After the Campaign: Lion

When I wrote about the marketing of Lion last year I thought it made a decent emotional appeal to audiences who were looking to have themselves a good cry at the theater. I wasn’t wrong.

The story follows Saroo, a young boy in India who becomes separated from his older brother on a train platform. Boarding a decommissioned train he winds up thousands of kilometers away from home, with no way to get back or even to tell adults and authorities how they can help him out. He’s eventually adopted by an Australian couple played by David Wenham and Nicole Kidman. 25-odd years later Saroo is grown (now played by Dev Patel) and struggling with his identity. He keeps getting flashes of memory showing his brother and mother but has no idea how to find them. Eventually, he begins an online search and ultimately finds at least some of the answers he’s been searching for.

The campaign seemed to be split into a few parts: The posters played up the Google Search aspect of the story, the trailers emphasized the emotional story of the search for family and identity and the website was focused on creating awareness for charities related to the movie’s story.

Of those, the trailers are probably the most spot-on in terms of tone and subject matter in the movie. There are plenty of mentions of Google Earth and scenes of it helping Saroo’s search for the village he grew up in, but it’s never really a focus of the story. It’s not as if everyone is tied to it. In fact, it becomes a point of contention in the relationship between Saroo and his girlfriend, played by Rooney Mara.

No, the story is much more about the emotional journey Saroo is going through as he becomes more and more determined to find his real family. He becomes understandably obsessed with it while at the same time feeling if he lets anyone in on what he’s doing. It tears him up not only because the answers allude him for so long but because he feels the need to keep it all heaped on his own shoulders, only grudgingly sharing his issues with his girlfriend or adoptive parents.

Patel is wonderful, of course, as Saroo. Ultimately it’s kind of a one-note role as he’s asked to repeatedly convey the angst of his situation in various ways. That’s mainly done through him growing increasingly long and scraggly hair for a chunk of the story as he’s descending deeper and deeper into isolation and depression.

Still, it’s a good movie that will bring you to tears by the end as Saroo reaches the end of your journey. That’s more or less just what the trailers in particular promised and so it’s good to see it delivers on that front.

After the Campaign: Passengers

When Passengers was being sold to audiences last September it was billed as being a romantic comedy in space, with a bit of tension built in because of course problems come up.

To recap, Chris Pratt plays Jim, one of 5,000 people aboard a massive starship heading to a colony planet. When something goes wrong and he wakes up 90 years before the end of the trip he opts to intentionally wake up Aurora (Jennifer Lawrence), another passenger who just happens to be a beautiful young woman whom he wants for some companionship. Eventually she finds out the truth of what happened, but that’s just before they realize the ship is slowly shutting down, potentially killing everyone aboard. So they have to get past their issues to save themselves and the rest of the ship.

If that sounds nothing like the trailers or rest of the campaign that’s not surprising. Sony kept the fact that Jim is the one who wakes up Aurora – essentially dooming her to die aboard the ship decades before it reaches its destination – out of the marketing entirely. But it’s the first thing critics and  audiences latched on to and is widely seen as one of the big reasons the movie flopped at the box office.

It’s not just that this story point is hidden, it’s that it’s completely misrepresented in the trailer and elsewhere. That trailer, along with the campaign as a whole, makes it seem like Jim and Aurora both wake up around the same time and find they’re stuck together, making the best of their situation and the fact that they are both ridiculously attractive people. Missing entirely is that Jim is a creep who wants a fake girlfriend who’s completely beholden to him. Though to be fair, even the story barely deals with this and eventually brings the two together in a romantic happy ending.

In this day of focusing on consent and choice it’s not hard to see how the story of Jim taking Aurora’s ability to decide her own fate away from her didn’t go over well. And it doesn’t require much spin to read the ending as Aurora not finding contentedness in her situation but sympathizing with her rapist, something that’s not a great position to take right now.

The studio sent Pratt and Lawrence on a charm offensive publicity tour to drum up public interest, but even that couldn’t overcome the negative word of mouth that came out of reviews and early screenings. Not surprising since the campaign completely mis-sold the movie that was released.

After the Campaign: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

As Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 was being sold last month the emphasis seemed to be on the goofy antics of the ragtag crew of space pirates and outlaws that we’d met in the first movie. The campaign focused squarely on the adventures they got into, all of which was accompanied by a dozen or so classic rock hits and deep tracks, and promised a few surprises along the way.

The movie, if you haven’t seen it, picks up a while after the events of the first film. Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) and the rest of the group that assembled earlier are now an in-demand group of mercenaries and protectors, always choosing the right side of morality when accepting a job. After a mission goes a bit sideways they happen across Peter’s long-lost alien father (this isn’t a spoiler, it’s in the trailers) who offers to unlock his son’s destiny. There’s a price to that, though, and while the story splits the characters up for more than a good chunk of the movie they all come back together to reinforce that family isn’t necessarily who you’re related to but who you surround yourself with.

The marketing for the movie offered a mix of action and humor that was similar to what had hooked audiences back in 2014. It showed that everyone we enjoyed seeing snipe at each other a few years ago would be back and that while the dynamic had evened out a bit it hadn’t really changed, with everyone still abrasive as ever and not really getting along. A line of Nebula’s to that effect even made it into the trailers.

To that effect, the final product delivered on that promise. While the characters have evolved a bit, they’re still pretty much the same as when we first encountered them, with all the various personalities still fitting into their assigned archetype. And it has just as much humor and action as you’d expect from the trailers, all of which is just as visually eye-popping as the colorful posters would lead you to believe.

What’s surprising is just how unexciting the whole package is. Marvel’s movies were once praised for the reliably predictable formula their stories used, leading the audience to know with some degree of certainty what to expect when they got to the theater. While the movie is certainly and undeniably fun, it’s also easy to see how the story plays out from the minute the first reel ends. That predictability is beginning to become a weight around the studio’s neck, even as it seeks to expand the scope of stories into either space or the mystical realm.

One big element that was almost completely missing from the campaign was the emotional journey of the characters, which can’t be downplayed. There are tough choices and big decisions that are made that don’t involve massive guns or wiseass comebacks, but the marketing wasn’t interested in that. The revelation of Peter’s father appearing was a key part of the push but the campaign didn’t dive at all into what that means for Peter or the team.

That’s part of the overall strategy of, as I said in my review of the campaign, largely ignoring anything resembling the story. Providing any of the details about that story would have, it seemed, gotten in the way of the shots of Baby Groot and other visual tricks and so was pushed to the backburner. That’s a shame since while it might be somewhat predictable there is a story here that was interesting. Perhaps it’s because much of that story involves Kurt Russell’s character, which was only teased and not explained at all in the marketing. It means, though, that one of the biggest and most appealing aspects of the movie was left out of view of the audience for the marketing.

After the Campaign: The LEGO Batman Movie

When I reviewed the marketing campaign for The LEGO Batman Movie back in February I concluded that, despite whatever shortcomings the marketing might have, it was selling a fun movie. It was clear that the movie was going to be fast-paced, with rapid-fire jokes coming that would keep the audience engaged with the effects and the humor, even if the story itself wasn’t all that substantive. That is more or less exactly what the movie delivered.

The story, such as it is, follows Batman as he deals with just how amazing and awesome he is. As voiced by Will Arnett (who also pulled this duty for The LEGO Movie a couple years ago) he’s an egomaniac who refuses to partner with anyone and is convinced his way is always the right way. Through a series of circumstances revolving around his ongoing conflict with The Joker he winds up adopting a young boy and eventually begins to realize the power that comes with having friends, family and colleagues.

Really this is just the rough outline of a movie. There’s so little substance to the story it’s practically translucent. But it keeps moving so fast – literally, the camera movements look like it’s been attached to a ferret that’s running through a series of tubes – that it’s hard to catch up with just how ridiculous the whole endeavor is.

That’s not to say it’s not without charms. Arnett nails the character, which is a bit surprising as what worked well in small doses in The LEGO Movie could have quickly become annoying and over the top. And the jokes that play off previous incarnations of Batman as well as the character’s history in general all work.

Again, the main feature of the movie is that it keeps throwing new things at you, either visually or verbally. It’s designed for the shortest of short attention spans and keeps explaining things to the audience time and time again just in case you missed it the first seven or eight times. But it’s funny, with many genuine laughs that come from a clever script combined with Arnett’s spot-on delivery. There’s a lot here for fans of Batman in general and the LEGO franchise in particular.

After the Campaign: Tiny Furniture

Finally, almost five years after it came out, I’ve watched Tiny Furniture. While I’m certainly aware of star/writer/director Lena Dunham I have to admit I’ve never watched an episode of “Girls” and am largely familiar with her work only by reputation.

In the movie Dunham plays Aura, a young woman who’s just graduated college and is in a funk, not knowing what she wants to do next and yet feeling like it needs to be something magical. She wants a paycheck but not the stress of a job and has a prickly, if still loving, relationship with the mother and sister she’s moved back in with. She’s navigating relationships and trying on various versions of adulthood but not ready to commit to anything.

That’s how the movie was sold back in 2010 and 2011 and that’s pretty much what I found when I finally watched it. Again, this is the first time I’ve really dug into the full version of any of Dunham’s work and found that yes, she has a very interesting and unique writing and performing voice. I wish the movie moved at a slightly better pace, but I understand what she was trying to do.

It’s interesting to watch it for the first time now, only after Dunham has become such a pop-culture figure who dominates TV, podcasts, email newsletters and more. Putting five years of additional baggage to the side, though, I found Tiny Furniture to be a more or less pleasant, though not consistently entertaining, movie that was well told by someone who at the time was still a largely emerging talent.

After the Campaign: Knight of Cups

I can’t adequately describe the story of Knight of Cups, the 2015 Terrence Malick feature starring Christian Bale, so allow me to simply copy the synopsis from IMDb:

A writer indulging in all that Los Angeles and Las Vegas has to offer undertakes a search for love and self via a series of adventures with six different women.

 

If there’s a difference between the marketing and the actual movie, it’s that the trailer promised there might be something like a coherent story presented in the story. Instead it’s the same old Malick filmmaking ticks, including having Bale deliver almost no on-screen dialogue, reacting to those around him silently as he provides vague voice over that sometimes is barely applicable to what’s happening.

That being said, I did mention that it was necessary to grade this on a Malick-shaped curve and so it can’t be held too much to account. If you went into this expecting anything other than another entry in his contemplative series after Tree of Life and To the Wonder, you likely weren’t paying attention.

After the Campaign: Touched With Fire

Touched With Fire didn’t get a huge campaign when it was being released a little over a year ago. But that limited campaign did do a pretty good job of conveying the core value proposition of the movie.

Katie Holmes and Luke Kirby play a pair of bipolar patients who meet when they’re each committed to an institution to try and get their disease under control and find a balance between the mania and depression that plagues them. They begin a relationship that at first seems to be healing but which those around the couple quickly realize brings out the worst in each one. That leads to tension both inside and outside the pair.

When I wrote about the campaign I said the trailer in particular made it seem like a fast-paced, highly-energized movie that keeps moving along at a breakneck speed. And that’s pretty accurate. The whole thing moves along frantically, at the same speed the thoughts of the main characters sometime move at.

There’s no real surprises in the story that aren’t at least hinted at in the campaign. The characters move through an arc that’s more or less expected based on what’s been shown in the trailer and Holmes is just as good as she appeared to be in the marketing. There are problems with the story in that some of the secondary characters don’t really seem to serve much of a purpose, but for the most part this is worth checking out, especially since it’s streaming on Amazon Prime now.

After the Campaign: The Dressmaker

When I reviewed the campaign for The Dressmaker I thought the movie looked more or less alright. But I also felt there was something missing from the marketing that was important to the movie as a whole.

Kate Winslet stars as Tilly Dunnage, a woman who returns to her small Australian village after years of being away, the result of being accused as a child of being complicit in the death of another boy years ago. Now she’s back after building a successful career as a fashion designer and she wants to reclaim her reputation and care for her ailing mother (Judy Davis). The opinions of the townsfolk are fickle, though, going from forgiving to hostile depending on which way the winds are blowing. She gets involved with a local hunk (Liam Hemsworth) and finds that the curse she’s long believed she was under is hard to shake.

The marketing sold the movie as a whimsical romantic comedy about reclaiming one’s reputation and being true to yourself. But the movie wants to be more than that, even though it only commits to a deeper premise sporadically and unevenly.

That’s not the fault of Winslet or Davis, both of whom are terrific in their roles. It’s just the pacing of the story that pulls you between laughter and drama in a fairly disjointed way, without really earning the transition. It’s not that it’s a bad movie, it’s not. It’s just that it never fully commits to any one direction and therefore never goes deep in either direction.

As I suspected there is indeed a much darker storyline that lurks under the surface that’s presented in the trailer. I won’t spoil that but it contributes significantly to the shifts in tone that are scattered throughout the movie. There’s a moment where things get very dark very quickly and some characters seem to not bat an eye, continuing on as they were before with nary a mention of what’s happened.

The Dressmaker is worth seeing but be warned that it’s significantly different in tone than what the trailer sold to audience.

After the Campaign: The Neon Demon

When The Neon Demon was being sold the focus was on the look and feel of the movie coming from writer/director Nicolas Winding Refn. The movie delivers on that, offering a fever dream of a story that’s heavy on style and light on substance.

The story follows Jesse (Elle Fanning), a young ingenue who’s new to Los Angeles and looking to break into modeling. She has little experience but immediately clicks with many movers and shakers in the industry because of an indefinable “it” factor she seems to contain. Her meteoric rise means she makes lots of enemies among the girls who are already there as they’re passed over for her. It all takes a very twisted turn at the end as we find out just how far some people are willing to go to have success.

The campaign promised a movie that was doused in neon blues and pinks and featured everyone being as cold and emotionally distance as possible. Everyone sports the kind of dead-eyed, soulless stare that’s often mocked by those who see the same look coming from every fashion ad they pass on the street. What it didn’t do was go too deeply into Jesse’s story, showing that she’s a young up-and-coming model but not really going too far to show what that means or what kinds of trials she’ll have to undergo.

That promise is more or less delivered on. The entire movie is an experiment in mood-lighting and how cold the director can make the performances. It’s saying something when Keanu Reeves in a cameo as the manager of a sleazy motel is one of the more emotive members of the cast. And despite the presence of a cougar in the trailer, the campaign doesn’t fully reveal just the level of insanity that the movie delivers, a level that’s substantial.

After the Campaign: Mr. Church

The campaign for Mr. Church focused on how star Eddie Murphy, in the title role, was returning to film after an absence of several years. That emphasis isn’t fully realized in the finished movie.

The story is focused on Henry Church, a man who’s hired to come in and cook clean for a woman who’s sick with cancer and her young daughter. Marie, the mom, only has an expected six months to live and he’s supposed to take care of things until she passes. Instead she hangs on for years, long enough for her daughter Charlotte (Britt Robertson in the later years) to grow up, all while Mr. Church stays around. Even after Charlotte goes away to college he continues to be a major force and steady presence in her increasingly tumultuous life.

While the finished movie doesn’t mark anything great or a notable in terms of his overall filmography it’s not bad. Murphy turns in a solid performance, as does Robertson. The story is a bit trite, the feature-length version of the “magical negro” story trope and only surmounts that stereotype at a few moments.

What was shocking was how much I found the movie was completely, almost solely, sold in the trailer. There are plenty of instances of a trailer giving away much of the story but this one really goes through the almost all the major beats to make the entire arc clear to the audience. That means there wasn’t all that much surprising about watching the movie but, more positively, it means the studio wasn’t trying to hide anything from the audience.

It’s not bad, it’s a competently made and emotional movie that has some good qualities. But it’s also not all that compelling, despite a campaign that adhered closely to the movie it was working to sell.