Movie reviews

Exactly which of the five stages of grief incorporates buying a zoo isn’t specified in We Bought a Zoo (PG), but the purchase of said zoo is Benjamin Mee’s (Matt Damon) solution to the grief he and his kids are enduring in the wake of his wife’s death.

It sounds like a wacky concept, but Cameron Crowe’s film, which is set in the US but is loosely based on Benjamin Mee’s autobiographical account of buying Dartmoor Zoo in Devon, is a thoughtful meditation on learning to live with loss. Damon is soundly cast as Mee, a forthright and likeable character who takes on the enormous challenge of refurbishing the zoo and turning it into a profitable park, as well as a home for his children, despite having no experience at all of exotic animals. Of course, the lions, tigers and grizzly bears are little more than set decoration: what matters here is how the emotionally caged Benjamin and his bereft teenage son Dylan (Colin Ford) come to terms with their inability to console one another. There are mawkish moments, and Crowe occasionally overplays his hand, but for the most part the story respects the intelligence of the audience, conveying with admirable simplicity the difficulty of overcoming even the most straightforward of obstacles when your vision of life is poisoned by grief. Scarlett Johansson, Thomas Haden Church and young Maggie Elizabeth Jones all provide strong support.

A former ‘world-class smuggler’, Chris Farraday (Mark Wahlberg) has retired from the game to become a happily married family man. As Contraband (15A) opens, however, Chris’s brother-in-law gets in hock to ganglord Briggs (Giovanni Ribisi), which results in an unpayable debt that requires Chris to get back into the life he thought he’d left behind. And so he puts together a team which signs on with a cargo ship heading for Panama, where Chris will finesse a deal worth millions in counterfeit money. The ‘one last heist’ motif is as old as the crime movie itself, but Baltasar Kormákur’s film offers the novelty of watching smugglers operate under the noses of the ship’s captain.

The first half of the movie is deftly built, with Ribisi, Ben Foster and Kate Beckinsale contributing to the tension, but an overly frenzied and largely implausible section set in Panama undoes much of the good work, not least because the excess appears to have been contrived in order to pave the way for the most belated comedy punchline in movie history. Still, if it’s desperate men double- and treble-crossing their way to damnation that floats your boat, Contraband will keep you second-guessing the characters right to the end.

Based on the TV series that catapulted Johnny Depp to fame back in the 1980s, 21 Jump Street (15A) stars Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum as a pair of mismatched, youthful cops who go back to High School as undercover agents in order to winkle out a drug trafficking crew. Much of the self-effacing humour concerns itself with glancing references to the original TV show, which lets the audience in on the joke that everyone involved here understands they’re engaged in an exercise in self-indulgent nostalgia. The knowing humour, however, can’t compensate for the slack-jawed performances from Hill and Tatum. Feeble, tired and formulaic, this is just about more fun than actually going back to school. Just.

The Other Side of Sleep (15A) opens with sleepwalker Arlene (Antonia Campbell-Hughes) waking in a forest beside the bloody corpse of her friend. Is Arlene a killer? Rebecca Daly’s feature length debut, which is set in the Irish midlands, has an appropriately dream-like quality as Arlene drifts through her half-life existence experiencing guilt and terror, even though she has no idea if she’s responsible for her friend’s death. The story’s elliptical nature and Daly’s languid, deliberately oblique style of storytelling allows the audience very little access to Arlene’s personality. The result is akin to trying to make sense of the wispy fragments of someone else’s dream. That may well be the point of the exercise, but this is a frustrating experience that requires a lot of patience for very little reward.


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