2006 Gift Guide
Our editors have selected the very best in new DVDs, music, and video games for holiday giving.
After countless hours spent watching TV screens, wearing headphones, and thumbing video game consoles – ah, the sacrifices we make for our readers, eh? – the staff of Weekend is ready to unveil its picks of the very best new DVDs, CDs, and video games on the market. For your friends and family, of course. But we wouldn't be surprised if you find yourself updating your own wish list...
Bogie & Bacall – The Signature Collection ($39.98)
They met in 1944, on the set of Howard Hawks's "To Have and Have Not," allowing viewers the pleasure of watching the legendary couple fall in love both onscreen and in real life. Humphrey Bogart divorced his third wife and married Lauren Bacall the next year (they were together until his death in 1957). In 1946, Hawks directed the two stars again in their best-known vehicle: Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles noir thriller "The Big Sleep." Bogart plays detective Philip Marlowe, hired by Bacall's wealthy father to track the man trying to shake down her sister. Viewed all these decades later, their chemistry still captivates – her sultry look and breathy banter a perfect foil to his hound-dog mug and hard-bitten growl. With "Dark Passage" and "Key Largo," this box includes all four films Bogie and his "Baby" made together – as well as behind-the-scenes looks at the couple's off-screen romance.
Controversial Classics, Vol 2 ($59.98)
A perfect gift for the media lover on your list. This set cleverly collects in one box those famous muckraking reporters who brought down Washington ("All the President's Men"), an unsettling satire of television ("Network"), and the media circus that ensued amid a botched Brooklyn bank robbery ("Dog Day Afternoon"). It's practically worth the price just to see such strong casts of actors looking so impossibly young: Robert Redford, Dustin Hoffman, Faye Dunaway, Robert Duvall, and Al Pacino. Each movie is accompanied by a disc packed with bonus material. Among the stellar features: Redford, Hoffman, Bob Woodward, and Carl Bernstein discuss "All the President's Men;" commentary on "Network" by Walter Cronkite; and the fascinating writing and filming of "Dog Day Afternoon," based on a true – and truly bizarre – event.
Johnny Case (Cary Grant), a carefree, acrobatic financier, who is betrothed to the conformist Julia Seton, gradually falls for her lovely and endearingly unconventional sister, Linda (Katharine Hepburn) – the self-described "black sheep" of their fantastically wealthy family. Edward Everett Horton and Jean Dixon also give wonderful turns as Nick and Susan Potter, Grant's best friends. Less known than other Grant/Hepburn collaborations ("The Philadelphia Story," "Bringing Up Baby"), "Holiday" is effervescent, poignant, and worth discovering. Extras include stills of the film's deleted first scene and a short feature on Grant.
The Première Frank Capra Collection ($59.95)
The quintessential American director was a Sicilian immigrant, beloved by audiences for his hopeful Depression-era depictions of the everyday hero. This compilation offers a smorgasbord from the Frank Capra oeuvre. "It Happened One Night," starring Clark Gable as the irascible newspaperman who falls in love with Claudette Colbert's headstrong runaway heiress, garnered five Academy Awards – including Capra's first for best director. In the zany "You Can't Take It with You," Jean Arthur and Jimmy Stewart must reconcile her eccentric family (Lionel Barrymore is marvelous as Grandpa Vanderhof) with his blue-blooded parents before the couple can wed. Arthur and Stewart are paired again in "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington." A documentary on Capra narrated by Ron Howard and a "movie scrapbook" with autobiographical excerpts, annotated script pages, and personal photos round out the set. Conspicuously absent: "It's a Wonderful Life."
Preston Sturges – The Filmmaker Collection ($59.98)
Next to the good folks at Looney Tunes, nobody does anarchy quite as winningly as writer/director Preston Sturges. From 1940 to 1944, he went on a comedic tear that's not been equaled since. Here are seven of his films, including his greatest: "The Lady Eve." Barbara Stanwyck shines as a con artist who reels in Henry Fonda's wealthy chump. Second best is "Sullivan's Travels." Joel McCrea plays a Sturges stand-in who's determined to direct a great tragedy: "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" (Coen brothers fans take note.) "The Palm Beach Story," in which Claudette Colbert thinks she can best support her husband (McCrea) by divorcing him and marrying a millionaire, has many admirers. But the ending is so corny, it derails the film.
The Rodgers & Hammerstein Collection ($99.98)
These grand old masters may be sincere, somewhat sanitized views of the worlds they inhabit ("The Sound of Music," "Oklahoma!," "Carousel," "State Fair," "The King and I," "South Pacific"), but they are not sappy. They are all about something larger than the characters who bring the stories alive – the Nazi occupation of Austria, America's fierce range wars, the clash of Eastern and Western cultures – and yet the music keeps the big picture personal and intimate. The newly washed (digitally remastered) sound and pictures make all these films feel fresh. Too big for a stocking, this boxed set with a flurry of fun extras – such as the original French film which inspired "Carousel" – are a perfect fit for a family home theater.
James Bond – Ultimate Edition, Vols. 1 and 2 ($89.98 each)
Sure, you could just wait for another of those late-night Bond-athons on cable. But super fans of the black-tie super agent – cue catchy theme music – will want to slip these crisply remastered sets into their dossiers (Vols. 3 and 4 come out Dec. 12). Each volume's five Bond films includes a well-appointed second disc that explores aspects of the storied franchise – from casting calls for villains to the crafting of masterful scores. A black-and-white piece on 007's Aston Martin DB5 (and a mini version, complete with flipping license plates, made for little Prince Andrew in 1966) comes with a charming Sean Connery interview on the "Goldfinger" bonus disc. This set has more goodies than Q's lab.
Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut ($24.98)
Superman Returns ($34.98)
The Christopher Reeve Superman Collection ($68.98)
Superman: The Ultimate Collector's Edition ($99.98)
In 1978, Marlon Brando received an astonishing payday for his role in "Superman": $3.75 million for a 10-minute cameo as Jor-El, father of the Man of Steel. The film franchise has been trying to make the most of its hefty investment ever since. This year's "Superman Returns" and "Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut" each incorporate scrapped footage of the actor into their story lines. Brando didn't feature in the theatrical release of "Superman II," but original director Donner (replaced by Richard Lester) has inserted him into his reedited, emotionally richer version. Silver hair coiffed into a cedilla-shaped forelock, Brando speaks in stentorian tones that lend welcome frisson to a fresh scene in which Superman rebels against his father. Also new: Lois Lane tries to prove Clark Kent is Superman's alter ego by shooting him with a pistol. (Hey, they don't call her an intrepid reporter for nothing.) Bryan Singer's "Superman Returns" picks up where "Superman II" leaves off and succeeds with Brandon Routh's effortless emulation of the gentlemanly quality Christopher Reeve brought to the role. The story also resurrects Brando's Jor-El through computer manipulation of old celluloid, a process revealed during the exhaustive – make that exhausting – three hours of bonus features. The movie's standout scene, in which the caped hero strains against the nose of a plummeting airliner, owes much to a similar sequence in one of Max Fleischer's sophisticated Superman 'toons of the 1940s. Fleischer's noir animated series is one of the superlative bonuses of "The Christopher Reeve Superman Collection." The box set also includes "Superman and the Mole Men," a 1950s live-action feature in which George Reeves appears to fly with the aid of an off-screen trampoline. Unfortunately, Donner's cut of "Superman II" isn't included in that package, but it is available as part of "Superman: The Ultimate Collector's Edition," a 14-disc doorstopper that also includes "Superman Returns."
Supercharged animation is the real star of this popular (if long) Pixar film, in which a cartoon car with a high-octane ego is waylaid in the forgotten Route 66 town of Radiator Springs and taught a lesson about the value of slowing down. Attention to detail is made plain from the first frames, in which screaming racers leave tiny bits of tire rubber skittering across the asphalt. Best extra: a meaty interview with creator John Lasseter, who describes the work as a joyous endeavor for which he drew upon the influences of his mother (an artist), his father (once parts manager at a Chevy dealership), and his wife (who persuaded him to slow-track his professional life enough to enjoy his children). Another gem: the marvelous Pixar short "One Man Band."
Curious George ($29.98)
This sweet-natured film starring H.A. Rey's character was one of the happiest surprises at the movies this year. Will Ferrell delivers a surprisingly gentle vocal portrayal of The Man With the Yellow Hat, here named "Ted." A geeky employee at a failing museum, Ted is sent to Africa to retrieve the lost shrine of Zagawa to restore the museum's fortunes. There, he plays peek-a-boo with a little monkey, who tails him back to New York and upends his life (for the better). The movie features warm vocal performances by Dick Van Dyke, Drew Barrymore, and the fabulous David Cross. Extras include 15 deleted scenes in various stages of animation, two shorts on how to draw and animate George, and several games.
Ice Age: The Meltdown ($29.98)
Prehistoric pals Sid the sloth, Manny the mammoth, Diego the saber-toothed tiger, and that nut-crazed squirrel, Scrat, scamper across the screen again in this entertaining sequel. This time, global thawing threatens to melt a glacial dam and flood the animals' home. Their only hope is to journey across the valley. Along the way, they make a new friend, Ellie, possibly the last female woolly mammoth on earth (no pressure, Manny). Only problem: She thinks she's a possum. Meanwhile, Sid is mistaken by fellow sloths for the fire king, leading to one of the funniest scenes: his impromptu fire dance (you can learn it through one of the DVD's extras). There's also a game arcade, a character-drawing tutorial, and a sound-effects demonstration. And don't miss Scrat's short film, "No Time for Nuts," about his frenzied, time-traveling quest for an acorn.
Sesame Street – Old School Vol. 1 1969-1974 ($39.98)
This three-disc boxed set offers a trip back to the glory days of the 37-year-old staple, when the genius of Jim Henson, Frank Oz, and songwriters Joe Raposo and Jeffrey Moss combined to transform children's television into something sublime. The classic songs, from "Rubber Duckie" to "Bein' Green," are all here, as well as a few surprises. Who knew Oscar the Grouch used to be orange? The series première and the first episode from each of the first five seasons have been remastered, but the content doesn't need any touching up. And not once during seven hours of programming did my son ask, "Where's Elmo?" Extras include not-to-be-missed highlight reels from each of the five seasons, and the original sales pitch. Now, bring on Vol. 2!
True-Life Adventures ($32.99 each)
Before Animal Planet and the National Geographic Channel, these fantastic Disney nature movies were watched by an entire generation. In 13 films that won eight Oscars, crews circled the globe to bring back rare pictures of baby polar bears nursing in an ice cave as well as shots of the most exotic cats in the African jungles. The documentaries were the brainchild of Walt himself, who combined the astonishingly raw and intimate images of animals at rest and play to create a new genre of entertainment – the natural world in action. Four packages, elegantly restored and presented in two-disc sets, are both groundbreaking and timeless treasures.
The Wind in the Willows – Feature Films Collection ($29.95)
In the mid-1980s, Britain's Cosgrove Hall created a lovely family series around Kenneth Grahame's classic characters. The first feature-length film is a remarkably faithful adaptation of "The Wind in the Willows," with Badger, Mole, and Ratty rescuing the pompous Mr. Toad's home from villainous weasels. In the second feature, "A Tale of Two Toads," Toad needs their help again, when the Weasels kidnap him and install an impostor at Toad Hall. The stop-motion animation isn't quite up to the heights of "Wallace & Gromit," but the characters and sets are warmly and wonderfully rendered. The first two seasons of animated shorts also have been released in separate boxed sets. Extras: one bonus short and an interview with creator Brian Cosgrove.
The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr. – The Complete Series ($99.98)
Folks, there are so few comic sci-fi/Westerns, they should be celebrated, not canceled prematurely. ("Firefly" fans know what I'm talking about.) Bruce Campbell gives just the right air of "bemusement" as the titular Harvard-educated lawyer turned bounty hunter who's tracking his father's killers (and some mysterious golden orbs). Along the way, they discover everything from denim to Dunkin' Donuts. This boxed set of 27 episodes delighted three generations of my family – from my dad, who was a fan when it first aired in 1993, to my son, who promptly named his hobbyhorse Comet. Extras: The pilot episode features one of the few commentaries worth your time, thanks to Campbell, who has something interesting to say about every set and stuntman, and generously makes sure that everyone from the writers to the four horses who played Comet gets credit.
Seinfeld – Season Seven ($49.95)
It's hard to look at Kramer these days without recalling actor Michael Richards's bizarre and inexcusable rant last month. But this set justly celebrates a highly creative period in the nine-year run of the Emmy-hoarding "show about nothing." Fans will enjoy reprising Larry David's absurdist and wonderfully interwoven subplots (Exhibit A: "The Calzone" episode on disc 4, which showcases the George Costanza character). Extras include previously unseen Jerry Seinfeld stand-up, optional screen-text production "Notes About Nothing," and voice-over commentary in which the show's creators riff about scenes. We learn, for example, that Elaine's dangerously chipper first encounter with a scowling server in the legendary "Soup Nazi" episode – she tells him he resembles Al Pacino – was based on a bold woman customer. Also: outtakes, animated scenes, yada, yada, yada.
The West Wing – The Complete Series Collection ($299.98)
This show may be just about the best-written drama ever to run on network TV – literate, topical, witty, with a nearly perfect cast and only a slight swoon in the quality after Season 4 when creator Aaron Sorkin left. Each season already has come out on DVD but, just in time for the holidays, NBC has thoughtfully packaged the entire seven years in one single, elegantly boxed set. New additions: two glossy books containing full episode recaps and the script for the pilot, which, beepers notwithstanding (how 20th century!), still plays as well today as it did back in 1999. With the possibility of a Democratic administration on the horizon, there's no better Hollywood primer for the pros and cons of that party in charge.
24 – Season Five ($59.98)
If you love this TV show, then you've already watched it in real time, but as every aficionado knows, there is an entirely new joy to be had in watching it straight through in a single DVD day marathon with no commercial zapping or having to wait a week between episodes. In a fun gesture, this seven-disc set actually provides a season six prequel, a sort of entr'acte, filling us in on what happens when Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) is captured by the Chinese – and why his snarly captors keep Jack alive (other than to ensure he's around to save another day). Put it this way: if Jack can rise from the dead at the beginning of this season, then surviving 18 months of Chinese torture is child's play in his skilled hands. Viewer alert: Torture tactics and use of chemical weapons raise the violence levels to new highs this season.
Saturday Night Live – Season One ($69.98)
It hardly seems possible that more than three decades have elapsed since the launch of the Lorne Michaels show that went on to become a reliable feeder system for the American comedy scene, a factory of Who's Who-caliber talents, many of whom stormed Hollywood. Some of the sketches in this eight-disc first season feel almost high school thin, but viewers will see a fast evolution across episodes, and thrill to nostalgic encounters with John Belushi's muttering samurai, Gilda Radner's inspired "Ba-Ba Wah-Wah" (interviewing, to hilarious effect, Madeline Kahn's Marlene Dietrich), and a perpetually pratfalling Chevy Chase (breaking things as Gerald Ford). Hosts include the likes of George Carlin and Richard Pryor. Musical acts: Simon and Garfunkel, and Jimmy Cliff. Extras: a set of highly creative (and occasionally profane) screen tests of these "Beatles of Comedy," a nice little photo yearbook, and a short introductory Tom Snyder interview with the ensemble.
This is the time of year when a zillion new video games for computers, consoles, and handhelds all come out, but the reality is that the coolest stuff in the video-game universe this holiday season is for the newest kid on the block – the hot new console from Nintendo, the Wii. It's shaping up as a serious game-changer for the other, far bigger competitors – Sony and Microsoft – by acting on the revolutionary idea that if you make video games both easy and fun, more people will play them. The Wii uses a new, simple, motion-sensitive remote that runs its games with only a few buttons and a lot of intuitive body motion. The Wii Sports Pack that comes with the console is a great example. You play tennis and golf by swinging the controller in the natural stroke for each game. Madden NFL (EA Sports) for the Wii is another great effort – just stroke that pigskin through the air as you would in a game and you're off and running, putting a pie squarely in the face of every researcher who continues to say that video games are encouraging couch potatoes. (The controller works by communicating with a sensor that you attach to your television so it knows where you're pointing.) Sega's Super Monkey Ball: Banana Blitz will have you dancing like you-know-what as you guide the balls down their lanes by waving your arms back and forth and all around. Without question, hard-core Nintendo fans are falling all over themselves for the Wii incarnation of The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess (Nintendo). The game world here is more like the usual video-game universe, with monsters and fighting and what not, but it's great fun to engage your entire body in the action rather than just your thumbs. It can actually be said with a straight face that these are video games the entire family will enjoy playing.
The Byrds – There Is A Season ($54.98)
When the jingle-jangle guitar and thrilling harmonies of "Mr. Tambourine Man" hit the airwaves and rocketed up the pop charts in 1965, America finally had its answer to The Beatles. A collection of folkies just learning to play electric instruments when they entered Columbia Records' Los Angeles studios, The Byrds soon captured the ears of the music world with their fresh new sound, combining earnest American folk songs by Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger with the rock beats and harmonies of British groups such as The Beatles and The Searchers. Though they only reached the top of the charts twice, The Byrds are considered by many to be one of the most innovative groups ever, pioneering folk-rock ("Turn! Turn! Turn!"), space-rock ("Mr. Spaceman"), jazz-rock ("Eight Miles High"), and country-rock ("Sweetheart of the Rodeo") in just three years of nearly nonstop recording. This lavish, four-disc set boasts 99 tracks, a 100-page book, and a bonus DVD that features awkward, lip-synched television performances. Perhaps they weren't made for the stage – but in the studio, these Byrds could soar.
John Lee Hooker – Hooker ($59.98)
Without John Lee Hooker there would have been no guttural howling into microphones by long-haired '60s British singers trying to sound dangerous and seductive. Hooker never had to try. His music is it – the source. There's the sound of his foot tapping a wooden pallet in time with his guitar, the abrupt silences between notes, the gravel-tinged voice that rumbles with menace and longing. What is wonderful about Shout! Factory's four-disc compilation "Hooker," is that it demonstrates the musical sophistication behind his trademark foot stompin' boogie. The set takes the listener through Hooker's finest material – raw and deeply felt. The original "Boogie Chillen" that made Hooker famous is here, along with "Sally Mae," "Crawlin' King Snake," "Boom Boom," and "It Serves Me Right to Suffer." Disc 4 covers his collaborations with famous admirers including Van Morrison, Eric Clapton, Bonnie Raitt, and more. They wisely follow his lead.
Sinatra: Vegas ($59.98)
According to legend, all the casinos loved it when Frank Sinatra performed in Las Vegas. He brought the glitterati and high rollers to town. For Sinatra, who played Vegas hundreds of times between 1951 and 1994, the gambling mecca in the desert was his kind of town, the place where he felt most at ease. This snazzy five-disc set (four CDs and one DVD) contains previously unreleased live Vegas recordings spanning 1961 to 1987. By 1961, Francis Albert Sinatra, the skinny teen idol, was a distant memory. Ol' Blue Eyes was entering the most iconic period of his career, when the Chairman of the Board and his Rat Pack were the kings of '60s cool – at least for those too old to be in the thrall of The Beatles and Stones. These recordings let us hear and see a more unvarnished Sinatra, a singer who forgets or flubs lyrics and engages in comic patter with his audience. Many of the songs most identified with him ("Come Fly With Me," "That's Life," "My Way," "It Was a Very Good Year") are here, sometimes more than once, giving fans a chance to compare his approach over the years. Throw on one of these discs, and you're transported to a front-row seat at the Sands or Caesars Palace. Sinatra's in town, baby, and you're where the action is.
Robert Plant – Nine Lives ($99.98)
When Led Zeppelin disbanded in 1980, its lead singer shelved his primal scream in favor of singing that was more emotional, more reflective, more nuanced. The vocalist with golden hair and a golden throat set course on a highly individualistic journey in which none of his nine solo albums sound alike. "Nine Lives" collects all of Plant's albums (including his 1950s-style R&B project under the pseudonym of "The Honeydrippers"), and what's striking is how consistent the diverse body of work is. Not all of it has withstood the ravages of time and fashion – the 1988 hit album "Now & Zen" sounds neither now nor zen – but the highlights, such as 1993's "Fate of Nations" and last year's "Mighty Rearranger," are five-star records. The set includes rare material – an unreleased '80s demo called "Turnaround" is a terrific find – as well as a DVD that includes music videos and a long interview in which Plant reflects on his quest to continually break fresh ground.
• Joanne Ciccarello, Clayton Collins, Gloria Goodale, Stephen Humphries, John Kehe, Gregory M. Lamb, Teresa Méndez, and Yvonne Zipp contributed to this guide.