Nothing says I like you to that special acquaintance better than the gift of a really rad DVD. NOWs celluloid king gives you the lowdown on this seasons special editions and souped-up box sets, letting you in on which DVDs are worth shelling out for.
THE CARY GRANT BOX SET D: Howard Hawks, George Cukor, Leo McCarey, George Stevens (Columbia) Rating: NNNNN
A lot of these star boxes gather films made by a name star at a studio that doesn't actually have a lot of good films by said star. You don't want the Cary Grant Universal collection, for example. But this set, from Sony, has a quintet of certified classics by all of Grant's best directors (only Hitchcock is missing): Only Angels Have Wings, His Girl Friday, Holiday, The Talk Of The Town and The Awful Truth. The last, the most underrated of the great screwball comedies, features Irene Dunne's devastating Katharine Hepburn impression as a bonus.
ESSENTIAL ART HOUSE: 50 YEARS OF JANUS FILMS (Janus/Criterion) Rating: NNNNN
For the hardcore film buff you love a whole lot and who's never owned a DVD player until now comes this expensive box of classic films. In essence, these are stripped-down Criterions without all the extras in a big presentation box: Seven Samurai, The 400 Blows, The Rules Of The Game, Pandora's Box, The Importance Of Being Earnest, Viridiana, Wild Strawberries, Ikiru, Cocteau's Beauty And The Beast and so on. If you have about $1,000 to drop on a Christmas present, order it online from the Criterion store (www.criterionco.com).
JOHN WANYNE-JOHN FORD FILM COLLECTION (Warner) Rating: NNNN
The collaboration between John Ford and John Wayne ran from 1939 to 62 and was one of the central actor-director partnerships in American cinema, right up there with Capra-Stewart and Hitchcock-Grant. This box set containing eight of their films isn't perfect. Fort Apache and She Wore A Yellow Ribbon are here, but Rio Grande, the third film in Ford's Cavalry Trilogy, was made at Republic, as was The Quiet Man. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is on Columbia, which leaves two stinkers in the box - The Long Voyage Home, a Eugene O'Neill adaptation, and 3 Godfathers. But Stagecoach and The Searchers are here, along with the haunting war film They Were Expendable, and the choice extras include the recent American Masters documentary on the Ford-Wayne collaboration.
PRESTON STURGES: THE FILMMAKER COLLECTION D: Preston Sturges (Universal) Rating: NNNNN
This seven-disc collection is an almost perfect representation of Sturges's miraculous output during the second world war. The box includes the most savage screwball comedy ever, The Lady Eve, pitting Henry Fonda's naive biologist against Barbara Stanwyck's mercenary card shark; Sullivan's Travels, the first film to feature a filmmaker on a quest for his ideal project; The Palm Beach Story, with Claudette Colbert and Joel McCrea as a couple who divorce for the good of their marriage; and the hilarious political satire The Great McGinty, with Brian Donlevy as a bum who ascends to the governor's mansion. Unfortunately, Paramount somehow kept the rights to The Miracle At Morgan's Creek - a berserk retelling of the Nativity that suggested, in the words of James Agee, that the Hays Office had been raped in its sleep - so you'll need to buy that one as a single.
SEVEN SAMURAI D: Akira Kurosawa (Criterion) Rating: NNNNN
The upgrade of the year. Criterion's old single disc is replaced by this three-disc set, which benefits from the newly restored Japanese print of Kurosawa's classic samurai epic, amps up the transfer rate, spreads the 200-minute picture across two discs and, just for fun, includes My Life In Cinema, a two-hour conversation between Kurosawa and a great director of the next generation, Nagisa Oshima. Plus, there's a second tag-team commentary, new booklet essays and a documentary on the film's influences. Seven Samurai has always been one of the gems of Criterion's catalogue. Now it has a worthy setting. And speaking of Criterion upgrades, don't miss the ravishing new anamorphic transfer of Federico Fellini's Amarcord.
WARNER BROS. PICTURES TOUGH GUYS COLLECTION (Warner) Rating: NNNNN
This set contains six A- features starring Warner's great tough-guy stars of the 30s, including James Cagney (City For Conquest, Each Dawn I Die, G Men), Edward G. Robinson (Bullets Or Ballots, A Slight Case Of Murder) and Humphrey Bogart (San Quentin). What makes it special is that Warner dug into the archives to create for each film A Night At The Movies, with period-appropriate newsreels, cartoons, trailers and live-action shorts, and even deeper into the vault for an annual blooper reel. A must for fans of hard-edged black-and-white crime films.
FORBIDDEN HOLLYWOOD (Warner) Rating: NNNN
A trio of pre-Code specials, from the era when the Production Code existed but the studios basically ignored it in favour of the rude, the sensational and the salacious. This box includes three titles: Alfred E. Green's Baby Face, with the very young Barbara Stanwyck as an ambitious woman who sleeps her way to the top, the original Hollywood version of Waterloo Bridge, featuring Mae Clark in the role later played by Vivian Leigh, and Red-Headed Woman, with Jean Harlow as a working-class homewrecker trying to fuck her way into high society. Woohoo!
JIM HENSON'S FANTASY COLLECTION D: Henson, Dave McKean (Sony) Rating: NNNN
The dark side of the Muppets. Labyrinth stars the young Jennifer Connolly and David Bowie; The Dark Crystal is all weird puppets; and, from the post-Henson era, there's Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean's fascinatingly odd MirrorMask. The sensibility behind the Muppets was always fairly sophisticated, and in these films Henson allowed it to flower - or fester, depending on your point of view. These are undeniably dark fantasies, so they're not quite for kids, and because they often feature puppetry, adults may not be completely amenable to them either. But they're certainly worth a look.
ROME: THE COMPLETE FIRST SEASON D: Michael Apted, Alan Taylor, Timothy Van Patten, Roger Young (HBO/Warner) Rating: NNNN
This is the HBO series no one talks about. It looks all stately and historical, but in fact, as Julius Caesar rises to power, we get a dozen hours of non-stop sex, violence and devious plotting. It's Deadwood in togas or The Sopranos with swords, all shot on massive sets at Rome's Cinecitta studio. Outstanding performances by Ciarán Hinds (Munich) as Caesar, Polly Walker as Atia, Trainspotting's Kevin McKidd, and James Purefoy as a particularly two-faced Mark Antony.
SIX FEET UNDER: THE COMPLETE SERIES created by Alan Ball (Warner) Rating: NNNN
From the Oscar-winning screenwriter of American Beauty, the extraordinarily mordant Alan Ball, comes this tombstone of a gift set, all five seasons of his tragicomedy Six Feet Under, covering the philosophical and emotional travails of a family who run a funeral parlour. Centred on Peter Krause and Michael C. Hall as brothers, one the returned prodigal, the other the good son, Six Feet Under mixes comedy, melodrama, ghost story - the frequent visitations of the late paterfamilias (Richard Jenkins) - and every other genre that sprang to its creator's mind. The only problem with this gift set, which includes two soundtrack CDs and a book recounting the post-series lives of the characters, is that anyone who loves the series probably already has the individual season boxes.
= Critics' Pick
NNNNN = excellent, maintains big screen impact
NNNN = very good
NNN = worth a peek
NN = Mediocre
N = Bomb