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:
Tod Browning’s Sideshow Shockers: Director Tod Browning’s carnival tales were told from the inside—he literally ran away from home at 16 to join the circus—and all three of the features in this new Criterion Collection box set feel like secrets that shouldn’t be told. The most notorious of the batch is 1932’s Freaks, Browning’s blank-check follow-up to the smash hit of Universal’s Dracula, a film so upsetting and controversial that it basically ended his filmmaking career. It remains as potent and powerful as ever, transcending the rubbernecking of its title and premise to tell a timeless (and satisfying) story of outsiders against the world. The Mystic, released in 1925, is a creepily atmospheric combination of two venerable formulas: the “how it actually works” movie (in this case, detailing the deceptions of sideshow mediums) and a “the fake thing is real, actually” thriller. But the title that’s ripe for rediscovery here is The Unknown, with the great Lon Chaney as an armless carnival knife thrower and Joan Crawford as the object of his twisted affections. It’s equal parts horrifying and heartbreaking; Chaney confirms his status as one of the finest of all silent actors, while the sympathetic Crawford hints at the maturity of her career to come. All three films are worthy of consideration — if you only know Browning from Dracula, you’re in for a treat. (Includes audio commentaries and introductions, interviews, archival documentary, and featurettes.)
Passages: Ira Sachs’s Love is Strange and Little Men were very much about the complications of middle-class middle-age, so it was somewhat startling that his latest (and his first film since 2016) turned out to be this vivid, occasionally explicit, and always honest account of two splintering relationships, and the manchild at their centers. He’s the filmmaker Tomas (Franz Rogowski), a filmmaker first seen in a comfortable marriage with Martin (Ben Whishaw) — but drawn into a sexual relationship with schoolteacher Agathe (Adèle Exarchopoulos). Tomas is a real piece of work, and Sachs walks a tricky high-wire, presenting these people and their problems without judging them, and he somehow pulls it off. All three performers shine; Exarchopoulos is especially good as a smart woman who gets more than she bargains for.
ON 4K/ BLU-RAY / DVD / VOD:
Barbie: It sounded like the most cynical of cash grabs: indie darling turned three-time Oscar nominee Greta Gerwig (and co-screenwriter and off-screen partner Noah Baumbach) taking big IP money to turn the endlessly popular yet recently #problematic Mattel icon into a big, splashy blockbuster. Not one thing about Barbie should work, and yet it does; Gerwig and Baumbach’s script lobs its barbs at sacred cows on- and off-screen like hand grenades; Gerwig’s throwback, handmade directorial style proves a harmonious match for the world at hand; Ryan Gosling’s Ken is a series of comic masterstrokes; and Margot Robbie is pitch-perfect as the Stereotypical Barbie who becomes her own woman. I still can’t quite believe they got away with it. I love that they did. (Includes featurettes.)
ON BLU-RAY / DVD / VOD:
EO: The first of three recent theatrical releases inaugurating the new “Janus Contemporaries” line, this Oscar nominee for best international film finds director Jerzy Skolimowski telling the simple story of a former circus donkey and his adventures across the Polish countryside. But like Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar, which it frequently invokes, this is not a simple nature story, but a nuanced fable in which interactions with an animal have much to tell us about the human experience. (Includes interview, featurette, and trailer.)
The Innocent: The second of the Janus Contemporaries is Louis Garrel’s latest, in which a nebbish (played by Garrel himself; he also co-wrote) becomes suspicious of his mother’s new ex-con husband and finds himself wishing he weren’t quite so curious. It’s a wildly, wonderfully unpredictable picture, veering from family comedy to crime picture to character drama, without ever hitting speed bumps in the transitions. Smart, well-crafted (the split-screens would make De Palma proud), and tense as hell. (Includes interview and trailer.)
No Bears: And finally, Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi wrote, directed, produced, and stars in this drama that breaks the frame of traditional cinema early on — when the first scene is interrupted by the loss of an Internet connection and the woes of remote movie-making — and never looks back. Shot in secret and inspired by the circumstances of Panahi’s exile from his homeland, it asks provocative questions about the responsibility of artists while also posing pointed inquiries into his own life and work. (Includes interviews and trailer.)
Talk to Me: Australian filmmakers Danny and Michael Philippou make their feature debut with this nerve-jangling horror flick, and indulge in some stylish (borderline showoff) filmmaking in the process. But that’s not what makes Talk to Me so special; it’s the time it takes to establish these characters, their personalities and relationships, their running jokes and eccentricities. It fits right into the much-discussed A24 horror template of big scary set pieces alternating with dread-filled character beats. Their formula gets slagged a fair amount, and it’s easy to sneer at. But considering the alternatives (the geek-show gross-outs of Evil Dead Rise or the jump-filled self-quotation of the new Screams, for example), I’ll take this every day of the week, and twice on Sunday. (Includes audio commentary, featurette, deleted scenes, and trailer.)
Strays: Let’s not make more of Strays than what it is: a movie that finds nothing on this earth funnier than dogs mouthing the most profanely R-rated dialogue imaginable. The laughs are cheap, in other words, but credit where due: there are indeed laughs, most of them provided by the charisma and likability brought to the project by voice talents Will Ferrell, Jamie Foxx, Isla Fisher, and Randall Park. The whole thing is oddly incongruous (it looks like a kids’ movie, some kind of demented Homeward Bound situation), but if you’re in the right mood, or it’s late enough at night, or you’re the right amount of stoned, it’ll do the job. (Includes featurettes.)
ON DVD / VOD:
The Storms of Jeremy Thomas: Thomas is a well-regarded and prolific producer of independent films, but this 2021 documentary is not a bio-doc; in the hands of Mark Cousins (The Story of Film), it’s more a work of criticism and analysis, examining and unraveling the recurring threads in Thomas’s 68-title filmography. Poetic, probing, and insightful, these Storms come to vibrant life via the ingenious juxtapositions of Cousins’s cuts, and his wonderfully conspiratorial voice-over narration.
Videodrome: The Criterion Collection gives the 4K treatment to one of David Cronenberg’s finest, a trippy and deeply unnerving goulash of pirated video, body mutilation, sex, violence, and sleaze. Much of the latter comes via James Woods as an unapologetic programming director for a down-the-dial cable channel that traffics in, shall we say, fringe programming; Debbie Harry displays a delicious duality as the woman who is first repelled and then attracted to him (and what he shows). This was Cronenberg’s graduation from Canadian genre cinema to American studio work, and it made a compelling case for what he could do with the resources of the majors at his disposal; it also helped established Woods as one of the most reliable onscreen scumbags of the 1980s. The technology may have changed, but the ideas in this one haven’t aged a day. (Includes audio commentaries, short film, featurettes, archival interviews, and trailers.)
Don’t Look Now: Nicolas Roeg’s 1973 masterwork (also getting the Criterion 4K upgrade) unfolds with the feverish intensity of a waking nightmare, with even its scenes of quiet domesticity underscored by unnerving tension. A happily married couple (breezy Julie Christie and scorching Donald Sutherland) suffer the loss of their daughter, but during a business trip to Venice, they begin to see… a hallucination? A ghost? Something more tangible? Roeg knows how to tee up and tease out suspense; witness the economy with which he uses handheld and subjective camera, as well as his sinister inserts, where every edit’s sharp as a razor. Yet, like its stylistic forerunner Rosemary’s Baby, he plants the picture firmly in the real world, best represented by the casual intimacy of his leads; their legendary sex scene (appropriated by Soderbergh for Out of Sight), intercutting their lovemaking with their offhand dressing after, is innovative, cozy, and astonishingly sexy. It’s a terrific movie with an exceedingly appropriate title—you’re never sure where it’s going next. (Includes interviews and trailer.)
The Wicker Man: “You’re all raving mad!” concludes square-jawed, Squaresville cop Edward Woodward of the inhabitants of the island of Summerisle, and by that point, it’s hard to blame him. Everyone on the island is part of a pagan religious sect led by Lord Summerisle (a chilling Christopher Lee), chattering cheerfully about phallic symbols and days of death and rebirth; he’s there to investigate the disappearance of one of their little girls, and everything he discovers is weirder than the last. Anthony Shaffer’s screenplay is sharp as a tack (the prescient foreshadowing of Peoples Temple is downright eerie), but what sets it apart is his moody direction, which keys in to the paranoid thrillers of the early ‘70s, plunging our protagonist into a world where everyone around him is suspicious, and they all seem to be out to get him. (Includes featurettes, interviews, and trailer.)
The Mist: Writer/director Frank Darabont has proven one of the most reliable adapters of the works of one Stephen King, first with The Shawshank Redemption, then The Green Mile, and then this take on King’s novella, a disturbing science fiction story in the mold of the best in ‘50s sci-fi. It was a commercial disappointment upon its release in 2007, and is still oddly underappreciated, which is a shame; this is a well-rendered tight-space psychological horror flick of the Night of the Living Dead school,, with one of the most shockingly nihilistic endings to make its way into a modern, mainstream release. Lionsgate’s thankfully all-inclusive new four-disc set includes, in both Blu-ray and 4K, both the original color theatrical release and Darabont’s preferred (and more effective, both as horror and as a throwback) black-and-white version. (Includes audio commentary, deleted scenes, featurettes, and a King/Darabont interview.)
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs: You can apparently get quite a lot of online bile for daring to note that this, Disney’s first feature-length animated movie (and out now, for the first time on 4K, as part of their centennial celebration), may be somewhat less than perfect — at least in terms of its gender politics. So I’ll just note that the songs are catchy, the character designs are flawless, and the 4K restoration is clean as a whistle, and leave it at that! (Includes featurettes and alternate storyboards.)
Fatal Femmes: The fine folks at Fun City Editions are back with this two-disc set of forgotten French treasures from the ‘80s. Neige shakes up the noir tropes of its screenplay (boxer, cops, crooks, hooker with a heart of gold) by fully inhabiting its sleazy milieu and showing uncommon sympathy to its fringe characters, who start out affectionate towards each other, then curdle as they become rougher and more desperate. The Bitch features a fabulous Isabelle Huppert at the center of a deliciously twisty Hitchcockian tale of a corrupt cop and the wicked woman who keeps getting the best of him. Neon-tinged and unapologetically sleazy, yet well acted and expertly directed by (respectively) Juliet Berto & Jean-Henri Roger and Christine Pascal. (Includes audio commentaries and trailers.)
The Best of Times: Robin Williams and Kurt Russell co-star as high school football buddies who, still despairing over the consequences of a single blown play in their championship game, attempt a 13-years-later do-over. Williams, god bless him, is hit and miss; this was a year before Good Morning, Vietnam, and he still hadn’t quite puzzled out how to meld his stage persona with screen acting. But Kurt Russell brings real gravitas to the character of the high school BMOC who’s done little of note since, and the screenplay by Ron Shelton, two years before Bull Durham, similarly gets at how small towns can rally (for better or worse) around their sports. (Includes audio commentary and trailers.)
Night of the Demons: “Happy Halloween, asshole!” So begins Kevin S. Tenney’s 1988 horror flick (new on 4K from Scream Factory, alongside new Blu-ray releases of Night of the Demons 2 and 3). in which a band of high school kids decide to spend the spookiest of nights in a funeral parlor, where (shocker) mayhem ensues. It’s pretty silly stuff, and it couldn’t be more ‘80s-coded if it had a scene of its characters gathering around a television to watch the Challenger explosion. But there’s inventive imagery here and there, and some genuinely skillful make-up work to boot. (Includes audio commetnaries, interviews, workprint, featurette, trailer, and TV spots.)
The Desperate Hours: Three convicts bust out of the joint and hole up in the suburban home of a typical American family in this taut 1955 drama (new on Blu-ray from Arrow Video). Director William Wyler lets the tension slack on occasion, but the urgency of the performers carries this one; Frederic March is properly square-jawed as the no-nonsense patriarch, while Humphrey Bogart turns in one of his quintessential performances as the leader of the cons, a tough guy spitting period jargon with convincing venom. (Includes audio commentary, featurettes, and interview.)