We Bought a Zoo * * * *
Cert 12A, 124 mins
You can literally see Bourne star Matt Damon enjoying himself at the centre of this heartwarming family movie – and it will make all the difference to your appreciation of it, too.
With a powerful romantic ending which reminded me of the traffic lights sequence in Clint Eastwood’s The Bridges of Madison County (1995), there will scarcely be a dry eye left in the house.
As Benjamin Mee, the father of two children whose mother has died, Damon finds a lovely house to move into.
And then discovers it is also a failed zoo with some animals remaining.
Can the journalist keep his family together while trying to rebuild his life and the enclosures, just for the sake of having the house he has fallen in love with?
If this wasn’t based on the now well-documented account of Benjamin Mee and Dartmoor Zoo (five miles from Plymouth and at www.dartmoorzoo.org if you want to know more) then it probably would not be at all believable.
And yet, because it’s a true story, the structure feels as if this is a film trying to establish a film, rather than a gripping domestic saga that you will lose yourself in immediately.
Like Steven Spielberg’s January release of War Horse, just setting up the whole movie seems to take a couple of reels even though the action here has been transplanted from Devon to California.
All the while, though, Damon’s star presence keeps you watching more than Scarlett Johansson’s spiky introduction as retained zookeeper Kelly Foster.
This isn’t director Cameron Crowe’s best work, not compared with Jerry Maguire (1996) and Almost Famous (2000).
But for a man who doesn’t make many movies, it’s certainly a big improvement on Vanilla Sky (2001) and his last outing, Elizabethtown (2005).
And there are doubtless many children, innocently frustrated by their own loss, who will benefit from watching this kind of accessible study of grief.
Supernatural and Family Guy TV series actor Colin Ford, now 15, has the difficult job of playing Mee’s introspective son, Dylan.
Giving one of the best children’s performances since Abigail Breslin in Little Miss Sunshine, Maggie Elizabeth Jones is sensational as his still wide-eyed, seven-year-old sibling, Rosie Mee.
Although the running time hits an overlong 124 minutes, we could have still done with more of Dylan and Rosie, the anchors in Mee’s life which keep him sane.
And, if we’re honest, more of the animals, too.
Like last year’s bird-watching comedy The Big Year, starring Jack Black, Owen Wilson and Steve Martin, we might have been given extra creature comforts as standard.
The setting here feels less like a zoo, more like the remarkably-undersold Birmingham Nature Centre on the Pershore Road.
That said, Hollywood often makes a mess of movies like this one.
And we should all be truly thankful that it wasn’t seen as just another comedy excuse for the likes of Jim Carrey or Adam Sandler to get involved with.
21 Jump Street * * * *
Cert 15, 109 mins
Based on the 1980s’ TV series which helped to establish both the Fox Network and Johnny Depp, this film won’t win any Oscars.
But it will certainly leave a lot of smiles on Saturday night, popcorn-stuffed faces.
Especially as there’s an uncredited guest appearance from you-know-who which is much less of a surprise than his ultimate fate.
Directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller previously worked on the fun animation Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs (2009) and much of the humour here is also of the slapstick / cartoon variety.
Albeit with more than a dash of gross-out humour.
Luckily, the temptation to be become truly gross is resisted.
Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill are also a good double act, too, as a pair of typically mismatched young cops called Schmidt and Jenko who are hoping for a bit more action than they might find down at their local park.
Packed off to a church to go undercover in time-honoured fashion, they then have to overcome their own limitations in a bid to see justice done.
Despite the full-justified certificate, much of the film’s humour is light-hearted right down to some Jackass-lite stunt sequences where the aim simply seems to be to cause self-inflicted damage.
A car chase scene involving a dual-control learner driver’s car is especially fun and the running joke about what may or may not explode a neat touch reminiscent of the porter gag in Hot Tub Time Machine (2010).
Tatum’s attempt to make an explosive device is permissible given the way that it would not work in real life.
But watching him bat golf balls at vehicles is less responsible, a simple practice and a silly idea that no motorist would want to see catch on.
Hill, Oscar nominated recently for Moneyball, and Tatum, star of last month’s romantic hit The Vow, are both executive producers here.
If the money rolls in, definitely expect them to fancy a sequel.
Cleanskin * *
Cert 15, 108 mins
Rather like Michelle Williams and Ewan McGregor starred in the 2008 suicide bomber film Incendiary, in which a wife lost her husband and son at a soccer match, Cleanskin is probably a well-intentioned film but one that is also deeply flawed.
As well as asking many more questions than it even thinks of answering, writer-director Hadi Hajaig isn’t quite sure whether to make this a secret service shoot ‘em dead thriller, a government conspiracy movie or a terrorist ideology study.
Just like in mathematics, three-into-one doesn’t really go in the movies either – especially if you can’t control the common denominator.
Or, given the subtext, should that be detonator?
Christopher Morris’s Four Lions (2010) had equally murky ambitions, but at least it was consistent of plot and truly daring in its attempt to inject comedy into such potentially dark subject matter.
Long advertised as the thinking woman’s bit of rough, ex-welder Bean has rarely looked rougher than he does here.
Nor spoken with such a broad version of his broad Yorkshire accent.
He shuffles through the entire movie ready to kill anyone who looks suspicious, while Peter Polycarpou’s character Nabil recruits his ‘clean’ operatives.
Showing at AMC Broadway Plaza, this kind of movie works much better when done in the US.
We can compartmentalise the violence then.
And pretend, somehow, that it’s more entertainment than relevant. On home ground, Cleanskin feels a bit too close for comfort.
It’s far from being the best movie Bean has ever made, but some of the fights are almost as well-handled as David Cronenberg’s extraordinary bath-house scenes in Eastern Promises.
And, while the risk is that it could stir up the nefarious thoughts of a few hotheads, perhaps it will also remind the rest of us to keep on our guard against the terror threat.
Especially in this year of the London Olympiad.
The Raven * *
Cert 15, 111 mins
American-born author Edgar Allan Poe pioneered detective fiction and also attempted to earn a living from writing.
On both counts, he probably deserved better than this movie which turns his heritage into a sub Se7en-style serial killer thriller blended with a bit of Scream for not-so-good measure.
The plot, in a nutshell, features Poe spending the last days of his life trying to help a detective who is investigating a series of gruesome killings based on stories he has written himself.
But the murders are simply not plausible.
The big reveal about whodunnit is ridiculous for the way it suddenly presents the killer.
And with director James McTeigue (V for Vendetta, 2005) once again more worried about style than substance, John Cusack is left high and dry in the title role.