Holiday gift guide - DVDs and Games

Punk panic

You're Gonna Miss Me: A Film About Roky Erickson
Directed by Kevin McAlester
Palm Pictures/MMVD, $24.95

It's hard to comprehend that nearly 30 years after dragging me back to his San Francisco hangout to play some of his newest creations — including "There's Nothing I Like Better Than to Watch a Severed Head Bouncing Down The Stairs," "The Actor With His Eyes Gouged Out" and "Don't Kill My Baby" — Roky Erickson would be playing to adoring full houses across the country. To witness his resurgence from mental health hell is staggering.

The talent of this guy has unfortunately been a best-kept secret, both as guitarist/singer-songwriter for the '60s psychedelic Texas punk band, the 13th Floor Elevators, as well as throughout the decade following his emergence from a Texas mental hospital (to which he was initially deposited when he pleaded guilty "by reason of insanity" for pot possession).

Writer-director Kevin McAlester's You're Gonna Miss Me is a no-holds-barred biopic, much in the vein of Terry Zwigoff's Crumb, with interviews of surviving members of the Elevators and assorted in-crowd pals — Patti Smith and Billy Gibbons among them. It's also a close examination of the circumstances behind Roky's lock-up in the Texas Looney Bin, otherwise known as Rusk State Hospital. 

The film's strength resides in its detached perspective and illumination of the familial bonds to Roky's plight. Ultimately, the movie spotlights brother Sumner, who gives up a tuba-playing career in the Pittsburgh Philharmonic Orchestra to eventually relocate back to Austin and assume legal custody of Roky. Their mother, Evelyn, is apparently more than a religious nutcase in her own right, refusing Roky any psychiatric attention or psychotropic meds for what was referred to as "florid schizophrenia" back at Rusk.

When Sumner assumed control, Roky was put on antipsychotic drugs, and before you could say "Olanzipine," the persona morphed into a coherent package. You're Gonna Miss Me does an excellent job depicting the before-and-after scenario. Arguably, there may be too much time devoted to Evelyn, but McAlester's lens is clearly simpatico with Roky's plight and ultimate triumph. Riffing on A Beautiful Mind, this film could have been called A Beautiful Voice. One of the best. —Dr. Gregg Turner


Almost a heavyweight

How I Met Your Mother, Season 2
20th Century Fox, $39.98

There's hope for the sitcom formula yet. Output has been bleak of late — Two and a Half Men and like 18 shows with a hot wife and a doltish fat husband come to mind. While CBS's How I Met Your Mother, now in its third season, is nothing groundbreaking, it's well-acted, charming and usually LOL funny a couple of times an episode. And isn't that kind of all we really need from a sitcom?

The basic premise of the show is this: Architect Ted Mosby (acted by Josh Radnor, voiced in the future by Bob Saget) tells his two kids the story of how he met their mother. It centers on his relationship with four friends — lovey-dovey couple Lily (Alyson Hannigan) and Marshall (Jason Segal), womanizer Barney (Neil Patrick Harris) and beautiful Robin (Cobie Smulders).

Doogie Howser has grown up, ladies and gentlemen. Harris, the former sweet child star, is now a maliciously funny comic actor who steals most scenes he appears in. Hannigan and Segal remind viewers why they became cult favorites on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Freaks and Geeks, respectively, with their pitch-perfect portrayal of a young couple madly in love, yet totally terrified.

The show does better when it revels in flashbacks and silliness. The main plotline of Season 2, the development of a romantic relationship between Robin and Ted, never quite reaches the heights of believability. But unknown Mosby is a serviceable straight man and Smulders has great comic timing to go along with her perfect hair. —Kelli B. Kavanaugh


Coffee and pie, oh my 

Twin Peaks, the Definitive Gold Box Edition (The Complete Series)
Paramount Home Video, $99.99

David Lynch's cult classic is finally released properly on DVD — a handsome boxed set containing both seasons, the show's original pilot and a passel of special features.

Twin Peaks' twists and turns revolve around the murder of Laura Palmer, a homecoming queen with a dark side, punctuated by Angelo Badalamenti's score, by turns ominous and uplifting. The cast reads like a who's who of 1990: Kyle MacLachlan as note-perfect FBI agent-cum-mystic Dale Cooper, whose investigative insights arrive as often via hallucinatory communications as lab work and fingerprinting. Sheryl Lee is the ill-fated Laura Palmer and her identical cousin Maddy, Sherilyn Fenn (a Grosse Pointe native) plays Audrey Horne, surely one of the most delightful vixens to ever grace the small screen, Lara Flynn Boyle is good-girl-turned-bad Donna Hayward, and Joan Chen is the exotic femme fatale Josie Packard. There are so many others worth mentioning, including Lynch himself, a riot as a deaf FBI agent who's soothed by the serene voice of Shelly, a waitress at the R&R.

The quest to find out who killed Laura Palmer was one of the first season-long story arcs that's now a network stock-in-trade, but the show was ultimately a victim of its own innovations. Legend has it that the studio was not comfortable with the show's multi-season mystery, and pressured Lynch and co-creator Mark Frost to an early revelation. Bereft of its central premise, the show foundered, skipping time slots and weeknights in the march to its eventual demise.

Seventeen years later, it's obvious that nothing like Twin Peaks, a delightful blend of off-kilter whimsy, crime procedural, brutal violence (and, of course, pie), will ever grace television again. Thankfully, it's just as fresh and fun as it in the fledgling days of grunge. —Nancy Kaffer


Too far gone?

Lost - Season 3
Buena Vista Home Entertainment, $59.99

While season three of Lost was not reviewed with unanimous huzzahs, as were the first two, its DVD box set will no doubt still be a holiday heavyweight — particularly as rumors spread that the show will not return to ABC until 2009 because of the writer's strike.

The bottom line is that Season 3 was weighed down by some issues: too much focus on The Others, the killing off of well-loved characters and the introduction of unnecessary ones (Nikki and Paulo? Bai Ling as a seer-tattoo artist?) And sometimes, well, the storytelling seemed intentionally convoluted. When it finally returned after a too-long hiatus, the season showed significant improvement, but many viewers had already tuned out.

Too bad, because the writing got tighter and some questions actually got answered. The character of Desmond (Henry Ian Cusack) becomes more and more integral to the plot, as well as more and more fascinating. The relationship between the Dharma Initiative and The Others is (mostly) explained and the individuals that comprise The Others become more a nuanced group of individuals than an evil, scary monolith.

This box set is a chance for Lost addicts to get a fix and for those viewers who turned away from the series to come back. When all is said and done, it'll likely not hold up as the best of the show's six seasons, but it does develop character, advance the plot line and answer questions — while, of course, asking a few to stir the pot. —Kelli B. Kavanaugh


Or, lots of yuks

The Martin & Lewis Collection Vol. 2
Paramount Pictures Corp., $29.99

It may be understandably difficult for anyone in 2007 to discern exactly what it was that made Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis so funny. And not just funny, but, in terms of film, television, radio and live appearances, literally the most successful comedy attraction around during most of the decade they were together (Martin left in 1956).

The stereotypes are well-known: Martin, the good-looking, allegedly drunk rascal with a magical tenor voice capable of reducing the ladies to quivering masses, and Lewis, the nonstop mugging, moronic man-child with the squeaky voice, a geek's geek without an undeclared bad gag in his peanut brain.

Well, it was a simpler time, back then, back when the five films (all new to DVD, without bonus features) in this three-disc collection were made: Pardners, Hollywood or Bust, Living It Up, You're Never Too Young, and Artists and Models, all very successful contributions to the Paramount coffers.

The productions are slick, and all follow the same essential thread: Martin is the vocalizing leading man, Lewis the spastic, half-witted funnyman. Toss in a few numbers for Martin, plenty of wacky comic setups for Lewis, and the obligatory love interest (we encounter Anita Ekberg, Janet Leigh and Shirley MacLaine, among others), and send them on some basic, harebrained journey. Hi-jinks ensue.

You're not here for deep plots, but for the attraction of the team. There are a lot of good moments, if only for the fascination of watching Lewis's train wreck display of physical comedy (decades before Jim Carrey and Jack Black developed a smarter, hipper version), yet Martin is often the scene-stealer. He's a genius comic foil and a natural actor.

But again — is it funny? Well, yes. The sheer chemistry between the two is undeniable, and not without payoff. —Peter Gilstrap


Just super

Heroes – Season One
Universal, $59.98

You know about "Save the cheerleader, save the world," right? The tagline was omnipresent this year, plastered on billboards and buses, advertising NBC's hit show Heroes. The first season is a richly-layered romp, populated with an array of superpowered characters, each of whom has recently discovered that he or she possesses paranormal abilities, from super-strength to invulnerability to the ability to fly, time travel, read minds. As the characters come together, two threats emerge: an anti-hero with a sinister power of his own, and intimations that New York City is on a collision course with destruction. Throw in a samurai sword, an evil corporation and Malcolm McDowell, and you've got a winning combination.

The cast's a blend of familiar B-listers: Ali Larter, Milo Ventimiglia, Adrian Pasdar, as well as unknowns — Hayden Panetierre as the aforementioned cheerleader, and Masi Oka, whose performance as time-stopping and -traveling Hiro Nakamura is one of Heroes' gems. The plots become more arcane as the season unfolds, while retaining some of the breathless enthusiasm of Saturday morning cartoons, with a final cliffhanger that will leave you biting your nails. —Nancy Kaffer


Cheese with tang

Robinson Crusoe On Mars
Criterion Collection, $39.95

Ah, for the glorious days of Technicolor!

Practically bursting from Robinson Crusoe On Mars' digitally captured celluloid frame, brilliant fireballs roam rocky Martian vistas in this nerdy time capsule of sci-fi cinema. A hokey but sincere adaptation of Daniel Defoe's classic novel, Byron Haskin's (War Of The Worlds, Naked Jungle) 1964 film is a campy bit of nostalgia that ends up impressing with its exceptional acting, entertaining second-act tale of survival and fact-based (but scientifically naive) approach to its outer-space setting.

Set in the "near-future" of 1964, two astronauts, Kit Draper (Paul Mantee) and Dan McReady (a pre-Batman Adam West!), eject from their spaceship to avoid colliding with a fiery meteor. Kit and his monkey Mona land safely on the Red Planet's unforgiving surface while Dan becomes intergalactic road pizza. Now stranded, survival is it for Draper as he struggles to find oxygen, food and water while maintaining sanity.

Until the alien slave with the bad Egyptian haircut shows up, it's a pretty engrossing (though implausible) tale of endurance, reminiscent of Robert Zemeckis' Cast Away. Haskin uses Defoe's semi-religious theme of existential salvation to lend convincing seriousness to his obvious B-movie trappings. Imaginative and surprisingly accurate in its depictions of space flight and Mars' surface (as revealed in the disc's featurette "Destination Mars"), he smartly keeps the focus on Draper's will to survive. Even more effective is Haskin's approach to the astronaut's growing friendship with his alien Friday. Keeping sentimentality at bay, Robinson Crusoe achieves dramatic resonance, rising above its kitschy technical limitations and lame alien confrontations.

Criterion's hi-def digital transfer brings to your TV all the Technicolor glory of the original and also a fun-to-read accompanying booklet. The commentary track is ambitiously clever but aurally taxing — a mix of comments recorded over the years with the actors, original director, and special effects designer along with excerpts from a low quality 1979 audio interview with director Byron Haskin.

And wide-eyed Trekkies will catch the obvious influences on the first Star Trek series — Haskin co-produced that show's pilot. —Jeff Meyers


He did not just say that

30 Rock, Season 1
Universal Studios, $49.98

Two words sum up the reason that 30 Rock is on a higher plane than any other network comedy: race humor. Not Archie Bunker stuff, but truly provocative and often offensive jokes. If that isn't reason enough to watch, the show has a superb ensemble cast anchored by the television trinity of Tina Fey, Alec Baldwin and Tracy Morgan.

Fey plays Liz Lemon, the stereotypical single gal who is good at her job — she's the head writer of an NBC variety show — but not so good at managing her personal life. Occasionally, the "poor Liz Lemon" shtick can get a bit tired, but Fey's intelligence and fearlessness as a writer and actor end up carrying the day. Here's a woman who writes a part for herself in which her looks are continually derided, she is regularly accused of being racist and her staff calls her the C word. That takes some seriously big balls.

Baldwin plays Jack Donaghy, the studio exec (aka the boss) who dates Condi Rice, hobnobs with Austrian royalty and wants to "kill-boff-marry" his ex-wife Bianca, played by Isabella Rossellini. In less capable hands, Donaghy would come off as crass and unsympathetic, but Baldwin smartly injects his pomposity with a modicum of vulnerability.

Morgan plays Tracy Jordan, a bat-shit-crazy movie star downgraded to TV personality because of his erratic history. Morgan's charms eluded me during his SNL stint, but I've converted. The guy is just not afraid to go there. To go anywhere. He shucks and jives while mocking the construct of shucking and jiving.

If that sounds tricky, it is — and 30 Rock blesses its viewers with that kind of writing in every single episode. —Kelli B. Kavanaugh


Chuckles and truth

Chappelle's Show: The Series Collection
Comedy Central/ Paramount, $49.99

Humans were not born with enough thumbs to give proper Ebert-esque kudos to the work of Dave Chappelle. Though it's admittedly a blanket and biased statement, the comedian is the funniest man on the planet, a fact millions of devotees back up. And, unlike most pop culture sensations —where the rule of thumb is, if the masses like it, it must be shit — this time the people are right on the money.

The short-lived weekly sketch comedy show that debuted in 2003 (only two full seasons) was a perfect platform for Chappelle's comic genius, with nary a dead note in the entire run. He took on a wide array of cultural targets, from race relations to politics to drug casualties to the hip-hop world to skewering celebs. Whether playing an uptight white news anchor or the late Rick James, Chappelle's comic chops ran far deeper than a stand-up in a funny wig and bad makeup.

And all that delicious toilet humor —somehow, the man can pull off jokes about poo and pee and farts and jizz loads and still seem smart, a rare skill mastered only by the likes of Mr. Show and Monty Python, among a select few.

This six-disc, uncensored love letter also contains the "lost episodes" that were to be part of the unfinished third season, complete with unaired sketches, bloopers, audio commentary and a "making of" featurette. And trust that none of this is throw-away material.

Ironically, it's the release of this material that may keep Chappelle from returning to Comedy Central, a statement he made to Oprah prior to the network's airing the sketches in July last year. But, in life and comedy, the man has always been about integrity. He walked off the show due to problems with the program's direction, holing up in South Africa amid accusations of drug and mental problems, though no evidence ever corroborated those charges.

Whatever his next move is, be thankful for this box set, bitch. —Peter Gilstrap


Eggnog for everyone!

Sawdust and Tinsel
Ingmar Bergman
Criterion Collection, $39.95

Ivan's Childhood
Andrei Tarkovsky
Criterion Collection, $29.95

If you're looking for the perfect stocking stuffer for your family cinephile (or manic-depressive) the always-excellent Criterion Collection has released a pair of DVDs that focus on the early work of intellectual filmmakers Ingmar Bergman and Andrei Tarkovsky.

Released in 1953, Bergman's divisive Sawdust and Tinsel attracted the scorn of prominent critics. Pauline Kael condemned the film for its unrelenting bleakness while Scandinavian reviewer Harry Schein claimed it was one of the finest films he'd ever seen. As with most early works from great directors, time has proved the harshest critics wrong. Viewed within the context of Bergman's filmography it's clear that this heartbreaking tale of humiliation and despair is probably his most pivotal, demonstrating a growing maturity of style and substance.

Only 35 at the time he made it, this stunningly shot tale of a downtrodden circus owner, his unfaithful young mistress and their humiliating failure to find love or happiness introduced the techniques and themes Bergman would spend the rest of his career refining. Elusive love, the redemptive nature of theater, and the absence of God or justice are all on display as cinematographer Sven Nykvist captures the action with high-contrast compositions and the stark, gritty realism that would later become Bergman's signature style. Though the pace occasionally lags and there are awkward exchanges, his direction is incredibly intimate, boasting powerful performances from both the film's actors and, believe it or not, animals.

As with all Criterion's releases the transfer and packaging are first rate. Along with five additional minutes, the DVD features informative commentary by English film historian Peter Cowie and a beautifully illustrated booklet with essays from critic John Simon and French novelist and filmmaker Catherine Breillat (Romance, Fat Girl). The best addition, however, is a short intro by Bergman himself where he reveals how hurt he was by those early notices.

Equally cheery as holiday fare, Ivan's Childhood marks the impressive debut of Andrei Tarkovsky (Solaris, Stalker), one of the most important Russian filmmakers of the 20th century. Winner of the Golden Lion at the 1962 Venice Film Festival, this poignant and painful tale of 12-year-old Ivan and his quest to avenge the murder of his family by Nazis is the shortest and most conventional of the director's work, demonstrating his uncanny gift for atmosphere and setting.

Fresh out of film school and clearly influenced by Bergman, Tarkovsky created poetic monochromatic visuals that heightened themes of revenge and bitter sorrow. Bouncing between the grim realities of war and the quiet reverie of Ivan's family life before the Nazis' arrival, the film unspools like a painting in motion, creating dreamlike visuals to go along with the director's haunting and oftentimes jarring aural sculpture.

Criterion has allowed the black and white transfer to betray its age, but that only adds to the otherworldliness of Tarkovsky's stylization. The eerily lit scenes and noticeable film grain accentuate those moments that cross into the surreal, reinforcing how Ivan is shaped by both internal and external conflict.

For those familiar with the director's films, this first effort contrasts Tarkovsky's more deliberately abstract and visually detailed later work. For the rest, it's a terrific introduction to this fascinating and influential filmmaker.

Criterion's meaty extras include a beautifully designed booklet with an introduction by Scottish film professor Dina Jordanova and a translated Tarkovsky essay from 1962. The DVD sports video interviews with the film's cinematographer and lead actor Burlyaev, and a video interview with Tarkovsky scholar Vida T. Johnson.

Remember: Nothing says "Merry Christmas" like 90 minutes of Swedish existential dread or the horrors of the Russian front during World War II. —Jeff Meyers


A tweaker's must-have

Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare
Infinity Ward/ActivisionXbox 360 / Playstation 3, $59.99

The Call of Duty franchise is the war-based, first-person shooter every game designer studies, emulates and attempts to outsell. The newest in the series, COD 4: Modern Warfare ditches the Allied Forces v. Nazi Germany format — thank you, Jesus — for today's convoluted war zone in and around the Middle East. Gamers have stormed the beaches of Normandy more than a WWII vet's battered psyche. Online gameplay allows gamers to advance through different weapons and upgrades based on gained experience, a facet that creates a more sporting atmosphere than that of other first-person shooters — i.e. Halo 3. But, COD 4's single player plotline, like the other games in the series, is its livelihood. The creators understand the gamer's carnal need for suspense — the gamer is forever under-the-gun, a moment from terror, generating a Clancy-like intensity to the game. While past titles like the Grand Theft Auto series created a, "here's your virtual world, do what you will, dude" atmosphere that left gamers inevitably uninterested (you can only kill so many hookers, right?), COD4 is controlled, like an interactive ride at Universal Studios, forcing gamers to experience every aspect of the game. It's Infinity Ward's scripted mayhem that will surely shelve Halo 3, a daunting task in the industry and the principal reason why COD4: Modern Warfare is the must have game. —Dustin Walsh


Blue eyes bleeding

Mass Effect
BioWare /Microsoft Game Studios
Xbox 360, $59.99

The hype preceding Mass Effect this year left every sci-fi gaming freak with fogged-up specs and a little wet spot in their shorts. Well, the game is finally here, and, for the Trekkies and the gamer of Dungeons and Dragons lineage, it delivers. Mass Effect relishes on its ability to tell one hell of a longwinded story — a new generation, modern technology version of the classic Choose Your Own Adventure book series. The tale follows you, Captain Shepard, through an intergalactic saga in efforts to, expectantly, save the universe. At every narrative turn, Shepard is presented with a dialogue tree of varying responses that, in theory, should determine diverse outcomes. The grade of the learning curve is steep, as navigating the assorted array of weapons and in-game menus is difficult. A casual gamer will struggle from the outset before seamlessly destroying alien life. Like most next-gen role playing games, it's not all storytelling. Mass Effect allows the gamer to opt as to which missions they desire to complete — or, at least the order of completion as they all inevitably lead to one of a few conclusions. Visually, Mass is the cleanest, most vivid console game release, period. While chasing a storyline may become tedious for the average, instant-gratification gamer, it's is the perfect holiday gift for your Battlestar Galactica, Sci-Fi Channel-watchin' gamer nerd. —Dustin Walsh

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