The Best Movies to Buy or Stream This Week: Priscilla, Silent Night, Little Darlings, 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.


Little Darlings: Robert F. Maxwell’s 1980 teen sex comedy has been MIA from home video for so long (due primarily to complicated music licensing issues) that it felt like a gift when it finally became available for streaming a few years back. Now it’s the inaugural 4K release of Vinegar Syndrome’s new sublabel, Cinématographe, which seems like a miracle: beautifully restored to its original widescreen glory, revealing itself to be quite a bit more than its “two 15-year-old summer camp girls bet over who can lose their virginity first” logline. That’s the setup, sure, but not the payoff; Kimi Peck and Dalene Young’s perceptive screenplay, and the sharply-drawn characters brought to life by Tatum O’Neal and Kristy McNichol (among others) turn this into an uncommonly sensitive examination of sexual peer pressure and growing up too fast.  (Includes audio commentaries, alternate scenes with commentary, interview, and featurette.)


Scandalous: The Untold Story of the National Enquirer: Mark Lansdman’s snazzy documentary is a little on the slim side – its relatively brief running time means leaving out some pretty big moments – but the quicksilver pace is appropriate for capturing the publication’s evolution from goofy UFOs-and-Elvis rag to celebrity tabloid to political propaganda. It’s a colorful history, and Landsman brings it to life via copious archival materials and comically candid interviews with former staff. But there’s serious subtext here, particularly as the film details how the “Enquirer” cultivated “relationships” with influential figures, trading damaging stories for long-term access, connecting the current president with his eventual base, and disseminating his most outrageous smears. It starts out funny, and then the laughs begin to stick in one’s throat.


Silent Night: The delicious notion of a John Woo-directed “silent” action movie (it’s not SILENT-silent, as there is copious gunfire and plenty of other sound effects, music, and occasional unscripted dialogue) is nearly undone by the woefully bad casting of charisma void Joel Kinnaman in the leading role; you need a silent movie actor, a full presence with an open and expressive face, and whatever this guy has, it’s the opposite of that. But this one’s worth seeing anyway, for the sheer virtuosity of Woo’s direction, and the big, corny swings he’s still willing to take. The plot may be rote and the gimmick may mean that we end up with images like a calendar with dates pinpointed for “GET INFORMATION” and “KILL THEM ALL” — but when that “kill them all” sequence begins, it’s the best pure action Woo has orchestrated since Face/Off. (Includes featurette and trailer.)


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, Cailee 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. (Includes featurettes and trailer.)

ON 4K:

McCabe and Mrs. Miller: Demystifying the Western was not exactly new in 1971, as the “New Hollywood” movement and its fresh takes on established genres were in full swing. But as with most things, nobody did it like Robert Altman. His frontier drama – newly upgraded by Criterion – is ostensibly about a gambler and a prostitute who go into business together in a mining town that’s being built around them. But as with most Altman pictures, it’s less about plot than characters and community. He put his actors on sets that were still being built, to match the freshness of the town around them, and pushed further his experiments into mercurial sound, putting mics on as many people as he could in each scene, background players included, to better orchestrate a sense of characters at the service of a world, rather than the other way around. He came up with one of his most elegiac and evocative pictures, and one of his best. (Includes audio commentary, featurettes, interviews, Dick Cavett Show segments, and trailer.)

eXistenZ: David Cronenberg’s 1999 examination of alternate realities and artificial intelligence was fully overshadowed by that year’s similarly-themed The Matrix, but this is a Cronenberg picture through and through, enlivened by his signature mix of sci-fi, sensuality, body horror, and arch humor. Jennifer Jason Leigh stars as a world-famous video game designer whose latest creation, the titular game, sees its testing process go awry in a shocking bloodbath; she hits the road, and then enters the game, with a corporate lackey (Jude Law) to figure out what went wrong. The fleshy sliminess of the game pods is one of Cronenberg’s slyest touches, and he fills the picture with throwaway gags and winking self-awareness, on the way to a delicious closing reveal (with a Sarah Polley appearance to boot). Vinegar Syndrome’s 4K presentation captures the otherworldliness of Cronenberg’s saturated palate in all its splendor.  (Includes new and archival featurettes, new and archival interviews, archival featurettes, and trailer.)

Southern Comfort: In between The Long Riders and 48 HRS., director Walter Hill made this thrilling and unnerving ensemble action picture, with a murderer’s row of character actors (Keith Carradine! Powers Boothe! Fred Ward! Peter Coyote!) as a Louisiana National Guard squad circa 1973 whose routine military exercise out in the Bayou becomes about as dangerous as the Vietnam deployment they were avoiding. The gunfights and action beats are well-executed, but Hill is best at burrowing into their internal tensions and disagreements, and discovering that they didn’t have to go overseas to lose their minds. Stellar performances all around, and the virtuoso cross-cutting in the climax really helps Hill stick the landing. (Includes audio commentary, interviews, new and archival featurettes, and trailer.)

Scarlet Street: Fritz Lang produced and directed this 1945 banger (new to 4K from KL Studio Classics), which repurposes Renoir’s La Cheinne as a New York noir. Edward G. Robinson, smack dab in the middle of his wonderful period of aging vulnerability, is heartbreaking as a miserable pencil-pusher whose artistic ambitions make him an unfortunately ill-advised mark for a femme fatale (Joan Bennett) and her sleazy boyfriend (Dan Duryea). The turns of the plot are legitimately shocking, and Robinson’s work is first poignant and then haunting; witness his genuine, unguarded terror in the closing scenes, and the way he howls “KITTY!” in misery and fear. As Marvin Schwarz says, “What a picture.” (Incudes audio commentaries.)

Kindergarten Cop: Director Arnold Schwarzenegger and star Ivan Reitman reteamed after the smash success of Twins for this far superior follow-up. It’s the very definition of a high-concept late-‘80s (well, 1990) studio picture: Arnold is a tough-as-nails L.A. cop whose investigation of a career criminal forces him to go undercover as… wait for it… a kindergarten teacher. The formula is undeniable, but neither is the skill with which Reitman juggles the action and comedy elements, and the good humor with which Schwarzenegger does the job (“It’s not a tumah”). KL’s 4K presentation captures the specific sheen of Universal’s 75th-anniversary era nicely.  (Includes audio commentaries and trailer.)

D.A.R.Y.L.: This 1985 family sci-fi adventure (new on 4K from Vinegar Syndrome Ulta) is very much of its Spielbergian moment; it may not be an Amblin’ production, but it sure as hell feels like it, from the pre-teen protagonist to the rose-colored suburban milieu to the ruthless government baddies of the third act. Some of it is awfully corny, and all of it is wildly predictable. But it boasts thoroughly charming turns from Michael McKean and Mary Beth Hurt as the kind foster parents who discover they’ve taken in an android, and a lively appearance by reliable ol’ Colleen Camp as a delightfully straight-talking family friend. (Includes audio commentary, featurette, trailers and TV spots.)

The Prophecy I-III: Dimension Pictures’s supernatural thriller The Prophecy was seen as a programmer at best in 1995, marketed primarily for its Pulp Fiction connections (Christopher Walken stars, with Eric Stoltz and Amanda Plummer in supporting roles), greeted with hostile reviews and mediocre box office. But it was a big hit on home video, and it’s easy to see why; Walken is at his scenery-chewing best, the supporting players crank it up to his level, and writer/director Gregory Widen makes the most of his low budget. Vinegar Syndrome’s 4K set includes the first two of its four direct-to-video sequels (the only two with Walken, and thus the only ones worth talking about); part two is surprisingly strong, thanks primarily to a stellar leading turn by Jennifer Beals and the inspired teaming of Walken and Brittany Murphy, though the third installment spends far too much time with its JV players. (Includes audio commentaries and featurettes for each film.)


Red Rock West: John Dahl had an odd speciality in the early 1990s, making stellar neo-noirs that inexplicably premiered on pay cable before working their way back to theaters, because they were that fucking good. The Last Seduction (1994) made lots of noise; this one, the previous year, made less, but it’s no less a picture (and has frankly aged a bit better). The set-up is masterful in its simplicity: Nicolas Cage is a drifter who rolls into a small town in Wyoming and is mistaken for a high-priced hitman, but his plans to take the money and run are foiled by the arrival of the real deal (Dennis Hopper, perfection). Dahl’s script, co-written with his brother Rick, is airtight, and his direction deftly commingles black humor, dusty atmosphere, and classic noir tropes. This one also comes from Cinématographe, and in just two releases they’ve become an essential label. (Includes audio commentary and new and archival interviews and featurettes.)

Split Image: “This is a religious cult, isn’t it?” he asks. “People love to put labels on things!” she replies. But it is a religious cult, of course, and while one can certainly understand being drawn into one by a crush on Karen Allen (we’ve all been there), this 1982 drama from director Ted Kotcheff — released the same month as his First Blood — is a clear-eyed and sober examination of both the sociological influences (the line from the self-help New-Age ‘70s isn’t hard to track) and personal appeal of life on such a seemingly sunny commune. Kotcheff and his screenwriters earnestly attempt to understand not only the initial appeal but the subsequent dynamics that keep our protagonist (Michael O’Keefe) hanging around (Peter Fonda is perfect as the smooth-talking guru), and make the wise, shades-of-grey choice to make the cult deprogrammer (James Woods at his sweatiest and sleaziest) just as sleazy and opportunistic, if not more so. It’s a thoughtful, often intense character study that asks genuine, provocative questions.  (Includes audio commentary and trailer.)

The Thomas Crown Affair: When people talk now about the sexiness of Steve McQueen, how he all but floated on screen from the buoyance of his roguish sensuality, they were most likely talking about his performance in this 1968 caper flick from director Norman Jewison. As a wealthy businessman who pulls the perfect bank job, seemingly just for kicks, McQueen’s charisma is unmatchable – until he crosses paths with Faye Dunaway, at her post-Bonnie and Clyde best as a glam insurance investigator who’d like to bust him and bed him. Their hubba-hubba chess game was parodied as recently as Austin Powers, and for good reason – it remains sweat-inducing. KL Studio Classics is reissuing its out-of-print 2018 Blu-ray, and while I wouldn’t have minded a 4K bump, this remains a giddily entertaining and effortlessly hot piece of work. (Includes audio commentaries, interviews, archival featurette, and trailer.)

Goodbye and Amen: Ace Italian action director Damiano Damiani (Confessions of a Police Captain, How to Kill a Judge) helms this tense, sweaty hostage thriller, new on Blu from Radiance Films. Bird with the Crystal Plumage star Tony Musante is the story’s solid anchor, as a CIA agent stationed in Rome whose attempt to organize a coup is diverted by a colleague who goes rogue. As said colleague, John Steiner sports just about the worst Southern accent in movie history, but John Forsyth brings the gravitas without breaking a sweat, and Damiani’s direction is crisp and efficient. (Includes audio commentary and new and archival interviews.)

He Walked by Night: Even the title is evocative, conjuring up the most elemental imagery of film noir: deep shadows, figures lurking, perhaps smoking, certainly sinning, occasionally illuminated by the light of street lamps slamming through window blinds. The title turns out to be a bit misleading; while there is certainly someone walking by night and doing dirt in those shadows, the primary focus of this 1948 thriller from director Alfred L. Werker (with an uncredited assist by Anthony Mann) is the cops who are trying to find him, and stop him. It’s a police procedural in film noir clothing – somewhat literally, as its LAPD detectives sport crisp suits and sharp fedoras, cigarettes dangling from their square mugs. And like the previous year’s The Naked City, this is a tribute to tireless, nose-to-the-grindstone, shoe-leather investigating, so when they get to their big set pieces, the filmmakers pull them out like taffy, often invoking the “less is more” ethos of great noir. (Includes audio commentaries.)

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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