Blu Tuesday: Gravity, Thor: The Dark World and More

Every Tuesday, I review the newest Blu-ray releases and let you know whether they’re worth buying, renting or skipping, along with a breakdown of the included extras. If you see something you like, click on the cover art to purchase the Blu-ray from Amazon, and be sure to share each week’s column on Facebook and Twitter with your friends.

“Gravity”

WHAT: When their space shuttle is destroyed by hurtling debris from a damaged Russian satellite, U.S. astronauts Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and Matt Kowalsky (George Clooney) are left adrift in space with limited oxygen and a minimal chance of survival.

WHY: It’s been six years since Alfonso Cuarón’s last feature film – the criminally underrated “Children of Men” – but his outer space survival thriller was well worth the wait. “Gravity” is the kind of movie that will likely change the way films are made in the future. From the stunning, single-take opening sequence that lasts more than 12 minutes, to the numerous set pieces throughout, “Gravity” is such a technical marvel that it looks like Cuarón shot the whole damn thing in space. Though the story is ridiculously simple, not a single second of its 91-minute runtime is wasted, extracting so much suspense from the film’s terrifying setup that the brief injections of comedy (courtesy of George Clooney’s easygoing astronaut) are a welcome reprieve from the almost unrelenting intensity. Sandra Bullock delivers one of the best performances of her career as the rookie astronaut caught up in a seemingly impossible situation, but the real star of “Gravity” is Cuarón himself, and he deserves every bit of praise for creating what can only be described as pure movie magic.

EXTRAS: In addition to an excellent, 107-minute making-of featurette, the Blu-ray includes shot breakdowns for five scenes, a short film titled “Aningaaq” from co-writer Jonas Cuaron, and the documentary “Collision Point” narrated by Ed Harris.

FINAL VERDICT: BUY

“Thor: The Dark World”

WHAT: When Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) discovers an ancient power known as the Aether, she unknowingly awakens Malekith the Accursed (Christopher Eccleston), the leader of the Dark Elves who plans to use that power to plunge the world back into darkness. Against his father’s wishes, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) comes to Jane’s rescue in order to stop Malekith before his sinister plan can be completed.

WHY: I’m a really big fan of the first “Thor,” so my expectations were pretty high going into this sequel, and unfortunately, “The Dark World” fails to live up to them. Though there are some really great moments throughout, the movie is weakened by what is easily the worse villain of the Marvel films thus far. Nothing against Christopher Eccleston, but Malekith looks like a C-list “Star Trek” villain with similarly uninspired end-of-the-world ambitions. Additionally, Sif and the Warriors Three are criminally underused – something that will hopefully be remedied should there be a third installment. Most of what does work in the sequel is carried over from its predecessor. Tom Hiddlestone continues to prove why Loki is Marvel’s greatest asset, because as soon as he enters the film, it gets a lot more interesting, thanks in part to his excellent chemistry with Chris Hemsworth. The Earth-based scenes also feature some pretty big laughs, and the final act is a lot of fun. “The Dark World” isn’t quite on the same level as we’ve come to expect from Marvel, but it doesn’t make me want another “Thor” film any less.

EXTRAS: The Blu-ray release is headlined by a new Marvel One-Shot titled “All Hail the King” (with Ben Kingsley reprising his “Iron Man 3” role) and an audio commentary with director Alan Taylor, producer Kevin Feige, co-star Tom Hiddleston and cinematographer Kramer Morgenthau. There’s also a two-part featurette on the relationship between Thor and Loki, a short featurette on composer Brian Tyler’s score, some deleted and extended scenes, and a behind-the-scenes look at “Captain America: The Winter Soldier.”

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

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2013 Year End Movie Review: Jason Zingale

year_end

If you haven’t been to the movie theater over the past few months, you’d be forgiven for thinking that 2013 wasn’t a very good year for film. In fact, my own year-end list was looking pretty suspect before October, but as is usually the case, the awards season blitz was jam-packed with enough great movies to fill more than the customary ten spots. That made compiling this year’s best-of list a little more challenging than in years past, especially with so many popular choices relegated to honorable mentions or missing entirely. With that said, after much deliberating, flip-flopping and even revisiting certain films, the following represents what I believe to be the best of 2013.

Best Movies of 2013

1. “GRAVITY

It’s been six years since Alfonso Cuarón’s last feature film – the criminally underrated “Children of Men” – but his outer space survival thriller was well worth the wait. “Gravity” is the kind of movie that will likely change the way films are made in the future. From the stunning, single-take opening sequence that lasts more than 12 minutes, to the numerous set pieces throughout, “Gravity” is such a technical marvel that it looks like Cuarón shot the whole damn thing in space. Though the story is ridiculously simple, not a single second of its 91-minute runtime is wasted, extracting so much suspense from the film’s terrifying setup that the brief injections of comedy (courtesy of George Clooney’s easygoing astronaut) are a welcome reprieve from the almost unrelenting intensity. Sandra Bullock delivers one of the best performances of her career as the rookie astronaut caught up in a seemingly impossible situation, but the real star of “Gravity” is Cuarón himself, and he deserves every bit of praise for creating what can only be described as pure movie magic.

gravity

2. “AMERICAN HUSTLE

David O. Russell has always been a quality filmmaker, but he’s quickly becoming a force to be reckoned with thanks to movies like “The Fighter,” “Silver Linings Playbook” and this farcical con-artist caper. Loosely based on the ABSCAM scandal of the late ‘70s, “American Hustle” is immensely entertaining, impeccably structured and features top-notch acting from the entire cast. Forty pounds heavier and rocking the most elaborate comb-over you’ve ever seen, Christian Bale gives a wonderfully nuanced performance as the straight man of the bunch. His co-stars aren’t quite as committed physically, but they’re just as good. Amy Adams oozes sexiness as Bale’s cunning partner in crime, scene stealer Jennifer Lawrence is an absolute riot as his unpredictable wife, and Bradley Cooper is hilarious as the short-tempered FBI agent in charge of the sting. The whole film is a lot funnier than you’d expect due to Russell and Eric Singer’s darkly comic script, and though some have argued that it’s too long, the characters are so richly developed and crackling with personality that I would have gladly spent another hour in their messed-up world.

american_hustle

3. “ABOUT TIME

Richard Curtis has written and directed some of the greatest romantic comedies of the past two decades, so it should come as no surprise that his latest movie follows in the same footsteps. Curtis’ films have always been about much more than the superficial meet-cute between boy and girl, and “About Time” is no different, aiming for something a lot deeper and more emotionally rewarding than the typical rom-com. Breakout star Domhnall Gleeson and Rachel McAdams have some fantastic chemistry, but it’s the relationship between Gleeson and Bill Nighy (playing the world’s coolest dad) that best serves the story’s central themes and leaves a more lasting impression, especially for anyone who’s ever lost a member of their family. Equally charming, funny and touching, “About Time” is classic Richard Curtis, through and through. And if the rumors about it being his directorial swan song are true, Curtis can take comfort in knowing that he went out on top, because this is not only his most mature and personal work to date, but it’s just a really beautiful film.

about_time

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2013 Year End Movie Review: David Medsker

medsker

It is not gross hyperbole to suggest that, box office be damned, the last couple of years have not been Hollywood’s finest. With all due respect to “The Artist” and “Argo,” the previous two Best Picture winners and fine movies, neither of them would have won had they been released in 2010. In fact, “The Artist” wouldn’t have even made my Top 10 list that year, while “Argo” would have slotted slightly ahead of “The King’s Speech” (that year’s Best Picture winner, by the way), which means it would have ranked as the sixth best movie that year. Yes, 2010 was that good, and everything since has been, as far as I’m concerned, a great disappointment.

Enter 2013, and the first time since 2010 that a movie truly excited me, to the point where I wanted to stay and watch it again the second it ended. Then I felt sad because Roger Ebert hadn’t lived long enough to see it. I’m really going to miss him. He was a damned fine writer.

Sadly, I still don’t have enough movies to make a top ten list. This is a combination of two things: missing some daytime screenings (stupid day job), and being rather underwhelmed by some movies with big time buzz, including the one that will likely win Best Picture. That won’t be a travesty along the lines of “Crash” taking the trophy in 2005, but unworthy of the honor just the same.

My Favorite Movies of 2013

1. “GRAVITY

Only one movie comes even close to this one. I was thrilled when Alfonso Cuaron’s 2006 film “Children of Men” won my local film critics group’s award for Movie of the Year, and what he does here dwarves that in terms of technical achievement, while Sandra Bullock delivers as raw a performance as she’s ever given in her life. Even better, the movie is a mere 91 minutes long. Showing people something they’ve never seen before, while showing respect for the audience’s time: now that is my idea of a modern-day filmmaker.

gravity-med

2. “AMERICAN HUSTLE

This is one of those ‘little moments’ movies, where the story is thoroughly engaging, but it’s the little bits that will stick in your head, and each of the leads has one. Bradley Cooper impersonating Louis C.K. towards the end. Christian Bale letting it all hang out at the party while listening to Duke Ellington. Jennifer Lawrence and the “science oven.” (Lawrence actually has two, if you include her lip sync of “Live and Let Die.”) Jeremy Renner explaining all of the different things you can heat in a science oven (all Italian foods). Amy Adams introducing Lady Greensly. “American Hustle” has a gonzo spirit, but it’s a smoke screen to distract you from the fact that at least one of the characters at any point in time is already thinking two moves ahead. Brilliant stuff.

3. “HER

If “American Hustle” is a ‘little moments’ movie, “Her” is the one that will lead people to have book club-type conversations after seeing it. If the idea of someone developing feelings for an operating system seems odd on the surface, it won’t once you see Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) give up people for Samantha (Scarlett Johannson), who satisfies him in ways that real women can’t. Johannson will probably be overlooked by the Academy for the same reasons that motion capture master Andy Serkis has been shunned (only her voice appears in the movie), but she delivers a heartbreaking and utterly believable performance as the zeroes-and-ones Samantha.

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Movie Review: “Gravity”

Starring
Sandra Bullock, George Clooney
Director
Alfonso Cuarón

There are so many appropriate words to describe “Gravity,” yet none of them seem adequate. To call it intense – and boy, is it intense – puts it in the same company as movies about serial killers and runaway buses. To call it bittersweet and uplifting brings to mind “Steel Magnolias.” (It’s nothing like “Steel Magnolias.”) It’s also mind-bogglingly gorgeous, and yet, it’s more than that as well. So forget those words, and remember this one: the movie is magical. It’s the kind of movie that will inspire a generation of kids to grab cameras and let their imaginations run wild, the proverbial face that launches a thousand ships. At the very least, it will raise the profile of director Alfonso Cuarón (“Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban”) in a way that his previous film, 2006’s brilliant and criminally overlooked “Children of Men,” should have.

Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is on her first space mission. Matt Kowalsky (George Clooney) is on his last. Stone and Kowalsky are on a spacewalk, the former trying to fix a piece of equipment she helped design, the latter simply trying to set the record for longest spacewalk. Mission Control informs them of debris from a damaged satellite headed their way and orders them to get in the ship. The debris arrives too soon, however, and shreds their space shuttle beyond repair. Ryan and Matt are the sole survivors of the assault, adrift in space, and have limited amounts of oxygen and time to find a nearby, functional spacecraft before the debris makes its way around the earth and bombards them again.

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Coming Soon: A Moviegoer’s Guide to October

october

October has never been a particularly strong month for movies in the past, but that could all be about to change with the exciting crop of titles scheduled for release this year. Though there’s still the usual cluster of genre films (“Machete Kills,” “Carrie”), this month also features an extraordinate amount of quality, boasting no fewer than five movies with genuine Oscar potential. It seems award season is beginning a little early this year, and compared to what October typically brings, it’s hard to complain.

“GRAVITY”

Who: Sandra Bullock and George Clooney
What: A medical engineer and an astronaut work together to survive after an accident leaves them adrift in space
When: October 4th
Why: Alfonso Cuaron hasn’t made a feature-length film since 2006’s underrated tour de force “Children of Men,” but if the early buzz surrounding “Gravity” is to be believed, then it was well worth the wait. The sci-fi drama has been in development for what seems like years, and Warner Bros. deserves a lot of credit for taking the chance on such a daring project. It definitely helps when you have actors like Sandra Bullock and George Clooney attached, but with audiences constantly lamenting the lack of originality in the Hollywood system, it’s refreshing to see that studios haven’t completely abandoned this type of filmmaking. “Gravity” probably won’t make a ton of money at the box office, but it should be at the top of everyone’s must-see lists.

“RUNNER RUNNER”

Who: Justin Timberlake, Ben Affleck, Gemma Arterton and Anthony Mackie
What: When a poor college student who cracks an online poker game goes bust, he arranges a face-to-face with the man he thinks cheated him.
When: October 4th
Why: If “Runner Runner” sounds like the unofficial sequel to “Rounders,” that’s because it was written by the same duo, Brian Koppelman and David Levien. Obviously, gambling is just the gateway into the world of their latest film, but fans of the 1998 poker thriller should be encouraged by their involvement, because they clearly know their way around the subject. Whether or not they strike gold twice remains to be seen, but “Runner Runner” has a good enough cast to pull it off. Justin Timberlake is a natural entertainer who’s only gotten better with experience, and though Ben Affleck appears to be hamming it up a bit as the villain, he’s proven that he can deliver great work with the right material and director.

“CAPTAIN PHILLIPS”

Who: Tom Hanks, Catherine Keener and Max Martini
What: The true story of Captain Richard Phillips and the 2009 hijacking by Somali pirates of the US-flagged cargo ship MV Maersk Alabama.
When: October 11th
Why: There’s an inordinate amount of films based on true stories being released this year (even more so than usual), and Tom Hanks stars in two of them. But while moviegoers may be excited at the prospect of seeing the veteran actor play Walt Disney in “Saving Mr. Banks,” the Paul Greengrass-directed “Captain Phillips” is the more intriguing of the pair. Many people don’t know much about the real-life events that inspired the movie, and that’s only going to work in its favor. Add to that Greengrass’ knack for dramatizing true stories (as evidenced in “Bloody Sunday” and “United 93”) and what looks like yet another Oscar-worthy performance by Hanks, and there’s no reason why “Captain Phillips” won’t be part of the conversation come awards time.

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