RATED PG (language and some thematic elements)
Sometimes, reacting to a movie is all about the expectations you bring with you walking into it. "We Bought a Zoo" is about a family that buys a zoo. It's as high-concept as you can get, outside of maybe "Attack of the Killer Tomatoes" or "I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry," and it's equally straightforward in wearing its heart on its sleeve.
We know to expect this ahead of time because "We Bought a Zoo" comes from Cameron Crowe, the writerdirector of "Say Anything. . . ," "Jerry Maguire," "Almost Famous" and, more recently, the 2005 flop "Elizabethtown." We know there will be some poignantly phrased life lessons in store for this family as they struggle to reconnect after the mother's death.
The whole exercise could have been agonizingly mawkish, and/or filled with cheap, lazy animal-poop jokes. And yet, it's not. It's actually surprisingly charming and more emotionally understated than the material would suggest, and a lot of that has to do with Matt Damon's performance. He is an actor incapable of faking it, one who cannot mail it in, and so he brings great authenticity and gravitas to the role of Benjamin Mee, a widower and father of two. ("We Bought a Zoo," which Crowe co-wrote with Aline Brosh McKenna, is based on a true story.)
Six months after his wife died of cancer, Benjamin is struggling to move on. He's having trouble dedicating himself to his career as a Los Angeles newspaper columnist and finds himself squabbling with his troublemaking teenage son, Dylan (Colin Ford); meanwhile, his younger daughter, Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones), is an impossibly adorable angel.
Benjamin thinks a change of scenery might help, so he quits his job and moves the family to a rustic, rambling house on 18 acres outside the city. Seems perfect - except for the fact that the land includes an animal park that has fallen into disrepair. Since Benjamin is a writer and not a zoologist, he has no idea what he's doing. He gets some help from the park's ragtag, hippie crew, led by Scarlett Johanssonas the hottest zookeeper on the planet.
Moving to a zoo eventually helps everyone reconcile. No big shocker there. Dylan also makes friends with the only other kid his age on the grounds, the ebullient Lily, played by Elle Fanning.
Yes, "We Bought a Zoo" is sentimental and overlong, and full of obligatory fish-out-of-water physical humor, but everyone is so good in it. It's a beautiful film, too: Everything is bathed in this sort of magical sunlight, the work of cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, which enhances the sensation that anything is possible.
"My Week with Marilyn" *** 1/2
RATED R (some language)
(At Park Place Cinemas only.)
When Marilyn Monroe walked into a room, men and women froze in her orbit. Athletes and intellectuals fell before her. Presidents, too.
How does an actress portraying this Hollywood icon convey such magnetism? In "My Week With Marilyn," Michelle Williams disappears so effortlessly into Monroe's translucent skin that the camera lens seems to fog up with desire. She's that good.
The year is 1956 and Monroe, at the height of her pinup popularity, is making a movie in London with master actor Laurence Olivier. Behind the scenes she is a complete mess: doped up, paranoid and suffocating in insecurities.
Monroe finds solace in one of Olivier's young assistants, Colin Clark (the film is based on his memoir). It's an unlikely pairing, as Monroe is in the midst of her third marriage - this time to playwright Arthur Miller. Told through the kid's eyes, "My Week With Marilyn" is burdened with an unnecessary narration. While Colin's expository musings move the story along, they also tend to snap us out of theeuphoria produced by Williams' performance.
The actress' gritty roles have won her Oscar nominations ("Brokeback Mountain" and "Blue Valentine"). Her Monroe is something else entirely. Williams stalks through the film, both as a sexual nymph bent on conquest and, at times, a childlike victim, injured and afraid.
As Colin, the British actor Eddie Redmayne is sufficient, but inevitably overshadowed by the British acting royalty who portray their 1950s equivalents. Kenneth Branagh is hilarious as Olivier while Dame Judi Dench devours her scenes in a brief turn as aging actress Dame Sybil Thorndike.
Colin's fleeting moments with the most famous woman of the century provide a further glimpse into Monroe's complex identity. And Williams' performance is the key. With it, she unlocks the beauty, the raw talent and the destructiveness that was, in the end, Marilyn's undoing.
"War Horse" **
RATED PG-13 (intense sequences of war violence and some animal brutality)
Director Steven Spielberg has taken the stage production "War Horse," based on the children's novel by Michael Morpurgo, and transformed it into a sweeping story of love, loss, devotion and determination set against the brutal battlefields of World War I. As is the trademark of the much touted director, he tells this story against a backdrop that at times is breathtaking.
But this is a case where Spielberg's grand vision worked against him.
"War Horse" is a moving story of a friendship between a young English boy, Albert (Jeremy Irvine), and a spunky horse he calls Joey. The pair are separated when Joey is sold to a British officer at the start of the war. The remainder of the film is about Joey's journey, from pulling weapons for German troops to being the love of a young girl.
"War Horse" is at its best when Spielberg focuses on small moments, such as a brief truce called between English and German troops so that the soldiers can come to the aid of the injured horse. There also are some very touching farewells and reunions.
But those moments lose some of their power when the action sweeps in and takes the story back to a grand scale. There's an intimacy that comes when reading a book -- or even seeing a production on stage. But in this movie, where there are no boundaries, the personal stories get diminished.
Spielberg's a master manipulator, who has used a more subtle approach in the past. In "War Horse," his emotional trickery is telegraphed in every scene -- or accented with such visual bravado, such as the hokey closing shots, that the power wanes.
Spielberg's film also has an inherent problem in the story. It's one thing to read about the brutal way the horses are treated; seeing these events on a big screen is at times quite horrific. This is certainly not a movie for youngsters, and it will test the metal of animal lovers.
There are no major problems with "War Horse." Spielberg has created a moving and beautifully shot film. It's just that the intimacy that such movies should evoke isn't there. Similar movies like "Old Yeller" or "My Dog Skip" drew moviegoers in so close that the emotional moments felt real.
"War Horse" isn't a champion effort by Spielberg, but it does have its moments.
"The Darkest Hour"
Rated PG-13 (sci-fi action violence and some language)
This film was not reviewed in advance. It stars Emile Hirsch ("Into the Wild"), Olivia Thirlby ("Juno"), Max Minghella ("The Social Network"), Rachael Taylor ("Transformers") and Joel Kinnaman (TV's "The Killing") as young adults in Moscow leading the charge against an alien race that has attacked Earth via our power supply. It is directed by Chris Gorak ("Lords of Dogtown").
-- Reviews from The Associated Press and McClatchy Newspapers