CONAN THE BARBARIAN (1982) / CONAN THE DESTROYER (1984). Arnold Schwarzenegger had been knocking about Hollywood for over a decade, but despite a few nibbles like Hercules in New York and Stay Hungry, he only became a recognizable Tinseltown fixture once he played the title role in the box office hit Conan the Barbarian. With the dreadful reboot now in theaters, the original has been getting labeled as a "classic," but let's not kid ourselves. This adaptation of Robert E. Howard's pulp adventures (also seen in the popular Marvel comic books) is a lumbering bore, with director John Milius and co-scripter Oliver Stone bringing no sense of joy to the proceedings. It's a fine-looking production, but the story — Conan squares off against a Snake King, played by a monotonous James Earl Jones — is uninvolving, and a wooden Arnie is not yet seasoned enough to work up the charisma that would serve him well in later roles. Conan the Barbarian was followed two years later by Conan the Destroyer; the sequel was roundly trashed, but it's no worse than its predecessor, since its campy components at least take the edge off the tedious proceedings. Besides, where else can you see Schwarzenegger, Grace Jones and Wilt Chamberlain all sharing the same screen?
Blu-ray extras on Conan the Barbarian include audio commentary by Milius and Schwarzenegger; a 53-minute making-of feature; 10 minutes of archival interviews with Milius and his stars; and a 15-minute piece on the making of the sword used by Conan. The only extra on Conan the Destroyer is the theatrical trailer.
Conan the Barbarian: **
Conan the Destroyer: **
CUL-DE-SAC (1966). Roman Polanski spent most of the 1960s making movies involving physical and/or emotional isolation (Knife in the Water, Repulsion, Rosemary's Baby, even The Fearless Vampire Killers), and Cul-de-Sac, easily the least known of the bunch, falls neatly into this pattern. A psychological character study that contains a near-invisible strain of dark comic undertones, this casts Lionel Stander as Dickie, an American gangster who, with his injured Irish partner (Jack MacGowan) in tow, seeks shelter in an English castle that gets cut off from the rest of civilization whenever the tide is high. There, he plays mind games with the sole occupants: the French Teresa (Francoise Dorleac), a beautiful young flirt, and the British George (Donald Pleasence), her mousy, middle-aged husband who will do anything to please her (when Dickie first encounters the pair, George is wearing a nightgown that Teresa forced him to don). Working from a script he penned with frequent collaborator Gerard Brach, Polanski has concocted a sweaty, claustrophobic film that examines notions of masculinity, honor and self-respect. Character actors Pleasance and Stander are both excellent; Dorleac, the sister of Catherine Deneuve, died in an automobile accident the year after this picture's release, at the age of 25.
DVD extras include a 23-minute piece on the making of the film; a 27-minute BBC interview with Polanski from 1967; and two theatrical trailers.
GOOD WILL HUNTING (1997). One of the few films (As Good As It Gets was another) that actually managed to make money during the period when Titanic was capsizing the vast majority of the multiplex competition, this effort from director Gus Van Sant (Milk) and fledgling scripters Matt Damon and Ben Affleck centers on Will Hunting (Damon), a 20-year-old janitor at MIT who's actually a closet genius with the ability to solve complex math problems that stump even award-winning professors. But Will is also a deeply disturbed man: Battered as a child by his foster dad, he has trouble connecting with everyone except his best friend (Affleck). Three people, however, try to set him straight: a brilliant math instructor (Stellan Skarsgard), a strong-willed Harvard student (Minnie Driver) and, perhaps most importantly, a psychiatrist (Robin Williams) working through his own demons. Most movies about troubled individuals are insulting in the way in which they suddenly wrap things up with insipid developments that cause tumultuous, positive transformations in the protagonist; this film avoids that pitfall, taking its time to believably develop Will's mental blocks and then just as smoothly working them out through some caustic dialogue and credible confrontations. Nominated for nine Academy Awards (including Best Picture and acting bids for Damon and Driver), this won two, for Best Original Screenplay and Best Supporting Actor (Williams).
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by Van Sant, Damon and Affleck; 11 deleted scenes; a 4-minute making-of featurette; a 7-minute production featurette; and the music video for Elliott Smith's Oscar-nominated song "Miss Misery."
MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000: THE UNEARTHLY (1991) / MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000: RED ZONE CUBA (1994). Shout! Factory releases two more MST3K singles, both featuring John Carradine.
Carradine is the top-billed star of 1957's The Unearthly, although it's Tor Johnson who's fondly recalled whenever bad-movie buffs discuss this picture. Carradine merely plays the usual mad scientist whose botched experiments on humans naturally leave him with a cellar full of misshapen monsters. Tor, on the other hand, plays the dim-witted manservant Lobo — not a stretch, of course, but he is the one who gets to utter the immortal line, "Time for go to bed." Joel points out that Carradine has appeared in classics like The Grapes of Wrath and Stagecoach, the 'Bots imitate John Wayne and Groucho Marx, and, in a memorably sadistic experiment exchange, Dr. Forrester and TV's Frank invent Hard to Swallow Pills, including one with a fish hook dangling off the side. And given the main attraction's short running time, it's preceded by not one but two stuffy shorts, Posture Pals and Appreciating Our Parents.
Carradine's appearance in 1966's Red Zone Cuba barely qualifies as a cameo, but never mind that. And put aside the MST3K aspect as well. I've seen most of the genuine "worst movies of all time" candidates — Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster, Robot Monster, Eegah!, the entire Ed Wood oeuvre — and Red Zone Cuba, in which a few American convicts try to topple Castro, clearly belongs in that category. Originally titled Night Train to Mundo Fine, this atrocity is astonishing in its ineptitude — which means it's grade-A material for Mike Nelson and crew. Crow especially gets the lion's share of the great quips, including "I want to hurt this movie but I can never hurt it the way it hurt me" and (commenting on a dreary car chase) "This makes Driving Miss Daisy look like Bullit!" Most of the barbs are (rightfully) reserved for writer-director-star Coleman Francis, and his resemblance to Curly Howard results in a slew of nyuk-nyuk gags (my fave: "Full Metal Curly"). Like The Unearthly, this DVD episode also includes a short dedicated to the wonders of proper posture, Speech: Platform Posture and Appearance.
There are no extras on the DVDs.
MST3K: The Unearthly: ***
MST3K: Red Zone Cuba: ***1/2
NATIONAL LAMPOON'S ANIMAL HOUSE (1978) / FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH (1982) / DAZED AND CONFUSED (1993). With the nation's youth heading back to school, it seems only logical that Universal has elected to release three, uh, educational titles on Blu-ray.
Would it be overstating the case to contend that National Lampoon's Animal House is one of the most influential movies ever made? Sounds overreaching, but when one reflects on the ungodly amount of "slob comedies/teen sex farces" released by Hollywood over the ensuing years ... nope, it's not overstating it one bit. But make no mistake: Director John Landis' riotous comedy ranks miles ahead of its pathetic imitators, thanks in no small part to an excellent cast headed by the inimitable John Belushi as slovenly frat boy Bluto Blutarsky. Endlessly quotable ("Christ, seven years of college down the drain!," "Fat, drunk and stupid is no way to go through life, son"), populated by endearing and unique characters, and blessed with a great score that mixes Elmer Bernstein's orchestral maneuvers with catchy oldies (the "Shout" sequence is a standout), Animal House has lost none of its appeal over the past 33 years.
Fast Times at Ridgemont High, directed by Clueless's Amy Heckerling from a script by Almost Famous's Cameron Crowe, has always struck me as overrated, and a recent revisit did little to change my mind. The filmmakers' attempts to capture the "real" high school experience run hot and cold, while the comedy quotient just doesn't cut it: The ballyhooed scenes between Sean Penn's surfer bum Jeff Spicoli and Ray Walston's stern teacher Mr. Hand seem like blueprints for a comedy sketch more than fully realized set pieces. Jennifer Jason Leigh is affecting as the naive kid determined to lose her virginity, and star gazers can catch early appearances by Forest Whitaker, Eric Stoltz, Anthony Edwards and Nicolas Cage (still billing himself as Nicolas Coppola).
While Fast Times was an '80s film about the '80s, Dazed and Confused was a '90s flick about the '70s. In this instance anyway, nostalgia clearly trumps immediacy. With Dazed, writer-director Richard Linklater (The School of Rock) offers an infectious ode to wasted youth (in both senses of the term) in 1976 Middle America, following a group of high schoolers around as they kick off their summer vacation by getting drunk, getting high and trying to get laid. The film is virtually plotless, yet by nailing the look, the music and the dialogue of the era, Linklater generates a you-are-there vibe as he examines a period when indulging in vices was viewed as a coming-of-age rite of passage rather than a life-threatening act of immorality. The cast includes such up-and-comers as Ben Affleck and Parker Posey, and that's Matthew McConaughey who delivers the film's most famous line as jailbait-dating Wooderson: "That's what I love about these high school girls; I get older, they stay the same age."
Blu-ray extras on National Lampoon's Animal House include a 45-minute retrospective documentary; the 23-minute mockumentary Where Are They Now? A Delta Alumni Update; two sceneit? Animal House interactive games; interactive picture-in-picture material (interviews, behind-the-scenes footage, etc.); and an interactive feature that identifies the movie's songs. Blu-ray extras on Fast Times at Ridgemont High include audio commentary by Heckerling and Crowe; a 39-minute retrospective documentary; interactive picture-in-picture material (interviews, behind-the-scenes footage, etc.); and an interactive feature that identifies the movie's songs. Blu-ray extras on Dazed and Confused include 14 minutes of deleted scenes; The Blunt Truth, a vintage 4-minute short about the evils of marijuana; two '70s public service TV commercials: "VD Is for Everyone" and the famous "Crying Indian" spot; and an interactive feature that identifies the movie's songs.
National Lampoon's Animal House: ****
Fast Times at Ridgemont High: **
Dazed and Confused: ***
PAUL (2011). Often lewd, frequently crude, but always more clever than expected, Paul is ultimately a sweet homage to pop culture geeks, sci-fi aficionados and anyone who came of age on a steady diet of Spielberg blockbusters. Created by the acting-writing team of Simon Pegg and Nick Frost — the British lads behind Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz — the film casts the pair as Graeme and Clive, who have traveled to the U.S. to attend a sci-fi convention and make their own pilgrimage to all the reported UFO sites (Roswell, Area 51, etc.). At one of these locations, they stumble across Paul (voiced by Seth Rogen), an extraterrestrial who's been held by the government for 60 years and has just made his great escape. The film is least effective when it wanders outside its comfort zone of cinematic homage — Christian zealots, bigoted rednecks and pompous authors all find themselves in the line of fire, and the barbs are rather obvious (and only sporadically amusing). But when it comes to mining its fantasy-flick material, Paul is often slyly subversive: At one point, Clive reveals that he's always been interested in aliens — not since Close Encounters of the Third Kind or E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial but since Mac and Me, a dreadful and justly forgotten E.T. rip-off from the late 1980s. The film's sneakiness even extends to the casting of the primary villain, and an inversion of a classic sci-fi line once spoken by this performer should leave the true believers satisfied.
The Blu-ray contains both the R-rated theatrical version and an unrated cut running six minutes longer. Extras include audio commentary by Pegg, Frost, Hader, director Greg Mottola and producer Nira Park; a 40-minute making-of featurette; a 63-minute behind-the-scenes piece; 11 minutes of bloopers; and the US, UK and red band trailers.
POM WONDERFUL PRESENTS: THE GREATEST MOVIE EVER SOLD (2011). Just how big of a camera hog is Morgan Spurlock, the documentarian best known for the immensely entertaining Super Size Me? Let's just say that if someone placed him next to Michael Moore, the Fahrenheit 9/11 filmmaker would suddenly appear as reclusive as the late J.D. Salinger by comparison. OK, so that's a wee bit of an exaggeration, but while Moore at least has the sense to turn the camera away from himself long enough to burrow into the subject at hand, Spurlock demonstrates with POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold that it's hard for him to keep his mind on anything besides Morgan Spurlock. The rather simple hook of this picture is that Spurlock elected to make a documentary about product placements by financing it with money raised solely through — you got it — product placements. So for most of the film's 90-minute running time, we watch Spurlock hitting up various companies for sponsorships and discussing the philosophical ramifications of the practice with social activist Ralph Nader, political dissident Noam Chomsky and, uh, Rush Hour 3 director Brett Ratner. It's all entertaining stuff, but unlike Super Size Me, it only skims the surface, as Spurlock never really takes time to dig into the more fascinating subplots that arise from the material (such as the power that some unlikely behind-the-scenes figures wield when it comes to dictating a movie's content) and instead seems more satisfied in smugly trumpeting his own cleverness. But hey, more power to him. If he hadn't made it in the movies, this cheerful salesman would doubtless be working at a car dealership near you.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by Spurlock, producer Jeremy Chilnick, cinematographer Daniel Marracino and editor Thomas M. Vogt; 15 minutes of footage of Spurlock promoting the movie at the Sundance Film Festival; a 9-minute behind-the-scenes featurette; and 49 minutes of deleted scenes.
TIM BURTON'S THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS (1993). Tim Burton has always exhibited an inclination to frolic with the freaks, so to speak. Like David Lynch, he finds beauty in what others deem unsightly; as a result, his movies have generally centered on societal misfits trudging through a Dali-esque landscape, often in search of acceptance from those who have rejected them. This 1993 release is no exception: It tells of one Jack Skellington, the spindly Pumpkin King who helps mastermind the mischief behind Halloween. But Jack begins to tire of his lot in life, and one day he discovers another annual occasion for festivities: Christmas. Tremendously moved by the goodness of the Yuletide season and wanting to be a part of it, he orders his minions to kidnap "Sandy Claws" and dons the old red-and-white himself. But instead of visions of sugar plums, he serves up shrunken heads, skeletal reindeer and other macabre items that quickly take the ho-ho-ho out of the holiday. On a visual level, the movie qualifies as poetry in stop-motion, as Burton (credited as creator and co-producer) and director Henry Selick take this infrequently used facet of animated artistry to giddy heights. But at a brisk 75 minutes, this is one movie that could stand to be a little longer, as we aren't given enough time to become sufficiently acquainted with its intriguing fantasy world. Danny Elfman presents a melodious song score fashioned after a Broadway musical; he also provides the singing voice for Jack (Chris Sarandon handles dialogue duty).
The Nightmare Before Christmas has already been available on Blu-ray, but Disney has now released an edition that also includes Blu-ray 3-D. Extras include audio commentary by Burton, Selick and Elfman; an introduction to the film by Burton; deleted scenes; Burton's classic short films Frankenweenie and Vincent; an interactive tour of Disneyland's Holiday Haunted Mansion; and Burton's original source poem narrated by Christopher Lee.
WIN WIN (2011). If life is indeed about enjoying the little things, then it's entirely appropriate that the best scenes in Win Win are the little slice-of-life ones. Coming off a great performance in Barney's Version, Paul Giamatti again works wonders with his sad-sack routine — here, he's Mike Flaherty, a struggling lawyer and high-school wrestling coach whose backhanded dealing with a dementia-afflicted client (Burt Young) eventually leads to the elderly man's grandson, a troubled runaway named Kyle (Alex Shaffer), entering his life. Mike and his wife Jackie (a terrific turn by Gone Baby Gone's Amy Ryan) reluctantly decide to help Kyle out, only to grow genuinely attached to him. But this bond gets threatened when Kyle's irresponsible mother (Melanie Lynskey) turns up, just out of rehab and ready to drag her unwilling son home. Writer-director Tom McCarthy (The Station Agent) occasionally stumbles into unlikely scenarios that generally exist only in the movies, but he makes such slip-ups easy to ignore (or excuse) because the vast majority of the picture strikes the right notes in terms of its characters and the ways in which they interact with each other. Win Win is by no means a perfect movie, but it's a lovely one that deserves its designation as one of the top-seeded films new to Blu-ray and DVD.
Blu-ray extras include two deleted scenes; a 2-minute interview with McCarthy and Giamatti; a 6-minute interview with McCarthy and co-scripter Joe Tiboni; and the music video for The National's "Think You Can Wait."
YOUR HIGHNESS (2011). Whereas Win Win was one of the best movies from the first half of 2011, Your Highness ranks as one of the worst. As screen couplings go, the less charitable might gaze upon the union of Danny McBride and Natalie Portman and be reminded of Princess Leia forced to sit half-naked and chained next to Jabba the Hutt. But this unlikely match is the least of the problems plaguing Your Highness. God almighty, this is one awful movie, a real feat considering that even the most juvenile of comedies can score at least a couple of guffaws off a steady stream of pot and dick jokes. But this dud manages the unpardonable sin of being boring for long stretches of time as well as unfunny all the time. As a dim prince, McBride's stoner act can't touch that of either Cheech or Chong; as his heroic brother, James Franco seems as out of it as during his Oscar stint; as a warrior woman, Portman somehow maintains her dignity while wasting her talents; and as a damsel in distress, Zooey Deschanel is unpardonably ill-utilized. Meanwhile, a minotaur tries to engage in butt-fucking before getting his appendage lopped off, McBride and Franco are forced to give a hand job to a lecherous Yoda rip-off, and a traitor (Toby Jones) turns out to be as junk-free as a Ken doll. For comparable entertainment value, you might as well watch a Renaissance Festival employee take a leak behind the costume and pottery booths.
The Blu-ray contains both the R-rated theatrical version and an unrated cut running three minutes longer. There are lots of extras — audio commentary by director David Gordon Green and actors McBride, Franco and Justin Theroux, a 30-minute making-of piece, six deleted scenes, etc. — but they're about as painful to endure as the film itself.