057: Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax

I have been a fan of The Lorax by Dr. Seuss ever since I was a little kid. I have devoured this children’s book front to back so many time that the illustrations have been ingrained in my head. Therefore I was very apprehensive about a feature adaptation based on this beloved book. The trailer didn’t manage to lessen my anxiety. This showed a lot of sub-par jokes and revealed that the movie would be much more than what’s presented in the book. It just didn’t look good. Now, having seen the complete movie, I must say that my fears were justified. This is not a good adaptation. Too much has been added.

The book is a streamlined polemic against blind greed, the corruption of nature and the regret one can feel after doing something horrendous. Don’t get me wrong, it is all there. Not much from the book has been left out. It is the addition of a complete town where a greedy businessman is hellbent on keeping out anything that is natural to make sure that the air is polluted so he can keep selling his precious clean air that gets to me. It is all too much. The movie ended on a down but hopeful note and left you wondering. For lack of a better term, The Lorax has been Hollywoodified and thus loses a lot its power. The fact that they chose to present the Once-ler as a real person and not just a set of arms (as it was done in the book) sets us up to care more for him and makes us (more or less) forgive him for his acts. The addition of the Once-ler’s family was also terribly unnecessary.

Usually you won’t find me ragging on a kids’ movie, because I full well know that these movies are not made for me. But this was based on a beloved childrens’ book and then you’d better get it right and this time they didn’t. If you have never read The Lorax, then maybe you can get something out of this mess, otherwise you will only be distracted by the fluff and the changes. On a brighter note, the movie looks gorgeous (even in 3D) and actually reflects some of the artwork by Dr. Seuss. Do you know what I found to be the best moment in The Lorax? The moment when during the credits the original Dr. Seuss art from the book rolled across the screen. Think about that for a second.

> IMDb

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056: The 400 Blows (Les Quatre Cents Coups)

This seminal classic made by François Truffaut had been on my to-do list for many years. Last year I came across the Criterion release on blu-ray and bought it right away. And subsequently it took me a few months more to actually pop it into my player and watch it. There is always that darned dark cloud of possible disappointment that prevents me from seeing certain older movies. But I am glad to say that in the case of The 400 Blows, this fear was totally unjustified. This is a great movie.

I went into The 400 Blows completely unknowing. I had read the synopsis, but did not know anything about the background. It is about the young Antoine who lives in Paris and has to survive the rough streets and classrooms of lower class society. It is a moody examination of this young boy’s life, who has to deal with a self absorbed mother, a tough school teacher and a stepfather who tries to keep his cool around the boy, but even he is on the brink of having enough of him.

As with most of the movies made during the French New Wave The 400 Blows is something of an acquired taste. I remember the first time I watched Truffaut’s Jules & Jim. I was bored to tears, but I was a lot younger then. If you don’t know what you are in for a movie from the French New Wave can come across as meandering and not very exciting. There is no dramatic exaggeration. It is all very naturalistic and far removed from the movies we regularly get to see these days, but totally worth it.

Little did I know that the movie was almost entirely autobiographical. This makes it even more painful to watch. Truffaut’s father was never there for him, hence the absence of a real father in The 400 Blows. Truffaut grew up in Paris and spent a lot of time in cinemas to escape his daily troubles at school and at home (this is a trait he shares with for example Martin Scorsese). We see Antoine Doinel doing just that with his friend from school, Rémy, who in real life would become an assistant on many of Truffaut’s movies. Reality and fiction keep running into each other in this wonderful examination of life in Paris after the Second World War.

> IMDb

Intermission: Cody’s Realization

I interrupt my journal about my movie year to tell you something that really got to me. My oldest son Cody is four and a half years old and has started watching the Star Wars live action movies. I spoke about this in my first review of Episode I this year. Yesterday something happened that got me and wife off guard. Cody has been going on about who is a bad guy and who is a good guy in Star Wars. He knows Darth Maul is a bad guy and Anakin is a good guy, but while watching A New Hope he asked if Darth Vader was a good guy and without really thinking about it we told him that Darth Vader was definitely not a good guy. This scrambled his brain a little bit, because I have never seen him react the way he did. He just sat there for a good ten seconds, just staring, pondering the possibility of Vader being a bad guy. We both thought this was a significant event, but he went ahead with his day and so did we.

The ForceCastThis morning I was listening to an older episode of The ForceCast, a podcast dedicated to Star Wars. It was the episode in which HitFix’s Drew McWeeny talks to Jimmy en Jason about the decision to show his kids Star Wars in a very particular order. A very good interview with a lot of good arguments why that would work. It was a moment in his story that took me back to Cody’s revelation. He tells about his kids’ reaction to the downfall of Anakin. How he grew from a little boy to a petulant teenager to a disgruntled man who hurts the ones he loves. This realization devastated them. And then I thought about the look in Cody’s eyes when he heard Vader was a bad guy and realized I have to tread lightly around this material.

Cody is not at an age where he will be able to grasp all the intricacies of the plot, but he will be able to pick up on the basic stuff. I will not be screening Revenge of the Sith anytime soon (not that I was planning to) and when he is a few years older I will probably utilize Drew’s excellent chronology to ease the boys into the whole saga. This is turning out to be a bit harder than I thought it would be, mainly because I grew up with this stuff. It is engrained in my head, but he is totally blank when it comes to Star Wars. I have another boy called Owen (see the obscure Star Wars referenced in the names) and I will be a little bit more careful with him around these movies.

End of Intermission.

055: Killer Elite

How do you screw up an action thriller with Jason Statham, Robert De Niro and Clive Owen in the cast? I have no idea, but first-time director Gary McKendry found a way. He manages to make Killer Elite a boring endeavor that hardly ever exhilarates, a deadly trait for an action movie. I was very disappointed.

In Killer Elite Statham plays Danny, a mercenary seemingly with a heart of gold who can’t take it anymore. After his last assignment he decides to quit and retire to the backcountry of Australia. But when his mentor Hunter (played by a suspiciously happy Robert De Niro) is captured, Danny must come out of retirement to start a mission that will not be easy (Rambo III, anyone?). It appears that Hunter is taken captive by a rich sheik from Oman who is hellbent on avenging the death of his three sons. They were, according to him, killed by the British S.A.S. division, who deny having anything to do with these killings. It is up to Danny to kill these men and make it look like accidents.

But… (there is always a but) there is a secret society who dispatches their own professional killer (Clive Owen) to stop Danny and his men. From there on in the story takes more turns than a mountain road and is about as exciting as watching grass grow. Killer Elite is based on supposedly actual events as witnessed by Ranulph Fiennes, one of the targeted S.A.S. men. He has written a memoir of these events that is questionable, to say the least. He even admits to fabricating some of the events to create a story that he qualifies as ‘faction’. This knowledge makes Killer Elite even less exciting.

Usually Jason Statham owns the movies he stars in. Not so with Killer Elite, because he is sorely miscast in this role. It is the year 1979 and while everybody tries to look as if they are from the era, Statham looks exactly the same as in one of his modern movies. The make-up department has done nothing to keep up appearances with him. On the other hand there is Dominic Purcell (Prison Break), who looks more like the caricature of a 1979 porn star. And the others try to look the part by growing a mustache. It is just one big mess. It took me a while to figure out that the year was actually 1979. Go figure.

Killer Elite’s runtime is almost two hours and that is about thirty minutes too many. The story keeps on going and going and going without ever knowing where it should be going. The action set-pieces are nice in their own right, but without any investment in the characters you are left with… nothing, really.

> IMDb

054: We Bought a Zoo

Cameron Crowe is a strange creature. Everybody seems to like him. Everybody has a fondness for him and his work, but when you look back at what movies he has made there is not a lot there to be fond of. I have not seen Say Anything… Singles was a decent comedy with a great soundtrack. Jerry Maguire is very sappy with a good Tom Cruise. I never really understood the hype around Almost Famous. Vanilla Sky was a mess, and Elizabethtown made his downward slope even more steep. Now, six years after that last debacle Crowe releases We Bought a Zoo, a movie that doesn’t make a very good case for Crowe and his career.

Based on real life events, We Bought a Zoo tells the story of Benjamin Mee, a father of two and a widower since six months. He was an adventurer, but he has lost all appetite for a more exciting life. Then he decides to make a change. He starts looking for a new house, but doesn’t seem to able to find something that fits his needs. Then he comes across an old zoo that’s for sale. He takes the plunge and starts to renovate the zoo with the help of his family and the zoo staff. Hilarities ensue while Benjamin also deals with an annoying zoo inspector and a son who has been extremely affected by the loss of his mother.

The fact that this is based on actual events make you think that this could be a gritty tale with some real drama, because in real life things tend to be harder than in the movies. Well, think again, We Bought a Zoo is so sugarcoated that it isn’t funny anymore. This is understandable when you look at who wrote the adaptation with Crowe: Aline Brosh McKenna, who previously gave us gems like I Don’t Know How She Does It and Morning Glory, but of which are terrible movies. She manages to transform this story about a grieving family into a movie that is so full of unfunny jokes and cheap sentiment that is almost a crime. It is beyond me why a person like the real Benjamin Mee would let this happen. He probably signed a deal with Fox that prevented him from intervening. If that was the case, then let that be a lesson to all.

In light of that knowledge it is a miracle that something good came out of We Bought a Zoo at all. It is purely the cast that saves this movie. Matt Damon plays Benjamin Mee in a way that seems to be his new favorite character. Like in Contagion, he is the slightly overweight father who tries to do the best he can, but  who just can’t seem to catch a break. He is given a lot of food by (presumably divorced) women who see something in him, but he doesn’t feel the need to reciprocate the gesture. He is still very much working on processing the loss of the love of his life. Damon is totally relatable as Benjamin Mee, as most men are just like him. I know I am.

This processing of grief is something that has his son in its grasp as well. Dylan Mee (played by Colin Ford) acts out at school and that drives his father crazy. The confrontation between father and son later in the movie is something of a marvel in this otherwise rose-colored flick. The sheer power that Ford and Damon display in this scene is palpable through the screen.

The third member of this family is daughter Rosie Mee, a very wise for her age kid who acts like her father’s conscience. This character is maybe what bothered me the most about We Bought a Zoo. She is written in a way that makes her serve purely as comic relief in a way that would befit a role in a third rate sitcom. She constantly interrupts with incredibly smart remarks that are supposed to break a tension that is not even there. There is no way that this kid was like this in real life and that is again where the moniker “Based on real life events” works against the movie. It makes it hard to relate to We Bought a Zoo, a story that is already hard to believe, because it is so outrageous.

The supporting cast does an adequate job. There is Scarlett Johansson in a role that didn’t require her to doll up and flaunt her good looks. She downplays much of what people want to see of her and it even sounded like she lowered her voice slightly to make her a little bit more masculine. A very wise choice. As Damon’s brother there is the always competent Thomas Haden Church. He provides some much needed honest comic relief. Church and Johansson (together with Damon and Ford) manage to lift this otherwise forgettable romp to a level that made it watchable.

There is always one thing you can count on when watching a Cameron Crow movie: the music. Crowe is a former Rolling Stone journalist and decided from day one in his movie career to champion the music he likes in his movies. We Bought a Zoo is no exception. It is filled to the brim with songs that could make up a soundtrack with ease. On the other hand you have an original soundtrack by Jon Thor Birgisson, AKA Jónsi, that perfectly fits the movie. It is a very cutesy piece of music that hammers the fact home that this is a cute movie and shouldn’t be perceived otherwise. Maybe it would be wise for Crowe to return to his musical career, because, frankly, I likes his documentary on Pearl Jam (Pearl Jam Twenty) very much.

> IMDb

053: The Viral Factor (Jik Zin)

I was looking through the movie listing at my local AMC and between all the usual suspects there was this strange creature, The Viral Factor by Dante Lam. After some research online I discovered that this was an unrated Hong Kong action movie, a type of movie you don’t get to see often in the theaters here. Well, off I went. The guy behind the counter didn’t even know what the movie was. It turned out to be a decent movie-going experience, but nothing to be overly excited about.

In The Viral Factor (a title that makes no sense. The original title, Jik zin, means Uphill Battle, much better) we meet agent Jon (played by Jay Chou of The Green Hornet fame) who needs to escort a virologist from Jordan, but he is betrayed by a fellow agent, who steals a very dangerous viral sample. In the process Jon’s fiancee Ice is murdered and bullet that killed her gets lodged in Jon’s brain, leaving him prone to incredible headaches. And that is just the start of an adventure that involves long lost brothers, an estranged father, and the threat of an impending pandemic that could wipe out much of Earth’s population.

The Viral Factor is a decent movie. The action is fast-paced and for the most part easy to follow. The action primarily takes place in Kuala Lumpur, except for the opening battle in Jordan, which looks like an advertisement for Call of Duty. In Kuala Lumpur the director makes use of all facets of this sprawling city. From helicopters flying dangerously between the skyscrapers to fist fights on ground level in cramped corridors and train cars. It is all breathtaking ad extremely fast. The scenes where our heroes are pursued through a crowded shopping mall are fantastic.

The only problem with The Viral Factor is its constant wish to overplay emotions to the point where it becomes almost unbearable. The melodrama is heaped so incredibly thick onto the movie that it starts to hurt your teeth from all the sweetness. But I must say that if you make it through all the melodrama without losing your faith in the movie as a whole, the ending actually is affecting and effective. In spite of all the wooden acting (especially from Chou) you do feel something for this unlucky family. At least, it did for me.

I am glad I caught this on the big screen. It gave me something else than the usual fair to watch. Of course it has already been pulled from the theaters, or maybe it landed somewhere else on an AMC screen, I don’t know. All I know is I am going to look through the listings more often to find more of these unusual screenings and I think others should too.

> IMDb

052: Hustle & Flow

I love the raw power of creativity, whether it be a painter painting, a film maker creating a movie or musicians recording their next great piece. I just love to see people with extraordinary gifts expressing something I can not possibly match. That’s why I loved Hustle & Flow so much back in 2005. It showed that there are people out there who, if they set their minds to it, can create something beautiful.

Surrounded by the slums of Memphis, pimp DJay tries to make a living off women who turn tricks for him. With a name like DJay he is destined to become something else, isn’t he? He has this urge to get his word out. In a moment of serendipity he gets a small keyboard from a junkie, which sets him on a quest to put his rhymes to music. Then he meets an old friend from school who wants to desperately do something else then record church gospels for a change. With the help of some other people DJay records his first songs, but it remains a question if this will help him escape from the everyday troubles of being a pimp in the rough parts of Memphis, Tennessee.

Back in 2005 I was madly in love with this movie. I saw it a couple of times and especially loved the scenes where DJay and his friends are creating their magic. The songs they craft are addictive (and Oscar-winning) and will stick in your head for days. It’s hard out here for a pimp may not be the most politically correct song out there, but, man, does that hook drive itself into your skull. Mostly thanks to the wonderful vocals of Taraji P. Henson and Terrence Howard, who recorded their own vocals for the track.

The rest of the scenes built around these recording sessions are still powerful after all these years. Back in 2005 I wrote: “Brewer’s film is a sweaty affaire with a group of people who, in spite of their questionable work ethics, get under your skin and won’t leave you unaffected.” I stand by that comment. There are some things that could have been handled a little more delicately, like some of the serendipitous encounters and situations that keep the movie flowing (sorry, no pun intended), but that doesn’t diminish the power of the performances of the great cast. I dare you not to be horrified by the scene where DJay throws one of his women, including kid, out on the street. You want to hate that guy so much in that moment, but Howard manages to transcend that and show us his humane side in addition to the monster that he has become. All problems aside, I think this is still a wonderful movie about the power of dreaming, which should be seen by all.

> IMDb