Product Place Me

Morgan Spurlock made a name for himself with SUPER SIZE ME, a documentary in which he filmed himself eating McDonald’s food for one month. He followed that up with WHERE IN THE WORLD IS OSAMA BIN LADEN?, another ambitiously gimmicky documentary that was equally inconsequential.

Spurlock’s latest film is his gimmickiest for sure – it’s a movie about product placement that was financed by, wait for it, product placement!

So, a lot of this movie is a series of pitch meetings to companies that he wants to feature in his film. Spurlock approaches all the major, and not so major, corporations (well, not McDonald’s for obvious reasons) and gets rejected by most of them (“that doesn’t sound like a movie I’d have any interest in seeing” says one of the folks he cold calls), but a number of companies sign on. The one that ponied up the biggest bucks ($1 million), POM Wonderful, was rewarded with their name above the title, in case you’re wondering about the film’s bloated name.

Spurlock pads the film with interviews with film makers like J.J. Abrams, Peter Berg, Quentin Tarantino, and Brett Ratner who have differing views on product placement. Noam Chomsky, Ralph Nader, and On The Media host Bob Garfield also appear. Spurlock asks Nader if there’s any truth in advertising. Nader responds: “Yeah, if the advertiser tells you they’re lying.”

In one of the film’s most interesting bit is a visit to San Paulo in Brazil, a city that has banned billboards and advertising of every kind from its streets and buildings. Spurlock hammers the point though with resident’s comments, and his own obvious statements: “Look, that taxi has no ad on it!” We get it.

Spurlock is never as funny, insightful, and engaging as he thinks he is, and there’s too many stretches where the film has nothing to say about its subject. I have no idea if Spurlock thinks product placement is good or bad, I’d guess that he thinks it’s good if it benefits him.

There’s a lot of stuff a good documentarian could do with the premise. It would be cool to learn the history of advertising on the big screen, what were the biggest deals made, with more insight into the argument over its merits.

Instead we get Spurlock walking around a grocery store making lame jokes about products. He’s particularly amused about the shampoo for humans and horses Mane ‘n Tail. He giggles as he phones them, but I sure didn’t.

And then there’s his cutesy mock commercial he makes for his sponsors. Really icky stuff.

Spurlock’s Michael Moore methods all fall flat once again.
In one of the pitch meetings in the first third, Spurlock says that “the goal of this whole film is transparency. You’re going to see the whole thing take place from beginning to end.”

The film, and Spurlock, are indeed transparent – I can see right through them.

More later…

CAPITALISM: A LOVE STORY: The Film Babble Blog Review

CAPITALISM: A LOVE STORY (Dir. Michael Moore, 2009)

This time out filmmaker/muckraker Michael Moore brings his tried and trusty methods (idyllic 50’s stock footage, Baby Boomer-era hit songs, a megaphone, stern evil unemotional old white men, and bringing it all back home to Flint, Michigan) to the financial crises of the last few years. “There’s gotta be some kind of a rebellion between the people that have nothing and the people that’s got it all” says Randy Hacker as he and his family are getting evicted from his home early in the film and it’s impossible not to get emotional. Trouble is as much as my eyes teared up, they rolled more at Moore’s antiquated antics throughout the movie.

“This is capitalism – a system of taking and giving, mostly taking.” Moore’s voice-over tells us as he sets up his thesis. He darts around from heartfelt salt of the Earth stories to scolding exposés of corporate practices like “dead peasant insurance” which has companies profiting from employee’s deaths. This is all almost entirely aimed at the banking system – Moore even at one point unrolls a long strip of yellow police tape around the entrances of the towers in Wall Street’s banking district. It’s a crime scene you see? Yeah, you get it.

I’ve long thought Moore was fighting the good fight with his heart in the right place, however here he’s again preaching to the choir and will doubtfully earn many new converts with this piece of pop doc polemic. There was a smattering of applause at the end at the theater I saw this film in but the folks who would go to an art theater to see a Michael Moore movie these days are certainly already on his side. A number of effective points and a definite worthwhile discussion can be provoked by Moore’s material but his shtick of accosting security guards and senators (as well as dubbing stock footage for his purposes) has gotten beyond old at this late date.

Of course, just a discussion among likeminded folks is not what Moore wants. He wants that full on rebellion that Hacker spoke of above just like he wanted FAHRENHEIT 9/11 to deny George W. Bush another Presidential term (it didn’t) and SiCKO to help change the U.S. Health Care situation (it hasn’t). (Possible Spoiler! Wait, can there really be a spoiler in a film like this?) Moore makes this plea at the very end of the film: “You know I can’t do this anymore – unless those of you who are watching this in the theater want to join me. I hope you will, and please speed it up.” Well, I just have to say: good luck with that!

More later…

The Film Babble Blog Top Ten Worst Movies Of 2008

2008 was definitely not as strong a year in film as 2007 as it had many more clunkers and mediocre movies that crammed theaters weekend after weekend. I mean this was a year in which respected icons Al Pacino and Robert De Niro (together again for the very first time!) appeared in a movie nobody cared about while Mike Myers and Adam Sandler competed over who could make the least appealing former SNL player vehicle ever (THE LOVE GURU and YOU DON’T MESS WITH THE ZOHAN respectively). I avoided those movies but I saw more than my share of absolutely awful films. Here’s the worst of the worst:

1. WANTED (Dir. Timur Bekmambetov) This ginormous train wreck of a movie actually featured a ginormous train wreck in a central sequence that was certainly its most memorable moment. That, for way obvious reasons, is fitting because the awful premise that attempts to flesh out a FIGHT CLUB-ish dis-satisfied working cog scenerio into a Swartzennegerian high octane comic book extravaganza just ends up a CGI suckfest. I felt sorry for James McAvoy and Angelina Jolie (who make one of the most unconvincing screen couple action duos ever) along with Morgan Freeman, Terrance Stamp, and even the damn fake train for having to take part in this high octane tripe. I literally got sick seeing this last Summer, that may have been the food at the Raleighwood Cinema Grill, but this sure didn’t help!

2. AN AMERICAN CAROL (Dir. David Zucker)

Michael Moore responded to a question from Time Magazine’s Richard Corliss about this movie that mocks him with “[Cyber-silence].” Not dignifying it with an answer was beautiful on Moore’s part because a film that treats Bill O’Reilly like he’s a hero and treats the audience like idiots ready to lap up faux patriotism presented as cheap shots at a popular liberal documentarian should be (and was) roundly ignored. Chris Farley’s brother Kevin was in the lead role as the ersatz Michael Moore – enough said?

3. CHAPTER 27 (Dir. J.P. Shaefer) Infamous John Lennon murderer Mark David Chapman is no deranged Travis Bickle poetically stalking the mean streets, and this is no TAXI DRIVER. Jared Leto gained weight but no cred for this disgusting nothing. Fun fact: Lindsay Lohans only screen appearance of 2008 was in this as a Beatle groupie named Jude. Oh, actually thats not really much of a fun fact. Nothing about this is. Read my review of the detested DVD here.


The most aptly titled film on the list by far. Ben Stein used to be likable despite being a former Nixon speechwriter because he was like ironic, you know, as the game show host on Comedy Central’s Win Ben Stein’s Money and that classic cameo in FERRIS BUELLER’S DAY OFF (“Bueller? Bueller?”). Now he’s destroying that charming ironic image by trying to debunk the theory of evolution and equate those scientists who supposedely repress the study of Intelligent Design to Nazis. This poorly made, poorly written, and just plain poor non doc is even stupider than it sounds. I was too appalled to write a review when I watched the DVD a few months back but I highly recommend Roger Eberts blog-piece (not an official review mind you but still brilliant) Win Ben Stein’s Mind (Dec. 3rd, 2008).

5. THE HAPPENING (Dir. M. Night Shyamalan) The only thing that happened here was we were given the undeniable sign that Shyamalan should be stopped at all costs. Donnie Wahlberg, so good in THE DEPARTED, regressed into a placid persona that will be SNL impression fodder forever. It wasn’t his fault though, some actors are only as good as their material and he was given a formless piece of high concept crap in which to run around aimlessly in. Again, how can we stop Shyamalan such a Hitchcockian hack from offending again? Any ideas?

6. THE ONION MOVIE (Dirs. Tom Kuntz & Mike Maguire) In Britain this was renamed NEWS MOVIE which makes it appear to be in the series of putrid non satires including EPIC MOVIE, DISASTER MOVIE, MEET THE SPARTANS, etc. and though thats not really accurate it’s still right as rain to add it to that bunch of bullshit. Read how I believe it killed off the tiny sub genre – the sketch comedy film – here.

7. QUANTUM OF SOLACE (Dir. Marc Forster)

Bad Bond – bad! Read how bad here.

8. WAR INC. (Dir. Joshua Seftel) A while back I wrote about how much I craved a new good John Cusack film (A Cry For Quality Cusack – Oct. 6th, 2007) and while he did make a close to decent film this last year (GRACE IS GONE) he took a huge step backwards with this quasi sequel to GROSS POINT BLANK which is just grossly unwatchable. Glib with not a plausible frame or laughable line, WAR INC. wastes not just Cusack but Dan Aykroyd, Marisa Tomei, Ben Kingsley, and even the voice of Montel Williams (that’s right) as well in this toothless political parody. Even John’s usually reliable sister Joan comes off as unbearably obnoxious. I never wrote a review of it but the Onion A.V. Club’s Nathan Rabin’s hilarious appraisal (No Blood For Oil Stridently Political Case File #129: War, Inc.) in which he labels it a “Fiasco” is well worth checking out.

9. THE X-FILES: I WANT TO BELIEVE (Dir. Chris Carter) Way to kill off a possible franchise, Mr. Carter! Make a movie that contains none of the original supernatural charm of the seminal series or the previous film and make it excruciatingly dull too, why doncha? Read more of my bitching here.

10. CASSANDRA’S DREAM (Dir. Woody Allen) Hey – The Woodman has a film on both my Best Of and Worst Of 2008 lists! The luscious VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA luckily erased memories of Ewan Macgregor and Colin Farrell as brothers who scheme to…uh, like I said I don’t remember. I just remember being bored and wondering if Woody would ever make a good movie again. Thankfully he did. Read more about my darkness before the dawn (I know –sounds appealing doesn’t it?) here.

Okay! I skipped so many movies that probably would’ve made the list had I seen them – 88 MINUTES, SPEED RACER, FUNNY GAMES (I did see the original if that means anything since it was a frame by frame remake), BANGKOK DANGEROUS (more crappy Nicholas Cage!), THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL, MAMA MIA!…the list goes on and on. Well, for now at least, it stops.

More later…

Religulous – The Film Babble Blog Review

RELIGULOUS (Dir. Larry Charles, 2008)

A while ago I had an extremely non-religious friend who announced one day that they were going to church the next Sunday. I asked Why? Are you planning on heckling Jesus? Thats what comedian/agitating TV talk show host Bill Maher set out to do as he went out globe-trotting with BORAT director Larry Charles with eyes set on sarcastically deflating followers of all faiths. Well, not all faiths but he goes from Jeruselum to a Truckers Chapel in Raleigh, N.C. to the Vatican (he gets thrown out almost immediately) to Salt Lake City to…you get the idea. He taunts all of his targets with how the tales of “Adam and Eve, 5,000 years ago with a talking snake are so mind bogglingly ridiculous (get the title? Might as well be Religion – Bad!) that it is destroying us as a society to believe them at all.

I once wrote that Michael Moore wasnt really a true documentarian but more a comedian who hi-jacked the documentary format in order to stage his routines and that goes double for Maher. He gives us his own religious background via old family photos and grainy stand-up clips and spends a lot of the film talking directly to the camera. None of the people he speaks to knew it was him that was going to do the interviews and more than once there are protests to the effect of I don’t know what kind of documentary youre making but…. A bit with a man dressed as Jesus at a Florida theme park (pictured above) actually provides some spiritual food for thought as amusingly the guy is never thrown by Mahers quizing. George Carlins can God make a rock so big even he can’t lift it? constantly came to mind while watching this movie (it may have even been quoted – I cant remember) and that is undeniably fitting because Maher is a definite disciple of Carlin.

Unfortunately a lot of this falls flat as Mahers smug nature sabotages some of his strategy. An interview with ExChange Ministries director John Westcott, who considers himself an ex-homosexual, seems to exist just so Maher can be all C’mon! Youre gay! Cheap shots, contradicting subtitles, and an overusage of footage from cheesy TV shows (not sure what point the excerpt from the 1985 Robert Blake show Hell Town was making) and Biblical themed movies all mar (had to go there) the ultimate thesis. Still, there are a lot of laughs throughout and the most lasting impressions are ones that will inspire much discussion and debate for years to come. In taking on theology Maher had his heart and mind in the right place its just too bad his funny bone got in the way.

More later…

Moore Is Way Less This Time Out – Free Download Notwithstanding.

SLACKER UPRISING (Dir. Michael Moore, 2008)

“Stream it, download it, burn it now. It’s the first time a major feature-length film is being released for free on the internet. You can be part of this historic moment by logging on now!” – Michael Moore (from an email you’ll get when you sign up for the free download of SLACKER UPRISING).

Watching this new documentary sure doesn’t feel like I’m taking part in an historic moment. It’s a self indulgent infomercial centering on Moore’s tour of colleges in battleground states in the last weeks of the 2004 Bush Vs. Kerry election. Since we all know how that turned out this is supposed to show Moore and fellow liberal Democrats’ failed but noble attempts as inspirational grass roots measures to encourage voters for the current campaign. It doesn’t quite come off that way though as despite some background to the swiftboating of Kerry and touching testimonials from the families of soldiers in Iraq (as well as some by soldiers themselves) this mainly shows what Moore credits as “a cast of millions” screaming and applauding him on stage like a rock star over and over as he does his usual schtick. You know the routine – Bush lied, the war is corrupt, get out and vote, etc. which is all fine but he covered it better, of course, in FAHRENHEIT 9/11 which this film ought to be just a bonus feature on a future Special Edition DVD of.

That’s not to say there aren’t good bits though and not coincidentely they don’t contain Moore’s visage but instead showcase the music on the tour. Steve Earle passionately plays “Rich Man’s War” to a rapt audience, Joan Baez does an acapella version of “Finlandia” and Eddie Vedder, who considers Moore one of “the wonders of the Patriot Act; Michael is a patriot who acts”, does an invigorated solo acoustic version of Cat Steven’s “Don’t Be Shy” *. There is also R.E.M., Tom Morello (of Rage Against the Machine), and singer songwriter Robert Orrall doing his catchy crowd pleaser “Al Gore Lives On My Street”. It’s Moore’s show though and it is commendable that he spends some time dealing with his detractors. Bush supporting students (in small numbers) come to his rallies and even try to get him barred from speaking but Moore has the mike and can yell down any opponent. To examine the valid criticisms and anger of the anti-Michael Moore population would have made the movie worthwhile but we just get the same slogans that by now even the choir is tired of.

* This appears to be what inspired Moore to use Steven’s original version (written for HAROLD AND MAUDE) as the end credits music for SiCKO.

Shortly after the results of the 2004 election were in a headline in the satirical newspaper the Onion said it best: “Poll: Youth Totally Meant To Vote In Record Numbers”. This sums up whats wrong and ultimately very depressing about this exercise. This film would only be vital and necessary if the Slacker Uprising strategy worked. Instead we see 99 minutes of a man drunk on his own applause. Patting himself on the back and believing his own hype even when it turns out to be drastically ineffective. It is encouraging that polls are showing that more folks may be getting out and voting in what is likely the most severely important Presidential race in my lifetime but a film like this is hardly going to matter in the grand scheme. SLACKER UPRISING is for Michael Moore completists only (if there are such people) and it should have remained with its original title “Captain Mike Across America” as a sideline film, like I said before, only added as an extra on a future DVD re-release. It seems though, as smart and savvy as he is, that he knows this hence its asking price. Yep, that’s right – at least it’s free.

Postnote #1: Actually it’s not completely free – just the download for American and Canadians. DVDs are being sold for $9.95 at Moores website.

Postnote #2: For a worthwhile look at criticisms from Moore detractors check out Rick Caine & Debbie Melnyk’s MANUFACTURING DISSENT (Reviewed here November 13th, 2007)

More later…

10 Movie Posters That Completely Co-opt Others Original Designs

This is a sequel of sorts to a post I did earlier this year (10 Of The Most Misleading and Mis-representing Movie Posters Ever!) with one of the same posters mentioned and the same theme of mis-marketing dominating. Recently the publicity for the new pop-doc AMERICAN TEEN included a poster that directly recreates the iconic poster image for the classic 80s teen angst flick THE BREAKFAST CLUB. The similarity was so blatant that it made many folks (including me) think it was a retitled remake:

You see? To be fair AMERICAN TEEN has another poster design out there that’s more original but that above is still still close for comfort. This is a pretty common device that calls for another patented Film Babble Blog list:

10 Movie Posters That Completely Co-opt Other Poster’s Original Designs

1. THE BIG ONE appropriates MEN IN BLACK and suffers legal action for it – That’s right the image for Michael Moore’s self indulgent book tour doc was ruled too similar to the design for the Will Smith/Tommy Lee Jones sci-fi vehicle so a judge ruled that Miramax had to remove the posters from distribution. The taglines: “Protecting the Earth from scum of the universe” from MEN IN BLACK and “Protecting the Earth from the scum of corporate America” from THE BIG ONE would probably be dismissed by most of us as parody not copyright infringement but Columbia Pictures’ lawyers thought differently.

2. FLETCH LIVES for some reason regurgitates GONE WITH THE WIND – This lackluster sequel did itself no favors by placing Chevy Chase’s Irwin M. Fletcher character into the framework of one of the most famous films of all time. Not sure the thinking here, did they really think it was a good idea to equate the camera-mugging wise-ass with a suave Rhett Butler in the thralls of a tragic romance while Atlanta burns? I suppose the GONE WITH THE WIND design is just a device for selling the Fletch inherits a Southern Plantation’ premise and I should cut them some slack for trying to wrap a failed follow-up in something resembling a classy package.

3. WHERE IN THE WORLD IS OSAMA BIN LADEN? macks on the art for RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK – Meticulously copying the entire design right down to the typefaces and every detail of the amazing Amsel painting done for the 1982 re-release of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, Morgan Spurlock’s much lambasted quasi-poli-doc tries to align itself with the same globe trotting heroic splendor of the Spielberg classic but just ends up looking desperate. I haven’t seen WHERE IN THE WORLD… but not being a fan of SUPER SIZE ME or Spurlock’s television work makes me ambivalent at best to it with this uninspired poster design putting me off even further.

4. THIS IS SPINAL TAP jumps on the back of AIRPLANE! – This one I wrote about before in the Most Mis-leading Movie Posters post mentioned above, noting that director Rob Reiner remarked: “They marketed it with a guitar flying in the air with a twisted neck which looked like the poster for AIRPLANE! It looked like it was trading on

another film”. There were many more comedies that were marketed with crazy flying in the air’ imagery – the Zucker Bros. own NAKED GUN movies kept the concept alive for another decade after SPINAL TAP.

5. PROBLEM CHILD crassly copies PARENTHOOD – A mere months after Ron Howard’s family comedy was a hit came this tasteless anti-family comedy with a poster design that mocks the former’s switching the roles and supposedely doubling the laughs. Not a bad advertising approach mind you, I’m sure many rented one after glancing at the video box thinking it was the other.

6. DEAD HEAT duplicates GOODFELLAS – This one is really annoying. Same dark design with 3 protagonists posing above a street scene and the same typeface

shows a complete creative bankruptcy on the side of the promotional department. The utterly forgetable Keifer Sutherland crime thriller that somebody on the IMDb message board called “SEABISCUIT meets GOODFELLAS could not come close to competing with Scorsese’s masterpiece so seeing them try is painful.

7. ROCK ‘N ROLL HIGH SCHOOL re-amps NATIONAL LAMPOONS ANIMAL HOUSE – Lots of crude sloppy comedies have likewise Mad Magazine derived designs but the folks behind marketing the Ramones’ film debut didn’t look very far for an angle here – they just went with what worked for the previous years teen gross-out blockbuster. Squint and you’d think you’re seeing the same picture (especially with the tiny examples I’ve provided here).

8. WHEN HARRY MET SALLY redoes ANNIE HALL (as does the movie) and begat a flood of rom com movie marketing – A couple in a hesitant yet sexually tense moment always makes for a good poster picture for a romantic comedy,

right? Well just add a city skyline (most often New York, duh!) underneath and now you’re talking. Dozens upon dozens of recent rom coms have used this type imagery including SLEEPLESS IN SEATTLE, TWO WEEKS NOTICE, MAID IN MANHATTAN, ALEX & EMMA (also Rob Reiner), etc. Oh yeah, the Dudley Moore / Mary Steenburgen movie actually named ROMANTIC COMEDY had a similar image too.

9. CLOVERFIELD marks on THE DAY AFTER TOMORROWs territory – The Statue Of Liberty gets a lot of abuse in the world of movie posters. In CLOVERFIELD its head gets blown off (same thing is shown

on ESCAPE FROM NEW YORKs poster incidentely) and a long shot view shows us a stormy New York in turmoil. Looks a lot like the same painting style and tone used in THE DAY AFTER TOMORROWs the Statue Of Liberty under ice image. The poster for the upcoming sludge through bad pop culture spoofs DISASTER MOVIE features our long suffering statue getting drowned in a tidal wave. Hard job it is being a giant symbol of freedom I guess.

10. TRANSFORMERS apes PLANET OF THE APES – Why would anybody want to recall the roundly rejected Tim Burton remake of the Charleton Heston “damn dirty ape” classic with a poster image that looks nearly identical? It seemed like TRANSFORMERS would’ve had its own shiny take on the aesthetics and wouldn’t have to stoop to this so was it unfortunately unintentional? Did somebody think the look and angle of the Ape design was cool and thought it was either forgotten or needed to be re-done and re-purposed? Whatever the deal, I can still barely tell them apart.

Okay! Now, I know there are lots of movie posters that have co-opted the designs of others that I missed so feel free to comment away.

More later…

Young Genghis Khan, Steroids, And A Cagey New DVD Release

MONGOL (Dir. Sergei Bodrov, 2007)

Appropriate alternate titles for this film could be THE ADVENTURES OF YOUNG GENGHIS KHAN, THE REAL WRATH OF KHAN, or perhaps most aptly GENGHIS KHAN BEGINS. At first I was just happy that this wasn’t like 300 – a videogame aestetic with not one foot in reality but despite some CGI (mostly in the spraying of blood) this epic thankfully has an old school naturalism to it. Unfortunately it is a trial to sit through with long sequences that go nowhere and characters that fail to stir any emotional connection.

We first meet Khan, born as Temudgin, as a young boy played by Odnyam Odsuren. When his father is murdered he becomes hunted because he may grow up to avenge the death GODFATHER: PART II-style. He survives capture and torture and skirts across the endless mountain terrain inspired by thoughts of his young bride Börte (Bayertsetseg Erdenebat). The pace picks up a bit when he emerges as an adult in the form of Tadanobu Asano whose grace and stern focus provide the film with much needed power. He returns to the arms of Börte now portrayed by Khulan Chuluun but their reunion is short-lived as she is kidnapped by a rival clan and Temudgin goes against the advice of his best friend Jamukha (Honglei Sun) who stresses “What Mongol ever went to war for a woman?”

Several battle scenes full of slow motion slicing and the before mentioned digital blood are the most entertaining parts of MONGOL but they do not save the movie from the long uninvolving stretches that toyed with my patience. The photography of the infinite landscapes of Inner Mongolia and Kazakhstan is breath-taking much of the time but the lack of narrative drive and the detached handling of the myths of these historical figures as well as the lackluster love story left me cold. At just a little over 2 hours (but feels much longer) MONGOL moves like a bloated beast trying to find a place to sleep but still lashing half heartedly out at swirling flies. The word is that this is the first part of a trilogy – a Mongolian LORD OF THE RINGS if you will, with director Bodrov promising the rest of the tale of the legendary conquerer for your Oscar consideration (MONGOL was nominated for a Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award). Well if the future installments lumber like this one in such uninspired stupor over the tortuous and tedious terrain, count me out.

BIGGER, STRONGER, FASTER (Dir. Chris Bell, 2008)

Fancy this – a documentary about an obvious hot-button topic i.e. anabolic steroids and their impact on our national society which contains actual insights personal, political, and pop culture-wise. Take that, SUPER SIZE ME! Director Bell and his 2 body building brothers (Mike “Mad Dog” and Mark “Smelly”) have all used steroids and relate tales of near stardom in the shadows of their heroes – Arnold Swartzeneger, Sylvester Stallone, Hulk Hogan et al. Taking its name from an oft repeated line from The Six Million Dollar Man, BIGGER, STRONGER, FASTER is chock full of clips of their role models in their pumped up prime – RAMBO, ROCKY, THE TERMINATOR, as well as satirical swipes at the world of performance enhancing drugs from the likes of The Simpsons and SNL. Filling out the solidly structured footage is interviews with experts pro and con on the steroid issue but the real crux is the Bell brothers’ back stories. Chris Bell cops to doing steroids (in an especially emotional dinner table scene with his parents) when he was younger and stopping because of feelings of guilt but his brothers are still users. Their confessions under the scrutiny of their brother once one of them but now a questioning documentarian are compelling and surprisingly sincere sounding: “I love steroids and will probably be on and off them forever” Mark admits matter of factly.

Bell keeps coming back to Swartzeneger who he calls “the poster boy for steroids” and reasons that the Govenator, as he’s often called, wouldn’t be where he is now if not for the controversial compound. The director even tries to get an interview with Ah-nold a la Michael Moore’s attempted Roger Smith ambush but he doesn’t bog the film down with the pursuit – it’s just an amusing sideline. Examining not only the public personas wrapped up in the use or abuse debate but statistical data and health risk misinformation (depending on who you listen to) Chris Bell has made a superlative documentary that deftly balances its viewpoints and never loses its thesis thread. BIGGER STRONGER FASTER earns its tagline: “The Side Effects Of Being American” and should be seen by everybody with even just a passing interest in its subject. It’s one of the most honest and absorbing portraits I’ve ever seen of a complicated problem with equal parts humor and pathos. With hope it won’t be forgotten when the awards season comes around again.

Newly released on DVD:

NATIONAL TREASURE 2: BOOK OF SECRETS (Dir. Jon Turteltaub, 2007)

The first NATIONAL TREASURE was a direct lift of “The Da Vinci Code” (the book mind you – it beat the film adaptation by 9 months) imposing an American action formula on the bestsellers puzzles and distortion of history. It was as stupid as it sounds with Nicholas Cage’s wise-cracking protagonist leading his small crew (including the supposed to be funny but isn’t Justin Bartha as his partner and Diane Kruger as the love interest) through contrived unexciting movie mechanisms but it made a ginormous amount of money; enough money to warrant a sequel apparently so here we are again with more of the lame same. I was planning on skipping this until I saw a trailer that promised the premise of a book known only to the President of The United States that contains the secrets to the nation’s greatest mysteries – the J.F.K. assassination, Area 51, and the alleged faking of the Apollo Moon landing. I’m a lover of conspiracy theory cinema and am writing a book on the subject so I felt obligated. I still shouldn’t have bothered – these famous theories or urban legends, as some would call them, are just mentioned and never used in any interesting or even amusing way. As I should’ve known the book of secrets is just a McGuffin * in another round of running from one wickedly easy to open crypt to another cipher or another implausibly placed code.

* For you non-film geeks – a McGuffin is a plot device that motivates the characters or advances the story, but the details of which are of little or no importance otherwise (Wikipedia).

Anyone who doubts the quality of the latest INDIANA JONES movie should see NATIONAL TREASURE 2 because its lack of genuine wit and graceless tone makes that ole Spielberg/Lucas/Ford re-union special look like TREASURE OF THE SIERRE MADRE! The addition of Helen Mirren as Cage’s mother and Voight’s bickering ex-wife brings nothing new to this lame wannabe franchise though it is kind of cool to see her in plain duds with scraggly hair and no grand make-up for once. Then again with Mirren and other such solid respected actors as Harvey Keitel (reprising his role from the first NT as a sympathetic cop in pursuit) and Ed Harris (as the villain – uh, I guess) running around it feels like this overly slick enterprise exists to glorify cinematic slumming it.

Nicholas Cage has drifted so far from doing compelling vital work with such dreck as this and GHOST RIDER, NEXT, THE WICKER MAN et al that it is getting harder to remember how interesting and talented the guy once seemed. Since these movies make money his return to worthwhile cinema looks like it may be delayed indefinitely. I loved his performances in ADAPTATION, RAISING ARIZONA, WILD AT HEART, and various other non-action roles in his canon so this long detour into sell-out formula crapola is pretty puzzling. Though to make sense of this movie mystery wouldn’t take a cryptic McGuffin with a code to decipher unless it leads us directly to Cage’s bank vault or just gives us his bank balance statement.

More later…

Abortion & Torture At The Movies – Happy Easter Everybody!

As 2 of the most obscure titles my hometown movie-house has had in a long time the following films are hardly crowd pleasers. Varsity Theater owner Bruce Stone said on a sparsely attended opening night – “Neither is really THE SOUND OF MUSIC you know?” Still, I recall Roger Ebert’s proverb: “No good film is depressing, all bad films are”. With that in mind let’s take a look at the films I heard that a fellow co-worker referred to as “a downer double feature”:

4 MONTHS, 3 WEEKS AND 2 DAYS (Dir. Cristian Mungiu, 2007)

Sadly ignored by American audiences despite being at winner at Cannes and the Golden Globes, this affecting Romanian film had an intense grip on me from the first shot. That first shot is a cluttered table next to a window in a shabby ass dorm room. The camera pulls back and we are introduced to Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) who appears to be taking care of the every need (buying cigarettes, arranging schedules, etc.) of her room mate Gabriela ‘Găbiţa’ (Laura Vasiliu). It is 1987 in Bucharest, Roma under the Ceauşescu regime – as a 1930’s stage narrator would tell us – and Găbiţa is pregnant so a shady meeting is set up with a stranger for an illegal abortion. Every required task for the plan gets botched – the hotel insisted upon is booked, Găbiţa lies about what month her term is (hence the title), and worst of all the man called upon to do the deed (Mr. Bebe played by Vlad Ivanov) is an asshole who bullies the women on every point. There are so many unpleasant draining circumstances that the stressed-out Otilia often has to sit down and regroup. I was right there with her catching my breath.

One certain lengthy dialogue-free sequence (don’t worry – no Spoilers) has an amazing display of body language entangled with tension. Grueling and degrading as the scene is it has a tone so much more human than in many recent movies. 4 MONTHS… is mostly constructed out of long unbroken shots – very little cutting – which enforces the air of being in the same room not just with these people but their worries and regrets. A family dinner, an obligation to Otilia’s boyfriend (Alex Potocean) that takes her away from the scene of the crime, is as cluttered with folks in the frame as it is crammed with everybody’s (some not in the shot but overheard) opinions. They pontificate about class relations, whether you’d be arrested if you didn’t go to church on Easter, and why young folk shouldn’t smoke in front of their elders. The scene by itself could be a great short film with Otilia squirming in a manner that doesn’t necessarily need our knowledge of the uneasy background. A dark tale told with natural rhythms and as one character remarked at the dinner scene “a sense of what’s real”, 4 MONTHS, 3 WEEKS AND 2 WEEKS is a stirring portrait of mislaid agendas.

Speaking of mislaid agendas:

TAXI TO THE DARK SIDE (Dir. Alex Gibney, 2007)

Everybody gasped (me included) at the Oscar party I attended when this won Best Documentary over SiCKO and NO END IN SIGHT. At first glance one has to sigh and think “another anti-Bush administration talking heads piece of pop propaganda” and yes, that can be said but watching it such cynicism drops and the picture, as horrifying and disarming it is, becomes frighteningly necessary. In 2002 an Afghan taxi driver named Dilawar is taken into custody by American soldiers. He dies 5 days later after being chained to his cell’s ceiling getting his legs pummeled repeatedly by several guards and suffering numerous other forms of assaultive abuse. Later it is revealed from leaked documents and press inquiries that Dilawar was innocent and that he and his passengers were “no threat” to American forces. Angering interviews from a few of the soldiers involved as well as the architects of the invasion fit into the framework purposely especially the clip of Dick Cheney a week after 9/11 saying “We have to work the dark side, if you will. We’re going to spend time in the shadows.” Another such chilling moment is when one of the accused soldiers says he had never heard of the Geneva Convention before.

Rewriting the rules on what defines torture is the slipperiest of slopes as we see over and over what can happen on a ginormous generalized dehumanizing scale. We are shown countless disgusting photographs, hear excruciating first hand accounts, and see for the first time on film inside Bagram Air Base where the horrendous activity occurred. Of course none of this sounds like fun but it is one of the most startling and compelling documentaries this side of NO END IN SIGHT. It very much deserved to win the Oscar over that extraordinary film. Gibney’s work here has a passion and drive that with hope will gain a bigger audience. Since the film was bought by HBO and the Discovery Channel that is sure to happen.

TAXI TO THE DARK SIDE must be recognized as not just another damning governmental practices diatribe. It is a film about torture that is not tortuous to watch for it calmly and calculatingly lays out a tale that can not be dismissed. Familiar footage of Bush has him stating of terrorists: “wherever they are, we will hunt them down, one by one, until they are no longer a threat to the people who live in the United States of America.” One by one the offenses against America that Bush and his cronies have committed pile up into towers that will cast shadows on us all. Still thinking of Ebert’s proverb I have to write that it is not just depressing that we yet again need a documentary to shine a light on these horrors it makes me miserable that people ignore them when they come around. Wake up, open your eyes, and get out of bed America and pay attention or we’ll have nothing but films like this.

TAXI TO THE DARK SIDE only plays for 4 more days at the Varsity Theater so if you live in Chapel Hill try and make it out to see it.

More Later…

SEMI-PRO – Completely Amateurish

SEMI-PRO (Dir. Kent Alterman, 2008)

Does the Will Ferrell sports comedy genre (epitomized in TALLADEGA NIGHTS, KICKING AND SCREAMING, and BLADES OF GLORY) have a future? Does it deserve one? Well judging by this recent entry – no. Will Ferrell is undoubtedly one of the biggest comic actors right now – just a week ago he came to my area and performed to a sold-out crowd at a local basketball arena (The Dean Smith Center in Chapel Hill, NC). I doubt sold-out crowds will show for this because even hardcore Ferrell fans will have a hard time finding SEMI-PRO anything but only fitfully funny. And it’s more fitful than funny.

It’s set in Flint, Michigan in 1976 – why? Because everyone knows the 70’s are funny with their wacky hairstyles and kooky clothing while Flint, an economically troubled crumbling city as Michael Moore has often illustrated, I guess the filmmakers figured also has comic possibilities. We meet yet another full-of-himself Ferrell character – Jackie Moon – a one-hit wonder (with the creepy single “Love Me Sexy” that opens the movie) now turned owner/coach/player of the the American Basketball Association’s Flint Michigan Tropics. His team, of course, is a gaggle of underdog losers who may have to fold because of a merger of the ABA with the NBA. Ferrell makes a deal that if the Tropics finish in the top 4 at the end of the season they can make the move to the NBA. He recruits Woody Harrelson (squandering all the cred he just gained with his measured performance in NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN) as a former NBA player, and he ups the promotional ante with gimmicks like corn dog night, clown makeup night, and even gets in the ring with a live bear named Dewey one night to put bums in the seats. So far so bad…

It’s all supposed to be in the realm of “outrageous comedy” but very little amuses here. Co-star André Benjamin (also known as André 3000 of the band Outkast) makes the same mistake Harrelson does – they both act like they’re playing real people when they should of cozied up to the cartoon trappings like Ferrell knows to do. The rest of the cast is capable – former Conan co-hort Andy Richter is always likable but given little to do, Maura Tierney (Newsradio, E.R.) plays another thankless girlfriend part, and SNL‘s Kirsten Wiig (as the bear handler) along with Arrested Development‘s Will Arnett try in vain to get some laugh action. An odd appearance by Jackie Earle Haley, (no stranger to sports comedies with BAD NEWS BEARS back in the day) as a zoned-out hippie who Ferrell screws over because he can’t afford to pay him $10,000 Haley won at one of his promo nights, suggests a profound sense of laziness in the screen-writing process but that’s evident everywhere. Especially in the tired jabs at lame 70’s targets like Pong, Shasta, and Fondue sets that seem like rejects from ANCHORMAN. You can’t have Will Ferrell and this cast and not have some laughs – a poker table Russian Roulette scene has its moments and there are scattered lines that may elicit chuckles but this is a wasted enterprise overall. SEMI-PRO is the worst Will Ferrell film I’ve ever seen (and yes that includes BEWITCHED) but I’m hoping it offers some hope that the powers that be recognize it as such and scrap all future Ferrell sports projects. Yeah, as if.

More later…

D’oh! That Damn Bee Overtakes The Gangsta! That And A Couple Of Docs

“Movie? Who’s talkin’ about a movie? This is not a movie – this is my fuckin’ LIFE!!!!”
– Shelly Kaplow (Alec Baldwin) THE COOLER (Dir. Wayne Kramer, 2003)

The news is: BEE MOVIE just hit #1 over not just AMERICAN GANGSTER but even beating out movies that opened last Friday (LIONS FOR LAMBS and FRED CLAUSE). Well that kinda deflates my post from about a week ago. I wanted to see LIONS, which Tom Cruise is already bitchin’ about flopping, but just about every critic is telling me not to – though I probably still will. Looks like the real prestige (or Oscar wannabe) picture season has not yet begun.

I thought I’d clean out my notebook and post a few documentary reviews – a couple of new release DVDs that deserve some words:

CRAZY LOVE (Dirs. Dan Klores & Fisher Stevens, 2007)

The saying “love is blind” has never been so chillingly played out than it is here. A tale torn from old New York Post headlines about prominent lawyer/mogul Bert Pugach’s wooing gone wrong of young beauty Linda Riss is best described by veteran journalist Jimmy Breslin: “It was a big story…3 black guys throw acid in a white girl’s face on behalf of her spurned boyfriend – a white lawyer in the Bronx …sensational! The 3 blacks will go away forever, now we’ll get the white lawyer – he’ll go…and we’ll sympathize with the woman forever.” That sums up the first engrossing amusing half – the second half (which is just as engrossing) is where it gets weird. After 14 years in prison (the prison was Attica – where the titanically tumultuous 1971 riots occurred, mind you) Paguch is released and lo and behold, gets back together and actually marries the blinded bewigged Linda Riss! I can’t say that this scandalous story, told in interviews with Pugach and Riss as well as a bunch of their old acquaintances – all in heavy make-up, is a “you’ve got to see to believe” spectacle because I’ve seen and still don’t believe. Paguch is well spoken and has some charm but not enough charm to pull off this deal – most women would consider hired goons throwing lye in the face to be a deal breaker but what are you going to do? Woody Allen said something once about the heart being a resilient little muscle – I just never have seen it so blatantly displayed as something only about the size of the rock on Linda Riss’s finger.

MANUFACTURING DISSENT (Dirs. Rick Caine & Debbie Melnyk, 2007)

A documentary about a documentarian. There have been many works that have criticized Michael Moore * and his methods, in books like “Michael Moore Is A Big Fat Stupid White Man”, counter-point documentaries like CELSIUS 41.11, MICHAEL MOORE HATES AMERICA, MICHAEL AND ME and FAHRENHYPE 9/11 as well as numerous anti-Moore websites like Moorewatch (which was featured in SiCKO) so what’s another? Well, this sober overview of Moore’s career and the premise of what really is accountable in docu-journalism presented here is far above the before-mentioned mostly manufactured by the right wing product. Many who haved worked with Moore are interviewed and many reputable talking heads (including Roger Ebert, Errol Morris, and Christopher Hitchens) make pretty damning statements while at the same time praising his ideals and his piercing place in pop culture. In the spirit of ROGER AND ME, Debbie Melnyk tries futilely and exhaustingly to get an interview with Moore – she actually corners him a few times in 2004 but he’s elusive, preoccupied with getting Bush out of office, and at one point he smarmingly gets her to hug him for a photo-op, which in her narration she regrets and is obviously embarrassed by. The background on Moore being fired from his Mother Jones magazine editor gig, his famous fudging of the getting a gun at the bank in BOWLING FOR COLUMBINE timeframe, and his dissing of Ralph Nader are seriously things to ponder in this new light.

A lot I can excuse and laugh off because I believe Moore is fighting the good fight – idealistically he’s got the goods but one thing that’s increasingly hard to get over is the account of the backstory of ROGER AND ME. I’ve known since a Premiere Magazine article in 1990 that he actually spoke to Roger Smith (there’s a full transcript of the interview) prior to the film but that he allegedly tried to talk friends into denying it had happened so he could retain the “I could never get to him” premise really gets to me. But then this is just another biased documentary that should be taken like a grain of salt as well. If I believe everything it says – Moore is a backstabbing asshole and I don’t believe that’s true. He seems not to be a film journalist at all – more like a comedian who hi-jacked the documentary format in order to stage his routines. MANUFACTORING DISSENT has many valid statements and necessary views on Moore and his oeuvre – some are revelatory and provoking as Hell – but it’s not nearly as funny or as entertainingly in your face as Michael Moore’s movies are. Therin lies the rub.

* As film babble readers know I’ve written quite a bit about Moore – like last summer’s post The Evolution Of Michael Moore (June 26, 2007) and I went with my family to see him speak in person at the Carolina Theater in Durham – A Night With Michael Moore 4/3/2004 – so yeah, I admit I’m way biased.

More later…