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Review: This week’s releases try to keep the horror at bay (Includes first-hand account)

Arctic Dogs (Blu-ray, DVD & Digital copy)


Lionsgate Home Entertainment

Swifty the Arctic Fox (Jeremy Renner) stumbles upon a dark scheme by the villainous Otto Von Walrus (John Cleese) to melt the Arctic. To stop this sinister plot, Swifty enlists the help of his ragtag group of friends: PB (Alec Baldwin), a neurotic polar bear; Lemmy (James Franco), a scatterbrained albatross; Jade Fox (Heidi Klum), a brainy engineer; Leopold (Omar Sy) and Bertha (Klum), two conspiracy theorist otters; and Magda (Anjelica Huston), his grouchy boss.

In spite of the high-profile cast, there wasn’t a lot of buzz around this picture’s theatrical release last November. The film begins as a fairly common story of someone being told they can’t join a certain club or do a certain job because they weren’t born to belong — but that doesn’t stop Swifty from planning his whole life around one day becoming a delivery dog. But while realizing his dream, he discovers one of his friends is being duped by a nefarious walrus who wants to destroy their home with the help of his puffin army. The cast is great in their respective roles, but the narrative and characters aren’t especially memorable… with the exception of Cleese’s diabolical walrus.

There no special features. (Lionsgate Home Entertainment)

Boyz N’ the Hood (4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray & Digital copy)


Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

The film is the coming-of-age story of growing up in a South Central Los Angeles neighborhood. It is a place where harmony co-exists with adversity, especially for three young men growing up there: Doughboy (Ice Cube), an unambitious drug dealer; his brother Ricky (Morris Chestnut), a college-bound teenage father; and Ricky’s best friend Tre (Cuba Gooding, Jr.), who aspires to a brighter future beyond “The Hood.” In a world where a trip to the store can end in death, the friends have diverse reactions to their bleak surroundings. Tre’s resolve is strengthened by a strong father (Laurence Fishburne) who keeps him on the right track. But the lessons Tre learns are put to the ultimate test when tragedy strikes close to home, and retaliation seems the only recourse.

Released in 1991, this movie made a statement by shifting its lens to the perspective of the kids in the neighbourhood rather than that of outsiders or police. Tre’s father is a voice of reason, rising above the limitations of their community and passing on the wisdom of understanding the external influences of their oppression. Told by writer/director John Singleton, for the first time a population of underrepresented/misrepresented people could see themselves and their story on the screen. In addition, this film launched several careers, including Cube’s as he didn’t think he could make the leap from music to acting. To this day, the movie remains a powerful and genuine representation of a facet of life that proved its success at the box office and with two Oscar nominations. This high-definition release also includes an insightful look back by at the making of the film by most of the key cast and crew.

Special features include: commentary with writer/director John Singleton; deleted scenes; behind-the-scenes featurette; “The Enduring Significance of Boyz N the Hood”; “Friendly Fire: Making of an Urban Legend”; “John Singleton Tribute”; press conference; audition videos; music videos; and theatrical trailer. (Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

Doctor Sleep (4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray & Digital copy)


Warner Bros. Home Entertainment

Still irrevocably scarred by the trauma he endured as a child at the Overlook, Dan Torrance (Ewan McGregor) has fought to find some semblance of peace. But that peace is shattered when he encounters Abra (Kyliegh Curran), a courageous teenager with her own powerful extrasensory gift, known as the “shine.” Instinctively recognizing that Dan shares her power, Abra has sought him out, desperate for his help against the merciless Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson) and her followers, The True Knot, who feed off the shine of innocents in their quest for immortality. Forming an unlikely alliance, Dan and Abra engage in a brutal life-or-death battle with Rose. Abra’s innocence and fearless embrace of her shine compel Dan to call upon his own powers as never before — at once facing his fears and reawakening the ghosts of the past.

This movie builds a brilliant new narrative around the shine that introduces greater power and more supernatural elements. Audiences already know Danny’s light is bright, but Abra eclipses him and all those she encounters. She accidentally stumbles on Rose, but is strong enough to escape any traps she might set. “Ka” plays a significant role in this narrative and signs of it are sprinkled throughout. While the first film was about addiction, this movie begins there but comes full-circle to Danny’s recovery. All of the performances are excellent as McGregor seems to fully understand Danny’s path, which began in Stanley Kubrick‘s film. In the meantime, Curran is excellent as a young woman ready to embrace her power and fight back rather than hide and hope for the best. Writer/director Mike Flanagan does an excellent job aligning his picture with Kubrick’s and creating an eerie atmosphere outside of the inherently creepy hotel, while also adding a whole new chapter to the Shining saga.

Special features include: making-of featurette; “Return to the Overlook”; and “From Shining to Sleep.” (Warner Bros. Home Entertainment)

Donten: Laughing Under the Clouds – Gaiden: Three Film Collection (Blu-ray & DVD)


Shout Factory

It’s been a year since brothers and shrine guardians, Tenka, Soramaru, and Chutaro, have defeated the legendary giant snake that threatened to destroy humanity. However, their lives are thrown into upheaval when they discover a plot to revive the evil serpent…

This trio of films are sequels to the Japanese manga series. Therefore, anyone not familiar with the original may find parts of these narratives confusing. In the first picture, they recount Tenka’s life before the wheelchair, trying to express the burden he experienced of first being the guardians’ leader and then having to become the sole caregiver of his younger siblings. The second film is set in the past where the Orochi clan leader is found to be crazy and cruel with power, and one family must sacrifice everything to restore justice. The third movie requires the elite fighters to unite against an abomination created by experiments that fused the serpent with human subjects. The tales are quite interesting, but require the context of the entire saga to be fully appreciated.

There are no special features. (Shout Factory)

The Good Liar (Blu-ray & Digital copy)


Warner Bros. Home Entertainment

Consummate con man Roy Courtnay (Ian McKellen) has set his sights on his latest mark: the recently widowed Betty McLeish (Helen Mirren), worth millions. And Roy means to take it all. From their very first meeting, Roy begins plying Betty with his tried and true manipulations, and Betty, who seems quite taken with him, is soon going along for the ride. But this time, what should have been a simple swindle escalates into a cat-and-mouse game with the ultimate stakes — revealing more insidious deceptions that will take them both through a minefield of danger, intrigue and betrayal.

The elderly are often targets of scams as their potential loneliness and lesser understanding of technology or finances can make them vulnerable to people waiting in the wings to take advantage. It’s an unfortunate reality that can lend itself to interesting fiction, particularly when marriage is involved. Mirren and McKellen make wonderful companions, even as both seem to be trying to keep up appearances. There’s often small lies and omissions at the start of relationships, but both these characters are hiding more than a couple of vices. However, the movie may have played somewhat better if Mirren was directed to have a straighter poker face throughout the picture. Instead, her expressions between interactions with Roy imply there’s more to the story, which nurtures the same unfulfilled suspense as the trailer. The film grows more interesting as it progresses and audiences learn more about Roy. Though the shroud of mystery surrounding Betty becomes both intriguing and irritating as time goes on.

Special features include: deleted scenes; and “A Perfect Match: Inside the Good Liar.” (Warner Bros. Home Entertainment)

The House That Jack Built [Director’s Cut] (Blu-ray)


Scream Factory

In five audacious episodes, failed architect and arch-sociopath Jack (Matt Dillon) recounts the elaborately orchestrated murders — each, as he views them, as a towering work of art — that define his “career” as a serial killer.

Lars Von Trier‘s films have frequently been accused of misogyny — a charge he vehemently denies, but can’t seem to shed. This movie, incidentally, appears to be a direct response to these allegations. The women Jack murders are portrayed as unintelligent fools who invite violence, which he delivers with varying levels of cruelty. The horror of these brutal slayings are enhanced by Jack’s perception of his crimes, which he compares to nature’s order and fine art. As Jack tries to convince his audience of the validity of his art, one can hear Von Trier defending his own creations from calls of perversity and vulgarity. Yet, as is typical, the filmmaker’s arguments are thought-provoking, even when they are wrapped in indecency. Yet, Dillon’s performance rises above all the mischief to deliver one of the actor’s best turns in years. His identifiable voice carries the narrative, while his ability to tap into the darkness again and again brings these villainous personalities authenticity.

Special features include: theatrical and director’s cuts of the film; “Sonning Prize: An interview with director Lars Von Trier”; and teaser and theatrical trailer. (Scream Factory)

Mon Mon Mon Monsters (Blu-ray)


RLJE Films

A group of classmates doing community service discover two flesh-eating creatures hiding in an old building. One of the creatures is able to escape, but they capture the other one, torturing her while trying to learn what she really is. It soon becomes clear that the first creature’s escape has dire consequences, as she hunts them down and stops at nothing to free her sister.

This is an incredibly dark film about the evil that lurks among people — the creatures may feed on the vulnerable to survive, but the teenagers choose to torture others for their amusement. A bullied boy is pulled into their terrifying gang, pressured into keeping their secret and partaking in the cruel activities. Their complete lack of empathy is shocking and disturbing, especially when compared with the utter emotional and physical agony of the separated sisters. There’s also a more subtle commentary on religion (Buddhism) and the school system, which is overwhelmed by the picture’s callousness. The movie, therefore, has an equally grim conclusion that, nonetheless, suits the narrative.

There are no special features. (RLJE Films)

The Nightingale (Blu-ray)


Shout Factory

Set during the colonization of Australia in 1825, the film follows Clare (Aisling Franciosi), a 21-year-old Irish convict. Having served her seven-year sentence, she is desperate to be free of her abusive master, Lieutenant Hawkins (Sam Claflin), who refuses to release her from his charge. Clare’s husband (Michael Sheasby) retaliates, and she becomes the victim of a harrowing crime at the hands of the lieutenant. When British authorities fail to deliver justice, Clare decides to pursue Hawkins, who leaves his post suddenly to secure a captaincy up north. Clare is forced to enlist the help of young Aboriginal tracker Billy (Baykali Ganambarr), who grudgingly takes her through the rugged wilderness to track down Hawkins. The terrain and the prevailing hostilities are frightening, as fighting between the original inhabitants of the land and its colonizers plays out in what is now known as “The Black War.” Clare and Billy both suffer their own traumas and mutual distrust, but as their journey leads them deeper into the wilderness, they must learn to find empathy for one another while weighing the true cost of revenge.

Director Jennifer Kent also helmed The Babadook, though this picture focuses on a different kind of horror. Clare is completely at Hawkins’ will and he exploits the situation at every opportunity. She shields her husband from the abuse, but the lieutenant eventually takes that away from her too. Billy and Clare have more in common than they first realize, as both despise the British for destroying their families and uprooting their lives. Kent has a way of portraying the darkest parts of humanity, revealing monsters in human form. In this picture, the enemy has no hope of redemption as they continue on their path of tyranny, still managing to shock viewers with their levels of brutality. In the meantime, Billy and Clare’s relationship evolves from one of antagonism and racism to understanding and mutual hate for their oppressors. It’s a raw, disturbing picture that tries to capture the worst of a time that was already difficult.

Special features include: making-of featurette; behind-the-scenes featurette; image gallery; and theatrical trailer. (Shout Factory)

Playing with Fire (Blu-ray, DVD & Digital copy)


Paramount Home Entertainment

When firefighter Jake Carson (John Cena) and his team (Keegan-Michael Key and John Leguizamo) rescue three siblings from a fire, they quickly realize no amount of training could have prepared them for their most challenging job yet — babysitting. While trying to locate the children’s parents, the firefighters have their lives, jobs and even their fire station turned upside down and learn that kids — much like fires — are wild and full of surprises.

Jake and his crew are actually smoke jumpers, which means they respond to wildfires before the firefighters even arrive. This also means they’re brave and well-trained… but still no match for a trio of kids who have their own agenda. Cena is the muscle-bound leader whose idea of fun is being prepared for a disaster. Key is his right-hand man, ready to assist his boss with anything he may need. Leguizamo is a bit of a screw-up who loves to cook, but lacks the confidence to be the crew’s top pilot. The shenanigans for the first half of the picture are a little over the top as the kids seem rotten and ungrateful, in spite of having a pretty sweet arrangement until they can be picked up. But it gradually turns into a heartfelt dramedy about family and loyalty.

Special features include: deleted scenes; “Storytime with John Cena”; “Lighting Up The Laughs”; “The Director’s Diaries: Read By Star Cast”; “What It Means To Be A Family”; “The Real Smokejumpers: This Is Their Story”; and bloopers. (Paramount Home Entertainment)

Rabid (Blu-ray)


Scream Factory

Demure and unassuming fashion designer Sarah (Laura Vandervoort) is horribly disfigured after a grisly collision and agrees to undergo an untested procedure involving stem cells to restore her damaged face. This miracle cure causes her to recover beyond her wildest imagination: Sarah now looks as beautiful as the models she works with. But as her confidence — and her sexual appetite — grows, it comes with a price: Sarah is now the carrier of a contagion that causes her lovers to become violent spreaders of death. As the disease spirals out of control, time is running out in the race to find a cure.

This is a remake of David Cronenberg‘s 1977 picture of the same name. The Soska Twins have been similarly preoccupied with body horror and transformation throughout their career, so it seemed fitting they would take on this project. Unfortunately, the film lacks the intense fear and sexuality required to make the narrative engaging, which falls somewhat on the leading actress. Sarah was physically scarred even before her latest maiming, so her desire to devour every sexual encounter just seems like an extreme reaction to a previous life of involuntary celibacy rather than a case of malpractice. Even her transition from vegan to carnivore is a little lacklustre. Her victims become violent zombies, tearing apart anyone in their sights — but the epidemic doesn’t garner an equally rash response. Overall, it’s a bit of a disappointment as it fails to accomplish the uncontrolled terror at the film’s centre.

Special features include: commentary with writers/directors Jen & Sylvia Soska; interview with actress Laura Vandervoot; and theatrical trailer. (Scream Factory)

Waves (Blu-ray & Digital copy)


Lionsgate Home Entertainment

Tyler (Kelvin Harrison, Jr.) is a high school wrestler on the verge of a full college scholarship under tremendous pressure from his domineering father (Sterling K. Brown). When Tyler is pushed to the brink, his actions threaten to tear his close-knit family apart, deeply affecting his younger sister, Emily (Taylor Russell), who is navigating her own path of growing up and falling in love.

This movie is to some degree based on a butterfly effect as Tyler’s decisions and actions have repercussions that extend far beyond himself. There are several stones thrown in the pond and each has a ripple effect that leads to long-lasting consequences. However, one of the most interesting aspects of the film is at the midway point, one story breaks and another takes the driver’s seat. While Tyler’s story is a downward spiral, Emily is growing up and embracing life. On one side, the movie is about losing control and how one wrong turn can lead to another until there’s nowhere left to go. On the other, it’s about love and forgiveness in even the toughest of situations. It’s also refreshing to see a movie centred on interracial relationships without being about them.

Special features include: commentary with writer/director Trey Edward Shults and actor Kelvin Harrison, Jr.; deleted scenes; “Creating Waves: The Truth in It All”; and Q&A with director and cast. (Lionsgate Home Entertainment)

White Snake (Blu-ray & DVD)


GKids & Shout Factory

One day a young woman named Blanca is saved by Xuan, a snake catcher from a nearby village. She has lost her memory and together they go on a journey to discover her real identity, developing deeper feelings for one another along the way. But as they learn more about her past, they uncover a darker plot of supernatural forces vying for power with the fate of the world hanging in the balance. Conceived as a prequel to one of the most ancient and enduring stories in Chinese history, the film presents a sumptuous tale of trickster demons, deadly mythical beasts, assassins, high-flying action, and the promise of eternal love.

This is a beautiful animated film about a forbidden love that neither Blanca nor Xuan can deny. Although they are not aware of the obstacles to their relationship at the start, they still choose each other in the end in spite of their differences. Blanca has a great responsibility to her family, while Xuan doesn’t embrace his ancestors’ way of life, which actually makes the pair even more compatible. His devotion to her is incredible as they both make necessary sacrifices. But it’s not all doom and gloom — there’s a magical umbrella that flies the pair through the forest, an adorable talking dog and other moments of amusement. This fantastical fairy tale is mesmerizing from start to finish.

Special features include: interview with co-director Ji Zhao; music video; storyboard clips; and theatrical trailers. (GKids & Shout Factory)

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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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