DVD gift guide featuring A Colbert Christmas, Robot Chicken: Star Wars and more
The budget bailout
The economic downturn threatens to make 2008 one of the tightest Christmases ever. With a goal of making spirits bright, light-hearted DVD gifts may be bona fide necessities rather than luxuries. The following suggested comedies — some hip, some heart-warming — span seven decades with the hopes of offering something to amuse everyone on your multigenerational gift list. From digitally remastered films from Hollywood's golden age to nostalgic contemporary satires, they can even provide a literal answer to the question, "What's so funny about peace, love and understanding?"
Available in stores three days after its Nov. 23 cable debut, A Colbert Christmas (Comedy Central, $19.99) slightly repackages fake right-wing pundit Stephen Colbert as an all-purpose showbiz phoney. In dead-on parody of 1970s-style variety shows, A Colbert Christmas finds Colbert trapped in his mountain cabin by a hungry bear. He still manages to play host to such unexpected guests as Toby Keith, Jon Stewart, John Legend and Elvis Costello (whose seasonal costumes are nearly worth the price of admission alone). But who will Colbert kiss under the mistletoe?
A Colbert Christmas is a knockout thanks to the strength of the holiday parodies by David Javerbaum ("The Daily Show" executive producer) and Adam Schlesinger (songwriter and Fountains of Wayne co-founder), providing some of the best goofs on Christmas since "South Park's" Christmas specials. One of the most ingenious finds Canadian folk singer Feist riffing on "Angels We Have Heard on High" in the form of a call-waiting message from Heaven: "Due to increased prayer amounts, seraphim will have delays/Serving your prayer accounts for the next five million days."
Willie Nelson's song not only tweaks "The Little Drummer Boy," but specifically footnotes the beloved, inexplicable 1977 TV duet of the song between David Bowie and Bing Crosby, who didn't seem exactly sure who the other one was.
For a refresher as to why Crosby is almost synonymous with Christmas in some circles, check out the new release of 1942's Holiday Inn (Universal Studios, $26.98), which features Crosby singing the Christmas standard-of-standards, "White Christmas."
Holiday Inn falls a little short of classic status, relying on a thin plot about a passive-aggressive romantic triangle between Crosby, Fred Astaire and ingénue Marjorie Reynolds at a hotel/club that only opens for national holidays. But the film finds Crosby and Astaire in excellent form, and the veteran hoofer does a remarkable tap dance routine with firecrackers for the July 4 number. Knowing the seasonal premise, the film's appeal partly lies in seeing how legendary tunesmith Irving Berlin will write numbers about the likes of Thanksgiving or George Washington's birthday. (Warning: The Lincoln number, "Abraham," is performed in blackface in a sign of racial condescension that's almost shocking by contemporary standards.) Holiday Inn features three discs that offer the original black-and-white film, a new colorized version (meh) and a CD of the songs.
If you want to cultivate an appreciation of old black-and-white movies among the young people in your life, a good "gateway drug" may be Abbott & Costello: The Complete Universal Pictures Collection (Universal Studios, $119.98). Designed like a steamer trunk, the box contains 28 films from 1940-1955, featuring testy straight man Bud Abbott and boyish stooge Lou Costello. If you don't mind hostile physical comedy – Abbott slaps Costello in nearly every film – their movies can offer kids a light-hearted alternative to the ADD pace of most contemporary TV cartoons.
The pair's best films, particularly Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein (co-starring Bela Lugosi and Lon Chaney Jr. as Count Dracula and the Wolf Man, respectively) hold up very well and provide children a safe introduction to famous monsters. Most of the early films, such as Buck Privates, offer a glimpse of the American home front during World War II, while the best show snappy restagings of their vaudeville-honed shtick. The Naughty Nineties features the definitive version of their "Who's on First?" routine.
A Colbert Christmas coined the phrase, "Every time a bell falls, an angel gets its balls." Unbidden, that line came to mind during Tinker Bell (Walt Disney Video, $29.99), Disney's new direct-to-DVD CGI feature. Where Abbott and Costello may appeal more to boys, Tinker Bell targets girls more directly: Fairy is the new princess among Disney product streams. Tinker Bell offers the first of at least four planned films about Peter Pan's diminutive sidekick.
If not a modern classic, Tinker Bell proves surprisingly tolerable and features at least one laugh-out-loud gag (involving a nutcracker and a weeping squirrel). "Born" the first time a baby laughs, Tinker Bell discovers the realm of Pixie Hollow, where fairies guide the change of seasons. She's disappointed to learn that her talents place her among the tinkers, who build and fix things and are sort of like the unglamorous engineering majors at a liberal arts college. Despite no shortage of sappy self-actualization, Tinker Bell features unquestionably lovely animation, pleasant Celtic-style music, likeable characterizations and some sweet homages to Peter Pan lore. One could do a lot worse.
Two DVDs carry the spirit of homage in cheeky directions. Robot Chicken: Star Wars (Turner Home Entertainment, $14.98) presents 2007's all-Star Wars spoof of the stop-motion animated series from Cartoon Network's Adult Swim. Like a great Mad magazine-style parody, the grab bag of sketches and one-liners features consistently funny gags about the likes of Darth Vader and George Lucas, along with "yo momma" jokes and The Empire Strikes Back reimagined as an Ice Capades show. It's short at 22 minutes, but the disc offers plenty of behind-the-scenes extras, including clips of actor/director/co-creator Seth Green acting out all of the roles for the animators.
If you prefer to hear your pop references from real people instead of action figures, Spaced: The Complete Series (BBC Warner, $59.98) proves to be a little-known delight. The British sitcom from 1999-2001 showcases the early work of Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz director Edgar Wright and writer/actor Simon Pegg. Pegg and co-writer Jessica Hynes play two bohemian twentysomethings who pass as a couple to share a flat, and cinematic flights of fantasy punctuate their scruffy, mundane days.
Spaced: The Complete Series features all 14 episodes from the show's two seasons, as well as exhaustive bonus features and guest commentaries from fellow showbiz geeks such as Quentin Tarantino and Kevin Smith. Not all the jokes click, but the show's quirky, idiosyncratic voice is innately appealing, particularly thanks to the comedic work of Pegg, and Hynes, who gives the show a female perspective frequently missing from fanboy-based entertainment.
DVDs usually don't come cheap, but an excellent way to get bargains is through the daily Gold Box deals on Amazon.com. Found via a gold-colored treasure-chest logo on Amazon's front page, the Deal of the Day offerings frequently provide themed discounts, such as 75 percent off any season of "Gilmore Girls." The day Quantum of Solace opened, for instance, the James Bond Ultimate Collector's Set was available for 69 percent off. Be prepared to click quickly.