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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Music Review: Dave McGraw & Mandy Fer – Seed of a Pine

Hi all!

Why did it take so long to come to my senses and discover Americana and Bluegrass? Now in my forties, with a childhood where my father and I would play old folk songs on guitars at home, you’d think there would be a natural progression from those days to an appreciation to the folk- and country-infused traditions of these musical styles. But until the last decade, I thought Americana was Country and I didn’t want to listen to that Country “twang”…

I’m older and wiser now, which is why I was thrilled when Mandy Fer contacted me and asked if I’d mind listening to her new album, a collaboration with Dave McGraw called Seed of a Pine. So I checked it out online and listened to a few tracks. I think before I was done listening to the first song I sent an e-mail back saying I’d love to listen to the rest of the album. And it didn’t disappoint.

The stripped down arrangements – minimal guitars, piano, fiddle and voices – works beautifully to share the feel of a particular track without over-engineering any song. Each tells a story that doesn’t get lost in the shuffle as it does in much of the pop and R&B music played on radio stations nationwide. These songs manage to intertwine a deep passion between the notes of the harmonies composed by McGraw’s baritone and Fer’s soaring and sultry vocals. Accompanying the duo are acclaimed musicians Peter Mulvey, Po’Girl songstress Allison Russel, and Chicago’s JT Nero (of JT and the Clouds).

What’s funny is that I usually find it easy to pick three or four songs to focus on, but no matter how many times I listen to Seed of a Pine, it’s impossible for me to choose. The tracks run from more traditional folk with simple melodies (“Seed of a Pine”) to more Blues-influenced (“Serotiny (May Our Music)”) to the Spanish-infused (“Comin’ Down”) and many that defy categorization. But that’s part of the Americana tradition – weaving styles as suits the story.

“Waking the Dreamer” has to be one of my favorites. It reminds me a bit of some of the songs from The Swell Season (duo Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova) on the Once soundtrack. There’s a rise and fall, and a hope about the lyrics “Waking the dreamer / for you for you…” amidst the steady drum beat and the pairing of electric and acoustic guitars.

Within the melody and hopeful words of “Western Sky” there are some echoes of Bruce Springsteen‘s “I’m on Fire.” A simple guitar strum pattern with the entwined voices of McGraw and Fer tell a story of love and support. “This time I’m really coming home.” You know that feeling when you know you’re going home to stay for a while? Or when you find the person you’re going to spend the rest of your life with? “For you took this heart of mine and you placed it in your eyes / you gave me peace of mind and with it I’ll decide / that you will be the one when I lay my body down…” I’d be surprised if this didn’t become the wedding song for more than a few people in 2012.

And “Serotiny (May Our Music)” starts with a Blues beat that wormed its way into my head while talking about the landscape of the heart and memory. Though I’m not sure if the couple in the song are playing music to the gods as an offering or the offering is between the pair of them, but they want to be heard. As they play guitars in the field, “play for me your favorite song, pull me up into your sky / where the thunder speaks in crazy tongues / and the gods do not decide.” The melodies soar through this one, tugged along by the steady guitars.

I could talk about all of the songs on this album until the cows come home. Honestly this is one of those Jerry Maguire albums which “had me at hello.” If you’re a fan of modern folk and Americana, you can’t go wrong with Seed of a Pine. The album releases tomorrow – February 15, 2012 – so keep your ears open. For more information, check out the album website, plus Mandy Fer’s website and Dave McGraw’s website.

This article first appeared at BlogCritics.org here.

–Fitz

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