The Assassin (Blu-ray)
In 9th-century China, Nie Yinniang (Shu Qi) is a young woman who was abducted in childhood from a decorated general and raised by a nun who trained her in the martial arts. After 13 years of exile, she is returned to the land of her birth as an exceptional assassin, with orders to kill her betrothed husband-to-be. She must confront her parents, her memories, and her long-repressed feelings in a choice to sacrifice the man she loves or break forever with the sacred way of the righteous assassins.
Asian cinema has been a paradigm of style since the beginning. Hou Hsiao-hsien favours minimal dialogue paired with expressive actions and interspersed with empty landscapes. The first part of the narrative is presented in stark black and white as Yinniang is dispatched to slay a nobleman travelling with his entourage. The splendour of this sequence is extraordinary, though it may have been appealing to see the entire narrative use the same monochromatic tones. The action scenes feature slow and deliberate movements, especially when compared to the blurry pace seen frequently in genre pictures. Qi appears very capable of dispatching her opponents without appearing as if they are conceding to her. A couple of monologues and detailed conversations are pieced together to describe Yinniang’s history and why her grievance may be justified.
Special features include: “Nie Yinniang”; “The Actors: No Rehearsals”; “The Fights Between Masters”; “A Time Machine To The Tang Dynasty”; and theatrical trailer. (Well Go USA)
Da Vinci’s Demons: The Complete Third Season (Blu-ray)
Leonardo da Vinci’s (Tom Riley) world comes crashing down when the city of Otranto is torn apart by an Ottoman invasion. On the battlefield, the Turks use da Vinci’s own weapons against him — the designs for which were stolen by someone he trusted. This betrayal will haunt Leo long after the battle is decided, as will the deaths of loved ones lost in the fighting. When Rome instigates a Crusade against the Turks, he seizes the opportunity to join, but his mission is complicated by a series of grisly murders that terrorize Italy and threaten the Crusade itself.
Though most of the players are the same, they seem more fractured; therefore, raising the number of conflicting priorities at play. Former enemies are cured of their adversity and friends are infected with the brutality of war. In the opening episodes Leo carries a lot of guilt, feeling responsible for the countless deaths of his allies and lost in how to essentially fight himself. However over time, he regains his wits and once again begins designing counter-weapons for the Crusade while trying to evade the deranged members of the mystical order. In the meantime, those close to him — biologically and emotionally — are waging their own battles to further his cause. Perhaps the worst of their opposition comes in the form of a vindictive Vlad the Impaler, who is not ready to let bygones be bygones.
There are no special features. (Anchor Bay Entertainment)
Goosebumps (Blu-ray & DVD)
After moving to a small town, Zach Cooper (Dylan Minnette) finds a silver lining when he meets next-door neighbor Hannah (Odeya Rush), the daughter of best-selling Goosebumps series author R.L. Stine (Jack Black). Stine is very mysterious and a prisoner of his own imagination — the monsters that his books made famous are real, and he protects his readers by keeping them locked up in their manuscripts. When the monsters are accidentally unleashed and begin to terrorize the town, it’s up to Stine, Zach and Hannah to get them back in their books where they belong.
This is a contemporary version of Jumanji and The Monster Squad, though its references will be more tangible for readers of the books. Unlike the TV series based on Stine’s stories, this film unleashes all of his characters at once. The most memorable creatures are given the most prominence, but wide-angled and overhead shots provide glimpses of all his creations. At the forefront are the Abominable Snowman, the werewolf, a group of gnomes and Slappy, the ventriloquist dummy. There are numerous flaws in the story’s logic paired with countless predictable plot developments, but the presence of the fictional characters is mostly amusing while the actors spend much of their time reacting and supplanting character development.
Special features include: alternate opening and ending; deleted scenes; “Beginners Guide to Surviving a Goosebumps Creature”; “Strange Things are Happening…On-Set”; “All About Slappy”; “Creaturefied!”; casting gallery; and cast blooper reel. (Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)
Casino dealer Luke Vaughn (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) has days to come up with the money for his daughter’s life-saving surgery. After exhausting all other options, including begging long-time boss, Frank Pope (Robert De Niro), Vaughn turns to a greedy co-worker, Cox (Dave Bautista), and agrees to help him steal the casino’s laundered money. When the heist goes awry they escape on a local city bus, where they desperate father finds himself trapped between the police and Pope’s ruthless henchmen.
A simplistic description of the film is it’s a cross between Ocean’s Eleven and Speed, minus Brad Pitt, Sandra Bullock and the majority of the former’s wit. In spite of the key action being contained in the bus, they actually stage a lot beyond its metal walls to keep audiences abreast of the efforts to stop the criminals. That’s not to say all of it is logical, but it is attempting to provide an omniscient perspective. The tense partnership between Vaughn and Cox is both the film’s most engaging and most ridiculous element as the two are in constant disagreement. Morgan is playing a character with whom he seems comfortable. He demonstrates some adept hand-to-hand skills, which is actually part of one of the film’s few humorous moments. Bautista is Morgan’s complete opposite in the movie. Cox is hot-headed, reckless and constantly angry, and his answer to most of their difficulties is more violence.
Special features include: commentary; extended and deleted scenes; making-of featurette; and cast and crew interviews. (VVS Films)
Hyena Road (Blu-ray)
In the heart of Afghanistan, three different men from three different worlds are forced together to overcome a hazardous threat. But in a murky world of fluid morality where all is not as it seems, they’ll discover a danger that could destroy then all.
Numerous films have been made about the United States’ operations fighting “the war on terror,” but little is shown of other countries’ equally harrowing efforts. Writer/director/actor Paul Gross previously depicted Canada’s contributions to WWI in Passchendaele and now he’s turned audience’s attentions to a more recent action. Based on real-life stories from soldiers on the ground, it composes a compelling narrative that challenges the belief that Canadians only participate in peacekeeping missions. Rossif Sutherland portrays the leader of a team used for special assignments, including surveillance and reconnaissance. The complexity and delicateness of the relationships shown are fascinating as are the conflicting priorities that inform decision-making. The film’s weakness is its conformity to the genre’s formula; as a result, it’s easy to predict how the movie will end.
Special features include: “Going Down Hyena Road”; “The Realism of Hyena Road”; “The Effects of Hyena Road”; “Constructing Hyena Road”; and theatrical trailer. (Elevation Pictures)
The Intern (Blu-ray, DVD & Digital copy)
Ben Whitaker (Robert De Niro) is a 70-year-old widower who gets the chance to work as a senior intern at an online fashion start-up founded and run by the ambitious Jules Ostin (Anne Hathaway). As the two generations collide, they also find friendship and someone to count on — each other.
Writer/director Nancy Meyers has dealt with a variety of age brackets and significant life experiences in her pictures, but this is the first time she’s really combining some at opposite ends of their spectrums. Jules is the personification of the modern female entrepreneur. She loves her brand, her employees respect her and are equally devoted to the company, and she oversees every aspect of the business to ensure it’s completed to her satisfaction. Ben values these qualities in a leader and is happily not hampered by any backwards beliefs about women in the workplace… though he does carry a handkerchief because women cry (and the movie proves him right). His function is primarily to give Jules the confidence she needs to keep moving forward without buckling under the inevitable pressures of a successful business. Hathaway and De Niro have excellent chemistry and there’s a great section in the bonus features about how well De Niro can deliver his own classic expression.
Special features include: “Learning from Experiences”; “Designs on Life”; and “The Three Interns.” (Warner Home Video)
Jack’s Back (Blu-ray)
One hundred years ago, Jack the Ripper slashed his way through London’s red light district. Now, a modern-day maniac is honouring the event by mutilating L.A.’s ladies of the evening. The police are stumped and the prostitutes of L.A. are scared. The only person with a chance of solving the murders has a problem of his own — he’s the LAPD’s number one suspect (James Spader).
The presence of a copycat serial killer in this film is not its main focus. Instead, it centres on Spader’s noteworthy performance in the dual role of twin brothers. The distinct looks of the characters go a long way in differentiating them, but the actor makes notable efforts to distinguish their personalities as well. The topic of twins’ connectivity is also a key subject of discussion as that is how one brother has garnered most of his information, though the police’s disbelief in this explanation raises their suspicions and puts him at the top of the suspect list. The plot includes an unoriginal twist, but Spader is the main reason to even approach this picture.
Special features include: commentary by writer/director Rowdy Herrington; making-of featurette; and theatrical trailer. (Scream Factory)
Of Mice and Men (Blu-ray)
George (Gary Sinise) and the slow but hearty Lenny (John Malkovich) are drifters trying to make money working the fields during the Depression so they can fulfill their dreams.
By definition, these stories never turn out well for all the characters. Nevertheless, Sinise and Malkovich are outstanding in the iconic roles of two best friends on the road in this adaptation of John Steinbeck‘s novel. Sinise’s character runs somewhat contrary to the typically ideal man of this era as he’s plainly more sensitive and caring than most as seen when compared to other men at the ranch. Much like a reluctant parent, George occasionally lashes out at Lenny only to quickly compose himself and console him about the same incident. Malkovich’s role is slightly more demanding, but he rises to the challenge to deliver an exceptional portrayal of archetypal gentle giant. Audiences are quickly drawn into the picture by their relationship, even though the repeated foreshadowing warns them to remain emotionally uninvolved.
Special features include: commentary by director Gary Sinise; deleted scenes; making-of featurette; “In Conversation with Director Gary Sinise and Screenwriter Horton Foote”; makeup tests for main characters; Sherilyn Fenn screen test; and theatrical trailer. (Olive Films)
Sonny Boy (Blu-ray)
In a remote desert town, Slue (Paul L. Smith), a psychopathic petty crook, and his transvestite girlfriend, Pearl (David Carradine), kidnap an orphaned infant, cage it like an animal, and train it to steal and kill on their command. Years later, when the half-wild Sonny Boy (Michael Boston) escapes and embarks on a bloody rampage, the couple’s monstrous attempt at “child development” provokes the local populace into vengeful retaliation.
Calling this picture unconventional is an understatement. It’s gritty and bizarre with a narrative that is refreshingly and unnervingly unpredictable. The colour appears dulled by the harshness of the desert, allowing the brash and unusual characters to leap off the screen. Sonny Boy’s childhood is presented in glimpses of horrifying abuse several years apart. In spite of Pearl’s initial attempts to nurture and protect him, she eventually accepts Slue’s appalling treatment of the child and his decision to keep him constantly caged. Sonny Boy is feral with only the slightest hints of humanity garnered from Pearl’s secret acts of kindness, making him a maladjusted teenager whose supposed father uses as a secret weapon to maintain control over the town. This film fits in with the grindhouse era of cinema, checking off many of the boxes in the genre checklist.
Special features include: commentary by director Robert Martin Carroll; commentary by writer Graeme Whifler; first draft of script; and theatrical trailer. (Scream Factory)
The Undesirable (Blu-ray)
Betty (Lili Berky), a young woman living in the country, is told by her dying father that he is really her uncle and raised her as his own when her mother was sent to prison for killing her husband. Alone and not knowing her mother’s fate, Betty travels to the city in search of work. There she finds employment as a maid in the house of a wealthy couple and their dashing son, Nick (Victor Varconi), with whom she falls in love. When Betty is fired from her position after being unjustly accused of theft and escorted from the village, an ironic twist of fate propels the story forward with the sudden appearance of her mother Sarah (Mari Jászai) — presumed dead but recently released from prison — on a quest of her own to find her daughter.
Silent films generally have relatively simple narratives driven by human emotion, which can be easily communicated via facial expressions and gestures. Even though this is a Hungarian production the intertitle cards are in English, simultaneously demonstrating the versatility of the product for international audiences. Nonetheless, the narrative and performances are on par with most other pictures from the same era and demonstrates director Michael Curtiz’s talent for filmmaking, which he’d most famously apply in Casablanca. The injustice thrust upon Betty is quite captivating and the secondary stories that complement hers are equally interesting as they move towards ultimately intersecting. This silent film was recently discovered in the basement of the Hungarian House cultural centre in New York and returned to Hungary for restoration. It took eight months to restore and digitize the movie, which was funded by the Hungarian National Film Foundation. In addition a new score was commissioned by Attila Pacsay and performed by the Pannonia Symphony Orchestra.
There are no special features. (Olive Films)