Walking Out


A father-son piggyback ride – with a twist.

(2017) Drama (IFC) Matt Bomer, Josh Higgins, Bill Pullman, Alex Neustaedter, Ken White, Lily Gladstone, Erik P. Resel. Directed by Alex Smith and Andrew J. Smith

 

The mountains are unforgiving. They are beautiful, yes, but formidable. One false step can leave you in a terrible situation. One mistake, one moment of lapsed concentration can make the difference between getting home safely and having your carcass gnawed on by animals.

Cal (Bomer) is an avid outdoorsman living in Montana. He is divorced with a child, 14-year-old David (Higgins) who lives most of the time with his mother in a more urban or at least suburban environment. Cal is about hiking, camping, hunting and respecting nature. David is about smartphones, chatting with his friends and videogames. Cal is 19th century, David is 21st century. Cal has some fairly concrete ideas of what it takes to be a man; David’s ideas are more fluid.

On his semi-annual visit to his Dad, David is less than enthusiastic but he’s a good sport and agrees to go hunting with his Pa. He proves to be a less than adept shot to his father’s frustration – and David’s own. Cal has quite a camping trip planned; he’s been tracking a moose in the high country and wants David to bag the animal as his first kill as a hunter. David would likely much rather play a hunting simulation game if he had a choice.

But David is the kind of kid who goes along to get along and depending on how charitable your view is, either sees how important it is to his Dad and gives in or simply wants to avoid a confrontation. Either way, the two head into the mountains where Cal hopes that this trip will bring the two closer together.

Things start to go wrong nearly immediately. They go after the moose only to discover that some rank amateur has already shot it and left it to rot which is a crime in Cal’s book. Looking for some other game to at least salvage the trip, things go wrong for the two men; horribly wrong in fact, leaving them stranded in the wilderness, one of them terribly wounded and no hope for rescue. They’ll have to walk out of the mountains on their own if they are to survive.

One of the words that best describes this movie is “simple.” In other words, the Smith brothers aren’t trying to reinvent the wheel here; they set up their shots without a lot of complication, the plot is straightforward and we are almost forced to concentrate on character interaction. This works for me particularly when the characters are interesting and the performers bring those characters to life.

The movie rests heavily on the shoulders of Bomer and Wiggins and to their credit they both do a solid job but we are given a pretty straightforward dramatic conflict; Dad = he-man outdoors type who likes to shoot things; Son = pampered Millennial with a chip on his shoulder. As winning formulas go, this is probably somewhere in the middle of the pack. Still, I grant you that this kind of relationship as we see here between Cal and David feels very much authentic, the kind of extreme gulf that exists between city folk and country folk. In a way the rift between Cal and David mirrors that between urban and rural in America.

The Montana scenery as lensed by Todd McMullen is as spectacular as advertised; there’s majesty, beauty and stark emptiness here. There’s a lot of snow, particularly when the movie switches from the prairies to the mountains but it’s a pristine snow of the kind you don’t find where people are. Even in all the whiteness there’s a kind of beauty that makes the audience shiver in sympathy and also feel VERY happy to be in a warmer climate at that moment.

The one Name in the cast is Pullman who plays Cal’s father in flashbacks when Cal describes his first moose hunt to his son. Pullman has hardly any lines at all and his appearances, all in a home movie-like sheen, are not enough to really make a difference here. The pacing of the film is pretty deliberate and after awhile watching the excruciating pain that one of the cast members is in gets hard to watch; as the two men make their way down the mountain, I began to wish the film would end quickly. Maybe ADD is catching.

Other than a few scenes this is a very talky affair with little action so people who might ordinarily be into this kind of survival film will likely be a lot more than a little bit put off by the film. Those into exploring relationship dynamics might see the adventure movie side to this and give it a wide berth. There is some promise here, not just the lead actors but also behind the camera as well. The Brothers Smith have a good eye, an ability to take a basic plot and make it their own. I suspect that I won’t remember much about the movie in the days to come but I’m much more positive that I’ll be remembering the directors in years to come as they craft movies that take story ideas, bring them to their essence and make a great movie around it.

REASONS TO GO: The scenery is beautiful. The father/son dynamic is unusually realistic.
REASONS TO STAY: Bill Pullman is wasted in his flashback-heavy role. At times the movie is hard to watch and at other times I couldn’t wait for it to end.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some bloody images of a mauling, adult thematic elements and some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Christian Bale considered the role of Cal but ultimately decided to pass because he didn’t want to be separated from his family on a remote location shoot so soon after the birth of his son.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/6/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 88% positive reviews. Metacritic: 81/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Grey
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
Woodpeckers

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A Walk in the Woods


Lost in the woods.

Lost in the woods.

(2015) Dramedy (Broad Green) Robert Redford, Nick Nolte, Emma Thompson, Mary Steenburgen, Kristen Schaal, Nick Offerman, R. Keith Harris, Randall Newsome, Linda Edwards, Susan McPhail, Andrew Vogel, Derek Krantz, Gaia Wise, Tucker Meek, Chandler Head, Sandra Ellis Lafferty, John Schmedes, Valentin Armendariz, Danny Vinson, Valerie Payton, Stephanie Astalos-Jones. Directed by Ken Kwapis

All of us have a connection to the natural world. Deep down, we pine for it; while most of us will profess to loving the civilized life of home and hearth, every so often we get a yen to go out into the woods and pitch a tent. It reminds us of our connection to this planet, that we are born of it and part of it and that it is conversely part of us. Nothing clears one’s head quite so much as a walk in the woods.

Bill Bryson (Redford) is a semi-retired travel writer who has written some fine books but is about as socially awkward as a 13 year old at a state dinner. He says the wrong things at funerals, cracks incomprehensible jokes that nobody gets and grumps to his saintly patient wife Catherine (Thompson) that talking to people is just something he doesn’t do.

After being upbraided by a smarmy talk show host (Newsome) about having written nothing about his own native country, he chances upon a leg of the Appalachian trail near his New Hampshire home and struck by inspiration. Bryson hits on the idea of walking the entire trail from Georgia to Maine. Catherine takes about as kindly to the idea as she would about having a hole drilled in her noggin. When she sees she can’t dissuade her husband out of the scheme, she insists that he take someone with him.

The trouble is, nobody he knows is willing to go with him. That is until he gets a call out of the blue from Stephen Katz (Nolte), an old friend he had a falling out with a decade or so ago. He’s not choice A for the trip but beggars can’t be choosers so Bill gets himself equipped at the local REI (with Offerman making a cameo as a clerk) and before long Katz and Bryson are putting on their hiking boots.

Katz is, contrary to his self-description, woefully out of shape and is huffing and puffing away like a walrus before he’s gone ten feet. Still, the two manage to make progress although not as much as they probably should. They have to put up with rain, snow, never-ending hills, burying their dookie in the woods, annoying know-it-all hikers (Schaal) and bears. But most of all, they’ll have to put up with each other – and themselves.

Kwapis has a history of creating films that are audience pleasers more so than critical darlings and judging from the scores below has done the same this time out. And what’s not to love? A strong, well-known cast in beautiful settings, that’s for sure. The Appalachian Trail passes through some of the most beautiful scenery on the planet and Kwapis takes full advantage of it.

Redford and Nolte have only been in the same film together once before, that being the 2012 drama The Company You Keep and then they only shared a couple of scenes together. It’s a shame they haven’t done more together because they have amazing chemistry together; they banter like an old married couple and play off of each other like the two old pros they are. Their relationship holds the film together.

Nolte, in particular, is noteworthy; gasping like an asthmatic bear and growling in that gravelly smoker’s voice of his. He’s essentially the comic relief, making of Katz a kind of charming womanizing rogue gone to seed, cheerfully evading his responsibilities. Redford by contrast does what Redford does best; being likable even when he’s supposed to be a curmudgeon.

Which brings up a point. Both of these distinguished actors are in their 70s – in fact, Redford is 79 – but the real Bill Bryson was in his mid-40s when he hiked the Trail and so much of the book’s focus had to be changed. The movie spends much more time dwelling on the decrepitude of the leads than the book did on the inexperience of its leads. Lovers of the book (and there are many) might not be too pleased with that. They’ll be pleased that much of Bryson’s comic tone was retained. I haven’t read the book probably in 15 years or so, but my guess is that it was extensively re-written for the screen, so be warned on that score.

Da Queen really loved this movie; the bonding with nature and the friendship between Redford and Nolte really spoke to her; she proclaimed it her favorite movie of the Summer (I didn’t have the heart to point out that it wasn’t released until September 2nd, after the official summer release season had ended) which considering how delighted she was with Jurassic World is quite an accomplishment. I’m a little less enthusiastic about the film but found it to be genuinely entertaining, sentimental and only occasionally descending into schmaltz and cinematically beautiful.

In short, this is solid entertainment which will likely appeal strongly to an older demographic but those who appreciate movies with a heart will also enjoy  it. I do like an occasional nature walk although my condition prevents long hikes like this one but still it inspired in me a desire to walk the Trail myself. It won’t happen, but it’s nice to imagine that it could. If these two can do it, so can I, right?

REASONS TO GO: Beautiful scenery. Wonderful chemistry between Redford and Nolte. Some genuine laughs.
REASONS TO STAY: Occasionally clunky. Too many codger jokes.
FAMILY VALUES: A few mild expletives and some sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Originally, this was meant to be the third team-up between Redford and Paul Newman when the film was optioned in 2007; however, Newman’s declining health and eventual passing prevented that from occurring. Newman would have been cast in the role that Nick Nolte eventually filled.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/14/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 45% positive reviews. Metacritic: 51/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: :Wild
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Sci-Fi Spectacle Begins!

Bears


Here are the three bears - where's Goldilocks?!

Here are the three bears – where’s Goldilocks?!

(2014) Nature Documentary (DisneyNature) John C. Reilly (narrator). Directed by Alastair Fothergill, Keith Scholey and Adam Chapman

We humans have an affinity for bears. Teddy Bears, the Berenstein Bears, Yogi Bear, Goldilocks and the Three Bears, Paddington Bear, Winnie the Pooh and of course Smokey the Bear. Cute and cuddly as they may be (and they are most certainly the former although I would think long and hard before cuddling with a bear), they nevertheless have a rough life up there in the Alaska wilderness.

Sky, a mama bear, has two cubs – Amber and Scout. Where is papa bear, asked some critics – far, far away so that he doesn’t try to kill them and/or eat them. I told you they have a rough life. Anyway, their long winter nap is over. While the mountain peaks they made their den in is still covered deep with snow (so much so that avalanches are a problem – more of that rough life stuff), spring is coming to the valleys below.

They haven’t eaten all winter and they are near to starving, but the first order of business isn’t finding food once they get out of the mountains. No sir; that business is keeping the cubs away from predators, like Magnus and Chinook – fellow bears who are so hungry they could eat…another bear. There’s also Tikaani, a wolf who is as sly and persistent as they come. There’s that rough life thing again.

What bears really crave is salmon – loaded in protein and abundant as they swim up river to spawn, bears have to become adept fisherman which is a lot easier than it sounds – they’re slippery little buggers. But getting there is no easy task and until then, they load up on muscles, eels and whatever they can find to put at least something in their bellies to keep the engines going. However, that won’t be enough to build up enough fat to last the winter. Not only do the adult bears live off their own fat, metabolizing it into sugars and proteins, the energy also keeps mama bear’s milk supply flowing. Without enough fat stored, the mama bear might survive the winter but the cubs won’t.

And the odds aren’t in the cubs favor anyway – 50% of all bear cubs born in the wilderness don’t make it to their first birthday, mostly due to predators although disease, starvation and a shrinking habitat all have something to do with it. Did I mention they have a tough life?

DisneyNature has made a niche for itself by delivering nature documentaries with absolutely breathtaking images, following in the tradition of Walt’s True Life Adventures  There are plenty of gorgeous images of the Alaskan landscape, mostly taken in Katmai National Park (the same place where Grizzly Man Timothy Treadwell lived for 13 summers with the bears and eventually was killed and partially eaten by one). It is easy to see from the footage why those who live in Alaska love it so deeply. It is truly the last frontier.

One of my ongoing irritations with the DisneyNature series is their repeated need to give human characteristics, motivations and names to these animals. I would maintain that they are incredible creatures on their own without making them more “like us” in an effort to appeal to kids. Not only does this do a disservice to kids by giving them the impression that wild animals have the same motivations as we do (which in some cases they do but not all).

There is at least one glaring factual error in the narration which any naturalist worth their salt would have caught. Bears don’t actually hibernate; they nap. They don’t sleep throughout the winter; they simply stay in their dens, sleeping most of the time but not all. True hibernation is non-stop slumber. If you’re going to be a nature documentary, the least you can do is get your facts straight. I would have liked to have hears some fairly obvious explanations, like the whereabouts of papa bear and why mama bear was looking after the kids alone.

Lest I forget, John C. Reilly’s narration is da bomb. It has the right amount of humor to keep things interested, entertaining and lively but not so much that it overshadows the information and message that the filmmakers are trying to get across. I understand that Reilly had some input into the dialogue, which is even more aces in my estimation.

Still, this is some terrific footage, often so close-up that you can see individual follicles of fur easily. It is oddly intimate and makes you wonder how close the camera crew got (as the end credits show, pretty damn close although perhaps not as close as you’d expect). Bears are insanely cute and make excellent subjects for the camera. Amber and Scout are primarily used as comedy relief although there is some legitimate peril to the cubs; one nearly drowns at one point, and one disappears while Tikaani is stalking them.

This isn’t the best of the DisneyNature films, but it is solid and as beautiful as anything you’ll see on Discovery or Animal Planet – or the BBC for that matter. Your kids will be entranced and maybe motivated to look up more information about bears, their habitat and their behaviors. Worthwhile stuff for kids to be interested in, if you ask me (not that you are). And if the movie motivates some kid to go that route, then it’s a worthwhile endeavor indeed.

One last thing; Disney had pledged to donate a portion of ticket sales during the first week of release (which has now passed) to the National Parks Foundation in order to help protect our National Parks which sorely need it. Some cynical sorts have been sneering that the amount was infinitesimal. According to Disney’s website, they are donating twenty cents from each ticket sold with a minimum of $100,000 going to the Foundation. That’s a fairly substantial amount for which I know the National Parks Foundation is appreciative.

REASONS TO GO: Beautiful photography with some amazing close-up shots. Cute and cuddly critters.

REASONS TO STAY: Once again over-anthropomorphizes.   

FAMILY VALUES:  Some bear battling and other bear stuff might frighten the wee ones.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The first four DisneyNature films are among the top five highest grossing nature documentaries of all-time.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/1/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews. Metacritic: 68/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Grizzly Man

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: The Zero Theorem

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)

Brave


Brave

Merida takes aim at teen angst.

(2012) Animated Feature (Disney*Pixar) Starring the voices of Kelly Macdonald, Emma Thompson, Billy Connolly, Julie Walters, Kevin McKidd, Craig Ferguson, Robbie Coltrane, Sally Kinghorn, Eilidh Fraser, Peigi Barker, Steven Cree, John Ratzenberger. Directed by Mark Andrews and Brenda Chapman

 

Fate is a word we sometimes bandy around with negative connotations. There are those of us who believe that it implies that our destiny is set in stone, that we are doomed to live a certain type of life. Some believe that fate is not necessarily set in stone – it can be changed with the right impetus.

Merida (Macdonald) is of the latter sort. She is a spunky, willful princess – literally. She’s the daughter of King Fergus (Connolly) of Scotland, a gruff rough and tumble sort who’s leg was bitten off by a bear that attacked his family, including Queen Elinor (Thompson) who some years later delivered triplets – three wee devils who act as comic relief in the castle.

Merida finds nothing funny about life  though. She longs to go on adventures like her dad, and has become quite the archer. Her mother, though, wants her only daughter to be a proper princess, one who will grow up into a beautiful, regal Queen. And it’s about high time she did; while Elinor nags, Merida stews. And when Merida becomes of marriageable age, as is traditional among the clans a competition will be held to determine which Lord’s son will win the hand of the fair maiden – be it the sons of Lord Dingwall (Coltrane), Lord Macintosh (Ferguson) or Lord MacGuffin (McKidd) – all of whom have travelled to the castle of King Fergus for the games, feasting and tales of bear hunting.

Merida is having none of it. She is for one thing a far better archer than any of the scions of the clans. And for another, she doesn’t want to get married (and to be honest, she is nowhere near ready to be). She and her mother can barely hold a civil conversation and her Dad is too engrossed in the feasting and tale-telling to really notice. So Merida goes off for a ride and finds herself in a Stonehenge-like circle of sacred stones from whence the wills-o’-the-wisp lead her to the cottage of an eccentric witch (Walters) whom Merida asks to purchase a spell from – a spell that will allow her mother to change her mind and in doing so, changing Merida’s fate. However, like most spells that are selfish in origin, it doesn’t go exactly according to plan.

There is an air of mystery and mysticism here that is very welcome. Here we get to see Scotland as a magical land that is wild, beautiful and just a little bit off-kilter. Yes, pun intended. The animation here is gorgeous – quite possibly the best and most intricate that Pixar has accomplished up to now. The look is very much like classic Disney animation and that’s not by accident.

Thinking about it, this is quite the gathering of the clans if your clans are Scottish actors and actors of Scottish descent. It gives them a chance to air out their brogues a little. I have an affection for the accent and even though it can be hard to understand for those who aren’t used to it although to be fair it’s toned down here so it’s pretty easily understandable even for those who don’t have the ear for it.

There is quite a dynamic that goes on between Elinor and Merida – like many mother-daughter relationships it’s love-hate. And, like most teens and their parents, you have two sides talking and neither side listening. Elinor at first is a mom who has a vision in her head of what she wants her daughter to be – without taking into account what her daughter wants to make of herself. For Merida’s part, she’s willful and stubborn, openly defiant of her parents and quite a bit stubborn. Her means of communicating is to make pronouncements and that doesn’t go over well with her mum.

In fact, Merida’s spoiled behavior leads directly to some fairly savage consequences for her family. Now, as a parent I can tell you that tolerance is a great big survival skill for any parent of a teen – they are going to make mistakes no matter how much you try to warn them (pretty much the way we did when we were teens) but I have to admit, it is rare for any parent to have to deal with a mistake the magnitude that Merida makes. Yes, I’m being deliberately vague here because not knowing the nature of what Merida did and the consequences that ensued makes the movie so much more enjoyable, although I have seen a couple of reviews that have spoiled it – including the usually-reliable Roger Ebert, so take that into account when reading before seeing.

This is quite a departure for Pixar – straight into Disney territory. Think about all the elements you have here – a feisty princess, a witch who lives in an isolated cottage in the woods, danger, intrigue – all that is lacking here is true love’s kiss – but then Merida would much rather kiss a frog than a thousand princes. Still, after the lackluster effort that was Cars 2 this is a welcome return to form.

REASONS TO GO: Maybe the best animation in Pixar’s history. Goofy when it needs to be.

REASONS TO STAY: Seems to glorify willful, spoiled behavior.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some sequences that might be frightening for toddlers, and there is a bit of rude humor.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Pixar’s first film set in the past, the first to feature a female protagonist and Merida the first Pixar character to become a Disney princess.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/8/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 77% positive reviews. Metacritic: 69/100. The reviews are solid.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mulan

BEAR LOVERS: We see bears of all sorts in the film, including three little ones, a mama bear and a scary bear.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: Ted

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