Holiday Specials

FIR’S 2002 DVD STOCKING-STUFFER LIST

By • Dec 25th, 2002 • Pages: 1 2 3 4 5

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This has been a cruel year for many collectors. Scads of great DVDs have been released, but the economy’s faltering like mad, imposing limits on our buying power, and the money just might not be there for the mega Xmas gifts. So rather than just recommend box sets for your loved ones, I’ll also try to recommend simpler DVD gifts as well.

Starting with Paramount Home Video. From them you might pick the first three Deluxe editions of the original STAR TREK motion picture series. STAR TREK: THE MOVIE, was a misbegotten adventure helmed by Robert Wise who brought all his filmmaking prowess to bear, but was in synch with neither the humanity nor the spirit of the series.
It’s mainly terrific today because of Douglas Trumbull’s genius-level special effects. (I’m not sure there’s been anyone other than Trumbull of that creative gigantism at work in the technical end of cinema in the last forty years. He reminds me of a latter day Linwood Dunn.) The two-disc set claims to have over seven hours of extra material. Yipes…the film alone feels like it runs over seven hours. (That’s cruel; I actually like the film.) There’s a group commentary by director Wise, Trumbull, John Dykstra, and composer Jerry Goldsmith. There are five additional scenes that Wise had altered from the 1979 theatrical version for this director’s cut, and eleven deleted scenes which were in the 1983 tv version. There’a s storyboard archive, and much more.

The other two installments returned to popular Trekkie territory. Nicholas Meyer rescued the spirit of the series with THE WRATH OF KAHN, and Leonard Nimoy jockeyed himself into the director’s chair with THE SEARCH FOR SPOCK. I was particularly intrigued with the ending of the third installment. It reminded me of the ending of CITY LIGHTS, by no means an uncommon ending to crib (MANHATTAN did it, as did SCENT OF A WOMAN, and numerous others), rather like using Shakespeare for subtext, or the Bible. I wrote Nimoy, complimenting him on the film and inquiring if my intuition was correct. He was kind enough to write back, and his answer: “ I was particularly pleased by your thoughts regarding the ending of STAR TREK III as compared to CITY LIGHTS. I had never consciously thought about it, but now that you point it out there is a connection in the very touching scene of the blind girl recognizing Chaplin as her benefactor.”

THE WRATH OF KAHN sports over five hours of extra material. (Whew! That’s better than the first film’s seven hours.) And THE SEARCH FOR SPOCK makes no time boasts, which is least daunting of all. Still there’s plenty to linger over, such as linguist Marc Okrand’s detailed account of the creation of the Klingon and Vulcan languages.

But if your wallet is not filled to overflowing, hey, don’t sweat it: go for Paramount’s superb single DVD of Billy Wilder’s SUNSET BOULEVARD. This is a great film, a noir from the golden era of noirs, a cynical, glorious gob of sputum that engulfs the entire Hollywood system as Wilder knew it first hand. And it’s a wonderful DVD presentation. The youngest members of your family – adolescents who think motion pictures started with STAR WARS – will be affected by this, and surprised that they are. They’ll even succumb to the Black & White cinematography. And who knows, maybe they’ll be motivated to look further into the distant cinematic past.

SUNSET BOULEVARD comes with a commentary track by Ed Sikov, author of “ On Sunset Boulevard: The Life and Times of Billy Wilder”, as well as a retrospective
‘ making of’ documentary. A few Hollywood folk that were around for the filming share their memories with us, as well as other authority figures such as Andrew Sarris, who has nothing of depth to contribute but does do one thing that is weirdly compelling: each time he waves his hand to emphasize a point, the wide angle lens distorts the appendage so that it looks like he’s exposed his arm to the radioactive material in the box in KISS ME DEADLY. There’s also a delightful and constantly surprising mini-doc on Franz Waxman, who scored the film. The composer was actually named by Wilder, back in Germany. This is only one of many revelations about a filmusic luminary whose Hollywood scores date back to BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN.


A & E has given us the entire UPSTAIRS DOWNSTAIRS for Xmas. One of the most beloved of tv series, it isn’t in the PRISONER or TWIN PEAKS category, series worshipped partially because of their defiance of traditional tv fodder. It is rather a literate, epic, mainstream treatment of the social class schism in England between the aristocracy and the servants, and the whole family can wade through the sixty-eight episodes for the better part of a year if doled out carefully. And when that’s over, there’s the 25th anniversary retrospective show, included to top off the adventure.

But if a boxed set of this dimension – 20 DVDs in total – is just a bite too large for your Xmas shopping budgets, here’s a suggestion that will maintain the spirit of the series. Why not spring for Robert Altman’s condensed look at the same subject in his recent GOSFORD PARK, a comeback film for the rebel director, and one of the best films of last year. The only caveat with that one, make sure you can access the subtitles for the hearing impaired – the dialogue’s hard to catch in many scenes. I had hoped it was a just a function of theater sound systems, but the DVD remains problematic.

If you want a smaller A&E title, try THE LATHE OF HEAVEN. Philip Haas and his co-screenwriter/editor wife Belinda have been diligently turning out more broadly entertaining takes on the Merchant/Ivory genre of filmmaking. Recall ANGELS AND INSECTS (FIR gave it the March/April cover in ’96), THE BLOOD ORANGES, and UP AT THE VILLA. Director Haas goes this one alone. It’s a remake of an ethereal scifi cult telefilm that gets one thinking about the nature of reality. James Caan is good in a creepy change of pace, and the other key actors – Lukas Haas and Lisa Bonet – move and emote as if locked in the slowmentation of a dream…which I think is the point.

I originally caught it on the tube, and my mouth dropped when the commercial break appeared. The film deals with a man who is afraid to sleep because his dreams not only depict a past different from the one he lives in, but when he awakens, his dream has morphed the real world to fit his nocturnal vision of it, often with dire consequences. And the commercial break…get this…was for Ambien, a new drug designed to ensure a good night’s sleep! I was so struck by this canny product placement that I had to track Haas down and ask him if it was his idea. He claimed it wasn’t. So I’m left to imagine that some shrewd ad manager has a gilded chair waiting for him in promotional heaven.

The A&E release of LATHE OF HEAVEN is a longer, European version, which makes it fun to watch even if you’ve already seen it on TV.

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