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More variety, higher quality, better pricing—the world of home video just keeps getting better


Let’s start the roundup of worthwhile new video releases with a quartet of 2004 hits. Hero (Miramax) is the thinking-person’s kung fu film, packed with gorgeous visuals and balletic violence. Maria Full of Grace (HBO) is the tense story of a beautiful young drug mule and her dangerous journey from Colombia to the states. Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story (Fox) puts the playground game on the big screen with a surfeit of vicious slapstick; this violence was nothing, however, compared to the pure bile in Rip Torn’s gem of a performance as a legendary dodgeball coach. Finally, there’s The Bourne Supremacy (Universal): It’s not as good as The Bourne Identity, but still possesses a sober intelligence that lends gravitas to all the car chases and explosions.

Let’s face it: Many of us live in mixed families, with red- and blue-staters sitting side-by-side around the Xmas tree. The two most obvious gifts for that kissin’ cousin of an opposite political persuasion are Mel Gibson’s Biblical splatter-fest The Passion of the Christ (Fox), and Michael Moore’s hating-on-the-president polemic Fahrenheit 9/11 (Columbia TriStar). And your gifting can be naughty or nice, depending on whether you want to please or annoy the recipient.

DVDs are now cheap enough to be stocking stuffers. Which is fine, but if you want to impress someone with a really good video gift, you’ll have to spring for a box set. They come in all genres and degrees of elaborateness. Take, for example, The Ultimate Matrix Collection (Warner Bros.). This 10-disc set includes the original three Matrix films, and seven more discs of extras. The most intriguing extra? A separate commentary track for each film, with three movie critics who hate the trilogy, saying their worst. Dopiest extra? The really expensive version of this set includes a statue of Keanu Reeves as Neo.

The Wong Kar-Wai Collection (Kino) features five films from the critically adored Hong Kong director, including a new transfer of the violent urban fantasia Fallen Angels, and his little-seen early work Days of Being Wild. The father of modern American indie film, John Cassavetes, gets his due in the five-film John Cassavetes Collection (Criterion). His work was wildly uneven, but there was no braver, more risk-taking filmmaker in the 1960s and ’70s, and his influence has been immense.

So much for the indie dramas. There are some truly spectacular, newly released comedy box sets. SCTV: Vol. 2 (Shout Factory) is essential viewing for aficionados of sketch comedy. The gang’s all here: John Candy, Catherine O’Hara, Eugene Levy, Dave Thomas, Andrea Martin, Joe Flaherty and Rick Moranis. (Whatever happened to Rick Moranis, by the way?) Consisting of nine 90-minute episodes from the group’s 1981-82 season on NBC, plus extras, this is the best of the best. One word of caution, however: If you give this to someone who thinks the current SNL is funny, it may kill them.

Universal does right by classic comedy with the W.C. Fields Collection and The Marx Brothers Silver Screen Collection. The Fields set nicely balances the various Fields personas: the put-upon family man (It’s a Gift, The Bank Dick), the charlatan (You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man, My Little Chickadee) and the drunken millionaire (International House). The Marx set includes all their great early films, including Duck Soup. For animation fans there’s the Looney Tunes Golden Collection Vol. 2 (Warner Bros.)—a much more varied, interesting set than last year’s Vol. 1—and Mickey Mouse in Black & White Vol. 2 (Disney).

Dovetailed with the theatrical release of Leonardo DiCaprio as Howard Hughes in the biopic The Aviator are a number of new Hughes-related videos. Howard Hughes: The Real Aviator (Shout Factory) is almost three hours of everything you ever wanted to know about the elusive billionaire. Hell’s Angels (Universal) is Hughes the filmmaker’s greatest achievement. This World War I epic—which, interestingly, was high on Stanley Kubrick’s 10-best-film list—has some of the best aerial combat scenes ever filmed. (And some really awful acting, too.)

Interesting flicks continue to emerge from the studio vaults. Top of the list may be Hi, Mom! (MGM), a 1970 cult fave directed by the wickedly funny Brian De Palma and starring Robert De Niro as an unstable Vietnam vet who becomes involved with black-power revolutionaries. (The title is also the film’s final punchline.) For something more glossy and sophisticated, there’s Audrey Hepburn and Peter O’Toole in William Wyler’s art-heist comedy How to Steal a Million (Fox). The golden age of British colonialism gets the comic-action treatment in the Cary Grant-starring Gunga Din (Warner Bros.), and the serious treatment in the drama Breaker Morant (MGM). Cecil B. De Mille’s King of Kings (Criterion) manages to be both reverent and gaudy; picture a saintly Jesus curing a blind child, followed by a bejeweled Mary Magdalene ordering her slaves to “harness my zebras.” Kino on Video is offering, for the first time, the complete versions of two Fritz Lang silent classics: the delirious thriller Spies, and the early Sci-Fi epic Woman in the Moon. And yes, the “countdown” that is now a staple of real rocket launches was invented in this 1929 film. Other new releases include TCM Archives: Buster Keaton Collection (Warner Bros.), which includes Keaton’s final two silent classics, his first talkie and a documentary by historian Kevin Brownlow; Wim Wenders’ rural mope epic Paris, Texas (Fox), with Harry Dean Stanton; and the 40th-anniversary edition of the Julie Andrews-Dick Van Dyck classic Mary Poppins (Disney).

And, for the absolute last-minute shopper, a number of worthy 2004 films will be released on DVD just before Christmas. These include the hilarious British zombie comedy Shaun of the Dead (Universal); De-Lovely (MGM), a song-filled musical biography of Cole Porter starring Kevin Kline and Ashley Judd; triumph of the geek comedy Napoleon Dynamite (Fox); Jonathan Demme’s jarring, surprisingly powerful remake of The Manchurian Candidate, starring Denzel Washington and Meryl Streep (Paramount); and the highly praised, good-for-kids-and-adults story of the lives of tiger siblings, Two Brothers (Universal).

—Shawn Stone

2004 Gift Guide Home

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