Casting a critical eye

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NEW DVDs are more than a convenient way to watch blockbusters at home, they enable adventurous viewers to sample an entire universe of eclectic moviemaking. Available this year are the following wonderful examples:

“Forbidden Hollywood Collection”

A boxed set of three sassy, pre-Code features: “Red Headed Woman,” the original “Waterloo Bridge” and the newly restored, uncensored “Baby Face.” Dec. 5, Warner Home Video, $39.98. (See story on Page E3.)

“Electric Edwardians”

This recently rediscovered cache of actuality footage shot in England between 1900 and 1913 is delightful in ways that are beyond words. In release, Milestone Films, $29.95.


“Westerns With a Twist”

A trio of full-color westerns -- “Apaches,” “Chingachgook -- The Great Snake” and “The Sons of the Great Bear” -- made in East Germany starring a Serbian actor as a heroic Native American battling perfidious white settlers. In release, First Run Features, $39.95.

“Harry Shearer: Now You See It”

Two hours of highlights from the television appearances of the funniest and most versatile satirist around. In release, Courgette Records, $19.95.

“Creepy Cowboys: Four Weird Westerns”

Examples from the 1930s and ‘40s of westerns with pronounced horror/mystery elements. In release, Image Entertainment, $19.95

“The Lost Serial Collection”

A peek at clips and chapters from 35 extremely rare serials, including titles such as “The Hazards of Helen” and “Return of the Riddle Rider.” Available for $19.95 at

“Sgt. Bilko -- 50th Anniversary Edition (The Phil Silvers Show)”

If a funnier ensemble comedy from TV’s golden age exists, it doesn’t come to mind. In release, Paramount Home Video, $39.95.

“Astaire & Rogers: The Ultimate Collector’s Edition”

In release, Warner Home Video, $99.98.

“Billy Wilder Speaks” and “Edgar G. Ulmer, The Man Off Screen”

The first is an extended version of Volker Schlondorff’s interview with Wilder, the second a documentary portrait of the “B” picture maestro. In release, Kino Video, $24.95 apiece.


“Dr. Mabuse, The Gambler” and “Phantom”

A pair of monumental restorations of classic German silent films -- the first a 4 1/2 -hour version of the adventures of Fritz Lang’s mad genius (in release, Kino Video, $39.95), the second a beautifully color-tinted psychological drama by F.W. Murnau. In release, Flicker Alley, $29.98.



SMART television comes in many forms (sometimes disguised as silly).

“Slings and Arrows,” Seasons 1 and 2

This Canadian series, set backstage at a Shakespeare theater festival haunted by the ghost of its former director, is funny, moving, romantic and suspenseful, and book-smart without being stuffy. Imported to American television by the Sundance Channel, each six-hour season mixes a sprawling cast with narrative focus, everything moving toward a common conclusion without padding or pointless digressions. “Must the show go on?” is the question it asks. Season 1 details a production of “Hamlet,” Season 2, “Macbeth.” (Watch them to prep for the next series, about “King Lear.”) In release, Acorn Media, $29.99 per season.

“The Addams Family: Volume One”

They’re creepy and they’re kooky, sure. Mysterious and spooky, obviously. But “The Addams Family,” the mid-’60s sitcom realization of New Yorker cartoonist Charles Addams’ previously nameless haunted household, is at bottom a story of familial support and love of life -- as fond as they are of the dark, dynamite and disaster, they are fundamentally creatures of bottomless goodwill, generosity and enthusiasm. (“Capital idea!” is Gomez Addams’ catchphrase.) And in addition to being both good parents and dutiful children, Gomez and Morticia were possibly TV’s first really frisky couple (“Tish -- you spoke French!”). With Vic Mizzy’s great harpsichord-driven score. In release, MGM, $29.98.

“That’s My Bush! The Definitive Collection”

I make no claims for this short-lived 2001 Comedy Central series (from “South Park” creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone) being any good or actually funny, but its imagining of the actual sitting president as the main character in a pointedly witless sitcom does seem weirdly apt. Not wholly original nor politically acute -- to the extent it’s about anything, it’s about TV -- it’s nevertheless worth seeing for Timothy Bottoms’ uncanny performance as a frantic, dimwitted but well-meaning husband and chief executive in way over his head. In release, Paramount Home Video, $26.99.



FROM kids’ stuff to folk rock’s elder statesmen, with some hip-hop and noisy punk thrown into the mix, music-oriented DVD picks for this gift-giving season span many styles and generations.

“40 Bands/80 Minutes”

The average viewer won’t recognize any of the bands in this frenetic new film, and many may find the music less than listenable. Yet the spirit of this uber-independent effort can’t be denied. It documents one night at Hollywood’s Il Corral club when 50 artists took the stage to the click of a stopwatch and gave their all until they got the proverbial gong. Director Sean Carnage captures the whole scene, including a man who makes a sandwich with his feet. Includes the bonus film with those stray extras, “10 Bands/20 Minutes.” Tuesday, Sounds Are Active, $10.98.


“Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man”

This loving portrait of the Saint of Montreal combines performances from a 2005 tribute concert with interviews, mostly with the well-clad song-crafter himself. The well-known Cohen saga of poet and ladies’ man turned Zen monk unfolds, but the live material shines. Rufus Wainwright steals the show and all the curtains with a dramatic “Chelsea Hotel,” and Beth Orton’s aching “Sisters of Mercy” lingers. For purists, Cohen himself unites with U2 to croak out a bottomless “Tower of Song.” In release, Lions Gate, $27.98.

“The World of Sid and Marty Krofft -- The Bugaloos Complete Series”

Decades before the current explosion in groovy kids’ music, the Bugaloos taught a generation that singing insects could be cool. Hatched from the neon brains of psycho-candy purveyors Sid and Marty Krofft, this short-lived show (17 episodes, all here) offered the sweetest, least threatening vision of the counterculture possible. The bug tunes will please kids today too, and their parents can trip to the vintage costumes and sets. In release, Rhino/WEA, $34.98.

“I Know I’m Not Alone: A Musician’s Search for the Human Cost of War”

It’s easy to be a “political artist” when you limit your activism to your mouth. Michael Franti, who leads the band Spearhead, got his whole body involved when he decided to take his protest songs to the Middle East. This blessedly unpretentious, revealing chronicle of his encounters -- with poets, musicians, kids and even the soldiers Franti may have never talked to at home -- shows the power of music to spark dialogue and the persistence of spirit in dark times. In release, Epitaph/WEA, $19.98.

“We Are ... the Laurie Berkner Band”

Boston-based mom Berkner isn’t the hippest kids’ musician out there, but it’s hard to find an artist so instantly beloved by tots. It’s something about Berkner’s open face and the mix of pep and soothing tunefulness in her songs. This DVD, her first, offers simple videos -- different than the ones shown on the Noggin channel -- of such favorites as “We Are the Dinosaurs.” The friendly, uncluttered format makes for lots of interactive running around the TV room. Comes with a bonus CD. In release, Razor & Tie, $16.98.


Andre Benjamin and Antwan “Big Boi” Patton of the hip-hop duo OutKast got a serious razzing when this grandiose musical was released. The film definitely has its problems -- including Oscar-unworthy turns from Andre and Big Boi -- but what a fascinating mess it makes. The dance sequences dazzle, director Bryan Barber’s surrealist streak makes for some dizzying touches and the music works better here than it did on the radio. This could become a cult fave in 10 years. The DVD has two new OutKast videos and deleted scenes. Dec. 5, Universal, $29.98.



LONG atop my DVD wish list, “Reds” (Paramount Home Entertainment, $19.99) arrived in October in a reasonably priced two-disc edition. Warren Beatty’s romantic historical epic is best enjoyed on the big screen with its wide vistas of the Russian Revolution, but the DVD does justice to great performances by Beatty, Diane Keaton, Jack Nicholson as playwright Eugene O’Neill, Maureen Stapleton as Emma Goldman, and many others. Another terrific Beatty performance, as gangster Bugsy Siegel opposite Annette Bening’s smokin’ Virginia Hill, in Barry Levinson’s “Bugsy,” is also newly available in an extended cut. (Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, $24.96)


Sure, at $850 its list price rivals the average American family’s entire holiday budget, but if you really loved the cinephile in your family you wouldn’t hesitate to get him or her “Essential Art House -- Fifty Years of Janus Films.” The 50-disc set includes Ingmar Bergman’s “The Seventh Seal,” Francois Truffaut’s “Jules and Jim,” Fritz Lang’s “M” and Alfred Hitchcock’s “The 39 Steps,” plus a 240-page book telling the Janus Films story with notes on each film. Criterion Collection.

For the budding environmentalist (or unaware SUV driver), you can create your own ozone-conscious double feature with “An Inconvenient Truth” (Paramount Home Entertainment, $29.99) and “Who Killed the Electric Car?” (Sony, $26.96). If Al Gore’s stirring, illustrated admonition on global warming in the former doesn’t get you to take mass transit or drive a Prius, Chris Paine’s murder-mystery evaluation of the untimely demise of the EV1 in the latter will.

The set’s title says it all. “Claude Chabrol’s Tales of Deceit: Five Films About Wicked Women, Crooked Cops, and Disastrous Affairs” includes “Betty,” “The Color of Lies,” “Cop Au Vin,” “L’Enfer” and “Inspecteur Lavardin” and features Sandrine Bonnaire, Marie Trintingnant and Emmanuelle Beart, among others. The French director delivers timeless thrillers filled with dark humor and sensuality. (Kino International/The Kimstim Collection, $89.95)



CREATED by Mel Brooks and Buck Henry, “Get Smart” was both completely silly and really, pardon the expression, smart, a precursor to Brooks’ own cinematic spoofs, not to mention the genre that would later give us “Airplane!”

Don Adams starred as Agent 86 Maxwell Smart, a bumbler with a ‘60s cool panache and a shoe phone (his calls never dropped). He was ably assisted by Barbara Feldon’s straightwoman Agent 99 and Edward Platt as his stern boss, the Chief. The DVD package contains all five seasons. Not an episode went by without a great character actor or cameo (look for Carol Burnett in one episode, Johnny Carson in another).

The agents of evil, from K.A.O.S., were led by Siegfried, the Nazi riff of a character (“This is K.A.O.S. We don’t ‘shush’ here!”) played by Bernie Kopell. The opening theme song and credits alone -- Smart walking through a series of doors to the clandestine headquarters of C.O.N.T.R.O.L. -- are an homage to sitcom professionalism and originality. (“Get Smart -- The Complete Collection.” In release through Time Life, $199.96.)




BUYING DVDs is about their repeat and communal viewing potential. These cult classics released this year are well worth owning:

“Grey Gardens/The Beales of Grey Gardens”

“Grey Gardens” is Albert and David Maysles’ unforgettable documentary about the relationship between an eccentric mother and daughter living like squatters in their dilapidated East Hampton mansion. Big Edie and Little Edie weren’t just crazy cat ladies, they were crazy society cat ladies who happened to be closely related to Jackie Bouvier Kennedy. “The Beales of Grey Gardens” was compiled from never-before-seen footage from the Maysles’ archive, shot between 1973 and 1976. Compassionate portrait of toxic interdependence and mental illness, or exploitative precursor to reality TV? Invite your friends over for an argument. Dec. 5, Criterion, $49.95.


You could call it the lost George Cukor movie starring Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn -- or, at least, the temporarily misplaced one, because it’s only now available on DVD. Grant plays Johnny Case, engaged to a millionaire’s daughter. When he realizes his fiancee has no intention of letting him live his dreams but sees him joining her father in business, he finds himself drawn to the weird other sister (Hepburn). They don’t make dialogue like that anymore. Dec. 5. Sony, $24.95.

“49 Up”

The latest installment in Michael Apted’s incredible series/long-running social experiment, which has followed a group of English people from different parts of the country and different social classes since they were 7. One of the most life-affirming cinematic experiences around. In release, First Run, $29.95.

“The Conformist”

Bernardo Bertolucci’s masterpiece is about a young Italian who gets a job working for Mussolini and is assigned the assassination of one of his old professors, now a political dissident. A political parable as well as a complex psychological portrait of an ordinary man and a nation. Brilliant cinematography by Vittorio Storaro echoes the contradictions of fascism between security and fear. Dec. 5, Paramount, $14.99.



WHY not make your music DVD experience as weighty as possible by loading up with two of the most influential figures in rock’s past? When you’re done with Bob and Joe, you can explore what dance-music partisans see as the sound of the future.


“Bob Marley and the Wailers:

Catch a Fire”

The excellent “Classic Albums” series focuses on “Catch a Fire,” the Wailers’ 1973 debut album, which brought Bob Marley out of the Jamaican music world and sent him, and reggae music, toward global prominence. It was no accident -- this hourlong anatomy shows how the original tapes were “sweetened” in London under the eye of Island Records’ owner Chris Blackwell. The series’ mixing-board isolation of the instruments on different tracks has never been more enlightening. In release, Eagle Vision USA, $10.99.

“Joe Strummer: Let’s Rock Again”

As we wait for director Julien Temple to finish his documentary on his friend, Joe Strummer, quality time with the Clash leader is available on “Let’s Rock Again” as director Dick Rude follows the singer on the road in 2002 trying to make a go of his band the Mescaleros. Through episodes of indignity and futility, Strummer -- soon to die of heart failure -- is indefatigable, his curiosity and appetite for life as inspiring as his music. In release, Image Entertainment, $19.99.

“Put the Needle on the Record”

Spiced with footage of beautiful young people cavorting in Miami clubs and beaches at the annual Winter Music Conference, writer-director Jason Rem’s “Put the Needle on the Record” is a primer on the art of the DJ and the history of dance music. It might be a niche subculture in the U.S., but the artists, promoters and others interviewed in “Needle” argue that around the world, it’s the mainstream sound of youth. In release, Music Video Distributors, $19.95.