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The Spin Sheet

DVD reviews by Bill Hunt, editor of The Digital Bits

King Kong: Two-Disc Collector's Edition

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King Kong
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.

It 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 minute).

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 Searchers.

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.]

Star Wars: Clone Wars - Volume Two

Enhanced for 16x9 TVs

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Star 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 Clone 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 opening crawl.

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.

As 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 finish).

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...

Kingdom of Heaven

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Encoded with DTS & Dolby Digital 5.1 Digital Surround

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Kingdom of Heaven
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 wife's soul.

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.

Soon 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.

Bill Hunt
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