The Best Movies to Buy or Stream This Week: After Hours, Beau Is Afraid, Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret and More

Every Tuesday, discriminating viewers are confronted with a flurry of choices: new releases on disc and on demand, vintage and original movies on any number of streaming platforms, catalogue titles making a splash on Blu-ray or 4K. This twice-monthly column sifts through all of those choices to pluck out the movies most worth your time, no matter how you’re watching.

PICK OF THE WEEK: 

After Hours: In 1984, Martin Scorsese was about to fulfill a decade-long dream to make The Last Temptation of Christ—only to have Paramount pull the plug at the eleventh hour, terrified by the protests and threats of evangelicals. Devastated by the cancellation, he had to throw himself into a new project, immediately (“I’ve got to work. I’ve got to do something,” he remembered saying). And he wound up making this pitch-black, Kafka-esque comedy, in which a numbers cruncher (Griffin Dunne) is swallowed whole by Soho over one long, very weird night. It’s a funny and peculiar picture, yet also one of Scorsese’s most energetic; you can feel that spirit of working to stay sane in nearly every askew frame of this witty, energetic, and fast-paced picture. It’s languished in DVD purgatory for years, never even getting a Blu-ray release, so Criterion’s combo 4K/Blu-ray is cause for celebration. Care for some Mr. Softee Ice Cream? (Includes audio commentary, interviews, featurettes, deleted scenes, and trailer.)

ON AMAZON PRIME:

Cotton Club Encore:  Robert Evans recruited Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola to make The Cotton Club in 1983 in a blatant attempt at another Godfather-size success, and Coppola (still bruised from the fiasco of One from the Heart) needed one as well. But bad press and shady financing tanked this one before it opened, and the mediocre reviews didn’t help. Mr. Coppola, ever the revisionist, went back to recut the movie in 2019, restoring the balance of the narrative to favor both his white and black leads (Richard Gere and Diane Lane, and Gregory Hines and Lonette McKee, all doing stellar work), and the balance of the picture to equal parts period gangster story and razzle-dazzle musical. It works best as the latter; the electricity of the floor shows is palpable, and Hines may have never danced better. And in an incredible closing sequence, in which Coppola intercuts a mob hit with a show-stopping stage number, the machine gunfire dueting with Hines’ taps, this Cotton Club is, thrillingly, both movies at once.

ON THE CRITERION CHANNEL:

Once Upon a Time in China: Criterion’s absolute banger of a 2021 box set is now streaming on the channel, collecting the first five films in the franchise, directed by Tsui Hark and Yuen Bun, starring first Jet Li and then Vincent Zhao. They’re gorgeous period epics, rife with themes of honor, valor, heroism, and colonialism; the performers are charismatic, and the direction is like a live wire. But we’re mostly there for the fights, and they’re glorious: busy, energetic, frequently funny, and often majestic. This a must-see series for any serious connoisseur of Hong Kong cinema.

The Barefoot Contessa: Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s pointed and potent 1954 drama is, in many ways, a natural continuation of his celebrated All About Eve – another poison-penned valentine to popular entertainment, filled with quotable dialogue, memorable characters, and winking nudges to real people. But Contessa is comparatively forgotten (aside from the convoluted imprint made by celebrity chef Ina Garten), and that’s a shame; if anything, it’s even more of an inside job than Eve, an insider’s snapshot of How It All Works, from a pre-Entertainment Tonight, pre-Entertainment Weekly, pre-TMZ period. The only real “behind the scenes” information of that Hollywood, besides the trades, was found in the fan magazines – carefully planted and unquestionably controlled by the studios. Mankiewicz supplies a more complicated picture of the Dream Factory, grimly dramatizing the essential emptiness of celebrity, as well as how much of the industry serves at the pleasure of a handful of egos.

ON BLU-RAY / DVD / VOD:

Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret.: Judy Blume waited over 50 years to sell the film rights to her beloved pre-teen novel, and there’s some danger in adapting it now; the book was so wildly influential that though there hasn’t been an official film adaptation, plenty of movies have stolen from it. Yet screenwriter/director Kelly Fremon Craig (The Edge of Seventeen) finds exactly the right approach to the text, retaining the 1970 setting and the vivid (sometimes cringe-inducingly so) portraiture of middle-school life. The characters are keenly defined, and everybody gets an arc—not just Margaret (a wonderful young actress named Abby Ryder Fortson) but her mother (the always-excellent Rachel McAdams), father (Benny Safdie) and grandmother (Kathy Bates). What sets this one apart are all the little character touches and narrative details most teen/tween movies don’t even bother with, and the result is one of the best pictures of the year so far. It’s smart, it’s sensitive, and sometimes it just breaks your heart. (Includes featurettes, deleted scenes, roundtable discussion, and trailer.) 

Beau is Afraid: The first hour of Ari Aster’s latest feels like one of the best movies of the year, a visceral (and, it seems, personal) portrait of anxiety and neurosis as urban hellscape mindfuck that plays out like an After Hours riff where our hero (Joaquin Phoenix) can’t get out of his own home. The problem is, there’s a second hour that isn’t nearly as successful, and a third that’s like a rapid illustration of the laws of diminishing returns; one cannot help but admire the ambition of Aster’s vision, and the wild narrative swings he’s taking, but you just can’t go with A for effort here. That said, there are long stretches that really do click, the performers are all in top form (especially Parker Posey in a too-brief role), and Aster truly nails the visual language of a nightmare, where things are both vaguely familiar and altogether wrong. (Includes featurette.)

ON 4K:

The Truman Show: Peter Weir’s comedy/drama hit theaters in 1998, on the eve of the reality television explosion. As such, this story of a man who discovers his entire life has been fodder for a 24-hour television show was a remarkably prescient warning of our incoming obsession with watching mundane bullshit on television—right down to its perfect, remarkable closing beat. Jim Carrey is terrific as Truman, gently pivoting to more serious work not by smothering his relentless comic energy but controlling and channeling it into a character of cheery complexity, and Laura Linney hits all the right (purposefully false) notes as his perpetually twinkly-eyed, casually product-pitching wife. (Includes featurettes, deleted scenes, trailer, and TV spots.) 

ON BLU-RAY:

The Watermelon Woman: Cheryl Dunye’s 1996 indie sensation joins the Criterion Collection, and remains a fascinating piece of work, combining the seemingly incompatible genres of Go Fish-inspired black-and-white lesbian rom-com (they even draft Go Fish star Guinevere Turner as the ingenue) and exploratory essay film on representation and portraiture of Black women in Hollywood classics, as the story concerns Dunye attempting to make a documentary about the (fictional) title character, a ‘30s actress who’s become her obsession. The hybrid works, unexpectedly enough, because Dunye has so much to say while rarely slipping into didacticism, and because her writing is so honest—this is a marvelous portrait of a specific sub-culture, ‘90s queer artsy types, so its insularity is more a feature than a bug. The picture is hampered by some of the hiccups typical of low-budget movies of the era (uneven performances, some fluffed dialogue, a utilitarian visual style), but they barely matter; it’s a movie that was way ahead of its time, and its embrace in recent years is not only unsurprising, but seemingly inevitable. (Includes interviews and early Dunye short films.)  

Mickey & Friends: 10 Classic Shorts (Vol. 2): Following up February’s release of volume one, an enjoyable collection of Mickey and Minnie cartoons, Disney’s new Blu-ray collection widens the scope to include the full fam, with a nice mix of character-showcasing ‘toons starring not only Mickey and Minnie but Pluto, Goofy, Donald and Daisy, Huey, Dewey, and Louie, and even Chip & Dale. The timeframe is fairly wide, allowing some genuine consideration of the studio’s evolution; the early shorts have a real wildness, a loosey-goosey eccentricity which was unfortunately tamed as the brand became more ubiquitous. As with the first collection, the new connecting material is fairly weak—but it’s brief, so no real harm done.

Which Way Is Up? / The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings: The shame of Richard Pryor’s film career was that so few (if any) films managed to bottle the unique combination of scorching humor and genuine rage that made his stage performances so electrifying, but these two features (out in a new “double feature” disc from Mill Creek) come pretty close. Which Way Is Up?, in fact, feels expressly created to translate his stage act on film, with Pryor playing not only the farm worker lead, but characters clearly based on his popular preacher and Mudbone characters; those characterizations are energetic, and Pryor is clearly having a great time playing against his only worthy co-star (himself). He plays more of a supporting role in Bingo Long, a fictionalized account of the early days of Negro League baseball, but it’s a juicy one, and the film surrounding it summons up the right mixture of wacky shenanigans and historical dramatization. 

Jason Bailey is a film critic and historian, and the author of five books. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Playlist, Vanity Fair, Vulture, Rolling Stone, Slate, and more. He is the co-host of the podcast "A Very Good Year."

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