It's that time again, ladies and gents. I picked out a few titles from the local Redbox kiosk right outside the H-E-B I frequent and have compiled some brief critiques as follows:
WE BOUGHT A ZOO
I'm not usually one to be sucked in by smarmy stories or pure sentimentality, but when I am it's usually because Cameron Crowe directed. Say Anything, Jerry Maguire, Almost Famous; every one of these movies I went into skeptical and came out a believer. We Bought a Zoo is no exception. The story is practically right there in the title. Based on the true story of widower Benjamin Mee (portrayed by Matt Damon) and his family, the film follows the story of a family that rolled the dice on a new house with one caveat: it's a zoo. Home to several exotic animals and their caretakers - the Mee's find themselves on a challenging adventure as they learn the family lessons that come with spontaneous zoo ownership. The supporting cast is wonderfully arranged, and Scarlett Johansson looks like a real human being in this film; as opposed to the almost unrealistic specimen of feminine beauty the camera normally seems obsessed with creating. Maggie Elizabeth Jones, who plays the 7-year old Rosie Mee, practically steals every scene she's in adding yet another layer to the heartfelt sentimentality this film is all about. If my tone betrays a measure of resentment, that's somewhat by design. I didn't want to like this movie as much as I did, because I could feel my heartstrings being tugged at like a fishing line with Jaws himself on the other end. Heartfelt performances, a story about a wife and mother lost to disease, and cute little furry animals all over the place would have been enough to illicit a few tears. But the icing on the cake is Jonsi's (and a few actual Sigur Ros songs) typically soul-shattering music - "gorgeousness and gorgeosity made flesh." I was in tears practically from the start of the film to the end, and while I say that with a modicum of bitterness and resentment, at the end of the day the movie is truly uplifting. To say the sentimentality of this film is sticky-sweet would be an understatement, but I did greatly enjoy We Bought a Zoo and its soundtrack. If you're in the mood for the kind of feel-good movie that will make you want to stand up and cheer at the finale - you can't do much better than this one.
Dramedies can be a tough sell. It takes a writer with a truly deft creative hand to properly balance poignant drama with comedic material and often, the balance shifts precariously when the drama grows ever darker. The Descendants is a great example of how to maintain that balance. George Clooney plays Matt King, a man whose wife has been in a deep coma for several weeks after a boating accident. It's made clear that his marriage was hardly sterling even before the accident, and that's reflected in the misbehavior of his two daughters. When given the news that his wife will not recover from the coma and that her will stipulates she must be removed from life support, Matt begins the difficult task of informing close friends and family. In so doing, he stumbles upon the unsettling news that his wife was cheating on him. And narrative hijinks ensue. I say that somewhat flippantly, of course, but The Descendants approaches its material with appropriate reverence. The key in balancing a kind of dark humor with such a dark story in this film basically boils down to running two stories parallel to each other. In one, Matt labors to bring harmony back into his family as they prepare to bid his wife farewell. In the other, Matt takes his family on a bit of a getaway to find the man with whom she was being unfaithful. Of course both subjects are very heavy, but there's more room to explore some self-deprecation and biting one-liners in the latter. Consequently the film balances out quite well. Clooney is his usual charming self but mixes in a little self-doubt for effect. Shailene Woodley (of The Secret Life of the American Teenager fame) plays his oldest daughter Alex, and apparently she's been holding out on us. To watch her ABC Family show, you'd hardly know she was capable of a performance as nuanced and moving as a veteran actor like Clooney, but in The Descendants she shines. It's hard to call this film a pure comedy, because it's humor is rather subtle. Moments like watching George Clooney sprinting down the street in loafers aren't particularly funny without context. And with context, they can be a tad morbid. But in the case of The Descendants, there's as much gravity as levity and it serves to give the film a very genuine and "real-life" feel. I can't say I was overly charmed by the youngest sister's portrayal as a total brat, but fortunately she's not the centerpiece of the film. There's a lot of language in this one, but I've never found that to be a deterrent personally. Overall, The Descendants sets a very somber tone without being melodramatic and brilliantly maintains that tone through to the end. It's a bit of a tear-jerker, but it's not depressing - at least it wasn't for me.
THE RUM DIARY
Johnny Depp is at it again, playing Hunter S. Thompson...but not exactly Hunter S. Thompson. It's little secret that Thompson's works are semi-autobiographical - though he routinely changed names and reworked details for the sake of the story. What Raoul Duke is to Hunter S. Thompson in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas Paul Kemp is to Hunter S. Thompson in The Rum Diary. Given that Depp has played both roles, and was a close personal friend of Hunter's, I felt there was a measure of spiritual symmetry to it. The story follows alcoholic writer Paul Kemp to Puerto Rico where he takes on a writing job at a doomed local newspaper. The country itself is embroiled in political discontent, and Kemp is struggling to find his own voice as a writer. He unwittingly becomes entangled with a group of rather shady businessmen, led by the charismatic Hal Sanderson (Aaron Eckhert). Simultaneously he falls for Sanderson's bombshell of a girlfriend (played by Amber Heard, who bears an uncanny resemblance to a young Sharon Stone in this film), further deepening his mounting dilemmas. It would be a bit generous to call The Rum Diary a comedy, but unfair to call it a drama as well. It exists somewhere in between, but not nearly enough of either to be called a true dramedy or even black comedy. My expectations for the film weren't particularly high, which may be part of why I found it pretty entertaining. Johnny Depp is always a pleasure to watch, and his supporting cast is more than up to the task of fleshing out the world around him. What I felt this film was missing though was Thompson's lyricism. Terry Gilliam's take on Fear and Loathing really plumbed the depths of drug-induced psychosis; that film is just crazy. But by combining voice-over with an already verbose portrayal courtesy of Depp, Thompson's presence in the film is much more palpable. The Rum Diary makes a few passes at Thompson's presence but they don't seem as sincere. There are one or two voice-overs and a smattering of very Thompson-esque dialogue, but not nearly as much as I was hoping for. Having said that, the film is about Kemp finding his voice as a writer, so it's possible such absence was by design. Either way, The Rum Diary is another delightful turn from Depp, and an entertaining film in its own right. It's a bit overlong and it certainly rambles in its search for the meat of its story. But as a fan of Thompson's work, I enjoyed this film for what it was.
MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: GHOST PROTOCOL
It's an iconic American motif; that receding fuse snaking around opening credits and "preview clips" of what's to come while that instantly recognizable tune makes its way in. If you don't have it stuck in your head now you're probably not from around here. But even if you weren't old enough to enjoy the television series, Tom Cruise has been starring in Mission Impossible movies since 1996. And in a rare turn of events, each succeeding film in the series has been more and more positively reviewed. That puts Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol in the unlikely but pleasantly surprising place of being the fourth film in a series with the highest critical response (maintaining a 90%+ rating on Rotten Tomatoes since release) and it's quite deserving. After a recent operation in the Kremlin is blown by a rogue nuclear terrorist, the entire IMF is disavowed by the government - there's no support, no extraction, it's just Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) and a team of three other agents. The team discovers that the agent who blew their cover is Kurt Hendricks, a man who believes he can usher in the next stage of human evolution by unleashing nuclear war on the planet; classic arch villain material. Tasked with stopping a madman and clearing their own names while being pursued by other government agents convinced they're terrorists, the 4 agents punch, shoot, swing, crash cars, and otherwise *every-action-movie-verb* their way through a movie that's pure energy and pure fun. I'm not a huge fan of Tom Cruise personally, but there's no doubt that he knows how to do action movies. Brad Bird's direction (and Michael Giacchino's score) put me in mind of The Incredibles throughout much of the film but that wasn't a bad thing at all. Ghost Protocol isn't the kind of family fare that The Incredibles is, but both films revel in the sheer bliss of fast-paced action scenes and cool gadgets. The film stands well on its own, but it certainly doesn't hurt to catch up on the previous movies in the series just to be up to speed from the get go. But after seeing this one, I'm greatly looking forward to the next Mission Impossible movie.
TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY
John le Carre wrote Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy in 1974. In 1979, it was adapted to a BBC miniseries and was largely well-received. Its most recent treatment is the 2011 film adaptation starring Gary Oldman as George Smiley. Having not read the book and not seen the miniseries, I really knew very little about this film other than the fact that Oldman was nominated for an Oscar and - to hear some tell it - cheated out of it when Jean Dujardin won instead. The film follows a group of British Intelligence officers on the hunt for a mole in their midst. Smiley becomes something of a lead investigator in the mole hunt, carefully weaving his way in and around his colleagues. It's a marvelous performance from Oldman, but I don't know that I've ever been so clueless about what's going on in a film in my life. Having finished it, I'm still largely unclear on certain character's motivations and just what everyone was doing the whole time. Everyone in the ensemble cast plays their role wonderfully, and the dialogue is well-crafted and usually succinct. But the film sacrificed some much-needed exposition for brevity's sake and the film suffers for it. In light of all the positive critical attention the film received I feel a bit dimwitted, admittedly. But the film jumps around chronologically without any indication of how or when; there are no "2 years later" titles, the makeup for the characters isn't really changed to imply their being younger or older, and the editing isn't conducive to remembering who is who. I know characters can't go around with big signs on their foreheads so we remember their names, but I can hardly recall a single character's name; voice overs interrupt conversations, characters are addressed by code names, first names, and last names (but rarely with consistency), and there's a myriad of them to begin with. Apparently Mr. le Carre voiced concerns that the book was too large to be condensed into a single film, and I think I agree with him. Had I read the book or seen the mini-series, I probably wouldn't have been so confused by the film. But it's incredibly hard to follow, and I was bent on focus. It's not a bad film, per se. But because there are too many characters to keep up with, and the chronology of the film is inscrutable, when the big reveal occurs at the climax and we discover who the mole is I was overwhelmed by a sense of ambivalence. Nothing felt like it was at stake, apart from the fact that contextually this is international espionage, and nothing felt profoundly won or defeated. Without sufficient time to develop relationships between the characters, I couldn't shake a feeling of complete disinterest. I wanted to like this film because I don't usually like being in the critical minority. The film is marvelously acted and filmed with expert care; shot composition is textbook perfection. But unless you're familiar with whatever it was in the books and mini-series that made this piece such a triumph, I doubt you'll Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy worth the effort.