World War Z
3½ stars (out of four)
Rated PG-13 for intense frightening zombie sequences, violence and disturbing images
Available on: DVD, Blu-ray, Blu-ray 3D, digital download and on demand
The zombie movie has evolved considerably since writer-director George Romero’s seminal, 1968 picture, “Night of the Living Dead.” Filmmakers still owe a debt to Romero, whose vision was more gruesome and politicized than any before, but all genres change.
Today, horror fans feast on everything from romanticized visions of the undead (“Warm Bodies”) to long-running serial tales (“The Walking Dead”), and many of them are done exceptionally well. Because of that, any director taking the genre to big-budget blockbuster territory must have a powerful and singular vision. Marc Forster is just such a man. Although “World War Z” endured much-publicized production woes, the film he ultimately produced is impressive.
Forster’s filmography includes everything from intimate character drama (“Monster’s Ball”) to dark comedy (“Stranger Than Fiction”), and he moves from one genre to the next with ease. With “World War Z,” he adds horror to his resume with confidence and style.
Although Forster didn’t write “Z,” and he had a lot of help in the form of late-game rewrites, his contributions are clear. The film moves at a rapid pace and plays more like a thriller than a traditional horror film. Genre buffs will find the requisite chills, but Forster doesn’t rely on gore for gore’s sake. His zombies are to be feared both because they kill and because they are angry, vicious and lightning fast. They are perfect predators, undeterred by emotion. If a wall stands before them, they scramble atop one another until it is breached.
Another interesting fact about “World War Z” is that it’s as much a mystery film as a zombie adventure. The focus is on Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt), a former United Nations investigator who is called back to action when a strange plague sweeps the globe, turning anyone it touches into an enraged murderer.
At first, Gerry is reluctant to help because he fears for the safety of his wife (Mireille Enos) and their two young daughters. But it soon becomes apparent that the only way his family will receive government protection is if he returns to action. Gerry’s job is to find anything with the potential to end the plague.
Pitt receives solid support from those surrounding him, but this is really his show, and he’s up for the work. His version of Gerry is tough, smart and compassionate, and that makes him easy to root for, especially when things get rough.
Like most of today’s blockbusters, “World War Z” contains moments that strain credibility, but that’s hardly a deal breaker. It is, after all, a zombie film.
The DVD release of “World War Z” contains no extras, but the Blu-ray releases have six making-of featurettes.
The Bling Ring
Rated R for teen drug and alcohol use, and for language including some brief sexual references
Available on: DVD, Blu-ray, digital download and on demand
Writer-director Sophia Coppola’s “The Bling Ring” is a fascinating exposé of American celebrity and consumer culture. The film is based on Nancy Jo Sales’ terrific Vanity Fair article, “The Suspect Wore Louboutins,” and it focuses on the real-life story of several teens and young adults who robbed celebrity homes in exclusive Los Angeles neighborhoods.
In the film, the youth use the Internet to determine when Hollywood stars are away from home, and plunder their places at will. The leader of the group is Rebecca (Katie Chang), a fictionalized version of real-life Bling Ringer Rachel Lee. Despite having an upper-middle-class upbringing, Rebecca’s obsession with fashion and celebrity culture leads her to thievery. She finds a willing accomplice in Marc (Israel Broussard), a new student at the alternative high school they attend.
Before long, other youngsters, including Nicki (Emma Watson), Chloe (Claire Julien) and Sam (Taissa Farmiga) are burgling alongside Rebecca and Marc. Their targets are mostly youthful celebrities, including Paris Hilton, Megan Fox and Miranda Kerr, and the group steals everything from cash to expensive shoes and lingerie.
Coppola’s approach to the story is as interesting as the plotting itself because she makes the characters moderately sympathetic (especially Marc) yet refuses to downplay the serious nature of their crimes. She also illustrates a sad media reality. When the criminals are finally caught, they become celebrities in their own right.
It’s difficult to say what message Coppola was hoping to send with “The Bling Ring” because the movie is never preachy. Rather, it presents a straightforward story about youth who decide to better their lifestyles by taking what they can’t afford. That doesn’t mean “The Bling Ring” is simple. It’s easy to interpret the film as a critique of celebrity worship or as a condemnation of rampant consumerism. After all, these youngsters are stealing things that both they and their victims could easily live without. Regardless of one’s interpretation, the material is interesting and fun, the young cast is terrific, and Coppola’s direction is stylish.
DVD and Blu-ray extras include a featurette on the real Bling Ring thieves, a bit on the crimes against Paris Hilton and a making-of feature.
Behind the Candelabra
Available on: DVD, Blu-ray, digital download and HBO
With theatrical release financing increasingly difficult to secure, the quality of made-for-television movies is becoming more impressive. In part, that’s because A-list directors and stars are now turning to outlets like HBO when Hollywood rejects them. “Behind the Candelabra” is a perfect example of the phenomenon.
The movie, which tells the story of superstar pianist Liberace’s alleged romantic relationship with Scott Thorson, features A-listers Michael Douglas and Matt Damon under the direction of Steven Soderbergh (“Traffic,” “Erin Brockovich”). Because the film wasn’t released in theaters, it isn’t eligible for the Oscars, but it received honors elsewhere. Most notably, “Candelabra” was nominated for the Palm d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, and it is up for an impressive 15 Emmy Awards.
The movie is particularly noteworthy for the performances of Douglas (Liberace) and Damon (Thorson). Because Liberace was flamboyant both on and off stage, his characterization presents remarkable opportunities for an actor, and Douglas takes advantage of them. He capture’s the man’s charisma and stage presence while tapping into the disturbing elements of his domestic life.
Damon is also outstanding, and the role of Thorson allows him to move beyond the tough-guy parts he frequently takes. Damon plays Thorson as a sensitive and innocent man who loves Liberace despite numerous signs that their romance is doomed.
If the film is correct, Liberace not only instigated the romantic relationship with Thorson – who was 40 years his junior – he kept tight control of the man, even requesting that he have plastic surgery. How accurate this is can be debated, particularly since the film is based on a memoir by Thorson, who many would consider unreliable. Thorson, who now lives in Reno, Nev., is an admitted drug addict who was convicted of burglary and identity theft. In fact, he was in court just last week for violating the terms of his probation.
Of course, Liberace’s public image is just as unreliable. Although it is now widely accepted that the pianist was gay, he never admitted this during his lifetime. In fact, “Behind the Candelabra” argues that his handlers made a concerted effort to hide his sexuality.
Even if some of the incidents in “Candelabra” are fictionalized, the movie is a beguiling character drama. On stage, Liberace was bigger than life, and the movie presents him not only as a man of tremendous excess but one with deep character flaws. The portrayal of Thorson is relatively kind, especially when weighed against the man’s recent legal problems. Still, all movies must have a perspective, and this one takes his.
As well made as “Behind the Candelabra” is, there are flaws. The picture is essentially a domestic melodrama, and the squabbling between Liberace and Thorson grows tiresome as the movie chugs to its close. Fortunately, the good moments outweigh the bad, and the movie is worth seeing for the performances alone.
DVD and Blu-ray extras include a making-of feature.
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– Forrest Hartman is an independent film critic whose byline has appeared in some of the nation’s largest publications. E-mail him at email@example.com.