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Review: Love & family are interpreted differently in this week’s releases (Includes first-hand account)

Almost Christmas (Blu-ray, DVD & Digital copy)


Universal Pictures Home Entertainment

Oh, the joy of family. A beloved patriarch (Danny Glover) asks his family for one gift this holiday season: to get along. If they can honour that wish and spend five days under the same roof without killing one another, it will be a Christmas miracle.

This movie has an all-star cast, including Mo’Nique, Omar Epps, Gabrielle Union, JB Smoove, Jessie T. Usher and John Michael Higgins. The script is pretty standard when it comes to bringing a large family together that doesn’t always get along and is harbouring their own secrets, such as drug addiction, infidelity and resentment. The one thing they share and express openly is their grief for their recently passed mother. Yet, blood always proves thicker than water and they’re there for each when needed. The younger members of the family constantly have their smartphones on hand to record the more animated incidents, or spy on conversations when they’ve been banished. The comedy is steady throughout the movie and is delivered by a group of very capable actors.

Special features include: commentary by filmmakers; “Aunt May Unplugged”; “Home for the Holidays”; “The Director Diaries”; “Walter Meyers’ Sweet Potato Pie”; Working with Actors”; “My Favourite Scene is…”; and even more gags. (Universal Pictures Home Entertainment)

American Pastoral (Blu-ray & Digital copy)


Lionsgate Home Entertainment

Seymour “Swede” Levov (Ewan McGregor), a once-legendary high school athlete, is a successful businessman married to a former beauty queen, Dawn (Jennifer Connelly). When Swede and Dawn’s daughter, Merry (Dakota Fanning), disappears after being accused of a violent crime, Swede’s perfect life is broken forever and he is left to make sense out of the chaos.

This is an intense drama based on Philip Roth‘s novel that explores the effects of a child’s actions on their parents. As in Beautiful Boy, which centred on the parents of a mass shooter, Swede and Dawn are left to bear the blame for their daughter’s crime, even though they cannot believe she committed it. What follows is years of heartache and determination to find the truth, which only Merry can provide. Both in front and behind the camera, McGregor captures Swede’s sorrow and the ripple effect of Merry’s actions. This narrative of seemingly inescapable grief becomes increasingly complex in the context of local protests, other revolutionaries and the guilt (real or assumed) of everyone involved. The breakdown of the film in the bonus features provides an even deeper understanding of the characters and their roles in the story.

Special features include: commentary by director/actor Ewan McGregor; “American Pastoral: Adapting an American Classic”; and “Making the American Dream.” (Lionsgate Home Entertainment)

Antibirth (Blu-ray)


Scream Factory

Hard-drinking, pill-popping, bong-ripping Lou (Natasha Lyonne) and her best friend Sadie (Chloë Sevigny) spend their days adrift in a druggy haze. But one wild night out becomes a bad trip that never ends when Lou wakes up with symptoms of an unexplained, highly abnormal pregnancy. Who — or what — is growing inside her? As her due date approaches with alarming swiftness, the fear, paranoia, and conspiracy theories begin to pile up.

This is a very dark narrative about a protagonist that is difficult to like, in spite of Lyonne’s efforts to make her amiable. Lou’s answer to all of life’s problems can be found in drugs and alcohol; therefore when she starts to take notice of her unusual pregnancy, she parties even harder than usual in order to ignore (or perhaps eliminate) her condition. However, her friends are a little less inclined to ignore the growing issue. In addition to physical symptoms that suggest her body is not accepting its unexpected role, Lou is having bizarre, acid-trip-like visions that may hold the answer to her conception. But the eventual explanation for her pregnancy is way out there and somewhat crude. Meg Tilly also appears as a woman who mysteriously arrives to help Lou through her ordeal.

Special features include: “Psychedelic Shorts”; storyboards; and trailer. (Scream Factory)

Beyond Redemption (Blu-ray)


Well Go USA

After successfully passing an initiation test to join the upper ranks of the Ching Tau Gang, undercover cop Billy Tong (Brian Ho) is brought in on a plan for a home invasion against a wealthy Chinese businessman that will give him the evidence he needs to bring down the gang. As plans are proceeding, Billy learns his wife is pregnant and begins questioning his career choices. Things become even more complicated when he’s forced to protect a rival gang leader’s daughter from the Ching Tau Gang.

The legwork it took for Billy to infiltrate the gang occurs mostly off-screen. By the time audiences are introduced to him, he’s proven himself and earned an introduction to the Ching Tau Gang’s leader. The young crew is small but making bold moves in the Chinese underworld, and Billy is gradually becoming a key component. However with the number of times Billy jeopardizes his cover, it’s amazing they don’t catch onto him sooner. It’s also interesting that he’s not as devoted to the job as other undercover cops, willing to throwaway all his hard work as soon as his family requires it. Directed by Canadian martial arts expert Bruce Fontaine, the film was shot in English but features many familiar Asian actors.

Special features include: “Hallway Fight”; “Mauler Opening Fight”; and trailer. (Well Go USA)

Black Society Trilogy (Blu-ray)


Arrow Video

Shinjuku Triad Society: Set in the bustling Kabuki-cho nightlife neighborhood of Tokyo, a mixed-race cop (Kippei Shiina) struggles with private issues while hunting a psychotic criminal (Tomorowo Taguchi) who traffics in children’s organs.
Rainy Dog: Shot entirely in Taiwan, an exiled yakuza (Show Aikawa) finds himself saddled with a son he never knew he had and a price on his head after the Chinese gang he works for decides to turn on him.
Ley Lines: Moving from the countryside to the city and back, three Japanese youths of Chinese descent seek their fortune in Tokyo, only to run afoul of a violent gang boss (Naoto Takenaka).

Takashi Miike is one of the world’s most prolific filmmakers, making several films each year. He has 100 titles and counting on his IMDB page and it all started with this trilogy, which were his first theatrical releases (vs. his previous direct-to-video “V-cinema” pictures). Focusing on Japan’s violent underworld, these tales centre on the individuals at their centre from cops to criminals to rebellious teens. However, none of them are traditional stories as Shinjuku challenges conventional depictions of gangs with frequent acts of homosexuality; Rainy Dog features a callous assassin who finds his heart in a bag of money; and Ley Lines follows country youths run amok in the city with little idea how to last longer than a few weeks. While Miike would branch out into a number of different genres throughout his career, the formation of his signature style can be seen in this films.

Special features include: Interview with director Takashi Miike; Interview with actor Show Aikawa; commentaries for all three films by Miike biographer Tom Mes; and original theatrical trailers. (Arrow Video)

Frank & Lola (Blu-ray & Digital copy)


Universal Pictures Home Entertainment

Two people are locked in a battle of passion and obsession. When talented chef Frank (Michael Shannon) meets aspiring fashion designer Lola (Imogen Poots), he falls instantly and violently in love. As the secrets of Lola’s dark past are revealed, the lovers are drawn into a web of sex, jealousy and revenge.

This isn’t exactly a love story, in spite of the couple’s happy beginning. At first, it seems Frank’s jealousy may force them apart as Lola’s business relationship with a young entrepreneur (Justin Long) causes a rift between them. However another transgression pushes Frank over the edge and he becomes fixated on making things right, regardless of the cost. Meanwhile, it’s difficult for the audience to gauge Lola’s truth as they discover so many versions of her. Shannon and Poots are excellent in their complementary yet conflicting roles. While they’re believable together, they’re even more convincing when they’re quarrelling. The direction of the narrative is quite unpredictable, right up to the final ultimatum.

There are no special features. (Universal Pictures Home Entertainment)

John Wick (4K Blu-ray, Blu-ray & Digital copy)


Lionsgate Home Entertainment

When sadistic young thugs senselessly attack John Wick (Keanu Reeves) — a brilliantly lethal ex-assassin — they have no idea that they’ve just awakened the boogeyman. With New York City as his bullet-riddled playground, Wick embarks on a merciless rampage, hunting down his adversaries with the skill and ruthlessness that made him an underworld legend.

Reeves has been trying to gain and maintain the respect of audiences for much of his career. He renewed some people’s faith with The Matrix trilogy, but most of his subsequent pictures were unremarkable. Then this film happened and suddenly Reeves had recovered some cool. He does not speak very often in the movie (which some would say is an advantage), but he comes across a total bad-ass. The slow burn through the first act builds exceptional intensity that serves the remainder of the narrative very well. When the mystery of Wick’s identity and influence is resolved, there’s nothing left to do but sit back and watch his bloody revenge unfold. Moreover the soundtrack is noticeable, but in a way that adds to rather than intrudes on the film. The movie is relatively dark, but in 4K every detail is visible from the individual raindrops on their faces to the ripple of their skin and clothing during a fight. Where the colours are dull even in HD, 4K is vibrant with realistic skin tones, defined blacks on black (a frequent occurrence in the film) and carefully chosen reds that really pop.

Special features include: commentary by filmmakers Chad Stahelski and David Leitch; “Don’t F*#% With John Wick”; “Calling in the Cavalry”; “Destiny of a Collective”; “Assassin’s Code”; “Red Circle”; and “NYC Noir.” (Lionsgate Home Entertainment)

Life on the Line (Blu-ray)


VVS Films

The film follows the lives of a crew of eccentric and courageous Texan power line workers who do the extremely dangerous work of fixing the crumbling electrical grid. ‘Beau’ (John Travolta) is a salt of the earth man who blames himself for his brother’s death and raises Bailey, his orphaned niece (Kate Bosworth). His worlds collide when Bailey’s handsome lover (Devon Sawa) joins his linemen crew on the eve of a massive and deadly storm that threatens to rip their lives apart.

There are certain jobs that are only interesting when something terrible happens; either they have to perform their duties under dangerous conditions or someone is killed in a horrible accident. Otherwise their lives are simple and ordinary. This is the case for the linemen called upon to maintain hydro towers. The movie begins nearly a week before a perilous storm, inching closer to the date that will test their mettle and undoubtedly take at least one of their lives. However, the lead up to this fateful event is unsurprisingly banal. A young woman is in love with a guy her family disapproves of and their new neighbours are having marital issues. The idea is obviously to get to know the characters before tragedy strikes, but it takes up two-thirds of the picture and isn’t very remarkable. While shedding a light on this hazardous profession is notable, the movie unfortunately is not.

Special features include: behind-the-scenes featurette. (VVS Films)

Loving (Blu-ray, DVD & Digital copy)


Universal Pictures Home Entertainment

In 1958, in the state of Virginia, the idea of interracial marriage was not only considered to be immoral to many, it was also illegal. When Richard (Joel Edgerton) and Mildred (Ruth Negga) fall in love, they are aware of the eyes staring at them and the words said behind their backs. It is when they get married, however, that words and looks become actions, and the two are arrested. The couple decide to take their case all the way to the Supreme Court in order to fight for their love.

This is a very important story in the history of the United States as it was determined marriage is an inherent right and couldn’t be denied interracial couples. Nonetheless, the movie portrays what was essentially a very personal struggle for the Lovings. What’s most impressive about this story is its restraint. In spite of the usual pressures to exaggerate a tale for dramatic effect or make sure the characters pull on the audience’s heartstrings at even intervals, this movie sticks to the very simple story of a couple wanting to go home. Writer/director Jeff Nichols brings his aptitude for understated drama to this inspiring story of a couple’s love truly overcoming the odds and the hate that surrounded them. Being at the centre of the narrative, the film rests on the shoulders of Edgerton and Negga and they handle the weight of the task gracefully.

Special features include: commentary by director Jeff Nichols; making-of featurette; “A Loving Ensemble”; “Loving v. Virginia”; and “Virginia: A Loving Backdrop.” (Universal Pictures Home Entertainment)

Penny Dreadful: The Complete Series (Blu-ray)


Paramount Home Media Distribution

Some of literature’s most terrifying characters, including Dr. Frankenstein and his monster, Dorian Gray, and iconic figures from the novel Dracula are lurking in the darkest corners of Victorian London. They are joined by a core of original characters in a complex new narrative, where personal demons from the past can be stronger than vampires, evil spirits and immortal beasts.

Though many of the names are familiar, the stories are completely rewritten for Showtime’s horror series. Eva Green has been a fierce femme fatale in several action pictures, but in this role she combines the forceful, seductress persona with vulnerability and supernatural madness. Josh Hartnett is an American in London, recruited for his skill as a gunslinger and swept up in the unnatural hunt for monsters. Former James Bond Timothy Dalton is the narrative’s patriarch, who guides their searches but conceals a dreadful darkness within himself. There are several references to the lurid inspirations for the show’s title — a sensational quality that the series lives up to with endless debauchery, nudity and death. The supernatural presence in the second season ramps up until it scatters all the characters to follow their individual paths in the third. The concluding season wraps up all the stories in a manner that is satisfying but not decisive; these journeys have found their end, but there are others that are just beginning. This explicit twist on gothic horror may not appeal to fans of the traditional narratives, but it is an attention-grabbing take on these well-known characters.

Special features include: “What is a Penny Dreadful?”; “Literary Roots”; “Coming Together”; “The Artisans” parts one and two; “The Grand Guignol”; “Sex and Prostitution in the Victorian Age”; “British Exploration and the Search for the Nile; “The Science of Medicine”; “History of the Occult”; “Hecate’s Witch Prosthetic”; “The Making of Dr. Jekyll’s Lab”; “Vanessa’s Costumes”; “The Dead Zoo”; video production blogs; Reeve Carney round table; and character profiles. (Paramount Home Media Distribution)

Shaun the Sheep: Seasons 3 and 4 (DVD)


Lionsgate Home Entertainment

Shaun is the sheep who doesn’t follow the flock — in fact, he leads them into all sorts of scrapes, turning the peaceful Mossy Bottom Farm into mayhem in the meadow. Shaun and his pals run rings around their poor sheepdog Bitzer as he tries to stop The Farmer finding out what’s going on behind his back.

These very short episodes each contain a funny, standalone story. In addition to those mentioned, the lamb is often a main character as it requires additional attention. In one instance, Shaun and Bitzer perform a shadow puppet show for the flock so the fussy baby can go to sleep. In a tale that relies on slapstick comedy, the pair try unsuccessfully to crack a coconut — even dropping a classic anvil on it has the expected effect. There are literal mudslinging matches with the pigs, in which the only thing to suffer is the house; a visit from a hungry pelican that needs fuel to resume its flight; and a competition that suffers from sabotage.

There are no special features. (Lionsgate Home Entertainment)

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: The Complete Series (DVD)


Paramount Home Media Distribution

Commander Benjamin Sisko (Avery Brooks) is in charge of a diverse crew aboard Deep Space 9, a space station in a constant power struggle with rival species due to its strategic position close to a nearby wormhole, which allows speedy travel to the far reaches of space.

This series takes place in the same time as The Next Generation, which allows for a fair amount of crossover, including the appearance of Q, relatives of the TNG crew and the eventual addition of Worf to the regular cast. They also pay tribute to their roots, staging an episode within The Original Series‘ famous tribble narrative. Fans of the older show will find this melding of characters and return of the furballs incredibly amusing. The characters and politics of this spinoff are fascinating with civil war and the constant threat of invading forces, which contributed to it lasting for seven seasons. Sisko is a memorable captain that obeys or bends the rules, depending on the situation, and is surrounded by an equally notable crew.

Special features include: “Deep Space Nine: A Bold Beginning”; “Secrets of Quark’s Bar”; “New Frontiers: The Story of Deep Space Nine”; “New Station, New Ships”; “The Birth of the Dominion and Beyond”; “Sailing Through the Stars: A Special Look at ‘Explorers’”; “Trials and Tribble-ations: Uniting Two Legends”; “24th Century Wedding”; “Ending an Era”; and “The Last Goodbyes.”(Paramount Home Media Distribution)

Trolls (Blu-ray, DVD & Digital copy)


DreamWorks Animation & Fox Home Entertainment

When the comically pessimistic Bergens invade, Poppy (Anna Kendrick), the happiest Troll ever born, and the overly-cautious, curmudgeonly Branch (Justin Timberlake) set off on an epic journey to rescue her friends. Their mission is full of adventure and mishaps, as this mismatched duo try to tolerate each other long enough to get the job done.

It’s appropriate this release is labelled the “party edition” since most of the movie seems pretty festive. Poppy and her friends regularly break into popular songs from the ‘70s onward and the accompanying show includes vibrant colours, hair growth and other theatrics. It’s still astonishing the plastic ‘80s dolls with rainbow tresses inspired an entire motion picture… though it’s also easy to see how thin and eclectic the plot is while watching the little creatures dance around, try to avoid being consumed by the Bergens and help a young woman get her true love. Nonetheless, it’s a fun movie boosted by a great soundtrack that will likely be more familiar to adults than younger viewers.

Special features include: party mode; deleted scenes; “Travel Through Troll Village”; “The Potion for Stop-Motion”; “Creating Troll Magic”; “Troll 2 Troll”; and “Inside the Bunker.” (DreamWorks Animation & Fox Home Entertainment)

The Twilight Zone: The Complete ‘80s Series (DVD)


Paramount Home Media Distribution

Travel into the fifth dimension once again with The Twilight Zone, testing the limits of reality and exploring the mysteries of the universe. Airing from 1985 to 1989, this anthology series carried on the legacy of the original Rod Serling program.

While the stories in this first of two revivals aren’t as thought-provoking as its predecessor’s, they do follow in the tradition of shocking paradoxes. Based on stories written by Harlan Ellison, George R.R. Martin, Ray Bradbury, Stephen King and many others, and directed by horror icons including Wes Craven, William Friedkin, Tommy Lee Wallace, Paul Lynch and Joe Dante, the tales are generally 30 minutes or less. The first episode stars Bruce Willis in a dual role; Helen Mirren and Jeffrey Tambor play an unhappy couple; Danny Kaye portrays a dying man with a legacy to pass on; Tom Skerritt plays Fred Savage’s father; and Morgan Freeman isn’t even in the opening credits in the story of a poker game with the devil. These stories are often more playful, but with dire conclusions.

Special features include: episode commentaries; deleted scenes; and interview with Wes Craven. (Paramount Home Media Distribution)

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


HBO Home Entertainment

The long-time principal of a suburban high school steps down, leading ambitious vice principals Neal Gamby (Danny McBride) and Lee Russell (Walter Goggins) to both set their sights on the vacated top spot. But when new rival Dr. Belinda Brown (Kimberly Hébert Gregory) enters the picture, these bitter antagonists must form an unholy alliance to bring down the outsider by any means necessary.

It is difficult to watch a TV show in which none of the characters are very likeable. Most of the so-called pranks intended to sabotage Michelle’s career can be darkly humorous but are unquestionably despicable. The opening episode sets the tone for their mayhem and the last proves there is no low too low for them. However, at the same time, audiences are supposed to be won over by their personal endeavours. Gamby is a divorced father trying not to be overshadowed by his daughter’s stepfather, while also seeking the attentions of a teacher at the school. In the meantime, Russell is struggling to deal with an obnoxious neighbour causing him to lose face in front of his wife and mother-in-law. The series is definitely an acquired taste… or perhaps one you just can’t decide if you like even though you can’t stop consuming it.

Special features include: commentaries by cast and crew; deleted scenes; and blooper reel. (HBO 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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