Blu-ray Review: We Bought a Zoo

At my house, if a movie features animals of any kind we’re almost guaranteed to see it at some point. That comes with having a veterinarian for a wife and two animal-loving daughters. (Of course, I’m not an ogre and have to say I like animals too, considering we have always had pets.) And at one time when we were living in Phoenix, we had our own private zoo – two dogs, two cats, a rabbit, two Desert Tortoises and two African tortoises. We’re down to two dogs and three rats now, but you get the idea…

So when We Bought a Zoo came to theaters, we were destined to see it. And everyone but me did see it on the big screen. So when it came out on DVD and Blu-ray, I knew I needed to see it too.

Starring Matt Damon (Contagion, True Grit), Scarlett Johansson (Iron Man 2, Vicky Cristina Barcelona), and Thomas Haden Church (Easy A, Sideways, and TV’s Wings), director Cameron Crowe (Almost Famous ,Jerry Maguire) takes us on a journey with a grieving family and a small zoo that’s fallen on hard times.

Benjamin Lee (Damon) is a newspaper writer who is adjusting to being a single father and trying to raise his two kids while finding his own way after his wife’s death to cancer. Deciding that it’s time to start fresh, he looks for a new house from which to start rebuilding their lives. When they finally settle on one, it turns out it comes with a bit of baggage – a zoo named the Rosemoor Animal Park. Dozens of different species live there under the care of head zookeeper Kelly Foster (Johansson) and her dedicated, but eclectic team.

Can Lee, his kids, and the zoo staff pull it together in time to open for the season? Or will the pressure get to be too much?

As this is a “feel good” story, you already know the answer I’m betting. But even though you know the destination, it’s the journey that matters. Damon manages at once to be charming and dedicated to that journey while also showing the human side of the equation. It’s not easy to move on after losing someone you love. It’s not easy to figure out how to put the pieces back together and build something worthwhile. But he and the rest of the cast bring the rest of us along for the ride.

Is this the best movie of 2012? No. Was it fun, heartwarming, and engaging? Heck yes.

The relationships between Damon, Johansson, and Church seem genuine. I could believe Damon and Church as brothers with the inside jokes and jabs that comes with being family. And the push and pull between Damon and Johansson from their initial meeting to the end helps keep the story on the rails.

But for me it was the kids as much as Damon and Johansson that made this film come to life. Mee’s troubled teenage son Dylan (Colin Ford) and cute, bubbly daughter Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones) offer different perspectives of the journey – one dark, the other light. And Rosie was truly a bright spot even in tough times and a joy to see on screen. Her smile could brighten any day. Add to that Elle Fanning‘s Lily, the zoo keeper’s cousin, who doubled that bright spot Rosie created. Lily’s babbling enthusiasm was infectious.

And the rest of the eclectic cast – Angus Macfayden as the grumpy zoo exhibit specialist, John Michael Higgins as the jerk zoo inspector Walter Ferris, Carla Gallo (TV’s Bones) as the turncoat accountant Rhonda Blair, and J.B. Smoove as the enthusiastic realtor who introduces the Mee family to the zoo… It took me until watching the extras on the Blu-ray before I figured out where I’d seen Robin Jones who plays animal wrangler Patrick Fugit. Jones was in Crowe’s Almost Famous when he was 16! Ultimately everybody pulls together as parts in the machine to get us where we need to be.

As far as the extras on the Blu-ray go, it’s loaded with nearly 3 hours of special features. There are twenty deleted & extended scenes alone, which offer different takes on some of the aspects of the film. But as with all Cameron Crowe films, the final cut is better without them but they were interesting to explore. Also included are a gag reel that has some very funny outtakes in it; audio commentary from Crowe, Smoove, and editor Mark Livolsi; a long but powerful look behind the scenes offering a glimpse at the real Benjamin Mee all the way through the set construction and movie production; and more.

The picture and sound are top-notch on the Blu-ray. The colors and definition is crisp in 1080p without looking digitally done. Whether sun or shine, indoors or out, there was never a pixel out of focus unless the filmmaker and cinematographer wanted it to be. And with DTS-HD 5.1 surround sound, when the lion roars off screen as the Mee family is checking out the house on the zoo grounds the first time, it really gets your attention.

If you’re looking for engaging, family fare that doesn’t talk down to kids or adults, We Bought a Zoo offers plenty to discuss afterwards. Based on a real story, I think it pulls together all the right elements for a surprisingly engaging couple of hours.

This article first appeared at BlogCritics.org here.

–Fitz

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Blu-ray Review: Immortals

Hi!

Ever since Gladiator, I’ve been a fan of sword & sandals pictures. Yes, I know there were classic films like Spartacus and Ben-Hur, but Ridley Scott’s Gladiator with Russell Crowe opened my eyes to the possibilities of such a genre of films. Since then we’ve seen great films like 300 and not-so-great films like the remade Clash of the Titans, The Last Legion, Troy, and others. With the box office success of Clash of the Titans (2010), making nearly $500 million worldwide, it was only a matter of time before we saw more big budget films in this genre again.

Enter Tarsem Singh’s Immortals… a modern retelling of the Greek myth of Theseus and the Minotaur. Starring Henry Cavill (the new Superman in Man of Steel due out in 2013) as Theseus, Mickey Rourke (The Wrestler) as King Hyperion, Stephen Dorff (Blade), Felon) as Stavros, Freida Pinto (Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Slumdog Millionaire) as Phaedra, Luke Evans (The Three Musketeers (2011), Clash of the Titans) as Zeus, and John Hurt (V for Vendetta, Tinker, Tailer, Soldier, Spy (2011)) as Zeus’ “old man” disguise, the cast included fresh up and coming actors as well as established actors. Yet somehow it didn’t do very well at the box office, making only $226 million worldwide since its release in November 2011.

Now that Immortals has hit DVD and Blu-ray players everywhere, perhaps it will do better?

I didn’t get a chance to see Immortals on the big screen, but have been watching the Blu-ray. I have to say that it’s a very pretty film, meaning that it’s highly stylized with very crisp images and it looks extremely good in 1080p HD. You can tell care was taken in how shots were composed digitally and every tiny detail and color comes across beautifully on Blu-ray media. It also sounds great on a surround-sound stereo system (5.1), utilizing solid bass, mid-range, and treble to make sure you hear every rain drop, sword clang, and word of dialog.

Ultimately I think my problems with this movie are more with the story and characters than the execution. Tarsem took some pretty serious liberties with the myth, making the gods seem less godly and more like spoiled children with nothing better to do than argue about their version of Star Trek‘s “Prime Directive” – not to interfere with mankind regardless of what they do. Of course they disobey that and end up with a gorgeous yet somehow forgettable battle with the Titans who are released from their prison in Tartarus. Caught in the middle is Theseus a half-human, half-god wanting to live a simple life when his world is shattered by King Hyperion seeking to conquer the world to show that the gods don’t exist.

I didn’t mind that Tarsem made the gods seem young – very young even – as immortals. I’ve always wondered why immortals would choose to age if they’re indeed immortal. So why not keep your youthful appearance forever? Unfortunately even though the gods are young, they’re still arguing over the affairs of men after all this time. Sure, they conquered the Titans and locked them in cages in Tartarus that look like they’re made of rebar. But you’d think that they’d want mankind to not tinker with the prison. So when King Hyperion gets his hands on the Epirus Bow (which shoots arrows of light like that kid in the Dungeons & Dragons cartoon from the 1980s), maybe they’d want to step in?

Though I had issues with the gods’ motivations, I could sympathize with Theseus (who watches his mother die) and King Hyperion (who is lashing out after watching his wife and child die), but neither one really held my attention very long. I’ve never been much of a Mickey Rourke fan and he seemed to just mumble his way through scene after scene. And Cavill’s Theseus seemed to have the wistful look down pat (reminded me of Luke Skywalker staring off at the horizon in Star Wars) but never engaged me with his actions. Yes, he’s powerful and is trying to do the right thing, but he got a lot of help along the way and never once said Thank You.

Anyway, I enjoyed the look of the film but overall found it mostly forgettable. Gladiator and 300 are safe in my mind as two great examples of this genre.

As far as special features go, there were some deleted scenes as well as an alternate opening and two alternate endings, none of which would have helped the movie so I understand why they weren’t used. Two featurettes – “It’s No Myth” and “Caravaggio Meets Fight Club” offered some great behind-the-scenes footage of their filming process, fight choreography, and even the movie soundtrack creation. They’re definitely worth watching. And lastly there’s a graphic novel you can page through on screen – “Immortals: Gods & Heroes.” The text on screen for the comic pages is very difficult to read, so get your magnifiers out for this one.

Overall I think Immortals is a renter at best and a good way to get a glimpse at the new Superman in action before he hits screens next summer. Let’s hope the story and characters are a bit more relatable in Man of Steel!

This article first appeared at Blogcritics.org here.

–Fitz

Blu-ray Review: Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Hi all!

When I was a kid, I loved watching the Planet of the Apes movies during the Saturday afternoon “monster mash” marathons. Did I care the apes were really men in masks? Not really. All I cared about was the fact that Charlton Heston was an astronaut propelled into the distant future to an Earth dominated by intelligent talking apes! Gorilla Cornelius (Roddy McDowall) and orangutan Dr. Zaius (Maurice Evans) were as real as they needed to be in my youth. And of course the first movie led to all the others – Beneath the Planet of the Apes, Escape from the Planet of the Apes, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, and Battle for the Planet of the Apes. I’m pretty sure I’ve seen them all at one time or another.

Fast forward to the horrible remake of Planet of the Apes starring Mark Wahlberg and Helena Bonham Carter. As I watched the film, I felt my inner kid screaming in agony while my adult self cataloged all the bad things in the film and promptly shredded those memories so no trace would remain behind…

So when I heard about Rise of the Planet of the Apes, it was my inner kid who screamed “nooooooo!” and convinced me not to try again. I decided I simply didn’t need modern movie producers treading again on fun memories of my youth. But then I started hearing all the good reviews of the film, including one from my mother who doesn’t usually like science fiction movies. And I vowed to watch the film when it was released on DVD and Blu-ray.

Over the holidays, I had a chance to watch the Blu-ray and found myself enjoying Rise of the Planet of the Apes, with James Franco as researcher Will Rodman trying to cure Alzheimer’s so his father, music teacher and pianist Charles Rodman (John Lithgow) could live a full life again. The true star of the film however was Andy Serkis, who pioneered motion capture acting as Gollum in the Lord of the Rings movies with Peter Jackson, and has turned “mocap” acting into an art form. How can a grown man connect emotionally with a movie audience when it’s not even him we’re seeing on screen? Somehow he manages to pull it off beautifully and tug on our hearts the whole way through as Caesar, the first primate who evolves a higher intelligence in the film.

Cast-wise I have to say I’m not a huge Franco fan. Though I’ve not seen 127 Hours, which I hear is very good, he seemed very wooden through the majority of his performance in Rise as he has in most other films I’ve seen him in. Lithgow was amazing as the Alzheimer’s suffering father who bonds with chimpanzee Caesar after his son the researcher brings him home to keep him from being destroyed after a lab accident. Freida Pinto was fine as Caroline Aranha, zoo veterinarian and Franco love interest. Brian Cox was great as the uncaring owner of an ape sanctuary. Tom Felton (Draco Malfoy from the Harry Potter films) plays a cruel animal keeper at the sanctuary with ease. And it was fun to see Tyler Labine (Tucker and Dale vs. Evil) in a more serious role as the ape wrangler at the research facility as well as David Hewlett (Dr. Rodney McKay from Stargate: Atlantis) in a role as Franco’s neighbor trying to protect his family and property from Caesar living next door.

But really it was Serkis who stole the show. I knew he was a great actor after the Lord of the Rings and we saw more of his mocap work in Jackson’s King Kong, but it was really amazing how far the technology has come that can not only capture his facial expressions and body movements, but emotions as well. James Cameron’s Avatar was the most recent exploration of fully embracing mocap, but Rise of the Planet of the Apes shows it can be used to have real actors act as realistic animals as well as humanoid aliens. Not once was I even thinking “man in suit” while watching Caesar go from baby chimp to conquering ape hero. I’ll be really shocked if Serkis doesn’t get an Oscar for his performance this year.

Though the story was a bit like Titanic, where you knew the apes were going to take over the world, I was astonished at how well the film worked from beginning to end. It offers a compelling storyline combined with great acting to transport the viewer to a scary possible future. I’m excited to see where director Rupert Wyatt and screenwriters Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver choose to go with the sequel, since they have more than 1000 years of ape-dominated future history to explore!

The Blu-ray box includes the Blu-ray on one disc as well as a DVD plus a digital copy. The film looks gorgeous on the Blu-ray, with a full 1080p/AVC transfer in the widescreen 2:35:1 aspect ratio. While researching this review, I was shocked to find out that the film itself was recorded on 35mm film stock, which makes such a crisp transfer to 1080p HD screens that much more impressive.

The soundtrack is equally crisp, recorded in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1. With our 5.1 system at home, we enjoyed listening to the birds chirping in the background behind us while Caesar was exploring the Redwood forest in some scenes. We never had to adjust the audio to better hear dialogue or turn down the sound during some of the big action scenes when things exploded or crashed.

As far as the extras go, there are a ton on the Blu-ray – from the two audio commentaries (one by director Wyatt and the other with writers Jaffa and Silver) to the deleted scenes, several great features about background on the film and Serkis’ brilliant performance, and sneak peeks. All of the video features were done in 1080p except for the BD-Live extras which I wasn’t able to see on my at-home Blu-ray player. The “Mythology of the Apes” goes into detail about the filmmakers and actors’ respect for the source material. “A New Generation of Apes” provides a behind-the-scenes view of how they transformed Andy Serkis and the other motion-capture actors into actual characters on screen. It involved a great deal of training for the actors as well as some powerful computer-aided tools on the post-production end which has me excited to see what sorts of films might come out in the next few years.

Honestly I was surprised at how well Rise of the Planet of the Apes worked after the debacle of the 2001 remake. And I’m cautiously optimistic about a sequel in the next few years to continue Caesar’s story of world domination. If nothing else, I think the film suggests that we be kinder to our future ape overlords!

This article first appeared at BlogCritics.org here.

–Fitz

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