The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (Warner, Blu-ray, Blu-ray 3D, DVD, VOD), the third and final installment of Peter Jackson’s supersized take on J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy, opens with a spectacular dragon attack on Laketown and tops it with a battle that nearly dwarfs the Middle Earth-shattering war Lord of the Rings trilogy (pun intended). It’s Elf and Man against Dwarf, but for the Orcs it’s personal. Which, as any fan of the original novel “The Hobbit” will tell you, pretty much misses the point of the story. But then Jackson isn’t interested in a faithful interpretation of Tolkien’s novel as much as backfilling a prequel story to The Lord of the Rings, transforming the novel’s story of legacy and destiny warped into greed and hubris, a grand fantasy adventure with dragons and trolls and Shakespearean dimensions, into the initial stirrings of the evil Sauron and a war that will engulf the world and all the races.
That pretty much sidelines Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), the ostensible hero of the tale, while redirecting the focus to characters who never appeared in the original novel or in Tolkien’s universe at all, namely the above-mentioned Orcs with a grudge against Thorin (Richard Armitage), the Dwarf who would be king. The final half of the film, which is already the third film in the telling, is an enormous battle and, yes, it is impressive as a physical thing. It’s also exhausting and overdone, with two Orc villains who prove comically unkillable. These guys are fiercer than the next generation Orc-Goblin hybrids that Sauroman breeds in Lord of the Rings. Those caveats aside, it’s an exciting film with a grand sense of scale and sweep and a sure sense of weaving together multiple stories in the climactic battle. Jackson is quite adept at these things and he keeps the stories straight and the momentum up. What he misses is the heart of Tolkien’s tale. For that, we just may need to wait for someone to edit this story down rather than expand it even more.
It’s released in multiple formats. All of the disc editions offer five short featurettes, all 12-minutes or under: “New Zealand: Home of Middle-earth Part 3,” “Recruiting the Five Armies,” “Completing Middle-earth: A Six-Part Saga,” “Completing Middle-earth: A Seventeen-Year Journey,” and “The Last Goodbye: Behind the Scenes,” plus a music video. This is the same version that played in the theaters but come Christmas you can count on an even longer version from Jackson, with commentary and feature-length documentaries.
John Ford: Dreaming The Quiet Man (Olive, Blu-ray, DVD), a feature-length documentary on the making of John Ford’s beloved romantic classic, frames the production in the feeling that the Irish people have for the film, Ford’s tribute to his Irish-American legacy. Director Sé Merry Doyle provides a survey on Ford’s career and offers insight into the contradictory character of the director (Maureen O’Hara, interviewed for the documentary, describes her complicated and sometimes trying relationship with Ford, who was in love with her and showed it by tormenting her), and includes rare color home movie footage from the set and features interviews with filmmakers and film history experts Martin Scorsese and Peter Bogdanovich, Ford biographer Joseph McBride, and Irish locals who were involved in the film. It falls somewhere between stand-alone documentary and elaborate supplement to an unproduced special edition disc set.
Olive rarely if ever offers supplements on their discs. This is an exception, and fittingly so, as the extras are scenes and interviews deleted from the film.
Best Seller (Olive, Blu-ray, DVD) is modest but smartly-scripted thriller from 1987 that holds up remarkably well, thanks to a savvy script by Larry Cohen, who was better known at the time as a cagey creator of high-concept, low-budget exploitation films, and great casting. James Woods once again brings charm to the role of a pathologically vindictive hitman who goes to a Joseph Wambaugh-like cop/author (Brian Dennehy) to expose his former employer. This narcissist wants to be the hero of his next book and Cohen gives Woods plenty to work with, from his great lines (which he delivers with the cocky grin and a predator’s confidence) to a peacock’s pride in his work. He cannily mixes social satire and genre twists in his clever screenplay of an unlikely friendship between two men with more history than they realize; his dialogue has a bite and an unforced wit that hovers somewhere between B-movie gangster dramas and buddy pictures. It wasn’t a hit when it came out—director John Flynn was better with character than action and never really gets the blood pumping through it—but it is still a smart, lean thriller and a minor gem of the modern crime genre.
The ambitious 1996 thriller The End of Violence (Olive, Blu-ray, DVD) finds director Wim Wenders overreaching to make grand statements about identity, conscience, and the surveillance state in modern L.A. from a screenplay with big ideas built on unformed characters and arch dialogue. Bill Pullman is the ostensible hero, a Roger Corman-like producer kidnapped by a pair of thugs with orders to kill him, while Gabriel Byrne watches powerlessly from on high, a meek Big Brother wired up through surveillance cameras hidden throughout the city. It’s ostensibly a thriller but Wenders twists what little onscreen violence there is into either coldly distanced observations (like watching a movie?) or abrupt but anonymous killings. The narrative is a tangle, neglecting characters and leaving the vast conspiracy more a suggestion than a fully conceived plot, and I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone but Wenders fans. But I am a Wenders fan myself and for all the faults I enjoy Wenders’ unerring eye for image and color, which creates an often beautiful film of unsettling menace and haunting mystery, and his generosity of character. The previous DVD was poorly mastered and non-anamorphic, so this new edition is a vast improvement.
Convicts (Olive, Blu-ray, DVD), which Horton Foote adapted from his own one-act play, is a coming-of-age story set on a turn-of-the-century Texas plantation owned by an aging skinflint of a landowner (played by Robert Duvall) who uses convict labor to work his spread. It’s a small, intimate story about mortality and Duvall, who won an Oscar for Tender Mercies, which Foote wrote, inhabits with a mix of authority and fragility, like a lonely King Lear slipping into dementia. Lukas Haas, who is our perspective on the story, plays the 13-year-old boy working in the plantation and brings a clear-eyed attentiveness and childlike doggedness to his character, and James Earl Jones co-stars as the manager of the plantation store, the closest that the owner has to a friend. Peter Masterson directs with an easy intimacy that serves the understated performances and Foote’s lyrical language without actually distinguishing the film.
Mr. Bean: The Whole Bean 25th Anniversary Collection (Shout! Factory, DVD) presents remastered editions of all 14 episodes of the original British comedy series starring Rowan Atkinson as the bumbling goofball in (mostly) silent movie skits of modern life. Bean is a completely different animal from Atkinson’s usual caustic, scheming comic creature, a sweet, befuddled man-child with a touch of endearing sneakiness, a whole lot of pluck, and a child’s understanding of the world. These daffy little skits are modern silent movie shorts of the best kind, funny and clever and completely family friendly.
The four-disc set also features four deleted scenes and the 72-minute compilation “The Best Bits of Mr. Bean,” plus supplements from the 2004 DVD release: two bonus sketches that were never broadcast (“Bus Stop” and “Library”) and the 40-minute documentary “The Story of Bean.”
Also new and notable:
Into the Woods (Disney, Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD, Disney Movies Anywhere, VOD) – The big screen version of Stephen Sondheim’s musical doesn’t have what you would call a catchy score—no “Let it Go” on this soundtrack—but it turns fairy tales inside out to teach a set of life lessons for adulthood in the real world. Call it a fairy tale for grown-ups with songs, magic, giants, and a PG rating. Meryl Streep gets top billing in a big cast that includes Anna Kendrick, James Corden, Emily Blunt, Johnny Depp, and Chris Pine as a charming but shallow prince.
Unbroken (Universal, Blu-ray, DVD, VOD), directed by Angelina Jolie, is a real-life World War II survival dram abased on the biography of Louis Zamperini by Laura Hillenbrand and starring Jack O’Connell as Louis.
The Sure Thing: 30th Anniversary Edition (Shout! Factory, Blu-ray) – Rob Reiner’s follow-up to This Is Spinal Tap is a lighthearted comedy about a pair of mismatched college freshmen (John Cusack and Daphne Zuniga) who reluctantly pair off for a cross-country road trip. The Blu-ray debut includes the supplements from the DVD: commentary by director Rob Reiner and four featurettes.
Robert Altman directs Vincent & Theo (Olive, Blu-ray, DVD), the story of the relationship between the artist (Tim Roth) and his brother (Paul Rhys), who supported and promoted Vincent’s work.
Criterion presents the first three documentaries directed by Errol Morris in two special editions: The Gates of Heaven / Vernon, Florida (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD) and The Thin Blue Line (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD), both with new interviews with Morris and other supplements.
Mystery Science Theater 3000: Volume XXXII (Shout! Factory, DVD) presents four more episodes never before released on disc: the 1958 Italian muscleman classic Hercules, the 1950 Radar Secret Service, Space Travelers (1969), which was a re-edit of Marooned, and the TV movie San Francisco International. With featurettes, bonus interviews, and four mini-posters among the supplements.
Digital / VOD / Streaming exclusives:
Two Days, One Night (Sundance Selects, VOD) – Marion Cotillard plays a woman fighting to keep her job at a small solar panel factory while recovering from severe depression in the latest film from the Dardennes Brothers, Belgium’s realist poets of working class life and the down-and-out survivors. This is the first time they’ve cast a major star in one of their films but Cotillard fits into their naturalism beautifully, delivering a raw performance of a woman struggling just to keep her equilibrium. Comes to Cable On Demand weeks before disc and digital VOD.
A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (Kino Lorber, VOD), written and directed by California-based filmmaker Ana Lily Amirpour, is a vampire movie that stirs American movie references into a stylized Iranian film noir, a crime drama with supernatural edges. Amirpour shoots in high-contrast black-and-white widescreen almost entirely at night and fills the screen with a sense of emptiness and ominousness. Available on VOD from iTunes, Google Play, Vudu, and Amazon Instant before disc and Cable On Demand.
On Friday, March 27, Abel Ferrara’s Welcome to New York (VOD) comes to Cable On Demand, the same day it opens in New York. Gérard Depardieu is Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the French politician indicted for assaulting a maid in a New York Hotel, in everything but name on Ferrara’s scandalous take on notorious affair. It’s not rated but it is explicit. It is, after all, from the director of Bad Lieutenant; this time the bearish Gérard Depardieu bares all, which should come with its own warning. French with English subtitles.
Available to purchase as a digital download in advance of disc release:
Antarctica: A Year on Ice (Music Box, Digital)
Classics and Cult:
Chattahoochee (Olive, Blu-ray, DVD)
Gone with the Pope (Grindhouse, Blu-ray+DVD)
At War With the Army (Kino Lorber, Blu-ray, DVD)
Cover Up (Kino Lorber, Blu-ray, DVD)
Water is Wet (Facets, DVD)
Tom Sawyer (1973) (Timeless, DVD)
A Musicares Tribute to Paul McCartney (Shout! Factory, Blu-ray, DVD)
Fast & Furious 1-6 Collection (Universal, Blu-ray, DVD)
The Roommates / A Woman for All Men (Gorgon, Blu-ray, DVD)
TV on disc:
Sebastian Bergman: Dark Secrets (MHz, DVD)
Bukow and König: Set 1 (MHz, DVD)
Bukow and König: Set 2 (MHz, DVD)
Don Matteo Set 9 (MHz, DVD)
Don Matteo Set 10 (MHz, DVD)
Frontline: Gunned Down – The Power of the NRA (PBS, DVD)
1066: The Battle for Middle Earth (BBC, DVD)
A Path Appears (PBS, DVD)
Nova: Sunken Ship Rescue (PBS, DVD)
Street Outlaws: Season 1 (Cinedigm, DVD)
Fast n’ Furious: Most Furious (Cinedigm, DVD)
Song One (Cinedigm, Blu-ray, DVD)
Kabbalah Me (First Run, DVD)
Sukkah City (First Run, DVD)
Memory Lane (MVD, DVD)
Lonesome Dove Church (Lionsgate, DVD, Digital HD, VOD)
Confessions of a Prodigal Son (Cinedigm, DVD, Digital HD)
Diamond Heist (Cinedigm, DVD, Digital HD, VOD)
LA Apocalypse (Anchor Bay, DVD)
Digging Up the Marrow (RLJ/Image, Blu-ray, DVD)
Marvel Knights: Wolverine vs. Sabretooth – Reborn (Shout! Factory, DVD motion comic)