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Review: Everyone’s looking out for number one in this week’s releases (Includes first-hand account)

Bad Times at the El Royale (4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray & Digital copy)


Fox Home Entertainment

Seven strangers (Jeff Bridges, Cynthia Erivo, Jon Hamm, Dakota Johnson, Cailee Spaeny and Lewis Pullman), each with a secret to bury, meet at Lake Tahoe’s El Royale, a rundown hotel with a dark past. Over the course of one fateful night, everyone will have a last shot at redemption…before everything goes to hell.

Set in 1969, the story has a lot of twists and turns, as well as a couple of genuinely unexpected surprises as people come and go, and their numbers swell and shrink. Each guest has arrived with an objective that’s best handled if they stay out of each other’s way, but that’s seemingly easier said than done… particularly once Billy Lee (Chris Hemsworth) arrives. Writer/director Drew Goddard enjoys making films that deliver the unexpected in unconventional ways. To some extent, the picture is structured as a group of vignettes based on the guest’s room number with an extended opening and closing sequence. In spite of being 141 minutes, there is nothing that can really be cut from film and have it still make sense or work as well as it does. The standout cast each perfectly conveys their characters as they deliver excellent performances that will not only engage audiences, but cause them to care about these individuals even though they’re not all the nicest people.

Special features include: making-of featurette; and gallery. (Fox Home Entertainment)

Dracula: Prince of Darkness (Blu-ray)


Scream Factory

Four English tourists find themselves stranded in the mysterious village of Karlsbad, a sinister and remote place with a deadly, dark legend. Their journey leads them to an abandoned castle where a nightmarish destiny awaits them: an evil in need of resurrection, a blood-craving beast known only as Count Dracula, Prince of Darkness (Christopher Lee).

This film is a sequel to Horror of Dracula, picking up some time after Van Helsing finally killed his nemesis. However, the Dark One’s minions are still loyal and working towards bringing him back to life. The arrival of the unsuspecting tourists provides the perfect opportunity to revive the master of the castle, who continues to take revenge against his enemies by preying on their women. The nefariousness of the human characters in this movie make it creepier than its predecessor. The murders are brutal and lack the supernatural mystery of Dracula’s kills. Meanwhile, the newly anointed vampire killers are less skilled in their quest, but they do find an interesting way to defeat Dracula.

Special features include: UK and US versions of film; commentary by author Troy Howarth; commentary by filmmaker Constantine Nasr and writer/producer Steve Haberman; commentary by cast members Christopher Lee, Suzan Farmer, Francis Matthews, Barbara Shelley; making-of featurette; super 8mm behind-the-scenes footage; World of Hammer episode “Dracula and the Undead”; still gallery; and theatrical trailer. (Scream Factory)

God Knows Where I Am (DVD)


MVD Visual

This is the story of Linda Bishop, a well-educated New Hampshire mother who suffered from severe bipolar disorder with psychosis, who was intermittently incarcerated and homeless, inevitably being committed for three years to a state psychiatric facility. Successfully fighting her sister’s protective attempts to be named her legal guardian, Linda was able to refuse treatment and medication, and eventually procured an early, unconditional release, despite the lack of post-release planning. Upon her release, she wandered 10 miles down the road from the hospital, broke into an abandoned farmhouse and lived off of rainwater and apples picked from a nearby orchard for the next four months, through one of the coldest winters on record. Unable to leave the house, she became its prisoner, and remained there, a prisoner of her own mind, eventually starving to death. Her body was discovered several months later and with it a diary that Linda kept documenting her journey.

Filmmakers had to take a cultivated approach to this story since its protagonist is deceased and her narrative is restricted to a diary she kept after her release. Rather than just using the traditional method of imposing script on the screen, they attempt to capture Linda’s mood via the images portrayed as a narrator reads corresponding passages. However, in addition to relying on Linda’s descriptions of these solitary months, they interview her family and friends to uncover what she was like before her illness worsened. Her daughter’s account is most heartbreaking as she remembers what it was like to lose her mother over time. The documentary begins as a condemnation of the system that failed Linda, but evolves into the story of an individual’s tragic life and desire for an impossible freedom.

There are no special features. (MVD Visual)

Instinct: Season One (DVD)


Paramount Home Media Distribution

Dr. Dylan Reinhart (Alan Cumming) is a former CIA operative lured back to his old life when the NYPD needs his help to stop a serial killer. He is a gifted author and university professor living a quiet life teaching psychopathic behavior to packed classes of adoring students. But when tenacious top NYPD detective Lizzie Needham (Bojana Novakovic) appeals to him to help her catch a serial murderer who is using Dylan’s first book as a tutorial, Dylan is compelled by the case and comes out of retirement. Though Dylan and Lizzie initially clash, when it comes to catching killers, they realize they will make an ideal team if they both trust their instincts.

This is a typical primetime cop drama that focuses on unique crimes each episode, while also investigating a personal case that stretches across most of the season. But Cumming elevates this series with his charming wit, anti-authority attitude towards solving cases and his front-and-centre marriage to a handsome ex-lawyer. It’s a little puzzling how the pair is able to act on information Dylan obtains via his secret agent friend (Naveen Andrews), but that issue is eventually addressed within the narrative. Dylan and Lizzie’s relationship is also amusing as they’re constantly exchanging quips while gradually becoming close friends. From ritual murders to cunning manipulators to misleading bombings to secret societies, the cases are never dull.

Special features include: extended and deleted scenes; and gag reel. (Paramount Home Media Distribution)

Life Itself (Blu-ray)


VVS Films

The story is a multi-generational love story, weaving together a number of characters whose lives intersect over the course of decades from the streets of New York to the Spanish countryside and back.

The creators of This is Us certainly have a way of making audiences care for characters cloaked in tragedy and bad decisions — they’ve done it over two seasons of their TV series and now in a feature-length film. Samuel L. Jackson‘s narration softens the blow a little, but the first act is still pretty shocking and incredibly sad. It’s somewhat jarring when the story shifts to Spain, but the link is eventually revealed and soon after the final chapter begins. The actors involved in this project comprise an impressive list, including Oscar Isaac, Olivia Wilde, Mandy Patinkin, Olivia Cooke and Antonio Banderas. In spite of the altering storylines, viewers will find themselves engrossed in these people’s lives thanks to adept writing and performances.

Special features include: cast interviews; and featurettes. (VVS Films)

Memories of Me (Blu-ray)


MVD Visual

They say, like father, like son, but for Abe (Alan King) and Abbie (Billy Crystal) Polin, nothing could be further from the truth. Abe is king of the Hollywood extras. As an actor, he’s an expert at being a face in the crowd. His son Abbie is a respected New York heart surgeon who’s always felt like a bit player in his father’s life. When Abbie suffers a mild heart attack, he decides it’s time to mend family ties… or break them altogether. So he heads out to Hollywood, where his efforts at reconciliation lead to hilarious consequences.

Not everyone likes their parents, so when they’re old enough they not only move out of their home but go as far away as possible. Linked by the occasional phone call and a few rare visits, their relationship is strained but manageable. Abbie’s near-death experience convinces him to reconnect with his father, only to be reminded of why they avoided each other this long. He clearly got his sense of humour from his father, though they took very different paths in life. In spite of being on the lowest rung of the acting ladder, Abe considers himself the cream of the crop and has decided that’s more than good enough. Their exchanges are so entertaining, the emotional element that eventually develops almost takes audiences by surprise.

There are no special features. (MVD Visual)

Night School (4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray & Digital copy) (Blu-ray, DVD & Digital copy)


Universal Pictures Home Entertainment

Successful salesman Teddy Walker’s (Kevin Hart) life is turned around after getting fired for accidentally destroying his workplace. Forced to attend night school so he can finally get his GED and find another job, Teddy soon finds himself amongst a group of misfit students, a teacher with no patience for grown up class clowns named Carrie (Tiffany Haddish) and his high school nemesis-turned-principal Stewart (Taran Killam) who will strive to make sure he fails the course. With every rule in the book about to be broken, Teddy and his new friends find themselves in a battle of pranks and wit that you can’t simply learn in the classroom.

There is nothing realistic about this movie, but that’s what allows it to be so funny. Teddy’s classmates couldn’t be more different from each other, ranging from a reluctantly ambitious housewife to a father trying to prove something to his son to a man beginning again to a convict beaming in via Skype. The hijinks they get up to is reminiscent of ‘80s high school films, except more absurd because they’re adults. Even though Hart is clearly the star of the picture, it’s very much an ensemble film. Several of the characters alternate between being awful and noble throughout the movie, while others are too dim to be anything but well-meaning. The eclectic cast makes this film fun to watch from beginning to end.

Special features include: extended cut; commentary by director Malcom D. Lee; alternate opening; deleted scenes; “Night School‘s In Session”; “Who’s the Student? Who’s the Teacher?”; “Prom Night Revisited”; “Cap ‘n Gown ‘n Giggles”; “Making of the Dance Battle”; “Christian Chicken”; “Game Over”; and extended performance “El Sueno.” (Universal Pictures Home Entertainment)

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


Fox Home Entertainment

The hunt has evolved. Now, the most lethal hunters in the universe are stronger, smarter and deadlier than ever before….and only a ragtag crew of ex-soldiers and an evolutionary biology professor can prevent the end of the human race.

One of the elements that made the first film so great was its limitations that simply pit a group of soldiers in the jungle against an alien hunter with no external assistance or interference. Conversely, this narrative tries to squeeze in multiple characters and complications that dilute the essence of the film – to the extent that there is very little action even involving the Predator. There’s a fair amount of humour in the film, which works well because of the nature of the characters. Director Shane Black also has fun with the definition of “predator” and how inappropriate it is for this species. The introduction of a couple of new Predator species is an attempt to refresh the franchise, which based on this conclusion will be taken even further in the next sequel. Although they’re interesting, it still feels like they’re underutilized. There’s a formula that works for these movies and they’ve put it aside for something too complex for its own good.

Special features include: deleted scenes; “A Touch of Black”; “Predator Evolution”; “The Takedown Team”; “Predator Catch-Up”; and gallery. (Fox Home Entertainment)

Sharp Objects (Blu-ray & Digital copy)


HBO Home Entertainment

Set in a small town in southern Missouri, the limited series follows troubled journalist Camille Preaker (Amy Adams) as she returns home to investigate the murder of a preteen girl and the disappearance of another. Trying to put together a psychological puzzle from her past, she finds herself identifying with the young victims a bit too closely.

This is a compelling drama that deals with some serious mental health issues, as well as a couple of horrific murders. There’s nothing conventional about the story or personalities in this narrative, which is what makes it so captivating. This is one of Adams’ most challenging roles as she portrays a deeply troubled woman whose childhood home is possibly the last place she should be. While Camille’s mother (Patricia Clarkson) is concerned about their family’s reputation, a detective (Chris Messina) from the city tries to understand the small town. Even though the murder mystery is at the story’s centre, it gradually becomes apparent this is actually Camille’s story and it’s not necessarily going to be a happy one.

Special features include: “Creating Wind Gap.” (HBO Home Entertainment)

Succession: The Complete First Season (Blu-ray & Digital copy)


HBO Home Entertainment

Set in New York City, this series follows the Roy family — headed by the aging patriarch Logan Roy (Brian Cox) and his four children — who together control one of the biggest media communications and entertainment conglomerates in the world. The Roys out-maneuver each other through cut-throat family and business dynamics, while contemplating what’s in store once their father passes.

Logan’s sudden illness vastly alters their family dynamics. Where Logan was once a respected patriarch, he’s now become an obstinate liability who refuses to relinquish control to his children. In the meantime, two of his sons scheme to gain control of the company, but may actually jeopardize their own positions in it. In spite of being related to each other, every member of this family is alarmingly cutthroat. Each episode features a new and often surprising low for at least one of the Roys, so that it’s difficult to say which of them is worse than the other. The result is a gripping and scandalous drama to be enjoyed by anyone with the stomach for their shenanigans.

Special features include: cast interviews. (HBO Home Entertainment)

Topper Returns (Blu-ray)


MVD Visual

Thorne Smith’s famous character, Cosmo Topper (Roland Young), turns amateur detective as the ghost of a beautiful, murdered girl (Joan Blondell) enlists him to try and find her killer in an eerie old house, filled with trap doors, secret passages and plenty of eccentric characters.

This is an amusing comedy that places Topper at the centre of a mystery he doesn’t really understand. Awakened by a beautiful woman in his room, Topper goes to the stranger’s home in the middle of the night to inform them someone has been killed without being able to explain how he obtained this information. What follows is a series of hilarious steps towards finding the killer and a situation that becomes increasingly odder as more people arrive at the house. The victim is vivacious and mischievous, which makes Topper’s role in solving her murder quite difficult and very funny — though she’s having the time of her undead life.

There are no special features. (MVD Visual)

White Boy Rick (Blu-ray & Digital copy)


Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

Set in 1980s Detroit at the height of the crack epidemic and the War on Drugs, a blue-collar father (Matthew McConaughey) and his teenage son, Rick Wershe Jr. (Richie Merritt), who became an undercover police informant and later a drug dealer, before he was abandoned by his handlers and sentenced to life in prison.

This is a fascinating narrative, primarily because it’s based on a true story. The police’s manipulation of Rick Jr. is appalling, though his stupidity is equally distressing. Unfortunately, his father was only equipped to handle the small gun business they ran — but when it grows into a highly profitable drug operation, neither father or son are prepared to deal with the problems that come with it. Of course, everyone plays their illicit role in the narrative and the police also act unconscionably in taking advantage of their naiveté. McConaughey’s role in the film is limited, though he dominates whenever on screen. Merritt fits the part of an awkward teen, but unfortunately his lack of experience shows in his big screen debut as he’s much less convincing than his co-stars.

Special features include: deleted scenes; making-of featurette; “The Unknown True Story of Rick Wershe Jr.”; “The Three Tribes of Detroit: The Cast”; and feature trivia track. (Sony Pictures 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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