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List: 2008’s Most Covetable DVD Box Sets

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By Matt Singer and Alison Willmore

DVD box sets remain the go-to gift for any film fan in your life — they come in a range of sizes and prices, so that you can scale up or down depending on how much you like the recipient, and this time of year they’re often discounted for last-minute holiday shoppers (and those treating themselves to a present). Here are the new or revamped box sets from 2008 that we’ve been eyeing:

12182008_mst3000.jpgMystery Science Theater 3000 20th Anniversary Edition
Shout Factory, $59.99

“Mystery Science Theater 3000″‘s inaugural release from Shout Factory (after many years and discs with Rhino Records) celebrates the show’s 20th anniversary with a spiffy box set featuring four never-released-to-DVD episodes: “Werewolf” (with the “great” Joe Estevez), “Future War,” “First Spaceship on Venus” and the long-awaited and highly coveted “Laserblast,” the final episode on Comedy Central. The set also includes an 80-minute documentary on the show’s MSTory, and footage from a panel from this summer’s San Diego Comic-Con, where the series’ various cast and creative teams assembled publicly for the first time in years (hosts Joel Hodgson and Mike Nelson appear in public together about as often as Clark Kent and Superman). By my count, I already own 31 episodes of “Mystery Science Theater,” somewhere in the neighborhood of 45 hours of bad movie riffing, in various home entertainment formats — I’ve even got a couple on both VHS and DVD — but I’m still embarrassingly excited about this set, particularly the limited edition version that comes with a Crow T. Robot mini-bust.

12182008_scificollection.jpgClassic Sci-Fi Ultimate Collection 1 & 2
Universal Studios, $59.98

Universal Pictures created some of the most famous monsters to be seared onto celluloid and our collective movie memory — Chaney’s “Phantom of the Opera” and “Wolf Man,” Karloff’s “Frankenstein,” Lugosi’s “Dracula” — absolutely none of which appear on this ten-disc set of dreckier, campier and excellently entertaining selections harvested mainly from the studio’s ’50s B-movie library. Instead, you have giant insects springing from scientific experiments gone wrong (“Tarantula”) or glaciers melting (“The Deadly Mantis”); predatory females (Faith Domergue as a vengeful snake woman in “Cult of the Cobra,” Coleen Gray as an aging housewife harvesting pineal glands for youth in “The Leech Woman”); underground kingdoms of dinosaurs (“The Land Unknown”) or Sumerian albinos (“The Mole People”) and miniaturization both mysterious (“The Incredible Shrinking Man”) and intentional (“Dr. Cyclops”). And at the price, it’s a deal that can’t be beat — the glimpse of a strikingly young Clint Eastwood as an unnamed “Jet Squadron Leader” in “Tarantula” alone makes it worth your while.

12182008_rialto.jpg10 Years of Rialto Pictures
Criterion Collection, $149.95

If you’ve got to buy a present for a teenager (or anyone, really) who’s starting to take an interest in classic arthouse cinema, you can’t go wrong with “10 Years of Rialto Pictures,” a streamlined ten-film set from the Criterion Collection commemorating the tin anniversary of the great repertory distributor founded in 1997 by Film Forum programmer Bruce Goldstein. You won’t get much in the way of extras, there are a few surprising omissions (“The Battle of Algiers,” for example) and the set can never recreate the fun of seeing these films in the Forum’s musty ambiance surrounded by rabid cinephiles. Nevertheless, it’s a great introduction to many of the giants of international filmmaking, from Buñuel (“The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie”) to Bresson (“Au Hasard Balthazar”) to Godard (“Band of Outsiders”). Plus, if you’re trying to acquaint a skeptic with old movies, the lineup isn’t too heavy or highfalutin’, with choices that touch on film noir (Jules Dassin’s “Rififi”), thrillers (Carol Reed’s “The Third Man”) and dark comedy (Alberto Lattuada’s “Mafioso”).

12182008_essentialarthouse.jpgEssential Art House: Vol. 1
Criterion Collection, $99.95

If the ten-discer above seems a little much, Criterion also has a lighter-weight six-disc box of selections from their Janus Films-fueled Essential Art House collection. “Vol. 1” is a bite-sized encapsulation of the hefty, covetable and, for most, utterly out of reach 50-film $850 “Essential Art House” bound-book set that came out two years ago to be drooled over by many a movielovers, ourselves included. Offered in this first volume breakdown are four unimpeachable arthouse classics — Bergman’s “Wild Strawberries,” Cocteau’s “Beauty and the Beast,” Kurosawa’s “Rashomon” and Renoir’s “Grand Illusion” — along with two slightly edgier choices, Polanski’s masterfully claustrophobic debut “Knife in the Water” and the 1963 adaptation of “Lord of the Flies.” It’s another fine starter kit for someone who’s just starting to explore arthouse film, and one that, while again, doesn’t come with many of the expected extras, does break down to a per-disc average that’s around half the cost of the typical Criterion release.

12182008_dirtyharry.jpgDirty Harry Ultimate Collector’s Edition
Warner Home Video, $74.98

With Clint Eastwood’s turn as a crotchety, gun-toting racist in the new “Gran Torino” drawing comparisons to his iconic maverick cop Inspector Harry Callahan, it’s a great time to reexamine the “Dirty Harry” series, and the “Ultimate Collector’s Edition” makes a convenient one-stop shop. You get all five “Dirty Harry”s, each with its own new commentary track and a variety of other new-to-the-set extras, including a feature-length documentary on Eastwood’s career, “Out of the Shadows.” None of the sequels matched Don Siegel’s original for brains or brawn, but the franchise did a better job than many of its contemporaries — like, say, the “Death Wish”es — of refusing to pander to a certain segment of their audience by devolving into a succession of brainless kill-fests. Even late entries like the Eastwood-directed “Sudden Impact” from 1983 continued and expanded the first film’s exploration into the nature of and limits to justice, in a story that saw Harry on the trail of a vengeful rape victim. The coolest-slash-goofiest extra: a replica wallet and police ID, I guess so you can run around like a lunatic, screaming at people “Go ahead: make my day…what? No officer, it’s not my fault! Blame the people at Warner Home Video!”

12182008_davidlynch.jpgDavid Lynch: The Lime Green Set
Absurda, $179.99

Let’s get this out there off the bat: There are only a quartet of features contained in this ten-disc set, put out by David Lynch’s own Absurda label — “Eraserhead,” “The Elephant Man,” “Blue Velvet” and “Wild at Heart,” the director’s first four, sans “Dune,” and all already available on DVD. But you’re not being asked to plop down such a significant chunk of change for the movies, you’re being asked to do it for the endless oddities with which they come swaddled: interviews with Lynch, a doc on Joseph Merrick, the “Eraserhead” soundtrack on CD, the experimental stage musical “Industrial Symphony No. 1” (previously obtainable only on long out-of-print VHS). Then there’s the much-speculated-over “mystery disc,” chock-a-block with snipped “Wild at Heart” footage, shorts, web series episodes (“Rabbits” and “Out Yonder”) and a “Twin Peaks”-era music video. Needless to say, “The Lime Green Set,” which comes in the promised shade of extreme viridian, was created for the dedicated Lynchophiles out there, who’ve probably already cleared shelf space in anticipation for sequel sets in other bright colors built around works from later in the filmmaker’s career. If you’re looking to pick this one up, DavidLynch.com seems to offer the best bargain.

12182008_harryhoudini.jpgHoudini: The Movie Star
Kino, $39.95

Everyone knows Harry Houdini’s legacy in the world of magic, and documentaries about his life always include newsreel footage of his death defying stunts, but until I heard about Kino’s three-disc “Houdini: The Movie Star” I didn’t even realize that Houdini’s presence on the early silver screen went beyond actualities into the world of fiction. In fact, Houdini made numerous serials and features throughout the 1910s and 20s, and though Kino’s set also includes footage of many of Houdini’s actual tricks, the bulk of the collection’s devoted to the former rather than the latter. They sound freaking awesome; 1919’s “The Master Mystery,” for example, stars Houdini as a government agent who busts up a patent con scheme while escaping dangling-over-vats-of-acid death traps and fighting over crazed robots. And since Houdini had a keen interest in the supernatural and the afterlife, there’s also stuff like “The Man From Beyond” (1922) a feature where he plays a guy frozen in a block of ice, thaws out, and hooks up with the reincarnation of his former flame. Sadly, a lot of this material isn’t intact — the serials are missing numerous chapters — but Kino compiled all the material that does exist and included title cards and stills to bridge the gaps in the storylines.

12182008_ratpack.jpgThe Rat Pack Ultimate Collectors Edition
Warner Home Video, $59.98

The definitive Rat Pack movie is a title that, for audiences these days, is far more likely to bring up thoughts of a tuxedoed George Clooney and a tieless Brad Pitt than Ol’ Blue Eyes and Dean Martin. But what’s surprising, watching the 1960 “Ocean’s Eleven,” the highpoint of this four-film collection, are the hints of darkness fluttering around the edge. Soderbergh’s con men ease effortlessly through their multiple-casino heist, but the gang in the original are old army buddies with wives to rescue from stripping, or terminal cancer and families to support, or dead-end careers due to their race. Then again, Soderbergh needed every inch of filmmaking style he could summon just to measure up to the luminescent star power of the Pack at its height: Frank Sinatra, Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Peter Lawford and Joey Bishop, not to mention Angie Dickinson and a cameo from Shirley MacLaine. The Rat Pack members may have been comfortable on camera, but they weren’t always great actors; this box set also includes western comedies “4 for Texas” and “Gunga Din” reworking “Sergeants 3” as well as gangster musical “Robin and the 7 Hoods,” all with their highs and lows, but all, in their capturing of the talent and even more impressive rapport of their performances, ineffably entertaining. This set also come with lobby card reproductions, stills, a deck of Rat Pack cards and commentary tracks on three of the films from Frank Sinatra Jr.

12182008_murnau.jpgMurnau, Borzage, and Fox
20th Century Fox, $239.98

One of the most well-reviewed (“the best that home video has to offer in quality, scholarship and enduring aesthetic interest” raved The New York Times‘ Dave Kehr), not to mention expensive (at almost $250 beans) box sets of the year includes a dozen films from its two titular directors. Only two — 1927’s landmark silent “Sunrise” and 1930’s “City Girl” — come from F.W. Murnau, who died in a car accident in 1931, just five years after emigrating from Hollywood from Germany. The ten other features come from his studiomate at Fox, Frank Borzage, an American who paid close attention to Murnau’s visual style and applied it to his own burgeoning aesthetic in movies like 1927’s “Seventh Heaven.” Though Borzage was more prolific, made more money and remained a key figure in the transitional period between silent and sound cinema, he’s largely forgotten to history (note whose name comes first in the box’s title), a fact this set will hopefully come to rectify. Extras include several documentaries, commentary tracks and a book about the filmmakers and their time at the innovative Fox studio.

12182008_harryhausen.jpgRay Harryhausen Gift Set
Sony Pictures, $80.95

Harryhausen! And not the giant Cyclops/dueling skeletons Harryhausen of “The Fantastic Films of Ray Harryhausen” (released back in 2004) — this three-film set offers two-disc versions of the stop-motion master’s greatest work in sci-fi, “20 Million Miles to Earth,” “It Came From Beneath the Sea” and “Earth vs. The Flying Saucers.” In the first feature, a specimen brought back from Venus grows into a gigantic, sulfur-gobbling, elephant-murdering monster that wreaks havoc on Rome (picked because it was where Harryhausen wanted to have his vacation). “It Came From Beneath the Sea” finds a massive radioactive octopus (that, for budgetary reasons, only actually had six tentacles) attacking San Francisco. And “Earth vs. The Flying Saucers” offers an invasion by alien spaceships, effects that were groundbreaking at the time and that are still impressive. Each of the films comes in both the original black and white and colorized editions, and the set includes figurine of the “20 Million Miles to Earth” creature.

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A-O Rewind

Celebrating Portlandia One Sketch at a Time

The final season of Portlandia approaches.

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Most people measure time in minutes, hours, days, years…At IFC, we measure it in sketches. And nothing takes us way (waaaaaay) back like Portlandia sketches. Yes, there’s a Portlandia milepost from every season that changed the way we think, behave, and pickle things. In honor of Portlandia’s 8th and final season, Subaru presents a few of our favorites.

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Put A Bird On It

Portlandia enters the pop-culture lexicon and inspires us to put birds on literally everything.

Colin the Chicken

Who’s your chicken, really? Behold the emerging locavore trend captured perfectly to the nth degree.

Dream Of The ’90s

This treatise on Portland made it clear that “the dream” was alive and well.

No You Go

We Americans spend most of our lives in cars. Fortunately, there’s a Portlandia sketch for every automotive situation.

A-O River!

We learned all our outdoor survival skills from Kath and Dave.

One More Episode

The true birth of binge watching, pre-Netflix. And what you’ll do once Season 8 premieres.

Catch up on Portlandia’s best moments before the 8th season premieres January 18th on IFC.

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WTF Films

Artfully Off

Celebrity All-Star by Sisters Weekend is available now on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Sisters Weekend isn’t like other comedy groups. It’s filmmaking collaboration between besties Angelo Balassone, Michael Fails and Kat Tadesco, self-described lace-front addicts with great legs who write, direct, design and produce video sketches and cinematic shorts that are so surreally hilarious that they defy categorization. One such short film, Celebrity All-Star, is the newest addition to IFC’s Comedy Crib. Here’s what they had to say about it in a very personal email interview…

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IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Celebrity All-Star is a short film about an overworked reality TV coordinator struggling to save her one night off after the cast of C-List celebrities she wrangles gets locked out of their hotel rooms.

IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Sisters Weekend: It’s this short we made for IFC where a talent coordinator named Karen babysits a bunch of weird c-list celebs who are stuck in a hotel bar. It’s everyone you hate from reality TV under one roof – and that roof leaks because it’s a 2-star hotel. There’s a magician, sexy cowboys, and a guy wearing a belt that sucks up his farts.

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IFC: What was the genesis of Celebrity All-Star?

Celebrity All-Star was born from our love of embarrassing celebrities. We love a good c-lister in need of a paycheck! We were really interested in the canned politeness people give off when forced to mingle with strangers. The backstory we created is that the cast of this reality show called “Celebrity All-Star” is in the middle of a mandatory round of “get to know each other” drinks in the hotel bar when the room keys stop working. Shows like Celebrity Ghost Hunters and of course The Surreal Life were of inspo, but we thought it
was funny to keep it really vague what kind of show they’re on, and just focus on everyone’s diva antics after the cameras stop rolling.

IFC: Every celebrity in Celebrity All-Star seems familiar. What real-life pop personalities did you look to for inspiration?

Sisters Weekend: Anyone who is trying to plug their branded merch that no one asked for. We love low-rent celebrity. We did, however, directly reference Kylie Jenner’s turd-raison lip color for our fictional teen celebutante Gibby Kyle (played by Mary Houlihan).

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IFC: Celebrity seems disgusting yet desirable. What’s your POV? Do you crave it, hate it, or both?

Sisters Weekend: A lot of people chase fame. If you’re practical, you’ll likely switch to chasing success and if you’re smart, you’ll hopefully switch to chasing happiness. But also, “We need money. We need hits. Hits bring money, money bring power, power bring fame, fame change the game,” Young Thug.

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IFC: Who are your comedy idols?

Sisters Weekend: Mike grew up renting “Monty Python” tapes from the library and staying up late to watch 2000’s SNL, Kat was super into Andy Kaufman and “Kids In The Hall” in high school, and Angelo was heavily influenced by “Strangers With Candy” and Anna Faris in the Scary Movie franchise, so, our comedy heroes mesh from all over. But, also we idolize a lot of the people we work with in NY-  Lorelei Ramirez, Erin Markey, Mary Houlihan, who are all in the film, Amy Zimmer, Ana Fabrega, Patti Harrison, Sam Taggart. Geniuses! All of Em!

IFC: What’s your favorite moment from the film?

Sisters Weekend: I mean…seeing Mary Houlihan scream at an insane Pomeranian on an iPad is pretty great.

See Sisters Weekend right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib

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Reality? Check.

Baroness For Life

Baroness von Sketch Show is available for immediate consumption.

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Baroness von Sketch Show is snowballing as people have taken note of its subtle and not-so-subtle skewering of everyday life. The New York Times, W Magazine, and Vogue have heaped on the praise, but IFC had a few more probing questions…

IFC: To varying degrees, your sketches are simply scripted examples of things that actually happen. What makes real life so messed up?

Aurora: Hubris, Ego and Selfish Desires and lack of empathy.

Carolyn: That we’re trapped together in the 3rd Dimension.

Jenn: 1. Other people 2. Other people’s problems 3. Probably something I did.

IFC: A lot of people I know have watched this show and realized, “Dear god, that’s me.” or “Dear god, that’s true.” Why do people have their blinders on?

Aurora: Because most people when you’re in the middle of a situation, you don’t have the perspective to step back and see yourself because you’re caught up in the moment. That’s the job of comedians is to step back and have a self-awareness about these things, not only saying “You’re doing this,” but also, “You’re not the only one doing this.” It’s a delicate balance of making people feel uncomfortable and comforting them at the same time.

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IFC: Unlike a lot of popular sketch comedy, your sketches often focus more on group dynamics vs iconic individual characters. Why do you think that is and why is it important?

Meredith: We consider the show to be more based around human dynamics, not so much characters. If anything we’re more attracted to the energy created by people interacting.

Jenn: So much of life is spent trying to work it out with other people, whether it’s at work, at home, trying to commute to work, or even on Facebook it’s pretty hard to escape the group.

IFC: Are there any comedians out there that you feel are just nailing it?

Aurora: I love Key and Peele. I know that their show is done and I’m in denial about it, but they are amazing because there were many times that I would imagine that Keegan Michael Key was in the scene while writing. If I could picture him saying it, I knew it would work. I also kind of have a crush on Jordan Peele and his performance in Big Mouth. Maya Rudolph also just makes everything amazing. Her puberty demon on Big Mouth is flawless. She did an ad for 7th generation tampons that my son, my husband and myself were singing around the house for weeks. If I could even get anything close to her career, I would be happy. I’m also back in love with Rick and Morty. I don’t know if I have a crush on Justin Roiland, I just really love Rick (maybe even more than Morty). I don’t have a crush on Jerry, the dad, but I have a crush on Chris Parnell because he’s so good at being Jerry.

Jenn: I LOVE ISSA RAE!

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IFC: If you could go back in time and cast yourselves in any sitcom, which would it be and how would it change?

Carolyn: I’d go back in time and cast us in The Partridge Family.  We’d make an excellent family band. We’d have a laugh, break into song and wear ruffled blouses with velvet jackets.  And of course travel to all our gigs on a Mondrian bus. I feel really confident about this choice.

Meredith: Electric Mayhem from The Muppet Show. It wouldn’t change, they were simply perfect, except… maybe a few more vaginas in the band.

Binge the entire first and second seasons of Baroness von Sketch Show now on IFC.com and the IFC app.

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