One of the real deplorable trends in modern movie making is the presence of product placement. In the old, better days of Hollywood, labels were turned away from the camera so there would be no favoring of one product over another.
Today, that has gone by the boards. With the cost of movies ever skyrocketing (in 1950, Academy Award winner All About Eve cost approximately $600,000 to make; in 2010, Avatar cost approximately $280 million and didn’t win the Oscar®), manufacturers of products gleefully line up to have their products promoted in major motion pictures and that money is what allows lots of movies to be made.
Some manufacturers are so eager to be displayed they are little more than prostitutes. Whenever there’s a movie with a laptop computer in it today, it’s shown from behind with the Apple logo. Apple won’t put a simple, easy-to-replace battery in its products, requiring instead that their customers return their products like iPods and iPhones to them for expensive battery replacement. But they stand in line like kids with their tongues hanging out to pay movie producers big bucks to have Apple products shrewdly placed in films.
Writer-director Morgan Spurlock’s last film, Freakonomics, was less than wonderful. This, on the other hand, is laugh-out-loud funny. Spurlock shows how product placement works by showing how he financed this film by approaching manufacturers of products to place them in his movie. The people he approached allowed him to bring cameras into their conference rooms and to film the meetings as Spurlock pitched them. It’s fascinating and funny.
When my screening was through and we exited the screening room on the Sony lot, there was a table full of free products donated by the manufacturers shown in the film who agreed to finance it in return for their products being shown in the film, including POM Wonderful, which markets 100% pure pomegranate juice. According to the movie, they paid $1 million to have their name in the title.
Run Time 90 minutes
OK for children.
When I was doing business in the Caribbean a few decades ago, before my first visit I was advised to read Don’t Stop the Carnival by Herman Wouk. Based on a true story, it is about a New York theatrical agent who retired and bought a hotel in the Virgin Islands and found his idyllic idea turned into hell on earth, perfectly describing the way business is done in and around the Caribbean.
TV producer Phil Rosenthal would have been well advised to have read a similar book on doing business in Russia. Since there was none extant, he lived through similar cultural problems that Wouk’s protagonist endured as he tried to help produce his hit CBS comedy Everybody Loves Raymond for the Russian TV market. This documentary can serve as the same sort of primer for doing business in Russia that Wouk’s novel still provides for doing business in the Caribbean.
While the thrust of this excellent, funny documentary is about dealing with the different personalities and thought processes of the Russians, the B story shows the truth of the story of the dictum of Sir Donald Wolfit, famed English actor/manager, who, while lying on his deathbed, was asked by a student: “Sir Donald, after accomplishing so much in your life, dying must be hard.” To which Sir Donald replied, “Dying is easy…comedy is hard.”
Rosenthal’s film provides an excellent showcase for just how hard comedy is. In one segment in particular, it cuts back and forth between his American show, starring Ray Romano, Patricia Heaton, Doris Roberts, Brad Garrett and Peter Boyle, and their Russian counterparts. One scene in particular gives Rosenthal and his Russian counterparts headaches, mainly because they won’t listen to Rosenthal about what makes the scene funny in the American version but not funny in the Russian version. It not only highlights the small things that can make the difference between something that’s unfunny and funny, but it shows what an outstanding actress Patricia Heaton is and how crucial she was to the success of the show, even though Romano had most of the funny lines. It also shows Rosenthal exhibiting what can only be described as saintly patience.
Rosenthal narrates the story, filmed by handheld cameras while he was in Russia dealing with the various Russian personalities. Rosenthal, who wrote and directed the film, has a fine sense of humor which is amplified by his narrative ability. This is a film that is educational, instructional and funny.
Run time 82 minutes.
OK for children.
In 1960, Harper Lee, an unknown from Monroeville, Alabama, where for a time she was a neighbor of a little boy named Truman Capote, published her only novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. It became a nationwide bestseller, and was made into an award winning movie starring Gregory Peck. But, although Lee helped Capote while he was researching his megahit In Cold Blood, she never published another book. As puzzling, she became a media recluse à la JD Salinger.
On this 50th anniversary of the book’s publishing, Mary McDonagh Murphy, an Emmy-winning CBS News producer, has produced, written and directed this documentary. She interviews many celebrities like Tom Brokaw, Oprah Winfrey, Jon Meacham and Andrew Young, who describe how the novel impacted their lives.
One, Anna Quindlen novelist of One True Thing, says, “I think one of the reasons I became so obsessed with Harper Lee is because everything that she did convinced me that she was just a grown-up Scout who hadn’t gone over to the dark side of being a girly girl.”
However, lest one think that Lee was just another Margaret Mitchell (Gone With The Wind) who labored mightily in anonymity and produced a prodigious bestseller writing on her dining room table, Murphy quotes from Lee’s editor at Lippincott, Lee Hohuff, who said,
“It needed quite a bit of work. There are many things wrong about it. It was more a collection of short stories than a true novel. Yet there was also life. It was real. People walked solidly under the pages. Obviously a keen and witty and even a wise mind was at work. But was it the mind of a professional novelist? There were dangling threads of a plot. But it was an indication of how seriously we were impressed by the author that we signed a contract at that point. It took two years of constant work before the metamorphosis into what is now known as To Kill a Mockingbird.”
So, unlike Mitchell, Lee had quite a bit of help in turning what she originally wrote into the bestseller.
Mark Childress, author of Crazy in Alabama, explains how a novelist creates a story, “Anybody who says they don’t write out of their own life is lying. Of course they do. All your experiences based out of your own life. But it’s do you transform the material. That’s what she did. And put such magic on it.”
Novelist Wally Lamb (I Know This Much is True) sheds further light on a novelist’s craft, “You take a survey of the lay of the land that formed you and shaped you and then you begin to lie about it. You tell one lie that turns into a different lie. After that, those models sort of lift off and become their own people as you originally thought of and when you weave an entire network of lies. What you’re really doing if you’re aiming to write literary fiction is by telling lies you’re trying to arrive at a deeper truth.”
In addition to explaining how and why writers write, the people interviewed explore the reasons why Lee might have failed to publish another book and why she refused to give another media interview after 1964. It also touches on Lee’s troubling relationship with Capote (who claimed, apparently falsely, to have helped her write Mockingbird).
One doesn’t get much closer to Harper Lee in this film, but it is an interesting examination of the esoteric ways of a writer’s professional life, and how one unknown person from a small town in Alabama can produce a highly influential book. Opens May 13 for a one week run at Laemmle’s Sunset Five.