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. Cinephiled film critic Myriam Gabriel-Pollock has her own issues with the film but confesses that it is nonetheless “an energetic and highly entertaining spectacle filled with as much heroism, clashing blades, hideous villains, harrowing escapes and magnificent scenery as Jackson and his team at Weta could pack into 161 minutes.”
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.
You could call A Field in England (Drafthouse, Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD, VOD, On Demand) a psychedelic medieval trip, part political conspiracy and part supernatural quest, occurring the shadowy outskirts of the English Civil War between the Royalists and Cromwell’s Roundheads. Director Ben Wheatley, working again with Kill List and Sightseers co-writer and editor Amy Jump, shoots his period piece in black and white widescreen and suggests the era with little but costumes, a few props, and a shabby tent on an empty, isolated field of grass. It’s all quite heady, far more interested in playing with paranoia and surreal doings than explaining anything, and it could all be a delusion fueled by the stew of magic mushrooms. But that’s just the kind of thing that Wheatley loves to do: keep his audience off-balance and in the fog. With filmmaker commentary, an interview with Wheatley, numerous featurettes and a booklet with a Q&A with Wheatley. The Blu-ray includes two additional exclusive featurettes and a bonus digital download.
Jeffrey Schwarz’s documentary I Am Divine (Wolfe, DVD, Digital, VOD) revisits the life of Harris Glenn Milstead, the shy, overweight, gay Baltimore man who found kindred spirits and John Waters and friends and created Divine, the larger-than-life Godzilla of drag queens, in Waters’ underground pictures. It’s a very affectionate portrait filled with glowing remembrances and rare photos and footage (including Divine’s live stage appearances) but only late in the film does it make an effort to separate the charter of Divine from Glenn Milstead, who springboarded into celebrity thanks to Divine but was frustrated when he couldn’t get traction as an actor outside of the outfit. If there’s a tragedy here, it is that he died so young, just as his career was taking off and his personal life was happier and healthier than ever. Features commentary by director Jeffrey Schwarz, producer Lotti Pharris Knowles and actress / Divine friend and co-star Mink Stole (doing her very first commentary track) and 30 minutes of deleted scenes.
Also new and notable:
The Last Time I Saw Macao (Cinema Guild, DVD), a semi-experimental mix of film nostalgia, detective story and cinematic essay, comes from Portuguese filmmakers João Pedro Rodrigues and João Rui Guerra da Mata. In Portuguese with English subtitles. Features two additional short films by João Pedro Rodrigues and João Rui Guerra da Mata—Red Dawn (2011) and Mahjong (2013)—and an interview with the directors at the Melbourne International Film Festival, plus a booklet with an essay by James Quandt.
Michael Winterbottom’s Everyday (IFC, DVD, VOD), starring John Simm as a drug smuggler serving a prison term and Shirley Henderson as his wife left to care for their four kids alone, was shot over a five-year period to reflect the passage of time in the film. With deleted and extended scenes on disc.
August: Osage County (Anchor Bay, Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD, On Demand), the screen adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Tracy Letts, picked up Oscar nominations for stars Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts. It co-stars Benedict Cumberbatch, Ewan McGregor, Abigail Breslin, Chris Cooper, Margo Martindale, Julianne Nicholson, Juliette Lewis and Sam Shepard. Danny Miller’s review on Cinephiled.
Grudge Match (Warner, Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD, On Demand), the boxing comedy about retired legends back for one last bout, pits Robert De Niro against Sylvester Stallone and co-stars Kevin Hart and Alan Arkin. Jeff Michael Vice reviews it for Cinephiled.
Joe, the new feature from David Gordon Green starring Nicolas Cage and Tye Sheridan, debuts On Demand on Friday, April 11, the same day it premieres in select theaters.
Also on Friday is the romantic drama Hateship Loveship with Kristen Wiig, Guy Pearce and Hailee Steinfeld.
The Machine (XLrator), a science fiction thriller with Toby Stephens, debuts on VOD in advance of theatrical release.
The animated feature Walking With Dinosaurs (Fox) arrives On Demand a couple of weeks after debuting on disc.
Nurse (Lionsgate, Blu-ray 3D, DVD, VOD)
Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones (Paramount, Blu-ray Combo, DVD, Digital HD, VOD, On Demand)
Snake & Mongoo$e (Anchor Bay, Blu-ray, DVD)
Best Night Ever (Magnolia, Blu-ray, DVD)
Voyage to Agatis (Massacre Video, DVD)
Justin Bieber’s Believe (Universal, Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD, On Demand)
Cavemen (Well Go, Blu-ray, DVD)
Back in the Day (Screen Media, DVD)
Guardians of the Highlands (Cinedigm, DVD, Digital, On Demand)
Murph the Protector (Anchor Bay, Blu-ray, DVD)
Bad Ass 2: Bad Asses (Fox, Blu-ray, DVD)
Don’t Ask Me Questions: The Unsung Life of Graham Parker and the Rumour (Virgil, DVD, Digital)
Cocaine Cowboys Reloaded (Magnolia, Blu-ray, DVD)
Bayou Blue (Garden Thieves, DVD, VOD)
Too Sane for This World (Cinema Libre, DVD)
Black Coffee (Image, DVD, VOD)
Holy Ghost People (XLrator Media, DVD)
Hazmat (Uncork’d, DVD, VOD)
My Fair Lidy (Blairwood, DVD)
Bella Sara: Emma’s Wings (eOne, DVD)
Todd Oliver: Funny Dog (Inception, DVD, VOD)