THIS WEEK’S THEATRICAL RELEASES:
“Behind the Candelabra” has to be one of the best films of the year — and it wasn’t even released by any of the Hollywood studios. The film — about the life and love of Liberace, a whacked-out entertainer who appealed to a whole generation of middle-class Americans and their grandparents, little knowing that he was gay — was conceived by Steven Soderbergh but rejected by the Hollywood studios; Soderbergh went to HBO, a division of Time Warner, to raise the $5 million (really, really low by today’s standards) to make the film, which premiered at this year’s Cannes International Film Festival to rave reviews. Before Elvis, before Elton John, Madonna and Lady Gaga, there was Liberace: virtuoso pianist, outrageous entertainer and flamboyant star of stage and television. A name synonymous with showmanship, extravagance and candelabras, he was a world-renowned performer with a flair that endeared him to his audiences and created a loyal fan base spanning his 40-year career. Liberace lived lavishly and embraced a lifestyle of excess both on and off stage. In summer 1977, handsome young stranger Scott Thorson walked into his dressing room and, despite their age difference and seemingly different worlds, the two embarked on a secretive five-year love affair. Based on Thorson’s tell-all memoir “Behind the Candelabra: My Life with Liberace,” Soderbergh’s film features electrifying performances by Michael Douglas as Liberace and Matt Damon as Thorson in what has to be two of the most difficult roles of their careers. During its premiere, the film became one of HBO’s most watched original films in nearly 10 years … and has come in for deservedly high praise from critics everywhere. Co-stars Scott Bakula, Rob Lowe, Debbie Reynolds, Dan Aykroyd and Paul Reiser. Extras include “The Making of Behind the Candelabra” featurette.
“World War Z” is a breathtaking, edge-of-your-seats horror-thriller based on the best-selling book by Max Brooks. Brad Pitt plays Gerry Lane, an ex-United Nations researcher who’s called back to work by the organization to track down the cause of the Zombie pandemic that plagues the world and threatens to bring down civilization. He must travel the globe — from Philadelphia to South Korea to Jerusalem to Cardiff, Wales — to uncover the cause of the fast-moving disease. And we mean fast-moving. Forget the image of lumbering zombies of the past — these flesheaters move faster than cheetahs and destroy their victims in the wink of an eye. It’s non-stop action from beginning to end with splendid special effects. Directed by Marc Forster and co-starring Mireille Enos, Daniella Kertesz, James Badge Dale, Elyes Gabel, Fana Mokoena, Matthew Fox, Ludi Boeken, David Morse. Blu-ray extras include the unrated cut of the film as well as several behind-the-scenes featurettes and a “Looking to Science” featurette that explores the scientific realities of Zombie behavior in nature and Zombies in literature and film. From Paramount.
Also due this week: “The Bling Ring,” “The East” and “Disconnect,” all unavailable for review.
The highlight of the week is Shout! Factory’s “The Bruce Lee Legacy Collection,” an
11 Blu-ray/DVD box set in book-style packaging marking the 40th anniversary of the release of
“Enter the Dragon” and the 40th anniversary of Lee’s death). The set offers the first-ever Blu-ray presentations (as well as the DVD versions) of “The Big Boss,” “Fist of Fury,” “Way of the Dragon” and “Game of Death” and includes three documentaries on two discs, “Bruce Lee: The Legend” (and the original version “Bruce Lee: The Man, The Legend”), the critically acclaimed “I Am Bruce Lee” and “The Grandmaster and the Dragon: William Cheung and Bruce Lee”; and a bonus disc with hours of extra content. The book includes 68 pages of archival materials, rare and never-before-released photos, a new essay on Lee’s amazing career, and much more. $119.99.
“Two Men in Manhattan” (1959) is a rediscovered gem from master filmmaker Jean-Pierre Melville. Melville’s moody dramas, including “Bob le Flambeur,” “Le Doulos,” “Le Samourai” and “Army of Shadows,” were deeply influenced by classic Hollywood crime pictures, making iconic use of cigarette-smoking, world-weary gangsters and detectives in trenchcoats and fedora hats. His minimalist style, including shooting on real locations, was a major influence on the next generation of filmmakers that would create the New Wave. The dark shadows of New York come to life here in this tale about a French UN delegate who disappears into thin air, sending reporter Moreau (Melville himself) and hard-drinking photographer Delmas (Pierre Grasse) on a mission to find him. Their only lead: pictures of three women that could indicate a scandal. Though not the best of Melville’s outings (it was a major flop at the boxoffice and was never released in the states), the film nevertheless is a shining example of Melville’s existential filmmaking: the protagonists (one a hero, the other an antihero) must grapple with ethical dilemmas throughout the course of their Odyssey and decide whether they should cash in on their discovery or squash their finding for the sake of the greater good. The location shots of New York are gorgeous; the interiors (shot in a studio in France) no so. The story line is corny at times and requires leaps of faith by the viewer because of plot inconsistencies — but the film has more to do with the appearances of reality than realism for its own sake. Extras include a conversation between film critics Jonathan Rosenbaum and Ignatiy Vishnevetsky and a new essay by Melville scholar Ginette Vincendeau. On Blu-ray and DVD from Cohen Film Collection.
The Criterion Collection this week offers the Blu-ray debut of Richard Linklater’s “Slacker” (1991), a prime example of American independent film that presents a day in the life of a loose-knit Austin, Texas, subculture populated by eccentric and overeducated young people. Linklater and his crew threw out any idea of a traditional plot, choosing instead to create a tapestry of over 100 characters, each participant “handing off” the movie to the next character he or she meets in the loose-knit structure (ala Luis Bunuel’s “The Phantom of Liberty”). Also from Criterion comes “Autumn Sonata” (1978) on DVD and Blu-ray. The film was the only collaboration between cinema’s two great Bergmans — Ingmar, the iconic director of “The Seventh Seal,” and Ingrid, the monumental star of “Casablanca.” The grand dame, playing an icy concert pianist, is matched beat for beat in ferocity by the filmmaker’s recurring lead Liv Ullmann as her eldest daughter. Over the course of a long, painful night that the two spend together after an extended separation, they finally confront the bitter discord of their relationship. Both releases come loaded with extras.
“A Letter to Three Wives” (1949), directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz (almost as a precursor to “All About Eve”) and starring Ann Sothern, Linda Darnell, Jeanne Crain, Kirk Douglas and Paul Douglas, arrives on Blu-ray from Fox. In this award-winning melodrama, a letter is addressed to three wives from their “best friend,” Addie Ross, announcing that she is running away with one of their husbands — but she doesn’t say which one, forcing the women to reminisce about the ups and downs of their marriages — giving the viewer a glimpse into their lives and loves. A fabulous peek at mid-century culture and mores — with great acting and directing. Extras include commentary and “Biography: Linda Darnell: Hollywood’s Fallen Angel.” Other Blu-Ray releases this week: universal has broken up its “Universal Classic Monsters: The Essential Collection” Blu-ray set and has released four of the horror classics separately on Blu-ray: “Frankenstein” (1931), “Dracula” (1931), “The Bride of Frankenstein” (1935) and “The Wolf Man” (1941), $26.98 each.