Giving a movie usually means one of two things: that the film is good enough for multiple viewings or that you want to expose someone to something you think is cool or educational. Tear-jerkers, surprise endings and light romantic comedies don't usually hold up on review. Fine cinema, good special effects, cult films, and very clever comedies do. Well-made documentaries are also a safe bet to pass along. For owning a copy of a film, the superiority of DVD over VHS is a foregone conclusion. The letterbox format presents movies as the filmmaker intended, while the quality of digital audio and surround-sound, compared to that of VHS, approximates the difference between cassette and CD. Basic functions like chapter lists and language options are often accompanied by extra features such as directors' and actors' remarks. Commentaries by auteur filmmakers are often interesting, as are annotations on low-budget films and effects-heavy action pictures.
Throughout our gift section, items with a local angle are marked with SF*.
Lord of the Rings
Coincidentally, just in time for the second installment of the trilogy comes this four-disc special edition of Tolkien's classic story. This is the Grand Pooh-Bah of bonus features -- this year's Godfatherpackage. It shows just what can be done, with an unlimited budget, to construct an entire fantasy civilization and then document every single step of the process: The result is an incredible video diary that will enrapture anyone interested in filmmaking. One entire disc takes you from book to script, and another documents the journey from script to screen. Whereas many DVDs offer "deleted scenes" out of context, here the film itself has been extended by 30 minutes and the musical score re-recorded for flow. There's a Middle Earth atlas, a Tolkien biography, lavishly animated menus, and copious film-crew geek interviews.
SF* Mr. Show
Comedians Bob Odenkirk and David Cross took the formula for TV sketch comedy and added the reactive agents of darkness and biting satire to explode the genre. The two seasons it ran on HBO have just come out in one package, so one no longer has to go to Le Video, where, because it had not been commercially released, episodes were lent out free with any rental. The television parodies never go on too long, the sketches are rarely built around one funny premise and beaten into the ground (à la many Saturday Night Livebits), and the segues are up there with Monty Python's. Featured performers include a slew of former San Franciscans: Tom Kenny, Brian Posehn, Greg Behrendt, and the uniquely eccentric Mary-Lynn Rajskub.
Band of Brothers
This epic HBO miniseries chronicles the true adventures of Easy Company of the 101st Airborne, a volunteer paratrooper division, as members go from training, to D-Day, to capturing Hitler's hideaway. Far and away the best way to experience and understand all that is going on is with the DVD format. Watch the 10 episodes on your own time, with menus, guides, and maps to help you keep the characters and chronology straight. Bonus disc 6 has a feature-length documentary on the real men that comprised the company, who recount their experiences and sometimes break down as they relive the memories. This is your best bet to launch Grandpa into the DVD world.
SF* Eddie Izzard: Dress To Kill
To be released on November 26th is this Emmy Award-winning live performance of British cross-dressing comedian Eddie Izzard. As a testament to his talent, the transvestism doesn't come off as a gimmick, and you soon forget about it. From the point of view of a Yank, Brit Izzard has the one-two comedic punch of not just saying funny things, but saying them funny. Revered in England and with a snowballing cult following stateside, Izzard chose to record at San Francisco's Stage Door Theater in 1998, and references to our city are peppered throughout. He calls the audience a "city of snakes" after they hiss at the word "Frisco," and the disc's introduction is a farcical tour of our tourist traps. Also included is "America: 1998: homage à Ken Burns," a photomontage parody in the overdramatic style of the epic documentarian.
SF* Monsters, Inc.
The kiddie must-have this Christmas is Monsters Inc., created by the animation wizards at Emeryville's Pixar studios. Rare is a film that is enrapturing for kids and enjoyable for adults, but as with Toy Storybefore it, there's more here than just cutesy gags and formulaic storytelling. The DVD set is a two-disc affair, with all kinds of bonus features including a training manual to work for Monsters Inc. and the employee handbook. Calling ahead to mom and dad might be a good idea -- just to be sure the youngster doesn't already have it. If not, you can't go wrong.
Special Edition DVDs
Other films that have been given the DVD treatment with tons of cool special features and documentaries include One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Blue Velvet, Truffaut's The 400 Blows and Jules & Jim, Pulp Fiction, Reservoir Dogs, Sunset Boulevard, Roman Holiday, Memento, and a new box set of seven James Bond flicks representing four different 007s. Releases of local interest include Tom Petty Live at the Fillmore and native hell-raiser Margaret Cho's second feature performance film, Notorious C.H.O.
SF* Flash Frames
Two cool animation DVDs recently came out thanks to Bay Area efforts. This one, Flash Frames, is a collection of independent internet videos and games created with Flash software from SF's own Macromedia. Videos include pieces by DJ Spooky and Todd Rundgren, and the low-budget simplicity of some of them will inspire young filmmakers, internet designers, and digital noodlers alike. Flash Frames represents the democratization of animated vision.
SF* Wave Twisters
And then there's Wave Twisters, DJ culture's answer to Heavy Metal. The elaborate skratchadelic brainchild of locals DJ Qbert and the Invisibl Skratch Piklz, Wave Twisters follows the futuristic adventures of the Inner Space Dental Commander as he battles the evil Red Worm to revive hip hop culture. The animation is perfectly synced to DJ Qbert's virtuoso turntable production and truly breaks the boundaries of traditional animation and music videos.
The Beatles: A Hard Day's Night
It would be hard to find a better no-brainer gift to satisfy any classic rock "n' roll fan. The best thing about this new collector DVD is the incredible tonal range that the digital remastering has brought out in the black-and-white film. The shadow detail and crisp white highlights yield a far richer visual experience on modern televisions. The audio, too, is much improved over VHS; song vocals are cleaner, Lennon's Liverpudlian quips easier to decipher. A bonus disc of interviews and documentaries that rounds out the package is only really of interest to hard-core Mop-Top fans, but aren't we all?
Stepping Razor: Red X
Finally released on DVD, this film on the life and death of Peter Tosh is one of the best music documentaries ever made. The "Red X" in the title is a reference to an ominous notation Tosh would see on his official documents from the government. The film chronicles the life of the radical Rasta prophet, from his deeply religious upbringing, his time as the political force of The Wailers, and his solo career railing against the "shitstem," to his unsolved murder in 1987. This reggae film isn't all positive vibrations and ganja; one comes away from it with a clear view of the poverty and desperation of Trenchtown that spawned the movement, much the way the Sex Pistols movie The Filth and the Fury documented the birth of punk.
Billy Bragg and Wilco: Man in the Sand
When Woody Guthrie died in 1967, he left behind the lyrics to more than a thousand songs. Due to a degenerative disorder that had left him unable to play music, and because he didn't notate music on paper, the melodies were lost forever. In 1999, his daughter Nora Guthrie enlisted socialist and sarcastic agitator Billy Bragg to create new tunes for them. Bragg brought in Wilco and Natalie Merchant, and the result is a cross-generational hybrid collaboration that sets the political and romantic songs of Guthrie's last years to modern roots-folk-rock arrangements. Along with the obligatory and currently relevant tirades against fascism we find a fantasy lust song to Ingrid Bergman and a children's nonsense tune. This documentary intersperses the story of the making of the album with the tragic legend of Guthrie's life, with bonus features including the demo recordings.
SF* The Band:The Last Waltz
In 1976, after 16 years on the road, The Band decided to have a final performance and go out with a bang. They chose San Francisco's Winterland on Thanksgiving, got Bill Graham to produce it, invited lots of their musician friends, and had young buck Martin Scorsese film it all. The result was an all-star concert of epic hippie-lore proportions, with jams and sets by Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Eric Clapton, Van Morrison, Joni Mitchell, Ron Wood, and B.B. King. Robbie Robertson and Scorsese add commentary over the film, and give their perspectives 25 years later.
Ani DiFranco: Render
Mostly through tour footage from 2001 and 2002, viewers are treated to Ani's powerful breathy narratives -- songs of personal politics, race relations, and relationships. Between tunes, DiFranco the comedian comes out, playfully chiding audience members who are singing every word. "It pisses off everyone around you -- excruciatingly. It kind of turns it into a soccer chant." When an adoring fan screams "We love you!" She cheekily replies "No shit! That's not the issue." This is the perfect antidote for that out-of-state teenage niece who hears only commercial radio, listens to boy bands, and has related cultural deficiencies. In addition, Righteous Babe Records has included a feature with complete songs from all of their artists, including Sekou Sundiata and Bitch & Animal. The copyright notice is softened to read "Unauthorized duplication, while sometimes necessary, is never as good as the real thing."
Lauren Hill: Unplugged
MTV's Unplugged format of acoustic purity and visual simplicity showcases the former Fugee's expressive vocals and meaningful lyrics, and secure her reign as hip hop's high priestess-poet. Rather than just doing acoustic versions of her other songs, Hill created an entire album of new material. Her song introductions show her humor, candor, and refreshing humility. When she explains leaving her band, she says, "Fantasy is what people want, but reality is what they need. And I'm just retired from the fantasy part." Prophet-style proclamations abound, as do lines of Rasta-ized Biblical lingo.
The holidays offer various opportunities to purchase pleasurable things for people you don't really know, including Secret Santa recipients, clients, new family members, and sometimes old family members. Music seems like a good idea, until you try to match your current tastes across an age gap. Giving your in-laws a home-burned CD of your latest Icelandic-celt-hop- trancepop playlist will not endear you to them, and you can forget about being the cool uncle if you offer commercial cheese to your teenage nephew. For reviews of indie and other local albums, visit www. sfweekly.com.
The relatively mainstream selections below offer a maximum chance of success in your giving endeavors.
Good new box sets are becoming fewer and further between, as most artists worthy of one have already released it. Consequently, some of these have been out for a while. Nonetheless, they offer an opportunity to experience an artist or genre in depth and with chronological accuracy.
Jazz: The Story of America's Music
With five CDs and almost 100 tracks, this is one of the most ambitious jazz anthologies ever produced, primarily thanks to the cross-label cooperation that enabled some artists to appear together in a single package for the first time. Its scope covers mostly the '20s to the late '60s, with a few cuts from more current decades thrown in to show evolution. Virtually all the greats are represented, including Coltrane, Armstrong, Miles, Ellington, Vaughan, Holiday, Parker, and Rollins. It could be the most influential gift yet for some young adult showing an aptitude for music.
The Genius of the Electric Guitar
Hailed as "the first master of the electric guitar," Charlie Christian is one of music's least-known and most influential innovators. Columbia/Legacy has created a comprehensive four-CD box set encompassing his brief career with Benny Goodman's Quartet and Orchestra (1939-41) before his early death of tuberculosis at age 25. His is a big-band swing style and a precursor to bebop, leading as well as complementing the other instruments -- far removed from modern searing cock-rock solos. Nonetheless, the booklet is littered with testimonials from guitar demigods such as Jimmie Vaughan, Joe Satriani, and Warren Haynes.
The Legendary Sun Records Story
No single label in the history of music has had more influence on rock 'n' roll than Sun Records of Memphis, Tennessee. In the '50s, it was the crossroads where black rhythm and blues was assimilated by Southern hillbilly music and spawned a few careers you might have heard of: Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, and Elvis Presley. This three-disc compilation is a no-frills set that presents 60 tracks from these originators and many others. At $14 from Tower, it's a colossal value of historic interest.
Original Jacket Collection
Classical enthusiasts tend to be purists, and don't necessarily enjoy their favorite music being butchered for best-of collections or other anthologies. It's buyer beware when the uninformed go gift hunting for these fans. Sony Classical has solved this dilemma with novel box sets that re-create 10 single-artist vintage albums on CDs that are miniature replicas of the vinyl records in both packaging and content, except that they're all digitally remastered. Even if an obsessive has all the original LPs, now he/she can have them for the car.
There's something timely and poignant about giving someone a Cat Stevens collection right now. After his conversion to Islam, taking the name Yusef Islam, he denounced his music for a while, but he's apparently come to recognize its value again. This four-disc career retrospective, profits of which go to charities including the 9/11 fund, gives us all the opportunity to re-experience the message of Peace Train.
Like, Omigod! The 80's Pop Culture Box
Rhino Records shows off its anthology mastery once again, this time tackling the decade of checkered Vans, Rubik's Cubes, and skinny ties. The seven-CD, 142-track collection is all hits and doesn't discriminate against any pop sub-genre. There's soul, rock, TV theme songs, novelty tunes, and of course New Wave. It's a plethora of one-hit wonders, comeback songs, and anthems that make you alternately dance and cringe. This kind of box set is great, but begs to be edited on your computer and burned into a best-of sampler.
The Grace EPs
Available on November 26th is a collection of remastered CDs of five previously hard-to-find import EPs that were originally released in 1994-1996 only overseas. As one of the '90s' most tragic cases of a taken-too-soon performer, Buckley was a precursor to today's fashionable slew of male singer-songwriters. Alive, he was the critics' darling. Dead, he's taken on something of a mythic status, and you could make the Christmas morning of your family black sheep by putting this under the tree.
SF* Silver Lining
Our North Bay blues contingent has been busy this year. Bonnie Raitt released Silver Lining, her 16th album, and right from the start you can hear that something's changed. The wounded and done-wrong lover has taken a back seat to a funkier, stronger, sexier woman. This album makes a clear shift toward a New Orleans sound with the addition of keyboardist Jon Cleary and does a great job in capturing more of what a live Raitt show is like. It has also been scientifically proven that moms love Bonnie.
SF* Roots of Our Nature and Slideways
Roy Rogers & Norton Buffalo
Slide guitar wizard and Raitt collaborator Roy Rogers has been no slouch lately either, putting out two releases in 2002. Roots of Our Nature has him teamed again with monster harp player Norton Buffalo for their first album together in 10 years, and their chemistry has fermented into a high-octane roadhouse cocktail of blistering harmonica and steel string riffs. Slideways, Roy's first instrumental record, is a rollicking, searing set of crunchy yet sweet grooves, many of them propelled by Meters drummer Zigaboo Modeliste.
SF* El Cielo
Los Gatos outfit Dredg is poised to break out with its major-label debut on Interscope Records. Impossible to pigeonhole, El Cielo is at once psychedelic, atmospheric, and melodic. There's a hard-rock guitar sound, but tight instead of sloppy, overpowering drums. Their Depeche Mode-ish harmonic vocals are a welcome respite from your typical Live 105 screamers. Dredg's sound is all over the map, but the journey is the fun part, and getting lost is preferable.
SF* Blood Moneyand Alice
Two albums were growled out this year by Sonoma's carnival-macabre drum major Tom Waits. His grunting vocals, swirling and honking instruments, and darkly nostalgic lyrics assemble a dreamy freak-show on a bleak and echoing landscape. Alice was written 10 years ago as an accompaniment to an opera about Lewis Carroll and explores the real-life obsession the looking-glass girl inspired. "I like my songs to sound as though they've been aging in a barrel and distressed," says Waits in describing Blood Money. In style, it's a stagger sideways toward the sound of 1985's Rain Dogs.
Independent label Concord Records finally outgrew its East Bay headquarters and moved to L.A. this year, where it continues its rapid expansion as a major player in the jazz, pop, and Latin music worlds with a catalog that now tops over 1,000 releases. Some of this year's tastiest offerings include Poncho Sanchez's two-CD Ultimate Latin Dance Party (the title says it all), Keely Smith Swings Basie-style With Strings, and a posthumous retrospective of prolific bassman Ray Brown's contributions to the label, entitled The Best of the Concord Years (1974-1992).
New comedy albums this year include Yippie muckraker and former San Franciscan Paul Krassner's Irony Lives!, which dares to take on our post-9/11 national mindset. Rykodisc has given us two performances from the late Bill Hicks' vault, LoveLaughterAndTruth and Flying Saucer Tour Vol.1, promising more releases in the future. Stoner icon-in-the-making Jim Breuer has put out Smoke and Breu, a raucous sampling of his unsubtle humor.
Two different seasonal releases include Time-Life's A Peaceful Christmas, which could be the perfect, calming wind-down disc after a hectic holiday, and Ryko's The Golden Dreydl: A Klezmer "Nutcracker" for Chanukah, by Ellen Kushner and Shirim Klezmer Orchestra, which puts a new spin on the ballet classic.
Due to widely varying tastes and sensibilities, it's difficult to buy fiction for other people. In doing so, it is somewhat implicit that you're responsible for the recipient's time spent reading it, and if they think the book blows, they'll blame you for the wasted nights and Muni rides. Long fiction is also a gift that creates resentment if they plow through it just because you may ask them how they liked the ending. This doesn't apply to the gift book, which can be picked up and enjoyed whenever and by whomever. Stick to light reads and art books like the photography titles recommended here, and try to support your local bookstores.
SF* California the Beautiful
Berkeley resident and prolific nature photographer Galen Rowell was the big dog of landscape, with many books and national exhibitions, as well as countless spreads in magazines like National Geographic. As an expert mountaineer, he was able to access vistas other wanna-be rock-and-tree shooters could not. He was a modern-day Ansel Adams, but in vivid, saturated color. As the first publication of his work following his tragic death this year in an airplane crash, California the Beautiful is a stunning tribute to his home state. Alongside the images are quotes and poetry from California writers like Maya Angelou, John Muir, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Mark Twain. Local publisher Via Books also publishes Rowell's wall calendars and appointment books.
SF* San Francisco: City By the Bay
This perpetually-in-print photo appreciation of the City by Morton Beebe was first published 17 years ago and has just undergone its third revision, which includes aerial shots of PacBell Park and a chapter on the excavation of the buried ship General Harrisonat Clay and Battery. Throughout the book, romanticized pictures of SF are accompanied with essays from such local luminaries as Herb Caen and Barnaby Conrad. A great gift for grandparents or that East Coaster who doesn't understand why you moved here.
Both of these beautiful books imbue a deep sense of time and place. The first is a record of the past through vintage street photography, the latter an architectural requiem of an island's heady history. Though just published this year, The Italiansproject was created in the early '60s as part of a series that began with the seminal Robert Frank book The Americans, but it never saw print. Moore's book shows modern neighborhood scenes and the peeling, crumbling interiors of recycled mansions, a glimpse of the faded opulence of pre-Revolutionary Cuba.
SF* We're Desperate
At dilapidated venues like the Mabuhay Gardens in North Beach, SF photographer Jim Jocoy shot gobs of musicians and clubgoers from 1978 to 1980, then abandoned the project after smashing his camera for malfunctioning. Twenty years later, they've been dug up like a time capsule. We're Desperateis not celebrity photography glamorizing personalities; these 250, head-to-toe, up-against-the-wall pictures, published by Powerhouse Books, are a fashion and attitude document of a brief, iconoclastic movement. Included are Sid Vicious, John Waters, and members of Dead Kennedys, The Cramps, and X. As none of the people are identified, it's hard to tell who's a performer and who's a fan, but this doesn't really work against the book. Defining what is punk is impossible, but the expressions and outfits in these portraits are a near substitute.
Single-subject books run the risk of becoming monotonous and repetitive, but Davidson's Central Park never comes close. These beautiful black-and-white images show the incredible range of people and places in the country's most visited park. We see tourists, lovers, bums, and children, all candidly captured with respect and often playfulness. Whether you've visited just once or are a New York transplant, this book makes you want to go back to skate or throw a snowball. Most engaging are the winter scenes, of which we Bay Area natives can hardly conceive.
Drop that cheesecake and check out the female beefcake in Bill Dobbins' Modern Amazons, an appreciation of women bodybuilders. These mostly nude explorations of ripped ladies takes up where the muscle mags leave off, hybrids into glamour and eroticism, and challenges notions of femininity along the way. Although undoubtedly not for everyone, the subject matter is compelling and provoc-ative in its novelty. Some of the costume concepts are a bit corny, such as the Frazetta-inspired sword-and-sorcery get-ups, but most are striking studies of self-created physiques.
Motel Fetish: A Hideaway for Dreams of Desire
The women in Chas Ray Krider's world balance themselves on motel furniture and lounge in front of drab curtains. They smoke and drink booze from plastic cups -- visions of seamed stockings and stilettos, lit by television static or lamps with cocked shades throwing skewed shadows. But this is no exercise in exploitation. The women are in control of their powerful effect, with a calm and quiet tease.
Shambhala Pocket Classics
Who would have thought that a stocking stuffer could bring enlightenment and peace within your personal world? Shambhala Pocket Classics are miniature editions of philosophical and sacred books, and serve as introductions to the paradigms concerned or as tiny spiritual tuneups. The series includes Meditations by J. Krishnamurti, Walden, Tao Teh Ching, Dhammapada: The Sayings of the Buddha, The Book of Five Rings, The Pocket Dalai Lama, I Ching, and both Art of Warby Sun Tzu, and Art of Peace by the founder of Akido, Morihei Ueshiba. Give one to each member of your family and have a polytheistic Christmas.
The Pop-Up Book of Phobias
The Pop-Up Book of Nightmares
Greenberg, Rubess, and Reinhart
The World of Edward Gorey
A rare find is a great children's book that's also a knockout for adults. Both Pop-Up titles are just that. Writer Greenberg, illustrator Rubess, and paper engineer Reinhart have created twisted pop-up situations of drowning, infestation, dental visits, acrophobia, test-taking, and public nakedness. Riotously comic in concept and art, ingenious in design, they make amazing pass-around books for dark amusement. Speaking of which: Illustrator of Edwardian absurdity and misfortune Edward Gorey lives on in the posthumous paperback publication of The World of Edward Gorey, the first major book to delve into the life and views of the artist himself. Good if you want to glimpse what made him tick, bad if you want it to remain a mystery.
Vintage Audio from Sourcebooks
Publisher Sourcebooks has a great concept. It fuses entertaining, historical, and educational books with accompanying CDs of vintage audio. Poetry Speaks features more than 40 great poets reading their own works, including Walt Whitman, T.S. Eliot, and Dorothy Parker. Drawing on notorious album cuts, unreleased performance tapes, and the court record, The Trials of Lenny Bruce chronicles the downfall of comedy's free-speech martyr, much of it at the hands of the SF District Attorney. The Classical Music Experience is designed for those "with little or no knowledge of classical music." In it, the novice is gently guided through 500 years of the genre by the non-intimidating narration of Kevin Kline. Jock dads and brothers will devour And the Crowd Goes Wild and And the Fans Roared as they listen to original all-time-great sports broadcast climaxes.
And if that hard-to-buy-for sport-o in your life also happens to be a reader, there are books available. The Gospel According to ESPN: Saints, Saviors, and Sinners is an illustrated coffee-table essay collection on sports as a secular religion. Original and enlightening, it examines the exaltation of athletes to divinity and the substitution of spectator sports for religious services. The Greatest Game Ever Played is a 500-page account of the 1913 U.S. Open between Harry Vardon and Francis Ouimet, and just might not be owned by that golfer on your list who already buys himself everything.
Video Hound Guides
Visible Ink Press publishes far and away the best and funniest reference guides for film buffs. With far too much information to pack into one book, The Video Hound series has been broken up into several thick, genre-specific tomes with thousands of honest yet sarcastic reviews, expert appreciations, and great photos. The truly exhaustive indexes cross-reference actors, writers, directors, composers, and more. Choose from Cult Flicks and Trash Picks, World Cinema, Sci-Fi Experience, War Movies, or Horror Show: 999 Hair-Raising, Hellish, and Humorous Movies. On the more scholarly side are the encyclopedias of St. James Film Directors and Women Filmmakers.