A Nov. 25 Weekend item on the "Leave It to Beaver: The Complete First Season" DVD misstated the number of episodes in the television series' first season. There were 39 episodes, not 26. (Published 11/29/2005)
Critic's Picks | Michael O'Sullivan
"The Val Lewton Horror Collection." Warner, $59.92. Beginning with the 1942 "Cat People" (which inspired Paul Shrader's lurid 1982 remake) and ending with 1946's "Bedlam" (featuring some of Boris Karloff's best work), these nine low-budget-but-high-art films prove that producer (and often uncredited script-tweaker) Lewton was the poet laureate of the 1940s horror film. Typically starting with nothing more than an incongruous, studio-supplied title -- such as 1943's "The Leopard Man," which, contrary to expectation, is not about a man who turns into a leopard -- Lewton and frequent collaborating director Jacques Tourneur cranked out B-movies that looked (and lingered in the psyche) like A-films. Deeply scary without ever really showing us anything horrible, such black-and-white tales as Lewton's weird and wonderful 1943 "I Walked With a Zombie" are often structurally flawed, to be sure, but, as "Exorcist" director William Friedkin points out on one commentary track, they're only as flawed as our own nightmares. Coherence, Friedkin notes, is "the enemy of the horror film."
"The Wizard of Oz: Collector's Edition." Warner, $49.92. Packed with extras and spit-polished to a Glinda-the-Good sparkle, this edition of the 1939 film comes with so much bonus material slathered over three discs, it's almost decadent. Commentary track? Check. Historian John Fricke points out the obvious stuff, including the scene in which Dorothy's pigtails famously change length; the things you never noticed before, such as how our heroine's ruby slippers change to black at one point (that's what the "pause" button is for); and stuff you never thought you needed to know, like the name of the actor who played the Wicked Witch of the West's head flying monkey, Nikko (Pat Walshe, who specialized in impersonating animals, in case you were wondering). Other toppings on this deep-dish pie include technical details of the film's digital restoration; a 1990 making-of TV documentary by Jack Haley Jr., whose father played the Tin Man; raw test footage of the tornado scene; and not one but five earlier screen adaptations of the L. Frank Baum classic. Plus a packet of old photo reproductions and promotional material.
"Star Trek: The Motion Pictures DVD Collection." Paramount, $166.99. "I think that when you're acting in a 'Star Trek' film, there's an element of energy, urgency, that is part of the style of 'Star Trek,' " says William Shatner, aka Captain (later Admiral) James T. Kirk, in his often self-deprecating director's commentary for "Star Trek V: The Final Frontier," one of 10 films anthologized in this well-annotated 20-disc box set. Still, he continues, "I wouldn't think of it as being any less real than any kitchen-sink drama." Right. Assuming that the kitchen sink is hurtling through space at Warp 5 in pursuit of a Klingon bird-of-prey warship. Dramatic, ahem, urgency is but one of the hallmarks (cornball humor, social commentary and mysticism being three others) of the pioneering sci-fi-TV-show-turned-movie-franchise, whose sometimes uneven, but always entertaining, flight path -- including both the top-notch 1989 "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan" and 2002's less stellar "Star Trek: Nemesis" -- is charted here.
"The Ross McElwee DVD Collection." First Run Features, $99.95. McElwee's films are about a lot of things: tobacco (2003's "Bright Leaves"), the media (1996's "Six O'Clock News"), life and death (1994's "Time Indefinite"), the South (1986's "Sherman's March"), family (1984's "Backyard"), his old high school English teacher (1980's "Charleen"). Sometimes, several of the themes arise in a single film. As this six-film set makes clear, however, one abiding concern of McElwee's has always been . . . McElwee. Editing years of obsessively (and often single-handedly) shot footage of his life -- what he calls a "sherpa mode of filmmaking" -- into highly personal, usually self-narrated films, McElwee somehow manages to turn navel-gazing into "the desire to capture the presence of God on film," to use his words. "When am I going to give up making documentaries and go to Hollywood and make real films?" McElwee says people always ask him. With any luck, never.
"Garbo: The Signature Collection." Warner, $99.92. The life and career of Greta Garbo was defined by dualities: recluse and movie star, Swede and American, dramatic performer and comedienne, star of silents and talkies, icon of strength and vulnerability. With an androgynous sex appeal that captivated men and women, Garbo left a legacy of work that ranged from the subtle to the operatic. On the centennial of the actress's birth, this collection of 10 films -- from the 1926 "The Temptress" to her penultimate film, 1939's Ernst Lubitsch-directed "Ninotchka" -- demonstrates just how singular the actress really was.
Michael O'Sullivan writes about art and film for Weekend.
Children's | Nicole Arthur
"Wallace & Gromit in Three Amazing Adventures." DreamWorks, $19.99. If Wallace and Gromit are one of cinema's great comedy teams, then Gromit is one of its great straight men (okay, straight dogs), peering over his newspaper with a cocked eyebrow as his owner embarks upon yet another misguided scheme. The pair made their big-screen debut this fall in "Curse of the Were-Rabbit," and this DVD package includes the three short films that made their name -- 1989's "A Grand Day Out," 1993's "The Wrong Trousers" and 1995's "A Close Shave" -- as well as a "making of" segment and "Cracking Contraptions," a collection of even shorter films spotlighting Wallace's unwieldy inventions. "We don't mind fingerprints," creator Nick Park says of the stop-motion animation process. Otherwise, he continues, "you might as well do it on a computer." Indeed, the engaging handmade feel of Parks's creations is echoed in the films -- like the interior of Wallace's rocket ship, which has hardwood floors, floral wallpaper and a lamp with a fringed shade.
"Here Come the ABCs." Universal Music Video, $12.98. Indie rock duo They Might Be Giants used deadpan pedagogy to comic effect in such songs as "Istanbul (Not Constantinople)" long before they got into the kiddie-rock racket. Their second children's recording, a tuneful collection of songs about the alphabet called "Here Come the ABCs," takes this gambit and runs with it. (Sample lyric: "Most with cones for seeds / Most with needles for leaves / 'C' is for conifers / My kind of tree.") The DVD features music videos for the songs, most of which are animated in a funky, do-it-yourself style. Others feature puppetry or live-action performances; think of the educational shorts on "Sesame Street" or its brainier spin-off, "The Electric Company." The images are as catchy as the songs. In "QU," the letters -- two guys in jeans and T-shirts with "Q"- and "U"-shaped boxes on their heads -- spend the day together, walking through the park, enjoying the swings and picking up pizza at a by-the-slice joint.
"MicroCosmos." Buena Vista Home Video, $19.99. This film contains graphic sex. And it is no less erotic for featuring a pair of snails. The pair provide one of many fascinating moments in this French documentary, which uses close-up photography to capture a day in the life of the insects that inhabit a country meadow. The filmmakers let their astonishing footage speak for itself; its only words are minimal narration at the beginning and end of the movie. Though thousands of times smaller than, say, a zebra, the film's subjects are no less compelling -- call them charismatic microfauna. An ant wrestles a drop of water like a mover struggling with an unwieldy king-size mattress; a raindrop hits a blade of grass, and the impact sends a ladybug tumbling over the side; a caterpillar emerges from a translucent egg, which it methodically devours before going on its way. The only disappointment here is that the one time you actually want a "making of" extra, there's not one -- presumably the bugs had other commitments.
"Bambi." Buena Vista Home Video, $29.99. Disney's 1942 classic differs from contemporary animated films in many ways. The most striking is its relative lack of incident: It delights in small dramas such as a fawn learning to walk on wobbly legs, marveling at the sights and sounds of a forest rainfall or puzzling at his reflection in a pond. Another is the striking beauty of its background art. While "Bambi" seems dated today -- the kids voicing the young animals are no less cloying than the non-animated child actors of the era -- its themes presage those of later Disney films. It's easy to see, for instance, why studio staffers referred to "The Lion King" as "Bambi in Africa." This is one of many factoids contained in the DVD's extras, which chronicle the film's conception in exhaustive detail. Those lovely backgrounds, for example, are the work of animator Tyrus Wong, who is credited with bringing "a Chinese aesthetic" to the movie's landscapes. The award for best anecdote goes to Donnie Dunagan, the voice of Bambi, a battalion commander who kept his involvement in the film a secret during his 25 years in the Marine Corps. His reason: fear of the inevitable nicknames.
"Toy Story." Walt Disney Home Video, $29.99. The first computer-animated feature film, "Toy Story" was distinctive in other ways as well. As the filmmakers recall in the bonus material that accompanies this 10th-anniversary package, they embarked on the project with firm ideas about what they didn't want: no fairy tales, no musicals, no boring main characters with zany sidekicks. What they did want was a buddy picture -- albeit with buddies by Mattel. But that description doesn't do justice to the perversity of the film's central premise: that existing toys live in constant fear of being rendered obsolete -- or, as one puts it, "next month's garage-sale fodder" -- by new ones. This dark undertone may explain some of the film's appeal to grown-ups. Ascribe the rest to the fact that it's an unabashed valentine to baby-boomer toys. They're all here: Hot Wheels, Candy Land, Etch a Sketch. Not a GameBoy in sight. It's no wonder the collaborators made frequent trips to Toys R Us for "research."
Nicole Arthur covers children's entertainment for Weekend.
Television Shows | Jen Chaney
"Lost: The Complete First Season." Walt Disney Home Video, $59.99. This Emmy Award-winning series has surpassed the going-downhill-fast "Desperate Housewives" as the most talked-about show on television. Now fans can revisit all the calamities that befell the survivors of Oceanic Flight 815 during the drama's debut season -- from savage polar bears to cursed lottery numbers -- in this superb seven-disc set, the best TV DVD of the year. In addition to presenting all 24 episodes in 5.1 surround sound, the collection boasts several hours of extras, including 13 deleted scenes; fascinating featurettes revealing, among other things, how the massive wreckage from the plane crash was created; and audition footage depicting several stars trying out for roles they didn't wind up playing. (Yes, Jorge Garcia, who plays the lovable and portly Hurley, actually reads for the part of brooding, sexy Sawyer.) With questions and conspiracy theories continuing to swirl around the current season's plot developments, this DVD is the best place to hunt for clues to the many absorbing mysteries hidden in "Lost."
"The Muppet Show: Season One." Buena Vista Home Video, $39.99. Almost everyone adores the Muppets. And Animal lovers will adore them even more after reviewing this four-disc set, which marks the first time an entire season of Jim Henson's '70s-era variety show has been released on DVD. Nostalgic Gen Xers may get all warm and Fozzie while watching these 24 episodes, which reveal the first buds of a blossoming romance between Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy; memorable performances by guest stars such as Candice Bergen, Rita Moreno and Vincent Price; and always-useful cooking tips from the Swedish Chef. (Honestly, if Rachael Ray said, "Bork! Bork! Bork!" I might pay more attention to her "30 Minute Meals.") With extras that include the original pilot (sans Kermit as host) and "Muppet Morsels," a pop-up trivia track that shares little-known tidbits about the series, this is what we call "The Muppet Show" -- and one fun DVD set.
"Undeclared: The Complete Series." Shout! Factory, $49.98. Before Judd Apatow directed last summer's "The 40-Year-Old Virgin," he created this offbeat sitcom about an 18-year-old virgin. "Undeclared," an often hilarious look at the life of college freshman Steven Karp (Jay Baruchel), was canceled in 2002 in its first season. But thanks to the ever-growing market for TV shows on DVD, this companion piece to the also-canceled "Freaks and Geeks" (another Apatow production) has been permanently resuscitated. The 17 episodes cover almost every detail of university culture, from rush week to parents' weekend, and feature several recognizable faces from "The 40-Year-Old Virgin" as well as high-profile guest stars such as Adam Sandler, Will Ferrell and Ben Stiller. Add in the many hours needed to watch the numerous extras -- including commentaries on every episode, oodles of deleted scenes and rehearsal footage -- and you may find yourself spending much of winter break on this comical campus.
"The Edward R. Murrow Collection." New Video Group, $59.95. With Ted Koppel, Dan Rather, Peter Jennings and Tom Brokaw gone from the airwaves, television journalism seems to be entering a new era. But viewers can bring back the golden age, at least temporarily, with this fine look at the work of legendary newsman Edward R. Murrow. This box set delivers four DVDs featuring documentary-style tributes to his career as well as segments from his broadcasts. Murrow's acclaimed 1960 expose on migrant farm workers, "Harvest of Shame," appears, as does a disc devoted to highlights from his "See It Now" program. Those intrigued by George Clooney's film "Good Night, and Good Luck" will be most interested in "The McCarthy Years" DVD, which reveals much of the actual footage that aired during the contentious battle between Murrow and Sen. Joseph McCarthy. The extras are limited, and the pictures are in grainy black-and-white. But they remain powerful nonetheless.
"Leave It to Beaver: The Complete First Season." Universal Studios, $49.98 or $69.98 for the limited-edition gift set. June Cleaver may wear a conservative string of pearls, but, as played by Barbara Billingsley, she can lob sarcastic comments as well as any contemporary mama on television. That's just one of the pleasant surprises in the first season of "Leave It to Beaver," the classic series about the misadventures of the unfortunately nicknamed boy played by Jerry Mathers. Despite the frequent use of such words as "neat" and "golly," these 26 episodes (including the obscure pilot) remain funny and relatable nearly 50 years after they originally aired. Whether he's tearing holes in his best dress pants or putting a voodoo curse on the ultimate suck-up, Eddie Haskell, Beaver will charm kids who have never met him as well as adults who miss the milk-and-cookies America he represents. The expensive gift set comes with a nifty "Leave It to Beaver" lunchbox, but given the chintzy quality of the Cleaver family photo album found inside, it isn't worth the extra cash. And although the shows remain entertaining enough to merit a spot on your holiday wish list, some may be tempted to ask a vital question: "Gee, Wally, how come there aren't any bonus features?"
Jen Chaney is a frequent contributor to Weekend and a DVD columnist for washingtonpost.com.
Critic's Picks | Richard Harrington
"George Harrison and Friends: The Concert for Bangladesh." Apple Corp./Rhino, $29.98. This two-DVD package celebrates the granddaddy of rock charity events: a pair of 1971 concerts at Madison Square Garden to benefit sick and starving refugees in war-and-weather-ravaged Bangladesh. "I organized this with a little help from me friends," Harrison explained, and they included Ravi Shankar (who'd suggested the concert), Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Leon Russell, Billy Preston and Ringo Starr. These concerts would mark the only time two ex-Beatles played a whole concert together after the Beatles' final show at Candlestick Park in 1966. At the time, Harrison had never headlined a solo concert, Clapton was semi-retired and Dylan had been MIA for several years, so the concert was fraught with peril for all three. Yet the results were brilliant, from Harrison's "My Sweet Lord" and a "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" duet with Clapton, to Dylan's willingness to revisit early '60s classics such as "A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall" and "Just Like a Woman" (with gorgeous harmonies by Harrison and Russell). Aside from Dylan, everybody played as one band for the whole show. The triple-disc concert album won a Grammy and, with the concert and film, raised millions for UNICEF, which will again benefit from DVD and soundtrack sales. The second disc includes a 45-minute documentary with previously unseen footage (some so old young ABC reporter Geraldo Rivera was still humble) as well as previously unreleased performances.
"Live 8." EMI, $53.98. And here are the grandkids: More than three decades on, and 20 years after Live Aid, rocktivist Bob Geldof staged concerts in 10 cities last July, demanding G8 leaders meeting in Scotland address poverty in Africa through debt relief and expanded aid programs. This four-DVD set features highlights, and some complete sets, by the several dozen artists -- most well-known, some not so much -- who performed in London, Philadelphia, Toronto, Paris, Tokyo, Rome, Johannesburg, Berlin, Moscow and Edinburgh. With a star-studded roster running from Annie Lennox and Alicia Keys to U2 and Youssou N'Dour, it would be shorter to list Who's Who Who Wasn't There. Highlights in almost 10 hours of music: the one-off Pink Floyd reunion, the Philly crowd's exuberant takeover of Will Smith and DJ Jazzy Jeff's "Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" theme, U2 and Paul McCartney joining "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band," Lennox's luminous and poignant "Why" and the appearance of an Ethiopian famine victim first seen as a starving child in Live Aid footage, now a beautiful and spirited adult (albeit confused when Madonna uses her as a prop in "Like a Prayer"). This collection favors the London and Philadelphia concerts, but DVDs from the other cities are available separately. Royalties from sales of "Live 8" will go to the Band Aid Trust for the relief of hunger and poverty in Africa.
"Barbra Streisand -- The Television Specials." Rhino, $59.98. When Streisand made 1965's "My Name Is Barbra," she was the toast of Broadway in "Funny Girl" and an emerging star with her debut album. After the CBS show was broadcast, Streisand was nationwide, the hour-long black-and-white special somehow colorized by the brilliance of her impeccable song selection, surprisingly inventive productions and charismatic performances. And Streisand was still in her early twenties! In this early part of her career, she would do five CBS specials, gathered together for the first time in a five-DVD set. The second special, 1966's "Color Me Barbra," was one of CBS's first color shows, and like its predecessor, featured thoughtfully constructed medleys, seamless segues, luminous recitations and delightful shtick (Streisand, both a diva and a deft comedienne, was the only performer). That changed with 1967's "The Belle of 14th Street," a period-song tribute to vaudeville featuring Jason Robards, tapper John Bubbles and the Beef Trust Chorus (dancers "under 45 but over 45 in bust size"). The 1968 special "Barbra Streisand: A Happening in Central Park" is pure concert, but 1973's "Barbra Streisand . . . and Other Musical Instruments" is more about run-amok ego than pure music (she duets with Ray Charles and fronts the Raylets). The first two shows? Classics.
Bruce Springsteen, "Born to Run," 30th anniversary edition. Sony, $39.98. In album number three, Springsteen wrote about growing up, moving on and breaking through, and then did so creatively and career-wise. What turned out to be both a make-or-break and landmark album, here digitally remastered, is brilliantly contextualized by two accompanying DVDs. "Wings for Wheels" uses new interviews and newly uncovered film footage to map out the long, hard road Springsteen traveled over 15 months in the mid-'70s, from recasting his writing (now mostly on piano, less verbose, more direct), endless rehearsing and meticulous recording to retooling the E Street Band and reacting to the massive media hype when the album was released. It was testament to Springsteen's ambition -- "he wanted to be heard," notes manager and co-producer Jon Landau -- that his artistry evolved despite great expectations and huge pressures. Better yet is "Hammersmith Odeon London '75," a recently uncovered concert film from the band's first show outside America, darkly filmed but vividly recorded in 24-track. Over two highly energized hours, Springsteen and the E Street Band confirm their sterling reputation as one of the greatest live acts ever. There was magic in that night.
"WWE WrestleMania: The Complete Anthology 1985-2005." World Wrestling Entertainment, $279.95. Heavy metal without the music, "WrestleMania" is, for wrestling fans, Woodstock, the Oscars and the Super Bowl in a single package. This massive collection for the first time gathers all 21 "WrestleManias" in a single box. That's 213 matches, 69 hours of grunting, slamming, punching and posturing by the legends of the sport. Tons of grudge matches, submission matches, no-disqualification matches, as well as some mix and matches (like the 16-man heavyweight title tournament in "WrestleMania 4"). There's a bit of editing or blurring (entrance music, old WWF logos because of World Wildlife Fund issues), but otherwise it's all here, including the first 14 events never available on DVD. "WrestleMania" also comes in four five-match digi-packs (each also available individually to connoisseurs) with a DVD photo gallery and collectible film replicas of famous "WrestleMania" moments, but not the towel you might want to throw in at the 30- or 40-hour mark.
Richard Harrington is the pop music writer for Weekend.
Historical Collections | Tim Page
"Edison: The Invention of the Movies." Kino Video, $99.95. This fascinating set of 140 films, ranging from a few seconds to more than an hour long, all created for the Edison Co. between 1891 and 1918, follows the early development of the motion picture as it happened. In the beginning, the sheer novelty of a moving image was enough to attract an audience: Subjects included celebrities (strong man Eugene Sandow and sure shot Annie Oakley of "Annie Get Your Gun" legend), boxing matches, cockfights, hoochie-coochie dancers, New York hotel fires, documentary footage from the Spanish-American War and the aftermath of the Galveston flood of 1900. Then, just about 100 years ago, movies began to tell a story -- "The Great Train Robbery" (1903) prefigures both the crime drama and the Western (despite the fact that it was filmed in New Jersey) -- and the most significant art form of the 20th century was launched.
"The Forgotten Films of Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle." Mackinac Media, $49.95. No star was ever more unjustly maligned than Arbuckle, accused (and, in the tabloid press, tried and convicted) of a crime that he not only didn't commit but that never even took place. He was acquitted by a jury that went so far as to formally apologize for the "great wrong" that had been done to him, but his name was tainted and he was effectively banished from making films at the height of his career. As a result, many of the 30 films in this collection have not been seen since the 1920s. Mackinac Media's four-DVD set comes as a magnificent rehabilitation: Arbuckle is revealed, once and for all, as one of the great silent comedians -- inventive, poignant, astonishingly graceful for such a large man and very funny indeed. His co-stars include such legendary figures as Charlie Chaplin, Mabel Normand and Buster Keaton, and it is to Arbuckle's eternal credit that he not only holds his own with them but regularly steals the scene.
"Warner Bros. Pictures Gangster Collection." Warner Home Video, $68.92. Here they are again -- the tough, stylized, unrelentingly fierce gangster movies that established the careers of Edward G. Robinson, James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart in the 1930s. "Little Caesar" and "The Public Enemy" established the genre, with menacing performances by Robinson and Cagney that were considered the last word in brutal realism (and, in "Public Enemy," an early part for Jean Harlow that may contain the most comically awful acting ever wrought from a soon-to-be-major star). "The Roaring Twenties," "White Heat" and "Angels With Dirty Faces" are equally bleak and powerful, but it might be argued that "The Petrified Forest," while featuring Bogart in one of his first great roles, isn't really a gangster film at all. Never mind; it's a thrilling set, and Warner Home Video has included a rich trove of extra features -- newsreels, cartoons and commentary, both historic and hysteric.
"Controversial Classics." Warner Home Video, $79.92. On those rare occasions when Hollywood decides to roll up its sleeves and address important social issues, the results are usually deadly. But not always, as this uneven but engaging collection makes clear. Warner Home Video has gathered seven films, made over three decades, about crime and punishment ("I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang"), lynching ("Fury"), small-town small-mindedness ("Bad Day at Black Rock"), juvenile delinquency ("Blackboard Jungle"), media manipulation ("A Face in the Crowd"), political propaganda ("The Americanization of Emily") and good old Washington sleaze ("Advise & Consent"). None of these films has been on DVD before, and they have been done up right, with pristine prints and a host of extra features.
Hector Berlioz, "L'Enfance du Christ." Video Artists International, $29.95. There was a time when we didn't hear much of Berlioz's music, with the exception of his early and unrepresentative "Symphonie Fantastique." One man who did much to change this deplorable state of affairs was the late Charles Munch, who was music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra during the 1950s and early 1960s and who made pioneering recordings of "Romeo et Juliette," the Requiem Mass, "La Damnation de Faust" and the exquisite and ethereal oratorio "L'Enfance du Christ." Now a televised Symphony Hall concert of "L'Enfance" from late 1966 has turned up, featuring Munch, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the Harvard Glee Club and Radcliffe Choral Society, and five supple and sensitive soloists, most notably the baritone Theodor Uppman, who died earlier this year and is here memorialized in a performance of rapt and tender sweetness.
Tim Page is chief classical music critic for The Washington Post.
"The Wizard of Oz."No commercials, no problem: DVD sets of the TV series "Undeclared" and "Lost." Looking for something for children? These DVDs should keep them entertained.