Gift ideas for everyone: 'Harry Potter,' Adele, 'Law & Order,' and 'Super Mario 3D'
Your gift list can get long with nieces and nephews, grandparents and friends all needing a present this holiday season. Try a few of these items that are sure to please like 'Winnie the Pooh,' 'Ken Burns: Prohibition,' and the video game 'Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception.'
FAMILY VIEWING The Lord of the Rings: The Motion Picture Trilogy Extended Edition ($119.98)
The director's cut of Peter Jackson's three visual masterpieces will keep you pinned to the couch for a full 12 hours – and many more if you throw in the massive amounts of extras. Besides interviews with Jackson, the cast, and the production team, there are several documentaries, including how the novels were adapted into screenplays and visits to the Weta Workshop (a special effects and prop company). Ride through Middle-earth, beginning with "The Fellowship of the Ring," into "The Two Towers," and finish off with "Return of the King," in the eye-popping clarity of this new high-definition box set on Blu-ray. Extras are on standard DVDs.
Harry Potter: The Complete 8-film Collection ($98.92)
This was the year that "Harry Potter" fans everywhere, young and old, said goodbye to the boy wizard as the final film rolled out. All eight of the movies – the last film is in two parts – are neatly packed into this slim, DVD collection (also on Blu-ray), which is chock-full of extras – from interviews with the filmmakers and the books' author, J.K. Rowling, to tours of Hogwarts' secrets. This is perfect for the family-vacation "Harry Potter" marathon. Serve up the popcorn and hot chocolate and settle in for a journey from "Sorcerer's Stone" all the way to "Deathly Hallows," Parts 1 and 2.
Dr. Seuss's Holidays on the Loose ($26.98)
This Dr. Seuss triple feature is for the true Grinch fans out there. The two-disc DVD includes the classic Seuss story of "How the Grinch Stole Christmas," along with lesser-known tales of the Grinch trying to trip up that cool Cat in the Hat and bully the Whos of Whoville on Halloween. The classic Grinch tale is definitely the standout star in this collection, but the colorful drawings, quick-rhyming characters, and kooky phrases carry through each animated piece. The supplemental features offer a window into the life of author and illustrator Theodor Seuss Geisel, more commonly known as Dr. Seuss. Music lovers can skip from one musical scene to the next by visiting the Song Selections feature, learning some Seuss-original carols along the way. "[E]verybody hates Christmas a little bit and nobody better dare deny that," says Chuck Jones, animator, coproducer and director of "How the Grinch Stole Christmas," but this DVD is sure to get even the grouchiest Grinch in the holiday spirit.
Winnie the Pooh ($29.99)
"Winnie the Pooh" is comfort food for kids and adults alike. It seems fun almost by accident. The story, which comes straight from the pages of author A.A. Milne (scenes are often literally set amid punctuation and paragraphs), sets off with seemingly no destination in mind, but in the end arrives at someplace pleasant. It combines three stories from the "Pooh" books, with Pooh's perpetual search for honey interrupted by a quest to find Eeyore's tail and the gang's expectedly incompetent attempts to rescue Christopher Robin from an imaginary monster. The attempt to knit three stories into a single narrative gives the story its occasionally rudderless feel. The musical numbers, at first, also come as a bit of a surprise. But ultimately, "Winnie the Pooh" is about what "Winnie the Pooh" should be: an unassuming and rather enjoyable hour in Hundred Acre Wood.
MUSIC Ray Charles: Singular Genius: The Complete ABC Singles ($42.98)
After his smash "What'd I Say" finally opened the door to the pop market, singer/pianist Ray Charles bolted from the R&B confines of Atlantic Records for the larger, mainstream label ABC/Paramount. "Singular Genius" is a box set of five discs containing all 53 of Charles's ABC singles, plus a 24-page booklet. The range of musical styles alone is breathtaking, all commandeered by Charles's soul-stirring vocals and funky piano. Soul, gospel, R&B, jazz and, yes, country harmonically coexist on these discs. Only Charles could have pulled that off. Offered complete freedom in the studio by ABC, Charles was soon back on top with the gorgeous ballad "Georgia on My Mind," followed by the infectious "Hit the Road, Jack." But not content to be fenced in by popular expectations, Charles transformed the country chestnuts "Unchain My Heart," "That Lucky Old Sun," and "Crying Time" into pop hits. And no one delivers the blues like Charles, who magically transformed "America the Beautiful" into a soulful tour de Charles. No box could contain this man's genius. But this is as close as you'll get.
Adele: 21 ($9.99)
At this point Adele could sing the pages of a telephone book and have a worldwide hit on her hands. Her voice is that memorable, powerful, passionate, and far more careworn than her 22 short years on this planet would suggest. Thankfully, the songs she writes are far better than the yellow pages. The dozen songs on "21" were wrenched, kicking and screaming, from a true-life breakup the singer suffered at the beginning of the album's sessions, and it's the sinew that binds the songs' themes and mood together. Turns out real life is much more interesting than rhyming couplets! "Rolling in the Deep" is the breakout hit; "One and Only" is a Southern-soul-style plea to an unsuspecting crush; and "Lovesong" recalls idol Dusty Springfield's soul stylings, four decades ago. Not all the material lives up to the promise of her glorious instrument, but it's hard to imagine a better album to ward off the imminent winter chill.
Fleet Foxes: Helplessness Blues ($8.99)
Ignore the word blues. This doesn't sound like any blues you've ever heard. It sounds more like rainbows. Seattle's Fleet Foxes sound like the hippie commune children of Crosby, Stills and Nash, along with assorted progeny of the Beach Boys. It's a lovely, airy, echo-laden harmony festival. Lead singer Robin Pecknold possesses a reedy, Neil Young-like tenor that slices through the layers of guitars, flutes, stacked voices, and finger-cymbals like a glass cutter. The song's lyrics are somewhat old-timey and obtuse, but generally seem to ask the big question "What is my purpose in this world?" The title song sets the basic tone:
I was raised up believing
I was somehow unique
Like a snowflake distinct among snowflakes,
Unique in each way you can see.
But, now, after some thinking,
I'd say I'd rather be
A functioning cog in some great machinery,
serving something beyond me.
The Fleet Foxes have created a timeless, mystical tapestry of sound and wonder that is a joy to behold.
Sigur Rós: Inní ($15.99)
The Icelandic music quartet ventures where no band has gone before. They sing in "Vonlenska" – an imaginary language completely free of meaning but rich in sounds – in emotional, angelic voices. Their guitar player saws his electric guitar with a bow, like a cello. They are often accompanied by strings and horns. Their music has been used in countless movie and TV soundtracks, and they encourage their fans to attach their own meaning to the songs, which sometimes have no titles. This eccentric, pioneering quartet has just released a DVD film and double live album package titled "Inní," documenting a London concert by the group in 2008. Its visuals, intimately capturing the band at its ethereal best, match the emotional heart of their soaring music, looking like ancient daguerreotypes brought to swirling, riveting life. "Inní" is a stunning, enchanting musical and visual experience that defies categorization.
CLASSIC FILMS Citizen Kane: 70th Anniversary Ultimate Collector's Edition ($49.92)
This greatest and most controversial of American films offers drama – both real and fictional. Studio heads thought to burn every print to prevent the movie's release. Enfant terrible Orson Welles – actor, writer, and director in his first film – fought for its survival. It is the archetypal American narrative of vision and power and the battle over who gets to control the final story. Technophiles will enjoy the remaster with restored sound. The centerpiece of this three-DVD set, however, is Charles Foster Kane, based on publishing titan William Randolph Hearst. His character remains the most compelling movie portrait of the effect of power on an individual's ability to love and be loved. That's where "The Battle Over Citizen Kane" comes in: It's a two-hour documentary about the events leading up to the real-life clash between outsized personalities Welles and Hearst. With "Kane," art and life did collide. Other extras include booklets, cards, and "RKO 281," HBO's fictional adaptation of the documentary that provides the final footnote to this fascinating package, a perfect present for the cinephile on your list.
TCM Greatest Classic Films Collection: Astaire and Rogers, Volume Two ($27.98)
The four movie musicals here again pair the dancing duo Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, shot in glorious black and white. The set includes "Roberta" (1935), "Follow the Fleet" (1936), "The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle" (1939), and the deliciously campy "Flying Down to Rio" (1933), the team's first movie together, complete with dancing girls high-kicking on biplane wings overhead. Extras include classic cartoon shorts, trailers, 1930s celebrity-watching at a garden party (in rare Technicolor!), and a minidocumentary on the greatest dance team in movie history. (Note to newcomers: They were great comic actors and gifted singers, too.)
Tracy & Hepburn: The Definitive Collection ($59.92)
Like a warm fire on a cold night, Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn are a classic combination for a reason. The pair made nine films together, and "Tracy & Hepburn: The Definitive Collection" bundles them – iconic connection and all. Packed with wit and heart, this is a perfect DVD set for both those familiar with the icons and those coming to them for the first time. From their first comedy together, "Woman of Year," and the mysterious drama "Keeper of the Flame" (first time on DVD) to their final film, "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner," for which Hepburn won an Academy Award, the movies really do stand the test of time, making you laugh, cry, and think deeply. The collection captures that celebrated Tracy-Hepburn screen magic as well as groundbreaking social commentary on fascism, the role of women, and the purpose of marriage. And for those of you who want the inside scoop on the Tracy-Hepburn private relationship, bonus features include a Tracy tribute disc hosted by Hepburn in which she opens up on the subject.
TELEVISION Brideshead Revisited: 30th Anniversary Edition ($59.99)
This elegant, 11-part miniseries based on the evocative novel by Evelyn Waugh revisits the pleasure of leisurely, detailed filmmaking. As the series that introduced the world to acting icon Jeremy Irons, it reminds us of the thrill of the slow reveal. Each episode, backed by some of the best TV theme music of all time, allows us to savor the mood, the characters, and the atmosphere so carefully crafted in the original novel, be it Italy, London, or the country mansion of the book's title. Available for all Anglophiles from Acorn media, a company that specializes in bringing the best of British TV to American audiences.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy ($49.99)
The cold-war spy drama starring Alec Guinness as the author's bleak hero, George Smiley, "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy," returns on DVD just in time to coincide with the feature film release, starring Gary Oldman and Colin Firth. It's a treat to revisit a modern classic that many regard as one of the best TV miniseries ever made. The six-part story arc weaves a leisurely web of cold-war intrigue and double-dealing, reminding viewers of what the days before the Internet, social media, and cellphones were like. Secrets somehow seemed deeper, treachery more vile, and deception more ominous in a world under the constant yet shadowy threat of mutual, nuclear destruction.
Law & Order: The Complete Series ($699.99)
This may well be the ultimate gift for a lover of TV crime dramas. "Law & Order," the flagship of what has turned into one of the most enduring television franchises ever, helped reshape the modern crime procedural with its iconic method of walking viewers through each phase of a criminal investigation, from the first moments of the investigation to the ultimate prosecution of a crime. All 20 seasons come on 104 DVDs, including many never-before-released episodes, deleted and extended scenes, and other extras (including an interview with series creator Dick Wolf, a preview of the "Law & Order" interactive game) guarantee that the crime lover on your gift list may disappear for hours on end after receiving this doorstop of a collection.
Ken Burns: Prohibition ($39.99)
Filmmaker Ken Burns continues to map the American story, this time turning his lens on Prohibition. The three-part PBS series is set in the era that led up to bathtub gin and notorious gangland criminals such as Al Capone. The filmmaker, who made his name as a student of the American psyche with his groundbreaking series "The Civil War," walks through the landscape of 19th-century America once again, this time picking up the threads of emerging activism as the antialcohol movement caught fire throughout the small towns and family homes of middle America. The series explores the lead-up to the passage of the 18th Amendment, its rocky course through the American culture, and its eventual end.
Celebrate the 400th anniversary of the King James translation of the Bible. Journey into the history of this landmark literary and religious text, widely regarded as one of the most beautiful and influential books ever published in the English language. Narrated by John Rhys-Davies, KJB: The Book That Changed the World ($19.98), is a 94-minute documentary with dramatic reenactments detailing the historical backdrop and process of bringing the book to fruition. From John Wycliffe to William Tyndale to Martin Luther, the story chronicles the work of those who died and suffered to ensure the word of God could be heard by the average churchgoer in a common language, rather than Latin. A labor of politics and religious passion, the text was a product of scholars across the contentious political landscape of the day, from the bishops to the Puritans, with the newly crowned King James presiding in an attempt to create a version that would unify his nation. The interview with Rhys-Davies is particularly worth watching. KJV: The Making of the King James Bible ($19.99) is a 46-minute examination of just how difficult that process was. The effort stretched over seven years, employing 50 of the top scholars of the era. This DVD dives into the actual translation process, examining selections for a deeper understanding of how the translators worked directly from the original Hebrew and Greek texts. It also offers the opportunity to go more deeply into the primary scholars' thoughts on such topics as manners and morals, Job, and the New Testament. (Available from VisionVideo.com.)
VIDEO GAMES Super Mario 3D Land ($39.99)
Nintendo's new hand-held system, the 3DS, has an amazing hook. It can pull off 3-D visuals without any silly eyewear. However, just as with 3-D TVs, the 3DS hasn't had enough quality titles to make the device worth its sticker price. Until now. Super Mario 3D Land is a gem. While the fundamentals of a Mario game haven't changed in 25 years – run, jump, power up, save the princess – 3D Land reiterates Nintendo's masterly sense of subtle innovation and careful craft. Mario's new adventure brims with color and whimsy. The levels constantly introduce new tricks and special powers, and then cleverly subvert them just as one wrinkle starts to grow old. While the entire game can be played in 2-D, the 3-D graphics provide a sense of depth, making careful jumps surprisingly intuitive. This is how 3-D gaming should feel. Let's hope other game designers take note.
Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception ($59.99)
Treasure hunting. Tomb spelunking. Henchmen brawling. Uncharted 3 has all the makings of an excellent "Indiana Jones" movie. In fact, this new title for the Playstation 3 has one thing many video games leave out, a great story. You play as Nathan Drake, a globe-trotting adventurer in search of Sir Francis Drake's lost fortune. Along the way, the game adds more humor and genuine human relationships than can be found in most summer popcorn flicks. While the teen-rated game leans a little too much on gunplay, it at least places the fights amid some spectacular set pieces. Its sinking cruise ship, burning chateau, and other heart-pounding locations provide a wonderful mix of cinematic action and player-controlled reaction. Dr. Jones would be proud.
The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword ($49.99)
As millions of people already know, the Wii's motion controller makes for a pretty good virtual golf club, tennis racket, and baseball bat. But it's taken five years for someone to craft a satisfying simulation of two video-game staples: the sword and shield. In The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, simply waggling the Wii controller won't work. You need to swing left when a skeleton's defenses are weak on that side, slash right when you find an opening, and whip the controller around for a spin attack. Each enemy requires different tactics, making this colorful adventure far more entertaining than your everyday button masher. To capture these realistic motions, the game requires Wii Motion Plus, an extra set of sensors that plug into the bottom of any Wii controller. The add-on costs about $25, or you can look for the limited edition of Skyward Sword, which comes bundled with the attachment.
Skylanders: Spyro's Adventure ($69.99)
Skylanders taps into the classic boyhood fantasy that toys have a secret life of their own. The game comes with a plastic pedestal and three action figures, each representing a different character in the game. While swashbuckling through the digital world, players can swap in characters at any time by placing a new figurine atop the pedestal. This "portal of power" recognizes the switch because of unique radio chips hidden inside each toy. If the game is a hit with your family, you can unlock bonus areas by buying additional characters ($8 each or three for $20). With such a business model, it's easy to dismiss Skylanders as a game designed for retailers instead of kids. But hold your cynicism. The game is a hoot! The menagerie of monsters is imaginative and fun – both as toys and as digital heroes. Plus, friends and siblings can join in thanks to the game's two-player cooperative mode. Available for PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, Nintendo 3DS, Wii, Windows, and Mac.
GEAR Amazon Kindle Fire ($199)
Let's get one thing out of the way: The Amazon Kindle Fire is not an iPad competitor. The new color tablet and e-reader doesn't have the specs to keep up with most of Apple's tricks. But who cares? It's $199. That gets you a svelte 7-inch tablet ready to tap into Amazon's massive catalog of digital books, songs, games, and videos. The bright, colorful touch screen isn't great for marathon reading sessions, but it makes magazines, children's books, and TV shows really pop. Kindle's online store sells items à la carte and offers access to several all-you-can-eat services such as Netflix movies, Pandora music, and a free month of Amazon Prime's video library. The Prime subscription ($79 a year) also unlocks Kindle's new lending library, which allows you to borrow one e-book each month from a selection of more than 5,000 titles, including 100 New York Times bestsellers. Sure, it can't take on Apple's heavyweight champion, but with a price that's 60 percent less than the cheapest iPad, this featherweight fighter dominates its division.
Roku LT streaming TV box ($49.99)
A curious phrase entered American culture a few years ago, "Have you caught up on last season yet?" The old model of appointment viewing meant that "yet" was never an option. Miss the original broadcast and you were left crossing your fingers, hoping for reruns or syndication deals years later. But along came DVDs, then Netflix, and now, the Roku LT. This hockey-puck-sized set-top box connects your TV to thousands of on-demand TV episodes and movies. Many of these online channels stream free of charge, although some of the better Roku options, such as Netflix, Hulu Plus, and HBO Go, require subscriptions. The souped-up Roku 2 XS ($99) packs in additional features, such as the ability to load digital photos off a USB drive and a more sophisticated remote that allows you to play the cellphone-gaming phenomenon Angry Birds on your TV. Canceling your cable bill has never felt so feasible.
Agloves Touch Screen Gloves ($17.99 – $23.99)
Touch screens don't work very well in the winter. It's not the cold. It's the winter gloves. The Kindle Fire, Apple iPhone, and most touch-sensitive gadgets use capacitive technology, which reacts to the bioelectricity in your fingers to register clicks and swipes. Yet when people bundle up for winter, they cover the skin that allows this reaction to work. Agloves solves this problem by weaving silver-coated nylon into its gloves. Silver, the most conductive metal, creates the same kind of connections, tricking capacitive screens into reading finger swipes. These comfy Agloves come in three varieties: black winter gloves, a sports version designed to keep sweat away from screens, and a white pair made from silver-nylon and sustainable bamboo fibers. Another winter option: Pogo's line of capacitive styluses ($15).
HDMI cables (under $15)
This is less of a pick than a public-service announcement. Never spend more than $15 on an HDMI cable. These wires play an essential role in most high-definition television setups. They connect big-screen TVs to Blu-ray players, video-game consoles, sound systems, Roku boxes, and camcorders. Since they're vital for high-end items, many stores gouge HDMI prices, charging $50 to $100 for cables that are functionally identical to the $5 versions. For a fair price, check out Amazon.com, Newegg.com, or Monoprice.com.
• Staff reviews by Gloria Goodale, Whitney Eulich, Mark Sappenfield, John Kehe, Jenna Fisher, Joanne Ciccarello, Gregory M. Lamb, and Chris Gaylord.