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The Big Year(2011)
Three obsessive bird watchers go off on their "Big Year," duking it out to spot and record the highest number of species in 1998--the year El Nino brought an unprecedented number of species to North America. During the course of their wild, ultra competitive adventure, the guys learn that there just may be other things more important than winning.
For more about The Big Year and the The Big Year Blu-ray release, see the The Big Year Blu-ray Review published by Casey Broadwater on February 4, 2012 where this Blu-ray release scored 2.5 out of 5.
Starring: Jack Black, Owen Wilson, Steve Martin, Rashida Jones, Anjelica Huston, Rosamund Pike
Narrator: John Cleese
Director: David Frankel
» See full cast & crew
The Big Year Blu-ray Review
One for the birds.
Reviewed by Casey Broadwater, February 4, 2012
The allure of birding--I learned today that "birdwatching" apparently has negative connotations--isn't hard to grasp. You're outdoors with a purpose. You're communing with nature, appreciating the beauty and variety of birds. There's also a "collect-them-all" element involved, a thrill in tracking down elusive species and crossing them off a birding bucket list. It's a hobby for some, a way of life for others, and--for the record--I have a real respect for dedicated birders. I say this up front because I don't want to offend any of you with what follows.
Birding just doesn't translate to cinema very well. I mean, it could, and I can certainly imagine a kind of poetic, Terrence Malick-y take on the pastime, or even a Christopher Guest/Eugene Levy-style mockumentary--poking fun at the eccentricities of birders--but it just doesn't work in The Big Year, an Audubon Society-approved comedy starring Jack Black, Steve Martin, and Owen Wilson. The film was one of 20th Century Fox's biggest box office flops of 2011, partially because it's just not funny, but also--I suspect--because it's hard to market a movie about people who go and stand in the woods for hours, patiently looking and listening for birds. The topic doesn't exactly scream laugh riot, even with three A-list comedians on board. But perhaps the casting played a part in the film's theatrical fizzling as well. Black, Martin, and Wilson have all been guilty lately of cashing paychecks for roles in safe, tepid, featherweight family comedies. Maybe audiences are catching on.
The Big Year is loosely based on a nonfiction book of the same name--"This is a true story. Only the facts have been changed," reads the opening text--and the title is a reference to an informal competition among North American birders to see who can spot the most species in a single calendar year. The current champion is Kenny Bostick (Owen Wilson), a construction contractor who's somehow independently wealthy enough--it's never explained how--to shut down business for most of the year to go traipsing off on birding excursions. Bostick is obsessed and arrogant, and his hobby is inexorably grinding down his relationship with his wife (Rosamund Pike)--who's stuck at home alone--but he's so paranoid that someone might break his 732-bird record that he's committed to going after yet another "big year." And he does have competitors. Jack Black plays Brad Harris, a divorced, thirtysomething do-nothing who's determined to turn his life around by winning the competition, despite the criticisms of his dismissive father, Raymond (Brian Dennehy), who thinks birding is for sissies. (Will Raymond change his tune by the end? You betcha.) There's also Stu Preissler (Steve Martin), a CEO on the verge of retirement who dreams of getting out of the boardroom to see some birds. His wife urges him to "carpe anum"-- seize the year--so he too sets off across the country with a checklist and a pair of binoculars.
Birders trying for the big year are a tight-knit bunch--when a rare bird is spotted, they all swarm to the same area, hoping to get a glimpse--so it's inevitable that Bostick, Brad, and Stu will butt heads in a race for the record. The film follows the three of them as they criss-cross from one exotic North American location to the next--highland Colorado to the Pacific Northwest, desert New Mexico to the Aleutian isles--mostly avoiding their own "real life" issues by focusing so narrowly on their avian pursuits. Bostick is such a weasel--and a suspected cheater--that Brad and Stu feel compelled to team up and take him down, which isn't an easy task. He's a hawk-eyed birder, always one flap ahead of the flock, with a few tricks hidden in his feathers. (Yes, I realize I've stretched that particular metaphor to its breaking point.)
This is the sort of movie where each of the characters learns a tidy little life lesson about himself; Bostick, that winning comes at a price; Stu, that family comes first; and Brad, that he doesn't need to win to be a champion. The film tries to soar on the sense of competition and camaraderie between them--with a few light comedic jabs at birding culture, like the scores of nearly identical photographers wearing beige vests and wielding massive telephoto lenses--but The Big Year flies in repetitive circles, a cinematic bird trapped in a backwards migratory loop. Okay, okay, I promise--no more bird allusions.
Sorry. Permit me one more: The Big Year is utterly talon-less. The story could've had bite if the characters were more brutal to each other, but their hijinks and pranks are seriously tame. Oh no! Bostick tricked us into not taking the Anacortes ferry! I guess we'll just have to sit out in this field and look for different birds instead. The film bumbles along like this from place to place, periodically throwing an unintentional betrayal into the story or paying lip service to a subplot about Brad's flirty, would-be relationship with cute fellow birder, Ellie (Rashida Jones), who--alas--already has a boyfriend. It gets a bit mawkish, too, especially when Brad's father finally comes to see that what his son is doing is worthwhile. You might not get weepy, but you'll probably roll your eyes a few times.
For variety, the film mirrors its bird-watching premise with numerous spot-the-celebrity cameos, including Anjelica Huston, Tim Blake Nelson, Joel McHale, and Al Roker in bit parts too small to matter. As for the leads, they're still slumming, but at least The Big Year isn't as aggressively obnoxious as some of their other recent films. Jack Black dials down his usual puppy-dog-on-speed schtick, and Steve Martin--as is often the case lately--seems less like a comic and more like a wise-cracking grandpa. As for Owen Wilson, well, I think someone needs to start a petition urging him to only appear in the films of Wes Anderson, who at least knows how to use the flat-nosed actor's talent at masking vulnerability with braggadocio.
Note: Via seamless branching, the disc includes both the theatrical cut and the 3-minute longer extended version.
The Big Year Blu-ray, Video Quality
The Big Year flaps onto Blu-ray with a 1080p/AVC-encoded transfer that's always better than merely acceptable, but rarely--if ever--stunning. The movie was shot on 35mm and has a rather heavy grain structure, which is mostly untouched here, although some scenes look to have been given a light DNR dousing. There are times when the picture takes on a slightly filtered look, and the occasional halo-ish borders on certain hard outlines--like branches in the woods--suggest that a bit of edge enhancement might have been used as well. None of this is particularly distracting, but it doesn't really help the visuals either. Clarity is somewhat inconsistent; there are shots that are wonderfully sharp--where fine facial and clothing textures really pop--but plenty of others that are comparatively squishy and unresolved. Longer shots are especially prone to going soft. Color is more stable, and strong overall, with rich neutrals, splashes of vivid primaries, and natural-looking skin tones. The contrast curve can get heavy in the shadows, obscuring some detail that we might otherwise see, but never to the extent that the black levels feel overly aggressive. I didn't spot any notable compression or encode problems either. This is one of those movies that seems to have been transferred faithfully, but just didn't look all that spectacular to begin with.
The Big Year Blu-ray, Audio Quality
In four words: good, but not great. But you could've guessed as much. Family comedies aren't exactly known for ear-assaulting, room-shaking sound design. 20th Century Fox has given The Big Year the usual lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround track, and the mix does what it needs to do with little flourish. What matters most here is that dialogue is clean, perfectly balanced, and easily understandable at all times. And it is. Everything else is just a bonus. The mix is rooted up front, but it does reach into the surround channels occasionally for quiet ambience--outdoorsy sounds, airplane cabin noise, etc.--and a few discrete cross-speaker effects. Of course, you can expect plenty of bird calls tweeting off directionally too. Theodore Shapiro's score is your typical jaunty comedy stuff, but it sounds decently full, and the entire mix follows suite--it isn't spectacular, but it works. The disc includes optional English SDH and Spanish subtitles in easy-to-read white lettering.
The Big Year Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
The Big Year Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
So, The Big Year was big flop at the box office, and I'm guessing it'll suffer a similar fate on Blu-ray. A comedy about birdwatching isn't the most exciting premise, so the film would be a hard sell even if it were good. And it's not. It isn't bad bad, but there's little to recommend here; it's not funny, the story is uninteresting on screen, and at every turn the filmmakers have played it safe. Birders, especially, will be disappointed that the joys of their hobby are wasted in such a dull movie. Audubon Society members may want to venture a rental to see what the fuss is about, but all others should look elsewhere for their latest comedy fix.
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The Big Year Blu-ray, News and Updates
• The Big Year Blu-ray - December 14, 2011
Next year, Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment will bring The Big Year to Blu-ray. This adaptation of Mark Obmascik's novel stars Steve Martin (Three Amigos), Owen Wilson (Bottle Rocket), and Jack Black (Tropic Thunder) as three dedicated bird watchers competing ...
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