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.
The big-ticket items on disc this week include a trio of late-2022 awards hopefuls, but that’s not all that’s worth seeing: last year’s Palme d’Or winner is on Hulu; a film noir classic, and ‘80s cult fave, and a couple of ‘90s action hits land on 4K; and a pair of vintage genre movies appear under an unexpected label. But first up, we have a 4K upgrade for the biggest franchise of the 1980s:
PICK OF THE WEEK:
Rocky: The Knockout Collection: There’s a new Creed in theaters, and even though it’s oddly Rocky-free, you can’t blame Warner Brothers for taking the opportunity to give the first four films in the franchise the ol’ 4K upgrade. Taken together, they’re a fascinating snapshot of a series (and its figurehead) in ongoing transition. The Rocky movies were popular, which often translates to “influential,” but these films followed trends rather than setting them – its first two entries are in the moody, character-driven style of ‘70s cinema (even as their feel-good endings were subverting those norms), while Rocky III and especially Rocky IV lean into the bombast of ‘80s movies, the latter seeming to owe more to the previous summer’s flag-waving Rambo: First Blood Part II than anything in the Balboa canon. On one hand, it’s a dispiriting experience; it’s like you’re watching Sylvester Stallone choose, in real time, to be a movie star rather than an actor (and the first Rocky is an indisputably great piece of acting, as evidenced by his deserved Oscar nomination for the job). But as a social and cultural document, you can’t beat it. (Includes the new Rocky vs. Drago: The Ultimate Director’s Cut version of Rocky IV, hour-long documentary on its making, audio commentaries, featurettes, behind-the-scenes footage, and trailers.)
Magic Mike XXL: Presumably pegged to the recent release of Magic Mike’s Last Dance, Netflix is streaming the follow-up to Steven Soderbergh’s surprise smash; this was during his “retirement” (lol), so Soderbergh returned solely as cinematographer and editor, handing directorial reins to longtime associate Gregory Jacobs. It has the looseness and we-know-it’s-a-gratuitous-sequel-but-who-cares spirit of Soderbergh’s Ocean’s 12, up to and including a heist movie premise: getting the gang back together for one last big score (in this case, the big stripper convention in Myrtle Beach). But in contrast to such pictures, the stakes are decidedly low, and that’s just fine – this is a movie about hanging out with your friends and having a good time, a road movie with a gentle, warm spirit (and a welcome dose of the female gaze).
ON AMAZON PRIME:
The Magnificent Seven: Antoine Fuqua may not have a great Western in him – but he’s got a great Western hero at the center of this one, and that might be good enough. Denzel Washington made sturdy honor and quiet determination such a cornerstone of his onscreen persona for so long, it’s sort of shocking he’d never mounted up before; he’s an excellent choice to front this remake of John Sturges’s 1960 classic (itself a riff on The Seven Samurai), heading up an engaging ensemble of ne’er-do-wells (including Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke, Vincent D’onofrio, and Byung-Hun Lee) out to stop evil Peter Sarsgaard. It doesn’t all hold together, and it’s certainly no match for the original(s). But it’s an entertaining diversion, and Washington shows an ease in the genre that’s downright John Wayne-ian.
Triangle of Sadness: Ruben Östlund’s Cannes Palme d’Or winner is a film told in three distinct parts, labeled with helpful onscreen titles, and the first part is as good as anything he’s ever done – and a perfect encapsulation of what he does well. His subjects are Carl (Harris Dickinson) and Yaya (Charlbi Dean), who are young and beautiful, model-slash-influencers out to dinner; the waiter drops the check, and neither of them, at least initially, pick it up. What follows is an interaction so perfectly observed and executed that it’s sort of breathtaking – not just what they do, and what they say, and the responses those actions and words provoke, but how all of those details are then revisited and scrutinized, broken apart and reassembled, every wound carefully closed and then savagely reopened. This is Östlund’s stock-in-trade, and because it’s so directly in his wheelhouse, it’s easy to understand why he takes that material as merely a starting point and attempts to broaden his scope considerably in the two hours that follows. It doesn’t always work, but you get what he’s going for.
ON BLU-RAY / DVD / VOD:
Alice Darling: Anna Kendrick does sparkling light comedy so well that it’s easy to forget what a fine dramatic actor she can be; this wrenching drama should remedy that. She stars as a career woman in a long-term relationship whose two BFFs invite her on a weeklong birthday getaway in a remote cabin, where they end up with a front-row seat to witness their friend going down a bad road. “He doesn’t hurt me or anything,” she insists, but there are tiny red flags and microaggressions, and the script by Alanna Francis fully understands how this toxic thinking gets into your bloodstream, and Kendrick – who uses tics and twitches and signals without veering into mannered overacting – is doing her most raw, vulnerable, and delicate acting to date. (Includes featurette.)
Women Talking: Sarah Polley’s latest is based on the novel by Miriam Toews, but it feels more like a theatrical adaptation, from its audition-friendly dramatic monologues to its (mostly) single setting to its traditional three-act structure. But Polley doesn’t let things bog down in the torrent of talk (not that the title doesn’t warn us); there are moments that are cinematically intimate, poetic even, and occasionally she’ll burst away from the central locale with harrowing flashes of what’s been done to them, and thus what brought them there. Some of her tableaux are breathtaking, which makes Polley’s decision to use such a muddy, muted color palette all the more baffling – it gives a drab sameness to the images, and diluting the color of the blood dilutes its power. But that’s the only serious complaint; the performances are top-notch across the board, and boy is it nice to have this gifted filmmaker back in the saddle.
Puss in Boots: The Last Wish: It would be hard to imagine a cinematic genealogy that sounds more corrupt than this one – the sequel to a spin-off (2011’s Puss in Boots) of another sequel (2004’s Shrek 2). So maybe that’s why it’s so straight-up shocking that The Last Wish is such a delight, an animated adventure that not only outdoes its predecessors but recalls (and deserves comparison with) the live-action Zorro movies that got voice star Antonio Banderas the gig to begin with. He’s clearly having a blast, as is the stacked supporting cast, which includes Florence Pugh, Olivia Colman, John Mulaney, and Banderas’s frequent co-star Salma Hayek. (Includes short film, deleted scenes, and featurettes.)
Leonor Will Never Die: Though Leonor Reyes (Sheila Francisco) was once a legendary Filipino action filmmaker, those days are far behind her now. Yet her creative fire lights up ponce again when she sees a newspaper ad for a screenplay competition, and she isn’t even slowed down by a television falling on her head; she ends up in a coma, but in that state, she finds herself in the movie she’s writing. The Purple Rose of Cairo influence is undeniable, but first-time writer/director Martika Ramirez Escobar comes up with plenty of her own inventions – and emotions – while carving out a distinctive dry wit and deadpan style. (Includes audio commentary, featurette, and short film.)
From Beyond: A year after the cult hit Re-Animator, writer/director Stuart Gordon reunited with stars Jeffrey Combs and Barbara Crampton for another gory, giggly H.P. Lovecraft adaptation. He once again stakes out a tone all his own, somehow simultaneously straight-faced and silly, and the practical effects are both horrifying and disarmingly homemade. Combs is still a bit of a dud, but Crampton is wonderful, and has much more to do this time around, deftly displaying how her character’s scientific curiosity veers into recklessness and danger. Gordon doesn’t quite match the bug-eyed comic ingenuity of Re-Animator, but this one has its own gonzo charms, and Vinegar Syndrome’s 4K restoration is magnificent. (Includes audio commentaries, feature-length making-of documentary, featurettes, new and archival interviews, and trailer.)
Mildred Pierce: Oddly, this 1945 drama from director Michael Curtiz (the latest Criterion selection to get the 4K bump) is remembered far more as a weepie Joan Crawford “women’s picture” than as film noir, but don’t get it twisted – the first thing Miss Crawford does is shoot a man down, then head to a bar to pick up a poor schmuck to blame for it. (Or does she?) And from there, the bulk of the smoky and shadowy story is told in flashback from a police interrogation, a go-to trope of moody crime pictures. But this is also a grounded, sensitive relationship movie, explicitly and intelligently exploring the class divide, the snobbery of new vs. old money, and how those shivs wedge between Crawford’s Mildred and her daughter Veda (a real little shit). It’s a remarkably smooth fusion of two seemingly disparate elements – and funny, too, thanks to the snappy, catty repartee between Crawford and Eve Arden at her Eve Arden-est. (Includes new and archival interviews, feature-length Crawford documentary, trailer, and essay by Imogen Sara Smith.)
The Mask of Zorro: Martin Campbell’s 1998 smash – one of two late ‘90s action flicks getting the 4K treatment from Sony – is the kind of movie we like to say they don’t make any more, but who’re we kidding; it was the kind of movie they didn’t make then, either, a cheerful swashbuckler filled with delightful action, winking romance, and old-school storytelling, slyly tossed on the table in the same summer that gave us the ADHD action of Armageddon and the wheezy half-assing of Lethal Weapon 4. It’s a blast, and the new 4K not only ably captures the classically-styled action, but stars Antonio Banderas and Catherine Zeta-Jones at their absolute sexiest. (Includes audio commentary, deleted scenes, featurette, music video, and trailers.)
Air Force One: The filmmakers of the 1990s gave us a lot of gifts, and one of the most generous was their willingness to reimagine 1988’s monster hit Die Hard in every imaginable type of setting and mode of transportation. Argue if you’d like with the cynicism of it all, but it’s hard to argue with the results: Speed, Cliffhanger, Under Siege, and (YES I’LL SAY IT) Under Siege 2, among others. The subgenre landed its highest-profile hero/villain combo with Wolfgang Peterson’s 1997 bruiser, which matched up former Han Solo Harrison Ford as the Commander-in-Chief and well-regarded voice-raiser Gary Oldman as a Russian terrorist who takes control of his jet. It’s well-acted and well-crafted diversion, though the film’s attempt to make “Get off my plane” into a “Yippee-ki-yay” is kinda sad for everybody involved. (Includes audio commentary and theatrical trailer.)
Last Hurrah for Chivalry: The latest addition to the Criterion Collection boasts the credit, “Screenplay and directed by John Y.S. Woo,” and the not-quite-there-yet version of his name matches his station at this early point (1979) in his career. Woo was still a few years from finding his signature style, and might have had trouble anyway incorporating it into this wuxia epic. But there are hints of what’s to come: he moves his camera with style and grace, he frames his heroes with blistering cool, he knows how to present a formidable villain (“Whoever touches my sword can only pray and accept their fate), and the foes-become-friends dynamic of his central characters would become a favorite. More importantly, he can already stage the hell out of a set piece, and the closing action scenes, including a sword and chain fight and a literal cage fight, are all-timers. (Includes interviews and essay by Aaron Han Joon Magnan-Park.)
Flesh and Fantasy / Curucu, Beast of the Amazon: Vinegar Syndrome has made its name showcasing a handful of specific genres (horror, sci-fi, porn) from a handful of specific decades (the 1970s through 1990s). They’ve done that with such success that they deserve kudos for trying something new, in the form of the Vinegar Syndrome Labs sub-label, which works outside those boundaries in interesting ways. These two releases are far older than the VS standard; Flesh is an anthology movie from Universal’s golden age of horror, featuring such distinguished names as Edward G. Robinson, Barbara Stanwyk, and Charles Boyer, while Curucu is a good old-fashioned ‘50s Universal jungle B-movie, shot (at least partially) on location in Brazil. Both offer a mighty good time, playing not only as overlooked gems, but (and this is smart programming) important predecessors for the kind of flicks the VS audience is more accustomed to consuming. (Both include audio commentaries, featurettes, and trailers.)
The Devonsville Terror: This 1983 shocker – also new from Vinegar Syndrome – opens with the murder of three accused witches by some powerfully creepy Puritans, and it only gets weirder from there. Zap ahead 300 years, as three progressive young women move to the site of “the Devonsville Inquisition,” and those chilling ladies take on the creepy dudes of the town, with alarming results. Director Ulli Lommel (The Boogeyman) stages it all with an effective mixture of spooky ambience, convincing effects, and rock-solid acting – including Donald Pleasance, predictably playing his role as “Dr. Loomis, but witches.” (Includes new and archival interviews and trailer.)
Fear: Way back in the mid-1990s, before he was God’s #1 Wife Guy, Mark Wahlberg was merely another mid-level white rapper trying to make it as an actor. One of his first big flexes was this mixture of erotic thriller and boyfriend-from-hell movie, potently staged by Glengarry Glen Ross director James Foley. Wahlberg doesn’t have to do much (and he doesn’t) beyond mumble and glower, but he does that well; the performance of note here is Reese Witherspoon, who ably embodies the Good Girl, and adroitly dramatizes how tempting it is to turn bad. Good luck riding a roller coaster again without thinking of this one.
The Fan: This 1996 thriller is far from Tony Scott’s most beloved pictures, and look – I get it. It’s wildly over the top and fundamentally silly, a sort of straight-faced King of Comedy with Robert De Niro as baseball superfan who goes into a tailspin when his favorite player (Wesley Snipes) hits a slump. But it’s genuinely great trash. Scott’s direction is all showy flourishes, a filmmaker getting thoroughly high on his own supply, internal logic and real-world reality be damned. The supporting cast is having a great time, from Benicio del Toro as a moody up-and-comer to John Leguizamo as a squirrely agent to Ellen Barkin as a hard-boiled sportscaster. Snipes is all bruised cool, and De Niro is genuinely haunting as a very particular kind of sports guy who takes the game very, very personally.