WE BOUGHT A ZOO
Blu-ray Review by Kevin Carr
MOVIE: *** (out of 5 stars)
BLU-RAY EXPERIENCE: ***1/2 (out of 5 stars)
Several months ago, I questioned the move of Fox dropping “We Bought a Zoo” into theaters on Christmas day. That works for some family-friendly animal films like “Marley and Me,” but this past year seemed so crowded during this time of year. Plus, Christmas fell on a Sunday, which made for a bizarre opening day. In the end, “We Bought a Zoo” did fine, but it did struggle to find a wide audience.
THE DARKEST HOUR
Now, it’s available on DVD and Blu-ray in the spring, a much more calm and settled time. And that helps because despite it including several elements I don’t particularly like in movies (such as director Cameron Crowe and star Scarlett Johannsen), it’s not a bad little movie.
“We Bought a Zoo” is a Hollywood version of a true story about a family that buys a failing zoo with the hopes of bringing it back to its former glory. There’s quite a difference from the movie and the actual story, including shifting the location from Britain to American and adding the complexity of a widowed father since the real people bought the zoo before the wife died. Still, the essence of the inspirational story is still the same.
The film is a button-pusher, but it is so in the nicest way possible. Matt Damon is fiercely likeable as the grieving father who is desperately trying to reconnect with his children. Scarlett Johannsen has relatively little screen time, which is good considering her character can get irritating and make little sense outside of the context of the determined zookeeper.
“We Bought a Zoo” is a light family drama, so it does suffer at times from the trappings of this genre. The young daughter’s cuteness is overplayed, and the surly teenage boy falls too much into his own stereotype. Still, if you’re into movies like this, those will be given and support the film better than hinder it.
Crowe, who tends to be all over the map with the subject matter he chooses for his films, manages to balance things out better than previous failures like “Elizabethtown,” and the film has the typical heart he injects into his movies. It’s not a great film, but it’ll do for a viewing with the kids (thought beware of a pretty significant Santa spoiler in the middle).
Along with a DVD included in the case, there’s quite a few special features on “We Bought a Zoo.” Standard features include an audio commentary with director Cameron Crowe, actor JB Smoove and editor Mark Livolsi, as well as a gag reel and some deleted and extended scenes. There are several featurettes, including “We Shot a Zoo” as a behind-the-scenes video, “Their Happy Is Too Loud,” “The Real Mee” about the characters behind the story, “It’s a Zoo: An Insider’s Look at We Bought a Zoo” and a spotlight on the soundtrack.
3D Blu-ray Review by Kevin Carr
MOVIE: ** (out of 5 stars)
BLU-RAY EXPERIENCE: *** (out of 5 stars)
One of the Christmas releases that seemed to be sneaked into the theaters a few months ago was the Russian survival tale “The Darkest Hour.” It’s a film about a group of twentysomethings in Moscow who face an unexpected alien invasion. After invisible aliens land and start laying waste to the city, they hide out for several days before trying to make their way to find other survivors.
There is very little special about “The Darkest Hour” aside from some decent special effects and a presentation in 3D that is better than most movies with higher budgets. But the glitz and gloss can’t hide the fact that this is nothing more than a B-level sci-fi thriller that you might stumble across on the Syfy Channel on a Saturday afternoon.
The plot is uninspired, playing out more like backyard adventures that are made up on the fly instead of a scripted feature film. Characters are left with very little depth, so when members of the mainstable cast are fried by the invisible aliens, there’s as much emotion associated with it as when swatting a fly.
Emile Hirsh plays the hero around which the film is built, but he seems woefully out of his depth, clearly peaking his career with “Speed Racer” four years ago. His character is a bit of a maverick, but he comes across as a know-it-all punk rather than a man who is stepping up to the challenge as a leader. He comes up with inexplicable knowledge that still makes him sound like a high school kid in detention, and any successful military strategy is lost in his delivery.
With all this said, I can’t say I didn’t enjoy “The Darkest Hour” to a certain degree. It’s true mindless trash, but it’s fun mindless trash. It’s also quite fascinating to watch as the production seems so much bigger and better than the film itself. I’m not ashamed to say I wouldn’t watch a sequel.
For a somewhat middling movie, there are some decent special features. The 3D Blu-ray includes both the 3D and 2D versions of the film on the same disc. Bonus content includes an audio commentary as well as quite a few deleted and extended scenes. There’s also the featurette “The Darkest Hour: Visualizing the Invasion” as well as the short film “The Darkest Hour: Survivors.”
DVD Review by Kevin Carr
MOVIE: **1/2 (out of 5 stars)
DVD EXPERIENCE: *** (out of 5 stars)
A few weeks back, I heard the buzz surrounding “Absentia,” and I was eager to see it. It’s a micro-budget film that wowed some people at the festivals and turned some heads upon its DVD release. With that said, the hype might have been a bit too much for this, and “Absentia” is probably better viewed cold.
The story follows a woman whose husband has been missing for years. Her sister comes to live with her while recovering from drug addiction and to help file the final pieces to declaring the missing husband dead in absentia. However, as the story moves forward, we learn that the disappearance might have a greater explanation involving a mysterious creature that emerges from a dark passage near the house.
In theory, I really liked “Absentia.” It’s got a neat hook and tells a decent story. Additionally, as a spotlight on microbudget indie filmmaking, it’s an inspiration. The film was shot on a shoestring budget with very little technology behind it aside from a quality camera that could shoot in low light.
Sadly, “Absentia” is weighted down with the trappings of microbudget filmmaking. While some shots look brilliant and well composed, about three-quarters of the film is shot with rather uninspired cinematography. This is not uncommon for indie films that have certain key scenes thought through with perfection, but the filler is left for either standard shooting or poor composition.
Additionally, with such a tight budget, there was nothing left for creature effects. This often helps to build suspense, but there needs to be a payoff for not showing a monster throughout the movie. In “Absentia,” there’s no payoff for this at all, and that weakens the film. In the behind-the-scenes interviews found in the special features, the filmmakers brag about how this isn’t a typical horror film and exists more in the psychological realm, but that plays more as an excuse to not deliver on the non-psychological elements that are promised throughout the flick.
So, “Absentia” does work to a certain degree and can be a gem found among lesser films. However, there was so much more it could have been. It’s one of those movies that could benefit from a higher-budget remake, as long as that doesn’t go too far in the other direction.
The special features on this disc includes a 30-minute behind-the-scenes featurette called “Absentia: A Retrospective,” which takes a look at the low-budget filmmaking used for this movie as well as the camera used and how it fits in the horror realm. Additional features includes a commentary track by the producer and actor, camera test teaser, deleted scenes and the theatrical trailer.
Click here to read more DVD reviews!
Click here to read more movie reviews!
Click here to watch films by 7M Pictures!