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 BlogCritics.org here.

–Fitz

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

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DVD Review: Percy Jackson & The Olympians: The Lightning Thief

Hey guys!

Greek mythology has been around since the ancient Greeks began telling the tales around 1000 BC. Those myths have worked their way into many different forms of media since then, from paintings and Greek literature to movies, television, books, and even comic books in the modern age. So why would I be surprised to learn that it was being repurposed once again in the form of some young adult fiction?

Rick Riordan, a teacher in California with a background in English and History, was well placed to take the sometimes dry stories from the Ancient Greeks and make them relevant in today’s world. He created a hero, Percy Jackson, a kid with dyslexia who was unknowingly a demigod – the child of Poseidon and a mortal woman. And Percy’s world took flight in a series of five books published from 2005 to 2009 – The Lightning Thief through to The Last Olympian. It was only a matter of time before Hollywood caught on to one of the series trying to fill the void left behind by the impending end of the Harry Potter movie series.

I honestly hadn’t heard of the book series before I saw the first trailer for Percy Jackson & The Olympians: The Lightning Thief a few months before the movie released. But I loved the idea of bringing Greek myths back into the limelight in a way that kids could latch on and learn while being entertained. I loved learning about mythology as a kid and want to see my own kids gain an appreciation for those ancient stories as they grow up today. Why not spin the Greek gods and goddesses into an entertaining tale for today’s youth? My eldest daughter devoured Rick Riordan’s books and loved every minute of them. So I knew without consulting the Oracle that seeing the movie wasn’t far behind.

Near the beginning of the film, we find young Percy (Logan Lerman) sitting at the bottom of a pool… for 7 minutes! Though he says it’s the only place he feels he can think, there’s obviously more to this kid than we meets the eye. His pal Grover (Brandon T. Jackson) is there watching the clock and making sure nothing happens to Percy. Both of them go to a regular high school like everybody else, at least until a substitute teacher turns into a harpy while on a tour of the Greek exhibit at the museum. From that point on, your average high school experience kind of flies out the window with the fury.

From then on in the film, Percy and Grover are on the run to or from something. We meet Mr. Brunner (Pierce Brosnan), a wheelchair-bound teacher at their school who turns out to be the centaur Chiron. We see Percy’s dad, Poseidon (Kevin McKidd) and Zeus (Sean Bean) discussing an impending war between the gods. We meet Hades (Steve Coogan) and his unhappy wife Persephone (Rosario Dawson). And we meet Annabeth (Alexandra Daddario), daughter of Athena and fierce warrior woman ready to prove herself in the outside world.

Somehow the supernatural realm Percy didn’t know existed seems to think that he stole Zeus’s lightning bolt from Mount Olympus. But he didn’t steal it and nobody seems to care. Annabeth, Percy and Grover try to figure out what’s going on around them.

The whole movie is a roller coaster ride from beginning to end as Percy learns who he is and tries to save his mother Sally (Catherine Keener) from Hades’ clutches. Hades wants the bolt so he can challenge Zeus to become king of the gods. And Zeus just wants the bolt back before the Summer Solstice or a war will start among the gods and the Earth will suffer.

As you can see, there’s a lot going on. The three actors at the center of the story – Lerman, Jackson, and Daddario – are thrust into the limelight in much the same way as Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, and Emma Watson were when Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone hit movie screens in 2001. And I think they did a great job with the roles, presenting kids with good role models who learn and grow throughout the adventure.

Overall, I thought the movie was fun and showed a lot of promise for sequels based on the rest of the Riordan series. If nothing else, it brought a number of wonderful Greek myths back into the foreground of school kids around the country. Hopefully they’ll see these ancient stories as gifts from the past and not simply homework from now on. With worldwide box office totals of greater than $225 million (according to BoxOfficeMojo.com and a budget of $95 million, hopefully the producers and studio will see their way to filming some sequels.

Also included on the DVD are a number of extras.

“The Book Comes to Life” presents a great documentary feature on the making of the film and how Riordan’s characters came to be on the big screen. He seems like he’s taking it all in stride and all of the actors, the director (Chris Columbus), and crew seemed to understand that they were striving for that Harry Potter moment when the world woke up to see Percy’s adventures in the film.

The “Discover Your Powers Quiz” seemed a bit hokey to me and even to my two daughters. They know the difference between reality and the world of fiction, and somehow the presentation seemed very last minute and cheesy with the little bit of announcement of your “powers”.

But the five Extended and Deleted Scenes were very interesting, especially the scene with Grover talking to Percy in the pickup truck about how he failed Zeus’ daughter. That should have made it into the movie in my opinion, as it really bolstered my opinion of why Grover seemed so desperate to help Percy survive his adventure.

So overall, if you like Greek myths or have read the Percy Jackson series from Rick Riordan, I think you’ll probably like Percy Jackson & The Olympians: The Lightning Thief. As the opening chapter of Percy’s journey through Riordan’s world, I think they did great at whetting our appetite for more. Bring on the next movie!

This article originally appeared on BlogCritics.org here.

–Fitz

p.s. Pick Percy up when the movie releases this week or pick up the books!

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DVD Review: Seven Pounds

Hey all…

When the movie Seven Pounds was released to theaters in December 2008, I was intrigued by the premise and Will Smith (who in my opinion has come a long way as an actor since his Fresh Prince of Bel-aire days). But it never really hit me as a Christmas movie. Neither did Marley & Me which was released about the same time or The Alamo which came out around Christmas in 2004… So we never got to the theater to see it. (We did see Marley & Me, but that was more because my wife’s a veterinarian than anything else.)

[rating:3.5/4]

So when I heard Seven Pounds was being released on DVD, I knew I needed to see it. It looked like a powerful story and didn’t disappoint.

The story revolves around Ben Thomas (Will Smith), an IRS agent who seems to be behaving oddly. The stereotypical IRS agent is someone who relies on facts and figures, not feelings and heart. Ben did his homework, but relied on how he felt about particular people to render judgments. Through the course of the film, we see Ben find seven different people who deserved to have their lives changed. But he didn’t plan on falling in love with one of the seven. Would that derail his plans? Would he change his mind?

Acting alongside Smith in the movie are several other great actors. But the trio of Smith’s Ben, Rosario Dawson‘s Emily, and Woody Harrelson’s Ezra really hold the center of the movie together.

Is this a love story? Yes, but not quite in the way you might think. Is it a drama? Definitely. Is it a thriller? Yes and no. There are aspects of other thrillers, such as waiting for the big reveal until the last third of the movie. But you get the sense from the very beginning that there’s something inherently sad or broken about Ben and that he’s trying to do something about that.

I’ve seen negative reviews about Seven Pounds on other parts of the web. Rotten Tomatoes only gave it 28%. ScreenRant gave it 3 out of 5. And Entertainment Weekly gave it a D calling it an “unintentionally ludicrous drama of repentance.”

I watched it with my wife and we both loved the story. A powerful, romantic movie of redeeming one’s self in the face of unimaginable sorrow. Like all movies, you take from them what you will. We give it a solid 3.5 out of 4. 

In addition to the movie itself, the DVD includes numerous extras.

“Seven Views on Seven Pounds” provides seven different perspectives on the movie, from the director and the writer, to the producers involved, designers, editors, and so on. Each person brings something different to the table. What was most telling for me was listening to how the writer, Grant Nieporte, came up with the idea after seeing someone at a party with the same deep sorrow that Ben experienced. This just proves once again that life presents opportunities for art if you keep your eye open.

“Creating the Perfect Ensemble” focused on Denise Chamian, Casting Director, talking about the challenges of bringing together the cast for this unique, emotional film. Finding actors to convey real emotions in a very short amount of time was tricky. Director Gabriele Muccino spoke about getting the relationship right between Emily and Ben’s characters. The efforts of Chamian and Muccino bring these characters to life on the screen.

“The Box Jellyfish: World’s Deadliest Co-star” describes just how deadly the Box Jellyfish actually is. It quietly sits in the background in a tank until you learn what Ben has planned for it. Mike Schaadt, the Director of the Cabrillo Marine Aquarium, speaks about the jellyfish and the challenges that it brings to the beaches of Northern Australia.

In “Emily’s Passion: The Art of the Printing Press,” we learn a little more about how Rosario prepared for the role as Emily. She went to the International Printing Museum in Carson, California, to explore the history of the printing press. You can find everything there from plates to movable type and beyond. This feature lets Mark Barbour, the Director and Curator of the museum, describe some of the many presses that can be seen in the museum. His passion for the printing process is easy to see.

There are four Deleted Scenes available, including “Ben Leaves Message for Dan,” “Dr. Gatsinaris Confronts Ben,” “Ben Gets Duke,” and “Ben Watches Ezra at the Mall #2.” The first two, I can definitely see why they cut. “Ben Gets Duke” would have added a bit of levity in the middle of a movie that could have used some lightening up in spots. And “Ben Watches Ezra at the Mall #2” didn’t really add anything that the scene they left in didn’t already cover.

The previews on the DVD include a few for upcoming movies, including Angels & Demons and The Accidental Husband, a trailer for the DVD of Rent: Filmed Live on Broadway, of which Rosario Dawson was a cast member, and two trailers for DVDs of other Will Smith Movies – Hancock and The Pursuit of Happyness.

If you didn’t get a chance to see Seven Pounds at the theater, I highly recommend that you take some time and watch it to form your own opinion. It’s worth your time.

–Fitz

p.s. Check out Seven Pounds at your local rental store or pick it up at Amazon:

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