Monday, November 29, 2010

The Joneses

It's hard to come up with a memorable premise for a movie, even harder to make a great movie with a memorable premise.  The Joneses is a pretty good movie with a great premise, not great enough to make a great movie, but great enough that this is an enjoyable film.

The Jones seem to have everything: charming, handsome husband, beautiful, stylish wife, good-looking, smart kids.  They move into an upscale suburban neighborhood, making friends, getting into the best social circles.  They are the kind of people who draw others to themselves, and they always have the coolest, newest stuff.  Where they get their money isn't all that clear, but the way they live, and all the stuff they have, shows that they're definitely well-to-do.
Everybody wants what she has.
What the neighbors don't know is that the Joneses are part of a stealth marketing campaign.  Mrs. Jones wears a new pair of shoes, and all the ladies in the neighborhood want them.  Mr. Jones plays with a new kind of golf club, and everyone at the country club wants one.  The son has the hottest new gaming system, and his buddies want one, too.  The Joneses get all their stuff from their employer, who does real life product placement.  Even though the effect is overly farcical--I mean, are people really that easily swayed by what their friends have?--the point is well-made.  We are at the mercy of marketers and corporations, much more than we realize.  One has to make a deliberate effort not to be influence by the marketing that surrounds us every day. 

I have to wonder how much of this stealth marketing or real life product placement goes on.  I know of some examples, especially among teens and college kids, where products are provided free to some in hopes that they will influence others to buy.  But the scale of the placements in The Joneses seems unrealistic: they are too small a factor given too much credit for influencing sales.  I know it's a movie, but that goofiness detracted from the overall message of the movie.  Still, it's a fun flick, not a classic, but it will make you think next time some trend goes viral--What's really driving that product's popularity?

Bottom line, 2 1/2 stars.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Food, Inc. and We Feed the World

Both of these movies will make you think a little more about what you buy and what you eat.  That may or may not be a good thing.  Both of these movies take on the food industry, taking on factory farming and modern food production.  Food, Inc., and American production, is more alarmist and overstated, in typical American fashion, than We Feed the World, which is German.  The latter, more substantive and fair than Food, Inc., has more a documentary feel in its pacing and tone.  Both make me want to go to the farmers' market and quit eating meat.
A huge amount of the world's food production, like this warehouse full of bread, is thrown away every year.
The message of these films is simple: modern food production sacrifices quality for quantity, industrializes natural processes, and removes us from our agricultural roots.  Both have eye-opening scenes from the poutltry industry.  With major fast-food restaurants using such a huge portion of the meat raised in the U.S., and with a very small number of companies, poultry farmers are beholden to the requirements of the fast-food industry.  Thus, even if you never eat fast food, your conusumption is determined, in part, by the fast-food industry.

Take chickens.  Large restaurant chain chicken buyers want chicken breasts of a specific size.  So chicken farmers breed chickens with large breasts and overall uniform size, and which grow quickly.  Their quick growth and disproportional body parts are so extreme that some can't even walk.  They are not so much beautiful members of the animal kingdom as factory produced commodities.  The eggs are hatched in large incubators, taken in boxes to the huge, crowded barns, where they are packed for their shortened lives to grow in absurdly cramped conditions. If they fall ill (which many do; infection spreads quickly in these conditions), they are shoveled up and carried away.  When they're full-grown, it's off to the slaughterhouse.  The footage from the chicken and beef slaughterhouses are incredible in their extreme automation (made possible my the uniform animal size) and disgusting in their, well, disgustingness.

Despite the horror shows these films feature, I think they overlook the practical, human side of the food industry.  Thomas Malthus and his followers predicted that we would not be able to feed the world, given population trends.  He didn't anticipate advances in agricultural technology, which has enabled the growth of food production worldwide to far exceed the needs of our population.  Like the producers of these films, I would prefer food grown naturally, animals raised and slaughtered humanely, and produce naturally ripened and eaten fresh.  But given our needs, that pastoral vision is impractical.  In order to feed a growing population, certain efficiencies have to be sought.  The division of labor and specilization have enabled us to reach a point where, unfortunately, a sizable percentage of food produced worldwide goes to waste.  Can we be more efficient in our distribution and more and improve prodution value?  Yes, always.  But I, for one, am thankful for the ever-increasing capacities of the food industry.

Bottom line, 2 stars a piece.

Sunday, November 14, 2010


Zombieland is not a movie made with the Academy Awards in mind; I don't think you'll see these guys on Oscar night, at least not for this film.  But as zombie movies go, this one was kind of fun.  Saying that, though, makes me wonder, what's the appeal of zombie movies?  There's even a TV series about zombies now.  Why do people dress up like zombies?  It all seems dumb to me.  So, you ask, why am I even watching a movie about zombies.  I don't know.  I'm an incorrigible movie glutton, and when I see one that looks interesting, I'm on it.  This one seemed to have potential: a comedy about a handful of survivors in an America that has become infested with zombies.  
Woody Harrelson is a crazed zombie hunter who randomly teams up with Jesse Eisenberg, a sort of nerdy everyman.  They team up with a pair of sisters on a trek to find a zombie-free zone, killing zombies along the way.  There are some pretty funny parts, but in the best scene, they follow a map of the stars' homes in Hollywood and make there way to Bill Murray's house.  They find him there, where he appears to be a zombie.  He explains to a couple of his guests that he only wears the zombie makeup to fit in, that he's not a zombie at all.  The others don't get the message, though, and shoot him dead.  I know, it sounds goofy, but it's pretty funny.

I know zombie movies are meant to communicate some sort of statement about conformity, individualism, mortality, blah, blah.  But mostly they seem to dehumanize and demean humanity.  Do the people who made Zombieland care about any of that?  No.  It's just a crazy romp with the assumptions of zombie movies as the background.  So, some funny stuff here, but, unless you're a fan of zombie movie farces, you probably can spend your time better watching something else.

Bottom line, 1 1/2 stars.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Okuribito (Departures)

I don't know whether I would call Departures a dark comedy, although it has those elements.  It's a more straightfoward drama with comedic moments, but the very subject matter forces the dark comedy label.  Whatever the label, Departures is an enjoyable, off-beat story.  Daigo plays the cello in an orchestra.  Alas, the orchestra's not making any money and must be disbanded.  Searching for a new job, Daigo sees an ad for "Departures," thinking he's applying for a job at a travel agency.  The company does prepare its clients for a journey, but not the type of journey Daigo has in mind. 

Even though he learns that the job actually is to prepare corpses for burial, Daigo, desperate for a job, decides to go on with it.  Perhaps in every culture such a role leans to some degree of social marginalization, but it's so much true in the small Japanese town here that Daigo doesn't tell his wife what he's doing, and his former friends shun him.  But Daigo presses on, recognizing the important role he plays in the families' time of need.  His boss and mentor teaches him the trade and helps him learn about life.

It sounds like an unlikely start for a great movie, but the acting is wonderful and the story, compelling.  I'm not the only one who thinks so; Departures is the winner of the 2009 Oscar for Best Foreign Film.  Slow paced, avoiding convention, Departues is Oscar-worthy and worth the viewer's time.

Bottom line, 3 stars.

Post Grad

Monday, November 8, 2010

W. and You're Welcome America: A Final Night with George W. Bush

I don't know why I bothered.  I'm a fan of political satire done well, but I should have known that Oliver Stone and Will Ferrell would take things too far in their depictions of George W. Bush.  Now don't get me wrong: I'm no big Bushie.  He's much too statist and too big a spender for my political taste.  But he's better than the alternative, especially the socialist in the White House now.  But Bush seems like a good guy, and there's much about him that I admire.  These 2 films would claim that their intent was to entertain, but clearly the agenda was greater: to perpetuate and promote liberal lies and to defame President Bush.

The only consolation I have is the limited reach of these movies.  You're Welcome America was a stage production which HBO aired.  It's out there on video, but I'm guessing not too many people saw it (although that's still too many).  W. was just not a very good movie.  I don't think it did too well at the box office.
Brolin in W.
Of the two Bushes, Ferrell is the best.  He has honed his Bush portrayal in years of "Saturday Night Live" skits, and I have to admit there are times when he does Bush better than Bush.  Josh Brolin plays W in W.  It's not a terrible portrayal, but just didn't work.  The whole movie's full of these characters who are just off!  Virtually every part is someone you've seen on the news and in the paper, and some of them are made up well to look the part, but the whole effect makes it seem like a bad SNL skit.  Richard Dreyfuss's Cheney is pretty convincing, though.
Ferrell in You're Welcome America
I think these 2 films shared their sources.  They have the same distortions and half-truths designed to discredit Bush and diminish his legacy.  I think of the question Bush asked about Iraq: Is the world better of with Sadam out of power?  Yes, of course.  The related question is, Is the world better of with Bush having served 2 terms?  As much as I wish his policies had been different, I have a hard time thinking of a Republican challenger to Bush who I would rather have seen in the White House, and I don't have a hard time at all preferring Bush to Gore or Kerry.  So the answer is most likely, yes, we are better off with Bush than we would have otherwise been.
Don't bother with these movies.  What I'd really like to see is similar treatment given to the incompetent, money-grabbing, self-righteous, big-government clown who succeeded Bush in the White House.  Now that would be good for a laugh.

Bottom line on both films: Yuck.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Mongol: The Rise of Genghis Khan

Did you know that Genghis Khan was really a lovable family man?  That he married his childhood sweetheart and was a hopeless romantic?  I guess my only perception of the man was that of a ruthless warrior and conqueror.  Mongol doesn't necessarily take issue with that very Western, stilted perception, but does attempt to humanize him, portraying his formative years.
I have absolutely no knowledge of Genghis Khan's life, so I don't have any idea if this movie is historically accurate.  I am assuming that the history has been thoroughly adapted, first, because we're talking about events that occured something like 700 years ago, and second, because it's really hard to fit a couple of decades of an important historical figure's life into 2 hours of film, especially when some of that time has to be taken up with elaborate, extensive, bloody battle scenes.  I was reminded of movies like Braveheart and Gladiator, where the protagonist fights oppressors and for the freedom of his people.  It just seemed funny to view Genghis Khan as the hero, given that his name is synonymous, from a Western perspective, with oppression.

Mongol has a very authentic feel, but, battle scenes aside, was pretty slow.  The sheer scale of the movie is impressive, though.  There are hundreds of people running around in some of these scenes!  Fierce mongolian horde, indeed!  The overall story arc is a gentle curve rather than a roller coaster, which may reflect history better but doesn't make for a very entertaining movie.  If this were on The History Channel it would fit right in.

Bottom line, 1 1/2 stars.