Blu Tuesday: The Hobbit, Unbroken and Into the Woods

Every Tuesday, I review the newest Blu-ray releases and let you know whether they’re worth buying, renting or skipping, along with a breakdown of the included extras. If you see something you like, click on the cover art to purchase the Blu-ray from Amazon, and be sure to share each week’s column on Facebook and Twitter with your friends.

“The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies”

WHAT: After successfully defeating Smaug, Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans) and the surviving citizens of Lake-town head to the Lonely Mountain seeking refuge. Thorin (Richard Armitage), who’s since been consumed by the dragon sickness, refuses to help, leading the humans and elves to declare war on the dwarves. But when Azog the Defiler and his battalion of orcs attack the dwarven stronghold, the three armies must put aside their differences and fight alongside each other in order to stop them.

WHY: Splitting “The Hobbit” into three movies has been a point of contention among fans ever since it was first announced, and the futility of that decision has never been more evident than with “The Battle of the Five Armies,” a 144-minute marathon of masturbatory excess in which the titular set piece (one that’s contained within a single chapter in J.R.R. Tolkien’s novel) makes up almost half of its bloated runtime. Much like the first two installments, the movie has its share of great moments, but they’re surrounded by a lot of extraneous filler that pushes Bilbo even further into the background. These films were supposed to be about Bilbo’s journey “there and back again,” but you wouldn’t know it from the ever-changing protagonists, shifting focus between Bilbo, Thorin and Bard the Bowman with such frequency that it leaves little room for actual character development. But while “The Battle of the Five Armies” may be the weakest entry in the “Hobbit” series, it’s a nonetheless fitting end to a trilogy that’s biggest problem was taking so long to get there. Could it have been better? Absolutely, especially when measured against the far superior “Lord of the Rings” films, but fans will love it regardless, and that’s to the credit of the fantastic ensemble cast, incredible visuals and Jackson’s limitless creativity.

EXTRAS: There’s a featurette about the five armies, a retrospective on Peter Jackson’s Middle-earth saga, and the final part of “New Zealand: Home of Middle-earth.”

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“Unbroken”

WHAT: The true story of Olympic distance runner Louis Zamperini (Jack O’Connell), who spent a harrowing 47 days stranded in the Pacific Ocean with two fellow soldiers (Domhnall Gleeson and Finn Wittrock) after their plane crashed during WWII, only to eventually be rescued by the Japanese navy and sent to a POW camp run by a merciless commander known as The Bird (Miyavi).

WHY: It’s taken decades for a Louis Zamperini biopic to get made, and although that may be surprising considering his extraordinary story, it’s easy to see why some of Hollywood’s most powerful and talented filmmakers had so much trouble adapting it for the big screen. This is a movie that singles out one man for his bravery and perseverance in a war where thousands of other men were going through the exact same thing. Granted, none of those guys were Olympic athletes or survived 47 days on a raft, but you don’t really feel any more emotion for Zamperini just because he suffered more than the rest. Angelina Jolie still deserves a lot of credit for succeeding where so many failed, and the opening act – which intermixes scenes from Zamperini’s childhood and the 1936 Berlin Olympics with his pre-crash days in WWII – is really smartly handled. Jack O’Connell also turns in another star-making performance as the resolute war hero, reaffirming his status as an actor to watch, while Japanese rocker Miyavi does some good (if uneven) work as Zamperini’s sadistic tormentor. The film looks great as well thanks to some stunning cinematography by Roger Deakins, but despite its fascinating source material, “Unbroken” isn’t as powerful or inspiring as it sets out to be.

EXTRAS: In addition to a making-of featurette, there’s a profile on the real-life Louis Zamperini, a concert performance by Miyavi, some deleted scenes and more.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“Into the Woods”

WHAT: A vengeful witch (Meryl Streep) tasks a baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt) with collecting a series of magical items from popular fairy tale characters – including a cow as white as milk, a cape as red as blood, hair as yellow as corn, and a slipper as pure as gold – in exchange for reversing a family curse preventing them from having children.

WHY: Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s “Into the Woods” probably seemed like a pretty clever idea when it debuted back in 1986, but the musical doesn’t feel quite as fresh or groundbreaking in a post-“Shrek” world. Though there’s a lot of great talent on display in Rob Marshall’s big screen adaptation, many of the actors are wasted, including Meryl Streep, whose performance is so mediocre that it makes her recent Oscar nomination look like a complete joke. Johnny Depp, meanwhile, is in the film for about five minutes, despite his face being splashed across every piece of promotional material in a pathetic attempt at drumming up interest. James Corden just about holds the movie together, and youngster Lilla Crawford stands out as the brash Little Red Riding Hood, but it’s not enough, especially when the music is so unmemorable, save for one hilariously bad duet between Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen’s princes that’s fittingly titled “Agony.” “Into the Woods” is supposed to be a witty and unabashedly adult deconstruction of famous fairy tales, but that’s rarely evident in Marshall’s film. Instead, it’s a giant bore that wears out its welcome long before the torturous final act.

EXTRAS: There’s an audio commentary by director Rob Marshall, a four-part making-of featurette, interviews with the cast and crew about working on the movie, and a deleted song performed by Meryl Streep.

FINAL VERDICT: SKIP

  

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Blu Tuesday: Exodus, Top Five and More

Every Tuesday, I review the newest Blu-ray releases and let you know whether they’re worth buying, renting or skipping, along with a breakdown of the included extras. If you see something you like, click on the cover art to purchase the Blu-ray from Amazon, and be sure to share each week’s column on Facebook and Twitter with your friends.

“Exodus: Gods and Kings”

WHAT: Raised as an Egyptian alongside future pharaoh Ramses (Joel Edgerton), natural leader Moses (Christian Bale) is exiled by his brother-in-arms after it’s revealed that he’s actually a Hebrew. But when Moses receives a message from God, he returns to Egypt to lead 600,000 slaves to freedom by escaping Ramses’ rule and a cycle of plagues.

WHY: Though it’s nice to see a director ballsy enough to make a Golden Age-style epic like “Exodus: Gods and Kings,” Ridley Scott’s latest film is a beautiful disaster – astonishing in its scope and unwavering dedication to the classic Hollywood spectacle, but overly long and dull. It’s also terribly miscast, from the whitewashing of Joel Edgerton as Ramses, to supporting actors like Aaron Paul (as Moses’ eventual successor, Joshua) and Sigourney Weaver (as Ramses’ mother, Tuya), who have less than a dozen lines of dialogue between them. Weaver only appears in two or three scenes, but Paul is basically the movie’s third lead, and yet he spends most of the time in the background simply reacting to Christian Bale, who brings his trademark intensity to the role of Moses, but sadly, isn’t provided the material to do much beyond that. As with last year’s other Biblical epic, “Noah,” Scott takes some liberties with the source material, and while they work for the most part (especially the way he stages the various plagues), it doesn’t make the proceedings any more exciting. “Exodus: Gods and Kings” was likely envisioned as a return to the big, glossy cinema of yesteryear, but it only serves as a reminder why those kinds of films have gone extinct.

EXTRAS: The Blu-ray release includes an audio commentary by director Ridley Scott and co-writer Jeffrey Caine, a feature-length trivia track, a pair of historical featurettes, some promotional featurettes and nine deleted scenes.

FINAL VERDICT: SKIP

“Top Five”

WHAT: Stand-up comedian turned movie star Andre Allen (Chris Rock) wants nothing more than to be taken seriously as a dramatic actor, so on the eve of his marriage to reality TV star Erica Long (Gabrielle Union), Andre agrees to let New York Times journalist Chelsea Brown (Rosario Dawson) follow him for the day to write a profile piece.

WHY: It’s been eight years since Chris Rock’s last stint behind the camera (2007’s “I Think I Love My Wife”), and considering how poorly received that movie was – not to mention his directorial debut, “Head of State” – it’s easy to see how the comedian might have become disillusioned with the whole Hollywood system. “Top Five” is a marked improvement upon those films, but while the partly biographical, Woody Allen-esque dramedy plays to Rock’s strengths as a writer and performer, it’s also a tad self-indulgent in the way that it mirrors his own aspirations for a more serious career. Ironically, while most people would probably rather Rock just stick to comedy, it’s the serious bits that work best, particularly the subplot involving Andre and Chelsea’s sobriety. I’m still not sure what the title – a reference to an ongoing discussion that Rock’s character has with his friends and fellow celebrities about their top five rappers – has anything to do with the rest of the movie, but the fact that both Jay-Z and Kanye West are barely mentioned, despite being credited as executive producers, might just be the funniest thing about the film.

EXTRAS: There’s an audio commentary by writer/director/star Chris Rock and co-star JB Smoove, some outtakes from Andre’s stand-up act and deleted scenes.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

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Drink of the Week: Basil Hayden’s Power Play

Basil Hayden's Power Play.This week we finally come to the end of a cycle of posts featuring a number of good-to-fantastic cocktails, all courtesy of the gods of booze publicity and the free bottles of booze they are kind enough to occasionally send me. This week’s drink is a very tasty way to end the series and is intended as a sort of salute to the relatively new season of what I imagine has to be the most popular of all web-only television series, Beau Willimon’s bass-heavy, caustically compelling “House of Cards.”

Basil Hayden’s Power Play caught my eye not so much because of the promotion tied in with the latest adventures of the ultra-ruthless Democratic pol-on-the-rise played by the great Kevin Spacey, but because of one very unusual cocktail ingredient. You see, we’re actually a week late for the premiere of the new season and I’m only just now caught up with season one. However, the combination of one of the USA’s great bourbons and the inclusion of root beer was the grabber.

I’ve often wondered why, unlike ginger ale/ginger beer, cola, and 7-Up/Sprite, root beer and cream soda never seem to make an appearance in cocktails. And, yes, these are easily my two favorite sodas. Let’s give it a try.

Basil Hayden’s® Power Play

1 1/2 ounces Basil Hayden’s Bourbon
1/2 ounce fresh lemon juice
3/4 ounce simple syrup
2 drops of vanilla extract
2 splashes of root beer
1 lemon rind slice (highly advisable garnish)

Combine the bourbon, lemon juice, simple syrup, vanilla extract and one splash of your favorite root beer in a double sized rocks/old fashioned glass with plenty of ice. Pour into a cocktail shaker, mixing glass, or really any receptacle large enough to hold the entire drink. Do not shake, but instead pour directly back into your double rocks glass. Add another splash of root beer and  your lemon rind garnish for a bit of additional ruthlessness. Toast the fact that you are almost certainly a much nicer and/or less broken person than Frank Underwood or almost anyone he knows. It might be fun and, sadly, educational, to watch political thrillers about conscience-challenged humans, but niceness is underrated!

******

First of all, I usually hesitate to actually include the names of booze brands — no matter how excellent — in the names of the cocktails we use here, even if that’s the name I’m given by its purveyors. However, there’s already another drink called the Power Play, which is very different from this one. Also, as is my usual practice, I tried this with a good Brand X bourbon and it was disappointing. Stick with the call brand this time.

Justifying it’s super-premium price tag, Basil Hayden’s is one of the very few bourbons I’ll drink semi-straight (on the rocks, say) by choice. It’s got a Scotch-like astringency to it and is less sweet than a lot of other bourbons. That’s important because, between the simple syrup and the root beer, this is a pretty sweet concotion and sweeter bourbons are a real problem here.

I also typically like to give readers an option to switch out simple syrup with suger as a way to may life easier. That substitution didn’t work either. You can always simply combine a heaping tablespoon of easily dissolved superfine sugar with an equal amount of water and mix them together for simple syrup on the fly.

Finally, I wish I could report you to you how this drink worked with various brands of root beer. I love root beer at least as much as I love my favorite cocktails and there are a number of brands I like more than the others. Still, the stuff is, to me, far more addictively irresistible than booze, and I feared the impact on my blood sugar if I bought more than one brand. I fortunately found a half-size six pack of my beloved ultimate default root beer, A&W, and stuck with that. It was mighty good as long as I didn’t overdo the splashes.

And one last thing. I know, I know, this post has nothing to do with St. Patrick’s Day this Tuesday. I’m sorry…I failed to give the calendar a look before it was too late. Frank would try to capitalize on my weakness, but I hope you’ll be more forgiving and not try to blow my house down.

  

Drink of the Week: The Cru-Zen

the Cru-Zen.People keep sending me free bottles of booze and recipes to go with them, and I keep noting that many of the cocktails developed to promote liquor brands are extremely good…all the better to market the product, after all. I just wish I could tell you the name of the genius who came up with this week’s drink, because I think it’s really superb.

Yes, it features egg white, which never hurts with me, but it’s also introduces some other new ingredients, including bianco (white) vermouth, a product I’ve often seen at my area’s big box liquor stores but which I’ve only just now tried. As the immortal Mr. Spock might have said if he could ever get beyond his Saurian brandy, it’s fascinating stuff and deserves to be featured in a lot more cocktails. Expecting me to be working on that in coming weeks.

Moving on, this week’s sponsor-booze is Cruzan Aged Light Rum, an extremely decent mixing rum with a nicely low price point that’s very comparable to the somewhat less complex nationally known light rums. It’s a bit less dry than some of its competitors, with definite hints of vanilla and maybe some extra alcoholic burn. It therefore arguably makes an excellent base spirit foil for an otherwise gentle drink.

I honestly think the Cru-Zen has the right stuff to become a new cocktail classic for sophisticated sippers seeking out a truly balanced beverage. It’s a thoughtful, more sweet than sour mixture that’s at least as worth contemplating as the sound of one hand clapping.

The Cru-Zen

1 1/2 ounces light rum
1/2 ounce bianco vermouth
1/2 ounce chamomile syrup (see the instructions below)
1/2 ounce fresh lemon juice
1 egg white
1-2 dashes of bitters

Before we can started, a word about that chamomile syrup. I usually strictly avoid any drink that demands I make my own syrup. I like to keep things simple because I don’t want to scare readers away from making these drinks, and also because I’m lazy myself. Still, I broke my own rule because this drink sounded great (I was right) and the camomile syrup is ridiculously easy to make. You just submerge a single pure chamomile teabag in four ounces of boiling water for five minutes, as if you’re making a double strength cup of herb tea. Next, you add four ounces (half a cup) of sugar, stirred a little bit, and voila, syrup…though you probably want to stick it in the fridge for a little bit before actually using it.

Okay, so to make our Cru-Zen, we combine our syrup, rum, and all the other liquid ingredients including egg white. (If you’re using pasteurized commercial egg white, like I generally do, use three tablespoons to approximate one large egg, sans yolk.) First, “dry” shake it without ice, as always being careful to prevent messy explosions powered — I think — by the albumin in egg white. Then, add your ice and shake again very vigorously for about ten seconds.

Next, double strain it into a well chilled cocktail coupe or regular style martini glass. By “double strain” I mean simply running the liquid through a regular fine mesh strainer as well as the standard cocktail strainer to remove any stray lemon juice pulp. You should wind up with a very nice head foam on top. Finally, add one or two drops of aromatic bitters — Angostura works beautifully here — as a garnish, exactly as you would when making a Pisco Sour. You can toast your favorite zen master or public school teacher, you’ll be in a good mood regardless.

***

Lest there be any confusion, I think this is a really amazing drink and a rather sturdy one as well. It was designed for the more flavor-heavy Cruzan rum, but I tried it with an extremely well known, plainer but smoother brand X white rum, and the result was almost equally delightful. I would, however, counsel anyone to stick to the instruction regarding the double straining.

I was initially skeptical that it was necessary to strain out the near-microscopic bits of lemon pulp that might end up in single-strained version of the Cru-Zen, but then I tried eschewing the additional strainer, and the result wasn’t nearly as good. Apparently, the pulp emphasized the lemon notes and drowned out a number of other flavors.

Also, it’s crucial not to get confused here about what bianco vermouth, sometimes called white vermouth, actually is. The dry vermouth you should use in your martini might also be white, but it’s not bianco. It is actually even sweeter than ordinary red sweet vermouth. Since this was my first bianco experience, I decided to go with the ultimate default brand of Martini and Rossi.

I tend to think of Martini as being a good but basic brand, but I nevertheless found it to be a full bodied product; it’s not surprising to find out that bianco vermouths are hugely popular in Europe, drunk on the rocks with maybe a lemon twist or with carbonated water as a spritzer. A good portion of the really subtle, you might even say zen, aspects of this drink have to do with the many floral flavor notes you’ll find in this product. It’s a beverage I plan to explore further, for sure.

 

  

Drink of the Week: The Big and Stout

the Big and Stout.I see my share of boozy pitches here at Drink of the Week Central and, believe it or not, I ignore a great many of them. Still, I couldn’t ignore the one that came from the melding of the great nations of Japan and Kentucky that we call Beam Suntory. Why is easy to explain.

I’ve been increasingly interested for some time in cocktails that include beer or ale. Also, regular readers will note that I’m mad for drinks that include raw egg whites or, better yet, whole raw eggs. So, no surprise that the Big and Stout immediately caught my attention as it contains both stout and whole raw eggs! It’s also created by Midwestern celebrity chef Michael Symon and I gather he’s a very big deal in Bullz-Eye’s home town of Cleveland. Based on this drink, I’m definitely willing to plunk down $75.00+tip and cocktails for one of this guy’s dinners.

The Big and Stout is, I should add, well named as I’m personally a bit bigger and stouter after drinking it for an entire week, but it’s just about worth it. It’s a full-fledged desert in a glass, a full bodied drink that’s the perfect 100% adult sophisticated milkshake without the milk, wonderfully simple and quite hard to mess up — it’s been pretty much a home run every time I’ve tried it, which is saying something. Let’s not waste any time.

The Big and Stout

1 ounce bourbon (true sophisticates will want Knob Creek Single Barrel Reserve)
1 1/2 ounces milk stout/sweet stout
1 whole egg
3/4 ounce simple syrup (or 1 rounded tablespoon superfine sugar)

Combine the ingredients in a cocktail shaker. Shake without ice first (the famed “dry shake”) to properly emulsify the egg. Be careful; between the egg and the slight carbonation of milk stout, there’s an excellent chance the top of your shaker will want to come off. Add ice and shake again, this time very vigorously. Strain into a well chilled old fashioned or cocktail glass. Toast your feet. Drink enough of these and you might never seem them again, though you probably won’t care.

****

So, yes, this drink comes to us courtesy of the gods of promotion over at Jim Beam land and their small batch collection. It was, I gather, created for regular Knob Creek bourbon, but what I actually got was Knob Creek Single Barrel Reserve and an old favorite, Basil Hayden’s. It’s a very interesting spread because both of these are thoroughly adult, sophisticated bourbons but at vastly differing strengths. Hayden’s is 80 proof, actually below average strength for an upscale bourbon but well above average in flavor and drinkability. The Knob Creek Single Barrel is a whopping 120 proof and has a full 10 percent more alcohol than regular 100 proof Knob Creek. It’s definitely the good stuff but not for the faint of heart or liver.

I’m delighted to say that both extremes held up brilliantly in a Big and Stout. Sure, the complexity and pure fire of the 120 proof brew gave all the sweet ingredients something they could fight against for a somewhat more complex beverage. Still, the 80 proof Hayden’s was a delight and anything but insipid. I also tried a pretty decent 94 proof brand X bourbon and it was great, too. Frankly, I have a hard time imagining any bourbon failing with this one, and I’m contemplating giving rye a chance.

As for the stout’s, the original recipe called for sweet stouts but that turned out to be nearly impossible to find here in L.A.’s NoHo/San Fernando Valley land. Milk stouts, which have a sweeter flavor thanks largely to some lactose, are much easier to come by and may or may not be synonymous with sweet stouts, I’m still trying to figure that one out. My choices were Moo Thunder Farmhouse Ale and Belching Beaver Brewery’s Beaver Milk. Gotta love the names and both worked really winningly.

Trying to figure out why I like this drink so much may go beyond a simple love of sweet, creamy, ice-cold refreshing booze flavors and have something to do with my love of coffee…which I actually prefer with a decent amount of milk and sweetener, despite my alleged gourmet tendencies and tolerance/love for bitter flavors. Even more than the similar yet very different Coffee Cocktail, this drink really looks and tastes a bit it like a frozen latte but with a very different impact. Maybe that’s it.

  

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