Video Verdict: ‘Super 8,’ ‘Conan the Barbarian’

From left, Joel Courtney, Elle Fanning and Ryan Lee in a scene from the science-fiction adventure “Super 8.”

This week’s home video releases include a new take on Conan the Barbarian and the latest feature from J.J. Abrams, creator of TV’s “Lost.”

Super 8

3 stars (out of four)
Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi action and violence, language and some drug use
Available on: DVD and Blu-ray

Writer-director-producer J.J. Abrams had a hit with his 2009 reboot of the “Star Trek” franchise, and his latest project has elements of science-fiction as well. In “Super 8,” Abrams tells the story of six youth who find themselves in a spectacular and frightening adventure when a train derails near their small Ohio town.

The story is primarily centered on Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney), a boy whose mother is killed in a factory accident, leaving him largely alone. Joe’s father, Jackson (Kyle Chandler), is a good man, but his work as a sheriff’s deputy keeps him preoccupied. Because of this, Joe spends much of his time making amateur, super 8 movies with friends.

While filming a sequence for one of their movies, Joe and his pals witness the aforementioned train crash, an event that leads to increasingly strange happenings in their town. First, the Air Force sweeps in, claiming all the rubble from the crash. Then, dogs and people begin to disappear.

As Joe and his friends struggle to make sense of what’s happening, they work through a variety of personal issues. The most important is Joe’s budding friendship with Alice Dainard (Elle Fanning), a beautiful girl whose father is an alcoholic.

In one sense, “Super 8” is a horror movie, but it isn’t built around blood and gore. Rather, the focus is on Joe, his friends and the way they deal with the strange happenings in their community. Steven Spielberg was a producer, and the movie feels like one of his efforts from the 1970s or ’80s. There’s a sense of wonder in all that the young protagonists experience, but there’s also an underlying feeling of danger.

Courtney is winning in the lead role, and he gets strong supporting performances from the young actors around him. Riley Griffiths, who plays the ringleader of Joe’s filmmaking group, is particularly strong, as is Fanning, younger sister to actress Dakota Fanning.

“Super 8’s” primary weakness is its finale, which is scarred by a number of unexplained and/or unbelievable plot points. Fortunately, the overall execution and story arc are solid enough to allow most viewers to look beyond the flaws and enjoy the film for what it is: a rousing adventure paying homage to the innocence of childhood.

The movie is available on standard DVD and as part of a Blu-ray/DVD combo pack. The latter includes eight behind-the-scenes featurettes, a collection of deleted scenes, a feature on one of the key special effects sequences and an audio commentary by Abrams and other filmmakers.

Conan the Barbarian

1½ stars
Rated R for strong bloody violence, some sexuality and nudity
Available on: DVD, Blu-ray, Blu-ray 3D, digital download and on demand

There may be a way to build a great movie around the Conan the Barbarian character created by writer Robert E. Howard in 1932, but Hollywood is yet to discover it. In the latest attempt, director Marcus Nispel and his team of screenwriters ignore the Arnold Schwarzenegger films of the 1980s and start the saga anew.

Considering how much time has passed since Schwarzenegger played the brutish Cimmerian warrior, a reboot was in order. Sadly, Nispel’s approach is neither exciting nor creative. In fact, his ultra-violent take on “Conan the Barbarian” plays more like an endless action sequence than an actual feature film.

The movie starts with a bloody battle in which Conan’s mother is wounded, forcing her husband, Corin (Ron Perlman), to perform a battlefield caesarean section. Thus Conan enters the world.

As a boy, Conan learns the violent ways of his Cimmerian tribesmen, becoming an excellent warrior even before he reaches puberty. Alas, Conan’s father and fellow tribesmen are slaughtered by a travelling warlord named Khalar Zym (Stephen Lang). This leaves the youngster to grow up alone.

Once he reaches adulthood, Conan (Jason Momoa) is set on revenge, and he spends the bulk of the movie doling it out in one gruesome fight sequence after another. Momoa is passable in the title role, but it’s difficult to tell whether he can actually act. All the script asks him to do is run around shirtless, gutting enemies and glowering at the camera.

“Conan” has an underlying story involving a powerful supernatural mask, but such details are secondary to the film’s fight sequences, which are always big, loud and bloody. There is so much action, in fact, that “Conan” becomes an assault on the senses.

None of this is surprising, as Nispel’s previous features, “Pathfinder” and the recent “Friday the 13th remake,” weren’t exactly case studies in great filmmaking. Still, a character like Conan – a good-hearted but brutal warrior – has potential, and it’s sad to see it squandered yet again.

DVD and Blu-ray extras include a feature on the history of the Conan character, a bit about Robert E. Howard, two featurettes on the making of the movie, an audio commentary by Nispel and a second commentary by Momoa and co-star Rose McGowan.


“Spy Kids – All the Time in the World”: Jessica Alba stars as Marissa Wilson, a retired spy who is called back to action when a super-villain (Jeremy Piven) threatens to take over the world. As the story builds, her two stepchildren get tangled in the adventure. Written and directed by Robert Rodriguez.

“A Madea Christmas – The Play”: Musical play by writer-director-actor Tyler Perry. In this piece, Perry’s popular Madea character keeps the Christmas spirit alive when two divergent families are thrown together for the holidays.

“Meet the Browns” – Season Three: The complete third season of Tyler Perry’s TV comedy “Meet the Browns.” The show focuses on the antics of a Georgia family, and it stars Tamela J. Mann and her real-life husband, David Mann.

“WWII in HD” – Collector’s Edition: This boxed set includes all 10 parts of the History Channel documentary series focused on the war-time stories of 12 different Americans. Among other things, the series features color footage from World War II.

“Twelve Angry Men”: Criterion Collection release of director Sidney Lumet’s 1957 courtroom drama. Henry Fonda stars as the lone dissenter on an all-white jury ready to convict a Puerto Rican teen of murder.

“Three Amigos!” – 25th Anniversary Edition: This 1986 comedy is getting its Blu-ray debut. Steve Martin, Chevy Chase and Martin Short star as movie actors in desperate need of a gig. They think they’ve caught a break when a Mexican town hires them for a personal appearance. Little do they know, town residents believe they are real-life heroes and expect them to clean up a bandit problem.

“The Devil’s Double”: Director Lee Tamahori’s drama about a man forced to serve as a double for Saddam Hussein’s son Uday. Dominic Cooper stars as both Uday and the double.

“Flypaper”: Crime comedy featuring Patrick Dempsey as a bank customer who gets trapped when two groups of thieves try to rob the business simultaneously. On the up side, the teller that Dempsey’s character has fallen in love with (Ashley Judd) is also there. Directed by Rob Minkoff.

“Trigger”: Drama about two female rock musicians (Molly Parker and Tracy Wright) who get back together for a benefit show a decade after the breakup of their band. Directed by Bruce McDonald.

“The Family Tree”: When a suburban housewife (Hope Davis) develops short-term memory loss, it has positive impacts on her dysfunctional family. Dermot Mulroney, Brittany Robertson and Max Thieriot also star. Directed by Vivi Friedman.

“The Adventures of Tintin – Season One”: In December, director Steven Spielberg will deliver a new feature based on “The Adventures of Tintin,” a comic strip created by French artist Herge (Georges Remi). This set collects 13 episodes of the 1990s cartoon series based on the same material.

Marvel Knights Animation Collection: With Christmas approaching, Shout! Factory decided to package five motion comics from Marvel into one boxed set. Included are: “Astonishing X-Men – Gifted”; “Iron Man – Extremis”; “Black Panther”; “Spider-Woman – Agent of S.W.O.R.D.”; and “Thor & Loki – Blood Brothers.”

“American Restoration – Volume One”: Sixteen episodes of the reality TV series centered on a Las Vegas business that restores damaged collectibles to original condition.

“Beauty and the Beast” sequels: Disney is re-releasing two home video spinoffs to its “Beauty and the Beast” franchise: “Belle’s Magical World” and “The Enchanted Christmas.” Both are available on DVD and digital download. “Christmas” is also available as a Blu-ray/DVD combo pack.

“Prep & Landing”: Home video release of Disney’s 2009 animated adventure about high-tech elves who make sure Santa’s many Christmas stops go as planned.

“Babar and Father Christmas”: Holiday titles are flooding stores now, and this animated children’s adventure focuses on the elephant Babar and his family.

“Pablo Francisco – They Put it Out There”: Home video release of comedian Pablo Francisco’s latest Comedy Central stand-up special.


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

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