Video Verdict: ‘Fast Five,’ ‘Scream 4,’ ‘African Cats’

Emma Roberts stars in “Scream 4,” a revival of director Wes Craven’s popular horror franchise.

This week’s home video releases are anchored by the latest entries to a couple well-known franchises.

Fast Five

3 stars (out of four)
Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, sexual content and language
Universal
Available on: DVD and Blu-ray

The “Fast and the Furious” movies have never been the benchmark for cinematic quality, but expertly staged action sequences and a likable cast have helped them achieve an impressive box office run. Now a decade old, the series is still relevant and, surprisingly, getting better.

“Fast Five” is set immediately after the events of 2009’s “Fast & Furious,” and it is easily the best movie of the franchise. The action starts with former FBI agent Brian O’Conner (Paul Walker) and his girlfriend, Mia (Jordana Brewster), leading a crew of drivers in pursuit of a prison bus. Their objective? Freeing Mia’s brother, Dominic (Vin Diesel).

Because this is a “Fast and the Furious” movie, Brian and Mia mount a spectacular vehicular rescue, complete with a magnificent crash sequence. The next time viewers see them, they’re on the lam in Rio de Janiero.

Strapped for cash, the group gets caught up in an elaborate car heist that goes bad, leaving them at odds not only with the U.S. government but a powerful Brazilian crime lord. As the plot thickens, viewers are introduced to Lucas Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson), a no-nonsense Diplomatic Security Service agent intent on bringing Brian and Dominic to justice. But “Fast Five” is not a simple cat-and-mouse game. Although Dominic and his crew are wanted by virtually everyone, they decide running isn’t an option. Instead, they plan a stupendously dangerous heist that will bring in enough money to allow them to “disappear.”

The movie plays out like “Ocean’s Eleven” on steroids and brings in a number of players from past “Fast and the Furious” films. These include Tyrese Gibson, Ludacris, Sung Kang and Matt Schulze.

The movie’s many action sequences are broken up by just enough plot to keep things interesting, and director Justin Lin’s handling of the material is smooth and satisfying. “Fast Five” is by no means a great film. The stunts are too over-the-top and the characters too silly for a claim like that. Still, there’s a joy in watching these players push automobiles to limits that are only possible at the movies.

“Fast Five” is available on multiple home video releases, all of which include extended and theatrical cuts of the feature. Other DVD and Blu-ray extras include a gag reel, bits on key characters and an
audio commentary by Lin.

Scream 4

2½ stars
Rated R for strong bloody violence, language and some teen drinking
Anchor Bay
Available on: DVD and Blu-ray

In 1996, director Wes Craven and writer Kevin Williamson revitalized the horror genre with “Scream,” a new-breed slasher flick marked by smart, self-aware dialogue and a talented, young cast. The film spawned two sequels – released in 1997 and 2000 – that were less successful artistically but made millions at the box office.

After letting the series sit for a decade, Craven and Williamson decided it was time to revisit their “Scream” characters (at least those that survived the first three movies) and update the story for a new generation. The result is mixed.

“Scream 4” bares all the hallmarks of the original series. Although this is probably reassuring for hard-core fans, it’s the film’s biggest liability. In 1996, it was inventive and funny to focus on characters so aware of the horror genre that they could actively speculate on their own fates. In 2011, that’s less appealing … in large part because the original “Scream” did it so well. In other words, “Scream 4” is a victim of its own legacy.

The movie allows Neve Campbell to revive her portrayal of Sidney Prescott, a woman who survived a series of serial killer attacks in the original films. In “Scream 4,” Sidney returns to her hometown after a long absence and, like clockwork, local coeds fall victim to gruesome murders. Along with Campbell’s return, David Arquette reprises his role as small-town lawman and Courteney Cox is back as former journalist Gale Weathers. “Scream 4” is not, however, a slasher flick for old-timers. The movie features a host of young talent, including Emma Roberts and Hayden Panettiere.

The movie has a reasonable number of twists, turns and scares, not to mention a nice sense of nostalgia. Still, there’s no escaping the fact that we’ve seen all of this before and that it was better the first time around.

DVD and Blu-ray extras include a making-of featurette, an alternate opening, an extended ending, a gag reel and a collection of deleted and extended scenes.

African Cats

3 stars
Rated G
Dinsey
Available on: DVD/Blu-ray combo pack, digital download and on demand

Disneynature’s latest release is a beautifully produced, 90-minute documentary that focuses on a handful of creatures living on the African savanna. Viewers are treated to breathtaking images of a variety of animals, but it’s a cheetah named Sita and two competing lion prides that receive most of the attention.

The film follows Sita as she raises her cubs, and it shows the lion prides as they patrol, hunt and face off against one another. As with many nature documentaries, the narration – delivered skillfully by Samuel L. Jackson – personifies the animals. This, of course, is scientifically questionable, but it ties the film together in a nice dramatic arc that is suitable for children. Rather than simply provide footage and dry facts about these great African beasts, the filmmakers – led by directors Alastair Fothergill and Keith Scholey – weave a tale of familial bonding and survival.

This is all enjoyable, but the real star of the show is the cinematography. The film crew gathered incredible close-up footage of the lions and cheetahs doing everything from hunting and playing to facing off against crocodiles. The movie also does a nice job demonstrating the precarious nature of the world these creatures live in. Lions may be portrayed as kings, but “African Cats” demonstrates that a well-timed kick from a zebra can prove deadly.

“African Cats” is less ambitious in scope than Fothergill’s documentary series “Planet Earth,” which is getting a home video re-release this week (see below), but it is extremely well crafted and has an ideal run time for the family audience that Disneynature targets.

DVD and Blu-ray extras include behind-the-scenes footage, stories from the filmmakers, a Jordin Sparks music video and a feature on wildlife conservation efforts sponsored by Disney.

ALSO OUT THIS WEEK

“Planet Earth” Special Edition and Limited Collector’s Edition: The BBC is delivering two revamped editions of the “Planet Earth” documentary series. Originally aired on the Discovery Channel in 2007, the show – produced by Alistair Fothergill – became an instant hit thanks to its stunning footage of our natural world. These new releases feature more than three hours of never-before-available content, including a sneak peak at Fothergill’s next project, “Frozen Planet.”

“Buck”: Documentary film about Buck Brannaman, who moved past an abusive childhood to become a world-class horse trainer and one of the real-life inspirations for author Nicholas Evans’ “The Horse Whisperer.” Directed by Cindy Meehl.

“Submarine”: Independent dramedy about a teen boy (Craig Roberts) who is determined to both lose his virginity and reconcile his parents’ marriage. Paddy Considine, Sally Hawkins, Yasmin Paige and Noah Taylor also star. Directed by Richard Ayoade.

“The Lion King”: The impressive box office performance of Disney’s theatrical run of “The Lion King” 3D proves there’s still a huge audience for this 1994 animated feature. Now, fans can pick from several home video releases, including a four-disc Blu-ray combo pack that includes Blu-ray 3D, standard Blu-ray, DVD and digital copies of the feature. Big fans can also purchase “The Lion King” Trilogy boxed set, which includes everything listed above plus Blu-ray and DVD copies of “The Lion King 1½” and “The Lion King 2.”

“Beauty and the Beast”: Along with “The Lion King,” Disney is delivering a new five-disc release of its 1991 animated hit “Beauty and the Beast.” The impressive set includes Blu-ray 3D, standard Blu-ray, DVD and digital copies of the film.

“In Treatment” – Season Three: A new batch of episodes from the ABC drama about the trials and tribulations of middle-aged psychologist Dr. Paul Weston (Gabriel Byrne). Debra Winger, Amy Ryan, Irrfan Khan and Dane DeHaan also star.

“Bored to Death” – The Complete Second Season: Eight episodes of the HBO comedy about a noir-obsessed writer (Jason Schwartzman) who moonlights as a detective. Zach Galifianakis and Ted Danson also star.

Alfred Hitchcock – The Essentials Collection: With Halloween coming, Universal decided it was a good time to release a boxed set of Hitchcock classics. Each of the included films – “Rear Window,” “Vertigo,” “North By Northwest,” “Psycho” and “The Birds” – are already available on DVD, but this marks the first time they’ve been packaged together.

“Casper the Friendly Ghost” Collector’s Edition: This new release from Shout Factory includes all 81 of the Casper cartoons created between 1945 and 1963. There are also a number of extra features, including audio commentary tracks by a variety of Casper experts.

“Tyler Perry’s Meet the Browns” – Season 2: All 20 episodes from the second season of writer-director-actor Tyler Perry’s sitcom about a family of grown adults living together in Dacatur, Georgia. The series stars the husband-and-wife team of David and Tamela Mann.

Miramax classics from Lionsgate: The home video division at Lionsgate is rolling five critically acclaimed Miramax films to Blu-ray. The lineup is anchored by the Quentin Tarantino movies “Pulp Fiction” and “Jackie Brown” and director Lasse Hallstrom’s “The Cider House Rules.” Also out are the Academy Award-winning foreign films “Life is Beautiful” and “Cinema Paradiso.”

– Forrest Hartman is an independent film critic whose byline has appeared in some of the nation’s largest publications. E-mail him at forrest@forresthartman.com.

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