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.
In yet ANOTHER summer romp from the Judd Apatow factory line Dale Denton (Seth Rogen) is a beefy rotund guy who delivers subpoenas for a living. He also dates a young jail-bait cutie Angie (Amber Heard) when he’s not visiting his sweet stoner of a pot dealer Saul Silver (James Franco) to score the latest and greatest weed. In this case that’s the title star Pineapple Express a marijuana combination so lethal and unique Dale is almost (we said ALMOST) reluctant to destroy it by inhaling. But when he sets out to deliver a subpoena to drug kingpin Ted Jones (Gary Cole) he is spotted by the man as he commits a bloody murder. Freaking out Dale ditches the scene so fast he dumps some of the precious weed leaving it behind like a trail of breadcrumbs dropped by Hansel leading a trail to Saul. Reefer madness ensues as a full-blown freak out is set in motion and Dale and Saul hit the pedal to the metal in order to evade Ted and his loony goons (Kevin Corrigan and Craig Robinson). This leads to so many crazy-weird encounters and near-death experiences it makes a Road Runner cartoon look like the work of Ingmar Bergman by comparison. Smashed heads sliced and diced ears banged up bodies galore--you want it Pineapple Express has got it. As the film’s ad line implores ‘put that in your pipe and smoke it!’ Rogen and Franco are the yin and yang of comedy here with wildly divergent styles that complement each other perfectly. Rogen plays Dale with such over-the-top hysteria and a high pitched sense of desperation he’s fun to watch--until you just want him to calm down and take a breath. Franco steals the film lock stock and barrel with his stoned-out weed maestro who clearly has ingested so much of the stuff himself that he qualifies for a place in the slacker hall of fame. With his parade of non-sequiturs and nonsensical ramblings Franco turns gentle Saul into one of the year’s most endearing and hilarious creations. Although the movie belongs to these two special mention should also go to Danny McBride who takes it on the chin (and everywhere else) as Red Saul’s unfaithful drug buddy and supplier. Cole is all evil menace while Rosie Perez shows up as his cop-tease accomplice. David Gordon Green a director previously known only for small downer indie films like All The Real Girls and Snow Angels seems to be getting off on all the toys producer Apatow has given him to play with. Adeptly handling the car crashes extreme violence and general anarchy on screen Green keeps the action moving and the laughs coming. The film is handsomely shot and production values are strong even though what’s on screen basically comes down to a how-can-you-top-this destruction derby. Working off a script from Superbad writers Rogen and his partner Evan Goldberg Green manages to evoke the spirit of a mismatched buddy movie along the lines of a Midnight Run but ratchets up speed tempo and noise levels to the needs of the average attention span for this type of flick. Take that Harold and Kumar! Although not as supergood as Superbad it’s all a lot of fun if you like your frivolity generously mixed with carnage. Huey Lewis also contributes a catchy title song that perfectly captures the whacked-out stoner spirit of the whole enterprise.
Think Mean Girls meets High School Musical meets whatever other high school teen scenario you can think of. Here four teenage girls make up the Bratz contingency each come from different ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds—just like the dolls they are based on. There’s Yasmin (Nathalia Ramos) a quiet Latina beauty with a great voice; Sasha (Logan Browning) the outgoing black cheerleader who loves to dance; Jade (Janel Parrish) a lovely Asian fashionista who also a wiz in chemistry; and Cloe (Skyler Shayne) the tall Caucasian blonde who despite being a klutz is a star on the soccer field. They’ve been best friends forever (or BFF as they lovingly refer to it) but once they hit high school they drift apart and into respective cliques organized by the narcissistic class president Meredith (Cheslea Staub). Still these BFF’s—who live for clothes make-up and hair products—won’t be pushed down. They’re gonna shake things up and prove it’s always best to just be yourself and stick together. You can’t really blame the unknown girls—each very cute in their own way—for wanting to bring the Bratz dolls to life. It’s a big deal! They get to sing and dance and wear all these cool clothes! They get to throw food in a cafeteria lunch fight! They get to serve sweets at Meredith’s Sweet 16 party dressed as clowns and still look fabulous! All the young girls in the audience will idolize them and wish they were a Brat too (perhaps to their parents’ chagrin). No it’s the adults in the movie you have to scratch your head about and ask “Do they really need the money that bad?” Character actors such as Lainie Kazan who plays Yasmin’s wise grandmother and Jon Voight as the inept high school principal and Meredith’s father just embarrass themselves over and over again—especially Voight who along with his mediocre appearance in Transformers has become the go-to guy to star in movies based on toys. And what’s with this latest trend to make live-action flicks based on toys? You can understand Transformers because they already had their own cartoon show and you know the movie would at least be action-packed full of cool visual effects. But a Bratz movie is a little too much. Even though it tries really hard to send positive messages there’s really nothing redeeming about turning little dolls—who frankly dress a little on the trashy side—into flesh-and-blood teenagers obsessed with how they look and dealing with high school politics. Bratz really only distinguishes itself from other Mean Girls-type movies because of the toy franchise. It would have been easier to take had it aired on the Disney Channel.
Maybe it’s Accepted’s whole getting-into-college experience that grabs you. Most people have gone through it at one point or another--and for those high school seniors who are about to go through it Accepted should ring true for them too. The film revolves around Bartleby “B” Gaines (Justin Long) who has been rejected again and again from the colleges he’s applied to. It’s very frustrating especially with his parents breathing down his neck. So what does the clever B do? Simple: Open his own university the esteemed South Harmon Institute of Technology (of course the acronym is not missed). Juggling the balls delicately in the air B and his other college-less friends forge ahead with maintaining a fake functioning university. But it may take more than just sleight of hand to keep the very free-forum South Harmon going which has now gained quite a name for itself in the short time its been open. A lot more. Long has been turning in hilarious performances as awkward but lovable goofballs in comedies such as Dodgeball and Galaxy Quest--and is probably most recognizable right now as the Mac guy who makes fun of the Dell guy in those Apple computer ads. But the affable actor finally gets his big shot at full-fledged goofball-hood successfully carrying Accepted on his own. As B you quickly warm up to his easygoing yet quietly sarcastic style a method he told Entertainment Weekly he developed under the tutelage of fellow Frat Packer Vince Vaughn. Of course in Accepted Long has some help too. There’s some strong supporting bits especially from comedian and The Daily Show regular Lewis Black as Uncle Ben the university’s neurotic “we’re mad as hell and we aren’t going to take it anymore” make-believe dean. Good stuff. Rounding out the colorful cast is cute-as-a-button Blake Lively (The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants) playing the girl-next-door B adores who defects to SHI...well you get the picture. You have to admit college-based comedies are usually mindless fun and Accepted is no exception. The premise alone lends itself to all kinds of mishaps and guffaws especially when B and the gang turn a deserted former mental institution into an institution of higher learning. In his directorial debut Steve Pink--best known for co-writing comedies such as High Fidelity and Grosse Pointe Blank--understands this and hits most of the right beats. But unfortunately Accepted can’t keep up its inimitable momentum--as B fights for the school’s unique curriculum as well as its right to exist at all--becoming Revenge of the Nerds meets Animal House meets Old School meets...I could go on forever. Maybe in the hands of a more experienced filmmaker Accepted could have been taken to its own higher level instead of lapsing into standard underdog territory.
Everything appears to be status quo between humans and mutants. There’s a president who is sympathetic towards mutants Prof. Charles Xavier’s (Patrick Stewart) school is thriving and Magneto (Ian McKellen) is quiet--for the moment. But when a “cure” for mutancy is discovered which would give those with the mutant gene the choice to give up their powers and become human Magneto sees red. Cure mutants? Dem’s fightin’ words. With a few more allies on his side--including the resurrected Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) who now calls herself the Phoenix and has unlimited powers--Magneto prepares to trigger the war to end all wars while the X-Men--lead by the stalwart Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) and milquetoasty Storm (Halle Berry)--try to stop him. I seriously doubt this is really their Last Stand. All the usual suspects are back. Stewart is once again sufficiently wise as Xavier while McKellen’s Magneto continues to be one of the cooler comic-book villains. It’s amusing to watch him calmly mangle cars or dislodge the Golden Gate bridge with a gleam in his eye. Janssen also seems to relish playing dual roles--the tormented Grey and her evil alter ego Phoenix who is one scary broad. Unfortunately Jackman doesn’t have as much to chew on in Last Stand as he did in X2 and Berry is once again only good for drumming up fog. But the new mutants are kind of fun: Ellen Page (so deadly in Hard Candy) plays sweet this time as Kitty Pryde who can “phase” through solid material; Vinnie Jones (Snatch) is boisterous as the aptly named Juggernaut; Kelsey Grammer is diplomatic as the highly intelligent--and very blue--Dr. Hank McCoy aka Beast; and Dania Ramirez (Fat Albert) as the blink-of-an-eye quick Callisto gets to kick Storm’s ass. Cool cat fight. How dare director Bryan Singer leave his X-Men to go direct another superhero movie even if it is Superman Returns. If Wolverine had anything to say about he might have ripped Singer a new one. You really do feel Singer’s absence in The Last Stand. All of the director’s tormented pathos towards his mutant comrades and their struggles to live in the human world are not as prevalent in this third installment. Instead we’ve got happy-go-lucky director Brett Ratner of Rush Hour fame who turns The Last Stand into one giant id--big explosive and campy. Of course to his credit Ratner is pretty good at delivering a rousing albeit superficial action movie. It’s just not as gripping as X2. But listen the spirit of the comic is already built in from the previous installments so in essence we already know these characters pretty well. Do we really need more angst?