These newly released DVDs are an eclectic mix, led by one of television's best miniseries.
"Holocaust" (CBS/Paramount, 1978, three discs, $39.99). The Holocaust has been the subject of many excellent TV specials, such as "War & Remembrance" and "Playing for Time." And this fine 1978 miniseries is up there with the best of them, starring a very young Meryl Streep and James Woods.
They play a young German couple just getting married as the film opens. And because he's Jewish and she is Aryan, you know it won't be long before World War II tears their world apart.
But theirs is just one of three or four primary stories that unfold. We also see Woods' brother (Joseph Bottoms), who becomes a freedom fighter with his wife (Tovah Feldshuh); the brothers' parents (Fritz Weaver, Rosemary Harris), who eventually find themselves in the Warsaw Ghetto; and a good-hearted German lawyer (Michael Moriarty) who gradually becomes a heartless Nazi officer dedicated to furthering The Final Solution.
By modern standards, "Holocaust" is perhaps a bit slow-moving and not nearly so graphic as it would be today. But the pacing and length (about 7 1/2 hours) help the characters to develop as we come to identify with them and understand their motivations.
The performances are uniformly superb from all the actors named above, along with smaller roles by David Warner, Sam Wanamaker and Ian Holm. It's especially nice to see Streep and Woods get such meaty parts early in their careers; it would have been easy to predict they'd go on to stardom. The show won eight Emmys, including well-deserved acting nods for Streep and Moriarty.
Extras: full frame, five episodes
"Cassandra's Dream" (Weinstein/Genius, 2008, PG-13, $24.95). This dramatic yarn, written and directed by Woody Allen, is better than its reputation, but it was incorrectly marketed as a thriller. Instead, it's a character study, and Ewan McGregor and especially Colin Farrell are great as brothers who commit murder for money, and then are doomed when Farrell's conscience kicks in. Helped by an intense Philip Glass score.
"Muhammad: The Last Prophet" (FMG, 2001, two discs, $29.98). This animated feature comes from Richard Rich, who co-directed "The Fox and the Hound" and "The Black Cauldron" for Disney, then started his own independent production company to helm a variety of animated features, ranging from "The Swan Princess" to "The King and I." But he's always had an interest in religion, developing quite a few short films on subjects taken from the Old Testament, the New Testament and the Book of Mormon.
"Muhammad" is an ambitious retelling of the rise of Islam, with research assistance by scholars at UCLA and Georgetown University, as well as Egypt's Al-Azhar Islamic Research Academy.
Of necessity, the film doesn't depict its title character, cleverly getting around it by having his words read as narration and his presence suggested from his own point of view. It's superficial, to be sure hey, it's a cartoon but it is also a sympathetic biography that may better inform those who have no real knowledge of the faith. And perhaps encourage them to learn more.
Extras: widescreen, Arabic language option, character/art galleries, trailers, music videos (the second disc is a musical CD)
"The Color Honeymooners: Collection 3" (MPI, 1967-68, three discs, $39.98). Jackie Gleason and Art Carney popularized bus driver Ralph Kramden and his pal, sewer worker Ed Norton, first in skits on Gleason's early variety shows in the 1950s, then, in 1955, for the classic black-and-white, half-hour "Honeymooners" sitcom.
A decade later, they brought back the characters for hourlong color musical extravaganzas on the mid-'60s "Jackie Gleason Show," filmed before an enthusiastic audience in Miami. And whatever you may think of the songs (some are pretty clever), these shows are very funny. (In one, Gleason also plays a gangster.)
Gleason's a little lighter, and Carney's a little heavier, but they are still hilarious together, with great chemistry, using their pitch-perfect comic timing to cement their reputation as one of the great comedy teams.
Extras: full frame, 12 episodes
"Rawhide: The Third Season, Volume 1" (CBS/Paramount, 1960-61, b/w, four discs, $39.98). Clint Eastwood and Eric Fleming are back for more adventures on the cattle trail, with episode guests including Peter Lorre, E.G. Marshall, Agnes Moorehead and Frankie Laine (who, of course, recorded the familiar theme song).
Extras: full frame, 15 episodes
"Gunsmoke: The Second Season, Volume 2" (CBS/Paramount, 1957, b/w, $39.98). More classic Western half-hours with Marshal Matt Dillon (James Arness), Chester (Dennis Weaver), Kitty (Amanda Blake) and Doc (Milburn Stone).
Extras: full frame, 19 episodes
"James Stewart: Western Collection" (Universal, 1939-66, color and b/w, six discs, $39.98). The six films in this box set have been on DVD for a few years but each is a winner, and some are genuine classics, led by "Destry Rides Again" (1939), a hilarious comedy, with mild-mannered sheriff Stewart at odds with fiery Marlene Dietrich (this film inspired both James Garner's gun-phobic lawman in "Support Your Local Sheriff" and Madeline Kahn's spoof of Dietrich in "Blazing Saddles").
Also here are three of Stewart's best conflicted-tough-guy Westerns, all directed by Anthony Mann: "Winchester '73" (1950), an exciting episodic tale with Shelley Winters and Dan Duryea (and look for young Tony Curtis, and Rock Hudson as an Indian); "Bend of the River" (1952), in which Hudson shows up as a San Francisco gambler; and "The Far Country" (1954), with Stewart and Walter Brennan in Alaska.
"Night Passage" (1957) has Stewart challenging his outlaw brother (Audie Murphy) in a train robbery, with Duryea in support, and "The Rare Breed" (1966), the oddest of these, is a colorful comedy-drama with Stewart helping Maureen O'Hara introduce Hereford cattle to the West.Extras: full frame/widescreen, interview with Stewart, trailers
E-mail: [email protected]