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DVDs of Christmas Future

Go for the classics, and avoid the clichés

By Richard von Busack

WHY BUY DVDs? Hopefully, not just for the bells and whistles. It can be downright dismaying to watch an actor stumble over his words in a "Special Features Included" video interview. Better visual resolution, though another plus, is not completely important; crisper images won't transform a dumb movie into a smart one. It seems that the most attractive DVD feature is permanence: which is why when collecting DVDs it's best to pick up work you'll want to watch over and over again in the future.

Citizen Kane: The Special Edition ($29.99 list), on DVD, is the visually cleanest copy from a recently discovered positive. Considering the original negative was lost in a fire about two decades ago, the film looks much better than could have ever been hoped. The new edition carries two narration options, by Roger Ebert and director Peter Bogdanovich.

There is another, slightly more expensive, two-DVD set ($32.48) that includes the documentary The Battle for Citizen Kane, Thomas Lennon and Richard Ben Cramer's study of the making of the film. My advice? Go cheaper. The Battle for Citizen Kane is well researched, but it clings to a doubtful premise. Cramer and Lennon portray Kane as a collision between an irresistible artist, young Orson Welles, and an immovable media baron, old William Randolph Hearst. Whether Welles was ruined by Hollywood or by his capacity for self-destruction is a matter film critics will be mulling over until the end of cinema. Yet--and this is ignored in The Battle for Citizen Kane--Welles had an impressive career after his masterpiece flopped. His vandalized second feature film The Magnificent Ambersons is more important than the entire careers of several brand-name classic directors. No one since Welles has had the vigor or the freedom to complete a film like Citizen Kane. All the more reason to own a copy--and to mull over, on frequent viewings, the corrosive effect of vast wealth on politics and the communications business, and the question, "What shall it profit a man if he shall gain the whole world and lose his own soul." In a lesser movie, say, Jerry Maguire, these matters can look inane. But when a man has a soul like the soul of Charles Foster Kane ...

Only The Godfather DVD collection (listing at $105.90, on sale around $80) approaches the ambition of Kane, as a study of vast power and dashed hopes. (Indeed, Welles wanted the part of Godfather Vito Corleone, says his biographer David Thomson.) The DVD set includes a disk of addenda providing real-life backstory for the film. These DVDs chart out Coppola's grand yet intimate history of the immigrant Vito Corleone, and his heir Michael (Al Pacino). Michael saves the family's fortunes but ends up ruling in isolation. Marlon Brando's warmth in the role of Old Vito spurs insane emotion in more than one viewer: "God, I really wish my dad had been there for me like Don Corleone."

For years director Francis Ford Coppola's been debating making The Godfather Part IV. Really, the sequel already exists. The first two years of the HBO series The Sopranos is available on DVD (list price $99.98; available for as low as $75). The Sopranos is the first important inquiry into the questions raised by Coppola's epic. David Chase's continuing TV series portrays the new generation gangsters not as operatic figures of tragedy but as players in a comic opera, with a rock/pop music score.

From the vantage point of the bleak 1970s, The Godfather looked at how postwar America had all gone wrong. The butterball anti-hero Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini), Mafia chief of New Jersey, doesn't pester himself with such matters ... until panic attacks reveal that the trouble's in him. Why else can't the usual remedies, the sweets and the sex and the luxury, ward off the terrors like they once did? Tony's immigrant grandfather was a master mason. He, Tony, is in the trash business, an idle king, surrounded by an untrustworthy court of overgrown boys. The Sopranos is a continuing moral drama, counterpointed with the evil comedy of decline.

We love Tony because he's suspicious of sham, and these qualities connect his criminal career with the hero of another must-have on DVD, The Big Sleep (list $19.98). Howard Hawks' 1944 detective film makes an appealing virtue out of its out of its own pointlessness. Like The Sopranos, the film divides the world into likable and disagreeable characters. The former are careless and without hypocrisy; the latter are passionate bores about something or other: their power, their cuteness, their moral fiber or their toughness. Detective Philip Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart) is our none-too-hardworking hero ("Don't you know better than to wake a man up at 2 in the afternoon?").

The Big Sleep makes a more impressive present when bundled with The Humphrey Bogart Collection (listing at $79.99). This package includes Bogart in four films, three of them classic, one of them the minor, preachy Key Largo. Another is The Maltese Falcon, Dashiell Hammett's ornate tale of San Francisco corruption, performed by a rich cast of supporting actors. Casablanca needs no description. You must remember this: these are movies, like the DVD discs themselves, that are made to last for decades.

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From the November 15-21, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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