Movie Review: We Bought a Zoo

Movie Review - We Bought a Zoo

I’m ecstatic, gutted and elated from this movie that played me like a banjo, plucking heart strings at will. In the last month I have been challenged as a Dad by two movies that might slip under your radar as you keep a hand on the wheel of life steering through Christmas. First there was “Courageous” from the Kendrick brothers and now the real life adaption of Benjamin Mee’s life in “We Bought a Zoo”.

This for me is the family movie of the year and you will not regret seeing it. I had the privilege of seeing the preview screening for this review and we weren’t too far into the movie when my wife said, “We have to bring the kids”. And then a little later, “We have to get this on DVD for home”.

While the movie’s key actors and accents give you a sense you’re in country America, the real story eminated from Plymouth, England where the tale of Benjamin Mee’s family buying and renovating the Dartmoor Zoo became a Guardian newspaper story in 2007. You can read the real background story here. The onscreen version of ‘Rosemoor Zoo’ reads differently to the script but with its own drama helps you understand where the motivation for the movie first began. I think Benjamin Mee’s own book will be on a few shopping lists for the New Year.

Now let’s step into the movie and Benjamin Mee’s (Matt Damon) shoes as Writer and Director, Cameron Crowe introduces you to the single dad raising the precocious 7yo Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones) and 14yo Dylan (Colin Ford), a simmering young man asking ‘Why?’ He has good reason. The Mother they adored has died six months earlier. Their adventurer and writer Dad has hit the writers block equivalent of stalling the engine on life and there is a month’s worth of lasagne in the fridge from the do-gooders who simply don’t get it.

Matt Damon’s character shows a good man who wants to get a fresh start away from the coffee shops of the village life that remind him of his wife. He wants to remember and forget and thats about the size of it. After looking for a new home he stumbles across a complicated purchase that sees him taking on responisbility for a 33 acre zoo with eight staff and numerous species of animals. To make a profit he has to open in time for the holiday season. But that isn’t going to happen until he learns to jump through some new hoops to meet the animal welfare inspector’s electric rule.

Scarlett Johansson steps on the scene as Kelly Foster the Zoo Keeper. Untrained but passionate she leads the remnant of staff to rally behind Mee in his bid to make deadlines, overcome escaped animals and pick up by holding the hand of a man needing direction. Its a great script that give enough of a romance edge to keep the story flowing while paying respect to a beautiful marriage and a family missing a key part of the jigsaw puzzle they once saw as a picture complete.

Being a Dad is the most rewarding role on the planet but lets not pretend being a father is easy. Its hard work with sometimes unseen results. Many times I don’t get it right and lets be honest the landscape for fatherhood has changed dramatically in the last 30 years. When I grew up there was one or two TV channels to review and filter and now we want to teach our kids about life before its delivered wrapped in a browser and called ‘online’. Some things we teach our kids through values but there are some lessons that come through experience. Losng a loved one and living a marriage are two of those examples. While Benjamin Mee has to find his own way one of the most engaging, heart wrenching scenes is when Father and Son come to grips with hurt and honesty and let it out. The clean slate is a platform for rebuilding and the story has a sense of rebirth from this point.

One of the memorable quotes comes from Damon’s character as he tells on screen son Dylan how to ‘get the girl’. Its a quote that Mee got from his brother when he was young and he passes it on saying;

“You know, sometimes all you need is twenty seconds of insane courage. Just literally twenty seconds of just embarrassing bravery. And I promise you, something great will come of it.”

Cameron Crowe has brought us some of the great passion and intensity that I adored in Jerry Maguire. The script is superbly paced and keeps this family drama in sync with reality while threading some great sub-plots and comedy to the story.

Hollywood has faced some challenges in the last ten years. For some reason we’ve run out of stories for the next script in the sausage machine and the only way we extend a budget is by asking for 48 seconds of extra CGi time. It becomes a sad reflection that our movies are filled with reboots and prequels followed by tech wizardry with a dash of CGi befuddlement.

The real way forward is to invest in great writers. Let’s tell the stories of life and write words that define the arena of dreams. I can’t speak highly enough of ‘We Bought a Zoo’. Its the life of Benjamin Mee, Father and Zoo Owner told by master story teller, Cameron Crowe. Great writing inspires great lives. When I walked out of the theatre I quickly fired off a tweet;

@cameroncrowe thanks for an awesome movie experience. Life is full of joy and pain. 20 seconds of insane courage is required. #WeBoughtaZoo

Some movies inspire a moment I hope ‘We Bought a Zoo’ will inspire a life.

4 out of 5 popcorns

Movie Review: J Edgar

J Edgar - Movie Review

The latest screen masterpiece from Clint Eastwood is the life story of a figure called the second most powerful man in America. After all who could hold their position in charge of a nation’s law and order system for nearly 50 years serving the needs of America and keeping the favour of eight Presidents? J Edgar tells the story of John Edgar Hoover, the man who from a young age with a law degree in his back pocket took the helm of the Bureau of Investigation and turned it into the FBI in 1935. Under his watch methods of crime investigation grew in leaps and bounds through technology and innovation while the scrutiny of the public was managed and the favour of Congress and Presidents was controlled. It was said J. Edgar’s private files held America to ransom.

At first introduction I could be forgiven for thinking this was a Martin Scorsese production after all the starring role went to Leornardo DeCaprio. Picking up that Clint Eastwood directs this biopic and casting aside the Freudian slip the 137min movie walks us back and forth through the corridors of the FBI’s history as seen by J. Edgar. It highlights the character of different generations from 1919 through to 1972 and shows a changing nation with one constant, J. Edgar Hoover.

The constant flashback aspect can be a distraction from the timeline and one of the strengths of the movie actually makes it hard at first to see who’s who. This strength is the physical transformation of a real life 37 year-old Leornardo DeCaprio to play ages from 23 through to a highly make-up laden 70 year-old and it is impressive. In the first minutes of the film this leads to the challenge of connecting the dots however the onscreen physical presence and makeup both make a telling presentation and help confirm the legacy aspect of this man’s life.

Keep in mind that J. Edgar Hoover was involved in the Communist conspiracies of the 1919 era through to calling Robert Kennedy to inform him of JFK’s death and finished his time under Nixon. The controversy of his life didn’t just have a public face. The man who led a country into a Federal law and order system in the wake of the Lindenberg baby ‘Crime of the Century’ kidnapping never married and was domineered by his mother who he lived with till her death. A courtship in the movie is our introduction to Helen Gandy played by Naomi Watts. While love wasn’t in the air it was this flirtation that formed a career long professional engagement as his Personal Assistant keeping track as well as lock and key on his private files.

The trio of influence in J. Edgar’s life is complete once his mother played by Judi Dench and Naomi Watts are joined by Deputy FBI head Clyde Tolson. Armie Hammer from The Social Network fame steps in as the dapper law graduate from J Edgar’s own college. The two become inseparable as J. Edgar finds refuge in a solitary trustworthy male figure who later becomes Deputy head of the FBI. It’s from this relationship that writer Dustin Lance Black has drawn his key thread. The writer of other movies with an emphasis on gay history like Milk and Pedro tantalises this urban legend aspect of J. Edgar’s life just enough to ask the questions unanswered by closed doors. Controversy has always surrounded the history of a man who held America’s morals to ransom yet may have been involved in areas that at that time would be condemned by liberal and conservative thinkers alike. The issue of whether J. Edgar was homosexual are dealt with front and centre in the script and can’t be ignored from a man who spent much of his personal life at the side of Clyde Tolson to the extent they held hands in public, holidayed together and in the end his estate was bequested to Tolson on his death in 1972.

The history and life of J. Edgar are the tease to buy a ticket to this movie and Eastwood’s craft and DeCaprio’s acting brilliance are the reason’s to see it to the end. This for me is a turning point movie for DeCaprio. His ability to bring age and youth, conflict and condescension to the same character is extraordinary. The directing is superb although a little hard to follow in some areas by nature of the flashback script over a 48 year career. One thing is for sure J.Edgar was controversial. Here was a man determined to bring order to the outside world from his organisation of the Library of Congress through to the introduction of fingerprinting and cataloguing a nation of criminals. Internally he couldn’t put either morals or relationships in any form of sequence and maybe that’s why the movie reflects this aspect of a conflicted personality living with a few close friends yet forever alone.

3 out of 5 popcorns

Movie Review: John Carter

Movie Review - John Carter

Talk about the sleeper hit. Most people I’ve spoken to about ‘John Carter’ have asked the “Who’s He?”. Many think its Dan Carter’s brother but once you look at the background to this science fiction saga from Edgar Rice Burroughs the man who brought us Tarzan you start to see that we’ve been missing a hero movie with more backstory than a chemical lab accident.

Edgar Rice Burroughs (1875-1950) wrote a series of books between 1912 and 1948 that were built around the characters of Barsoom (Mars) and the battles, loves and on quests of the tribes of this land. With Disney’s latest release we are transported from the 1800s of the American West to a land where battles are fought and won through violence and the occasional help of loftier beings.

‘John Carter’ for me is a revelation of the imaginations of man. Not only from the perspective of how Director Andrew Stanton interpreted the original story but also to see  how Edgar Rice Burroughs alongside writers like HG Wells and Jules Verne were able to imagine a world beyond their experience.

One of the key things I liked is how the ‘flying machines’ were created in the movie. There is an element of steam-punk with the sense of the mechanical and gears that  Burroughs would have been familiar with but combined into this paradigm is the mystery of what look like solar powered wings that give the ability of flight.

Like Brad Bird before him, Andrew Stanton has stepped out of the animation ring where his writing and directing successes have worked magic into classics like Finding Nemo, WALL-E and Monster’s Inc to give us a stunning live action movie with the added experience of a 3D rendering of Mars, its worlds and inhabitants.

Taylor Kitsch who I admired as Remy LeBeau in Wolverine plays the moody Confederate Captain, John Carter with a wide range of emotions from the defiant to the broken while always smouldering. His on screen connection with Princess of Helium, Lynn Collins who also played in Wolverine was not as convincing but I think that was somehow more from the way Collins tried to play an intelligent Xena Princess and it didn’t quite work.

With the animated Barsoom Tharks played and voiced by actors like Willem Dafoe, Samantha Morton and Thomas Haden Church there was a strong on screen cast to keep the the plot moving. Mark Strong brings his very identifiable face and voice to the screen in another ‘love em or hate em’ role as sentient being Matai Shang.

Currently I’m hearing a lot of criticism from the critics and a lot of positive buzz from the fans. Will this be another movie where the theatre going public tell us they’re more interested in the story than the attributes used by critics to merit scores and quality. Roger Ebert thinks it was an ‘OK’ production designed to setup a franchise of sequels. Given the depth of material that Burroughs created that wouldn’t be a bad thing. For me and my tribe we’re more than happy with our trip to Mars.

4 out of 5 popcorns

Movie Review: Dr. Seuss’ the Lorax

The Lorax

Mary Poppins said a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down. With the Lorax the 3D animation experience is coated in syrup, sprinkled in hundreds and thousands and covered in orange candy floss. The experience was fun, immersive and thought provoking. It’s amazing to see how the on screen interpretations of the very simple yet iconic 2D illustrations from the Dr Seuss books have developed over the last few years. We remember the first live action movie that came through the mastery of Ron Howard and Jim Carrey when “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” arrived in cinemas in 2000. Now with the enhanced development of computer animation the cartoons really do ‘live’ on screen.

The 1971 book by Dr Seuss (Theodor Seuss Geisel) focussed on saving the environment and forty years later the same message is more topical than ever through society. The cute factor is always a great endearing character to bring in a serious message. The use of fluffy funny teddy bears and ‘Hallelujah Chorus’ singing fish is a great backdrop amongst the forests of zebra trunked candy floss shedding trees. The quality of animation of all aspects of people, animals and objects is so brilliant you do want to reach out and hug the screen.

The story for Seuss noobs surrounds a young man called Once-ler (Ed Helms) making his way in the world to the comic relief of his family. He sets out and discovers the Truffula trees that will give him the material for his famous Thneeds. This one size fits all device sells like mad and the crowds want more. More Thneeds means less trees and the environment pays a heavy price. So what to do with the predicament for the environment? Enter the Dr Seuss version of Jiminy Cricket, the Lorax, a humble bundle of fluff who rides in on a storm and leaves by the seat of his pants, literally. Danny DeVito is an inspired choice for the voice of the Lorax and brings just the right amount of charm and some whimsical sarcasm for flavour.

Once the backstory is told we enter the modern day and meet Ted (Zac Efron) as he stumbles through early puppy love over the artistic Audrey (Taylor Swift). The flowing red locks and sparkly voice are a magnet for this relationship but how to win her heart. Ted finds out that in their community no one knows what a tree is. They embrace artificial trees with disco lights and suck on bottles of produced air but the idea of nature is long lost to the monopoly of big business. But here Ted finds a shared dream when Audrey says she will marry the man who produces a real tree.

Setting off on his motor-unicycled journey takes Ted out of the glass bubble of his world to seek out a Truffula tree in the vast darkness of harvested fields long forgotten. When he finds his way to the house of the Once-ler the encounter inspires young Ted and puts him at odds with a newly introduced character, the “Air Mogul” O’Hare played superbly by Rob Riggle. The battle ensues for the last Truffula Tree seed and a case for growth and photo-synthesis will eventually win the day. It’s an enjoyable ride and worth the weird, the wacky and the familiar. In amongst the key characters watch for Ted’s Grandma played by Betty White and initially you may be forgiven for thinking Ted’s Mum is the ‘Nanny’, Fran Drescher but it’s actually Jenny Slate.

When the people who brought you Despicable Me say they want to bring Dr Seuss to a new audience you can take them seriously with both the message and the vehicle. Despicable Me’s Director Chris Renaud returned to the camera on this one and did an amazing job with this seriously funny film. This should give more than a pinch of delight to those who have just found out he will be delivering us Despicable Me 2 in 2013.

Probably one of the best cartoon 3D movie experiences I have enjoyed where the landscape and action pieces all have the right depth of story and imagery to immerse you in the message of the Lorax.

4 out of 5 popcorns

Movie Review: Wrath of the Titans

Wrath of the Titans - Movie Review

The sequel to the 2010 Clash of the Titans was always going to have a tough job winning the movie goers again. The first movie had failed to win a serious audience. There had been questions over the silliness of previous Titan epics in years gone by and whether the ensemble cast could make it work. Add in an abundance of CGi to bring alive a Greek mythological world and the recipe has to be cooked just right. The first director Louis Leterrier didn’t seem to make it click so I went to the follow up; Wrath of the Titans with an element of foreboding. New director at the helm, Jonathan Liebesman, has a short repertoire so it was difficult to gauge what we could expect however I had seen Battle Los Angeles and was impressed how his directing could overcome a stale storyline.

Summarising the experience, Wrath of the Titans is an epic in your face battlefront. The imagery particularly when viewed in its IMAX 3D format is confronting. From the early days of Perseus ‘retiring’ on the beach through to the volcano that comes to life and splatters the warriors with lava it keeps a heady pace. That was one of the aspects that surprised me as the credits rolled that what felt like an intense journey over two hours was only a 99min movie.

The story takes us on a journey as one son betrays his father while another father is inspired by his son to live and conquer. Wrath is a quest to save the world from the apathy and infighting of the gods. It seems to highlight that humans have a deeper potential to succeed because of their need to accept their mortality and the desire to overcome despite this weakness. In one scene Hades says “Maybe I’ll be stronger now that I don’t have the power”.

In this saga Sam Worthington returns to the role of Perseus and brings in some great newcomers to the story in Andromeda played by Rosamund Pike and the superbly played Agenor, Toby Kebbell. Old time gods Zeus, Hades and Poseidon are played respectively by Liam Neeson, Ralph Fiennes and Danny Huston. Worthington does a good job and now sports a rough and tumble hair-do that is a change from the previous Avatar cut. What is interesting in this epic is that he doesn’t hide the Perth accent and you’ll believe that Australians were the real ancestors of Greek mythology.

But the most likeable character you’ll wish had more than his 10min of fame is Hephaestus played by Bill Nighy. This minor god had the ‘luck’ of getting the hand of Aphrodite to stop the other gods fighting over her and he was considered the god of smithing and technology. This last element brings him into our story as the creator of Zeus’ thunderbolt, Poseidon’s trident and Hades fork. It’s through Hephaestus’ knowledge of the labyrinth he had built to protect the hidden underworld prison of Tartarus that we journey with Perseus and crew.

Greek myths were always meant to rattle your bones. Although Greek, I can’t see Aesop’s fables being made into a summer blockbuster movie. To that end the Wrath of the Titans delivers a journey in spectacular fashion both above ground and into the depths of the underworld. If the IMAX experience is in your area then I highly recommend the immersive experience.

4.5 out of 5 popcorns