Film » View from the Couch

A Christmas Story, Missing, Sanford and Son set among new home entertainment titles

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A CHRISTMAS STORY (1983). In America, it's never too early to start thinking about Christmas, which helps explain why a new DVD edition of this Yuletide favorite is hitting the streets even as the Halloween pumpkins are still being thrown away. Then again, a great movie is welcome any time of year, and this often uproarious adaptation of Jean Shepherd's book In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash certainly qualifies, having emerged over the past quarter-century second only to It's a Wonderful Life as the definitive Christmas flick. Young Peter Billingsley, in a delightful, wide-eyed performance that never grows tiresome, holds center stage as 9-year-old Ralphie, who wants nothing so much as a Red Ryder BB gun come Christmas day – but who's told by practically every adult he encounters that "You'll shoot your eye out!" Rich anecdotes involving his friends and family members fill out the remainder of this utterly charming audience favorite.

The features in this 25th Anniversary Ultimate Collector's Edition can also be found on the 2003 DVD release of the film; these include audio commentary by Billingsley, Melinda Dillon and the late co-writer-director Bob Clark; a making-of documentary; a featurette titled A History of the Daisy Red Ryder; and interactive trivia. What's new is the outer packaging as well as the assorted items contained within: Arriving in a cookie tin canister, the DVD is accompanied by a 48-page recipe book (with photos from the movie), five cookie cutters inspired by the film (including the dreaded bunny suit and the infamous "leg lamp"), and an apron emblazoned with the film's logo.

Movie: ***1/2

Extras: ***1/2

GET SMART (2008). Get Smart, the TV sitcom that aired from 1965 to 1970, was created by Mel Brooks and Buck Henry, and these legendary funnymen are listed in the credits of this spin-off as "creative consultants." The word is that neither actually had any real input in this movie, which probably explains why major facets differ from what fans fondly recall about the show. But in at least one respect, there's a striking similarity: Both have no problem providing the laughs. In the hit series, Don Adams starred as bumbling agent Maxwell Smart while Barbara Feldon played his more competent partner, Agent 99. Working for a government unit known as C.O.N.T.R.O.L., the secret agents had their hands full protecting the world from the rival outfit K.A.O.S. In this update, which seems as much a James Bond spoof as a Get Smart homage, the plot similarly finds Steve Carell's Maxwell Smart and Anne Hathaway's Agent 99 out to stop K.A.O.S. head Siegfried (Terence Stamp). All of the performers (including Alan Arkin and Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson) are given a scene or two in which to shine, although most of the best set pieces belong to the leads. There's a ballroom sequence involving Maxwell and a hefty dance partner that's surprisingly sweet-natured – for once, a film honors an overweight person rather than simply making fun – while Agent 99 gets off a monologue that culminates in a sentimental mention of her mom. And therein lies much of the appeal of this big-screen Get Smart: In between the gags and the action scenes, there's an identifiable human element at work, and this empathy prevents this from being just another big, dumb Hollywood comedy.

Extras in the two-disc DVD set include shorts pieces on the making of the film; a gag reel; and the opportunity to watch the film in Comedy Optimization Mode, which accesses over 20 minutes of alternative jokes.

Movie: ***

Extras: **1/2

MISSING (1982). A riveting political piece in the tradition of The Killing Fields and Under Fire, this dramatization from writer-director Costa-Gavras (penning the script with Donald Stewart) centers on the circumstances surrounding the disappearance of American citizen Charles Horman during Pinochet's bloody coup in 1973 Chile. A good-natured if constantly questioning writer living in the country with his wife Beth (Sissy Spacek), Charles (John Shea) simply vanishes one afternoon, with neighbors insisting that he was taken away by soldiers. Charles' father Ed (Jack Lemmon) arrives from the States to help search for his son, although this diehard conservative's first (and second, and third) instinct is to berate his daughter-in-law for her and her husband's liberal politics. Believing that any negative talk about the U.S. government is anti-American (plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose), Ed has absolute confidence that the U.S. embassy will help him find his son. But as he witnesses firsthand the atrocities around him and sees little progress in the search for his offspring, he comes to the crashing realization that not only are his government's officials lying to him, but that they may have also had a hand in (or at least turned a blind eye to) the possible murder of his son. Spacek is in top form as the loving spouse whose soft-spoken demeanor belies a fierce determination to find her husband, yet it's Lemmon's amazing performance that dominates this important and – it goes without saying – still relevant film. The Cannes Film Festival committee handed this movie the Golden Palm Award, with Lemmon taking Best Actor honors; on the homefront, it earned four Oscar nominations (including Best Picture, Actor and Actress), winning for Best Adapted Screenplay.

Extras in the two-disc DVD edition include two half-hour interviews with Costa-Gavras; interviews from the 1982 Cannes Film Festival with Costa-Gavras, Lemmon, the real Ed Horman, and others; and an interview with author Peter Kornbluh (The Pinochet File). The set also includes a booklet that contains the U.S. State Department's official response to this highly critical film.

Movie: ***1/2

Extras: ***

SANFORD AND SON: THE COMPLETE SERIES (1972-1977). All six seasons of Norman Lear's successful '70s sitcom have been available on DVD for several years now, but fans of this series faced the plight of fans of any long-running television show: How can one afford to buy all those separate season collections on disc? In the case of Sanford and Son, purchasing all six seasons could cost as much as $180 (each set retailed for $29.95). But in a benevolent gesture, Sony Pictures Home Entertainment has decided to package all 17 discs (containing 136 episodes) together in one no-frills collection and offer it for $59.95. It's a bargain no matter how it's sliced, and Sony has also offered similar deals for all six seasons of Good Times and all five of NewsRadio. As for this groundbreaking series, it was extremely popular in its day – for the 1972-1973 and 1974-1975 seasons, it placed second only to All in the Family in the Nielsen ratings – and its appeal remains intact thanks to the presence of the dynamic Red Foxx, whose obtuse junk dealer Fred Sanford is always cooking up schemes that test the patience of his son Lamont (Demond Wilson). Foxx's prickly personality keeps even the most ragged episodes afloat, and his character is never funnier than when engaging in verbal jousts with his Bible-thumping sister-in-law, Esther (LaWanda Page).

There are no extras in this collection.

Series: ***1/2

Extras: *

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