BRIDESMAIDS (2011). Bridesmaids arrived with the look, feel and attendant buzz of a sleeper hit, but its $169 million haul and solid critical support (90% over at Rotten Tomatoes) doubtless exceeded any studio suit's wildest expectations. Judd Apatow is one of its producers, and the film certainly falls in line more with his brand of product — raunchy comedies that often reveal unexpected depths (e.g. The 40-Year-Old Virgin) — than with the usual formulaic rom-coms with female protagonists and wedding themes (e.g. the abysmal Something Borrowed). But let's be quick to steer most of the credit away from Apatow — and even director Paul Feig — and place it where it clearly belongs: at the feet of Kristen Wiig. The talented comedienne has perked up many a movie in supporting roles, and she's sensational in her largest part to date. Working from a screenplay she co-wrote with Annie Mumolo, she plays Annie, who's been chosen by her lifelong best friend Lillian (Maya Rudolph) to serve as her maid of honor. But Annie feels increasingly threatened by the presence of Lllian's new friend, the lovely and wealthy Helen (Rose Byrne), and matters soon get awkward and out-of-hand. Wiig possesses the same sort of brashness that the likes of Madeline Kahn and Bette Midler used to display in comedies, yet her more delicate features allow her to smoothly apply the brakes and ease back into the more vulnerable aspects of her characterization. As expected, the film contains a smattering of gross-out gags, yet while some are undeniably funny, they can't compete with the moments in which the laughs stem mostly from Wiig's genuine comic chops, whether it's the perfect scene involving a microphone stand-off or the sequence in which she unwisely mixes booze and pills while aboard an airplane. Granted, the actress has been around for years, but with Bridesmaids, it's not exactly inappropriate to declare that a star is born. I'm upping my rating from the 3 stars I gave the film during its theatrical run, for two reasons: 1) It ended up entertaining me more than just about any movie I saw during the rest of the summer, and 2) after three viewings, it's still a treat to watch.
The Blu-ray includes both the theatrical cut and an unrated version that's six minutes longer. Extras include audio commentary by Feig, Mumolo and the leading actresses; a 32-minute making-of piece; deleted scenes spread throughout the disc, including a funny sequence with Paul Rudd and more scenes with the British roommates; 50 minutes of extended and alternate scenes; and a 10-minute gag reel.
DEAD ALIVE (1992). Several years before he endeared himself to fanboys and Oscar voters alike with his Lord of the Rings adaptations, Peter Jackson was the guiding force behind a handful of idiosyncratic features in his native New Zealand. One such effort was Dead Alive, a film so excessively gory that it makes the Pacino version of Scarface look like a vintage episode of Reading Rainbow by comparison. Yet those who can accept the gruesomeness with tongue firmly embedded in bloody cheek will enjoy a film that's clearly influenced by Sam Raimi's The Evil Dead in its ability to gleefully mix slapstick humor with demented special effects. Set in a small New Zealand town, this finds the meek Lionel (Timothy Balme) caught in a tough spot after his domineering mother (Elizabeth Moody) gets bitten by a hideous Sumatran rat monkey and eventually turns into a festering, decomposing zombie. Lionel must care for the undead population quickly building in his basement even as he hopes to romance the sweet Paquita (Diana Penalver), but matters take a turn for the worse when his obnoxious Uncle Les (Ian Watkin) decides to throw a house party. The effects by Richard Taylor (who would go on to win five Oscars working under Jackson) are often outrageous — dig that creepy zombie baby! — and the sweetness of the relationship between Lionel and Paquita manages to be effective even in the midst of all the mayhem. Look for Forrest J Ackerman, the late, great editor of Famous Monsters of Filmland, as the zoo patron reading a magazine (Famous Monsters, natch).
The new Blu-ray contains the unrated 97-minute version, as opposed to the R-rated 84-minute cut. (There's also a 104-minute version that played internationally under the film's original title of Braindead, but that one's never been available in the U.S.) The only extras are theatrical trailers.
FAST FIVE (2011). Stating that Fast Five is the best of the Fast and the Furious series is perhaps like claiming that the Big Mac is the best hamburger served at McDonald's: It's not so much a declaration of excellence as an example of damning with faint praise. Still, fans of this high-octane franchise will find plenty to enjoy, newbies should be able to hop aboard the ride without getting left behind (any references to past pictures tend to be negligible or easy to absorb), and dates forced to watch this on the couch can at least enjoy the microwave popcorn. OK, that last bit was just a bit of facetiousness: Even with a generous 130-minute running time, the film never brakes for boredom. There's also a notable attempt on the parts of director Justin Lin and writer Chris Morgan to give everyone a moment to shine in the spotlight, and considering this entry brings back various characters from all four previous installments, that's a lot of illumination taking place. Front and center, of course, is the triumvirate of bad-ass Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel), bad-ass wannabe Brian O'Conner (Paul Walker) and tough yet tender Mia Toretto (Jordana Brewster). Return offenders include Tyrese Gibson (who still can't act a lick, bless him) and the always engaging Chris "Ludacris" Bridges as two of the numerous car-crazy accomplices. New to the cast is Dwayne Johnson as a federal agent in hot pursuit of our anti-heroes. As for the plot, it concerns the efforts of — oh, who am I kidding? All that's important is that it involves lots of car chases, mucho macho posturing, a nonstop barrage of wisecracks (some amusing, some anything but), and the continued sight of Brian O'Conner trying to look like a bad ass (or did I already mention that?). Oh, and it all takes place in Rio de Janeiro. Look fast and you can even spot a cameo appearance by Blu, the animated star of the smash hit Rio. OK, not really, but wouldn't Rio and Fast Five have made for a more intriguing cross-promotion than Rio and Angry Birds?
DVD extras include audio commentary by Lin; two minutes of deleted scenes; a 4-minute gag reel; and three featurettes (totalling 17 minutes) examining the characters played by Diesel, Walker and Johnson.
THE LION KING (1994). Until it was finally capsized by Finding Nemo in 2003, this Disney feature had the distinction of being cinema's top-grossing animated film, even accumulating enough of a bounty to briefly place it in the all-time Top 10. Certainly, until the firm establishment of the Pixar era, it was one of the last of the bumper crop of old-fashioned Disney efforts before the studio went on autopilot with such works as Hercules and The Hunchback of Notre Dame. This often dark tale about a lion cub holds real emotional resonance, and it's backed by gorgeous animation, Han Zimmer's Oscar-winning score (the treacly Tim Rice-Elton John collaboration "Can You Feel the Love Tonight" won for Best Original Song, although fellow nominees "Circle of Life" and "Hakuna Matata" are infinitely better), and one of the studio's most endearing comic-relief characters in the rambunctious meerkat Timon, perfectly voiced by Nathan Lane. For those too young to recall, the film met with a modicum of controversy during its initial release, with self-serving Harvard psychologist Carolyn Newberger fanning flames by calling the film racist (because the lowly hyenas were voiced by Whoopi Goldberg and Cheech Marin) and homophobic (because she thought Jeremy Irons' villainous Scar sounded gay, even though he sounded like Jeremy Irons to everyone else). Let's see, King Mufasa is voiced by an African-American actor (James Earl Jones), Queen Sarabi is voiced by an African-American actress (Madge Sinclair), the wisest character in the kingdom (Rafiki) is also voiced by an African-American actor (Robert Guillaume), and the most lovable characters (Timon and Pumba) are played by two openly gay actors (Lane and Ernie Sabella) who stated in interviews that, in their minds, their characters were homosexual. Newberger doubtless enjoyed her 15 — make that six — minutes of fame, but her idiocy was widely challenged by critics and columnists at the Chicago Tribune, the Washington Post and countless other publications.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by co-directors Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff and producer Don Hahn; a 38-minute retrospective piece in which various folks (including Lane and Matthew Broderick) discuss the film's legacy; 15 minutes of deleted scenes; four minutes of "bloopers" by the animal stars; and an interactive art gallery. One major bummer: The numerous features from the previous DVD edition are only available when the Blu-ray player is synched with the Internet, a disappointment for those (like me) who don't have the devices connected.
MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000: "MANOS" THE HANDS OF FATE (1993). Yes, it's the one, the only, the must-be-seen-to-be-disbelieved "Manos" The Hands of Fate, that mega-turkey that's often cited as the worst movie ever made — a (dis)honor, incidentally, that used to pretty much belong to Ed Wood's Plan 9 from Outer Space. (Personally, I find "Manos" to be worse, if only because Plan 9 is a helluva lot more fun to watch.) Joel, Crow and Tom Servo tackled this 1966 abomination in the show's fourth season, and it remains one of their most beloved episodes — enough that the folks at Shout! Factory have elected to honor it with its own two-disc special edition. The film, staggering in its ineptitude, finds a vacationing family (mom, dad, daughter, dog) getting lost and ending up at the home of the diabolical Master (Tom Neyman), his bevy of brides, and his extremely odd henchman Torgo (John Reynolds). This movie is so rotten that even Dr. Forrester and TV's Frank separately apologize to Joel for subjecting him to its petty tortures; ever the trouper, though, he and the 'Bots face it with their usual aplomb, although Crow admittedly slips when he wails, "Joel, this is gonna turn into a snuff film!" This episode is packed with choice gems, including a howler at the expense of Beaches and, in the invention exchange, a gag directed at that most awful of comic strips, Bil Keane's Family Circus. Just don't concentrate too much on the film itself, or you might lose your mind; as series regular Mary Jo Pehl puts it in The Mystery Science Theater 3000 Amazing Colossal Episode Guide, this was "far and away the most loathsome, repulsive, unpleasantest, vilest, ickyest, blechiest film to come along in MST3K's rich film history ... "Manos" became our standard by which all others are measured."
DVD extras include the original film sans the MST3K treatment; an 18-minute piece in which Joel and other series regulars discuss the film; the 27-minute Hotel Torgo, a documentary on the making of "Manos" The Hands of Fate; and a 9-minute interview with Joel in which he discusses the short ("Hired!") that precedes the film.
VAMPIRES, MUMMIES & MONSTERS (1971-1988). This four-movie collection is part of Shout! Factory's line of Roger Corman features, but except for an executive producing credit on one title, he's nowhere to be found in relation to the other pictures; instead, these movies were merely released by his production companies. It's to his credit that they didn't end up on his personal filmography, since this is one sorry assemblage. The Velvet Vampire (1971) is a crushingly dull and pseudo-artsy take on the horror genre, with a dim-witted couple (Michael Blodgett and Sherry Miles) lured by a sexy vampire (Celeste Yarnall) to her remote desert home, where she takes them on dune buggy rides, infiltrates their dreams, and puts the moves on them. Lady Frankenstein (1972), the best of the bunch (not saying much), is more traditional fare, with the Baron (an elderly Joseph Cotten, a loooooong way from the likes of Citizen Kane and The Third Man) killed by his own creation, thereby spurring his daughter (Sara Bay) to create a second monster that will not only avenge her father's death but satisfy her sexually. Time Walker (1982), which played on Mystery Science Theater 3000 under its alternate title (Being from Another Planet), is a poor effort meshing horror and sci-fi staples, as a recently discovered mummy is soon revealed to be a long dormant alien just wanting to go home. And Grotesque (1988) is the perfect way to describe the movie itself: Starring Linda Blair and Tab Hunter, it's a nasty piece of cinema, with a group of punks (Brad Wilson's performance as leader Scratch is a prime example of abysmal overacting) tormenting and murdering a group of nice people before having to contend with the disfigured being they encounter elsewhere in the house.
DVD extras on The Velvet Vampire consist of audio commentary by Yarnall; the theatrical trailer; and a photo gallery. Lady Frankenstein can be viewed as either the 84-minute stateside cut or the 96-minute international version; extras consist of the trailer, a TV spot and a photo gallery. Time Walker extras consist of a 9-minute interview with producer Dimitri Villard; a 10-minute interview with co-star Kevin Brophy; and the trailer. There are no extras on Grotesque.
The Velvet Vampire: *
Lady Frankenstein: **
Time Walker: *1/2