedding Singer Never Been Kissed 50 First Dates all hit home runs. It's because Barrymore plays it smart and finds the right leading guys to connect with and she's got her own obsession with Saturday Night Live alums. First Adam Sandler and now Fallon. For all his juvenile behavior on SNL Fallon actually pulls off Pitch's very adult romantic duties with aplomb even if he still maintains his ever-present boyish quality. The best thing about these two is that they make Lindsay and Ben's love affair and its progression genuine. From the first date during which Lindsay comes down with the stomach flu and Ben gently takes care of her to their bittersweet split after he blames her for missing the best game the Red Sox ever played against rivals the New York Yankees their relationship never rings untrue. It'd be nice to see them paired up again. Maybe they could have a love triangle with Sandler. Yeah that's the ticket!
They can do it. Peter and Bobby Farrelly can actually make a movie that doesn't include one fart joke. Wow. So what do you think it is about Fever Pitch a cute love story that curves dangerously away from their usual broad and outlandish efforts that appeals to the brothers Farrelly? Could it be that they are enormous Red Sox fans? Aha! Apparently the guys had to chase this one pretty hard before the powers that be decided to let these two pranksters handle the job. But they had help. Scripted by another well-known comedy duo City Slickers' Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel Fever Pitch starts off slow but builds momentum. It keeps to the classic boy-meets-girl boy-loses-girl and boy-gets-girl-back scenario but adds in the whole baseball extremist element. To be honest it's pretty darn fascinating to learn about the Red Sox's romantic heart-wrenching superstitious history. But the most amazing thing about the making of Fever Pitch is that it actually had to be done on the fly--well at least the ending. As it turns out during the filming the Boston Red Sox actually went on to win that elusive World Series championship. No one thought it was going to happen. No one planned for it. But it sure makes for a fairy-tale ending doesn't it?