POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold


POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold

Morgan Spurlock shows his mettle at product placement.

(2011) Documentary (Sony Classics) Morgan Spurlock, Ben Silverman, Noam Chomsky, Ralph Nader, Donald Trump, Jimmy Kimmel, J.J. Abrams, Quentin Tarantino, Peter Berg, Brett Ratner, Antonio Reid, John Wells, Rick Kurnit, Paul Brennan, Mark Crispin Miller. Directed by Morgan Spurlock

 

It’s no secret that motion pictures have become a veritable cornucopia of product placement. Actors guzzle down Coke, wear Nike t-shirts and Ray-Ban sunglasses, chew on Beemer’s gum, escape the bad guys in Mini-Coopers and snack on Reese’s Pieces with their favorite aliens. It’s a means of subtle advertisement for a variety of products who pay big money to place their products in prospective hit movies.

Movies aren’t the only place that advertising reaches us. It surrounds us nearly 24-7; on billboards, television shows, pop-ups on websites, garments, taxis, busses, skywriting – even on menus. We can’t turn around without our eyes resting on some sort of advertisement. It permeates our lives so thoroughly we barely realize it’s there anymore.

Morgan Spurlock still notices though. He came up with the concept of doing a documentary on advertising – entirely financed by product placement. He goes into meetings with executives for a variety of products, from JetBlue airlines to Mane and Tail animal care products to POM Wonderful pomegranate juice. He winds up filming some commercials for a few of them,  and actually winds up achieving his goal.

He also talks to luminaries like social commentator Noam Chomsky, consumer advocate Ralph Nader, filmmakers Brett Ratner, J.J. Abrams and Peter Berg and billionaire Donald Trump about the incessant and invasive nature of modern advertising. The talking head sequences are some of the most entertaining in the film, particularly those of Nader and Trump.

He also visits Sao Paolo in Brazil, a city which has banned all outdoor advertising. It is a stark reminder of just how much ads are a daily reality for all of us. The city looks almost naked without the billboards, signs, posters and handbills that are everywhere in the modern city.

Spurlock is a lot like Michael Moore in that he is not a documentarian who is content to stay behind the camera and allow the story to tell itself. Like Moore, he is always part of the story as he was in Super Size Me which is notable in that it was instrumental in getting McDonalds to discontinue Super-sized combo meals.

I don’t think he’ll have the same kind of affect here – there is nothing here that indicates that advertising is anything other than annoying. However, one is given pause for thought when he talks to administrators at a cash-strapped Florida school that has allowed advertising on its school grounds to help raise badly needed operational funds. You have to think that this might well be the wave of the future.

Even if he is a bit intrusive in his own documentary, Morgan is charming and pleasant enough an on-camera personality. Did his idea merit a full-length documentary feature? Probably not. However, I will give you that it at least gives one food for thought, even if it is just a Happy Meal.

WHY RENT THIS: Spurlock is always clever and funny.   

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Not sure this was a great idea for a full length documentary.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some bad language and a little bit of sexual innuendo.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: As a means of promoting the film, the city of Altoona, Pennsylvania change its name to POM Wonderful Presents the Greatest Movie Ever Sold, Pennsylvania for 60 days (beginning April 27, 2011). The town was paid $25,000 for doing the promotion.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: All of the commercials Spurlock made for the various products are here in their entirety. There is also a feature on the film’s appearance at Sundance on the Blu-Ray edition.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $638,476 on a $1.8M production budget; didn’t quite make its production budget back.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Lucky

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The Hunger Games


The Hunger Games

Jennifer Lawrence takes a bow.

(2012) Science Fiction (Lionsgate) Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Lenny Kravitz, Wes Bentley, Donald Sutherland, Stanley Tucci, Toby Jones, Alexander Ludwig, Isabelle Fuhrman, Amandla Stenberg, Willow Shields, Paula Malcomson, Nelson Ascensio, Leven Rambin, Jack Quaid. Directed by Gary Ross

 

For some, Darwinism boils down to survival of the fittest. Only those equipped to make it in a brutal, indifferent environment will move on to the next round. We see this in our social networking. We see this in our reality television.

In the future, it is all over our lives as well. After the fall of the United States, a new nation of Panem (from the Latin panem et circenses meaning bread and circuses) rises. It is comprised of the wealthy Capitol surrounded by 12 impoverished districts. After a failed uprising, the Capitol has ordered that one boy and one girl, each between the ages of 12 and 18, from each district would be selected at random and brought to the Capital for a fight to the death. Only one of the 24 young people would survive the competition, which was televised and became known as the Hunger Games.

This year is the 74th of the annual events. In District 12, the coal-mining district which is one of the poorest of them all, the people awaiting the Reaping (the ceremony in which the selection of the fighters, known as Tributes, is made) with a mixture of anticipation and dread. Katness Everdeen (Lawrence) is a veteran of these Reapings as is her boyfriend Gale Hawthorne (Hemsworth) who like many young people is chafed by the injustice of the very rich choosing from the very poor to die for their entertainment. Katness is more practical; she’s concerned with day-to-day survival in a situation where food is scarce.

Her sister Primrose (Shields) is in her first Reaping and is mighty scared about how things will turn out. Katness tries to reassure her; she’ll only have one entry into the Reaping while Katness and Gale have dozens. So of course when the Reaping takes place it is Primrose who is chosen; Katness, aghast, quickly volunteers to take her sister’s place. This isn’t unusual in the more urban districts but this is the first time District 12 has had a volunteer. Somewhat anti-climactically, Peeta Mellark (Hutcherson), the son of a baker, is chosen for the boys.

The two are collected by Effie Trinket (Banks), a dandified handler and whisked away by bullet train to Capitol. There they are to be mentored by Haymitch Abernathy (Harrelson), a sullen alcoholic who has the distinction of winning the Hunger Games twenty years previously. There is also Cinna (Kravitz), a genius of a designer whose purpose is to make the Tributes look as memorable as possible so they might attract sponsors, wealthy patrons who send their favored medicine, food, water and other supplies during the course of the game.

Training is interspersed by media appearances, particularly on the wildly popular talk show of Caesar Flickerman (Tucci) where Peeta lets it slip that he’s had an unrequited crush on Katness. When the game begins, Haymitch warns Katness to stay away from the cornucopia which would be a bloodbath and to find high ground and water. She follows his advice and is able to survive the brutal first few hours in which half the Tributes die.

Her skills in hunting and tracking serve her well, particularly as an alliance has been formed by Cato (Ludwig), Glimmer (Rambin) and Marvel (Quaid), some of the older and better-trained Tributes. Peeta has thrown in with this lot to help hunt down Katness who has quickly become one of the more popular Tributes. Katness is joined by Rue (Stenberg) who helps her outwit the alliance by pointing out a nest of Tracker Jackers, a kind of genetically enhanced hornet whose sting causes hallucinations and death, at least for Glimmer.

It will soon become apparent that Katness will not only be fighting her fellow Tributes but also the powers that be, led by the amoral President Snow (Sutherland) who don’t want to see the inspirational Katness succeed. The Hunger Games are turning out to be so much more than the sum of their parts.

The wildly popular young adult books have transitioned well to the big screen, which translated to the third-largest opening of all time and the biggest for a non-sequel. The movie has gotten high critical praise and is rapidly on its way to becoming the next cultural phenomenon, replacing the Harry Potter and Twilight series.

It is also going to make a huge star out of Jennifer Lawrence. Katness is in many ways an iconic character; she’s a young woman of strength and ethics who feeds her family (much as Lawrence’s Ree Dolly did in Winter’s Bone) but shows compassion for the weak. She knows that her society isn’t just but is concerned more about survival until pushed to the limit. She makes for quite the role model.

Like in the Twilight series, Katness is faced with the love of two different men – the earnest and charismatic Peeta as well as the good-hearted and intelligent Gale. Expect hours of conversation between pre-teens and their moms about the relative merits of both gentlemen and which one is the right one for Katness.

Director Gary Ross has opted to go with a good deal of handheld camera work here, mostly to signify Katness’ point of view and illustrate the chaotic nature of the Games. That might be exciting for the younger viewers but for us older folks it gets annoying and intrusive; there are better ways to illustrate chaos than blurry, shaky images that make you want to look away from the screen than be mesmerized by it.

The images are dazzling in places, but not as much as I thought it would be. The overall look of Capitol is kind of like Versailles if it had been designed by the art director of The Fifth Element. It screams decadence and autocracy quite nicely, while dressing up the citizens of the outlying districts in homespun not unlike pioneers.

The action sequences are pretty marvelous although not necessarily groundbreaking. The stunts aren’t too terribly violent although there are a couple of pretty messy deaths here. Definitely original author Suzanne Collins has succeeded in creating a new environment that is simultaneously familiar and alien, inhabited by Tracker Jackers and mellifluous mockingjays (songbirds who appear in the movie’s emblem) as well as digitized Muttations.

There are those who see a socio-political commentary in the film; conservatives look at the young people as the Tea Party vs. the elitist left-leaning establishment, whereas liberals look at the young people as signifying the Occupy movement against the one per-centers. You are free to choose whichever interpretation you wish, or to make up one of your own. This is meant to be socio-political commentary disguised as entertainment but Collins is wise enough to be fairly vague in who’s who. That makes for some fairly nondescript politics but at least it is a place to start conversations. And when you’re talking one of the year’s most successful movies (having made three times its production budget in the first eight days), that’s not a bad thing at all.

REASONS TO GO: Several steps above the Twilight franchise. Lawrence sends her career to the next level.

REASONS TO STAY: Maybe a little bit too long. Left me ambivalent about the inevitable next film in the franchise. Shaky cam was distracting and annoying.

FAMILY VALUES: There is quite a lot of violence as well as a few disturbing images.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The design for the cornucopia was based on the work of architect Frank Gehry, designer of the Disney Theater in downtown Los Angeles.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/31/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 85% positive reviews. Metacritic: 67/100. The reviews are strongly positive.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Logan’s Run

GLADIATOR LOVERS: There are numerous references to ancient Rome, from the names of the citizens of Capitol (Coriolanus, Seneca, Cato) to the weapons used in the Games themselves.  

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: POM Wonderful Presents The Greatest Movie Ever Sold