The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (Warner, Blu-ray, Blu-ray 3D, DVD, VOD), the third and final installment of Peter Jackson’s supersized take on J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy, opens with a spectacular dragon attack on Laketown and tops it with a battle that nearly dwarfs the Middle Earth-shattering war Lord of the Rings trilogy (pun intended). It’s Elf and Man against Dwarf, but for the Orcs it’s personal. Which, as any fan of the original novel “The Hobbit” will tell you, pretty much misses the point of the story. But then Jackson isn’t interested in a faithful interpretation of Tolkien’s novel as much as backfilling a prequel story to The Lord of the Rings, transforming the novel’s story of legacy and destiny warped into greed and hubris, a grand fantasy adventure with dragons and trolls and Shakespearean dimensions, into the initial stirrings of the evil Sauron and a war that will engulf the world and all the races.
That pretty much sidelines Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), the ostensible hero of the tale, while redirecting the focus to characters who never appeared in the original novel or in Tolkien’s universe at all, namely the above-mentioned Orcs with a grudge against Thorin (Richard Armitage), the Dwarf who would be king. The final half of the film, which is already the third film in the telling, is an enormous battle and, yes, it is impressive as a physical thing. It’s also exhausting and overdone, with two Orc villains who prove comically unkillable. These guys are fiercer than the next generation Orc-Goblin hybrids that Sauroman breeds in Lord of the Rings.
If you see the names Thranduil, Tauriel, Azog, and Thorin Oakenshield, and you know instantly who they are and how they fit into Middle Earth, then you are probably ready for the third part of the Hobbit trilogy. If you can’t place the names, please consider rewatching the first two films and probably the entire Lord of the Rings box set as well. Because it’s going to get very thick around here.
Peter Jackson’s crowded final film of the J.R.R. Tolkien universe begins in mid-breath. Fiery breath: The flying dragon Smaug (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch) was loosed at the end of Part Two, and his flaming rampage is in full swing as Five Armies commences.
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug(New Line, Blu-ray 3D Combo, Blu-ray Combo, DVD, Digital HD, On Demand) – “What have we done?” asks hardy hobbit Bilbo (Martin Freeman) in the final seconds of the second film in the Hobbit trilogy. If by “we” he means Peter Jackson and company, then “we” have reimagined J.R.R. Tolkein’s storybook odyssey of a modest hobbit finding the courage and cleverness to help a band of dwarfs reclaim their kingdom from a usurper as a sweeping spectacle that transforms the delightful adventure fantasy into a blood and thunder epic. Suddenly it’s no longer a lively fantasy adventure but the prequel to Lord of the Rings with new stories and characters woven through it. The seeds of Sauron’s rise now sprout in the margins of the story, every battle seems to be a personal grudge match, and Bilbo is reduced to a supporting character in what is supposed his story. It’s a mistake as far as I’m concerned but at least it works better in this film than it did in the first chapter, ironically enough in part because of a new character who is nowhere to be found in any of Tolkein’s fictions: elf warrior Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), who brings some much-needed passion to a film filled with characters reduced to stock types.
The dragon Smaug, who makes his entrance late in the film, is a beautiful creation, slithering through his scenes both physically and verbally (thanks to silky voicing by Benedict Cumberbatch), but Jackson can’t resist turning the battle of wits between Bilbo and Smaug into yet another theme-park ride of a spectacle. To give credit where it is due, Jackson is very good at this sort of thing—the barrel-ride escape from the elves is really quite fun if utterly unnecessary—and there are audiences who want just that. I’d prefer Jackson simply tell a story.
It’s released in multiple formats. All of the disc editions feature the behind-the-scene documentary Peter Jackson Invites You to the Set, the featurettes “New Zealand: Home of Middle-earth, Part 2,” “Introduction to Pick-Ups Shooting,” “Recap of Pick-Ups, Part 1,” “Recap of Pick-Ups, Part 2? and “Music Scoring,” and “Live Event: In the Cutting Room,” a recording of the March 2013 Q&A and studio tour hosted by Jackson and streamed live in the web.
Bastards (IFC, DVD, Digital HD) may be the bleakest drama yet from Claire Denis, a filmmaker with her share of dark portraits. Vincent Lindon is a cargo ship captain who returns home after decades for reasons that don’t become clear until much later. His sister is mess and his niece (her daughter) in the hospital, the victim of terrible sexual abuse. Their story comes together slowly in fractured flashbacks as we struggle to understand how everyone is connected, including the woman next door (Chiara Mastroianni), divorced from a powerful businessman with some shady business. What comes together most clearly is the rot in the family line and reason Kindon left it all behind. In some ways it’s like a warped version of Chinatown with an even more black-hearted backstory and insidious ending. This is a tough one, but it’s worth the investment. The score by Tindersticks adds a haunting atmosphere to the journey. French with English subtitles.
Jia Zhangke’s A Touch of Sin (Kino Lorber, Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD, VOD) takes four true stories of life in the modern China economy and weaves them into an unsettling portrait of the country, where the runaway growth takes its toll on the citizens racing to simply survive. Jia isn’t known for a sense of humor and this film, with its stories cleverly woven together in subtle ways, has a mercenary edge to it—there’s murder, predation, and bureaucratic indifference to the ordeals of citizens just trying to get by—but there’s a dark humor to its satire as well. Welcome to the modern economy where everything is for sale and human capital is just another commodity. Mandarin and Cantonese with English subtitles.
As holiday movie titles go, The Desolation of Smaug is a less-than-catchy handle for an evening’s buoyant entertainment. But only to the uninitiated. To the throbbing fan base of The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien’s fun and relatively compact fantasy novel, those words portend sheer fire-breathing awesomeness.
By now you know that The Hobbit has been elongated into three hefty movies by Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson. Smaug is the middle one, and it improves on last year’s rambling An Unexpected Journey by sticking to a clean, headlong storyline and jettisoning much of Part 1’s juvenile humor. Our hero, Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), is traveling with his crowd of bumptious dwarfs, intent on finding a magical stone inside a mountain crammed with treasure. Wee wrinkle: The mountain is home to a dragon named Smaug (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch), who likes to emerge periodically from his lair and burn down neighboring Laketown.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey – Extended Edition (New Line, Blu-ray, Blu-ray 3D, DVD) follows the pattern that director Peter Jackson set on his TheLord of the Rings films. The theatrical cut came out earlier this year, and now the “Extended Edition” arrives. In the previous trilogy, those additions returned scenes from the book that had been edited out for narrative momentum, giving the film more heft as well as more intimacy. In the case of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, however, less than 15 minutes of footage is added to the film, and many (including myself) feel that it’s too long in the first place.
Tolkein wrote The Hobbit long before even contemplating his epic trilogy and the book is a modest, simple fantasy adventure compared to the sweep and scale of the subsequent books. Jackson approaches his adaptation, however, in light of the “events to come” and directs with the same gravity and sense of peril as we experienced in The Lord of the Rings, which seems like overkill to this smaller scale story. It’s impressively produced but overburdened with import and foreshadowing. Bilbo (Martin Freeman) and the dwarfs don’t even get out of the hobbit hole for an hour and they can just see their destination on the horizon before the credits roll. While some fans may enjoy the added time in Middle Earth, it just slows their journey that much more.
More attractive than the added footage is the epic extras. The theatrical cut carried about two hours of behind-the-scene featurettes originally produced for the web. This edition offers commentary by Jackson and co-writer Philippa Boyens and two more chapters in the epic “Appendices” with more than nine hours of documentaries, behind-the-scenes featurettes, interviews, and other explorations of the book and the adaptation. This is what makes Jackson’s special editions more special than anybody else’s.
There isn’t a lot of passion in Brian De Palma’s Passion(eOne, Blu-ray, DVD) but there is a love of kinkiness, flirtation, sensation, and the thrill of playing big business games and an odd intimacy that we don’t always get in De Palma’s coolly observed, stylistically exacting cinema. The opening scene has an easy intimacy of colleagues (Rachel McAdams as boss Christine and Noomi Rapace as trusted assistant Isabelle) with their respective guards down, or so it seems. “There’s no backstabbing here, it’s just business,” claims Christine after taking credit for Isabelle’s idea, and her attitude suggests that she really believes it. Isabelle, however, takes it personally, something between a betrayal and a personal affront, and when she kisses Christine on the lips, it’s not a seduction or a forgiveness. She’s planting the kiss of death.
Has Sauron struck again? From the furious debates playing across DVD/Blu-ray forums, where some the most passionate fans and exacting collectors can be found registering their praise and displeasures with upcoming and new releases (often in hyperbolic dimensions and a hostile tone), you might assume that there’s a new war brewing over the fate of the One Ring on Blu-ray.
Warner released the theatrical editions of the The Lord of the Rings trilogy on Blu-ray last year but held the Extended Editions for 2011. Not just some longer version with deleted scenes cut back in, the Extended Editions were painstakingly reedited for home video by Peter Jackson with new special effects, a reworked score by Howard Shore to match the new rhythms of the narrative and some lovely scenes that were cut for time in the theatrical version of the film but add depth to the characters and the scope of the epic. They were released on DVD years ago. For Blu-ray release, Warner returned to the film’s original 2K digital intermediate files (the final digital edition before striking film prints for theaters) for the source of the Blu-ray master.
Here’s where it gets complicated. While the masters of The Two Towers and Return of the King were completed digitally, The Fellowship of the Ring was partly digital master but mostly completed on film, where it was color-timed photochemically rather than digitally. For the theatrical release on Blu-ray, Warner used a digital master taken from a release print, but for the extended edition, Jackson wanted to rescan the original elements to get the most visual detail and clarity, and them retime the color for home viewing, adjusting the brightness, intensity and hues to best effect on TV monitors. So while The Two Towers and Return of the King were mastered from the same source as previous release, The Fellowship of the Ring was not.
That’s the simplified version of a very complex, but the upshot is that the Fellowship of the Ring: Extended Edition Blu-ray looks different from all previous incarnations (film, DVD and Blu-ray) of the film.
The British film studio Hammer is legendary among horror fans for their lurid and lusty Technicolor revisions of the classic monster movies of the thirties, but they came the horror revival through a general focus on genre films, notably (but not limited to) thrillers, mysteries and science-fiction films. The Icons of Suspense Collection: Hammer Films (Sony) gathers six black-and-white thrillers made between 1958 and 1963, all distributed in the U.S. by (and some co-produced by) Columbia.
These Are the Damned (1963), Hammer’s answer to Village of the Damned, is the highest-profile film of the set, and the most anticipated. It’s a rare auteur piece (directed by American expatriate-turned-continental class act Joseph Losey), a long sought after science fiction item (Losey’s only true genre film outside of noir and crime cinema) and a Hammer rarity that was cut for American distribution and has been restored for its home video debut. And it’s a strange collision of exploitation elements, visual elegance and emotional coolness, a fascinating oddity with strange angles that don’t all fit but certainly add intriguing elements.
It begins as a different kind of genre film: in a cute little seaside vacation town in Britain, Teddy Boys on motorcycles led by the almost simian-looking King (Oliver Reed, with a dark glower and hulking menace) send out a gorgeous young bird (Shirley Anne Field) to attract the interest of an older American tourist (Macdonald Carey). Then they jump the gent for his cash, beating him brutally and dancing away while whistling their theme song (“Black Leather,” a weird quasi-rock chant that doesn’t sound like anything these chaps would adopt but does include almost nihilistic lyrics with nursery rhyme simplicity: “Black leather, black leather / Smash smash smash / Black leather, black leather / Crash crash crash”). “The age of senseless violence has caught up with us, too,” explains Bernard (Alexander Knox), a local authority figure who run a secret project nearby and has his own younger woman (Viveca Lindfors), an eccentric artist who sculpts eerie-looking statues in a small vacation home known as “The Birdhouse” perched, as it turns out, over the heart of the project. It’s all strangely complicated and almost arbitrary the way Carey’s ugly American Simon Wells sweeps Field’s frustrated sweater girl Joan out of King’s clutches, down the bluff from The Birdhouse and into a secret cave system where a small group of children of the atom are raised without human contact beyond video communications.