KING KONG (1933) and THREE KINGS Blu-ray Reviews

     October 21, 2010

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Warners has done a sturdy – if uneventful – job in upgrading their catalog titles to Blu-ray. In comparison to Fox, it’s great to see them include all the previous supplements from their earlier DVD special editions, but they also haven’t offered much more than a new transfer to hook those who want to upgrade. To be fair, the quality of the upgrade in both Three Kings and King Kong is noticeable, but not so extreme that someone who doesn’t have an HDTV would notice. That may be the point. It’s great to have these films on Blu-ray, but it’s the transfer you’re buying. King Kong stars Fay Wray and Robert Armstrong in the story of a monkey who dared to dream, while Three Kings stars George Clooney, Ice Cube, Mark Wahlberg and Spike Jonze as soldiers in the first Iraq war who’ve got a plan to steal some Iraqi gold. My review of both King Kong and Three Kings after the jump.

With the character King Kong, it’s all about the eyes. Watching the puppet that is this gigantic ape, it’s the eyes (that of a baby) that draw you in. From them you see that Kong is an innocent, not totally aware of what he’s doing to the tamed world. Fay Wray stars as Ann Darrow, who is hired by Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) to play John Driscoll’s (Bruce Cabot) love interest in his latest adventure motion picture. They go on a high seas adventure that can lull a modern audience into expecting less thrilling sights than an obvious back-lot boat-ride. But then our characters hit Skull Island, where the natives are restless and eventually steal Ann off the boat for sacrifice to Kong. Kong takes the woman, and the men from the boat relentlessly pursue her. Kong – it turns out – either really likes white women, or is amused at the thought of a different lady, or something, because he takes a shine to Darrow and protects her from the dinosaurs and wildlife that want her as a snack. The boys pursue and trouble is afoot for them, but eventually they subdue the monkey and bring him back to New York, where Kong breaks free and has fun on the streets of the big apple.

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Though the narrative might be familiar through the two remakes and cultural awareness, there’s a real charm to the production. This comes about in two ways. One is that the opening is a little slow, but when the film starts hitting you with the spectacle, and it’s Kong fighting a Tyrannosaurus Rex – even with effects that are over 70 years old, it’s still a show stopper. And the effects hold up to this day, because of the second thing: It’s impossible not to fall for King Kong. Yes, he may be a brute, but he’s got the eyes of a child, and those eyes give him a humanity and curiosity that enthralls. King Kong is a tragic figure, but the film isn’t about the tragedy, and I think that’s why it works more than either remake. There are things going on that give the film a dimension that seems unintentional, though may just be unexplored – the creators had to have known that monkeys are the most human of all monsters. Regardless of intention, this is just a delight, the ultimate kid fantasy adventure story, and it still plays seventy-some years later.

King Kong is presented in full Frame (1.33.:1) and in original 1.0 monaural sound. The picture quality is a slight step up from the previous two disc DVD release, but features all the same supplements. There’s a commentary with Ken Ralston and Ray Harryhausen, with peppered in canned comments from Merian C. Cooper and Fay Wray. Both Ralston and Harryhausen love the film, so they offer a fawning appreciation of the film, but do get into the film’s technical innovations and genius with authority. There’s a making of (159 Min.) made by Peter Jackson for the DVD release. It’s got comments from fans like Frank Darabont and John Landis, historians like Rudy Belmer, and Bob Burns and effects guys like Harryhausen and Rick Baker, along with a thorough study of how the film came about and its impact, along with a recreation of the mythic lost Spider Pit sequence from the film, which can be viewed separately (6 min.). There’s also the Creation test footage included (an abandoned Cooper project) with commentary by Harryhausen (5 min.). Also included is the documentary “I’m King Kong! The Exploits of Merian C. Cooper” (57 min.), and the film’s theatrical trailer.

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David O. Russell’s Three Kings is a precarious balancing act of tone. Done in a loose, shaggy, M*A*S*H-style mixing comedy, action, and seriousness, it’s also expertly directed, with a panache Russell hadn’t shown in his early “indie” comedies. Three Kings announced that Russell was a great director, make no mistake.

George Clooney plays Archie Gates, a man about to retire and who finds out about a map to secret Iraqi treasure. Also with dibs on the map are Troy Barlow (Mark Wahlberg), Chief Elgin (Ice Cube) and Conrad Vig (Spike Jonze). They are grunts, with Vig a redneck who idolizes the slightly more with-it Barlow. The four go on an expedition to find the gold, followed by Adriana Cruz (Nora Dunn), a reporter who wants to make her name on war exploits. As the boys invade the village they become aware of the relationship between the Iraqi soldiers and the locals, who fear or know that they will be hunted hurt or killed once the Americans leave.

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In the middle of the film, after a number of playful sequences, the film starts to hunker down and become a war movie after what appears to be a heist premise. Barlow is made prisoner and the “bad guy” (Said Taghmaoui) talks to Barlow about the invasion and what it means, and what his country thinks of America. Russell has no interest in easy outs, and his argument against has its truths – when he makes Barlow drink oil, it’s a perfectly crude metaphor for America’s involvement in his country. Of course this is all a little more poignant after our more recent involvement, but what makes the film work even now is how much fun it is. There’s a zip throughout, and a number of great throwaway gags.

George Clooney at this point had finally snapped out of his television rhythms, and though some of this has to do with Steven Soderberg’s work with him on Out of Sight, Russell also deserves some credit. Ice Cube is not given much heavy lifting, but he is credible, while Mark Wahlberg also shows range here that tapped into the promise (and delivery) of Boogie Nights. But the standout performer is Spike Jonze, who if you didn’t know was the prankish director of Being John Malkovich, you might be fooled.

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Three Kings is presented widescreen (2.35:1) and in 5.1 DTS-HD surround. This was an early DVD in the scheme of things, and though the supplements are the same, the transfer is immaculate. Extras include a thoughtful and self-deprecating commentary by David O. Russell, and a second commentary by producers Charles Rover and Edward L. McDonnell. There’s an “On The Set” (22 min.) featurette, a guided tour of the set by production designer Catherine Hardwicke (10 min.), an interview with DP Thomas Newton Siegel (7 min.) on the unique look of the film, Russell’s video diary on the making of (14 min.), four deleted scenes (7 min.) with optional commentary, and a jokey look inside the acting process with Ice Cube (2 min.), along with the film’s theatrical trailer.

[King Kong screencaps courtesy of DVD Beaver]

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