Wednesday, December 28, 2011

A Grand Adventure? "We Bought A Zoo"

Did you ever see "August Rush"? No? You should watch it. Why am I bringing a movie about a musically gifted orphan on a post about a widower buying a zoo? Because, they felt very similar to me. In both good ways and bad. Let's take a look, shall we?

We Bought A Zoo
Directed by- Cameron Crowe
Written by- Aline Brosh McKenna and Cameron Crowe, based on the book by Benjamin Mee
Top Billed Cast- Matt Damon, Scarlett Johansson, and Thomas Haden Church

This movie has all the makings of a feel good classic: cute kids, animals that need saving, financial risk, fast-approaching deadline, and the beginnings of a romance. Benjamin Mee loses his wife, leaving his two kids Rosie and Dylan motherless, six months before the start of the film. We find them functioning, but barely. Dylan, at 14, is in constant trouble at school and his father isn't sure how to communicate with him. Benjamin, *never* "Ben", sees the only way to move forward is to move away and decides to take his family far away (9.2 miles from the nearest Target, to be exact), to start a new adventure. 

* The score to this movie, much like that of  "August Rush" though not quite as innovative, was great. The music was distinct but not over powering and is memorable without taking away from the movie.

* Maggie Elizabeth Jones. If you don't know who she is, I have a feeling you will soon. She plays the youngest Mee, Rosie, and she is incredibly cute. While she doesn't really do anything overtly profound or mind blowing, she has this presence and draw that makes even those of us that don't really find children all that appealing, start to reconsider that notion.

* Subtlety. I can't quite put my finger on it but something about Johansson's performance in this movie struck me as intriguing. The best way I can think to describe it is to say that she spoke small. Not that her lines were short or clipped or sounded choppy...just that she said almost as much, if not as much and more, in between lines as she did during them. Her performance, overall, was very different than any of the other things I've seen in her in before. In a good way, I suppose.

* Cinematography. This is actually a pro and a con because though a LOT of the shots were really pretty and well executed, there were a few that could have been nicer if not for the massive CHEESE fest that happened to be stationed near by. More on that below.

* There are some actors in some movies that are able to properly convey emotions without the utterance of a single word. This movie had a lot of moments where silence spoke louder than roars. And, believe me, there were lots of roars.

* I'd like to take this opportunity to discuss make up. I mentioned subtlety before and I'm going to mention it again. I only really noticed make up twice in this movie...well, by this I mean I noticed it in scenes that one might not should really notice make up. In other words, I liked not noticing it very often. Mascara and eyeliner have their place and their purpose but this movie was not about pirates or princesses, so I was glad it was left at the trailers.

* While I thought Johansson's performance was quite interesting, I almost felt like we didn't get to see enough of...something. I had hoped that the epilogue might explain some things but either her character was not one that actually existed, or she was based off of somebody no longer in the picture. Either way, something was missing.

* I almost put this in the Pros section but...just couldn't. The animal selection for this zoo, I just wish we had a better idea of what all was there from the start. While the animals highlighted from the beginning were VERY consistent and props for, at least seemingly, using the same Tiger in every shot, there were some parts where it seemed like they were saying "oh yeah! we have a serval and some warthogs and hundreds of different species of snakes and..." with no real thought to scale given.

* I understand that this movie is based off of a book which is based on a true story, so I understand that there are parts to this whole thing not explained in a 2 hour movie. Still, I do expect some bit of reality in respect to the number of snakes one can "lose" in a scene. What struggling zoo, funded only by an inheritance of a limited nature, orders a shipment of what looks like *hundreds* of varying species of snake?? If they couldn't even afford to feed the grizzly bear, which I will come to in a moment, how on earth do they expect to maintain that many habitats? I was just confused.

* On to the grizzly. In one scene this bear is, apparently, wandering through town? And the very next shot he's back on zoo property but still loose. I was confused as to how he traveled that distance, you know the "9.2 miles to the nearest Target" that was drilled into your head through the whole movie, in such a short amount of time. Upon reaching said bear, Mee is disarmed of his tranq gun for a full minute at least before a shot is heard and the bear goes down. All other characters who were off screen when this shot was fired congratulate him on shooting him...I guess he used magic?

* Have I mentioned yet how far away they lived from the nearest Target? 9.2 miles. Have I stated that they bought a zoo? They did. Both of these things were repeated throughout the entirety of the film. Funny the first time, cute the second, annoying the third, and obnoxious the fourth, fifth, sixth....There's a long running joke and then there's over used quips. While some might find these bits endearing, it annoyed me. Having at least two entire scenes devoted to, basically, a single line is kind of annoying.

* Maybe if I read the book this bit wouldn't bother me but I'm a firm believer in making films enjoyable for readers and watchers alike. I think that if you have time, which the copious amounts of wind/sunset/raindrop/etc shots indicate that they do,  then it is your duty to show developed characters. I honestly believe there was one character who never said a single line and at least two others that only uttered a minor thing in one scene. If we are expected to like these people, expected to enjoy their triumphs and feel their pain...we need to know them. I do not enjoy being expected to know a person's thoughts by the way the light reflects off their hair. It's pretty, but it isn't practical.

Now Mother..
This movie is rated PG and is fairly clean. It does deal with death, both animal and human, so be prepared to talk about grief and how it effects different people in different ways. Viewer beware..

Overall, I enjoyed the experience of the movie. I loved the score and, I think, Johansson's performance was interesting enough in and of itself to see it again. It's not a movie that is necessarily outstanding on any front but it does it's job and it does it well. You are transported, briefly, to this world and you want to see it work out. The struggles aren't necessarily original and the path to success has certainly been traveled more times than we can count, but the journey is still worth watching. Cameron Crowe does not disappoint with his way of connecting shots and breathing life into seemingly lifeless scenes nor do the performances, though mostly silent, of the supporting cast. 3/5 stars.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Wondering about "War Horse"?

It's been a while...a LONG while, actually, but I've decided to try and revive this ol' thing! I've seen a few movies since the last post, but nothing all that amazing or horrible. Today I saw War Horse. It was good.

War Horse
Director- Steven Spielberg
Written by- Lee Hall and Richard Curtis; based on the novel by Michael Morpurgo
Top Billed Cast- Jeremy Irvine, Peter Mullin, Emily Watson, & David Thewlis

This story is structured very much like the classic "Black Beauty" in that we start with the birth of a horse and follow that horse from home to home throughout the film. Horses in war are not allowed to choose sides; they can't decide to only fight the "bad guys" and it is no different for the hero in this story set during World War I. Though he has many names, and struggles through many challenges, this "war horse" keeps his wits about him and touches countless hearts in the process.


* This movie is pretty. I'm not sure if they filmed it all/most of it on location in France or if they used another country, whichever it worked. There are countless shots in the film that are just brilliantly executed.

* Remus!! Ok, sort of. David Thewlis is in this movie but he's kind of a bad guy so while I like him enough to put him here based on performance in this movie, let's be honest it's really because I love "Harry Potter".

* As a dog trainer, and one that has worked on sets before (small ones...but still), I always give props to trainers that make it work. Whatever group was hired to supply the horses to play the two main horses in this movie, I give them MAJOR props. While, yes you do have to suspend disbelief a bit, and I'll touch more on this in the Cons, overall these animals did an incredible job. Horses can't bark, they can't whine, they can't really convey emotion with a tail wag or eyebrow twitch like a dog can, and yet, you feel like these horses could. They worked brilliantly together and gave the audience something to root for.

* Stunts. Honestly, running full out on a horse carrying a sword while side by side with other people running full out on horses carrying a sword...that's intense. Add in a few hundred more horses, hundreds of infantry men fleeing said horses, and a fully equipped camp and you have yourself a recipe for disaster. Disaster did NOT strike, though! I love watching battle scenes because it's such a great way to judge a movie. If you can see hesitation, see the actors waiting for a cue, you know it's probably not that great of a movie. A good battle scene is like a dance: calculated and coordinated to the minutest degree but flowy and beautiful and seemingly effortless. War Horse was like a Broadway dance number mixed with an Olympic ice skating final: it was superb.

* Either they had THE most realistic animated horse I've ever seen or the best trained stunt horse I've ever seen. Either way, there's one scene that is so painfully well done that I'm still trying to figure out how they did it. I won't spoil anything but I think you'll know it when you see it.


* I realize that it's a period piece and that it's set in England where people have varying degrees of accents and what not. I also realize that this movie was made by ACTORS, people trained to do different accents while enunciating. Apparently, if you do a period piece, set in England, that stars a are no longer required to speak clearly.

* This movie is about a war. Wars, typically, have two sides and those two sides, typically, are pretty easy to identify based on outfits and language and what not. I got lost in this movie. Yeah, it's a family film so everybody needs to speak English but...if we're all speaking the same language with, sometimes, the same accent, can we at least have totally different colored uniforms? Hats? Something? At the start, it was REALLY easy to tell and I appreciated that immensely. Perhaps it was Spielberg's intention to make it harder and harder to tell the difference as the story progressed, I don't know. I personally did not enjoy not knowing who to cheer for.

* Resolution. I won't go too in depth here for fear of spoiling but there's a few things left unsaid that I thought should have been. Nothing major but I had a few questions after it was over that I would love to know the answer to. Perhaps I should read the book?

* While I praised the cinematography in the Pros section...I can't say the same for the last few shots of the film. I'm sure they shot it in front of a green screen or just "touched" up the background after they shot it at one time of day with another time of day. Either way, the sunset...I suppose that's what it was...was just, ugly. It was either too bright or not bright enough, I can't be sure. I was not a fan.

* If you're doing a movie about animals and you're going to need more than one (which, they all need more than one), PLEASE do your homework! I get that you need one horse that stands, one that runs, one that limps, etc etc...but can you at least keep them all the same type? We went from Paso to Warmblood, to Thoroughbred, to who knows what else. Body type matters! Gait matters! Continuity matters!

* Most of the CGI was great..and for me to compliment CGI is a big deal. There was one bit though that I just can't get to stop replaying in my head. It's not that it was horrible or anything and the transition back to live-action was almost seamless. It's just that..horses don't bend like that. Or if they do, they don't get up and run away from it.

Now Mother..
This movie is rated PG-13 and can be hard to watch at times. There are lots of scenes involving dead horses and dead soldiers. Be prepared to discuss World War I and the people of the day's views on animals as more of a tool than a pet. I don't recall any cursing but there could have been a few mumbled words that I missed (see the Con regarding enunciation). Save for the violence and death, it really is a good family movie. Viewer beware..

Over all, I liked this movie. It might seem that I was a bit harsh on certain aspects of it but it is a film I would see again. Not too gory with a lot of heart. 3.5/5 stars.