On DVD & Blu-Ray: March 24, 2015

I have become less and less enchanted with Peter Jackson's prequel trilogy the more and more we get of it. Thankfully, The Battle of the Five Armies is our last trip to Middle Earth (if at least for some time) for the more Jackson and company string out their financially successful series the more he seems to discredit the genuinely engaging and handsomely made films that started it all. There was always great hope for an adaptation of The Hobbit given it would return Jackson to a place he clearly has a passion for, but a lack of care also seems to be the source of trouble with each new chapter in this prequel trilogy. It feels as if each movie hinges on one or two major set pieces allowing it to deliver what audiences expect while the remaining hour and a half is left to be filled with subplots that are either unnecessary to the main narrative or feel forced in so as to simply extend the running time. Is it required a film must be two and a half hours in order to feel epic? Peter Jackson seems to think so, but as Battle of the Five Armies comes in at just two hours and twenty-four minutes it is by far the shortest installment and at the very least, feels like much of a relief because of it. I didn't like a lot about this final chapter. I wasn't impressed with the structure of the story or the organization of the titular five armies (if you haven't read the book you'll be left wondering who exactly the fifth army even is) and more than anything it was frustrating to see a maguffin as obvious as "Dragon Sickness" pit Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) against seemingly everyone else in the entire movie. Certainly, some of the blame for this can be placed on all of the rules, worlds and ridiculous names that author J.R.R. Tolkien originally came up with, but with as much of a beast as Jackson has turned this small, three hundred page introductory novel into I'm willing to place most of the blame on he and the studio for compromising much of the stories merit for greed. I understand the reasoning, I realize there is a business aspect to it all and that by splitting the planned two films into three allowed this third films box office to generate pure profit, but that doesn't mean I sympathize with the decision because while they get extra cash on their Christmas bonus, audiences everywhere are short-changed by this insufficiently justified chapter. Full review here. C-

Director Rob Marshall (Chicago) returns to the musical with a film adaptation of Into the Woods, Stephen Sondheim's 1986 concoction that intertwines the plots of several Brothers Grimm fairy tales. Given this was produced by Disney though, many will surely think of it as another way for the mouse house to repackage their most classic of animated tales and turn them into a new holiday hit. Those same people will likely be somewhat surprised when some of the more violent twists of the Grimm tales come to light in the film. All of that said, Marshall's version of Into the Woods feels like a missed opportunity more than anything. I haven't seen the Sondheim play that serves as the source material, but I imagine there is much more to it than what has been put to the screen here. This film version never delves too deep into the familiar tales the main characters are taken from (which is fine) but it also doesn't have enough material in its original aspects to fill out the running time of a feature and so the last almost hour ends up feeling completely tacked on. This is a shame, really, because as far as musicals are concerned I was really digging what they were doing story-wise and Marshall has a keen eye for how to shoot people singing dialogue and making it exhilirating. What I don't understand is why they weren't able to somehow extend the story into one cohesive narrative rather than seeming to wrap up all the storylines nicely only to unravel them over the next fifty minutes so that we end up with a less than satisfying conclusion that, more than anything, undermines all they'd worked so hard to set-up in the first place. And while this certainly takes a fair amount of enjoyment out of an experience you expect to be filled with familiar character tropes and choreographed numbers there is still plenty to feast your eyes and ears upon. Into the Woods may not be everyone's cup of tea and it may not even prove to be appealing to those who compare it to the stage show, but what it offers and what detracts just about even each other out to the point we care about what's happening while we're watching it, but won't remember a thing the next day. Full review here. B-

Unbroken is perfectly positioned and has every credential imaginable to become a classic Hollywood drama like those of years gone by. It is the kind of film that seems destined to win awards and please crowds as it not only serves as a testament to the will and strength of the human spirit, but chronicles a difficult road to overcoming impossibilities that should redeem our faith in ourselves and our race. Based on a New York Times best seller by Laura Hillenbrand, adapted for the screen by Joel and Ethan Coen, shot by Roger Deakins and directed by Angelina Jolie this film truly has everything going for it and while it may be intentionally old school in its structure and execution in this day and age it ends up feeling a little too calculated and at times way too amateurish for the talent it has behind it. That said, this is only Jolie's second directorial effort and her first of this scale and so it is to be understood if some of the choices here feel safer than necessary. Where Jolie the director and Jolie the storyteller differ though are in their passion for the story and their ability to strongly convey all that it holds. It is obvious this is an inherently amazing story, one any filmmaker would be happy to try their hand at. What Jolie has brought to the project is the aforementioned classical approach that beautifully captures the scope and horror of the situations our hero fell into, but what it lacks is any real insight into the mind of this man who was pushed to his limits. Technically, everything looks great and is cohesive to the point that those watching will understand what is going on and even gather a deeper meaning from it to a certain extent, but only if you're looking for it. Otherwise, Unbroken is unfortunately little more than surface deep. Again, it's understandable given this undertaking comes from someone accustomed to solely focusing on one aspect of a production and transitioning to a role where they are looked at to be something of an expert in all areas, so if there is good news to take away it is that the film ends better than it starts. Almost as if it were shot chronologically and Jolie became a better director as the film went on. That may be something of faint praise, but despite the content of the film not being nearly as engrossing as it has the potential to be it is the good intentions and admirable effort that allow forgiveness for the moderate results of an extraordinary story. Full review here. C

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