It’s a fantastic week for home video with several good movies – including two nominated for multiple Academy Awards – moving to the small screen.
3½ stars (out of four)
Rated PG-13 for intense perilous sequences, some disturbing images and brief strong language
Available on: Blu-ray, Blu-ray 3D, DVD, digital download and on demand
Director Alfonso Cuarón’s “Gravity” is tied with “American Hustle” as a No. 1 contender in this year’s Oscar race. Both films earned 10 nominations, including nods for best picture, best director and best actress.
Sandra Bullock nabbed the latter honor for her memorable portrayal of Dr. Ryan Stone, a fledgling astronaut who is stranded in space when a fast-travelling band of debris disables the shuttle that she and her colleagues launched in. The space junk not only renders the craft unusable, it kills every member of the crew with the exception of Stone and veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney). Realizing the desperation of their situation, Stone and Kowalski decide to spacewalk to a nearby station in hopes of returning home. Their journey is dangerous because they have limited oxygen, the orbiting debris will return, and there is no guarantee they can safely board the station.
Cuarón often pulls his camera back to show how small the astronauts are in the vast expanse of space. The grandeur of the cinematography is reminiscent of “2001: A Space Odyssey,” but “Gravity” isn’t as slow moving as that epic.
As Stone and Kowalski attempt to save themselves, they encounter one horrifying situation after another, and the movie actually takes the tenor of an action film. This makes it exciting, but it also reduces the credibility. For most people, being lost in space would be horrifying enough. In “Gravity,” the predicament is compounded by an ever-increasing number of threats, some of which seem like overkill. Cuarón could have dialed the action back because Bullock, who has the movie’s biggest role, delivers a nuanced performance that invites empathy from viewers.
The biggest drawback to watching “Gravity” on home video is the screen size most viewers will be saddled with. This is a visual film, and the sheer mass of theater screens will always offer the best presentation. Fortunately, advances in home theater equipment have allowed at least some people to create theater-like experiences at home. Those who have large screen TVs or projectors will get more from the film than those attempting to watch on a laptop or tablet. Those set up for Blu-ray 3D may even begin to approach the multiplex experience.
Blu-ray and DVD extras include multiple making of features and a 22-minute documentary about the space debris that currently orbits our planet.
Rated R for some language
Available on: Blu-ray, DVD, digital download and on demand
Director Alexander Payne is one of today’s most exciting filmmakers, and he continues to impress with “Nebraska,” a compelling black-and-white dramedy about an elderly man convinced he’s become a millionaire.
The movie opens with Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) slowly shuffling down a busy road in Billings, Montana. When a police officer asks the white-haired man what he is doing, he says he is walking to Lincoln, Nebraska, where he plans to collect a $1 million sweepstakes prize. Concerned about the man’s safety, the officer takes Woody to the police station where his youngest son, David (Will Forte), retrieves him.
David immediately recognizes his father’s sweepstakes letter as a scam, but Woody continues to demand a trip to Lincoln. Despite continued protestations by his mother, Kate (June Squibb), David agrees to drive his father to Nebraska. He hopes the trip will ease the old man’s mind, and he uses it as an opportunity for Woody to reconnect with relatives in his hometown of Hawthorne.
As Woody reunites with long-lost friends and family, word spreads that he has struck it rich, causing a commotion that David is poorly equipped to handle. The strange circumstances also allow him to delve into his father’s past and understand the man in a new way.
Payne tells his story at a leisurely pace, allowing plenty of time for his actors to develop their characters. This results in deeper-than-usual performances, two of which were rewarded by Oscar nominations. Dern is up for best actor and Squibb is nominated for best supporting actress.
“Nebraska” also earned nominations for best picture, best director, best cinematography and best original screenplay, making it one of the top contenders at this year’s ceremony. Whether or not it turns any of the six nominations to gold, the film is a touching and worthwhile meditation on family ties and the way a man’s history is inextricably linked to his future.
The “Nebraska” DVD release has no extras. The Blu-ray has a making-of feature.
Thor: The Dark World
Rated PG-13 for sequences of intense sci-fi action and violence, and some suggestive content
Available on: Blu-ray, Blu-ray 3D, DVD, digital download and on demand
Marvel Comics is on a remarkable roll. Although superhero films seem custom made for bland, bombastic sequels, the publishing giant has done a superior job moving its brand forward by focusing on quality.
The great thing about Marvel’s comic book movies is the company seems to realize that dazzling special effects and colossal action sequences mean nothing unless tied to a good story. Whether trotting out the web-slinging adventures of Spider-Man, the high-flying antics of Iron Man or the multi-character drama of the Avengers, Marvel directors attempt to foster an emotional bond between characters and their audience.
Of course, the quality of the Marvel movies varies by degree. If we use “The Avengers” as the gold standard, “Thor: The Dark World” is a solid, mid-tier entry. The movie, like its predecessor, focuses on a beefy, blonde hero based on the Norse god of thunder.
In the movies, Thor is not presented as a god, but as the denizen of a distant realm called Asgard. The people of this realm possess powers far greater than average humans, and they live for thousands of years. This presents something of a problem for Thor (Chris Hemsworth) who fell in love with the human scientist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) in his first cinematic outing.
In early scenes, “Dark World” director Alan Taylor establishes Thor’s greatness as a warrior (even by the standards of Asgard) and the fact that his heart remains with Jane. Despite this, the hero sticks to his own realm until he receives word that Jane has gone missing. This prompts a return to Earth, where Thor discovers that Jane has been exposed to a strange, otherworldly element known as the Aether. Further investigation shows that the Aether has awakened an ancient evil determined to use the element to plunge the universe into eternal darkness.
Armed with this information, Thor attempts to protect Jane while finding a way to destroy the Aether and those who would wield its evil power. The astoundingly high stakes even prompt Thor to request help from his treacherous brother, Loki (Tom Hiddleston). This is a nice twist considering that Loki was the primary villain in both the first Thor movie and “The Avengers.” The plotting is complex for a comic book movie, and that adds to the enjoyment, although it does take time to tune into the film’s intricacies.
Hemsworth has rapidly become a major star, and he is perfectly cast as Thor. His flowing hair and bulging muscles make him completely believable as an otherworldly hero, and his sharp, theatrical diction add to the character’s mystique. Hiddleston is, as always, a blast as Loki, and Taylor uses his impressive supporting cast wisely. Portman, Anthony Hopkins, Idris Elba, Rene Russo, Kat Dennings and Stellan Skarsgård play central roles in the plotting, and each actor does a nice job.
Taylor, who inherited the Thor franchise, maintains the tone set by director Kenneth Branagh in the original movie, but he avoids the redundancies that plague many sequels. “The Dark World” advances the key characters by placing them in challenging, new situations. This allows viewers to connect while setting the stage for future installments to the still-promising franchise.
Blu-ray and DVD extras include a feature about the film score, a bit about the relationship between Thor and Loki, deleted scenes, a gag reel and an audio commentary with Taylor, Hiddleston, producer Kevin Feige and cinematographer Kramer Morgenthau.
Blue is the Warmest Color
Rated NC-17 for explicit sexual content
Available on: Blu-ray, DVD, digital download and on demand
Writer-director Abdellatif Kechiche has received considerable acclaim for “Blue Is the Warmest Color,” his film adaptation of Julie Maroh’s like-titled graphic novel. The movie, like the book, focuses on the sexual awakening of a French high school girl who begins a passionate relationship with a slightly older woman from a nearby college.
The film, presented in French with English subtitles, was the darling of the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, where it won the Palm d’Or. It also generated controversy when lead actresses Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux complained that Kechiche had them working under nearly intolerable conditions, including 10 grueling days devoted to a single explicit sex scene. That sequence, which lasts approximately seven minutes and features footage of Exarchopoulos and Seydoux in nearly every imaginable lesbian sex position, also drew criticism from a handful of viewers, most notably Maroh. She described the sequence as alternately surgical and pornographic, and her comments are fair.
The movie was released with an NC-17 in the United States, and the nudity and sex is so prevalent and graphic that at least portions of the picture could pass for soft-core pornography. That said, the film is also beautifully shot and thoroughly engaging on a dramatic level, making it a fascinating mix of high art and eroticism.
“Blue” begins by introducing viewers to Adèle (Exarchopoulos), a teenager who studies literature, hangs out with friends and spends evenings with her loving parents. It’s a typical teen life until she meets Emma (Seydoux), a confident and artsy lesbian drawn in by Adèle’s intelligence and beauty. Not long after they meet, the two begin a fiery affair punctuated by the lengthy sex scenes.
Although the sex has drawn most of the headlines, “Blue” is at its best when Adèle and Emma have their clothes on. That’s because they have a relationship most anyone – male or female – can relate to. What starts as an inferno, slowly loses steam and becomes routine. This, and the creeping evils of jealousy, threaten to undo an otherwise remarkable romance.
Exarchopoulos and Seydoux give earthy, restrained performances that allow viewers to crawl inside their heads. Although neither actress received an Oscar nomination, both were considered contenders, and they received considerable attention from critics’ groups early in the awards season.
Despite its beauty, “Blue” has flaws, most due to Kechiche’s excesses. The movie runs three hours yet leaves several dangling plot threads, all exacerbated by the director’s failure to adequately represent time. For instance, the movie transitions Adèle and Emma from youthful, clandestine lovers to an established couple in a matter of minutes, but it is impossible for audiences to know how much time has passed. Neither actress appears to age during the course of the film, yet it is obvious that years have gone by. Even more troubling is the fact that Kechiche never shows Adèle coming out to her parents, although he takes considerable time to establish their importance to her life. Likewise, Adèle’s high school friends are given screen time early in the film, but they are all but abandoned as she begins her relationship with Emma.
Obviously, a movie can’t tie every dangling thread, but Kechiche could have done better. In fact, he could have gained five or six minutes just by trimming the gratuitous sex scenes to a reasonable length. One might argue that the graphic sexual encounters are necessary to “Blue’s” storytelling, but this doesn’t wash. Director Ang Lee delivered an even more powerful meditation on gay relationships in “Brokeback Mountain,” and his sex scenes were just long enough to establish the depth of his characters’ love.
Because of Kechiche’s excesses, “Blue” is not the masterpiece Cannes voters would like us to believe. It is, however, a beautifully acted, coming-of-age story that asks viewers to think about love and the many ways it manifests itself.
“Blue is the Warmest Color” is a bare bones release, with extras limited to an essay by critic B. Ruby Rich.
ALSO OUT THIS WEEK
“Muscle Shoals”: Documentary centered on Rick Hall, the Alabama music producer credited with creating the famed “Muscle Shoals sound.” Directed by Greg “Freddy” Camalier.
“L.A. Law” – Season One: It’s somewhat shocking that this popular 1980s and ’90s legal drama is just now coming to DVD. Nevertheless, the Steven Bochco- and Terry Louise Fisher-created series is finally getting its due. This release includes the first 22 episodes. Harry Hamlin, Susan Dey, Jimmy Smits, Jill Eikenberry, Michael Tucker and Corbin Bernsen star.
“The Middle” – Season Four: Twenty-four episodes of ABC’s sitcom about middle-class family life. Patricia Heaton, Neil Flynn, Charlie McDermott, Eden Sher and Atticus Shaffer star.
Criterion Collection releases: Along with “Blue is the Warmest Color,” the Criterion Collection is releasing fresh restorations of three classic titles. Among them is “King of the Hill,” director Steven Soderbergh’s first Hollywood studio production. Also out is “Tess,” director Roman Polanski’s 1979 adaptation of “Tess of the D’Urbervilles” and “Breathless,” director Jean-Luc Goddard’s first feature-length film.
“Lesson Before Love”: Independent drama about urban professionals looking for romance. Kenneth Brown Jr., Shamea Morton, Peyton Coles and Reece Odum star. Written and directed by Dui Jarrod.
– Forrest Hartman is an independent film critic whose byline has appeared in some of the nation’s largest publications. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.