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DVD Releases for May 29, 2007

May 28th, 2007

It's a slow week for top-notch releases, but strangely not one for spotlight reviews as we have four of them. Even weirder, three of those are martial arts movies. The best of this week's offerings is Shanghai Express with fellow Cynthia Rothrock release, Above the Law being an honorable mention.

10 MPH - Seattle to Boston - Buy from Amazon
Two guys decide to give up the corporate rat race and take a journey across America, on a pair of Segways... with corporate sponsors. The end result is mixed. On the one hand, it's an interesting task these two men have decided to undertake. On the other hand, without the Segways, there's little to separate this film from most other Road Trip movies. If you really enjoy the movie, the DVD provides more than enough extras to make it worth picking up, but for most people a rental will do.

Above the Law a.k.a. Righting Wrongs - Buy from Amazon
When a Jason Chan, a lawyer played by Biao Yuen, sees his mentor gunned down by the gang he was helping put away, he decides to take action and take on the criminals, outside the system. However, he has to deal with both the assassins trying to take him out (Karen Sheperd and Peter 'Sugarfoot' Cunningham), and the cop on his tail (Cynthia Rothrock).

The film stars Biao Yuen and Cynthia Rothrock, neither of whom have earned the recognition they deserve for their martial arts prowess in movies. Biao Yuen has been overshadowed by the likes of Jackie Chan and Jet Li. Cynthia Rothrock has starred in way too many direct-to-DVD flicks of the B-movie (or even C-movie) variety and that has seriously hurt her credibility. So it is great to see a movie starring these two get a DVD release that showcases their talents.

Each actor has a number of very cool fight scenes, including one where they are going at it toe-to-toe. Of the three martial arts movies reviewed this week, this one has the best fight scenes with several memorable sequences. The fight in the hanger, the showdown between Karen Sheperd and Cynthia Rothrock, the car park ambush, and many more. It also has the best dramatic content, and works well without the fights. (That can't be said of a lot of similar films.)

The film also has an incredibly high body count. Practically every person who is in more than one scene (and many who are not) die by the end of the movie. I can see why audiences wanted a happier ending (which is included on the DVD), but both versions work.

Speaking of extras, the DVD has plenty, including an informative audio commentary track, interviews with three members of the cast (Biao Yuen, Cynthia Rothrock, and Peter 'Sugarfoot' Cunningham), as well as the aforementioned alternate ending. The meatiest of these extras is the audio commentary track, which is invaluable for neophytes who want to learn more about the history of Hong Kong productions, the various markets and how there are different demands for each, the actors in the movie and their previous roles, as well as specific anecdotes regarding the making of the movie itself. The interviews are also filled with information with a combined running time of nearly 50 minutes and have high replay value for fans. The alternate ending is rather long considering the small number of differences, but is worth checking out.

In the end, this is a niche market film. However, fans of this type of movies will find this one worth adding to their DVD collection.

The Andy Griffith Show - The Complete Series - Buy from Amazon
All eight season sets plus the original pilot and the reunion movie for about 25% less than what it would cost to get them individually. So if you were a loyal customer for all those years, you got screwed. On the other hand, if you haven't picked up the series yet, now is the perfect time.

Big Train - Seasons 1 & 2 - Buy from Amazon
A British sketch comedy series starring, among others, Simon Pegg. Like most of these shows, this one is hit and miss. However, there are still plenty of fans and the 2-disc set is worth picking up as it has more extras than most imports.

Blu-Ray Releases - Buy from Amazon: Basic Instinct, Curse of the Golden Flower, Weeds - Season 1
I'm most excited about the TV on DVD release, or should I say TV on Blu-Ray release. I was expecting a high definition release for Star Wars to celebrate the 30th anniversary, which would certainly be enough to get a lot of people to pick a side in the High Definition war. However, it looks like TV on DVD releases could be what makes me upgrade.

The Call of Cthulhu - The Celebrated Story of H.P. Lovecraft - Buy from Amazon
Based on the story by H.P. Lovecraft; the story was written in 1926 and this movie was filmed as it would have been at the time, as a silent film. A very faithful adaptation and one that should satisfy most fans of the author, even if the running time is short (less than 50 minutes). As for the DVD, there is a making-of featurette that is certainly worth checking out and the overall value is at the purchase level.

Circle of Iron - 2-Disc 'Kick Ass' Edition - Buy from Amazon
A martial arts movie starring David Carradine... in four roles. Four times the Carradine. Cheeeessssseeee!

This movie was originally conceived by Bruce Lee as an epic film that would span the globe while explaining the Zen philosophy to Western audiences. The studios said no. After his death, the scope of the movie was dramatically reduced, as was the budget, and it was turned into a more conventional martial arts movie with David Carradine playing the parts that Lee was set to play originally. (This was not the first time this had happened as Carradine was cast in Kung Fu because network executives felt American audiences were not ready for an Asian lead in a TV series.) It is interesting to think what the film would have been like had Lee been able to accomplish his vision. Certainly more interesting than the final result actually was.

The story in this movie is simple. A martial artist looks for enlightenment while kicking the asses of various people along the way. It's amazing how often people find enlightenment by beating people up. I'm sure if you look deeply enough, that's the true meaning of Zen. Out of the three martial arts movies that have spotlight reviews this week, this one is the weakest in my opinion. Not only in terms of acting (neither Jeff Cooper as Cord nor David Carradine impressed me), but also in terms of drama, and in terms of martial arts combat. Had the last aspect not disappointed me, I could have forgiven the other two. But as it is, I can recommend checking it out only out of curiosity, and that is simply not enough.

As for the DVD, there are plenty of extras spread over the 2 discs, much of which was on the previous DVD release. Disc one had the audio commentary track with the director, Richard Moore, and David Gregory of Blue Underground. They seemed to hold a much higher opinion of the film than I did and I felt they lavished the praise a little thick at times.

Disc two is loaded with interviews, four of them, including an audio only interview with one of the co-writers. The average length of these interviews is 25 minutes, but there is limited replay value to most of them. The other features are a text-based history of the movie, image gallery, and a DVD-ROM of the original script.

Overall, the movie is too weak to have much in the way of replay value and the 2-disc set is deceptively light on special features. Call it a rental, at most.

The Closer - The Complete Second Season - Buy from Amazon
Kyra Sedgwick stars as Deputy Police Chief Brenda Johnson, who has a knack for getting suspects to confess. This is a good show, a very good show, but there are just so many police procedural shows out there that it is hard to keep track of them all. The 4-disc set is average with a featurette and a gag reel, but for fans of the show that should be enough to warrant picking up, but I can't be too enthusiastic in that recommendation.

Eating Out 2: Sloppy Seconds - Buy from Amazon
The film showed improvement over the original, but not by enough to satisfy its target audience. It could be worth checking out for fans of the franchise, but it is just worth a rental even then.

F Troop - The Complete Second Season - Buy from Amazon
The second, and final seasons of this short-lived series hits DVD tomorrow. Unlike the First Season, this 6-disc set has a retrospective as an extra, which is a nice touch for fans of the show and makes it worth picking up for them.

Free Zone - Buy from Amazon
A limited release starring Natalie Portman that features some great performances, but overall just doesn't work. There is a single interview on the DVD in the way of extras, but that barely lifts the DVD to the rental level.

Hannibal Rising - Unrated Widescreen Edition - Buy from Amazon
The fifth, and final film in the Hannibal Lecter franchise. Meant as both a send-off and an introduction to the character made famous by Anothy Hopkins in The Silence of the Lambs. It sadly accomplishes neither.

I am a huge fan of The Silence of the Lambs and I was hoping that this film would be a worthy prequel. I knew it wouldn't be as good as that film, but I was hoping it would bounce back from the previous installments. But sadly it is the worst of the bunch according to most critics (although I would put it in a virtual tie with Hannibal). It's slow moving, there are practically no sympathetic characters in the movie, and there's little or no tension here.

Moving onto the extras, these start with an audio commentary track, which was as lifeless as the movie itself. Next up are five deleted scenes with a total running time of just over 4 minutes, none of which really add much to the movie. Then there's Hannibal Lecter: The Origin of Evil, a 16-minute long making-of featurette that combines talking heads, behind-the-scenes footage, and clips from the movie. There is limited replay value here. Finally there's Allan Starki: Designing Horror and Elegance, which talks about the production design and tours some of the sets. It's about as detailed as you can get in a seven minutes piece, but also has limited replay value.

I knew going in that it would be nearly impossible for this film to live up to The Silence of the Lambs, but I was greatly disappointed that it didn't even live up to Hannibal. The only time I was truly engage during the entire time I was watching the DVD was during the trailer for 1408. Add in extras that are, at best, average, and I can't even recommend it for a rental.

The Hawk Is Dying - Buy from Amazon
Paul Giamatti stars as an amateur bird trainer who keeps trying to raise hawks but keeps failing. He gives an impressive performance, but the rest of the movie falls flat. There are plenty of extras on the DVD given the film's struggles at the box office, but I still can't recommend it for anything more than a rental.

HD-DVD Releases - Buy from Amazon: Dragonheart, The Frighteners - Peter Jackson's Director's Cut, Lost in Translation, Midnight Run, and The River
Looking at this week's list, I would have to say Lost in Translation is the best while The Frighteners is the most visual.

Ichi the Killer - Blood Pack - Buy from Amazon
One of the most over-the-top violent movies ever made, which has allowed it to earn a certain cult status among aficionados. However, the average moviegoer should be warned to stay away. Far away. Run away if you have to. On the other hand, fans of the movie will want to pick up this 2-disc edition. It is even worth the upgrade from the previous release.

Katharine Hepburn Collection - Buy from Amazon
A collection of six films from Katharine Hepburn. Unfortunately, none of them are her best, or best-known, films. It does include Morning Glory, which was the first film for which Hepburn earned an Oscar, while the extras are good considering the average age of the movies here. Worth picking up for the diehard fans of the actress, but there are better ways to be introduced to her work.

Kill House - Buy from Amazon
A slasher movie with a serial killer that targets real estate agents. Perhaps it's an allegory about today's housing bubble. Or perhaps it is just a terrible movie. Skip it.

Rawhide - The Second Season - Volume 1 - Buy from Amazon
Good show, with one of the most famous theme songs of all time, but sadly this 4-disc set has no special features at all.

Shanghai Express - Buy from Amazon
The best Cynthia Rothrock movie ever. For those of you who only know her from her direct-to-DVD B-movie martial arts flicks made Stateside, that may not sound like much of a compliment, but this is truly a fun movie to watch.

The real star of the movie is Sammo Hung Kam-Bo, who also wrote and directed it, while there is a huge cast in the film and fans of Hong Kong martial arts could have a blast just counting all of the cameos in the movie. The plot is rather simple. Sammo Hung Kam-Bo plays Fong-Tin Ching, a man trying to find redemption by helping his town recover by blowing up some train tracks, which would force the rich passengers to stay in the hotel. And gamble. ... And he's brought prostitutes. ... Oh, and there's bandits who want to rob the town. ... Not just bandits, but Confederate bandits. (Don't ask, cause I don't have an answer for that one.) Did I mention the Japanese swordsmen with the secret map?

Oh! And there were those guys escaping from prison.

Okay, the plot is completely confusing and it will take more than one viewing for most people to get it all. However, it is worth it because the movie has an excellent mix of action and comedy and the combining of East and West is brilliantly done. (I know a lot of people will think this movie is a rip-off of Shanghai Noon, but this movie was made nearly 20 years before that one.)

Extras are good, but not overwhelming. You have an audio commentary track that, like Above the Law, is perfect for newcomers to Hong Kong cinema while giving enough details for the more knowledgeable viewers. Additionally, there are three interview featurettes: Express Delivery, Way Out West, and Trailblazer. The first is with Sammy Hung and runs 14 minutes while the second one is long at 24 minutes and is with Cynthia Rothrock. The final one clocks in at 20 minutes and is with Yuen Biao, another of the stars. Wrapping things up are four deleted scenes (some of which should have been included in the movie), and the trailers.

This is the best of the four spotlight reviews this week and easily worth picking up. Maybe not quite up to the level of a DVD Pick of the Week, but there's not much else in terms of competition.

Starhunter - The Complete Series - Buy from Amazon
A Sci-Fi show that was better than its limited budget would indicate. Important note: this is just the first season. The second season was called Starhunter - 2300. Both are worth picking up.

Superman Ultimate Collector's Edition - Buy from Amazon
The original release last year had some technical issues that plagued some users. Thankfully they corrected these problems, but really they were things that should have never slipped past quality control. If you held off buying the box set because of this, this is your week.

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Filed under: Video Releases, Lost in Translation, Hannibal Rising, Man cheng jin dai huang jin jia, Eating Out 2: Sloppy Seconds, Free Zone, The Hawk is Dying