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 here.


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Blu-ray Review: The Warrior’s Way

Hi there…

Genre mash-ups. They seem to be very popular these days. In the next couple of weeks, we get to see if Cowboys & Aliens works for moviegoers, putting together a western with a science-fiction story. Earlier in the year we saw Sucker Punch from director Zach Snyder, and I have to say it didn’t fully work for me, throwing together samurai, steampunk, mobsters, and dragons. On the surface, it was a beautiful film, but it fell apart for me once I started thinking it over.

So what do these movies have to do with The Warrior’s Way? Well, it’s another mash-up that doesn’t quite work, merging a western with a kung-fu movie. It almost works in spots, where it takes a breath and isn’t working so hard to sell itself to the audience… but not enough to keep people in the seats. According to Box Office Mojo, the film cost $42 million to make, but it only made $11 million on screens worldwide. Unfortunately, I don’t think it’s going to work all that well on DVD or Blu-ray to recoup costs either.

Let’s start with the story. If you’re trying to avoid spoilers, you might want to skip the next few paragraphs.


Yang (Dong-gun Yang) has been working on behalf of his clan to destroy all members of a rival clan of warriors. He kills all but one – a baby girl – and can’t bring himself to kill her. This puts him at odds with his own clan, so he flees to the United States to find a friend of his living in the frontier town of Lode. When he gets there, he finds his friend is dead and the town is paralyzed after a brutal attack by the Colonel (Danny Huston) and his men. In Lode, he meets Eight-Ball (Tony Cox), a small person performer in the carnival that is trying to revive the town; Lynne (Kate Bosworth), a fiery knife-thrower with little skill; and Ron (Geoffrey Rush), a drunk handy-man working to build the ferris wheel.

Lynne has sworn vengeance against the Colonel, who killed her family and assaulted her. She left her mark on him however, splashing his face with a frying pan full of hot oil. Huston isn’t the most attractive actor to start with, but when you partially melt his face he’s downright disturbing. Yang teaches her how to throw knives and fight with swords, but refuses to draw his own special sword that killed all those people when the film started.

You can see where this is going, right? The Colonel comes back to take his revenge, the people rise up, Yang eventually draws his weapon to save the day, and everybody lives happily ever after. Well, not exactly. As soon as Yang draws his sword, his own clan, seeking the baby he didn’t kill, comes to find him. When he won’t kill the baby, they begin attacking the town and Yang and the rest have to fight for their lives.


So though the story itself is a bit predictable, it might have worked for me except for a couple of things. First, Bosworth’s performance as Lynne for the first half of the film is so over the top that it’s impossible to identify with her character in any way. You want to, of course. But her loud, boisterous, brash caricature of a Western woman just knocks over any kind of connection you might get with her character. About halfway through the film she settles down, but though I like Bosworth, this was not her finest moment.

Yang on the other hand was perfect in his role. He reminded me of Kung Fu, the television series from the 1970s starring David Carradine as a Shaolin priest wandering the west. There is a similar peace to Yang’s actions and his facial expressions and calm manner helped show the character’s development as he grew attached to the baby, Lynne, and the rest of the townspeople.

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Image via Wikipedia

It’s the quiet moments that stick with me after watching, with Yang tending to a small flower garden in town and working in the laundry. But when it tries to get larger than life, it can’t get it together.

Though the film tries very hard to take itself seriously, the merger of wire work and Spaghetti Western just never clicks, so it becomes more humorous than anything else. Director Sngmoo Lee tried to wrangle this mess into something entertaining and almost succeeded in spite of himself. But the whimsy overwhelms the seriousness of some of the Colonel’s (and Yang’s) actions, making it very difficult to stay in the moment for long.

The Blu-ray offers a brilliant 1080p picture, with vibrant colors throughout, and DTS-HD 5.1 audio that captures everything from battle sounds to the whisper of sand in the Western desert beautifully. The use of color in the film is definitely on the garish side at times, emphasizing sunsets and sunrises, as well as the black of night with sparkling stars above.

Beyond the film itself, the first disc also includes a few deleted scenes and a short Behind-the-Scenes featurette that shows the cast having a good time doing stunts on set. None of the deleted scenes really would have added anything to the picture, and I really would have liked to have seen more about how the film was put together. Perhaps a short feature deconstructing one of the battle scenes at the beginning, or more lengthy interviews with the cast and crew would have helped. The second disc offers a digital copy of the film for use on laptops and other portable media players.

I really wanted to like The Warrior’s Way after seeing the trailers last year, but ultimately it doesn’t include enough to warrant a recommendation. If you really want to see it, I recommend you rent it at Red Box for $1 and save your money for better films.

This review first appeared at here.


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Blu-ray Review: Unstoppable

Hi all!

Tony Scott. The name itself evokes images of speed, danger, and action. From Top Gun and Days of Thunder to TV’s Numb3rs and The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, his knack for taking explosive action and merging it with compelling drama has only improved over the years. Now merge the name Tony Scott with Denzel Washington and you have an even more powerful pair. Films like Man on Fire only reinforce the fact that when you have the trifecta of a great director, a great script, and a great actor, you end up with a great movie. And now, with 2010’s Unstoppable finally making its way to DVD and Blu-ray, Scott and Washington are continuing the trend.

The story is simple for this one. Man vs. Machine. You have an out-of-control train running through populated areas and you have to stop it before it causes too much irreparable harm. How does it get out of control? Somebody forgets to set the brake and leaves the train unattended. Ok. That’s bad. And to add insult to injury, the train has cars containing caustic, explosive materials that could destroy entire towns along the way. That’s worse. Oh yeah, and certain folks are trying to do damage control in such a way that a disaster wouldn’t affect the train company’s bottom line. Now you’ve got me pissed off…

And honestly I think that’s the point. If you take the movie industry as a whole, it may seem like a giant machine trying to pump out money-making properties. But if you take each movie project separately, it’s a series of statements from the scriptwriter, the directors, and the producers about events they feel strongly about. Sure, Unstoppable on the surface is about a dumb mistake by someone who just wants to get to a stopping point for lunch, but it’s more than that.

I saw a brief review on G4’s Attack of the Show recently from Chris Gore (@ThatChrisGore on Twitter) who said this movie was a pass because it was based on a stupid mistake and stereotypes of the working class. I get that to a point. This movie touches on the clashes between unions and corporate types, old hands vs. new punks trying take their jobs, and may appear to trivialize it a bit because it doesn’t go into depth on any of it. Beneath all the action is a statement on taking a stand for what you believe to be right even if it kills you, regardless of all the political or ageist BS that might pop up.

That said, the core of the story is with three heroes trying to stop a stupid mistake from becoming much much worse. The rest of it is simply backstory and can’t be focused on in great detail because it’s the train itself (which Tony Scott calls “The Beast” in the special features) that should really get central billing. Frank (Denzel Washington, The Book of Eli), Will (Chris Pine, Star Trek), and Connie (Rosario Dawson, Seven Pounds, Percy Jackson & The Olympians: The Lightning Thief) work against the clock, conditions, and corporations to stop this train from harming innocents in Pennsylvania. And like most exciting action films, the heroes have to save the day, right?

Though the runaway train runs away in the first 15 minutes of the film, it took a while to get going for me. It wasn’t until Frank and Will picked up their train and discovered they were playing chicken with the runaway train that things really got going. That said, when things got going, they went a million miles an hour towards the conclusion. It was an entertaining movie with solid characters that you came to care about as things progressed. I can see why it may not have done as well as they would have liked at the box office (only $81 million domestically and another almost $86 million in foreign box office in 14 weeks according to Box Office Mojo with a reported $100 million budget)… But I suspect it will catch up with DVD and Blu-ray sales and rentals.

In addition to the film itself, the Blu-ray includes several great features. But by far my favorite was “The Fastest Track: Unleashing Unstoppable.” Clocking in at nearly 30 minutes, the feature covers everything from producer and scriptwriter input to interviews with the actors, bits on the stunt and practical effects work, and a ton on Tony Scott’s directing process. It was fascinating to watch him work, stogie and all, with the insane number of cameras he had going at all times to allow his actors more freedom on a particular shot. Add to that the incredible photography done by a herd of helicopters and racing cars with cameras strapped onto huge scaffolds and you have one heck of a production.

Also included were “Derailed: The Anatomy of a Scene” where they show all the work that went into derailing and blowing up a train for one pivotal scene. For a scene where only one take was possible, since they were destroying the faux train they had built for it, they used a ton of cameras and safety measures to make sure that the stunt drivers and crew were all as safe as possible. The explosion was just the tip of the iceberg!

Other features were “Hanging Off the Train: Stunt Work,” “On the Rails with the Director and Cast,” and “Tracking the Story: Unstoppable Script Development” – each focusing on different aspects of the film. In “On the Rails,” it was fun to see relative newcomer Chris Pine a bit star struck by working with Denzel Washington and Tony Scott on the same film.

The Blu-ray picture itself was excellent, with 1080p resolution and full Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound. The differences between the speed of the trains and the landscape rushing by were incredible with colors that really popped the green of the trees and the red of the runaway train out at you without needing 3D to do it. The sound was rich and vibrant as well from the bass of the thumping helicopter blades to the voices of the actors and the screaming wheels of the train.

If you’re a fan of Tony Scott’s work, want to see more of Denzel’s or Rosario’s work, or want to see Chris Pine somewhere other than on the bridge of the Starship Enterprise, I’d definitely encourage you to give Unstoppable a chance. It was fun, frantic, and entertaining!

This article first appeared at here.


p.s. Pick up Unstoppable on Blu-ray or DVD from Barnes & Noble below!

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