Book Review

14/12/2012 § Leave a comment

The Face in the Frost by John Bellairs

I grew up reading John Bellairs children’s novels, which I found to be pretty engrossing.  Bellairs was extremely adept at setting a mood and developing characters, but his plots tended to be formulaic.  Nonetheless, they worked for me.  I was revisiting his children’s novels for a writing project when I stumbled across The Face in the Frost.  According to Wikipedia, this was his first book, and his only adult novel.  Reportedly, Bellairs was inspired to write this after reading Tolkien’s Hobbit and Lord of the Rings trilogy.

As far as the story goes, it is certainly Tolkien-esque in plot structure.  Prospero is the Frodo character, and Roger Bacon is a blend of the Samwise and Gandalf characters.  Bellairs does invert Tolkien’s fantasy plot ever-so-slightly by having Prospero go to the mountain to reclaim a magical globe in order to destroy it, instead of it being given to him.

This journey starts out innocuously enough.  Bellairs starts the story at Prospero’s house and makes deft work of setting and character background, and introduces some rather hysterical character elements to the story, such as a talking mirror that can broadcast television shows from the future (the setting appears to be the middle ages in a small European country, possibly an alternate version of Ireland or Scotland, that is close to England).  After moving quickly moving through the back story, Bellairs takes the story straight to the action, with Prospero get scared by a couple of supernatural elements.  Bellairs is in his element here, setting the mood.  He’s not as good with action, so the story progresses fairly quickly through a variety of vaguely dark and frightening settings.

Roger Bacon comes to visit Prospero, confirms that there is indeed quite a bit of black magic targeting Prospero, and so they escape on a model ship from a bottle, and they do so by shrinking themselves.  Once free, they head south to visit a library to see if they can figure out what’s going on.  They run into one of the southern kings, get some advice from him, and set off again.  They come across the villains lair, which has been burned down.  They assume their quest is over, but get separated by some black magic as they prepare to go back home.  Both Bacon and Prospero independently decide to head north to mountain where the magical amulet is being held.  They eventually reunite after a series of dark, mood-setting scenery.

The story is rather convoluted and ends weirdly, but successfully, with Prospero magically overthrowing the evil wizard.  In all honesty, this is a terrible story that’s extremely convoluted and occasionally nonsensical.

Nonetheless, the book is still an entertaining read because Bellairs generally sticks to his strengths, which are setting, mood, and character development.  Bellairs is simply fantastic at building an overwhelming feeling of doom throughout the course of the book, which tends to make the reader feeling a little panicky and leery of what’s coming next.

He also is able to create compelling characters.  The interaction between Prospero and Bacon is developed extremely quickly, yet the reader is able to feel a sense of camaraderie with these characters (and a handful of other side characters as well), and quickly gets a feel for the beats that flesh out these characters.

Bellairs’ ability as a world-builder is partially related to his ability to set the mood because he tends to create worlds that lend themselves to darkness.  He manages to convey massive amounts of macro-information about the world in which the characters find themselves by mentioning just a handful of interesting details and letting the readers fill in the blanks for themselves.  It’s not a gift that many writers have, which makes it extremely enjoyable to read.

In all, this book makes for an entertaining but confusing read.  If you grew up on Bellairs’ children novels like I did, this book is definitely for you, especially if you find humor in the absurd and freakish.  If you simply enjoy reading books by someone who creates compelling characters and worlds, this is the book for you.  If you want a coherent story, you’re probably better off looking somewhere else.

Grade: B

Movie Review

06/11/2012 § 1 Comment

Looper

Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars as Joe, a killer for the mob.  The movie is set in 2044 and 2074, which is when time-travelling has been invented.  You can never go to the future, at least according to the movie, a simple fact of time travel that the mob exploits by sending their marks backwards in time to be killed by loopers like Joe.  The reason for this turn of events is two-fold:   first, the government has basically begun tracking citizens (making it impossible to dispose of a body without getting caught); second, the government has banned time travel.

The plot contrivances are necessary to advance the story, and frankly the plot serves mostly as set-dressing for a broader exploration of certain themes, the most notable of which is love.  In the beginning of the movie, Joe is motivated by love for France.  He saves up all his money so he can retire there and enjoy life in France.  His drug addiction threatens to undo this, as does his loyalty for his friends.

Old Joe, played by a surprisingly sympathetic Bruce Willis, is also motivated by love, albeit in the form of revenge.  Once Joe gets his loop (a fairly complicated plot device best explained by watching the movie), he moves overseas, gets high as balls all the time, and runs out of money.  He eventually moves to Asia and joins a gang, stealing from everyone to support his drug habit.  Then he finds the love of a good (and hot and young) woman who cleans him up and redeems him.  Eventually he is tracked down and sent to have his loop closed (this is basically when the mob rounds up their loopers to send them back to their young selves to be killed, with a huge payday to match).  In the process his wife is killed, which prompts Old Joe to break free, head back to the past, and avoid getting killed by his younger self, all in order to kill off the boss that was supposed to kill him.

It’s during this time that the movie shifts gears.  Originally, the movie focuses on how Young Joe is going to avoid closing his own loop in order to live happily ever after (though the logic of the movie’s universe would suggest that this is nonsensical for obvious reasons; once you go back to the past, you can’t return to the present, and you won’t be able to pick up where your old life left off, and you’ll always have to be on the run).  This leads Old Joe to track down his eventual killer in the hopes of preemptively killing him as a child, thus altering his future.  Logic seems to break down, but the movie provides a neat explanation through some subtle dialogue that prevents further distraction.

At any rate, Young Joe is not at all on board with Old Joe’s decision because this means giving up his dream.  This touches on another theme:  how people remain constant over time.  Both Old Joe and Young Joe are very selfish, which is why they don’t cooperate with one another.  But it is only by their (his?) constant selfishness that they even meet at all.  Anyhow, in the process of trying to preemptively kill his killer, Old Joe sets the stage for the main point of the movie.

As Old Joe tries to kill off his would-be killer, Young Joe baits him by tracking down a potential target and guarding him.  This leads Joe to meeting Sara, played by the always excellent Emily Blunt.  Sara is distrustful of Joe, but in time gradually accepts him and they bond.  Sara has a child named Cid, and there’s a lot of contrived backstory to their relationship that is better seen than explained.  Cid has telekinetic powers, which is what enables him to track down and kill off loopers and the mob in the future.  Young Joe defends him, even though it means his eventual death, and comes to realize that if he defends Cid from Old Joe, he may stave off the problem altogether.  Some more plot contrivances occur, involving some very entertaining action scenes with Bruce Willis, a la Die Hard. Eventually Old Joe tracks down Cid and tries to kill him.  Young Joe catches on in time and attempts to shoot Old Joe.  This fails, naturally, and so Young Joe decides to bow his own brains out, which naturally kills off Old Joe in the process and ensures that Cid survives.  The movie ends with a voiceover about destiny and how a single decision can have great impact.  It’s reminiscent of Frost’s “The Road Less Travelled.”

In all, the film is complex, a little self-contradictory, and over-reliant on plot devices to explore themes.  Nonetheless, it is incredibly entertaining, and quite thought-provoking.  Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bruce Willis, Jeff Daniels, and Emily Blunt are all quite fun to watch.  The movie is action-packed; the dialogue is crisp, clear, and subtle.  The story is believable enough, and the overarching themes—destiny and love—are presented in a very thought-provoking way.  For all of its weaknesses, this is still a very good movie.

Grade: B+

Book Review

12/09/2012 § 3 Comments

That Hideous Strength by C.S. Lewis

That Hideous Strength is, in my opinion, Lewis’s finest piece of fiction, and his most enjoyable piece of writing.  The story follows the lives of a married couple, Mark and Jane Studdock, as they live their young married life together in the realm of academia.  Mark is fresh out of university, and has become a senior fellow at the college where he teaches.  Jane is still a scholar, in the process of working on her thesis.  They are both thoroughly steeped in the modernism of academia, and are both, in their own way, rather unhappy.

Interestingly, their respective lives never really intertwine that much throughout the book, except quite briefly at the beginning and again at the end, so the book is really two stories in one.

The first story concerns Mark, and his role in academia.  After getting his fellowship position, he is offered a position in NICE, which he “accepts,” after a fashion.  He never seems to really know what is going on at NICE, or what they expect him to do.  As the book progresses, the reader, but not Mark, comes to realize that NICE really wants Jane, but can only get her through Mark.  Thus, NICE tries alternately to manipulate and bully Mark into bringing Jane over to NICE.  Because Mark is educated beyond his intelligence, he falls for the manipulation, even though he senses something is wrong.  And because Mark is insecure, he falls for the bullying, because he only wants the social acceptance he can never have.

Through Mark, Lewis paints a rather darkly amusing portrait of humanists, and notes that those who worship Man must first idealize him and then, once men fail to conform to the ideal of Man, must eventually kill off man.  Lewis thus notes the paradox of Humanism, and paints its stark brutality in no unclear terms.  Humanists are profoundly wicked, brutish murderers whose ultimate plan is to kill off humanity in the name of saving it.

The second story concerns Jane.  Her story picks up with her having some dreams that are apparently predictive or supernatural in nature.  She initially tries to deny this, especially after she is first taken to see Ransom (the protagonist of the first two parts of this trilogy), who asks her to becomes part of their group on the condition that she first get permission from her husband to do so.  Jane initially rejects Ransom’s offer because of its patriarchal overtones (she’s an enlightened woman, after all).  However, she eventually comes around, especially after NICE attempts to arrest her.

Ransom eventually uses Jane to track down Merlin who has apparently risen from the dead.  Jane does so, then Ransom and Merlin begin to plot how to save the world from NICE.  Eventually, Merlin is snuck into to headquarters of NICE, where he then pronounces a curse that renders everyone’s speech unintelligible, which is an allusion to the Tower of Babel.  Of course, in this turn of events, Lewis seems to be getting his digs in at the highly technical jargon that is often employed by academics.  Then an earthquake happens and destroys NICE’s facilities, and kills off most of the members of NICE.  It does not kill off Mark, though, and he eventually returns to his wife, where there are reunited quite joyfully, each considerably wiser for their respective experiences.

A good portion of the themes of the book deal with Traditionalism and Modernism.  Lewis is quite sympathetic to traditionalism, particularly patriarchy and hierarchy.  He rejects the notion of equality, and he also rejects the modern notion of rationality.  Instead, Lewis prefers full-blooded humanity, wherein men enjoy the good things of life:  friendship, courage, good food and strong drink, without concern for silly things like “hygiene” and the aforementioned equality.  To Lewis, life is to be lived by real men and women, not managed by fussy people in white lab coats.

To Lewis, the simpler things in life, and the great virtues once upheld by the proud British people—virtues like courage, honesty, chivalry, and submission—are the point of life, and give life its meeting.  He complains of those who seek to study Man without ever getting to a man, and his point should be well-taken.  The problem with social planners is that, for all their study, they never know man, and they cannot ever manage him.  In fact, the only thing they can ever really do is kill man.

There are many more themes and thoughts to the book than what have been discussed here.  That Hideous Strength is, in many ways, Lewis’s most profound work of fiction, and it is very much worth reading.  As noted before, this is Lewis’s most enjoyable work of writing, and is comparable to some of Chesterton’s or Mencken’s better works, at least in terms of how thoroughly enjoyable it is to read—or even savor—the words coming out Lewis’s pen.

Grade: A

What Fragile Thing Is Life?

10/09/2012 § 3 Comments

When I first held you I was surprised
To see frailty in your eyes,
To feel frailty on your skin,
To taste frailty on your lips.

You were young and so was I,
But even then I knew we’d die.
For Death is the only thing life brings;
Our lives are such fragile things.

Even in the prime of life
We’re only ever half alive.
Each day we’re one step closer to Death—
That day we draw our final breath.

Even in a moment of passion
Death remains, in a fashion.
Even when we create life,
The thought still haunts us:  we all must die.

***

When you gave birth to our first daughter,
You sat so silent as you held her;
Watching her small chest dip and rise,
Seeing life shine in her eyes.

But even then I could see
You knew our daughter’s mortality.
Though she would grow into a girl
With bright brown eyes and a head of curls.

And later still a fine young maid,
Whom boys would court and woo and chase.
And perhaps eventually a mother
Who would give birth to her own daughter.

You still knew on her first day
That she would eventually decay.
For such is life, this fragile thing—
A bittersweet ending it brings

***

On the day our son turned four
Death stopped by for us once more.
Our neighbors said it was an accident;
Nonetheless our lives were rent.

We wept as we buried our only son,
A life ended far too young.
Never again did we ever doubt
That we could escape Death’s strong clout.

***

As we grew older our fate was sealed,
Though our many scars had healed.
Immortality was not meant for man;
Death ever remains in our plans.

***

Even when your hair turned grey
I still held you every day.
And I felt deep down in your bones
That human fragility of old.

No matter what we try to do,
Death comes to me and comes to you.
It’s written in our eyes and flesh
And can be tasted in our breath.

As you grew even older still,
The song of Death grew ere more trill.
I knew one day I’d bid you adieu,
For we always live in Death’s milieu.

***

Tonight when I held you I was surprised
To see your Light pass from your eyes.
To taste naught but coldness on your breath,
To feel the trenchant hand of Death.

As I watched you pass from this life—
To go on to the great divide—
I could not help but shed a tear,
For I was losing someone dear.

And as I wept it occurred to me
That Death had made life worth living.
For if I had you for forever
I would not have treated you better.

What made me cherish your life so
Was the knowledge that you’d one day go,
And so when faced with such limited time
I resolved to make you mine.

To cherish every moment we shared,
To let you know how much I cared,
To see that smile on your face,
To feel the warmth of your embrace.

So as I watched you die tonight,
I realized that Death gives meaning to life
And we cannot escape this fate
Tis ours, it will not pass away.

***

Therefore what remains is this:
To make our lives a time of bliss.
Life is far too short for hate.
Life is far too fragile to waste.

Let us then not waste our lives;
Let us fill them with good times.
To have a life bathed in love:
What more could we ask this world of?

***

The truth is that man’s not made to grasp
For material things that do not last.
Man was made for other things:
People and the joy they bring.

For life is not merely what we own;
Rather, it is who we’ve known.
Life’s about love and joy;
Smiling girls and laughing boys.

Life’s about happy mothers,
Doting dads and cheerful daughters,
Smiling sons and family,
Gracious friends and repartee.

***

And so as I bid you goodbye
I realize that I need not cry,
For you made my life worth the living
By never taking but always giving.

You enjoyed a life well spent,
Imparting joy and merriment.
For even in your parting breath
You lived a life in view of Death.

Movie Review

25/08/2012 § 5 Comments

The Dark Knight Rises, Warner Bros. 2012

I assume by now most people reading this review have already seen the film.  I actually saw this the first week it came out, then earlier this week with some friends.  In my opinion, it’s just as good the second time around as the first.

DKR sees director Chris Nolan teaming up with his regular stable of Christian Bale, Gary Oldman, Tom Hardy, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine, and Liam Neeson.  All of them have worked with Nolan before, which probably explains why they all seem so comfortable, even those who are new to the Batman series.  Newcomers of note include Anne Hathaway and Marion Cotillard.  The acting in this film is superb, as might be indicated by this impressive cast.  Cillian Murphy reprises his role as Dr. Crane (Scarecrow from TDK).  Daniel Sunjata (The Devil Wears Prada; Rescue Me) and Joseph Lyle Taylor (Justified’s Doyle Bennett) make their Nolan debut here, and do a very good job.  Really, this film is superbly acted, and a good portion of that is due to the strength of the cast.

The plot is fairly convoluted, and full of twists, contrivances, and deus ex machinas, so it’s best to just watch it.  The main thrust is that Bane, played by the very capable Tom Hardy, is trying to complete Ra’s Al Ghul’s plan of destroying Gotham.  Of course, he plans in secret, in the sewer system, much like in the first film in which Scarecrow was tasked of releasing toxins into Gotham though the water supply.  Commissioner Gordon stumbles upon this plan by the help of some truly stupid henchmen, then meets Bane and narrowly escapes with his life.  This forces Bane to take his plans out into the open, so Bane commits some sort of financial shenanigans on Gotham’s version of Wall Street, thus robbing Bruce Wayne of his wealth.  A bunch of storylines converge around this, the main one being Batman coming out of retirement.  Bane then baits Batman into fighting him; Batman loses, and is then cast into “hell on earth,” which happened to be where Bane was born and raised. After that, Bane takes over Gotham.  He does so by promising that the city will be given to the people.  In reality, Bane is a fascist who controls the city for himself.  This is a metaphor for the Occupy Wall Street crowd, who (presumably unintentionally) dress up fascism in the language of equality.  There is some resistance to Bane’s plans, especially by those who realize that Bane is trying to destroy the city, and that the hope of fascism is really a lie to keep the masses from rebelling.  Then Batman comes back and the movie turns into a bombastic Jesus story, complete with disciples, memorials, and a resurrection.

Whereas the prior installment focused on the dangers of anarchy, DKR focuses on the danger of fascism, and totalitarianism dressed up as equality.  This is a remarkably mature theme for a comic book movie, but Nolan handles it with aplomb.  I would suggest that Nolan is a conservative in the truest sense of the word, recognizing the pitfalls of both anarchy and fascism, and striking to find balance between the two.  Interestingly, Nolan seems more accepting of the use of force in this film than in prior ones (cue Catwoman:   I’m not fond of the whole ‘no guns’ rule…), recognizing that sometimes the only way to combat evil is with evil.  Thus, while Nolan is leery of a world without a central authority, as in the character of the Joker in DKR, he is also just as leery of a world where madmen are the central authority.  Nolan’s overarching of the Batman series appears to be that Power is a necessary evil, and one that should constantly be kept in check, which is itself a very Jeffersonian view.

Ultimately, this world view is concentrated in Bruce Wayne/Batman.  Batman has no qualms about fighting evil, or even using extraordinary means to do so. However, he draws the line at killing.  He also has the good sense to use spy technology appropriately:  In TDK, he sets up a system that uses every tech device to keep tabs on the entire city, for the purpose of tracking down the Joker.  Interestingly, he doesn’t trust himself with this power, but instead gives control of this technology to Lucius Fox, who was very hesitant about it existing in the first place.  Once the danger is past, Fox shuts down the technology, rendering it useless.  In DKR, Batman stills displays reluctance to use deadly force against Bane.  Even at the end of the film, Batman basically kicks the living crap out of Bane, forcing him into great agony, but still refuses to kill him.  This almost does him in, but Catwoman shows up at the last second to kill Bane for Batman.  This is the closest Nolan gets to allowing for the use of deadly force, and even then Batman still keeps his hands clean.  Ultimately, Nolan is content to dwell on the observation that things can be awful in the absence of force (or the threat thereof) and things can be awful in the presence of force as well.  Obviously, there must be balance between the two extremes—anarchy and fascism—but Nolan leaves it to the viewers to decide where that balance is to be struck.

Nolan’s use of female characters is also interesting.  Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard) is someone Bruce Wayne learns to trust, only to be backstabbed (literally and metaphorically) by her later on.  Catwoman/Selina Kyle (the superb Anne Hathaway) is slippery as well, but directly so. There is no reason for Wayne/Batman to trust her, so her betrayals aren’t as shocking or disappointing.  It might seem that Nolan is channeling his inner pimp, warning viewers to never trust a ho, but the theme of betrayal extends to Alfred (who betrayed Bruce by hiding the truth about Rachel) and Commissioner Gordon (who betrayed Gotham by lying to them about Harvey Dent).  Bane, a mercenary, betrays his employer and eventually kills him.  Blake unintentionally betrays his fellow officers, including his beat partner, by leading them to a trap in the tunnels.  Lucius Fox betrays Gotham by arming the bomb.  This makes for a lot of interesting plot twists and developments, but it also forces the viewer to think about what motivates human behavior.  In a sense, Bane’s motives are purer than Lucius Fox’s, and Miranda’s motives are purer than Bruce Wayne’s.  Yet, those who are more pure in heart end up committing more evil, perhaps in part because their devotion to Ra’s Al Ghul’s murderous plan causes them to suppress their humanity.  Thus, those, those who are more human (i.e. those who rationalize their behavior) also end up being more humane.  This is why, then, both Selina and Miranda can betray Bruce Wayne, but only one of them ends up being sympathetic.

At any rate, DKR is an incredibly entertaining and enjoyable film.  The filmography is lush and inviting, the characters are comfortable and generally relatable, the plot is convoluted by followable, and the story is thought-provoking.  It’s definitely worth repeated viewings, and one of those viewings should be in the theater.  This film is destined to be a classic, in spite of its minor flaws (it could be edited better, and the sound mix is deafening at some points and unnecessarily clear at others), so make sure to enjoy it now, that way you can tell your kids that you saw this movie when it first came out.

Grade: A+

Movie Review

25/08/2012 § Leave a comment

The Campaign, Everyman Pictures 2012

I saw this movie because one of my friends insisted it was pretty funny.  I was predisposed to like it because it was political humor and Zach Galifianakis was starring in it (I’m a big Zach Galifianakis fan).  I did have some reservations about it, though, since I abhor Will Ferrell both as an actor and as a “comedian.”  That aside, my approach to the film was pretty positive, especially since it meant hanging out with my best friends.  Unfortunately, the film was a pretty big disappointment.

The main story of the film is that Democrat congressman Cam Brady (Will Ferrell) is running unopposed in his sixth congressional campaign.  Political operatives (denoted by sly references to the Koch brothers), through a series of plot contrivances, sense weakness in Brady’s campaign, and set out to find someone they can run as a Republican opponent.  Of course, the catch in all this is that the GOP candidate is going to be owned by the political operatives, who will then instruct him to vote on behalf of the shadowy mega-corporations .  The candidate they select is a small-town tour guide named Marty Huggins (Zach Galifianakis), the son of former political star Raymond Huggins.  Hijinks and more plot contrivances follow, with each candidate trying to outdo and backstab each other on the campaign trail.

Ferrell does a credible job in this movie of being funny without being overbearing.  He reprises a version of his SNL Bush impression for his character in the film, which seems somewhat fitting since the film is set in North Carolina.  He also brings some humanity to the role, which makes the film more engrossing and poignant than it probably has a right to be.  He does get his share of funny gags, including a drunk driving getaway scene, and a scene where he accidently punches a baby, and later a celebrity dog.  His screen time with the likeable Jason Sudeikis is also pretty enjoyable, especially when Sudeikis’ character tries to explain how polls and politics really work.  However, Ferrell has a tendency to overreach for humor, as evidenced when he revenge-f**ks Huggins’ wife, and when he goes on a profanity-laced rant about how he deserves to win.  These latter scene, though necessary to the plot, fails at humor completely; the former also fails, and is completely unnecessary to boot.

Galifianakis also does a credible job, but his role is more of a letdown.  Galifianakis seems to channel the spirit of his twin brother Seth (see his standup special Live at the Purple Onion for an example of what I mean) for his role as Marty Huggins.  His character is sweetly naïve, and overly trusting.  This can be funny, as it allows the writers to get some digs at Middle Americans, the corpulent nature of the undeserving middle class, and the naiveté of those who trust in God and the democratic process.  The satirical elements of the film are at their sharpest here, but they are often hit-or-miss, and more often the latter.  What hits do land, though, are very stinging.  Galifianakis does get annoying fairly quickly, though.  A joke that’s funny when used sporadically in an hour-long stand-up special does not necessarily become funnier when used constantly in a 90-minute movie.  In fact, the joke gets old well before the movie ends.

What prevents the movie from being a hilarious take on the American political scene, a la Duck Soup or Idiocracy, is its theme:  Big Money is ruining politics.  This theme, stated directly a couple of times throughout the film, is wholly fallacious.  Big Money is not why democracy, and its attendant elections suck; Big Money is merely the symptom.  No, the real problem is that gullible idiots are not only permitted, but often encouraged (I’m looking at you, Get Out the Vote) to vote.  The reason why so many millions of dollars are spent making ads that focus on stupid reasons to vote for or against a given candidate, or why so many politicians and talking heads quibble over the most inane of talking points (like how much money a candidate makes, or what grades a candidate received in college) is because there are a large number of people who think that this sort of discourse is meaningful, and these people have the right to vote.  The simple fact of the matter is that it is shockingly expensive to convince shallow and gullible people to commit to choosing a candidate for office.  And that’s why big money is so prevalent in politics.  Of course, the theme of voter stupidity was already dwelt upon in Idiocracy, and so it would seem a little shopworn to dwell upon it now.  However, this movie could have easily been reworked as a send-up of Swing Vote, with Ferrell retaining his initial role as unopposed incumbent and Galifianakis being cast as Marty Huggins, a man needing to be convinced to be the one person to vote in his state, and thus lend the election a sense of legitimacy.  Now that would be political satire that strikes close to home.

At any rate, the movie is a little too tame as political satire, though the constant references to the Koch Brothers and other current events are generally amusing.  Both Ferrell and Galifianakis start out funny, though both do run afoul of the law of diminishing returns before the end of the movie.  Unfortunately, there is too much cheap gross-out “humor” and broad comedy to prevent this film from being truly great satire; the lower comedic elements simply get in the way.  But when Ferrell and Galifianakis do get a chance to truly poke fun at American politics, there isn’t much that’s funnier.

Rating: C+

Movie Review

19/05/2012 § Leave a comment

We Bought a Zoo

We Bought a Zoo is SWPL crack through and through.  It has all the hallmarks of SWPL stuff:  based on a true story, token upbeat black guy, non-traditional family, faux-deep personal crisis, Matt Damon, and an unbelievably hipster soundtrack (I believe I heard the sounds of “Holocene” by Bon Iver at one particularly emotional point).  Interestingly, the film tends to adhere to generally upper-middle class morals, though they remain unspoken and more or less unacknowledged.  Really, the movie appeals to the ethos of what David Brooks refers to as the Bohemian Bourgeoisie.

The story centers on Benjamin Mee—played by Matt Damon—as he struggles to cope with the loss of his wife.  Some attention is paid to his children, Dylan and Rosie, as they struggle with the loss of their mother, but the bulk of the movie is centered on Benjamin.  Mee knows that he can’t stay in the same small town where he met and married his wife, because there are too many memories and he’s having a hard time letting go.  His son is acting up in school because he doesn’t know how to cope with the grief, and so he gets expelled.  Rosie seems more upbeat, occasionally acting as the adult that’s holding the family together, in part because she isn’t old enough to understand death and loss, let alone struggle with it.  In fact, it’s later revealed that she doesn’t even really understand that her mother is dead.

Since a change of scenery is in place, Mee sets out to search for a new house.  This is when he runs into the token wise black character™ who happens to be a realtor that’s new to town. These scenes are generally amusing, but they feel a little self-conscious.  Mee eventually settles on buying an old zoo, mostly because his daughter seems rather excited about the prospect of living in a zoo.  Dylan is decidedly less enthusiastic about it, mostly because he’s allergic to work, and also because he doesn’t want to move away from his friends.

Nonetheless, Mee decides to go ahead with his purchase and moves the family there.  Everything seems to work out at first, but drama quickly sets in.  For starters, the nearest Target is nine miles away—and that’s just one way!  Viewers are reminded of this every scene, probably because the scriptwriters had sold some product placement to Target.  Or maybe they’re just trying to convey to the assumedly SWPL crowd just how far away from civilization this zoo really was.

The problems escalate from there:  the zoo’s accountant tells everyone that Benjamin is running out of money, which causes the zoo staff to distrust and ignore Mee.  Benjamin’s brother, Duncan, continually tries to talk Benjamin out of running the zoo.  Dylan starts complaining about how much his life sucks now that he can’t hang out with his friends, and how they never come around.  Also, half the staff is crazy.

Anyhow, Benjamin pushes through all this adversity by firing his accountant and sinking every last penny he has into the zoo, including his wife’s secret insurance policy.  He has a heart-to-heart with his son, in a surprisingly emotional scene.  Even Duncan comes around.

During all this time, Benjamin begins to work through his grief, with the help of the head zookeeper, Kelly Foster, who is played by Scarlett Johansson.  The film kind of hints at a romantic relationship between the two, with Mee being the hopeless romantic who is still very much in love with his ex-wife and Foster being an Asperger-y failure with men, with lots of hate to show for it.  One highlight of the film is how nothing comes of this storyline.  Because love stories are basically a cliché at this point, it’s refreshing to see the complete lack of resolution at the end of the film.

There are a couple of interesting side threads.  One is about the zoo inspector, the other is about Dylan discovering love for the first time.

The zoo inspections are rather entertaining because the zoo inspector, Walter Ferris, is played by the inimitable John Michael Higgins.  Higgins brings his usual quiet hilarity to the role, which makes for some laughs.  In many ways, his role in the film is similar to his role as Wayne Jarvis in Arrested Development.  Anyhow, his time on the screen is quite entertaining, especially since he’s portrayed as the villain.

Dylan’s side story is also rather funny in its own way.  Kelly Foster has a thirteen-year-old niece named Lily Miska—who is homeschooled, natch—that works at the zoo.  Lily develops a crush on the fourteen-year-old Dylan, who is quite naturally the only game in town, so to speak.  Dylan is quite oblivious to all this, though he doesn’t seem all that put out by Lily bringing him sandwiches every afternoon.  Lily hangs on to his every word in her own socially awkward way; Dylan is kind of annoyed by her, at least at first.  When Lily hears that the Mees might be moving away, she goes to Dylan to confirm whether this is true.  She approaches this subject rather tactfully, as young girls are wont to do.  Dylan, not realizing that she’s asking him instead of telling him that he’s supposed to be moving away, begins to celebrate his departure, thus crushing Lily’s feelings.  This story line eventually resolves itself rather satisfactorily, and leads to a rather useful life lesson for young male viewers.

The film is rather fun to watch, the occasional self-consciousness of the writers and director notwithstanding.  The filmography is bright and lush, the soundtrack is quite moving, though a little overbearing at times, and the acting is generally superb.  Damon does most of the heavy lifting (his solo scene in the kitchen is a textbook example of conveying emotion using just facial expressions), and ScarJo certainly helps out.  John Michael Higgins also pulls his own weight, even if his appearance is brief.  Even Colin Ford (Dylan Mee) does a commendable job for his age, as does Maggie Elizabeth Jones (Rosie Mee).  The supporting cast is commendable, though no one really stands out.

In all, the film is definitely worth the two hours it takes to watch it.  The film isn’t not particularly family friendly, as Dylan’s initial storyline is rather dark; there’s also some swearing (unnecessarily so, in my opinion).  That said, the story mostly works, the actors have good chemistry and are quite believable, and there’s no element that is particularly clunky.

Grade: B+