Archive for August, 2011
YATES: ‘Sold’ says ‘no’ to product placement in films
Still flying solo this week while Anna settles into grad school left me in an inquisitive mood, so I visited my local movie rental joint in search of something educational. Films fall into three main categories: Narrative, documentary, and experimental. Narratives — your typical cause-effect storyline with a conflict and resolution — occupy most of Hollywood’s attention. A small niche exists for documentaries, while experimental films are highly interpretive and created mostly for art’s sake. They have no real financial significance, which is largely why Hollywood ignores them. There is a new motif in Hollywood that is helping studios cover the increasingly huge costs of creating films — product placement. Now, narrative’s little brother — the documentary — is stepping in to tattle with Morgan Spurlock’s latest DVD release, “The Greatest Movie Ever Sold.”
Financed solely through product sponsorship, the film is about … product placement and sponsorship. While he takes a tongue-in-cheek approach, product placement is becoming more and more prevalent in film and TV — something that is changing the landscape of film and television while widening the gap between studios and independent filmmakers. Hollywood is walking a fine line, running the risk of artistically stifling talented directors by including contractual obligations for products appearing onscreen at certain times or in prescribed locations. (Your soft drink can be in our film’s climax!)
“The Greatest Movie Ever Sold” follows Spurlock as he attempts to find sponsors to finance his entire film project. In return, the products are featured in comedic style throughout the documentary. The film introduces the audience to product placement terms such as brand personality, co-sponsorship and my favorite — faction, which is described as a production blending fact and fiction. Unfortunately, the film ends up more about Spurlock’s search for sponsors than the overall business and impact of product placement in Hollywood — which is too bad, because the film is very entertaining and informative when scratching the surface of the big business of product placement, but it is all few and far between Spurlock making his own sales pitches to corporations. After a somewhat unnecessary 30-minute exposition, the film begins to take shape by uncovering some of Hollywood’s tactics through interviews with entertainment lawyers, directors and producers. The movie comes full circle with Spurlock doing whatever he can to publicize the film. It’s a light-hearted look into something that deserves much more exploration.
Thanks in part to the controversial material they cover documentary filmmakers often find themselves under heavy scrutiny. Political or financial motivations are often cited when a filmmaker is accused of taking a certain stance — most notably Michael Moore, who tackled the war in Iraq and U.S. gun control with “Fahrenheit 9/11” and “Bowling for Columbine.” Spurlock is not exempt from this crowd. His 2004 “Super Size Me” was highly critical of the fast food industry and spawned a rebuttal documentary in Tom Naughton’s 2009 film “Fat Head.” Naughton actually lost weight on the same fast food diet Spurlock followed and offered evidence that contradicts current obesity claims by the health food industry. It’s all extremely enlightening when you use a film as a starting point for your own research. I wouldn’t suggest you take any documentary at face value, as the medium of film makes it easy to manipulate facts and how things are portrayed. Ironically, one of the sponsors of “The Greatest Movie Ever Sold” is the fast food franchise Sheetz. The term sell out is thrown around quite a bit during the film, and Spurlock does just that considering his recent indictment of the fast food industry. Of course, Spurlock says he’s not selling out, he’s buying in. Clever guy.
Ultimately all that Spurlock answers with his film is the question of if product placement belongs in documentary films. Given the informative nature of the film style, the answer is a resounding no. The artistic limitations are briefly discussed by a few Hollywood directors in the film, and if product placement hinders artistic freedom, what would it do to the free flow of unbiased information? For that reason alone (not to mention this film was rather boring), let’s hope this is the last time we see heavy product placement in a documentary film.
YATES: Director gets audience rooting for the apes
With summer coming to an end, I thought it was appropriate to cap off the summer blockbuster season with Hollywood’s latest big-budget reboot, “Rise of the Planet of the Apes.” The Planet of the Apes series, based on a 1963 novel, consists of five original films — beginning with 1968’s “Planet of the Apes” — a remake in 2001, and now what could be considered a reboot or prequel. This is also the first version to use digitally created primates instead of actors in make-up. CGI (computer-generated imagery) in today’s film world, especially when heavily relied on throughout a narrative, is hit or miss. I swung into my local theatre this week to see if this reboot of the popular franchise would rise above the rest.
Scientist Will Rodman (James Franco) is working against the clock to discover a cure for Alzheimer’s disease, which has ravaged his father’s health. Will’s work involves lab testing on apes, and when an accident shuts his experiments down, the apes involved in his trials are destroyed. After discovering one of the trial apes was pregnant, Will rescues the infant primate and raises it in his home. He soon discovers that the young ape – named Caesar – has benefited from the drugs tested on his mother and displays incredible cognitive abilities. When aggressive behavior lands Caesar in a primate sanctuary, his revolt against the humans who have betrayed him begins. Using an airborne version of Will’s formula, Caesar exposes his sanctuary brethren in a plot to escape from the grips of human torture and live free among the California Redwoods. While the apes begin their rise to freedom, humans experience the beginning of a global pandemic due to a negative human reaction to the Alzheimer’s formula.
A strange thing happened during the film that I wasn’t expecting — I found myself rooting for the apes. Director Rupert Wyatt (“The Escapist”) does a fantastic job of creating empathy for Caesar and the other primates with a host of antagonists that consistently mistreat the apes. From the obvious — such as pharmaceutical CEO Steven Jacobs (David Oyelowo, “The Last King of Scotland”), who sees dollar signs instead of living creatures, and the primate sanctuary boss John Landon (Brian Cox, “Zodiac”) who allows his sons to consistently abuse the apes — to a subtle antagonist in Will, you can’t help but feel for the apes. The CGI characters are tremendously detailed and display a wide range of emotion though facial expressions. All of the apes have distinct personalities and develop unique and complex relationships with each other and the humans.
There are some obvious plot holes that gives the impression of lazy scriptwriting. For example, the formula used on Will’s father and later by Caesar on other apes seems to work overnight. Instantly reversing the effects of Alzheimer’s seems a bit hokey and definitely feels rushed. There are scenes where character motivations seem to exist simply because they are convenient to the script — such as Will’s neighbor leaving his brand new Mustang parked outside running … with the door wide open … while he’s nowhere in sight. This allows Will’s confused father to climb in and crash the car into others in the street, setting up a confrontation with the neighbor, which all leads up to Caesar physically attacking the neighbor in defense of Will’s father. The entire sequence comes off a tad contrived due to the nonsensical actions of the neighbor.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t end there. Additional head-scratchers include Will’s unwillingness to use any of his clout (top scientist at a major pharmaceutical company surely counts for something, right?) to rescue Caesar from the sanctuary or even investigate the treatment of the apes. When Will’s lab assistant becomes ill from exposure to the formula, he shows up at Will’s house coughing up blood when he clearly is a smart guy and should know to go to a hospital (he never does). It is frustrating to see intelligent characters continuously doing ignorant things simply to serve the plot — but given the nature of the overall story of the apes rise to power, minute details are ignored by the director and for the most seem to be forgiven by the audience.
The cinematography and mise-en-scene combine for a visually stunning film. The intricacies of motion picture cinematography involve many components, including lighting, blocking the scene with your actors and understanding spatial relationships within each setup. Throwing in a CG element in nearly every scene only complicates the process. Not surprisingly, cinematographer Andrew Lesnie served as Director of Photography in the CGI-laden “I am Legend” and the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, so he knows a thing or two about integrating CGI into his work. Lesnie’s keen eye combines with exotic, contrasting locations such as the pristine, high-tech science labs and the gritty, dank confines of the primate sanctuary to paint a visual masterpiece.
“Rise of the Planet of the Apes” is far from a perfect film. Franco’s acting is wooden (as always), and the plot holes are numerous. I would argue, however, that it is the most promising and effective reboot of a film series in recent memory. From paying homage to the original — “Take your stinking paws off me you damn dirty ape!” was worked into the script and served as a crowd pleaser — to setting up a sequel with a newspaper headline that reads “Lost in Space!,” the film rises to the occasion as both a reboot and a prequel. Of course the moral of the film and the irony is that it is us as humans that are responsible for our own problems and demise — in this case the rise of the apes — and sadly, that is closer to reality than a Hollywood narrative.
YATES: ‘The Change-Up’ offers a few laughs, but won’t become a classic
Ironically I’ll be flying solo for the next few weeks as my co-pilot in the “He Said/She Said” blog prepares for grad school. I say it’s ironic because this week’s film is “The Change-Up,” centered on two protagonists switching bodies.
The idea of swapping bodies with someone — even for a couple hours — is a mind bending, mystical premise with unlimited possibilities. Is it any wonder that Hollywood continues to go to the well with the concept? One could argue that the ’80s were the heyday of the body swap film. The frequency of titles has slowed since then, with only a few notables in the past decade in “17 Again” and “Freaky Friday.” It’s a new decade and the first big body swap film has arrived with “The Change-Up.” I have been very vocal in my opinion that body swapping actors Jason Bateman and Ryan Reynolds aren’t mismatched enough to pull it off. Could they prove me wrong? I swapped $8 for movie tickets at my local AMC Theatre to find out.
Longtime friends Dave (Jason Bateman, TV’s “Arrested Development”) and Mitch (Ryan Reynolds, “Green Lantern”) are leading empty lives. Dave is a workaholic married father of three caught in the rat race at his law firm and Mitch is a womanizing actor who occasionally finds work to continue his slacker lifestyle. Karma steps in when the two confess their mutual envy of their lives, and they awake the next morning in each other’s bodies. While waiting to switch back, Mitch must take on the role of responsible husband and father, while Dave gets a taste of the single life.
“The Change-Up” misses the mark for a number of reasons. You never really connect with the two characters swapping bodies. Mitch is incredibly unlikeable, and Dave’s charm wears off as the film progresses. Granted this type of film is a tad predictable, but there should still be some threads of intrigue. We never learn about Mitch’s past and why he acts so juvenile, and we learn a little about Dave’s back story but nothing involving his marriage, which is an integral part of the plot. The major elements needed in a classic body swap film are missing from the movie. As expected, I had a hard time accepting Bateman and Reynolds as the two body swappers as they are just too similar. Reynolds complaining about Bateman’s body while you can clearly make out Bateman’s abs is a tough sell. Someone along the lines of Steve Carell would have been a better casting choice for Bateman’s buttoned-up father role. As for the major dilemmas faced by Mitch and Dave — well, there really aren’t any. All that really happens is Dave learns to appreciate his family and Mitch learns to grow up. I learned that apparently one of the primates from “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” became a screenwriter and churned this baby out.
Plot-wise the film is flimsy, even for a predictable story. With Dave one week and one big deal away from making partner at his law firm, we get a montage of Mitch — a soft porn actor, mind you — working day and night on actual legal matters to help Dave’s firm hammer out a deal. Yet when it comes down to the big meeting to close the deal, Mitch uses an analogy of bedding a Catholic girl to convince his partners to negotiate for an additional 100 million dollars. So much for all that legal work by Mitch and the soul searching that went along with it. Dave, on the other hand, just kind of loafs around for the week enjoying time away from his wife and three kids.
Director David Dobkin (“Wedding Crashers”) uses a lot of raunch, and I think it was a mistake. Is there a better way to show us Mitch is irresponsible besides dropping the F-bomb every third word? At times the film feels like it wants to be a romantic comedy; others a Farrelly Brothers imitation. It all takes away from Bateman and Reynolds, who have good chemistry but don’t share the screen nearly enough. There are a few scenes that carry some emotion — mostly surrounding Dave’s wife Jamie (Leslie Mann, “17 Again” coincidentally). For the most part, though, the film comes off disjointed — more of a collection of comedic scenes rather than a cohesive story — which causes a disconnect with the characters. If I can’t buy into at least one of the protagonists switching bodies, I can’t buy in to the film. While a few laughs are had due to some situational comedy, “The Change-Up” won’t go down as one of the classics when it comes to the body swap film category.
YATES: ’18 Again!’ breaks away from body-swap pack
In a bit of a reveal of next week’s review of “The Change-Up,” Anna and I pay homage to body-swap films by selecting our favorites from the sub-genre during classics week. There’s certainly a lot to choose from, so I first set out to create my own definition for a body-swap movie. The main criterion I set is that it has to involve two people actually switching bodies. Unfortunately, this disqualified some outstanding classics, most notably “Big” starring Tom Hanks and “Family Man” with Nicolas Cage. In “Big” Hanks’ character becomes an adult version of himself, and in “Family Man” Cage gets a glimpse into an alternative life he may have lived with different choices. How about “Teen Wolf?” Michael J. Fox certainly undergoes quite a metamorphosis from human to werewolf, but again, he doesn’t actually switch bodies with another person. Having pared down the selections and sifting through the remaining eligible films, I finally decided on 1988’s “18 Again!”
Millionaire philanderer Jack Watson (an always brilliant George Burns) makes a wish during his 81st birthday party that he’d like to be 18 again. During a car accident with his hapless grandson David (Charlie Schlatter), Jack gets his wish as their souls are switched. As David lies in his grandfather’s body on life support after the crash, Jack sets about instilling a bit of style into David’s college social life – wooing the girl of David’s dreams, winning over new friends, and steadily improving David’s standing on the track and field team. When the family decides to take Jack’s body off life support, Jack must find a way to switch their souls back and make things right again.
Of course, the classic staple of the body-swap is that both people are in valuable need of some life lessons — lessons that they cannot apparently get while staying put in their own body. Typically, some sort of unknown higher power steps in and switches the pair until said lessons are learned and they may be switched back. This works best if the two people being switched are opposites — young/old, male/female, etc. (more on that next week). In the instance of “18 Again!” you have the awkward, artistic teen and the self-made, mature elder. It’s a match made in ‘80s body-swap film heaven … if such a place exists (I believe it does.).
“18 Again!” is just one of many films from this sub-genre that are easily interchangeable. “Dream a Little Dream” uses the same young/old formula a year later with Corey Feldman and Jason Robards. The late ‘80s also saw father and son switch places in “Vice-Versa” and “Like Father, Like Son.” The reason I chose “18 Again!” as a top body-swap movie is because it has a bit of everything from your classic ‘80s flick. Athletics, frat house shenanigans, Pauly Shore … this film is pure 80s cheese. It also works to break away from the body-swap pack. Though two people do switch bodies, the plot focuses strictly on Burns’ wish to be 18 again being granted. Instead of the typical “how do we switch back?” routine throughout the rising action, we see the 81-year-old living it up as a teenager — all the while making improvements to his grandson’s life.
Your classic body-swap film is a guilty pleasure, pure and simple. There’s nothing groundbreaking about them, and that’s OK. As viewers, we know both people will be switched back and learn valuable life lessons in the end. It’s what happens along the way that makes them fun. Seeing 18-year-old David subtly taking on 81-year-old Jack’s tendencies — cigars and cognac, bowties and suspenders, a slight eye squint — is incredibly endearing. Watching the film’s antagonists get what is coming to them in the end is expected and delivered. It is George Burns’ second to last film, and reportedly based on his 1980 novelty hit single “I Wish I Was 18 Again” (you can find it here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F3c-WBn5cCg. The fact that every few years a new version of a very similar adventure pops up at the box office is a true testament of the staying power of the body-swap film. While the stories may be similar, each one offers a unique charm that makes them surprisingly ageless.
WIEGENSTEIN: One body can be enough for two in ‘All of Me’
Though my choice this week isn’t quite a straightforward body-swap flick (as prompted by last Friday’s release of “The Change-Up”), the 1984 release “All Of Me” does center around a mix-up regarding the physical being. Namely, that there’s not enough of Steve Martin to go around.
Although I’d take more Steve Martin in any situation, allow me to explain further. His character, Roger, is an unhappy lawyer by day and an only halfway-fulfilled jazz musician at night. He finally gets a chance to upgrade himself in his law firm by controlling the estate of Edwina Cutwater (Lily Tomlin), who has been preparing to die ever since her birth. Edwina is irritated that she never got a normal life, and has concocted the perfect solution: “transmigration,” whereby her soul will enter the body of healthy, beautiful Terry (Victoria Tennant) upon her moment of passing.
Needless to say, things don’t quite end up as planned. After an extreme falling-out between attorney and client, someone accidentally knocks Edwina’s soul out a window (it makes more sense in context, I promise), only to have it land in Roger’s body. On their quest to relocate both Terry and the guru who performs the transmigration ceremony, Roger has to teach himself not to respond out loud to the dead woman’s wry running commentary, while Edwina gets shoved into life experience roughly by running, having sex and attempting to argue a court case, among other things.
Though the premise is more than a tad flimsy and the ultimate message is simple to predict (both characters need a brush with the afterlife to really learn how to live, man), the briskly-paced ride that gets Edwina and Roger there is funny enough that the minute issues with the plot are easily passed over. The result is a duo comedy piece that provides my favorite Steve Martin performance yet (tied with 1999’s “Bowfinger”).
“All Of Me” is helmed by Carl Reiner (father of fellow director Rob), who had a knack for providing excellent Steve Martin vehicles in the ‘70s and ‘80s, including “The Jerk” and “The Man With Two Brains.” Given that Martin has moved on to a much quieter public persona in recent years, writing many of his own projects, short stories and plays, not to mention winning Grammys for his bluegrass performances, it might be hard for modern audiences to recall just what a sublimely zany screen presence he introduced himself with. This movie, then, can serve as a dive into the deep end of some of his finest madcap work — all the single-character tricks that Jim Carrey would go on to use in films like “Liar Liar” begin here, from Roger’s first attempts at controlling his own body once it has two inhabitants (the pair split control right down the middle).
However, while it’s clearly an amazing showcase for Martin’s talent as a physical comedian — it’s not an easy task for an actor to somehow embody a split personality solely by the way he walks — the combination of the film’s two stars is what truly makes “All Of Me” the latter-day classic that it is. Just as the plot dictates, Edwina’s humor is presented entirely through Lily Tomlin’s snotty, dry tone, and she manages to make an internal monologue just as entertaining as Martin’s extreme body absurdity. Before the soul mix-up happens, Edwina is asked how she can manage to have a second go-round at life. “Because I’m rich,” she breezily responds in one of the best line deliveries of the movie.
By joining together, Tomlin, Martin and Reiner create one of the finest comedies of the 1980s, and a highlight in the careers of all three. Though it lacks a second person to “swap” with, “All Of Me” shows that sometimes, one body can be more than enough to contain two high-class humorists.
YATES: ‘Source Code’ begins promising and unravels quickly
Anna and I take a break from the summer blockbuster circuit to catch up on a new DVD release that is a big budget action flick in its own right in “Source Code.” Director Duncan Jones hit an absolute homerun in his 2009 directorial debut with the lesser-hyped “Moon.” How would he fare in his sophomore effort that featured a much larger budget? Bigger is not always better when it comes to Hollywood, and unfortunately that seems to be the case here.
Captain Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal, “Brokeback Mountain”) awakens on a train in a body belonging to someone else, and soon learns he is the centerpiece of a government mission to find the bomber of a commuter train in Chicago. A program called the source code puts Colter on the train eight minutes prior to the bomb detonation to uncover the bomber’s identity before the threat of a second attack is carried through. Colter must battle the clock, his government cohorts, and his own demons – all in short eight minute spans – in order to save the lives of millions.
There are a couple inherent flaws with a film such as “Source Code.” For one, when you repeat the same eight minutes over and over for the majority of the film, it is extremely hard to develop any depth amongst the characters. Colter is eventually revealed as a sympathetic protagonist, but he spends the first part of the film coming off as a bit of a jerk, harassing random passengers on the train. The rest of the film’s characters are all minor and we know absolutely nothing about them, even with a romantic subplot involving Colter and Christine (Michelle Monaghan, “Eagle Eye”), the girlfriend of the man whose body he’s been placed in.
The second inherent flaw that happens all too often in these psychological thrillers is when you have a situation in which the main character is confused and unaware of his or her surroundings, it is often presented in a way that is confusing to the audience as well. It’s a double-edged sword as you don’t want to reveal too much to the viewer too early, but you also have to make the plot somewhat cohesive. “Source Code” is wrought with unnecessary non-linear time jumps and plot holes that just don’t add up — their sole purpose seems to be to establish that poor Colter is very confused — yet it really only confuses the viewer.
“Source Code” begins promising — a bit of a Hitchcock “whodunit” on a train — but things start to unravel quickly. A mid-film plot twist is completely predictable — thus nullifying it as a true twist. Colter as a hero is paper thin at best. He spends most of the film worrying less about saving millions of lives and more about falling for his new girlfriend — in the span of eight minutes, mind you. The mission sends him back to the train countless times, but when Colter questions if the program could be used for a higher purpose and asks to go in again, his government handlers act like the source code program charges by the hour.
“Source Code” scratches the surface of some interesting themes such as free will, alternate and parallel realities, and soldiers used as disposable assets. Unfortunately, the film’s plot refuses to settle on one point and instead skims the surface of several. With a bit more focus, “Source Code” could have been a though-provoking film asking us to consider the growing role and future implications of technology in our lives. As it stands now, it’s more of a disjointed action flick that is somewhat entertaining yet mostly predictable.
WIEGENSTEIN: ‘Source Code’ winds up mostly successful
“Source Code” was unfortunate enough to come out amongst a slew of “Inception”-like reality-bending action pieces in the early part of 2011. For a while, its trailer could be mashed up with “Limitless” and “The Adjustment Bureau” with almost no effort. The difference here is in the director — Duncan Jones, who recently gave Sam Rockwell the role of his life in “Moon.” And just as “Moon” wasn’t a paint-by-numbers sci-fi thriller, “Source Code” is a smarter and much more engaging film than its counterparts. Here’s a movie that uses its explosions not to bombard the audience with CGI, but to create a painterly still image that Jones is content to linger on for as long as he chooses.
When Coulter (Jake Gyllenhaal) awakes, he’s Sean. If that sounds confusing, don’t worry — the U.S. Army officer is just as discombobulated as the audience. Eight minutes after he finds himself inhabiting someone else’s body, the Chicago commuter train he’s riding is engulfed by a massive explosion, jolting him back to a form of limbo where an initially impassive military figure named Goodwin (Vera Farmiga). She explains the situation: Coulter is in the midst of a “time reassignment” program, and his sole purpose is to play an eight-minute role over and over until identifying which passenger rigged the bomb. Between this and “Transformers: Dark Of The Moon,” it looks like Chicago is finally getting its day in the sun as a center of destruction — congrats, I guess.
Checking in at a brisk 90 minutes, screenwriter Ben Ripley fills his big-screen debut with touches of past mystery storytellers — the premise is pure Agatha Christie, and the amount of focus given to tiny details owes more than a little to Alfred Hitchcock, a director who knew his way around a great train movie. Ripley asks the viewer to pay attention, a move that is sorely missing from numerous movies that happen to feature large fireballs.
Gyllenhaal (last seen in the semi-regrettable “Love And Other Drugs” and the fully unfortunate “Prince Of Persia” adaptation) is able to strike both the emotional and adventurous notes that his previous two projects swung at and missed. While he’s always been convincing in action roles (“Jarhead” most notably), the scenes where he quietly comes to terms with his halfway existence hit just as hard.
Given that Coulter is onscreen for 99 percent of the runtime, it’s difficult for any of the supporting cast to rise to his level. Michelle Monaghan’s love interest role is shallow, as the plot necessitates that it be — she’s only given eight minutes each time, after all, with half of her lines unchanging from one iteration to the next. As Coulter’s supervisory officer, Vera Farmiga’s job is to exude empathy, which she does just fine in the three moments she’s allowed any range at all. Other than that, Goodwin is to the audience just what she is to Coulter: a flat image on a screen.
Unfortunately, “Source Code” ultimately shoots itself in the foot due to a ten-minute plot addition that weakens what might have been a striking finale. However, Jones maintains his reputation as a director who’s gifted at tweaking existing genre tropes to smarten up his films. Thanks to this canny ability and the solid leading performance by Jake Gyllenhaal, “Source Code” winds up mostly successful, and a full lap ahead of its earlier competitors.