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Monday, May 20, 2024

TheaterByte 2023 Holiday Gift Guide

Estimated reading time: 15 minutes

From stocking-friendly singles to themed movie nights to elf-crushing boxed sets, TheaterByte has has the 4Ks, Blu-rays and DVDs that will keep you and yours thoroughly entertained from now ‘til the 31st and well into the new year. Let’s strap on the skis and jump in, shall we?

Crime, Corruption and Conspiracy in ’70s NYC:

Serpico 4K

Death Wish 4K

Marathon Man 4K (all Kino Lorber Studio Classics)

As someone who was born and raised here in the Tri-State, I stand by my assertion that the 1970s were the best decade for crime that put the worm in The Big Apple, and the movies of the era reflected that. These three gems were actually filmed on location, so the world has a lasting record of what a shithole this burg truly was. Each is a star-driven classic in its own right, from Al Pacino’s post-Godfather turn as a good cop in a filthy system to Charles Bronson as a mild-mannered vigilante to Dustin Hoffman as a most unfortunate student/runner in William Goldman’s adaptation of his own novel about a ruthless Nazi dentist. (This last one is still the stuff of nightmares.) Embracing their cinematic grittiness, all arrive in new Dolby Vision masters from 4K scans of the original camera negatives, each with its own expert film historian commentary, and all with additional bonus content.

And for folks wishing to bypass the four Bronson sequels and jump right to the remake:

Death Wish (2018) 4K (Shout! Studios)

This Eli Roth-directed, Joe Carnahan-scripted, Bruce Willis-starring take on nice guy Paul Kersey’s tragic tale casts him as a Chicago ER surgeon this time, but with no less thirst for justice after his innocent wife and daughter are attacked. As we would expect, it takes a more current view of urban violence and some more extreme sensibilities to deliver a taut modern thriller, and it stands as a worthy companion to the original. Initially released on HD Blu-ray only, Shout!  brings it back in a native 4K disc debut with Dolby Vision. Extras include a Roth commentary plus deleted/extended scenes and more on the included Blu-ray.

RoboDoc: The Creation of RoboCop Blu-ray (Cineverse)

For those of us who don’t subscribe to the Screambox streaming service, and even if you do, their recent four-part, in-depth documentary mini-series about the making of the best damned cyborg-with-a-badge movie ever made is a must-own. The gang’s all back together; including star Peter Weller, who reportedly once said he was done giving interviews regarding his time as Officer Alex Murphy; making this outstanding doc even more of an event. You can’t go wrong with either version of this disc, although I highly recommend the Walmart-exclusive steelbook: There’s just something so right about encasing all things Robo–including an hour of special features–inside a metal shell. (Even if it’s not titanium laminated with Kevlar.)

Weird: The Al Yankovic Story (Shout! Studios)

Not a documentary, not even a biopic in any traditional sense, Weird instead is a “meta parody” that uses a unique comedic voice to tell the highly fictionalized tale of the one and only Al, with a bunch of pithy cameos that only elevate the proceedings further. Originally a killer app for the burgeoning Roku Channel streaming service, the movie is now available on this 4K/Dolby Vision/DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 disc with commentary and a deleted/extended/alternate scene collection hosted by Al and director Eric Appel, plus interviews with stars Daniel Radcliffe, Evan Rachel Wood and others.

The Nightmare Before Christmas 4K (Walt Disney)

Not quite Christmas, not entirely Halloween but something that grows even more enjoyable every time I watch it, Henry Selick’s Nightmare benefits significantly from its 4K upgrade, a truly analog production revealing more of its minute stop-motion detail with enhanced color and contrast. This movie has its built-in audience that invests in every different release I’m sure, but you can feel good about committing to this Ultra HD Blu-ray, which also comes with 1080p Blu-ray (sing-along and theatrical incarnations together), a digital copy code and a generous if not 100% complete collection of legacy extras.

Love Actually 4K (Universal Studios)

We did the research and apparently every actor who ever lived (yes, even them) appears at least briefly in Love Actually, the ensemble romantic comedy that proves it’s more than okay to mix affairs of the heart with The Most Wonderful Time of the Year. Truth be told, it’s easy to forget that this is a Christmas movie, as the theme moves in and out of the plotlines almost incidentally at times, yet it’s been a favorite of many for 20 years now. Written and directed by Richard Curtis (the scribe of Four Weddings and a Funeral and many other enduring Britcoms), it has that U.K. (sense and) sensibility, so as with seeing folks driving on the wrong side of the road, we might need some time to feel at home before its considerable charms waft over us. Universal delivers this first-ever Ultra HD disc in native 4K and remixed Dolby Atmos, with a sack full of legacy extras and a brand-new retrospective, making it that much easier to love, in actuality.

Violent Night 4K (Universal Studios)

Only steal from the best: Blending the Die Hard playbook (a Christmas Eve heist, estranged parents, even the music sounds familiar) with a few twists all their own (the monkey wrench in the bad guys’ plan is…  Santa!), the makers of Violent Night might not break the mold but they manage to put a sufficiently entertaining thriller under the tree, and David Harbour brings his A-game as a cynical Father Christmas. Now in native 4K and Atmos, the movie also arrives bundled with an HD Blu-ray, digital copy, plus director/producer/writer commentary, deleted/extended scenes and featurettes.

The Police Academy Collection Blu-ray (Shout! Studios)

Make it a Police Navidad (you have no idea how long I’ve been waiting to say that) with Shout!’s long-awaited collection of all seven films in the 1984-94 franchise, poking good-natured fun at the men and women in blue:

  • Police Academy
  • Police Academy 2: Their First Assignment
  • Police Academy 3: Back in Training
  • Police Academy 4: Citizens on Patrol
  • Police Academy 5: Assignment: Miami Beach
  • Police Academy 6: City Under Siege
  • Police Academy: Mission to Moscow

Depending upon how much you enjoyed these movies when first released, you’re likely to have just as much fun with them today, thanks largely to the charm of that most ‘80s of actors, star Steve Guttenberg, who stuck around for the first four installments. These are ensembles though, and who can forget Michael Winslow as the sound effects guy, football great Bubba Smith who used his size to keen comedic advantage, and even a one-and-done turn by Kim Cattrall? The set boasts fresh 2K scans plus extensive new talent interviews, a new commentary for Citizens on Patrol, along with archival commentary for the original and more.

The Sonny Chiba Collection, Vol. 2 Blu-ray (Shout! Studios)

A formidable martial artist and later an international movie star, Sonny Chiba earned a loyal following the world over, and after you see him in action you too will understand why. This second four-disc/seven-movie set covers the golden era of 1975-78 and delves into popular themes of karate, war, and even karate war:

  • The Defensive Power of Aikido
  • 13 Steps of Maki
  • Karate Warriors
  • Great Okinawa Yakuza War
  • Karate for Life
  • Golgo 13: Assignment Kowloon
  • The Okinawa War of Ten Years

Golgo 13 is the real carrot here, a rough-and-ready spy thriller born of a long-running manga series, and is among Sonny’s absolute best. All of these feature the original Japanese mono, with a few vintage trailers thrown in plus three brand-new audio commentaries from noted film historians.

NCIS: Los Angeles The Complete Series DVD (CBS/Paramount)

Another one of those shows that crept up on me, it was on my radar but then one day they sign off and we find out that it ran for 14 seasons and an incredible 320 episodes! Spun off from the original NCIS and later crossing over with other CBS mainstays, this crime-fighting procedural is essentially small-screen comfort food, served up by Chris O’Donnell and LL Cool  J as the heads of the deep-cover Office of Special Projects, tasked to take down the worst of the worst. That noble struggle leads to quite a bit of action, but there’s plenty of character drama and “it’s personal” missions to mix things up. As you can imagine, across more than a decade they’ve amassed quite a lot of extras–featurettes, commentaries, deleted/extended scenes and more–all of which appear to have been ported over onto these 81 total discs.

Succession The Complete Series DVD (HBO)

Indubitably one of the best shows of the past few years, the recently concluded Succession was that rare trifecta of on-point writing, directing and a brilliant cast: I’d list individual names but they are all standouts. Loosely based on the workings of the News Corp media empire but applicable to any family-run conglomerate, the saga follows founder Logan Roy (Brian Cox) and his progeny, all jockeying for Daddy’s love, power, or both, and each a scumbag in his/her own right. It’s wonderful, and everyone I’ve recommended it to has thanked me. As with most HBO originals, the show aired with extensive creator interviews after each episode (39, comprising four seasons), carried over here.

Double Features

Loki The Complete First Season

WandaVision The Complete Series 4K Steelbooks (both Walt Disney)

Disney+’s foray into the MCU began with a bang, as the remarkably original WandaVision exceeded expectations to bring us a stylish, intriguing and best of all entertaining continuation of Wanda’s (Elizabeth Olsen) story post-Avengers: Endgame and setting up the events of Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. Loki, meanwhile, has its fans, as Asgard’s resident bad boy becomes an agent of the Time Variance Authority to untangle some complicated timelines, discovering alternate versions of himself before encountering some guy named Kang. These two represent Disney’s recently renewed support of physical media with lots to love: native 4K video, Dolby Atmos audio, fancy steelbook packaging and bonus content including the Assembled “making of” program plus never-before-seen deleted scenes and gag reel for each.

JFK 4K Collector’s Edition

Natural Born Killers 4K Collector’s Edition (both Shout! Studios)

Still riding the creative peak of Platoon and Wall Street, Oliver Stone would direct two of his most enduring films in 1991 and 1994, separated by 1993’s underrated Heaven & Earth. JFK has for many become essential Stone, a twisty revelation of both fact and conspiracy theory regarding the assassination of our 35th president. Both its 188-minute theatrical and 205-minute director’s cuts are a testament to his skills behind the camera and in the editing bay, the latter in 4K (plus HD Blu-ray) with Dolby Vision from a new, Stone-approved scan of the camera negative, with the former newly scanned/approved as well and presented in HD. Natural Born Killers enjoys similar treatment: the (slightly) longer director’s cut in fresh 4K/DV + HD with the theatrical in remastered HD. Worth noting, both cuts of NBK include the Nine Inch Nails song, “Burn,” and both of these movies are supplemented by a combination of newly recorded interviews and substantial archival extras.

 (Editor’s Note: Does anyone else think that some studio executive somewhere thought about branding these as “NB4K” and “JF4K”?)

Read our full review of Natural Born Killers 4K Collector’s Edition

Tenebrae 4K

Phenomena 4K (both Synapse Films)

It’s a Dario Argento doppia caratteristica, starting with the giallo murder mystery Tenebrae, ranked among his best, as an author (Anthony Franciosa) undertakes his own investigation of a series of killings seemingly inspired by his latest novel. Things get bizarre in Phenomena, as a pre-Labyrinth Jennifer Connelly uses her ability to communicate with insects (go with it) to help catch a killer. Maggots and homicidal chimpanzees ensure. Phenomena is served up in three significantly different cuts: the full, original Italian version, an international cut and the much shorter U.S. Creepers cut. Tenebrae and the Italian Phenomena are given beautiful Dolby Vision/2160p presentations (all restored, with the other two cuts of Phenomena included on HD Blu-ray) and generous lossless audio options. There’s an abbondanza of bonus content as well, with multiple commentaries and a feature-length documentary for each plus a vast gallery of talent interviews.

(Editor’s Note: There is also a 3-Disc Limited Edition of Tenebrae available.)

Read our full review of Tenebrae 4K.

Swamp Thing 4K (MVD)

The Return of Swamp Thing 4K (Lightyear/MVD)

Predating Alan Moore’s legendary reinvention of the character in comic book pages, writer/director Wes Craven’s big-screen Swamp Thing gave us a sincere look at the tragic moss-man long before superhero flicks were an everyday thing. Included here are the PG theatrical and unrated international cuts. Jim Wynorski’s PG-13 sequel landed seven years later, definitely campier but y’know… Heather Locklear makes up for a lot of shortcomings. These discs go all out, both movies restored in 4K/Dolby Vision and loaded with extras, each with a director commentary and much, much more.

Read our full reviews of Swamp Thing 4K and The Return of Swamp Thing 4K

Lump of Coal Special Mention

American Graffiti 4K (Universal Studios)

George Lucas’ second feature film and first hit remains a heartfelt cruise down the memory strip for a bygone generation. Graffiti celebrated its 50th anniversary this year and fans like me were excited to add this 4K edition to our libraries. Unfortunately, the disc we got has been, as they say, DNR’d to death. My best guess as to why is Mr. Lucas’ choice of the Techniscope process, a cost-cutting approach that uses half as much film (two perforations instead of the usual four), which results in more noticeable grain when blown up to traditional size, and the image appears to have been excessively scrubbed in an attempt to compensate. On the plus side, some terrific extras past are ported over, and a digital copy code is supplied.


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