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DVD Reviews for 12/29: The Best DVDs Of 2006

by Peter Sobczynski

For once, the headline says it all. Beyond that, your faithful critic looks at the relatively meager new releases for the week--a collection of sexy spelunkers, crotch punches and one of the best films of 2006 that you inexplicably decided not to see.

Of all the DVDs released in 2006, a number totaling well over 37 titles, these were the best.

THE SEVEN SAMURAI/THE COMPLETE MR. ARKADIN (The Criterion Collection. $49.95 each): Two films from two of the world’s most renowned directors–the former the action epic from Akira Kurosawa and the latter a quirky and little-seen riff on “Citizen Kane” from Orson Welles–received sumptuous multi-disc treatments (“Samurai” contained a new transfer, two commentary tracks, a documentary on the production and a two-hour conversation between Kurosawa and Nagisa Oshima while “Arkadin” contained no less than three separate cuts of the film, commentary from noted Welles scholars, interviews, radio programs and a copy of the novel that was based on the screenplay) from the good folks at The Criterion Collection and the results were immediate must-owns for anyone with even the slightest interest in the art of film. Although these two were the most important DVD releases of the year, they were hardly the only worthwhile Criterions to emerge–one could easily make a case for giving the top spot to their revamps of “Armacord” and “Playtime” or their debuts of “Metropolitan,” “Kind Hearts and Coronets,” “Dazed and Confused,” “Pandora’s Box” and “The Double Life of Veronique.”

SAM PECKINPAH’S LEGENDARY WESTERNS COLLECTION (Warner Home Video. $59.98): At times, it seemed as if hardly a week went by that didn’t contain the release of at least one DVD box set stuffed with old favorites, intriguing obscurities and loads of bonus material. Of them, my favorite was the collection highlighting the genre contributions of the late, great Peckinpah that included a long-awaited decent edition of an avowed classic (“The Wild Bunch”), two fascinating lesser-known titles (“Ride the Hard Country” and “The Ballad of Cable Hogue”) and a much-needed special edition (including two different versions) of a generally forgotten title that repositions it as one of Peckinpah’s essential works (“Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid”).

KINGDOM OF HEAVEN–DIRECTOR’S CUT (Fox Home Entertainment. $34.98): When it premiered theatrically in 2005, Ridley Scott’s Crusades epic was criticized by many for being choppy and uneven while speculating that it might have played better if it had been released at a longer length. With the release of this massive four-disc set, those assumptions were born out with an extended cut, which runs 47 minutes longer and offers a more consistent narrative flow and more fully developed characters, that transforms a disappointing misfire into a fascinating epic that fully lives up to its ambitions and reconfirms Scott’s place as one of the premier large-canvas filmmakers working today.

BEST OF MATCH GAME DVD COLLECTION (Brentwood Home Video. $34.98): Although DVD boxes of old television shows became increasingly popular in 2006–every week brought out new collections of popular favorites (“The Simpsons,” “South Park”) and odd obscurities (including the short-lived TV spin-off of “Blue Thunder”)–but who would have expected that someone would put out a set dedicated to the greatest game show of all time–the hilarious show in which a panel of semi-celebrity guests (occasionally liquored up) would giggle, goof off and occasionally try to fill in the blanks to help contestants win tens of dollars? Thankfully, someone did and this collection offers up four full discs and 70's-era silliness and an interesting array of bonus materials for the dedicated fans. (Alas, no feature on the history of the show’s theme song, the coolest bit of music in the history of television.)

THE MALTESE FALCON (Warner Home Video. $29.98): Although it is a fact that is usually forgotten today, “The Maltese Falcon,” the 1941 mystery classic that made Humphrey Bogart a star and served as the directorial debut for John Huston, was actually the third big-screen adaptation of the Dashiell Hammett novel. While most DVD fans would have been perfectly happy just to own the original film–especially in this cleaned-up and remastered version that provides the film with its best home-video presentation to date–Warners decided to go the extra mile and, amidst the usual informative documentaries and commentaries and vintage shorts, cartoons and blooper reels, included those two earlier versions–1931's “The Maltese Falcon” (a reasonably straightforward take that emphasizes the sleuthing aspect of the story) and 1936's “Satan Met a Lady” (a more comedic version that is thoroughly dominated by leading lady Bette Davis)–to show the false starts that the story took on its way to becoming a Hollywood classic.

FORBIDDEN PLANET (Warner Home Video. $26.98): Double-dipping has become the bane of the DVD enthusiast but when confronted with this lavish two-disc version of the 1956 sci-fi classic–featuring a beautiful-looking and sounding version of the film, a collection of retrospective documentaries and a collection of appearances from the iconographic Robby the Robot (including an entire second feature, the oddball kid-oriented quasi-sequel “The Invisible Boy”–even the cheapest fan would gladly shell out for this particular revamp. Among the other double-dips worth the extra purchase were such extras-packed titles as “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre,” “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre 2,” “Double Indemnity,” “Patton,” “The Towering Inferno” and “The Searchers.”

CHUCK BERRY–HAIL! HAIL! ROCK AND ROLL (Image Entertainment. $49.99): There were plenty of music-oriented DVDS this years–both feature films and concert performances shot specifically for the home market–but the pick hit of the bunch was this release of Taylor Hackford’s fascinating 1987 documentary that used a 60th birthday concert celebration of one of the architects of rock music as a frame for a penetrating look at Berry’s life and career. That was just disc one of a four-disc set–disc two contained nearly an hour of priceless rehearsal footage involving Berry, Keith Richards, Eric Clapton and others while the third and fourth contain a 3.5 hour-long documentary on the early days of rock music as seen through the eyes of Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard and others.

BUSTER KEATON–65th ANNIVERSARY COLLECTION (Sony Home Entertainment. $29.95): This may seem like an odd selection for a top 10 list–a collection of 10 short films featuring the legendary silent-film comedian that were made during the sad declining years of his career in the 1930's. However, the fact that such a package–especially one as decent-looking as this one–even exists despite its marginal commercial appeal indicates that the studios are slowly but surely beginning to look beyond their A-list properties in order to release some of their more obscure titles.

BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS (Fox Home Entertainment. $29.95): Many cult favorites made their long-awaited DVD debuts this year in impressive special editions (“Shock Treatment,” “Pretty Poison,” “Class of 1984" and “The Girl Can’t Help It” to name a few) but this two-disc set dedicated to the infamous 1970 genre-bending sexploitation camp classic from the minds of director Russ Meyer and screenwriter Roger Ebert. Although it is too bad that Meyer didn’t live long enough to provide a commentary track for the film (the ones he provided for the laserdiscs of his “Vixen” series and “Faster Pussycat Kill Kill” are the stuff of legend), his absence is more than covered with an informative commentary from Ebert (who explains the rationales behind the film as well as how he became involved with it), a second track from many of the cast members (who still seem a bit bewildered by the experience) and a dense collection of newly shot documentaries and interviews as well as some of the original screen tests and a photo gallery that includes tantalizing shots of long-unseen deleted scenes.


AIRWOLF–SEASON 2 (Universal Home Video. $39.98): I said it before–back when the first season of this mid-80's action cheesefest was released, in fact–and I’ll say it again: even without the aid of Jan-Michael Vincent and Ernest Borgnine, Blue Thunder could kick Airwolf’s rotor in a heartbeat

THE BLACK DAHLIA (Unversal Home Video. $29.98): So Brian De Palma takes the time to create this stylish and audacious tribute to 1940's film noir, based on the James Ellroy novel inspired by one of L.A.’s most infamous unsolved murders, and how do critics and audience repay him–by raking him over the coals for his very audaciousness, refusing to understand that the over-the-top elements (such as the delightfully outre performances from Hillary Swank and Fiona Shaw) and generally running one of 2006's most entertaining films out of town on a rail. I hope you are all proud of yourselves and when the few remaining visual artists working in Hollywood today are replaced once and for all with the bland stylings of the likes of Zach Braff, don’t come crying to me.

THE DESCENT (Lion’s Gate Home Entertainment. $29.98): Outside of a few rough spots early on, the first half of this British horror thriller, in which a group of adventurous women get into a lot of trouble while exploring a remote underground cave system, is so gripping in the way that it slowly builds its sense of claustrophobic terror that the second half, in which they are picked off one by one by a group of bizarre monsters, comes off as kind of trite and silly by comparison.

FACTOTUM (IFC Films. $24.95): Although this film based on the work of Charles Bukowski, in which Matt Dillon portrays the author’s alter-ego as he bombs through a never-ending cycle of booze, dames, and unemployment while trying to make it as a writer, lacks the power of Barbet Schroder’s “Barfly,” you might want to check it out for the interesting Dillon performance and one of the last on-screen appearances from the late Adrienne Shelly.

HAVEN (Fox Home Entertainment. $27.98): Like practically everyone else, I never saw this twisty thriller in which the lives of a shady businessman (Bill Paxton), his sweet daughter (Agnes Bruckner), a corrupt lawyer (Stephen Dillane), a local guy (Orlando Bloom) and his secret girlfriend (Zoe Saldana) intertwine in the sand and surf of the Cayman Islands. However, it does contain an intriguing cast and it would be nice to see the perennially underused Bruckner in something other than the trailer for that silly-looking werewolf movie.

JACKASS TWO (Paramount Home Video. $29.99): If you can make it through the gross stuff (and that will require a nimble finger on the fast-forward button), you will discover that this compilation of stupid stunts, practical jokes and weird behavior contains some of the biggest laughs of any film released in 2006–I would personally put up the extended bit involving the mash note posted in the hotel hallway over virtually all of “Borat” in a flash.

THE LAST KISS (Paramount Home Video. $29.99): Well, isn’t that convenient. All you “Black Dahlia” haters can go right to this amazingly annoying Zach Braff dramedy (in which he plays an immature whiner who strays into the arms of college cutie Rachel Bilson when longtime girlfriend Jacinda Barrett announces that she is to bear his foul seed) and begin your long, dreary trudge down the road to cinematic mediocrity right now. Available in both widescreen and full-screen editions, I would actually recommend the latter on the basis that the chopped-up picture means that there will be less of it for you to endure.

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originally posted: 12/29/06 16:11:06
last updated: 12/29/06 16:31:06
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