With Christmas gift time just around the corner, give some thought to presenting that special film buff in your life with a DVD or Blu-Ray box set to match his or her tastes and interests. It’s possible to find box sets of just about anything that’s been committed to film. There are sets of animated works for kids; sets of TV shows from the early 1950s through just last season; and sets of films by genre, actor, or director. If you’re into the cinematic equivalent of self-flagellation, there’s even a box set of all of the Police Academy movies.
And like everything else in American culture, the DVD box set has grown from two-disc special editions, to “super size” volumes containing sometimes up to 100 discs… and the prices vary accordingly.
Your shopping options are literally limitless. Go to Amazon.com, and type “DVD Blu-Ray Box Sets” in the search engine. That location alone will offer you more than ten thousand selections. If you’re on a strict budget, you may consider some of the “public domain” packages. A public domain film is one on which the copyright has expired, so that anyone may legally copy and sell it. The drawback is that source material varies in quality by title, and may look like its been through the wringer. You can get a box of 50 titles of westerns, horror films, sci-fi, musicals, or film noir for about 20 bucks. Very few of the films are award winners, but most have some familiar faces, the quality on some of the transfers is very good, and there are always nice surprises in these collections.
TV series are among the biggest sellers these days. People scarf up entire collections of Breaking Bad, Boardwalk Empire, How I Met Your Mother, or The Big bang Theory. But for my money, one of the most fascinating options is to go for one of the several box sets of shows from the late, great Mystery Science Theatre 3000, in which a hapless astronaut and a few robot friends watch bad movies in space, and make fun of them. Sure, many of the films are stinkers, but that’s part of the fun too.
And since so many current films seem to have numbers after the titles, there are collections of most of those as well. But for true film buffs, the most logical selection should be a something that’s never seen the light of day in home video. And not only box sets, but also some very interesting single discs have been released this year.
Olive Films, the frisky young upstart company is having a field day picking and restoring some choice items from the Paramount library. These are not only previously neglected Paramount titles, but also many of the titles that company has acquired along the way, including a nice chunk of the Republic pictures catalog. It’s a no-brainer to spiff up digital masters of such classics of Johnny Guitar, High Noon and The African Queen. But Olive has taken the time and trouble to give us beautiful disc versions of several films that are already in my collection. If you are a fan of the great independent writer-director Sam Fuller, this marks the first release of his Vietnam film from 1957, China Gate, finally seen in all of it’s black-and-white Cinemascope wide-screen glory. Gene Barry plays a soldier of fortune on a mission, but finds he needs to connect with his ex-wife Angie Dickinson to make it work. They had a split over their son, and she hates Barry with a passion. And in a stroke of casting genius, singer-pianist Nat “King” Cole plays another of the soldiers in the troupe. He sings the title song of course, but also gets to shoot a lot of the bad guys and do some fine emoting. Too bad Cole’s career was cut short at such a young age. He had a great screen presence that was rarely used.
Another of the Olive Films goodies is Hubert Cornfeld’s Plunder Road, a low budget heist film in which gold bouillon is stolen from a train during a rainstorm, again in black-and-white CinemaScope. Gene Raymond, Wayne Morris, Stafford Repp, Steven Ritch and Elisha Cook Jr. are the quintet who is in it for the big money and the long haul. It’s a brisk 71 minutes and is as hard-edged as low-budget movies get.
And I can’t leave out the latest remastering of one of the great film noir titles of the 1950s, The Big Combo directed by Joseph H. Lewis. The print looks great with crackerjack cinematography from the dean of film noir John Alton. The cast is stacked with B-movie greats like Cornel Wilde, Richard Conte, Brian Donlevy, Earl Holliman, and Lee Van Cleef. I would have to give this film three “esses”… as in sensuous, savage, and surprising. You’ll wonder how they got away with some of the things the got away with in 1955.
But if I had to go out today and plunk down some hefty dollars for a major box set, it would have to be the Japanese series featuring the character Zatoichi, the Blind Swordsman. Most film fans are only familiar with the Samurai films of Akira Kurosawa starring Toshiro Mifune. The Zatoichi series stars Shintaro Katsu as an itinerant blind masseur who also happens to be a lightning-fast swordsman who is incredibly lethal in his fights. Criterion has remastered twenty-five of twenty-six of the Zatoichi films made between 1962 and 1974. They’re here with new subtitles, original trailers for all the films, plus a documentary about Katsu and a book with essays, short stories and drawings. This has to be the box set of the year.
Be sure to mail your list of “wants” to Santa Claus in care of the North Pole.