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.
Dinner for Schmucks is based on a French film but don’t hold that against it. Its similarities to Le Diner de Cons Francis Veber’s 1998 farce about a group of cynical publishing executives who host a weekly “dinner for idiots ” are primarily conceptual. To make it suitable for American audiences director Jay Roach (of Austin Powers and Meet the Parents fame) and screenwriters David Guion and Michael Handelman safely cleansed their big-budget adaptation of any smoking philandering “mean-spiritedness ” or any other icky behavior that might make some of us Yanks uncomfortable. Whew.
Preeminent straight man Paul Rudd (Role Models I Love You Man) plays Tim an ambitious young investment banker on the verge of joining the elite ranks at his firm. But in order to be fully inducted into the executive inner circle he must first participate in a peculiar ritual called the “Dinner for Winners ” a monthly event hosted by his boss Lance (Bruce Greenwood) to which each attendee is charged with bringing a high-functioning dimwit for the rest of the guests to ridicule. More than just a company tradition it’s an opportunity for high-climbers like Tim to prove their mettle in an area crucial to the success of stereotypically cutthroat businessmen: exhibiting callous disregard for those who exist on the fringes of society. Needless to say attendance at the dinner is not optional.
Tim believes he’s found the ideal dinner guest when he literally runs into Barry (Steve Carell) a clumsy bespectacled IRS employee whose great passion in life involves staging elaborate dioramas with taxidermic mice. Several of Barry’s exquisitely strange creations dubbed “mouseterpieces ” are depicted in the film’s opening sequence which proudly nods to the intricate quirk of Wes Anderson. (Its soundtrack even apes his musical tastes playing an obscure song from a legendary rock band: the Beatles’ Fool on the Hill a melancholy little number that cost a paltry $1.5 million to license.)
That’s where the comparisons to Anderson’s work end. As a director Roach’s greatest asset has always been his ability to assemble a group of talented comic actors and hand them the reigns trusting that they’ll produce enough funny material for him to sow together into a relatively cohesive piece. It’s what fueled Roach’s better works like the first Austin Powers flick and it’s ultimately what saves Dinner for Schmucks from falling victim to the director’s less admirable qualities namely a penchant for contrived and predictable situational humor an over-reliance on cheap physical and sight gags and a general disregard for plot and pacing.
Carell has carved a lucrative niche for himself playing charmingly oblivious goofballs of varying levels of competence and he earns every dime of his reported $15 million paycheck in this film. Rudd’s character for all his caustic wit isn’t nearly as manipulative or amoral as his French counterpart; we never truly believe him capable of deliberately humiliating an innocent like Barry even if he does drive a Porsche.
But they labor heroically to make the most of their suboptimal comedic circumstances forming an amiable intermittently hilarious odd-couple dynamic as Tim struggles to contain the chaos wrought by Barry. That combined with the efforts of Jemaine Clement and Zach Galifianakis both sublime in supporting roles are what ultimately what elevate the film above its meagre material. These are guys who could send us into hysterics reading a grocery list which in this case would constitute an upgrade over the Dinner for Schmucks screenplay.
WHAT IT’S ABOUT?
Disney takes another whack at “Witch Mountain” having found success more than three decades ago with Escape to Witch Mountain and its sequel. Now the story has been contemporized and Bourne-ified to create what is essentially a nonstop breathless race across long winding roads and two worlds competing for superiority. As in the original two children with extraordinary powers seek to save Earth and their own planet from evil forces. They waste no time jumping into a hapless Las Vegas taxi driver’s cab ordering him to put the pedal to the metal. It soon becomes clear the secret to their quest lies somewhere in Witch Mountain a place where top-secret government activity has been going on for years. With their own alien military leaders in favor of a violent takeover and the U.S. leaders ready for confrontation these two teens Sara and Seth plus their cabbie Jack Bruno race against time to find a better solution for both of their worlds.
WHO’S IN IT?
Fast becoming Disney’s go-to guy Dwayne Johnson (formerly known as The Rock) follows up his hit football comedy The Game Plan with another family-oriented tale in which he again gets upstaged by kids. His Jack Bruno proves the perfect foil this time as he gets to be funny cynical commanding and heroic all in the course of about 97 minutes. As events careen out of his control Johnson grows increasingly exasperated and that’s part of the fun. As Sara a smart extraterrestrial teen Anna-Sophia Robb (Bridge to Terabithia) is ideally cast bringing a nice believability to the role without falling into stereotypes. Seth is well played but with one-note earnestness by Alexander Ludwig who still comes off a little too robotic at times. As an astrophysicist who gets caught up in the trio’s predicament Carla Gugino is a delight. Lead among the antagonists is Irish actor Ciaran Hinds who is properly mean and heartless when it comes to aliens of any stripe. Director Garry Marshall has an amusing cameo as a self-styled UFO expert and there are brief but welcome appearances by the all-grown-up Kim Richards and Ike Eisenmann who played the ‘70s incarnation of the alien kids in the earlier films. Richards’ face-to-face meeting with Robb is especially sweet.
The filmmakers wisely keep the retro tone of the book and earlier films while using state-of-the-art visual effects and movie magic. A lot of sci-fi movies have come along since Escape to Witch Mountain premiered in 1975 – see Star Wars Close Encounters and E.T. And while Witch Mountain circa 2009 won’t do anything to make us forget those classics it’s good fun -- like welcoming back an old friend.
There’s no complexity in sight and the story isn’t given a lot of time to breathe. We barely get to know Jack Bruno before the kids have hijacked his cab and the whirlwind begins. A little more exposition and plot development would have been welcomed for those with an attention span beyond two minutes.
There are lots of first-rate action set pieces including a collision with a train and a chase through a Vegas casino but the climactic spaceship battle can’t be topped. Kids are going to eat this sequence up.
After showing Jack her alien prowess for the first time by making various items in his cab float in mid-air Sara says “you humans don’t move objects because you don’t develop your full brain capacity”. Bruno replies “No I don’t do it because it’s kind of creepy.”
The first Santa Clause had a somewhat clever premise on how an ordinary guy can become Santa Claus just by putting on the red suit while the second Clause was about finding a Mrs. Claus. What’s the third clause? The Escape Clause which allows anyone who is Santa the option to give it all up and become a mortal man again. Of course Scott Calvin (Tim Allen) aka the current Santa has no intentions of leaving the job. But his lovely wife Carol (Elizabeth Mitchell) is expecting their first child and missing home a great deal so Scott has to juggle having his in-laws (Alan Arkin and Ann-Margaret) come to the North Pole--which he has to disguise as Canada to keep the “Secret of Santa” alive--with getting ready for Christmas. It’s kind of hectic. And throwing a huge wrench in the whole deal is the envious Jack Frost (Martin Short). Relegated as the “opening act” to Christmas Frost wants his own gig and sabotages Scott at every turn in order to steal the job away from him. There’s no nipping at your nose with this guy; it’s all-out war. Allen makes no apologies for his career. Why should he? He’s been moderately successful playing everyday dads in Disney comedies displaying the right mix of milquetoast-iness and humor. Plus as Scott/Santa he also gets to be sentimental. I just wonder if he still wouldn’t like to do something more cutting edge? Short on the other hand never could find the right kind of starring vehicle for himself but instead has created some hilarious supporting characters (if you don’t believe me rent The Big Picture). Jack Frost is another one to add to the list. The comedian has way too much fun playing the nasty ice man with steely blue eyes a smart--if frosty--three-piece suit and who gets to say lines like “I invented ‘Chill!’” Mitchell (TV’s Lost) reprises her role as the sweet-as-pie Mrs. Claus and has some nice moments with Scott. And what a surprise to see Alan Arkin and Ann-Margaret in this! They are perfect as the meddling in-laws especially Arkin who finds everything wrong with Scott and his “toy factory.” Buena Vista didn’t feel it was necessary to pre-screen Santa Clause 3 for critics. They probably believe the audiences for this franchise is already built in and they don’t need jaded critics slamming the film for being silly and meaningless. Smart. But as much as it pains me to say it Santa Clause 3 directed by Michael Lembeck (who did Santa Clause 2) really isn’t that awful. Yes it’s all terribly predictable with the schmaltz so thick you could cut it with a knife. But there’s also something surprisingly endearing about these movies. They have always provided a sort of warm family-friendly feel without too much forced circumstances—and most importantly they are legitimate Christmas movies--even its being released just as we are putting away the Halloween decorations. Honestly I’d take a Santa Clause 3 over a Christmas with the Kranks (sorry Tim Allen) any day.