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:


SHOLEM ALEICHEM: Laughing in the Darkness

October 17, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. Typically a documentary on an individual is either presented as a look back at their life or an observation of their lasting impact. Director Joseph Dorman provides both of these PLUS critical reviews and analysis of the writings of Sholem Aleichem, the writer whose work inspired Fiddler on the Roof. It is an absorbing look at who most would consider to be the most famous Yiddish writer and humorist. His work really bridged the gap between the old world Jews and the rapidly changing and evolving modernists from the turn of the 20th century.

At times the film plays like a classroom presentation for 8th graders in World History, but look closer and you’ll see many fascinating, rare photographs and video. There is even one bit of audio featuring Aleichem himself reading his own words. We also get Alan Rosenberg as the narrator and Peter Riegert as the voice of the other readings.

What makes this enthralling, interesting and educational are the terrific interviews with Yiddish experts, and the on camera presence of author Bel Kaufman, Aleichem’s granddaughter. There is no fluff or filler here. These people provide real insight and analysis and perspective on his life and writings. The photo montage of the funeral procession with 200,000 New Yorkers is a sight to behold.

 Maybe you have read the original literary work “Tevye the Dairyman”. Perhaps you have seen the 1939 film Tevye. Maybe you were fortunate enough to have seen the original Broadway run of “Fiddler on the Roof”. Most likely you have seen the 1971 film musical with the great Topol (pictured, left) as Tevye. This film points out that the words and message of Aleichem have been twisted and shifted over the years, but there is no questioning the lasting impact and his determination to document … Tradition!

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you have any interest at all in the historical journey of Jews from the 19th to the 20th Century OR you would like to see the foundation of the beloved musical Fiddler on the Roof

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: historical perspective bores you and you prefer to just sing along to “If I Were a Rich Man”

watch the trailer: