Paddington 2


This may be the ultimate “oh dear” expression.

(2017) Family (Warner Brothers) Sally Hawkins, Hugh Grant, Ben Whishaw (voice), Julie Walters, Imelda Staunton (voice), Hugh Bonneville, Madeleine Harris, Michael Gambon (voice), Samuel Joslin, Brendan Gleeson, Jim Broadbent, Richard Ayoade, Peter Capaldi, Joanna Lumley, Sanjeev Bhaskar, Jessica Hynes, Robbie Gee, Tom Conti, Meera Syal, Claire Keelan. Directed by Paul King

 

Sequels so very rarely get to be better than their originals but here’s one that is true for that will appeal mainly to the parents with small kids set. The series of British children’s books by the late Michael Bond has made a smooth transition to the big screen and while it didn’t get the box office numbers of a big hit mainly due to circumstances beyond the control of the filmmakers (more on that in a minute), it has all the earmarks of being a great franchise.

The plot is simple; Paddington’s (Whishaw) Aunt Lucy (Staunton) is about to celebrate her 100th birthday and for the special occasion the animated bear wants to get her a special gift. He even finds one – a pop-up book that tours London. However, the price is a bit beyond the bear’s meager savings so he goes out to earn enough to buy the book but on the eve of his being able to afford it, someone steals it and Paddington is blamed and sent to prison for it.

Hawkins who returns from the first film as Mrs. Brown, the mom of the family that adopts Paddington, continues to excel in every role she takes on. The last few years in particular have seen some wonderful performances by the actress including an Oscar nomination but this is while not up to that level is nonetheless really, really good.

Grant gets a chance to let his inner ham out as he plays a has-been actor which could have led to lots of really inappropriate jokes, but Grant not only sets to the role with a fine sense of self-deprecating humor but with a lot of gusto as well. He very nearly steals the movie but the fact of the matter is that the film is so well-written, so warm and fuzzy that it’s like pulling a favorite blanket over you on a rainy day and curling up with a nice hot cup of tea and a beloved book you’re re-reading. It doesn’t hurt that the ending is such a feel-good moment that only the most hard-hearted of people will not get misty-eyed. There is no bigger group of unrepentant hard-hearts than film critics but the acclaim for this film has been nearly universal. If you didn’t see this one in theaters – and chances are you didn’t – you owe it to yourself and particularly your kids (if any) to catch this one on home video when it becomes available on it next month.

REASONS TO GO: The climactic train chase is a great deal of fun. Hawkins is becoming one of my favorite actresses. The ending (not including a scene while the credits are running) is one of the most touching and beautiful I’ve ever seen.
REASONS TO STAY: The film drags a bit in the middle. Some of the acting is a little silly and lots of the humor is very, VERY British.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a bit of action on a kids show level as well as some mild rude humor.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: As of this writing, Paddington 2 holds the distinction of having the most positive reviews (192) on Rotten Tomatoes without a single negative one.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/15/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews: Metacritic: 88/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Garfield
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Cocote

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Paddington


Please look after this bear. Thank you.

Please look after this bear. Thank you.

(2015) Family (Weinstein) Hugh Bonneville, Nicole Kidman, Sally Hawkins, Ben Whishaw (voice), Imelda Staunton (voice), Michael Gambon (voice), Peter Capaldi, Jim Broadbent, Tim Downie, Madeleine Harris, Samuel Joslin, Julie Walters, Matt King, Alice Lowe, Dominic Coleman, Matt Lucas, Jude Wright, Geoffrey Palmer, Kayvan Novak, Simon Farnaby, Julie Vollono. Directed by Paul King

The value of family can’t be overstated. Sometimes they drive us crazy but our families are in most cases our soft place to land, our bridge over troubled water. In our families we find support, often unconditional and comfort, usually without asking. Not every family is wonderful – there are some that savage each other and go out of their way to hurt one another but those sorts are rare. Most of us would rather have a family than not.

A young bear (Whishaw) lives with his Aunt Lucy (Staunton) and his Uncle Pastuzo (Gambon) in Darkest Peru. It is a good life, full of marmalade – a delicacy that these particular bears learned to appreciate after being visited by an explorer (Downie) who not only turned them on to the wonders of a good marmalade but upon discovering that the bears were capable of speech taught them to speak the King’s English. Filling their heads full of tales of wonder about a glittering city called London, he invited them to come visit him there one day.

However, an earthquake destroys the home of the young bear and wearing the lucky hat of Uncle Pastuzo – who had in turn received it from the explorer – proceeds to stow away aboard a steamer bound for London, where he smuggles himself in a mail bag to Paddington Station. There, wearing a tag reading “Please look after this bear. Thank you,” the extremely polite young bear waited in Lost and Found for someone to give him a home, which the explorer had assured his Aunt and Uncle would be bound to happen, given the English generosity of spirit.

Evening falls and busy commuters ignore the sad bear until the Brown family happen along. Mary Brown (Hawkins), the mum of the family as well as a writer and illustrator of children’s books, is taken with the bear’s sad situation and decides to take the bear to their home overnight until a more suitable situation might be found. Her two children – the easily embarrassed teenager Judy (Harris) and the whip-smart Jonathan (Joslin) are not thrilled with this turn of events and even less thrilled is father Henry (Bonneville), a risk analyst for a big London insurance firm.  Pronouncing that this will be for “just one night,” he urges his children to lock their doors in case the talking bear comes into their rooms and tears them to pieces. That’s what non-talking bears do, after all.

Mary christens their new friend Paddington, after the railway station where he was discovered and finds she can’t quite bring herself to just turn him over to authorities who will no doubt put the poor bear in an orphanage or a jail or a workhouse. Something Dickensian without a doubt. She visits the local antique dealer Herr Gruber (Broadbent) to see if the antiquated hat might be a clue as to who the explorer was so that Paddington could go to him and have a proper home. The explorer proves to be more elusive than you might think.

Also chasing Paddington is an evil taxidermist (Kidman) for the British Museum who sees Paddington as a rare specimen whose stuffed body needs to be mounted in the Museum. She’ll stop at nothing to obtain him. She’s assisted by the Browns’ neighbor Mr. Curry (Capaldi) who has taken quite a fancy to the taxidermist and in fact Doesn’t Like Bears in the neighborhood. A nuisance, that’s what those filthy creatures are.

Based on the beloved children’s books by Michael Bond, Paddington is surprisingly charming. In all honesty, I didn’t expect much from this project upon first hearing about it. Quite frankly, family movies have been just dreadful the past few years, particularly those not produced by Disney. I’m happy to report that this one is actually better than most of the family films that came out last year with maybe the exception of The LEGO Movie.

Whishaw actually has the perfect voice for Paddington; youthful, polite and warm. The animators (Paddington is a CGI creation) do a good job of matching the bear up with the illustrations from the books, yet giving him a realism that makes you think you’re looking at an actual bear.

The mayhem that ensues in the movie often takes Rube Goldberg proportions as Paddington unwittingly gets himself into trouble. There are a lot of fun bits here, although many of them appear in the trailer. Still, seeing the full sequence adds to the enjoyment.

Kidman is the villain here and her part seems tonally different than the rest of the movie. She’s bitter, angry and lethal which seems at odds with the gentle nature of the rest of the film. I think her part should have been softened a bit and less completely evil, although she does get a just comeuppance in the end.

This is perfect family entertainment; smaller children should be at an age where the Paddington books will appeal to them and their parents may well have grown up on the series as well. It was around when I was a kid, but for whatever reason my parents chose to go the Dr. Seuss route with their kids back then; I kind of wish I’d gotten to read them back then but they are still adorable now. Maybe I’ll get to read them to grandchildren one day.

In any case, after a dearth of quality entertainment in the theaters Paddington is like a ray of sunshine on a stormy afternoon. With Pixar back and several intriguing family films in the pipeline, hopefully this year will be a much better year for families in the movie theaters than last year was. This is certainly a promising start.

REASONS TO GO: Relentlessly heart-warming. Exceedingly well-cast.
REASONS TO STAY: Plays it safe throughout.
FAMILY VALUES: Quite a bit of mayhem and some rude humor.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Author Michael Bond who created the character originally cameos during the scene at Paddington Station as an elderly gentleman who raises a glass of wine to the bear.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/11/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 98% positive reviews. Metacritic: 77/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Stuart Little
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Cinema of the Heart begins!

The Wizard of Oz


We're off to see the Wizard!

We’re off to see the Wizard!

(1939) Musical (MGM) Judy Garland, Frank Morgan, Ray Bolger, Bert Lahr, Jack Haley, Billie Burke, Margaret Hamilton, Charley Grapewin, Pat Walsh, Clara Blandick, The Singer Midgets, Dorothy Barrett, Amelia Batchelor, Charles Becker, Buster Brodie. Directed by Victor Fleming

Most movies are a product of their times. Most people can without knowing when the film was made have a pretty good idea of approximately when it was filmed just by looking at the costumes and hairstyles, listening to the dialogue and so on. Some movies though, transcend the times and become classics. These movies will be around much longer than you and I will; long after we’ve shuffled this mortal coil, audiences will still be enjoying them.

The Wizard of Oz is one such classic. Even though few of us were around when it was released back in 1939 most of us have childhood memories revolving around the movie thanks to its annual appearance on broadcast TV in the 60s through the 90s and of course it’s availability now on home video. Even today when I watch the movie I still feel the same wonder I did when I first saw it on television as a young boy.

Need I tell you the plot? Everyone knows that young Dorothy Gale (Garland) and her beloved dog Toto are transported from dull and sepia-toned Kansas by a twister (or tornado if you prefer) to the colorful and magical land of Oz. Her arrival accidentally ends the life of the Wicked Witch of the East, whose magical ruby slippers are placed on Dorothy’s feet by Glinda (Burke) the Good Witch of the North which protects her from the Wicked Witch of the West (Hamilton).

Getting Dorothy home won’t be easy so Glinda sends her down the Yellow Brick Road to the Emerald City where Oz (Morgan), the Great and Powerful Wizard of Oz could help her. Along the way she meets up with the Scarecrow (Bolger), the Tin Man (Haley) and the Cowardly Lion (Lahr) who become fast friends with Dorothy. The Wizard sends them on a quest to fetch the broom of the Wicked Witch to prove their worth but how will these friends, who need brains (the Scarecrow), a heart (the Tin Man) and courage (the Lion) be able to help Dorothy – who just wants to go home – against a powerful and evil sorceress?

Along with Gone With the Wind this may be the most beloved film ever made. It is Da Queen’s all-time favorite so it gets a regular viewing in our household. We even went and saw it on the big screen a couple of years ago to mark its 70th anniversary. I will say that if ever a revival house shows it or if it makes an appearance for a special event at your local cinema, you should by all means try and see it on the big screen – it makes a huge difference.

Even if the only place you ever see it is on your TV or computer screen it is well worth a look. It is a thing of brilliance, from the contrast of the drum and sepia-toned Kansas sequences (which includes the “Over the Rainbow” musical number, perhaps the best ever set to film) with the colorful and whimsical Oz sequences. For most of the actors who would appear in the movie, it would be a career-defining moment.

A lot of the films from this era are extremely dated and don’t hold up to modern standards but this isn’t one of those. Although the special effects are primitive by our standards there is still a magic here that goes beyond CGI. Part of it is simply that part of your inner child who loves to play “make believe” that this movie speaks to but part of it is simply that great care was taken to make this fun and lovely to look at from every angle. Sure, the art deco Emerald City looks like Miami’s South Beach on crack but that’s half the joy.

Garland was never better than she was here, a performance of lovely simplicity that made her utterly believable. When she sings “Over the Rainbow” it is with such yearning that your heart almost breaks – and empathizes. Haven’t we all wanted to go over the rainbow in our darkest moments?

Lahr, one of the most popular comedians of the era, nearly steals the show as the Cowardly Lion. He’s kind of like the soldier from Brooklyn who lightened up the wartime flicks that would come in the intervening years, and his delivery of the Lion’s lines (say that real fast if you dare) is iconic to the point that most of us often do our own impressions of it (go ahead and deny it if you can). Overall it is a tribute to friendship and loyalty that resonates with all of us – who hasn’t wanted friends like the Scarecrow and the Tin Man at our backs?

This is the kind of movie that transcends movies. It is what brings families together to watch something so pure that we can all enjoy it without thought of politics, race, religion or just about anything. It’s appeal is so universal that it goes beyond boundaries and lines – it is as popular elsewhere in the world as it is here in America. One cannot hear “We’re off to see the wizard!” without thinking they’re embarking on an adventure of their own.

In short, this is a movie you don’t just like, you come to love it. It’s not a movie you watch or even experience, it becomes part of you. It is why people fall in love with the movies to begin with. My highest rating is 10 out of 10, but this is one of few movies that is above such inane things as ratings. It’s just something special you shouldn’t cheat yourself out of.

WHY RENT THIS: A true classic and a great means of family bonding.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: I don’t know. You don’t like classic movies maybe?

FAMILY VALUES:  There are a few scenes that might frighten the very young and very sensitive.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Garland wore a corset across her torso so she would appear younger and flat-chested.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: The 2005 release Collector’s edition (the one in the green case, not the yellow) has a wealth of extras, including Angela Lansbury reading an abridged version of the book complete with original illustrations; an 11-minute featurette on the restoration process and several documentaries on the making of the movie and it’s enduring legacy. There are five silent era versions of the book as well as an animated short from 1933 There’s a 28 minute feature on the life of L. Frank Baum, author of the beloved book that started it all and there are some stills and promotional materials (including a souvenir program from the Hollywood premiere in 1939). Believe it or not, the 2009 70th Anniversary Blu-Ray has all that and even more – a 52-page hardcover book about the making and marketing of The Wizard of Oz, a wrist watch, a sing-along track, a 1992 made-for-TV movie called The Dreamer of Oz starring the late John Ritter as Baum, a radio broadcast in which Garland reprised her role as Dorothy Gale and on its own double-sided disc a six hour documentary on the history of MGM. It’s pricey but worth the added expense for the Oz junkie in your family.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $17.7M on a $2.8M production budget; in 1939 dollars that’s a major blockbuster.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Gone With the Wind

FINAL RATING: 11/10

NEXT: Oz the Great and Powerful

Mr. Popper’s Penguins


Mr. Popper's Penguins

Jim Carrey gets jiggy with a bunch of flightless waterfowl.

(2011) Family (20th Century Fox) Jim Carrey, Carla Gugino, Philip Baker Hall, Clark Gregg, David Krumholz, Angela Lansbury, Ophelia Lovibond, Andrew Stewart-Jones, James Tupper, Madeline Carroll, Jeffrey Tambor, Dominic Chianese, Maxwell Perry Cotton. Directed by Mark Waters

 

Let’s face it, penguins are hot in Tinseltown. With March of the Penguins, Surf’s Up, Happy Feet one and too and Farce of the Penguins all out there – not to mention the penguins in Madagascar and Earth, these Antarctic flightless fowl have been regulars on multiplex screens for years.

So it seems pretty natural that this 1938 award-winning children’s novel would be the basis of a feature film. Seems like a slam dunk, right? Well, if you loved the book be prepared for a few changes here and there.

Thomas Popper Jr. (Carrey) is a divorced real estate executive who specializes in the art of the deal. He can cajole nearly anyone to part with their New York City landmark so that the greedy company he works for can make obscene profits, pleasing bosses Franklin (Hall) and Reader (Chianese) who keep finding one excuse or another to keep Popper from a full partnership.

Popper’s assistant Pippi (Lovibond), who speaks sentences peppered with Peas…that is, words that start with the letter P, is invaluable, making sure he attends society functions on time and tries to keep him on track with his kid visits.

Popper’s ex Amanda (Gugino) gets on well with him, although she is dating Kent (Krumholz), a naturalist whom the kids are kind of ambivalent towards. Their feelings towards Dad, however, are very clear – they hate him, particularly teen daughter Janie (Carroll) but son Billy (Cotton) feels let down by his dad who makes all sorts of promises that aren’t kept. In fact, Popper’s absence from his children’s lives mirrors that of his own father, an adventure-seeker who was always in exotic locations but rarely home; he mostly communicated with his son by ham radio.

Popper is well on his way to repeating his dad’s mistakes. However, his dad passes away, leaving a souvenir from his adventures in his will. This turns out to be a Gentoo penguin. NOT what he had in mind. He needs to get rid of the penguin –  his building association has a strict no pets rule. After a number of fruitless attempts to have the penguin taken away, he finally contacts the New York Zoo to take the furry friend – which has gone from being one penguin to six thanks to an error in communication (yes, another crate shows up at his door). Six penguins, I can tell you, are NOT really a good fit for an upscale Manhattan penthouse apartment and he’s forced to bribe the security guard not to tell the association that he was violating the no pet rule.

Because now, instead of wanting to get rid of them, Popper wants to keep them. It seems his kids love the penguins – Billy has mistaken them for his birthday present which his Dad had forgotten to buy despite Pippi’s reminders. Popper desperately wants to find a way to connect to his kids – to be a Dad again. The penguins might just be his bridge.

In the meantime, Popper is charged with getting Mrs. Van Gundy (Lansbury), the prickly owner of the Tavern on the Green, to sell to his rapacious bosses who are eager to put some condos on this prime Central Park property. She however is very finicky over who she wants to sell to; she wants someone with the right soul to take it. Popper of course isn’t possessed of this trait, so he tries to fake it which Mrs. Van Gundy can spot a mile away. Now Popper’s job depends on him convincing Mrs. Van Gundy to sell. The penguins have laid eggs, the zookeeper at the New York Zoo – Nat Jones (Gregg) – is trying to get those penguins by hook or by crook. And his apartment is a mess. Things just don’t look good for a realtor with Daddy issues in those circumstances.

On the plus side, the filmmakers used actual Gentoo penguins for the film, creating CGI versions of the birds when stunts were needed. This is some of the best CGI work I’ve seen recently – it’s completely seamless and very difficult to tell which scenes are with actual penguins and which ones only exist on a computer hard drive.

The movie is based on the beloved children’s book written by Richard and Florence Atwater back in 1938. In fact, I’d say loosely based in that the main character’s name is Popper and there are penguins involved (twelve in the book, six here). It’s safe to say that there are a lot of changes here to make the movie seem a bit more modern than the book which is a bit weird because I always thought that it was pretty timeless, although truth be told I haven’t read it since I was a young boy and borrowed it from the library. Yeah, we read back then. Reading was our generation’s videogames.

I’ve said in other reviews that I have never really been a big Jim Carrey fan. He’s done some movies that I have really liked, but a lot of them simply haven’t grabbed me. Here, he suffers from Eddie Murphy syndrome; his more raunchy side is submerged while he does a family movie. His mugging and occasionally over-the-top persona left me, ahem, cold. And don’t kid yourself, Mr. Popper appears in the title ahead of the penguins for a reason – this is Carrey’s movie all the way and the success that it had unfortunately indicates that we’re going to be seeing more family movies along these lines from Mr. Carrey.

It was nice, however, to see Angela Lansbury onscreen again. The veteran actress doesn’t do many roles these days but I imagine making a movie of this particular book appealed to her. Clark Gregg, the dry-witted agent Coulson from the Marvel movies, also does a villainous turn here.

But the kids are annoying, poor Carla Gugino who is normally an outstanding actress is victimized by a hideous haircut that makes her look like Fran Drescher which only looks good on Fran Drescher. There are few jokes that worked for my adult brain and there’s a reliance on penguin poo that borders on the epic. If you like poop and fart jokes this is the movie for you. If you’re like me, the best joke occurs during the end credits with the disclaimer “No penguins were harmed during the making of this film. Jim Carrey, on the other hand, was bitten mercilessly. But he had it coming.” On that, I can agree.

I might have been harsher on this movie than perhaps it warranted, but I think a book as wonderful as “Mr. Popper’s Penguins” deserved a better movie and certainly a less crass one. It is symptomatic that the Tavern on the Green, which much of the film’s dramatic content revolves around, closed two years before the movie opened, quite possibly in order not to be around when the movie opened. I remember the book with a great deal of fondness. The movie I won’t remember at all.

WHY RENT THIS: The penguins are cute. Angela Lansbury makes a rare screen appearance.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Carrey overacts relentlessly. Charmless, humorless and way too predictable.

FAMILY VALUES:  It surprised me but there were actually a few inappropriate words in the movie, and a bit of rude humor which was less of a surprise.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Carrey wears a Pittsburgh Penguins jersey during the hockey sequence. The team’s mascot, Iceburgh, attended the film’s gala premiere. 

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: A blooper reel and an animated short, “Stinky and Nimrod’s Antarctic Adventure,” are among the highlights. The first two chapters of the book are narrated in a separate feature. The Blu-Ray adds a featurette on real Gentoo penguins (the kind used in the film) and their habitat.  

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $187.4M on a $55M production budget; the movie was a hit.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Zookeeper

FINAL RATING: 4/10

NEXT: Henry’s Crime

Big Miracle


Big Miracle

Drew Barrymore is not so sure about her big kissing scene with her latest co-star.

(2012) Family (Universal) Drew Barrymore, John Krasinski, Kristen Bell, Dermot Mulroney, Tim Blake Nelson, Ted Danson, Stephen Root, John Pingayak, Ahmaogak Sweeney, Kathy Baker, Vinessa Shaw, Andrew Daly, John Michael Higgins, Gregory Jbara, James LeGros, Rob Riggle, Sarah Palin. Directed by Ken Kwapis

 

Americans sometimes overly admire self-reliance. There’s nothing we love more than a lone wolf taking care of business on his/her own. Situations arise in life however where help is needed. Generally we as a nation despise asking for assistance although there are instances where reaching out is the only way.

Adam Carlson (Krasinski) is a reporter for an Anchorage television station whose current assignment in the winter of 1988 is to go to small towns on the fringes of the 49th State and file reports about life on the last frontier. He has amassed quite a following in the small town of Port Barrow, Alaska where he is finishing up his most recent assignment, particularly from Nathan (Sweeney), a young Inuit lad who is a bit star-struck and looks to be fleeing tiny Barrow for bigger and better things.

Filing one last story, Adam notices something rather peculiar – water spouts coming from a small hole in the ice five miles from the nearest ocean. Upon further investigation, it is discovered that three California Gray Whales are trapped there, cut off from the ocean where their fellows have begun their Southerly migration. In a short time, the hole will freeze over and the whales will drown, having no means of getting air.

The filing of this story causes quite a ripple effect. Greenpeace activist (and Adam’s ex-girlfriend) Rachel Kramer (Barrymore) charges in, guns blazing, in an effort to rescue the whales and alienate the humans who might not necessarily agree with her points of view. One of those is oilman J.W. McGraw (Danson) who has a towable ice hover barge that is only a few miles away; it can break up the ice and carve a path to the ocean for the whales but Rachel and J.W. have had run-ins before over oil drilling rights in Wilderness Preserves.

The national guard has to be mobilized in order to get the helicopters to tow the barge to Barrow, which requires the co-operation of the Governor (Root) who isn’t giving it, until Kelly Meyers (Shaw), one of Reagan’s press coordinators in the White House recognizes an opportunity to improve her boss’s environmental record and give a boost to the Bush campaign (the first George, not the second) and puts pressure on the Governor to co-operate.

Colonel Scott Boyer (Mulroney) is assigned to lead the helicopter team to move the huge barges but it is a dicey proposition at best. Meanwhile, the media is descending on tiny little Barrow to cover what has become an international sensation, including L.A. reporter Jill Jerard (Bell) who like Adam yearns for the big time.

In the meantime, the situation for the whales – dubbed Fred, Wilma and Bam-Bam – is getting more desperate by the hour and it doesn’t appear as if help is going to arrive in time. There is something closer that may well be the only chance for the whales. The trouble is, that it’s a Soviet icebreaker and to allow them to save the day might not be possible in that political climate.

These are based on actual events (Kwapis skillfully intercuts actual footage from the incident) although the plot has been condensed and made Hollywood-friendly. On paper it seems like it could be one of those treacly family movies that just reeks of cliché – dumbed down to kid levels. There is a kid here but unlike most family movies he doesn’t save the day – instead Nathan is taught the beauty of his heritage and learns to value his ethnic background. Otherwise, this is a movie that the whole family can appreciate.

The cast is well-assembled. Krasinski in particular is one of the most likable leads working in Hollywood today and the more movie work he gets, the more likely it is that the small screen is not going to be able to afford him shortly. Personally I think he’s one or two roles from being a huge star.

Barrymore is likewise a reliable lead, albeit further up the wattage ladder than Krasinski. She usually plays ditzy – and there’s a hint of that in Rachel – but she takes the committed environmentalist with tunnel vision cliché (she won’t wear make-up because so much of it is animal tested for example) and rather than make the character a caricature gives her flesh and blood instead. It’s a nice portrayal and illustrates why she’s one of Hollywood’s finest.

Danson, Nelson (as a state wildlife expert) and Baker are all fine actors who never disappoint; Danson is as close to a villain as the movie gets but he’s just so dang likable you wind up kind of wanting him to do the right thing – and not to be much of a spoiler but he does.

In fact, nearly everybody does the right thing here. It’s one of those movies where there are no real villains other than the elements and the conviction and commitment of the people of Barrow and those whom the story touches becomes the real focal point. That’s where the warmth is in the story, despite the chilly setting (which was filmed in British Columbia rather than Alaska).

The whales are portrayed both animatronically (well done) and by CGI (not so well done) and remain more or less on the periphery. Yes, everyone loves them and wants to save them but the people are the focus of the story. It becomes a family film that actually doesn’t pander to the kids at the expense of the adults, but rather treats kids intelligently and expects them to understand what’s happening without drawing in crayon.

I found myself liking this more than I expected to. Originally sentenced to the doldrums of the first release week in January, Universal moved it up into February, perhaps because the movie turned out better than they expected it to. This is good solid family entertainment that doesn’t disappoint the kids or the adults and hopefully, not the studio accountants either. Movies like this are to be encouraged.

REASONS TO GO: An engaging story. Krasinski is rapidly becoming one of the most compelling leads in Hollywood. Doesn’t talk down to its family audience, at least not much.

REASONS TO STAY: CGI whales aren’t always authentic looking.

FAMILY VALUES: There are a few bad words here and there.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Stephen Root’s Governor Haskell is a fictional character; the governor of Alaska t the time this actually took place was Steve Cowper who was fairly supportive of the rescue efforts.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/19/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 73% positive reviews. Metacritic: 61/100. The reviews are solidly positive.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Dolphin Tale

INUIT LOVERS: Offers a rare and intimate look at Inuit culture in modern society, specifically in regard to their view about whales and how they use them for food and as a spiritual touchstone as well.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: Journey 2: Mysterious Island

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

Miracle on 34th Street (1947)


Miracle on 34th Street
What could be more Christmas-y than a hug by a little girl for Santa Claus?

 

(1947) Family (20th Century Fox) Maureen O’Hara, John Payne, Edmund Gwenn, Gene Lockhart, Natalie Wood, Porter Hall, William Frawley, Jerome Cowan, Phillip Tonge, Jack Albertson, Harry Antrim, Thelma Ritter, Mae Marsh, William Forrest. Directed by George Seaton

 

Here in the United States, it is a sign of growing up when a child sets aside their belief in Santa Claus. Perhaps in several senses it is more of a sign that they are setting aside their imagination as well.

Kris Kringle (Gwenn) is appalled to see the man who is scheduled to play Santa in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade is drunk as a skunk. He reports his outrage to Doris Walker (O’Hara), the event director. She persuades him to accept the role himself and he does such a fine job that he is hired to be the Santa in the chain’s flagship store on 34th street in Manhattan.

Although he is told to direct shoppers to Macy’s merchandise, he tells one (Ritter) that the fire engine her son wants that Macy’s doesn’t carry can be found at Gimbels, Macy’s archrivals. She is so impressed that she tells toy department manager Julian Shellhammer (Tonge) that she will be a Macy’s customer for life.

Doris, a divorcee, leaves her daughter with her neighbor Fred Gailey (Payne), a lawyer. He takes Susan (Wood), six years old and having been brought up in a practical manner by her mother to believe that there is no  Santa Claus, to see Kris Kringle at the store. When Doris discovers this, she urges Kris to tell Susan that he’s not really Santa. Instead, he tells her that he’s the genuine article.

Doris is concerned that he is delusional and might harm someone so she decides to fire Kringle but store owner R.H. Macy (Antrim) is delighted by the positive publicity and goodwill that he has generated for Macy’s and promises both Shellhammer and Doris generous bonuses if he stays. To alleviate Doris’ concerns, he has Kringle undergo an evaluation with company psychologist Granville Sawyer (Hall) which Kringle passes but not without antagonizing Sawyer.

Kris discovers that Sawyer has convinced store employee Alfred that he is mentally ill just because Alfred is kind-hearted and generous, and raps Sawyer on the head with the handle of an umbrella. Sawyer exaggerates his injury and Kringle is confined in the Bellevue Mental Hospital. Tricked into co-operating and believing that Doris is part of the deception, Kringle deliberately fails his mental examination and is recommended for permanent confinement. Fred however urges Kris not to give up and takes on his case as his lawyer, arranging a formal competency hearing in the court of Judge Henry X. Harper (Lockhart) of the New York Supreme Court.

Ordered by Macy to get the matter dropped, Sawyer pleads with Fred to drop the case quietly and not seek publicity. Instead, Fred thanks the horrified Sawyer for the idea and bumps up the hearing into a full-blown trial placing Judge Harper in an awkward position – having to try the existence of Santa Claus.

Along with It’s a Wonderful Life this might be the most beloved Christmas film in history. Gwenn would win an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, one of two that the movie won (the other was for Best Original Screenplay). That it was released in the summertime is perhaps one of the most boneheaded moves in studio history – the publicity of the film wound up hiding it’s Christmas setting for fear that audiences wouldn’t see a Christmas film in the heat of summer, a fear that proved to be sadly well-founded.

Still, it remains the standard of Christmas movies, both a sly commentary on the commercialization of the holiday (an issue that has sadly only gotten worse in the 70 years since the movie was made) and also on the faith and imagination of children that we tend to lose as adults.

Wood, in one of her first feature film appearances is self-assured and definitely doesn’t have that forced quality that many of the child actors of the time had. You never get a sense she is reading lines so much as inhabiting the role. O’Hara, who initially didn’t want to do the film until she read the script (she had moved back to Ireland) gives one of the defining performances of her career.

The movie definitely is a product of its time, although as such it has more charm than you can imagine. The opening scenes of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade were actually filmed at the 1946 Parade (and yes, Gwenn did play Santa in that parade), which gives you an idea of what it was like back then. That kind of realism was unusual for films of the era.

While It’s a Wonderful Life had a much more heartland frame of mind, Miracle on 34th Street has the East Coast sophistication of its era to distinguish it. Both movies are heartwarming and both perfectly synthesize the spirit of the season and both have the uplifting quality that was present in Frank Capra’s films which It’s a Wonderful Life actually was – Miracle on 34th Street was not but very well could have been.  Those who love Christmas movies in all likelihood do so largely because of this movie. It’s a classic that may be dated at times but never gets old.

WHY RENT THIS: A Christmas classic, a perennial that bears watching again and again. Gwenn’s performance is one of the best Santa depictions ever.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Exceedingly dated in places.

FAMILY VALUES:  Perfect viewing for the entire family.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The house depicted at the end of the film still exists, and is located at 24 Derby Road, Port Washington, New York. Other than the addition of window near the roofline, it looks nearly exactly the same as it did in 1947. The Macy’s Christmas display shown in the film is on display every Christmas at the Marshall and Ilsley Bank headquarters in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is an AMC television special about the movie, as well as newsreel footage of Gwenn accepting his Best Supporting Actor Oscar in 1948. In addition, the special DVD edition includes both the colorized and original black and white versions of the film, in addition to a one-hour television version from 1955. Do note that the Blu-Ray version does not include the latter two features although the box packaging claims that it has the colorized version – only the original black and white version is present here. Expect a deluxe Blu-Ray version of the film classic somewhere down the road.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.

FINAL RATING: 10/10

TOMORROW: Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows