Gift-ready box sets for viewing and listening pleasure.
Spiffy box sets of DVDs, Blu-ray video discs and CDs are offering more bang for your buck this year.
Some film sequels and TV series previously offered in piecemeal fashion are finally available this holiday season in more economical (on a per-disc basis) all-inclusive packages. So viewers can easily track plot arcs and character development from first episode to last.
Good news for the shelf space-challenged - the emergence of the higher-capacity, high-definition Blu-ray disc format is making possible collections that pack more content into slimmer boxes. Separate discs often aren't needed for "extras," while the feature list on Blu-rays actually expands, along with the enhanced image and sound quality.
CD music boxes are likewise filling out and sometimes slimming down - be it revisiting previously collected subjects in more elaborate form or going for more eco-conscious packaging.
And while those really big (20-25 disc) DVD boxes ain't cheap - more than $90 - the sheer quantity of content guarantees a gift that will keep on giving for days, weeks or even months.
SPY-VERSUS-SPY: The DVD version of the second James Bond flick "From Russia With Love" was a soft-focused mess, a travesty of the landmark that ignited the spy film craze and also parodies of the breed (see below). So what a treat to discover how well the new high-def Blu-ray rendering of "FRWL" comes into focus and to life, with globe-hopping scenery and characters so sharp-edged and detailed they seem three-dimensional. John Barry's taut, tingly score scorches anew, too.
MGM and 20th Century Fox have actually worked Blu-ray magic on six Bonds - the first of the bunch "Dr. No" and "Thunderball" likewise starring Sean Connery, the Roger Moore-era "Live and Let Die" and "For Your Eyes Only" and the Pierce Brosnan-period "Die Another Day." Grab them all in a special "bundle" from Amazon.com or individually from other retailers.
Did this year's film adaptation of "Get Smart" leave you amused - or pondering what the fuss was about? Compare/contrast (and laugh more) with the complete DVD box of the original, Bond-parodying TV comedy "Get Smart" spawned by Mel Brooks and Buck Henry with Don Adams as the doofus, determined secret agent Maxwell Smart.
High-tech, Secret Service crime fighters working for President Ulysses S. Grant on the American frontier? That was the premise of "The Wild, Wild West," an amusing, gizmo-filled cliffhanger show with Robert Conrad and Ross Martin. The "Complete TV Series" (Paramount) packs all four seasons plus two made-for-TV movies.
Before the secret service really took charge of crime fighting, private detective "sleuths" were big in pulp novels, at the movies and on radio. Today, the "Guy Noir" routines on "A Prairie Home Companion" keep that genre alive in parody. But before Garrison Keillor got on the case, West Coast comedy troupe Firesign Theatre was making hay with its twisted (verging on psychedelic) "Adventures of Nick Danger." Enjoy all the skits on the four-CD soiree "The Firesign Theatre's Box of Danger" (Shout! Factory).
MUSIC TO OUR EYES/EARS: All praises to the European TV broadcasting community (especially the German and Scandinavian branches), for exposing and recording many of America's greatest jazz artists in their prime. Now a bunch of those 1960s shows - shot in black and white with good quality audio - are ours to relish on a new, second box of "Jazz Icons" DVDs from Naxos. I was especially taken with discs devoted to the funky, good-time tunes and all-star band of Cannonball Adderley, the most dexterous Rahsaan Roland Kirk (blowing as many as three wind instruments at once!) and with the revolutionary, genre-gapping Nina Simone. Other DVDs in the box celebrate Lionel Hampton, Oscar Peterson, Bill Evans and Sonny Rollins. Also available separately.
Numerous "Best of Nina Simone" CDs exist, but "To Be Free: The Nina Simone Story" (RCA Legacy) is special. It's the first that archives her multiple label associations, that truly captures the scope and intensity of a vocal and keyboard genius who could turn anything from blues holler to Broadway bombast into an amazingly cathartic, soul-to-soul experience. The slim, cardboard package holds an informative booklet, three CDs, plus a vintage, 24-minute DVD documentary that allowed Simone to articulate her case for music as a humanizing tool.
WAKE UP, EVERYBODY: A message was often in the music, too, for Philadelphia International Records in its heydays of the 1970s and '80s. Now the best of that earnest, lushly produced Philly Soul era is yours to survey on "Love Train: The Sound of Philadelphia" (PIR/Legacy), a four-disc treasure trove featuring some of the biggest hits of The O'Jays, Teddy Pendergrass, Patti LaBelle, Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes, The Spinners, Stylistics, Delfonics, Billy Paul and lots more. Oh, and if you missed the recent PBS showings, see how some of those talents (and others) are doing the vintage hits today by picking up the "Love Train: The Sound of Philadelphia" DVD (Legacy), a splashy concert video captured at the Borgata in Atlantic City. Special props to a still-wailing Bunny Sigler and to band leader/arranger Bill Jolly for apt reconstructions of the original arrangements.
Philly's blue-eyed soul rock stars Daryl Hall & John Oates also drank from the same stylistic well. And judging from the vital vocals on their new "Live at the Troubadour" (Shout! Factory) box - captured on two CDs and in DVD video form - it also was a fountain of youth. The momentum builds well on "Family Man," "She's Gone," "One On One" and "I Can't Go For That (No Can Do)."
ROCKIN' REUNIONS: Warm up for the reunion of that most playful jam band Phish with their eight-disc (though ultracompact, cardboard-sleeved) box set "Phish: At the Roxy" (JEMP) tracing a three-night stand from 1993. The first night/second set disc with guitarist Jimmy Herring sitting-in is a personal fave.
Sting said he should be judged "certifiably insane" if ever he agreed to a reunion of The Police. But the box set "Certifiable" (A&M, exclusively at Best Buy) captures their nutty world tour of 2007-2008 in DVD and CD form, and proves the trio still has their arresting, stadium ringing sound together. Start with the video documentary "Better Than Therapy" directed by Jordan Copeland (drummer Stewart Copeland's son) then move to wildly received shows in Buenos Aires, Argentina, after the guys worked out all the kinks. If you have the player for it, the Blu-ray version offers markedly superior, you-are-there image quality.
MORE TO SCORE: Yeah, those TV series sets are really plentiful this year. See what all the Emmy-winning fuss was about with "Mad Men - Season One" (Lions Gate), a fascinating take on the advertising game and sexist life in the early 1960s, available on DVD and Blu-ray. (Season 2 is coming soon.)
Every nook, cranny and gleeful character from the subterranean fantasy world can be yours on "Jim Henson's Fraggle Rock 25 Complete Series" (Lions Gate), a puppet show for kids of all ages. Its 20 DVD discs pack 47-plus hours of fun.
"Saturday Night Live - the Complete Fourth Season" (Universal) captures another golden period (1978-79), when John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd created The Blues Brothers, Bill Murray introduced Nick the Lounge Singer and (with Gilda Radner) invented The Nerds. Special hosts ranged from Milton Berle to Eric Idle, while musical guests included Van Morrison, the Grateful Dead, the Rolling Stones, Devo and Talking Heads. Whew!
CINEMA JOYS: "The Godfather - The Coppola Restoration" (Paramount) is another film series that's been blessedly remastered and reinvigorated for the high-def Blu-ray age, with literal frame-by-frame enhancement of color, shading and clarity that adds so much to the dramatic sweep of the three epics. Much of the newfound goodness also comes through on the standard DVD box version.
Movie buffs will likewise rejoice in the restoration of the "Alfred Hitchcock Premiere Collection" (20th Century Fox), containing big hits like "Rebecca," "Spellbound" and "Notorious" plus five more from the master of suspense.
The Warner Bros.-goes-to war theme runs through both "Looney Tunes Golden Collection Volume Six" and "The Homefront Collection." The latter DVD set packs the all-star World War II musicals "This Is The Army," "Thank Your Lucky Stars" and "Hollywood Canteen." Now that's what they called patriotism. *