The holiday season always heralds a slew of hot new releases, lavishly repackaged reissues and unusual collectors sets. Here are some cool Yule ideas good for stuffing stockings or adding to the pile of presents under the tree. As always, check Deep Discount and Amazon online for great deals. Some of the box sets can be 33 percent off or more.
BLU-RAY BOOTY— It’s hard to believe that a fourth Pirates flick got green lit, but when there’s a treasure chest of movie gold at stake, perhaps it’s not so hard to fathom. And in actuality, Pirates Of The Caribbean: On Stranger Tides was more enjoyable than parts two and three because of its streamlined and self-contained story wherein Capt. Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) goes on a quest to find the fabled Fountain of Youth while contending with the powerful Blackbeard and his feisty daughter Angelica (Penélope Cruz). It’s out on video now, and if you have to own the entire series in hi-def, you can get the ginormous Pirates of the Caribbean 15-Disc, Four-Movie Collection packaged in a replica pirate’s chest with a collectible map, iconic skull case and digital copies of all four films.
CHOCOHOLICS UNITE —I’ll bet you didn’t know that the first (and best) cinematic adaptation of Roald Dahl’s book Charlie And The Chocolate Factory (starring Gene Wilder) was originally made to sell real-life Wonka Bars? The Quaker Oats company was convinced by producer David L. Wolper to pony up the whole $2.8 million budget for Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factorywith the idea that Wonka Bars could be made and sold. They were, but unfortunately they melted too easily, so when the movie came out, nothing was available in stores. No worries, as other Wonka candy eventually came out, and this beloved film grew from cult status to bonafide classic over the span of the subsequent 15 years. Warner Bros’ 40th Anniversary Ultimate Collector’s Edition Blu-ray/DVD combo set is beautifully packaged and includes a copy of director Mel Stuart’s Pure Imagination book, which chronicles the making of the movie.
THE WORLD IN YOUR HANDS — Narrated by Sir David Attenborough, the BBC documentary series Planet Earth explores the awesome spectacle of life that we often miss in our technologically dominated world, and it has proven to be a massive hit for the British network and proven that many Westerners really do want to see beyond the paved-over strip mall environments they live in. Now you can have all six discs of the show packaged, appropriate enough, in a “sturdy, weighted globe” along with four exclusive art cards featuring some stunning images from the series. Evidently it also comes with new commentary and new bonus content. Either way, you’ll fool friends and family by wrapping this up and placing it under the tree with the usual square gifts.
SUPERHERO NATION — 2011 was one of the biggest years for superhero movies, with Marvel dominating the scene via Thor, Captain America and X-Men: First Class. The first two were well-received debuts in their own right and also helped to set up next year’s highly anticipated Avengers movie. And while one might think a fifth X-Men movie would be played out, the ’60s-era prequel, imbued with some Cold War espionage, proved to be exciting and a strong portrait of Charles Xavier (Professor X) and Erik Lehnhserr (Magneto) as young men struggling to find their place in the world. DC unleashed the Green Lantern movie as well, although that one did not fare as well. The action sequences and effects gave it the requisite eye candy appeal, although the characters were not as fleshed out as they should have been. But if you’re a diehard superhero fan, you’ll check it out anyway. Same goes for the recent Captain America reissues, both the subpar 1990 theatrical version and the two underwhelming TV movies from the ’70s (one with the awesome Christopher Lee).
ODE TO SPIELBERG — J.J. Abrams has certainly proven himself adept at creating fantasy fare for the big and small screens, and Super 8 is one of his best efforts. This tale of suburban teens who find themselves in the midst of a government cover-up of a nasty train crash that they witness (along with its alien cargo) harkens back to an age of more innocent childhood and movie kids who actually looked like kids and not beautiful Hollywood people. Not to mention a time in which kids spent more time exploring their world rather than being sucked into Xbox, Facebook and Twitter. And, yes, shooting movies on 8 mm film. Super 8 even looks like it was shot in the ‘80s, except for the fact that the effects are more sophisticated. Hopefully we will see a return to this kind of fantasy filmmaking, which focuses as much on character as on situation. For those who want to delve deeper into the making of the movie, the Blu-ray/DVD combo offers a plethora of bonus features, including eight behind-the-scenes featurettes, cast and crew interviews, deleted scenes and commentary from Abrams, producer Bryan Burk and cinematographer Larry Fong.
DOCS THAT ROCK — Not only has it been a trend for famous rockers to air out their dirty laundry and expose their lives in prose, but now many of them are giving visual evidence through documentaries that let us deeper into their inner circle. Lemmy: 49% Motherf**ker, 51% Son Of A Bitch takes us inside the world of the Mötörhead icon, from backstage into his living room. Directors Greg Olliver and Wes Orshoski snagged diverse people (Jarvis Cocker, Joan Jett, Metallica) to offer their thoughts on one of rock ‘n’ roll’s true bad boys, and they talk to the man himself about everything from his music to his grown-up son to his eerie collection of Nazi memorablia. There’s no easy way to pin him down.
Foo Fighters: Back and Forth chronicles the genesis of the band that told Glee to fuck off, even tracing frontman Dave Grohl’s roots in Nirvana and the original cassette demos he made for his future band. Many fans have raved about how in-depth the film is, and members Grohl, Taylor Hawkins, Nate Mendel, Chris Shiflett and Pat Smear all testify about their experiences over the last 16 years.
TALES OF TINTIN — With Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson’s big budget Adventures Of Tintin: The Secret Of The Unicorn ready to invade multiplexes nationwide, now is the perfect time to catch up on the television series from the early ‘90 (The Adventures Of Tintin, Season One is out now) which adapted the different graphic novels of Belgian reporter/sleuth Tintin into episodic form. (Yes, what creator Hergé did decades ago predated modern graphic novels.) While the old school cell animation here is not nearly as eye-popping as the new Hollywood rendition promises to be, it still has its charms and really does replicate the comic book art faithfully. There are some notable changes from the books in this series: Captain Haddock’s alcoholism is toned down, the violence and gunplay greatly reduced, racial stereotypes excised and Snowy the Dog’s “voice” is not heard. These episodes will be fun for kids and the kid in all of us. A French TV series that ran from 1959 to 1963 also exists, but it is uncertain whether they will see American release. We’ll see how the movie does.
COVERT AFFAIRS OR BARELY COVERT? — When The Gong Show host Chuck Barris released his autobiography Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind, he claimed that during the ’60s and ’70s, including his time as a television personality, he also doubled as an assassin for the CIA, a claim which he has been coy about ever since even as the CIA has denied it. Hey, even if it were true, who would believe him? Stranger things have happened. That’s the reaction you will probably have while watching this off-kilter dramedy co-starring Sam Rockwell as Barris and George Clooney as his CIA boss. It’s finally gotten its Blu-ray release, so check it out if you missed it or perhaps watch it again.
COWBOYS, ALIENS & INDY — Genre-bending tales have become chic in print and on the screen, and Cowboys And Aliens is not only part of this booming trend, it’s a hell of a lot of fun. Daniel Craig is a tough, Wild West outlaw stricken with amnesia and stuck with a strange device attached to his arm. While he’s wanted for murder, he becomes an invaluable asset to a small town, which aliens invade to kidnap many of its citizens. Harrison Ford plays the local power player, a crotchety cattle rancher who must team up with the stranger to take on an extraterrestrial force that may be impossible to stop. He also wants to save his delinquent son from captivity and possible extermination. I heard that the costume designer went through approximately three-dozen hats before settling on the right one for Ford, i.e. one that would not invoke the persona of Indiana Jones. Mission accomplished.
FEAR DELUXE — Here’s a great use of the Blu-ray format: Image Entertainment’s new reissue of the classic Lon Chaney horror film Phantom Of The Opera. The disc includes two high definition transfers of the 1929 reissue with different scores and frame rates as well as a standard definition of the 1925 version, which runs considerably longer, has a piano rather than orchestral score and is not as well restored as the later version. But it is an important historical piece, and having both versions on one disc for comparison and completion is great. The black and white film has been color tinted, with the “Bat Masque” scene presented in Technicolor. For young people used to seeing a lot of digital releases, the presence of film grain here will be surprising, but that’s exactly what gives many older films their charm and why Phantom, over 75 years after its release, still looks good. Watching the scenes in the Paris Opera really is like going back in time.
BOX SETS TO BENCH PRESS — Sometimes you just have to have an entire series of a show to be happy, and some studios are willing to oblige you. Just make sure you can actually lift the set and move it around. Take Smallville, the young Superman series that encompassed 10 seasons and 218 episodes. Collected in a 62-disc box, it also features five new hours of special features, including a 90-minute series retrospective, the never-before-aired 1961 Superboy pilot, the show’s 2010 Comic Con panel and an exclusive issue of the Daily Planet created by DC Comics. It goes for $339, but Amazon recently has been selling it for $200.
Hey, there’s one set that can actually top those stats: Law & Order. That’s 20 seasons with well over 400 episodes compiled onto 104 DVDs along with a 46-page episode guide; all available for $700 (but $450 if you pre-order on Amazon now). I have an affinity for certain shows myself, but wow, that’s a lot of viewing and a lot of money to spend. But potentially some good exercise too if the boxes are durable enough.
SQUAWKIN’ COOL — Seth Green and Matthew Senreich’s irreverent Robot Chicken series offers some awesomely un-PC takes on pop culture—such as “Saving Private Gigli,” “Schindler’s Bucket List” and “Casablankman”—and particularly superheroes. There’s a great parody here of Superman’s domestic life with a demanding Lois Lane who wants him to solve blips in their relationship by having him turn the world back in time a la the first Superman movie. Season 5 is the first full season of Robot Chicken to be released on home video at once, and this one has hours and hours of extras, including deleted scenes, behind the scenes material, over 50 deleted animatics with video introductions and episode commentary with celebrity guests.
GET INTO THE ZONE — All five seasons of the original Twilight Zone series are now available on Blu-ray with great transfers, commentaries and bonus features. And really, for the true Rod Serling fan, what else needs to be said?
3D OVERDRIVE — Disney has been actively reissuing their modern animated movies in 3D form, and many are available on Blu-ray and DVD (for those of you early 3D TV adopters), including The Lion King, Beauty And The Beast and The Nightmare Before Christmas.