By Matt Singer and Alison Willmore
[Photo: “Barton Fink,” part of The Coen Brothers Gift Set, MGM, 2007]
There’s no safer present for the cinephile in your life than a DVD box set even (or especially) if that cinephile is you. Here are our picks of some of 2007’s most covetable collections.
The Coen Brothers Gift Set (MGM)
$49.98 [Amazon link]
If you received 1998’s Coen Brothers Collection as a gift, chances are you were disappointed the combination of “Blood Simple” with “The Man Who Wasn’t There,” “The Big Lebowski” and (ugh!) “Intolerable Cruelty” managed to miss most of the obvious high points of the brothers’ career. Fortunately, this new five DVD grouping gets everything right. “Blood Simple,” their excellent debut, is still there, paired with the even better gangster pastiche “Miller’s Crossing,” the portrait-of-the-artist-in-hell “Barton Fink,” the infinitely rewatchable “Raising Arizona” and, of course, “Fargo.” No “Lebowki,” but c’mon, who doesn’t already own a copy of that? This bundle doesn’t offer any extras outside of what’s already been released on the individual DVDs, but it is a great starter kit or, perhaps, just a much needed path toward falling in love with the Coens all over again something we’re well on our way to doing after “No Country For Old Men.”
The Dean Martin & Jerry Lewis Collection, Vol. 2 (Paramount)
$29.99 [Amazon link]
The five films featured in this collection “Living It Up” (1954), “You’re Never Too Young” (1955), “Artists and Models” (1955), “Pardners” (1956) and “Hollywood or Bust” (1956) chart the beginning of one collaboration (comedian Jerry Lewis and director Frank Tashlin) and the end of another (Lewis and his longtime partner Dean Martin). Just as Martin and Lewis went their separate ways, the future nutty professor fell in with Tashlin, a former Warner Brothers and Disney animator who would go on to direct half a dozen of the disorderly orderly’s best and liveliest solo films. Tashlin’s two films in this set are the real prizes; the road trip film “Hollywood or Bust” and “Artists and Models,” one of the few films in cinema history about the people who make comic books rather than the four-colored characters they create. And if at some point Lewis blurts something like “Hey nice LAY-DEE!” well, that’s a small price to pay for intricately choreographed slapstick comedy gold.
The First Films of Samuel Fuller (Eclipse)
$44.95 [Amazon link]
Criterion’s new Eclipse imprint offers box sets of “lost, forgotten, or overshadowed classics,” and this collection offers three films that all apply. They’re the first three works from director Samuel Fuller, the former newspaperman who went on to direct some of the grittiest and pulpiest American movies of all time. It kicks off with 1949’s “I Shot Jesse James” about that old coward Robert Ford, continues with 1950’s Vincent Price conman-oater hybrid “The Baron of Arizona,” and concludes with Fuller’s first big cinematic splash (not to mention the first of several legendary war films) 1951’s “The Steel Helmet.” The Eclipse series doesn’t offer much in the way of extras, but just having these movies in print on DVD is good enough for now. Now if we could only get a disc of “Park Row,” we’d be all set.
The Godzilla Collection (Classic Media)
$79.95 [Amazon link]
Look, we all know what Godzilla became, with the dudes in crummy rubber suits crushing the paper houses and what not, but hear this: the original “Godzilla” (or “Gojira” as the big fella’s known in Japan) is scary as hell. Before he became an enormous reptilian defender of humanity with a blatant disregard for property value, he was one enormous and enormously potent metaphor for the horrors of the atomic age. (The black and white photography, which is so much more visually forgiving of crummy special effects, and so much more nightmarish to boot, probably has something to do with it.) Ultimately, American producers got their hands on the footage, stripped out much of the original terror, and replaced it with the new terror of Raymond Burr. This box set pairs the recently re-released original Japanese cut of “Godzilla” with the American Burrtastic version and six of the follow-up films, including two previously unreleased kaiju hullabaloos, 1969’s “All Monsters Attack” and 1975’s “Terror of Mechagodzilla.” It’s the best of both worlds: when the true scares become too intense, you can retreat to the comforting sight of Godzilla grappling with an enormous moth held aloft by visible wires.
James Bond Ultimate Collector’s Set (MGM/UA)
$289.98 [Amazon link]
This gigundo box runs a whopping 42 DVDs: 21 for each of EON Productions’ James Bond films, and 21 more of bonus material. Granted, this set just compiles last year’s four “Ultimate Edition” boxes with Daniel Craig’s dynamic but over-praised debut as Agent 007 in “Casino Royale,” but if you don’t own them yet, here’s a wonderful place to get them all, freshly remastered and restored, with oodles of extras, much of it new (including good humored audio commentary from Roger Moore on his films). Granted, too, that there are a few turkeys in the set you may as well turn the “The World is Not Enough” into a coaster right now but any fan of manly action, terrible double entendres and the history of misogyny in American and British popular culture from 1962 to 2006 will be in bliss trying to clear out room on their bookshelf for this monster. I recommend ignoring the naysayers and skipping right to “The Living Daylights” with Timothy Dalton the best Bond film ever made after “Goldfinger.”
Lubitsch in Berlin (Kino)
$79.95 [Amazon link]
I’m pretty well versed in the Hollywood works of German director Ernst Lubitsch, the famed director of some of the most memorable and delightful romantic comedies of the early sound era (“Trouble in Paradise,” “Ninotchka”). But I know nothing about the time he spent honing his directorial chops in Weimar Germany, or the very popular films he produced there, and that’s what makes this set from Kino so intriguing. “Lubitsch in Berlin” comes with six of Lubitsch’s early works, including the awesome sounding “The Doll” (about “an effete young man who must get married in order to inherit a fortune. He opts to purchase a remarkably lifelike doll and marry it instead, not realizing that the doll is actually the puppet-maker’s flesh-and-blood daughter!”), plus a feature-length documentary about the director during this fertile and overlooked period. Also worth a look from Kino, “Reel Baseball,” a compilation of baseball features and actualities from the silent era, among them a performance from a young Babe Ruth.
Stanley Kubrick – Warner Home Video Directors Series (Warner Home Video)
$79.98 [Amazon link]
Okay, no “Lolita,” no “Barry Lyndon.” Instead, we’re made to settle for Kubrick’s constantly reevaluated but certainly imperfect final film, the so-called “erotic thriller” “Eyes Wide Shut.” Hey, there are worst things that could happen and who can complain when this set also includes restored, remastered versions of “2001: A Space Odyssey,” “A Clockwork Orange,” “Full Metal Jacket” and “The Shining”? No one needs to be told why these films are great, only to be reassured that they get primo treatment here, most with a full disc of extras, including talking-head appearances from Jack Nicholson, Steven Spielberg, Sydney Pollack and others, and commentary from Keir Dullea and Gary Lockwood, Malcolm McDowell, Vincent D’Onofrio and R. Lee Ermey. The set comes with Jan Harlan’s 2001 documentary “Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures,” narrated by Tom Cruise.
Three Films by Hiroshi Teshigahara (Criterion)
$79.95 [Amazon link]
Like half-remembered fever dreams, the films of Hiroshi Teshigahara are surreal, disturbing and resoundingly affecting. Criterion’s collection offers three of his works, all delirious collaborations with writer Kobo Abe, the best known of which is the now classic 1964’s “Woman in the Dunes.” In the film, which won the Jury Prize at Cannes that year and nabbed Teshigahara an unlikely Best Director Oscar nom the year after, an entomologist (Eiji Okada) is stranded in a small town amidst massive dunes, and is offered a place to stay for the night with a widow whose house lies at the bottom of a sandpit. In the morning, the rope ladder he was lowered down on is gone, and he discovers he’s been left as a companion for the woman, who must constantly dig in order to keep her house from being destroyed by the sand. No less unsettling are the other two films in the set, Teshigahara’s 1962 fable about a miner and his son, “Pitfall,” and the 1966 sci-fi “The Face of Another,” about a man, disfigured in an accident, who is given a face transplant. The films are accompanied by a collection of four of the director’s shorts and a documentary about the relationship between Teshigahara and Abe.
Twin Peaks – The Definitive Gold Box Edition (Paramount)
$99.99 [Amazon link]
“She’s dead. Wrapped in plastic.” So passed homecoming queen Laura Palmer, and so started one of the best things to ever flicker across an unsuspecting nation’s TV sets. If you’ve been holding back on owning David Lynch’s too strange for network television series, this set should ease any doubts supervised by Lynch, the 10-disc collection includes the brilliant first season and the… not brilliant (but still watchable!) second season, along with the original version of the pilot (conspicuously missing from the earlier “Special Edition” release of the first season) and the European take with its tacked-on, mystery-solved ending. Other awesome extras include the Log Lady episode intros shot for re-airings of the show; “A Slice of Lynch,” in which the director sits down for a piece of everyone’s favorite cherry pie with Kyle MacLachlan, Mädchen Amick and crewmember John Wentworth; and four only aired in Japan ads featuring MacLachlan and others appearing in character to hawk Georgia Coffee.
Weird Cinema: 15 Freaky Flicks (Passport)
$19.98 [Amazon link]
For a mere 20 bucks, this cheesily titled set delivers five discs of well-chosen film oddities, including Ed Wood’s 1953 transvestite odyssey “Glen or Glenda”; 1951 Siamese twinsploitation flick “Chained for Life,” starring Daisy and Violet Hilton of “Freaks” fame; the 1938 all-little person Western “The Terror of Tiny Town”; the 1961 Dennis Hopper-falls-in-love-with- a-killer-mermaid thriller “Night Tide” and others. Sure, it’s perfect for the novelty-lover in your life, but there are also genuine gems tucked away in this collection of forgotten, often in poor taste B-movies. Take the 1962 horror film “Carnival of Souls,” Herk Harvey’s sole feature effort, a dreamy tale of what seems to be life after death that’s all the more creepy for its innovative, low-budget effects and its use of one of the most serendipitous locations to show up in cinema the abandoned Saltair Pavilion on the Great Salt Lake. Shot for $30,000, the film bombed in theaters, only to gather a solid critical and cult following as the years passed. How’s that for freaky?