Two-disc special edition (WB, 1933) D: Merian C. Cooper, Ernest B. Schoedsack, w/ Fay Wray, Robert Armstrong. Rating:NNNNN
In King Kong, master special effects technician Willis O'Brien wrote the book on stop-motion animation, and nobody came close to topping him until Jurassic Park produced better dinosaurs. But Jurassic Park is an empty movie with a paper-thin story, forgettable characters and, worst of all, no heart.
For non-stop action/adventure thrills, nobody came close to Kong till Raiders Of The Lost Ark. Raiders is likewise short on heart, though. Indy's cool, but he and the story have all the depth of an egg noodle.
Kong thrills and chills, a memorable, heartbreaking story and a great performance from a leading man who's 18 inches tall and made out of steel and cotton, rubber and rabbit fur. Kong's a great character, a great big scary monster with emotions that drive the story an unequalled feat of animation art.
The transfer is beautiful and the censored sequences are nicely restored.
Yes, you can see the seams in the effects. If you can, see this on film, where that's not a problem. But the pseudo-realism of what CGI techs call "photo real" is not, and never was, the point. We all know it's not real we always did. Kong, pure fantasy from its Gustave Doré-style jungle to its near-expressionist city, has the heart it needs to suspend all but the most mean-spirited disbelief.
The extras, almost four hours' worth, are terrific. You'll be amazed at how the movie grew from the adventure-packed life of producer/director Merian C. Cooper, more amazed at how Peter Jackson (director of the forthcoming remake) and his crew shot, with 1932 methods, their version of the famous lost spider pit sequence. Max Steiner's score and Murray Spivak's sound effects, both groundbreaking, get full attention.
Extras: Disc one: Ray Harryhausen, Cooper, Fay Wray commentary, Cooper trailer gallery. Black-and-white, theatrical aspect ratio. English, French, Spanish subtitles. Disc two: Cooper biography, comprehensive seven-part making-of doc, spider pit recreation, O'Brien test footage for unmade feature Creation.
Aeon Flux, The Complete Animation Collection
(WB, 1991, 1995) D: Peter Chung. Rating: NNNN
We're getting this because the live-action version with Charlize Theron is due out next week, but it's hard to imagine that it will have anywhere near the complexity and fascination that make these 10 animated half-hours and five two-minute segments so very re-watchable. Modern Hollywood likes simple good vs evil, but Aeon Flux is all about moral ambiguity, shifting points of view and the absolute interpenetration of Aeon Flux, its nominal hero, and Trevor Goodchild, its nominal villain.
Trevor is the ruler of Breen, city of the far future. He's Mr. Rational, an out-of-control control freak, hiding his rage and yearning. Aeon is from the neighbouring identical city, Monica. She's an assassin, a saboteur, an agent of her own desires; liberation in skimpy black leather. She and Trevor are hopelessly hot for each other, but despite their bouts of kinky sex, neither can really possess the other. Not that Aeon wants to.
Each episode opens with the phrase "The dream to awaken our world," and their schemes and counter-schemes are clearly allegories. But creator/director Peter Chung won't say what they're allegories of. In commentary and making-of docs, he's as reticent as his heroine when it comes to explaining motive and meaning. Which is a good thing. When science fiction has caught the public imagination at the same time as it's been reduced to the banalities of Star Wars/Trek, Aeon Flux is a welcome reminder of the heights the genre can reach. Plus, it's big fun.
The first-class digital transfer, enhanced by Chung's tweakage for clarity and colour, is far better than the earlier video version.
Extras: Disc one: five episodes, Chung, actor Denise Poirier and various writers commentary. Original ratio. Disc two: five episodes, three with Chung and others commentary. Disc three: pilot episode and Flux shorts, Chung and sound effects creator commentary, making-of doc, weapons doc, production art gallery, other Chung animation, Liquid Television segments. Trading cards.
War Of The Worlds
(Paramount, 2005) D: Steven Spielberg, w/ Tom Cruise, Dakota Fanning. Rating: NNN
Steven Spielberg's epic horror show doesn't play quite as well on the small screen as the big. We lose the impact of sheer scale, of course, and some detail in the marvellous effects. Worse, we lose the shades of Tim Robbins's performance. They disappear in the shadows of the cellar where he, Tom Cruise and Dakota Fanning are hiding from the aliens.
Those nuances contain hints of the child molester and the cold calculator who sees breeding stock in the 10-year-old. They justify what Cruise does later, and provide a family-centred use for his brute tendencies. That's vital, because reuniting the shattered family is what War Of The Worlds is really about.
That theme doesn't really connect to the alien invasion, and the ending's a cheat. Where's the wife's new love? But it gives strong emotional resonance to what would otherwise be a glorious but empty effects show.
Thin extras suggest that there'll be a special edition along eventually. Most likely it'll tell us more of what we already know about the craft of CGI.
Extras: Designing machines and aliens doc. Wide-screen. English, French soundtracks. English, French, Spanish subtitles.
March Of The Penguins
(Maple, 2005) D: Luc Jacquet. Rating: NNN
More nature rhapsody than nature documentary, this film teaches us relatively little about the life of the emperor penguins. But what we see is astounding.
The creatures walk 40 to 70 miles inland to pair-bond, mate and lay their single egg in the depth of the Antarctic winter. Father incubates while mother walks back to the sea, then back to the chick with food. Fathers go up to four months without food. It's a feat of survival that the slightly sentimental, and thus slightly condescending, narration by Morgan Freeman cannot begin to degrade.
Luc Jacquet achieves remarkable close-up detail and catches much unearthly, breathtaking scenery along the way. The making-of doc shows how he did it patience and perseverance and offers more rhapsodizing. The penguins, the landscape and the experience justify it fully.
Extras: Making-of doc. Wide-screen. French subtitles.
Coming Tuesday, November 29
Mr. & Mrs. Smith (Fox, 2005) Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie work out their marital problems with big guns.
Sky High (Disney, 2005) Kid copes with being a superhero.
Murderball (ThinkFilm, 2005) Snappy doc on rigorous wheelchair sport.
Lila Says (Sony, 2004) Sexual tension mounts between a Muslim boy and a French girl.
= Critics' Pick
NNNNN = excellent, maintains big screen impact
NNNN = very good
NNN = worth a peek
NN = Mediocre
N = Bomb