Heaven is For Real


A little father and son talk.

A little father and son talk.

(2014) Faith (TriStar) Greg Kinnear, Kelly Reilly, Connor Corum, Marge Martindale, Thomas Haden Church, Lane Styles, Jacob Vargas, Thanya Romero, Danso Gordon, Rob Moran, Nancy Sorel, Darcy Fehr, Vivian Winther, Pete Hudson, Ursula Clark, Mike Mohrhardt, Bryan Clark, Randy Apostle, Julia Arkos, Candace Smith, Cruise Brown, Amber Lynn Partridge. Directed by Randall Wallace

Disclaimer: I’m not a big fan of organized religion or of faith-based movies. I have an aversion to being preached to. Not that I have an issue with people having faith or even religion – there are a lot of good things that organized religions do, but there are also some questionable things and I’m talking about all faiths here, not just one in particular. When someone tells me that there is only one way to get to heaven, I smell flim-flammery.

However, faith and religion are different things entirely. While religion tends to codify our faith, faith can exist without religion (but not vice versa). Religion helps those with faith understand just what it is they have faith in. However, when that faith is confronted with something that we can’t really explain, that faith is shaken to the core, severely tested. It all comes down to belief.

Todd Burpo (Kinnear) is a Wesleyan pastor in the small farming community of Imperial, Nebraska. Besides that, he repairs garage door openers, coaches wrestling and the local high school and is a volunteer fireman. If that wasn’t enough to fill up his day, he dotes on his four-year-old son Colton (Corum), his older sister Cassie (Styles) and his wife Sonja (Reilly) who also directs the music group at the church. If there ever was a Norman Rockwell life, Pastor Burpo was living it.

During a softball game, the pastor slides hard into third base and suffers a severe spiral fracture in his right leg, forcing him to the sidelines on all his endeavors for a few weeks. No sooner has he come back to work when he collapses on the altar during his sermon, felled by kidney stones. The medical bills begin to pile up and there isn’t enough money.

Things go from bad to worse. After a family trip to Denver, both Cassie and Colton come down with the flu. Cassie recovers but Colton doesn’t. He starts to get worse. His parents rush him to the hospital (which is a bit of a hike from Imperial) and once there, it is determined that Colton’s appendix had burst. He is rushed into surgery, but the outlook isn’t hopeful.

However, the little boy manages to pull through. Cue big sigh of relief from everyone involved. But then little Colton starts telling his Dad about his experience; how he found himself floating above the operating table and watching the doctors work on him. How he could see his mother calling friends on the phone and asking them to pray for him. How he saw his Dad in the chapel, yelling at God and venting. Todd is at first bemused by this; these types of experiences are not unheard of after all.

But then he tells his father that he actually visited heaven, and goes on to describe it. While he was there, he heard choirs of angels singing to him, giggling when young Colton asked if they could sing “We Will Rock You” by Queen (a Burpo family sing-along favorite). He also sees Jesus, riding on a horse that is all the colors of the rainbow. He sits in Jesus’ lap, and describes him as having blue/green eyes.

Todd passes this off as his son’s vivid imagination coupled with being surrounded with religious imagery all his life. Then Colton starts giving some details about people he meets in Heaven including a sister whom his mother had miscarried; neither Todd nor Sonja had told him anything about that incident. Todd’s faith is shaken to the core. How can he continue to be the effective pastor he has always been when he isn’t sure that his son has really had this experience he is so sure he’s had?

Wallace, who wrote Braveheart and directed such fine movies as The Man in the Iron Mask and Secretariat  makes some smart choices here. He allows viewers to make their own decisions as to whether Colton’s experience was legitimate and if he’d actually been to Heaven. His father believes it, that is for certain. Clearly, it’s not something that can be proven but it must be taken on faith.

That can be difficult. Church and Martindale play friends of the Burpos as well as members of the board of the church who have a difficult time in accepting Colton’s story (and both do bang-up jobs for the record), and worry about the effect that the growing media circus will have on their small town and their church. I found myself wondering why devout Christians would be anything but thrilled at “proof” that heaven is for real. I guess it’s as hard to see your beliefs proven to be true as it is to see them proven to be false.

Kinnear is the glue that holds the film together. He is rock solid, charismatic and crazy likable. We are reminded once again that he is one of those actors who should be an A-lister but for whatever reason has never gotten the role that pushes him over the top. Given the box office success of this film, we may finally get to see that happen.

As for the actor that played young Colton, I have to be honest although it doesn’t make me happy to do so – he is stiff and unnatural. I try to give leeway to young actors because it’s not fair to hold them to standards that you would hold an adult to. However, in this case because he’s so integral to the story and to the film, I would be amiss in not at least mentioning that you need to expect that his line readings can sometimes remind you that he is a kid reading words rather than a character saying them. There is a huge difference and it did for me at least take me out of the movie at times.

The movie and the book that it came from has sparked a certain amount of controversy. Some Christian publications have condemned the book for not having a Biblical version of Heaven – some film critics have panned the film for its depiction of billowing clouds, WASP-ish Jesus (although the painting of him that Colton identified as the Jesus he saw in heaven that was painted by a Serbian girl who had a similar experience looked distinctly Semitic to my eyes) and  angelic chorales was too over-the-top. I never realized that Heaven was such a controversial subject.

And of course, atheists and non-believers have been smug and snarky in their contempt for the film. It’s this kind of treatment that adds fuel for the Fox News assertion that there is a war on Christianity, albeit that on Fox News there’s always a war on something. People have the right to believe as they choose; just because you believe in one thing doesn’t make you automatically better than people who believe in another. Belief is not about being superior to everyone else; it’s about how you choose to live your life and what you choose to embrace as fact even if you cannot prove it as such.

Living in the Bible Belt gives me a certain perspective. Certainly most of the audience that is seeing this movie is Christian or leans that way. During many points in the film, there was audible sniffling and I’ll admit to getting misty-eyed myself. I suspect few atheists will go to see this and I can’t see a lot of non-Christians making the effort either. This is certainly aimed at one segment of the movie-going audience but it serves them well, yet for those who are less religious at least it treats the subject with respect and as I said earlier, allows us to reach our own conclusions.

I have my own conclusions and my own beliefs as to what happens after we die. The fact of the matter is, as Kinnear’s character says during the film quoting his grandfather, is that by the time we know for sure what does happen to us it’s too late to tell anybody about it. Maybe Colton actually did visit heaven; maybe it’s something that his mind did to help him cope with a crisis he couldn’t understand. We will never know for certain either way. Whichever explanation you choose to believe you have to take on faith. And that my friends is the crux of that human ability to accept things we cannot prove.

REASONS TO GO: Kinnear is solid. Raises some real questions about faith.

REASONS TO STAY: Gets preachy in places. Corum not the most natural of actors.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some medical situations involving a child as well as some thematic elements which small children may not understand or be disturbed about.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was filmed mostly around Winnipeg, Manitoba in Canada.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/5/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 49% positive reviews. Metacritic: 47/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Five People You Meet in Heaven

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Love Me

New Releases for the Week of April 18, 2014


Transcendence

TRANSCENDENCE

(Warner Brothers) Johnny Depp, Paul Bettany, Rebecca Hall, Kate Mara, Morgan Freeman, Cillian Murphy, Cole Hauser, Clifton Collins Jr., Lukas Haas. Directed by Wally Pfister

A brilliant A.I. engineer is on the verge of a game-changing breakthrough when he is shot with a radioactive bullet by members of an anti-technology group. His wife and best friend know his only chance for survival is to finish his experiment – to download his intelligence and essence into a computer. Unsure about the ethics of such an endeavor, they nonetheless proceed – and soon discover their worst fears being realized.

See the trailer, clips, interviews, promos and a featurette here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard, IMAX (opens Thursday)

Genre: Science Fiction

Rating: PG-13 (for sci-fi action and violence, some bloody images, brief strong language and sensuality)

2 States

(UTV) Arjun Kapoor, Alia Bhatt, Amrita Singh, Revathy. A Punjabi boy and a Tamil girl face overwhelming obstacles in trying to get their parents to allow a marriage between the two of them. This is based on the semi-autobiographical novel by Chetan Bhagat.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Bollywood

Rating: NR

Bears

(DisneyNature) John C. Reilly (voice). Follows two new mama bears in the rugged, majestic and often dangerous terrain of Alaska as they try to teach their cubs everything they need to know to survive – while protecting them from the many dangers of the Alaskan wilderness.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard (opens Thursday)

Genre: Nature Documentary

Rating: G

A Haunted House 2

(Open Road) Marlon Wayans, Gabriel Iglesias, Jaime Pressly, Essence Atkins. After exorcising the demons from his last girlfriend, a man starts fresh with his new girlfriend and her two children in a new house. Unfortunately, supernatural trouble follows him as he starts to realize that it may not be the house that’s haunted – maybe it IS him!

See the trailer, interviews, clips and B-Roll video here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard (opens Thursday)

Genre: Horror Spoof

Rating: R (for crude and sexual content, nudity, pervasive language, drug use and some violent images)

Heaven is For Real

(Tri-Star) Greg Kinnear, Kelly Reilly, Margo Martindale, Thomas Haden Church. Based on actual events, this details the story of a young boy who lies near death’s door and makes a miraculous recovery. When he comes to, he claims he has been to heaven and while there are those who are skeptical, his pastor father is disturbed that his son knows things that happened before he was born – things he couldn’t possibly know, providing a challenge to his faith and his beliefs.

See the trailer, clips, featurettes, interviews and B-Roll video here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard (opened Wednesday)

Genre: Faith-Based Drama

Rating: PG (for thematic material including some medical situations)

Le Week-End

(Music Box) Jim Broadbent, Lindsay Duncan, Jeff Goldblum, Judith Davis. A British company, married for umpteen years, returns to the scene of the crime – their honeymoon in Paris. Trying to rekindle the romance that has been missing from their relationship, they succeed and then some as the romance of the City of Lights takes hold.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Drama

Rating: R (for language and some sexual content)

Lotoman 003

(Panamericana) Dalisa Alegria, Fernando Carrillo, Julian Gil, Fausto Mata. This hit comedy franchise from the Dominican Republic makes it’s American debut in select theaters in the U.S.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Comedy

Rating: NR

The Lunchbox

(Sony Classics) Irrfan Khan, Nimrat Kaur, Nakul Vaid, Lillette Dubey.A frustrated housewife cooks lunch for her increasingly distant husband. When her lunchbox is inadvertently sent to the wrong recipient, a correspondence ensues between two lonely souls.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Romance

Rating: PG-13 (for thematic material and smoking)

Make Your Move

(High Top) Derek Hough, BoA, Wesley Jonathan, Will Yun Lee.Two young people from completely different worlds meet in one of New York’s hottest underground clubs and discover that they have common ground in dance.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Urban Dance

Rating: PG-13 (for language including sexual references, and brief violence)

Race Gurram

(Ficus) Shruti K. Haasan, Ravi Kishan, Prikash Raj, Allu Arjun. Two brothers who are polar opposites and constantly squabble and play increasingly spiteful pranks on one another are forced to unite when a corrupt politician wants revenge against the one brother who contested his election.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Bollywood

Rating: NR

Under the Skin

(A24) Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy McWilliams, Lynsey Taylor Mackay, Dougie McConnell.  An alien masquerades as a human woman, using her amazing sexuality to snare human prey. As she spends more time on Earth however, she begins to change as she finds the complexity and joy of human life irresistible, putting her on a collision course with her own kind.

See the trailer, featurettes and a clip here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Sci-Fi Thriller

Rating: R (for graphic nudity, sexual content, some violence and language)

John Carter


 

John Carter

Taylor Kitsch is stunned when Lynn Collins gives him the box office numbers.

(2012) Science Fiction (Disney) Taylor Kitsch, Lynn Collins, Samantha Morton, Mark Strong, Ciaran Hinds, Dominic West, Willem Dafoe, James Purefoy, Daryl Sabara, Polly Walker, Bryan Cranston, Thomas Hayden Church, Rupert Frazer, Nicholas Woodeson, David Schwimmer, Jon Favreau. Directed by Andrew Stanton

 

As a young boy my father introduced me to Edgar Rice Burroughs and his Tarzan books. I read all of them eagerly, but it was the Barsoom series that intrigued me the most. I wasn’t alone in this – notable writers such as Ray Bradbury and Robert A. Heinlein were also heavily influenced by the books, as was scientist Carl Sagan. It has taken more than 79 years of development – from a proposed feature length animation – for the book to finally make the screen.

There is good reason for that. Burroughs had a terrific imagination but was not a gifted writer in many ways. His books were more like travelogues, particularly this series and the plot meandered quite a bit. I can imagine potential screenwriters being plenty frustrated by the lack of inertia as they tried to adapt A Princess of Mars, the first book in the series. At last however, they managed to and the result is one of the more anticipated movies of the Spring.

Ned Burroughs (Sabara) is summoned to the home of his Uncle only to find out that he had passed away shortly before Ned arrived. The instructions left for Ned were cryptic; his Uncle wished to be buried in a crypt that could only be opened from the inside, and a journal was entrusted to Ned which was not to be read for two years.

Ned being a compliant sort follows his Uncle’s wishes to the letter and then begins to read the journal. His uncle, John Carter (Kitsch) had been a cavalry officer in the American Civil War and a good one – but his side had lost. Carter had lost a lot more than that however; his wife and daughter perished in a fire while he was away from his Virginia farm and the grief-stricken Carter went West to find his fortune, a cave of gold that would set him up for life.

He finds that cave, but a lot more as well; a strange bald man with an amulet that transports Carter to Mars accidentally. Well, at first he doesn’t realize he’s on Mars; he just thinks he’s in the desert somewhere. Oddly, he is able to leap great distances (owing to the gravity). Carter is found and captured by green men with four arms and tusks who call themselves Tharks. This particular group is led by Tars Tarkas (Dafoe),who spares Carter because of his amazing leaping ability which Tarkas thinks might be useful. Carter, however, isn’t disposed towards fighting for anybody. He is given to Sola (Morton), a Thark who has a somewhat checkered past but like Tarkas, a good heart.

There is a civil war going on here as well, between two city-states – Helium, led by the noble Tardos Mors (Hinds) and Zodanga, led by the bloodthirsty Sab Than (West). The Zodangans have developed a high tech energy beam that is a devastating weapon wiping out most of the navy of Helium. In order to put the war to a halt, Mors offers Sab Than his own daughter in marriage – Dejah Thoris (Collins).

Despite being a princess, Dejah Thoris is also quite the scientist and warrior herself, not to mention having a will of her own. She has her own ideas of what she wants for her life and they don’t include being married to a bloodthirsty tyrant she has no feelings for. So she does the sensible thing – she runs away. Her intended also does the sensible thing – engages in a battle with her floating barge and shoots it down. She is saved by John Carter and his new friends the Tharks. Seeing how strong he is and how high he can jump gives her ideas – ideas that can lead to an end to war but on Helium’s terms.

However, unbeknownst to either of them there are factions within the Tharks who have a vested interest in Carter meeting an untimely end. Also the Zodangans are getting aid by a mysterious group of wizards who mean to maintain the balance on Mars the old-fashioned way – by installing a puppet dictator who will put an end to strife and rule over the dying planet with an iron fist. However, their plans won’t come to fruition if John Carter has anything to do with it.

Stanton is known for his work with animated features at Pixar – he has already directed Finding Nemo and Wall-E, the latter one of my favorite movies of the last few years. This is his first live feature (although given that a good chunk of his cast is CGI as is much of his environment, it isn’t far from an animated feature) and he acquits himself fairly well. He knows how to tell a good story.

The trouble is, A Princess of Mars isn’t a particularly good story. Once you get past the novelty of being transported to Mars, Carter doesn’t really do a whole lot other than fight and give stirring speeches and Thoris is little more than a damsel in distress. At least both characters are better written here, particularly Thoris.

The problem is that Taylor Kitsch, best-known for his work in “Friday Night Lights,” doesn’t carry the character well. Sure he looks good shirtless (which Carter is for most of the movie) but honestly the movie needs a lead who can do more than jump and posture. John Carter needs to inspire confidence and project heroism and Kitsch does neither. Bill Goodykoontz of the Arizona Republic characterized him as “generic” and that is a perfect description of his performance.

Collins fares better. She might be guilty of trying too hard sometimes but at least she doesn’t phone her performance in (as others do here). She at least makes her character memorable which is hard to do in a movie like this sort.

Too often these days adventure/action films of this sort place an overreliance on special effects and little or none on character. What point is there to all these pretty images if we don’t care about the characters who inhabit them? Sure, the cities and aircraft of Barsoom (Mars) are amazing to look at. The Tharks are impressively realistic. The interiors are sufficiently alien. The movie looks nice.

The action sequences are pretty fine as well, from an arena scene in which Tars Tarkas, Sola and Carter fight a Martian white ape (which is gigantic, furry and not at all ape-like) to a battle aboard a barge where Carter goes leaping about like the Incredible Hulk. That leaping, by the way, is a little bit distracting – it looks silly in places.

Still, while definitely flawed it’s kind of fun as well. If your expectations are too high you’re bound to be disappointed – and quite frankly being a fan of the original novel, I had hoped for better even though I shouldn’t have. After all, as I said earlier, this isn’t an easy story to film.

That doesn’t mean this isn’t worth seeing though, and it most certainly is. There is a lot to admire here, from the vistas and cityscapes to the old-fashioned swashbuckling. Yeah, there are ray guns and swords and sorcery and flying ships and bare-chested heroes – I just wish there might have been a bit more to the characters as well.

REASONS TO GO: Lots of swashbuckling action. Some pretty nifty CG effects.

REASONS TO STAY: Little to no substance. Battle sequences often confusing.

FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of action and violence, not to mention a good deal of royal blue blood and ichors.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Most of the movie was filmed in Utah because of its barren landscape with unusual rock formations giving it an otherworldly look. Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote A Princess of Mars on which the movie is based while residing in Utah.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/19/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 51% positive reviews. Metacritic: 52/100. The reviews are about as mixed as you can get them.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time

DOG LOVERS: You wouldn’t think there would be dogs on Mars but there is an adorable dog-like creature that runs unbelievably fast. Like, autobahn fast.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: A Thousand Words

New Releases for the Week of March 9, 2012


March 9, 2012

JOHN CARTER

(Disney) Taylor Kitsch, Lynn Collins, Willem Dafoe, Samantha Morton, Mark Strong, Ciaran Hinds, Dominic West, James Purefoy, Bryan Cranston, Thomas Haden Church. Directed by Andrew Stanton

A Civil War veteran finds himself inexplicably transported to a strange new world. No, not Bolivia – Mars. He finds himself caught up in a genocidal civil war there, falling in with an unexpected ally, an eight-foot-tall four-armed green man named Tars Tarkas and the beautiful Martian princess (and more human-looking) Dejah Thoris. Carter will have to confront the demons of his past and learn from them if he is to save himself and Mars. From the series of books by “Tarzan” creator Edgar Rice Burroughs.

See the trailer, clips, promos, featurettes and a film short here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard, 3D and IMAX 3D

Genre: Science Fiction

Rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences of violence and action)

A Separation

(Sony Classics) Leila Hatami, Peyman Moaadi, Shahab Hosseini, Sareh Bayat. An Iranian woman initiates divorce proceedings to get custody of her daughter and move away from their home which her husband won’t leave because he is caring for his Alzheimer’s-stricken father. The daughter winds up staying and the man hires a maid to help care for his father, but discovers she’s been lying to him and events begin to escalate beyond control.

See the trailer and a clip here.

For more on the movie this is the website

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Drama

Rating: PG-13 (for mature thematic material)

A Thousand Words

(Paramount) Eddie Murphy, Kerry Washington, Cliff Curtis, Allison Janney. A glib literary agent who prides himself over being able to talk anyone into anything discovers that after failing to get a new age guru for representation that a bodhi tree has miraculously appeared in his yard. For every word the agent speaks, a leaf will fall from the tree and once the tree is bare, both the agent and the tree will die. He will have to use different means of communicating and treasure his words wisely.

See the trailer and a clip here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Comedy

Rating: PG-13 (for sexual situations including dialogue, language and some drug-related humor)

Deadline

(Roadside Attractions) Eric Roberts, Steve Talley, J.D. Souther, Anna Felix.  An investigative journalist re-opens a case of an African-American boy who had been murdered twenty years earlier. The case had never been properly investigated and thus the murderer had gone uncharged for the crime, let alone punished for it. Inspired by actual events, the movie is based on a novel called “Grievances” by Mark Ethridge.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: True-Life Drama

Rating: PG-13 (for sexual content, language, some violence and thematic material)

Friends With Kids

(Roadside Attractions) Adam Scott, Jennifer Westfeldt, Jon Hamm, Kristen Wiig.  A group of young twenty-somethings who have been friends for awhile have mostly paired off. The last two singles in the group observe the effect of kids on the lives of their friends and decide they want a child of their own – they just don’t want to get married to each other so they decide to have a kid together – and date other people.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Comedy

Rating: R (for sexual content and language)

Silent House

(Open Road) Elizabeth Olsen, Adam Trese, Eric Sheffer Stevens, Julia Taylor Ross. A young woman and her father decide to renovate their secluded lake house. While there they are mysteriously sealed in and all contact with the outside world cut off and soon strange and terrifying things begin to occur as they soon realize that their lives are in mortal danger in this silent place. The movie is presented as a single uninterrupted shot taking place in real time and is based on an Uruguayan movie of the same name that was their country’s official Foreign Language Oscar submission last year.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Horror

Rating: R (for sexual content, graphic nudity, language and drug use)

We Bought a Zoo


We Bought a Zoo

Matt Damon doesn't realize that tigers hate staring contests and so this will end very badly.

(2011) Family True Story (20th Century Fox) Matt Damon, Scarlett Johansson, Thomas Haden Church, Patrick Fugit, Elle Fanning, John Michael Higgins, Colin Ford, Maggie Elizabeth Jones, Angus Macfadyen, Carla Gallo, J.B. Smoove, Stephanie Szostak, Peter Riegert, Desi Lydic. Directed by Cameron Crowe

 

The thing about grief is that there isn’t a manual that tells you how to deal with it. That’s because everyone deals with it differently. Some push it aside and try to live life as normally as possible; others wear sackcloth and ashes and make it plain to the entire world that they are GRIEVING dammit. There is no right way and no wrong way to deal with grief; there’s just your way.

Benjamin Mee (Damon) is dealing with it, right now. He and his two kids teenaged Dylan (Ford) and youngster Rosie (Jones) are facing the loss of Mee’s wife Katherine (Szostak) to cancer. Mee, a photojournalist for an actual newspaper – a dying breed in and of itself – he decides that he’s had enough of being pitied and quits his job (a rather interesting way to deal with that problem) and since the acting-out Dylan has gotten himself expelled, figures it’s a perfect time to pull up stakes and find a new place to live somewhere that he isn’t constantly reminded of Katherine.

An enthusiastic realtor brings Benjamin to a dilapidated zoo. The state of California picked up ownership when the previous owners ran out of money. A skeleton crew cares for the animals there and there is a charming house on the property. Benjamin’s accountant brother Duncan (Church) advises him not to do it but Benjamin sees this as the kind of adventure that will heal his broken-hearted family.

Not everyone sees it that way. Dylan is angry he has been uprooted and separated from all his friends; his father is much harder on him than he is on the ultra-precious Rosie and Dylan resents that as well. In fact, Dylan resents just about everything and spends much of his time drawing dark and disturbing pictures that would be raising alarm bells in any reasonable child psychologist.

If Dylan has doubts about this venture, so does the zoo crew. Zookeeper Kelly Foster (Johansson) is a no-nonsense sort who realizes that running a zoo isn’t just putting a bunch of animals in cages – excuse me, enclosures as she points out midway through the film. It takes dedication and above all, money. Bookkeeper Rhonda (Gallo) is skeptical that Benjamin will see the project through. Hard-drinking Peter MacCready (Macfadyen) is angry that his innovative enclosure designs were stolen by the very man who is in a position to grant the zoo it’s license, Walter Farris (Higgins) who will be making an inspection a week before opening day to see if the zoo meets California standards. About the only person who is happy that the Mees are there is Kelly’s cousin Lily (Fanning) who has a big-time crush on Dylan (God knows why).

This is based on a true story, although it has been transplanted to the San Diego area from England where it actually occurred (if you want to see the zoo where it actually happened, click here or better still donate to them so they can keep their gates open – I wasn’t kidding when I said it takes money to run a zoo). While a bit of Hollywood gloss has been added to make the story a bit more family-friendly, the basic facts are there but there are a few differences – it took the Mee family two years to actually buy the zoo, for example. Their initial offer was rejected due to their lack of zoological experience. Also, the real Mee children are much closer in age than they are in the film – the daughter was four when these events took place, her brother six. Also, the real Katherine Mee passed away while they were living at the zoo and after it had actually been purchased – in the film, her death is part of the reason they buy it to begin with.

Damon, who has met with success as the grifter in the Oceans films and as an action hero in the Bourne movies once again shows his versatility here. It’s been said – by me among others – that Damon is the Jimmy Stewart of his generation and I don’t think this movie will dissuade anyone of that notion. He plays a family man here but moreover a grieving husband – one of the movie’s most heartrending scenes is when Benjamin Mee looks at a photo slideshow on his laptop and sees a picture of his wife and kids dancing in the sun on an idyllic picnic and then suddenly the three of them are whirling around him in his kitchen. It is a bittersweet magic.

You would expect that the movie would create a romance between Benjamin and Kelly and while there’s attraction there, it’s also realistically tempered with the fact that Benjamin is not yet over his grief. There is near the end some indication that things might go there in the future but I think that Crowe makes a wise choice not to emphasize it.

Instead, the big romance is between Dylan and Lily. I get that Dylan is dealing with his own grief, but he comes off as really unlikable in a lot of ways and I don’t see how Lily would be attracted to him other than that he’s the only adolescent boy for miles. Fanning is also much taller than Ford which further makes the relationship awkward, despite the filmmakers obvious attempts to mitigate that by putting Ford on uneven planes with Fanning, or having them sitting down.

Still, Fanning’s cheer and ethereal beauty as well as her natural screen charisma make it clear that she’s destined for success. Like her sister Dakota, Elle is a fine actress (as we saw in Super 8) and she has some very nice moments here. Church is a  wonderful actor as we’ve seen in films like Sideways and he makes the most of a role that’s right in his wheelhouse.

It’s very clear that this movie is not so much about running a zoo as it is about overcoming grief and moving on with your life. That each of the main characters in the film deals with that grief in their own way is to be expected. While I felt that the movie sometimes got so saccharine sweet that it could induce a diabetic coma, there was at least an attempt to deal with the subject in a gentle yet realistic way. I won’t say that the movie didn’t pull any punches because it plainly does, but I do give it credit for tackling a subject that Hollywood tends to back away from.

A note about the soundtrack; it is written by Jonsi, the lead singer of Sigur Ros (one of my favorite bands) and as is typical with that band’s music is very atmospheric and makes a lovely background for the movie. The cinematography is uniformly excellent as well, so this is a good-looking as well as good-sounding film.

As family entertainment goes, the holiday season has been responsible for some truly special family films this year and this movie is certainly one of the movies that stands out in that regard. While the execrable Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked might be garnering better box office numbers, this is actually a family movie that will appeal to both adults and kids and won’t have to be “endured” by either of them. Common ground is a pretty big deal when it comes to family films as it is in families.

REASONS TO GO: Heartfelt and heartwarming. Damon does a surprisingly fine job as a family man here. Fanning and Church do well in support.

REASONS TO STAY: Kids can be overly annoying and/or precocious at times. Too much eccentricity among zoo personnel.

FAMILY VALUES: There are a few thematic elements a little too rough for the sensitive (children dealing with the loss of a parent) and a few mildly bad words here and there but kids will love the animals.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The real Benjamin Mee and his children appear in the scene where Matt Damon climbs over the fallen tree on opening day; they are the first family in line.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/7/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 62% positive reviews. Metacritic: 58/100. The reviews are solid but not spectacular.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Hotel New Hampshire

ANIMAL LOVERS: Definitely something you’re going to enjoy, with capuchin monkeys, tigers, lions, ostriches, hedgehogs, peacocks, snakes and grizzly bears among others on display.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: War Horse

New Releases for the Week of December 23, 2011


December 23, 2011

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – GHOST PROTOCOL

(Paramount) Tom Cruise, Jeremy Renner, Simon Pegg, Paula Patton, Josh Holloway, Michael Nyqvist, Michelle Monaghan, Lea Seadoux, Anil Kapoor, Tom Wilkinson, Ving Rhames. Directed by Brad Bird

Although this has been out since last week it’s only been available in the IMAX format and is just now being released to regular theaters. In the fourth installment in the franchise, the IMF is faced with its darkest crisis ever – the agency has been implicated in a global terrorist bombing plot and the entire agency has been disavowed. It is up to Ethan Hunt and his team to discover who’s really behind the threat and clear the IMF from blame, or else be captured and tried as terrorists.

See the trailer, clips, featurettes, a promo and an interview here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard, IMAX

Genre: Spy Action

Rating: PG-13 (for sequences of intense action and violence)

The Adventures of Tintin

(Paramount) Jamie Bell, Simon Pegg, Daniel Craig, Andy Serkis. One of the most beloved comic characters in Europe gets a motion capture film of his own directed by none other than Steven Spielberg and produced by Peter Jackson. In this, the first of a projected franchise, the intrepid boy reported Tintin chases after the mysterious cargo of the legendary shipwreck the S.S. Unicorn which may yield untold power but also hunting for the wreck is the nefarious Red Rackham (NOTE: This movie opened today and is now playing in theaters everywhere).

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website

Release formats: Standard, 3D, IMAX 3D

Genre: Family Adventure

Rating: PG (for adventure action violence, some drunkenness and brief smoking)

The Artist

(Weinstein) Jean Dujardin, Berenice Bejo, Malcolm McDowell, John Goodman.  As the silent movie era begins to fade away with the advent of the talkies, a silent movie star sees his stardom slip away from him. Even as he does, a young ingénue he discovered sees her own star rise into the heavens. Their destinies intersect in this charming, bittersweet and ultimately triumphant love story that has earned all sorts of critical awards and may have the loudest Oscar buzz of any film out there.

See the trailer, a clip and web-only content here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Romance

Rating: PG-13 (for a disturbing image and a crude gesture)

The Darkest Hour

(Summit) Emile Hirsch, Olivia Thirlby, Max Minghella, Rachael Taylor. Five young people visiting Moscow find themselves trapped there when the city is attacked by aliens invisible to the human eye who destroy people using a deadly electrical current. Their situation is further compromised when they find out that Moscow isn’t the only city under attack and they must find a way to survive the superior technology of the invaders. This is the latest from Timur Bekmambetov who brought us Wanted (NOTE: This movie is opening on Sunday, December 25).

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard, 3D

Genre: Science Fiction Horror

Rating: PG-13 (for sci-fi action violence and some language)

Don 2

(Reliance Big Picture) Shah Rukh Khan, Priyanka Chopra, Boman Irani, Lara Dutta. An Indian crime boss having taken over most of the Asian crime syndicates sets his sights on Europe. Known for his ruthlessness and cunning, he sets out to beat out his European counterparts at their own game.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Crime Thriller

Rating: R (for language and some sexual content)

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

(Columbia) Daniel Craig, Rooney Mara, Christopher Plummer, Stellan Skarsgard. A disgraced Swedish journalist is hired to investigate a 40-year-old murder by a reclusive old industrialist whose family includes Nazis and sadists. He is assisted by a brilliant young hacker who has been the victim of sexual and physical abuse. This is the remake of a Swedish film that is based on an international best seller; many folks were concerned that the Americanization of the film might ruin the source material, but it appears those fears were needless; the movie is being touted as one of the best of the year and a likely Oscar contender (NOTE: This movie opened on Tuesday and is currently playing in theaters everywhere).

See the trailer, promos and featurettes here.

For more on the movie this is the website

Release formats: Standard, 3D

Genre: Thriller

Rating: R (for brutal violent content including rape and torture, strong sexuality, graphic nudity and language)

War Horse

(DreamWorks) Emily Watson, David Thewlis, Tom Hiddleston, Jeremy Irvine. The journey of a horse from bucolic English countryside to the trenches of the First World War is chronicled by master storyteller Steven Spielberg in one of two movies from the director to open this week. Based on a book by Michael Morpurgo (which was also adapted into a stage play), the movie is geared strongly towards family audiences but word has it that older audiences will appreciate it too (NOTE: This movie is opening on Sunday, December 25).

See the trailer and a clip here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: War Drama

Rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences of war violence)

We Bought a Zoo

(20th Century Fox) Matt Damon, Scarlett Johansson, Thomas Haden Church, Elle Fanning. A family, reeling from a tragedy, buy a dilapidated zoo in an effort to make a fresh start. With the help of an eccentric staff, a lot of elbow grease and a willingness to make mistakes, they plough through a series of misadventures that aren’t always learning opportunities.  Their goal is to make the zoo an exciting, fresh place once again but is it possible they have bitten off way more than they can chew?

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website

Release formats: Standard

Genre: True Life Drama

Rating: PG (for language and some thematic elements)

Easy A


Easy A

Emma Stone is going to stand out in any crowd - particularly dressed like THAT!

(2010) Teen Sex Comedy (Screen Gems) Emma Stone, Penn Badgley, Amanda Bynes, Thomas Haden Church, Patricia Clarkson, Cam Gigandet, Lisa Kudrow, Malcolm MacDowell, Stanley Tucci, Aly Michalka, Fred Armisen, Dan Byrd.  Directed by Will Gluck

Who we are perceived to be is very rarely who we really are. Sometimes people just make up their minds about us and nothing we can say or do will change that. Other times we have a hand in deliberately misleading others about our true natures.

Olive (Stone) is an ordinary girl at East Ojai High School. She doesn’t really stand out among her peers; she’s just kind of there. Nobody really cares enough about her to pick on her, so she might well count her blessings. In a John Hughes movie, her classmates might have been tempted to play cruel jokes on her.

Her friend Rhiannon (Michalka) is anxious for Olive to come camping with her and her hippie parents, while Olive would rather have had her eyeballs spooned out of their sockets and fed to her as a frozen desert treat, so she makes up a college boyfriend to get out of it, preferring to spend the weekend alone. Monday in school, Rhiannon pressures Olive to tell her all about her weekend and Olive, mostly to get Rhiannon off her back, fibs about how far she went with her imaginary boyfriend. This is overheard by Marianne (Bynes), the Bible-thumping daughter of the local pastor (Armisen) who might have been the offspring of the Church Lady had she been raped by Satan.

Before you know it, Olive has a reputation as being somewhat available. At first, she’s appalled but as she finally begins to get noticed, particularly by the attractive Woodchuck Todd (Badgley) whom she’s had a crush on since the 8th grade, she begins to enjoy her new role a little bit.

When her good friend Brandon (Byrd) confesses to her that he’s being bullied for being suspected of being gay (suspicions which were pretty much dead on), he pleads with her to spread a rumor about the two of them getting on. She decides to make it more than a rumor by meeting him at a party and having loud but faux sex in a bedroom. This changes Brandon’s status from zero to hero and soon Olive’s dance card is getting filled with every outcast in East Ojai, all willing to pay her what they can to get their manhood card punched by Olive.

Of course complications begin to set in, some derived by the troubled marriage of foxy English teacher Mr. Griffith (Church) and his estranged wife (Kudrow), the school guidance counselor who made the incredibly foolish mistake of sleeping with one of the students. Olive offers to take the bullet for Mrs. Griffith which leads to worse complications, including Rhiannon’s decision to leave Olive’s shadow and join the Bible thumpers. Olive is fortunate to have the world’s best parents (Tucci and Clarkson) but can even they extricate her from the mess she’s in?

Gluck hasn’t exactly set the cinematic world on fire (see Fired Up!) but he’s done some fine work on some cult classic television shows (including the sorely missed “Andy Richter Controls the Universe” and “Grosse Pointe”) and this is the Will Gluck we get here. The writing is also inspired, with sharp dialogue that while suffering from the “far too glib to be teenagers” syndrome, at least is clever.

While the plot is a little bit sitcom-y, it is handled with enough creativity to make it stand out among most comedies last year. Part of the reason it stands out is the perfect casting of Stone. You can tell that a casting director gets it right when you can’t imagine anyone else in the role, and so it is with Olive and Emma Stone. She has always performed capably in supporting roles; here she makes the most of a leading lady opportunity and shows that she can carry a movie on her own. She’s the center of this movie, so having the right actress in the part was crucial.

Kudrow and Church, both terrific actors in their own right, do good work here, as does Bynes in what was supposed to be her final role (she had planned to retire from acting, but later changed her mind). In fact, I thought Bynes – who I’d always dismissed as being something of a one-note performer – was surprising in a role that was a stretch and also poked some fun at her image. I look forward to her further stretching her reach.

All in all this is a reasonably (and somewhat surprisingly) smart movie that takes subjects of teen sex and the importance of peer acceptance, subjects that have been done to death, and makes something new and original of them. I’m not saying that Easy A sets the world on fire, but it is a surprisingly good movie that I enjoyed much more than I thought I would.

WHY RENT THIS: Stone makes good on her leading lady potential. Snappy dialogue is the highlight of a surprisingly well-written story.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Clichés abound.

FAMILY VALUES: There are definitely some bad words and thematic elements that include teen sexuality, statutory rape and drug use.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The opening scene of the movie was also Emma Stone’s audition, captured on webcam.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The DVD has a gag reel and an audition tape made on her webcam by Emma Stone (see above). In addition, the Blu-Ray offers a trivia track and a featurette on movies of the 80s and how they influenced this movie.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $75.0M on an $8M production budget; the movie was a blockbuster.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: The Switch