Review- Zookeeper

Kevin James in Zookeeper (Columbia Pictures)

Upon hearing about the film Zookeeper one would think and hope that there’s got to be more to it than just talking animals. The good news is that there is. The bad news is that there really isn’t that much more to it. Sadly, the film aside from not being that funny gets bogged down in a transparent and overly predictable love plot that makes the entire thing seem like an exercise rather than an attempt to create.

While the film starts well enough with a humorous and slightly heartbreaking inciting incident of a failed proposal attempt there comes a point where all the cards are laid out on the table and you start to see where it’s heading. Now I harp on this because this isn’t your usual amount of predictability, I’m talking about an experience wherein you can predict how and when all the dominoes of the story will fall with a great amount of accuracy, this lack of the unexpected leads to a lack of joy and a lack of real comedic impact despite the occasional half-hearted chuckle.

When there is a twist, and I use that term lightly here, it’s like a breath of fresh air and what you’re witnessing becomes exponentially more enjoyable than it should be. When you combine two old hat concepts like talking animals and chasing after a dream girl that doesn’t make the story different or unique by default there needs to be a bit more to it than that but the film never quite gets there.

Typically, with material of this ilk the performances can raise it to a level where it ought not be able to reach but that sadly doesn’t happen here. Rosario Dawson, who let me state for the record is a great actress, can’t really elevate the film at all. A majority of the laughs that this film can muster are thanks to Joe Rogan, as our lead’s rival for the affections of his beloved. He is a crazy, over-the-top type of character but at least he’s well-defined and there’s an energy to his scenes. Kevin James’ scenes with him are the best he has really, as a romantic lead and a no-nonsense-business-man he connects less and isn’t as convincing.

The casting of the voices was a bit odd. Cher and Sylvester Stallone are always very obviously themselves and never really become their characters or invisible as I like to call it in voice work. Adam Sandler does well by seemingly impersonating Gilbert Gottfried as the monkey but of course Nick Nolte is the stand out of the voice cast not because he has the most versatile voice but because he’s the strongest actor of the bunch by far.

Of course, in comedies it all comes down to “How funny is it?” If it can hold water as a compelling narrative it can almost be looked at as a bonus. Clearly as a story the film has its failings but it’s really not terribly funny either. It’s the kind of movie that you might see on cable (a lot) and if you had nothing better to do you’d still likely change the channel.

The ultimate failing of this film is that it tried to get a little too cute by creating an excessive amount of symmetry in the story. This symmetry makes the design of the film apparent and instead of being engaged the film just hits you and you just take it. Sadly, there are very few redeeming qualities about this one.

3/10

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Review- Unknown

Liam Neeson in Unknown (Warner Bros.)

OK, so here comes another one. Unknown is a film that to review properly, in my estimation, requires a few disclaimers:

1) SPOILER ALERT. I feel it’s important to get this one out of the way as soon as possible. I try to avoid it as much as I can but on occasion there will be a film that will leave you with little to no choice in the matter. I haven’t compelled to spill as much of the beans to make my point since I saw Orphan.

2) This is a hazardous film for me to review as a filmmaker. We are all guilty of armchair direction. Meaning we sit there and debate how we might’ve handled shots or the story. Part of my delay in writing this was to get past all the “I would’ve changed that” moments. I think it’s true in any form of criticism. Most notably food, I hate when a critic on a food shows alters the dish so greatly as to change it. Then it’s totally different and you’re not judging what’s on the plate. There are plenty of issues with “what is on the plate” in this story so I’ll leave it at that.

Without much further ado, Unknown.

This is another in a long line of films to have a pretty big twist due to either the fallibility of its protagonists memory or perception of reality. Unlike, say Shutter Island, the film doesn’t hinge entirely on the twist but the twist illuminates other issues.

The twist that Liam Neeson’s character is an assassin who after an accident has started to believe his cover story is his reality. In and of itself that’s a pretty darn good premise, however, in bringing that to fore there are many issues. Now one case of I wish that I will employ in this review is that while the coil is wound tightly you’re not necessarily expecting the criminal underworld to play into it and it’s a more effective story there.

The problem with the execution of the concept is that once the cat is out of the bag there is ample time for you to think back and realize how inconceivably unbelievable some of this film is.

Example: Neeson’s would-be wife, and actual assassin, is dumb enough to let his bag get lost which sets up the inciting incident. If there are crucial documents and information in their luggage why not handle it whenever possible? Secondly, the doctor immediately assumes that he is confused and misremembering things rather than coming to that conclusion in a reasonable amount of time. Memory and the functions of the brain are still so mysterious such that it’s difficult to believe that someone’s adverse reaction to trauma can be that easily guessed.

Then there’s this lovely little cliché: everyone Neeson runs into, practically, is in some way involved in this plot and trying to stifle his paranoid rantings. He happens across more people by chance who are involved than those who are not and it’s annoying and hard to swallow.

As a viewer I am one who tends to suspend disbelief rather easily so bear this in mind before I describe the next “I just didn’t buy it” moment. When Neeson is knocked out of the equation he is quickly replaced by his back-up. The problem here is that he is supposedly a noted scientist and no one notices his photo changing on a website, no one has ever seen this man just talked to him and over the course of a single year he’s developed a big reputation as a botanist.

It’s all a bit much. Neeson for the most part does a fine job in this film. He does manage to stick with his American persona without too many chinks in the armor but he’s also not given a great deal to work with. He said “I am Doctor Martin Harris” so many times it was a punchline amongst viewers both during and after the screening.

The bottom line is this: too many films are overly concerned with “fooling the audience” because they fear being too predictable, however, more often than not this has lead to films which are so ridiculously far-fetched they border on being laughable. For an example see the film Shutter. Yes, it’s horror and it’s difficult to be “believable” and original there but there’s a motif revealed at the end which fooled me, yes but also made me laugh when I saw it.

People have no problem with predictability believe it or not. We just want good. If you find me a person who walked in to The King’s Speech who having read the synopsis didn’t know what to expect I have a bridge I need to sell. It’s somewhat predictable nature doesn’t stop it from being a damn fine film. It’s just good we want, not tricks, which are after all for kids.

4/10