THIS WEEK’S THEATRICAL RELEASES:
“Gravity”: Despite its impressive boxoffice take (past the $250 million mark in the U.S.) and its technical wizardry, Alfonso Cuaron’s tale of a medical engineer (Sandra Bullock) on her first shuttle mission who is stranded alone in the emptiness of space after her ship is destroyed is really a slight piece of work. Yes, the special effects are breathtaking — and the 3D stupendous (I can’t remember the last time I dodged objects coming off the screen — must have been during “It Came From Outer Space”) and I certainly feared for Bullock’s life as she tried to figure out a way to return to the Earth. But there’s no depth here, no greater backdrop for the characters, no context, no morals to be made, no social issues to be explored (subtexts that are the hallmark of all great science fiction). It’s “All Is Lost” set in outer space, a gripping, exciting, scary and nerve shattering tale. But it’s still a video game for the big screen: Fun while it lasts … but afterwards, there’s nothing to take home. If “Gravity” had appeared in print before it made it’s way to the big screen, it would have appeared as a short story — there’s not enough substance here to sustain anything more. Co-stars George Clooney as a doomed astronaut. Extras include several technical featurettes; “Collision Point: The Race to Clean Up Space” (narrated by Ed Harris), a documentary on space junk (which plays a major role in the film); and a short film by Jonas Cuaron (“Gravity’s” co-writer). From Warner.
“Nebraska”: I’m not quite sure whether director Alexander Payne is laughing with or at the characters in his critically acclaimed film about the perambulations of Woody Grant, a booze-addled old man, and his estranged son, as they travel from Montana to Nebraska to claim the “fortune” the senior citizen thinks he “won” as per a Publishers Clearing House-type sweepstakes letter. Along the way they stop off at Woody’s home town, Hawthorne, Nebraska, where he meets up with relatives, friends and enemies, and settles some old scores. The film is riddled with unlikable characters (from lead Bruce Dern on down to most of the supporting actors), silly sequences and implausible situations. Shot in black and white (for no apparent reason other than to show how monochromatic the lives of these middle-Americans are), the film co-stars Will Forte, June Squibb, Stacy Keach, Bob Odenkirk and Rance Howard. Extras include several behind-the-scenes featurettes. From Paramount.
“Thor: The Dark World”: You should know by now that I’m no big fan of comic book heroes ported to the big screen (exceptions: The Dark Knight and The Avengers) and this second Thor big-screen adventure gave me endless headaches as I tried to figure out what was going on. Yes, I watched the first Thor but, without any comic book cheat sheets in front of me, I got lost and confused right off the bat — it took far too long to understand the deal with the Dark World and Malekith and the Aeather. But even after that light bulb went off over my head, I had other issues with the film. To wit: 1) What’s with Natalie Portman? Her acting here is pretty wooden — we understand there were creative issues between Portman and the filmmakers and, because of her contract, she reluctantly took part in the production. But still, when all is said and done, she’s not love interest material — she has no sex appeal. But Chris Hemsworth, on the other hand … 2) This film gives elves a bad name. 3) There’s drop-dead obnoxious “comedy relief” with Kat Dennings and Stellan Skarsgård; how could the talented Swedish actor stoop so low as to run around in his underwear? 4) And please, what’s with Algrim/Kurse? In the end, of course, it’s all about Thor saving the universe from the vengeful Malekith who returns to plunge everything back into darkness — and about the battle scenes and fights. Oh well. Co-stars Tom Hiddleston, Anthony Hopkins, Christopher Eccleston, Jaimie Alexander, Zachary Levi, Ray Stevenson, Tadanobu Asano, Idris Elba, Rene Russo, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje and Alice Krige. Extras include extended and deleted scenes; a gag reel; commentary; and several behind-the-scenes featurettes. From Disney.
The highlight of the week: Three films from The Criterion Collection, all in Criterion’s Blu-ray/DVD Dual Format Editions loaded with extras (and booklets) in sumptuous packaging:
“King of the Hill” (1993): There’s not a Steven Soderbergh film that doesn’t engage and this is no exception, a gem hidden away for too many years. This was Soderbergh’s first Hollywood studio production (his independent debut, “sex, lies, and videotape,” had won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival a few years earlier) and it’s a growing-up story set in St. Louis during the Depression that follows the daily struggles of a resourceful and imaginative adolescent (Jesse Bradford) who, after his tubercular mother is sent to a sanatorium, must survive on his own in a run-down hotel during his salesman father’s long business trips. The camerawork is exquisite, at once reminding one of the lingering, colorful shots of a Terrence Malick and the frightening moving close-ups of an Alfred Hitchcock or Stanley Kubrick. It’s an exquisite period piece adapted from the memoir by the novelist A. E. Hotchner. New high-definition digital transfer, supervised and approved by Soderbergh and supervising sound editor and rerecording mixer Larry Blake, with 5.1 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack on the Blu-ray.
“Tess” (1979): After a half-dozen mystery and horror films, in 1978 Roman Polanski turned to Thomas hardy’s 1891 classic “Tess of the d’Urbervilles” to film his first love story. The multiple-Oscar-winning film is a meticulously crafted and directed period piece, at times intimate and at times a sweeping interpretation of Hardy’s moral tale, a criticism of the sexual and class mores of 19th century England. Tess, a strong-willed peasant girl (Nastassja Kinski, in a gorgeous breakthrough) is sent by her father to the estate of some local aristocrats to capitalize on a rumor that their families are from the same line. This act seals Tess’ face, thrusting her into a world where she’s buffeted around by chance and the vicissitudes of life in a dreary world where the only hope for salvation is to marry an aristocrat. Tess indeed falls in love — and marries, but the universe does not smile upon her. Polanski’s camera details the drudgery of lower class existence in the villages and towns of a newly industrialized England. A beautiful film — if a tad long (almost three hours). In a new 4K digital restoration, supervised by Polanski, with 5.1 surround DTS-HD Master audio soundtrack on the Blu-ray.
“Breathless” (1960): There was before “Breathless,” and there was after “Breathless.” And we can never have enough of “Breathless.” Criterion has bought us another edition of the seminal film, Jean-Luc Godard’s jazzy, free-form, and sexy homage to the American film genres. With its lack of polish, surplus of attitude, anything-goes crime narrative, and effervescent young stars Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg, “Breathless” helped launch the French New Wave and ensured that cinema would never be the same. Restored high-definition digital transfer, approved by director of photography Raoul Coutard, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray.