- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Still stymied on what to give this year for Christmas? Here are some last-minute suggestions:

The Mel Brooks Collection (20th Century Fox, $92.49 for Blu-ray) — Who needs Mel Brooks when times are good? Like access to credit, you need him when times are bad. So, with the economy still in a ditch - and credit still tight- this Blu-ray compilation couldn’t arrive at a better time. Nothing like a pint-sized Rabelasian dynamo who can mine humor even from the Last Supper, the Spanish Inquisition, the French Revolution and the Third Reich to help you put your own troubles in perspective.

The set houses in its flimsy cardboard sleeves nine of the best-known films from the man Ben Stiller recently hailed at the Kennedy Center Honors as “an inspiring figure — a Barack Obama for short, funny Jews.” Six of the films here — “The Twelve Chairs,” “Silent Movie,” History of the World Part 1,” “High Anxiety,” “To Be or Not to Be,” and “Robin Hood: Men in Tights” - are new to Blu-ray. Previously released in the format were the comedy classics “Blazing Saddles” and “Young Frankenstein” (No. 6 and No. 13, respectively, on the American Film Institute’s list of the top 100 American comedies of all time) and the “Star Wars” parody “Spaceballs.” The latter is the only title here not included in the eight-disc Brooks DVD box (20th Century Fox, $43.99) released in 2006. The new Blu-ray set is groaning with special features; they almost feel oppressive rather than special.

Also included is an authorized (read gushing) gift book recounting the rise of the Oscar-, Grammy-, Emmy- and Tony-award winning writer-director-actor-composer from Depression-era poverty in Brooklyn to the pinnacle of Broadway, Hollywood - and poor taste.

Yet, the true Brooks fan would trade all of the making-of featurettes, biographical tribute shorts, outtakes, trailers and commentary tracks here for the compilation’s one glaring omission - the original 1968 version of “The Producers” (AFI’s No. 11 all-time best comedy). No Mel Brooks collection is complete without a Nazi pageant number. But that still leaves you with flatulent cowboys, a tap-dancing monster, a lubricious Louis XVI and a high-maintenance princess from the planet Druidia (“That’s funny — she doesn’t look Druish.”)

Daniel Wattenberg

The 2000 Year Old Man: The Complete Set ($59.98, 3CD/1DVD, Shout Factory) — It’s been an eventful fall for Mr. Brooks. The stage-musical adaptation of his “Young Frankenstein” opened last week at the Kennedy Center, where on Dec. 6 he received the performing arts center’s prestigious Honor for career achievement. He was introduced at the Honors gala by his longtime pal Carl Reiner, his partner in the famous 2000 Year Old Man sketches. This comprehensive CD/DVD set contains all of the original recordings of the improvisational comedy bit, in which Mr. Reiner interviews Mr. Brooks’ titular character about what it was like to live two millenniums ago. The act’s history is explained on the DVD in this bursting-at-the-seams collection, which also includes a 32-page book with an essay from Dick Cavett.

Sonny Bunch

It’s a Wonderful Life (Paramount, $29.99 for DVD, $39.99 for Blu-ray) — Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without Frank Capra’s classic tale of the road taken. The 1946 Oscar-nominated movie in which James Stewart finds out what Bedford Falls would look like without him — pretty scary — is back in a new two-disc DVD set and, for the first time, on Blu-ray. There isn’t anyone on your list who wouldn’t enjoy watching — especially in high-definition — one of the greatest holiday movies of all time. No, scratch that: “It’s a Wonderful Life” is simply one of the best movies ever made, a heart-lifting but never sentimental tale with a wicked sense of humor.

Both editions include a fully restored version of the black-and-white film as well as a colorized one (which you really shouldn’t watch). There also are making-of featurettes and a tribute to the director narrated by his son, Frank Capra Jr.

Rome: The Complete Series (HBO, $99.98 for DVD, $139.99 for Blu-ray) — “The Sopranos” got all the attention, but “Rome” might have been HBO’s greatest accomplishment. It was simply the most ambitious series ever made for television, which is one reason why it lasted just two seasons. It was outrageously expensive to produce. It also was highly topical for its time — airing from 2005 to 2007 — in its depiction of how the Roman Republic became the Roman Empire.

There are plenty of extras for buffs of history, not to mention the graphic sex and violence for which the series was known. The cast and crew provide 13 commentaries as well as three behind-the-scenes looks at the expensive production. Two featurettes show how important scenes were filmed, while four more look at the real history of Rome — because television history isn’t always so accurate.

Fawlty Towers Remastered (BBC, $49.98) and Blackadder Remastered: The Ultimate Edition ($79.98) — There are a lot of fans of British comedy in the U.S., so why not give them a set of two of the best? John Cleese and his crew made just 12 episodes of “Fawlty Towers,” but there are more laughs in those 12 than in years of many other sitcoms. Mr. Cleese played the put-upon and putting-upon innkeeper who was always getting into scrapes - and taking it out on his poor staff. “Blackadder” offered an alternate view of British history - one with a rather lower tone. Rowan Atkinson starred, along with a host of other greats, such as Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry.

Both sets are digitally restored from the original masters, with new commentaries and interviews with their stars, and include a number of other amusing extras. Just right for this time of year, for instance, is the special “Blackadder’s Christmas Carol.”

The Steve Coogan Collection (BBC, $129.98) — Americans might know Steve Coogan from blockbusters like “Tropic Thunder” and “A Night in the Museum.” But the English comic is better known in his homeland for creating Alan Partridge, the awful sports presenter who became a chat-show host who became a — horrors! — regional radio host. All the television series featuring that character are here, and much more. This 14-disc set will delight the comedy fan and is something he or she is unlikely to already own.

Kelly Jane Torrance

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