Director Steven Soderbergh had no luck finding a commercial distributor for Behind the Candelabra, his movie about the turbulent relationship between flamboyant showman Liberace and his erstwhile lover Scott Thorson, but the lavish production certainly found a cushy home at HBO, where the film pulled some of the highest ratings in the premium channel’s recent history and snagged a staggering 15 Primetime Emmy nominations.
This Tuesday, HBO Home Entertainment releases Candelabra in both DVD and Blu-ray single disc formats in a pristine transfer that allows fans to revisit the sumptuous design detail as well as the exceptional Emmy-nominated performances by co-leads Michael Douglas and Matt Damon as, respectively, Liberace and Thorson. Despite the sensitive nature of the material, which includes a couple of fairly graphic same-sex love scenes, both actors really throw themselves into their roles with a commitment that is both fearless and ego-free.
“You forget about us (as actors) pretty quickly,” Douglas comments in The Making of Behind the Candelabra, a 14-minute behind-the-scenes extra included with the set. “And you pretty quickly also forget it’s two guys. You’re just watching (a film) about a relationship.” The short documentary also includes several pieces of production trivia, such as the fact that the exterior of Zsa Zsa Gabor’s residence in Los Angeles stood in for Liberace’s Las Vegas mansion.
The large supporting cast also includes fellow Emmy nominee Scott Bakula, along with Rob Lowe, Cheyenne Jackson, Dan Aykroyd and a virtually unrecognizable Debbie Reynolds in a memorable cameo as Liberace’s mother. Soderbergh and screenwriter Richard LaGravanese also scored Emmy nods, and the film itself is up for the outstanding movie or miniseries trophy.
If Behind the Candelabra is largely about capturing the glitzy, over-the-top extravagance of Liberace’s world, Parade’s End, another recent HBO Home Entertainment release on two discs, charts the repressed but explosive World War I triangle encompassing an English aristocrat and the two women who love him. Superstar-in-the-making Benedict Cumberbatch (Sherlock) stars as Christopher Tietjens, a morally upright chap who is seduced into marrying pregnant socialite Sylvia (Rebecca Hall) even though there’s a very good chance the baby isn’t his. Bored and restless, Sylvia is aghast that her husband is too decent to be angry about her infidelity, and she treats Christopher pretty abominably over the course of the five-part miniseries.
Both Hall and Cumberbatch, who earned an Emmy nomination for his performance, are so good and deliver such multifaceted performances that they keep you switching allegiances as you watch this catastrophic couple clash again and again. Newcomer Adelaide Clemens (The Great Gatsby) also stars as Valentine Wannop, a suffragette who loves Christopher but must endure a chaste relationship with him, since he’s too nice a guy to divorce his wife. The strong cast also includes former Oscar nominees Janet McTeer and Miranda Richardson.
The only extra in the set is, somewhat oddly, a half-hour radio interview between screenwriter Tom Stoppard (Shakespeare in Love), who earned an Emmy nod for his work, and film critic Elvis Mitchell. Not surprisingly, Stoppard has a lot of fascinating stuff to say about adapting the four 1920s-era novels by Ford Madox Ford that form the basis of the miniseries, but Mitchell more than holds his own in this cerebral chatfest, demonstrating a capacious grasp of both Ford’s novels and Stoppard’s own plays. In fact, at one point, Stoppard stops to tell Mitchell, “I haven’t been interviewed by a man so well briefed for about 40 years.” If you’re up for a challenging but very rewarding drama, I highly recommend this set.
Less than a month before Season Six premieres, HBO Home Entertainment today releases last season of its hit series True Blood on a special features-packed five-disc Blu-ray set that also includes a DVD and digital copy, capturing a cycle of 12 episodes that received a decidedly mixed reaction from fans when they originally aired on the premium service last summer. (Note: What follows reviews general highlights of season-five story lines, although I have tried to avoid any genuine spoilers. If you haven’t seen these episodes, proceed at your own risk).
Most of the viewer unhappiness stemmed from the creative decision to spend much of Season Five with fan favorites Bill Compton and Eric Northman (Stephen Moyer, Alexander Skarsgard) held captive in the New Orleans headquarters of The Authority, a vampire shadow organization headed by an autocratic Guardian named Roman Zimojik (guest star Christopher Meloni). Supposedly dedicated to mainstreaming vampires into the global culture, the group had, in fact, been infiltrated by the Sanguinistas, a vampire splinter faction driven by the fanatical worship of an ancient goddess named Lilith, who urged her disciples to seize control of the world and view humans only as food.
While that might have been a provocative notion for a limited secondary story line, this tedious and claustrophobic plot played out predictably and gave the True Blood screenwriters free rein to indulge their worst tendencies when it comes to exploring topics of religion and politics, using a sledgehammer to drive home “metaphors” reflecting real-life world events. Mercifully, things improved significantly mid-season with the return of Denis O’Hare as campy but terrifying vampire Russell Edgington, partnered with an unlikely but inspired new companion: Steve Newlin (Michael McMillian), the anti-bloodsucker fundamentalist firebrand from earlier seasons, now claiming his new identity as “a proud gay vampire-American.” The duo’s wonderful chemistry together injected a critically needed transfusion of comic relief into the otherwise dour Authority doings.
Elsewhere, the season’s biggest game-changer arrived in the opening moments as Sookie (Anna Paquin) made the high-risk choice of saving her dying BFF Tara Thornton (Rutina Wesley) by having her turned into what she hated most in the world: a vampire. The season-long fallout from that decision gave a much-needed reboot to a character who had been turned from a feisty firebrand into an exhausted victim by the events of previous seasons, and Wesley seized the opportunity. In the most poignant Season Five development, the show’s resident Romeo and Juliet, sweet-natured Hoyt Fortenberry (Jim Parrack) and baby-vamp Jessica Hamby (Deborah Ann Woll), faced a series of painful decisions in the wake of his Season Four discovery that she was carrying on a passionate affair with Hoyt’s best friend, Jason Stackhouse (Ryan Kwanten). Don’t miss a quiet but devastating scene between these three characters around a table at Merlotte’s in the 10th episode of this Blu-ray set. If it doesn’t have you reaching for the Kleenex, you’re made of stone.
As usual, technically these discs are flawless and include the company’s expected extras such as commentaries by cast members and production team members you can listen to while the episodes unfold, as well as a “flashback” feature to remind you of the significance of what’s happening in a scene. For example, Season Five opens with Bill on the phone at his mansion while Eric, in the background, cleans up a gory mess. The flashback feature, if enabled, shows you the Season Four scene in which they assassinated Authority bigwig Nan Flanagan, so you know whose remains Eric is frantically cleaning up.
Also, be sure to catch an “autopsy” of the action-packed episode six, in which the actors, producers and design team members reveal a lot of genuinely fascinating production detail that you might otherwise not even have noticed.
All in all, a stunning record of a True Blood season that was, in terms of story, a very mixed bag.
When it comes to period murder mysteries, you might think that the Brits have pretty much milked that popular genre to death. Leave it to the Aussies, though, to come up with something delightfully different in Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, an instantly addictive new (to the United States) series centering around a vivacious young woman who is equal parts jazz baby and resourceful sleuth. Acorn Video this week released season one, encompassing 13 spirited episodes (on four DVD or Blu-ray discs) drenched in period detail.
Adapted from a popular series of detective novels by Australian writer Kerry Greenwood, the series is set in 1928 Melbourne, where wealthy Phryne (pronounced “FRY-nee”) Fisher (newcomer Essie Smith), a decidedly free-thinking 28-year-old, investigates dastardly doings, including one that occurred in her childhood and still haunts her. The richly drawn cast of characters also include Dot Williams (Ashleigh Cummings), Phryne’s devoted housekeeper and occasional sidekick, and her bashful cop boyfriend, Hugh Collins (Hugh Johnstone-Burke), as well as handsome police detective John “Jack” Robinson (Nathan Page), who begins to strike some romantic sparks with Phryne as the season progresses. Several episodes also feature the great British comedy actress Miriam Margolyes in a juicy turn as Phryne’s disapproving Aunt Prudence.
Production values are absolutely first-rate (Phryne’s dazzling Jazz Age costumes alone are worth checking out), and the copious behind-the-scenes featurettes in both formats include comments by Greenwood, Phryne’s creator, who is visibly over the moon at the care the creative team has lavished on the world she has created. If you’re a fan of witty, well-written period mysteries, I cannot recommend this set highly enough.
Other new releases from Acorn include:
No Job for a Lady, making its North American DVD debut in a three-disc set that includes all 18 episodes from its original UK run from 1990-92. Penelope Keith, a familiar face to PBS viewers from her work in such popular Britcoms as To the Manor Born and Good Neighbors, stars as Jean Price, who is somewhat dismayed to discover how lunatic the political world is after she is elected a Member of Parliament for the left-wing Labour Party. The solid supporting cast includes the wonderful Paul Young as Jean’s long-suffering Scottish officemate Ken Miller and George Baker as cartoonish conservative Godfrey Eagen, Jean’s relentlessly cheerful Tory nemesis. If you enjoyed Yes, Prime Minister, you’re sure to enjoy this clever comedy. No noteworthy extras, but all episodes are closed-captioned for the hearing impaired, as are all the other titles in today’s column.
Chance in a Million, which ran in Great Britain during the mid-1980s, was created as a vehicle for Simon Callow, who had just scored a stunning London stage success in the title role of Peter Shaffer’s then-new play Amadeus. Here he plays Tom Chance, a man cursed by fate and plagued by circumstance at every turn in his life. The performances strike me as a little too stylized and exaggerated for modern tastes, but it’s fun to watch Callow when he was just starting out. Future Academy Award nominee Brenda Blethyn (Secrets & Lies) also stars as Tom’s chirpy girlfriend in this three-DVD set, which includes all 18 episodes, an alternate pilot episode and four episode commentaries by Callow and the two scriptwriters for the show.
I’ve never before come across A Mind to Kill, which aired in the UK (in both English and Welsh versions, mind you) from 1994 to 2004 and has gone on to become widely syndicated around the world, although frankly I’m hard pressed to understand why. Philip Madoc stars as Welsh detective Noel Bain, but neither he nor his character is particularly galvanizing (the supporting players are far more interesting, especially Ffion Wilkins, who plays Noel’s headstrong daughter, Hannah). Acorn’s 11-DVD set includes all 21 feature-length mysteries that aired during the show’s run, as well as a clip from the Welsh-language version of the series. If you enjoy playing “find that star of tomorrow,” guest stars include a pre-Horatio Hornblower Ioan Gruffudd and Archie Panjabi long before she landed her Emmy-winning role as Kalinda Sharma in The Good Wife.
HBO’s epic mega-hit Game of Thrones returns for its third season on Sunday, March 31, and if you’re like me, you’ll want to refresh your memory as to the complicated events and conflicts that have led us to those new episodes, via HBO Home Entertainment’s release today of the show’s complete second season on five discs.
The beautifully engineered set is flush with special features, but first, a brief overview of the drama itself, which opens in the politically charged aftermath of the season-one murders of both King Robert Baratheon and his right-hand man, Eddard “Ned” Stark. Currently sitting on the Iron Throne as monarch of the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros is vicious young Joffrey Baratheon (Jack Gleeson), whose nightmarish reign is threatened by widening (and accurate) rumors that he is actually the incestuous spawn of Queen Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey) and her twin brother, Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau).
The late King Robert’s sane and gentle-natured younger brother, Renly (Gethin Anthony), has wide popular support in his quest to unseat Joffrey and claim the throne, but Renly’s ruthless older brother, Stannis (Stephen Dillane) sees himself as the rightful heir and has aligned himself with a powerful priestess who commands dark magical powers. To the north, Robb Stark (Richard Madden), Ned’s son, has united his own strong army hellbent on protecting the autonomy of Winterfell and its environs, while his half-brother, Jon Snow (Kit Harington), ventures north of The Wall to investigate unnerving rumors that a new leader has arisen among the unpredictable wildlings of that region. Far to the east, Daenerys “Dani” Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) reaches the oasis city of Qarth, where she guards her three dragon hatchlings and plots her own return to power.
Back in King’s Landing, it falls to little Tyrion Lannister (Emmy winner Peter Dinklage), the true moral voice of Game of Thrones, to find some way to protect Joffrey’s subjects from his sadistic whims and keep his unstable nephew from permanently tarnishing the reputation of the Lannisters.
Things come to a head in episode 9, wherein Tyrion leads Joffrey’s army in a desperate defense of their city against a massive army that is bolstered by sorcery, a taut hour scripted by Game-master George R.R. Martin himself.
You’ll spend more than nine hours just watching the events of the story as they originally aired on HBO last season, but you can easily invest even longer exploring the dragon’s hoard of special features included in this set. As the story unfolds, an in-episode guide lets you click and get background information on the characters, locations and background of the scene you’re watching, and each episode also includes audio commentaries by various members of the creative team, along with cast members including Dinklage, Clarke, Harington and Alfie Allen, whose rash, hotheaded Theon Greyjoy has a major storyline of his own.
There’s also a roundtable discussion in which Michelle Fairley (Catelyn Stark) and Liam Cunningham (Davos Seaworth, a new character) join Clarke, Harington and Headey for a chat offering a behind-the-scenes perspective on the season, as well as a short documentary on the staggering logistics that went into creating the Battle of Blackwater Bay in episode 9. You’ll also find a fascinating feature on the religions of Westeros, which begin to assume greater prominence during this season, a comprehensive interactive guide called “War of the Five Kings” that will help you follow the complex political and military forces at work, and an engrossing section called simply “Histories and Lore,” 19 animated histories detailing the mythologies of this world as told from varying perspectives of the characters themselves. The only downside of these supplementary material is that you’ll find yourself falling down the proverbial rabbit hole and losing several hours before you know it, so be sure to set aside adequate free time before you start exploring.