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Review: A little conflict is the push they need in this week’s releases (Includes first-hand account)

A Discovery of Witches (DVD)

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Acorn

Brilliant historian Diana Bishop (Teresa Palmer) is a witch denying her own heritage. But when she unexpectedly calls up an ancient, bewitched manuscript from Oxford’s Bodleian library, she finds herself thrown into the heart of a dangerous mystery — and into the path of the enigmatic geneticist and vampire, Matthew Clairmont (Matthew Goode). Their unlikely alliance to find the book before it falls into the wrong hands — and their deepening relationship — threatens to violate age-old taboos and shake the fragile peace that exists between the species.

This is more of an adult version of Twilight that unfolds in a world in which Anne Rice would likely find herself comfortable. Vampires, witches and demons live secretly amongst humans. Vampires who are sired build familial bonds with their makers, giving them parents who can watch over them forever. The forbidden love at the story’s centre is taboo because it’s across species, though the parallels between them, and Bella and Edward are undeniable. From being hunted by their own kind to him coming to her rescue because he senses her danger to them making a stand within their circles because they can’t control who they love, it’s all quite familiar. But the chemistry between Palmer and Goode makes it worthwhile, and the story is different enough to keep fantasy lovers engaged right until the abrupt season finale.

Special features include: featurettes about characters, mythology, and TV magic. (Acorn)

The Blob [Collector’s Edition] (Blu-ray)

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Scream Factory

A vile, malignant life-form crashes to Earth in a cozy, rural American town called Arborville. Untroubled by conscience or intellect, the Blob does only one thing… and it does it well. It eats anything and everything that moves — including men, women, and children. It wants to swallow the entire town of Arborville.

This is a remake of the 1950s classic, replacing the alien menace with a manmade weapon run amok. The pink, gooey blob is reminiscent of similar children’s toys that introduced slime to playtime. However, when it touches human skin, it clings to it, and expands as it envelopes and consumes its host. As the only witnesses to this sticky menace is a couple of teenagers, the town’s so-called bad seed (Kevin Dillon) becomes the prime suspect in all the sudden mysterious deaths. There are some fun chase scenes on his motorcycle, and the standoff between the government and the locals is a reminder that it’s not only kids who should have a healthy distrust of authority. The conclusion doesn’t necessarily make a lot of sense, but it’s the final scenes that are designed to give audiences chills.

Special features include: commentary with director Chuck Russell, special effects artist Tony Gardner and cinematographer Mark Irwin, moderated by filmmaker Joe Lynch; commentary with actress Shawnee Smith; commentary with director Chuck Russell, moderated by film producer Ryan Turek; “It Fell From the Sky!,” an interview with director Chuck Russell; “We Have Work to Do,” an interview with actor Jeffrey DeMunn; “Minding the Dinner,” an interview with actress Candy Clark; “They Call Me Mellow Purple,” an interview with actor Donovan Leitch Jr.; “Try to Scream!,” an interview with actor Bill Moseley; “Shot Him!,” an interview with cinematographer Mark Irwin; “The Incredible Melting Man,” an interview with special effects artist Tony Gardner; “Monster Math,” an interview with special effects supervisor Christopher Gilman; “Haddonfield to Arborville,” an interview with production designer Craig Stearns; “The Secret of the Ooze,” an interview with mechanical designer Mark Setrakian; “I Want that Organism Alive!,” an interview with Blob mechanic Peter Abrahamson; “Gardner’s Grue Crew,” behind-the-scenes footage of Tony Gardner and his team; still gallery; and theatrical trailer. (Scream Factory)

The Devil Rides Out (Blu-ray)

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Scream Factory

The debonair Duc de Richleau (Christopher Lee) has been entrusted with the care of his deceased friend’s son, Simon Aron (Patrick Mower). The Duc discovers that the young man has been seduced into joining a satanic cult headed by the diabolic Mocata (Charles Gray), who is intent on making Simon one of the Devil’s disciples. Having rescued Simon from a bloodied ritual, de Richleau is pursued by Mocata, who will stop at nothing to destroy the Duc and his friends, even summoning the Angel of Death himself.

This is classic Hammer occult horror that allows for frightening practical effects and eerie illusions. With some luck, Simon’s friends are versed in black magic and willing to put themselves at risk to save his soul. However, their efforts are not without their consequences and not everyone will survive the confrontation with evil. Of course, Simon is only the rescue’s focus for a brief time as it eventually switches to a young woman who, of course, needs their help even more. Death’s entrance is certainly one of the film’s highlights as he bursts into the room, towering over the Duc and his friends who are only protected by a vulnerable circle. This is undoubtedly a Hammer production and one of the better ones.

Special features include: commentary by author/film historian Steve Haberman, filmmaker/film historian Constantine Nasr and author/screenwriter Richard Christian Matheson; commentary by actors Christopher Lee and Sarah Lawson; making-of featurette; “Satanic Shocks”; “Folk Horror Goes Haywire”; “Dennis Wheatley at Hammer”; “World of Hammer episode – HAMMER”; still gallery; and theatrical trailer. (Scream Factory)

It’s a Wonderful Life (4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray & Digital copy)

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Paramount Home Entertainment

George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) has so many problems he is thinking about ending it all — and it’s Christmas! As the angels discuss George, we see his life in flashback. As George is about to jump from a bridge, he ends up rescuing his guardian angel, Clarence (Henry Travers). Clarence then shows George what his town would have looked like if it hadn’t been for all of his good deeds over the years. Will Clarence be able to convince George to return to his family and forget suicide?

Closing in on a century, this Christmas classic remains an annual tradition in many households. George represents a lot of people who envision one life for themselves, but end up with another. Unfulfilled goals and dreams can weigh heavily on a person, especially when things aren’t currently going their way. But the moral of this story is to appreciate what one has and the people with who you are surrounded — a regular reminder of this lesson via yearly viewings is probably not a bad idea anyway. Stewart is perfectly casted as he can portray both George’s generous and irritable moods. The audience wants to root for his character as much as they jeer Mr. Potter’s Scrooge-like personality. The new high-def format delivers sharp, clear images, while those interested in the details of restoring a aged classic can watch the dedicated bonus feature.

Special features include: “Restoring a Beloved Classic”; “Secrets from the Vault: It’s a Wonderful Life”; and “It’s a Wonderful Wrap Party.” (Paramount Home Entertainment)

The Lion King (4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray & Digital copy)

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Disney Studios

Simba idolizes his father, King Mufasa (James Earl Jones), and takes to heart his own royal destiny. But not everyone in the kingdom celebrates the new cub’s arrival. Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor), Mufasa’s brother — and former heir to the throne — has plans of his own. The battle for Pride Rock is ravaged with betrayal, tragedy and drama, ultimately resulting in Simba’s exile. With help from a curious pair of newfound friends, Simba (Danny Glover) will have to figure out how to grow up and take back what is rightfully his.

This is yet another “live-action” adaptation of one of Disney’s great animated movies. However, as there are no human characters in this picture, everything on screen (save for one moment outed by director Jon Favreau in the bonus features) is computer-generated — the amazing part is you almost can’t tell. All the animals are so realistic, from the movement of their fur or feathers to their mannerisms. Yet, they’re also infused with these personalities brought to life by an all-star voice cast. All the iconic moments and outstanding music from the original remain, but with some twists to make it somewhat new again. Beyond the film itself, the most intriguing thing about the picture is the way it was produced using virtual reality to set shots and manoeuvre the camera. There are a lot of great behind-the-scenes footage in the bonus features that explore how this unique movie was made.

Special features include: commentary by director Jon Favreau; filmmaker introduction; “The Journey to The Lion King”; “More to Be Scene”; “Protect the Pride”; and music videos. (Disney Studios)

Luce (DVD)

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Elevation Pictures

An all-star high school athlete and accomplished debater, Luce (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) is a poster boy for the new American Dream. As are his parents (Naomi Watts and Tim Roth), who adopted him from a war-torn country a decade earlier. When Luce’s teacher (Octavia Spencer) makes a shocking discovery in his locker, Luce’s stellar reputation is called into question. But is he really at fault, or is Ms. Wilson preying on dangerous stereotypes?

The film begins rather innocently, portraying a clean-cut young man giving a momentous speech and later hanging out with his teammates at school. Then there’s the phone call from Ms. Wilson. Everyone begins to wonder if Luce is hiding some deep, dark feelings that could erupt into something more dangerous than a cheeky essay or veiled aggression. More significantly and specific to his situation, people wonder about the consequences if he never truly recovered from the atrocities he witnessed as a child — what could he be capable of then? This psychological thriller keeps audiences on their toes by not clarifying Luce’s intentions or involvement, one way or the other. In one moment he appears to be a sociopath playing with the emotions of those around him, and the next he’s the victim of a vindictive teacher with only the utmost respect and gratitude for everyone. Harrison Jr. is disturbingly convincing, often using his eyes to convey Luce’s true feelings in spite of the smile on his face.

Special features include: commentary by director Julius Onah; and interview with Octavia Spencer and Naomi Watts. (Elevation Pictures)

Murder Made Easy (Blu-ray)

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Scream Team Releasing

Best pals Joan (Jessica Graham) and Michael (Christopher Soren Kelly) host an elaborate dinner party for their closest friends on the anniversary of the death of Joan’s husband. But as each guest arrives, they find their very lives are on the menu to protect a secret that links them all.

This is an unusual dinner murder mystery as the killers’ identities are known and the secret is how they’ll kill each of their guests. There isn’t a lot of back story to anchor audiences in the narrative or explain why they might be killing all of their friends, which makes it hard to get into initially. However, as the body count rises, viewers will be pulled in by the mere absurdity of the situation and a curiosity to see who’s next. One of the many quirks is that each murder is accompanied by a meal tailored to the victim’s preferences, amounting to a lot of food and surprising appetites by the killers. The whole thing has a bit of an Agatha Christie feel, which is boosted in the film’s conclusion.

Special features include: commentaries; deleted scenes; rehearsal footage; bloopers; and trailers. (Scream Team Releasing)

Red Heat (4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray & Digital copy)

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Lionsgate Home Entertainment

A tough Russian policeman (Arnold Schwarzenegger) is forced to partner up with a cocky Chicago police detective (Jim Belushi) when he is sent to Chicago to apprehend a Georgian drug lord who killed his partner and fled the country.

Buddy cop movies are a classic way of pairing two opposing personalities and forcing them to work together. In this case, Schwarzenegger is a hulking police officer from Russia who doesn’t care about Miranda rights, likes to carry a big gun and has a score to settle with the fugitive. On the other hand, Belushi is a good cop who subtly bends the rules occasionally, has a sense of humour and can empathize with his counterpart’s need to finish the job. Although the pair has different approaches to getting their man, they complement each other well. Moreover, Schwarzenegger has a great track record of starring in comedies in which he’s not necessarily the funny one. The bonus features include a look back at the start of the former-governor’s acting career, focusing on his casting in Conan the Barbarian.

Special features include: making-of featurette; “Arnold Schwarzenegger – The Man Who Raised Hollywood”; “Political Context of Red Heat”; “East Meets West”; “A Stunt Man for All Seasons”; “I’m Not Russian, But I Play One on TV”; and original trailer. (Lionsgate Home Entertainment)

The Swan Princess [25th Anniversary] (Blu-ray)

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Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

The beautiful princess Odette (Michelle Nicastro) is transformed into a swan by an evil sorcerer’s spell. Held captive at an enchanted lake, she befriends Jean-Bob the frog (John Cleese), Speed the turtle (Steven Wright) and Puffin the bird (Steve Vinovich). Despite their struggle to keep the princess safe, these good-natured creatures can do nothing about the sorcerer’s spell, which can only be broken by a vow of everlasting love.

This is an animation classic that is to some extent the children’s version of Ladyhawke. Odette and the prince’s families have hoped they would unite their kingdoms since they were born and forced to be childhood playmates. Their wishes were granted when the pair grew up and fell in love. But in a blatant act of misogyny, a sorcerer demands Odette marry him and punishes her refusal by cursing her. In spite of the outdated plot, the restored picture is lovely on Blu-ray and Odette’s animal companions are ever amusing. The prince’s devotion to his princess is commendable, while she rejects the sorcerer daily in hopes of one day being reunited with the prince. It’s all very enchanting and romantic.

Special features include: “A Look Back, Tease Ahead”; making-of featurette; and trailer. (Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

Them That Follow (DVD)

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Lionsgate Home Entertainment

Deep in Appalachia, Pastor Lemuel Childs (Walton Goggins) presides over an isolated community of Pentecostal snake handlers. As his devoted daughter Mara (Alice Englert) prepares for her wedding under the watchful eye of Hope Slaughter (Olivia Colman), Mara reveals a deadly secret that threatens to shatter the entire community.

This is a very slow, methodical picture that focuses on the people of this unconventional, but very traditional community. Mara knows there’s a bigger world beyond their own and she’s started to question the validity of their beliefs. Her doubt is fuelled by another teen who outright denies their dogma and vows to get out as soon as possible. Unfortunately, Mara is already betrothed to a boy who embraces all the things their religion promises a man, including a loyal wife. As secrets are revealed, Mara’s place in her community is put at risk, while someone else’s life rests on her ability to make a choice. The portrayal of this religion and its followers is earnest, but in spite of all the talent and research, it doesn’t make a significant impression.

Special features include: making-of featurette. (Lionsgate Home Entertainment)

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Written By

Sarah Gopaul is Digital Journal's Editor-at-Large for film news, a member of the Online Film Critics Society and a Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer-approved critic.

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