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US Blu-ray and DVD Releases: The Tax Collector, Death on the Nile, Penny Dreadful, Eli Roth’s History of Horror, The Wonderland and more

The Tax Collector – Okay, so on its surface, a gang-banger action/drama that’s best-known star is Shia Leboeuf may not seem like the biggest draw in the world. But then you find out that the film is written and directed by David Ayer (Suicide Squad, Fury, End of Watch) and suddenly it becomes a lot more interesting. And while casting Leboeuf as a hispanic character may raise some eyebrows, he continues to remind us that he’s actually a really good actor. He’s full of barely-contained menace, and there’s no doubt he’s terrifying. The story, however, is more about Bobby Soto’s character; the pair of them play enforcers for a drug cartel. When things go south, Soto’s family gets pulled into the carnage, which he’ll do anything to avoid. I’ll say this: while it’s not a perfect film, Ayer knows how to craft tension and action sequences, and the film is a cauldron of dark atmosphere, vicious gunplay, evil people, and bad things happening. It’s not a cheerful film, although there is some black humor in it, and overall, I enjoyed it. The film is available on DVD and Blu-ray, but there’s also a steelbook 4K Ultra HD release which is quite nice. The premium format gives the visuals a crispness that is undeniable, and the color saturation gives the film a real vibrance. It’s a dark film so it’s not like the colors pop off the screen, but everything is very deep and vivid. Likewise, the surround soundtrack gives a nice sense of atmosphere, with some nice booming low end when the gunfire erupts. All in all, it’s a very strong audiovisual presentation.

Death on the Nile – David Suchet — who is of course the quintessential Hercule Poirot — returns as the famed detective in this 2007 adaptation of one of Agatha Christie’s most popular books, Death on the Nile, which gets a Blu-ray release for the first time. While Suchet is the headliner, this adaptation also stars none other than Emily Blunt (always a welcome addition) and JJ Feild (Netflix’s Lost in Space). This whodunit takes place on a cruise ship on the Nile, where a wealthy American woman is being stalked by an ex. Of course, dark deeds occur, and it’s up to Hercule Poirot to save the day. With a new theatrical version starring Kenneth Branagh coming in theaters next year (a sequel to his hit Murder on the Orient Express), it’s no surprise that this version is making its way to Blu-ray now, but I’m glad to see it because it’s a lot of fun.

Penny Dreadful: City of Angels – This spin-off of Showtime’s popular Penny Dreadful series stars Natalie Dormer (Game of Thrones), Kerry Bishe (Halt and Catch Fire, Scrubs), and Daniel Zovatto (Don’t Breathe), and it completely reinvents the show. Whereas Penny Dreadful took place in Victorian London, City of Angels takes place in 1930s Los Angeles, but it’s a dark, seedy Los Angeles (think LA Confidential meets Black Dahlia). The show revolves around a murder that gets a lot of attention, but there are some offbeat elements mixed in, including Dormer’s character who is much, much more than she seems at first. I’ll say this: the show is intriguing, but I had time getting really wrapped up in it. It’s a bit slow, some of the characters lack charisma, and I just didn’t find it all that compelling. However, fans of the original show might like this new twist on the franchise.

Eli Roth’s History of Horror – Now THIS is a release I was excited about. I don’t know if there are any bigger horror fans out there than Eli Roth. Despite what you may think of his films (Cabin Fever, Hostel, etc.) Roth is a horror super-fan and an enthusiastic on-camera personality. Here, we get seven episodes that look at a variety of horror genres, with participation by and conversations with some of the biggest names in horror, including Stephen King, Greg Nicotero, Rob Zombie, Joe Hill, Mick Garris, Quentin Tarantino, John Landis, and many, many others. Each episode focuses on a different subset of horror, including zombies, slashers (two episodes), demons, vampires, creatures, and ghosts. I mean, how awesome is that? Through it all, we get clips from classic movies, in-depth discussion of the films and the genres, and just a real sense of a love for horror, largely thanks to Roth and his infectious enthusiasm for the genre. This is a must-watch show for fans of horror!

The Wonderland – This new anime film borrows heavily from the Studio Ghibli playbook, in that the story has some familiar elements and the animation is beautiful. The story follows a young girl who is brought through her basement by an “alchemist” named Hippocrates into a magical world, where he reveals that she is the Goddess of the Green Wind. (You with me so far?) Together with a few other characters, they have to save this new world from a mysterious bad guy named Zan-Gu (who admittedly, has a pretty awesome character design.) Now, I’m always hit or miss with anime titles, and this one is solidly okay, although I suspect if you’re a fan of Studio Ghibli’s output, you’ll like this one. I’m not a Ghibli fan, so this rings a little too similar for my tastes. It also runs almost two hours, which is a little long for me. But the film looks great and fans of anime will probably enjoy it quite a bit.

Dolly Parton: The Ultimate Collection – This massive new box set from Time Life (available exclusively from features a whopping 19 discs about everyone’s favorite country icon/songstress/movie star/sex symbol. With over 35 hours of programming, this is pretty much a dream come true for Dolly Parton fans. So here’s what you get in the set: 22 episodes of Dolly’s variety shows from the 70s and 80s, each one packed with big-name guest stars; 7 episodes of The Porter Wagoner Show from the 1960s, each featuring performances by a young Dolly; two Christmas specials; two live concerts from the 2000s (the highlight of the set, in my opinion); several talk show appearances from throughout her career; Six episodes of Dolly Parton: Song by Song, an exploration of Dolly’s most popular hit songs; the feature-length BBC biographical documentary Dolly Parton: Here I Am; and then a ton of other features such as interviews, television appearances, musical performances, and more. The whole thing is wrapped up in a beautiful box with a full color booklet, and honestly, if you’re a Dolly Parton fan, I don’t know of a single another release that even comes close to this one. It’s literally a day-and-a-half off Dolly Parton, from her earliest days to programs from a few years ago. It truly spans her entire amazing career, and I’m very impressed by it. Nicely done, Time Life!

Ashfall – I’m as big a disaster movie fan as you can possibly find, so any time one crosses my desk, I’m all over it. I have to give credit to Ashfall, however, for going above and beyond the usual set-up for a disaster flick. Usually, you have some kind of natural disaster, a hero, a minor villain or antagonist, and lots of death and destruction. This Korean film starts with a volcano erupting on the border of China and Korea. Okay, so far, so good. But then, the characters decide the only way to save Korea from an even bigger eruption is to use nuclear weapons, which they then have to locate and liberate, with all kinds of death and destruction in their way! It’s almost like a heist film set next to a volcano, but it’s much better than something like, say, Hurricane Heist. It’s a big film with strong production values and some harrying and suspenseful action sequences. I love any kind of disaster movie, but I especially love ones that try and do something unique and different with them, and this one definitely qualifies.

Invincible Dragon – Chinese superstar Max Zhang is a ferocious martial artist, and he’s become a big star in China. He’s also started to see success in some western films, such as Sylvester Stallone’s Escape Plan: The Extractors and Pacific Rim: Uprising. Here, he takes the lead rolein a new thriller. He plays an impulsive detective who finds his world falling apart thanks to a wily serial killer and ends up fighting to purge his demons. When he ends up fighting UFC megastar Anderson Silva, a chain of events leads to clues that may reveal the killer’s identity. But what sounds like a straightforward crime thriller actually takes a series of left turns that leave you wondering exactly what you’re watching at times. There are some good action scenes, but the characters are paper thin, the plot sometimes confusing, and then there are really weird bits that pop up here and there. It’s a completely uneven tone throughout, and the result is a little bit of a mess. An interesting film for sure, but one that I wish was more tonally and narratively coherent.

Also Available on Home Video This Week:

  • Dahmer – MVD continues their MVD Marquee line with the Blu-ray debut of Dahmer, a dramatic telling of Jeffrey Dahmer’s story starring a much younger and then-unknown Jeremy Renner. This relatively low-budget affair explores the life of Jeffrey Dahmer, with both his past (as we try to understand what made him a serial killer) and his actual murders, which luckily aren’t too graphic. It’s a solidly okay film; honestly, it’s not the most compelling storytelling I’ve ever seen, but Renner’s performance is terrific, and he goes a long way towards carrying the movie. This new Blu-ray features the film in high def for the first time, and also includes a bevy of extra features, including an audio commentary that features Renner himself with the film’s director. It’s worth a watch, mostly to see a young Renner deliver a pretty great performance, but it’s not a great film.
  • Balthazar: Series 2 – Acorn Media brings us the second season of the hit show with Balthazar: Series 2, a French crime-drama procedural set in Paris. The show focuses on forensic pathologist Raphael Balthazar, a gifted scientist who can decipher deadly events like no one else. Of course, we get the usual procedural episode-by-episode mysteries but there is also a tantalizing overarching mystery involving the unsolved murder of Balthazar’s wife over a decade earlier. This season, they officially reopen the case, and it’s a nice subplot that drives the show from episode to episode while also getting more immediate mysteries ion each outing. Yes, this show is in French with English subtitles, but if you’re looking for a new crime procedural to binge, this one offers up a different flavor than the rest.
  • Double Cross: Season 1 – This new show comes from UMC (Urban Media Channel), who seems to have quite a few new series anchoring their network. I have mixed feelings about this show, which focuses on twin siblings Eric and Erica Cross, who take the law into their own hands when a sex-trafficking ring starts kidnapping children from their neighborhood. But the pair aren’t straight heroes, they’re much more anti-heroes than anything else, there’s just a line some people won’t cross. The show has some intense moments and a few great twists and turns, and those are good things. On the flip side, some of thew acting is suspect, and the show’s production values definitely veer towards the lower-budgeted sides of things. This DVD collects all six episodes of the first season, and I’m sure it will leave people looking forward to season two if they can get past the show’s shortcomings.
  • Sea Level/Sea Level 2: Magic Arch Double Feature – This new animated double feature includes both Sea Level (a Finding Nemo/A Fish Tale-style kids flick) and its new direct-to-video sequel, Sea Level 2: Magic Arch. The first film is a more human-world-based story about a young bamboo shark named Pup who sets out to save some stolen egg sacs. The second film, which doesn’t really have much connection to the first, is another underwater adventure, but this one introduces a magical arch that gives out wishes, leading to some adventures for our main character, Delphi the Dolphin. Here’s the thing; these are perfectly fine animated adventures for little kids. Are they great? No. Are they as subtle or complicated as the best-animated movies out there? Also no. Do they feature friendly fish characters, mild peril that’s not too scary, and a little bit of humor? Yes. And is this double feature affordably priced? Also yes. So if you’re a parent, this is a good way to keep your kids entertained for about three hours.
  • Frankie Drake Mysteries – Lauren Lee Smith and Chantel Riley star in this enjoyable series from PBS about Toronto’s only all-female detective agency in the 1920s. I’m pretty sure this show is from the same people who make the Uber-popular Murdoch Mysteries, and while I don’t know if it’s going to eventually become as well-loved as that show, it’s pretty enjoyable overall. For the most part, you get your typical sort of mystery show, but the 1920s Toronto setting and the two female detectives gives the show a different feel from some of the others of its ilk. This third season collection from PBS includes all 10 episodes on three discs. It’s definitely worth a watch if you are looking for a new mystery show.
  • Mill Creek Spotlight – Mill Creek returns with another batch of budget-priced new versions of cult classic and popular movies, and this is one of their stronger batches of late. First up, we have the US Blu-ray debut of Battlefield Earth, John Travolta’s infamous sci-fi/Scientology flop from 2000. Now, I won’t defend this movie; it’s pretty bad. I actually remember thinking it wasn’t completely awful when I watched 20 years ago, but revisiting it now, I can see that it kind of is. And the main problem is the bad acting from good actors. John Travolta, Barry Pepper, and Kim Coates are all good actors, so why are they all so terrible in this film? I don’t know. But if you’re a fan of so-bad-it’s-good filmmaking, this is the movie for you. And if you’re a genuine fan of the movie, now you can own it on Blu-ray for the first time. Next up, we have a retelling of the Snow White story starring Sigourney Weaver and Sam Neill, along with Monica Keena and Gil Bellows. Snow White: A Tale of Terror — which I believe was originally a TV movie — turns the Snow White story into a dark, twisted tale, and Sigourney Weaver stars as the equivalent of the wicked witch. All the hallmarks of the story are there, but it takes most of its cues from the original Grimm Brothers fairy tale, not the Disney movie. The great cast helps carry the movie along, as it has some ups and downs along the way, but it’s mostly enjoyable. Finally, we have a Blu-ray Double Feature that includes Wrongfully Accused and Big Bully. Wrongfully Accused is the Leslie Nielsen parody movie that spoofs films like The Fugitive and other crime thrillers from the late 90s. Like most of Nielsen’s movies, it’s kind of funny, kind of dumb, and entertaining in a silly way. The other film included is Big Bully, which stars Rick Moranis and Tom Arnold, and oddly enough is directed by Steve Miner, who’s a terrific horror and action director (Hard Rain, Halloween H20, Friday the 13th Parts 2 and 3). Unfortunately, comedy doesn’t seem to be his forte, as Big Bully is rarely funny and if anything makes you slightly uncomfortable watching it. Good thing there’s a funnier movie included in this double feature.

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