by Ken B.
I’d estimate that sixty to sixty-five percent of Heaven is for Real is a more or less efficient and suitable drama. The remainder is a stretched out and disjointed barrage of mediocrity, doing things such as wallowing in computer generated descriptions of visions of heaven that its real life participants didn’t have the advantage of seeing. While this concept isn’t put into play often, it kind of feels like the movie is either a) canceling itself out, or b) trying too hard to appeal to the on-the-fence viewer on whether or not the events depicted really did happen.
Its source material, the 2010 book of the same name, has become a staple in recent Christian literature. It tells of quite remarkable events; Todd Burpo (Greg Kinnear), a pastor in the small Imperial, Nebraska, writes about an episode several years earlier, when his young son Colton (Connor Corum) began to give vivid descriptions of heaven following an emergency appendectomy. Medical records suggest that he never died during the operation, and yet Colton brings up ideas of long-deceased relatives, angels, Jesus, and even a little girl, later revealed to be his sister who had died in the womb. These stories bring more conflict than hope to his father, his mother Sonja (Kelly Reilly), his sister Cassie (Lane Styles), and various residents of his hometown and church, as a struggle of what to do with this information ensues.
When Heaven is for Real wants to be good, it is quite good. When this happens, it’s usually driven by strong performances, particularly from Greg Kinnear in the lead, who shows conviction and doubt in a painfully clear way. A supporting performance from Margo Martindale is also worth noting – she portrays a close family friend who is still coming to terms with tragedies in her own family. Newcomer Corum is more or less adequate as the catalyst of the sudden change of life in Imperial – he comes on camera, says his lines, and leaves, often much to the bewilderment of the adults in the room, considering that most of his character’s dialogue is disclosure of the latest snippet of the afterlife.
On a visual front, the cinematography by veteran DP Dean Semler has a way of making you notice how it’s being done by inserting the occasional bizarre shot – whether it’s a seesaw conversation where the camera is placed in the center, or framing a foggy surrealist scene in one of Colton’s visions where sunlight pours in through the back windows and the front of the church has been replaced by heaven. The effects themselves of that scene (mainly angels and sunlight) are good enough, but they’re obscured by enough digital clouds that it really doesn’t matter.
The main thing that keeps Heaven is for Real from achieving a state of total recommendability is its pacing. Its runtime is average at 100 minutes, but it certainly has a feeling of dragging on, likely due to a recurring feeling of unsettled plotting – following the first act, and around when Colton begins to mention heaven, the movie detaches from the stricter outline it had before, and proceeds to become exhausting, with long stretches where it moves from one scene to another scene, each offering a nugget of drama before moving on, seemingly without a particular rhythm.
One of the people I saw Heaven is for Real with asked me to rate it on a scale of one to ten right after the screening. More or less instinctively, I replied “Seven and a half”, the equivalent of three stars, of course. Seeing the 2.5 star rating here, you can see that I didn’t stick with that voice. The half star change of mind is more or less the result of the fact that you can appreciate the emotional output of a movie before realizing that it didn’t really have an adverse effect on you. Heaven is for Real applies to a specific set of people: Those who embraced Colton Burpo’s story on first sight without issue. If you’re unfamiliar with the text, or read it still had questions with the total accuracy of various smaller details, watching this adaptation won’t give you any answers, and you’ll be more inclined to see a harmless but ultimately largely unimpactful movie.
by Ken B.
Odd Thomas is a movie that dresses up well but spends 96 minutes fiddling with its tie and straightening its hair in the mirror. It achieves what it’s going for numerous times, but then moves the tie off center or pushes hair into its eyes. Does this analogy even make sense anymore? In any case, it balances promise and success with sloppiness and a general feeling of still being a work in progress. (This might have something to do with its troubled production history. The long and short of it? This movie wrapped three years ago but only achieved distribution in February.)
Anton Yelchin, who in the past few years has yet to disprove notions that he may be part of the next generation of big Hollywood icons, stars as the titular character, whose name really is Odd Thomas. His mother claims it was supposed to be “Todd”, but her sanity is dismissed relatively early. Odd lives in the desert town of Pico Mundo. He’s a cook in a diner, known for a certain flair to his style. His girlfriend is Stormy Llewelyn (Addison Timlin), an ice cream shop employee at the local mall. They’re destined to be together forever (a fortune telling machine they consulted at a fair when they were little kids told them that). Stormy is one of the select few people who knows a certain thing about Odd – he sees the dead, as well the spirits associated with it, namely bodachs, whose appearance is often a forecast of danger. In some roundabout way, he knows the future, and because he knows where crime is, he often goes about fighting it. As a result, he’s developed a semi-rapport with the police chief, Wyatt Porter (Willem Dafoe).
One day in August, a strange man with tragic hair named Bob (Shuler Hensley) walks into the diner, surrounded by more bodachs than Odd has ever seen around one person. He is convinced that hell on Earth will descend upon Pico Mundo, and after a brief investigation, it becomes clear that it will occur tomorrow, August 15. Odd then attempts to discover as much as he can, and stop his hometown from experiencing untold levels of disaster.
The biggest issue at hand I have with Odd Thomas is its mood swings. There are two forces at work: One is an oddball (ahem) sci-fi dramedy and the other is an supernatural horror film with almost enough conceptual ambiguity for a Lynchian aftertaste. It never knows exactly what it wants to be. One moment, the revelation of a murderous three-person cult is made. Almost immediately afterwards, Odd quips in voiceover, “One more [person] and they could get group health insurance or form a rock band”. When the aforementioned cataclysmic event is discovered in the film’s climax, any jokes from characters quickly fade in acknowledgment of the atmosphere attempting to be built. The film can’t hide its inconsistency in its preceding moments.
There are also some qualms that may be attributed to the less-than-ideal history of the film. The first is within the music. In the trailer, you can hear a “Spirit in the Sky”-esque riff. It’s serviceable enough to hear once, but there are multiple instances where it crops up in the film, each appearance making it slightly less bearable. It feels like a placeholder, and any other tracks are forgettable. The other issue is the visual effects, sporadic in quality. The translucent and silvery bodachs look eerie enough, almost between a dementor and T-1000. Other things, namely fire and explosions, look like they’re stranded in some pre-vis purgatory, and while not devastating, could very well take a viewer out of the movie.
But it’s not all bad. The acting, especially from the top billed actors, is good. Anton Yelchin does a great job at crafting a likable, yet, well, odd main character. Willem Dafoe’s character has more than a few good lines, and Addison Timlin offers solid support as a vital secondary character. These three offer the basis of a last act plot twist, one of startling clarity and emotion, especially considering Odd Thomas’ spotty connection otherwise with its audience and what kind of movie it wants to be.
Odd Thomas is a mixed bag. It features great moments offset by hasty and muddy mistakes. I can’t really recommend it to anyone else except fans of the novel it is based on, or perhaps if you like one of the cast members. It goes for so much, but when it finds that style of transcendence, never stays there for very long.
by Ken B.
When story after story piped out of Hollywood about the troubled big budget adaptation of the zombie novel by Max Brooks (son of Mel), critics and fans nervously wondered what kind of a calamity the final project might be.
And then it came out. It was actually pretty good, they said.
I agree. Marc Forster’s World War Z is a fast moving and exciting film, using up each of its 116 minutes for increasingly absurd but certainly not uninteresting entertainment. It follows a sudden and global outbreak of rabies-triggered zombie-itis. Cities fall in hours as those bitten turn almost instantly. Gerry (Brad Pitt) and his family experience this first hand, navigating through the Philadelphia as the epidemic tears through the streets.
Gerry’s a former UN employee who recently quit in the interest of becoming a stay at home dad. He uses his former connections to get his family on a warship, filled with military personnel. He’s then informed that he needs to be of some use if he’s going to be here – find Patient Zero of the disease, and therefore a gateway for the cure. So he does, bouncing around the world for answers whilst witnessing the collapse of the world, all whilst trying to keep contact with his wife (Mirelle Enos).
It’s all very engaging, as big action set pieces occur in settings from a huge wall in Jerusalem in which Gerry recruits a local soldier only known as Segen (Daniella Kertesz), to the hallways of a W.H.O. clinic in Wales, where Peter Capaldi plays a doctor. (Yes, Peter Capaldi plays a doctor for W.H.O. If that was intentional, what a wonderful idea.)
However, for all of its interesting moments and style, this movie isn’t perfect. The biggest complaint at hand with World War Z is how sloppily the conclusion is plotted. Apparently there was another one scripted, but this was scrapped for the current one, which is riddled with far-fetched events and in a generally unsatisfying manner. It’s understandable to be suspicious for a claim of “far-fetched events” being a negative aspect in a summer blockbuster about zombies, but suffice it to say that the matters in question are not a) disclosable without spoiling the end of the film and b) not related to the science of the undead. Another issue is a constantly shaking camera, especially at the start. This was most likely done for two reasons: Add “tension” and keep the violence obscured for a PG-13, in order to make more money. I dislike both justifications for doing so, mainly because of my dislike for the shaky cam in the first place.
World War Z still reigns triumphant as a fully fleshed and eerie thriller. Cinematography and logical sins notwithstanding, this is a solid evening’s entertainment, perhaps even carrying a steady rewatchability factor as disposable but competent fun. This is a recommendable and more or less engaging event, a cut above the average blockbuster.
by Ken B.
Angels in the Outfield is the equivalent of cheap takeout. It’s fine enough when consumed, even though goes in and out of you at such a rate that it in the long run had little point in being, but it exudes a pedigree nonetheless, obviously enough of one that it received a remake 43 years later (which featured Danny Glover and a young Joseph Gordon-Levitt). It really does feel of its era, the golden age of classical Hollywood, with strong elements of Americana and a moral message running through its veins.
It’s a story about the manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates, Aloysius “Guffy” McGovern (Paul Douglas), a vicious and bitter man, guaranteed to allow any patrons sitting behind either first or third base to clearly overhear a nine inning long stream of quite externalized rage. Now, this has become even more apparent as the Pirates slog through a particularly disappointing season, noticed by reporter Jennifer Paige (Janet Leigh), the writer of the “household hints” column now filling the baseball spot. After experiencing Guffy’s demeanor firsthand at a steakhouse, she’s more intrigued than ever to learn more.
One night, following a game, Guffy walks along the darkened field to hear from an angel who was a baseball player on Earth (James Whitmore). He says that if Guffy discontinues his abrasive behavior, he and other angels will work to improve the team’s fortunes. It certainly works, but Guffy is the only one of two people that is aware of the presence of the angels (the other is Bridget (Donna Corcoran) a girl at the local Catholic orphanage who worries the nuns with such claims during a trip with the other children). Due to a combination of this and the required and sudden change in behavior, questions are quickly raised of Guffy’s health and suitability to coach, which won’t be easily dismissed.
Angels in the Outfield has been cited as a classic and quintessential baseball film, but why? It contains a good message, that good deeds and actions are ultimately rewarding, but there’s nothing particularly compelling about its execution. Perhaps it came at the right time, during the post-War period of patriotism and rational love of country, and that endearment led to an embracement of obvious American symbols, like baseball. People developed fond impressions of such an idea, and the legacy of Angels in the Outfield carried on through the coming generations through nostalgia, both firsthand and inherited. While I’m not trying to say this is a bad film (not by a mile), it’s just peculiar that nothing within this movie calls out for specific memorization or recognition.
This is still a movie with a decently compelling screenplay, with interesting characters, even though Douglas’ Guffy is the one with the lion’s share of the film’s character development. Janet Leigh is good as Jennifer, a performance arriving during a vital period in the development in her career, which built up to an infamous encounter in a shower at the Bates Motel nine years later. Keenan Wynn portrays a cynical radio broadcaster with a hatred for Guffy with a suitable amount of efficiency, and Donna Corcoran is alright as Bridget, a character needed both for exposition and emotional incentive for the main characters.
Angels in the Outfield is nothing too special, which I suspect is why it’s regarded as being so special. It’s biggest asset is its unpretentiousness, but it’s so unpretentious that it leaks in to an unimportance, and as much as I despise linking the two ideologies, they appear to be connected here. My personal definition of unpretentiousness is being down to earth and accessible, and unimportance being a lack of a driving nature for itself. Angels in the Outfield goes on for 99 minutes by just existing, and I was never able to establish a connection with it, but just see it as barely passable and wholly unmemorable.
by Ken B.
Noah is an art house-esque approach to a biblical story released in three thousand theatres. The manner of the execution is not unexpected, considering the reception of the director and co-writer, Darren Aronofsky, but still much has been made about this blockbuster’s eccentric style. The numerous accusations of deliberate religious sabotage have been overblown, initiated by fundamentalists who don’t know what the phrase “creative liberty” means – Noah remains true to its roots over the story depicted in Genesis in both a basic outline of events and message. However, it is admittedly undeniable that multiple liberties have been taken, particularly in what can only be called Ray Harryhausen-style rock monsters (more on that later).
After a couple of title cards in a cheesy font discuss the historical story of the universe, we are exposed to a brief flashback where a young Noah sees his father murdered by Tubal-cain (Ray Winstone), who is, obviously, a descendent of Cain (of Cain and Abel). Years later, Noah is married to Naameh (Jennifer Connelly), and they have three sons: Shem (Douglas Booth), Ham (Logan Lerman), and Japheth (Leo McHugh Carroll). Shem is married to Ila (Emma Watson), who was informally adopted when she was a girl, found injured in the wreckage of a village. An injury she suffered at that time would also reckon her infertile.
Lately, Noah has been having some surreal dreams. The world is destroyed – not by fire, but by water, he says to his grandfather Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins). He’s convinced that it’s some kind of sign, and that humanity, which, under Tubal-cain, has devolved to a brutal, murdering, animalistic incoherency, will indeed be wrecked. Noah has decided to construct an ark to hold his family and the animals of the world. To help build it, he will enlist Watchers, angels fallen from the heavens, becoming encased in rock after crashing into lava. Indeed, the flood comes, and everything is flooded. Noah believes that he and his family are to be the last humans, and it must stay that way, no matter what the cost.
Regardless of what has been said about Noah in the past couple weeks, one word that hasn’t been uttered is unambitious. It doesn’t matter if you like the film or not, the grand scale of the production and its unique way of existing is obvious and striking. This is enhanced by the visual effects (both in water and animals, all of which were computer generated, brilliant looking in scenes where they fly, walk, or slither to the ark). The cinematography and editing are kinetic, and the score from regular Aronofsky contributer Clint Mansell is expectedly loud, pounding through scenes when it has to.
The acting is great all down the board – Russell Crowe is stoic, displaying a Noah that becomes increasingly acute religiously and obtuse humanely. Another major performance here comes from Emma Watson. In The Perks of Being a Wallflower (which also starred Lerman), Watson showed that she, like her Harry Potter costars, won’t let that franchise be a sole career definition. This transition will be sped up and helped significantly by the fact that she is a very good actress, and that is clearly shown here. In her later scenes with Crowe, facing a devastating ultimatum regarding her character’s and Shem’s future, both actors are absolutely compelling. Ray Winstone is brilliantly deranged as Tubal-cain, telling an emotionally vulnerable Ham that a man’s will is the only important factor of life. Anthony Hopkins’ Methuselah is both vital to the plot and delivers some brief and welcome humor.
This movie, however, is not without its flaws, and most can be attributed to the various technicalities of the screenplay. Noah is 138 minutes, and it didn’t have to be. Most of the content following the first act and the flood feels long. Aronofsky and Ari Handel’s script seems happy to just lay dormant for periods of time, sopping up plot points at a sometimes alarmingly slow rate. Additionally, a solid and fantastically edited sequence shown in the middle of the film, showing the creation of the universe, through evolution and to a stylized rendition of the events in the Garden of Eden would have been more effective at the start.
I recommend Noah with a caveat – if you are a biblical purist and don’t care to see Lord of the Rings-style battles with rock monsters or a Noah who is greatly ethically questionable at times, don’t bother. However, regular moviegoers and less restrictive religious audiences should be able enjoy this imperfect but fascinating rendition of a classic Bible entry.
by Ken B.
A vast improvement over an underwhelming predecessor, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire works because it is darker and deeper and more thorough and engrossing. With new director Francis Lawrence, the manic, shaky, and generally incoherent cinematography of Gary Ross is left in the dust. It is a fuller look at the political underworkings and sociopolitical satire only mentioned in passing (or not at all) in The Hunger Games, with captivating second and third acts, leading up to a startlingly effective final fifteen minutes.
Following the 74th Hunger Games, victors Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) are sent on a victory tour. In participating in this tradition, they head across Panem (a geographic area comprising mainly of real world North America), visiting all twelve districts and making speeches – an arrogant practice, considering that these are the winners of the competition in which members of eleven of these twelve districts saw two children from their homeland die. It is also around then when we see that the dystopian government under President Snow (Donald Sutherland), has grown even more militaristic and fascist, not hesitating to publicly flog or execute any political dissenters.
Now it is time for the seventy-fifth installment of the games. Snow and Hunger Games game-maker Plutarch Heavensbee (one of the last major roles of Philip Seymour Hoffman) see Katniss as a threat, a possible spark for a revolution, and conclude that she must die. As a result, different rules for the year’s games are invoked where the field of competitors must be chosen from previous victors from the twelve districts. A new arena has been designed, with new and unique lethal challenges. Now, more importantly than ever, Katniss and Peeta realize the importance of forming alliances with other competitors. By far, the one with the most screen time is Finnick Odair (Sam Clafin), a self-assured and adept winner from not too long ago. Others include the mysterious Johanna (Jena Malone), the elderly Mags (Lynn Cohen), and the savvy Beetee (Jeffrey Wright).
The games, when they start, are regularly absorbing. While the 146 minute film has the tendency to drag every now and then, especially in the first act, it’s never for very long, and deemed even more insignificant by the great acting present. Of course there are good things to be expected by Sutherland, Hoffman, and Lawrence, but even the supporting actors leave a solid impression. I had never been previously very impressed by Josh Hutcherson as an actor, but he ups his game a bit here, as does Liam Hemsworth as Gale, in a smaller but important role. Relative newcomer Sam Clafin is quite good as Finnick.
The technical level of Catching Fire is exceptional. We’re finally allowed to see it now that the camera has stopped shaking. The set design of the decadent and corrupt capital of Panem is garish and eye-popping, matching the satirical nature of the costumes and hairstyles of its residents. The obstacles in the arena, from rabid monkeys to a vesicant in the form of fog, are eerie and well done. Early in the film, when the districts are toured as part of the victory tour, we see hundreds of nameless faces looking at Katniss and Peeta, symbols of the tyrannical nation they live in. This is benefited by atmospheric cinematography from Jo Willems, immersing us, to all of the vast places the movie takes us. While this is not a perfect film, with the aforementioned occasional sluggish pacing and minor plot quibbles (such as Katniss having a seemingly never ending supply of arrows), it is still efficient in its own right.
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is an absorbing middle entry in the popular franchise, not only working for the fans, but viewers in general. Too often filmmakers focus on adapting young adult novels for their supporters, and forgetting about the success and gratification that arises from making it an accessible film. The cast and crew under the leadership of Francis Lawrence have clearly not fallen under this trap, and with the knowledge that Lawrence will be helming the (unfortunately) two-part finale, we can rest assured that it will most likely be handled with similar amounts of the quality and skill on display here.
The final part of a six-part examination on recent documentaries, which was indeed finished by the end of the month!
by Ken B.
First, let me state my opinion on the band itself, as to avoid any misunderstandings. It seems like the standard stance for males from their teens to early twenties to immediately, entirely, and irreversibly dismiss anything whose target audience is tween girls. Despite sliding into such an age group, I don’t hate One Direction. I don’t like them either, but I consider them to be a regular, generic, and decent pop group with some catchy (and overtly basic) songs. I don’t hold a cynical grudge against the band, but I certainly could think of better things to do than listen to a whole album. Now that that’s cleared up, and you know where I’m coming from, let’s start the review:
Here is a kangaroo court of a documentary overseen by a Supreme Court justice. The judge is Morgan Spurlock, and the documentary is One Direction: This is Us. The film follows the ridiculously popular British boy band, from their roots as a money making venture foreseen by Simon Cowell after each was individually rejected from the TV show The X Factor, to their millions of Twitter followers before an album was released, to their worldwide tour, for which the concert footage in the film is generated.
Earlier this month, I saw Morgan Spurlock viciously expose the already painfully existent world of advertising and product placement in his third feature film, The Greatest Movie Ever Sold. It is a biting and brilliant look, even though short and sometimes unfulfilling. This is Us gives no one any information of real value. A puff piece, pure and simple, it’s not particularly surprising to learn that Spurlock didn’t have final cut privilege over the final product, with such an honor left in the hands of the band’s management team and publicity drones. Perhaps this was first evident by the viewer’s (and the film’s) immediate impressions of Harry Styles, Niall Horan, Liam Payne, Louis Tomlinson, and Zayn Malik – These are nice guys. Talented, funny, polished, spotless.
Maybe too spotless. Any real feeling or especially eye-opening points are mainly missing from this documentary that feels as processed as Kraft “cheese”. The PR machine was hard at work preparing the 92 minutes released to theatres (a fourteen minute longer extended cut exists, but one may safely predict that it is more of the same). There are occasional moments of seeming realism or spontaneity – the band being cornered into a Nike store in Amsterdam by hordes of fans that conjures up images of many a zombie scene from a TV show, movie, or video game, and a sequence where the guys ponder where they would be if they weren’t One Direction, but times where the members of the band seem real and the fans anything less than non-intrusively adoring are rare. Snip, snip, says the publicist in the editing bay.
Much as there are occasional moments of realism, there are fleeting moments of actual entertainment for the non-devoted. These are mostly restricted to souped up concert scenes. From comic-ized sequences to obvious effects made for the 3D release, the quirkinees seems to feel like Spurlock must have something to do with it, as his personality and editing style in The Greatest Movie Ever Sold would suggest. Another event that provided personal legitimate enjoyment and a chuckle seems to exist purely for the people that were dragged along with small children to multiplexes playing the film; it sees Martin Scorsese with his granddaughter meeting the band members.
One Direction: This is Us is an inoffensive look at its namesake pop group. Like all bands that achieve global popularity, you wonder when their decline in fame will arise, how jolting or well handled it will be, and if there will be one that will continue a streak of fame even following (à la Justin Timberlake). It leaves little impression and is rather boring to the non-fan, so its status as well meaning propaganda for a sector of the world leaves it comfortable in the presence similar movies made for the likes of Justin Bieber and Katy Perry (by the way, Spurlock was considered to direct films for those two, as well).
Part five of a six part examination of various recent documentaries, which I expect to finish by the end of the month.
by Ken B.
This was a personally divisive movie. Wim Wender’s Pina is dazzling. It’s a visual spectacle. But it’s hardly entertaining. Maybe entertainment is not the point, you say, but I did not find it to be greatly substantive, either. I am giving it two and a half stars, and one hundred percent of that is for the spectacular cinematography, choreography, and dancing. It showcases some of the wonderful performances created by Pina Bausch (1940 – 2009), a German choreographer who designed fantastically surreal pieces for a passionate ensemble in Wuppertal, its members originating from all parts of the world. It almost didn’t get made, as Bausch died days before filming was set to begin. It, in its finished state, however, is a monument to the life and career of someone who was undoubtedly a true artist. I just wish I could have enjoyed it more.
You’ve probably deduced by now that Pina is not a documentary in the conventional sense. Not even the talking heads are normal – instead, the voiceover of a comment is placed over a video of the subject (usually a current member of the ensemble) staring before the camera. It creates the illusion of contemplation over obvious statements. Contemplation over obvious statements is indeed the entire point of Pina, both the film and the subject’s work.
The pieces Bausch created were innovations in the field of Tanztheater (dance theatre): silent, elaborate, and wordless performances to music and at least some variation of a narrative. They are highly interpretive, playing with a constant and wide number of elements, from a large patch of dirt to a big artificial boulder and gallons of water to a breathtaking and awe-inspiring scene involving chairs stacked on top of each other. Thanks to the cinematic treatment of the performances here, the shots are varied. Whether in a theatre or a picturesque outdoor (or indoor) setting, there’s always an unmistakably deliberate nature of the cinematography.
But I didn’t “like” like it, as I’ve mentioned before. When someone calls a movie “great” or even just “good”, it’s because the film made a connection with them in some way. And despite all of the frills and beauty on display in Pina, that personal connection never happened. It was a more or less passive experience, with some sporadic bursts of immersion peppered along the 103 minute production.
A star rating denotes how much I recommend a film, and the truth is, I can barely recommend Pina. Like all surrealism-based works, it is highly subjective. Most have embraced it unconditionally, but I just didn’t see it. Maybe I’ll watch it again someday and have a more (or even less) favorable viewpoint. Some movies are like that, and Pina seems like one. The final advice? If any of what was described above sounds interesting to you. See it. You’ll absolutely love it. If you’re only partially or not even warmed by the same passages, don’t bother. This is the unwritten rule of a halfway competent film review, and it applies especially here.
Part four of a six part examination of various recent documentaries, which I expect to finish by the end of the month.
by Ken B.
♫They call him Flipper! Flipper!
Faster than lightning!
No one, you see, is smarter than he…♫
There’s a lot of truth to the last lyric. Dolphins are absurdly intelligent mammals. They know fear, they use tools, they communicate with each other. Ric O’Barry knows this. He was one of the trainers for the TV show Flipper in the 1960s. During that time, he saw the conditions and results of keeping dolphins in captivity, often in terrible conditions. He contends that they become increasingly aware and depressed, and that he’s seen one of them commit suicide. Over the years, he became a guerilla activist, freeing dolphins from egregious scenarios through some sometimes illegal methods. He’s been banned from the International Whaling Committee (IWC), but his actions have spoken loudly, and brought attention to the dangers of captivity.
O’Barry’s probably one of the worst enemies of the fishermen in the town of Taiji, Japan. Every September, unbeknownst to the Japanese public, said fisherman slaughter tens of thousands of dolphins. The water runs deep red, and the meat is disguised and sold. It’s an extremely well guarded secret – imagine the public outrage if all of this information had gotten out at once. This reaction is exactly what Louie Psihoyo’s disturbing and effective exposé The Cove is gunning for.
It doesn’t feel like a documentary – it feels like a heist film. Most of the setup shows how wary Taiji town officials are to the approach of a camera crew. Horrifying footage is obtained through hidden cameras designed as rocks. Much of the literal investigating is done at night and covertly. The Cove digs in deep to the total implications of what’s going on – when the filmmakers take to the streets of Tokyo, we see the shocked reactions of passers-by as they are told what is going on. Their responses are genuine, they clearly didn’t know.
There’s no justification for animal cruelty, but that doesn’t mean people don’t argue in its favor. The Cove, 91 minutes, is emphatically one sided on this issue. I’m not sure if I wanted to hear anyone’s point in favor of this practice, but it might have solidified The Cove’s feeling as a full, complete film. Considering the reputation of outsiders, it’s not particularly surprising that no formal counterargument was formed; early on, O’Barry remarks that the fishermen would kill him if they had the chance. The lack of a round existence is the film’s biggest stumbling block, and for the most part, it may have been beyond its control.
Regardless of its balance, The Cove is still startlingly brilliant in its existence. You’re informed and enraged. Through impassioned defenses, incriminating footage, and ingenious formatting, we have a documentary that works, despite its shortcomings in both length and presentation – it’s still watching a completely nonfictional story unfolding with the persuasion of any multi-million dollar thriller.
Part two of a six part examination of various recent documentaries, which I expect to finish by the end of the month.
by Ken B.
Everyone’s heard the story about how during the filming of E.T., the studio sought the permission of the manufacturers of M&M’s to use their product in the scene where Elliott lures E.T. upstairs. Mars, Inc. says no, but the Hershey Company, hoping to promote Reese’s Pieces, gladly allow the insertion, and upon the film’s release, sales of Reese’s Pieces go up over seventy percent. It’s product placement at its finest and most effective.
Ah, product placement. Advertising. It’s everywhere. This is the point of Morgan Spurlock’s The Greatest Movie Ever Sold (or POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, more on that later), a funny and fascinating look into how this kind of thing works. The film focuses on itself, as Spurlock goes around to various companies, looking for funding for his project in exchange for using and showing the products in return. Every cent spent on this movie comes from corporation dollars. As Spurlock picks up more and more sponsors, what he does becomes more limited. This is both a comedic element for the viewer and an impediment on exposing any real jawdropping truths. He takes us through the contracts: Every drink he’s seen drinking must be of the same brand, every food must be a brand of frozen pizza, every hotel used a Hyatt, and don’t even think about saying anything against the country of Germany. The biggest ad spot costs $1 million, and will be the most heavily featured, appearing in every way possible and above the title on promotional material. The buyer is POM Wonderful, manufacturer of pomegranate based fruit drinks. Indeed, their hourglass shaped bottles are constantly visible on tabletops during meetings and interviews. He even films a few 30 second commercials for them, shown throughout the picture. He also shows us different aspects of the film’s advertising, down to designing the posters.
By the end of The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, you feel like a pawn of commercialism. You recognize the constant bombardment of advertising that faces you wherever you go (unless you live in São Paulo, Brazil, where outdoor ads are banned; a facet highlighted within the film). The intertwining of entertainment and commerce has plainly existed since the dawn of both, but it’s amazing how much of it we choose to ignore.
At 87 minutes, the movie comes in slim. While the DVD copy I received contained no special features, regular retail editions contain nearly an hour of deleted scenes. It’s worth wondering whether a longer version of the film may have contained more interesting and new information. There’s nothing particularly wrong with this movie as is, but most viewers with a decent amount of knowledge on the subject of advertising and product placement won’t learn much that they didn’t know before. The interviews sometimes feel overly abbreviated. It’s a shame, because a wide variety of people are reached out to: from filmmakers like J.J. Abrams and Quentin Tarantino, to politicians, such as Ralph Nader, and businessmen like Donald Trump, who has unfortunately tried to be a politician.
The Greatest Movie Ever Sold takes an interesting topic and approaches it in an ingenious way, but it never really reaches its full potential. It’s amusing in its own right, but no groundbreaking ideas or facts are ever presented. Watch it, but don’t expect anything too great.