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Movie Reviews

Stocking up on DVD gifts for the holidays

A boy and his Iron Giant. photo: Warner bros.

It’s a video-on-demand world, or it will be soon. And yet, here’s a column about purchasing DVDs as Christmas presents in 2014. Although digital information delivered in disc format is presumed to be on the way out, VOD — computer-controlled or cable-accessible programming powered by online streaming libraries — can be limited and wonky. That classic or beloved movie that you’d like to watch repeatedly might not be available, or if it is, you might experience a glitch-a-thon, depending on your connection and the source.

Because Christmas is traditionally concerned with fostering delight in children, this is as good a place as any to point out the pragmatic aspects of having the little ones’ favorite films and TV shows accessible on DVD at home. Prepubescent kids seem to have a real capacity and propensity for repeat viewing when something like a Barbie movie or Frozen or How to Train Your Dragon is involved. How much easier to have a DVD on hand than fuss with VOD and whatever still-unresolved technical issues could derail the amusement.

So if you want to give the gift of cinema to adults or small fry, the following might help. Some of the cited are available individually, and some come in collections that might be cost effective and provide extra goodies for the eager or scholarly. Sure, it’s a subjective selection; nonetheless, all are high-grade perennials.

GOLDEN-AGE GOLIATHS

To start with a most venerable suggestion, there’s Orson Welles’s 1941 masterwork Citizen Kane, the first film he ever directed. Welles also starred as the title character in this compelling faux bio-pic inspired by the life of newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst and filled with cinematic innovations in visual technique and storytelling structure. Its reputation as the greatest movie of all time may be in question, but its greatness is not. Each scene is worth savoring.

Legendary screenwriter-director Preston Sturges unleashed a remarkable series of clever, droll, moving, and influential flicks during Hollywood’s Golden Age. His deepest, most resonant, eternally relevant and durable work is Sullivan’s Travels (1941) — about a famous, successful, and pampered director who’s weary of shooting frothy, silly comedies and musicals and wants to make a serious drama, so he hits the road with no means of support to understand true suffering. And don’t miss The Palm Beach Story (1942), on the aftermath of a screwball comedy’s happily-ever-after ending, and The Lady Eve (1941), perhaps the sweetest and most prickly rom-com ever as a beautiful con artist (Barbara Stanwyck) tries to bilk a nerdy, wealthy heir (Henry Fonda) on a cruise ship and love gets in the way. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, etc.

Even small ones can get the unbridled hilarity of those vaudeville-vets-turned-movie-stars the Marx Brothers, despite the jarring aspects of watching a square-ratio black-and-white image in a color-saturated HD universe. You can’t go wrong with a trio of their anarchic and most respected comedies from the mid-1930s, specifically A Night at the Opera, A Day at the Races, and their finest moment, Duck Soup, which is simultaneously the funniest and most scathing antiwar movie this side of Dr. Strangelove.

Some people say Chaplin, and others say Keaton. When it comes to sheer comedy and cinematic innovation, Buster Keaton was the man. The evidence can be found in his silent shorts from the 1920s, especially the stunningly clever Sherlock Jr. with its film projectionist/wannabe detective strolling in and out of the movie that he’s running on the theater screen. Or seek out a few of his stunt-heavy features such as The General and Our Hospitality, some of which went on to inspire the whimsical martial-arts magic of Chinese superstar Jackie Chan. Provoked by his impassive demeanor in the most death-defying or frantic circumstances, Buster was known as Old Stone Face. But for his audiences, laughter is the default setting.

SPYS, CINEMATIC HIGHS AND SCI-FI

Is espionage the secret passion of someone on your Christmas list? The first three James Bond films — Dr. No, From Russia with Love, and Goldfinger, all starring Sean Connery as the quintessential Agent 007 — launched the international spy-thriller craze and a franchise that continues to have massive box-office appeal today. Their period charm (and casual sexism) aside, that troika of witty, action-packed screen translations of author Ian Fleming’s best sellers created a template that reached all the way from the 1960s with the Matt Helm and Derek Flint films and TV’s I Spy and The Man from U.N.C.L.E. to the latter-day Austin Powers parodies, the Jason Bourne franchise, and Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

For the serious-minded cineaste, it’s hard to argue with director Martin Scorsese’s film biography of boxer Jake LaMotta, Raging Bull (1980), boasting a bravura Oscar-winning performance by Robert DeNiro as the fighter. And Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979) is a sprawling interpretation of Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness that updates the setting to create a hallucinogenic vision of the Vietnam War in all its horrors.

If science fiction is the choice, any of these films from the ’50s and ’60s should do the trick:

  • the widescreen, big-budget wonder of Forbidden Planet, a thoughtful space opera that was based on Shakespeare’s The Tempest and had a significant influence on the original Star Trek television series;
  • three fantastical adaptations of H.G. Wells’s books: The First Men in the Moon, with spaceship and character models by the renowned stop-motion animator Ray Harryhausen, and visual effects whiz George Pal’s The War of the Worlds and The Time Machine; and
  • the model for all subsequent space-invader scare-fests, The Thing from Another World, which would spawn John Carpenter’s more grisly 1982 reinvention, The Thing.

TOON TOWN

As promised, there’s plenty for the younger movie lover to embrace, in particular on the animation front. We can start with the Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies anthologies of brilliantly witty Warner Bros. cartoons that served as short subjects in the matinees of yore and still make us smile today.

One of the finest animated movies of all time fell through the cracks when it was first released, but 1999’s The Iron Giant, directed by Brad Bird (from the children’s novella The Iron Man by Ted Hughes), remains a must-see — a surprisingly moving tale of a lonely boy who discovers a massive alien robot in the forest and befriends the sentient machine.

Bird is also the film-maker who helmed one of the finest works to come out under the Pixar banner — the superhero-family adventure The Incredibles. Speaking of Pixar, the Toy Story trilogy remains a wondrous, timeless treat. Pixar’s parent company Disney is historically the apex when it comes to enduring cartoons, from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) to the likes of Dumbo, Pinocchio, and Fantasia to the latter-day musical triumphs The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast.

It would be irresponsible when discussing the best in animation to not bring up master Japanese director Hiyao Miyazaki, whose magnificent 2001 account of a little suburban girl’s unexpected trip to and odyssey through a dimension of mystical creatures, Spirited Away, is the peak of a glorious career that includes such touchstones as My Neighbor Totoro, Kiki’s Delivery Service and Princess Mononoke.

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Michael Snyder is a print and broadcast journalist who covers pop culture on KPFK/Pacifica Radio's David Feldman Show and Thom Hartmann Show and on Michael Snyder's Culture Blast, available online at GABroadcaster.com and YouTube. You can follow Michael on Twitter: @cultureblaster

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