Blu Tuesday: The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, Grudge Match 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.

“The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug”

WHAT: Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellan) and the band of dwarves led by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) continue their quest to reclaim Erebor. Along the way, they must contend with orcs, giant spiders, humans and the Elvenking himself in order to reach the Lonely Mountain, where Smaug the dragon (Benedict Cumberbatch) dwells.

WHY: For as much fun as “The Desolation of Smaug” is at times, the film suffers from many of the same problems as its predecessor. Not only are there too many subplots, but the story is bursting at the seams with so many characters (including new faces like Beorn, Bard the Bowman and Tauriel) that not even Bilbo is given very much to do this time around. The dwarves, meanwhile, are treated like background characters, with only a few truly standing out, like Thorin, Ken Stott’s Balin and Aiden Turner’s Kili, who’s part of a Peter Jackson-invented love triangle with Evangeline Lilly’s elven warrior Tauriel and Orlando Bloom’s Legolas. In fact, though it may not have been a popular decision with fans, the Legolas/Tauriel scenes (which are mostly action-oriented) are some of the best in the movie. The barrel escape from the Elvenking’s dungeon, in particular, is even better than the Goblin Town sequence from “An Unexpected Journey.” But if you thought that the first installment was too long, Part Two only further proves that expanding the book into three movies wasn’t the wisest decision. Jackson spends so much time on trivial material that when it comes time for Bilbo and the dwarves’ big showdown with Smaug, you just want him to get on with it.

EXTRAS: The two-disc release includes a documentary hosted by Peter Jackson detailing the daily routine on set, four additional featurettes on shooting pick-ups, post-production and the musical score, the 2013 live event “In the Cutting Room” and Part Two of the location featurette “New Zealand: Home of Middle-earth.”

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“Grudge Match”

WHAT: 30 years after their last fight, boxing rivals Henry “Razor” Sharp (Sylvester Stallone) and Billy “The Kid” McDonnen (Robert De Niro) agree to come out of retirement for one final match when boxing promoter Dante Slate Jr. (Kevin Hart) makes them an offer they can’t refuse: the chance to prove who’s the best once and for all.

WHY: The idea of pairing Sylvester Stallone and Robert De Niro in a boxing movie may sound great on paper, but only if it had been made during their “Rocky” and “Raging Bull” days. Watching the two aging actors step back into the ring decades later is not only embarrassing for them, but the audience as well, particularly when the movie is built around a bunch of unfunny old geezer jokes and lame callbacks to their respective boxing characters. The script is also weighed so heavily in Stallone’s favor that you already know who will win before the fight takes place. It certainly doesn’t help that De Niro seems physically incapable of going 12 rounds with Stallone, though to be fair, it’s Kim Basinger who looks the worst of the three, almost as if she’s been in a few fights of her own. The only thing that “Grudge Match” has going for it is Alan Arkin’s wiseass trainer, but it’s not nearly enough to forgive Stallone and De Niro for agreeing to make this humorless piece of fluff.

EXTRAS: The Blu-ray release boasts a behind-the-scenes look at filming the final fight, interviews with former boxing champs like Mike Tyson, Evander Holyfield and Larry Holmes, an alternate opening, two alternate endings, deleted scenes and a pair of featurettes with Kevin Hart.

FINAL VERDICT: SKIP

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2013 Year End Movie Review: Jason Zingale

year_end

If you haven’t been to the movie theater over the past few months, you’d be forgiven for thinking that 2013 wasn’t a very good year for film. In fact, my own year-end list was looking pretty suspect before October, but as is usually the case, the awards season blitz was jam-packed with enough great movies to fill more than the customary ten spots. That made compiling this year’s best-of list a little more challenging than in years past, especially with so many popular choices relegated to honorable mentions or missing entirely. With that said, after much deliberating, flip-flopping and even revisiting certain films, the following represents what I believe to be the best of 2013.

Best Movies of 2013

1. “GRAVITY

It’s been six years since Alfonso Cuarón’s last feature film – the criminally underrated “Children of Men” – but his outer space survival thriller was well worth the wait. “Gravity” is the kind of movie that will likely change the way films are made in the future. From the stunning, single-take opening sequence that lasts more than 12 minutes, to the numerous set pieces throughout, “Gravity” is such a technical marvel that it looks like Cuarón shot the whole damn thing in space. Though the story is ridiculously simple, not a single second of its 91-minute runtime is wasted, extracting so much suspense from the film’s terrifying setup that the brief injections of comedy (courtesy of George Clooney’s easygoing astronaut) are a welcome reprieve from the almost unrelenting intensity. Sandra Bullock delivers one of the best performances of her career as the rookie astronaut caught up in a seemingly impossible situation, but the real star of “Gravity” is Cuarón himself, and he deserves every bit of praise for creating what can only be described as pure movie magic.

gravity

2. “AMERICAN HUSTLE

David O. Russell has always been a quality filmmaker, but he’s quickly becoming a force to be reckoned with thanks to movies like “The Fighter,” “Silver Linings Playbook” and this farcical con-artist caper. Loosely based on the ABSCAM scandal of the late ‘70s, “American Hustle” is immensely entertaining, impeccably structured and features top-notch acting from the entire cast. Forty pounds heavier and rocking the most elaborate comb-over you’ve ever seen, Christian Bale gives a wonderfully nuanced performance as the straight man of the bunch. His co-stars aren’t quite as committed physically, but they’re just as good. Amy Adams oozes sexiness as Bale’s cunning partner in crime, scene stealer Jennifer Lawrence is an absolute riot as his unpredictable wife, and Bradley Cooper is hilarious as the short-tempered FBI agent in charge of the sting. The whole film is a lot funnier than you’d expect due to Russell and Eric Singer’s darkly comic script, and though some have argued that it’s too long, the characters are so richly developed and crackling with personality that I would have gladly spent another hour in their messed-up world.

american_hustle

3. “ABOUT TIME

Richard Curtis has written and directed some of the greatest romantic comedies of the past two decades, so it should come as no surprise that his latest movie follows in the same footsteps. Curtis’ films have always been about much more than the superficial meet-cute between boy and girl, and “About Time” is no different, aiming for something a lot deeper and more emotionally rewarding than the typical rom-com. Breakout star Domhnall Gleeson and Rachel McAdams have some fantastic chemistry, but it’s the relationship between Gleeson and Bill Nighy (playing the world’s coolest dad) that best serves the story’s central themes and leaves a more lasting impression, especially for anyone who’s ever lost a member of their family. Equally charming, funny and touching, “About Time” is classic Richard Curtis, through and through. And if the rumors about it being his directorial swan song are true, Curtis can take comfort in knowing that he went out on top, because this is not only his most mature and personal work to date, but it’s just a really beautiful film.

about_time

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Movie Review: “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug”

Starring
Martin Freeman, Ian McKellan, Richard Armitage, Luke Evans, Orlando Bloom, Evangeline Lilly, Benedict Cumberbatch
Director
Peter Jackson

There are a couple of reasons why the “Hobbit” movies, to date, have not had the impact that their “Lord of the Rings” predecessors did, despite having better special effects. The first one is obviously fatigue; Peter Jackson has now made what is for all intents and purposes the same movie five times. Five, times, and there is one more coming. The bigger problem, though, is this: five hours into the “Hobbit” story, the good guys have slaughtered hundreds upon hundreds of bad guys (both biped and arachnid), and they have not lost a single soldier. The lack of stakes for the characters, combined with the knowledge of which characters play a larger role in the subsequent “Lord of the Rings” books, undermines all attempts to establish a realistic sense of peril. Wait, Gandalf is in trouble? Whatever – he clearly lives to fight in “The Fellowship of the Ring,” so don’t sweat it.

This is unfortunate, because “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” is quite entertaining despite the lopsidedness of the battles and needless “Clone Wars”-type political drama that director Peter Jackson foists upon the good people of Lake-town. A Tolkien-loving friend of ours swears that only five percent of the story in “Smaug” is in the original text. That is not nearly as much of a concern to us as the fact that no one dies in these movies.

Fresh from their escape from a pack of Orcs at the end of “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” courtesy of a group of giant eagles, Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), Gandalf the Grey (Sir Ian McKellen), and a band of dwarves led by Thorin (Richard Armitage) continue their journey to reclaim Thorin’s family’s homeland in the Lonely Mountain, inside which are untold riches and a fire-breathing dragon named Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch) who claims both riches and fortress as his own. Gandalf leaves them at the edge of the forest of Mirkwood to do a fact-finding mission. Bilbo and the dwarves find themselves in trouble almost instantly, battling giant spiders in the forest, only to be captured by wood elves afterwards. Bilbo uses the invisibility powers of the Ring to slip past the elves and free the dwarves, but the Orcs are soon on their tail again. To escape the Orcs, the group makes a deal with shipman Bard (Luke Evans), who smuggles them into the human-populated Lake-town so they can fulfill the prophecy and take back what is theirs. Smaug, however, is not inclined to go quietly.

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Coming Soon: A Moviegoer’s Guide to December

december

Winter has officially arrived, and with it comes the final wave of award contenders hoping to leave an impression on critics and Oscar voters. Though 2013 hasn’t exactly been the best year for movies, there’s plenty of quality on display in December, including the second installment of Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit” trilogy, new films from David O. Russell and the Coen brothers, and the latest collaboration between Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio. And for those looking for lighter fare, there’s also the long-awaited sequel to “Anchorman.”

“OUT OF THE FURNACE”

Who: Christian Bale, Woody Harrelson, Casey Affleck and Zoe Saldana
What: When Rodney Baze mysteriously disappears and law enforcement fails to follow through, his older brother, Russell, takes matters into his own hands to find justice.
When: December 4th
Why: Writer/director Scott Cooper burst onto the scene in 2009 with “Crazy Heart,” netting Jeff Bridges the Oscar for Best Actor in the process, so it’s not surprising to see that he’s managed to land some equally impressive talent for his sophomore effort. Though early word for this one has been pretty mixed, the trailers have me intrigued, particularly with such an amazing ensemble cast, which also includes screen veterans like Willem Dafoe, Forest Whitaker and Sam Shepard. Plus, I’ll watch just about anything starring Christian Bale, because he’s one of this generation’s finest actors with his chameleon-like ability to completely inhabit any role. That doesn’t mean he hasn’t made a dud every now and again, but his résumé speaks for itself, and “Out of the Furnace” looks like another solid addition to an already remarkable career.

“INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS”

Who: Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, Justin Timberlake and John Goodman
What: A week in the life of a young musician as he navigates the Greenwich Village folk scene of 1961.
When: December 6th
Why: There aren’t many directors that can boast a track record as impressive as the one that Joel and Ethan Coen have enjoyed throughout their 30-year careers, and “Inside Llewyn Davis” is just another notch on that cinematic belt. Markedly different from a lot of their films in that it’s a much more intimate, character-driven piece, “Inside Llewyn Davis” most closely resembles “A Serious Man” in both tone and execution. But although the movie is a fairly bittersweet portrait of personal failure (a running theme in the Coens’ repertoire), it’s not without their trademark wit and humor. The comedy may not be as pronounced as in their other films, but it’s yet another fine period drama that boasts a superb lead performance from Oscar Isaac and one of the best (and most addictive) soundtracks since “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”

“THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG”

Who: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellan, Richard Armitage and Orlando Bloom
What: The dwarves, along with Bilbo Baggins and Gandalf the Grey, continue their quest to reclaim Erebor, their homeland, from Smaug.
When: December 13th
Why: It’s a little ironic that the villain of this story is an avaricious reptile, because Warner Bros. could be accused of similar behavior following the decision to split “The Hobbit” into three movies. Of course, fans are hardly complaining about spending more time in Middle-earth, and now that the stage has been set with “An Unexpected Journey,” the second installment promises to be even better. Along with introducing important characters like Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans), The Necromancer and Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch pulling double duty), the movie also marks the return of fan favorite Legolas and newly created female elf Tauriel, neither of whom actually appear in Tolkien’s novel. It wouldn’t be the first time that Peter Jackson has tinkered with the source material, but he hasn’t let us down yet, and that’s more than enough reason to get excited about Part Two.

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