A Wrinkle in Time (2018)


Oprah Winfrey and Storm Reid try to bring balance to the Force.

(2018) Science Fiction (Disney) Storm Reid, Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon, Mindy Kaling, Chris Pine, Levi Miller, Deric McCabe, Gugu Mbatha Raw, Zach Galifianakis, Michael Peña, André Holland, Rowan Blanchard, Bellamy Young, David Oyelowo (voice), Conrad Roberts, Yvette Cason, Will McCormack, David MacPherson, Akemi Look, Tim Kang, Jessica Rockwell. Directed by Ava DuVernay

 

As a boy I read – eagerly, I might add – Madeleine L’Engle’s classic children’s book A Wrinkle in Time. I was fascinated by the amazing worlds she created and thrilled to the adventures of the intrepid Murry children. It was a favorite of mine but I haven’t read it in almost since I was 11 or 12 and the details have become lost to me.

Ava DuVernay has created a nine figure-budgeted version – much has been made that she’s the first African-American female director to be at the helm for a movie with a budget more than $100 million – which is not all sizzle and no steak precisely; it’s more accurately that the steak has been overwhelmed by the sizzle.

Meg Murry (Reid) is depressed and acting out to a large degree. Her physicist father Alex (Pine) disappeared four years earlier and her principal (Holland) as well as her mother (Raw) are both beginning to gently push her into letting him go and come to the realization that he’s gone for good. Then into their lives – including her precocious adopted brother Charles Wallace (McCabe) who might be more brilliant than her and her father put together – comes Mrs. Whatsit (Witherspoon), a kind of kooky and eccentric woman who tells her that her father is alive in another part of the universe where he had traveled by the sheer force of his mind and he needs her help in returning home.

Through Mrs. Whatsit she meets Mrs. Who (Kaling) and Mrs. Which (Winfrey), equally eccentric and just as powerful. The two Murry kids along with Calvin (Miller) who’s kind of sweet on Meg, accompany the three Missus to rescue Alex. But he’s being held captive by an evil force of energy called The It (having nothing to do with Pennywise the Clown) and it is growing rapidly to the point that if her father can’t be rescued the Universe will be overrun by the It.

The movie is a massive misstep by one of the most talented directors working today. The story gets lost in a turgid script that emphasizes the visuals (which to be fair are incredibly imaginative and a literal joy to behold) over the story. Worse yet, the dialogue is wretched; people in this film don’t talk like real people. At least Mrs. Who has an excuse; she’s programmed (essentially) to talk in affirmations, but everyone else seems to mouth platitudes that after awhile grow wearisome.

Winfrey, Kaling, Raw, Pine and Witherspoon are all fine actors and they do very well here. Reid can sometimes be a bit smarmy but for the most part she is asked to carry the film on her young shoulders and she doesn’t disgrace herself. McCabe however is Hella annoying and he brings to mind poor Jake Lloyd from Star Wars Episode One as a candidate for worst juvenile performance of all time.

The movie failed to find an audience during its theatrical release in March. Some blame it on the fact that the Murry family was interracial, although the African-ness of Black Panther didn’t seem to hurt it any. I’m sure the success of the Marvel film had an impact on the audience for A Wrinkle in Time but I also think poor reviews and bad word-of-mouth doomed it. In all honesty, I don’t think A Wrinkle in Time is a bad film but it’s not a very good one either. It’s kind of bloated and the message of family, hope and tolerance gets completely lost. I have no doubt DuVernay is going to be making important films for decades to come; this one though likely won’t be on her highlight reel years from now.

REASONS TO GO: The visuals are insanely imaginative. Winfrey, Kaling and Witherspoon are perfectly cast.
REASONS TO STAY: The dialogue torpedoes the film. McCabe’s performance is overbearing most of the film.
FAMILY VALUES: Although suitable for most children, the film contains scenes of peril as well as some themes that may go over the heads of some of the less socially developed kids.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Two more Murry children (twins Sandy and Dennys) who appeared in the novel were cut from the film version.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Movies Anywhere, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/27/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 40% positive reviews. Metacritic: 53/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Holy Mountain
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
Bright

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Louder Than Bombs


Father and son.

Father and son.

(2015) Drama (The Orchard) Gabriel Byrne, Isabelle Huppert, Jesse Eisenberg, Devin Druid, Amy Ryan, Ruby Jerins, Megan Ketch, David Strathairn, Rachel Brosnahan, Russell Posner, Maryann Urbano, Donna Mitchell, Harry Ford, Leslie Lyles, Luke Robertson, Peter Mark Kendall, Paul C. Kelly, Sean Cullen, Charlie Rose, Marielle Holland, Bridget McGarry. Directed by Joachim Trier

Florida Film Festival 2016

We sometimes underestimate the effects we have on our children as parents. Our presence can be destructive if we do or say the wrong thing – but not nearly so destructive as not being there at all.

Isabelle Reed (Huppert) was one of the most decorated war photographers on the planet. However her job took her away from her husband Gene (Byrne) – an actor – and her two sons Jonah (Eisenberg) and Conrad (Druid). Gene left his career in order to raise the kids while mom was away, which was often. However, she finally announced her intention to give up the life of a war correspondent and spend more time at home with her family. Shortly after that, she died in a tragic car wreck.

Now four years later a prestigious New York art gallery/museum is doing a retrospective on her work and Gene enlists the help of Jonah – who is now married and expecting his own first child in the near future – to help sort through her last photographs, which Gene has never been able to look at. He also needs help with Conrad, who has become combative with his father, blaming him for his mother’s death or at least using him as a target for his blame. Conrad spends a lot of time playing Skyrim and wandering the streets aimlessly and alone; his father has taken to following his son discretely. Or maybe not as discretely as he thinks.

As we find out through flashback footage, Isabelle had secrets of her own and as Gene finds out that one of them is about to be revealed in the pages of the New York Times which will devastate Conrad even further, Gene doesn’t know how to soften the blow, which is the worst thing he could possibly do is continue to keep secrets from his son. As all this comes to a head, the dysfunction of all three of the members of this family will start spinning wheels that will change their lives forever.

This is the first English language feature (and third overall) by up-and-coming Norwegian director Trier. Like many of his films, the undertones here are grim for the most part, dealing with abandonment issues, the pain of betrayal and the dysfunction of a family that has had one member torn from it.

Gabriel Byrne is one of the most reliable actors out there. He’s never flashy, but he always brings dignity and gravitas to his roles. Here he plays a very nice man who has lost his rock and his having trouble finding his own spine because of it. He avoids and avoids and avoids but at the end of the day, that does nothing good. He loves his sons with a passion and misses his wife with an ache that never goes away. The portrait of Gene is heartbreaking to say the least.

No less so is Huppert’s portrayal of Isabelle, a driven woman who finds fulfillment through her muse and less through her family, which makes for a certain amount of resentment and guilt. The dead are no angels in life; Isabelle does some things that will make a few people recoil. And that’s what happens from time to time in life; people who seem decent and good do things that are not. And sometimes it is others that pay the price, but more often, the price the transgressor pays is much higher than one could imagine.

Druid plays the angry teen a little too well – there are times you want to scream at him “You selfish PIG! Do you not understand that you aren’t the only one who’s grieving? That you’re not the only one who’s hurting?” But the truth of the matter is that kids that age often can’t see beyond their own pain. They haven’t the tools to. Time gives us that, and time can be a cruel teacher. Be that as it may, Conrad is so thoroughly unlikable that I had trouble watching him. I probably hated the character more than he deserved. Maybe not, though.

There are some real moments of poetry here but this is mostly an examination of pain, and that can be…um, painful. It’s not always an easy thing to watch people dealing with the absence of a loved one and trying to find the answers to questions that may not be answerable. We can only know those around us so well, but sometimes it turns out that we don’t even know them at all. Louder Than Bombs (not to be confused with the Smiths album) turns out to be a very fine film that is often hard to watch but is worth the effort to do so.

REASONS TO GO: Strong performances by Byrne and Huppert. Heartrending subject.
REASONS TO STAY: The teenage character is accurately portrayed – and thoroughly unlikable.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexual content and nudity, violent images and a fair amount of foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie that Conrad and Jonah watch together with their dad is Hello Again which actually starred Byrne and Shelly Long.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/12/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 68% positive reviews. Metacritic: 70/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Harrison’s Flowers
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Midnight Special

Homemakers


Clean up your room!

Clean up your room!

(2015) Dramedy (Factory25/FilmBuff) Rachel McKeon, Jack Culbertson, Molly Carlisle, Dan Derks, Sheila McKenna, Harry O’Toole, Matt Bryan, Luke Johanson, Devin Bonnée, Daniel Hershberger, Clifford Lynch, Dianna Ifft, Jeff Monahan, LeJon Woods, John Shepard, Nathan Hollabaugh, Pete Bush, Joel Brown, Sarah Jannett Parish, Adrienne Wehr. Directed by Colin Healey

Some movies come along that try to push the boundaries of filmmaking and films. Some even succeed at it. Others are noble efforts. And others…well, they can try a viewer’s patience.

Irene (McKeon) is a singer in a punk band in Austin who has severe impulse control. She is unlikable, unpleasant to be around and her “charm” can be grating. Her bandmates, particularly her ex-girlfriend Kicky (Carlisle) are getting weary of her antics. Then when she has a meltdown onstage during one of their sparsely attended performances – although a well known music blogger is in attendance – and destroys some of her bandmates instruments, the last straw has been reached. They are in the midst of voting whether or not to kick her out of the band when Irene gets a phone call; her grandfather has died and left her a ramshackle house in Pittsburgh.

The house, which hasn’t been inhabited in a decade since her grandpa was unceremoniously shoved into an assisted living home, sits in a working class neighborhood with a cantankerous neighbor (O’Toole) next door. Irene wants a quick payday but the house is in no shape to be sold; knowing nothing about home improvement, she enlists Cam (Culbertson), the cousin she didn’t know she had until the phone call, to help her fix up the place. Unfortunately, he knows nothing about home improvement either. What they do know about is drinking and drugs and so they spend as much time getting plowed as they do channeling Tye Pennington.

Along the way something mysterious, strange and wonderful occurs – Irene, who had committed to nothing in her life except chaos, begins to like the idea of settling down in a home of her own. She begins to get serious about making something of her home – with an eye on keeping it. That’s going to require a good deal of personal improvement to go along with the home improvement though.

Healey in his feature length directorial debut makes the most out of a microscopic budget in putting together a good-looking, well-shot film. I will give him props for going the “different” route. But there are a lot of things here that won’t go over well with general audiences.

Irene is essentially a spoiled, unlikable brat who acts out like a five year old. Watching adults act like children, particularly like venal, mean children, has little appeal to me at this stage of the game. I don’t have anything against child-like behavior but there’s a difference between that and childish behavior, which is what we get here. Don’t get me wrong; McKeon is a force of nature in this role and shows exceptional promise. It takes a lot of guts to take on a part in which the character has virtually nothing redeeming about her until near the end of the film.

The house itself looks like a house that nobody has lived in for ten years. When your mom tells you to clean up your room, it looks like a pigsty, show her this movie and tell her that at least your room isn’t like this. Once you regain consciousness, I’m sure she’ll agree with you. As the house slowly gets renovated, the predictable kitsch takes over as we get garage sale chic going on in the furnishings. Not everything works but at least an effort is made.

Some people are going to find this unwatchable; certainly my wife did. This might end up being a future candidate for Joshua David Martin’s popular monthly Uncomfortable Brunch series at Will’s Pub here  in Orlando, a series that celebrates films that are challenging. Like many of the films that are shown in that series, this is a movie that requires a great deal of forbearance to view. Whether that patience is rewarded at the end of the movie is really your call to make. In my case, I have to say it was not.

REASONS TO GO: Outside the box.
REASONS TO STAY: Irene is extremely unlikable. Lots of indie pretensions. Overdoes the grit.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of foul language, some violence and sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Won the Audience Award at the Independent Film Festival Boston this year.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/17/15: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Having a Healthy Tooth Extracted Without Novocain
FINAL RATING: 2/10
NEXT: The Martian

The Babadook


Not your average bedtime story.

Not your average bedtime story.

(2014) Horror (IFC Midnight) Essie Davis, Noah Wiseman, Daniel Henshall, Tim Purcell, Hayley McElhinney, Cathy Adamek, Benjamin Winspear, Barbara West, Craig Behenna, Carmel Johnson, Terence Crawford, Chloe Hurn, Jacqy Phillips, Bridget Walters, Tony Mack, Tiffany Lyndall-Knight, Peta Shannon. Directed by Jennifer Kent

I like Australians. They are such a genial people, laid-back and with a quick smile and a terrific sense of humor. I love hanging out with them. They drink like fish, love to eat and are the sort of friends that are loyal forever or until you piss ’em off, whichever comes first. Based on what great folks they are, I wouldn’t think of them as makers of great horror movies. Comedies, yes. But horror movies?

Yes. One of the most talked-about horror movies of the year comes from Down Under, and has quietly been sweeping through the Festival circuit bringing audience and critical raves. Now it’s out and about on limited release, not to mention on VOD.

Amelia (Davis) has that look. The kind where you know she’s hanging on by the skin of her teeth. Sure, she can be all smiles and helpful and generous at the nursing home where she works as a nurse (appropriately enough) but when you look closely at her, you can see that smile is frozen in place with duct tape and Elmer’s glue. The look in her eyes tells it all.

You see, Amelia’s life hasn’t turned out the way she planned. She was happily married, expecting their first child. In fact, she was on the way to the hospital to give birth but there was an accident – her husband died. Both she and the child lived. Now a rambunctious seven-year-old, Samuel (Wiseman) isn’t an easy child to raise by any standard. One moment affectionate and loving, the next screaming at the top of his lungs and being violent, Amelia’s sister Claire (McElhinney) no longer wants Samuel around especially after he pushed her out of a treehouse, breaking her nose. Of course, the other side of that is that the bitch told him that his dad wasn’t around because he didn’t want him. Ouch.

Samuel also sees monsters. Nasty, nightmare-inducing ones that terrorize him so much he sleeps in her bed nearly every night and wakes her up in the process. He builds home made weapons to smash the monsters, vowing to protect his mum and begging her to protect him. Just you and me against the world, kid.

She’s beginning to wonder if her kid needs therapy until a pop-up book shows up mysteriously. She didn’t buy it for him and he doesn’t remember where it came from but the book is vaguely menacing, outright creepy and informs them that you can’t get rid of the Babadook and that essentially it’s coming to kill them.

At first she thinks it’s just a prank, albeit one in poor taste but as unexplainable things begin to plague them, she begins to wonder if Samuel has been telling her the truth all this time. But is this monster truly real, or a figment of her imagination – a sign of her own madness? She has to figure it out fast because it’s already getting to be just shy of too late.

One of the things I adore about this movie is that they don’t make things clear-cut until near the end and even then there’s some ambiguity. Amelia literally unravels as we watch and pretty soon you wonder if there is really a monster or if the monster has been Amelia all along. There are signs pointing to the latter. She has problems connecting with her own son, blaming him for the death of her husband and she feels tremendous guilt because of it. She never once during the movie (although I think she might have at the very end) says “I love you” to her son. His issues are at least obvious and easy to read; hers less so but if you know where to look, she’s as deeply wounded as her son is.

Wiseman does a pretty credible job in a difficult role for any child actor. His outbursts seem genuine and when he shrieks at the top of his lungs, any parent with an ADHD kid will wince in sympathy. We’ve all been there when our child loses it, no? He has to play every gamut of the emotional range of kids and while at times he has that wooden quality that most child actors has, he acquits himself very well.

There are other decent performances in smaller roles, including veteran Aussie actor Henshall as a workplace romance for Amelia and West as Amelia’s next door neighbor who is, I think, her mother-in-law. At the very least she’s a concerned friend.

The Babadook itself, played by Tim Purcell, mostly sticks to the shadows and the audience rarely gets a good look at it. Its silhouette, seen on the movie’s poster, is menacing and chilling to say the least and this is one of the most well-realized movie monsters of the past decade.

This is the stuff of nightmares by cracky and while it doesn’t have the gore that some horror fans seem to require, it does have the right nightmarish atmosphere and the terror in the mundane that Tobe Hooper and Steven Spielberg used to such great effect in Poltergeist. While the low budget horror of The Babadook might not hold up to the big budget terrors in that film, it nonetheless holds its own and will be swimming around your brain months after you see it for the first time. This has all the earmarks of a cult classic and you’ll want to get in on the ground floor for it.

REASONS TO GO: Hits all the right notes. Fine performance from Davis. Keeps audience guessing. Some truly scary moments.
REASONS TO STAY: Watching a kid act out can be unpleasant. Dog lovers may want to skip this one.
FAMILY VALUES: Some foul language, plenty of scenes of terror and suspense, some violence and sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: “Babadook” is an anagram of “A bad book.”
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/19/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 98% positive reviews. Metacritic: 87/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Red Riding Hood
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: The Graduate

Ilo Ilo


Everybody ought to have a maid.

Everybody ought to have a maid.

(2013) Drama (Film Movement) Koh Jia Ler, Angeli Bayani, Tian Wen Chen, Yann Yann Yeo, Jo Kukathas. Directed by Anthony Chen

Offshoring

Two parents working is an economic reality that is true just about everywhere; it is not a matter of preference but necessity.

Jiale (Ler) is a young boy whose parents both work. His father, Teck (Chen) is a salesman whose product proves to be woefully inferior. That’s never a good situation to be in for any sort of salesman. His mother Hwee Leng (Yeo) who is substantially pregnant, works as an administrator for a business that is laying off employees at a frightening clip. You see, it’s 1997 and the Asian economic crisis has swept into Singapore like a monsoon followed by a tsunami.

As Jiale begins acting out in school, Hwee Leng, called to the principal’s office for what is likely not the first time, realizes that she needs help. She prevails upon Teck to hire a maid. That made is Teresa (Bayani) from the Philippines who left her son back home in order to earn money. However, she is not just to be a maid – she is also to be something of a nanny to Jiale.

At first, Jiale is furious at the intrusion. He finds ways to humiliate and torture Teresa that might have worked had Teresa been as timid inside as she was deferent outside. However she has a surprising core of steel and Jiale is eventually put to heel. In fact, the more time Teresa and Jiale spend together, the closer their bond becomes which doesn’t sit too well with Hwee Leng.

Both Teck and Hwee Leng have a lot on their minds. As Hwee Leng’s pregnancy progresses, she relies more and more on Teresa which bothers her quite a bit. Already with a bit of a patrician attitude to begin with, she continues to put Teresa in her place (which is squarely below Hwee Leng’s social standing) at every opportunity. It is Teck and Jiale who start to open up to the maid who becomes something of a confidant. And while the economic situation worsens for Teck and Hwee Leng grows more and more stressed, Teresa is slowly becoming indispensable for Jiale.

Chen, directing his first feature-length film, based this on his own experiences growing up in Singapore at the time period the film is set in with two working parents and a Filipino maid/nanny (in fact following the film’s Camera d’Or win at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, he was inspired to find her in the Philippines and re-establish contact). The film has that air of realism that often comes with semi-biographical films.

Ler is a pretty natural actor and dang cute on top of that. He is often called upon to be mean, surly and cruel which kids don’t necessarily take to naturally – and as the film progresses, he is called upon to be reflective, open and affectionate. Young Jiale is somewhat spoiled and very spirited and although it might sound like an easy role to play, let me assure you that it isn’t.

Yeo also has a thankless role, but pulls it off. She isn’t necessarily a sympathetic character (which makes one wonder about Chen’s relationship with his mother) but she’s a character who is definitely buffeted by winds outside of her control. Her husband is somewhat weak and doesn’t always act wisely or in the family’s best interests and that weighs upon her, almost forced into the role of being the pillar of the family which may or may not be a role she’s suited for (Hwee Ling I mean). Yeo became pregnant shortly before filming began and her pregnancy was then written into the film. Chen’s own mother was not pregnant during the time that his nanny was there. Incidentally, the pictures over the end credits are Yeo with her actual baby, who was born shortly after filming ended.

The relationships between mother and son, father and son and mother and father are all impacted by the arrival of Teresa, who changes the dynamics of all the relationships in the family. Her relationships with the family members are also very distinct and different from one another. They feel organic and realistic and go a long way to making the film accessible.

While the movie drags in spots and occasionally makes redundant points, the feeling here is of being the fly on the wall in an intimate family setting. We see the toll the financial stress takes on the family – the kind of thing plenty of Americans can relate to in these difficult times. We also see the toll Jiale’s behavior takes on the parents, which any parent from any culture can relate to. There will be those who will find this to hit a little too close to home in places, but at the very least it’s comforting to know that no matter where you live, there are things we all share in common.

REASONS TO GO: Nice complexity to the various relationships. Americans will be able to relate to the issues here.

REASONS TO STAY: Feels a little forced in places.

FAMILY VALUES:  Some foul language and smoking as well as some brief nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie is named for the Filipino province where Chen’s actual nanny was from.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/26/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: 81/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Nanny Diaries

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Offshoring 2014 continues!

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

Orphan


Orphan

Vera Farmiga and Isabelle Fuhrmann share a mother-daughter moment.

(Warner Brothers) Vera Farmiga, Peter Sarsgaard, Isabelle Fuhrmann, CCH Pounder, Jimmy Bennett, Margo Martindale, Karel Roden, Aryana Engineer. Directed by Jaume Collett-Serra

How simple the love of a child. We take it for granted that our children are innocent and loving. Those who have the courage to adopt are bringing an unknown factor into their lives. There’s a presumption of good in every child, but not all children are good. Some, in fact, are very, very bad.

Kate (Farmiga) and John (Sarsgaard) Coleman have been through the wringer. Kate, although sober now, has had bouts with the bottle and the bottle generally won. While she was drunk her son Daniel (Bennett) nearly drowned, putting a serious strain on their marriage. Their daughter Max (Engineer) is deaf and while precocious and cute can be a handful.

They tried to have a third child by way of patching up their differences, but the child died stillborn. Despite having a whole lot of baggage to unpack in their marriage, they decide to adopt because nothing solves marital problems like adding another kid to the mix.

They head down to the local orphanage and are immediately smitten with Esther (Fuhrmann), a real charmer who is also a talented painter. She speaks in heavily accented English and at times clearly is unsure of the right words to use, but she is nearly perfect in many ways.

Of course, nothing and nobody are perfect and Esther is certainly not. She has quite a temper which sometimes leads her to all sorts of mischief. She also is a possessive sort and she has locked her radar on John, who is the understanding parent of the decade. Kate, not so much – she begins to get suspicious when people start having “accidents” around Esther, nearly all of whom pissed her off in some way. She tries to get people to see what she’s seeing, but most dismiss it as the hysteria of a woman who is a few centavos shy of a peso.

However, as is invariably true in horror movies, when people fail to listen to the Cassandra-like character, things go very, very badly for them. Kate realizes that her unheeded warnings could end up in utter tragedy for her family. Will she be able to protect them from such a little angel?

Collett-Serra previously directed the very flawed House of Wax remake and while this is a little less flawed, it nonetheless doesn’t establish him as a horror movie talent quite yet. Killer kids are not a particularly new contrivance (see The Bad Seed and The Good Son) so if you’re going to do a movie about them, you need something a little bit different to set your film apart from the others.

In this case, there is a doozy of a twist in the last reel that left me thinking that this movie wasn’t so bad after all. Unfortunately, it takes a real long time to get there. Collett-Serra directs this at a snail’s pace, with an enormous amount of exposition without enough pay-off to justify it. He relies too much on a jumpy musical score to set up false scares and other clichés of the genre rather than establishing a really creepy mood. The sad thing is, he’s capable of just that – the last ten minutes of the movie prove it.

Sarsgaard and Farmiga are both capable actors who give their roles some depth. Sarsgaard’s John is a supposed to be essentially a saint and a bit bland; Sarsgaard makes him believable and elevates the role with a better performance than was written.

Fuhrmann does a first-rate job as the homicidal pre-teen. The problem with having a child actor carry too much of a movie is that there are very few capable of doing it. Over the past several years there have been several phenomenal child actresses that have emerged – Dakota Fanning and Abigail Breslin to name two – and Fuhrmann may well join that list. Hopefully she’ll get some meaty roles from her performance here.

Orphan isn’t a terrible movie; it’s just a lazy one. It tries to set its mood up by standard Scary Movie 101 means rather than trying to develop it through performance and good writing. The results are a movie that doesn’t feel terrifying so much as bland, and despite some decent performances and a pretty good ending, don’t rise above the clichés of the genre to make a much better movie than what we got.

WHY RENT THIS: There are some truly frightening moments. Sarsgaard gives a terrific performance and Fuhrmann is awesome as the malicious child. The twist at the end is interesting.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Too many hoary horror film clichés (the screeching violins to signify a false scare etc.) and a little too much stretching of believability.

FAMILY VALUES: While this isn’t gore-heavy, there are some scenes of sudden and horrifying violence, some sexuality and some really disturbing content. Not suitable for the young or the impressionable.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The language spoken by the receptionist at the Saarne Institute is Estonian.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: Nothing listed.

FINAL RATING: 4/10

TOMORROW: Zack and Miri Make a Porno