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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington Wilmington@moviecitynews.com

Wilmington on DVDs. We Bought a Zoo, No Man of Her Own

We Bought a Zoo (Also Blu-ray) (Two and a Half Stars)
U.S.: Cameron Crowe, 2011 (20th Century Fox)

1. Once Upon a Time, There were all these animals…
In Cameron Crowe’s new movie We Bought a Zoo, Matt Damon — using every bit of nice guy vibes at his disposal — plays an idealistic, likable L. A. Times writer, widower and dad named Benjamin Mee. Mee, looking for a little fulfillment, moves his family into a country house that comes with an animal park attached (complete with lions, and tigers and bears and snakes) — and then finds he has to fight to keep the  park going and all its employees (including Scarlett Johansson, Patrick Fugit and Angus Macfadyen, the Orson Welles of Tim Robbins’ The Cradle Will Rock) employed, and all its animals happy and photogenic.
The movie is based on real life — though it’s a reality that’s been pretty thoroughly changed and scrubbed and movie-ized. The original Benjamin Mee was a Britisher who had his park/home in Dartmoor, His wife died months after he moved to the Zoological Park. And the movie’s writers (Crowe and Aline Brosh McKenna, of The Devil Wears Prada) have concocted two romances — between Benjamin and the adorable zoo manager Kelly Foster (Scarlett Johansson at her sparkliest) and between Ben‘s bad-tempered delinquent teenage son Dylan (Colin Ford) and teen belle Lily Miska (Elle Fanning, at her most fetching) — that seem about as real as a couple of teddy bears thrown casually on a pillow-pile.
So do all the transparently phony deadlines and animal escapes and unlocked cages and various other crises — including checkups by the skeptical zoo certifier, Ferris, as played by John Michael Higgins — that deluge Benjamin and his brood. (The most notable of the Mee Generatio is seven-year-old scene-swiper Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones.))
Benjamin also has a brother, Duncan the accountant, a mensch who tries to get him to make more prudent investments, and drops funny lines — though not as many as he‘s capable of, considering that he‘s played by the very funny Thomas Haden Church, Paul Giamatti’s horndog buddy in Sideways.
If only We Bought a Zoo could do for zoos what Sideways did for wine, we’d all be in clover and up tp our knees in humane enclosures. But though I’m a big fan of zoos myself (especially San Diego’s and the giraffe and bear enclosures at The Lincoln Park Zoo) and though this is a likable movie, full of likable people, and likable animals and though star Matt Damon is a very paragon of likeability, the movie just vanishes out of your mind (or mine at least) after you leave. Part of that may be due to the fact that the animals aren’t characterized enough. They’re in a lot of reaction shots, but except for the moody oldster and Bengal Tiger Spar, who is there to pluck our heart strings, and the bear, who’s there to escape and give us a few thrills, the animals tend to recede to the backgrounds. I kept worrying that they might wander off bored while the humans indulged in their various love affairs.

2. Once Upon a Time, He had us at “Hello.”

As many have noted, Cameron Crowe hasn’t seemed himself since Elizabethtown. Or Vanilla Sky. For that matter, he hasn’t seemed himself since his great coming-of-age rock n‘ roll comedy Almost Famous. Remnants of Crowe’s old Rolling Stone rock n’ roll press credentials are still visible here, in the soundtrack tubes by Bob Dylan and Cat Stevens (a good one, from Harold and Maude).

But though Crowe spent years gabbing with that hilarious bittersweet movie comedy genius Billy Wilder while compiling their excellent interview book “Conversations with Wilder,” it’s precisely Wilder’s acid (but likable) touch that Crowe is missing now. Where are the Walter Matthau lines in this movie? Higgins has them as Ferris the skeptical inspector, I guess, though, compared to Whiplash Willie Gingrich, he’s a feather duster.

I’m being too rough. After all, nobody’s perfect. We Bought the Zoo is a very nice movie, which can be cheerfully recommended to your whole family, even your crazy uncle and, of course, the family dog. It has lots of congenial people and animals, all acting well. (Name me a more sympathetic leading man than Matt Damon — except of course to his illiberal detractors.) And it has lots of animals and kibitzers lovingly photographed by cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto (Amores Perros). You could do worse. You could do better too. This story, left in England and less drastically altered, could have made a fine eccentric British comedy, for someone like, say, Steve Coogan as Mee. (It’s actually more of an old Jack Lemmon role.) As long as it had some funny lines.

What the movie lacks is enough humor. Humor, Mr. C. remember?  The spoonful of acid (medicine) that makes the sugar go down? Comedy doesn’t kill sentiment after all; often it can heighten it. Ah well, you can’t have everything, including snakes. And this is a movie that should have had me at Grrrr…

NO MAN OF HER OWN (Two and a Half Stars)

U.S.: Mitchell Leisen, 1950 (Olive Films)

The first of three wildly divergent movie versions of Cornell Woolrich’s novel “I Married a Dead Man,” this bizarre blend of domestic drama and film noir stars noir queen Barbara Stanwyck as Helen Ferguson, a ruthlessly abused, jilted (by Lyle Bettger, no less, as slimy Steve) and pregnant city gal , who, on a train ride home, tumbles into a bog of false identity and blackmail. After Bettger gives Babs the boot (preferring blonde femme fatale Carole Mathews), Helen meets a generous young couple, Patrice and Hugh Harkness (Phyllis Thaxter and Richard Denning) on the train, and then is mistaken for Patrice, after the train crashes and many (including the nice couple) die.

It’s a prototypical Woolrich “trap” plot. Since no one in the immediate Harkness family, except Hugh, ever met Patrice, Helen more or less falls into the deception. The Harkness household, especially matriarch Mrs. Harkness (Jane Cowl), accepts her as their new kin, and accepts her baby as Hugh’s — while Hugh’s brother Bill (John Lund of Billy Wilder’s A Foreign Affair) falls in love with her. What happens next? Well, I doubt if you realize how slimy Lyle Bettger can get.

Stanwyck suffers wonderfully here, and she almost single-handedly makes the implausible seem inevitable. Jane Cowl, a one-time early 20th century Queen of Broadway, who crammed in a few movie roles at the end of her life (she was dying of cancer when she made this one), is touching as Mrs. Harkness. The movie doesn’t really start cooking until Bettger reappears, and by then, they seem to expect us to swallow anything. (Even if you can’t, it’s murderous fun )

The original novel “I Married a Dead Man,” which Woolrich signed with his preferred pen name “William Irish” makes more sense than the No Man script (which was co written by that estimable small town scribe Sally Benson, of Meet Me in St. Louis), and Woolrich/Irish’s book was republished in a very classy Library of America edition called “Crime Novels: American Noir of the 1930s and ‘40s,” alongside James M. Cain’s “The Postman Always Rings Twice,” Horace McCoy’s “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” and Edward Anderson’s “Thieves Like Us.” The other film adaptations of “Dead Man“ include a 1982 French version by Robin Davis, starring Nathalie Baye and Madeleine Robinson, and a weird 1996 comedy version, directed by Richard Benjamin, starring Ricki Lake and (as the mother) the wondrous Shirley MacLaine. That one is called Mrs. Winterbourne. A better title might have been “I Married a Madhouse.”

The French Shadow was the best of them so far. There’s room for another — though No Man of Her Own isn’t bad. But turning the nightmarish “I Married a Dead Man” into a kooky comedy still seems a little misguided, the results a little forced and even a little slimy — though not as slimy as Lyle Bettger.

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Wilmington

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“Let me try and be as direct as I possibly can with you on this. There was no relationship to repair. I didn’t intend for Harvey to buy and release The Immigrant – I thought it was a terrible idea. And I didn’t think he would want the film, and I didn’t think he would like the film. He bought the film without me knowing! He bought it from the equity people who raised the money for me in the States. And I told them it was a terrible idea, but I had no say over the matter. So they sold it to him without my say-so, and with me thinking it was a terrible idea. I was completely correct, but I couldn’t do anything about it. It was not my preference, it was not my choice, I did not want that to happen, I have no relationship with Harvey. So, it’s not like I repaired some relationship, then he screwed me again, and I’m an idiot for trusting him twice! Like I say, you try to distance yourself as much as possible from the immediate response to a movie. With The Immigrant I had final cut. So he knew he couldn’t make me change it. But he applied all the pressure he could, including shelving the film.”
James Gray

“I’m an unusual producer because I control the destiny of a lot of the films I’ve done. Most of them are in perfect states of restoration and preservation and distribution, and I aim to keep them in distribution. HanWay Films, which is my sales company, has a 500-film catalogue, which is looked after and tended like a garden. I’m still looking after my films in the catalogue and trying to get other people to look after their films, which we represent intellectually, to try to keep them alive. A film has to be run through a projector to be alive, unfortunately, and those electric shadows are few and far between now. It’s very hard to go and see films in a movie house. I was always involved with the sales and marketing of my films, right up from The Shout onwards. I’ve had good periods, but I also had a best period because the film business was in its best period then. You couldn’t make The Last Emperor today. You couldn’t make The Sheltering Sky today. You couldn’t make those films anymore as independent films. There are neither the resources nor the vision within the studios to go to them and say, “I want to make a film about China with no stars in it.”Then, twenty years ago, I thought, “OK, I’m going to sell my own films but I don’t want to make it my own sales company.” I wanted it to be for me but I wanted to make it open for every other producer, so they don’t feel that they make a film but I get the focus. So, it’s a company that is my business and I’m involved with running it in a certain way, but I’m not seen as a competitor with other people that use it. It’s used by lots of different producers apart from me. When I want to use it, however, it’s there for me and I suppose I’m planning to continue making all my films to be sold by HanWay. I don’t have to, but I do because it’s in my building and the marketing’s here, and I can do it like that. Often, it sounds like I’m being easy about things, but it’s much more difficult than it sounds. It’s just that I’ve been at it for a long time and there’s lots of fat and security around my business. I know how to make films, but it’s not easy—it’s become a very exacting life.”
~ Producer Jeremy Thomas