Three special effects-laden films hit the home entertainment shelves this week. The first is the prequel 'Rise of the Planet of the Apes,' with its motion-capture CGI primates; next there's 'Fright Night,' a remake of a cult classic that ups the ante with state-of-the art scares; and finally 'Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame,' Hark Tsui's quirky and action-filled martial arts mystery that uses Sammo Hung's choreography and special effects to mesmerize viewers. Read on.

'Rise of the Planet of the Apes'
What It's About: Origin story for 'The Planet of the Apes' saga (diverging significantly from the original series 'Escape From the Planet of the Apes' and 'Conquest of the Planet of the Apes'). In this scenario, James Franco stars as Will Rodman, a neuroscientist trying to develop a cure for Alzheimer's disease by testing on chimpanzees and giving them a human level of intelligence. After a test subject's baby, Caesar, is orphaned, Will decides to raise him at home on his own with his Alzheimer-stricken father (John Lithgow). What begins as a continuation of his experiment quickly turns into a problem, as Caesar is taken away and forced to live in a primate facility. As Caesar's intelligence continues to grow, he begins to stake his claim as the leader of his new primate counterparts, which will ultimately lead to the rise of the planet of the apes.

It's Kinda Like: 'Project X' meets 'Spartacus'

What We Say: The photo-realistic apes -- created using Oscar-winning visual effects house WETA Digital's groundbreaking CGI technology that they developed for 'Avatar' -- are the real stars and drawing power of the film; James Franco seems to have telephoned in his performance, while John Lithgow plays more of a somnambulist than an Alzheimer's patient. Kudos go, of course, to Andy Serkis for his role-modeling and acting as the motion-character-captured Caesar. The film moves ahead fairly quickly in its denunciation of humankind's predilection for violence and our reveling in the humiliation of those supposedly less intelligence than us; it's a foregone conclusion that the apes are better humans than we are -- and deserve to overrun the world. The apes running amok in San Francisco is worth the price of admission.

• Extras: Deleted scenes, several illuminating behind-the-scenes featurettes.
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'Fright Night'
What It's About: Remake of the 1985 gothic horror cult classic. Charley (Anton Yelchin) is a high school senior in a Las Vegas suburb who's on top of the world -- ­he's running with the popular crowd and dating Amy (Imogen Poots), the most coveted girl in school. But trouble arrives when Jerry (Colin Farrell) moves in next door. He seems like a nice guy -- at first. But there's something not quite right, and no one else, including Charley's mom (Toni Collette) seems to notice. After his classmates start to mysteriously disappear without a trace, Charlie discovers that there is more to his new neighbor than meets the eye -- he's a vampire who has his fangs set on Charley, Amy and mom.

It's Kinda Like: 'Let the Right One In' meets 'Rear Window'

What We Say: While not quite up to the thrills and excitement of the original (we're a bit more jaded 20 years down the road since Tom Holland's 'Fright Night' jumped out at us), this remake can stand on its own thanks to the bravura performance by Farrell, who has never been creepier. The special effects are, naturally, terrific, and the mood set by director Craig Gillepsie is oppressively spooky. Yet, as in many films of this genre, it's the interludes that falter -- here the typical nerds vs. jocks subplot is just too predictable and corny, and the fake vampire hunter scenario (with a wimpy David Tennant) is just plain silly. Still, it's an enjoyable ride, with some tongue-in-neck (er, cheek) humor and one great rescue scene that will blow you away.

• Extras: Deleted scenes, gag reels, and an 'Official How to Make a Funny Vampire Movie' guide.
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'Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame'
What It's About: Hark Tsui's action-packed, visually breathtaking Sherlock Holmes-style mystery choreographed by master Sammo Hung, set in an exquisitely realized steampunk version of ancient China. On the eve of her coronation as Empress (Carina Lau), China's most powerful woman is haunted by a chilling murder mystery: Two men in charge of building a gigantic monument to her have burst into flames, leaving behind only black ash and skeletal bones. Recognizing this threat to her power, she turns to the infamous Dee Renjie (Andy Lau), a man whose unparalleled wisdom is matched only by his martial arts skills. Teamed with the Empress' right-hand woman, the martial arts expert Shangguan Jing'er (Bingbing Li), Dee must battle a series of bizarre dangers that eventually lead to a chilling truth that places his life, and the future of the dynasty, in peril.

It's Kinda Like: Charlie Chan meets Bruce Lee

What We Say: This has been a banner year for Asian period-action films. There's Jackie Chan's '1911,' Benny Chan's 'Shaolin,' Takashi Miike's '13 Assassins' and Woo-ping Yuen's 'True Legend'; now add Hark Tsui's almost mystical 'Detective Dee' actioner set in 690 AD and featuring talking deer, blind fighting, insects that cause people to burst into flames, an underground city of criminals and outcasts, spectacular flying martial arts action (by Sammo Hung), comic relief and a complicated conspiracy and murder mystery -- which all add up to a roller coaster ride that is thoroughly entertaining. 'Detective Dee,' like most Asian films, didn't get a wide theatrical release in the U.S., but grossed north of $52 million worldwide. Buy or rent it (along with the other films mentioned above) today to find out what the rest of the world is watching.

• Extras: Several interesting behind-the-scenes featurettes..
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Other New December 13 Releases:
  • 'The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975': (2011) Here's a treasure trove of 16mm material shot by Swedish journalists who came to the U.S. drawn by stories of urban unrest and revolution in the 1960s and who ended up chronicling the Black Power Movement. Gaining access to many of the leaders of the Movement -- Stokely Carmichael, Bobby Seale, Angela Davis and Eldridge Cleaver among them -- the filmmakers captured them in intimate moments and remarkably unguarded interviews. Thirty years later, this collection was found languishing in the basement of Swedish Television; director Goran Olsson and co-producer Danny Glover brought this footage to light in this remarkable documentary.
  • 'Circumstance': (2011 -- Iran) A provocative coming-of-age story that cracks open the hidden world of Iranian youth. As culture wars and politics define the country, a wealthy Iranian family struggles to contain their personal lives as their children lead a group of friends in Tehran to rebel against the constant oppression.
  • 'Eames: The Architect and the Painter': (2011) Modern design history was born in a cavernous warehouse on a gritty street in Venice Beach, Calif., where Charles and Ray Eames -- best known for their ubiquitous furniture and the signature innovation of the classic Eames chair -- set up their Renaissance-style studio shortly after World War II. This documentary, narrated by James Franco, brings to the screen a cache of archival material, visually stunning films, love letters, photographs and artifacts produced in mind-boggling volume by Charles and Ray with their talented staff during the hypercreative 40-year run of the Eames studio.
  • 'Kung Fu Panda 2': (2011) Violent sequel to 2008's animated hit has panda Po (voice of Jack Black) teaming with his kung fu masters to fend off a move by Lord Shen, heir of the peacock clan that ruled Gongmen City, to conquer China by harnessing the power of fireworks as a weapon. He also holds the secret to Po's past, which Po must embrace and understand before he can ever find the inner peace necessary to stop the villain. The set piece is the wonderfully choreographed final battle of good vs. evil.

Check out more December 13 DVD releases at OnVideo.



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