This week, everything changed. Maybe? In an unprecedented move, Warner Bros. announced that its entire 2021 film slate would premiere in both theaters and on HBO Max, for a one-month exclusive run. Tentpoles like Matrix 4, Space Jam 2, Godzilla vs. King Kong, and Denis Villeneuve’s Dune would all become temporary streaming exclusives as a way to contend with the crushing weight of the COVID-19 pandemic. For moviegoers, it’s a boon. For those who treasure the theatrical experience, it’s a bit terrifying.
As the theater business continues to face hardships with safety precautions and shutdowns, new movies continue to skirt traditional releases by going straight to VOD. This week offers a trove of movies that kinda sorta hit theaters earlier this year, along with some higher-quality straight-to-demand titles worthy of interest. So to help you wade through all the options, here are the new movies you can watch on VOD this weekend.
Blumhouse’s murderous take on the Freaky Friday formula is a scream. While the idea of a young woman and a 50-year-old serial killer switching bodies could kickstart an examination of gender and psyche, Freaky mostly sidesteps the larger implications for gags, gore, and maximum entertainment. From our full review during the movie’s limited theatrical run:
[Freaky’s] well-paced, giddily gory scenes deliver in the horror department. Creative murder methods abound, including a particularly inspired scene involving a broken tennis racket. The script has a snappy sense of humor that winks at horror traditions. “Please don’t be the Butcher!” Millie fruitlessly whispers to herself when she spots the killer across a parking lot. “Everyone’s tired, we’ve done lots of hitting,” Millie-as-the-Butcher implores Naya and Josh after they initially disbelieve her story and attack her, in the school’s cafeteria, with tater tots and carrots. “You’re black, I’m gay, we’re so dead,” Josh complains to Naya when they’re in danger.
Black Bear, which we caught at Sundance 2020, isn’t a movie for socially anxious audiences. It’s a drama with shifting realities — the kind of film where a story starts to play out, then plays out in an entirely different way, leaving the audience to decode what’s going on, and what it all means. But every version of the film’s reality is tense. Aubrey Plaza stars as a film writer-director who heads to a vast house in the woods which she’s been told is a retreat where she can work out the kinks in her latest project. Then her hosts (played by Christopher Abbott and Sarah Gadon) start picking nasty personal fights — with each other, with her, about her. With open nods to John Cassavetes, writer-director Lawrence Michael Levine pours on the drama as the three leads circle and stab at each other in different configurations. It’s an actor’s showcase and a compelling narrative mystery, but it’s also squirmy as hell, like being stuck in a house at the holidays with your angriest, most drama-seeking family members.
Where to watch it: Stream on Disney Plus
Starring Jillian Bell as a fairy godmother in training and Isla Fisher as a single mom who could use a little help, Godmothered follows a particular trend of Disney subverting its own tropes for comedy. But it’s not quite Enchanted, as our review explores. Here’s a taste:
While Enchanted focused on bringing fairy-tale magic to everyday life, Godmothered finds its originality in doing the opposite: By the end, it’s about how fairy tales could learn a thing or two from real life. Remembering what brings happiness in the day-to-day is more important than fixating on a nebulous happily ever after. The delivery isn’t that smooth; the conflict of fairy godmothering going out of style takes a backseat for most of the movie, before getting revved up at the end for an 11th-hour showdown, the narration done by some random old fairy back in the Motherland jolts out of the rest of the movie, and Mackenzie’s shift from seeing Eleanor as a nuisance to a blessing is absurdly swift. But the final fairytale subversion is crafted with a steady hand.
Where to watch it: Stream on Netflix
Fight Club, The Social Network, and Gone Girl director David Fincher is back with a new feature after a few years devoted to his TV series Mindhunter. And the project is an intoxicating doozy: Focused on the life of screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz, Mank tells the story of the making of Citizen Kane while jumping around time to explore its subjects turbulent career. Our full review captures just how off-kilter it is:
The back-and-forth structure vaguely recalls Citizen Kane, yet it lacks the sophisticated, propulsive energy that powers that classic’s multiple-interview storytelling. The fluidity is replaced by clacking subtitles that identify the year and location in screenplay terms: “EXT. PARAMOUNT STUDIOS — DAY — 1930 (FLASHBACK),” and so on. Is this a commentary on the workmanlike effort that can go into even a nimble screenplay, or is the movie itself a little workmanlike? Fincher turns that ambiguity into a playfulness that even some of his pulp adaptations have lacked. Where films like like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo can feel like exacting, relentless journeys to nowhere in particular, Mank luxuriates in its dreamy atmosphere.
Brothers Eshom and Ian Nelms are the stylish filmmakers behind 2017’s Small Town Crime. Their latest feature sounds deranged: After financial hardship, Santa Claus himself strikes up a deal working for the military. At the same time, a little girl hires an assassin to take him down. Mayhem ensues. The hurdle for some viewers is that the controversial actor Mel Gibson stars as the “Fatman” himself. Mileage may vary, but Fatman’s notable for already making financial waves on VOD during the oddest holiday season on record.
Where to watch it: Stream on Disney Plus
Mulan debuted earlier this year on Disney Plus as part of the experimental Premier Access plan, which subscribers could purchase for an additional $30. But now, the live-action remake is free to stream on the service. Reactions may vary. From our review:
The best point of comparison, however, remains The Rise of Skywalker. Mulan handily clears the bar set by live-action duds like The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast, but it still fails to recapture the magic of the movie it’s adapting. It forgoes the strongest ideas in the animated film (the songs and the humble origins of heroism) in order to try to tell a more conventional story. In the animated film, the emperor says of Mulan: “You don’t meet a girl like that every dynasty.” She’s an unfollowable act. So is the 1998 movie.
The year is 1840ish, and Mary Anning (Kate Winslet) is hunting for fossils. When a young woman (Saoirse Ronan) is sent to live by her seaside dig location, the two strike up a intense and life-changing relationship. Ammonite played the (digital) festival circuit earlier this year to steady acclaim, and with Neon, the company behind last February’s Best Picture winner Parasite, behind it, the film is likely to be in the awards discussion until the Oscars happen in — yikes, April!? But this weekend, it’s skipping theaters so you can see it right now. Watch out for our review on the site soon.
From acclaimed documentarian Dana Nachman, this film takes viewers behind the scenes of the Postal Service in a slightly less political fashion than the last six months of Postal Service-related conversation. Specifically, Nachman dives into the 100- year-old Operation Santa Program of the United States Postal Service, with “unprecedented access” into what happens to the hundreds of thousands of letters addressed to Santa each year. From giant New York City operations to small-town Santas, the film promises a heart-warming, nonfiction experience with yuletide energy.