Another year done, another batch of killer DVDs and Blu-rays to binge on. Here you’ll find some favorites from 2016, plus a few ideas for the poor saps still left on your holiday list. Read on for several choice box sets and special editions that run the gamut of genres and formats.
It’s no secret that Game of Thrones is probably the most badass of TV shows to ever have graced the small screen. The sheer depth of the universe and characters is beyond measure, especially for TV. George RR Martin’s mammoth stories have not only been done due justice, they’ve become the main source of the narrative for millions of viewers, who’ve never touched the original books.
This past year, the show—while deviating in spots—exceeded the books, and it was a doozie; season 6’s Battle of the Bastards being a particular standout. As we await season 7 next year, the plush new box Game of Thrones, Seasons 1-6 from HBO should do well to satisfy the diehard on your list. It comes with a bevy of bonus features, plus all of the blood, guts and skin that makes the holidays extra bright.
The 1970s was the golden age of the exploitation film, and to this day can hardly be topped for somewhat crafty, over-the-top violent fair. Driller Killer (1976) stars Jimmy Laine, aka Abel Ferrara, who directs the film as well. This gory flick also has an unexpected arty component to it, as we follow an artist’s psychological decline into murderous mayhem using, um, power tools and triggered by the sounds of glorious punk rock! This brand-new, two-disc set features a pristine remastered version, plus tons of extras, including early short films of Ferrara, and trailers. (Arrow/MVD)
Speaking of serial killers, Dexter was another interesting take on the genre, but for the small screen. One of Showtime’s better offerings, the show ran for eight seasons, some brilliant, some criminally lame. Dexter Morgan (Michael C. Hall), works as a forensics analyst for the Miami Police Department by day and as a highly methodical vigilante aiming for criminals who’ve evaded justice. The show’s unique premise and ultra-creative kills made it a hit before the show-runners seemingly ran out of ideas for a spell or two. Now, all of the crimson glory can be had in one neat and tidy Blu-ray set, cleverly titled Dexter: The Complete Series. (Paramount)
Legions of Trekkies are sure to rejoice over the release of the 30-disc, Star Trek 50th Anniversary TV and Movie Collection. This mega set features all of the original episodes, Star Trek: The Animated Series, plus all six films based on the original series. It’s all here—the overacting of William Shatner, the stoic intensity of Leonard Nimoy as Mr. Spock, the miniskirts and all those great storylines that still stand the test of time. This massive set includes it all, plus mini movie posters, a badge, a bonus disc of featurettes and more. (Paramount)
Horror and television haven’t always made for great results. To avoid censorship or troubles with sponsors, the way the genre generally works best on the small screen is when it’s subtle, where the horror itself is actually implied rather than displayed via overly campy special effects or melodramatic side stories. The original Twilight Zone series is one of the best examples of implied horror.
Created and hosted by Rod Serling, the groundbreaking series launched in 1959 to critical acclaim and successful ratings. Its mix of thoughtful horror, supernatural, mystery and science fiction educated audiences to the wonderment of the macabre, influencing hordes of future young filmmakers in the process. Each episode came complete with an unexpected twist, often making for a riveting, thought-provoking experience.
One episode that demonstrates this in spades is An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge (1964), which focuses on a soldier being hanged during the American Civil War. While nervously anticipating his fate, his rope breaks and he falls into the water, allowing for a daring escape. He immediately visits his family, only to have it all snatched away at a moment’s notice. In the end, was it all a twisted dream? Episodes such as this would prove influential in the art of skull-fuckery, in films such as Jacob’s Ladder, Mulholland Drive and Donnie Darko, where the horror is subtle but effective.
The Twilight Zone: The Complete Series collects the entire series in sterling Blu-ray, plus all of the extras from previous DVD versions.
Besides basically inventing glam rock, alternative music and a host of other things, David Bowie had a bit of success with acting during the ’80s. Now a beloved cult favorite, Labyrinth starred Bowie—in hideous frightwig—as the evil Goblin King, along with a teenage Jennifer Connelly, who travels to an unearthly place to rescue her infant brother. Created by Muppet maestro Jim Henson, the film features a cast of kooky puppets, along with Bowie and Connelly and an otherworldly set that makes it a somewhat psychotic view (hence the faithful cult following).
The new Labyrinth: 30th Anniversary Collector’s Edition is a massive gift set featuring a Blu-ray with a newly restored transfer, loads of extras, a book and a replica of the film’s most sacred sets. (Sony)
The Ip Man Trilogy is a semi-biographical series based on martial artist and instructor to the stars, Yip Man (1893-1972). Mr. Man helped popularize a style of martial arts called Wing Chun during the early 1900s and would eventually go on to instruct and mentor Bruce Lee among others. While truly an interesting cat, this series has been criticized for taking liberties with his story, amplifying his inherent bad-assery up to 11 and putting him situations that seem a bit far-fetched. But either way, it’s still great fun—especially the first film, titled cleverly enough, IP Man—and lead actor Donnie Wen does a fine job at portraying this historical player. (Well Go Entertainment)
While it had an insanely short run at the time, Freaks and Geeks has gone on to amass a stealthy cult following. Part of this is definitely attributable to its alumni, many of which have gone on to massive mainstream success—actors Seth Rogen, James Franco, and Jason Segel, as well as the behind-the-scenes brain trust of Judd Apatow and Paul Feig.
Set in 1980, the freaks (stoners, lightweight delinquents) and geeks (nerds and overly cautious neurotics) find some synergies and it’s a fairly accurate depiction of the high school experience for those of us that never quite made the cut during those formative years. The show tackles some of the issues with a deft touch and focuses more on character interaction and clever dialog to drive the story, rather than heavy-handed sermonizing. Freaks and Geeks: The Complete Series Blu-ray has it all and comes crammed with extra including commentary, deleted scenes and more. (Shout! Factory)
In the spirit of films like Animal House, Porky’s was one of the first major mainstream films of the 1980s to really lower the bar and play directly to the concerns of rabid teenage males. Set in the ’50s, the film centers on the antics of a few high school friends in pursuit of all things female, which leads them to outlaw bar “Porky’s” where they’re giving it way—or so they think. The first film was a smash hit and set a high precedence for lowbrow entertainment.
Two sequels followed, Porky’s II: The Next Day (1983), Porky’s Revenge! (1985), and furthered the legacy, while inspiring even worse reviews and later on, declining box office receipts. Out-of-circulation for the past few years, now you can own the two said sequels in one hi-def package, so you, too, can experience the uncouthness up close. (Kino Lorber)
TV show The League took some of Porky’s best bits; heightened the quirk and added some snappy dialog for seven seasons of sitcom lunacy. The show followed a group of Fantasy Football freaks, who regularly insult each other in the most cutting of ways, elevating the lowbrow bro-ness to higher levels via the clever barbs these misfits level at each other. While there is some plot, the semi-improv show largely trades on its dialog, and surprisingly, it works most of the time.
The League: Complete Series features all seven seasons on 14 discs, plus special features, all in a massive slipcase.
Francesca. Oh yeah, this uncanny little flick is shaping up to be one of the best horror films of the year, if not the decade. A stylish throwback to the Italian Giallo films (violent sex-fuelled mysteries) of the seamy ’70s, Francesca follows a dishy young lady by the same name, who had previously disappeared for 15 years. Now she’s back and a series of gruesome crimes are also taking place…could they be related?
While far gorier than the traditional Giallo films, Francesca has a similar kind of aloofness in its poetic approach, which make the violence all the more shocking. It’s also visually stunning, atmospheric and colorful in its characters and palette, with some eye-catching sets that make it unstoppable. This 3-dic set includes a Blu-ray, DVD and CD soundtrack, all in one slick package.
Speaking of eerie mysteries, HBO’s The Night Of is one helluva stressful ride. The single series follows the unsettling odyssey. College student Nasir “Naz” Khan finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time in a major way, and soon finds himself as somewhat of a pawn in the legal system. John Turturro stars as his hapless lawyer, battling several of his own demons. The excellent acting, cold atmospherics and edgy plotlines make for a riveting ride—and even when things aren’t so bad, it still feels unsavory as all hell.
For diehard film buffs, it doesn’t get much cooler than the Forbidden Hollywood series. The title refers to “pre-code” sound movies released from around 1929-1934, before censorship became rampant. Many of these films were looked upon as radical, touching on themes—albeit subtlety by today’s standards—of sex, drug use, violence and other assorted goodies. Many of these flicks became banned artifacts, but over time, the boutique Warner Archive has been unearthing them in these nifty little sets. Forbidden Hollywood X is the last volume in the series and features five films from the pre-code years of 1931-1933, including gritty crime drama The Mouthpiece.
Department Q Trilogy
This Danish export follows a down-on-his-luck cop attempt to redeem his ill-fated career by pursuing oddball cases with purpose and gusto. While it all sounds fairly predictable on the surface, each film comes packed with intricate twists and subtle nuances that prompt further exploration. (MPI)
Taxi Driver: 40th Anniversary Edition
The film that put Robert De Niro on the map and immortalized the catchphrase “You talkin’ to me?” gets a fancy revamp in this crisp hi-def, 2-disc release. The film was a reflection of the times and De Niro’s portrayal of Travis Bickle, a man driven to the edge by paranoia and misperceptions, is bar none, his best. This new edition comes with several bonuses, plus a newly remastered transfer. (Sony)
Billions: Season 1
Showtime’s Billions is chess game come to life. The story of a battle of wits between a Wall Street honcho and a U.S. attorney is a tense ride from start to finish, where the line between good and evil is often blurred and you find yourself rooting for each side at different points. (Showtime)
Narcos: Season 1
If you’re fascinated by coke cartels and the life and times of Pablo Escobar, then Narcos is for you. Season 1 sees the Columbian kingpin pursued by a couple of agents bent on taking him down, but shit never goes as planned. The acting is exceptional, especially Wagner Moura as Escobar, who comes across as unhinged as humanly possible. (Lionsgate)
Feed the Beast: Season 1
When two guys in the Bronx see their dream of opening a chic restaurant slipping away, they must look for creative ways to keep it afloat. The show stars Jim Sturgiss and David Schwimmer—who surprisingly plays it pretty straight—in this quirky crime series. Derided by critics, the show’s stylish look and interesting back-story showed promise. Pity, it won’t see a second series. (Lionsgate)
Aliens: 30th Anniversary Edition
The second installment of the Alien franchise, Aliens was almost as good as the first, which says a lot for a sequel. Amping up the budget and production values, the film sees Sigourney Weaver reprising her role as Ellen Ripley and revisit the scene where all the shite originally went down. The film would gross over 180 million and get nominated for several Academy Awards, inspiring new interest in the series, which would for the most part, go down from here.
This new Blu-ray set comes with concept art and a comic book, in a plush slipcase. (Fox)
Better Call Saul: Season 2
Breaking Bad spinoff Better Call Saul and its second season furthers the legacy as we see Jimmy McGill become Saul Goodman in this new series. While it doesn’t match the scale or depth of Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul still offers its share of intrigue and questions that are sure to make it one for the books like it’s parent show. (Sony)
Empire: Season 2
Okay, I admit it, I love the melodrama, backbiting and scandal of Empire. It’s got music and enough over-the-top characters to keep it interesting, no matter how far-fetched or silly it gets. Season 2 saw no letting up, and lead character Lucious (Terence Howard) is as unbalanced as ever. (Fox)
For questions, comments or something you’d like to see, send me a note at Retrohead77@yahoo.com. Cheers, Kaz.