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.
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.