In a recently-published Elle interview, We Bought A Zoo star Matt Damon says that “a one-term president with some balls who actually got stuff done would have been, in the long run of this country, much better” than what we got with Barack Obama.
“If the Democrats think that they didn’t have a mandate…people are literally without any focus or leadership, just wandering out into the streets to yell right now because they are so pissed off,” Damon explains. “Imagine if they had a leader. I’ve talked to a lot of people who worked for Obama at the grassroots level. One of them said to me, ‘Never again…I will never be fooled again by a politician.”
I finally got a chance last night to watch that DVD I was handed of Kenneth Lonergan‘s Margaret, and I now completely understand and agree with the rave notices it’s been getting. New Yorkers are urged to see it at the Cinema Village, where it’ll be as of Friday, 12.23.
It’s a bit lumpy and awkward here and there (although not as much as I’d been led to believe) and perhaps a wee bit too long, but Margaret — shot in ’05 and stuck in some kind of post-production indecision and lawsuit hell for five years after that — is smart and brave and ambitious, and made of the passionate stuff that matters.
It’s a Manhattan-set moral tale, occuring a year or so after 9/11, about a curious, somewhat bullheaded, occasionally agitated teen named Lisa Cohen (a fierce and emotionally brazen Anna Paquin), and the different ways her life is stirred and churned up as a result of her having been at least partly responsible for a fatal bus accident.
It’s clearly the fault of the bus driver (Mark Ruffalo), but Lisa, not wanting to destroy the driver’s ability to care for his family, lies to the cops about the circumstances, telling them that the victim (Allison Janey) crossed against a red light. But then she has an attack of conscience and hooks up with Janey’s best friend (Jeannie Berlin, giving a tangy, abrasive performance) about a possible civil lawsuit against the MTA. This leads to scenes with investigators and lawyers with a side benefit of three standout supporting performances from Stephen Adly Guirgis, Michael Ealy and Jonathan Hadary. Subplots involving sex and boyfriends and teachers and a mother conflict are threaded in and result in a kind of catch-as-catch-can tapestry deal.
Lisa’s actress mother is played by J. Smith-Cameron, and her boyfriend, a well-mannered European with an anti-Semitic undercurrent, is portrayed by Jean Reno.
Good and believable supporting performances also come from Matt Damon, Rosemarie DeWitt, Lonergan himself (as Lisa’s dad), Matthew Broderick and Kieran Culkin.
Is each and every Margaret moment successful? No, but most of them are. On top of which I’d much rather watch a hit-and-misser with some truly alive portions and maybe two or three so-so moments than a polished but consistently mediocre middlebrow thing.
Fox Searchlight opened and closed Margaret last September, and then along came efforts a month ago (prinicipally Jaime Christley‘s Margaret peitition) to persuade FS to re-issue it or at least provide screeners. And now, to repeat, the comes a new booking at Manhattan’s Cinema Village on Friday, 12.23.
Shame on those Rotten Tomatoes critics who called it a “mess” and a “sophomore slump” film, etc. Agreed, it doesn’t move along at a crisp pace with the usual smooth assurance, etc. But it’s so smart and searching and penetrating in so many ways great and small that the stylistic, cosmetic stuff shouldn’t matter. Would these same critics have dismissed On The Waterfront if it was too long and had been clumsily edited with one or two needless subplots, even with the classic stuff intact? If a film has really good material then it has really good material, and a good critic should always point that out, even if there are structural issues here and there.
The only thing that doesn’t quite work in the beginning is the fact that Ruffalo’s bus driver is wearing a cowboy hat (which no real-life MTA operator would ever be caught dead with on the job) as well as the cutting of the accident scene. There’s also a sex-with-Damon scene followed by Paquin going up to Damon and a woman colleague and saying she’s getting an abortion. Lonergan could have lost those two scenes with no harm to the film or Pacquin’s performance or anything.
The Margaret title alludes to a young woman described in a Gerard Manley Hopkins poem called “Spring and Fall: To a Young Child.” The poem, which is about facing up to the inevitable losses and ruinations of life, is read aloud during Lisa’s drama (or English literature) class by Broderick’s teacher character.
“Now no matter, child, the name:
Sorrow’s spr√≠ngs are the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It √≠s the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.”
“Everyone is really enjoying Sherlock Holmes: A Game Of Shadows. The feedback I’ve been getting is super positive. That’s why I started doing this to begin with. I’d so much rather be doing this than some little indie movie that everyone says is fantastic and it kinda sucks, and it’s boring.” — Robert Downey, Jr., speaking for a Holmes EPK video posted by the Guardian.
Cameron Crowe‘s We Bought A Zoo opens on Friday, 12.23. I’m re-posting the review I wrote nearly four weeks ago after catching the nationwide Thanksgiving sneak. Here, also, is a side piece called “We Bought A Jail.”
The first two thirds of Cameron Crowe‘s We Bought A Zoo (20th Century Fox, 12.23) tries too hard to be endearing, or so it seemed to me. For 80 minutes or so it’s a not too bad family-type movie that works here and there. In and out, at times okay and other times oddly artificial. And then it kicks into gear during the last third and delivers some genuinely affecting sink-in moments and a truly excellent finale.
Matt Damon is better-than-decent in the lead role of Benjamin Mee, a nice guy who for complex emotional reasons decides to buy a zoo in the Thousand Oaks area. Scarlett Johansson is believably forceful as the head zoo keeper (or whatever the correct title is), and Thomas Haden Church is under-utilized as Damon’s advice-giving older brother.
The stand-out performance comes from 14 year-old Colin Ford, I feel. There’s also a surprisingly inconsequential, poorly written one given by Elle Fanning, who by the way wears too much eye makeup.
The first two thirds are better at delivering family-friendly studio schmaltz than War Horse, but that’s not saying much. It suffers from on-the-nose dialogue and a bad case of the cutes, which is what happens when Crowe’s magical realism vibe doesn’t quite lift off the ground because the exact right notes haven’t been found or hit.
The movie never really transforms into a suspension-of-disbelief thing. You’re constantly aware that you’re sitting in a theatre seat watching actors speak that tangy, semi-natural-sounding, spiritually upbeat Crowe dialogue and listening to the usual nifty Crowe-selected rock tunes (“Cinnamon Girl”, “Bucket of Rain”, etc.).
Matt Damon, imprisoned Bengal tiger in We Bought A Zoo.
But the last third kicks in with better-than-decent emotional conflict and payoff scenes, and the heart element finally settles in from time to time, and there’s a great diatribe against the use of the word “whatever” and an exceptional father-son argument scene and nice use of refrain (“Why not?”). Endings are half the game, and by that rule or standard We Bought A Zoo saves itself.
It won’t kill you to see it, and you might like the first two-thirds more than I did. Whatever.
Johansson gets to do a lot of arguing and shouting in this thing, and at some point I began saying to myself, “Jesus, I wouldn’t ever want to be in an argument with her…she’s really angry and adamant and unyielding.” And I began to think that I might be sensing, maybe, how her marriage to Ryan Reynolds came apart.
The film is based on Benjamin Mee‘s true-life, this is what really happened book of the same title, but it’s been personalized by Crowe to some extent and is basically about recovering from loss, grief, trauma.
Crowe’s marriage fell apart in 2008 and his career hit a land mine in 2005 with Elizabethtown and then stalled again with mysterious shutdown of Deep Tiki in late ’08/early ’09, so Zoo is actually his story on one level or another, I suspect.
But my basic feeling about We Bought A Zoo is similar to a line that former Secretary of State James Baker once said about a senior Iraqi official during the 1991 Gulf War: “A good diplomat with a bad brief.”
Damon, Johansson, Cameron Crowe during filming of We Bought A Zoo
We Bought A Zoo is harmlessly decent family pap, but it rests upon a fundamentally rancid notion that zoos are cool. Zoos are emphatically not cool. I’ve been to zoos three or four times in my life and I like checking out the giraffes and lions and orangutans as much as the next guy, but they’re built on the conceit that animals living sullen and diminished lives inside cages are entertaining, and that looking at these creatures from the safe side of a cage and chuckling at their behavior and smelling their scent somehow enhances our lives by connecting us (or our kids) to nature. Which is, of course, horseshit.
Outside of the makers of this film and zoo owners and clueless lower-middle-class Walmart types, I don’t think there are any intelligent and compassionate people on the planet who believe zoos are a good idea. At best they’re an unfortunate idea. A message during the end credits informs that Mee’s zoo in England (i.e., Dartmoor Zoological Park) is a highly respected one, but it’s still a zoo.
Last month’s exotic animal slaughter in Ohio reminded a lot of us that it’s fundamentally wrong to keep exotic animals in cages to satisfy some bizarre emotional longing to bond with them, which, outside of respectably maintained zoos, is some kind of low-rent, Middle-American scumbag thing. Remember how Tony Montana kept a Bengal tiger chained up on the grounds of his mansion?
Zoos are prisons, and it’s dead wrong to sentence animals to life terms in them, however spacious and well-maintained their cages or how loving and caring and compassionate their keepers may be. Zoo animals don’t live in “enclosures,” as zoo-keepers prefer to call them these days. They live in effing jail cells just like Jimmy Cagney and George Raft did in Each Dawn I Die, or Elvis Presley in Jailhouse Rock.
Crowe is renowned for using great rock-music tracks in his film, but I doubt if he ever considered using Presley’s “I Want To Be Free” for We Bought A Zoo. I thought of it last night when I was driving home from the screening, I can tell you.
“There’s no joy in my heart, only sorrow
And I’m sad as an animal can be
I sit alone in my fake-love enclosure
And this enclosure is a prison to me
“I look out my window
And what do I see?
I see a bird
Up in a tree
“I want to free! (oh, yeah)
Free! (oh, yeah)
Free-hee-hee…I want to be free
Like a bird in a tree (wanna be free)”
“Yet here comes Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson, bound and determined to transform the mildly humorous adventures of an intrepid boy reporter into a big-budget computer-animated hit,” writes Marshall Fine. “Unfortunately, they find themselves trapped on the Road to Hell, paving furiously.
“Perhaps Spielberg and Jackson (who produced) simply made The Adventures of Tintin (Paramount, 12.21) to amuse themselves. So, hopefully, at least two people will come out entertained.”
From my 11.11 review: “If you have a place in your moviegoing heart for an empty synthetic entertainment that will delight your inner nine-year-old, Steven Spielberg’s Tintin will rush in and twinkle your toes.
“All I know is that I never, ever want to sit through Tintin again. Because, as I said last night, it is popcorn punishment. I felt like I was being whoopee-cushioned and thrill-ridden to death, or like a virus was being injected into my system. Such amazing filmmaking — all about light and colorful characters and swirling camera movement and high adrenaline and technology — and it was making me sick.”