DVDs for 12/29/09 – Perfect Paranormal Getaway Activity: Facing Ali

The release week between Christmas Day and New Year’s Day is traditionally an off week for DVD, usually with just a couple of minor releases. Not so this year. TV releases this week include Glee: Season 1: Road To Sectionals (Fox) and United States Of Tara: The First Season (Paramount) (see TV on DVD here), and there are some substantial film releases debuting this week.

David Twohy’s A Perfect Getaway (Universal) is a deft piece of genre filmmaking, which is no backhanded compliment. In a film culture where B-movie plots are routinely executed with budgets in excess of $100 million in place of intelligence and thrown into thousands of theaters, the well-tuned genre piece is an increasingly rare breed. A Perfect Getaway is a type of film we’re used to seeing in myriad variations: an urban couple leaves the comfort of civilization for a vacation isolated in the wilds, where there just so happens to be a killer on the loose and no end to suspicious characters.

A Perfect Getaway: Trouble in paradise

Twohy delivers everything we expect—attractive performers in paradise (Steve Zahn and Milla Jovovich as cute urbanites fumbling through the jungle, Timothy Olyphant and Kiele Sanchez as rather more prepared trail companions), breathtaking landscapes and lush scenery, ominous tensions and plenty of action—and something you likely did not: suspense, surprise and sheer fun. In a film culture where genre storytelling all too often boils down to the stock gimmicks used over and over again with special effects or high concept twists to hide the familiarity, this is so refreshingly old school smart that it feels almost new. For more on the film, read my feature review here. The DVD features both the theatrical cut and a “Director’s Cut,” which runs about ten minutes longer, but no other supplements. The Blu-ray features an alternate ending, which isn’t all that different but is significantly shorter. I prefer the original.

Paranormal Activity (Paramount) is the underdog DIY horror movie success story of the year, a truly independent production shot on consumer-grade video equipment and presented as a “found” artifact: the home video recording by victims of a haunting and the suburban answer to The Blair Witch Project. It turns out to be a fairly satisfying piece of filmmaking and an overhyped piece of cult marketing. The film doesn’t really stand up to the reason of daylight: motivations are murky and characters make aggressively dumb decisions throughout. Making this kind of “record of an event” film is a tricky proposition because it depends on a reasonable excuse for someone to be running a camera—and at times holding in the face of a traumatized love one—in the middle of a terrifying ordeal. In films like Diary of the Dead or [REC], that’s part of the subtext: we are a generation that is so used to documenting itself that the act of documenting becomes more important that the act of living. Such a dynamic is not at work here. The guy who decides to record the “hauntings” that have followed his girlfriend from childhood comes out a pretty shallow character and an incredibly unobservant, insensitive boyfriend who callously puts his girlfriend under the microscope to record her stress rather than comfort her. Given that, it makes brilliant use of the old fashioned frisson of suggestion: the low-fi terror of creepy noises, doors that eerily creak open and shut, shadow moving across an empty room and other inexplicable phenomenon. The low-fi filmmaking makes the few digitally created or enhanced effects more effective. And given the premise, it may work better on home video than it did in the multiplex. The only supplement is an alternate ending, which can be viewed as part of the film or as a separate clip. It’s far simpler, less startling but more disturbing and unnerving and more in keeping with the tone of the film.

The life, legend and career of Muhammad Ali, the fighter and the man, is revisited in Facing Ali (Lionsgate) through the remembrances and perspectives of ten men who fought him in the ring, from Sir Henry Cooper (the Brit who lost to the young boxer early in his career, when he was still Cassius Clay) to Larry Holmes, who fought the champ after he came back from retirement for one last bout in 1980. Ali is represented solely in archival footage (both on the ring and on the mike, where he makes words as effective a weapon as his fists) but a dynamic portrait of the athlete and icon emerges through the remembrances, reflections and memorable quotes from the man who called himself “The Greatest” and then defended the title. Along the way, we get a portrait in miniature of the ten men who faced off with Ali (including George Chuvalo, George Foreman, Joe Frazier, Ron Lyle, Ken Norton, Earnie Shavers, Leon Spinks and Ernie Terrell). While the engaging documentary never got an official theatrical release, it was a popular item on the film festival circuit and is one of the fifteen films on the Academy Awards shortlist of 2009 Best Documentary nominees. The DVD features three featurettes on the making of the film, including “Facing Ali: From Book to Screen,” where the director Pete McCormack and producer Derik Murray discuss the origins of the project and the creative decisions in bringing it to the screen, and “After the Bell,” with McCormack discussing his interviews with each of the the fighters.

Not to be confused with Nine (the musical remake of 8 ½) or District 9 (released on DVD and Blu-ray last week), 9 (Universal) is an animated film of sock puppet saviors at the end of the world. It’s sort of like The Terminator mythos as interpreted by the Brothers Quay, set in a world where machines have destroyed all life on Earth but for nine animated rag dolls. The situation is resonant of ancient fables and mythos and the post-apocalyptic animated puppet show is a wonder to watch. The swift, soaring action can sweep you up in the imagery and energy, but the story never develops beyond simplistic parables. For more on the film, read my feature review here. Shane Acker’s original, award-winning 10-minute short (his thesis film, also called 9) is the essential supplement of the DVD and Blu-ray release and in some ways a more satisfying than the feature it inspired. It’s certainly more resonant and the modesty of scope and scale lends it an intimacy lost in the flurry of the feature film. Also features commentary by writer/director/animator Shane Acker and members of his production team, production featurettes and five deleted scenes (in sketches and rough animation), with a few more supplements exclusive to the Blu-ray.

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.

Author: seanax

I write the weekly newspaper column Stream On Demand and the companion website (www.streamondemandathome.com). I'm a contributing writer for Turner Classic Movies Online, Keyframe, Independent Lens, and Cinephiled, and the editor of Parallax View (www.parallax-view.org).. I've written for The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, The Seattle Weekly, GreenCine.com, Senses of Cinema, Asian Cult Cinema, and Psychotronic Video, among other publications, and I am a contributing editor to Parallax View. I currently live and work in Seattle, Washington, with my two cats, Hammet and Chandler.

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