DID YOU READ

“We Bought a Zoo,” reviewed

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What happened to Cameron Crowe? This is the guy that made two of the greatest movies of my lifetime — “Almost Famous” and “Say Anything…” — and wrote maybe the greatest high school movie of anyone’s lifetime, “Fast Times at Ridgemont High.” Now he returns to fiction filmmaking six years after the underwhelming “Elizabethtown” with another disappointment. “We Bought a Zoo” features all of the worst parts of Crowe’s work — overwritten dialogue, mopey characters, empty sentimentality — and very few of the best.

Crowe seems to have lost his way in his work, a trait he shares with the protagonist of “We Bought a Zoo,” Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon). They’re both struggling storytellers, too: Benjamin works as a reporter, but ever since the recent death of his wife he hasn’t felt the same passion for of journalism. All he wants to do now is spend time with his kids, teenage Dylan (Colin Ford) and prepubescent Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones). Feeling bad about keeping a job from someone who deserves it more, he quits to follow his bliss. So a newly single father with two kids and no other prospects in the midst of a horrific economic recession quits the last secure newspaper job in America because of personal guilt? Hooooookay. I saw this movie at a press screening; during this scene, I swear you could hear several dozen film critics simultaneously angling for Benjamin’s job.

Looking for a fresh start, Benjamin goes househunting. Unfortunately, the only place he likes also happens to be part of Rosemoor Animal Park, a working but dilapidated zoo. Possibly because he believes it will bring his broken family closer, and possibly because the name of this movie is “We Bought a Zoo,” Benjamin impulsively takes over the Rosemoor. Now he needs to get the place cleaned up, repaired, and up to code before the start of the summer season with the help of Rosemoor’s skeletal staff, which includes zookeeper Kelly (Scarlett Johansson), her niece Lily (Elle Fanning), and Robin (“Almost Famous”‘ Patrick Fugit), whose only apparent responsibilities consist of standing around with his hands on his hips and a monkey on a shoulder. (Seriously. It’s all he does.)

Rosemoor is supposed to be a dump, but Crowe inexplicably chose to film every single scene at the zoo at magic hour, bathing the whole compound in rays of sparkling sunshine. Everyone keeps asking Benjamin why he bought the place, but it’s pretty obvious to me: Rosemoor is absolutely gorgeous. Okay, so it’s nine miles to nearest Target, as the Mees frequently joke. But it’s also located in an edenic valley surrounded by lush, unspoiled mountains. Everywhere you look, you see perfection. And forget rain; it’s never even cloudy at Rosemoor, at least not until the third act needs some drama to spice things up.

The overly warm cinematography might be related to something Benjamin’s brother Duncan’s (Thomas Haden Church) tells him early in the movie. “You need to let a little sunlight in,” he warns his depressed sibling. Thanks to Crowe’s super-saturated photography, there’s plenty of light to be found; Benjamin just needs to notice it’s there. He and his staff face a couple of minor crises, including a grouchy wildlife inspector played by the inappropriately hammy John Michael Higgins, but Benjamin’s only real problem is one of perception. If he could just change his perspective, and maybe listen to some classic Tom Petty tunes while he did it, things would be okay.

Too bad Crowe’s optimistic message isn’t a particularly dramatic one. And too bad the film’s comedy, most of it involving wacky animals or cute little Rosie and her wise-beyond-her-years witticisms, isn’t particularly funny either. The only way to describe most of the roles in this film is thankless. Higgins has the thankless role of the wacky comic relief villain. Fanning has the thankless role of the manic pixie dream girl who inspires Dylan (ironic, since Crowe’s “Elizabethtown” inspired A.V. Club critic Nathan Rabin to invent the term manic pixie dream girl in the first place). Johansson has the thankless role of the person who explains to Benjamin and the audience how to run a zoo. Even Damon, an actor at his best in more acidic material, feels miscast as a guy who’s just a couple of few church visits shy from sainthood. It says a lot about “We Bought a Zoo” that its best moment is one in which Damon pours out his heart to a dying tiger.

Thought most of “We Bought a Zoo” is pretty maudlin, Crowe and Damon manage to wring a few genuine emotions out of the film’s big “Field of Dreams”ish climax. Some of Damon’s big speeches are well-written and well-delivered, and he and Johansson have just enough chemistry together to suggest they’d be great together in a better movie. But it’s still way too little, way too late. We always talk about Cameron Crowe movies in terms of musical moments, of boom boxes hoisted to the sounds of Peter Gabriel and young women deflowered to the sounds of Jackson Browne. So let’s talk about “We Bought a Zoo” in musical terms. If this movie was a pop song, it would be the most clichéd, sentimental love ballad you’d ever heard in your life. You might catch yourself humming along to the soaring sing-along outro, but you wouldn’t feel good about it. A few pretty harmonies don’t make up for a lot of sour notes. But hey, you know how these rock and roll stories always go: the early highs, the crashing lows, then the sudden third act comeback. I’m still looking forward to Crowe’s.

“We Bought a Zoo” opens this Friday. If you see it, tell us what you think in the comments below or on Facebook and Twitter.

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New Nasty

Whips, Chains and Hand Sanitizer

Turn On The Full Season Of Neurotica At IFC's Comedy Crib

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Jenny Jaffe has a lot going on: She’s writing for Disney’s upcoming Big Hero 6: The Series, developing comedy projects with pals at Devastator Press, and she’s straddling the line between S&M and OCD as the creator and star of the sexyish new series Neurotica, which has just made its debut on IFC’s Comedy Crib. Jenny gave us some extremely intimate insight into what makes Neurotica (safely) sizzle…

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IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. 

IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. You’re great. We should get coffee sometime. I’m not just saying that. I know other people just say that sometimes but I really feel like we’re going to be friends, you know? Here, what’s your number, I’ll call you so you can have my number! 

IFC: What’s your comedy origin story?

Jenny: Since I was a kid I’ve dealt with severe OCD and anxiety. Comedy has always been one of the ways I’ve dealt with that. I honestly just want to help make people feel happy for a few minutes at a time. 

IFC: What was the genesis of Neurotica?

Jenny: I’m pretty sure it was a title-first situation. I was coming up with ideas to pitch to a production company a million years ago (this isn’t hyperbole; I am VERY old) and just wrote down “Neurotica”; then it just sort of appeared fully formed. “Neurotica? Oh it’s an over-the-top romantic comedy about a Dominatrix with OCD, of course.” And that just happened to hit the buttons of everything I’m fascinated by. 

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IFC: How would you describe Ivy?

Jenny: Ivy is everything I love in a comedy character – she’s tenacious, she’s confident, she’s sweet, she’s a big wonderful weirdo. 

IFC: How would Ivy’s clientele describe her?

Jenny:  Open-minded, caring, excellent aim. 

IFC: Why don’t more small towns have local dungeons?

Jenny: How do you know they don’t? 

IFC: What are the pros and cons of joining a chain mega dungeon?

Jenny: You can use any of their locations but you’ll always forget you have a membership and in a year you’ll be like “jeez why won’t they let me just cancel?” 

IFC: Mouths are gross! Why is that?

Jenny: If you had never seen a mouth before and I was like “it’s a wet flesh cave with sharp parts that lives in your face”, it would sound like Cronenberg-ian body horror. All body parts are horrifying. I’m kind of rooting for the singularity, I’d feel way better if I was just a consciousness in a cloud. 

See the whole season of Neurotica right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

The-Craft

The ’90s Are Back

The '90s live again during IFC's weekend marathon.

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Photo Credit: Everett Digital, Columbia Pictures

We know what you’re thinking: “Why on Earth would anyone want to reanimate the decade that gave us Haddaway, Los Del Rio, and Smash Mouth, not to mention Crystal Pepsi?”

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Thoughts like those are normal. After all, we tend to remember lasting psychological trauma more vividly than fleeting joy. But if you dig deep, you’ll rediscover that the ’90s gave us so much to fondly revisit. Consider the four pillars of true ’90s culture.

Boy Bands

We all pretended to hate them, but watch us come alive at a karaoke bar when “I Want It That Way” comes on. Arguably more influential than Brit Pop and Grunge put together, because hello – Justin Timberlake. He’s a legitimate cultural gem.

Man-Child Movies

Adam Sandler is just behind The Simpsons in terms of his influence on humor. Somehow his man-child schtick didn’t get old until the aughts, and his success in that arena ushered in a wave of other man-child movies from fellow ’90s comedians. RIP Chris Farley (and WTF Rob Schneider).

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Teen Angst

In horror, dramas, comedies, and everything in between: Troubled teens! Getting into trouble! Who couldn’t relate to their First World problems, plaid flannels, and lose grasp of the internet?

Mainstream Nihilism

From the Coen Bros to Fincher to Tarantino, filmmakers on the verge of explosive popularity seemed interested in one thing: mind f*cking their audiences by putting characters in situations (and plot lines) beyond anyone’s control.

Feeling better about that walk down memory lane? Good. Enjoy the revival.

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And revisit some important ’90s classics all this weekend during IFC’s ’90s Marathon. Check out the full schedule here.

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Get Physical

DVDs are the new Vinyl

Portlandia Season 7 Now Available On Disc.

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In this crazy digital age, sometimes all we really want is to reach out and touch something. Maybe that’s why so many of us are still gung-ho about owning stuff on DVD. It’s tangible. It’s real. It’s tech from a bygone era that still feels relevant, yet also kitschy and retro. It’s basically vinyl for people born after 1990.

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Inevitably we all have that friend whose love of the disc is so absolutely repellent that he makes the technology less appealing. “The resolution, man. The colors. You can’t get latitude like that on a download.” Go to hell, Tim.

Yes, Tim sucks, and you don’t want to be like Tim, but maybe he’s onto something and DVD is still the future. Here are some benefits that go beyond touch.

It’s Decor and Decorum

With DVDs and a handsome bookshelf you can show off your great taste in film and television without showing off your search history. Good for first dates, dinner parties, family reunions, etc.

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Forget Public Wifi

Warm up that optical drive. No more awkwardly streaming episodes on shady free wifi!

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Inter-not

Internet service goes down. It happens all the time. It could happen right now. Then what? Without a DVD on hand you’ll be forced to make eye contact with your friends and family. Or worse – conversation.

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Self Defense

You can’t throw a download like a ninja star. Think about it.

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If you’d like to experience the benefits DVD ownership yourself, Portlandia Season 7 is now available on DVD and Blue-Ray.