About Me

Warning you about crappy movies since 2008.

Monday, May 30, 2011

POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold

Documentary filmmaker Morgan Spurlock, of Super Size Me fame, has set out to make what he calls a "docbuster." He falls far short of An Inconvenient Truth territory, but that's not to say he and his audience don't have fun along the way.

His idea, he tells us, is to demonstrate the massive volume of paid product placements we Americans are being subjected to in the movies and TV shows we watch every day. We're being bombarded without realizing it. It's an interesting, if not critical, topic, and there's plenty more that could have been done with it.

Spurlock wants to point out how insidious product placement is by getting the very corporations guilty of it to fund the movie exposing it. Here's how we know we're not going to be seeing a take-no-prisoners, blow-the-lid-off-some-secret-shenanigans documentary: No legitimate company (and Spurlock signs legit sponsors) is going to put up big bucks to come off looking foolish. Of course, these companies are going to see to it they get publicity -- good publicity -- out of their sponsorship. So, the movie is more entertainment than expose. More an in-joke than an indictment.

Spurlock talks to the big ad honchos who help fund movies and TV shows in exchange for shots and positive mentions of their beverage, car, computer, candy and any number of other consumer goods. He talks to big-time directors (Quentin Tarantino, Brett Ratner, J.J. Abrams), who all more or less say, "Yeah, it happens. What're ya gonna do?" In fact, blockbuster movies do not get made without product placements. Period.

And, corporate sponsors sometimes have the right to make changes to the script to ensure their product is seen in the best possible light.

Spurlock talks to consumer advocates -- Ralph Nader, among them -- who say it's deceptive for movies and TV shows not to let viewers know when they're being advertised to. We know when we're seeing a commercial break. We're not quite as sure when a TV character declares her love for Dr Pepper if it's in the script because the writer put it there -- or because of a product placement contract. (The safe bet is that money has changed hands.)

Spurlock asks the question to media types, brand specialists and men and women on the street: "Is there truth in advertising?" Interesting question, and there's no clear consensus by the end of this movie.

If you like your documentaries hard-hitting and enjoy seeing a corporate honcho squirm while cameras are rolling, this ain't your movie. It is fun, however, to watch Spurlock collect sponsors. (I commend the companies willing to go along with this stunt, particularly the POM Wonderful folks, who know, love and want to protect their band.)

By contrast, I was startled to see Spurlock ask the ban deodorant marketing teams how they'd describe their brand. Utter silence. One of them said, "That's a really good question," while the others looked down nervously. If the brand managers can't articulate what the brand stands for -- and it's been caught on camera -- that's a problem senior managers should be looking into. I doubt Spurlock wanted that moment to be the biggest gasp! of his movie, but it was mine.

Spurlock wants to bring transparency to the secretive world of product placements. A noble goal, but  it was never going to be achieved after asking the "villains" to out themselves. The movie could've been a serious look at how invasive advertising is now that we can fast forward through commercials. Instead, it's a not-so-serious look at the lengths companies will go to to reach us where we least expect it. In spite of its flaws, I still say: See it.

                                                                 POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold

Monday, May 23, 2011

Of Gods and Men

The award-winning, critically praised Of Gods and Men is the kind of movie you appreciate more after you've left the theater than while sitting in it. Long on visuals and short on action, the based-on-a-true-story film depicts the quiet, reverent lives of eight Christian monks living in war-torn Algeria in the 1990s.

The monks minister to the people in their mountain village -- dispensing love advice as well as medicine, which is usually in short supply. They study together, pray together, sing hymns together; they are a true brotherhood. If I lived next door to a monastery, I'd want the monks to be just like the gentle, wise ones depicted here.

Their peaceful existence is threatened by violent Islamic groups terrorizing their village. The brothers toy with the idea of leaving en masse or one by one, but ultimately decide -- in an unforgettable scene showing their joy in their unified decision -- they're called to remain in the village. They quietly refuse to be bullied or to abandon the desperately poor villagers who rely on them for physical and emotional care.

They don't reach the decision easily -- or quickly, I might add. The film takes its time to show us the slow pace of life that helps bring about the calm quiet inside their cloistered world. Even as war rages outside their doors.

As violence gets closer and closer, the monks' resolve grows stronger. They're aware they're in danger, yet we see them, one by one, grow to be at peace with their decision to stay.

I shall not divulge more of what happens to the eight dear men who peacefully resist the war going on around them. The film can be a tedious journey for the filmgoer, yet it resonates powerfully long after the closing scene. The subtitled movie is not for the impatient, but for those willing to sit it out, I say: See it.

Of Gods and Men

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Cave of Forgotten Dreams

Werner Herzog's new documentary details the incredible 1994 discovery of the oldest drawings made by humans. They were made inside a cave in France, and -- thanks to a landslide thousands of years ago -- the cave has been hermetically sealed until the recent discovery. So, the drawings are so pristine, they look like they were made weeks ago. In fact, they were made 30,000 years ago.

You'd think the drawings of animals would be primitive. Yet, they are surprisingly sophisticated. One horse, for instance, is depicted with eight legs -- as if to show it in motion.

It is something of a miracle to think of ancient homo sapiens wanting to communicate something to each other and to posterity and of striving to create something beautiful and, perhaps, lasting.

Herzog narrates with almost breathless excitement. He and a tiny film crew are among only a handful of people (the others are archaeologists, art historians, geologists and paleontologists) allowed access to the cave. Herzog marvels at the drawings and what they reveal about our forebears and never lets the audience forget what a find we're watching. It should all make for riveting viewing.

It couldn't be duller.

Herzog movies are always a crap shoot. He either soars (Grizzly Man) or sucks (My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done?) It's my fault for ignoring my instincts and instead listening to the 96 percent of critics who gave this glorified school film strip rave reviews.

The truth is: cave drawings are boring. I wanted to sustain my initial intrigue, but it was impossible. It proved to be impossible for a handful of my fellow moviegoers who left and nearly so for the fidgety ones who remained. Woolly mammoths, bison and horses drawn on cave walls are fascinating for four, five minutes, tops. Herzog thinks they merit 90 minutes. The same horses and bison are shown over and over and over again. And, they're set to prehistoric-sounding music. If you like the sound of a handmade recorder, this is the film for you. If not, well, you know what to do. Skip it.

                                                          Cave of Forgotten Dreams