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Giving the Gift of Film on DVD

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Folks in the current economy just haven’t warmed to the whole Blu-ray concept just yet. So while they are still commercially viable (even though they are waning in popularity), there are still a number of special edition DVDs funneling into the market. As the holiday approaches, it can be confusing for consumers as they toggle between choosing the “Special Dynamic Super Edition” or the “Ultimate Collectors Shiny Happy Edition” of the same films that have been released, re-released, and re-re-released.

I am not going to include the latest films that have perhaps just been released this year in theaters and are receiving their big DVD debuts, but rather the digital roads less traveled, providing a range of options for all to fit every price range for DVD films and box sets released in 2008.

As you are striking off names of cinephiles from your holiday gift list, consider some of the following options:

FOR THE KIDS/FAMILY

All kids will clamor for the WALL·E and Horton Hears a Who, but do you want your child to be a follower or a leader? Here are some healthy alternatives:

The Woody Woodpecker and Friends Classic Cartoon Collection, Vol 2. Woody was sort of like the Rodney Dangerfield of cartoon characters for me and my friends growing up. The ubiquitous bird was really just animated padding as we awaited what we perceived to be better cartoons that would come on when we returned home from school. He was the television equivalent of Ziggy. And while there are several valleys in this three-disc collection of shorts produced between 1952 and 1958, there are countless peaks, including Niagara Fools, which could quite possibly be the best of his entire run on the tube.

Classic Caballeros Collection: (The Three Caballeros/ Saludos Amigos) Walt Disney, cash strapped after spiraling budgets of Pinocchio and Fantasia threatened to bankrupt the company, found himself traveling to Central and South America in search of distributing his product and cashing in on new markets. The results are these two (and a few other) shorts that are bouncy enough to satiate the kids in the house (with staples like Donald Duck and Goofy), but filled with enough behind-the-scenes travelogues to keep the parents entertained long after the tots head off for bed. It’s a time capsule that shows the first footsteps taken in Disney’s now-global stranglehold on all things relating to childhood.

American Slapstick 2 In this three-disc compilation of shorts, 30 silent-era films are featured, demonstrating the breadth and depth of this oft-chided comic institution where public recognition usually focuses solely on some guy named Chaplin. Harold Lloyd, a then-unknown Oliver Hardy, Bebe Daniels, and Snub Pollard all share screen time with even lesser-known pioneers. The popularity of the one-half silent slapstick of this year’s WALL·E will perhaps encourage viewers to uncover these long-forgotten pearls.

The Red Balloon A lonely Parisian boy befriends the helium-filled titular object that seems to have a mind of its own in this 1956 film that is still as enchanting today. Janus Films has done an impeccable job in its cleanup of the print. The result is a simple, sweet, funny, and even moving tale (the balloon’s flirtatious dance with a blue balloon is priceless) that would still be as meaningful for children today as those in post-war France, when it was made.

BIG, BEEFY SETS

For those who still have job security and can perhaps shell out a few extra dollars, here are some options that are actually worth the money:

The Godfather (Coppola Restoration Giftset) Yes, Coppola and company have returned to this well many a time on DVD, but even if you have one of the former incarnations, you may want to start using them as coasters as this is by far the best-looking version of the films you are likely to find. For those film geeks who appreciate the film for its nuances like the chiaroscuro lighting, era-perfect costuming, and flawless framing, this is one sweet cannoli. It's about $45 for the whole set, though films can be purchased separately to avoid that whole Godfather III mistake.

The Pink Panther Ultimate Collection So the series bats about 500, mostly during Peter Sellers’ earliest work as the inept Inspector Clouseau (but this set also includes interpretations of the bumbling detective by Alan Arkin, Roger Moore (in 1983’s Curse of the Pink Panther), Roberto Benigni and, sadly, Steve Martin in the current re-boot of the franchise. But the shoddy latter film entries are completely forgiven by this box set’s inclusion of all 190 far-superior Pink Panther cartoons. About $180, but you are getting a total of 18 discs with this set.

Mystery Science Theater 3000: 20th Anniversary Edition Unfortunately, it is true: two decades have passed since this fantastic series first aired, meaning you are that much older. Fortunately, the series contains so many laughs you may forget all about how much hair you’ve lost/wrinkles you’ve gained in that time. Films held up for merry mockery include: First Spaceship to Venus (1960), Laserblast (1979), Werewolf (1983), and Future War (1997). In the past, many MST3K discs have been rather sparse on extras, but this set comes loaded with features, including the show’s history, a reunion Q & A, and countless different versions of the theme song. About $160, but you get a life-size head of Crow T. Robot, people!

The Complete Monty Python's Flying Circus: Collector's Edition Megaset To know it is to love it: Flying Circus and its co-conspiratorial crew calling itself Monty Python have been purveyors of all modern silliness for more than three decades, leaving many sketch-comedy contenders in their wake. Take a look at any “comedy” channel on the Internet today and you will no doubt see the influence of these ground-breaking masters of mockery.

The Budd Boetticher Box Set What, you’ve never heard of Budd Boetticher? Does the fact that Marin Scorsese, Clint Eastwood, and Taylor Hackford all volunteered to introduce films included in this set persuade you at all? The Tall T, Decision at Sundown, Buchanan Rides Alone, Ride Lonesome, and Comanche Station are but a few contributions to the Western genre from the director, giving James Coburn (in his film debut), Richard Boone, Maureen O'Sullivan, Pernell Roberts, Lee Van Cleef, and Craig Stevens a place to hang their hats, so to speak.

The Bette Davis Collection, Vol. 3 Made during the grand dame’s peak of popularity (the non-campy kind) while working with Warner Brothers, this collection includes seldom seen but worthwhile classics as The Old Maid (1939), All This and Heaven Too (1940), The Great Lie (1942), In This Our Life (1942), Watch the Rhine (1943), and Deception (1946). Also tossed into the six-disc set are commentary tracks from film scholars, era-specific film trailers, behind-the-scenes footage, and vintage cartoons.

The Alfred Hitchcock Premiere Collection Spanning eight discs, this MGM set highlights some of the more obscure, but no less interesting, works from the master, including The Lodger (1927), one of his silent pictures, Sabotage (1936), the Oscar-winning Rebecca (1940), Lifeboat (1944), a mini-masterwork that is set entirely on an inflatable raft and still manages to build tension, Spellbound (1945), Notorious (1946), and The Paradine Case (1946), starring Ingrid Bergman and Gregory Peck. Included are the famous Francois Truffaut interviews, trailers, radio adaptations, and other nuggets of cinema goodness.

Georges Méliès: First Wizard of Cinema (1896-1913) Méliès’s sad ending was criminal compared to his contribution to the world of film (he died penniless and all but forgotten), and this posthumous compilation only further proves just how influential this man was. Some of the ways the effects are done today have changed, but the more things change… A total of 173 short films from this movie master are included in this box set, filled with fantastic journeys, interplanetary travel, and fairy tale lands. The set also includes a booklet documenting his life in and out of film, as well as a famous short documentary on him from another French legend, Georges Franju.

A REALLY VERY SUPER-SPECIAL ULTIMATE COLLECTOR'S EDITION

Almost every film today is released in rated and “unrated” director’s cuts. But few of them have any negligible differences. Here are a few that merit a purchase:

The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (20th Anniversary Edition) Visionary director Terry Gilliam has seldom had smooth sailing from sets to screen (the legendary aborted Johnny Depp project, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, made for a fascinating documentary of the filmmaking process titled Lost in La Mancha), and this 1988 film is no exception. Budgets and schedules spinning out of control led to one of the more intriguing behind-the-scenes stories of film production, which is recounted rather honestly and thoroughly through its cast and crew in this special edition DVD. For those who have never witnessed this hallucinatory fantasy since it was first released, a repeat viewing after following how it was made is required to gain an entirely new respect for it.

The Thief of Bagdad (Criterion Collection) If your or your children’s only exposure to bottled genies and flying carpets is limited to either Disney and/or Barbara Eden, you owe it to yourself and your kids to pick up this restored gem that featured at-the-time groundbreaking effects (that even today, while dated, still impress), a thrilling adventure, and is now packed with bonus material such as the original trailer, several commentaries (including a couple of hacks by the name of Scorsese and Coppola), documentaries on Ray Harryhausen, Dennis Muren, and Craig Barron and various other features.

Dark City (Director’s Cut) Hot off the success of The Crow, in the early '90s director Alex Proyas was given a bigger budget to create an even larger alternate universe, not unlike the one created in Blade Runner. And it was perhaps a little too close, as the film was initially met with a shrug from many critics (except Roger Ebert) and quickly disappeared. It has developed a sizeable cult following, allowing a DVD rebirth in the form of a director’s cut, inviting newbies and former haters alike to view the film as originally intended.

Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains! Here’s another film that has a backstory almost as interesting as the one on the screen. Disowned by its writer, dropped by its studio and abandoned by home video, this rarity stars a young Diane Lane, Ray Winstone, and Laura Dern (as well as members of The Clash and The Sex Pistols). After making the rounds of HBO and late-night USA Network back in the day (late '80s), the film vanished into obscurity. Rhino has lovingly picked it up and polished it off with a number of features, including audio commentaries (from Lane and Dern, no less!).

The General: The Ultimate Two-Disc Edition No self-respecting lover of film should be without this one in their collection. Be wary, as since this classic has gone into public domain (meaning almost any rag-tag releasing company can distribute a beat-up print for profit), this comedic classic from Buster Keaton has countless versions clotting bargain bins everywhere. Kino, which has already released a fine dust-off of the film years ago, now presents a definitive version, including introductions from Gloria Swanson and Orson Welles, a tour of the filming locations (including the train used in the film) and a choice of musical accompaniments for this silent masterpiece of meticulously calculated mayhem.

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