Zero Dark Thirty (R, 2012, Sony Pictures)
There was, upon its theatrical release, a whole lot of chatter about “Zero Dark Thirty’s” audacity — to release during the month before Election Day, to tacitly promote torture, to possibly gain access to off-limits intelligence in exchange for a two-hour commercial about the first (and, at the time, potentially only) Obama Administration’s shining bipartisan moment. But it’s all noise, because “Thirty’s” real audacity comes via its complete (and completely appropriate) refusal to walk on either side of any of these avenues while retelling a decade-long story that — in its own opening words, as real emergency dispatch audio from Sept. 11 plays underneath — came entirely from firsthand accounts. Tunnel-vision dedication to those accounts comes with a cost: With so much ground to cover and no sides to take, “Thirty” often plays dry and, yes, leaves itself susceptible to accusations of covert bias that are unfounded and unfair. Can you imagine a film that purports to be a document but stops to pander and editorialize? It would be deservedly eaten alive. “Thirty” takes its lumps, but its resilience in staying on point and shunning politics makes it inedible. (Politicians are notably left on the shelf, with even Obama referred to only in passing and only as “the President.”) “Thirty’s” sole focus is on the mission and the obsessive woman (Jessica Chastain as “Maya,” whose real identity remains classified) who wouldn’t surrender her pursuit of Osama bin Laden until she knew he was dead. For all the dramatic sacrifices it arguably makes, its final 45 minutes are edge-of-seat intense. Considering history spoiled the ending two years ago, that’s no easy feat. Jason Clarke, Joel Edgerton, Chris Pratt and Kyle Chandler also star.
Extras: Four behind-the-scenes features.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (PG-13, 2012, New Line)
Were “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” a highway exit, there would be a sign two miles out proclaiming, “Non-Tolkien Fanatics, Merge Left.” Then, a half-mile away, another sign, in bright construction orange: “No, Seriously.” “Journey” is Peter Jackson’s dramatization of “The Hobbit” — except when isn’t, because the book is 320 pages long and this 169-minute movie is the first of a staggering three that will bring it to life. (The three books that comprised the three “The Lord of the Rings” movies, by contrast, combined for 1,216 pages.) To say there’s time to fill is an understatement that could win an Oscar if they awarded statues for understatements, and “Journey” fills that time with equal parts creative liberty, stalling and artistic self-indulgence that feels like stalling. In frequently regaling legends of Middle Earth gone by, it occasionally feels like a clip show for a series that never existed instead of the origins of the journey that made Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) a legend. Academically, “Journey” is a film in need of an editor. Cynically, it’s a cash grab by a studio that knows the money for three movies instead of one is there for the taking. But if you love Middle Earth to no end, does it even matter? Self-indulgent though it absolutely is, “Journey” also is a feast — for the eyes, of course, but also for the ears. Necessary or not, the languid pace allows for some fun short stories, lots of scene-chewing time for numerous beloved characters, and even a considerable (if not always resilient) sense of humor. With this trilogy, fans get a second chance at an extended stay in Jackson’s vision of Middle Earth. It may exist in this form for monetary more than artistic reasons, and it almost certainly won’t measure up to the first trilogy, but as long as the people it’s for are having fun, it doesn’t really matter.
Extras: “New Zealand: Home of Middle Earth” feature, 15-part behind-the-scenes video blogs compilation.
Les Misérables (PG-13, 2012, Universal)
Really, what insight isn’t already on the table regarding 2012’s most unreviewable movie? Debatably, at least on an aesthetic level, “Les Misérables” is different. It’s a product of the times, insofar that — at least during its hungrier first half — it isn’t afraid to let the camera shake and zoom in jarringly close while following a single character while he (Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Eddie Redmayne, Sacha Baron Cohen) or she (Amanda Seyfried, Anne Hathaway, Samantha Barks) sings in the second person as if singing exclusively to you. The up-close-and-personal approach is “Misérables'” stylistic calling card, and it’s a choice some will hate for frequently obscuring the lavish scenery as much as others will love it for conveying intimacy and subtlety in a way a movie can and a stage production cannot. (For the former, sit tight: As the scope of the story expands from personal to national, so does the film’s acceptance that wide shots have their place as well.) Ultimately, though, “Les Misérables” the movie is creatively attached at the waist to “Les Misérables” the musical, and devotedly so. The music remains powerful, the acting overdone to accommodate the grandiosity of the production on the whole, and even with 158 minutes to work with, “Misérables” has to scramble to contain the entire story inside its credit scrolls. It’s faithful to a fault, but it’s a lively, gorgeous and sonically loaded show as result — exactly the kind of movie that will change no one’s mind about the need for movies based on stage shows. If you love them, this one’s a can’t-miss. If you can’t stand them, it’s a non-starter.
Extras: Director commentary, seven behind-the-scenes features.
Price Check (NR, 2012, IFC Films)
We’ve all met someone like Susan (Parker Posey), who has swooped in from outside and replaced a popular outgoing executive near the top of the Wolski’s supermarket chain corporate ladder. Many of us have worked for or with someone like her. And as result, many of us instantly recognize that what makes Susan kind of scary to be around isn’t the fact that she’s a tyrant or a soulless cost-cutter, but rather because she’s monstrously insecure, dangerously unfiltered and can transition on a dime from overzealous rah rah-ing to a tantrum that would embarrass a first grader. That’s a problem for all of Susan’s new employees, but it’s especially concerning for Pete (Eric Mabius) — not because she’s out to get him, but because he’s instantly her favorite despite having no apparent enthusiasm for his own floundering career. “Price Check” is full of contradictions that aren’t actually contradictions at all, because they’re grounded in a reality that movies about corporate life rarely entertain. Sometimes it’s better to be paid and ignored than admired and overworked, and sometimes well-paid bosses can’t decide whether they love their job, hate their job, love their life or just hate themselves. “Check” is a dry comedy that sometimes feels like a farce, but that’s merely a credit to Posey absolutely nailing a character who is very much real. Most of us have dealt with a Susan and can confirm they exist. They’re charismatic, slightly terrifying and capable of taking people places no one wants to go even when they themselves have no idea where they’re going. When they all get there and that realization sinks in, the line between authenticity and darkly, farcically funny horror show just fades into nothing.
This is 40 (NR/R, 2012, Universal)
Judd Apatow wrote, directed and co-produced “This is 40.” So why does it feel like a comedy that was assembled by two filmmakers who never once spoke during the process of putting it together? “40’s” topic is no more nuanced than the title suggests it is, with husband Pete (Paul Rudd) and wife Debbie (Leslie Mann) — secondary characters in “Knocked Up,” now getting top billing — turning 40 and dealing with the joys of parenthood, fading dreams, debt and total romantic stagnation. To the movie’s credit, it sometimes mines that mundanity for some seriously funny bits, and occasionally with a frequency that makes you forget the dreary predictability of the premise’s early going. But then, as if “40” itself forgot them as well, it returns to them for some plot turns that are absolute drags. Pete’s and Debbie’s two kids (Maude Apatow as teenager Sadie, Iris Apatow as the younger Charlotte) are comedic gold mines and arguably the funniest and best-realized characters in the whole movie. But the brilliant writing that brings them alive exists within the same script that slowly takes the main storyline exactly where you know it’s going, with some weird stops at product placement (so overt as to be funny), stunt casting (not so much) and angst to spare along the way. “40” swims more than it sinks, if only because its funniest moments are much funnier than its boring drags are miserable. But the dry patches are still pronounced enough to make one wonder what might’ve happened if it felt less obligated to sleepwalk through the storytelling motions and decided to just be funny instead.
Extras: Unrated cut (adds three minutes), Apatow commentary, deleted/extended/alternate scenes and outtakes, behind-the-scenes feature, an episode of NPR’s “Fresh Air with Terry Gross” featuring Apatow, line-o-rama, bloopers.
Bachelorette (R, 2012, Anchor Bay)
Catharsis is the ultimate tease in “Bachelorette,” which begins with Becky (Rebel Wilson) telling old friend Regan (Kirsten Dunst) she’s engaged right as Regan dips her toe into a speech about why she may want to dump the guy she’s now set to marry. That never really goes anywhere, and soon after, Gena (Lizzy Caplan) and Katie (Isla Fisher) join Regan to help plan Becky’s bachelorette party, which inadvertently turns into a race to fix the wedding dress they secretly accidentally ruin on the eve of the wedding. Along the way, “Bachelorette” continually flirts with the idea of being something more than a screwy comedy about three girls with broken personal lives racing to fix a dress. There are painful revisits to the past, painful acceptances that what once was funny and cute isn’t working anymore, and painful failures to understand why doing everything the “right” way can still feel so unfulfilling. Deep, right? Problem is, every time “Bachelorette” seems primed to embrace its demons and weave darkness and comedy into a big, wild popping off of bottled angst, it hedges the bet and just turns back inward before carrying on as a somewhat funny but mostly unremarkable screwball comedy. That’ll certainly do as a light good time, but given how badly “Bachelorette” so obviously wants to break through into something way more dangerous than that, it’s a shame it didn’t close its eyes and just bolt for it.
Extras: Writer/director commentary, behind-the-scenes feature, bloopers.