BRAVE AND BOLD: All 65 episodes of 'Batman' should shut 'em up for a while.
Shiny & Round
Hot picks for holiday DVDs, silent to silver
By Michael S. Gant
So many movies, so little time. Choosing DVDs usually means keeping an eye on quantity, which is why package sets look so tempting, and quality in the form of valuable restorations of classics that bear rewatching, abetted by generous and useful extras. As always, bear in mind our economic meltdown mantra: find a local independent source for presents.
My recommendations for the film buff's want list from 2008 is loosely arranged in historical fashion, starting with the silent area.
The most inventive director of the post-Griffith silent era was Frenchman Abel Gance, famous mostly for his epic Napoléon. Flicker Alley, keeper of the silent flame, rescued two important early Gance features this year: the antiwar J'accuse! (1919) and 'La Roué' (1923), which is my favorite.
The four-hour-plus version on the two-disc set ($39.95) shows off Gance's technical advances and bravura melodramatic narrative style. The story of a locomotive engineer and the daughter he rescues from a train wreck races along with realistic railroad footage (Gance even dug a trench between the rails and recorded a loco zooming past overhead) as well as a panoply of silent techniques like vingnetting and tinting. The set comes with a book about Gance's achievements.
Although not so famous as Chaplin and Keaton, silent comedian Harry Langdon was their equal in popularity in his heyday. The four-disc 'Harry Langdon Collection Lost and Found' ($39.95; Facets) restores a score of marvelous shorts plus two features, as well as some oddities from the 1930s, when talking pictures finished off the career of the wan, sad-eyed, childlike comic whom Mack Sennett called his "most important discovery."
Crime took a darker turn in the 1940s with the advent of film noir, with its lonely, shadowy streets full of desperate men and women trying to escape fate. Kino's set 'Film Noir: Five Classics from the Studio Vaults' ($49.95) mixes the familiar (Fritz Lang's Scarlet Street) with four fascinating lesser-known films, including Ida Lupino's relentless hostage drama The Hitch-Hiker, two examples of British noir and the genuinely berserk Strange Impersonation, a twisted tale of jealously that leads to murder and radical plastic surgery.
The urban paranoia of the 1940s gave way to the nuclear anxiety of the '50s, as monsters spawned by radiation rose from the ocean and attacked our cities. No one did monsters better than special-effects master Ray Harryhausen, who raised stop-action animation to an art form. Three prime examples are pulled together in the 'Ray Harryhausen Collection' ($80.95; Sony Pictures): It Came from the Beneath the Sea (in which a miniature San Francisco bites it), Earth vs. the Flying Saucers and 20 Million Miles to Earth. Each film is presented in its original black-and-white version along with a newly colorized print. Lots of extras, plus the whole thing comes in a big box with a collectible figurine of a monster from Venus.
The newly issued set 'The Godfather: The Coppola Restoration' (Paramount; $69.99) does a great service by rescuing Coppola's brilliant (or at least two-thirds brilliant) trilogy from years of physical abuse to the existing prints. It is now possible to appreciate Gordon Willis' sumptuous cinematography the way that he and Coppola intended.
The last choice is actually a TV show, but is highly recommended by film critic and Batman expert Richard von Busack. 'Batman: The Complete Animated Series' (17 discs, $107.92; Warner Bros). In the early 1990s, while Joel Schumacher was dragging the Batman franchise into the Ice Capades, Bruce Timm, Paul Dini, Alan Burnett and a team of producers were creating a last hurrah for the glories of cell animation. The backdrop was a Gotham in which the 1939 World's Fair had never ended. The backgrounds were black paper with oil pastels; the city, a German expressionist labyrinth of corruption, crime and industrial accidents.
This handsome package includes all 65 episodes of this Emmy-winning show, including the holiday-themed "Christmas with the Joker." The series' absolute high is "Almost Got 'im," in which five villains play five-card draw and recall the way Batman slipped out of their hands. While the directors describe themselves as comic-book geeks, what made this show a spellbinder is the fact that they were movie geeks—note the crafty steals from Ulmer's The Black Cat or Leni's The Man Who Laughs. Interviewees include unsung heroes like Andrea Romano, the intrepid vocal casting director and Mark Hamill who kept the malicious, mischievous Joker charismatic. Also included are short featurettes boosting more contemporary but less beautiful animated conceptions of Batman. Go ahead and splurge.
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