The hot holiday home video guide (Part 2)

One of the truly classic Hollywood epics, "Ben-Hur" won 11 Oscars and looks and sounds magnificent here.

Story highlights

  • The "Ben-Hur" collector's edition includes a reproduction of Charlton Heston's diary
  • The "Willie Wonka " set includes a book about the making of the movie
  • Ingmar Bergman's "Fanny & Alexander" gets the full treatment from Criterion
Yesterday's guide featured a few box sets and some television shows that could easily make the shopping list this holiday season.
Today's list is devoted to classic film and TV, kids' vids, a couple of really killer sports sets and stocking stuffers. For the sake of having a dividing line, I am counting anything pre-1990 as "classic."*
Classic Films
"West Side Story: 50th Anniversary Edition"
Available in 3-disc or limited edition sets, this is a release that fans have been waiting for, for some time and well, it's a mixed bag.
The 7.1 DTS audio is pretty great (remastered from the existing 4-track masters and not the recently discovered original 6-track masters). There are a few balance issues that audiophiles will notice in the opening sequence, but after that, it's crisp and active. The video is where some of the gripes floating around the web are concerned.
Somewhere along the way a fade out/fade in was added to the main title sequence where one never existed before, thus severely blemishing the great Saul Bass overture/credit sequence. Not only that, but there's some pretty severe shimmering during the early helicopter shots of Manhattan and on the chain link fence during the opening scenes. There are a few other smaller instances of this throughout, but otherwise, the colors pop and the film looks magnificent.
Fox has apparently offered a "running fix" to the fade out/fade-in issue (where they replace your disc once the error has been corrected) but as of press time, I couldn't find any official word of this.
The extras on the set are pretty astonishing, including "Pow! The Dances of West Side Story." Choose this and when a dance number approaches, you see mini-interviews and hear voice-overs of cast members, dancers and notable choreographers, including Mikhail Baryshnikov, Debbie Allen and Adam Shankman. After this mini-interruption, the movie plays as normal. Also included is a candid song-specific commentary from lyricist Stephen Sondheim, several featurettes and a way to jump straight to your favorite songs.
The limited edition collector's set is loaded with extra goodies, including a cool mini-hardcover book with photos and extended cast and crew bios, a set of mini-reproductions of international posters for the film and a fourth disc tribute CD featuring covers of numbers from the film by Charlotte Church, Julie Andrews, and Mandy Patinkin, among others.
"Ben-Hur: 50th Anniversary Ultimate Collector's Edition"
Wow. All I can say is...Wow.
While it's relatively easy to remaster some newer films for Blu-ray (and they still mess them up) it's a real trick to go back and take something that's 50 years-old and restore it to this level of quality. One of the truly classic Hollywood epics, "Ben-Hur" won 11 Oscars and looks and sounds magnificent here. The collector's edition includes a number of very cool extras, including quite possible the coolest non-filmed extra I have ever seen, a 128-page hardcover reproduction of star Charlton Heston's diary for the shoot, up to and including Oscar night. His notes about being nervous, what Oscar night was like and the aftermath are gold, includes photos, ticket stubs, etc.
Other all-new extras include feature-length documentary that incorporates home movie footage from the Heston family and a 64-page hardcover production art book. All that plus the extras from previous releases and it's an amazing collection.
"Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory"
If you haven't seen this film since you were a child, take another look. It's definitely not just for kids and is one of the weirdest films I've ever seen. It's loaded with word play, double entendres and references that most kids will ignore but that adults will love (even if it does make you wonder why London seems to be almost completely populated by Americans). Justifiably a classic.
The second release of this film on Blu-ray, this gift set includes a bunch of pretty cool extras, including the "make-or-break" item, a 144-page book entitled "Pure Imagination: The Making of Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory." This alone would be worth $25 (hardcover would have been nice, though). It's loaded with great behind-the-scenes info for this classic, production photos, interviews and the like. Also in the set are reproductions of some production-era correspondence (Richard Attenborough as Wonka?) some nice little themed items (scratch and sniff...pencils?) and a second (DVD) disc of all the extras from the last release.
Criterion Collection:
"Three Colors: Blue, White, Red" - From one of the most acclaimed and prolific Polish directors of all time, Krzysztof Kieslowski's classic trilogy debuts on Blu-ray and the list of extras is longer than the description of the films. Shorts, documentaries, "cinema lessons" with Kieslowski, video interviews and a 78-page booklet with essays by noted film scholars.
"12 Angry Men" - One of my all-time favorite films. The debut film from one of the masters in American cinema, Sidney Lumet ("Serpico," "Dog Day Afternon"), this disc contains the 1957 film, the original 1955 live TV broadcast, several featurettes and a 1956 teleplay directed by Lumet. The disc is perfectly restored, like all Criterion discs.
"Dazed & Confused"- The perfect example of a period piece that nails it. Linklater did everything he could to make the film seem less like a nostalgic look at 1976 and more like a film actually made in 1976. Much like George Lucas' "American Graffiti" (which was clearly an influence) "Dazed" takes place over about 18 hours. While significantly cruder than the former film, it is no less a time capsule rite of passage for the generation that followed Lucas' characters. Extras abound, including great audition footage of actors who at the time of filming were complete unknowns. The only bummer is no director or star commentary for the audition footage!
"Fanny & Alexander"- The great master's masterpiece, Ingmar Bergman's 1982 Oscar-winner "Fanny & Alexander" gets the full treatment from Criterion and this three-disc set is loaded. Both versions of the film are included, the 320-minute television version and the 188-minute theatrical version. I will admit that I haven't watched the full five-hour, 20-minute TV version, but I have it on more than one authority that it is every bit the masterpiece.
Classic Television
"It Takes a Thief:" The Complete Series (DVD)
This is a series I didn't really know much about (and is not to be confused with the current show on Discovery Channel). It only aired for three years from 1968-70 and while it has a cult following and occasionally airs in syndication on cable, it has never been available on home video. Guess what? It's pretty great! Robert Wagner stars as an imprisoned world-class cat burglar who is offered parole on the condition that he continue stealing, but this time for the U.S. government. The show was inspired by the 1955 Alfred Hitchcock film "To Catch a Thief," and while R.J. Wagner's no Cary Grant, he's pretty cool in his own right.
This is one of those great, unsung, classic series with guest stars out the wazoo and it's fun spotting them. Some are at the very beginning of their careers, including the gamine Susan Saint-James (all of 22 and adorable in a pixie cut) and Teri Garr, as well as screen legends like Ricardo Montalbán, Peter Sellers, and Bette Davis. Fred Astaire had a recurring role in season three. (Episode list and guest stars, here) It's full of those "Hey! It's that guy" moments that have you glued to IMDb.com
"Barney Miller:" The Complete Series (DVD)
Like many successful 1970s series, "Barney Miller" (my second favorite sitcom of all time) was a groundbreaking show. It was a time of great social and political change in the United States, and television, as it often does, reflected that. Racism, nuclear power, urban unrest (New York City was in a financial crisis during the show's early years) and gay rights were all topics. In fact, the show was the first on TV to have both a gay-themed story arc (Officer Zitelli's coming out) and a recurring gay character (Jack Deleon as Marty Morrison).
The laconic know-it-all Arthur Dietrich (Steve Landesberg), lovable Nick Yemana (Jack Soo) and beleaguered Captain Miller himself (Hal Linden) are some of the most beloved characters in TV history and this set's a winner!
Looney Tunes Platinum Collection: Volume 1
What's not to love? More than a simple collection, this set is a must-have for any serious Looney Tunes fan and extra must-have for any aspiring animators. The set has such classics as "What's Opera, Doc?" "Robin Hood Daffy" and "Rabbit of Seville," as well as the complete collections of: Marvin the Martian, the Tasmanian Devil, Witch Hazel and Marc Anthony (the bulldog, not the singer!) as well as buckets of commentaries, alternate audio tracks and documentaries, including "Chuck Amuck: The Movie." The limited and numbered collector's edition gift set includes a Bugs Bunny shot glass, a cool tin fridge magnet and a framed Looney Tunes litho cel with a certificate of authenticity. Very cool and remember, this is only volume 1!
"Robotech:" The Complete Series (DVD)
An absolute classic and a must for any anime fan. Now, who's going to compile a set of "Battle of the Planets?" I hear the rights are available!
World Series Video Collection (DVD)
This might be my favorite set of this piece. But then again, baseball is my religion and this set might be as close to a video bible as I have. Each year since 1946, Major League Baseball has produced an official World Series film and this set contains all of them, broken up into 14 eras over 66 years. Housed in a very cool 56-page book rife with pictures and text, including essays covering the entire history of the World Series from 1903 to 2010, this is a baseball fan's winter dream. I know it'll get me through the Hot Stove season!
"Yankeeography: Pinstripe Legends Collector's Set" (DVD)
For better or worse, the New York Yankees are the most famous sports franchise in the world and for a Yankees fan such as myself, this is manna from heaven. 16 discs and 48 episodes of the Emmy-winning series comes in the same style book as the World Series collection and contains more than 44 hours of Yankees goodness. Red Sox fans need not apply.
For the Kiddies:
"Winnie the Pooh"
A modern animated classic, if you're going to buy one disc for your younger kids this year, make it this one. It's one you will enjoy watching as much as they will!
Christmas Movies:
"It's a Wonderful Life" box set- Yeah, yeah... it's a classic. This edition comes with both the original black and white film and a colorized version. If you watch the latter, I will come to your house and smack you across the face with a dead fish.
Stocking stuffers:
"Tintin: The Complete First Season" (DVD)
Not having seen the upcoming feature film, I can't compare them, but this isn't in motion capture, isn't in 3D and sticks to the story line of each of the books. I loved the books as a kid, and I love these cartoons now!
"The Captains," a documentary by William Shatner (DVD)
A surprisingly emotional film, Shatner goes above and beyond "Star Trek" in talking to his fellow "Star Trek" captains, sharing memories of marriages ruined by the hours it takes to film a weekly series and children who resent never seeing their parents. His chats with Avery Brooks (Benjamin Sisko, "Star Trek: Deep Space 9") take on a delightful, almost musical tone and the entire film is a joy to watch.
"The Conversation"
Francis Ford Coppola's 1974 classic on Blu-ray is eerily prescient, considering our modern society where we're all under some kind of surveillance every time we're outside. For a single disc "catalog" issue, it's loaded with extras, including many never before seen.
"Taking of Pelham 123" (the 1974 original)
This classic 1974 film combines an unlikely premise (who hijacks a subway train?) and combines it with an amazing score by David Shire ("The Conversation," "All the President's Men") and a cast that can't be beat (Walter Matthau, Robert Shaw, Martin Balsam, Hector Elizondo and Jerry Stiller). This film drips un-PC 1970s New York City.
"Happy Endings" season 1 (DVD)
This recently renewed show is offbeat and very funny. If you're loving the second season, here's your chance to jump on the bandwagon!
"Captain America"
I'm not sure I need to tell you to buy this, but...again, a perfect example of a near-flawless Blu-ray. Extras abound and along with this fall's "Thor," this is going to be on my "what am I in the mood for" default pile for a while. Needless to say, I can't wait for Joss Whedon's "Avengers." Yeah, no pressure, there!
"Mad Men" season 4
Like previous releases of this show, these discs are amazing. Commentary on every episode and loads of other entertaining extras, including a very cool documentary on the creation of the marketing campaign for the Ford Mustang.
"Star Wars: The Clone Wars," season 3
I am a recent convert to this show and convert, I am. Skip the horrible prequels and just straight to this excellently produced and visually stunning animated series. As a bonus, it's very light on the Jar Jar Binks!
*All are Blu-ray releases and available now unless otherwise noted.