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DVD Releases for July 22, 2008 - Part I

July 21st, 2008

Wow. Another week without a single first-run release that struck me as worth picking up. This really is the slowest time of the year for DVD releases. That said, there were a number of other releases that caught my attention, including a couple of TV on DVD releases and a couple of classics from Criterion. The latter include Vampyr - Buy from Amazon and High and Low - Buy from Amazon while the former include Robot Chicken - Star Wars - Buy from Amazon and Spaced - The Complete Series - Buy from Amazon. It would be virtually impossible for me to narrow it down to one selection, but Vampyr - Buy from Amazon is the better Criterion release and Spaced - The Complete Series - Buy from Amazon is the better TV on DVD release. As with last week, there were so many spotlight reviews that this week's list had to be split into two. Part Two can be found here.

21 - Buy from Amazon: Single-Disc Edition, 2-Disc Special Edition, or Blu-ray
Based on the real life exploits of a team of card counters from M.I.T. who head to Vegas and win millions at the casinos. However, will easy money change them?

I've seen both the documentary and the TV movie that were based on the same events, and this movie is the weakest of the three. In fact, it suffers from all of the problems I thought it would. Hollywood took an interesting story and decided to change from reality and add in the typical Hollywood melodrama and included a love story between two actors who I felt had no chemistry. Also, in real life if you are caught card counting, casinos simple take your information and throw you and don't let you back it (and give your information to other casinos). They don't beat you up, because the tiny amount a card counter can win is nothing compared to the amount a casino could lose if they were sued or they lost their gambling license, either of which is likely if someone is beaten up on their premise. And no, being in a room without cameras isn't going to protect the casino; it doesn't work that way. However, the filmmakers here didn't think reality was dramatic enough, so they had to embellish the story. They did something similar in The Last Casino, but they kept to reality by having one of the lead characters in debt to a loan shark, and that was enough to add the risk of physical violence without straining credibility. Additionally, the explanation of the system felt heavy-handed and was repeated too often. It was like the filmmakers assumed the audience was too dumb to figure out when one of the characters was using a code word.

One addition from last week's review, there was a sub-plot with Laurence Fishburne's character being forced into retirement thanks to a new facial recognition software. However, this software would only be effective once the card counter was caught for the first time, which can only happen with trained experts like Cole, so his job would not be in trouble.

Extras on the single disc set are adequate with an audio commentary track and a trio of featurettes. The audio commentary track is a good mix of information and entertainment, and they even admit there are a few flaws in the movie, like the old-school thugs running Vegas. On the other hand, they seem to think Kate Bosworth and Jim Sturgess had chemistry together. The first of the three featurettes is a 5-minute one on Blackjack, including its history and how to improve the odds. Next up is a meatier 25-minute making of featurette, which is your standard mix of talking heads, behind-the-scenes footage, and clips from the movie. Finally, there's a 7-minute look at the production of the movie, including the set and costume designs.

The Blu-ray version arrived this week, today actually, and after checking it out I have three points to make. 1.) Vegas is a gaudy city and it looks even more so in high definition. However, while the transfer is up to the standards one would expect for a first run release, it is not one of the best that I've seen. 2.) The blackjack game provided on the disc is only mildly interesting and doesn't do enough to simulate Vegas. (There should be a lot more noise and lights.) 3,) No one seems to be able to use internet connectivity to its potential. Being able to download trailers is not really a bonus feature. Looking at the Blackjack leaderboard is only interesting because likely the only people on it right now are critics.

21 tells a story that is amazingly interesting, which is why it has been previously made into a book, adocumentary, and a TV movie. The filmmakers didn't need to change much to create a successful movie, but the changes they did make all seemed to hurt the film. I predicted this would happen, I just assumed this would hurt the film's box office chances as well. Little did I know. Given the film's box office run, it's clear that there are plenty of fans out there, and for then the DVD is worth checking out, but with extras that are only average for a first run release, a rental will be enough for many of them. If you are set on owning it, the Blu-ray offers good value for the money, and even offers some additional extras. Personally, I think people should stick with the book or The Last Casino, but that's just my opinion.

21 Up South Africa Mandela's Children - Buy from Amazon
The South African spin-off to the British documentary series. The series took a look at a group of children at the age of seven and then follows up with them every seven years. Unfortunately, while you can get all seven installments of the original British series on DVD, this is the first one from South Africa released, and the lack of context hurts. It is still interesting to watch and worth checking out for those who have seen the original, but unless they releases 7 Up and 14 Up, a rental will be enough for most.

Andre Techine Boxset - Buy from Amazon
Four films from French director, Andre Techine, including the two that most would consider his best: Wild Reeds and My Favorite Season. There are no extras on this 4-disc set, but fans of the director will still be interesting in checking it out at the very least, but double-dips reduces its value.

Warning: This DVD does not come out this week and makes its home market debut on the 29th. However, the DVD screener arrived early and I was able to get the review done this week.

Baldwin Hill - Season One - Buy from Amazon
As longtime reader have probably figured out by now, there are few things I hate more than reality TV. This show is even worse than most reality TV shows because it is a copy of The Hills. Which was a Spin-off of Laguna Beach. Which was a reality TV twist on The O.C. This show is so far removed from any trace of creativity... but it is still better than most of its predecessors.

The takes a look at the lives of a dozen rich African-American teenagers from Baldwin Hills, which is an affluent, predominantly African-American district in Los Angeles. There are a diverse group of personalities here (the comic, the athlete, the entrepreneur, etc.), but sadly they didn't bring enough to keep me interested. They are less vapid and more interesting than the people on The Hills, but not by enough that I want to hear about they love life. When the people involved are boring, so is the resulting love triangle. Hell, they could have a love dodecagon and it still wouldn't be interested enough to carry a show. Personality conflicts between two people who barely have personalities is likewise uninteresting to me.

Special features on disc one consist of two features with a running time of just over 15 minutes. While Disc two has three extras, 26 minutes of casting tapes, 23 minutes of cast interviews, and 12 minutes of interviews with the creators. This is more than enough to avoid feeling barren, but not so much that one can say it is a selling point. The 2-disc set also has play all buttons, but no subtitles and doesn't have proper chapter placements.

If you are looking for an African-American take on reality shows like The Hills or Laguna Beach, then Baldwin Hill - Season One is a great DVD for you. However, while I don't think the show is as soul crushing as its MTV counterparts, it is still not a show I derive any pleasure from watching.

Warning: This DVD does not come out this week and makes its home market debut on the 29th. However, the DVD screener arrived early and I was able to get the review done this week.

Beverly Hills 90210 - The Fifth Season - Buy from Amazon
Season five. We are halfway done the series. There's a light at the end of the tunnel. Wait... What? They are making a new Beverly Hills 90210? Nooooooo!

This is a season of change for Beverly Hills 90210. It is the first season without Shannen Doherty and the first with Tiffani-Amber Thiessen. It is also the last with Gabrielle Carteris and Luke Perry. (The latter did return after a couple of years.) The season also include a wide variety of story arcs including such topics as drugs, politics, business dealings going south, relationship troubles, racial tension, past-life regression, mental illness, suicide and even murder! Sadly, the show can't stand up to the weight of the storylines and they go from mildly interesting, to a little bit silly, to over-the-top melodramatic. Well before the season ends, I could no longer care.

On a side note, where have they been storing the masters for this show? The video quality is terrible for a show that is barely more than a decade old. At times it looks no better than the syndicated versions.

Extras on the 8-disc set are nonexistent. I was never overly impressed by the extras on the past Beverly Hills 90210 DVD releases, but it is still disappointing. Additionally, there are no play all buttons, but at least there are proper chapter placements and subtitles.

Moving into its Fifth Season, Beverly Hills 90210 is still selling strong on DVD. However, the studio has run out extras and this 8-disc set is devoid of special features. I don't think this will be enough to stop many fans from buying theDVD, but there will be very few that will be happy with the situation.

Big Dreams, Little Tokyo - Buy from Amazon
A fish out of water story set in Japan written by, directed by, and starring Dave Boyle, in his first film. However, is inexperience doesn't appear to have been a problem as what little reviews I could find were all positive. It is a strange tale, however, and unless you have seen it, which is unlikely, a rental is the best way to start. And with an audio commentary featuring the two leads, many that do give it a try will end up buying it.

Bird - Buy from Amazon
a 2-disc special edition release of the Clint Eastwood biopic of jazz musician Charlie "Bird" Parker. The film didn't earn great reviews, but it did earn an Oscar and Clint Eastwood won his first Golden Globe of his directing career. This 2-disc special edition is merely the DVD, and the CD soundtrack. If you liked the movie but have neither the film nor the soundtrack in your collection, this is a good time to fix that. However, chances are if you liked the movie, you have at least one of those in your collection already and then this is not worth the double-dip.

Blu-ray Releases - Buy from Amazon: 21, Earth: The Biography, The Exorcism of Emily Rose, I Know What You Did Last Summer, Kiss of the Spider Woman, The Mummy, The Mummy Returns, MUSSORGSKY: Pictures at an Exhibition / Boris Godunov/ Night on Bare Mountain (Stokowski Transcriptions) - Acoustic Reality Experience, Mysterious Aqua - Music Experience in 3-Dimensional Sound Reality, The Perfect Storm, The Scorpion King, Uncommon Bach - Music Experience in 3-Dimensional Sound Reality, or Urban Legend
Not a single first tier Blu-ray release and the only first run release is a midlevel hit, at best. That said, all of the Mummy releases are selling well, perhaps even better than last week's DVD releases of the same titles. On a side note, I Still Know What You Did Last Summer was supposed to come out on Blu-ray this week, but it was cancelled at the last minute. Amazon is saying the same of Kiss of the Spider Woman, but I can't confirm that. Update: Amazon has it coming out on the 12th of August as an exclusive release.

Blues in the Night - Buy from Amazon
A blues infused Film Noir from 1941. Not the best of the genre, but the music more than makes up for it. Extras include two musical short and two animated shorts, and it is certainly worth checking out for fans of the music or for fans of Film Noir. Probably worth buying if you are a fan of both.

Brutal Massacre - A Comedy - Buy from Amazon
A mockumentary about the making of a horror film by a washed up director who had one big hit followed by a string of failures. It is an interesting idea that fails to live up to its potential at nearly every level: writing, directing, acting etc. Extras include a making of featurette that stays in character and plenty of deleted scenes, but that's barely enough to lift it to a rental.

Dark Honeymoon - Buy from Amazon
A direct-to-DVD thriller about a man who marries a woman only to discover she has a dark past. The film has a lot of big names, including a Relic Hunter reunion with both Tia Carrere and Lindy Booth, as well as Roy Scheider in one of his last roles. This is not a great movie, but fans of the genre should be satisfied with the film. Also, the DVD appears to be devoid of extras, so a rental should suffice for most.

Dirty Money - Buy from Amazon
This is the second time this film by Jean-Pierre Melville has been released on DVD stateside. And it is just as devoid of special features as the first release. Hopefully the next time it will get the treatment it deserves. Until then, it is still worth renting for most, picking up for many.

Duck - Buy from Amazon
This movie opened in limited releases early in the summer of 2007 to mixed reviews and never found an audience during its limited release, as far as we know, since they didn't release box office numbers. Now that it is on DVD, it should perform better, but will it actually do well, or just do well compared to its theatrical release.

Philip Baker Hall stars as Arthur, a retired history professor who outlived his son and his wife and feels that life has past him by and his only recourse is suicide. However, before he can attempt it, a baby duckling wanders up and thinks he is his mother. And this helps spark him back to life. But his apartment doesn't allow pets and he has to find a place for his friend to live and along this travel he meets a series of strange characters.

On the one hand, Philip Baker Hall gives a great performance, and so does the duck (who previous worked in the Afleck commercials). However, once the journey starts, the film loses steam and it become a series of disconnected vignettes, most of which don't hold our attention and are a little repetitive. But Philip Baker Hall is strong enough to make the film worth checking out.

Extras on the DVD include an audio commentary track with writer / director Nicole Bettauer and Philip Baker Hall. The pair also sits down for interviews (done separately). Nicole Bettauer's runs roughly 3 and a half minutes while Philip Baker Hall clocks in at nearly 13.

While Duck is a movie with serious flaws, the performances by Philip Baker Hall, and the duck, make it a movie that is worth checking out. However, even with extras that are better than expected, the DVD is only worth a rental for most.

Earth - The Biography - Buy from Amazon: DVD or Blu-ray
The latest documentary series from the BBC coming out on DVD and Blu-ray originally known as Earth: The Power of the Planet. An excellent program that looks at such forces as volcanoes and the oceans and how they shape the planet and our own history. Much like the previous Earth release, this one is coming out on Blu-ray and promises to be a strong seller.

Warning: This DVD does not come out this week and makes its home market debut on the 29th. However, the DVD screener arrived early and I was able to get the review done this week.

Girlfriends - Season 4 - Buy from Amazon
A casualty of the writers' strike, this show's 8th season turned out to be its last, and it ended without a real finale. However, while fans wait for a possible TV movie that will give the series the send-off it deserves, they can at least watch season 4 on DVD.

Season 4 starts with three of the four ladies in happy relationships, however, that doesn't last. Joan's relationship is in jeopardy when she meets the man who could be her soul mate, Toni's marriage to Todd could be in trouble when she learns he's not as rich as she assumed, and Lynn's relationship with her poet boyfriend could be in trouble because... well... because he's just as crazy as she is. Relationships play an important role in season four story arcs with all five main characters have their share of drama (including the still divorced Maya and the only male of the group, William). Not all of these stories are particularly interesting, in fact, there's more comedy mined from Lynn and Williams short marriage that Toni and Todd's marriage, which is a story arc that lasts all season long. (Although the latter does generate a lot more drama.) There are also a lot of changes in jobs, family relations, the return of "the Lesbians" (a.k.a. Williams' sister and her partner), and more this season, which is perfect for fans of the show.

On the other hand, the 3-disc set has no special features, which is less than ideal. The are play all buttons and proper chapter placements, but no subtitles.

Girlfriends maintained its high quality level during Season 4 and for those who purchased the previous seasons there's no reason to stop now. That said, the lack of extras is disappointing and while I still recommend purchasing, I can't be enthusiastic about it.

Heartbeat Detector - Buy from Amazon
A French thriller about the connection between multi-national corporations and fascism. The film earned very good reviews, but not at the level most limited releases need to thrive, and it didn't. Still, it is worth checking out for most, picking up for many.

High and Low - Criterion Collection - Buy from Amazon
Akira Kurosawa's 1963 film returns to contemporary Japan after his previous films took place in feudal Japan. This change in settings did not hurt the film as it is widely considered one of his best. As for the 2-disc set, it lives up to the Criterion label and includes an audio commentary track by film historian Stephen Prince, another installment in the ongoing documentary on the director, Akira Kurosawa: It Is Wonderful To Create, an interview with the man himself from 1981, another interview with one of the stars, Tsutomu Yamazaki, and more. Easily worth picking up and a contender for DVD Pick of the Week.

Warning: This DVD does not come out this week and makes its home market debut on the 29th. However, the DVD screener arrived early and I was able to get the review done this week.

The Hills - Season Three - Buy from Amazon
This show is described as a guilty pleasure by most fans. However, I get no pleasure watching it.

As I have mentioned early in this week's report, I hate reality TV, and while this show is not among the most soul-crushing of the genre, it is close. The most soul-crushing of the genre are the ones where average people do humiliating things for a tiny amount of money. This is the second most soul-crushing type of reality TV series, the one where they take a bunch of people who are nowhere near interesting enough to appear on TV, and follow them around with a bunch of cameras. The four leads, Lauren, Kelly, Heidi, and Whitney, simply don't have the charisma to carry a TV series, and their lives are rather boring as well. (Perhaps that's why MTV keeps setting things up. Yes, this is a reality TV series that doesn't have a whole lot of reality.) Plots this season including new jobs, breakups, internet rumors, hooking back up, moving in together, potential marriages, and more. I'm sure fans of the show couldn't turn away, but I couldn't wait till the season ended.

Extras on the 4-disc set are found on the fourth disc starting with just over 40 minute of deleted scenes, which is equivalent to two whole episodes. There are also nearly 40 minutes of interviews with the four leads and the four also sit down to do commentary on select scenes, but not all together. Again, it's close to 40 minutes in length in total. There is an 8-part, 46-minute series called Fashion: The Live and finally a bizarre 2-minute scene of the show done in virtual life.

If I had friends that were this annoying, I would have stopped being their friends a long time ago. That said, I am not the target audience for The Hills, and if you like the show and bought the previous seasons, there's no reason to change with Season Three. Personally, I can't wait for this trend to end and for networks to stop having so many reality TV series on and for MTV to go back to playing music every once and a while.

Kiss of the Spider Woman - Buy from Amazon
A movie from 1985 making its debut on DVD this week, and it was supposed to be making its debut on Blu-ray as well, but it appears those plans have been put on hold. The film earned excellent reviews and high praise was heaped on its two leads: William Hurt and Raul Julia. (Especially the former, who won an Oscar for his performance.) However, it is also a very polarizing movie and not one people should pick up without seeing first. That said, it should be seen and it is worth a rental at the very least. Even with a lot of extras (there's just a making of featurette) many who do see it will opt for a purchase.

L.A. Ink - Season 1 - Buy from Amazon
Reality TV, but not the soul-crushing kind. Here the cameras follow the crew at a L.A. tattoo shop, which is a unique enough job that the audience doesn't ask themselves, "Why are these people on TV?" On the other hand, it is not my favorite program on TV and there are too many petty arguments. (At least there are fewer than on Miami Ink.) Additionally, I have no tattoos and have no interest in the art form, which hurts my ability to appreciate the show.

Las Vegas - Season Five - Buy from Amazon
Coming out the same week as 21. No coincidence there. I was never a fan of this show and was constantly amazed it lasted as long as it did. However, the recent writers' strike finally killed it off. The show didn't end on a high note, nor is the 4-disc set loaded with extras, but it should still be enough for fans to continue collecting the series.

The Last Winter - Buy from Amazon
A low-budget horror film that opened in limited release, but barely made a noise. There's been a lot of horror films that have had similar luck in limited release lately. This is a shame since it earned better reviews than most and deserves to be seen by more. As for the DVD, it has an audio commentary track and a making of featurette, which is better than most limited releases have and more than enough to lift the film past the rental level and to a solid purchase.

Masters of Horror - Season Two Box Set - Buy from Amazon
All 11 episodes from the second and last season of the horror anthology show, sold in a cool plastic skull. At least I think it is cool; not everyone seems to agree. I do have some concerns with how well the DVDs will be protected, but that's another matter altogether. Also, I doubt the Blu-ray release is far behind, which might be worth waiting for if you are a fan of the show.


Filed under: Video Releases, The Exorcism of Emily Rose, The Last Winter, La Question Humaine, Duck, 21