Yes, that’s right, our top two recommended new releases this week are a hard R-rated drugs and hip-hop comedy and a quintessential Disney movie, whaddaya want, our tastes are eclectic. But there is a thread connecting them: one was a ‘90s favorite, and the other is singularly obsessed with that era. Also on the shelf this week: a Sundance sensation, an early effort from one of our favorite filmmakers, and a whole mess of free flicks on YouTube.
Margot at the Wedding : Netflix recommendations are one thing, but if you’re currently subscription-less (either out of frugality or frustration), here’s some good news: Paramount has just opened up “The Paramount Vault,” offering up somewhere in the neighborhood of 100 movies, streaming in their entirety on YouTube, absolutely free. There’s some great stuff in there: Love Streams, Bound, Ironweed, Miracle on Morgan’s Creek, Casanova’s Big Night. But one of the most interesting and underrated of the bunch is Margot, Noah Baumbach’s 2007 comedy/drama starring Nicole Kidman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Jack Black. It’s part of the “sour period” of Baumbach’s work, before he started writing with Greta Gerwig and brightened up a bit — but there’s also something to be said for acidic pictures like this and Greenberg, which are as mean and unforgiving as the characters at their centers. It also finds Jack Black working in a muted mode that would evolve into his roles in films like Bernie and The D Train, and is probably Kidman’s best performance of the last decade or so.
Aladdin : Aladdin marked the end of an era for Disney animation, due to circumstances beyond anyone’s control: it was the final collaboration between composers Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, the latter of whom passed away in the writing phase, with Tim Rice taking over for the remainder of the songs. The high quality of Disney features that began with Menken and Ashman’s Little Mermaid would continue, but without the distinctive razzle-dazzle Broadway energy of their complexly composed songs. These days, of course, the film is remembered chiefly for the uproarious voice work of Robin Williams, which holds up (dated reference or two aside); less acclaimed but nearly as noteworthy is the inspired casting of Gilbert Gottfried as Jafar’s parrot sidekick Iago (a turn nearly as subversive as Williams’ — at that point, anyway). And the film maintains its freshness as well, with inventive animation, toe-tapping production numbers, and a welcome message to be oneself. (Includes featurettes, outtakes, and deleted scenes and songs.)
Dope : “Malcolm Adekanbi is a geek,” explains narrator (and producer) Forest Whitaker in the opening of Rick Famuyiwa’s fast-paced comedy, and he’s right: Malcolm and his crew live in a rough Inglewood neighborhood, and stick out like a sore thumb thanks to their affection for punk rock, skateboarding, and ‘90s hip-hop culture. Famuyiwa tells the story of how Malcolm gets in way, way over his head, with the help of a killer soundtrack, breathless style, and relentless energy. It’s a kick of a movie, legitimately earning its Pulp Fiction comparisons (less for the guns-and-drugs stuff than the casually vernacular scenes of social and sexual conversation), and landing at an unexpectedly thought-provoking final beat. Endless, unapologetic fun. (Includes two featurettes.)
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl : Here’s your weekly lesson in the dangers of expectation. When Earl premiered at Sundance last January, it was an outright sensation, winning both the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award, partially because no one had any preconceived notions about it. When it hit theaters last summer, it suddenly has those awards and buzz to live up to, and the baggage of being yet another big hit in Park City that went nowhere in the real world — which is what happened. Now, viewed through both of those lenses, it’s easy to see the picture for what it is: a decent little movie with some fine performances, some worrisome identity politics, several lovely scenes, and not quite enough awareness of its own clichés. It’s neither the great movie its Sundance audience saw nor the abomination it became in the eyes of seemingly everyone else — it’s an entertaining throwaway, worth a look, basically harmless. (Includes audio commentary, deleted scenes, featurettes, interviews, and more.)
The Brood : As with the best of David Cronenberg’s work, this 1979 chiller (new to the Criterion Collection) grounds its horror in real-world domestic drama, marital jealousy, and familial anxieties, which help transform a fundamentally silly premise into something scary as hell. An early production, it’s filled with hints of the directions he’d take, from obvious trademarks like body horror to intense, bristling therapy sessions (shades of A Dangerous Method). He takes an almost flat approach to the material, placing his actors in ugly interiors, giving his camera movements an unnerving unsteadiness, wielding cutaways like a blunt instrument. It comes to a stomach-churning (and tensely edited) conclusion, up to and including its wittily inevitable final cuts. Creepy, sharp, funny stuff. (Includes featurette, interviews, radio spot, TV clip, and Cronenberg’s entire 1970 feature Crimes of the Future.)