' Les Miserables'
3 1/2 stars = Very good
Anne Hathaway was a friend to Oscar pool participants everywhere as the frontrunner and eventual winner of the best supporting actress award for her portrayal of the doomed Fantine.
She famously dreamed a dream in the musical inspired by Victor Hugo's novel, a story with timeless themes of crime (or acts of decency) and punishment, sacrifice, shattered dreams, avarice, the ravages of poverty, forgiveness, love requited and unrequited, rebellion and redemption, in this world or the next.
In addition to Ms. Hathaway, the cast includes Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Colm Wilkinson, Samantha Barks, Amanda Seyfried, Helena Bonham Carter, Sacha Baron Cohen, Eddie Redmayne and Aaron Tveit.
Despite its epic scope, it loses little on the small screen, thanks to the many close-ups and in some of the extras, you can see just how near Mr. Jackman's face was to the camera. Director Tom Hooper said "Les Miz" had two requirements: "If Hugh Jackman didn't exist, I wouldn't have made this film." The other: Requiring the performers to sing live.
Bonus features on the Blu-ray and DVD: A look at the performers; how production designer Eve Stewart and others created the perfect Paris; a condensed examination of Hugo's masterwork; and feature commentary by Mr. Hooper.
Blu-ray also has cast exploring the challenge of singing live rather than lip-syncing to pre-recorded tracks; a featurette about the building of the barricade; exploration of the West End connection; and visit to some of the real locations used for the project.
Due out on Friday.
' Zero Dark Thirty'
3 1/2 stars = Very good
Knowing how the hunt for Osama bin Laden ends doesn't diminish the tension or fascination here as Navy SEALs lift off for their mission.
"Zero Dark Thirty," which takes its title from the 12:30 a.m. arrival at the Pakistan compound, reunites director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal, who each won Academy Awards for "The Hurt Locker."
Filmed in Jordan and India, it demands patience and attention in the early going of its 157 minutes.
The movie says it is "based on firsthand accounts of actual events" and that includes missteps -- some fatal -- by overzealous, naive Americans, meetings with top CIA brass and watching how detective work, information once overlooked or misinterpreted, and civilian and military fortitude led to bin Laden.
The controversial film not only dramatizes inhumane treatment by Americans, including waterboarding, it also places the opening action at CIA "black sites" at undisclosed overseas locations.
It stars Jessica Chastain as a CIA operative targeting terrorists. Once the movie gets rolling and Maya is emboldened and infuriated by delays in attacking the compound where she is certain -- in her gut -- that bin Laden is hiding, it really picks up steam.
"Zero Dark Thirty" is salted with fascinating detail, dialogue or phrases that sound lifted from onetime journalist Boal's notebook. In addition to Ms. Chastain, the cast includes Jason Clarke and Jennifer Ehle as Maya's colleagues; Kyle Chandler as the CIA station chief in Islamabad; Mark Strong as the head of the Afghanistan and Pakistan divisions of the Counter Terrorism Center at the CIA; and James Gandolfini as the CIA director.
The Blu-ray combo pack and DVD document the filmmaking process with four featurettes: "No Small Feat," "The Compound," "Targeting Jessica Chastain," and "Geared Up."
' The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey'
3 stars = Good
"The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey," adapted by J.R.R. Tolkien's 1937 Middle-earth adventure, pushes the boundaries of filmmaking, with intricate details rendered in a sometimes jarring format and a story enacted by an exceptional cast.
The first movie of Peter Jackson's trilogy reintroduces Bilbo Baggins, the Hobbit who emerges from his serene hole in the ground to help 13 Dwarves reclaim their long-lost realm. They scramble from one obstacle to the next and it's a long way to go before we reach journey's end.
There is magic along the way, particularly in the characterizations.
Martin Freeman enters the frame, and immediately he is the fussy, flustered Bilbo Baggins of Bag End, a contented Hobbit who didn't realize he was yearning for an adventure until presented with one.
In the 2 hours and 50 minutes it takes to tell a third of Bilbo's story, with chase scenes and battles aplenty, the film's most precious moments are taken from the Riddles in the Dark passage of the book. The verbal showdown between Bilbo and the creature Gollum -- a creation of Andy Serkis' haunting portrayal and stunning motion-capture effects -- is the best pairing of techno-wizardry and performance in "The Hobbit" part one.
Another piece of movie and acting magic is in the person of 6-foot-4 Richard Armitage, rendered 5 feet and unrecognizable as Thorin Oakenshield, the king in exile and leader of the band of Dwarves gathered by Gandalf
Revisiting their "Lord of the Rings" roles are Christopher Lee as the wizard Saruman; Hugo Weaving as Elrond, ruler of Rivendell; and Cate Blanchett as Galadriel, the mightiest and fairest of Elves, as Tolkien described her.
The extras find director Jackson taking the viewer behind the scenes in a series of video journals that offer more than two hours of content.
' This is 40'
3 stars = Good
Five years after delivering "Knocked Up" and introducing the supporting characters of Pete and Debbie (Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann), Judd Apatow turns them into the main attraction in the comedy "This Is 40."
The married couple are facing 40 in the same week, but Debbie is in deep denial. She works out with a personal trainer, vows she doesn't want to shop at "old lady stores like J. Jill, Chico's and Ann Taylor Loft" and starts to lie about her age.
Although they live in what we would consider California comfort, their finances are spinning out of control. Pete runs a retro record label (trying to break a new Graham Parker album), which is bleeding money, and Debbie owns a clothing boutique where $12,000 has gone missing.
They have two bickering daughters, hormonal 13-year-old Sadie (Maude Apatow) and sweet 8-year-old Charlotte (Iris Apatow), and argue about any number of topics from the big ones of money and sex to the frequency and duration of Pete's escapist bathroom breaks, the cash he's been slipping to his remarried dad (the always wonderful Albert Brooks) and assorted differences over diet, music and even medical treatments for childhood ear infections.
Everything builds to a 40th birthday party, where secrets slip out and relationships, including with Debbie's long-absent father portrayed by John Lithgow, are put to the test and toast.
Writer-director Apatow hasn't abandoned his reliance on sex for easy laughs -- the movie opens with a raunchy bit about Viagra. But he relies on his funny facility for tapping into pop culture and though he's miles literally and figuratively from true middle America, he knows how to make audiences laugh. He also has cobbled together a very cool soundtrack with tunes by Norah Jones, Ryan Adams, Paul Simon, Wilco and the Avett Brothers, among others.
Blu-ray extras include a making-of featurette, deleted scenes, gag reel, more music from Parker and Adams and a "Fresh Air" segment.
Due out on Friday.
ALSO THIS WEEK:
• "Rust and Bone" (4 stars): Marion Cotillard and Matthias Schoenaerts star in a gritty love story about a killer-whale trainer and a brawler who come to lean on one another, sometimes literally.
• "Bachelorette": Guys don't get to have all the fun before a wedding.
• "Quincy M.E.: Season 5": Jack Klugman plays a crime-solving medical examiner.
• "Thor: Legend of the Magical Hammer": Animated story of a teen and his hammer.
• "Jersey Shore: The Complete Series": This is all the antics of the reality show gang.
• "The Cleveland Show: The Complete Season Three": Mike Henry is one of the voice talents of the Fox animated show.
• "Sesame Street: Best of Friends": Includes past guest stars such as Elvis Costello, Julianne Moore and Ricky Gervais.
• "The Other Son": Two very different young men make a huge discovery about their lives.
-- PG staff and Rick Bentley, McClatchy Newspapers