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It’s been a while since movie fans encountered such a stacked week for releases. Several Best Picture nominees are in the pile, as well as some favorites from directors Peter Jackson and Judd Apatow. Read on to learn about some of this week’s best releases, and maybe even a few that slipped under your radar.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey had a deck stacked in its favor even before it was created, with hordes of built-in fans, the return of Peter Jackson as director, and a gorgeous setting and world to build off of, thanks to the success of The Lord of the Rings franchise. Due to one book being split into three parts, all of that may have been for naught had An Unexpected Journey failed to craft a satisfying story that ended on a note looking to the future of the trilogy. Luckily, in the trustworthy, wizardy hands of Jackson, fans had little to worry about.
The Hobbit, like LOTR, follows a journey in Middle-earth, this time centering on hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) and a crew of 13 rambunctious dwarves journeying to reclaim the dwarves’ former lair. Ian McKellen reprises his role as Gandalf and other familiar characters still populate the world of Middle-earth, but in many ways, fans get the opportunity to focus on other creature communities in the world, while still getting a bumbling and curmudgeonly but ultimately likeable hero of a hobbit. An Unexpected Journey doesn’t have the same pace or urgency as its Jackson predecessors, but it very much finds its own fit and stands firmly on its own two feet.
Best Special Feature: While I was a little disappointed by the lack of audio commentary (extended edition, maybe?), there are still hours of bonus features on the disc, even if the extras look pretty sparse, below. The bulk of these are the ten video blogs available with the Blu-ray release. Each of these can be accessed individually, or with a “play all” option, and they cover topics as diverse as shooting favorite scenes, creating a film in 3D, working in post production, shooting on location, and the world premiere of the film.
If we’re going to get nitpicky, I particularly enjoyed Video Blog #3, otherwise known as “Shooting Block One.“ While people invested with the film are involved with each of the video blogs, this one was particularly appealing because it focused on some of the actors' favorite moments and what they thought about each of their characters. Additionally, one of the nicest things about the bonus features on this disc is that they are also shot in HD, which is a nice change-up from the home video footage shot for LOTR. The nicer footage also gives fans a chance to see how glorious the landscapes the cast and crew were able to shoot in throughout New Zealand truly are.
Other Special Features:
“New Zealand: Home of Middle-earth”
Tom Hooper’s Les Miserables begins with a compelling scene featuring chains and prisoners pulling a ship into harbor with all their weight. From there, music is the key component of the musical film, but it isn’t the most brilliant one. The rich settings, costumes, and emotions displayed by the actors are all particularly important to the overall vision of the film, from sewer and barricade scenes to romantic moments in the rain. In one of the extras on the disc, a crew member explains it best when he says Les Miserables offers “a cast of great actors and also, really, really good singers.” Good singers and great actors doesn’t necessarily provide the most satisfying viewing experience.
For fans of the more theatrical musical style of the play, this could potentially be more of a problem, but for those looking for a cinematic moment and something that hasn’t been done in the particular scope Les Mis chooses, it’s the perfect movie for the perfect medium. Standout performances from Anne Hathaway, Hugh Jackman and Samantha Barks lead an all-star cast to tell a tale of love and redemption on the brink of revolutionary change in France. As Jean Valjean, Jackman finds ways to amend for stealing bread. As Fantine, Hathaway turns her heart to stone and even if you haven’t yet caught the film, you’ve probably been privy to her performance of “I’ve Dreamed a Dream,” which Universal Studios Home Entertainment has wisely used in its advertising platform. Among the rubble on the streets, there are tales of love, thieving, and fallen women. With so many standout moments, these performances can be uneven, but they are without a question worthy of a watch.
Best Special Feature: The extras with the Blu-ray are incredibly detailed, with different featurettes explaining how different shots or facets were achieved. Whether or not you were impressed with singing live “< i>Les Miserables Singing Live” really explores every facet of what it takes to accomplish such a feat for film. There are pianists who work with each of the actors on the songs and everyone is radio miked so they can stay in the right place in the song without any outer noise.
The cast and crew keep fervently stating that the technology for singing live didn’t exist just a few short years ago and the biggest challenge in any given scene was taking the time and effort to shoot live and then having to fix the sound in post. No one is explicit about this, but I’m guessing that did happen on occasion. Those sneaky post people have the magical touch.
If anyone is still not excited about this bonus feature, check out the barricade link below and see how the cast and crew built the set in live time. Note: The Les Miserables Blu-ray and DVD will hit shelves later this week on Friday, March 22.
Other Special Features:
“The Stars of Les Miserables”
“The West End Connection”
“Les Miserables On Location”
“Creating the Perfect Paris”
“Battle at the Barricade”
Zero Dark Thirty
Zero Dark Thirty is a film about the complications of war and terrorism and the bureaucratic decision-making that goes into fighting for freedom. More distinctly, it’s the story of a woman named Maya (Jessica Chastain) who relentlessly pursues Osama Bin Laden, getting little sleep, losing some of the few friends she has, and hardening her attitude and demeanor to achieve her goals.
While Maya is the focal point tying the film together, Zero Dark Thirty also features some great moments with a slew of male actors, including Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, Mark Strong, and a sneaky good cameo from Mark Duplass. If you are into the intricacies of intelligence-gathering tactics, Katherine Bigelow’s film about capturing Bin Laden is not only an interesting movie with detail-oriented appeal, it’s also one of the standouts of the year.
Best Special Feature: Honestly, the bonus features are pretty short and sweet on this disc, so if you do plan to purchase the film, do so for the movie, and the pretty intricate menu set-up page. If I did have to choose a bonus feature that was my favorite, it would be the short featurette called “Geared Up.” The segment looks into the information Bigelow and co. were given concerning some of the details of capturing Bin Laden. One of the hardest pieces of the puzzle to reinvent were the stealth helicoptors.
It’s easy enough to build practically anything in Hollywood. However, it’s less easy to build something without a master plan to go off of. Very few people have ever seen a stealth helicopter and the government wasn’t exactly forthcoming with top secret information, including how to build one. However, there were photos of the tail available from the wreck at the compound and the studios worked with engineers and people capable of designing something off of the tail. It’s a pretty interesting watch and a problem most films would never come up against.
Other Special Features:
“Targeting Jessica Chastain”
“No Small Feat”
This Is 40
This is 40 is the sequel to Knocked Up, an often funny but bloated production that follows a couple (Leslie Mann and Paul Rudd) who have fallen into a marital rut. At the same time, they hit some financial problems and are dealing with their two girls, who are both at critical stages in the growing up process. It sounds like your average family comedy, but fans of Apatow’s work in the past will find some of the same rauchy but realistic comedy that’s become his signature.
This movie has some problems. The film’s length is a little prolonged and the flow of some of its scenes doesn’t always seem like a natural progression, or even necessary. However, This is 40 is sort of like its subject family—a little messy, occasionally tedious, but always well-meaning and very believable. Spend an hour or two with Debbie and Pete on their 40th birthdays and I doubt very much you will regret it. This is 40 also stars Jason Segel, Megan Fox, Albert Brooks, John Lithgow, Chris O’Dowd, and a slew of other familiar names and faces.
Please Note: This is 40 will not be available for purchase until Friday, March 22.
Best Special Feature: It’s a comedy, so the deleted, extended and alternate scene segments are pretty great. I will say they serve to highlight why the final product of This is 40 is so long, because there are other equally twisted comedic moments in the deleted fodder as well as a few outright hilarious ones. I especially like a couple of extra scenes that are outtakes from a cut dinner table scene where the Apatow girls are conversing with a little boy at one table and Rudd and Mann’s characters are having a weirdo conversation with Annie Mumolo and Robert Smigel’s characters about sex.
Honestly, there are more extras on this disc than with most releases and certainly most comedies. You put this much A-list talent into one room and you are bound to overshoot. In many ways, that’s the best problem a comedy can have and anyone willing to purchase the This is 40 set on Blu-ray should have a lot of fun perusing all of the bonus features. You can check out the rest, below.
Other Special Features:
Feature Commentary with Judd Apatow
“The Making of This is 40” documentary
“This is Albert Brooks (at work)” documentary
“Graham Parker & The Rumour: Long Emotional Ride” documentary
Music: Graham Parker
Music: Graham Parker & The Rumour
Music: Ryan Adams
Biking with Barry
Triumph the Insult Comic Dog
Kids on the Loose 3
Bodies By Jason commercial
Fresh Air with Terry Gross
Other March 19 releases
Don’t discount some of the other releases this week. From the well-received French and Belgian film Rust & Bone to the smaller budget female-driven comedy Bachelorette, there are plenty of opportunities for viewing some great movies this week. Those willing to give one of these other releases a shot might be pleasantly surprised.
Rust & Bone
Jersey Shore: The Uncensored Final Season
Ghost Hunters: Season 8, Part 1