- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 24, 2015

A salute to a musical legend, a biographical war drama, a pair of epic, literary adaptations and a look at some feisty penguins are my tops picks in Blu-ray home entertainment this week.

Exodus: Gods and Kings (20th Century Fox Home Entertainment, Rated PG-13, $39.99) — I fondly remember in my early years an Easter tradition of watching on ABC the mighty Charlton Heston as Moses in “The Ten Commandments.”

Tis with that tainted field of vision, I gaze upon director Ridley Scott’s biblically inspired, 150-minute epic of an Egyptian Prince discovered as a Hebrew slave and eventually becoming the liberator of his Jewish brethren from Egypt.

It’s a spiritually hollow adaptation of the Book of Exodus starring Christian Bale as Moses and Joel Edgerton as Pharaoh Ramses II, but the real stars are the special effects delivering plagues, massive battles and a parting of the Red Sea that look fantastic in this digital transfer.

With that reported, I’ve still seen even better-looking films in high-definition from Mr. Scott such as “Blade Runner,” “Gladiator” and “Black Hawk Down.”

Extras help cement the potential Blu-ray purchase with a trivia track offering lots of information. It runs as a text bar during the feature and topics include the historical accuracies of the Exodus, a look at the culture, conquests and government of Egypt’s 19th dynasty and interpretations of biblical passages.

Additionally, an optional commentary track presents Mr. Scott in fine, philosophical and scholarly form. He is loaded with knowledge and does most of the talking while writer Jeffrey Caine occasionally gets a word in.

Unbroken (Universal Home Entertainment, Rated PG-13, $34.98) — Under the able direction of Angelina Jolie and based on author Laura Hillenbrand book,  a film late last year gave movie-goers an incredible true story of a man who survived against all odds.

Louis “Louie” Zamperini, played by Jack O’Connell, went from being a record-setting U.S. Olympian to eventually a prisoner of war in a Japanese camp after his plane crash-landed in the Pacific during his service in World War II.

His story of courage and enduring human spirit is not soon forgotten over 137-minutes, thanks in part to the richly defined imagery of the top-notch digital transfer complementing the Academy-Award nominated work of cinematographer Roger Deakins. Throughout, he manages to deliver a period piece that visually brings the horrors of a war in the 1940s to life.

The most important extra offers a 30-minute, better-rounded look at Mr. Zamperini’s life highlighted by his post-war years. Also, a three-part, 27-minute mini-documentary also helps shed some light on a film project (amazingly in development for 50 excruciating years) and a quick tribute to some real veterans of World War II.

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (Warner Home Video, Rated PG-13, $44.95) — The conclusion to Bilbo Baggins’ exhausting, cinematic adventure arrived late last year in a rousing epic to satisfy fans of Peter Jackson’s homage to J.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth sagas.

It’s Blu-ray release still clocks in at 144 minutes and leaves plenty of time to watch the dwarf Thorin spiral into and out of madness while he and his eleven kin defend the gold saturated Erebor.

We also learn the fates of Smaug, orc leader Azog and a Necromancer and require at least two bags of popcorn to revel in how Mr. Jackson turned Legolas Greenleaf into the coolest character of the “Hobbit” and “Lord of the Rings” movies.

A spectacular digital transfer ignites home theater screens with rich colors and an almost 3D quality to the enormous special effects, all booming though DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 surround sound.

Extras are on the much-too-light side with less than an hour of featurettes focused on the New Zealand shooting locations, the 17-year odyssey to bring Tolkien’s works to the screen and the building the five armies from the production point of view.

I’ll offer one big caveat as to why this release is a rental only for the hardcore fan. As per tradition, Warner Home Video will release an extended version of film on Blu-ray later in the year. It is reported to add another 30-minutes of action (as explained by Mr. Jackson in a recent interview) and loaded with more extras. So, hold tight, Gandalf breath.

Penguins of Madagascar (20th Century Fox Home Entertainment, Rated PG, $38.99) — A team of elite, animated penguin operatives returned to give children another frenetic dose of fun with help from a whopping $132 million budget (I just swallowed my tongue).

I’ll admit the goofy laugh level is high in this full-length cartoon as the waddling team of Kowalski, Private, Rico and Skipper attempt to stop a rampaging and bitter octopus named Dave (featuring John Malkovich’s maniacal vocals) from kidnapping all the world’s penguins.

They get help from another team of agents called the North Squad led by a detail-oriented wolf (the voice of Benedict Cumberbatch no less) and a broad-shouldered, bumbling polar bear.

The digital animation is not on par with any Pixar effort but still has plenty of eye-popping detail when viewed in 1080p resolution (reference the slithery and bulbous movements of the octopus and his minions or liberal use of cheese dust).

The extras are bountiful but completely lacking. Nearly each one simply culls pieces from the film to offer mash-up moments for the kiddies. These range from a clap-and-sing-along called “Flipper Slap Shake Waddle and Roll” to a commercial for the penguins’ favorite snack, Cheezy Dibbles.

As an added bonus, the package contains two small, plastic, wind-up penguins, one popping out of its shell and one waddling, that should satisfy the younger fan while watching the movie.

A MusiCares Tribute To Paul McCartney (Shout! Factory, Not Rated, $21.98) — In 2012, a famed Beatle was honored with a concert by a charitable organization that has provided assistance to musicians in times of medical, financial or personal need for over 25 years.

This Blu-ray offers a solid 60 minutes of live music from the evening, with no babbling speeches, crisply delivered in high-definition and with a choice of DTS-HD 5.1 or a PCM Stereo sound.

Viewers must first get past an odd, time-consuming opening featuring a bunch of costumed clowns roaming around the audience pulled from Cirque du Soleil’s “The Beatles Love” show. That nonsense is soon forgotten as ears respond to Sir Paul and his current band kicking into “Magical Mystery Tour” and “Junior’s Farm.”

What then follows is an eclectic group of artists performing selections from both Mr. McCartney’s solo and Beatles’ catalogs.

Amongst the 15 to appreciate, my highlights included Norah Jones singing “Oh! Darling,” Alison Krauss with “No More Lonely Nights” (with help from Union Station), Sergio Mendes’ bizarre bossa nova interpretation of “Fool On The Hill” and the grunge like dirge of “Saw Her Standing There” by Neil Young and Crazy Horse (it was the first public appearance of the group in over a decade).

Also the finale finds the 18-time Grammy winner joined by Joe Walsh and Foo Fighters Dave Grohl covering “Golden Slumbers,” “Carry That Weight” and “The End” from, of course, the Abby Road album.

Alas, no featurettes or bonus performances on the Blu-ray making it a potentially difficult sell, especially if the concert becomes available on demand. However proceeds go to the MusiCares and that should make it worth a purchasing for the McCartney fan.

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