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Review: The recent & distant past heavily influence this week’s releases (Includes first-hand account)

Cleopatra Jones (Blu-ray)


Warner Archive

Cleopatra Jones (Tamara Dobson) is a special agent in the international war against dope, but she has her own private vendetta going against the pushers who operate in the ghettos – namely, her most ruthless enemy, Mommy (Shelley Winters). After Cleopatra supervises the spectacular napalm burning of her Turkish poppy fields, Mommy lures Cleopatra stateside by framing her anti-drug crusading man (Bernie Casey) as a dopester. But Mommy has just unwittingly opened a can of karate-kitten whup-ass.

Blaxploitation films gave birth to several memorable, badass protagonists, including Shaft, Coffy, Superfly and Cleopatra Jones. Cleo knows the best way to win the war at home is to go to the source overseas, but Mommy knows her weaknesses too. Still, they may intimidate her associates, but no one gets the jump on Cleo whether it’s an assassination attempt at the airport or a high-speed car chase. But no matter if she’s traversing the desert or meeting with cops, she always looks runway ready. Mommy, on the other hand, where’s her illegal wealth on her shimmering sleeves, commanding her inept sons to further her dominion. This is a classic genre picture with attitude, fight and a great soundtrack.

Special features include: theatrical trailer. (Warner Archive)

The Con is On (Blu-ray)


VVS Films

In an effort to avoid paying off a massive gambling debt to a notorious mobster in England, a couple (Uma Thurman and Tim Roth) flees to Los Angeles and hatch a jewel theft plot.

The cast, which also includes Stephen Fry, Maggie Q, Crispin Glover and Parker Posey, is likely to draw people to the movie, but their interest isn’t really rewarded. Firstly, no one in the film is likeable as they’re all callous and deceptive in one way or another. Roth’s character is generally bad-mannered, while Thurman adopts a terrible English accent. It’s almost as if everything about the movie is meant to repel audiences rather than engage them. The theft is relatively straightforward and fits their M.O., which is to say it requires them to shamelessly betray someone they know in order to save their own hides… unless they’re betrayed first.

There are no special features. (VVS Films)

Dark River (Blu-ray)


MVD Visual

Following the death of her father, Alice (Ruth Wilson) returns to her home village for the first time in 15 years to claim from her estranged brother (Mark Stanley) the family farm she believes is rightfully hers.

The trauma Alice experienced in her childhood home is made fairly obvious shortly after her return. In spite of not remaining on her family’s land, she’s kept up her sheep farming skills by staying employed in the industry. Thus, in spite of her absence, it doesn’t appear entirely out of character that she should want to reinvigorate their farm after her father’s passing. Her brother’s reaction feels both warranted and overblown, considering his knowledge of what occurred. The slow-moving drama expresses Alice’s emotional scars in jarring flashbacks left for the viewer to interpret and piece together. In the present, the relationship with her brother is precarious and ends in the only way it could — with no winners, only losers.

Special features include: theatrical trailer. (MVD Visual)

Frankenstein 1970 (Blu-ray)


Warner Archive

Desperate for money, the disfigured descendant of the original Victor Frankenstein (Boris Karloff) rents Castle Frankenstein to a film crew to shoot a horror film about the legendary monster that shares his name. The victim of Nazi torture, this Frankenstein pursues his ancestor’s legacy with this injection of fresh capital in order to build a nuclear reactor that creates an atom-powered monster. And with a whole film crew around, there’s no shortage of spare body parts.

The fact that a movie about the monster is being shot in Frankenstein’s castle within a Frankenstein film in which the scientist is attempting to build a creature of his own adds an element of metafiction to the macabre narrative. The film crew’s presence and the picture their shooting is juxtaposed with the horrors taking place in Victor’s lab. His friend is quite concerned about the experiments, particularly as people start to disappear, but also finds it difficult to believe anyone would try to create another monster. The product of his toiling takes on more of an alien appearance instead of a scary one, though its obedience makes it frightening. Karloff is predictably excellent in the ghoulish role, fittingly making Victor the most interesting personality on screen at any time.

There are no special features. (Warner Archive)

The Glass Bottom Boat (Blu-ray)


Warner Archive

Jennifer Nelson (Doris Day) is a PR pro who finds herself under suspicion as a spy and under pursuit from her boss when she takes a job at a state-of-art aeronautics firm.

This is a hilarious rom-com that relies on Day’s beauty and charm to amuse audiences, which she does without fail. Jennifer is sweet and a magnet for mishaps that always seem to put her in the crosshairs of her handsome boss, though she doesn’t even know who he is through the first couple of incidents. However, when entangled, she refuses to let him make her feel small because of her predicament, in spite of her unavoidable embarrassment. Instead, she insists on getting herself out of the situation while rejecting his flirtatious helping hand. Jennifer and the audience have the most fun when she decides to encourage the silly men’s belief that she’s a Russian spy. Of course there’s a happy, romantic ending, but it’s the journey there that’s most amusing.

Special features include: “Catalina Island”; “Every Girl’s Dream”; “NASA”; and Chuck Jones’ cartoon short “The Dot and The Line.” (Warner Archive)

The Green Inferno (Blu-ray)


Scream Factory

New York college student Justine (Lorenza Izzo) meets student activist Alejandro (Ariel Levy) when he goes on a hunger strike on behalf of underpaid janitors. Smitten, she agrees to help Alejandro undertake his next project: rescuing an Amazon village from destruction by a greedy multinational corporation. But Justine soon comes to regret her decision when their plane crashes in the Peruvian jungle and the students realize they are not alone. No good deed goes unpunished as the well-meaning students are captured by the cannibalistic tribe they came to save.

Writer/director Eli Roth‘s latest horror picture had a long journey between successful festival runs and distribution, but the filmmaker’s determination can never be doubted. Like most of his other films, this movie is very gory with a number of unimaginable methods of killing its characters and torturing the survivors. Liking the personalities isn’t especially important as the key purpose of the narrative is anticipating the death of the next unlucky victim. The throwback to Italian cannibal films of the ‘70s was filmed in Peru and Chile with an indigenous cast, giving it a terrifyingly authentic feel à la Werner Herzog regardless of its obviously exaggerated storyline. There’s also an underlying message about uninformed activism that probably drowns in the blood for most viewers.

Special features include: commentary by co-writer, director and producer Eli Roth, producer Nicolás López, and stars Lorenza Izzo, Aaron Burns, Kirby Bliss Blanton, and Daryl Sabara; “Into The Green Inferno”; “Uncivilized Behavior: Method Acting in The Green Inferno”; behind-the-scenes footage; publicity featurettes; still galleries; TV spots; and theatrical trailer. (Universal Pictures Home Entertainment)

The Kid Who Would Be King (Blu-ray, DVD & Digital copy)


Fox Home Entertainment

Alex (Louis Ashbourne Serkis) thinks he’s just another nobody, getting bullied at school and told what to do by his teachers… until he stumbles upon the mythical Sword in the Stone, Excalibur. Now, with the help of the legendary wizard Merlin (Angus Imrie), he must unite his friends (Dean Chaumoo) and school yard enemies (Tom Taylor and Rhianna Dorris) into an allied band of knights to defeat the wicked enchantress Morgana (Rebecca Ferguson). With the future at stake, Alex must become the great leader he never dreamed he could be and save the world.

Excalibur has featured in a number of stories, either involving King Arthur himself or his descendants; but these tales usually follow adults. This film takes a fresher approach by focusing on a 12-year-old boy and his friends (and bullies) — even Merlin takes the form of a hand-jiving teenager, though it’s a bit more entertaining to see Patrick Stewart in the role. It’s a wonder Alex can even lift the sword in battle, but they do face some formidable opponents from animated trees to undead soldiers. The search for his father contributes to the character’s development, but it doesn’t serve much other purpose than giving the young knights a quest to complete and cement their bond. The special effects are blockbuster-sized, while the content is entirely PG entertainment.

Special features include: deleted scenes; “Origins of a King”; “Young Knights”; “Hair, Makeup & Costume Tests”; “Merlin’s Magic (x4)”; “Knight School”; “The Two Merlins”; “Meet Morgana”; “Movie Magic”; and “Be the King”, Lay Lay music video. (Fox Home Entertainment)

Our Betters (DVD)


Warner Archive

When American heiress Pearl Saunders (Constance Bennett) marries Sir George Grayston (Alan Mowbray), everyone thinks it’s a brilliant match. Sir George is delighted with Pearl’s money, and Pearl is in love with her new husband’s title. Marital bliss quickly ends when Pearl discovers that George has no intention of abandoning his philandering ways. She decides to match him affair for affair, plunging headlong into the scandal set and turning London high society into her personal playground. But when Pearl’s younger sister Bessie (Anita Louise) appears to follow Pearl’s example rather than her own heart, Pearl realizes the mistakes she has made.

This is one of those pointed social commentaries that made for great cinema before the production code. Pearl is a stereotypically loud and crass American, embracing her acquaintances’ expectations of her and never failing to give them a show. Of course her marriage does get off on the wrong foot, which causes her to throw any attempts at making it work out the window. Bessie becomes caught up in the carefree lifestyle of her sister overseas, forgetting her manners and long-time American beau at home. As time goes on, it becomes more obvious that Pearl missed her chance at happiness and Bessie is about to do the same. While Bessie can be saved, no one else appears to learn their lesson since it wasn’t yet a requirement for release.

There are no special features. (Warner Archive)

Showdown (Blu-ray)


MVD Rewind Collection

Ken Marks (Kenn Scott) finds a dangerous enemy on his first day at his new school; an enemy who makes his living as the champion of an illegal fighting operation. School janitor and ex-cop Billy Grant (Billy Blanks) trains Ken to defend himself. What Billy doesn’t know is that the man behind it all is the one man from his past who wants him dead.

Blanks didn’t make as big of a name for himself in film as some of his contemporaries, though he’d later become synonymous with the Tae Bo workout. But before that, he was playing heroes and villains in a variety of pictures. In the bonus features, filmmakers admit this movie has a lot in common with The Karate Kid; Blanks confesses he couldn’t pass on an opportunity to play a Mr. Miyagi, while there’s an unmissable reference to the more successful picture to show they know what they’ve made. The key difference is this narrative is a little more mature with an underground fight ring, and Ken being beaten black and blue by his school bully. But fans of underdog stories will love the motivational training montage, followed by the predictable standoff.

Special features include: making-of documentary; “Robert Radler: Portrait of a Director”; “Billy Blanks: Martial Arts Legend”; “The Fights of Showdown”; “Anatomy of a Scene”; photo gallery; theatrical trailer; and collectible mini poster. (MVD Rewind Collection)

Terra Formars (Blu-ray)


Arrow Video

In the mid-21st century, humankind is forced to look to colonising other planets as a means of combating overcrowding on Earth — their first stop, Mars. With a population of cockroaches having been introduced on Mars some 500 years prior to help prepare the way for human colonization, a manned mission sets out to the Red Planet with the aim of clearing away the bugs. Upon arrival, however, they discover that the roaches have evolved to huge, vicious creatures capable of wielding weapons.

Director Takashi Miike took on this manga adaptation with the intention of pleasing its fans, while also making an entertaining film. It’s not necessary to be familiar with the source material to enjoy the movie, though it may have helped with character engagement as everyone is introduced fairly quickly before landing. It’s somewhat understandable why they’d send criminals with no other options, but one would assume a military operation would’ve been more efficient. The mutated bugs are like enlarged versions of the coffee-drinking roaches in Men in Black, but without a speech function. The transformations are quite impressive, as is the detail in which they’re each described. Miike walks an impossible line between ridiculous and serious, making this picture both absurd and thought-provoking.

Special features include: making-of featurette; extended cast interviews; footage from 2016 Japanese premiere; outtakes; image gallery; trailers; and reversible sleeve. (Arrow Video)

Tito and the Birds (Blu-ray & DVD)


Shout Studios

Tito, a shy 10-year-old boy, lives in a world on the brink of pandemic. Fear is crippling people, making them sick and transforming them. Tito realizes, based on his father’s past research, that there may be a way to utilize the local pigeon population and their songs to create a cure for the disease. His father was forced to leave when Tito was only six and the struggle to find a cure becomes linked with the search to find his father again, along with his own identity.

This is a beautiful animated film that has a universal message about fearmongering and the contagious nature of negativity. In spite of only being a child, Tito sees the effects the amplified news segments have on his mother and others, and understands the dread it inspires is disproportionate to the real threat. His father was her opposite, believing everyone could see the basic good if they were cured of their unhealthy distress. The link to the pigeons is a bit strange, but the entire picture is experimental with its undefined backgrounds and fluid drawings. Although the subject seems a bit mature, the story is told in a way that is meant to engage kids and inspire them to think about the themes presented.

Special features include: interview with filmmaker Gustavo Steinberg and director Gabriel Bitar; and theatrical trailer. (Shout Studios)

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


Lionsgate Home Entertainment

New England, 1630: William and Katherine lead a devout Christian life with their five children, homesteading on the edge of an impassible wilderness. When their newborn son mysteriously vanishes and their crops fail, the family begins to turn on one another.

This film has little in common with more traditional, mainstream horror movies. There is no definitive antagonist lurking around every corner for the audience to direct their scorn. The distortion of the truth until the very end of the narrative is very well-crafted. In the meantime, the unnerving momentum gradually builds with every new incident and allegation as each becomes increasingly distressing. The entire picture appears darkened or dulled as if even the sunlight cannot penetrate the metaphorical dark clouds that hover over the family, yet in high-def it’s still crystal clear. Essentially a psychological thriller, what makes the film so disturbing is the evolution of the family’s breakdown. Casting relatively unrecognizable but extremely capable actors goes a long way in allowing viewers to be drawn into this unsettling tale in which the truth is constantly in question; and in which the family may not survive its eventual exposure.

Special features include: commentary by director Robert Eggers; “The Witch: A Primal Folklore”; Salem panel Q&A; and design gallery. (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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