Archive for December, 2011
REVIEW: ‘Zoo’ lets characters not animals tell the story
We all received a joint Christmas present this year – director Cameron Crowe’s foray back into the world of romantic comedies. Crowe’s filmography includes 1989’s “Say Anything” and 1996’s “Jerry Maguire,” and six years after his last traditional narrative release (“Elizabethtown”), he returns with “We Bought a Zoo.” Crowe is one of my favorite directors due to his solid storytelling that involves offbeat stories with eclectic characters. After a half-decade layoff, how would “We Bought a Zoo” stand up against Crowe’s prior rom-coms?
When the wife of adventure writer Benjamin Mee dies, he is left floundering in an attempt to raise his young son and daughter. In an effort to move forward, Benjamin (Matt Damon) decides to move the family from their current home. His search leads the family to the dilapidated Rosemoor Animal Park, which houses dozens of animals and endangered species. Seeing an opportunity for an epic adventure and a fresh start for his family, Benjamin sinks his savings into purchasing and restoring the zoo. He gets more than he bargained for in the face of obstacles that include growing financial debt, balancing the zoo animals and staff, and the building grief within his family.
A comedy like this could go one of two ways – a collection of gags involving the animals and new unsuspecting owners, or trust in the characters to tell the story. Not surprisingly, Crowe decided on the latter, putting his faith in a talented and diverse cast. Matt Damon continues to show his range as an actor – this time as the sympathetic single father and widower. The film also features a Crowe staple with a collection of quirky characters. Benjamin’s older brother Duncan (Thomas Haden Church, best known from TV’s “Wings”) continuously offers bad advice, curmudgeon USDA inspector Walter Ferris (John Michael Higgins, “Fired Up!”) perfects a running gag involving his inspection devices, and zoo architect Peter MacCready (Angus Macfadyen, “Braveheart”) claims Ferris stole all his ideas.
The movie isn’t all about whacky characters though. Scarlett Johansson is great as the resident zookeeper and Benjamin’s potential love interest – Crowe does a magnificent job of letting this part of their relationship simmer throughout the film. Colin Ford (TV’s “Supernatural”) and Maggie Elizabeth Jones round out the Mee family and Elle Fanning (“Super 8”) plays an aloof home-schooled Lily. Ford and Fanning deliver the classic Lloyd Dobler/Jerry Maguire romantic moment Crowe fans will be waiting for.
“We Bought a Zoo” is based on the true story of the Dartmoor Zoological Park in England, with the screenplay adapted from Benjamin’s Mee memoir. The film and overall story is enjoyable if a bit contrived. The fact that the Mee clan finds a ready-made family, complete with age-appropriate love interests for both father and son, comes off as contrived. Damon’s vulnerable performance as Benjamin Mee is raw – a rare find in the romantic comedy genre. His struggle with a sick animal that needs to be put down is heart wrenching as it stirs up memories of his wife’s illness.
Damon carries but doesn’t necessarily make this film. There is a chemistry among the entire cast that pours through the screen – from the warm and fuzzy moments to the uncomfortable exchanges between Benjamin and his son. The animals take a backseat to the human drama that plays out – though they serve as competent minor characters that help move the plot along. Crowe is back and still has the romantic comedy narrative magic with a story of one man’s determination to save his family, his sanity, and as it turns out, a zoo.
REVIEW: ‘Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows’ has ammunition to snap Hollywood out of winter doldrums
Frequent readers of The Local Q movie page may have noticed the recent article claiming this weekend would be a different story at the box office thanks to “Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows.” Was the recent Hollywood slump simply a case of bad film offerings over the holidays, or rather a preoccupation of shopping and other holiday distractions? We’ll let the final sales numbers be the judge of whether the slump is over, but we can investigate the latest Sherlock offering to see if it’s worthy of such a prophetic status of breaking Hollywood out of its funk.
Guy Ritchie returns to direct the sequel to 2009’s “Sherlock Holmes,” which teased a showdown between Holmes (Robert Downey Jr.) and Professor James Moriarty (Jared Harris, TV’s “Mad Men). “Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows” delivers the encounter in an action packed mystery that tops its predecessor. When a series of bombings leaves Europe on the verge of war, Holmes begins unraveling a mystery that leads back to Moriarty. Once the Professor realizes Holmes is on to him, he threatens that Dr. Watson (Jude Law) and his new bride will be in harms way if Holmes continues his investigation. A game of one-upmanship begins between Holmes and Moriarty that forces Watson to return for one last case to protect his new bride and help prevent France and Germany from going to war.
Three things stand out that makes the film extraordinary. The mise-en-scene, storytelling, and acting. The overall look of the film (the mise-en-scene) matches the late 1800’s era with accurate costume and set design. The set designer took it a step further, as the film seems to have a faded storybook feel to it – even the title sequence plays out like a page-turning story – which is extremely fitting for the 1800’s novel-turned-modern day blockbuster.
“Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows” is film sequencing at its finest. My biggest critique of the 2009 film was that Ritchie tried to include too much into the story – from plot to visual effects. The latest incarnation is perfect – revealing enough in each scene to keep the audience on the edge of their seats guessing right along with Holmes, but not lingering long enough to bog down the flow of the film. There is a thrilling sequence midway through act II that brilliantly combines the film’s diegetic sound of an opera performance with a desperate search by Holmes and Watson to stop another bombing. The scene is so powerful you think it’s the climax of the film — but it simply peels back more layers of the plot. Things do get a tad hokey towards the end of act II, but thankfully the film quickly returns to form in time for a climactic and somewhat surprising act III.
Robert Downey Jr. has completed his transformation and appears to have as much fun in front of the camera as the snarky Holmes does solving his cases. His story of redemption is a lone bright spot in a town that sees far too many of these tales go the opposite direction. While Downey Jr. is the ultimate benefactor of his triumph over substance abuse, we as an audience are allowed to relish watching an actor in his prime fully enjoy and perfect his craft — and you just get the sense that he has a tad more appreciation for it given the second, third and fourth chances he’s been given. Downey Jr. and Law share the same chemistry displayed in the first Holmes film, and Jared Harris steps up his game to do his best to match Holmes on-screen and Downey Jr. off-screen.
Ritchie does go to the well one too many times on giving us a look inside the mind of Holmes as he sees things unfolding in slow-motion. It’s an interesting effect, but we really only need to see it once to understand how Holmes operates and continues to get out of jams. Unfortunately we see these precursor scenes play out nearly every time Holmes is in trouble – to the point that it eventually becomes a distraction. Besides that, I question Moriarty’s financial motivations behind his evil ways when it seems he is already a man of great means. Why he would go to such great lengths for additional wealth is never explained.
Despite these flaws (no movie is ever perfect, as it is a work of art and therefore truly subjective), “Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows” certainly has the ammunition to snap Hollywood out of the winter doldrums it currently finds itself in. Despite Sherlock’s best efforts, it fell more than 20 million dollars short of the anticipated 65 million dollar opening weekend. Do we really live in a world where Warner Brothers says the movie only garnered $40.2 million in the opening weekend?
Perhaps this is the real problem with Hollywood — an under appreciation for the cinematic art form and lofty financial expectations that lead to quality films being labeled disappointments. This sounds a lot like Wall Street and our current financial crisis to me. Perhaps the #OccupyCinema movement needs to begin. Let’s hope it is more successful than Hollywood deemed the opening weekend for Sherlock and the good Doctor Watson.
REVIEW: ‘Eight Crazy Nights’ is under appreciated holiday film
Christmas is right around the corner, but before we get to the big day, there’s eight less celebrated but equally important days that haven’t received their due in the cinema world — I’m talking about Hanukah. This week The “Film School Blog” takes a look at an underrated holiday movie that warms the heart while teaching us a bit about the Jewish holiday in Adam Sandler’s animated “Eight Crazy Nights.” Someone please notify Bill O’Reilly I’ll be discussing a traditional Christmas film at a later date – I don’t want to be accused of joining in on the “War on Christmas.”
Years after a family tragedy, Davey Stone (Sandler) is the town drunk, doing his best to ruin the holidays for everyone around him. After several run-ins with the law, a judge gives Davey one more shot at redemption by ordering him to serve as a referee at the local youth basketball program in lieu of time at the state penitentiary. Over the span of the eight days of Hanukah, Davey begins to see things in a new light thanks to the help of senior local do-gooder and longtime basketball referee Whitey Duvall (also voiced by Sandler). When his past and present collide, Davey must choose between the bitter adult he’s become and the caring, thoughtful person he has the potential to be.
The tagline of the film is “It’s naughty. It’s nice. It’s animated,” which is an extremely accurate description of a somewhat bi-polar film. Though geared towards a younger crowd due to its cartoon nature, the film carries a PG-13 rating for language and adult themes. Although “Eight Crazy Nights” is a feel-good animation, it will appeal to even the earliest of Sandler fans. Many of the voices were derived from his early comedy CD’s – the Whitey character appeared on his album “Stan & Judy’s Kid” and Davey is eerily reminiscent of Steve Polychronopolous from “What the Hell Happened to Me.”
The film was produced by Sandler’s production company Happy Madison and the name comes from his infamous holiday number “The Chanukah Song” (Instead of one day of Christmas, we get eight crazy nights!). Co-written by Sandler and directed by veteran animation director Seth Kearsley (TV’s “Dilbert” and “Family Guy”), the musical-comedy captures Sandler at his best. The protagonist is an animated carbon copy of Sandler, and he also does voice work for several other characters. The film features seven musical numbers by various characters and bonus “The Chanukah Song #3” during the credits.
“Eight Crazy Nights” is a fun holiday film that serves as a great primer for the more traditional classics. The animation work is solid with several film techniques used such as movement within the image to simulate a handheld camera shot and great depth of field that features foreground images in focus and backgrounds slightly blurred. It is very Sandler-heavy but also features appearances by familiar voices such as fellow SNL alums Jon Lovitz, Kevin Nealon and Rob Schneider.
My biggest critique of “Eight Crazy Nights” is the inherent identity crisis it faces, as it floats somewhere between a Disney animation and an adult-themed cartoon along the lines of “Family Guy.” Though crude language and toilet humor are interspersed throughout, the heartwarming tale and themes of redemption, friendship and true appreciation of all holidays is what makes “Eight Crazy Nights” my pick as one of the most underrated and possibly under appreciated holiday films in recent memory.
Inside a real Quincy Film School
This week the Film School blog is taking a bit of a different approach while taking you inside film school, literally. I teach a scriptwriting course at Quincy University and as the final project of the semester the class nominates one original script to produce as a short film. There’s nothing more rewarding than seeing your script come to life on the big screen, and I appreciate having a chance to give that opportunity to my students. This week, I’d like to share the process with you.
“Logging Out” deals with our increasing reliance on technology and questions what happens to those who let technology rule their lives. College student Alexis (QU senior Brooklyn McCulloch) is living a charmed life, oblivious to her surroundings. She worships her technology to the point of humanizing the devices – her laptop is named “Louis” and her iPhone is “Prada” — and between her thousand Facebook friends and tweets, she barely notices the world around her. When Alexis awakes to find all the current technology has disappeared, she must learn to adjust to her new surroundings. Forced to use things she considers archaic, such as the house phone and face-to-face communication, she discovers her bestfriend Jen (QU senior Kayleigh Kelley) is pregnant and Alexis’ brother is the father. Will the shock be enough for Alexis to learn her lesson?
The script was written by junior TJ Jordan. It is unique in that it follows the three-act narrative structure but within the confines of a short script (17 pages in this case). The script features two key plot points to move between acts one and three, and several plot pinches — small twists to advance the narrative. The comedy includes topical material, clever foreshadowing and a fun group of distinct characters.
I had a feeling mid-way through the semester that “Logging Out” would be the script chosen by the class. TJ’s classmates were very excited about his concept as it was being developed. I follow the workshop approach used by veteran screenwriter Syd Field, who says your characters eventually take on a life of their own. I’ll never forget the day when responding to my question of how the writing process was coming along, TJ answered by putting his arm around “Alexis,” who he claimed was sitting right next to him. She had come to life for him, and it shows in his script.
With about three weeks of production and post-production time, casting consisted mostly of students available in the class. Both Brooklyn McCulloch and Kayleigh Kelley did a fantastic job as amateur actors and share good on-screen chemistry. The cast is rounded out by Chris Simmons from the QU Advancement Office and local chiropractor Gary Lambert as Alexis’ parents. Due to time constraints, the production process was guerilla filmmaking at its finest. Because the course is technically a screenwriting class and not a production course, we shot on location with minimal equipment that typically consisted of a Canon HD camera, boom microphone, and tripod or shoulder brace. Everyone in the class took a role — including the actors, directors, script supervisor, boom operator, and post-production team.
The project offered students a lesson in shooting on location, where you deal with whatever variables the environment throws at you. A shoot at Quincy Medical Group involved blocking the scene while staff and patients continued about their business around us, often interrupting the scene. Shooting at one of the student’s home included working around dogs barking, hums in the audio from environmental lighting and electric outlets, and unexpected visitors such as family members and a furnace repair man. The house is full of windows, so using existing lighting meant a combination of color temperatures (cameras read indoor light as yellow and outdoor natural light as blue). I discussed with one of the directors (QU junior Maddie Caton) the opportunity to use the lighting artistically to match the nature vs. technology theme of the film. Many of the interior shots are lit with artificial indoor lighting and framed with backgrounds splashed in blue natural light so prominent it appears as if the area was purposely lit with an indoor light and a blue gel.
I began the semester talking to the students about the dreaded “blank page” they would stare at when beginning their scripts. As the semester comes to a close, I believe they found the entire enterprise – from writing their own screenplay to everyone taking a role in making TJ’s film – extremely rewarding. If you would like to see the film, “Logging Out” will debut this Thursday, December 8, at QU’s second annual Multimedia Festival at the Hawk’s Nest (lower level of the Student Center, 18th & Lind). The event is free, and doors open at 7 p.m. with a show time of 7:30. The event will also feature flash animations from QU’s graphic design courses. We’re hoping to show the film at the 2012 Big Dam Film Festival, so if you can’t make it out this Thursday, stay tuned…