Dec 22 2009

DVDs for 12-22-09 – District 9, (500) Days and the 50th Anniversary of Cairo Station

The aliens arrived almost thirty years ago, their crippled spacecraft hovering to a halt over Johannesburg, where it remains hovering over the city. That defining image hovers over the entirety of District 9 (Sony), a savagely whipsmart satire of first contact with an alien species reduced to repressed immigrant population from first-time feature director Neill Blomkamp and producer Peter Jackson. What should be an ominous and amazing transport from another world is neither threat nor utopian promise, merely an annoyance to the local human population that can’t look to the sky without seeing that reminder of an unwanted subculture that has been segregated and shunted to the slums: the aliens have become the underclass.

Evicting those pesky alien squatters

What could be an unbearably bleak and cynical portrait becomes a ferociously entertaining piece of science fiction thriller in the hands of Blomkamp, who frames the story through the bumbling obliviousness of amiable idiot civil servant Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley), a grinning administrative functionary promoted far beyond his pay scale and his abilities. All the better to run the Department of Alien Affairs as a front for outsourcing millions in private security and turning the concentration camp inmates (sorry, that’s segregated population) into research subjects for the weapons division. You can find my full film review on the blog here.

Director/co-writer Neill Blomkamp recorded the commentary before the film’s release (and the subsequent cascade of rave reviews), which creates a different context for his talk. It’s a modest yet proud discussion of where the film came from, how his ideas arose and evolved in the making of the film and how he absorbed the technical challenges into his creative process. And he’s up-front about the elements that he’s unsatisfied with; “I kind of feel like I could have done better with a lot of this stuff,” he says during one of the chaotic shoot-out scenes. The half-hour “The Alien Agenda: A Filmmaker’s Log” is a well-produced three-part documentary that explores the film from inspiration to post-production (where did those great sounds come from? You’ll see and hear the details here), and there are 22 deleted scenes (totaling about 22 minutes). Exclusive to the “2-Disc Edition” and Blu-ray edition are four additional featurettes on various elements of the production (such as “Metamorphosis: The Transformation of Wikus,” which chronicles the various stages of his genetic evolution, all of it accomplished with prosthetics and practical appliances) and the Blu-ray includes even more exclusive supplements: an interactive map and schematics (a time waster, to be sure, but a very well-produced one with lots of sketches, 3-D models and film footage), a PlayStation 3 game demo, BD-Live interactive supplements and a digital copy of the film for portable media players.

“This is a story of boy meets girl,” begins (500) Days of Summer (Fox), “But you should know up front this is not a love story.” That’s not entirely true. It’s simply not a story about a love for the ages, simply for a brief moment. Or rather, moments. Though generally chronological, the film slips back and forth through the timeline of the 500 days of their relationship, from their first to their final meeting, and the shuffling is a nice way to explore the confusion of feelings throughout. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is the romantic boy who falls for a girl (Zooey Deschanel) named Summer whose warms the day with her smile but doesn’t believe in true love, which leaves the boy in states of heartbreak or anxiety for about half of those 500 days. Sweet, cute, amiable and stylish, this delightful spin on the romantic comedy is hardly a paradigm of realism (there’s a musical number and fantasy sequences where he imagines his life as a European art movie, among other flights of fancy), but it does a nice job of charting the rise and fall of a relationship with heart, soul and a recognition that it is better to have loved and lost than to have never loved at all. The bouncy pop soundtrack is fun too. Features commentary by director Marc Webb, writers Michael Weber and Scott Neustadter and actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt and nine deleted/extended scenes (with optional commentary by the same crew, who have a lot of fun reliving the moments).

Cairo Station (Typecast Releasing), the 1958 breakthrough film by Egyptian auteur Youseff Chahine, plays like a neo-realist film by way of a psychological thriller transplanted to the bustling central station in Cairo. A student of international cinema, Chahine energizes the human drama with cinematic invention (including a rock and roll) and sets it against a lively cross-section of working-class lives and a the swirling backdrop of social activity and political action. Chahine himself plays a crippled newsboy whose obsession with a sultry lemonade seller builds up a head of lust that finally explodes when she rejects his advances. It’s a landmark of Egyptian cinema and a vital, vibrant revelation making its American DVD debut (the cover proclaims it a 50th Anniversary Edition). The archival print is acceptable but shows signs of wear and damage and the transfer has the awkward visual stutter of a video transfer from a European PAL master. Includes the 1991 short film Cairo as Seen by Chahine, a kind of introspective film essay with Chahine playing himself: a director pondering how to make a film to capture his love of his city. In Egyptian with hard (unremovable) English subtitles. At this point, it’s available exclusively at the AFD website but will be available via Amazon later in 2010.

Also new this week, the documentaries It Might Get Loud (Sony) featuring guitar legends Jimmy Page (of Led Zepplin), The Edge (of U2) and Jack White (of The White Stripes), and The Battle Of Chile (Icarus), Patricio Guzmán’s landmark political documentary on the rise of Salvador Allende and the military coup led by Augusto Pinochet in 1973 that crushed democracy in Chile for decades.

For TV on DVD for the week, see my wrap-up here. For the rest of the highlights, visit my weekly column, which goes live every Tuesday on MSN Entertainment, or go directly to the various pages dedicated to New Releases, Special Releases, TV and Blu-ray.

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