‘Hobbit,’ ‘Zero Dark,’ ‘Les Mis’ among new DVD and Blu-ray releases

By Rich Heldenfels Beacon Journal popular culture writer

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Martion Freeman as the Hobbit Bilbo Baggins in the fantasy adventure The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey." (James Fisher/Warner Bros./MGM)

DVD and Blu-ray offerings are somewhat limited on Tuesday, with one big title moving its release to Friday.

One reason: Bilbo’s back.

Warner Home Video is bringing out The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey in a two-disc DVD set ($28.98), a Blu-ray/DVD/digital combo ($35.99) and a combo adding the 3-D version ($44.95). This is the first part of the trilogy by director Peter Jackson, based on the J.R.R. Tolkien novel, and a prequel to the Tolkien/Jackson Lord of the Rings saga; it took in more than $1 billion worldwide, making it the kind of movie that most others want to avoid competing with.

The Hobbit has an impressive look and some exhilarating action scenes; Martin Freeman is an excellent Bilbo, and fans of the earlier movies will enjoy seeing characters from those productions in a different context.

The Hobbit also takes 2 hours and 49 minutes to cover a fraction of a single book. (The Rings movies each had much more text to draw from.) As I said when the film was in theaters, it gets too caught up in extended battle sequences and just plain loves its pictures too much. It seems as if Jackson studied epics like Lawrence of Arabia too closely, since he cannot resist an opportunity to show his small figures crossing vast, if picturesque, expanses. And the script, which makes some significant modifications of Tolkien’s narrative, does not always sustain a balance between appealing to children (with some silly moments) and adults.

Extras include 10 video journals with Jackson discussing aspects of the making of the film, such as shooting in 3-D and finding the locations.

Far less impressive at the box office, but more successful creatively, is Zero Dark Thirty (Sony, $30.99 DVD/digital, $40.99 Blu-ray/DVD/digital), the acclaimed and controversial portrayal of the search for and killing of Osama bin Laden. Directed by Kathryn Bigelow, with a remarkable lead performance by Jessica Chastain, this was my choice for the best-picture Oscar, with Chastain as best actress. Best picture went instead to Argo, best actress to Jennifer Lawrence, but that should not keep you from seeing the movie.

It is grim and brutal, particularly in its portrayal of interrogation torture. Indeed, the movie was accused of justifying torture, while Bigelow rightly argued that showing something does not mean you endorse it. Instead, it follows the years of frustrating pursuit following 9/11, and the way people rationalize extreme actions when others do not work.

As I said when the movie premiered, plenty of awful acts, which seem unjustifiable, were rationalized by their doers. Terrorists routinely rationalize their deeds. Chastain’s character Maya, as stern as she appears early in the movie, becomes even more so as the body count rises, focusing all her energy not only on finding bin Laden, but also making sure he ends up dead, haranguing her superiors when not enough is done. But, as the movie ends and bin Laden is dead, Zero Dark Thirty leaves us wondering what Maya will do next, what life she will have now that her overpowering quest is complete. There is a cost to the soul.

Extras include four making-of pieces, one about Chastain.

With those two films on the table on Tuesday, you can understand why another big movie, Les Misérables, will not be on sale until Friday (Universal, $29.98 DVD, $34.98 Blu-ray/DVD/digital), The musical stars Hugh Jackman as Jean Valjean, a criminal on the run from a lawman (Russell Crowe) who devotes years to finding him; Valjean’s story intersects with that of Fantine (Anne Hathaway), a woman destroyed by society’s cruelty.

I did not expect to like the movie. And there were times when I hated it, especially when hearing some of the more ghastly lyrics, and the most charitable description of Crowe’s singing is “limited.” But the movie got to me, and not just because the actors sang live (instead of lip-synching to prerecorded vocals), or because Hathaway has a stunning moment that won her a supporting-actress Oscar. It has old-fashioned grandeur and sweep, and director Tom Hooper did such an expert job of wrangling extras and complicated scenes that it is still stunning he was not even nominated for a directing Oscar.

Extras include a look at the cast, audio commentary by Hooper, discussion of the Victor Hugo novel that inspired the production, and one on the film’s design. The Blu-ray package adds more elements, among them one on the live singing in the movie.

Also on Friday is This Is 40 (Universal, $29.98 DVD, $34.98 Blu-ray/DVD/digital pack), the very personal comedy-drama from writer-director Judd Apatow. How personal? His wife, Leslie Mann, stars, and their real-life daughters play the daughters of Mann and Paul Rudd in the film. And, especially in the grimmer moments, you can see that the movie is pushing toward something uncomfortably real.

Unfortunately, at other times, it settles for the gross, the aimless and the overlong. (The movie clocks in at a slow 2 hours, 14 minutes.) Scenes not only feel improvised, they go on long after any improv-based inspiration has faded. It does try for something important, and the cast includes not only Mann and Rudd but also Jason Segel, Melissa McCarthy, Akron’s own John Lithgow, Albert Brooks and a surprisingly good Megan Fox. But it too often falls flat.

Extras include a making-of piece, audio commentary by Apatow, deleted scenes, bloopers and more. The Blu-ray version also has an unrated cut that runs about three minutes longer than the theatrical version, which is included as well.

Down video road: True Blood: The Complete Fifth Season comes to DVD and Blu-ray on May 21. The Jessica Chastain thriller Mama hits both formats on May 7. Maverick: The Complete Second Season will be on DVD on April 23. That same date brings Masterpiece: Mr. Selfridge, on DVD and Blu-ray, before it has completed a PBS run starting on March 31.

Rich Heldenfels writes about popular culture for the Beacon Journal and Ohio.com, including the HeldenFiles Online, www.ohio.com/blogs/heldenfiles. He is also on Facebook and Twitter. You can contact him at 330-996-3582 or rheldenfels@thebeaconjournal.com.

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