DVD Picks: Hindu Blues, Stitchpunk Animation and Paranormal Activity

January 1, 2010

Raleigh News & Observer

Already a legend of low-budget horror, ” Paranormal Activity” is an object lesson in the power of viral marketing. Filmed for $15,000, its theatrical take after wide release on Halloween is $107 million, with an additional $10 million or so still coming in from the UK.

So why such astounding success? First, “Paranormal” is a scary ghost story with an effective gimmick: Like “The Blair Witch Project,” the film is presented as found footage, the record of a haunting caught on camera and left by the dearly departed victims.

But more important, “Paranormal Activity” was masterfully marketed, using online promotion techniques and a “platform release” strategy. The distributors opened the film initially in a small number of college towns, then relied on the audience to sell the picture via word-of-mouth and social media vectors – Facebook, Twitter, etc. Brilliant work, really.

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// ]]> Quantcast Anyhoo, the movie is out this week on DVD and Blu-ray, where it’s likely to make another boatload of money. “Paranormal Activity” tells the story of Micah Sloat and Katie Featherston, two young professionals in San Diego played by actors Micah Sloat and Katie Featherston. This is the first of several rabbit holes into which viewers will be dropped. Micah and Katie are happy in their new home, except for the weird noises downstairs, things that insist on going bump in the night. Every night.

Micah – day-trader, tech fetishist and requisite rational skeptic – decides the best way to document the phenomena is to set up a digital camera in the bedroom. This weirds out Katie for several reasons, understandably. But most important, Katie has a gut feeling that the camera will only provoke whatever is haunting them.

And, wow – when Katie’s right, she’s right. Things go from bad to much worse, each incident recorded in the creepy black light of the camera’s infrared lens. I don’t know about you, but ever since I was kid I’ve thought about ghosts most when I’m in the dark, under the covers, listening to bumps in the night.

Director Oren Peli makes canny use of the video camera gimmick. One creepy sequence shows Katie apparently sleepwalking as she stands menacingly over the sleeping Micah. Then the time counter in the corner of the frame fast forwards as Katie simply stands there, staring at him, for hours. It’s a spooky image, and a clever one.

On the DVD player, in the dubious comfort of your own home, the film has an additional resonance missing in theaters.

The single-disc DVD includes the filmmakers’ original ending, changed before wide release at the suggestion of producer Steven Spielberg. I think the original is more subtle and satisfying.

And now a word from the realm of animation. 2009 was a banner year for animated films, specifically animated films for grown-ups. Among the year’s triumphs – the dark fairy tale “Coraline,” the morally charged Israeli film “Waltz with Bashir,” and Pixar’s latest triumph, the sublime adventure “Up.”

Cycling to DVD are two more animated jewels. “9,” expanded by director Shane Acker from his own short film, is a riot of inventive imagery in the “stitchpunk” animation style.

In a post-apocalyptic future (we sure are seeing a lot of these lately), a rag doll comes to life to find that humanity has committed suicide. Rather messily, too. Designated only as “#9,” according to the stitching on his back, our hero finds that he is but one of a series of rag dolls, imbued by their now-dead creator with life force, and asked to carry forth into the future a rather critical series of parcels.

“9” is most effective in its quieter moments, particularly in scenes of the wrecked future landscape, littered with dead technology and shrouded by a bruised sky.

Like “Up,” “9” is an example of state-of-the-art computer graphics technology used to achieve an artistic vision. If the film’s innovative spirit seems confined to design at the expense of story, that’s all right. You can just move up the rental aisle and grab up ” Sita Sings the Blues,” my vote for best animated film of the year.

“Sita,” directed by American cartoonist and animator Nina Paley, is structured around an ancient Hindu fable and several animation styles, integrated torch songs by 1920s blues vocalist Annette Hanshaw, and a parallel modern-day story from director Paley that is largely autobiographical. In the director’s words, the film is “a tale of truth, justice and a woman’s cry for equal treatment.”

Paley did all the animation herself, using her home computer and an assortment of 2-D animation techniques. Threads of the story are assigned their own graphical treatment – the mythological sequences distinguished from the musical numbers; the shadow-puppet narration from the modern-day story. That it all hangs together is testament to Paley’s chops as a visual artist. That it’s also wistful, irreverent and genuinely funny is proof of Paley’s skill as a cartoonist, that most underappreciated of crafts.

Because of some arcane copyright issues regarding the old Hanshaw songs, Paley had to pay out-of-pocket to preserve the film’s musical numbers, and agree to some arbitrary distribution restrictions.

Admirably, Paley fought back. Using unorthodox distribution methods, such as free online downloads and the Creative Commons license (the same license Wikipedia operates under), Paley is relying on voluntary payments to augment any money she might see from the limited DVD pressing. (The DVD does include extras, including a 30-minute interview with Paley.) Watch for great things from Paley, whose tenacity has made her something of an icon in free-culture circles.

2 Responses to “DVD Picks: Hindu Blues, Stitchpunk Animation and Paranormal Activity”

  1. Karen Says:

    Dude! Sir! If you are going to include so much detail in a DVD review, please let the readers know ahead of time, so we can skip the rest of the review.

    I’m talking about some of the plot points that you gave away in Paranormal Activity. I had no idea when I sat down to watch the movie that the main characters were going to end up dead, something that you already gave away by the end of the second paragraph in your review. And then going ahead and spilling the beans that yes, Micah filming at night was going to actually going to provoke the thing that was haunting them even more, that wasn’t great either.

    Fortunately, I’d gotten the DVD from Netflix on Tuesday and it went right from mailbox directly into my DVD player that night so I’d actually already seen it by the time your review came out, but it’s very seldom that we actually have a new DVD release watched by the time the DVD Picks are reviewed in the Friday paper. So had this been a normal rental situation for us, your review would have completely blown the movie for us when we did sit down to watch it.

    Needless to say, I skipped the rest of the DVD Picks for the week (“9” is in my Netflix queue as well), and will probably continue to do so in the future if you’re reviewing a dvd that I’m planning on getting but haven’t seen yet. Not since a newspaper gave away the ending in “War of the Roses” way back when have I seen another DVD review give away an ending like that.

    Normally I pick which DVDs to add to my queue based on the Sunday ads the weekend before vs adding them after the fact (I have a better chance of getting them from Netflix that way), but I do like to read the DVD Picks to confirm my choices in the Friday paper afterwards. This was the first time that so much info about a DVD had been given away like that, that I can remember.

    In future columns, please just let the readers know in advance if you’re going go include so many spoilers?


    • Glenn McDonald Says:

      Hmm, good point. I try to be careful about spoilers, but this was a mistake. I’ll be more vigilant. Thanks.

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