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Damon Upstaged by Cute Monkey; Jolie’s War-Torn Affair: Movies

Matt Damon stars as a father who makes an incredible purchase for his family in "We Bought a Zoo." The film is directed by Cameron Crowe. Photographer: Neal Preston/20th Century Fox via Bloomberg

A fixer-upper usually needs a new kitchen, a spruced-up bathroom or maybe a paint job.

Not in “We Bought a Zoo,” where single dad Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon) quits his job as a Los Angeles newspaper columnist and moves to a rundown rural property whose animal residents require new living quarters, expensive diets and constant attention.

The story of how Mee became an accidental zookeeper, originally told in his 2008 memoir, has been turned into a mawkish film by Cameron Crowe.

Crowe created iconic characters in “Almost Famous” and “Jerry Maguire.” The most memorable one in “We Bought a Zoo” is Crystal, a cute, clothes-wearing capuchin monkey who rests on the shoulder of the zoo’s handyman.

If you’re an animal lover like me, you may get a kick out of seeing lions, tigers, grizzlies, baboons, zebras, flamingos, camels and kangaroos share the screen with Damon and co-star Scarlett Johansson.

The humans, including Mee’s two precocious children (Colin Ford and Maggie Elizabeth Jones), aren’t as compelling despite Crowe’s strained efforts to milk the drama for pathos. (One glaring example: Damon’s character is portrayed as a widower, even though Mee’s wife was alive when they took over the zoo.)

Crowe’s attempts at humor also fall flat, especially a running gag involving a prickly zoo inspector (John Michael Higgins). Higgins’s deadpan delivery, so perfect in those Christopher Guest mockumentaries, seems oddly out of place here.

Damon and Johansson, who plays the head zookeeper, are hamstrung by thinly written roles. Ditto for Thomas Haden Church as Mee’s sensible brother and Elle Fanning as a zoo worker who flirts with Mee’s son. The soundtrack, which includes enough Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell and Simon & Garfunkel to program a classic-rock radio station, provides a welcome distraction.

“We Bought a Zoo,” from 20th Century Fox, opens tomorrow across the U.S. Rating: *1/2

‘Blood and Honey’

Angelina Jolie picked a brutal subject for her writing and directing debut.

“In the Land of Blood and Honey” takes place during the Bosnian War in the early 1990s, when a Serbian soldier and a Muslim artist have an illicit affair during the ethnic conflict that destroyed the former Yugoslavia.

Jolie handles the material with care, though the film sometimes slips into simplistic moralizing. While she doesn’t downplay the violence and ethnic hatred, she also knows that wars can produce moments of humanity and kindness.

Ruthless General

The cast includes Serbs, Bosnians and Croatians who lived through the war that pitted friends and neighbors against each other. Their visceral attachment to the subject gives the film authenticity, as does hearing them speak in their native languages. (Jolie also filmed an English-language version).

Danijel (Goran Kostic) and Ajla (Zana Marjanovic), who had a brief romance before the war, are reunited when Ajla is sent to a prison run by soldiers under Danijel’s command.

Danijel is torn between his love for Ajla and the demands of his father, a coldblooded Serbian general played with ferocity by Rade Serbedzija. Ajla appreciates her special status -- as the prison’s official painter, she has her own small studio -- but feels guilty when she sees fellow inmates raped and beaten.

When Danijel’s father learns of the affair he demands to see Ajla, who draws his portrait. He seems touched, but only briefly. To him, she’s just an enemy with a canvas.

“In the Land of Blood and Honey,” from FilmDistrict, opens tomorrow in New York and Los Angeles. It will be released in more U.S. cities on Jan. 6. Rating: ***

What the Stars Mean:

****          Excellent
***           Good
**            Average
*             Poor
No stars      Worthless

(Rick Warner is the movie critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are his own.)

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