Holiday buying guide
Looney Tunes - The Golden Collection (Warner Home Video, $64.92): To see if this four-disc set belongs under a loved one's tree, simply put on Wagner's "Flight of the Valkyries." If he or she starts singing, "Kill the Wabbit! Kill the Wabbit!" then, my friend, you have a winner. Sadly, "What's Opera, Doc?" is missing from this collection of 56 classic shorts (as is "One Froggy Evening"), but what's here is so good, it's easy to forgive the folks at Warner for holding out for next year's "even-more-special" edition. Disc 1 stars the wascally wabbit, Disc 2 is devoted to Daffy and Porky, and Discs 3 and 4 showcase shorts starring everyone from Pepe LePew to the little penguin who cries ice cubes. Each disc is larded with interviews with Chuck Jones, Friz Freleng, and the rest of the Termite Terrace gang; commentaries; music-only tracks; and other extras - all of which border on the worshipful. While it's a little silly to hear Daffy and Co. discussed in the kind of solemn tones usually reserved for the Middle East peace process, the remastered cartoons look fantastic - as if they were whipped off the drawing board just in time for Saturday morning. By Yvonne Zipp
It's a Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie (MGM, $19.98): When NBC first aired this special in 2002, Muppet fans everywhere breathed a sigh of relief. It is so good to see Kermit and Co. back in fine form in this parody of "It's a Wonderful Life" (with a dash of "A Christmas Story" and "Moulin Rouge" tossed in). After Rachel Bitterman (a fantastic Joan Cusack) forecloses on the Muppet Theater, Kermit wishes he had never been born. Enter an angel (David Arquette), who shows what life would have been like for the rest of the Muppets gang. Some of the humor is a little too suggestive for small viewers, and there are no "Rainbow Connection"-like gems among the songs, but this is still one of the best Muppet outings since Jim Henson's passing. Extras include a parody of "Inside the Actor's Studio" starring Pepe the Prawn, bloopers, and deleted scenes. - Y.Z.
James Bond 007 Special Edition DVD, Vols 1-3 (MGM, each set priced at $124.96): Sure, you could wait for the annual Bond marathon on TV, but you won't be able to get through a full ski chase without a commercial break. Now, all 20 films in the series are available in three boxed sets. Unless you're a completist, you'll want to pick the selection with your favorites. My pick is Volume 1, which includes three of the strongest films of the series, "Goldeneye," "License to Kill," and "Goldfinger." Each DVD comes with a nifty "dossier" booklet with 007 trivia but the extras on the individual films are often leaner than George Lazenby's film résumé. The most glaring omission is the absence of a single commentary by any of the Bond actors. Even so, the voiceover tracks by directors, crew, and supporting actors are terrific - Benicio Del Toro, for instance, confesses that he left a permanent scar on Timothy Dalton's hand after a knife-scene accident in "License." There are also several featurettes wedged between music videos for Bond songs. One of them reveals why Connery looks so terrified when a huge shark brushes him aside in "Thunderball" - the beast had managed to slip through a transparent barrier. For once, Connery was at a loss for a one-liner. By Stephen Humphries
Alias (Buena Vista Home Entertainment $69.99): At last! I can finally throw away all those treasured tapes with episodes of the second season of "Alias." Here in one nice digital package: all 22 of them. Time to replay all those ambiguous scenes between sleek Lena Olin as the inscrutable mom and the tortured - but equally sleek - Jennifer Garner, as her spy daughter. There is simply not enough time in a life to slo-mo all of this, but that's what makes digital so great. It would take forever to cherry pick these scenes on VHS tapes. Then there are all the nifty extras. These aren't rocket science, but they're lots of fun - a quick reel of all Jennifer's coolest looks (who believes she only wore that red wig once?), the shooting of the big finale scene, oh, and the de rigeur blooper reel, of course. - Gloria Goodale
Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (New Line, $39.99): Forty-three extra minutes! That's what you get with the extended version of "Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers." And they're worth every penny. Not to spoil the surprises, but there are all sorts of enriching tidbits, such as how old Aragorn really is (and why that is useful to know) and flashbacks of Faramir and Boromir with their father. The four-disc set is loaded with extras. The commentaries include an analysis of the books and explain why the middle section was such a challenge to film, as well as all sorts of goodies about the battle of Helm's Deep and creating Middle Earth. The best by far is the nearly 40 minute-long featurette called "The Taming of Sméagol." Getting Gollum pitch-perfectly weird is one of Jackson's truly great achievements, and it's fascinating to see how it was done. -G.G.
Pirates of the Caribbean (Buena Vista Home Video, $29.99): For more than 10 hours' worth of swashbuckling fun, put on your pirate hat and slide this disc into your DVD player. After an entertaining ride with the dread-headed Johnny Depp, these DVD extras will have you singing "A Pirate's Life for Me." Skip Disney's theme-park promotion and fluffy commentary by Jerry Bruckheimer and head "Below Decks," where you can click around a pirate ship and learn about the life of these illegal "merchants." (Did you know walking the plank is a myth?) Then head out to sea, where you'll learn about computer special effects, wave machines, and ship models. The actor interviews are worthwhile: Depp reveals it was his childhood dream to be a pirate but he didn't know how to sail. Actor Jack Davenport, who dons a white wig, felt like an ice-cream cone compared to Johnny and his "cool dreads and bandana." For behind-the-scenes, check out the blooper reel and a diary of a pirate, in which actor Lee Arenberg tapes home videos on the set. By Stephanie Cook Broadhurst
Seabiscuit (Universal, $26.98 ): This is a heartwarming story about a winning little racehorse that rallied Americans when they felt beaten during the Depression. What this spirited film may lack in analysis, it makes up for on DVD extras - chock full of historical perspective and details on Seabiscuit, Red Pollard, and a jockey's life. There's plenty of archival footage, including the 1938 race between Seabiscuit and War Admiral, and we see how filmmakers choreographed movie scenes with real races. The "making-of" reel chronicles how it took 10 horses to play Seabiscuit, and several mechanical ones to simulate neck-and-neck conversations between jockeys. Laura Hillenbrand ("Seabiscuit" author) offers insightful tidbits. For example, Seabiscuit was more popular in print than F.D.R. in 1938. - S.C.B.
High Sierra (Warner Bros., $19.98): Warner has been slowly releasing the best of screen legend Humphrey Bogart. November was a good month. Topping the list: "High Sierra." This was his breakout role, elevating him from second-tier heavy roles to leading-man status. Bogie is billed below costar Ida Lupino in the original poster on the packaging, but there's no doubt about whose movie this is when you watch it. The added features for these old films are a bit lean compared with modern films that are made with the DVD in mind, but "Curtains for Roy Earle: the story of High Sierra" is fun to watch nonetheless. Also out in November: "Dark Passage," "To Have and Have Not" (his first pairing with Lauren Bacall), and "They Drive by Night." - G.G.
Once Upon a Time in the West (Paramount Home Video, $19.99): Watching classics from another era on your own timetable is one of the DVDs great gifts. "Once Upon a Time in the West" is a slow-motion classic that features Henry Fonda in a rare turn as a truly evil man. His character murders an entire family, including a young boy shot at point-blank range. But the movie's not so much about the fight for land rights that drives many westerns - it's more about the atmosphere, the pace, and the performances. This sparkling restoration is an early Christmas gift to Sergio Leone's fans and a great introduction for those who missed him first time around. - G.G.
Alien Quadrilogy (20th Century Fox, $99): You'll have to forgive me for not watching all 50 hours of bonus materials on this nine-disc set. A man has to rest sometime. Not that it's easy to sleep after viewing four of the most terrifying monster movies ever made. In addition to the original theatrical releases there are also exclusive extended or revised versions and, fittingly, each one of them is a superior breed. It would take a small wing of the Smithsonian to catalog the exhaustive (and frequently exhausting) featurettes - there's even a short about a man who added 3,000 square feet to his home for a museum of "Alien" props. It's best to concentrate on James Cameron's commentary track for "Aliens," the series' highpoint, and marvel that he finished the screenplay in the same three-month period in which he wrote "Terminator" and "Rambo 2." - S.H.
Battlestar Galactica: The Complete Epic Series (Universal, $120): Will someone please give Dirk Benedict a new TV series? The actor is a hoot as a contributor to a "Mystery Science Theater"-style commentary track for "Battlestar Galactica," the 1978 TV show built to capitalize on "Star Wars" mania. Benedict proves to be Galactica's true star: He played starship pilot Starbuck with a jocularity that was the perfect counterweight to the gravitas of Lorne Greene (Commander Adama), the pretty-boy heroics of Richard Hatch (Commander Apollo), and the inconsistent tone of individual episodes as the show struggled to find its identity. Here, in delightful new interviews, Benedict and others recall the uncooperative chimp who suited up to play a robot dog and how guest star Fred Astaire liked to dance to the rhythm of laser-gun sound effects. - S.H.
Winged Migration (Columbia Tristar Home Video, $26.95): "Winged Migration" is one of those rare movies that truly takes us to another world and makes us see it through new eyes. For more than four years, teams of more than 400 people - including 17 pilots and 14 cinematographers using planes, gliders, helicopters, and hot-air balloons - tracked migrating birds of every conceivable breed through 40 countries and on each of the seven continents. That's a mouthful, but this movie is more than an eyeful - it is a truly heart-filled movie that everyone should see. It's easy to think the film was simply done with special effects as you soar over an ocean surrounded by geese, but this is all the genuine item. Repeat after me: not a single computer-generated effect. The featurette documenting just how this was accomplished is as interesting as the film itself. - G.G.
Vladimir Horowitz: Legendary RCA Recordings, 2 CDs (BMG Classics, $17.99) and Horowitz Live and Unedited - The Historic 1965 Carnegie Hall Return Concert, 2 CDs and 1 DVD (Sony Classical, $19.99). This year marked the 100th anniversary of the birth of piano virtuoso Vladimir Horowitz, who died in 1989, and these compilations are two of the best ways to enjoy his genius. "Legendary RCA Recordings" features two early recordings of his rare concerto work with symphony orchestras, as well as many of the short, showy encore pieces for which he became famous. On May 9, 1965, Horowitz returned to live performing after a still-unexplained absence of 12 years (though he did record during that interlude). A "live" album of that Carnegie Hall appearance issued shortly afterward actually included several passages fixed in the studio, including a noticeable stumble on a Schumann "Fantasia," that Horowitz later referred to as "an act of God." "Live and Unedited" is a pristine record of the memorable event without the later studio cleanup, along with a 10-minute DVD video of Horowitz performing at the piano in his home. "Live and Unedited" reveals Horowitz's brilliant blending of technical skill and showmanship, and his original insights into composers such as Chopin, Scriabin, and Debussy that made him one of the greatest artists of the 20th century. - By Gregory M. Lamb
Theodora, by George Frederic Handel (Erato/Warner Classics, $50.98): This second-to-last Handel oratorio, reputed to be his favorite, is performed by the French early-instrument orchestra "Les Arts Florissants" and an able group of vocalists, led by English soprano Sophie Daneman in the title role. The downbeat storyline (Theodora is an early Christian, martyred for her beliefs) may have contributed to its lack of commercial success in 1750. But modern audiences will find the work to be Handel at the height of his powers, music that is both gorgeous and inspiring. - G.L.
Cash Unearthed, 5 CDs (Lost Highway, $79.98): Johnny Cash died in September, but "Unearthed" is no quickie "best of" compilation. The project was under way long before his passing and actually avoids the well-known songs that made the reputation of "the Man in Black." Instead, it serves up 79 tunes from a wide variety of sources - folk, country, gospel, pop - recorded in the last decade of his life. All but 15 have never before been released. They range from duets with artists like Joe Strummer, Tom Petty, Nick Cave, and Fiona Apple to a full CD of old gospel hymns sung alone by Cash to simple guitar accompaniment. Made mostly at informal sessions in places like a Los Angeles church and Cash's home, the recordings show a mature, vulnerable, and sincere singer. While the ailing Cash is no longer always at the top of his vocal powers, he still puts his unmistakable mark on tunes such as the aching "Gentle on My Mind," Neil Young's "Heart of Gold," the gospel standard "I'll Fly Away," and even a Nine Inch Nails anthem, "Hurt."- G.L.
Concert for George, 2 disc DVD with 30-page commemorative booklet ($29.99): There was a lot of love in this room. The room? The Albert Hall in London sold out for an all-star tribute one year ago to the late "quiet Beatle." And what a joyous celebration it was, with a stage full of George's closest musical friends delivering the performances of their lives, all captured in stunningly clear sound and moving visuals. Best buddy and bandleader Eric Clapton and his crack ensemble bring out the very best in Harrison's songs, playing with both precision and passion. Sitar master Ravi Shankar (with full orchestra), fellow Traveling Wilburys Jeff Lynne and Tom Petty, Beatle pal Billy Preston, George's son Dhani, members of Monty Python, and old bandmates Ringo Starr and Sir Paul McCartney are among the inspired performers. Clapton's emotional vocal and McCartney's keening harmony on the stirring "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" is alone worth the price of this set. What a night. By John Kehe
ZZ Top - Chrome, Smoke and BBQ (Warner Bros., $79.98): According to the liner notes of this four-disc set, the self-described "lil' ol' band from Texas" once won an MTV award for choreography in the mid '80s, thanks to coaching from Paula Abdul. Oddly, her career is now in better shape than that of the Texan trio, since a ZZ Top revival is now about as likely as the band getting a tour sponsored by Gillette. Truth is, the band's crafty branding - the spinning furry guitars, the cheap sunglasses, the space-shuttle-like hot rod - began to overshadow the music. This retrospective includes the popular hits ("Gimme All Your Lovin,' " "Sleeping Bag"), but it's the first two discs that remind one of why Billy Gibbons's blues playing was once praised by Jimi Hendrix himself. On cuts like "La Grange" and "Just Got Paid," the guitarist's supremely catchy riffs and rhythm section's boogie created an indispensable body of music. Almost as good is the box set's inclusion of a flip book of those windmilling guitars. - S.H.