Avengers: Age Of Ultron (2015)

AvengersWhile attempting to retrieve Loki’s sceptre from a Hydra stronghold, The Avengers encounter a pair of superpowered siblings (Elizabeth Olsen; Aaron Taylor-Johnson) seeking revenge on Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jnr) for the role his company inadvertently played in the death of their parents. Wanda — a woman with unusual influence over the minds of others — undermines Stark’s already fragile mental state, and compromised he returns to New York concerned that he has not yet done enough to secure the safety of all mankind. Together with Dr Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) he uses the sceptre and the mystical gem it contains to unlock the secrets of consciousness with the aim of improving the effectiveness of his drone army, inadvertently leading one of his suits to become self-aware. Named Ultron (James Spader), the nascent AI declares war on its creators, along with Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson), Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner), Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson) and the rest of humanity.

A lot has changed since the release of Marvel’s Avengers Assemble in 2012; and although much of that change has been orchestrated on purpose some of the repercussions have proven to be beyond even Marvel’s (now Disney’s, of course) considerable control. Now eleven films into its unprecedented, pioneering and as yet unparalleled mega-franchise — the no longer burgeoning but rather burdened MCU — and five films on from the Battle of New York, the studio has issued returning director and overseer Joss Whedon with a very different task indeed. Already assembled, the titular super-team must now be developed, redeployed and ultimately divided ahead of the next cinematic season — a tertiary series of instalments known as Phase Three, and already set to kick off next year with Captain America: Civil War. Whereas once the idea of merging four individual franchises was audacious enough, the MCU has now grown to such a size — Marvel’s television division included — that with hindsight it suddenly seems like the simplest thing in the world.

Remarkably, Whedon once again pulls it off — using his experience on the previous film in addition to his time as showrunner on programmes such as Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Firefly to duly focus on the monster-of-the-year while simultaneously furthering the overarching arcs of his various heroes — albeit without quite the same sense of enthusiasm or effortlessness. While offscreen the director has been lamenting the shoot, talking at length about how the process has not just exhausted but damn near ended him too, onscreen the spectacle has lost some of its box-fresh sparkle. The intention was always to go deeper rather than larger, but while Iron Man and co. are indeed subjected to increased scrutiny the stakes have arguably never been higher. Since Tom Hiddlestone’s Loki’s failed bid for world domination, Miami, London, Washington and the planet of Xandar have all gone the way of New York, leaving audiences fatigued and Age Of Ultron with fewer places in the known (or even unknown) universe left to blow up. The relationships have never been more compelling, the characters never more engaging and the witticisms never more entertaining, but the set pieces aren’t what they once were. A battle between Hulk and Hulkbuster is as interminable as it is unnecessary, while the finale is simply a variation on an overly familiar theme.

That Marvel’s Avengers: Age Of Ultron is underwhelming, however, is inevitable — in many ways it’s a victim of its own success. Phase Two has never quite lived up to Phase One, with each film struggling to find its place in Marvel’s ever-expanding cinematic and televisual universe. Some like Iron Man 3 have pushed for auteurial autonomy over studio synergy at the expense of a comprehensive experience, while Thor: The Dark World and Captain America: The Winter Solider have taken a more utilitarian and cohesive approach to storytelling, leaving Agents of SHIELD to fill in the gaps. Already on uneven footing, Whedon was never going to replicate his previous success with its firmer foundations and novel ambitions, but it’s to the director’s credit that he at least succeeds in expanding on it. New additions Vision, Wanda and Pietro steal the show, as does Ultron, the saga’s best villain by far, while expanded roles for supporting characters such as Black Widow, Hawkeye and War Machine are very welcome indeed — Don Cheadle in particular is a delight. It’s an unexpected inversion; the key question coming out of Avengers Assemble was whether anyone would be interested in the composite series after the first crossover, so it’s a little surprising that secondary or even tertiary characters should be missed in the latest team-up. Nevertheless, you still find yourself asking what Pepper Potts, Darcy Lewis or Daredevil‘s Wilson Fisk might be making of Ultron’s actions.

Although it may seem that every successful film is spawning a shared universe these days, the truth is that the MCU remains unique — and as such the usual rules don’t really apply. As with much of Phase Two Marvel’s Avengers: Age Of Ultron is a flawed film, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it is part of a failed experiment. Regardless of what becomes of Ultron or any of the other characters, the story is not over yet, and it may well be that with repeated viewings or subsequent instalments audiences’ perceptions of Age Of Ultron may change. For now, though, the disappointment is undeniable, if perfectly understandable.

3-Stars

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Lucy (2014)

LucyTalked into delivering a locked suitcase to an unfamiliar businessman, Lucy (Scarlett Johansson) is abducted on arrival and surgically implanted with an untested drug. She and four others are then given twenty-four hours to transport their cargo to destinations across Europe, their families threatened should they not comply. Before she is dispatched, however, Lucy is punched in the stomach for spurring the sexual advances of her captors, and a large quantity of the drug is absorbed into her system. She finds herself able to control her body in new and unprecedented ways, and with the added assistance of scientist Professor Norman (Morgan Freeman) and police officer Pierre Del Rio (Amr Waked) uses her abilities to track down the man responsible: Mr Jang (Choi Min-sik).

It was obvious from the get-go that Lucy was going to be preposterous. The trailer alone propagated the myth that humans only utilise 10% of their brains, or cerebral capacity as Freeman puts it, and presented a heroine able to change the colour of her hair at will, control objects with her mind and read rainbow data streams being emitted vertically from mobile phones. Witer-director Luc Besson has previous with the implausible, obviously, but even taken on its own Lucy looked to be a particularly feverish offering.

As ready as you might be to dismiss it out of hand, however, Besson for once seems to be one step ahead. Choosing to open not with Scarlett Johansson but an early hominid, the director is likely to have even the most unassuming of audiences on the back foot. What’s more, these early scenes show promise; Johansson’s introduction is inter-cut with an array of apparently arbitrary scenes — early life and a mouse approaching a trap, to name but two — and you find yourself unexpectedly engaged as you work to connect the dots. Surprisingly apt, really, for a film about neural networks and inter-cellular communication.

As convincing as the illusion of intelligence might seem, however, there’s not really any denying that Lucy remains an assault on sense and reason. Besson isn’t making leaps of logic so much as leaving it behind altogether — the last twenty minutes make for some of the most incomprehensibly narrative of the year so far — and moments of lucidity or only few and far between. That said,  it is so enthusiastic and ultimately harmless that you can’t help but be somewhat disarmed by it. Johansson is great, particularly during an early phone call to her mother, and the rest of the cast are pretty decent too. What’s more, Besson continues to surprise throughout, and when violence so quickly gives way to discourse you have to give him his due.

Lucy‘s every bit as ridiculous as you might expect, but it’s so mind-numbingly daft that it might just convince you that there is also the merest shadow of intelligence to it. It may be unintelligible, but that doesn’t mean it’s unwatchable.

2-stars

 

Chef (2014)

_DSC9034.NEFCarl Casper (Jon Favreau) is head chef at a popular Los Angeles restaurant, where he works alongside sous chef Tony (Bobby Cannavale), line cook Martin (John Leguizamo) and hostess Molly (Scarlett Johansson). When owner Riva (Dustin Hoffman) vetoes a planned menu change and condemns him to a negative review by influential food blogger Ramsey (Oliver Platt), Carl storms out in a fit of rage that is filmed by a number of the diners. Now jobless and a laughing stock online, Carl swallows his pride, takes his ex-wife’s advice and travels down to Miami to buy a food truck — christened Le Jeffe — from an ex of her own called Marvin (Robert Downey Jr.). He also agrees to take his son along for the ride, finally getting the opportunity to spend some time with him.

Having somewhat struck out with Cowboys vs. Aliens, Jon Favreau is only now — three years later, after serving as executive producer on the most recent Iron Man film and taking a couple of small screen directing gigs — bouncing back. Not without his own critics, there are distinct parallels running between Casper and Favreau, and it doesn’t exactly take too much of a leap to imagine his comments on the blogosphere applying to film as well as food criticism. Fortunately, Favreau (as director, that is) doesn’t dwell on the subject — in fact, he arguably comes down on the critic’s side — but instead gets on with the business of putting together a pretty decent road movie, easily his best film since the first Iron Man.

There is a fair amount of prep to get through before the director seems ready to dig in, however, as Favreau throws just about everything and everyone he can get his hands on into the mix. Hoffman, Johansson and Downey Jr crowd the first act, threatening to unbalance the film as they jostle for attention. Of the supporting cast it is probably Sofia Vergara who impresses most as Carl’s ex-wife, which may come as something of a surprise if you only know her as the Colombian actress from The Smurfs, New Years Eve and The Three Stooges. Eventually, however, Favreau remembers to pour off the fat.

The film finds its focus almost as soon as Carl, Percy and Martin leave Miami. This new, more relaxed Favreau is much easier to sympathise with, and his efforts to share his interests with his young son are incredibly touching. It’s Percy who is ultimately responsible for the endeavour’s success, by recognising the potential of social media and embracing his father’s infamy to raise El Jefe’s profile around the country. This particular gimmick is handled very well, with Tweets represented by little blue birds fluttering noisily into the Twittersphere. Even when Percy compiles a Vine of their experiences — comprising footage from every day of the trip — the film never comes across as manipulative or try-hard, but instead invokes a genuine emotional reaction.

Favreau ultimately proves his critics wrong, both in front and behind the scenes, not only showing incredible technical proficiency (he chops vegetables like a natural), but also a love and appreciation for the art of cooking himself (he’s clearly done his research). It’s too long and a little overcrowded, but for the most part rather than making a meal out of it Favreau has let his ingredients speak for themselves.

3.5-Stars

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)

Captain America 2Following the battle for New York, in which the Avengers assembled in order to fight off an alien threat lead by Thor’s adopted brother Loki, Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is working with S.H.I.E.L.D to identify other, rather more terrestrial threats. When Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson) is targeted by a mysterious enemy, however, and Rogers is framed for the attack, he instead finds himself on the run from the agency his forebears helped to create. Aided by superspy Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) and veteran paratrooper Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie), Rogers — as Captain America — embarks on a journey to clear his name and divine both the identity and true intentions of the mercenary known only as the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan).

Things haven’t been the same since New York. It’s a sentiment that’s been repeated by Iron Man, Thor and now Captain America, though one that they most likely share with their legions of fans. When Phase One culminated in The Avengers, and Marvel merged its four sub-franchises into something new and never before seen on the big screen, it seemed as though the studio was ready to revolutionise the superhero genre. In some respects they did: Sony have rebooted Spider-man and announced their own expanded universe, while 20th Century Fox have found a way reconcile their two X-Men timelines into one cohesive franchise. Even rival comics company DC have reacted in a similar vein, finally announcing plans to pit Batman and Superman against one another in, you guessed it, Batman vs. Superman.

Watching Captain America: The Winter Soldier, however, it seems that everyone’s embracing change but Marvel themselves. The studio’s latest, along with other Phase Two titles Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World, may pay lip-service to the wider universe (there is mention of Stephen Strange, providing further suggestion that a Doctor Strange movie may well be on the way) but there is very little sense that this is simply one episode in a larger series. Billed as a “political thriller”, Anthony and Joe Russo’s sequel to Captain America: The First Avenger starts out as a welcome reaction to events elsewhere in the franchise, but rather than slowing things down long enough to let wounds heal and traumas manifest it quickly escalates into just another action movie. If you think of Marvel’s Cinematic Universe as a serial, this is our third end-of-season finale in a row.

That’s not to say that the film isn’t good; to the contrary, Marvel’s commitment to making solid movies has resulted in another success in superhero storytelling. Though perhaps not a political thriller in the typical sense (Black Widow is back, but she has yet to do any actual spying) the film does have an atmosphere of secrecy and conspiracy that plays nicely into the Russo brothers’ themes of freedom and transparency. It’s also very well acted, with Evans in particular getting plenty to work with. Anyone who felt the character was poorly served by either of his previous appearances will be relieved to see him both growing as a character and convincing as a superhero in his own right. Returning players Jackson, Johansson and Cobie Smulders also get their chances to shine, while newcomer Anthony Mackie is a constant delight as Falcon. As for set pieces, The Winter Soldier boasts some of the most breath-taking seen so far in the MCU, though all but the final skirmish tend to go on a little too long.

It all comes down to Marvel’s priorities, and whether they favour the individual movie or the franchise as a whole. The Amazing Spider-man wasn’t a great movie, but as the first instalment in a larger story it was very successful indeed. Captain America: The Winter Soldier, on the other hand, is very much a stand-alone movie, and squanders the chance to be something different; something more. Rather than continue to streamline and integrate the mega-franchise, the film complicates things further (an AI is at one point introduced, though confusingly it seems to be a different AI to Ultron). It once again falls to Whedon to remind everyone of the bigger picture, and his post-credits sequence is possibly the highlight of Phase Two so far. As he’s said in interviews: “Don’t go bigger, go deeper”.

3.5-Stars

Under The Skin (2014)

Under The SkinLaura (Scarlett Johansson) is on the prowl. She’s driving through the streets of Glasgow in search of single men, ostensibly asking them for directions but in reality trying to lure them back to her apartment, which sits atop a block of flats that seem to be forever shrouded in fog. It is not sex she’s after, however, but life itself. Andrew (Paul Brannigan) discovers this for himself after meeting Laura in a nightclub, as later that evening he is submerged in a strange fluid and left to dissolve among the remains of her previous victims. He has been abducted by aliens, and he will not be the last.

Shot using a combination of professional actors (most notably Scarlett Johansson) and incidental encounters with members of the public, Jonathan Glazer’s Under The Skin is a film of unexpectedly harmonious contradictions. It’s a very naturalistic piece, following Johansson around Glasgow as she asks directions from passers-by (“Do you know where Asda is?”, one man replies), and yet is the story of an extra-terrestrial being abducting vulnerable humans for unexplained reasons. It’s terrifying, yet isn’t intentionally scary. And though shot on occasion by candid camera the cinematography is never anything less than breath-taking. Scarlett Johansson convinces entirely in the leading role, and there is something so inherently alien about watching the Hollywood actress stalk through the Buchannan Street shopping centre that the illusion is somehow complete.

It starts with Johansson vocalising off-screen, warming up for what appears to be her first day on the job, in a scene that could have just as easily preceded her ‘appearance’ in Her. Following a brief introduction to another off-worlder — posing as a male motorcyclist — who seems to monitor her, the film cuts to a room awash with bright white light, as Johansson, in silhouette, strips a dead woman of her clothes. It’s a powerful opening salvo, and one that sets a high standard beneath which the film never slips. Most films can lay claim to a handful of iconic scenes or memorably images by which they can be readily identified, but Under The Skin has such a strong sense of its own identity that audiences could likely recognise it from a single frame taken from anywhere in the movie. An adaptation of Michel Faber’s novel, Glazer’s film — only his third feature — is astonishingly original.

Just take the scene in which Johansson tries chocolate cake for what is presumably the very first time, only to cough it back up again and spit into the remains. It’s the sort of segment that could have featured in Borat or Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa, as the hidden camera scans the room for the suspicious glances and appalled expressions of the other, oblivious patrons, and yet it’s unnerving rather than simply uncomfortable. It’s an unease that ties the whole thing together, so that the film maintains some sort of consistency even as it veers from scenes of such improvised mundaneness as someone falling in the street to the wildly surreal and fundamentally science fiction abductions themselves, in which hapless victims are digested in full view of their hastily discarded clothes. Noteworthy too are some of the edits and overlays, where Johansson’s face or body appears to be drawn first from space and then from the very earth she now inhabits.

While Glazer and Johansson continue to confound, her character moving to the highlands when she begins to sympathise with her human prey, composer Ilona Sekacz ramps up the tension with a score that keeps finding new ways to put her audience on edge. The shrill notes and pulsating tones of the soundtrack recall Hans Zimmer’s work on The Ring (only accompanied by imagery that even Samara would run from), and though loosely carnal it is distorted, contorted and perverted into something that’s more unsettling than arousing; something disorientating and otherworldly. It all comes together for perhaps the film’s most horrifying set piece, in which Johansson witnesses an accident at a nameless shingle beach somewhere in Scotland. It’s completely random, utterly ruthless and very, very creepy.

Under The Skin, then, is aptly named. Not only does it explore what it means to be human (twice in the film skin plays an important, if ambiguous role) but it worms its way so expertly and pervasively under the skin of its own audience that, not only will you be thinking about it for days to come, you’ll be physically reacting to it, too.

5-Stars

Her (2014)

HerIn 2025, Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) spends his days writing personal letters for other people and his nights dreading his own pending divorce to estranged wife Catherine (Rooney Mara). Following the release of a new Operating System, marketed as the first ever to have artificial intelligence, Theodore takes a copy home and chooses for it a female identity (Scarlett Johansson). Self-titled Samantha, the OS learns quickly, fulfilling her duties to Theodore while also using the Internet to learn and grow at an unprecedented rate. The two make quick friends, and soon develop deeper, more romantic feelings for one another. Though at first reluctant to go public with their relationship, Theodore is encouraged to come clean when best friend Amy (Amy Adams) admits that she too has befriended her OS.

Directed by Spike Jones, and marking his first movie since 2009’s excellent Where The Wild Things Are, Her is also the first movie to be written exclusively by Jones himself. A project that took ten years to conceive and five months to write, it’s undoubtedly a film of great depth and complexity. The futuristic world Jones has created is well-observed and easy to relate to, and it only takes a relatively small leap of imagination to arrive at self-aware operating systems, ghost letter writers and fully interactive video games. It’s the early, user-friendly scenes that arguably work best; as Theodore commutes to work with outdated tech, skipping songs and skimming news with vocal commands, before being talked into deleting unneeded e-mails by a new and improved operating system.

Phoenix is terrific if taciturn as Theodore, a reclusive romantic who would sooner write to a customer’s wife than talk to a single woman face-to-face. This is a fact not lost on his soon-to-be ex-wife, who mocks him for his somewhat unconventional rebound relationship. The single scene shared by the two makes an enormous impression, as do Theodore’s intermittent interactions with Amy. She’s a budding documentary filmmaker who moonlights as a game developer. Adams brings great warmth to the film, acting as a constant counter to Theodore as her own romantic life goes through its ups and downs. In fact, the relationship between Theodore and Samantha is the only one that doesn’t ring entirely true. Phoenix is easy to empathise with, but he isn’t particularly sympathetic, though this may be a quirk of casting rather than a problem with the script, while Johansson struggles with a character that it is difficult to understand let alone wholeheartedly embrace.

In many ways it feels like a short film stretched awkwardly to feature length. The premise is intriguing and thought-provoking, and raises some important questions about the future of our relationship with technology, but Jones’ answers don’t always do those questions justice. When the honeymoon period is over, and Theodore and Samantha begin to grow apart (the former first, and the latter later on), the film begins to lose what little emotional resonance it had to begin with. Samantha’s interactions with the holographic protagonist of Theodore’s game are playful and witty, but as she begins to grow her social circle — mostly with nameless characters that don’t appear onscreen — she becomes more of a hypothetical construct than an engaging character in her own right. When Brian Cox shows up as a programme built by other programmes, the film finally and irreversibly severs its ties with reality.

Her really couldn’t be more different from Where The Wild Things Are, though both perhaps strike a similar tone; where Jones’ last film took ten lines of plot and filled the blanks with warmth and whimsy, charming audiences by appealing to their inner child, Her takes a relatively simple and universal love story and overthinks it. Her is intelligent and insightful, it’s well acted and beautifully directed, but it’s more likely to give you a headache than Wild Thing-sized warm fuzzies.

3.5-Stars

Don Jon (2013)

Don JonJon (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is house-proud, health-conscious and a reasonably devout Christian. He is also aggressive, promiscuous and addicted to pornography. While out one night drinking with his friends, Jon lays eyes on Barbara (Scarlett Johansson), and, convinced that it is love at first sight, tracks her down through Facebook and invites her out for coffee. A romantic who dotes on corny movies, Barbara attempts to change her new boyfriend, making him promise to never watch porn again and asking that he attend night classes to improve his career prospects, if they are to have a future together. It is at class that Jon meets Esther (Julianne Moore), a widow who he finds crying in a doorway on campus.

Ever since 3rd Rock From The Son ended in 2001, Joseph Gordon-Levitt has gone to great lengths to prove himself as an actor capable of more than just high-concept television sit-coms. In the years since he has played a teenage dreamer, a space pirate, a gay prostitute, a high-school detective, a romantic lead, a cancer patient, a toy-box villain, a Looney Tune cyclist, a young Bruce Willis and a boy wonder. Here, however, he makes his biggest leap yet — not just re-inventing himself as a keep-fit, clean-freak porn addict but as a director, too.

Don Jon marks Gordon-Levitt’s directorial debut, yet the star — who also wrote the film, just in case you were still unconvinced by his talents — directs with such confidence that you could be forgiven for not realising it was a first-time effort. He has a visual style that is at times reminiscent of Edgar Wright or Danny Boyle (particularly whenever Jon opens his computer); only, instead of using the heightened atmosphere as a source of humour, Gordon-Levitt uses it to emphasise the absurdity of modern-day sexuality. A sexed-up advert for a fast food product contains the most ridiculously gratuitous montage you’ll have seen since Spring Breakers.

The script is incredibly layered, as Gordon-Levitt is clearly reluctant to limit his focus to the subject of pornography alone. The film is much more about connectivity, or the lack thereof in contemporary communication — and not just between the two sexes. Jon’s expectations regarding sex have obviously been warped by his browser history, but no more so than Barbara’s expectations of relationships have been warped by the movies she watches. Both have little time for other people, and they’re not the only ones: Jon’s dad watches television at the dinner table, while his daughter texts; his priest pays little attention to his weekly confessions, bestowing the same penance regardless of Jon’s sins; and his friends spend their time together talking superficially about nothing but girls. Enter Esther.

There is not a bad performance in Don Jon, with both Gordon-Levitt and Scarlett Johansson giving their respective parts their all. Jon could be mistaken for Joey from Friends, circa 1995, a greasy womaniser who is all white vests, hair gel and chat-up lines. Gordon-Levitt is clearly loving the opportunity to play a complete letch, but manages to redeem his character just enough in the later sections of the movie to make him at least passingly sympathetic. Johansson gets slightly less to work with, but still delights with the sleaziest performance since Nicole Kidman in The Paperboy. It’s Moore who really shines, however, arriving on the scene just as you are beginning to lose all hope. Essentially the only character in the film who is truly in touch with their own emotions, she is something of a breath of fresh air, one that has an almost transformative power on the film itself.

Despite its flaws, which in addition to Johansson’s underwritten role also include a first act that is difficult to engage with and an unexpectedly low gag-rate, Don Jon is an astonishing success, with Gordon-Levitt impressing as an actor, writer and director. The question for the one-time Tommy Solomon now is: what next?

4-Stars

Avengers Assemble (2012)


Saved from oblivion by a race of aliens craving dominion, Loki (Tom Hiddleston) arrives on Earth in search of The Tesseract: an item of unlimited power that currently lies with S.H.I.E.L.D. When it is stolen and the world endangered, Director Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) revive the Avengers Initiative in the hope of uniting Earth’s mightiest heroes. As they reach out to Captain America (Chris Evans), Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and The Incredible Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), however, it quickly becomes clear that a vengeful former Asgardian and an army of extraterrestrial warriors might be the least of their worries.

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We Bought A Zoo (2012)

A once-adventurous, jet-setting journalist who has since found himself grounded by the death of his wife, Benjamin Mee (Damon) decides to move house as his son Dylan (Colin Ford) is finally expelled from school and rowdy neighbours continue to keep his 7-year-old daughter (Maggie Elizabeth Jones) from sleeping. Settling on a property miles from the nearest frat party, Benjamin is nearly talked out of buying when the house is revealed to come complete with a struggling zoo and the small staff that maintain it. Unable to tear Rosie away from the animals, he decides not only to relocate but to get the zoo up and running before the next scheduled inspection, to the delight of the zoo-keeper, Kelly Foster (Johansson), and her young cousin, Lily (Elle Fanning).

An adaptation of the real-life Benjamin Mee’s memoir of the same name, We Bought a Zoo marks the long-awaited return of director Cameron Crowe following the relative box office failure of his previous project, Elizabethtown. Uprooting the Mee’s from Devon’s Dartmoor Zoological Park to a Southern California-set facsimile, the film – co-written by Crowe himself – takes a little creative license with the initial acquisition of the property and adds a few innocuous love interests to try and steer audience’s attention away from the myriad endangered species and animal attractions. It is a small and necessary manipulation, perhaps, but one which does not go unnoticed.

The characters – while nicely played – lack the ring of truth required by this heartfelt drama; whether it’s the mage-like seven year-old, the relentlessly loudmouthed real-estate agent or the spunky young zookeeper who still lives with her mother. While the familial struggle and the ever-present tragedy at the story’s centre are played with dignity and poignancy, a discordantly slapstick antagonism between the oddball zoo-hands and a pantomime inspector straight out of Ace Ventura is forever threatening to undermine any carefully orchestrated good will. Throw in a sequence in which an escaped bear does anything but fatally maul its gun-wielding captors and it all becomes a little too much to, um, bear.

At the film’s centre, Matt Damon does his best with an uncanny Mark Wahlberg impression in a solid – if unremarkable – performance as the adventurer who might have finally bitten off more than he can chew. Ably backed by Thomas Hayden Church in the role of his disapproving brother, the two build up an effortlessly likeable rapport that at least attempts to examine Benjamin’s own rationale, helping to gloss over a few plot contrivances even if it is at the expense of a few too many colloquial “mans”. While not afforded the same attention, the relationship between Scarlett Johansson and Elle Fanning is similarly impacting.

The plot, such that it is, largely keeps to itself, never offering up a development or twist that invites any further inspection or is even particularly worthy of note. With a number of subplots in play at any one time – from the tween romance and the impending inspection to the deterioration of the park’s elder-most tiger – very few provide any surprise as the film follows a very well worn narrative path. With the inevitability of the ending all but set in stone, it is impossible not to question the film’s considerable 123 minute running time. Many of the conflicts go on a beat too long, their resolutions all too often padded out by repetitive arguments and a preoccupation with showing audiences each and every animal species in residence.

While it might not be perfect, We Bought a Zoo is nevertheless a genial and perfectly affable affair. Despite its length and proclivity for cliché, Crowe’s latest manages to tread familiar waters without inciting any ill-will whatsoever. Earnest, undemanding and ultimately very moving, a keen eye for human drama and a disarming score courtesy of Icelandic music man Jonsi manage to compensate for the occasional dud character and hokey line of dialogue. Just avoid if you’re not looking to answer difficult questions regarding the Easter Bunny.

FILM NEWS: “I Still Believe In Heroes”

For those of you who, like me, struggle to tell one sport from another, this weekend marks America’s Super Bowl. Other than being a massive basketball baseball football event in its own right, the Super Bowl is notable for the time and expense put into the programmed ad breaks.

Along with such other upcoming cinematic heavy-hitters as The Hunger Games, Battleship and John Carter, 2012’s ceremony also featured our most detailed looks yet at Marvel’s hugely anticipated The Avengers, a film which unites four major film franchises in what promises to be the superhero movie to end all superhero movies.

The footage didn’t disappoint. Culminating in a group shot which could pimple Goose-man, the TV spot really is quite something. And it can be viewed below.

Directed by Joss Whedon, The Avengers will see Captain America (Chris Evans), Iron Man (Robert Downey Jnr.), Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) assemble under the watchful eye of S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson). Joined by Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), the Avengers must put their many differences aside and work together if they are to stop Thor’s vengeful brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston).

Now though, back to the court field stadium for some more running…