Tag Archives: PG

Way late review: We Bought a Zoo

I’ve seen about half a dozen Cameron Crowe films. One thing they all share in common is they tend to be easy watches. Even when I’m not in love with the film, there is something soothing about Crowe’s approach. We Bought a Zoo is a fairly harmless film that wears its heart on its sleeve. Perfect material for Crowe to throw his personally curated soundtrack at, assemble an all-star cast, and churn out a likable, if somewhat forgettable, film.

Benjamin (Matt Damon) lost his wife about six months ago. He has a young daughter, Rosie, who reminds him of his wife and a teenage son, Dylan, who reminds Benjamin of himself. Dylan is angry and hurt over the loss of his mom. His behavior at school results in expulsion and puts the pressure on Benjamin to find a new school for his suddenly troubled teen to attend. House hunting time. The search for a new home leads Benjamin to a perfect house out in the Southern California country side. There is one catch. The sale of the home is contingent on the new owner taking care of the zoo that sits on the home’s property. That gotcha clause doesn’t deter Rosie from falling in love with the animals as they walk the grounds. Dad is an adventurer at heart, wants to make his daughter happy, and thinks his son may enjoy the change of pace. He buys a zoo and the challenges of funding and running the venture ensue along with the on-going struggle to come to grips with life after losing a wife and mother.

The plot may seem eye rolling, but no one can blame Crowe or anyone else involved for making up the core premise. We Bought a Zoo is based on the memoir by Benjamin Mee. I have my doubts that Tom Petty, Neil Young and Bob Dylan tunes accompanied the real life story. I also doubt the zoo keeper was a gorgeous blonde with a raspy voice like Scarlett Johansson. The facts have all changed right from the start with the true story set in the UK while this one is in Southern California. None of this matters. What does matter is the characters are engaging enough and the story moves along at a steady pace as to forget the trite scenes of emotional tug-of-war the premise nearly demands. The soundtrack doesn’t hurt either.

We Bought a Zoo is one of those films I could probably pop in and pickup at any random point. There is nothing outstanding about it. The cast is enjoyable, the pacing is good, there are some humorous scenes and not too many cringe worthy ones. The music is hand picked from the past and sometimes a little too spot on. In other words, it’s a Cameron Crowe film. And that tends to mean I like it more than I thought I would.

 ★★★½☆ 

This post is part of my Way late reviews. Read more reviews here.

Way late review: Gremlins

A classic. Gremlins is so much fun that even when there is an (odd) quiet moment of contemplation it is filled with a dark sense of humor:

Kate: Now I have another reason to hate Christmas.
Billy: What are you talking about?
Kate: The worst thing that ever happened to me was on Christmas. It was so horrible. It was Christmas Eve. I was 9 years old. Me and Mom were decorating the tree, waiting for Dad to come home from work. A couple hours went by. Dad wasn’t home. So Mom called the office. No answer. Christmas Day came and went, and still nothing. So the police began a search. Four or five days went by. Neither one of us could eat or sleep. Everything was falling apart. It was snowing outside. The house was freezing, so I went to try to light up the fire. That’s when I noticed the smell. The firemen came and broke through the chimney top. And me and Mom were expecting them to pull out a dead cat or a bird. And instead they pulled out my father. He was dressed in a Santa Claus suit. He’d been climbing down the chimney…his arms loaded with presents. He was gonna surprise us. He slipped and broke his neck. He died instantly. And that’s how I found out there was no Santa Claus.

I’m still not sure if writer Chris Columbus was trying to add a somber moment or one of the more slyly written pieces of comedy. I tend to think the latter. It’s become my favorite scene not starring a gremlin or Gizmo in the 80’s icon.

I’ll take the nostalgia hit on this one and keep on going. The film holds up, as my seven year old daughter and eleven year old son can testify. They both love and hate this film. They hate the scary hatching of the gremlins after the multiplied Mogwai eat some nasty looking fried chicken after midnight. The scene with the mom discovering she’s in a house full of green devils scares them every time but they also find themselves laughing and cheering as mom disposes of each one in her own determined and creative manner. For each moment my daughter hides her eyes, she can’t help but peek, lest she miss the next funny, action packed sequence. My son yells at the characters for foolishly not realizing their demise is only footsteps away; footsteps the characters take because curiosity is not just for cats but also for the bulk of comedy/horror film casts. Of course, we all cheer when Gizmo finally gets his chance to mimic Clark Gable in To Please a Lady and takes the Barbie mobile for a spin in order to hunt down the leader of the pack, Stripe.

The numerous gags and references to past films makes Gremlins feel like a bit of an homage to cinema all while being an action packed comedy. Director Joe Dante’s love letter to cinema is a lot different than say Martin Scorsese’s with Hugo. Call me silly, but I much prefer the antics of Dante’s Gremlins. They just don’t make movies like Gremlins anymore, which is a shame.

 ★★★★★ 

This post is part of my Way late reviews. Read more reviews here.

Way late review: The Spiderwick Chronicles

Pleasant surprises come when expectations are low. Movies aimed at kids today are a mixed bag. Pixar has a solid record of rising above the fray. Then there are atrocities like The Smurfs. Some might blame the bad films on trying to turn questionable source material into cinematic gold. If that’s the case, I hear the Harry Potter books are pretty good. The films? That’s a tougher call. Enter The Spiderwick Chronicles, a film I originally mistook for a Harry Potter wannabe. My mistake.

Twins Jared and Simon move to a spooky old house, previously owned by their great uncle Arthur Spiderwick, with their older sister, Mallory and mother. Jared is upset about the move and angry with his mom. He blames her for breaking up the family while Simon, Mallory and mom know the truth. Dad ran off with another woman. Before there is any time to settle into the home strange happenings occur which lead Jared to discover Arthur Spiderwick’s book. The tome details Arthur’s findings of magical creatures all around him, some good and some evil, like the ogre Mulgarath. If the book falls into Mulgarath’s hands it’s game over. And that sets the stage for the rest of the movie which includes some fairly intense chase scenes, jump scares, and even a little blood drawn – a bit surprising for a modern children’s PG movie. The story moves along at a quick pace with good enough computer animation and child actors who aren’t annoying.

There is just the right amount of comedy relief provided in the form of Hogsqueal (Seth Rogen) a friendly bird eating hobgoblin and Thimbletack (Martin Short) an odd, small creature who turns into a nasty little green monster when he gets upset. The humor from both the animated characters comes in the natural rhythm of the film, though one could argue that the end of the final showdown is anti-climatic with its comedic result. My kids loved it. I think the lightheartedness provided a needed break from the edge of the seat intensity.

Spiderwick Chronicles is a fun action packed kids fantasy movie. The plot is relatively simple which enables a fast paced story set in a magical world full of adventure and danger. And the danger feels refreshingly real as there are consequences and scares as a result. Add some well timed laughs and it all adds up to an entertaining family film.

 ★★★★☆ 

This post is part of my Way late reviews. Read more reviews here.

Way late review: Big Miracle

Finding films the whole family can watch is a challenge, especially when that family includes a first and sixth grader. In my weakest moments I’ve blacked out and woken up having finished films like True Grit and Rise of the Planet of the Apes with both my kids sitting eyes wide open by my side. Clearly, I’m next in line for father of the year. In my desperate attempt to strike the balance between age appropriate yet interesting films I gave Big Miracle a spin.

Based on the true story of the rescue attempt by various groups in the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. government of three whales trapped in the Arctic Circle in northern Alaska, Big Miracle is a big mess. The film initially centers on Adam Carlson (John Krasinski of The Office fame), a TV reporter who wants to make it big but instead finds himself doing special segments on avocados in the tiny town of Point Barrow, Alaska. Everything changes For Adam when he breaks the story of three gray whiles trapped in the freezing waters of the Arctic. The whales make for national coverage. I suppose the media ran out of shark bite stories.

In place of a fun look at the many different people and interests represented, we get characters like Drew Barrymore’s Greenpeace activist, Rachel Kramer. Maybe it’s harsh but nonetheless true; Barrymore’s best work happened thirty years ago on the big screen. She is now relegated to playing odd characters who should get laughs (if nothing else), but in place of laughs we get aggravation – and lots of it. In fairness, Barrymore was at least playing a character in the story. John Krasinski played the role of Jim Halpert, Dunder Mifflin’s practical joker salesman, perfect. Too bad he was supposed to be Adam Carlson, a small time TV reporter stuck in the middle of nowhere Alaska.

In addition to a Greenpeace activist and Alaska TV reporter, the film includes native whale hunters, a big mouth oil exec who could care less about whales or pretty much anything but oil, worldwide media, the National guard, the President of the United States (a bad impression of Ronald Reagan), a Soviet icebreaker crew, and two entrepreneurs from Minnesota with their amazing de-icing machines. All that sets up a perfect screwball comedy but the ensuing antics are never screwy enough. What should be a briskly paced film full of colorful characters in conflict with one another bogs down into forced melodrama with awkward attempts for laughs. The result is an unevenly paced film with an unbalanced, yet ultimately bland tone. My daughter was asleep before the half way mark. I was (and still am) jealous.

Even though there would seem to be little in the way of bright spots, the story had its moments. There were times where Ted Danson, as the big oil exec with an over the top personality, was genuinely amusing. The two entrepreneurs from Minnesota with their de-icing machines also added some sincere yet lighthearted moments. The shots of Barrymore diving into the arctic waters and swimming beneath the ice with the whales made for a pretty amazing scene.

When the credits rolled there was a decent amount of real footage and photos from the event. It became clear then, Big Miracle would have made a much better documentary. In the hands of the right director a documentary could have captured the real tension and drama in the story. Plus, there would be no need for mundane performances. The real people couldn’t be anymore stale than the performances given by much of the fairly well known cast.

Big Miracle had promise being based on a true and somewhat bizarre story. Filled with conflicts between all the various people involved, the film could have been a decent little comedy. Unfortunately, we are put through an experience much like that of the whales. We’re stuck in a frigid film and the highlight is getting just enough decent moments every so often to keep us going. Those moments make for an almost tolerable experience. Almost.

 ★★☆☆☆ 

This post is part of my Way late reviews. Read more reviews here.

Way late review: The Elephant in the Living Room

Everyone probably remembers their first pet. That first little komodo dragon, lion cub, spider monkey, puff adder. No? Me either, but there are far more people in the United States who know first hand what it is to own an exotic animal than should. In many states it is not illegal and in some regulations are near zero. The Elephant in the Living Room tackles this fascinating topic, educating on the problem while delving into the complicated issues that arise when people make pets out of wild animals.

Filmmaker, Michael Webber, takes us through the labyrinth that is exotic animals as pets. Our tour guide for most of the film is the confident yet understanding police officer, Tim Harrison. In southern Ohio, Harrison handles endless cases of wild animals turned pets going back to their roots. Owners who lose control of their dangerous friends or simply turn them loose after they realize what was once a cool little jungle cat, alligator, or other wild animal is no longer so cool when it can eat you and your family. There are reports of lions, cougars, bears, and more on the road terrorizing people in their cars. People call about non-indigenous venomous snakes slithering into their garages. One call is from a father who reports that his children have been playing with some sort of python. Harrison comes to the house and finds not a python but one of the most dangerous snakes in the world.

There are no shortage of amazing stories of fatal attacks, near fatal attacks, and close encounters with animals that should be anywhere but in residential neighborhoods. Harrison educates on the problem by browsing one of the popular publications that advertises exotic animals for sale. There he reads endless ads for all sorts of creatures, many of which are listed as free to a good home. The worst kept secret in this dangerous market is that large, dangerous animals can be had for nothing. While some may pay five hundred dollars or more for their pure bred puppy of choice, a lion is free of charge. Harrison and Webber show the insanity of these markets up close by sneaking in cameras to two large shows. One is a reptile show with endless tables packed with reptiles from all over the world, most venomous and in plastic containers you’d expect to purchase food in. The other show is in Amish country, where every type of large cat, primate, and other furry critters are sold to the highest bidder as if they were bidding on livestock. These are legal markets, yet both the sellers and buyers feel the need to keep the cameras away. Speaking of buyers, many of them at the reptile show were children. Mom and dad purchased Johnny an eight foot python that will easily grow to be twice that size or a baby alligator that will one day grow larger than any member of the family.

Once the problem of exotic pets is hammered home from numerous directions, Webber focuses on the story of Terry Brumfield, a man who got in a car accident and whose back and neck are severely damaged. Brumfield struggles with depression. His cure was procuring two lion cubs. The cubs, one male and one female, grow up and Terry finds himself very much attached to the big cats while also struggling to contain them. The male lion escapes one day and terrorizes motorists on the highway. Brumfield is threatened by the law but somehow keeps his lions. Harrison tries to help Brumfield, who feels as though he’s in a no win situation. He doesn’t want to the give the lions up but he doesn’t want them to get out and hurt people. In a surprising turn, Harrison and Brumfield develop a friendship. It is there that we see these two men sharing both a love for animals and conflicted consciences. Harrison knows these lions need to be in a sanctuary where they can run and not be in danger of harming themselves or others. Brumfield has raised the lions since they were cubs. They are his lifeline. Losing the lions means losing life to Brumfield. Their story develops and takes some twists along the way that are fascinating and heartbreaking.

What could have been not much more than an issue documentary turns into a rather sophisticated look at two men involved in the thick of the topic. The human story is what ends up driving the film home and puts it over the top of an already solid educational look at the problem of exotic animals as pets problem in the US.

 ★★★★★ 

This post is part of my Way late reviews. Read more reviews here.