‘The Hobbit,’ ‘Unbroken’ Arrive on Home Video

Forrest Hartman

 

An excellent crop of theatrical releases is hitting home video this week, and it’s anchored by director Peter Jackson’s latest journey to Middle Earth.

 

 

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

3½ stars
Rated PG-13 for extended sequences of intense fantasy action violence, and frightening images
Warner Brothers
Available on: Blu-ray, Blu-ray 3D, DVD, digital download and on demand

 

At first, director Peter Jackson’s decision to split his screen adaptation of “The Hobbit” into three films seemed like an excessive attempt to milk cash from a project better suited to a single 150-minute feature. In retrospect, it is obvious that Jackson was less interested in a straightforward screen adaptation of the J.R.R. Tolkien novel than an epic prequel to his “Lord of the Rings” saga. With this final entry in the series, his artistic choice is validated.     

 

There are moments in “The Hobbit” trilogy that stretch too long, but for each of those, there are wonderful story additions that make the series feel at home in Jackson’s previously established vision of Middle-Earth. To be sure, “The Hobbit” is lighter than the “Rings” saga, but Jackson permeates the story with enough darker material to foreshadow coming events. This imbues the prequels with a satisfying mix of drama and fantasy, and the result is serious fun.

 

“The Battle of the Five Armies” takes significant departures from “The Hobbit” novel, but the spirit of the story remains, and this third movie brings Jackson’s saga to a satisfying close.

 

Since the last film ended with the awakening of the dragon Smaug, “Five Armies” is compelled to conclude that plot thread. But as soon as things with the dragon are settled, Jackson slides into a new story involving dwarf leader Thorin Oakenshield’s growing avarice.  In short, Thorin (Richard Armitage) refuses to share the loot that he, and his dwarf followers have recaptured from the dragon, and his decision provokes a great battle involving multiple forces.

 

“Five Armies” is again presented from the perspective of Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), a humble hobbit who was hired by Thorin to help the dwarves reclaim their kingdom. As with the previous movies, “Five Armies” is top-loaded with action, and the visuals are astounding.

 

Jackson is prone to excess, and he overdoes some of the combat sequences. This is a minor complaint, however, as most of “Five Armies” is exhilarating.

 

The film is particularly likable because it finally brings the story to a logical conclusion. Although the previous entries were engaging, they ended with the uncomfortable gnawing of unresolved plotting. With “Five Armies,” the main players – including Ian McKellen, Orlando Bloom and Evangeline Lilly – are back, but they no longer leave us hungry for more.

 

Blu-ray and DVD extras include a music video and a number of making-of features.

 


 

Unbroken

3½ stars
Rated PG-13 for war violence including intense sequences of brutality, and for brief language
Universal
Available on: Blu-ray, DVD, digital download and on demand

 

Angelina Jolie’s second outing as a feature film director is an impressive work that should please anyone interested in stories of war and human survival. “Unbroken” focuses on Louis Zamperini, a former Olympian and World War II-era U.S. soldier who spent 47 days drifting at sea after surviving a harrowing plane crash with two fellow airmen. That story alone would have been fodder for a good film, but it’s only the first part of “Unbroken.” 

 

Zamperini survived the ordeal along with pilot Russell Allen “Phil” Phillips (Domhnall Gleeson), but their situation improved only slightly because they were captured by the Japanese. This led to another nightmarish experience as Zamperini (Jack O’Connell) struggled to survive in a prisoner-of-war camp run by a ruthless guard known as “The Bird.” The brutality of the latter is portrayed beautifully by Japanese rock star Ishihara Takamasa, who is known by fans as Miyavi. 

 

Jolie documents Zamperini’s tortured existence both on land and sea, and the film becomes a moving testament to the resiliency of our species. In almost contradictory fashion, “Unbroken” also reminds us of the immense cruelty of which human beings are capable. That glimpse at our duplicitous nature helps make the film great, but it also makes numerous scenes difficult to watch. During the course of the picture, Zamperini is tortured mercilessly, and viewers are forced to view the spectacle.  

 

Despite the deep thematic elements, “Unbroken” is simplistic in that Zamperini is the clear hero of the story, while The Bird is an enemy to be scorned and derided. One could ask for a more complex reading of the characters, but Jolie’s approach seems appropriate for a film based on Laura Hillenbrand’s best-selling biography. “Unbroken” was never meant, after all, as a broad meditation on the complexities of war. Rather, it is the story of one remarkable life that was forever transformed by participation in a massive, international conflict. O’Connell drives the film forward with a moving reading of Zamperini that makes it easy to root for his salvation.

 

It is interesting to note that fans of the biography may find themselves divided by the film. Jolie and her team of screenwriters – including the fabulous Joel and Ethan Coen – end the story at the close of World War II. The “Unbroken” book extends well beyond this, but Jolie’s choice makes sense cinematically. There is only so much one can compress into a 140-minute feature, and the film covers a good deal of ground as it is.

 

Those willing to accept “Unbroken” as made are in for an epic journey that is often uncomfortable, but always compelling. 

 

Blu-ray and DVD extras include behind-the-scenes interviews with the real Zamperini, who died in July 2014.

 


 

Into the Woods

2 stars
Rated PG for thematic elements, fantasy action and peril, and some suggestive material
Disney
Available on: Blu-ray, DVD, digital download and on demand

 

A well-staged theatrical production of “Into the Woods” is an exciting experience. Stephen Sondheim’s beautiful score is bolstered by a clever and accessible James Lapine book that asks theatergoers to forgo the romanticism of childhood fairytales for the harsh reality of everyday life. Unfortunately, most of the musical’s wit and appeal is lost in director Rob Marshall’s tedious screen adaptation.

 

Marshall’s “Woods” did manage three Oscar nominations, but all but one (best actress for Meryl Streep) came in technical categories. The kudos are understandable because Streep gets a nomination nearly every time she takes the screen, and “Woods” looks gorgeous despite its flaws. Unfortunately, the positives aren’t enough to make the film worth its two-hour run time.

 

Marshall is relatively faithful to the Broadway show, meaning the movie isn’t significantly changed from a storytelling perspective. There is, however, a difference between live theater and film, and Marshall’s adjustments are mostly related to scenic elements and special effects.

 

Live performances allow audiences to connect with the characters on stage … even when they aren’t relatable on the page. Movies, on the other hand, are a more distant medium, meaning the actors must work especially hard to create a connection. “Into the Woods” struggles with this. 

 

The story centers on a handful of well-known fairytale characters, including Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford), Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy) and Jack the giant killer (Daniel Huttlestone). Their lives converge thanks to the scheming of a wicked witch (Streep).

 

As the movie begins, viewers learn that a humble baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt) long for a child. This is impossible, however, because the witch has cursed them. She informs the couple that her curse can only be reversed if they gather several unusual items and give them to her forthwith. As the baker and his wife hunt for the goods, they cross paths with the fairytale characters, and everything we think we know is tipped on its ear. 

 

There’s a lot to like about “Into the Woods,” including the story’s reminder that happily ever after does not exist … at least not as depicted in Disney cartoons. Unfortunately, this message is better conveyed on stage.

 

Marshall has assembled an excellent cast, and everyone in the group can sing. This is important because the Sondheim soundtrack is gorgeous. What’s missing is the spark of live performance and the emotional bond that comes with it. The actors do their best to guide viewers through the story, but they don’t do enough.

 

For “Into the Woods” to work, there must be a sense of urgency and excitement, and the movie comes up short in almost every scene. Chris Pine deserves credit for his wonderful portrayal of a funny and self-centered prince, but his role isn’t large enough to overcome the dullness of the whole.

 

DVD extras are limited to a behind-the-scenes featurette. The Blu-ray release includes this plus several additional featurettes, five Easter eggs and a filmmaker’s commentary.

 

 

ALSO OUT THIS WEEK

 

“Song One”: Independent drama about a young woman (Anne Hathaway) who tries to reconnect with her estranged brother after an accident plunges him into a coma. Among other things, she locates his favorite musician (Johnny Flynn) and asks the man to play at her brother’s bedside. This results in an unexpected relationship. Written and directed by Kate Barker-Froyland.

 

Errol Morris on Criterion: The Criterion Collection releases restored versions of three movies by legendary documentarian Errol Morris. “The Thin Blue Line” is a 1988 documentary centered on a man who was wrongly convicted of murder, and it is available as a standalone feature. Criterion has also collected two of Morris’ early pictures – “The Gates of Heaven” (1978) and “Vernon, Florida” (1981) – onto a two-movie set. “Gates” considers the pet cemetery business and “Vernon” focuses on the eccentricities of residents in a small southern town.

 

Mr. Bean – The Whole Bean: Four-DVD set collecting all 14 episodes of the original “Mr. Bean” TV show. Rowan Atkinson stars as the mostly-taciturn title character.

 

“The Sure Thing”: Thirtieth anniversary Blu-ray release of director Rob Reiner’s romantic comedy about a college student (John Cusack) who plans a cross-country trip to meet a beautiful blonde (Nicollette Sheridan). Before he can connect with his “sure thing,” he must travel miles with a college ride-share partner (Daphne Zuniga).   

 

Author Bio:

Forrest Hartman, a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine, is an independent film critic whose byline has appeared in some of the nation's largest publications. For more of his work visit www.ForrestHartman.com.

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