The Best Movies to Buy or Stream This Week: All of Us Strangers, Dream Scenario, Hunger Games

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: 

Nothing But a Man: Michael Roemer’s debut feature was, for quite some time, difficult as hell to see, and the opening credits provide a clue as to why: the songs, presented by “special arrangement with Motown Records.” Such special arrangements didn’t tend to include all future media formats, but thankfully, the Criterion Collection has gone to the trouble of restoring and releasing this keenly observed snapshot of the life of a Black couple in the ‘60s-era South — and the tensions of everyday interactions therein. The warmth and ease of the central relationship is overwhelming, uneasily coexisting with the interactions that its participants must navigate every day; those scenes are downright visceral, so infectious is the feeling of dread and discomfort. A modest masterpiece, boasting simple, direct, and impactful performances by Ivan Dixon, Abbey Lincoln, and a young (but already bruising) Yaphet Kotto. (Includes interviews and featurettes.)

ON HULU:

All of Us Strangers: Andrew Haigh writes and directs this evocative, melancholy mixture of romantic drama and semi-surreal memory play. Andrew Scott (who is so good, you’ll follow him any wild place Haigh takes him) stars as a writer who is attempting, in his new screenplay, to grapple with his childhood and the loss of his parents at age 17; on a trip to his hometown, he finds himself inexplicably spending time with them, via vivid visions and candid conversations in which he works through his complicated feelings about them. The years melt away as the interactions and support he so badly needed are grafted onto his past, a fiction less painful than fact. Simultaneously, he’s embarking on a relationship with a neighbor (Paul Mescal) who’s young and wild and probably not good for him in the long run, but exactly what he needs at the moment, and this is a movie that understands the value of both. As it winds up to the home stretch, All of Us Strangers becomes a film about itself — about making art to fix your life, your past, and your pain.  

ON MAX:

Priscilla: Few recent matches of filmmaker and material are more inspired than Sofia Coppola and Graceland; she’s always been a master of conveying texture, tones, and vibes, and from the opening images (of carefully manicured toes in shag carpeting), she’s squarely in her wheelhouse. She can convey multitudes in a single image or a cut; her montages and compositions convey so much about the loneliness and melancholy of Elvis Presley’s child bride, and the severity of his emotional game-playing. We only see “the King” as Priscilla does (not making music, not making movies), and she wouldn’t say much, so she doesn’t; in the title role, Spaeny crafts a spectacularly non-verbal performance, vividly putting across the character’s longing, excitement, discontent, and (in the best drive-away closing shot since Jackie Brown) determination.

ON 4K / BLU-RAY / DVD / VOD:

The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes: What if — and just hear me out — when a film or book series comes to a logical, elegant, and self-contained conclusion, we just let it end? What would that be like? Alas, we’ll never know, as there is too much money to be made in existing IP, which is how we ended up with a prequel to the perfectly satisfactory Hunger Games trilogy of books that is now a prequel to the crisply concluded quartet of movies. Now, that complaint properly lodged, the good news is that The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is no Fantastic Beasts; returning director Francis Lawrence refuses to phone it in, the screenplay elegantly subverts expectations of both structure and narrative, and the performances are first-rate, especially West Side Story breakout Rachel Zegler’s fully realized turn as the Katniss of this particular era. (Includes audio commentary, featurettes, song performance, and theatrical trailers.) 

ON BLU-RAY / DVD / VOD:

Dream Scenario: Nicolas Cage continues his meta-textual exploration of his own celebrity and memeability with this frequently thoughtful and slyly funny comedy/drama from Kristoffer Borgli. Cage is Paul Matthews, a milquetoast professor who finds himself unexpectedly culturally ubiquitous when he starts turning up in other people’s dreams. The tantalizing questions of what such a man would do with this sudden notoriety make for compelling drama (and, occasionally, big laughs); the picture’s second half, a mealy-mouthed indictment of “cancel culture,” is both less nuanced and less entertaining. But Cage comes through like a champ, and Borgli has a good eye for both heightened nocturnal landscapes and the misery of everyday existence. (Includes audio commentary, deleted scenes, featurette, and trailer.)


Afire: Christian Petzold’s latest (new from Janus Contemporaries) is an intimate affair, with few characters beyond a quartet of friends and lovers, and few settings beyond the holiday house they co-inhabit, initially uneasily. Our primary protagonist is Leon (Thomas Schubert), that prickliest of people, a would-be novelist; he meets his match in Nadja, his opposite in every way, and her free spirit makes him seem, and feel, all the more like a stick in the mud. The pivot in his disposition, and therefore the relationship, is slight. But Petzold (who wrote and directed) is so tuned in to their wavelength, and the mood of their particular time and place, that even the tiniest shifts feel seismic. 

ON 4K:

The Roaring Twenties: Martin Scorsese has frequently pinpointed Raoul Walsh’s 1939 gangster picture (new to the Criterion Collection) as a key influence on Goodfellas, and the line isn’t hard to see, from the charismatic antiheroes to the fascinating borderline-nonfiction how-it-works elements. In this case, Walsh (and journalist-turned-filmmaker Mark Hellinger, who wrote the story) details how Eddie Bartlett (James Cagney) goes from WWI hero to powerful bootlegger, and the enemies he makes along the way. There’s not as much Humphrey Bogart as you’ll either expect or hope for (he wasn’t Bogie yet in ’39), but that single complaint aside, this is about as great a gangster movie as Warner Bros. — or anyone else — made in this fruitful period. (Includes audio commentary, new and archival interviews, and trailer.) 

The Heroic Trio / Executioners: Hong Kong’s master of mayhem Johnnie To not only gave the world his gleefully insane martial arts / superhero mashup The Heroic Trio in 1993 — he cranked out its sequel, Executioners, the very same year. Taken together in this Criterion set, they’re a delightfully batshit double-bill, filled with death-defying stunts, over-the-top comedy, and memorable set pieces. And the combined charisma and sex appeal of stars Michelle Yeoh, Maggie Cheung, and Anita Mui is enough to power several small countries. (Includes new interviews and trailers.) 

Darkman: Another early entry in the superhero sweepstakes — and from Sam Raimi, no less, who would basically set the modern template 12 years later with Spider-Man. Darkman was his first time at bat with the backing and resources of a major studio, helming something of a cross between Batman and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, with Liam Neeson as a scientist who is disfigured and left for dead by evildoers out to scare his attorney girlfriend (Frances McDormand, good and game). Raimi’s reliably daffy visual style ports over from the Evil Dead franchise basically intact, which makes this one a good deal weirder than your average tale of capes and Spandex, and though the effects couldn’t quite match his considerable imagination, there’s a lot of fun to be had here. Shout Factory’s 4K transfer is a winner, capturing both the sleekness and grime (to say nothing of the big, booming soundtrack) of Raimi’s first run through the big sandbox. 


ON BLU-RAY:

Eric Rohmer’s Tales of the Four Seasons: With a couple of interruptions, Rohmer spent most of the 1990s making this quartet of quietly played but deftly executed romantic comedy/dramas. Most are concerned with the woes of youth: Tale of Springtime with its cascade of shifting dynamics and interests, Tale of Winter reveling in the tentative indecisiveness of real life, Tales of Summer a whimsical story of sun-kissed infatuation (albeit one that only one party will admit), all frequently indulging in the simple but sheer pleasure of two people talking (attractive people, which helps). But the series comes to its emotional summit with Tale of Autumn, whose central characters are middle-aged, empty-nesters and divorcees, older but barely wiser. (Includes new and archival interviews, featurette, Rohmer short films, and trailer.)  

The Rock-Afire Explosion: The titular band, for those not in the know, was the animatronic entertainment at ShowBiz Pizza Place, the forerunner to Chuck E. Cheese in family arcade restaurants in the 1980s. The story of their rise, and that of the chain that housed them, is well told in this goofy and endearing 2008 documentary from director Brett Whitcomb and writer Bradford Thomason (new on Blu from AGFA and OCN). Tracing both their origins, via extensive interviews with creator Aaron Fechter, and their return to at least the fringes of culture in the 21st century (since nostalgia movements are inevitable for basically anything ‘80s kids liked) by chatting up superfans and collectors, Whitcomb nicely captures the very specific appeal of gorilla-led animal bands when coupled with mediocre pizza and endless arcade games. (Includes audio commentary, outtakes, archival videos, and trailer.)

Simon Killer: Writer/director Antonio Campos followed up Afterschool with this equally unnerving story of an American (Brady Corbet) visiting Paris and… well, you can probably guess from the title. It’s a picture that leaves moviegoers adrift for longer than most will tolerate, telling its story with a style and pace that could most kindly be called deliberate. It unfolds in a series of languid scenes, most of them shot in single, unbroken takes; its dialogue is quiet and conversational; the plotting seems improvised. But it has mood to burn, a fascinating visual strategy, and subtle performances (particularly by Corbet and co-star Mati Diop, who all but disappear into the scenery, so natural and unaffected is their work). It’s a thrilling formalist exercise, though narratively, your mileage may vary. (Includes audio commentary, interviews, Campos short film, behind-the-scenes and rehearsal footage, and trailer.)


Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story: Jake Kasdan’s 2007 comedy — one of four Sony releases getting new Wal-Mart exclusive Blu-ray steelbooks from Mill Creek Entertainment — flopped hard when it hit theaters, so maybe that explains why every music biopic still traffics in the tropes it so mercilessly mocked. Co-writers Kasdan and Judd Apatow magnificently nail the subgenre’s on-the-nose expositional dialogue, clumsy foreshadowing (“Ain’t nothing horrible gonna happen today!”), unwieldy historical interactions (“What do you think, George Harrison of The Beatles?”) and hoary structural devices (“You’re gonna have to give him a moment, son – Dewey Cox has to think about his entire life before he plays”). John C. Reilly is marvelous in the lead, hysterically funny and unfailingly committed, Jenna Fischer matches him nicely as the June Carter Cash of the story, and the supporting cast is stuffed with MVPs from SNL, 30 Rock, The Office, and every other Apatow venture. (Includes audio commentary, deleted and extended scenes, featurettes, outtakes, full song performances, and the 120-minute American Cox: The Unbearably Long, Self-Indulgent Director’s Cut.)

Anaconda: In his 3.5/4 star review of Anaconda, one of his true bangers, Roger Ebert precisely pinpointed the picture’s appeal: “It has the effects and the thrills, but it also has big laughs, quirky dialogue and a gruesome imagination.” I would go further to note that it also has, as Jon Voight’s Sarone might say in his comically overdone dialect, the cajones to look genuinely silly; most mainstream monster movies are afraid of themselves, of fully engaging with the goofiness of their mission. Anaconda, to put it mildly, does not suffer from that affliction. (Includes new interview.) 

I Know What You Did Last Summer: When this teen horror quickie hit theaters in fall of 1997, it was promoted as about as much of a sequel to Scream as that same season’s Scream 2, flowing as it did from the pen of screenwriter Kevin Williamson. It’s equal to neither of those pictures, with the scribe flattening his voice of the in-joke wit that made Scream so memorable, and director Jim Gillespie is, charitably speaking, no Wes Craven. But this is a well-assembled and reasonably entertaining slasher flick, as notable now for its quintessentially late-‘90s cast (including Jennifer Love Hewitt, Ryan Phillipe, Sarah Michelle Gellar, and Freddie Prinze Jr.) as any of its scares. 

Hollow Man: If, as Warhol said, everyone will be famous for 15 minutes in the future, it seems also safe to bet that every Paul Verhoeven movie will be reappraised and reappreciated by future cinephiles. (Starship Troopers was predictable; Showgirls, well, less so!) The tide has not yet turned on this 2000 Invisible Man riff, and maybe it won’t; the central character is so over-the-top in his villainy and vileness that it’s hard to ever get a real grip on this thing. (Like The Man Who Wasn’t There, Hollow Man assumes the first thing an invisible man would do is find the naked ladies; what he does after that is, well, unfortunate.) But as always, there’s no denying the filmcraft here, and even a lesser Verhoeven reminds us that once upon a time, studio trash at least had the decency to look great. (Includes new interview.)

Fear is the Key: “You are truculent, insolent, and a man of violence,” the judge tells John Talbot (Barry Newman), just before sentencing him, resulting in Talbot grabbing a deputy’s gun, shooting another one, taking a courtroom observer (Suzy Kendall) hostage, and heading for the hills in a stolen cherry-red Gran Torino with state police in hot pursuit. At first, this looks and sounds like a retread of Newman’s Vanishing Point the previous year, but he’s more than he seems, and so is the movie. Director Michael Tuchner pulls a clever bait-and-switch, turning it into a first-rate ‘70s crime picture in the Charley Varrick mold (with John Vernon showing up in support, no less) and sure-handedly guiding it to a mesmerizing, and thrillingly unpredictable, conclusion. (Includes audio commentary, featurettes, archival interviews, and trailer.)  

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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