The Best Movies to Buy or Stream This Week: Poor Things, Wonka, The Abyss, 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: 

All the Beauty and the Bloodshed: Laura Poitros’s chronicles of the protest actions of artist and icon Nan Goldin make for gripping documentary material, recalling the in-the-moment danger of her earlier Citizenfour. But the film’s biographical sections, detailing her fascinating early years, are just as riveting; Godlin is a tremendous storyteller, and she intersected with several of the most notorious scenes of the late 20th century (Boston in the ‘70s, John Waters’ Dreamlanders, ‘80s downtown NYC, early AIDS art and activism). She’s matter-of-fact but evocative, and sentimental though she doesn’t sentimentalize. All the Beauty (a new and welcome addition to the Criterion Collection) could be either the protest movie or the bio-doc and be great; that it is both, and that they intertwine so delicately and devastatingly at its conclusion, made it the finest film (documentary or otherwise) of 2022. (Includes interviews and trailer.) 

ON MAX

Wonka: One of 2023’s least promising movies turned out to be one of its most delightful. Director Paul King (Paddington, Paddington 2) manages to skillfully leap-frog most of the landmines typical of this sort of craven IP exploitation. There are, to be sure, little easter eggs spread throughout, sly shout-outs to the original 1971 film, and to Gene Wilder’s iconic origination of the character; some are cutsier than others. But King isn’t just winking or cashing in. He’s doing something much more difficult (and honorable): attempting to recreate the style and spirit of the ’71 picture, without falling into the beat-by-beat mirroring of something like Mary Poppins Returns. Indeed, Wonka has less in common with Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory than James Bobin’s The Muppets — the work of a filmmaker who has clearly studied and understood why a beloved film works, and follows a similar playbook without resorting to slavish imitation. 

ON BLU-RAY / DVD / VOD / HULU:

Poor Things: Yorgos Lanthimos’s latest is a bit of a one-joke movie, though to be fair, it’s an awfully good joke. It’s built around an Oscar-winning Emma Stone performance that’s by turns funny, sexy, off-putting, and melancholy; she’s basically asked to age from toddler to sophisticated woman-about-town in the space of the picture’s two hours and change, and she’s always convincing, even when Tony McNamara’s script thrusts her into the most wildly improbable situations. Mark Ruffalo has an absolute blast playing a dithering nitwit, and Willem Dafoe adds the mixture of smug intelligence and unhinged unpredictability that he does so well. Lanthimos ends up painting himself into a bit of a corner, narratively and dramatically, which is a shame — had he worked out a few more variations, this might have been one for the books. As it is, it’s an enjoyably gonzo work, and a genuine testament to Ms. Stone’s considerable range. (Also streaming on Hulu.) (Includes featurette and deleted scenes.) 

ON 4K:

Aliens: Sometimes the best way to pull off a horror sequel is to change the game—instead of attempting to replicate or crank up the horror elements, some filmmakers veer off in a new and unexpected direction. That was the course taken by director James Cameron when he took on a sequel to Alien in 1986; instead of trying to match the claustrophobic intensity of Ridley Scott’s inimitable 1979 original, Cameron expanded the scope, and brought his newfound finesse as an action filmmaker (this was two years after the original Terminator) into play, turning Aliens (out in a new 4K “ultimate collector’s edition”) from a sci-fi/horror into a big, loud, thrilling hybrid of science fiction, horror, and all-out action. And it was his first movie featuring a bunch of dudes (and maybe a couple of girls) in a tightly confined space on a mission, which turned out to be quite the recurring motif in his work… (Includes audio commentaries, introduction, featurettes, deleted scenes, and isolated scores.)

The Abyss: … particularly here, his next feature. Like the third of this week’s big new Cameron 4Ks (below), his 1989 undersea adventure has long been MIA on high-definition home video; there’s already been some nitpicking about the extent of the digital clean-up here, but there’s no denying the mastery of the film itself. Ed Harris and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio are spectacular as estranged spouses forced to coexist on a submarine rescue mission, and while the special effects and action sequences are stunning, that relationship is what gives the picture its juice, creating genuine emotional stakes in the third act that create a direct line to his monster hit Titanic eight years later. (Includes interviews, new and archival featurettes, and trailers.)

True Lies: This 1994 action hit’s perpetual purgatory in DVD might have had as much to do with the film itself than Cameron’s reliable tinkering and delaying; the picture’s politics, both in terms of personal and international relationships, could politely be described as antiquated. But there’s nevertheless much to enjoy here: a good-humored leading turn by Arnold Schwarzenegger as a super-spy long undercover as a suburban dweeb, Jamie Lee Curtis as his bored wife, Tom Arnold as his very funny (no, really) sidekick, and Bill Paxton in absolute gunslinger mode, crushing his brief turn as Curtis’s doofy, would-be lover. (Includes featurettes and trailer.) 

Quigley Down Under: It’s easy to scoff at the notion of a big, fancy “Shout Select” edition of a throwaway programmer like this, but listen: there’s a basic level of craftsmanship to studio filmmaking in this era that puts the digital muck of today’s tentpole movies to shame, and the Outback locations and Western stylings of cinematographer David Eggby look gorgeous in this new edition. It’s just a fun little ride; Simon Wincer’s direction is energetic, Laura San Giancomo is fierce and feisty, Alan Rickman continues working his Die Hard villain vibe like a part-time job (the deliciousness of his diction on a line like “Well, well, well, Mr. Quigley” is a sight to behold), and though he never really became one, Tom Selleck was a goddamn movie star — and if you don’t believe me, watch out for the perfect, knowing smile of one of his last close-ups. (Includes interviews, featurette, trailer and TV spots.) 

ON BLU-RAY:

All That Money Can Buy (aka The Devil and Daniel Webster): William Dieterle’s morality play was a pretty early DVD for the Criterion Collection (spine number 214!), so its Blu-ray bump is long overdue. It was released in 1941, and shares more than that release year and composer Bernard Herrmann with Citizen Kane; both films are tinkering with narrative structure and visual texture in innovative (and still astonishing) ways, while working within one of the most durable storytelling tropes of them all: the poor man who sells his soul to the devil. Dieterle’s direction is ornate and stylized, while never losing touch with the basic humanity of this oft-told tale. (Includes audio commentary, short story reading by Alec Baldwin, featurettes, radio adaptations, and trailer.) 

Shivers: David Cronenberg’s debut feature (back out on Blu-ray in a Wal-Mart exclusive Steelbook edition) is one of those first films that shows you exactly who the filmmaker in question is going to be. Set entirely in a luxury apartment building taken over by a parasite — to be explicit, “a combination of aphrodisiac and venereal disease that will, hopefully, turn the world into one mindless orgy” — Shivers initially shows us much but tells us little. But its tempo and feverish intensity increases, with the filmmaker intersecting sex and violence in increasingly gory, merciless, and upsetting ways. The resemblance between the film’s attacks on women by male zombies and the cinematic language for attacks by rapists isn’t accidental, and though there’s no shortage of violence against women in cinema of this period, the premise of this film gives that violence a punch that transcends simple exploitation. Cronenberg is hinting that this sexual violence is right under the surface of all men, merely waiting for an excuse to come out. (Includes audio commentaries, interviews, trailers, and TV and radio spots.) (Also streaming on the Criterion Channel.)

Impulse: Arrow Video’s excellent He Came from the Swamp box set a few years back delightfully assayed the wild filmography of William “Wild Bill” Grefé, the Scorsese of Florida exploitation cinema, though one of its few flaws was the exclusion of this 1974 shocker — an absence now remedied by a glorious new edition from Grindhouse Video. It’s of particular note as one of Grefé’s few star vehicles, featuring a centerpiece performance from William Shatner. Its positioning in his career no-man’s-land between the end and the revival of Star Trek means he had nothing to lose, and it’s a nutty performance, gleefully villainous and absolutely unhinged, feeling totally undirected (in a great way) yet beautifully matching the grimy, sleazy vibe that Grefé so carefully cultivates. (Includes audio commentary, interviews, and Grefé rarities.)  

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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