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GE and Cinelan Announce Short Film Challenge at Tribeca Film Fest

GE and Cinelan, a video publishing company co-founded by Morgan Spurlock and Karol Martesko-Fenster, presented a special preview last night at 92YTribeca in Manhattan. The event was held to announce the opening of submissions for the Focus Forward $200,000 Filmmaker Challenge, and featured the world premiere of four new short films. Focus Forward’s “Short Films, Big Ideas” initiative is a series of three-minute nonfiction films centered around the idea of people or organizations whose innovative efforts in medicine, engineering and other fields of knowledge have had a significant positive impact on humanity.

Illustrating this theme were nine short films presented in the 30-minute program following a cocktail reception in 92YTribeca’s main room. Five of these were 2012 Sundance Film Festival Selections, including the extraordinary opening film, Jeremiah Zagar’s Heart Stop Beating, about the work of two doctors who managed to save a dying man by replacing his heart with a turbine engine of their own design. It was a bold choice to open the program with a film that features open heart surgery footage, but the mood was lightened by Jessica Yu’s Meet Mr. Toilet, a humorous look at the efforts of Jack “Mr. Toilet” Sim to bring proper sanitation to the large portions of the world still lacking it.

Following these first two films were a pair of world premieres: first, Nelson George’s All Hail the Beat, an all-too-brief look at the history of the Roland TR-808 drum machine, whose sounds are still in use today by artists from Kanye West to Daft Punk, despite the fact that it hasn’t actually been manufactured since 1984. Next came Katy Chevigny’s The Honor Code, the most emotionally moving film of the evening, and the only one that focuses on innovation in human thought, as opposed to technological invention. Honor Code uses stylish animation to illustrate the ideas of philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah and his efforts to end the deplorable practice of “honor killing.”

The other two world premieres were sandwiched between two more Sundance selections: Jessica Edwards and Gary Hustwit’s The Landfill, which documents a small New York landfill where trash is refined into electrical energy, and David W. Leitner’s Newtown Creek Digester Eggs: The Art of Human Waste, which examines the unusually beautiful Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. The latter was the least satisfying film of the evening, mostly because it felt too rushed, with too much information crammed into its brief running time. On the other hand, the final film of the program, Phil Cox’s Hilary’s Straws, has a much more leisurely pace in its look at the innovative navigational tool that allowed a quadriplegic woman to sail across the world alone.

The final two world premieres were Steven Cantor’s The Bionic Eye, about research being done to artificially restore sight to patients suffering from degenerative blindness, and Michele Ohayon’s Solar Roadways, a very exciting look at the effort to produce solar-paneled roads and parking lots in order to cleanly and cheaply power nearby communities, as well as electric vehicles. Hopefully, the world premiere films will be available online soon; I would especially like to see The Honor Code and Solar Roadways again. In the meantime, the others are streaming on Focus Forward’s website, and if you have an idea that fits the theme, you can create your own film for the $200,000 Filmmaker Challenge, which you can read more about here.

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SXSW 2011: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold

If there’s one thing you should know about Morgan Spurlock, it’s that he’s a remarkable showman. While his documentaries always contain some kind of academic value, his main intention seems to be entertaining the audience, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. It’s what helped “Super Size Me” become such an immense success, and it played a big part in making “Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden?” – Spurlock’s much weightier follow-up – a lot more interesting than it would have been in the hands of another filmmaker. His latest project, “The Greatest Movie Ever Sold,” doesn’t pretend to be about anything nearly as important as the issues he’s tackled in the past (obesity and the war on terror), but it’s without a doubt his funniest and most creative documentary to date.

It’s no secret that product placement has become an integral part of the entertainment industry, with billions of dollars spent every year by corporations looking to inundate our movies and television shows with subliminal advertisements. In an attempt to learn more about the process of this rapidly growing business (and hopefully make people more aware of what they’re being exposed to), Spurlock has set out to make a documentary about branding, advertising and product placement that’s funded entirely by product placement. It’s an ingenious idea, as the film operates both as an eye-opening lesson in brand integration and a satirical, first-hand account of how movie studios obtain financing from corporations.

The first half of the documentary focuses on Spurlock’s attempt to pitch his idea to various Fortune 500 companies, with many refusing to even take a meeting with the infamous director at the risk of looking like a fool. After Ban Deodorant comes on board as the first official sponsor, however, Spurlock has more luck persuading corporate executives to invest in the movie – including companies like Jet Blue, Mini Cooper and Old Navy – with POM Wonderful agreeing to pay $1 million to buy the above title rights.

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But what Spurlock soon discovers is that there are consequences that come with accepting that money, with some companies demanding creative control over the final cut of the movie or setting certain stipulations that he’s legally obligated to follow. Like, for instance, the idea that once POM Wonderful becomes the official drink of “The Greatest Movie Ever Sold,” he can no longer be filmed drinking anything made by their competitors. Obviously, Spurlock plays this for big laughs as he blurs out entire walls of Coca-Cola and Pepsi while shopping at the grocery store, and makes a point of zooming in on bottles of POM during interviews, but he also posits a good question about how much corporate interference is too much before you’re considered a sellout.

While guys like Ralph Nader and Noam Chomsky offer their opinions on the matter, Spurlock also speaks with those who have a little more experience dealing with brand integration in movies, including Quentin Tarantino, J.J. Abrams, and Brett Ratner, who not only admits that product placement is necessary, but when asked how it affects his artistic integrity bluntly replies, “Artistic integrity? Whatever.” You have to give Ratner credit for being honest, but Spurlock knows a great moment when he sees one, and his film is littered with other nuggets of comedic gold just like it – even manufactured ones, like a running joke involving Mane ‘n Hair shampoo with an awesome payoff in the end.

That may disappoint some people who feel like Spurlock’s shenanigans only dampen the impact of his message, but many moviegoers wouldn’t even be willing to sit through a documentary about product placement if it wasn’t so entertaining. The film will still teach you a thing or two along the way, but if you’re going to learn, you might as well as enjoy yourself while you do, because although it may not have the same cultural effect as “Super Size Me,” “The Greatest Movie Ever Sold” is Spurlock at the top of his game.

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Non-Oscar movie news

As I write this the announcement of the 2010 Academy Award nominations is literally only a few hours away — and I’ll most certainly be discussing them tomorrow — but this late bird has some other worms to catch, starting with goings on up in Park City.

* Yes, Kevin Smith and the premiere of his long planned “Red State” is the talk of the geek movie blogosphere today. Sundance can be a real circus and Smith was, I gather, both ringmaster and clown as he jokingly joined the protest staged by the detestable, publicity loving, Westboro Baptist Church who apparently noticed that Smith was attacking them. That was followed by a 26 minute pre-screening talkathon — which I’ve yet to bring myself to watch, though I’ve read the highlights — in which he announced his plans to distribute the film himself.

As for the response to the movie goes, the reviews have been extremely interesting. The fact of the matter is that Smith has so gone on out of his way to attack film critics, it’s kind of hard for any of us to have an opinion of one of his films that isn’t colored by the silliness at this point. No surprise, then, that reaction has been dramatically mixed. Not everyone even agrees if it’s actually a horror film or a religious-themed thriller. Sort of a more violent and bloody, less musical, version of the 1973 “The Wicker Man.”

Avatar* Speaking of talented makers of entertaining but highly imperfect films whose need to communicate can often place them at cross-purposes with themselves, James Cameron has told Entertainment Weekly that he’s working on the screenplays for two “Avatar” sequels with the intent of releasing them over Christmas of 2014 and 2015. To his credit, I think, Cameron says he’ll donate some portion of films’ grosses to environmental charities, who can use all the help they can get, considering our planet seems to be melting right at the moment.

* And speaking of directors who at times have worked at cross-purposes with themselves, no one has ever done so in grander fashion than the late Orson Welles. It’s starting to look like his legendary unfinished 1970s project, “The Other Side of the Wind,” may finally get a release of some sort. Because Welles never edited most of it, there’s a school of thought that the film should be released only in unedited form. This is one of the more stupid schools of thought I’ve encountered. Thank goodness, DVDs can make the unedited rushes available to anyone who wants to imagine how the man might have edited the film itself, but rushes are not a movie.

As far as other “lost” Welles films, Kevin Jagernauth mentions a miraculous restoration of his badly truncated, “The Magnificent Ambersons.” I’d settle for a decent restoration/re-release of his Shakespearian opus, “Chimes at Midnight.”

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* Chris Hemsworth — aka Mighty Thor, God of Thunder — has seen the Avengers script by Joss Whedon and, guess what, he thinks its “incredible.” Ordinarily, I’d be skeptical of a star’s good opinion of his own movie, but this Browncoat needs it to be incredible. It better be incredible. No pressure, though.

* Another Sundance sale. For what sounds like a small but intense love story, “Like Crazy” fetched a relatively big price.

* Sam Raimi is still chatting up the possibility of some kind “Evil Dead” reboot.

* An item left over from last week relating to another kind of evil dead: Sacha Baron Cohen and Larry Charles’ “The Dictator” based on a novel claimed by an obscure author you might have heard named Saddam Hussein. This is one movie I really have to see.

* I really enjoyed interviewing Morgan Spurlock and he was as nice as could be, but he failed to mention anything about his latest, very clever sounding stunt-documentary “The Greatest Movie Ever Sold,” which has been getting great press at Sundance. Jerkface.

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Late night/early morning movie news

I need to keep it brief tonight, but there are a few items tonight that I want to catch up with.

* It nice to lead with some good news. Jailed Iranian director Jafar Panahi has reportedly been released on bail from his imprisonment. The director, who was supposed to sit on the Cannes jury, had been on a hunger strike. The acclaimed film-maker appears to be in trouble because of a documentary about the Iranian protest movement.

Shrek Forever After* The lower than expected box office performance for “Shrek Forever After” had an effect on Wall Street. Moreover, Patrick Goldstein wonders if those inflated 3-D ticket prices might already be starting to backfire. I tend to agree. People may not mind paying a little extra for something that feels like a real event, but 3-D is already starting to feel old hat and, as Goldstein reminds us, there’s a lot more coming.

* This story fell between the cracks a few days back — and Louis Black doesn’t work for me — but Morgan Spurlock (“Super Size Me“) really is doing that comicon documentary that was rumored sometime back. It was originally plugged as a collaboration of some sort with Joss Whedon, but it turns out Whedon is just one of a few geek superstars who will be executive producing. That’ possibly the most elastic job title in show business, so his involvement could be fairly minimal though I’m sure he’ll appear on screen. Accompanying Whedon in backing the film are none other than Stan Lee and Harry Knowles.

* A long time ago, I found the novel, Less Than Zero, oddly compelling reading in that it was a vivid portrait of a human train wreck. That being said, Brett Easton Ellis is certainly not dispelling the widespread opinion that he might be a jackass with his pronouncements about female directors. May he shortly be visited by the ghost of Ida Lupino.

* The real winner at Cannes: Eliot Spitzer.

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Top Chef Masters: would you like fries with those vegetables?


Yesterday’s “Top Chef Masters” on Bravo brought us from five contestants down to the final four, and the challenges, especially the elimination challenge, were particularly interesting. First, after unveiling mounds of fast food burgers and fries with the chefs wondering if they would have to create something using those pre-made items, host Kelly Choi told them that instead they were going to make their own gourmet burgers with side dishes, and serve to judges that included “Top Chef” Season 4 contestant Spike Mendelsohn and filmmaker Morgan Spurlock, who created the film “Supersize Me.” But I’m wondering..what did they do with all of that fast food?

Rick Bayless made a ribeye burger with three kinds of guacamole. The judges loved the burger but wondered why Bayless made three types of guacamole instead of just one. Still, Rick managed 4 stars.

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