FORD V FERRARI (2019)

November 19, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. 7000 RPM. Racing legend Carroll Shelby describes that as the moment of racing bliss in the opening of the film. We are reminded of early test pilots breaking the sound barrier, or explorers reaching the peak of Mt. Everest. What follows is two-and-a-half hours of history, rivalries, egos, and sport. The racing scenes are exhilarating, and the men are driven by testosterone and compelled to be the best. They are throwbacks to a different era. An era that wasn’t about fairness and feelings, but of determination and focus that produced results – either success or failure. There were winners and losers, and the ceremonies awarded no participation ribbons.

Who are these men? They are Carroll Shelby, Ken Miles, Henry Ford II, and Enzo Ferrari. Director James Mangold (LOGAN, WALK THE LINE) takes the 1966 24 Hours of Le Mans and turns it into a rivalry between car makers, a friendship between racing icons, a look at corporate buffoonery that still exists today, and an old-fashioned movie that is fun to watch … regardless of whether you know the first thing about racing or cars.

Matt Damon plays Carroll Shelby, the war veteran race driver-turned-designer hired to push Ford racing into world class status. Shelby is an industry icon who won the 1959 Le Mans before retiring due to a heart condition. He then founded and ran Shelby-American for designing and improving cars. He wore cowboy hats that were only eclipsed in size by his bravura in most situations. Christian Bale plays legendary driver Ken Miles, another war veteran and bombastic friend of Shelby, who can best be described as a race car savant. Contrary to the film’s title, the story belongs to these two men, and the film belongs to these two actors.

Co-writers Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth, and Jason Keller take some liberties with the script and bend a few historical details to make the parts fit a Hollywood production … but for the most part, the story is pretty accurate. Just a few years after the Edsel fiasco, Henry Ford II is agitated at the state of Ford Motor Company, and after a bitter and personally insulting failed buyout of Ferrari, Mr. Ford (played with proper arrogance by Tracy Letts) decides to engage in motor-measuring with the Italian company run by Enzo Ferrari (Remo Girone). He hires Shelby to elevate Ford racing to elite status with one main goal – beating Ferrari at Le Mans. Shelby’s cocksure approach manages to keep Miles onboard despite the internal battles with Ford executives, especially Leo Beebe (a smarmy Josh Lucas). Beebe doesn’t see Miles as “a Ford man”, and in what is all too common in corporate life, prefers style over substance.

The film could have easily been titled Corporate vs Cars. Although the Henry Ford vs Enzo Ferrari segment is quite entertaining, most of the time is spent with Shelby and Miles trying to reach their dream while negotiating corporate obstacles. These two men have a love for racing and each other – in an old school, manly-respect kind of way. They are simpatico in their quest for the perfect car, and as Miles explains to his son (Noah Jupe) in a terrific scene, the perfect lap.

Additional supporting roles include Jon Bernthal as young visionary Lee Iacocca (who died earlier this year), Caitriona Balfe as Miles’ supportive wife, and Ray McKinnon as Phil Remington, the lead engineer on Shelby’s team. Of course, Iacocca went on to become Chairman of Chrysler, where he brought in Shelby to consult on the Dodge Viper, among other models. Supposedly Le Mans racing legend and 6-time winner Jackie Ickx appears in a crowd shot, but I missed it.

There is a stark contrast between the Ferrari factory and the Ford assembly line, but the egos at the top are remarkably similar. A bruised ego lit the fuse for the rivalry, but it was the car guys who made it happen. The racing scenes are adrenaline-packed and the sound in the theatre, combined with Cinematographer Phedon Papamichael (SIDEWAYS, NEBRASKA) close-ups inside the car, allow us to feel the rumble and vibration and speed sensation inside the Ford GT40. Damon and Bale are terrific. Damon struts with Shelby’s confidence, and Bale (after a huge weight loss from his role as Dick Cheney in VICE) captures the cantankerous genius of Miles – plus seeing his yell at other drivers during races is hilarious. There is a comical rumble between Miles and Shelby that will remind no one of Batman and Jason Bourne, but as difficult as it is to make popping a clutch exciting on the big screen, Mangold’s team comes through.

watch the trailer:


THE MARTIAN (2015)

October 4, 2015

martian Greetings again from the darkness. With this week’s NASA announcement of the discovery of water on Mars, it seems necessary to point out that director Ridley Scott’s latest was not actually filmed on the red planet, but rather in the Jordan desert. OK, maybe not necessary, but it does serve as a reminder that the film (based on the popular book from Andy Weir) may be filled with science … but it’s also fiction – hence the label Science-Fiction.  If you were one of THOSE who actually paid attention in science classes and read the optional material, then you will probably find much fault in the details. For the rest of us, it’s a pretty fun ride.

Space has long been a popular movie topic, and a key to such favorites as 2001: A Space Odyssey, Alien, Aliens, The Right Stuff, Contact, Space Cowboys, Armageddon, Moon, and most recently Gravity and Interstellar. And of course there are the immensely popular franchises of “Star Wars” and “Star Trek”, which both chose a different path than the “grounded” nature of the others. This latest film may actually have as much in common with Cast Away as it does with any of the space-based films, and while many movies these days seem to be advertisements for Apple, this one is owed a debt by the duct tape company.

Commander Lewis (Jessica Chastain) and her crew (Matt Damon, Michael Pena, Kate Mara, Sebastian Stan, Askal Hennie) are hard at work on their Mars mission when a severe storm causes them to evacuate in panic mode. When the storm hits, Damon’s astronaut Mark Watney is lost and presumed dead. Once it’s realized that Watney survived and has every intention of being rescued, the film kicks into gear.

There are three separate stories we follow: the ingenious and spirited survival mode of Watney, the politics and brilliance of the NASA organization, and the crew who now believes Watney’s rescue is their responsibility. The NASA group is led by director Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels) and includes support work from Chiwetel Ejiofar, Kristen Wiig, Sean Bean, MacKenzie Davis, Donald Glover and Benedict Wong.

Taking the approach of an adventure film with the MacGuyver of all Botanists, Damon’s charm and humor stand in stark contrast to the annoyances of the two leads from Gravity, and provide a mass appeal that should make this entertaining for most any viewer. This approach allows us to imagine ourselves stranded on Mars, and whether we would panic or consider ourselves Space Pirates. There is also a lesson here for all students out there … pay attention in Science class! For the rest of us … “get your a** to Mars”!

martian2

 

 


INTERSTELLAR (2014)

November 16, 2014

interstellar Greetings again from the darkness. There are probably three distinct groups that view this as a “must see” movie. First, there are the hardcore science lovers – especially those dedicated to space and time. Next would be the core group of Sci-Fi aficionados (those who quote and debate the specifics of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Blade Runner, The Matrix, etc). And finally, those cinephiles who anxiously await the next ground-breaking film of director Christopher Nolan, whose experimental and pioneering methods are quite unique in today’s Hollywood.

Given that I would be laughed out of the first two groups – exposed as less than a neophyte, you may assume that my discussion of this film will not be steeped in scientific or astrophysical theorem. Instead, this will provide my reaction to what has been one of my two most anticipated films of the year (Birdman being the other).

Simply stated, the look of this film is stunning and breath-taking. Its theatrical release comes in many formats, and I chose 70mm. This made for an incredibly rich look with probably the best sound mix I have ever heard. The physical sets were remarkable and as varied as the scene settings: a farm house, a NASA bunker, multiple spacecrafts, and numerous planets. Beyond that, we experienced the effects of blackholes, wormholes and the tesseract. Mr. Nolan’s long time cinematographer and collaborator Wally Pfister was off directing his own film (Transcendence), so the very talented Hoyt Van Hoytema joined the team and contributed sterling camera work, including the first ever handheld IMAX shots. Top this off with Hans Zimmer’s complimentary (though sometimes manipulative) score, and Mr. Nolan has produced a technical marvel of which known adjectives lack justice.

Take note of the exceptional cast led by the reigning Oscar winner Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyer’s Club), and other Oscar winners and nominees Michael Caine, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Matt Damon, John Lithgow, Casey Affleck, and Ellen Burstyn. Beyond these, we also have David Oyelowo, Wes Bentley, William Devane, Topher Grace, David Gyasi, Collette Wolfe, Timothy Chalamet, and an exceptionally fine performance from Mackenzie Foy (who will forever be remembered as the “Twilight” child of Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson).

On the downside, I found myself shocked at some of the dubious and distracting dialogue. At times, the conversations were contradictory and even seemed out of place for the situation, character and movie. In particular, the entire Matt Damon sequence and the Anne Hathaway monologue on “love” both struck me as disjointed and awkward. These and other minor annoyances can’t be discussed here without noting key plot points, so that’s where we will leave it. However, it must be mentioned that the words of Dylan Thomas are so oft repeated, that the phrase “Do not go gently into that good night” can now be officially considered fighting words.

The works of noted Theoretical Physicist Kip Thorne were the inspiration for the story, and even Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson has come out in support of much of the science in the film. Be prepared for brain strain on topics such as space-time continuum (Einstein’s Relativity of Time), gravity, and the aforementioned wormholes, blackholes and tesseracts. The blight depicted in the first hour draws its look and even some closed circuit interviews directly from Ken Burns’ documentary The Dust Bowl (2012). Beyond all of the science and lessons of human arrogance and survival, I found the story to be focused on loss … loss of home, loss of loved ones, loss of hope … and balanced by the remarkable human survival instinct. Christopher Nolan deserves much respect for addressing these human emotions and desires with the overwhelming vastness of space, and doing so in a time when Hollywood producers would much rather financially back the next superhero or even a sequel to a 20 year old comedy.

**NOTE: (Could be considered a  SPOILER)  If I were sending a crew into space on a dangerous mission to save the species, and my Plan B was to have this group start a new community on a new planet, I would certainly send more than one female on the mission.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: scientific brain strain is your favorite form of entertainment OR you need proof that Gravity was mere fluff in the realm of space film

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: your idea of time-continuum is hitting the snooze button on your alarm clock

watch the trailer:

 

 

 

 


THE MONUMENTS MEN (2014)

February 11, 2014

monuments Greetings again from the darkness. Movies based on real life are often some of my favorites, but that doesn’t let them off the hook in needing to be well made. The real life story of the Monuments Men provides both pride and heartbreak. The Allied group tracked down and rescued so much Nazi-stolen artwork, while at the same time being so short-staffed that they resorted to picking and choosing what parts of history and culture to save.

For much of 2013, this movie was mentioned as a possible Oscar contender. When the release date was delayed and director George Clooney admitted he was struggling with the film’s “tone” – a balance of comedic and dramatic and historic elements – all the warning flags shot up. This final version would certainly have benefited from script improvement, though the cast is so strong and the mission so true, that the film is still enjoyable enough. Director  Clooney and co-writer Grant Heslov have adapted the source material from Robert M Edsel, but Clooney can’t resist stamping the movie with his smirk appeal, despite capturing the look of the era.

The actual Monument Men spend very little time together, so it’s tough to call this an ensemble piece. Bill Murray and Bob Balaban have their own subtle comedy routine going, while John Goodman and Jean Dujardin enjoy a jeep ride. Matt Damon and Cate Blanchett add a dose of gratuitous love interest where it’s not needed, and Hugh Bonneville strikes the heroic pose of redemption. Director Clooney ensures that actor Clooney and his buddy Damon get the most screen time and close-ups, detracting from what the real story should be … the men who saved art and culture.

Michelangelo’s Madonna of Bruges and Hubert van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece are supposedly the centerpieces of this group’s mission, but the film really is just an amalgam of individual scenes that leave the viewer working frantically to tie all the pieces together. Shouldn’t that be the filmmaker’s job? The question gets asked a couple of times, “Is art worth a human life?”. That critical theme could have been the core of a far superior movie … one not in such desperate need of suspense rather than more punchlines.

Very few war projects have successfully blended comedy and drama. A few that come to mind are Kelly’s Heroes, The Dirty Dozen and TV’s “Hogan’s Heroes“. It’s a tricky line to walk, even with a great cast. So while this one has sufficient entertainment value for a February release, I would rather recommend two others that deal with this same subject matter: The Rape of Europa (2007, documentary) and The Train (1964, directed by John Frankenheimer, starring Burt Lancaster).

**NOTE: the phrase “women love a man in uniform” was well established prior to anyone seeing John Goodman don the Army green.

**NOTE: the actor playing an elderly Frank Stokes (Clooney’s character) viewing the Madonna near the end of the movie is actually George Clooney’s real life father.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: it’s February and you just need a pleasant movie break

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are seeking for an in-depth look at the fascinating folks behind this fascinating story

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CreneTs7sGs


ELYSIUM (2013)

August 11, 2013

elysium1 Greetings again from the darkness. Social commentary does not automatically make a movie “smart”. In fact, commentary done poorly could be labeled the exact opposite. Writer/Director Neil Blomkamp‘s critically acclaimed sci-fi feature District 9 was creative in its approach to social issues. Unfortunately, his follow-up is a sloppy, big budget mess with too many writing shortcuts and what may be the worst performances of Jodie Foster‘s career.

Earth in the year 2154 is an over-populated, polluted, ecological disaster that looks like what we saw in Wall-E, only with people. Earth is so bad, it has been evacuated by the ultra-rich … an obvious statement on the “one percenters”. The poor and downtrodden earthlings spend their lives dreaming of getting to Elysium, the space station paradise that houses the elite and is only a 19 minute shuttle ride away. On Elysium, the houses are stunning and the elysium2lawns perfectly manicured. Oh, and technology has re-imagined tanning booths into a medical marvel that can cure anything from zits to cancer. This advancement is the main reason earthlings risk everything to reach Elysium. See those poor folks have only shoddy hospitals … an obvious statement on universal healthcare.

After an industrial accident, Max (Matt Damon) is desperate to reach Elysium so he can save his own life. As expected, his selfishness evolves into focused heroism after he runs into his childhood crush Frey (Alice Braga) and her leukemia-stricken daughter. Getting yourself to Elysium is not so easy thanks to the protective nature of Defense Secretary Delacourt (Jodie Foster). She is working with greedy businessman William Fichtner and earth-based mercenary Sharlto Copley to plot her political coup on Elysium … just in case you forgot that the rich are really bad people.  Copley is by far the most entertaining aspect of this movie.  Even though we can’t understand half his dialogue, it’s much easier to take elysium3than whatever the heck that accent is that Ms. Foster is throwing at us.

There is a data theft plot that, in the right hands, could open up the Elysium advantages to the entire population … an obvious statement on open immigration. In between all of the political statements Blomkamp does throw in plenty of explosions, gun fights, aggressive robots and enough CGI effects to keep any sci-fi fan entertained. There is even a battle of exoskeleton suits between Copley and Damon. Where Arnold once said “Get your a** to Mars“, I can’t in good faith say the same thing about Elysium.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are addicted to Sci-Fi and don’t even mind if it’s poorly imagined … fisticuffs in an era of immediate medical healings??

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you prefer your Sci-Fi on the cerebral side rather than political

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ha6zWw5saGY


BEHIND THE CANDLEABRA (2013)

June 3, 2013

candelabra1 Greetings again from the darkness. According to director Steven Soderbergh, this is his farewell to film. He is taking his eye and camera and will concentrate on specialty projects … at least until he figures out that movie directors make more money (yes, I’m skeptical). This one has been “in the works” for years and is based on Scott Thorson’s autobiography.

If you don’t recognize the name Scott Thorson, you surely recognize his opponent in his 1982 palimony suit … Liberace. The story recounts how a 17 year old Scott fell under the spell of Mr Showmanship, and didn’t leave until 1982, when he was forced out. To understand what occurred during those years requires an understanding of the times. The gay culture had not worked its way into mainstream America. Despite his over-the-top flamboyance (on and off stage), candelabra2Liberace’s fans refused to believe he was gay … or more accurately, refused to even entertain the idea.  This “secret” was protected by Liberace and his professional camp.

Although their actual ages are way out of whack for the story, Matt Damon and Michael Douglas are both exceptional as Scott and Liberace, respectively. Much of this story focuses on Scott, but Douglas’ performance is what makes this work. He walks the fine line between predator and protector, lover and louse. When he tells a young Scott that he wants to be his “Brother, Father, Lover, Best Friend”, we are nauseated as viewers, while Scott is captivated.

candelabra3 Supporting work comes from Dan Akyroyd as Seymour Heller, Liberace’s fixer and handler; an exceptional Rob Lowe as plastic surgeon Dr. Startz; Scott Bakula as one of Scott’s first and the one who introduces him to LL; Paul Reiser; Nicky Katt; and Debbie Reynolds … yes THAT Debbie Reynolds (Singin’ in the Rain) … who plays Liberace’s controlling and creepy mother.

Scott Thorson is really not a very interesting character, though there is no doubt that he and Liberace were exceptionally close for almost six years. The movies have shown us many “kept” women over the years, so it’s a twist to see a studly young man in the role. The slow spiral into drug addiction and paranoia is not fun to watch, and rather than follow Scott, the movie ends with Liberace’s passing due to complications from AIDS. Since then, Mr. Thorson testified against gangster Eddie Nash in the Wonderland murders, and was placed in the Federal Witness Protection program. Of course, his taste of fame would not allow him liberaceto live a quiet life and he has since been shot and arrested … even giving interviews from the Reno jail just one month before the premiere of this movie.  Only recently was his bail posted by the fine folks at Nevada’s The Moonlite Bunny Ranch. (yes, really)

Definitely worth watching thanks to the Michael Douglas performance, but also as a reminder of just how much innocence society has lost in the last thirty years. Soderbergh says that no studio would distribute the film because it was “too gay”. Maybe we haven’t progressed so much after all. Luckily HBO picked it up, though that prevents Douglas from being an Oscar contender. Brace yourself for the “creep factor”. Liberace (that’s the real one, pictured left) even tried to legally adopt Scott … a move that eclipses the wildness of even his costumes, pianos and cars.

**NOTE: Robin Williams was originally cast as Liberace

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you were a fan of Liberace OR you want to see just how far society has advanced in 30 years

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you have no intention of allowing for the possibility that Liberace was in a relationship (other than professional) with Scott Thorson

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fp3wAyRf15c


TMI: LIBERACE bio coming soon

March 12, 2013

March 12, 2013

TMI: Today’s Movie Info

 

liberaceDirector Steven Soderbergh is putting the finishing touches on Behind the Candelabra, an HBO film based on the story of Liberace and his partner of 6 years, Scott Thorson.  The film airs May 26 and stars Michael Douglas (yes, that’s him in the Entertainment Weekly cover photo) as the flamboyant performer known for his extravagant costumes.  Matt Damon will play Thorson.  In typical Hollywood fashion, Mr. Douglas is older now than Liberace was when he died in 1987.  Thorson was a teenager when he first met Liberace, and 24 when he filed his 1982 lawsuit.  While Matt Damon is a young looking 42, very few would confuse him for a twenty-something.  Debbie Reynolds, who once appeared on Liberace’s TV show, will play his mother.  No trailer is available yet.


PROMISED LAND (2012)

January 7, 2013

DISCLAIMER: This blog was set up to provide thoughts and commentary on movies through the eyes of someone who loves and appreciates the art of cinema. Most of the time, these comments focus on the positive aspects of each movie, while also mentioning any particular areas which, by opinion, seem to fall short of acceptable.  It is rare indeed when a movie is so annoying and lacking in merit that I find myself with mostly negative comments to make.   Typically I would just skip the commentary, however, I believe Promised Land deserves to be exposed for the fraud that it is.

promised Greetings again from the darkness. On paper, a story about a controversial environmental issue (fracking for natural gas) presented by a respected director (Gus Van Sant) and featuring a strong cast (Matt Damon, John Krasinski, Frances McDormand, Rosemarie DeWitt, Hal Holbrook) would be a welcome cinematic contribution, despite an expected slant to the story-telling. Most of us enjoy, or at least accept, a well presented argument that brings light and substance to at least one side of the controversial issue. What no one appreciates is having their time wasted … which is exactly what this ridiculous movie does.

Fluff is fluff, regardless of the subject matter that acts as a backdrop. Matt Damon and John Krasinski combined to write the screenplay based on a story by Dave Eggers. The screenplay is simple-minded, uninformed promised3and amateurish. Did they do any research? It seems more likely they got together a couple of times, sipped a few imports, and threw together an outline. If they had then turned that outline over to a REAL writer, the ensuing mess of a movie could have been avoided. Instead, they somehow tricked Gus Van Sant into becoming the director. This process worked just fine 15 years ago when Ben Affleck collaborated with Damon and Van Sant for the excellent Good Will Hunting. That film shouldn’t even be tarnished by mentioning it here.

There is no shortage of articles available with actual facts on the companies and process involved with natural gas fracking. In 2010, Josh Fox even put together GasLand, a very effective documentary on the subject. So, the idea of formulating a Hollywood dramatic version makes sense. Matt Damon’s name alone ensures better exposure in one week than Mr. Fox’ film has had in two plus years. What doesn’t make sense is a version that is so lightweight and lacking in details, that a convoluted, half-assed love triangle steals the spotlight off what should be the real story.

promised2 What is the real story? A fictional $9 billion company with the generic name Global Crosspower Solutions sends their crack closing team of Steve Butler (Damon) and Sue Thomason (McDormand) into rural Pennsylvania to buy up the land leases from the area’s struggling farmers. Somehow we are supposed to believe that Steve, this hotshot rising star, makes two blunders in the first couple of days – allowing the town to vote, and getting blackout drunk in the only town bar. Then, this brilliant executive totally loses his equilibrium when a small time environmentalist (Krasinski) shows up and starts charming the locals with his horror stories of fracking.

Steve walks around telling people “I’m not a bad guy“, McDormand shakes her head at him and says “It’s just a job“, and Krasinski buddies up with everyone … including local school teacher Rosemarie DeWitt, on whom Damon has a bit of a crush. One of the more ridiculous bits is that Damon’s character supposedly grew up in a farm community just like this and saw it shrivel up when the factory closed. He is probably the only guy to ever grow up on a farm who can’t drive a stickshift and has to be chauffeured around by McDormand. As if all of that isn’t ridiculous and lame enough, here comes the most absurd movie twist of all time. Since the first 2/3 of the movie promised4lacks any sense of realism, the twist is not surprising, but rather just plain ludicrous. It’s a cheap writing device.

As for positives, it’s always a joy to watch 88 year old Hal Holbrook on screen. More attention to his character could have saved the movie …he is far and away the most intelligent and interesting character. Also, Damon’s character goes on a heartfelt rant towards some drunken rednecks. It’s his only scene that works and ends, logically, with a punch to nose. Titus Welliver, Scoot McNairy and Lucas Black all have moments of support that deserve a better movie. The same can’t be said for Damon, Krasinski and Van Sant … the blame and embarrassment falls at your feet, gentleman.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you shut your eyes and plug your ears for all except Hal Holbrook’s scenes

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you prefer not to reward a couple of Hollywood stars for their lackadaisical efforts

watch the trailer

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AHQt1NAkhIo


WE BOUGHT A ZOO

December 12, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. Director Cameron Crowe has finally emerged from his cocoon – 7 years after the abysmal Elizabethtown. Yes, he has had a couple of projects in that time, notably the Pearl Jam documentary, but he has avoided anything related to his dramatic film roots of which produced Say Anything, Jerry Maguire and Almost Famous. This time he delivers a feel good, family appropriate, sentimental crowd-pleaser that should play very well to the holiday crowd.

Please know I do not use “sentimental” as a derogatory term. Sure there are moments where the actions and dialogue seem contrived and manipulative, but some of the best crowd-pleasers throughout Hollywood history have these same traits. This film is based on a true story and uses Benjamin Mee‘s autobiographical book as the basic source material. The real Mee family and their zoo, are stationed in England, not southern California as Crowe presents them. What I can tell you is that this version of the Mee family and the zoo staff is interesting and entertaining, even if you just have to let go and allow yourself to be guided through.

 Matt Damon plays Benjamin Mee and the story picks up after his wife dies. He soon quits his job and moves his two kids to the country so they can work through their grief and start fresh. His teenage son Dylan is played with blazing anger by the talented Colin Ford. The precocious 7 year old daughter is played by scene-stealer Maggie Elizabeth Jones. This family experiences the realities of struggling with their pain and difficulties in communicating.

 As for the zoo, it is in major disrepair and in danger of closing if it doesn’t pass its pending inspection. Benjamin works with the rag-tag staff, including head zookeeper Kelly (Scarlett Johansson), to bring the facility up to code and nurse the sick animals back to health. As the zoo is rehabbed, so are the individuals. No surprise there.

The main conflict in the story comes from the hard-headedness of Benjamin and Dylan, as they ignore their inability to communicate and connect as father and son. A couple of their scenes together are the best in the film for acting and realistic dialogue. At the same time, Kelly acts as a quasi-love interest for Benjamin, while Lily (Elle Fanning) uses puppy love to help Dylan through his misery. That sub-plot is where Crowe missed a real chance. Ms. Fanning is one of the top young actresses working today and her contributions here are limited to that luminescent smile.

 The wild cast of supporting actors includes wise-cracking Thomas Haden Church as Benjamin’s brother, JB Smoove as the Realtor, Peter Riegert as Mee’s editor, Patrick Fugit (from Almost Famous) as the guy with a monkey on his shoulder, Angus Macfadyen as the colorful zoo maintenance man, and John Michael Higgins as the snooty zoo inspector who knowingly holds their future in his smarmy hand.

As always, Crowe uses music better than most any other director. This includes his use of score and soundtrack to compliment a scene or drive the setting and mood. What really makes this film work is Matt Damon. His character is the heart of the film and the soul of the family. His performance is strong enough to prevent the film from lapsing into pure sap and makes us care for him, his family and this zoo. Don’t expect some cutting edge, independent sulk fest. Just accept the movie for what it is … a feel good story delivered for the holidays.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you can enjoy a sentimental family journey based on a true story – especially if some pretty cool animals are included!

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you subscribe to the “conflict in every scene” theory of story-telling.

watch the trailer:


CONTAGION

September 10, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. Fellow germophobes beware: the first few minutes of this movie will have you reaching for disinfectant and a surgical mask. Just remember – it’s only a movie. The scary part is that we have already experienced much of the terror that the film presents. We have seen first hand the effects of Swine Flu and Asian Bird Flu. We understand the fear of uncertainty and helplessness. It’s important to note that a virus is a living element capable of mutating and spreading … it looks for a way to get stronger and survive.

 The movie goes for the gut punch in the first few minutes. We see Gwyneth Paltrow returning home to hubby Matt Damon after an overseas business trip. We immediately know she is sick, but we aren’t sure of the source … though the film provides many source possibilities. Simultaneously we are shown numerous people with the Paltrow symptoms all over the world, and quickly understand that these are related and the “monster” is spreading quickly.

 Cut to Dr. Cheeve (Laurence Fishbourne) and his team at CDC. He partners with Dr. Orantes (Marion Cotillard) of the World Health Organization and Dr. Mears (Kate Winslet) from the Epidemic Intelligence Services. We are left to fill in the blanks on how these organizations work together to study and interpret the source and danger of an outbreak.

 The true heroes of science are those in the labs. Here we have Dr. Hextall (Jennifer Ehle, from The King’s Speech) and Dr. Sussman (Elliott Gould). We understand that these are highly talented people with the very specific skills needed to save the planet.

From a movie making perspective, the film is technically fine. The camera work and acting are all excellent. Director Steven Soderbergh is a superstar director and well-respected. Writer Scott Z Burns has quite an impressive resume. The cast is as deep and spectacular as any you will see this year. Then why am I in such a funk about this film? It disappoints me to say that the film plays like a disjointed mess. We get bits and pieces of numerous stories throughout, but never do we really connect with a single character. Matt Damon and Lawrence Fishbourne have the most screen time, but neither are accessible or give us any reason to believe we know them … only their desperation. Jude Law plays a super-blogger who teeters between exposing governmental conspiracies and his own insider trading for personal gain. There are subplots with Marion Cotillard, Jennifer Ehle and Laurence Fishbourne that all could have been intriguing, but we get the glossy outline version, rather than an actual story.

 The film focuses not on the personal side of the outbreak, but rather the process of damage control, scientific research and lab work for a vaccine. But we only get scattered bits of any of this. Same with the political side. We see a “world” teleconference with the CDC and leaders from many countries, but never an explanation on why they are all looking to the U.S. for a miracle cure. It would have been fascinating to see how or if the experts from Japan, China, India and the U.S. work together in times of a global epidemic. Instead, we get thoughtful poses from Mr. Fishbourne. What a waste.

Despite the potential for greatness, this film is neither thrilling or dramatic or informative. Mostly I wondered how much time the endless stream of movie stars actually spent on set. It appears Mr. Soderbergh now enjoys hanging with an all-star cast more than really making a statement with a movie. Additionally, I found the quasi-Techno soundtrack to be distracting and annoying. There are numerous virus outbreak movies that are superior to this one.

Whether you see this movie or not … remember to wash your hands!

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you want to play “spot the movie star” OR world epidemic movies are your guilty pleasure

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you believe a thriller should be thrilling OR you agree that an endless checklist of partial subplots can be annoying

watch the trailer: