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TheaterByte’s Holiday Gift Guide for 2021

As the most wonderful time of year creeps up on us, let’s take a moment to show the special people on our list that we really do care. Whether they’re high-def, ultra high-def or just plain def (DVD apparently ain’t goin’ no place!), discs still make some of the best gifts, plus we have a solid hardware accessory recommendation in here, too.

Shawscope Volume One Blu-ray (Arrow)

What Hammer was to horror, so were the Shaw Brothers to martial arts, elevating what many considered to be a lesser, even schlocky genre to the level of true cinema, with higher production values that in turn helped to open up a global audience. At one time the largest film production company in Hong Kong and the largest privately owned movie studio in the world, they would go on to produce in the neighborhood of a thousand films. The title of Arrow’s epic new boxed set pithily refers to Brothers’ own delightfully goofy nickname for the wide aspect ratio favored, further indicating their commitment to give ticket buyers a first-class experience. This first collection of a dozen titles spans the bulk of the kung fu-kicking ‘70s: Death comes in fives, apparently, starting with Five Fingers of Death (original title, King Boxer), not to be confused with 5 Masters of Death (they hate that), and of course The Five Deadly Venoms and the inevitable Return of the 5 Deadly Venoms (a.k.a. Crippled Avengers); The Boxer from Shantung, Shaolin Temple (which I initially misread as “Shirley Temple”), The Mighty Peking Man (long ago endorsed by Quentin Tarantino on his Rolling Thunder Pictures DVD label), Challenge of the Masters, Executioners from Shaolin, Chinatown KidHeroes of the East and Dirty Ho… which totally does not mean what I thought it did.

It’s a strange and wonderful feeling upon first spins, to see movies long-relegated to B-status (or lower) now receiving uncompromising high-definition remasters, most restored from the original camera negative, the two Boxers at 4K. This pair, plus Peking Man and Chinatown Kid are each given their own platter, the other eight teamed up as a series of double-feature discs, which just seems right somehow. The English subtitles for all have been newly translated. A staggering lineup of bonuses new and old is spread across the set, including alternate versions, audio commentaries, interviews, and remarkably insightful analyses by esteemed critics, in addition to one of the Arrow’s biggest and best companion books yet, which is really saying something. Rounding out the set are twin CDs collecting music from six of the films. Arrow’s thoughtfully curated cross-section from the nigh-infinite Shaw library is a chance to lose ourselves in a bygone era of popcorn entertainment, with the promise of more volumes in the future. Until then, a couple of other Shaw nuggets have already been released as singles from sister label (?) 88 Films: Disciples of Shaolin and The Chinese Boxer.

Is there still someone on your list who’s looking to get his/her kicks? Read on.

The Karate Kid 3-Movie Collection 4K (Sony)

One of the reasons that Cobra Kai–not coincidentally launching its fourth season on Netflix this month–has found such a devoted viewership is that folks seem to have an insatiable appetite for the characters and themes of the KKCU (the “Karate Kid Cinematic Universe,” a totally real thing I just made up). The humble yet enduring hit from the summer of ’84 spawned a respectable sequel two years later, although the tank was clearly empty by the time III rolled around. But since the entire trilogy is frequently referenced in the TV series, this threesome will be a welcome present for many a fan. (II and III are only available on 4K as part of this set.) Revisit the adventures of impetuous young Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) and wise mentor Mr. Miyagi (Oscar-nominee Noriyuki “Pat” Morita) via this attractively packaged limited edition box, all of the movies mastered in native 4K from the camera negative with Dolby Vision HDR and new Dolby Atmos audio. Sony is still digging up great new extras, namely deleted scenes for I and II, in addition to lots of previous featurettes.


The Outsiders The Complete Novel 4K (Warner)

For that school-age videophile, watching Francis Ford Coppola’s adaptation of S.E. Hinton’s seminal saga of the American teenager, The Outsiders–even the 115-minute “Complete Novel” cut–is a lot quicker than reading the book assigned for fifth-period English. Apparently another stay-at-home activity for FFC to wile away the COVID hours, alongside Mario Puzo’s THE GODFATHER, Coda: The Death of Michael Corleone, The Outsiders was a far deeper restoration than we might expect, thoroughly reconstructed from new scans of the original camera negative whenever possible. The work pays off in the best quality the movie’s ever been seen in, with a new introduction, new interviews, new featurettes and newly shared deleted scenes, in addition to archival director and cast commentaries, the latter including the departed Patrick Swayze and Johnny himself, Ralph Macchio (see above).


Sex and the City The Complete Series + 2 Movie Collection Blu-ray (HBO)

Younger The Complete Series DVD (Paramount)

Nothing short of a cultural phenomenon, HBO’s raunchy, funny, sometimes genuinely touching series famously starred Sarah Jessica Parker as the alter-ego of real-life author Candace Bushnell, from whose book/newspaper column Sex and the City was adapted by writer/producer Darren Star. Exploring life, love and… well… coitus in The Big Apple, it ran for six seasons and a pair of big-screen spinoff movies (the first pretty good, the sequel not so much) and is now poised for a reunion series on the HBO Max streaming service. Housed in an appropriately elegant case with a snazzy magnetic closure, this set brings together every episode and both movies (the 2008 original in its “Extended Cut”), all in HD for the very first time, with a few hours of vintage bonus content to sift through. Probably in deference to the aforementioned streaming service, no digital copies are supplied, unlike many other recent HBO releases.

Sex makes a great partner to Darren Star’s Younger (this time adapted from a novel by Pamela Redmond Satran), another one of those beloved series that flew under my radar. Running on TV Land for a not-too-shabby seven seasons and winding up with a knee-weakening 98% score on Rotten Tomatoes, the show is a part romantic comedy, part modern fairy tale, starring Sutton Foster as a mom in her 40s posing as a 20-ish publishing assistant with some surprising results. The ten-DVD complete series set also includes deleted scenes from every season, a half-hour of bloopers, and Star commentaries for the first and last episodes.


The Ultimate Richard Pryor Collection: Uncensored DVD (Time Life)

 

By far the most comprehensive collection of the boundary-pushing comedian’s extensive body of work, Time Life’s hefty 13-disc compendium charts Mr. Pryor’s never-ending creative evolution. All four of his theatrically released concert movies from the ‘70s and ‘80s are here (Live & Smokin, Live in Concert, Live on the Sunset Strip, Here and Now) along with his semi-autobiographical dramatic film Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling and the more recent feature-length documentaries Omit the Logic and I Am Richard Pryor. The entirety of his TV series plus his TV special are gathered as well, in addition to numerous appearances from the biggest talk shows of the era and excerpts from his “lost” movie, the Penelope Spheeris-directed Uncle Tom’s Fairy Tales, as well as even more exclusives. Major kudos to the folks who surely scrambled behind the scenes to assemble so much content from so many different sources for this substantial boxed set, a must-have for fans.

  • The Ultimate Richard Pryor Collection: Uncensored is available directly from TimeLife.com

Ran 4K (Lionsgate)

The fierce power and the visual splendor of Akira Kurosawa’s take on Shakespeare’s King Lear is one of those titles that demands a look when the 4K remaster comes around. The story is shifted to feudal Japan and the title fittingly translates to “chaos,” as the morass unleashed by a retiring warlord when he hopes to leave his kingdom to his sons makes for some serious, messy drama. While the Ultra HD results–here in Dolby Vision–might not be reference-quality, they are authentic to the film’s origins with captivating colors particularly in the Oscar-winning costumes. A fine complement of past extras is ported over on the included legacy Blu-ray disc. At press time, Ran 4K is only available in steelbook packaging, which is a Best Buy exclusive.

  • Ran 4K SteelBook is available exclusively at BestBuy

Injustice 4K (Warner)

Born of the synergistic videogame and comic book, this is a tale of mythic proportions, drawing in characters from the farthest reaches of the DC Universe to do almost non-stop battle. It’s Team Batman v. Team Superman when a violent tragedy pushes the Man of Steel over the edge, splitting the Justice League in two with his dark vision for a new world order. The Dark Knight leads the opposition, but can he possibly hope to prevail? Injustice is a great gift for anyone who’d like to see their favorite DC heroes and villains in a whole new light, and there’s no better way to enjoy it than on this 4K disc with a solid 5.1 soundtrack, although a good Atmos track would have been cool to have, too. Extras include the usual pair of relevant cartoons from the DC canon plus a refreshingly candid creator roundtable.


Battle of the Boutique Animation Labels

Cartoon Saloon’s Irish Folklore Trilogy Blu-ray (GKIDS/Shout! Factory)

Coraline

ParaNorman

The Boxtrolls

Kubo and the Two Strings Blu-rays (all Shout! Factory)

While DreamWorks certainly proved that Disney doesn’t have a monopoly on animation, studios that consistently produce high-quality animated feature films are still somewhat rare. Thankfully, upstarts Cartoon Saloon and Laika are fighting the good fight and dropping their share of instant classics.

With a predominately hand-drawn esthetic unlike anything else out there, The Secret of Kells (2009), Song of the Sea (2014) and Wolfwalkers (2020, only available on Blu-ray in this set) might not be household names, but they are three of the best animated films you’ve probably never seen. All Oscar-nominated and directed/co-directed by Tomm Moore, they form a true thematic trilogy celebrating the culture, the history and the mythology of The Emerald Isle, transporting us to a different time and place with an emphasis on the beauty of the natural world, so prepare to be dazzled. Extensive extras are provided: filmmaker commentary for each, explorations of the remarkable voice casts, the art and the music, alongside a bonus disc spanning all three movies with animatics and more, all inside lavish-yet-eco-friendly packaging.

Devotees of stop-motion animation, meanwhile, owe a debt of gratitude to Laika for keeping this painstaking artform alive and wickedly entertaining. This year, Shout! reissued four of the studio’s five feature films in separate releases: Henry Selick’s creepy-AF 2009 Coraline, ParaNorman (2012), The Boxtrolls (2014) and Kubo and the Two Strings (2016), fascinatingly Oscar-nominated for both Best Animated Feature Film and Visual Effects. With stellar casts and engaging stories to match the stylized visuals, these films have ensured that the meticulous, inherently analog process will endure alongside modern digital animation for years to come. In HD, the exquisite miniature photography is that much more impressive, and all are here in new, top-notch restorations with loads of fresh extras (“Inside LAIKA” vignettes, galleries, feature-length storyboards) in addition to legacy content (audio commentaries, featurettes), delivering hours of fun for young and old alike.

Devotees of stop-motion animation owe a debt of gratitude to Laika for keeping this painstaking artform alive and wickedly entertaining. This year, Shout! reissued four of the studio’s five feature films in separate releases: Henry Selick’s creepy-AF 2009 Coraline, ParaNorman (2012), The Boxtrolls (2014) and Kubo and the Two Strings (2016), fascinatingly Oscar-nominated for both Best Animated Feature Film and Visual Effects. With stellar casts and engaging stories to match the stylized visuals, these films have ensured that the meticulous, inherently analog process will endure alongside modern digital animation for years to come. In HD, the exquisite miniature photography is that much more impressive, and all are here in new, top-notch restorations with loads of fresh extras (“Inside LAIKA” vignettes, galleries, feature-length storyboards) in addition to legacy content (audio commentaries, featurettes), providing hours of fun for young and old alike.


Future Boy Conan The Complete Series Blu-ray (GKIDS/Shout! Factory)

I’ve been getting into the early work of Hayao Miyazaki lately, including his first feature film, The Castle of Cagliostro, and my research keeps leading me back to the TV show Future Boy Conan, which has–incredibly–never been released here in North America… until now. This 1978 TV series was quite the auspicious beginning to a long and illustrious career, with Miyazaki directing or co-directing all 26 episodes, and his inspiration and influence can be felt from start to finish. It’s the tale of an innocent young boy in a world unlike our own, lighthearted and kid-friendly yet with serious underpinnings. There’s friendship, wonder, lots of endearingly quirky supporting characters, and lest we forget some beautiful animation, in sumptuous 4K digital restorations (here in 1080p) courtesy of Shout! Factory and GKIDS. The four discs are lean on extras but we can watch in either Japanese or English, and a little art booklet is packed inside.


A Night at the Opera Blu-ray (Warner Archive)

This fateful Night was a significant turning point for The Marx Brothers, with the departure of Zeppo and their arrival at MGM, where producer Irving Thalberg helped reinvent them as more sympathetic characters within more story-driven movies. Consequently, Opera is one of their funniest and most beloved outings, with the manic, claustrophobic stateroom scene remaining a highlight. For its first-ever 1080p Blu-ray release, the source has been newly 4K-scanned for crisp, clean black-and-white, taking us back some 86 years to when the image was new. Legacy extras include commentary by critic/historian Leonard Maltin, a solid half-hour documentary, a 1961 Groucho TV appearance and three vintage short subjects, one of them an Oscar winner.


I Dream of Jeannie The Complete Series Blu-ray (Mill Creek Entertainment)

For the person who has everything, how about your own personal genie… in a box? Created by the prolific, Oscar-winning writer Sidney Sheldon, I Dream of Jeannie ran from 1965 to 1970, transitioning from black-and-white to color after the first season. Beyond its timely NASA theme, the show owes much of its iconic success to the chemistry and tension between the fetching, bottle-dwelling wish-granter (Barbara Eden), her straight-laced astronaut “master” Tony (Larry Hagman) who perpetually spurns his god-like power, and freewheeling best friend Roger (Bill Daly) who would trade places with Tony in a heartbeat. Throw in the ever-suspicious, ever-thwarted Dr. Bellows (Hayden Rorke) and you have pure sitcom gold in virtually every one of these 139 episodes, spread across a dozen Blu-ray discs.


Audrey Hepburn 7-Movie Collection Blu-ray (Paramount)

She was one of the most beloved screen icons of the 20th Century and this set helps us see why as she stars/co-stars in a septet spanning more than a decade, the bulk of them outright gems and garnering more than a couple of Oscars. Paramount’s high-value, repackaged selection showcases her tremendous range across comedies, musicals, and even a bona fide epic: Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Funny Face, My Fair Lady, Paris When It Sizzles, Roman Holiday (the nifty recent “Paramount Presents” edition), Sabrina and War and Peace (not the seven-hour Russian version). To my very pleasant surprise, My Fair Lady includes both discs from its standalone Blu-ray release (Disc 2 is all bonus content), bringing this bundle to a total of eight platters, with legacy extras carrying over of course. Digital copy codes for all are printed on multiple inserts, so be careful not to lose ‘em.


Kolchak: The Night Stalker The Complete Series Blu-ray (Kino Lorber Studio Classics)

There’s a certain inescapable charm surrounding a horror series that aired in prime time on a major network in 1974 and ’75. Enhanced greatly by the jocular affability of star Darren McGavin as an almost-fearless tabloid reporter tracking down the stories behind the unexplained, it somehow worked, with some great plots and creepy monsters-/paranormal-activities-of-the-week, featuring many familiar faces of the period. Preserved in better-than-ever quality for vintage viewers and ready for a new generation, the series is exquisitely repackaged here with 21 expert commentaries across its 20 episodes (there are two on “The Spanish Moss Murders”), in addition to a new interview with Sopranos creator David Chase, who co-wrote eight episodes in his youth, and another with comedian/super-fan Dana Gould. Completists, take note: The original 1972 The Night Stalker pilot movie and its 1973 follow-up The Night Strangler were released by Kino Lorber in 2018 as separate Blu-ray special editions, bonus-laden and restored at 4K, certainly worthy of that extra inch of shelf space.


Awaken 4K (Gunpowder & Sky/Vinegar Syndrome)

Terence Malick (Days of Heaven) and Godfrey Reggio (The Qatsi Trilogy. Anima Mundi), who know a thing or two about awe-inspiring visuals, bring their pedigrees to filmmaker Tom Lowe’s Awaken as executive producers of this travelogue of sorts, visiting 30+ countries at an unhurried five-year pace. Soothingly narrated by Liv Tyler, the movie “explores humanity’s relationship with technology and the natural world” using timelapse/time-dilation and other techniques, captured in 4K and presented in Dolby Vision. Me, I just find it hypnotically beautiful to look at, so it’s a great recommendation as an add-on to help show off that new 4K TV you just unwrapped. A director commentary is provided.


Deadlock 4K (Subkultur USA/Vinegar Syndrome)

The latest spaghetti Western to come across my desk in a brilliant new 4K special edition is this 1970 cult favorite from Germany (a “spätzle Western”?) with an unexpected soundtrack by Cologne’s own rock band, Can. The dark, unsettling story follows a mysterious robber wandering the desert, found by an unscrupulous old opportunist with his own plans for the ill-gotten loot, and the betrayals get even crueler when the robber’s sadistic partner shows up. Deadlock is being made available in a limited edition* of only 2,000 units in Vinegar Syndrome’s partnership with the Germany-based home video label Subkultur. Some welcome bonus features include audio commentary and interviews with director Roland Klick, some bi-lingual curiosities and lovely packaging designed by Earl Kess.


And since us A/V-heads can’t live by discs alone…

Soundcore Liberty 3 Pro Earbuds

With so many different ways to grab our entertainment these days, the rockin’ bass, clean trebles and wide soundstage of these Liberty 3 earbuds are a great way to effectively empower our digital movies to break free from phone/tablet/laptop screens. Easy to wrap and full of the wicked audio that TheatreByte readers appreciate, Soundcore’s top-of-the-line true wireless ‘buds are definitely on-par with some more expensive, better-known in-ears we could name. Noise is summarily cancelled, and the secure, comfortable fit can even be tested in the companion app, which is also handy for managing firmware updates and battery status, as well as customizing the sound. I’m on Android, and these Bluetooth beauties (v5.2, works faster, increases battery life) pair quickly and work seamlessly, with a funky little egg-shaped matching case (mine are Dusk Purple) that supports wireless charging. Since I’m an indoor boy, I’ll let others comment on how well they stay in during intense activity. Instead, I will reiterate that the performance is everything I was hoping for in a premium earbud.

($169.99)

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