The 6 Best Movies to Buy or Stream This Week: ‘Midnight Special,’ ‘Embrace of the Serpent’


The goods are plentiful this week on the new release shelves, thanks to an indie hit, what should’ve been an indie-to-mainstream crossover hit, a fascinating Norwegian disaster picture, and three vastly different catalogue titles that are all worth a look. Let’s dive in.


Midnight Special : I can’t begin to explain how Warner Brothers so badly bungled the spring release of Jeff Nichols’s latest, a seemingly audience friendly sci-fi drama, but they did — its anemic $3.7 million gross (to put it into perspective, about one seventh that of Nichols’ previous picture, the far smaller and more specialized Mud ) makes a compelling argument, along with Paramount’s similar muffing of Everybody Wants Some!! in the same time frame, that big studios simply shouldn’t do platform releases. But don’t let its financial failure dissuade you; this is one of the best pictures of the half-year, for the car-crash intensity of its opening scenes, the skill with which Nichols’ excellent screenplay shares (and withholds) information, the kinetic and scary action beats, Joel Edgerton’s quiet and careful work, Kirsten Dunst’s offhand gravitas, and for the way Michael Shannon cradles his son and whispers “I got you, I got you, it’s okay.” Oh, and for its goosebump-inducing ending, with gives us that rarest of feelings in today’s moviemaking marketplace: legitimate, earned awe. You probably missed this one in theaters; don’t let it slip away again. (Includes featurettes.)

Embrace of the Serpent : Director/co-writer Ciro Guerra crafts a gorgeous and often troubling story of an Amazonian shaman and the two white scientists he leads to a sacred plant, 40 years apart. The stories are told simultaneously, and often unpredictably; each strand is so rich and involving, you forget about the other, until they become inextricably intertwined. It sometimes booms too loudly with the echoes of other films; the Herzog influence becomes even clearer when the record player comes out, and the 2001-lite ending is a bit much. But it’s a fascinating work, filled with unforgettable images and narrative daring. (Includes featurettes, interview, and trailer.)

The Wave : Director Roar Uthaug’s Norwegian tsunami story is an unexpectedly effective mash-up, merging a Nordic filmmaking sensibility (tone, style, patience) with American disaster movie tropes that date back to the 1970s (the lone voice of reason, his domestic complications, the clueless superior who won’t heed his warnings, etc.). The effects are convincing and the score is tense, yet they know when to pitch it underhand and when to go all-out. And even those big moments never overwhelm the emotional stakes – it’s less about the terror of an approaching wave than the anxiety of giant decisions that must be made in a fraction of a second. The roots of The Wave are undeniably domestic, but it could teach our filmmakers a thing or two about how to make these stories more than empty spectacle. (Includes featurette, interview, and trailer.)


Cornbread, Earl and Me : This 1975 drama from director Joseph Manduke was the kind of familial slice-of-life that outfits like American International Pictures would occasionally finance and/or produce to offset their controversial (but money-making) blaxpoitation output. And while more than 40 years old, this portrait of an inner city neighborhood has barely aged – particularly when Manduke narrows his focus to a single, devastating incident, in which a young black man (carrying a bottle of soda, no less) is mistaken for a criminal and shot dead by the cops. Ronald Fair and Leonard Lamensdorft’s script doesn’t paint the fallout in easy strokes, however; they lean in to the complications and class conflicts, and paint an indelible portrait of mourning and community. The big takeaway is the debut performance of Laurence Fishburne, here barely a teenager but crafting a performance with notes of heartbreak and hollowed-out desperation that most actors never achieve. It’s a great performance, and a powerful film. (Includes trailer.)

Fantastic Planet : Groovy music, trippy imagery, casual despair, copious nudity and blood – René Laloux’s 1973 cult classic is very much a ’70s cartoon feature. The story of a race of giant blue creatures who keep primitive humans (or “oms”) as pets and playthings uses a simple but effective bit of role reversal to veer from far-fetched sci-fi to social parable; the dots between this story and histories of slave rebellion aren’t hard to connect. But it’s mostly memorable as an experience, from the peculiar yet striking animation to the starkness of the mythology to the sheer force of its images. (Includes documentary on Laloux, early short films, vintage interviews, and alternate English language soundtrack.)

Appointment with Crime : This black-hearted, snub-nosed British noir from writer/director John Harlow includes the surface markers of the genre: snazzily shadowy cinematography, twisty storytelling, colorful supporting characters, and a cold, cynical worldview. But it’s also feverishly stylized (particularly in its hallucinatory opening scenes) and fascinatingly localized – there’s something particularly entertaining about these nefarious baddies’ haughty accents and impeccable diction. Its proto-Point Blank narrative of a sneering tough guy looking to get right gives way to police procedural and character study (particularly the desperate, lonely woman our anti-hero momentarily engages); it’s a brutish, nasty little item, filled with theatrical flourishes and poetic turns. (No special features; also streaming on Amazon Prime.)