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posted: 3/16/2013 5:00 AM

DVD previews: 'Zero Dark Thirty,' 'Hobbit'

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  • Jessica Chastain stars in "Zero Dark Thirty."

    Jessica Chastain stars in "Zero Dark Thirty."

The Washington Post

Coming March 19

"Zero Dark Thirty" (R, 157 minutes, Sony): From the very first scenes of "Zero Dark Thirty," director Kathryn Bigelow demonstrates why she is such a formidable filmmaker, as adept with human emotion as she is with visceral, pulse-quickening action. Starting with an opening sequence that consists of a blank screen and an audio track of the anguished 911 calls of people caught in the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, Bigelow cuts unceremoniously to a squalid prison two years later, where a CIA official is torturing a detainee. This harrowing scene embroiled Bigelow and "Zero Dark Thirty" screenwriter Mark Boal in a political firestorm; they were accused of distorting the role torture played in locating Osama bin Laden. But during this sequence Bigelow establishes her command presence as a filmmaker. Those looking for Monday-morning moralizing on the war on terror will be disappointed by "Zero Dark Thirty." But anyone who appreciates movies at their most engrossing, taut and well-crafted will be supremely rewarded by a film that makes a 10-year bureaucratic slog utterly riveting. Contains strong violence, including brutal and disturbing images, and profanity. Extras: "Small Feat" featurette with Bigelow sharing the significance of this project and the recounting of the historic event; a behind-the-scenes featurette on the re-creation of bin Laden's lair; a behind-the-scenes look at the raid; and "Targeting Jessica Chastain," on the Oscar-nominated actress who played the key role in the film.

"The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" (PG-13, 170 minutes, New Line/MGM/Warner): As the first of director Peter Jackson's trilogy, this "Hobbit" may well please the franchise's most devoted fans, who will no doubt savor the chance to traipse through J.R.R. Tolkien's imaginative landscape populated by dwarfs, elves, goblins, trolls and the appealingly winsome title character. But purely on its own terms, "An Unexpected Journey" is a dreary, episodic series of lumbering walk-talk-fight sequences that often looks less like genuine cinema than a large-scale video game. Jackson spends a great deal of time on back stories and explanation, which results in lots of windy, expository speeches and character introductions but not much by way of genuine emotional involvement or dynamism. It could turn out that "An Unexpected Journey" is the weakest of this trilogy, the necessary preamble before less-stultifying action and more engaging character development ensue. But, to paraphrase the sweet and stouthearted Bilbo himself, this adventure won't just make you late for dinner. It might make you miss breakfast and lunch, too. Only the most dedicated Middle-earthers will find that the hunger pangs are worth it. Contains frightening images and extended sequences of intense fantasy action violence. Extras: Full suite of Jackson's production videos, behind the scenes video journals covering start of production, location scouting, filming in 3-D, postproduction overview and the Wellington, New Zealand, world premiere. Also available in 3-D version.

"A Royal Affair" (R, 137 minutes, in Danish with English subtitles, Magnolia Home Entertainment): Nikolaj Arcel's fascinating portrait of 18th-century Denmark is the true story of a progressive physician who brought Enlightenment values to the country by way of his friendship with an addled young king. This Oscar-nominated drama epitomizes what it takes to make history come alive on screen, creating the sense of an immediate, firsthand atmosphere while never getting bogged down in fussy detail for its own sake. Never underestimate good casting. Mads Mikkelsen plays the complicated hero, a Hamburg doctor named Johann Struensee who, when he is fetched to treat King Christian VII, becomes the mercurial leader's trusted adviser, political ally and best friend. The fact that Struensee eventually falls in love with Queen Caroline Mathilda (Alicia Vikander) makes "A Royal Affair" a bodice ripper as well as a history lesson. But the title could just as easily pertain to the relationship between the two men, whose friendship and its eventual demise are every bit as headstrong, contradictory, passionate and tragic as the romance that plays out on its edges. Contains sexual content and some violent images. Extras: cast and crew interviews, "AXS TV: A Look at A Royal Affair."

Also: "Rust and Bone" (France/Belgium), "Bachelorette," "The Other Son" (France), "Hellgate," "The Hunt for Bin Laden" (Smithsonian Channel documentary), "8" (documentary shorts on global development from eight noted film directors from Jane Campion and Mira Nair to Gus Van Sant and Wim Wenders), "The Great Magician" (2011, Hong Kong), "The Big Picture," "Badlands" (1973, The Criterion Collection), "Hemel" (Netherlands), "Fatherland" (2011, Argentina), "Gottfried Helnwein and the Dreaming Child," "The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp" (1943, The Criterion Collection), "Shadow People," "Straight A's," "Time of My Life" (Belgium) , "24-Hour Love," "Cyberstalker" and "Angus Buchan's Ordinary People."

Television series: "Jersey Shore: The Uncensored Final Season" and "Chance in a Million Complete Collection."

March 22

"Les Miserables" (PG-13, 160 minutes, Universal): There's plenty to cheer in"Les Miserables," including some astonishing breakout performances. Eddie Redmayne delivers by far the most moving and memorable performance as the young firebrand Marius, who along with his fellow students is caught up in France's political upheavals in the 19th century. Based on Victor Hugo's novel, "Les Miserables" juxtaposes Marius' fight for political justice with the more personal struggle of Jean Valjean (played by an unrecognizably emaciated Hugh Jackman, who opens the film as an enslaved prisoner. Russell Crowe plays Valjean's nemesis, Javert, the vengeful police inspector who, when Valjean breaks parole, pursues him obsessively. The centerpiece of a movie composed entirely of centerpieces belongs to Anne Hathaway, who as the tragic heroine Fantine sings another of the memorable numbers in a show of few hummable tunes. Her Oscar-winning rendition of "I Dreamed a Dream" is a melodramatic tour de force. There's little sense of dynamism or pacing, a fault both of the original score and director Tom Hooper's unimaginative staging and camera work, which tend to underline every emotional beat. It's all Very Big, All the Time -- which may serve the show's die-hard fans well, but may not convince those who have been immune to its hysterically pitched charms until now. Contains suggestive and sexual material, violence and thematic elements. Extras: commentary with Hooper, casting featurette narrated by Hooper; "Creating the Perfect Paris" production design featurette; "The Original Masterwork" mini-documentary, a look at the historical backdrop and universal themes of Hugo's classic. Also, on Blu-ray: featurette on the challenge of singing live rather than lip-syncing to prerecorded tracks; featurette on the building of the barricade scene; a look at "The West End Connection," with renowned London producer Cameron Mackintosh, who was deeply involved in the filming, as well as former "Les Miserables" theatrical stars who appeared in supporting roles in the current film; on location featurette.

"This Is 40" (R, 134 minutes, Universal): As unstructured as a sweatsuit, "This Is 40" nevertheless is a comfortable fit for its stars, Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann, who bring a laid-back chemistry and prickly energy to writer-director Judd Apatow's amiably angsty comedy about a married couple facing midlife. Rudd and Mann bring considerable appeal to Pete and Debbie, a loving if bickering husband and wife, both of whom are on the cusp of 40. If only the film itself were half as charming. Overlong, unnecessarily sex-obsessed and nasty at times, "This Is 40" feels haphazard and unfinished, despite a few moments of laugh-out-loud humor. The movie is built as a largely plotless string of vignettes -- some funny, some not, some telling, some trite. When it works the film feels honest and the characters recognizably neurotic yet fresh. When it doesn't "This Is 40" comes across like any other lazy marital yuk-fest. Contains frequent obscenity, sexual humor and partial nudity. Extras: commentary with Apatow; gag reel; Line-O-Rama; deleted scenes; music from Ryan Adams and Graham Parker and the Rumour. Also, on Blu-ray: making-of featurette; deleted, extended and alternate scenes; supporting actor/comedian Albert Brooks featurette and Brooks-O-Rama; Graham Parker and band "Long Emotional Ride" featurette; "Triumph the Insult Comic Dog" and "Kids on the Loose 3" featurettes, "Bodies by Jason" commercial; and NPR "Fresh Air" interview with Terry Gross.

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