DVD Picks: Aviatices, Satanic Cults and LeBron James

February 11, 2010

‘Amelia,” starring Hilary Swank as famed aviatrix Amelia Earhart, is a perfectly serviceable, standard-issue Hollywood biopic that hits all the requisite notes and risks little. It’s an enjoyable movie experience and, at under two hours, admirably restrained in length. I only wish the movie, like its heroine, had a little more guts.

It’s a problem of form, really. “Amelia” is done about as well as this type of movie can be done – but that’s the problem. The celebrity biopic has become Hollywood’s most tired and predictable genre. If you recall, we were tipped to this problem in 2007 with the very funny mock-biopic “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story.” “Walk” tackled the subgenre of the musical biopic, but its cautionary lessons can very easily be extrapolated – and, evidently, ignored.

It’s too bad, because “Amelia” has a lot going for it. There’s the terrific performance by Swank, who once again provides a virtual clinic on screen acting. She does some amazing technical work here, nailing the particular cadences and mannerisms of 1930s speech. The photography is beautiful – several bravura sequences show Amelia flying through electrical storms or diving recklessly to keep her plane from icing over.

But everything is jammed sideways into the conventional biopic template. You have your expositional voiceovers. Your sweeping and intrusive musical score. Your improbably declarative dialogue in which characters establish their motivations. When a suitor proposes marriage, for instance, Amelia’s reply – describing herself blissfully as a free-spirited “vagabond of the air” – isn’t anything anyone would actually say in that situation.

But it does sound like an excellent ninth draft of a screenplay. Scripts like this don’t trust the viewer to infer the moral of the story. Instead, it’s all provided in dialogue and musical cues, right before the didactic montage sequence. The real nadir of the genre may be last winter’s sadly deflated “Notorious,” which distilled the fascinating story of hip-hop star Christopher “Biggie Smalls” Wallace to a procession of repetitive biopic riffs.

Hollywood desperately needs some visionary director to come in and reinvent the form. The weird and wily Bob Dylan alt-biopic “I’m Not There” was a step in the right direction. By artfully subverting biopic tropes – casting multiple actors in the lead role, say – director Todd Haynes gleefully sprinted off in a new direction entirely.

Extras on the “Amelia” DVD set include a good assortment of deleted scenes and some interesting archival newsreels.

Also new to DVD this week, ” The House of the Devil” is an explicitly old-school horror movie from director Ti West designed to look, sound and feel like a 1982 direct-to-video cult classic. Cult is the operative term here – “Devil” is directly inspired by the early ’80s media mini-craze for stories of Satanic cults preying on America’s teenagers.

Here’s another film in which form overwhelms content, but in this case it’s a good thing indeed. From title graphics to wardrobe choices to the 16-mm film stock, “Devil” reverently evokes those breathless ’80s horror flicks in which pretty young baby sitters make poor decisions regarding staircases, locked doors and kitchen knives.

Director West is genuinely faithful to the form – this isn’t some meta exercise like the “Scream” movies. West also employs the classic suspense strategies more or less invented by Alfred Hitchcock. A bomb under the table explodes – that’s surprise. A bomb under the table doesn’t explode – that’s suspense. “Devil” has one masterful 20-minute passage that’s almost unbearably tense. Only afterward do you realize that nothing actually happened.

The movie’s last act is sufficiently bloody, but doesn’t quite deliver – Satanism just isn’t as spooky as it used to be, I guess. But the real fun here is in “Devil’s” affectionate allegiance to the ’80s – veterans of the decade will enjoy those glorious feathered hairdos and high-waist acid wash jeans. (In a clever marketing gimmick, the filmmakers even issued some promotional copies of “Devil” on VHS.) Extras are modest – two brief production docs and some very disposable deleted scenes.

On the other end of the scary spectrum, the horror-comedy ” Zombieland” stars Woody Harrelson and Jesse Eisenberg as odd-couple road trippers navigating the wastes of an America ravaged by, yes, a zombie outbreak. En route to Hollywood, they meet a pair of resourceful sisters (Emma Stone and Abigail Breslin) and briefly rely on the hospitality of an A-list movie star, playing himself in an extended cameo.

Very funny, very gory and spectacularly over-the-top, “Zombieland” achieves what it sets out after. Harrelson and Eisenberg have a good comedy tag team thing going, and the movie star cameo sequence has a couple dozen big laughs all by itself.

“Zombieland” is goofy fun and entirely satisfying, so long as you know what you’re getting into. If “House of the Devil” is the bomb not going off, “Zombieland” is the bomb that keeps exploding, forever. Extras include a couple production docs and commentary. Also stay for a final scene after the end credits.

On the off-chance you’re in the mood for something other than zombies, aviatrices or the 1980s, consider the fascinating and surprisingly poignant basketball documentary ” More Than a Game,” which charts the ascent of NBA superstar LeBron James and his high school teammates – the “Akron Fab Five.”

I lost interest in the pro game years ago, after life in the Triangle introduced me to the beauty of college basketball. (Hmm, “introduced” might not be the term. Relentlessly indoctrinated, maybe.) But “Game” has nothing to do with James’ pro career.

Seven years in the making, “Game” began as a class assignment for film student (and Akron native) Kristopher Belman. As the team rocketed to success, Belman followed along, befriended by the coach and players and given an access no one else could match.

Amazingly, the four players who constituted the core of the Akron team that took three national championships had been playing together since fourth grade. (They picked up their fifth starter in high school.) Led by the preternaturally talented James, they defeated powerhouse teams from coast-to-coast. As their coach Dru Joyce says, these were essentially national high school all-star teams, and he was fielding five kids from the neighborhood.

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