Saturday, August 24, 2013

American Dreamz

Year 5, Day 235 - 8/23/13 - Movie #1,517

BEFORE:  Well, I started the week with advertising and product placement, and then moved into pop music.  What brings those two things together?  TV singing contests!  Linking from "George Harrison: Living in the Material World", John Cleese (seen briefly in archive footage) was also in "Igor" with Jennifer Coolidge.

THE PLOT:  A wildly popular television singing contest captures the country's attention, as the competition looks to be between a young Midwestern gal and a showtunes-loving young Arab man. The President even wants in on the craze, as he signs up for the potential explosive season finale.

AFTER: Ugh, it's tough to know where to begin picking this one apart.  It's obviously poking fun at "American Idol", but it has to do so from a distance, probably for legal reasons, so the format of the singing contest had to be changed quite a bit.  But this unfortunately also distances it from the thing it's satirizing.  They sort of rolled Simon Cowell and Ryan Seacrest up into the same person, who functions as both the host of the show, and its only judge.  Did someone think the audience wouldn't be able to follow four characters, as in three judges and a host?

Then they go ahead and throw politics in the mix, with a clueless President (again, a thinly veiled poke at George W. Bush) willing to appear on the season finale (Idol would NEVER mention the finale guests at the start of the season, sorry...) and then terrorism is sprinkled in for good measure, with a sleeper-cell Arab teen who's barely good enough to make the cut and "catch on" with America.

I suppose you could assume that the "Vote For the Worst" movement could be in effect, which helped keep annoying untalented Idol contestants like Sanjaya around for extra weeks, but for the most part horrible Idol contestants are sent packing, so you'd like to think that if the system works properly, a mediocre singer who makes questionable song choices just wouldn't appear on the show for this long.

But, I think I'm probably over-thinking this plot, and giving it too much credit in the end.  By making fun of a long-running TV show that has become a parody of itself, most of the shots that land feel like cheap sucker-punches, and the others sort of miss the target completely.  What's the takeaway, here?  That some people fake their backstories to be on TV?  That the President should read the newspaper more often?  Terrorism is bad?  If you get anywhere near a point, film, please let me know.

NITPICK POINT: A key plot point involves someone looking through a keyhole.  But unless that door is in an old mansion, this is just not possible anymore.  When was the last time you were able to see into a room this way?  Sloppy, sloppy.

Also starring Mandy Moore (last heard in "Tangled"), Dennis Quaid (last seen in "Legion"), Hugh Grant, Willem Dafoe (last heard in "John Carter"), Chris Klein (last seen in "Rollerball"), Sam Golzari, Marcia Gay Harden (last seen in "Miller's Crossing"), Seth Meyers, John Cho (last seen in "Total Recall"), Shoreh Aghdashloo.

RATING: 2 out of 10 dance moves

Friday, August 23, 2013

George Harrison: Living in the Material World

Year 5, Day 234 - 8/22/13 - Movie #1,516

BEFORE: I've been looking for a way to work this one in, and since the title mentions the material world, it seems OK to include this after a film about economics.  (OK, maybe not, but work with me here...)  This is a long documentary, running almost three and a half hours, but a few years ago when I was home with the flu, I watched that other documentary about Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, and that was 4 hours long, so I know I can do it.  I'll just have to watch half of it at the office while working, and the other half at home tonight.

Linking from "Freakonomics", Melvin Van Peebles was also in "Posse" with Isaac Hayes, who was also in "Blues Brothers 2000" with Billy Preston.

THE PLOT:  Friends, family and associates of the musician tell the story of his life and how spirituality became such a major part of it.

FOLLOW-UP TO: "Nowhere Boy" (Movie #1,268)

AFTER: For such a high-profile person as George Harrison, could there even BE any aspect of his life that wasn't already documented, turned into trivia, or covered in one of dozens of Beatle bio-pics?

Turns out, yes.  But not in the first half, which was mostly a rehash of information that has been covered in other films, such as "The Compleat Beatles" or "The Beatles Anthology". 

For anyone who thought of George as just along for the ride, and perhaps taking a backseat to the more prolific songwriting team of Lennon and McCartney, this film seeks to prove otherwise - though it looks like John and Paul threw George a bone by just giving him one song per album in the early days, Harrison really came into his own with all of the sitar music on "Sgt. Pepper", and then after the White Album it seems like he really came into his own.  Try to imagine the "Abbey Road" album without "Here Comes the Sun" and "Something" - really, what have you got then?  Take away those two songs, and the whole structure of the album would collapse.  You'd be left with "Come Together" and a bunch of nonsense songs like "Octopus' Garden" and "Mean Mr. Mustard".

Now it seems to me like George was really getting his shit together as a songwriter, just as the team of Lennon & McCartney was falling apart.  Similarly, try to imagine the White Album without "While My Guitar Gently Weeps", and what have you got?  OK, maybe "Back in the U.S.S.R." and "Dear Prudence", "I Will" and "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da", but so much of the rest is crap - "Bungalow Bill"? "Wild Honey Pie"?  "Revolution No. 9"?  For another band, maybe, but by Beatles standards, crapity crap crap.

All one has to do is look at Harrison's first solo album, "All Things Must Pass", produced by Phil Spector, who apparently was still hanging around Abbey Road after destroying the "Let it Be" album.  It's a TRIPLE album, containing all of the songs he'd written in the last few years of the Beatles sessions, that never made it to their LP's.  OK, maybe every song on it isn't a gem, but "My Sweet Lord" and "What Is Life" are solid, solid songs, and "Isn't It a Pity" and "All Things Must Pass" show that the guy had a lot on his mind that he wanted to get out there. 

But then we've got the second half of the film, which kicks off with the breakup of his famous group, and concentrates on George's life A.B.  Once he started getting his own records out, then there was the Concert for Bangladesh (precursor to Live-Aid, really the first rock charity thing ever) and his own record label, tours and associations with the Traveling Wilburys.

If you do a portrait of anyone, you might find that they're a study in contrasts - and that certainly applies to Harrison.  Known as the "quiet" Beatle for several years, it seems like he really found his voice in the 1970's, promoting meditation and calling for world peace.  And of course financially he was well-off, but he seemed very concerned with the spiritual world and Eastern religion.  Perhaps only those who are financially well-to-do can spend so much time seeking inner peace.

Then we've got Harrison's third act, his career as a film producer.  He stepped in to save the Monty Python film "Life of Brian" when the financing collapsed over the fear of religious blasphemy, and then his company, Handmade Films, went on to make 23 other films, including one of my personal favorites, "Time Bandits".  I never really made much of the connection between the Beatles and the Pythoners before - perhaps because Harrison was the only connection - but they were both groups of Brits (mostly, except Gilliam) who wrote together and hung out together and even fought together, but produced (mostly) great work. 

I think you have to walk a fine line with a documentary portrait - you can just quote dates and events, this guy did this, then he met this person, in this year he released this album - which is much too factual and dry.  Or you can have friends and family tell a bunch of anecdotes about someone, so you might get a better sense of his personality.  This film tends to favor the second approach over the first, but I still sort of feel like George Harrison was a bit of a tough nut to crack.  I admire the guy, but I'm not sure I know him that much better after watching the documentary than I did before.

But I understand making a portrait film like this amounts to a series of choices - what do you leave in, and what do you end up cutting?  What presents the best portrait of the man?  They left in the time a fan broke into George Harrison's house and stabbed him, plus great detail about George's wife falling in love with Clapton, and the arguments with McCartney during the Twickenham sessions - all of which represent questionable choices.  No mention of various awards like the O.B.E., barely explaining his association with auto racing, being a vegetarian long before McCartney was, or any real details about his illness. I guess they couldn't make the thing four hours long in the end.

Also starring Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, Eric Clapton, Olivia Harrison, Dhani Harrison, Pattie Boyd, Klaus Voormann, Astrid Kutcher, George Martin, Jane Birkin, Yoko Ono, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle (last seen in "Nuns on the Run"), Phil Spector, Tom Petty, Jackie Stewart, Jim Keltner. 

RATING: 6 out of 10 guitar solos

Thursday, August 22, 2013


Year 5, Day 233 - 8/21/13 - Movie #1,515

BEFORE:  Morgan Spurlock directed one of this film's four segments, so it's a natural fit to watch this after "The Greatest Movie Ever Sold".  And if he narrates the segment, which I'm sure he did, then my actor linking is preserved. 

THE PLOT:  A collection of documentaries that explores the hidden side of human nature through the use of the science of economics.

AFTER:  A number of concepts from the book "Freakonomics" are explored here, and I never read that book - which I think is a good thing, because if I had, these concepts would be familiar and therefore boring.  The problem is, even though it was new to me, it was still pretty boring.  I fell asleep midway through the 2nd segment, and woke up during the 4th, so I had to go back and watch the 3rd after that.

Spurlock's segment takes a look at people's names, specifically the difference between how white and black Americans name their kids - and whether these names have an impact on their social standing and earning power later in life.  I guess this is tangentially related to economics, but it seems to come more from a racial place, and there's just no way to discuss this without sounding racist - someone, somewhere, wondered if people named DeShawn and Sherniqua were set up for failure in the business world, and by definition, that's a racist concept.

You might as well commission a study to find out if people with Asian names are better at math or worse at driving - obviously there are many other factors at work, and a simple analysis of names vs. income would never tell the whole story.  Besides, who decides what constitutes a "black name"?  Whatever name a black person has, that's a black name.  And who's to say naming a black daughter "Temptress" or "Unique" is any different from naming a white daughter "Britnee" or "Madison" with a silent Q in it?

Whatever point was made in the 2nd segment about corruption in Sumo wrestling, I missed it - and I'm not really interested in going back.  And the 4th segment (since I watched it 3rd) was also a little hit or miss - it was about paying 9th graders to get better grades (or bribing kids to study, as some might say).  Kids with grades that were all "C's" and above qualified for a $50 payout, and then those kids were entered into a lottery for a $500 prize.  And for added emphasis, they put the names of ALL the students into the drum, so they could pull out a kid's name - "Jimmy Johnson!  You won!  Oh, wait, you got a "D" in science, so let's draw another name."  Damn, that's harsh.

This project apparently got mixed results - grades were up overall the next semester, a number of "D" students became "C" students, but the number of "A" students didn't change (probably because they weren't on the bubble, and therefore not motivated to study more) and some kids seemed to resent being bribed to study, and then lost all motivation.  Fear not, these enterprising economists are going to start bribing grade-schoolers next.

ASIDE: Damn, what the hell happened to my generation, and the Gen X-ers that followed soon after?  We were supposed to be the first generation that was immune to marketing, since we were so surrounded by it that (theoretically) it would lose its effectiveness on us.  But we still have commercials, in fact we have even more on the internet now.  Damn, what the hell happened to the internet?  It was supposed to be a place for everyone to get AWAY from advertising, free for all to explore and order all the stuff we wanted without interference from Madison Avenue.  No lie, if you go to YouTube now and want to see that hot new commercial, you'll probably have to watch a DIFFERENT commercial before you can see the one you wanted to see.  That ain't right.  End of ASIDE.

The segment that interested me the most, although I didn't really like the way the information was presented (low-rent animation, poorly directed voice-over) was the third segment, the one related to crime in major U.S. cities.  There's no dispute that crime is down in NY (though probably up in other cities like Detroit) from where it was in the 1980's, when crack was king and Times Square still had hookers.  And while our elected officials and police commissioners will give the credit to better police techniques and tougher jail sentences, this film suggests that because abortion was made legal and readily available in the 1970's, there were fewer people in the poorer neighborhoods who were likely to commit crimes in the late 80's, simply because they were never born. 

If this is true, it's something of a political game-changer.  All those stuffed-shirt conservative Republicans, who are opposed to abortion in all its forms simply because of the moral/religious angle (yet they're also opposed to reasonable alternatives, like birth control, which makes no sense) could be wishing that they had taken a different stance years ago.  If they had spoken out more against abortion in affluent (white) neighborhoods, but allowed it in poorer (minority) neighborhoods which are more likely to be liberal Democrats, think of how many more Republicans there would be now!

However, I sense a couple of problems with this theory on the lower crime rates.  While I agree that the NYC government has probably, to some degree at least, taken credit for things they haven't done, you can't discount the efforts of the police to bust up drug rings, and the "Three Strikes" law.  You also can't quote statistics on a theoretical situation - there are no numbers available for what the crime rates would be WITHOUT Roe vs. Wade.  Finally, there was a huge scandal in NYC a few years back when the media found out that crime was being under-reported - and this probably also has a lot to do with dropping crime rates.  Police in some precincts were encouraging people to NOT report crimes, because doing so would affect the stats, which would affect tourism, business, and their own bottom line.  "Really, how many of these murders get solved, at the end of the day - let's just call this one aggravated assault, which is a misdemeanor..."

So, what "Freakonomics" is all about appears to be quoting theoretical stuff that can't be proven, but which the authors happen to find interesting.  But for the most part, it's still pretty boring.  And some of the theories are only half-developed.  "We found no correlation between first names and income levels" - well, then why bring it up at all?

Also starring Melvin Van Peebles, Steven Levitt, Stephen Dubner, with cameos from Bill Clinton, Bill Gates, Dan Rather.

RATING: 3 out of 10 report cards

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold

Year 5, Day 232 - 8/20/13 - Movie #1,514

BEFORE:  Well, I said I wanted to get to some of the documentaries that are still on my list, so here I go. Since "Cold Turkey" was about marketing (sort of) I found another film that's about marketing and advertising.  Linking from "Cold Turkey", Paul Benedict was also in "The Freshman" with Frank Whaley, who was in "Pulp Fiction" with Quentin Tarantino, who is interviewed in tonight's film.

THE PLOT:  A documentary about branding, advertising and product placement that is financed and made possible by brands, advertising and product placement.

AFTER: Great, so after I spend my whole day looking at commercials and discussing marketing campaigns, I get to come home and relax with a movie, which is filled with talk of marketing campaigns, and is essentially a giant set of commercials.  A Super-Size commercial, if you will.

I may have to recuse myself since I recognize some of the key companies and advertising personnel depicted here - then again, what the heck.  This is one of the most self-reflexive films ever made, since the audience gets to see all of the planning that went in to making it, and the meetings to arrange the product placement are themselves part of the process, so they were all filmed.

I usually can't stand movies about making movies, especially when the movie in question turns out to be the VERY SAME movie you're watching now! (Hey, how did THAT happen?)  Or when a character is revealed to be a writer, and gets sudden inspiration to turn the events we're seeing into a novel or a film.  Usually, it's a giant thematic cop-out.  But a documentary aims for transparency, and that means that all aspects of the planning, filming and marketing of the film you're watching are going to come under scrutiny anyway, so you might as well make them part of the deal.

I can't decide if Morgan Spurlock is as naive as he pretends to be - seems to me if you film 100 cold-calls to various marketing departments, you could expect 99 hang-ups.  He must have known that, right?  Just like he must have known that eating McDonald's food for 30 days was going to be bad for his body...  But he's charming, and that goes a long way toward believability.  So I want to believe that he didn't know much about this process going into it, and once he overcame the steep learning curve and signed a few sponsors, the rest sort of followed suit.

We have marketing and advertising because it works, apparently, which is another thing we all probably already knew going in - and there's so much money being thrown around in ads and sponsorships that $1.5 million to make a film will look like chump change to someone.  And even though Pepsi, Coke, Burger King and McDonald's weren't on board (gee, I can't imagine WHY Mickey D didn't return this guy's calls...) he got everyone from POM Wonderful to JetBlue to Hyatt and even Mane & Tail shampoo to play ball.

Perhaps surprisingly, Big Advertising is not the main villain here - if anyone plays that role, it's the lawyers.  Because in order to get his $50,000 or $100,000 from each sponsor, he has to sign a contract that says that this will be the ONLY beverage that appears in the film, or he won't stay at any hotel BUT a Hyatt during production, or he won't say anything bad about Germany.  Plus he had to promise to give the sponsors final edit approval, do a prescribed number of endorsements, and guarantee a certain number of theatre screens (impossible to predict).

I'm generally a cynical man, so when a series of circumstances is presented to me in a particular fashion, I'm often skeptical.  Is it possible to appear on the Jimmy Kimmel show on Monday, say, and then use that footage in a feature film released on Friday?  Sure, he could have left a 2-minute hole in the film until the last week and still locked picture, but then you still have to factor in edit time, making a certain number of prints, etc.  Seems to me the easier way to go would be to check if Jimmy Kimmel would consent to a segment taped in advance, so there would be time to edit it into the film, especially if the film's going to play on the festival circuit before release.  But there I go, thinking like a producer again....

Spurlock goes off on a couple of tangents - one is a trip to Brazil that shows how the city of Sao Paulo eliminated all billboards, and still managed to survive as a city.  But this film is not about the ugliness of billboards or urban sprawl, so I'm not sure I see the connection.  He also visits a high-school in Florida that has turned to selling banner space at the stadium to help fund their school (haven't they ever heard of mixed martial arts?) and he ends up buying up a bunch of banners to promote his film - presumably he felt somewhat guilty over taking so much corporate money, and had the urge to do something remotely positive with it.

In the end advertising is about manipulation - companies make you think you can gain some measure of happiness or satisfaction if you buy their product - and I can't figure out if Spurlock pulled the ultimate fast one by manipulating the manipulators, or if he just went door-to-door and was determined to be pleased with whatever result he got.  Since he doesn't trash the industry (being contractually obligated not to) each viewer is left to determine if he sold out or just "bought in". 

I've spent some time with Mr. Spurlock, he's hung out at our Comic-Con booth before - and then he went on to make a documentary about Comic-Con and didn't include us, so should I be upset?

Starring Morgan Spurlock, with Peter Berg, J.J. Abrams, Jimmy Kimmel, Ralph Nader, Donald Trump, L.A. Reid, Brett Ratner.

RATING: 5 out of 10 storyboards

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Cold Turkey

Year 5, Day 231 - 8/19/13 - Movie #1,513

BEFORE: Dick Van Dyke carries over from "What a Way To Go!" - TCM had aired a tribute to him a few months back when he won the Screen Actors Guild Lifetime Award, and that also brought me "Fitzwilly" and "Divorce American Style", but this is the last of those films.  Plus it's the end of the thematic chain that I discussed a few weeks ago, which was a matter of some concern as I didn't really have a film that would logically follow this one, or one that would share an actor.  What did I decide to do?  Tune in tomorrow to find out...

THE PLOT:  Hoping for positive publicity, a tobacco company offers $25 million to any American town that quits smoking for 30 days. Amidst a media frenzy, Eagle Rock, Iowa accepts the challenge while the company's PR man tries to sabotage the effort.

FOLLOW-UP TO: "The Insider" (Movie #394)

AFTER: I get that this is satire, but I'm not exactly sure what kind.  The situation, offering a town a lot of money (in 1970 dollars, at least) to quit smoking seems like a great jumping-off point.  We can watch as the townspeople all lose their shit in various ways - some turn to overeating, some turn to sex, and some just become neurotic messes who explode in anger at the least provocation.  But if the people can all pull together, and collect the check from the tobacco industry, they can more than balance the city budget, and make up for the financial losses of the previous few years, and make the capital improvements necessary to lure a new military plant to town.

First off, I wouldn't take any tobacco executive at their word.  Aren't these the people who placed ads in the 1950's saying how great smoking was for people's health?  Didn't they strong-arm TV commercials into popular TV shows like "The Flintstones" and the Ed Sullivan Show?  Why would anyone take this as anything more than a simple publicity stunt?  Sure enough, the tobacco company has no intention of paying out, because they KNOW how addictive cigarettes are.  And all they need is for one of the town's 4,006 residents to crack.

Which brings up a question - how does everyone KNOW that nobody in the town had a smoke on the sly?  They're certainly capable of it, because a few residents were depicted as closet smokers before the ban went into effect.  Who policed everyone in the privacy of their own homes?   The honor system?  What the heck is that?  We've already established that smokers have no honor, and don't care about anyone, least of all themselves.

I get that 1970 was a different time.  Heck, even the town doctor seen here smoked before every surgery.  "Just one to steady the nerves," he probably told himself.  Today, if you find out your doctor smokes, with everything we now know about the effects, you'd probably find another doctor ASAP.

I grew up in a "dry" town in Massachusetts, meaning there were no liquor stores or even markets that sold beer.  But people could just drive to the next town over and find bars, liquor stores and restaurants that served alcohol, so what did the local statute really accomplish?  If anything, it encouraged more drunk driving by making people drive to the next town to get loaded.  (Really, it just made residents of my town feel superior.)  So why couldn't the citizens of Eagle Rock just all drive to the next town to have a smoke?  

So, what's the takeaway, here?  That it's hard to quit smoking?  We kind of knew that.  That people will do anything for money, including enduring great hardship?  Again, sort of a given.  That tobacco flacks are a bunch of weasels?  Again, duh.  It's hard to discern any notable message from the events in this film, and I always say this about points - you should probably try to have one.

With the appearance of local government, big government, the military, religion, big tobacco, advertising, sexual politics - there are so many potential targets here, but the movie doesn't seem to take big swipes at any of them, and instead chooses to focus on the individuals going through withdrawal - who are all nuts, but are they wacky enough?  The benchmark here is probably the film "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World", which also detailed how far people would go for money, but that film depicted a speedy treasure hunt across California, and this one just shows people NOT doing something.  It's active vs. passive, guess which one is more interesting?

There is a swipe at (I'm assuming) the John Birch society, which was a national right-wing group in the 1960's, that stood against Communism, the civil rights movement and big government, and for personal freedoms.  Imagine the Tea Party led by Sen. McCarthy - they're still around today, and they support the dismantling of the Federal Reserve System.  Because that couldn't possibly cause any bad effects for the U.S....

But would it have been so bad to just plainly state the known consequences of smoking, as a little background as to WHY people should quit?  You know, just to make sure everyone is on the same page.  They reference cigarette ads being banned from television, but they don't get into exactly why this happened.  This film could easily be remade, or perhaps updated - however, since the number of smokers has decreased in the last few decades (probably because the older ones aren't around any more...) you could just change it to a town that has to give up fatty foods and collectively lose a certain amount of weight.  I know some towns in the U.S. have taken on similar challenges.

Also starring Vincent Gardenia (last seen in "The Front Page"), Bob Newhart (last seen in "Horrible Bosses"), Tom Poston, Jean Stapleton (last seen in "Michael"), Barnard Hughes, Pippa Scott, Edward Everett Horton (last seen in "Sex and the Single Girl"), Bob Elliott, Ray Goulding, with cameos from Paul Benedict (last seen in "Cocktail"), M. Emmet Walsh (last seen in "Slap Shot").

RATING: 3 out of 10 massages