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Entries in Scarlett Johansson (7)

Wednesday
Dec212011

We Bought a Zoo

I wonder who came up with the idea to market We Bought a Zoo with “From the director or Jerry Maguire.” For a PG rated movie that is trying to appeal to families during the holiday season, it seems odd to remind parents that the director directed the filthy (though still great) Jerry Maguire. I can’t imagine it will be a turnoff for most people, or at least I hope it isn’t, because We Bought a Zoo is fantastic. It’s emotional without melodramatics, funny without a feeling of desperation and high spirited without being optimistically annoying. This holiday season, it should be on everyone’s must see list.

The story follows Benjamin (Matt Damon), a single father whose wife just passed away a few months prior. He is now a single father to Dylan (Colin Ford) and Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones) and life isn’t great. Benjamin has just quit his job and Dylan is unhappy, partly due to his longing for his mom and partly because he’s simply at that rebellious age where nothing his father does is ever good enough. After Dylan steals in school one day, he is expelled, so Benjamin decides to start anew and they begin looking for a new house. Eventually, they find the perfect one and decide to buy it. The catch is that the house is actually part of a zoo that was just recently shut down. Buying the house also means buying the animals and ensuring their wellbeing. It’s a tough task, but Benjamin takes the responsibility anyway and, along with his zookeepers Kelly (Scarlett Johansson), Lily (Elle Fanning) and Robin (Patrick Fugit), he begins to renovate the zoo for a summer reopening.

We Bought a Zoo is simple, but absorbing. It takes a family that was torn apart by the death of their mother and wife and uses it to form a new dynamic, one where they can begin to heal and move on without ever really forgetting what happened. Although the mother, played by Stephanie Szostak, is hardly in the movie, you still feel the love that existed between husband and wife, mother and kids, which is a testament to the actors onscreen. Matt Damon is terrific as usual, but the kids shine. Fanning, who is beginning to overshadow her older sister Dakota, is radiant as the young animal lover who develops a childhood crush on Dylan. Ford has the toughest part as the child with the most baggage and a pent up anger over things he can’t control that he takes out on those around him, even if he knows he shouldn’t. The adorable Maggie Jones works as the opposite of her onscreen brother and she elicits a sparkle every second she is onscreen.

All of those people help create a story that is engaging and lively, itself a moving tale of loss and love. Where We Bought a Zoo suffers the most is in its desire to create a conflict. Granted, conflicts are an essential part of screenwriting—without one, there’s hardly a story—but the villain in this movie is caricature, an out-of-place, over-the-top inspector, played by comic actor John Michael Higgins, that will do anything to ensure that the zoo cannot open. He forces them to go out of their way to ensure every single nook and cranny of the park is up to regulation, even if that means spending untold amounts of money to heighten a barricade by only a few inches. While these standards and precautions are no doubt necessary in reality, Higgins plays the character like he stumbled in from this year’s Kevin James dud, Zookeeper.

Still, that character isn’t prominent enough to detract too much from what is otherwise a lovely and inspiring picture. It may be a bit too long with a runtime of over two hours, but the ending is so touching and perfect that any type of restlessness that you may have been feeling up to that point vanishes and is replaced by joyful tears. We Bought a Zoo doesn’t look like much on the surface, but there’s something very special hidden beneath its simple veneer.

We Bought a Zoo receives 4.5/5

Thursday
May062010

Iron Man 2

There are superhero movies and then there’s Iron Man. The original movie, when it was released back in 2008, was about as fun as anybody possibly could have hoped for. My reluctance going into it stemming from my lack of faith in the character—a hero I considered a B-lister—and doubt in Robert Downey Jr.’s ability to pull off the role set me up for amazement. And amazed I was. Iron Man was a comic book adaptation done right and it blew me away. It suffered from mild problems here and there, but was otherwise a fantastic summer action flick with a solid structure and substance to back it up. Its sequel, unfortunately, fails to elicit that same excitement. While still fun in its own right, the whole of the film runs into some large setbacks that keep it from reaching that rare “better than the original” status.

Iron Man 2 begins six months after the events of the first movie. Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) has outed himself to the world as Iron Man and is now reveling in the glory that comes with such a title. He’s a celebrity, but the government considers his suit to be a weapon and demands its handover, a demand he easily refuses. Meanwhile, a Russian man named Ivan (better known as Whiplash, played by Mickey Rourke), has set out to destroy him. After an early encounter, Ivan winds up in jail, but is busted out by a powerful weapons mogul competing with Tony’s “Stark Industries” company named Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell).

That seems to be the least of Tony’s problems, however, because it turns out that the energy source he uses to keep him alive is poisoning his blood and slowly killing him. He has been keeping this news to himself and hasn't yet told his personal assistant Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), his new secretary Natalie Rushman (Scarlett Johansson) or his friend Lt. Col. James Rhodes (Don Cheadle taking over the role from Terrence Howard), the latter of whom steals Tony’s Iron Man technology and hands it over to the government for testing. But things don’t slow down yet, because Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) is visiting him to find out if he is a suitable candidate for S.H.I.E.L.D., some type of agency that Tony knows little about but hopes to get to the bottom of soon.

If not already evident, Iron Man 2 suffers from Spider-Man 3 syndrome. It tries to pack too much into one movie. On top of the new character introductions, including a reintroduction of an already established character in the form of Rhodes as War Machine, this movie tries to incorporate the story at hand, the mystery of S.H.I.E.L.D., the romantic relationship between Tony and Pepper and the unknown past of Tony Stark, delving into the relationship he had with his father and the significance it holds in present day, into one cohesive whole.

Its hands are certainly full, but Iron Man 2 doesn’t stop there. It tries to juggle comedy and drama while still being a fun action flick and keels over because of it. Its tone is all over the place. Much like the other recent superhero movie, Kick Ass, no single tone is ever established and the abrupt and sudden turns it takes are unpleasant and amateurish.

Due to this, some characters don’t get their required screen time. Whiplash, for instance, is mostly relegated to engineer work, tinkering inside of giant robots and sitting in front of computers. His first big action scene is a blast and, though short, the concluding fight with him is fun to watch, but everything in the middle is a bore. He goes missing for a good chunk of the movie despite being the prominent evildoer and this is where the film starts to go awry by trying to pack in its laundry list of to-dos.

The one thing Iron Man 2 has going for it that outshines its predecessor are its action scenes. Many, including me, complained about the mediocre brawls in the first movie, including an anti-climactic final battle that finished out the picture with a whimper. That downfall is rectified here and the action scenes are a thrill to watch, even if some do come about arbitrarily.

But the substance from that first film is missing. The villain, played by Jeff Bridges, was more compelling because as we learned about Tony Stark, we also learned about him. We got to see both evolve over the course of the movie, one using his technological prowess for good while the other spiraled out of control into pure hate and rage.

Iron Man 2 misses all of that. It’s a shadow of its former self and is a rather substantial step backwards for the franchise. If the first was truly great, this sequel is merely okay. It has some positive characteristics, like a great sense of humor (though isolated by its poor mix of drama), and the performances, especially from Downey Jr., are terrific, but it’s too cluttered for its own good. It's worth seeing, but don’t be surprised when you’re primary feeling walking out is underwhelmed.

Iron Man 2 receives 3/5

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