By AMY LONGSDORF
For 21st Century Media
A big improvement over the first chapter of “The Hobbit,” Peter Jackson’s “Desolation of Smaug” (2013, Warner, PG-13, $29) recaptures some of the unexpected humor, emotional resonance and crazy daring that marked the “Lord of the Rings” series.
Picking up where “The Unexpected Journey” left off, Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), Gandalf (Ian McKellen) and a band of 13 dwarves are on a mission to retake Erebor when they find themselves tussling with skin-changers, orcs, giant spiders, wood-elves and the titular dragon (Benedict Cumberbatch).
Even though it’s too long, “Smaug” stays fueled by Jackson’s visual dazzle and Cumberbatch’s pitch-perfect villainy. Extras: featurettes.
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August: Osage County (2013, Anchor Bay, R, $30) The characters who populate John Wells’ adaptation of Tracy Letts’ Pulitzer Prize-winning play are so vicious to each other they make the vipers from “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” seem like pussycats by comparison. But as dysfunctional as the members of the Weston clan are, they are always human and relatable. Meryl Streep is the cancer-ridden, pill-popping matriarch at the center of it all. Her battles with her strong-willed daughter (Julia Roberts) are scorchingly intense. Better still are the quiet moments between Chris Cooper and Margo Martindale. These two veterans all but steal the movie out from under their more famous co-stars. Extras: featurettes and commentary by Wells.
Grudge Match (2013, Warner, PG-13, $29) Peter Segal’s boxing comedy was never going to be a contender. Not only are Sylvester Stallone and Robert DeNiro past their primes but the notion of two senior citizens duking it out doesn’t generate much heat. That said, it’s still entertaining to watch Rocky Balboa step into the ring with Jake LaMotta. Playing a pair of pugilists who come out of retirement for one last grapple, DeNiro and Stallone shuffle between “Grumpy Old Men”-style schtick and sappy drama. The supporting cast includes a still-gorgeous Kim Basinger and Kevin Hart who delivers the film’s biggest laughs.
The Great Beauty (2013, Criterion, unrated, $25) The winner of this year’s Oscar for best foreign language film, Paolo Sorrentino’s visual smorgasbord of a drama is over-stuffed, over- opulent and over-the-top. That’s not a complaint since Sorrentino seems to be asking, `how much is too much?’ For novelist Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo), life is a constant swirl of parties, nightclubs and stripper joints. But, during his 65th birthday celebration, he begins to take stock of his hollow existence. Both laugh-out-loud funny and achingly sad, “The Great Beauty” might be the most vital movie ever made about world-weariness. Extras: featurettes and deleted scenes.
At Middleton (2014, Anchor Bay, R, $28) In this romantic comedy from first-time director Adam Rogers, Vera Farmiga and Andy Garcia star as strangers who meet during a college campus tour. While their teenaged kids (Vera’s sister Taissa Farmiga and Spencer LoFranco, respectively) learn about the school, Vera and Andy play hooky, borrowing bikes, climbing a bell tower and frolicking in a fountain. The adults’ silly behavior strains credibility but the performances by Garcia and, particularly, the Irvington-reared Farmiga are wonderful. “At Middleton” doesn’t earn perfect grades but it has its heart in the right place. Extras: outtakes and commentaries.
The Bag Man (2014, Universal, R, $20) When Robert DeNiro’s coiffure is the most interesting thing about a movie, you know you’re in trouble. The fluffy-haired actor stars as a criminal mastermind who hires his favorite hitman (John Cusack) to pick up a satchel and deliver it to him without peaking inside. Of course, Cusack encounters a mess of trouble along the way, including crooked cops, vicious thugs and a mystery woman (Rebecca Da Costa) willing to help him battle the bad guys. The dialogue is dreadful, the action scenes are awkwardly staged and the cinematography is hopelessly murky. Not much here to like.
A Touch of Sin (2013, Kino, unrated, $28) Inspired by true events, this gripping drama from China’s Jia Zhangke looks at a quartet of characters from different provinces who are mad as hell and not going to take it anymore. All of the stories are powerful condemnations of greed but the one about a former miner (Jiang Wu) disgusted with the corruption in his village and another about a sauna receptionist (Zhao Tao) weary of life in the big city pack the biggest punches. Beautifully directed by Zhangke, “A Touch of Sin” is an impossible-to-shake look at a society where wealth inequality has a high body count.
Nurse 3-D (2014, Lionsgate, R, $20) “30 Rock’s” Katrina Bowden does her best to resuscitate this cartoony slasher movie about an RN (“Boardwalk Empire’s” Paz De La Huerta) with murder on her mind. Bowden plays it straight, so to speak, as a newbie nurse who becomes the unwitting object of de La Huerta’s obsession. To its credit, “Nurse” makes clever use of 3-D and never once takes itself too seriously. With just a bit more attention to plot and characters, “Nurse” might have doled out more pleasure than pain. Extras: commentary by director Doug Aarniokoski and featurettes.
Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974, Twilight Time, R, $30) Sam Peckinpah’s grunge classic is an unforgettable look at a loser desperate to win. Warren Oates stars as Bennie, a piano player at a dive bar in Mexico who accepts an assignment from a crime boss (Emilio Fernandez) to deliver the corpse of the rascal who impregnated his daughter. Bennie’s girlfriend (Isela Vega) knows where Alfredo Garcia is buried so the job seems easy but, of course, it is anything but. Now on Blu-ray, “Bring Me” is violent, poetic, horrifying, fatalistic and strangely moving.
Funny Face (1957, Warner, unrated, $20) One of the last great Hollywood musicals stars Fred Astaire as a fashion photographer who transforms a shy book clerk (Audrey Hepburn) into an international model. Director Stanley Donen stuffs the new-to-Blu-ray movie with stunning Gershwin songs, dynamic footage of Paris, and sly satire that kids both existentialism and the fashion industry. Best of all, the elegant Astaire and Hepburn make beautiful music together. S’wonderful, s’marvelous.
The Americanization of Emily (1964, Warner Archive, unrated, $30) Scripted by the great Paddy Chayefsky (“Network”), this new-to-Blu-ray comedy is like no other war movie before or since. James Garner stars as a “dog-robber,” or a Navy officer who scores women, food and liquor for his boss (Melvyn Douglas), an admiral planning the D-Day invasion. Garner is a self-professed coward, which endears him to widow Emily (Julie Andrews) who’s lost too many of her men in battle. With the possible exception of “MASH,” no movie captures the absurdity of war like this still-edgy-after-all-these-years stunner.
Wonderwall (1968, Shout Factory, unrated, $20) The inspiration for the Oasis song of the same name, this bizarre relic of the Swinging Sixties has undergone an extensive spit and polish job and is now available for the first time on Blu-ray. Jack McGowran stars as a professor who becomes infatuated with his next-door neighbor (Jane Birkin). The psychedelic soundtrack by George Harrison is entrancing and the fantasy sequences are warped in a fun way. “Wonderwall” is far from a lost classic but it does a fine job taking you back to a trippier time. Extras: featurettes, music videos and outtakes.
Million Dollar Baby (2004, Warner, R, $20) Building on Paul Haggis’ bruising screenplay, director Clint Eastwood delivers the saga of a boxing trainer who, at the urging of an old pal (Morgan Freeman), reluctantly agrees to mentor a female fighter (Hilary Swank). New-to-Blu-ray, the Oscar-winning drama is a look at lost souls making an unlikely connection. And the performances? They’re as good as it gets. Extras: commentary by producer Al Ruddy and new and vintage featurettes.
Here’s Lucy: The Complete Series (1968-1974, MPI, unrated, $160) Lucille Ball’s fourth sitcom for CBS focuses on widowed mom Lucy Carter as she juggles two teenagers (Lucie and Desi Arnaz) and an easily-exasperated boss (Gale Gordon). Some of the best episodes feature guest stars, including “I Love Lucy” side-kick Vivian Vance; Jackie Gleason as Ralph Kramden; and Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in a classic episode about Liz’s diamond getting stuck on Lucy’s finger. Extras: featurettes, interviews and episode intros.