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The Shelf: THOR 2, GRAVITY, ADVENTURE TIME

A couple of Oscar nominees, some superhero fun, and the continuing exploits of a boy and his magic dog are all on display this week on the Shelf. It’s a pretty cool time in which we live that a movie that was a box office hit and a technical marvel could be nominated for all kinds of Academy Awards. Sure, it happened with Avatar a few years ago, but that movie isn’t good.

Thor: The Dark World

It must be difficult not only to make a sequel that ups the ante from the original, but also one that’s part of a much larger cinematic storyline, and one that will tide people over until the next one. Director Alan Taylor’s Thor: The Dark World had to do just that, as it gave audiences their third glimpse (including The Avengers) at the eponymous hero (played by Chris Hemsworth) and his conniving brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) and a second look at their magical and otherworldly realm of Asgard. The film also had to be a good bridge between Thor and Loki’s struggle in The Avengers (their family drama was very much at the center of the film) and what’s to come with their stories. At a certain point, the worry is that audiences will feel like they’ve seen it all before, but what Taylor and company did that was so smart was to make the movie take place largely on alien worlds, bringing a whole new level to the proceedings.

After the Battle of New York, which it seems no Marvel property can now refrain from referencing ad nauseum, Thor takes Loki to be judged before Odin (Anthony Hopkins). The rebel is sentenced to live out his days in the prisons of Asgard while Thor and his crew try to make peace with all of the nine realms. It is nearing the time when all realms will be in alignment, and that leaves everybody a bit vulnerable. Bad times happen when Malekith (Christopher Eccleston), a Dark Elf who was defeated by Odin’s dad Bor millennia ago, reawakens and wants to claim a terrible force called the Aether. On Earth, Thor’s flame, Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), is in London and has found evidence of a rift between dimensions, and she passes through and gets infected with the Aether. Darn the luck. Now, Thor must try to save Jane and defeat Malekith, and he needs Loki’s help to do it.

I didn’t expect to like Thor: The Dark World very much, mainly due to the relatively low amount I enjoyed the original film. It took The Avengers for me to really care at all about the Asgardian and his plight. But, this one has a lot more of what I did like about the first one, and that is being on the other realms. Asgard is cool! Why would I want to be on Earth when I can be on another damn planet? This movie does a really good job of balancing the sci-fi and the mystical and all of the realms feel like real places here, even if a lot of it is CGI. Malekith as a villain is a bit of a cipher, but the Dark Elves look cool enough that it doesn’t bother much. The final battle sequence in which everybody is warping dimensions is a real thing to behold and a lot of fun.

Obviously, the real reason to love this movie is the interplay between Hemsworth and Hiddleston. You really get the sense that they need each other but also sort of despise each other, which makes it so much more dynamic than simply a hero versus a villain. The character of Loki has really taken off in a way that I didn’t expect when I saw the first Thor, and I think that has everything to do with how likable and delightfully amoral Hiddleston makes his performance. You almost don’t want to think of a Thor movie without Loki, but surely there must be one somewhere, right?

The Blu-ray has some excellent features, including a 30 minute discussion of Thor and Loki’s relationship, making-of footage, and commentary by Taylor, Hiddleston, producer Kevin Feige, and cinematographer Kramer Morganthau. It also includes the newest short film, Marvel One-Shot: All Hail the King, which deals with actor Trevor Slattery once he’s been imprisoned for his part in the Mandarin escapade. Overall, a good buy for fans of the franchise.

Check out Dan Casey’s interviews with Hemsworth and Hiddleston and Jessica Chobot’s interview with Lady Sif herself, Jaime Alexander.

Gravity

People (read: critics and movie snobs) throw around the term “pure cinema” to mean an experience that could not exist in any other medium, using all the tools at its disposal to tell visual story. It usually applies to films that are best seen in a darkened auditorium on a massive screen with the flicker of the projector over your shoulder. While that saying has been used to describe many films, they may as well have invented it specifically for Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity, the butt-puckering movie of the year.

The story is incredibly simple but important. Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is a medical engineer in space for the first time, affixing a device she helped create to the Hubble Space Telescope. The captain of this mission is the veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), who has been in space more than just about any human and will be hanging up his helmet after this job is done. Mere moments into the film, Houston gets word that a Russian satellite has been struck by a missile and is causing debris to pile up and begin orbiting the Earth at incredible speeds. Before too long, the Space Shuttle Explorer is hit and Stone finds herself spinning aimlessly further and further away. We’ve all seen the trailer. The rest of the movie has Kowalski and Stone trying to reach other space stations in order to get back to Earth.

Everything about Gravity is meant to elicit a reaction from the audience, and that reaction is a complete tensing of the entire body. Being so close to everything at all times or, because the camera can truly go anywhere, to see something in the distance that our characters can’t see, but that will become incredibly important in mere seconds, makes us almost implicit in the chaos that ensues, thanks to fast-moving space junk. The sound design as well is full of the ever-increasing din followed by silence that a lot of movies like to use nowadays. Here, it’s handled quite well and, again, adds to the tension.

For a movie this technically complex to be garnering nominations and wins is really a testament to how much we value stories told well. Curaron seems to have pretty high chances of winning the Best Director Oscar next weekend and the film itself is sure to take home the technical awards, but also has a real chance to snag Best Picture. A science-fiction film has never won Best Picture, but this wouldn’t be a bad first one to do it.

The Blu-ray is legitimately chock full of extras. There’s a 107-minute feature that details the very bumpy road to getting the film made, 37 minutes of “shot breakdowns,” a 22-minute documentary about real space debris, and a 10 minute short film by co-writer Jonas Cuaron. If you want to know about how Gravity happened, this is a brilliant way to do it. And, it’s still terrifying and heart-pounding.

To read my full review of Gravity, click here, and for interviews with Bullock and Cuaron, click here.

Adventure Time Season 3

The third season of Cartoon Network’s weirdest, most endearing program makes its way to Blu-ray for 26 episodes of fantasy-filled action and hilarity. Jake the Dog and Finn the Human, the bestest of friends, traverse the seemingly endless Land of Ooo and battle various demons, monsters, villains, witches, vampires, and the like, all while having the time of their lives. Adventure Time is a show that feels like what being a kid is all about, and Finn’s exuberance and well-meaning shenanigans makes me nostalgic for stuff I pretended to do when I was wee. This season gives viewers an invasion of cuteness, a trip into Marceline the Vampire Queen’s memories, the annoying-ness of Lemongrab, and the formation of a band to defeat the Door Lord. We also get to see the female equivalents of Finn and Jake, named Fionna and Cake. It’s a great show; I’m sure you all know that already.

There isn’t much in the way of extras in this release, unfortunately, as is evidenced by all 26 episodes and extras fitting on a single Blu-ray disc, but there are commentaries on each episode, which can be enlightening and also awkward, which is fun.

ALSO AVAILABLE

Nebraska – Another multi-Oscar nominee, this one tells the story of a man and his son on a road trip for $1 million. Sort of. For my full review, click here, and for my interviews with stars Will Forte and Stacy Keach, click on their names.

Blue is the Warmest Color – The winner of the Cannes Film Festival’s prestigious Palme d’Or is a 3 hour look at the romantic relationship between two women. It’s really good, you guys.

The Shadow – Another post-Batman, post-Dick Tracy superhero movie that has a sense of humor and a style all its own. I watched this movie a TON when I was a kid.

L.A. Law Season One – The show our parents watched a lot when we were kids. (EDITOR’S NOTE: Shut up.) It has a lot of handsome actors playing lawyers, so that’s probably something.

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