THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG Extended Edition (2013)
Whether you want to revisit this second film in The Hobbit trilogy or catch up on what you missed prior to seeing the climactic final chapter, The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies, in theaters now, this reissue features the extended version with an additional 25 minutes of scenes not included in its theatrical cut. Plus there are loads of behind the scenes features to sink your fangs into. It’s safe to say that The Desolation Of Smaug is the best part of this latest three-film cycle from Peter Jackson, with the confrontation between the diminutive Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) and the gargantuan dragon Smaug (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch) being the highlight. It was not necessary to make three films out of this book when two would have sufficed, but that being said, this installment features one of the most awesome cinematic cliffhangers since The Empire Strikes Back.
TIME BANDITS (1981)
Director Terry Gilliam’s third feature film was really the first to take the wacky, surreal aesthetics from the animation he did for Monty Python and apply them to live action motion. Not literally, mind you, but this story of a young boy (Craig Warnock) who joins a band of treasure stealing dwarves on an adventure that cuts across time and space utilizes madcap characters and crazy scenarios in a way that only Gilliam can do it. It also features a stellar cast including David Warner, Sean Connery, Ian Holm, Ralph Richardson, and Python alums and John Cleese (as a cheeky Robin Hood) and Michael Palin (who co-wrote the script). Fantasy films have become rather predictable as of late, which makes classic movies like Time Bandits all the more refreshing and vital. The Criterion reissue, with a new HD transfer supervised by Gilliam, features some nice extras like an audio commentary track with Gilliam, Warner, Cleese, Palin, and Warnock, and a Shelley Duvall television interview from 1981.
STANLEY KUBRICK: THE MASTERPIECE COLLECTION (1962-1999)
Encapsulating about three quarters of director Stanley Kubrick’s major films, this eight-movie, 10-disc Blu-ray box set delivers all the titles in HD and offers numerous bonus features and documentaries new (Kubrick Remembered), old (Stanley Kubrick: A Life In Pictures), and new to the U.S. (Once Upon A Time…A Clockwork Orange). Beyond his distinctive visual style, flair for classical music usage, and intriguing casting, Kubrick explored different genres and storylines. The iconic filmmaker made anti-war films (the irreverent Dr. Strangelove among them), sci-fi (2001: A Space Odyssey), horror (The Shining), dystopic drama (A Clockwork Orange), even an erotic thriller (Eyes Wide Shut). Various personal themes frequently recur in his films, but you never knew what he would do next. Not all of his movies are equally amazing, but they are all well-made, thought provoking, and worthy of repeat viewings.
With regards to this box set, all eight films here have been reissued on Blu-ray previously; Clockwork with an extra disc of bonus material not offered here. Thus this set makes the ideal gift for the Kubrick fan who does not have any or most of these films on Blu-ray, and additionally they get some extra bonus material (including a nice 78-page hardcover book of set photos, production sketches, on-set photos, and script notes) not available elsewhere. If you have the previous HD releases, the $200 list price ($140 on Amazon) might be hard to justify for an upgrade, but for others this makes for a worthy collection.
Actor and Iron Man director Jon Favreau pulls away from big budget fare to serve up this wonderful story of a talented chef (Favreau) who, constrained by his unimaginative boss (Dustin Hoffman) and denounced by an influential critic (Oliver Platt), quits his high profile Los Angeles gig to find his bliss. This leads to creating a Cuban-themed food truck that he procures, with the help of his ex-wife (Sofia Vergara), in Florida and drives back to his home base in L.A. Along the way, he bonds with his business partner (John Leguizamo) and his 10-year-old son (Emjay Anthony) with whom he has a rocky relationship. Chef is a charming tale that revels in its cuisine, characters, and comedic interplay and provides a welcome relief from the onslaught of CGI craziness that has been permeating our cineplexes lately. Event movies are all well and good, but Favreau and company remind us here that smaller pictures can be just as fun and engaging. And often better.
THE MAZE RUNNER (2014)
The cinematic rendering of the first part of James Dashner’s five-book Maze Runner series is a solid translation in which a group of teen boys have been placed in a lush glade where they can survive but are trapped by the concrete walls of a giant, ever-shifting maze beyond. Deadly nocturnal creatures named Grievers keep them from exploring the maze too long and escaping. Everything changes when Thomas (Dylan O’Brien) arrives, unaware of how he got there or who he is at first. His presence, and soon that of the first female captive, turns the once orderly community into one fractured by different goals—some want to maintain the status quo of the last three years and survive, others want to finally break free of their imprisonment no matter what the cost. Unlike other YA tales, this nearly all-male story eschews romance in its survivalist slant, and it maintains a solid level of suspense. Given that actors like O’Brien and Will Poulter are older in real life, their characters feel aged up a little, but you’ll only notice if you read the book. The Maze Runner is not spectacular but is a well-done YA action flick and an example of a well-budgeted CGI film. It only cost $34 million yet earned 10 times that globally.
This futuristic sci-fi epic from South Korea (shot in English) received a minimal theatrical rollout in America, which makes no sense as so many filmgoers and critics have found this post-apocalyptic thrill ride to be quite engrossing. Chris Evans (Captain America: The Winter Soldier) plays a member of the lower class that’s been crammed into the back of a well-supplied, totally self-sufficient supertrain that perpetually circles the ice-covered earth after a botched attempt to combat global warming froze the planet and killed nearly everyone on it. Once he leads a rebellion that starts among the disenfranchised poor, their mutiny slowly makes its way through train cars of wealthier riders and leading to the front, which none of them have ever seen. Things get weirder and bloodier as their journey progresses and new train cars reveal what they have been deprived of. If you can roll with the often preposterous nature of the story, Snowpiercer will keep you hooked as it ups the ante in off-kilter ways. It works better metaphorically than literally and is quite original. Director Bong Joon-ho (The Host) made the most of his $40 million budget; the film looks like it cost a lot more and was ultimately profitable. The strong cast includes Tilda Swinton, Octavia Spencer, John Hurt, and a great cameo at the finale. This is a long-term cult film in the making.