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DVD Releases for April 22, 2008

April 21st, 2008

It's a slow week by nearly every measure: big releases, overall quality, overall quantity, spotlight reviews, etc. This is great news for me since recently a package arrived with several DVDs, all of which were late. I'm not quite completely caught up, but I am very close. As for this week's releases, there were only a handful of releases that were even in contention for DVD Pick of the Week. Both The Savages - DVD and The Orphanage - DVD or Blu-ray earned excellent reviews, but their home market releases were only average. Cloverfield - DVD wasn't as good a movie, but the DVD had the best combination of movie quality and special features. The specter of a Blu-ray release notwithstanding, it is the DVD Pick of the Week.

Big Ideas for a Small Planet - Season 1 - Buy from Amazon
A documentary series that looks at environmental issues and innovators trying to come up with solutions. This 2-disc set has all 13 episodes from the first season, as well as a few webisodes, and it is worth checking out. However, for most a rental will suffice.

Blu-ray Releases - Buy from Amazon: Grieg - Piano Concerto / Symphonic Dances / In Autumn - Acoustic Reality Experience, National Geographic - Six Degrees Could Change the World, One Missed Call, The Orphanage, and Sublime
Only one release of interest in Blu-ray this week, and that is The Orphanage. That film was also a limited release and it is unlikely to be a huge seller, which means Blu-ray sales are likely to be low compared to DVD sales this week. I would like to say next week will be different, but it won't. In fact, there won't be a major release on Blu-ray for a month.

Cartoon Commercials! - Buy from Amazon
A collection of animated cartoons spanning the decades. The DVD includes a trivia track of sorts with information on the cartoons (studio, voice work, etc.), which adds to the historical perspective.

Charlie Wilson's War - Buy from Amazon
This is the kind of movie I can see a lot of people merely renting on DVD while they wait for the Blu-ray edition to come out; I can't imagine that will be a long wait. The movie is certainly worth checking out, even if it didn't play as large a role during Awards season as I thought it would, nor did it do as well at the box office. Some of this may have to do with the film's subject matter, which touches on the current War on Terror. As the war has hit all time lows in approval ratings, moviegoers are very reluctant to watch movies about any aspect of the war and prefer escapist entertainment. However, politics aside, there are several great performances in the movie and the story seems tailor-made for the cinema. As for the DVD, it is rather weak with just a making-of featurette and another featurette on the real life Charlie Wilson. Hopefully the Blu-ray edition is better and is worth picking up because this edition is only worth renting.

Cloverfield - Buy from Amazon
Cloverfield was one of the most hotly anticipated releases this year and had built up a huge buzz starting last summer when the trailer debuted in front of The Transformers. The film arguably had more build up of any film since, well, since Snakes on a Plane. This was a level of anticipation that would be practically impossible to live up to. Overall, I'm not sure the movie did; I'm not sure any movie could live up to that level of hype.

The movie starts with a going-away party for Rob Hawkins, who has just landed a job in Japan. His best friend, Hud, is filming the event and getting various people to give their best wishes. His possible girlfriend, Beth, shows up with another man and they have a fight and afterward she leaves. Shortly after that, the ground shakes and the power goes out. What is at first thought to be an earthquake is then followed by an explosion and it becomes clear something is attacking the city. Something huge.

Cloverfield is like a combination of Godzilla and The Blair Witch Project. A monster movie as seen through the eyes of YouTube. On the one hand, this format allows the viewer to feel like they are really apart of the film. Only seeing what the characters see heightens the horror because the unknown is always scarier. On the other hand, the handheld nature of the movie grew tiresome at times. There were reports of people becoming nauseous because of the jerky nature of the filming, and I can see why. (It would certainly be much worse on the big screen, so I don't think this will as big an issue on the home market. Only once did I feel queasy at all, and that was when they entered the tilted skyscraper. Something about the way the set was on an angle set something off, but not in a bad way. )

As for the extras, the DVD certainly delivers. Starting things out is an audio commentary track with the director, Matt Reeves. He gives an informative lecture on the making of the film, the difficulties of casting without revealing too much information, and there are almost no dead spots. ... until the credits that is. The movie ends, he stops talking, I grab the remote control to pop to the menu when he starts up again. He talks for a few minutes and then stops. I grab the remote control and he starts talking again. The third or fourth time this happens I said, 'Fine, I'll watch until the end of the credits.' Other extras include a 28-minute long making of featurette, another 22-minute featurette on the special effects, and finally a 6-minute featurette on the origins of the monster. These three featurettes run close to an hour and have serious replay value. Fans of the movie will want to watch them again. Next up are 4 minutes of blown lines, which are better than most outtakes. There are also four deleted scenes, and two alternate endings, also with audio commentaries. In total it runs just over 8 minutes, and the deleted scenes would have worked in the movie, but the ending they chose was the best. (Just a note, they alternates are barely different.)

Cloverfield was saddled with some of the most oppressive hype I've seen in a while. This hurt the film somewhat, but while it didn't live up to the hype (no movie could), it is still a very good movie and one that I can certainly recommend checking out. Even when it is a little too predictable, like when they first switch to nightvision, it is still effective. As for the DVD, there are more than enough extras to lift the value beyond a rental and solidly into the purchase category. My only concern is Blu-ray, as I find it hard to imagine a High Definition edition of the movie isn't already in the works. Hopefully it will be worth the upgrade so I don't feel bad recommending the DVD.

Conspiracy - Buy from Amazon
Val Kilmer owns a ranch in New Mexico. I mention this fact because it has more to do with the creation of the movie than any other factor.

Val Kilmer owns this ranch and receives tax breaks from the state government in exchange for using the ranch to promote the local film industry. Not only is his ranch used in this manner, but occasionally he makes cameos in films like in Have Dreams, Will Travel, and occasionally he stars in them like with this movie, which has no other reason to exist outside of tax laws.

Conspiracy has been compared to Bad Day at Black Rock and it does deal with a number of similar themes, most notably a returning soldier goes to a small town to help an army buddy and has to deal with a corrupt sheriff and the evil boss of the town. The film explores a few political issues of the day, before the protagonist gets his revenge. This is not a new plot. This wasn't a new plot back in 1954 when John Sturges directed Spencer Tracy in Bad Day at Black Rock. However, while Bad Day at Black Rock is a classic, Conspiracy is not. It feels like a generic direct-to-DVD action film worthy of Steven Seagal. Don't get me wrong, Val Kilmer is a much better actor, as are Gary Cole and Jennifer Esposito as the main bad guy and his kept wife, but they have nothing to work with in terms of the script and the the action scenes leave a lot to be desired.

As for the extras, there are none. Zip. Zilch. Nada.

Conspiracy is your typical direct-to-DVD action film with a story of corruption and revenge. It tries to touch on a number of political issues from war profiteering, to illegal immigration, to PTSD, and others, but its aim is higher than it can reach and the end result is unsatisfying. Add in zero extras and it is impossible to rate this movie as anything more than a rental. Add in the striking similarities to Bad Day at Black Rock and I recommend getting that movie instead, either separately or as part of a box set.

The Cook - Buy from Amazon
A direct-to-DVD teen slasher about a Hungarian cook hired by the sorority of Lamba Epsilon Zeta. Get it? That spells LEZ. Sadly the horror part of the horror / comedy doesn't come across any better.

This is a movie that aims really, really low. The writing is bad with weak dialogue and characters that are simply stereotypes (The Slut, The Stoner, The Dumb Hot Blonde, etc., and that is how they are described on the back of the box). But this is a movie that promises only two things: Blood and Boobs. Sadly, it even fails to deliver here. The filmmakers talk about coming up with the idea by thinking of new things a teenage slasher could use to kill his victims and they came up with kitchen utensils. However, while that had a modicum of creativity, they did nothing with it, as the kills are very generic. They are also very tame for the genre, failing to deliver on the requisite amount of blood. (This may have something to do with the low special effects budget.) Finally, as the box says, there is supposed to be a, "heaping helping of gourmet nudity." This is overstating things and anyone watching the movie looking forward copious nudity will be disappointed. Then again, no matter what you are looking for in this movie, you will be disappointed.

Extras are better than expected with an audio commentary track, behind-the-scenes featurette, and audition footage. The first is the best; in fact, the audio commentary track is far more entertaining than the movie itself is. However, that's faint praise indeed.

An outing in the field of low expectations cinema. Unfortunately, The Cook fails to deliver on its limited promise and it doesn't even work in a, 'so bad it's good' way. Safely skippable.

Flash Point - Buy from Amazon
The latest Hong Kong action brought to us by Dragon Dynasty. This hook in this movie is the fighting style, which is Mixed Martial Arts, which is a mixed blessing.

The story is rather simplistic, which is something the star / director admits in the audio commentary track. An aggressively violent cop works with an undercover cop to take down a gang led by three brothers. The undercover cop's cover is busted, but they managed to arrest one of the three brothers. But the others kill all of the witnesses and kidnap one of the cop's girlfriends, thus setting up the final confrontation.

Like I said, that doesn't break a whole lot of new ground; however, the focus of the movie is the Mixed Martial Arts. On the one hand, this is not a fighting style we've seen very often on the big screen and for fans of the sport, this is an added bonus. On the other hand, MMA is not very cinematic. Grappling and submission holds might be effective in winner matches, but they are not as exciting as the acrobatic fights seen in early Jackie Chan movies, for instance. The film is hardly boring, especially in the latter half when the film really takes off, but it doesn't have the flair needed to be among the best either.

Moving onto the extras, the two-disc set starts off with an audio commentary track featuring action director / star Donnie Yen and Hong Kong movie expert Bey Logan. Like all tracks featuring Bey Logan, this one presents more than enough information without a single dead spot. All other extras are found on disc two divided into four sections: Behind-the-Scenes Gallery, Deleted Scenes, The Ultimate Fighters, and Promotional Gallery. Behind-the-Scenes Gallery has three featurettes starting with Collateral Damage, which is a making of featurette that runs just over 18 minutes and is mostly interviews with some behind-the-scenes footage and clips from the movie. Flash Point Explored runs close to 30 minutes and is more of the same. Perpetual Motion is a two-and-a-half minute look at the actors training. Deleted Scenes are just that, three deleted scenes running three minutes. Under The Ultimate Fighters there's Gladiators, three minutes look at the actors training, performing stunts, etc. set to music. Next is M.M.A. on Display and that runs just over 7 minutes and features Kea Wong being trained in the sport. Finally there's the Promotional Gallery, which has some of the smaller extras like the trailers and TV spots, as well as a 3-minute look at the Gala Premiere. Strangely, it also has a 30-minute interview with action director / star Donnie Yen, which seems out of placed in the promotional section, but it is certainly worth checking out.

Flash Point earned mixed reviews and for most people, their reaction to the movie will depend heavily on their opinion of Mixed Martial Arts. Personally, I found it lacks the cinematic nature of other martial arts styles. It is still a good movie and fans of the genre will want to check it out and combined with the extras, most who do give it a chance will want to add it to the DVD collection.

Friday Night Lights - The Second Season - Buy from Amazon
Still not canceled. This show has a small band of very dedicated fans. Small enough that it has been on the verge of cancellation from day one. Dedicated enough that they've managed to keep the show on air into a third season now. (Although the weak NBC lineup has something to do with that as well.) The second season was cut back to 15 episodes due in part to the writers' strike, so the 4-disc set is less expensive that the first season. However, there's not a shortage of extras with audio commentary tracks, deleted scenes, and more. Fans of the show will want to buy it, quickly, to help convince the studio renewing it was not a mistake. That said, those who are not big into high school football will have a hard time getting into this nighttime soap about the sport.

Hannah Takes the Stairs - Buy from Amazon
One of many, many limited releases on this week's list, this one earned good reviews, but not great reviews, and was never able to find an audience. The DVD should perform much better, especially with extras like an audio commentary track, deleted scenes, behind-the-scenes, and more. Worth checking out for fans of independent cinema, and many who do will want to add it to their DVD collection.

HD DVD Releases - Buy from Amazon: Animal Room, Ganges, and Sublime
Only three releases this week, and they are second tier. In fact, calling them second tier might be a little generous.

Jimmy Carter: Man From Plains - Buy from Amazon
A documentary look at former president Jimmy Carter, who some have called the greatest ex-president ever. It is certainly true that he has done more since leaving office than almost all other presidents. This film tracks him on his book tour for Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid.

I found in frustrating that Jimmy Carter chose a name for his book that he knew would generate controversy, then complained that all interviewers wanted to talk about was the name. Of course that's what the media would focus on name and not the substance of the book; anyone who has paid any attention to the state of journalism over the past ten years could have predicted that. People who have been living in caves for the past ten years could have predicted that. Mentally deficient puppy dogs could have predicted that. Equally frustrating, while Jimmy Carter complains about the lack of depth in the debate about his book, there appears to be little depth in the movie as the filmmakers are content just to follow President Carter around as he signs books and does a lot of interviews. I guess that's not the focus of the film, but it is a concern for many.

As for extras, there is an audio commentary track on the DVD that is informative, but not energetic. There are also 30 minutes of deleted / extended scenes, which were good cuts from the final film. Finally, there's a 30-minute featurette on the making of the music. This would make more sense if the movie was a drama and not a documentary.

Made by and for people who admire Jimmy Carter, Jimmy Carter: Man From Plains doesn't tackle the controversy that erupted after the publishing of his latest book, it just tags along. What it does, it does effectively, but it will leave most viewers wanting more. Additionally, the DVD is good, but not great and for most a rental will suffice.

Laverne & Shirley - The Fourth Season - Buy from Amazon
The longest running Happy Days spin-off continues its run on DVD this week. The humor is very broad, but effective, as Penny Marshall and Cindy Williams have great chemistry together. The lack of extras on the 4-disc set is disappointing, but expected. The fourth season marks its halfway point and if you have purchased the previous seasons on DVD and were happy, then there's no reason to stop now. Conversely, if you found renting was enough, then that won't change this time around.

Magic Blade - Buy from Amazon
I have reviewed a lot of martial arts movies from Hong Kong. So many that I've lost count of them all. This particular release comes from the famous Shaw Brothers studios, which made close to 1,000 movies over the years, mostly in the martial arts genre, but also in the exploitation cinema. Fortunately, this is in the former category, where the studio excelled.

Lung Ti stars as Fu Hung Hsieh and Lieh Lo stars as Yen Nan-fei, two of the best swordsmen in the world, who meet to settle a rivalry that began the year before. But when notorious crimelord, Mr. Yu, sends two assassins, Evil Wood and Evil Earth, Fu Hung Hsieh steps in to defend his rival. As he later states, "No one shall kill him, for his life is mine." The two team up to stop Mr. Yu and whatever bad of killers the crimelord can send at them. Killers with names like Grandma Devil, Book, Cheese, Pity, Smiling Kitten... I swear that's what one guy was called. They search for the Peacock Darts, the only weapons capable of killing Mr. Yu and ending his reign.

The main selling point of the movie is obviously the fighting, and there's a lot of it, but the writing is also well done. The setup is simple enough, but there's enough twists and double-crosses to keep things interesting. When the hero is poisoned, he lashes out at Yu-Cheng but I immediately felt that was out of character. Turns out I was supposed to feel that way as it was a ruse meant to trick the bad guys. The fact that I fell for it shows that the writing was better than I was expecting.

As for extras, sadly there are just some production stills. I'm not used to watching a martial arts without an audio commentary track by Bey Logan, but the lack of extras is not uncommon for an import like this.

Magic Blade is a martial arts swordplay movie of the Wuxia tradition. It is an excellent movie for hardcore fans of the genre but is also great for beginners as well. Certainly worth checking out, and even without any really substantive bonus features, many that do try it will want to buy it.

Merrill's Marauders - Buy from Amazon
A World War II film from 1962 that is not exactly a classic, but deserves to be seen more. It is getting its first release on DVD, so now more people can see it. However, with no extras, for most people a rental will suffice.

My Boy Jack - Buy from Amazon
The film was written by David Haig, who also stars as author Rudyard Kipling in this TV biopic from Britain. Also in the movie are Kim Catrall as his wife, Caroline, and Daniel Radcliffe as his son, John, a.k.a Jake. The film earned great reviews in its native land, and even a few award nominations, and it is worth checking out for anyone interested in Rudyard Kipling's life, or indeed just interested in seeing a fabulously acted drama. Extras are limited to some interviews with the three main cast members and some deleted scenes, but this is more than many imports have.

Nina's Heavenly Delights - Buy from Amazon
An East meets West film with a lesbian twist. Sadly, the movie adds nothing new to the genre and it is too lightweight to be satisfying. However, it is not actively bad and it is much better than its Tomatometer score would otherwise indicate. Call it a rental for its target audience.

One Missed Call - Buy from Amazon: DVD or Blu-ray
One of the worst reviewed movies of all time. It is very rare for a film to earn zero positive reviews; even Battlefield Earth earned three of them. No amount of extras would make this DVD worth even a rental, and they don't even try. There's nothing on the DVD and a equally big nothing on the Blu-ray. The latter only costs 25% more than the former, so if you really, really wanted to, it is not a bad price to pay for the upgrade to high definition, but I can't recommend buying either version. Or renting. Or even watching it for free when it comes on TV. Skip it and run screaming from the store.

The Orphanage - Buy from Amazon: DVD or Blu-ray
Following in the footsteps of Pan's Labyrinth, this movie didn't earn as strong reviews, nor did it make as much at the box office. That said, it earned incredible reviews and did extremely well for a foreign import. Extras are average for a movie like this with four featurettes on various aspects of making the movie (the set, the make-up, the cast, etc.), as well as image galleries. I would have loved an audio commentary track, even if it was in Spanish with English subtitles, but the movie is good enough to warrant a purchase over a rental even with extras that are just average. As for the Blu-ray, it has no additional extras, but only costs 25% more than the DVD and that's a price differential that is worth the upgrade.

Romulus, My Father - Buy from Amazon
The directorial, debut of actor Richard Roxburgh. The transition wasn't smooth, but the box office was even worse. This could explain why the DVD has no special features, which limits its value to a rental.

The Savages - Buy from Amazon
Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney both give powerhouse performances in this movie. However, while the film earned great reviews, it wasn't the big player during Awards Season that I thought it would be, nor did it do as well at the box office. Perhaps this is why the DVD is only average. There's no audio commentary track and the only extras are 20 minutes of interviews and two extended scenes. Even so, the movie is good enough that the replay warrants a purchase over just a rental.

Shirley Temple - Americas Sweetheart Collection - Volume 6 - Buy from Amazon
Another 3 movies releases in a 3-disc box set featuring arguably the most famous child actress of all time. The quality of the movies is surprisingly strong for the sixth volume in a series with only Young People feeling like filler. On the other hand, the lack of extras will continue to annoy fans.

Southland Tales - Buy from Amazon

I recently reviewed Revolver and commented that its complex plot demanded repeat viewing if the viewer wanted to understand any of what was going on. I also mentioned that many people who watched that movie would give up trying to understand it by the end and will not want to watch a second time. I mention this because Southland Tales has an even more complex plot that will take watching it three or four times to understand. However, I stopped caring well before the halfway mark and had I just rented the movie and was not reviewing it, I would have turned it off and walked away.

It is a movie that has a lot to say, but no clue how to say it. A coherent script would have improved every single other aspect of the movie. However, there's barely a hint of what that would look like. You probably could have taken the script, stripped out either the politics or the time travel, and rebuilt it into something that works. Even then it would have taken a lot of work. I think writer / director Richard Kelly thought he really had a masterpiece of a script and after the critical success of Donnie Darko the people around him were willing to accept he had a handle on things. They were wrong. They were tragically wrong. Not only was the script a mess, but since none of the actors knew what they were talking about, their performances really suffered. This movie had an ensemble cast of talented actors, most of who were giving what were arguably the worst performances of their careers. The result is a movie that feels like it is twice as long as it really is, and it is more than two-and-a-half hours to begin with.

As for extras, there's a making-of featurette and an animated short. Neither helps explain the movie very well, but the latter does have more replay value. I was really hoping there would be an audio commentary track to help explain the movie. I don't think explaining the movie is entirely possible, but a good audio commentary track would have helped.

Southland Tales split critics with a few loving the movie and most hating it. I'm not as violently extreme in my dislike of the movie as some were, but in a word it is a mess. An epic mess. At most I would recommend renting, but this has more to do with curiosity than quality. Some will love the movie, most will hate it, but if you are willing to give it a try, rent it first. And make sure you rent a backup movie, just in case.

Starting Out in the Evening - Buy from Amazon
This film earned excellent reviews, earned a couple of Independent Spirit Award nominations, and started out very well in limited release. Unfortunately, it collapsed as it tried to expand. As for the DVD, there's an audio commentary track with the director, but that's it in terms of extras. This is merely average for limited releases, but it might be enough to lift it from a rental to a purchase for many people.

Steep - Buy from Amazon
A documentary on extreme skiing from its beginnings with Billy Briggs in 1971 to today. Fans of the sport will appreciate the history and will of course be thrilled by some of the footage. The rest of us might enjoy the cinematography, but it is unlikely that neophytes will be converted to the sport.

Filmmaker Mark Obenhaus created a film that is almost an even split of extreme skiing footage and talking heads. This sets up a dichotomy that hurts the flow of the picture because while the skiing can be exhilarating, talking heads are as far from exciting as one can get. Granted, the talking heads do give a thorough history of the sport, mentioning many of the big names of extreme skiing and the events and places that helped mold the sport into what it is today. However, while listening to these people, most newcomers will just be impatiently waiting for the next shot of some foolhardy skier flying off an impossibly steep slope.

Extras on the DVD are better than most limited releases, starting with a commentary track with Mark Obenhaus and two of the skiers featured in the movie, Ingrid Backstrom and Andrew McLean. The trio is also featured in a 13-minute Q&A session. There is also a nearly 7-minute-long interview with Doug Coombs, who tragically died skiing while the movie was being filmed. (He wasn't being filmed for the movie when he had his accident, but it was very shortly after he was interviewed and before he was to do additional shots for the movie.) Finally, there is a image montage of the skiers featured in the movie.

Steep is a movie that doesn't live up to its potential. It doesn't have enough skiing footage to satisfy in that regard while the subject matter doesn't fit with the scholarly talking head format of the rest of the movie. Even so, the Steep - DVD is worth checking out, but for most a rental will do.

Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! - Season 1 - Buy from Amazon
Absurdist humor is very difficult to pull off. There's a fine line between bizarre in a funny way and just bizarre. For me, this show crosses over into the latter category far too often. Granted, comedy is a personal thing and others may feel differently. As for the extras, there are audio commentary tracks on all ten episodes, deleted & extended scenes, outtakes, a making-of featurette, and more. Easily worth picking up for fans, worth checking out for others. However, I can't recommend buying it blind.

Trailer Park Boys - The Movie - Buy from Amazon
This movie came out in Canada a while ago, but it is just now making its way to the States. The DVD has way more features than most limited releases get, audio commentary track, deleted scenes, making of featurette, etc., and it is easily worth picking up for fans of the show. Those who have never seen the show should check it out.

Universal Cinema Classics - Buy from Amazon: Easy Living, The Major and the Minor, Midnight, and She Done Him Wrong
Four films from Universal's archives presented on DVD for the first time. Fans of these movies will be happy they are finally making there way to DVD, but they will be disappointed in the lack of extras. Still, it's hard to beat that price.

Wetlands Preserved - Buy from Amazon
A documentary about the Wetlands Preserved, a music club with an environmental edge. The film earned excellent reviews, but like so many films on this week's list, it wasn't able to find an audience during its theatrical run. The extras on the DVD are light with just some outtakes and concert footage. However, that latter bonus should have enough drawing power to lift the DVD past a rental for many people.


Filed under: Video Releases, Cloverfield, Charlie Wilson's War, One Missed Call, El orfanato, The Savages, Trailer Park Boys: The Movie, Starting Out in the Evening, Southland Tales, Steep, Jimmy Carter: Man From Plains, Hannah Takes the Stairs, Nina's Heavenly Delights, Romulus, My Father, Flash Point, Wetlands Preserved: The Story of an Activist Rock Club
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