Usually, it's a good week for new DVD releases if there is one great title hitting stores. This week, there are four new releases that top an overall strong week for DVD viewing, including two Oscar-nominated movies and an Emmy-winning TV series.
"Gravity," Grade A: Director Alfonso Cuarón doesn't just paint a dazzling and compelling portrait of an emotionally stunted medical engineer (Sandra Bullock) and a roguish astronaut (George Clooney), who must find a way to survive after being stranded in space when their shuttle is destroyed. He also transports us to that cold vacuum as an ad hoc participant.
The first 20 minutes of the Oscar-nominated movie — presented without a single edit — is a masterpiece of filmmaking that sets the tone for the incredible journey. Edits in a movie give the viewer a chance to take a breath and reset for what's to come next. There are so few edits in this movie that by the time it ends, the viewer feels emotionally exhausted and breathless.
Not since "2001: A Space Odyssey" rocked the film world in 1968 with its incredible portrayal of life in outer space has a movie been as visually groundbreaking as "Gravity." From the panoramic views of Earth to the tiny drops of tears floating in the weightlessness of space, Cuarón doesn't miss a single opportunity to amaze.
"Nebraska," Grade B+: Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) has received a sweepstakes letter in the mail notifying him he has won $1 million. Although everyone tries to convince him it's just a promotional ploy to get him to buy magazines, Woody is willing to walk from his home in Billings, Mont., to the prize center in Lincoln, Neb. When it's obvious that no one can shake Woody of his fool's dream, his son, David (Will Forte), agrees to drive him.
The vast landscapes that director Alexander Payne scatters through "Nebraska" aren't just there to create artistic images. All of the emptiness and promises of a brighter tomorrow reflect the driving theme of this examination of a man's legacy. The landscapes become all that more stark and cold because of the decision by the director to present the tale in black and white.
Through a road trip sparked by a fantasy, Payne paints a portrait of how sometimes the American dream can be as elusive as a winter wind.
Dern's work was nominated for an Oscar.
"L.A. Law: Season One," Grade A-: This law series from Steven Bochco created the blueprint for legal TV dramas like "Ally McBeal" and "Boston Legal." Bochco's series went from addressing hot-button issues of the '80s and early '90s — such as AIDS, homophobia, domestic violence — to being a dark comedy. He can do both without shortchanging the other.
The quality started with the writing, but it came to life with a superb cast anchored by Jill Eikenberry, Michael Tucker, John Spencer, Jimmy Smits and Corbin Bernsen. The cast was so good that no matter who had the bulk of the material, the result was always compelling.
The series earned Emmy Awards, including four for Outstanding Drama Series.
"Thor 2: The Dark World," Grade A-: The second film in the series avoids the slump that often comes with a sequel by cranking up the action, embracing the deep mythology that made the comics popular, sustaining the family elements and focusing on the film's two greatest assets: Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston.
Toss in a strong performance by the supporting cast, a surprise cameo and some good emotional moments, and the sequel delivers visual lightning and story thunder.
The threat in this story comes from an elfish-looking creature known as Malekith (Christopher Eccleston). Defeated thousands of years ago by Thor's grandfather, Malekith comes out of hiding just as the nine worlds under the protection of Asgard are about to converge. It's the perfect time for him to unleash mercurial essences known as the Aether that will send all of the realms into total darkness.
Also out on DVD next week:
"Adventures of the Penguin King": Tim Allen narrates.
"Pulling Strings": Diplomatic consul and her savior, a single father, clash.
"Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood: Life's Little Lessons": Four-year-old Daniel Tiger invites young viewers into his world.
"Les Petits Meurtres D'Agatha Christie, Set 1": Agatha Christie's storytelling gets a soupçon of French flair.
"Blue Is the Warmest Color": A teen-age girl deals with the passion and confusion of her first love.
"Above Suspicion, Set 3": Series based on the novel "Silent Scream" by Lynda La Plante.
"Bugging Out": Includes two episodes of the "Wild Kratts" series.
"Transformers Prime: Ultimate Bumblebee": Autobot proves that he has the bravery to fight for what is right.
"Mr. Nobody": Story of romance, love and how the choices we make can alter our destinies.
"Jamesy Boy": Based on the true story of a teen who goes from a street gang to a maximum-security prison cell.
"Legit: Season 1": Cable comedy starring comedian Jim Jefferies.
"The Middle: Season Four": Family comedy starring Patricia Heaton.
"Peep and the Big Wide World; Diva Duck": Features eight adventures in which Quack takes center stage.
TV and movie critic Rick Bentley can be reached at (559) 441-6355, firstname.lastname@example.org or @RickBentley1 on Twitter. Read his blog at fresnobeehive.com.