Film reviews: We Bought a Zoo | Contraband | Bill Cunningham New York | Once Upon a Time in Anatolia | In Darkness

Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon) gets the grand tour of his newly-purchased zoo from head zookeeper Kelly Foster (Scarlett Johansson).  Along for the expedition are: Benjamin�"s young daughter Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones, far right), zookeeper Robin Jones (Patrick Fugit) and monkey, Rhonda Blair (Carla Gallo), Lily Miska (Elle Fanning) and Benjamin�"s son Dylan (Colin Ford, rear).
Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon) gets the grand tour of his newly-purchased zoo from head zookeeper Kelly Foster (Scarlett Johansson).  Along for the expedition are: Benjamin�"s young daughter Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones, far right), zookeeper Robin Jones (Patrick Fugit) and monkey, Rhonda Blair (Carla Gallo), Lily Miska (Elle Fanning) and Benjamin�"s son Dylan (Colin Ford, rear).
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Alistair Harkness on the rest of this week’s cinema releases...

We Bought a Zoo (12A) **

Directed by: Cameron Crowe

Starring: Matt Damon, Scarlett Johansson, Thomas Haden Church, Elle Fanning

CAMERON Crowe likes to present himself as a sincere filmmaker unafraid to wear his heart on his sleeve. In his films, no emotion is too big for his romantically optimistic and teary-eyed protagonists to express; no situation is too knuckle-gnawingly embarrassing for them to endure; and no personal tragedy is too awful to be overcome by naïvely embracing a crazy idea and living life by a personal go-for-it mantra. Unfortunately, Jerry Maguire aside, his characters have increasingly felt like empty vessels for Crowe’s fantasy version of his own filmmaking method. We Bought a Zoo is no exception. In building a story around a grieving widower (Matt Damon) impulsively buying a struggling zoo to help his kids get over the death of their mother, he’s effectively transformed an interesting true story (it’s based on British journalist Ben Mee’s own account of how he purchased Dartmoor Zoological Park) into a mushy metaphor for what it takes to bring a “Cameron Crowe movie” to the big screen. Even the predictable feelgood ending in which crowds are lining up for the big reopening feels like a hopeful plea for the audiences that didn’t show up to Crowe’s previous three flops.

Contraband (15) **

Directed by: Baltasar Kormákur

Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Ben Foster, Kate Beckinsale, David O’Hara, Giovanni Ribisi

JUST because something is pitched squarely as a meat-and-potatoes genre thriller doesn’t mean it has to be wilfully stupid. The makers of Contraband clearly disagree. Revolving around an ex-smuggler (Mark Wahlberg) forced out of retirement to do one last job, it kicks off promisingly enough by establishing a gritty visual aesthetic and nicking lots of shots from Miami Vice (if you’re going to steal, you may as well steal from the best). Sadly, any stylistic flourishes brought to bear on proceedings by Icelandic director Baltasar Kormákur (remaking a film he produced and starred in called Reykjavik-Rotterdam) are quickly overridden by the absence of a consistent tone, idiotic plot turns and some wildly divergent performances. Giovanni Ribisi is the worst offender in this respect, playing the villain threatening the family of Wahberg’s trying-to-go-straight hero with the twitchy demeanor of a flea-infested Rottweiler. Wahlberg isn’t much better. As the odds stack up against his character – who is being forced to run currency out of Panama – he seems convinced that he’s in a sequel to his woeful remake of The Italian Job. Depressingly the film soon follows suit and ends up just another dumber than average caper.

Bill Cunningham New York (12A) ****

Directed by: Richard Press

“FASHION is the armour to survive the reality of everyday life,” says veteran New York Times photographer Bill Cunningham in this absorbing look at his life. Coming from someone who has spent decades chronicling the changing trends of the city at both street and society level, it’s a better justification for the fashion industry than anything Anna Wintour has ever come up with. That’s probably because he actually understands better than most the way in which catwalk designs eventually filter down to regular people. Never happier than when he’s photographing passers-by for his weekly “On the Street” NYT photo essay, the eightysomething Cunningham traverses the city by bike every day compiling these spreads, which function as much as weekly anthropological studies as they do fashion documents. Alive to the world around him, Cunningham scorns celebrity and money to live a relatively humble, solitary yet seemingly blissful existence in a single-roomed office-cum-apartment in a once thriving artist enclave deep within Carnegie Hall. That he’s about to be evicted broadens the film out into an examination of the way cultural institutions aren’t accorded the proper protection, but director Richard Press is careful to keep the focus on Cunningham as he’s keeping his focus on those around him.

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (15) ***

Directed by: Nuri Bilge Ceylan

Starring: Muhammet Uzuner, Yilmaz Erdogan, Taner Birsel, Firat Tanis

AN EPIC police procedural stripped of the mythic resonance implied by its Sergio Leone-inspired title, Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Once Upon a Time in Anatolia requires a bit of a mental readjustment in order to get through its intentionally slow three-hour running time. Adopting a mimetic rather than dramatic approach to narrative, it follows a dusk-till-dawn search for a dead body in the foothills of Anatolia that’s low on incident, but high on the incidental details of a bureaucracy laden-investigation. Conducting the search are the local police chief, a prosecutor, a doctor and a stenographer – as well as the two men charged with committing the murder (one of whom has confessed to the crime, the other is too drunk to remember where the body is buried). As the night wears on, we’re privy to banal conversations about their lives, idle chitchat and glib jokes as the men grapple with the grim reality confronting them. Ceylan doesn’t offer much in the way of resolution, but his oblique approach does cumulatively imply much about ripple effect the crime has on all those who come into contact with it.

In Darkness (15) **

Directed by: Agnieszka Holland

Starring: Robert Wieckiewicz, Benno Fürmann, Agnieszka Grochowska

THE patience and respect with which any film about the Holocaust automatically demands to be greeted is severely tested by In Darkness, a grimly serious film based on the true story of a Polish thief and sewer worker who came to the aid of a group of Jews attempting to escape the Nazi decimation of Lvov by hiding in the city’s rat-infested sanitation system. What’s interesting about this particular tale of survival is that not only is its gentile hero anti-Semitic and perfectly willing to exploit the Jews in their hour of need, but that they in turn are anything but cowering victims. Indeed, veteran director Agnieszka Holland (Europa Europa) presents the latter as flawed characters in their own right who can be just as selfishly human under intolerable conditions as the next person. It’s too bad, then, that the film isn’t averse to plundering what have become the increasingly tired clichés of this mini genre. As their situation becomes incrementally more desperate, any initial character complexity is rendered obsolete by neat reversals and a reluctant hero who always seems to be on hand at the right moment. In lieu of presenting anything particularly insightful or compelling in its own right, In Darkness relies on the weight of history to make a case for watching it.