reviews by Bill Hunt, editor of The Digital
Two-Disc Collector's Edition
- 1933 (2005) - Warner Bros
Film Rating: A
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): A-/B+/A
In 1933, a movie was released by then-Radio Pictures (later
RKO) that would forever change the notion of Hollywood
filmmaking. The movie packed theaters across the U.S. even in
the midst of the Great Depression, dazzling audiences with
escapist visuals the likes of which they'd never seen before.
That film was King Kong,
the unlikely story of a monestrous beast... and the beauty that
stole his heart.
Robert Armstrong stars as Carl Denham, an ambitious filmmaker
leading his movie crew on a daring expedition to a remote and
mysterious island. When his film's star, Ann Darrow (Fay Wray),
is taken by the local natives as an offering to Kong, the giant
ape that rules their island, Denham and his crew must venture
into the deep jungle to rescue her. Their perilous journey will
bring them face to face with Kong, and all manner of other
prehistoric dangers. Ultimately, Kong will face a journey as
well... a journey with a thrilling conclusion set in the heart
of New York City.
would be hard to overestimate the impact that King
Kong had on the films that followed it. Perhaps the best
comparison would be the way that Star
Wars changed moviemaking in the late 1970s and 80s. But
while Kong's stop-motion
animation work was certainly ground-breaking at the time, and
clearly inspired whole generations of later visual effects pioneers
and filmmakers, what's most amazing is just how well those effects
(and the story they help to tell) hold up more than 70 years later.
We've certainly seen more life-like dinosaurs on screen, thanks to
the wonders of CG, and soon we'll even see a more realistic looking
Kong. Regardless, the original King Kong
remains to this day a powerful and affecting experience on screen.
It's been a very long wait to see the original Eighth Wonder of the
World finally released on DVD, but much of the reason for that delay
has been the ongoing effort by Warner Home Video to find the best
existing film elements, to restore those elements and to transfer
those elements to high-definition video in the best quality
possible. I'm very pleased to tell you that this film has, quite
possibly, never looked better than it does here. Presented in its
original full frame aspect ratio in black & white, the image
clarity is superb, with plentiful detail. There's virtually no dirt,
dust or scratches visible. The prints used for the transfer are in
very good condition, with light to moderate grain as appropriate
(sometimes a little more, sometimes less). Contrast is also
excellent, with a wide range of shadings and gradation. The audio is
presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 mono, and is also of good quality.
Music and effects are well mixed and dialogue is clear at all times.
Optional English, French and Spanish subtitles are also available,
but unfortunately only on the movie itself (more on that in a
The extras on this 2-disc set include an audio commentary track with
special effects masters Ray Harryhausen and Ken Ralston on Disc One.
Also included in the track are occasional excerpts from archival
interviews with star Fay Wray and producer/director, Merian C.
Cooper. It's quite clear how much Harryhausen and Ralston love this
film - their enthusiasm is infectious. There's plenty of information
presented and the archival clips are particularly interesting (I
just wish there was more of them). Disc One also features a gallery
of trailers for various Cooper films, including King
Kong, Son of Kong,
Flying Down to Rio, Fort
Apache, 3 Godfathers,
Mighty Joe Young, She
Wore a Yellow Ribbon and The
Disc Two contains a pair of behind-the-scenes documentaries. First
up is I'm King Kong: The Exploits of
Merian C. Cooper (57 mins), which looks specifically at
the unique history and background of the man responsible for
bringing Kong to the big
screen. Cooper was a one-of-a-kind - a real original - and it's
fascinating to see how his life prior to filmmaking influenced Kong
itself. The clear highlight of Disc Two, however, is the 7-part RKO
Production 601: The Making of Kong, Eighth Wonder of the World
documentary (run time over 2 hours), which gives you an in-depth
history of the film itself, as well as a look the filmmakers and the
production. It comes complete with new interviews with film
historians (like Rudy Behlmer and Bob Burns), admiring filmmakers
(Peter Jackson, Frank Darabont, etc) and special effects experts
(Harryhausen, Ralston, Phil Tippett and others), as well as a look
at original photographs, production artwork and more vintage
materials. But here's what's really great - specifically for this
DVD release, Jackson and his crew at WETA (who have been working on
their own remake of King Kong,
due to hit theaters next month), worked to build - in exacting
detail - replicas of many of the original stop-motion miniatures
from the 1933 film, and to recreate footage using the original
effects production process. The result of this is that when they're
talking about how effects pioneer Willis O'Brien animated the
original Kong, you actually get to SEE the process in action! The
folks at Pellerin Multimedia and Sparkhill were able to document the
effort as Jackson's animators worked with their new, meticulously
recreated Kong puppet, on a multi-layered miniature set that's a
nearly exact duplicate of one created for the original film. As you
may know, Jackson also tasked his effects crew with recreating the
lost "Spider Pit" sequence from the film for this DVD
release. Their work was never intended to be edited back into the
film, but simply to give you a sense of what that lost footage MIGHT
have looked like. It's included here as part of the documentary
itself (you can also view it separately). It's a joy to see.
Finally, Disc Two also includes about 5 minutes of original
stop-motion animation test footage by O'Brien from the abandoned
film Creation (which served as
a proving ground of sorts for Kong),
featuring Harryhausen commentary.
If I had any complaints about this DVD, I would have enjoyed having
the original script for the film available as a DVD-ROM extra
perhaps, and I would also have liked a gallery of the production art
from the film. These omissions however, are minor quibbles. My only
real complaint is that the bonus features on Disc Two have no subs
and are not closed captioned - a real disappointment for those who
need and appreciate such things.
The "limited" collector's tin version comes a very nice
metal case with an embossed cover featuring the film's original
poster art. Inside, you'll find the 2-disc DVD in a Digipack, a
reproduction of the original Gruman's Chinese Theatre program, 5
collector's cards featuring different versions of the vintage poster
artwork and a special mail-in offer for a 27" x 40"
reproduction of the original poster. Note that the very same 2-disc
DVD is also available, sans the tin and other bonus contents,
packaged in a regular dual-disc Amaray case.
Overall, I'm happy to say that this DVD release is a very special
piece of work. It's a project that's clearly been handled with great
care, and has been lovingly crafted by die-hard Kong
fans, for die-hard Kong fans.
It was worth the wait and is highly recommended.
[Editor's Note: Watch for Barrie Maxwell's
review of this DVD, and its related sequels, soon.]
Wars: Clone Wars
Volume Two - 2005
(2005) - Lucasfilm/Cartoon Network (20th Century Fox)
Program Rating: B+
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): A/A-/C+
Following the 2003 success of Cartoon Network's original
Wars shorts, Star Wars
creator George Lucas tasked Genndy Tartakovsky and his animation
team with a new directive: To expand each mini-episode into a
longer, more substantial story, and to build them all together
in a climax that would end just as Revenge
of the Sith begins. In effect, Tartakovsky and
company were asked to visualize and animate the events described
in Episode III's signature
As a result, we get to see the last climactic battles of the
Clone Wars (begun in Episode II).
We get to see Anakin's penultimate trials as Obi-Wan's
apprentice, and we finally see him achieving the level of Jedi
Knight. We also get to watch as the vile General Grievous storms
Coruscant, with his massive space fleet and vast droid armies,
to capture Chancellor Palpatine... and launch the Sith's final
dark plot to dominate the galaxy.
was the case with Volume One
on DVD, the video quality of these episodes on disc is spectacular.
They're presented in full anamorphic widescreen, so they look better
here than they did on the original Cartoon Network broadcast run
earlier this year. The colors are incredibly vibrant, and both
contrast and image detail are outstanding. Note that all 5 of the
original 13-minute animated episodes (technically comprising Series
Three of the Clone Wars, or
chapters 21-25) have been edited together for this presentation into
a single longer film (with credits only once each at the start and
Unlike Volume One on DVD,
however, the audio here is presented in full Dolby Digital 5.1
(along with English, French and Spanish Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround).
The 5.1 mix features excellent dynamic range, good overall clarity
and imaging, and highly active surrounds. Like the video, it's much
better than what you experienced in the original cable broadcasts.
The extras here include another good audio commentary with
Tartakovsky and his production team, a solid featurette (Connecting
the Dots) on the ways that Clone
Wars - Volume Two bridges the gap between Episodes
II and III
story-wise, a pair of image galleries containing storyboards and
production artwork, the final Episode III
theatrical trailer, a cute Revenge of the
Brick short (featuring animated LEGOs - no kidding) and
preview trailers for the Battlefront II
and Empire at War videogames.
You also get the same two Xbox-playable demo levels of Battlefront
II that are found on the just-released Episode
III DVD. It's not a ton of material, but it's enough to
content most fans.
If you're a devotee of George Lucas's signature universe, Star
Wars: Clone Wars - Volume Two is well worth adding to
your DVD collection. It's a more engaging and satisfying animated
series that takes fuller advantage of Tartakovsky's unique animation
style. More importantly, it actually manages to enrich the
experience of Revenge of the Sith.
If only Episodes I and II
had been this cool...
2005 (2005) - Scott Free/20th Century Fox (Fox)
Film Rating: C+
Disc Ratings (Video/Extras): B-/B
Audio Ratings (DD/DTS): B+/A-
The year is 1186. Balian (Orlando Bloom), is a young French
blacksmith whose wife has just committed suicide after losing
their child. Since his Christian upbringing tells him that
suicide is a terrible sin, Balian believes wife has gone to
Hell, causing him a deep crisis of faith. Not long after this, a
band of Crusading knights passes through his village. Their
leader, Godfrey of Ibelin (Liam Neeson), has come specifically
to find Balian - it seems he's the father that Balian's never
known. Godfrey offers to take the young blacksmith under his
wing, to train him as a knight and to give him a home on his
estate in the Holy Land. Balian at first declines, but
eventually has a change of heart and accepts Godfrey's offer,
hoping to seek forgiveness from God and redemption for his
Godfrey and his men quickly accept Balian into their ranks and
depart for the Holy Land. An unfortunate turn of events,
however, leaves Godfrey mortally wounded. Godfrey knights
Balian, making him swear to protect the King of Jerusalem - and
upon the King's death, to protect the weak and innocent - and
then dies, leaving Balian the new Baron of Ibelin... and filled
with doubt that he'll be able to keep his promises to a father
he barely knew.
after arriving in Jerusalem, however, Balian earns the respect of
Tiberias (Jeremy Irons), the King's aide and Godfrey's friend. He
also wins the trust of the reclusive King Baldwin himself (Edward
Norton), as well as that of the King's sister, Sibylla (Eva Green).
All of this draws scorn for Balian from Guy de Lusignan (Marton
Csokas), the arrogant and power hungry baron who is married to
Sibylla and who would be the next King. While Baldwin has managed to
keep an uneasy peace with the legendary leader of the Muslims,
Saladin (Ghassan Massoud), Guy wants war instead, believing what
he's been told by his advisors from the Church - that with God on
their side, the Christians are unbeatable. Balian soon finds himself
torn between his loyalty to his father and the King... and doing
what he knows to be right. Ultimately, Balian will be forced to take
responsibility for the defense of Jerusalem from an all-out assault
led by Saladin himself.
Kingdom of Heaven is certainly
a masterpiece of direction, cinematography, action and presentation.
I expect all of those things from director Ridley Scott, and he
doesn't disappoint. Unfortunately, there are a number of serious
gaps in the story. First, Balian's rags to riches transformation
unfolds so quickly that it's very hard to believe. Balian goes from
being a poor blacksmith to a trusted vassal of King Baldwin in less
than an hour. Just minutes after he gets to Jerusalem, Balian's
already made peace with the death of his wife - a woman he loved
enough to kill for - and he's well on his way to an affair with
Sibylla. After the affair, it's hard to believe that the pair has
formed a genuine romantic connection, because Balian all too quickly
turns down an incredible offer by Tiberias and the King (another
unlikely turn of events). Balian doesn't even seem tempted by the
offer, making his character appear pretty one-dimensional. Whereas
in Gladiator, Maximus was
clearly a very complex man (a reluctant warrior fighting battles
with real enemies and his inner demons, but wanting only to return
peacefully to his family), at no point in Kingdom
of Heaven do we ever sense that there's more to Balian
than what we see on the surface.
Also problematic is the thread-bare characterization of Guy de
Lusignan. Guy's reckless desire to take on Saladin's forces, under
the belief that "right" is on his side, can only be seen
(whether you agree with the sentiment or not) as a commentary on the
presidency of George W. Bush. There's a scene where newly minted
King Guy is marshalling his barons to war, where Balian says
basically, "You're playing right into Saladin's hands. He WANTS
you to attack him. You're going to get slaughtered." Never mind
the whole puzzling question of how a simple blacksmith suddenly got
to be such an expert on combat tactics and strategy - you can
probably guess how things turn out. Surprisingly, the conflict
between Balian and Guy never really pays off they way it should.
Then there's the troubling way that the film's complex religious
issues are glossed over. There is a vague message about tolerance,
and a bit of dialogue about the corruption that often creeps into
organized religion. The moral seems to be that a person's faith and
religion are very different things - that a person's relationship
with God is a personal thing that arises out of one's deeds and
actions every day, and not how often one sermonizes or goes to
church. In other words, you either walk the walk or you just talk
the talk, and there's an appropriate degree of scorn for the latter.
But the larger conflict in this film - the centuries old struggle
between the Christian, Muslim and Jewish faiths - is barely
addressed. Interestingly, Saladin is given a certain sense of honor
and dignity - he's a man who offers respect when given it - but the
character is still just as thread-bare as the others in this film.
It's worth noting that Scott's original edit of Kingdom
of Heaven was well over an hour longer, and I have a
strong suspicion that most of its problems - lack of character depth
and motivation, lack of subtle intrigue, events that seem to unfold
with unrealistic ease or speed - were addressed in the footage
that's been excised to reach a more theater-friendly running time.
The result of all the cutting and trimming is a film that's
beautiful to look at and goes through all the motions... but that's
largely empty of greater intelligence and substance.
Video-wise, Fox has included the film on disc in anamorphic
widescreen. The quality is decent, but it's clearly been digitally
compressed more than is probably wise (but was certainly necessary)
to squeeze the film onto a single dual-layered DVD. Colors and
contrast are good overall, but there's significant compression
artifacting visible throughout the film. With all of the action and
complex motion that appears in Kingdom of
Heaven, I would liken the situation with the video
quality here to that of the 2-disc Lord
of the Rings DVDs (only not quite as good). It's okay,
but only just and you know that this film can (and no doubt will in
the future) look a lot better on disc.
Part of the reason for the less-than-optimal video quality, is the
fact that BOTH Dolby Digital and DTS surround sound tracks have been
packed onto that same single disc as well. The Dolby Digital audio
is good, with a wide front soundstage, tremendous low frequency
reinforcement and lively use of the rear channels. The DTS, as is
generally the case, improves upon this with a smoother, more unified
soundfield and slightly more natural imaging. As much as I like the
DTS track, however, I would rather have sacrificed it for the
improvement in video quality that would have resulted from
allocating the disc space used by the DTS to video data instead.
The only real extra on Disc One is actually rather good: The
Pilgrim's Guide. It's a text commentary packed with
historical and production information relevant to the film. It's
similar in tone and quality to the text commentary on the recent
Gladiator 3-disc set (and
indeed was created by the same team of DVD producers).
Unfortunately, previews for other Fox titles and the now-obligatory
anti-piracy spot take even more space away from the video on this
disc (while adding nothing to the film experience).
Thankfully, Disc Two offers more material of genuine value. The
highlight is something called an Interactive
Production Grid. It's basically a 9-part documentary on
the making of the film, which runs a little over 80 minutes in all.
The individual parts are organized along three different
perspectives (the director, the cast and the crew), as well as three
different time-frames during the making of the film (pre-production,
production and post-production). You can choose to view the whole
documentary in one shot, or you can view parts of it from each of
the different perspectives and time-frames (for example, you can
view the director's perspective through the whole film process, or
view the entire team's work in pre-production). It's basically just
a different way to present the same material, but that in and of
itself is fairly interesting. It helps that the documentary as a
whole is of very good quality (and in anamorphic widescreen as
well). It's not as in-depth as you might like, but it's well worth
the time it takes to view it. The remainder of Disc Two includes a
pair of pre-produced documentaries (each about 43 minutes long) that
appeared on A&E and the History Channel respectively. One covers
the making of the film, while the other looks at the details of the
real Crusades and the historical figures depicted in the film.
Finally, you get a series of 4 short featurettes on the production
that appeared on the official website (about 10 minutes in all) and
the film's theatrical trailer (strangely, non-anamorphic).
Kingdom of Heaven is
undeniably beautiful to look at and features exquisitely-staged
action sequences... but exquisite spectacle by itself does not a
great film make, nor even a particularly good one. I have a feeling
that we'll get to see the fuller, longer, richer vision of Kingdom
of Heaven - the one that the filmmakers set out to create
in the first place - on disc in the near future. In the meantime,
while this 2-disc set is also less than optimal, it's clear that
genuine effort has been made to give viewers extras worth watching
and having on your video shelf. If you like Kingdom
of Heaven as it is, this DVD is recommended. Otherwise,
wait for the future 3 or 4-disc "ultimate" edition that
you just know is already in the works.