Video Verdict: ‘Zero Dark Thirty,’ ‘Les Miserables,’ ‘The Hobbit,’ ‘This is 40’

Jessica Chastain landed a best actress Oscar nomination for her portrayal of a U.S. intelligence operative in “Zero Dark Thirty.”

Jessica Chastain landed a best actress Oscar nomination for her portrayal of a U.S. intelligence operative in “Zero Dark Thirty.”

This week’s home video releases include several key players from the most-recent Academy Awards race.

Zero Dark Thirty

4 stars (out of four)
Rated R for strong violence including brutal disturbing images, and for language
Sony
Available on: DVD, Blu-ray, digital download and on demand

Director Kathryn Bigelow may have won both of her Oscars for the 2008 film “The Hurt Locker,” but “Zero Dark Thirty” is her best project to date. The high praise for Bigelow’s newest feature isn’t meant to disparage “Hurt Locker,” which is a great film in it’s own right, but to underscore how powerful and affecting “Zero Dark Thirty” is.

The movie is not only great, it’s a reminder that Oscar voters don’t always get it right. Although nominated for five Academy Awards during the most recent race, it won only for sound editing. And, although the film earned a best picture nod, Bigelow was mysteriously snubbed in the director race.

The lukewarm reception from industry insiders may have more to do with politics than anything on screen. Controversy developed around the project, which details the U.S. hunt for terrorist Osama bin Laden, before most Americans had seen it. The problem? Several scenes depict U.S. intelligence officials torturing terror suspects in an effort to track the al Qaeda leader. Critics argue that these scenes are misleading and promote torture, but the filmmakers disagree. In truth, it doesn’t matter.

No work of historical fiction is 100 percent accurate because the fictionalization and condensation of at least some details is necessary. One can argue that “Zero Dark Thirty” promotes the use of torture in intelligence gathering, but one can just as easily argue that the Batman movies promote vigilante justice.

Look beyond the controversy, and what one finds is a compelling story that was ready for an audience. Bigelow uses an impressive ensemble cast to walk viewers through the years-long manhunt for bin Laden, and the material is both intellectually stimulating and exciting. Although many players do fine work, Jessica Chastain landed a best actress Oscar nomination because she is the picture’s driving force.

Bigelow does a fine job condensing the dense material into a palatable format and, although the film runs more than two and a half hours, the pacing seems brisk. That she was left out of Oscar’s best director race is as inexplicable as the snubbing of Ben Affleck, the man who directed this year’s best picture winner, “Argo.”

DVD and Blu-ray extras include four behind-the-scenes features.

 

Les Miserables

4 stars
Rated PG-13 for suggestive and sexual material, violence and thematic elements
Universal
Available March 22 on DVD, Blu-ray and on demand

Few writers capture the imaginations and emotions of audiences the way Victor Hugo did with his 1862 masterpiece “Les Miserables.” Hugo’s novel is not only considered a great piece of literature, it has inspired numerous adaptations, including radio plays, a television miniseries, and a musical that won eight Tony Awards. The work has also resulted in several movie versions, the latest being a film adaptation of that musical.

This new cinematic reading is told entirely through the songs and orchestral music of composer Claude-Michel Schonberg. That means the cast – made up mostly of Hollywood heavyweights – must demonstrate vocal prowess. For the most part, the players are up to the task.

Hugh Jackman stars as Jean Valjean, a 19th century French prisoner who breaks parole in hopes of a better life. With help from a kind priest, he escapes the lower classes and eventually becomes a wealthy business owner and the mayor of his town. The role of Valjean requires a singer and actor of some merit; and Jackman, who has considerable Broadway experience, handles it well.

The same is true of Anne Hathaway, who plays Fantine, a troubled worker employed by Valjean. Hathaway won a best supporting actress Oscar for her work in the film, and the award is well deserved. She has a beautiful singing voice but, more importantly, she imbues her character with believable emotion. This is particularly evident when, dying of disease, Fantine begs Valjean to care for her young daughter.

Valjean, being a good man, agrees to Fantine’s request, but his life is complicated by the relentless efforts of a police officer named Javert (Russell Crowe). A buy-the-book lawman, Javert cares only that Valjean broke parole.

Crowe looks the part of Javert, but he struggles as a singer, making him the weakest link in the movie. Sacha Baron Cohen also delivers shaky vocals while portraying an unscrupulous innkeeper, but his role is more forgiving than Crowe’s. Despite these problems – and they are noteworthy – “Les Miserables” works extraordinarily well as a whole.

Director Tom Hooper (“The King’s Speech”) deserves much of the credit for the film’s success because his cinematic vision is extraordinary. On Broadway, the one thing “Les Miserables” lacks is scope, a problem caused by the limitations of a proscenium stage. Hooper makes this a non-issue by giving audiences a sweeping view of everything that happens, including the climactic French Revolution sequences.

DVD and Blu-ray extras include several making-of featurettes and an audio commentary by Hooper.

 

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

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

When director Peter Jackson announced that he would release his cinematic version of novelist J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit” in three parts, there was reason for concern. Jackson is a great director, but he often favors length over subtlety. Even his exceptional 2005 “King Kong” remake was at least 20 minutes too long, making a three-movie adaptation of a 320-page book frightening.

However, if “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” is an indication of things to come, Jackson’s vision is solid. The movie is a nicely crafted and well-paced feature that returns viewers to Tolkien’s Middle-earth in satisfying fashion.

The events depicted in the film occur before those from Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, but the director has tied everything together as neatly as possible. Where appropriate, actors from the earlier movies reprise their roles, and the visuals match perfectly.

“The Hobbit” is a slighter work than “Lord of the Rings,” but it’s still a good adventure tale, and Jackson gives it weight by adding material from Tolkien’s “Rings” appendices. The focus is on Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), a subdued hobbit who is disinclined toward adventure until the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) convinces him to help 13 dwarves reclaim their homeland. “An Unexpected Journey” takes viewers only partially through the story, but Jackson ends the film on a reasonable note, just as he did his three “Rings” movies.

Freeman is outstanding as Bilbo, McKellen is typically great as Gandalf and the remaining members of the ensemble cast are also strong. Not surprisingly, the film also has wonderful visual effects, a point underscored by the fact that it received Oscar nominations in three technical categories.

Just like “The Lord of the Rings” movies, “An Unexpected Journey” boasts a pleasant mix of action and plot, and it has tons of added detail for hardcore Tolkien fans. If Jackson can maintain this level of quality throughout the trilogy, it will further cement his reputation as one of today’s best filmmakers.

DVD and Blu-ray extras include more than two hours of behind-the-scenes content taken from Jackson’s video journals.

 

This is 40

2½ stars
Rated R for sexual content, crude humor, pervasive language and some drug material
Universal
Available March 22 on DVD, Blu-ray and on demand

Writer-director Judd Apatow’s “This is 40” is being promoted as “The sort-of sequel to ‘Knocked Up,’ ” but the two films have little in common aside from Apatow himself. Both movies feature the filmmaker’s acerbic wit and willingness to go in depth on even the crudest topics, but the moods of the movies are worlds apart.

“Knocked Up” was a frequently hilarious but ultimately sweet look at youthful relationships. “This is 40” is an occasionally funny but often-depressing commentary on the middle-age years. The trouble lies in the couple at the center of the story. Pete (Paul Rudd) is a music producer running a floundering indie record label, and he’s married to Debbie (Leslie Mann), the high-strung owner of a high-end clothing shop. They have two young daughters, and they both celebrate their 40th birthdays during the course of the film.

Judging from the title of the movie, audiences are supposed to believe that the troubles that Pete and Debbie encounter are related to their age. In reality, they stem from bad financial and social choices spurned by their increasingly dysfunctional home life. Case in point: Pete’s record company is on the verge of failure, yet he continues to give money to his freeloading father (Albert Brooks). In the meantime, Debbie complains about the financial handouts and just about everything else Pete does. Because of this, he fails to divulge just how bad their financial situation is. Through it all, they drive high-end cars, throw lavish parties and do just about anything that’s sure to make their situation worse. Yet, viewers are somehow supposed to invest in their story.

As he did with “Knocked Up,” Apatow tries to bring “This is 40” to a sentimental and satisfying close, but he is much less successful this time. Primarily, that’s because viewers are asked to believe that Pete and Debbie actually have a deep love for one another, something that isn’t established in the movie’s first two-thirds. Because it’s as hard to believe in their relationship as it is to root for them, “This is 40” feels longer than it should.

Thankfully, the character drama is broken up by a large number of Apatow gags, many of which are funny. These bits prevent the work from becoming a total drag, but they don’t stop it from dragging.

DVD and Blu-ray extras include a gag reel, deleted scenes, tunes from musicians featured in the film and an audio commentary by Apatow.

 

ALSO OUT THIS WEEK

“Rust and Bone”: French drama about a troubled single father (Matthias Schoenaerts) who forms a bond with a woman recuperating from the amputation of both legs (Marion Cotillard). Jacques Audiard directed the movie, and it received Golden Globe nominations for best foreign language film and Cotillard’s performance. Presented in French with English subtitles.

“Badlands”: Criterion Collection restoration of director Terrence Malick’s 1973 drama about a young man (Martin Sheen) and teen girl (Sissy Spacek) who embark on a harrowing killing spree. The film was loosely based on the real-life murder case involving Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate.

“Jersey Shore” – The Uncensored Final Season: Last 13 episodes of the MTV reality show about a group of young housemates living in desirable locations. Previous seasons have seen Snooki, Pauly D and company travel to Miami and Italy, but this final go-round brings them back to Seaside Heights, New Jersey. What’s more, this uncensored four-DVD set includes more than four-hours of bonus material.

“The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp”: Criterion Collection release of the critically acclaimed 1943 dramedy by the filmmaking team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. The film tells the story of a British military officer at different stages of his career. Roger Livesey and Deborah Kerr star.

“Timerider”: Blu-ray debut of writer-director William Dear’s 1982 movie about a motorcycle racer (Fred Ward) who is transported back in time to the Old West. Belinda Bauer, Peter Coyote, Richard Masur, Ed Lauter and L.Q. Jones also star.

“Action-Packed Movie Marathon”: Shout Factory! collects four action movies from the 1980s and early ’90s on a two-disc set. Included are: “Cyclone” (1987), “Alienator” (1990), “Eye of the Tiger” (1986) and “Exterminator 2” (1984)

“Straight A’s”: Story of a troubled loner (Ryan Phillippe) who returns home to see family members that he abandoned years ago. The reunion is particularly interesting because his high school girlfriend (Anna Paquin) is now married to his brother (Luke Wilson). Directed by James Cox (“Wonderland”).

 

– Forrest Hartman is an independent film critic whose byline has appeared in some of the nation’s largest publications. For more of his work visit http://www.ForrestHartman.com. E-mail him at forrest@forresthartman.com.

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