PopShots: The Lighter Side of Swine Flu

Researchers have largely ignored the pop cultural value of the H1N1 virus: hours on the couch catching up on DVD.

I’ll tell you one nice thing about the H1N1 virus, it opens up a lot of time for home entertainment. After getting virally stomped recently, I spent an alarming amount of time parked on the couch digging into the DVD stack. At one point, I formulated an awesomely complex theory regarding Marxist-feminist subtext in the John Hughes oeuvre. But that was probably the cough suppressant talking.

Frankly, I don’t know why anyone goes to the movie theater anymore. I lost my stomach for it years ago -- the ridiculous prices, the relentless pre-show advertising, the smell of whatever that atomic grease is they put on the popcorn. Now that I have a decent home theater system -- Blu-ray player, HDTV, surround sound -- I pretty much wait for DVD with everything.

And, of course, DVD gives access to a world of programming that never gets to mainstream theaters: TV compilations, indie documentaries, foreign films. During my recent swine-flu binge, I sampled a digital smorgasbord of DVD goodies.

Natural Wonders and Conspiracy Theories

Rarely, if ever, does a movie alter my future vacation plans. One recent exception: The Hangover, which reminded me to shorten my impending Las Vegas trip. Sin City is my favorite place on earth for exactly 48 hours. After that, the soul sickness sets in and I must retreat.

But that’s nothing compared to the effect of Ken Burns’ latest documentary, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea.If you missed the initial run a few weeks back on PBS, you can now get the complete series in a six-DVD set that may very well impact your holiday travels for a decade or two.

Improbably fascinating, the topic of national parks doesn’t seem to have the epic sweep of previous Burns topics like jazz or baseball, but you will be amazed. The series’ central premise -- that America’s national parks are a distillation of democratic ideals at their finest -- resonates throughout the program’s 12-plus hours of running time. America was the first country to deliberately set aside and protect vast tracts of land for “For the Benefit and Enjoyment of the People” (as reads the famous inscription at Yellowstone’s arched entrance).

Burns explores his topic with typical thoroughness, using archival photos and film, interviews with historians and academics, and of course some of the most beautiful cinematography you will see on DVD this year. The generous extras -- at least one featurette per disc -- detail the making of the film and add codas such as overviews of the contemporary state of the parks.

Particularly compelling is Disc 2, “The Last Refuge”, which documents President Theodore Roosevelt’s resolute quest to protect America’s natural playgrounds. Allied with a handful of progressive Congressman and famed naturalist John Muir, Roosevelt fought off wave after wave of businessmen and local politicians who, left unchecked, would have trampled wonderlands like the Yosemite and the Grand Canyon for commercial development and profit. (Consider the state of unprotected Niagara Falls to see how that would have worked out.)

All in all, Burns’ ultimate triumph here may be the rather galvanizing effect his film has on the viewer. Crater Lake. Carlsbad Caverns. Joshua Tree. Mesa Verde. The Smoky Mountains. Within the first couple hours, I was almost panicky: “Why am I not spending every free moment at, or making plans to get to, these places?”

Well, one impediment is this stack of great DVDs coming out lately, so I can’t complain. Another recent DVD documentary may be a bit harder to track down, but is compelling in its own way.

New World Order, by filmmakers Luke Meyer and Andrew Neel, and distributed by the NYC indie media collective known as The Disinformation Company, zeroes in on a handful of radical activists who might be less charitably described as conspiracy theorists.

These are the guys who believe 9-11 was an inside job, that JFK was killed by military-industrialists, and that the Bilderberg Group is designing a draconian future for the planet. New World Order fascinates because the filmmakers don’t endorse or disclaim these views. They simply let their subjects speak for themselves.

You can question the politics of these activists, who come from both the far Left and Right, but you can’t deny their commitment. Consider the Katrina aid worker who has spent the last few years feeding New Orleans’ displaced from his mobile kitchen and doing, in his words, what FEMA can’t -- or won’t. These guys walk it like they talk it.

Grim Irony and Gypsy Curses

Also highly recommended is the latest from Canadian auteur Atom Egoyan. Adoration fuses the director’s inclination toward stories of personal tragedy with a subtle meditation on the ironies of the Information Age.

If you’ve seen Egoyan’s previous work, like the devastating The Sweet Hereafter, you know he’s the king of exquisitely rendered loss. Here he tells an intimate story with deliberately global undercurrents. When high school student Simon (Devon Bostick) tells his class that his father was a terrorist, he generates tidal waves in the community that ripple farther out via the Internet.

Egoyan’s Möbius-strip screenplay winds up rearranging everything by the end, so pay close attention. Be sure to watch the generous DVD extras, too, in which Egoyan provides some clues to untangling this complex story of identity, communication, technology and violence.

For less demanding DVD diversions, director Sam Raimi’s Drag Me to Hell is a fun little freakout that will satisfy fans of the director’s early Evil Dead movies. When bank officer Christine (Alison Lohman) crosses an old gypsy crone -- well, you don’t need me to tell you what happens old gypsy crones are provoked in the movies. Curses. Demons. Head trauma. This sort of thing.

It’s all B-movie hokum with A-list production values. Raimi’s love of goofy gore derails any serious scares, and Lohman is so blandly blonde (blondely bland?) she’s nearly transparent. This isn’t the serious horror movie the trailers advertised. In fact, it’s a perfect illustration of a mainstream Hollywood truism: Trailers don’t preview the movie you’re going to see -- they preview the movie marketers think you want to see.

On the plus side, DVD extras include production diaries detailing key effects and sequences, and an unrated director’s cut that expands on Raimi’s weird oral fixation.

So adjust your expectations accordingly -- Drag Me to Hell is Evil Dead with a budget -- and you’ll find a nice little old-school Raimi freak show. All suitable viewing, when one is flat on one's back with the flue, feeling like hell.

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