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Review: The unexplained inspires fear and hope in this week’s releases (Includes first-hand account)

America As Seen by a Frenchman (Blu-ray)


Arrow Academy

At the end of the 1950s, celebrated French documentarian François Reichenbach spent 18 months traveling the United States, documenting its diverse regions, their inhabitants and their pastimes. The result is a wide-eyed — perhaps even naïve — journey through a multitude of different Americas, filtered through a French sensibility and serving as a fascinating exploration of a culture that is both immediately familiar and thoroughly alien. Titled L’Amérique insolite — literally “unusual America” — in its native tongue, the film renders the various eccentricities of Americana circa the mid-twentieth century and proves the old adage that reality really is stranger than fiction.

Released more than a half-century ago, this film is more than just a record of strange goings-on but a portrait of a time long gone. One of the earliest scenes transports audiences even further back in time as he captures Houston’s annual trail ride Old West recreation. The access Reichenbach gains with his camera is often surprising as he’s invited into a prison that puts on a regular rodeo for neighbouring inmates and civilians, a school that teaches the art of the striptease, and a slightly racy modelling shoot on the beach. His camera slips between canoodling teenagers and spies on soon-to-be fathers diapering dolls. Though the travelogue’s narratives (provided by, among others, Jean Cocteau) lack judgement, they provide a particular outsider’s perspective on these uniquely American sights.

Special features include: video appreciation of the film by author and critic Philip Kemp; image gallery; and reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Ignatius Fitzpatrick. (Arrow Academy)

Batwoman: The Complete First Season (Blu-ray)


Warner Bros. Home Entertainment

Kate Kane (Ruby Rose) never planned to be Gotham’s new vigilante. After Batman disappeared, Gotham was in despair… until she returned. Armed with a passion for justice and a flair for speaking her mind, she soars through the shadowed streets of Gotham as Batwoman. But don’t call her a hero yet. In a city desperate for a saviour, she must first overcome her own demons before becoming Gotham’s symbol of hope.

This series is edgier than most of the other DC shows. Kate has a checkered past and almost stumbles into the bat suit. But as someone who’s always been surrounded by order and carries guilt for a past mistake, she’s eager to be a symbol of justice in a city with no hope. While there are a few other villains that pop in and out of the series, Kate’s main adversary is an unhinged serial killer who has a personal vendetta against the Kane family. Whether Rose’s sexuality informed the character is unclear, but it’s refreshing to see a leading hero who has complex and casual same-sex relationships. There’s quite a bit of murder for a superhero show, but it contributes to the darkness of this particular take. It’s unfortunate Rose won’t be returning next season and will be interesting to see how the series moves forward. Also included in this release are all the episodes comprising the DC crossover event that occurred over all their superhero properties.

Special features include: deleted scenes; “On the Set”; “The Best of DC TV’s Comic-Con Panels San Diego 2019”; gag reel; and bonus disc featuring all five DC crossover event episodes, “Crisis on Infinite Earths.” (Warner Bros. Home Entertainment)

Cursed Films (Blu-ray)


RLJE Films

A five-part documentary series that explores the myths and legends behind some of Hollywood’s notoriously “cursed” horror film productions. From plane accidents and bombings during the making of The Omen, to the rumored use of real human skeletons on the set of Poltergeist, these stories are legendary amongst film fans and filmmakers alike. Were these films really cursed, as many believe, or just the victims of bad luck and bizarre circumstances?

It’s not surprising that so many horror movies were thought to be cursed in some way as the concept lends itself to the genre and it certainly can’t hurt the publicity for the film. This docuseries explores the eerie histories of five movies: The Exorcist, Poltergeist, The Omen, The Crow and Twilight Zone: The Movie. Unfortunately, several of these legends arose from the deaths of the picture’s stars’ untimely deaths. While filmmakers recognize the existence of the lore, they set out to demystify the events that led to their creation. Some explanations are more convincing than others, though nothing can alleviate the sense of tragedy that surrounds some these productions. It’s a fascinating series, though it does come off a little shallow on occasion.

Special features include: episode commentary by director Jay Cheel. (RLJE Films)

Dream Demon (Blu-ray)


Arrow Video

A young bride-to-be’s anxieties over her upcoming wedding take on a horrifying, demonic form. As her marriage to decorated war hero Oliver draws near, well-heeled Diana (Jemma Redgrave) moves into her sprawling new London home where she starts to experience strange and terrifying nightmares. But are these blood-curdling night terrors merely the symptom of an unsettled mind, or the sign of something far sinister at work? Hounded by a pair of sleazy journalists (Timothy Spall and Jimmy Nail), Diana soon crosses paths with American tourist Jenny (Kathleen Wilhoite), who appears to have a strange connection to the foreboding house and its sinister past.

This movie changes speeds several times over the course of 90 minutes. At the start, Diana appears to be suffering from cold feet, which is manifesting as terrible nightmares. These feelings are understandably amplified by the intrusive paparazzi, threatening her safety. Then she invites complete-stranger Jenny into her home and she becomes entangled in Diana’s dreams — not to mention Diana’s falling asleep so easily, one wonders if she’s become narcoleptic. Then the twist, which takes the narrative into entirely new, weird, creepy directions, and creates questions of cause and effect. It’s a bit difficult to stay invested in a film that doesn’t really know where it’s going, but the sets and special effects are decent.

Special features include: director’s cut and original theatrical version; making-of featurette; scene-select commentary by director Harley Cokeliss and producer Paul Webster; interview with director Harley Cokeliss; interview with producer Paul Webster; interview with actress Jemma Redgrave; interview with actor Mark Greenstreet; interview with actor Nickolas Grace; interview with actress Annabelle Lanyon; interview with composer Bill Nelson; image galleries; theatrical trailer; and reversible sleeve featuring original and newly-commissioned artwork by Christopher Shy. (Arrow Video)

The Specials (Blu-ray)


La-La Land Entertainment

Meet The Specials! They’re the sixth (okay, maybe the seventh) greatest superhero team in the entire world. At their modest suburban headquarters, The Strobe (Thomas Haden Church), The Weevil (Rob Lowe), foul-mouthed Amok (Jamie Kennedy), Ms. Indestructible (Paget Brewster), Deadly Girl (Judy Greer), Minute Man (James Gunn), Alien Orphan (Sean Gunn), new member Nightbird (Jordan Ladd) and the rest all spend their time bickering, having extramarital affairs, and preparing for the grand unveiling of their own action figure line. But when a furious Strobe suddenly disbands the group, who will be there for the oddballs, rebels, outcasts and geeks? Before they save the world, can they save themselves?

Not having the rights to an established superhero franchise didn’t stop James Gunn from creating distinctive superhero narratives. Before he was given the keys to Guardians of the Galaxy and Suicide Squad, Gunn wrote this oddball comedy about a group of subpar heroes stuck in a superpowered soap opera. In spite of his own anonymity at the time, the familiarity of the cast is surprisingly impressive. Everyone appears to be enjoying their roles and the low-budget special effects are good enough, though the picture definitely relies more on script than spectacle. The 20-year-old film shows its age a bit, but it’s still an amusing adventure that demonstrates the promise of a talented storyteller.

Special features include: commentary by director Craig Mazin, writer/actor James Gunn, producer Mark A. Altman and visual effects supervisor Mojo; commentary by writer/actor James Gunn and actress Paget Brewster; deleted scenes; behind-the-scenes featurette; special effects featurette; wedding video; and toy commercial. (La-La Land Entertainment)

Valley of the Gods (Blu-ray)


Well Go USA

This latest film from director Lech Majewski contrasts abundance and poverty through the eyes of three separate stories, featuring a middle-class writer, an eccentric trillionaire and a struggling Navajo community. John Ecas (Josh Hartnett) takes on writing the biography of the richest man on Earth, Wes Tauros (John Malkovich), who is determined to mine on sacred lands for uranium, but the Navajo community is armed with an imminent ancient legend.

This is not a linear narrative and is certainly closer to an art film than a traditional mainstream picture. John is clearly in crisis, shunning all his personal possessions save for a writing desk, pen and paper. Similarly, the Navajo community lives a minimalist life in the desert, doing their best to preserve their land and history. On the other hand, Tauros’ literal castle in the sky is an exercise in over-indulgence as it looks like he’s bought and built everything (and everyone) at the greatest expense and extravagance possible, regardless of whether it makes sense. The contrast is unmistakeable, while the absurdity of each story is inescapable, making its point in the most elaborate manner.

Special features include: making-of featurette; and trailer. (Well Go USA)

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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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