by Luke Baumgarten & r & What the hell are DVD players for? Seriously. On a philosophical level, what do they do? Theater ticket sales are down something like 8 percent this year, and that's being attributed to people watching War of the Worlds on their massive home entertainment systems. So they're definitely becoming theater replacements, which is fine. Call us friend-starved, though -- or just creepy -- but we'd rather see first-run films on the big screen, with people all around us, gasping and laughing according to his or her way. There are yet things that the small screen cannot capture. Films, we fervently believe, can still be events. Events, we well know, happen best in public arenas.
No, we have different plans for our DVD players this holiday season. Far more than small big screens, we'll be using our home systems for more critical, erudite and far trendier purposes. So, unfortunately, you won't find any wide-release films on the following list. You know what they are. You'll buy them if you see them. Instead we tried to cull those things that offer unique stories and insights and allow us to take that extra step from mere film connoisseurship to utter fan boy geekdom.
And who's a bigger geek idol than Peter Jackson? His new Kong adaptation is supposed to be strikingly close to the original 1933 masterwork that essentially created the creature feature genre, with a few choice and reportedly spot-on modernizations and tone shifts. It hits theaters in time for Christmas, which makes the King Kong Collector's Edition DVD of the original a pretty decent gift for the comparative cinephile on your list. The thing's been digitally remastered and everything, as we'd expect. It's also, though, got quite a few tantalizing little extras. The film itself now features commentary by monster guru Ray Harryhausen, which is cool by itself. In addition, though -- and this is a cool move -- they've taken pertinent old interview excerpts from actress Fay Wray and long-dead director Merian C. Cooper and placed them in the commentary track as well. There's also a making-of doc for the famous spider cave scene. This is a film whose stop-motion wizardry still looks good, even against Jackson's CG monolith.
Another even larger god in the indie filmster's pantheon is Martin Scorsese. His Bob Dylan documentary, No Direction Home, limits itself to the initial five years of the artist's career so as to be archivally exhaustive within that period. It's a fairly affecting portrait of the perilous and driving march of genius. One of the more interesting tropes that emerged from the chronicling of young Dylan is how clouded the aging Dylan's recollection of this period in his life seems to be, compared with the recollections of his peers and the footage Scorsese has dug up. He seems to have draped himself completely in the cloud of misremembered history, which creates a strange and heartbreaking counterpoint to the rest of the film. It originally aired on PBS, but the DVD has an extra 48 minutes of run time, so you can bet there's way more old Dylan wishing to God he was still young Dylan.
Yeah, Imagine has been around since the late '80s, but it's never been this stinkin' deluxe. The film is told through John Lennon's perspective -- or, that is, through the perspective of the 480 hours of film he took throughout the years. Narrated in his own words and coursing through his entire life, birth to death, it's a stunning image of Lennon the man. Released just a few days before the 25th anniversary of his death, there's no question it's being marketed to the nostalgic, but the film remains a remarkably even-handed document on perhaps the century's best pop songwriter. And no, there's not much new to be found -- and what is new is of incidental importance, but it's Imagine, for God's sake, on DVD for the first time.
To borrow a sentiment from our age's greatest social critic, there's nothing you can say about The Song of the Thin Man that hasn't already been said about Afghanistan: it's been bombed out and depleted. By the time they got to the sixth film in the series, Dashiell Hammett's original (terse, 208-page) novel had been worn pretty threadbare. Not that W.S. Van Dyke stuck that close to the source in the first place. But that unfortunately titled film shouldn't sour you on the rest of the series, or in any way delegitimize the fantastic (and cheaply priced) Complete Thin Man Collection boxed set. The law of diminishing conceptual returns applies, but the chemistry between co-stars William Powell and Myrna Loy remains strong throughout the entire set, and a separate documentary disc brings the actors to light individually and with compassion.
On the topic of complete things, one of the super hot things that seem to be happening this year in DVDs is the release of complete television runs. It's not a new phenomenon, of course, there just seems to be an absurd number of them this year. Of course, The West Wing isn't done yet, so it can't be issued as a complete run. It'll be shiftily dragging itself to a conclusion later this season (in all probability), eyes darting this way and that, trying to conceal the fact that, without creator Aaron Sorkin, the franchise has become bloated and gangrenous, slowly collapsing under the weight of its ballooning cast. (Though our Michael Bowen dissents, noting that the competing campaigns and Jimmy Smits-Alan Alda live debate have resulted this season in a better critical reception and higher ratings.) Still, it's almost a blessing that super-fans can only get the first five seasons in one huge pack at the moment. That way, they can pretend those five seasons (the four Sorkin presided over and the one that coasted satisfactorily in his absence) were the only ones made -- that the Bartlett administration somehow ended amid the ramp-up of tensions in Gaza. Those five years were riveting. The last two haven't been as great. This set, then, will fit nicely in the shrine to Sorkin's serpentine, machine-gun dialog you have in your den alongside the Complete Sports Night Box Set you got three Christmases ago, the signed photos of Felicity Huffman and Mary Louise Parker and the A Few Good Men script you read for inspiration.
On the complete opposite end of the televisual spectrum from Sorkin's speed-reading exercises is Aeon Flux, the Complete Animated Collection -- a series that had very little dialogue at all. Ruthless, sloppily drawn and incredibly sexual, Aeon symbolized just about everything early-'90s MTV stood for. I mean that as a compliment. She spawned from the same soup as Beavis and Butthead, The Maxx and The Head, the former needing no introduction, the latter two being excellent riffs on slacker angst and idealism. Aeon, for her part, was a Tarantino-esque homage/spoof wherein the classic tropes of dystopianism, cyberpunk technology and detached violence were taken to their logical -- and thus patently absurd -- ends. Fiercely intelligent and wonderfully non-linear (she dies at some point in most episodes), Aeon Flux is still incredibly impressive nearly a decade and a half after its premiere. The decidedly linear live-action, Charlize Theron vehicle won't be so fortunate.
Nobody Knows is a Japanese film that not many people saw, but it's creating a pretty big buzz (with words like "Oscar" floating about). Four children by four different fathers must fend for themselves when their slightly whorish mother abandons them. The children withdraw into themselves at first, creating a little life exclusive of the world outside. But as their needs mount, they are eventually forced out into the strange world into which their mother initially vanished. It's a story of trauma, resilience and, ultimately, hope.
Finally, for those of you who like your holiday consumerism tempered by a dollop of capitalist guilt, pick up Wal-Mart: The High Cost of a Low Price, a recently released documentary that seeks out the ways Wal-Mart brings us those low, low prices. Turns out it's not just all sending jobs overseas and forcing American manufacturers to close up shop and follow suit. There's also a fair amount of wage disruption and employee exploitation in areas Wal-Mart has stores (apparently driving retail wages down a combined $3 billion per year). The chain also has a significant and worrisome impact on social services. In Alabama, for example, 3,864 children of Wal-Mart employees are on Medicaid. In Arkansas, 3,971 workers make a non-sustainable wage, requiring them to go on public assistance. If The Corporation was a broad survey of corporate America's pervasive psychopathy, High Cost is a case study of its sickest and most successful member.