DVDs for under your trees
The Ben Stiller ShowWarner Bros. Home Video, $26.99
Like Mr. Show, Andy Richter Controls the Universe, and other ill-fated series, the short-lived The Ben Stiller Show (1992-1993, Fox) was one of those rare and brilliant comedy/variety series that proved what people who hate TV love to say: It was too good for TV. And perhaps it's true. After only 12 episodes, the critically acclaimed, award-winning sketch comedy series was canned. It didn't fail for lack of talent. Led by Stiller, the cast also featured Andy Dick, Janeane Garofalo, Bob Odenkirk, and John F. O'Donohue. While the series aired in syndication for a time on Comedy Central and FX (Fox's netlet), die-hard fans have been gnawing at the bit to get their hands on the show in an archival format. The two-disc DVD package features the entire series, including a "lost" 13th episode. Extras include audio commentaries by Stiller and cast mates, "A Brief History of The Ben Stiller Show" featurette with an alternate pilot, deleted scenes (including five unaired sketches), and an E! Behind the Scenes special. Highly recommended. -- Belinda Acosta
Once Upon a Time in the WestParamount Home Video, $19.99
For our money the best Western ever made, Sergio Leone's sprawling 1968 film reimagines the Old West as a minimalistic hellhole overseen by Henry Fonda's evil, conniving, black-clad villain and Charles Bronson's silent Man With a Harmonica, the antihero's antihero. Unlike all the previous versions we've seen, this newly restored two-disc set is pristine; Leone's widescreen compositions and trademark extreme close-ups of sweaty, dusty, doomed faces demand viewing on the biggest television you can muster, but even on our lowly 30-inch, the film's sacrilegious beauty punches through like a bullet to the chest. Above it all soars Ennio Morricone's gorgeous score in a remixed 5.1 Dolby Digital audio mix that made our windows rattle and loosened at least one filling that we know of. Extras include a fine commentary by Leone biographer Christopher Frayling (Italian horror maestro Dario Argento helped pen the script, by the way), as well as audio appearances from the likes of John Carpenter, Claudia Cardinale, and John Milius. A trio of documentary featurettes, the film's trailer, and a production-still gallery round out the package, but it's the 165 minutes of Leone's masterpiece that will leave your head spinning for days afterward. -- Marc Savlov
Alias: The Complete Second SeasonBuena Vista Home Entertainment, $69.99
Jennifer Garner (Sydney Bristow) and crew are at their high-kicking best in this recent release of ABC's best drama, Alias. For those who have forgotten, this is the season of the Rambaldi scrolls, the mysterious secret agent mom (the steely Lena Olin), and best friends gone bad, all culminating with poor Sydney waking up baffled and bruised in Hong Kong! All 22 episodes of season two are included on six discs. The presentation of the entire box set, from cover to content, is as stylish and whip-smart as the show itself. Extras include an in-depth documentary of the season's riveting season finale, "The Telling"; "Undercover," where viewers get to meet the folks behind the fab hair and make-up; a short glimpse at "The Making of the Video Game"; deleted scenes; audio interviews with cast and crew; and the requisite gag reel, in this case especially funny because, for all her high-flying antics, Garner is a bit of a klutz. But she plays our divine Syd like no other. A must-have for true Alias fans. Highly recommended. -- B.A.
Coupling: The Complete First & Second SeasonsBBC Video/Warner Home Video, $54.98
Memories of NBC's Coupling, the dismal knockoff of the comedy from across the pond, evaporate once you experience the glorious original from the BBC. It's intriguing to see how much can be lost in translation, even when dealing with the same language. The difference lies in the acting and the delivery. While the thankfully short-lived NBC series focused on pretty people talking about sex like boastful, horny teenagers, the BBC production features young adults, dealing with very human anxieties about love, commitment, and sexuality. The result is a delightful, often laugh-out-loud look at the land mines set during the game of love and the sometimes surprising ways they get detonated. If you are into DVD extras, you will be sorely disappointed. Audio commentary from cast members is the extent of the perks, but proves more annoying than entertaining. Cast biographies are said to be included in the full boxed set. But honestly, you won't miss the perks. You'll be laughing too hard, and perhaps even cringing in some moments of self-recognition, to give them a second thought. Highly recommended. -- B.A.
Knife in the WaterCriterion, $39.95
Decades before it branded a sly, spare pop band from Austin, Knife in the Water emerged from the lakes of north Poland. There, a young national grueling his way through the country's federally sponsored film school daydreamed a tale told on the boats he loved sailing through the alternately placid and inclement waters. Born, according to co-screenwriter/future director Jerzy Skolimowski in a bonus interview segment, was a Greek drama shaped by the story's compact narrative: An affluent couple picks up a young, blond hitchhiker and takes him on a day cruise. The second disc of this two-DVD set reveals that Roman Polanski was very nearly the master storyteller and stylist of Rosemary's Baby and Chinatown long before Knife in the Water, his 1962 feature-length directorial debut and the first Polish film nominated for an Academy Award. Eight of his short films totaling some 78 minutes, from his first student film, A Murderer, to his senior thesis, When Angels Fall, and Chaplinesque post-degree short Mammals, bear all the standard Polanski auteur hallmarks: voyeurism, sexual perversity, and an almost sociopathic regard for and treatment of violence. Once Andrzej (Leon Niemczyk) and Krystyna (Jolanta Umecka -- a prototype for Deneuve in Repulsion) set sail with their young man (the Warholian Zygmunt Malanowicz), tension coils one rope strand even as it unravels the other, and one just waits for the other topsider to drop. In that sense, the film's title couldn't be more pointed. Polanski, whose best directing Oscar this spring for The Pianist remains a dramatic upset, matches Skolimowski's wry twinkle in the Knife featurette. That his voice was dubbed for the young man's, and that Umecka, discovered at the Warsaw municipal swimming pool, had to be startled into acting are almost as funny as Polanski's need for a stationary camera -- even at sea. "I'm allergic to Dogma," he laughs, never able to figure out whether the camera "operator is suffering from Parkinson's disease or whether he's masturbating at the same time." -- Raoul Hernandez
Naked LunchCriterion, $39.95
Explaining how to make a movie that's essentially about the writing process, Canadian director David Cronenberg summons the understatement of the century, saying, "You have to be really quite outrageous." His 1991 adaptation of William Burroughs' groundbreaking novel is as outrageous as they come, with Peter Weller's exterminator-cum-cutup William Lee injecting bug powder and typing away on a scarab beetle with a talking anus. Given the complete Criterion upgrade into excellence, this two-disc set features a hi-def digital transfer of the film, with extras ranging from a superb documentary on the making of the film (which originally aired on England's fine The South Bank Show), plenty of behind-the-scenes stills, commentary from Cronenberg and Weller, and, best of all, audio excerpts of the late Burroughs reading from his once banned novel. There's also a comprehensive insert booklet with essays from Gary Indiana and Janet Maslin for you reader types. All in all, a package well nigh guaranteed to "exterminate all rational thought." -- M.S.
Smallville: The Complete First SeasonWarner Bros. Home Video, $64.92
The wonder years of the man of steel have provided rich fodder for the popular WB series now in its third season, garnering a faithful following. It's no wonder. Fine acting and appealing performers like Tom Welling as the young Clark Kent, Kristin Kreuk as the comely Lana Lang, and a young Lex Luthor played with beady-eyed shiftiness by Michael Rosenbaum, make this appointment television for fans. Six discs include all 21 episodes from the first season, packaged in a boxed set delivered just in time for holiday gift giving. Unfortunately, the pilot is not included (available separately), which caused a bit of a stir because of a scene uncomfortably suggestive of the Matthew Shepard murder that had occurred in the not too distant past. Extras include audio commentary and a link to the Smallville Web site to search for bonus material -- great, if your DVD player is Internet-accessible. Also included are deleted scenes, storyboards, TV spots, and, most interestingly, an interactive tour of Smallville. Recommended. -- B.A.
The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers Platinum Series Special Extended VersionNew Line Home Video, $39.99
Kiss your weekend goodbye -- this newly extended version of the most popular film about shortish ring bearers ever made now runs a bladder-testing 223 minutes, and that's not including the wealth of extras Kiwi auteur Peter Jackson has tacked on, in, and over the film itself. No less than four separate commentary tracks (featuring almost all of the film's key players and creators at one point or another, including the great, seldom-heard-from Christopher Lee), multiple documentaries on every aspect of the production, storyboards, production design notes, stunt work, and the dicey politics of sword fighting, and, ye gods, more, more, more. Essentially a fantastic film school on four heavily laden discs, this will be seen as overkill by anyone not attuned to the sheer geek joy of total LOTR immersion, but the bottom line, thankfully, remains Jackson's exuberant, emotionally powerful film, which may well prove to be the greatest epic adventure since Lean's Lawrence of Arabia. -- M.S.
La StradaCriterion, $39.95
Fellini's sweet fable of redemption, set amid the physical and spiritual ruin of postwar Italy, was a bombshell at the 1954 Cannes Film Festival. To the neo-realist camp, it was a slap in the face from a former comrade -- showing the grit and grime of the failing "economic miracle," but only as a setting, with no political context. To Vatican moralists, it heralded a return to traditional spiritual concerns (boy, were they wrong about that one -- it was Fellini, after all, who would soon ring in the hedonistic Sixties with La Dolce Vita). To other audiences around the world, it was another revelation from the Italian cinema -- an existential tragedy with a heart of gold, and a glimpse of magic and whimsy that had been in short supply of late. Now, a half-century later, the controversy has melted away (yes, La Strada probably was a death knell for neo-realism, but it was also a bridge to the New Wave), and what's left is perhaps Fellini's most perfect piece of work. All the now-familiar Fellinian motifs are here: the monster (Anthony Quinn's circus strongman), the innocent (Fellini's spouse and muse Giulietta Masina in her most memorable role), the spectacle, the unlikely epiphany, the magical night, the endless road, and of course, the charming Nino Rota score. Delicious. Criterion's typically robust package features a gorgeous new digital transfer, plus extras including an RAI-TV documentary, Federico Fellini's Autobiography, and an optional English-dubbed soundtrack with the voices of Anthony Quinn and Richard Basehart. And if you like this, check out the Criterion editions of the other two Fellini/Masina masterpieces, Nights of Cabiria and Juliet of the Spirits. (Can Ginger and Fred be far behind?) -- Nick Barbaro