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Evil Dead II, West Side Story among new home entertainment titles

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BEGINNERS (2011). Having missed this one during its low-key theatrical run, I'm happy to discover it on Blu-ray, where it will hopefully enjoy a healthy shelf life as a sleeper gem. In only his second feature-film assignment (following 2005's Thumbsucker), writer-director Mike Mills has fashioned a disarming, deeply felt and somewhat autobiographical piece in which an artist named Oliver (Ewan McGregor) recalls his recently deceased father Hal (Christopher Plummer), who announced he was gay at the age of 75, only to pass away from cancer four years later. As Oliver reflects on his dad, he meets and falls for Anna (Melanie Laurent, the avenging angel in Inglourious Basterds), a French actress who ultimately decides she wants something meaningful out of their relationship. In any other movie, the key supporting character of Arthur, a soulful Jack Russell terrier, would draw all the audience attention away from the two-legged protagonists (and kudos to Mills for somehow making the gimmicky device of subtitling the dog's thoughts work), but the performances by the three leads are so superb that everyone is able to share in the glory. A subtle, sensitive picture about love, loss and loneliness, this is one to seek out.

Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by Mills; a making-of short; and a promo piece.

Movie: ***1/2

CONAN THE BARBARIAN (2011). John Milius' 1982 treatment of author Robert E. Howard's pulp hero was a lumbering bore, with a wooden Arnold Schwarzenegger not yet seasoned enough to work up the charisma that would serve him well in later pictures. Still, I'm forced to recall that model with at least some smidgen of fond nostalgia after sitting through this perfectly dreadful reboot. A humorless endurance test from the director (Marcus Nispel) who previously desecrated horror staples both good (The Texas Chain Saw Massacre) and bad (Friday the 13th) with so-what? remakes, this Conan fails in practically every respect. Despite originally being presented in 3-D, this sports characters who barely fill out one dimension. The battle sequences are staged with little variance and no imagination. There is one nifty FX scene involving an army of monsters made out of sand, but even this becomes idiotic once it's apparent that a single tap will cause them to fall apart (guess they should have been fashioned from adamantium instead). As the title warrior who makes it his life's mission to avenge the death of his father (Ron Perlman), Jason Momoa has the requisite six-pack abs but otherwise comes off as such a contemporary jock that you half-expect him to eventually forget about the bloodletting and start discussing the Carolina Panthers' dreadful season. And speaking of Perlman as his pop, am I the only one who thinks his facial hair makes him look like the title creature from that dreadful '80s family flick, Harry and the Hendersons? Perlman isn't the only decent actor wasted here: Providing the narration is no less than Morgan Freeman, who sounds so bored and distracted that it's likely he was reading his lines while simultaneously making an omelette or putting away his laundry. As one of the villains, Rose McGowan sports a receding hairline and talons that would make Freddy Krueger jealous. Her character is also blessed with an incredible sense of smell, although obviously not strong enough to keep her away from this suffocating stinkbomb.

Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by Nispel; separate audio commentary by Momoa and McGowan; a look at the history of the Conan character; a piece on Robert E. Howard; and two featurettes on the action scenes.

Movie: *

EVIL DEAD II (1987). Sam Raimi's The Evil Dead earns my vote as the best gore flick ever made, so you'll excuse me for being puzzled whenever someone claims that this sequel is the superior film. The 1981 original (which didn't officially open in theaters until 1983, after which it enjoyed a healthy video existence) was a bravura horror blitz in every regard — for all its merits, this follow-up completely strips away even the slightest hint of menace, coasts by on some of the wacked-out special effects, and features supporting characters even (pardon the pun) more lifeless than those from the first film. After providing a shaky recap of what had previously taken place (because Raimi didn't own the rights to the original, he had to reshoot that picture's highlights), the movie catches up with lone survivor Ash (Bruce Campbell) as he's still stranded in a remote cabin surrounded by demonic entities. Four other people join him, and it's not long before the possessions and bodily dismemberments begin. Tackling this material less like a horror flick and more like a slapstick comedy, Raimi lets the talented Campbell go wild, and the actor's infectious, rambunctious turn remains the movie's high point. For their part, Raimi and co-writer Scott Spiegel contribute some comparatively subtle jokes — check out, for example, the nod to Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms.

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