REVIEW: “Hail, Caesar!”

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I have to think it takes a specific sensibility to pull of a Golden Age of cinema parody especially in today’s movie climate. Modern comedies seem content with sticking to tired formulas and they rarely step outside of those boxes. And unfortunately these retreads attract big enough crowds to keep the filmmakers comfortable in the genre’s monotony.

Enter Joel and Ethan Coen, a directing duo who has never played within the conventional or the formulaic. Over the years they have dabbled in a number of genres, never conforming to a popular norm and always putting their own special spin on them. Whether its comedy (“Raising Arizona”), action thrillers (“No Country for Old Men”), westerns (“True Grit”), gangster pictures (“Miller’s Crossing”), or even wild amalgamations of several genres (“Fargo”), the Coen brothers are always approaching things from a unique perspective.

Their latest is “Hail, Caesar!”, a comedy written, produced, edited, and directed by the Coens. The film is set in 1950s Hollywood where big studios still run every facet of moviemaking including their laborers. Josh Brolin plays Eddie Mannix, a real life studio “fixer” represented here with that expected Coen brothers twist.  As a fixer Mannix’s job at Capital Pictures is to protect the images of Hollywood stars by hiding their bad and potentially damaging behavior from the public eye.

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While the trailer shows off a star-studded cast, this is Brolin’s picture and he does a fine job. The film mainly consists of him managing the studio. The supporting cast is seen through bit parts, some of which are nothing more than glorified cameos. Take Scarlett Johansson, Channing Tatum, Jonah Hill, Tilda Swinton. None have noteworthy screen time and we are only teased with storylines involving each. The best appearances come from Ralph Fiennes and Frances McDormand. They are hilarious but we don’t get enough of them.

The bigger of the supporting roles go to George Clooney and Alden Ehrenreich. Clooney, the Coen’s favorite numbskull, hams it up as Capital Pictures’ biggest star who ends up kidnapped by a mysterious group known only as “The Future”. Ehrenreich plays a singing cowboy (think Gene Autry) who ends up terribly miscast in a stuffy period drama. These story angles, just like the many others, are promising but aren’t given much attention. It all goes back to Mannix and his professional and personal struggles. It is a far cry from the impression left by the trailer.

I don’t mean to sound like “Hail, Caesar!” is a bad movie. It’s not. There are so many winks and tips of the hat to the people and the system that made up Old Hollywood. The film is a veritable collage of homage and parody. Much of it is sure to put smiles on the faces of classic cinema fans. We get a big dance number. We shoot scenes on big studio lots. We see the politics behind making a Ben-Hur-ish prestige film. And of course communism rears its ugly head. All of these things are a lot of fun.

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But despite that, there’s something about “Hail, Caesar!” that just doesn’t click. There are so many components to the film that feel underplayed. The Coens have always stuck to their vision, but here their constant wandering from one potential plot point to another gives us several entertaining scenes but not a fully compelling whole. It never can keep a steady momentum and the humor seems to come in a few scattered bursts.

It’s hard to put into words what made the film hard for me to fully embrace. As I said, there are many really good scenes and several specific fun moments that stood out to me. Most feature that signature quirky Coen brothers dialogue that I love. But its hard to find a satisfying narrative thread that brings them together. I can’t help but think that a little less of these out-of-the-blue indulgences and slightly more focus on a central story thread would have helped the film immensely.

Still, a disappointing Coen brothers movie is better than most other comedies of today. That’s one way of looking at it. But that doesn’t cover the one unfortunate fact – “Hail, Caesar!” is still a disappointment. It has its moments (some of them are really great), but its flippant approach to some of the storylines it injects left me feeling a bit slighted.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

3 Stars

REVIEW: “Avengers: Age of Ultron”

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It could be said that the first Avengers movie was in a ‘can’t miss’ position. Sure, with that much ambition comes a degree of risk. But fans had already shown their devotion to the Marvel movies at that point. Iron Man, Captain America, and Thor each had their own films which had earned a ton of box office cash. Bringing them altogether was sure to bring in truckloads of more money. That proved to be true to the tune of over $1.5 billion worldwide. And of course that doesn’t include home-video, merchandising, etc. More importantly, as a movie fan, the first film was fun and very satisfying.

So as is customary in modern Hollywood, a sequel was on the way and we get it in the form of “Avengers: Age of Ultron”. Writer and director Joss Whedon is back this time with a new and unique set of obstacles in front of him. First, it’s always a challenge for a sequel to recapture the magic of a successful first movie while also being distinctly its own film. Also, if Whedon thought expectations were high for the first movie, they are nothing compared to what people will expect from the sequel. And then there is the question of superhero fatigue. Can Whedon and company continue to energize a genre that has a small but growing list of detractors?

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I always give Marvel Studios credit. Their movies aren’t the assembly line sequels that we see each and every year. Certainly some films work better than others, but Marvel is always building upon their bigger cinematic universe and continuity which I enjoy. But for those not thoroughly invested it could be a legitimate stumbling block. “Age of Ultron” is unquestionably an installment – a transition chapter in this enormous franchise. Loose ends are tied up and potential plot holes related to other Marvel films are addressed throughout. Again, these are things that will satisfy fans but probably fuel the indifference of those not on board.

The film starts with our heroes attacking the snowy mountain compound of Baron von Strucker. He was the guy last seen in the mid-credits scene of “Captain America: The Winter Soldier”. Strucker has obtained Loki’s scepter and is using its powers for human experiments and other nefarious practices. The results of the conflict leads Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) to fulfill an ultimate peace keeping goal of his – the creation of an ultimate A.I. named Ultron (voiced by James Spader). Ultron becomes self-sustained and self-aware and immediately begins his own plan of global peace which happens to include the distruction of the world. Tony’s mishaps with Ultron and his failure to inform his fellow Avengers of his project creates a festering tension between the team. But they must work together if they have any hope of beating this new threat and once again saving the world.

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That is just a brief set up to what is a movie jam-packed with moving parts. There are so many characters and subplots that are being serviced and it is a testament to Whedon’s writing skills that the film is coherent at all. Wrapped around the central story are countless tie-ins from previous movies and setups for future films. It truly is a miraculous feat, but it’s not a flawless one. There were a handful of things that felt terribly shortchanged occasionally to the point of making no sense at all. During these moments it was as if Whedon was saying “Look, I have so much to cover. I just need you to go with this.” Sometimes I found that a little difficult to do.

But considering the insane amount of moving parts and the hefty ground the film is asked to cover, “Age of Ultron” is an impressive accomplishment. All of the core characters are back and get their moments to shine. In fact the amount of screen time between each hero felt much more balanced than in the previous movie. It also helps to have actors who have become more and more comfortable with their characters. In addition to Downey, Jr., Chris Evans (Captain America), Chris Hemsworth (Thor), Scarlett Johansson (Black Widow), Jeremy Renner (Hawkeye), and Mark Ruffalo (Hulk) each are a load of fun. We also get a good assortment of past side characters and some very intriguing new characters. The super powers endowed Maximoff Twins, Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen) and Pietro (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) are an interesting addition and there is the appearance of another new character who really got my geek juices flowing.

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“Age of Ultron” is clearly a movie aimed at serving a passionate fan base  which is really good for devotees like me, but maybe not so good for those unfamiliar with or lukewarm to its many intricacies. I ate up the funny banter between each unique superhero personality. I loved the large-scaled action which seemed ripped straight from the pages of a comic book. I was interested in the future movie tablesetting even when the scenes didn’t always play out smoothly. In a nutshell, “Age of Ultron” was a fun and entertaining ride that succeeded as the central cog in Marvel’s constantly moving cinematic universe.

“Age of Ultron” is not a movie devoid of problems and your experience will probably be influenced by the degree of affection you have for these characters and this universe. As a fanboy I loved being back in this world, I laughed at a lot of the humor, and I was thrilled by the big effects and larger than life action sequences. Yet while it scratched nearly all of my itches, it’s hard not to point out the messy patches. Still considering the film’s enormous importance to the Marvel movie universe and the even higher expectations, “Age of Ultron” succeeds where so many movies would have failed. Now I’m ready to start building towards the next installment.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

REVIEW: “Captain America: The Winter Soldier”

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It’s easy to get lost among the huge and larger than life Marvel movie properties such as Thor, Iron Man, and The Avengers. Such was the case with Captain America and his 2011 film “The First Avenger”. Now don’t misunderstand me, Cap’s first solo movie project was still a hit and it raked in just over $370 million at the box office. But it is rarely mentioned in the conversations about Marvel’s growing cinematic landscape. Personally I loved “The First Avenger” and its distinct and unique flavor. Well obviously its success means a second film will follow, but unlike many sequels Cap’s new chapter legitimately excited me.

“The Winter Soldier” was an amazing storyline that ran through the Captain America comics starting in 2005. It was written by Ed Brubaker and drawn by the amazing Steve Epting. The two developed an engrossing story that has become one of my favorite comic book storylines ever put to print. Screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely desperately wanted to adapt Brubaker’s story. They ended up taking key elements of it, added a few slick and interesting twists, and “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” was born.

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The first Cap film carved out its own little spot among the Marvel movies. It took place predominantly in the past, namely during World War II. While those connections are still present, this film is a modern day story. Chris Evans reprises his straight-laced Steve Rogers persona. He is still very much a man from the past struggling to find his place in the modern world. Whether it’s technology and pop culture or the complex attitudes towards global crisis and geopolitics, Rogers often finds himself at odds with the situations around him. The film does take some time with that but ultimately this is an old-school action flick that hearkens back to the old espionage pictures of old.

Cap is still working for S.H.E.I.L.D. under director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and alongside Natasha (a.k.a. Black Widow) played by Scarlett Johansson. The relationships between these three characters remain compelling. The contrasts between Steve and Natasha are sharp and always evident. Natasha and Fury have a relationship shrouded in secrecy. Steve and Fury are on the same side but are often at odds over what is the right approach. All of these things are stressed more when S.H.E.I.L.D. is compromised by a rogue force led by a mysterious assassin known only as the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan). Several twists and turns follow, threats come around every corner, and the stakes shoot through the roof.

Director Joe Johnston did a fine job with the first film but I was blown away by what directors Anthony and Joe Russo give us in the sequel. The brothers, mostly know for their work in television, rarely take their feet off the accelerator yet they never let their film become a deluge of pointless, mind-numbing action. The battles always feel important and the consequences are dire. But they also look amazing. I can’t tell you how many times I shuffled in my seat with excitement over what I was seeing on the screen. The camera constantly grabs one beautiful angle or presents one breathtaking sweeping shot. It’s some of the best filmed action I have seen in years. And it’s also a case where the 3-D works pretty well. I wouldn’t go as far as to say you must see it in 3-D, but I certainly didn’t mind that I did.

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The action also goes back to days when we weren’t beholden to CGI. Now obviously there is plenty of CGI in this picture, but where it separates itself from most other Marvel movies is in its lack of dependence on the technology. Much of the action focuses on great hand-to-hand combat, some amazing high-speed chases, and a lot of classic-styled stunt work. The entire visual presentation is stunning and it matches or exceeds anything Marvel has done to this point.

But the looks of the film would amount to little if not for Markus and McFeely’s addictive story. They frame all of their action around cool spy movie and conspiracy thriller angles instead of the basic superhero formulas we are used to seeing. Equally surprising is the richness of character development which provides more depth to everyone on screen. Even more, the Winter Soldier is a fantastic villain. Not only is he incredibly cool and a perfect visual representation of his comic book counterpart, he also isn’t a faceless enemy. He may steal scenes with his physical presence, but he also brings a gravity to the situation that amps things up. The pacing is crisp, fluid, and never lulls. The tone is more serious, yet the sprinkles of humor are funny and well timed. It’s simply a well-oiled and well-conceived script that dramatically changes the landscape for upcoming Marvel films.

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Then there is the acting. Over time Evans has clearly gotten better as an actor and he completely embodies the role of Steve Rogers. Jackson and Johansson have also fallen right into their characters and their comfort level is obvious. It was great to see them both in bigger and more expanded roles. As I mentioned, Sebastian Stan is a scene stealer and my excitement level rose whenever he would appear. Also new to the franchise is Robert Redford who plays a S.H.E.I.L.D. senior head. Redford starred in a number of conspiracy films back in the 1970s so this is familiar territory for him. Anthony Mackie is also a lot of fun playing Sam Wilson who Cap fans know as Falcon. There were several other small supporting characters that caused my inner comic book fanboy to smile.

It may be easy for some people to dismiss this film but to do so would be criminal. Sure it’s a big, loud popcorn picture but I don’t mind that at all especially when the film is this exciting and entertaining. I was expecting big things from this movie, but I didn’t expect to be blown away by its craftsmanship and its storytelling. It takes what we love about superhero films, tosses in loads of bods to comic fans, and mixes it all with good old-fashioned filmmaking and the results are impeccable. I love this movie and it very well may be Marvel’s best film to date. More than that, It’s one of the most exhilarating action pictures I’ve seen in a long time.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

REVIEW: “Her”

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In the not too distant future of Spike Jonze’s “Her” technology has made major leaps, fashion senses have eroded, and Hollywood’s cynical views of relationships have remained the same. Loaded with ambition and lauded by many as the best movie of 2013, “Her” incorporates a familiar science-fiction concept into what is more or less a love story and relational study. But it’s far from conventional or cliché. That said, it isn’t a film free of problems which (for me) ultimately keep it from being the modern day masterpiece that some are touting it as.

The story revolves around Theodore Twombley (Joaquin Phoenix), a nerdy introvert who works as a letter writer for people who have a hard time sharing their feeling. Theodore is a lonely soul. He’s currently involved in divorce proceedings from his first wife Catherine (Rooney Mara) and he hasn’t been able to get out of his ever-present state of melancholy. He has practically no social life and outside of his longtime friend Aimee (Amy Adams), there is no significant person in his life.

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Theodore’s life takes a strange and unexpected turn when he purchases a new operating system for his computer. But this is no Windows XP. It is an adaptive artificial intelligence that evolves and takes on its own personality. The OS (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) goes by the name Samantha and soon develops a very personal and intimate relationship with Theodore. Samantha begins to fill the lonely void in Theodore’s life while he becomes her window to a new and exciting world. But the reality that she is an operating system causes him to wrestle with the legitimacy of their relationship.

The science-fiction mainly serves as a subtle backdrop with the exception of the familiar idea of computers becoming sentient. But Jonze deserves credit. He’s really doing a lot more here than first looks might reveal. He takes an interesting look at our infatuation with our gadgets and where that could perceivably lead us in the future. There is also a strong focus on communication or lack thereof. The film shows us several relationships that struggle due to the poor abilities to communicate. And speaking of struggles, prepare for a lot of them. In Jonze’s gloomy view of love, nearly every relationship struggles and has a rare hope for survival.

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On the other hand, it’s the rich and unbridled conversations between Theodore and Samantha that causes their relationship to flourish. There are so many scenes of them just talking about simple things that may seem inconsequential but that are vital to making a relationship work. Phoenix is amazing and completely wraps himself up in his character. He displays an enormous range of feelings with such realistic fervor. And Johansson shows why voice work is deserving of more attention than it’s given. Her voice is sultry and sexy but it’s also warm and vulnerable. These two show a deep and growing attraction, yet even here we see Jonze use a little bait and switch.

But while I really appreciate Jonze’s originality and I love being challenged by deeper thought-provoking approaches, there were a handful of things that kept me from fully embracing this as a great film. First there is the movie’s glacial pacing specifically in the second half. The aforementioned conversations between Theodore and Samantha are good at first, but they reach a point where they no longer move the story along. The countless closeup shots of Phoenix laying on a pillow talking to Samantha well after their love has been established grew a bit tiresome. This only slowed things down for a movie that already had a calculated and deliberate pace.

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The film also contains some unneeded scenes that added little to the movie. Olivia Wilde pops up as Theodore’s blind date. While her presence had a purpose, she was a very flimsy, throwaway character. There is also a weird scene where Samantha calls on a surrogate to serve as her physical body in order to be intimate with Theodore. It’s an intentionally uncomfortable scene laced with a touch of dark humor. But as it plays out things get sloppy especially with the surrogate character herself. And then there are these occasional odd tone-shattering attempts at humor. One involves a lewd act with a dead cat’s tail and the other features a cartoony video game character who suddenly spews a river of obscenities. This silly juvenile humor came across as cheap and both scenes felt completely out of place.

I wish I could toss aside those complaints because “Her” does many things right. It asks some great questions and it certainly allows for a variety of interpretations. For example take the ending. Depending on your interpretation it could be a very light and hopeful ending or a very dark and depressing one. I liked that. I love the work we get from Phoenix and Johansson and Rooney Mara’s character added a deeper emotional twist that I really responded to. But the film’s cynicism, the constant lingering of the second half, and some questionable script choices hurt my experience. It’s one of the few movies that captivated me yet had me checking my watch before it was done. Ultimately that’s a disappointing combination that pushed me away a bit.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

“Hitchcock” – 4 STARS

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You know, I just love movies about making movies. That’s one reason I thought the movie “Hitchcock” would be right up my alley. Another reason is that it’s about one of cinema’s greatest directors – Alfred Hitchcock. Yet another reason I was interested was because of the fantastic cast specifically Anthony Hopkins as Hitchcock and Helen Mirren as his wife Alma Reville. These and several other yummy ingredients had me really hungry for this film and after seeing it I can say that it’s quite satisfying.

But enough with the gastronomical analogies. “Hitchcock” takes place during the filming of arguably the director’s most popular and groundbreaking film “Psycho”. The movie begins just after the release of Hitchcock’s wildly successful “North By Northwest”. He still owes Paramount Pictures another film but he’s struggling to find the right one. He also feels that the studios and press believe he is past his prime and he wants to pick a bold project that will prove otherwise. He finds himself attracted to a Robert Bloch novel titled “Psycho”. He convinces Alma and his agent Lew Wasserman (Michael Stuhlbarg) that it’s the right choice but he has a harder time with Paramount president Barney Balaban (Richard Portnow). They finally reach an agreement where Hitchcock agrees to fund the picture for 40% of the profits and a Paramount distribution.

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It’s really fascinating to watch the behind-the-scenes process and how Hitchcock labored to make “Psycho”. But a bigger and even more enjoyable part of the movie focuses on Hitchcock’s relationship with his wife. Hopkins and Mirren are a joy to watch. The two veteran performers dissect this marriage with surgical precision, bringing out so many interesting aspects of it. There’s a clear love that they both share for one another, but there’s an equally clear strain on their marriage brought on by the financial stress of funding the movie and by Hitchcock’s own negligence, pride, and fear of failure.

Hitch is betrayed as a self-assured man on the outside but he clearly has uncertainties on the inside. He has a wandering eye for his leading ladies and has a tendency to overindulge in food and drink – something Alma stays on him about. Alma is a talented writer herself and her uncredited contributions to Hitchcock’s creative process prove vital. Her growing frustrations lead her to begin her own collaboration with fellow writer Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston), something Hitchcock disapproves of. All of these pressures begin to wear on Hitch and ends up threatening the completion of “Psycho”.

As I alluded to, one of the real strengths of this picture are the performances. Mirren rightfully earns her award nominations that she has received. Hopkins does a fine job fleshing out this complex director under a coat of heavy prosthetics. He nails all the mannerisms and postures and his speech is almost perfect. But there’s one thing I struggled with. I never could quite get past that I was watching him do Alfred Hitchcock. Take Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance in “Lincoln”. I was so drawn in by his work that I forgot I was watching an actor play Abraham Lincoln. I never quite got to that point here. Don’t misunderstand me, it’s not a bad performance by any means. But I never completely bought into the idea that I was watching Hitchcock on screen.

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I also have to mention the other supporting performances that I really enjoyed. I’ve liked Michael Stuhlbarg since seeing him in the Coen brothers film “A Serious Man”. He’s good here too. I was also impressed with Jessica Biel as Vera Miles. She’s an actress I normally don’t care for but she gives a nice subtle performance that works really well. But an even bigger surprise for me was Scarlett Johansson as Janet Leigh. I’ve never been completely sold on Johansson as an actress but I love the Janet Leigh she portrays. She’s beautiful and sexy but she’s almost a stabilizing influence on Hitch. She’s a lot of fun to watch in the role.

“Hitchcock” has a hard time escaping that biopic feel but it’s still a really good film. I think my love for the director’s movies and my particular affection for “Psycho” added a sense of nostalgia to my viewing, but there’s a lot more to this picture than just that. There are many clever little inclusions that go hand-in-hand with Hitchcock. For instance look closely and you’ll find his shadowy silhouette that fans of his will instantly recognize. Then there’s the cool opening and closing of the film that hearkens back the “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” days. These nifty treats fit in well with the solid script and wonderful performances and anyone with the slightest interest should come away well pleased.

“WE BOUGHT A ZOO” – 2 STARS

“We Bought a Zoo” is a comedy/drama from director Cameron Crowe that’s based on the memoir of Benjamin Mee. It’s packaged as a family movie that tells the interesting true story of Mee and his purchase of a run-down zoo. “We Bought a Zoo” does sometimes tug at the proverbial heartstrings and there are occasional moments where the film is mildly amusing. But it’s also a movie that’s full of forced sentiment and familiar themes that play out exactly as they have in other films.

Matt Damon plays Benjamin Mee, a recent widower still struggling with the recent death of his wife. He has two kids, both fitting the molds of so many others we’ve seen. There’s his adorable 7-year old daughter Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones) who is filled with cute smiles and cuter sayings. Then there is 14-year old Dylan (Colin Ford), the misunderstood older child with a bad attitude who is really just hurting inside due to his mom’s death. C’mon, you know you’ve seen versions of these same kids in several other movies. They both closely follow the blueprint here and everything from their actions to their relationships with their father seems really familiar.

After Dylan is expelled from school and after seeing too many reminders of his wife around town, Benjamin buys and moves to a dilapidated old zoo just outside of the city. His hopes are to start a new adventure that will help both him and his children overcome the grief that they’re all still battling in their own ways. The zoo comes with it’s own assortment of exotic animals as well as a small staff that we hardly get to know with the exception of the head zookeeper Kelly (Scarlett Johannson). Young Rosie loves their new home while the rebellious Dylan wants to move back to the city. Against the advise of his older brother Duncan (Thomas Haden Church), Benjamin sets out to fix up the zoo in hopes of opening it up for the public. But as costs mount up and money runs out, he soon finds that his entire adventure may never get off the ground.

As I alluded to earlier, Cameron Crowe  milks emotion out of almost every plot point. There are occasions where it does work especially when the film deals with the more personal feelings of loss that each member of the family is dealing with. But Crowe drags these things out just a little to far. I’ll use the strained relationship between Benjamin and his son as an example. We know that a huge blow-up is coming before the relationship will ever be fixed but it feels like it’s never going to come. At over two hours long, Crowe could have trimmed a lot of fat off of the story and the movie would have been better for it. There are also underwritten relationships between Benjamin and Kelly as well as Dylan and a 13-year old home-schooled zoo restaurant employee that go nowhere. But there is a touching side story about a sick bengal tiger that Benjamin grows close to. In a sense it mirrors what he faced with his wife and it plays a big part in his personal healing process.

It sounds like I’m being really hard on the movie and with good reason. But there is also some things to like. As I mentioned there are moments where the emotion feels genuine and I was stirred by them. And even though the family dynamic is something we’ve seen numerous times before, there were instances where they were a believable family struggling with an intense loss. The performances are generally good even though the material sometimes lets the actors down. And I also found that the true story vibe made the movie more interesting. It’s really a neat story. I just wish it had been constructed a little better.

“We Bought a Zoo” isn’t a horrible movie but it’s one that could have been a lot better. It’s sloppy screenplay doesn’t help and the movie runs about 20 minutes too long. It advertises itself as a family picture but it deals with some fairly heavy subject matter and the inclusion of a few pointless vulgarities, especially from a young child, had me shaking my head. At it’s core, the movie has a really good story and we see glimpses of it in some of the scenes. Even with it’s faults, I stayed with the film to the end just to get the feel-good payoff it delivers. It’s just a shame that it couldn’t have maintained a more consistent story from start to finish.