THIS WEEK’S THEATRICAL RELEASES:
The highlight of the week is definitely “The Great Gatsby,” Baz Luhrmann’s brilliant take on the novel that most everyone (from literary critics to Hollywood scions) said couldn’t be made into a film (two abortive attempts preceded this one: 1974’s version with Robert Redford and Mia Farrow, and a 1949 version with Alan Ladd and Betty Field). But Luhrmann pulled it off, nailing the tenor of the novel with his brash scenario and direction; at times it’s over-the-top, at times sentimental, at times avant-garde; but always hewing to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s work. At it’s core, it’s the story of Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire), a young Midwesterner now living on Long Island, who finds himself fascinated by the mysterious past and lavish lifestyle of his new neighbor, Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), who holds a torch for Carraway’s beautiful cousin, Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan), who lives just across the bay from the two men. Carraway chronicles love, lust, longing, corruption and redemption in 1922 Jazz Age America. The film — and book — is about our quest for love and belonging and the American Dream, and the loss of the former and the hollowness of the latter, something that Carraway learns by the end of the story. It’s the great American novel and the great American tragedy. As I said, Luhrmann “got” “Gatsby” and its themes perfectly — he researched “Gatsby,” F. Scott Fitzgerald and the story’s cultural era and, though he alters the context just a little (Carraway relates the story in flashbacks from a sanitarium), he has created a masterpiece. His use of 3D and a modern music score (hip-hop and electronic dance music) is a stroke of genius. The acting is top-notch, the sets and costumes miraculous. And the first shot of DiCaprio as Gatsby as his smiling face fills the screen is pure Hollywood and alone worth the price of admission. Co-stars Joel Edgerton, Isla Fisher, Jason Clarke, Elizabeth Debicki and Amitabh Bachchan. Extras include behind-the-scenes featurettes; featurettes on the Jazz Age, fashions of the 1920s, the book, and the film’s score; and deleted scenes. From Warner.
Speaking of fashion and high society, take a look at “Scatter My Ashes at Bergdorf’s,” an intriguing look at one of New York’s — and fashion’s — most beloved institutions, Bergdorf Goodman’s department store. It’s here that fashion has been transformed into modern art — with concomitant high price tags — for more than a century; it’s a retail outlet that caters to New York (and the world’s) moneyed elite and in which any fashion designer worth his or her salt needs to display their wares — or forfeit their credentials. It’s a “world where the rich and famous wield their power and eccentricity, where young and talented designers have their dreams granted and denied, and where money and ambition co-mingle with radical ideas of beauty and provocative style.” The documentary gives us a peek inside this world, exploring the history, inner workings and untold stories behind the store’s rise from a modest ladies’ tailoring shop to a mirror of contemporary culture. Includes footage of Joan Rivers, Rachel Zoe, Candice Bergen, Susan Lucci, Nicole Richie, Tom Ford, Marc Jacobs, Vera Wang, Karl Lagerfeld, Giorgio Armani, Diane von Furstenberg, Michael Kors, Isaac Mizrahi, Christian Louboutin, Domenico Dolce, Lauren Bush, Oscar de la Renta, Manolo Blahnik, Bobbi Brown, Stefano Gabbana, Iris Apfel, Laudomia Pucci, Mary-Kate Olsen, William Fichtner and Ashley Olsen. From Entertainment One.
Oscar-winner Helen Mirren rose to international fame with her ground-breaking role as a female police detective toiling away and dealing with her personal demons in the sexist world of Scotland Yard in the British TV drama “Prime Suspect,” which ran as seven series from 1991 to 2006 and garnered more than 20 major international awards, including seven Emmys (three-time winner of “Outstanding Miniseries”), eight BAFTAs, and a Peabody. I’ve been a big fan of Mirren since her outstanding performance in “O Lucky Man!” and her Emmy-winning role as Detective Jane Tennison solidified my appreciation and respect for her. Acorn Media has seen fit to put out all seven series (encompassing nine mysteries) in a Blu-ray set for the first time as “Prime Suspect: The Complete Collection Blu-ray,”selling for $119.99 (with a “street” price of $83.99). Guest stars in the series include Ralph Fiennes, Tom Wilkinson and Jonny Lee Miller. Extras include a 50-minute behind-the-scenes special, featurette, and more.
For cult horror fans the name Larry Cohen conjures up images of horror films “It’s Alive” (1974), but the prolific writer-director-producer has been writing for a wide variety of genres, from episodes of TV’s “Kraft Theatre” (when he was only 17!!), “The Fugitive,” “The Defenders,” “Branded,” “The Rat Patrol,” “”The Invaders” and “Columbo” to such big screen outings as “Maniac Cop,” “Phone Booth” and “Cellular.” His directorial debut was in 1972 with the little-seen, off-kilter home-invasion thriller “Bone” (in which Yaphet Kotto breaks into the home of the wealthy, seemingly happily married Beverly Hills couple of Andrew Duggan and Joyce Van Patten), followed up by “Hell Up in Harlem” (1973) and “Black Caesar” (1973) and the also little-seen “God Told Me To” (1976), a weird, disjointed tale about a New York detective (Tony LoBianco) who investigates a series of murders committed by random New Yorkers who claim that “God told them to.” For me, the peak of Cohen’s writing and directing skills is evident in “Q The Winged Serpent” (1982), which Scream Factory/Shout! Factory is bringing to Blu-ray this week. The film, produced by horror-exploitation genius Samuel Z. Arkoff, stars Michael Moriarty, Richard Roundtree, David Carradine, Candy Clark and James Dixon in a wild, almost cheesy saga revolving around Quetzalcoatl, a dragon-like Aztec god that is summoned to modern-day Manhattan by a mysterious cult and which roosts at the top of the Chrysler Building, feasting on window washers, construction workers and rooftop sunbathers. Moriarty — in a great, method-acting performance — is a small-time thief who finds the nest of the creature and blackmails the city, and Roundtree and Carradine are New York’s finest, hot on the serpentine tail of the bloodthirsty flying serpent. It’s a bizarre masterpiece that has influenced generations of filmmkers since. Extras include a new commentary with writer-producer-director Cohen, the theatrical trailer and a teaser trailer.
Criterion this week titillates filmlovers with two Teutonic-leaning offerings: the Blu-ray debut of Ernst Lubitsch’s wartime comedy “To Be or Not to Be” (1942) and an impressive set of the early work of the great German filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder. “To Be or Not to Be” may not be Lubitsch’s best screwball comedy but it is his most daring. The film stars Jack Benny and, in her final screen appearance (before dying in an airplane crash while returning from a World War II Bond tour), Carole Lombard, as husband-and-wife thespians in Nazi-occupied Warsaw who become caught up in a dangerous spy plot. Benny is here at his best as the self-absorbed “Shakespearean-actor-wannabe” who impersonates a German spy, and Lombard is forever radiant as his loving but roaming wife. There’s a great cast of Lubitsch regulars in supporting roles, a convoluted plot, and all manner of misunderstandings and misidentifications. “To Be or Not to Be” is not nearly as sophisticated as Lubitsch’s previous outings, but the director managed to brilliantly balance political satire, romance, slapstick and wartime suspense in a comic high-wire act that’s just plain fun. Among the many extras here are “Lubitsch le patron,” a 2010 French documentary on Lubitsch’s career; “Pinkus’s Shoe Palace,” a 1916 German silent film directed by and starring Lubitsch; and a booklet featuring an essay by critic Geoffrey O’Brien.
Living in Los Angeles in the 1970s spoiled me: It seemed like every neighborhood theatre was hosting one international film series after another (many of them from Janus Films, which works closely with Criterion). Among the many, many directors I was introduced to was Rainer Werner Fassbinder, an iconoclastic German filmmaker who was a master of social melodramas and a rebellious champion of nonconformity. In 16 short years (he died in 1982, at 37, of a drug overdose) he directed 44 movies and TV shows, creating at least a half-dozen amazing masterpieces, including “The Merchant of Four Seasons” (1971), “The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant” (1972), “Ali: Fear Eats the Soul” (1974), “Fox and His Friends” (1975), “Mother Kusters Goes to Heaven” (1975) and “The Marriage of Maria Braun” (1979). Criterion has just released a set of Fassbinder’s early films, “Eclipse Series 39: Early Fassbinder.”I just got the set, so haven’t had time to screen them yet; here’s what Criterion has to say: “From the very beginning of his incandescent career, the New German Cinema enfant terrible Rainer Werner Fassbinder refused to play by the rules. His politically charged, experimental first films, made at an astonishingly rapid rate between 1969 and 1971, were influenced by the work of the antiteater, an avant-garde stage troupe that he had helped found in Munich. Collected here are five of those fascinating and confrontational works; whether a self-conscious meditation on American crime movies (“Love Is Colder Than Death,” 1969), a scathing indictment of xenophobia in contemporary Germany (“Katzelmacher,” 1969), or an off-the-wall look at the dysfunctional relationships on film sets (“Beware of a Holy Whore,” 1971), each is a startling glimpse into the mind of a twentysomething man who would become one of cinema’s most madly prolific artists.” The other two titles: the crime drama “Gods of the Plague” (1969) and “The American Soldier” (1970), about the German-born Ricky who returns to Munich from Vietnam and is promptly hired as a contract killer. On DVD.
“The Painting” (2011 — France) is a feast for the eyes as well as the imagination, a wry parable from animator-director Jean-Francois Laguionie that centers on a kingdom in a painting that is divided into three castes: The impeccably painted Alldunns, who reside in a majestic palace; the Halfies, who the Painter has left incomplete; and the untouchable Sketchies, simple charcoal outlines who are banished to the cursed forest. The story follows the adventures of Lola, a rebel Halfir, Ramo, an Alldunn, and Quill, a Sketchie, as they break through the canvas of their painting into the Painter’s studio in search of him and the reasons he left the painting unfinished. The abandoned workspace is strewn with paintings, each containing its own animated world, and they explore first one picture and then another, attempting to discover just what the Painter has in mind for all his creations. It’s a brilliant concept, not too sophisticated for kids but abstract enough for adults. It’s clever, delightful and involving. Why can’t American animators create such simple, yet wonderful worlds? In French with English subtitles and an optional English audio track. On DVD, Blu-ray from GKIDS/Cinedigm.
In “A Company Man” (2012 — South Korea), Hyeong-do wears a suit and tie like any other rank-and-file white collar worker … except his profession is murder. Seemingly a section chief in the sales division of a metal fabrication company that is actually a front for an organization of hit men, Hyeong-do is regarded as one of the best contract killers in the business … until he falls in love, quits his job, and is targeted and hunted down by his former employers. An exciting, straight ahead actioner with plenty of stylized violence — especially when Hyeong-do goes up against his former employers. On DVD, Blu-ray Disc from Well Go USA.