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Product Placements: The Good, the Bad and the Insidious

Product placements have become fairly common in the world of filmmaking. They can be distracting when poorly conceived or so cleverly planted you hardly notice. South Africa is still getting the balance right when it comes to this brand-dropping with some films almost egging you on to create a drinking game to correspond with the number of placements. From overusing car branding or having massive oil tankers in the background just to give the sponsor some screen time, it's a bit wild. Filmmakers try to immerse you in their world and ironically product placements seem to be counter-productive, seemingly ejecting audiences for a second, reminding them they're watching an unreality where brands interject rather than co-exist.

We're bombarded with adverts to the point that they're saturated, almost invisible even. Brands are a very active part of our day whether we're looking at a coffee coaster, sporting a branded bag, cellphone or just looking around while driving. Listening to the radio, watching television, using a urinal... it seems as though there are no limits to the places where advertisers will try and get their product or brand in front of you. It's got so bad that we don't even register how many thousands of adverts we're exposed to on a daily basis. Advertisers have to reach consumers about 14 times before they start to consider the brand or product as a viable option. The long haul is real, which is why product placements are prime property.

Product Placements: The Good, the Bad and the Insidious

You're already open to persuasion.

Cinemas encourage audiences to gaze, while television is more of a glimpse-based activity that's not quite as demanding of your full attention. When you're in a dark room with nothing but the massive screen occupying your field of vision, it's very difficult to look away and if you talk, chances are you'll get shushed or a kick in the chair. This means that great films will enrapture you, transport you to another world... and in that world, a good filmmaker will have your emotional investment.

Hitchcock said to make audiences suffer and having your viewers in the palm of your hand, there's a great deal of trust at play. So much so, that offending or boring someone can result in them leaving the theatre. In most cases people will sit through bad movies in the hopes of it getting better or preparing to rip it to shreds in the aftermath over a coffee.

You're also open to being influenced.

As accessible as reviews are these days, people tend to pick movies based on stars. It's what studios use to sell movies that don't have spectacular blockbuster visual effects and chances are if you're a fan of the stars you're open to their influence. Think about James Bond, one of the most classic examples of product placements. The international man of mystery has been a popular frontrunner of the 007 series for decades. The epitome of the ideal man, however slanted this may have been over the years, he's been positioned as a man that men want to be like. The sophistication, espionage skills, suits, cars, watches and gadgets... you could argue that he's become a walking advert in and of himself.

Having become an iconic quotable quote... the Martini "shaken, not stirred" comment has become a trademark, which was reinvented and reclaimed when Heineken beer became a central sponsor at the time of Skyfall. When Daniel Craig drives an Aston Martin, drinks a Heineken or dons an Omega Seamaster, it says something and while you may not think much of it... becomes more influential when it's being worn or consumed by an A-lister like Craig.

Near-invisible is better.

Much like a film's soundtrack, product placements should be so subtle that they have an effect without capsizing the story's spontaneity or suspense of disbelief. There are many examples of when this has been mishandled, possibly due to over-exertion from sponsors who want to ensure their advert has been seen. Think of close ups of watches, storefronts and door-to-door deliveries. This can really cheapen a film experience when you get the impression that the filmmaker is serving sponsors more readily than the story and its audience members.

Think of The Lego Movie that is essentially one feature film length advert that actually manages to immerse itself so deep in the brand that the advert becomes an unobtrusive spin-off. There are product placements that you see and then there are some you hear when characters openly discuss a drink or biscuit. A lack of sponsorship is the very reason characters don't mention an alcohol brand when they order at a bar.

More insidious than you think.

While product placements are an overt example of brand consideration and sponsorship, it's not limited to purely commercial enterprises. Film has been used as a form of propaganda for many years and the rise of misinformation is simply making people more aware of the propensity for the manipulation of information. Ideas are relayed via film to test the limits of your belief system, offer you alternative viewpoints and in some cases open your eyes to new possibilities.

This can be used for good in immersing you into another world where you get to walk a mile in someone else's shoes to possibly engender more compassion or empathy. However, it can also be used to alter public perceptions.

The TV series Gilmore Girls didn't ever feature a credit card brand in the frame of any shot but was a platform for a credit card sponsor to celebrate excess and overspending. While invisible, the idea was to influence consumers to live large... whether it was the materialism of the Gilmore family's wealth and worship of items or the simple excesses of ordering everything on the menu or just shopping like a magpie. This culture was given focus on the show and using its warm emotional undertow and likable characters, it was turned into something to aspire to.

People placement is a thing.

While it's curious to see Donald Trump appearing as a guest on so many '80s and '90s shows, one wonders just how much of an effect this celebrity culture had on his election to President after he had become a household name. While roasted and derided, he was constantly thrust in the public eye across a spectrum of sitcoms, making him a prolific guest star.

One should also consider the role that pornography has played across pop culture where it's been made to seem like a rite of passage and a perfectly natural hobby for teenage boys. Offering an empathetic perspective in most cases, finding porn or using it as a joke has given it a normalcy... and celebrating it in shows like The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, gives it family value. Think of how wonderful it was for Will to visit the Playboy mansion or Hilary to be a pin-up.

Regulating harmful representations.

While no one's taking too much issue with these representations yet, since they've become so intertwined with public perception, one wonders just how long it will be before these kinds of issues are given much more focus in the world of entertainment. We're currently seeing a long overdue examination of human representation or under-representation in media. This will take a long time to address and find a new normal without having to apply countermeasures and regulations.

The sleeping giant is of course guns, which have been celebrated for decades. The US is battling a gun issue, which has resulted in documentaries like Bowling for Columbine, a growing list of gun-related massacres and very few are calling for accountability and regulation when it comes to the representation of gun violence across film, TV and video games.

Anticipate, interrogate and reassess.

It all comes down to self awareness. Knowing when you're receiving advertising signals. Interrogating the storytelling so that you know when you're being persuaded or manipulated and just generally being mindful of what the implications of story and character, and their bearing on your morality. It helps to be open-minded enough to accept new information yet critical enough to filter out the rubbish.

This is a valuable skill in this age where fake news is more prevalent and it's these tools that will help you navigate pop culture more readily. Roll with it so that you enjoy the movie and the story but try to be self-aware enough to challenge viewpoints, how they correspond with your own outlook and assess the hidden motives. It's not quite at the level of A Clockwork Orange in terms of brainwashing but the more we soak up without processing, the easier it could become to simply accept everything.

Just When You Thought You'd Seen It All... 'Mr. Bones 3: Son of Bones'

Mr Bones 3: Son of Bones
is coming and there's nowhere to hide. Scheduled to release on Easter weekend on 15 April 2022, the "much-anticipated blockbuster" sees the return of Leon Schuster as the inimitable medicine man, Mr Bones. He's not alone, re-teaming with long-time filmmaking collaborator Gray Hofmeyer and the one and only, Alfred "Shorty" Ntombela.

Leon Schuster was at the height of his career at the time of Mr. Bones. Defying slings and arrows, stick and stones... he's back with Mr. Bones 3: Son of Bones, which is apparently his last film - probably dependent on box office takings. This time around, he's assembled a good cast, re-teamed with the hysterical Alfred Ntombela and while it's complicated... hestill has a special place in the hearts of many South Africans.

Mr Bones 3: Son of Bones

While the Mr. Bones series has always aimed for low-hanging fruit and puerile popcorn fun, Mr Bones and Mr Bones 2: Back from the Past were runaway box office success stories in South Africa, breaking into the Top 10. This proved that the candid comedian turned slapstick actor had a major draw with a diverse range of local audiences. Having gone through the gauntlet of cancel culture, where opinion is still divided about his legacy of films, it seems that Schuster is still kicking.

It's been a while since Frank & Fearless, a silly African adventure that centred on rhino conservation. Taking on a similar ecological agenda, Mr. Bones 3 journeys with Mr. Bones and his son, Mathambo. Now getting on in years, he must pass on his knowledge to his son, guide him into manhood and thwart unscrupulous oil prospectors and treasure hunters to defend Kuvukiland. All in a day's work.

Making it a trilogy, Mr. Bones 3: Son of Bones is the sequel we never knew we needed or even wanted. The third installment comes 14 years after Mr. Bones 2 and features a solid local cast including: Tumi Morake, Sans Moonsamy, Daniel Janks, Sthandile Nkosi, Jay Anstey and Jerry Mofokeng.

The "son of" sequel and reboot naming convention has always signaled a misfire. The Son of the Pink Panther with Roberto Benigni tanked, Son of the Mask was horrendous, Ace Ventura: Pet Detective Jr. is just a "son of" in disguise. In fact... the only real success story for a sequel with this naming convention is The Godfather II, which is also known as Son of Godfather but had the presence of mind to skip the ill-fated title. In its defence, it's not a reboot and actually features the original Mr. Bones.

Based on the camp and slapstick franchise's runaway box office success, there's definitely an audience for Schuster's brand of comedy. Coming at a time where escapist entertainment is more appealing than ever, the much-needed dose of laughter and silliness could hit a sweet spot. Having broken records with Mr. Bones and Mr. Bones 2: Back from the Past, there will be a great deal of pressure on Part 3 to perform with cinemas still recovering from two years of pandemic disruption.

Coming at Easter, it seems that Mr. Bones 3: Son of Bones is expected to perform miracles. It it works, it'll help redeem Schuster's flagging celebrity, draw people back to cinemas at this crucial time and give people from all walks of life some long-awaited comic relief. It's not what we want South African cinema to be known for but these kind of cinematic events are welcome in their ability to generate renewed interest and help sustain the industry.

Being a Movie Critic - A Dream Job?

Being a movie critic sounds like a really cushy job. Being paid to watch film for a living is generally how most people sum up the job title. While there's some truth to this statement and it's probably something most would love to do, it's much more complicated than you'd expect. The Coke and popcorn may come free at more regular intervals than the average person but it's not quite the dream job many mistakenly envisage. Plus, watching a movie is only the beginning... the real work only starts when the credits roll.

In a recent #ConfessionsofaMovieCritic tweet, it was revealed that it's actually quite difficult to get round to watching or rewatching films. Much like the curse of the mailman, the mail keeps coming in and needs to go out. In a similar way this is the same with film, trying to keep your audience in the loop when it comes to recent film releases means aiming for the latest films or those that have captured the public's imagination.

You want your reviews to be relevant, fresh and useful. While you could probably do this with older films in offering a retrospective or tying them in with a remake or current trend, it's another layer of work and more difficult to sell as an article pitch. Simply hitching onto the latest and freshest releases means that there's usually a natural buzz, people are seeing the title doing the rounds or are enticed to know how the film is being received.

watching movies for a living

The Internet as beautiful a thing but being the great equalizer, it means that you're essentially competing with the world when it comes to breaking news stories. Couple this with the speed of Twitter and you've got a near-impossible task to keep news fresh by the time it actually "hits the shelves". The same goes for film, since in many cases, delayed release dates mean the film already has a hundred or so reviews out there.

Thankfully, it's changing with the sheer volume, the advent of a global drop thanks to prolific streaming platforms and localised news channels. In spite of audiences now having access to a film history depending on streaming availability, it's always been about what's new, fresh... the toast of the day. It's a blessing and a curse, creating an inherent and alluring interest factor whilst being brushed under the carpet in a fraction of the time it took to conceive, write, shoot and unleash the film.

This is why it's so tricky as a film critic to actually watch the movies you want to watch! You may literally have 400 DVDs that are waiting in the wings, the kind of movies that are on your bucket list, but if you don't have the platform or commission to do retrospective reviews, you may never get the chance to see them all!

This is obviously a champagne problem but just serves to underscore the strange complexity of watching movies in a professional capacity, yet rarely getting the opportunity to watch what you've been dying to watch for ages. Sure, you get to watch stuff before others and get opportunities to do some interesting movie-related things in exchange for coverage but unless you're in charge of your viewing line-up, there's a good chance you'll have to sit through some awful movies to take one for the team.

Having to review three films a week is not a big ask if this is a pure focus, but coupled with a number of other pursuits makes this a much trickier endeavour. As much as someone may be willing to pay you to cover films for their channel or publication, it's rare to find a situation where you can rely on that single source of income. So, the fact of the matter is that watching movies for a living usually entails doing a few other things for a living concurrently. These days, in the aftermath of print, where your distribution levels lured enough advertisers to justify full-time film journalists, it's about sowing seeds, paying your dues, being a jack of all trades... [insert your platitude here].

Watching the films you want to watch over the weekend is a tip but since press screenings are generally done after 5pm and much of your viewing time is done over the weekend to keep your week nimble, it's much easier said than done. You may think film critics are just vegetating in a dark cinema with an endless supply of popcorn and Coke during office hours. This is just pure fantasy. While it may happen at a festival or movie marathon every now and then, it's a rarity.

'Shining Girls' Trailer Lands

'The Shining Girls' is a novel by acclaimed South African sci-fi author, Lauren Beukes, which has been adapted into a TV series starring Elisabeth Moss and Jamie Bell. Having been in the pipeline for several years under Leonardo DiCaprio's Appian Way, the Shining Girls series is seeing the cold light of day.

The haunting trailer has finally landed for the Apple TV series, which is scheduled for 29 April. Shining Girls follows Kirby Mazrachi (Moss) who realises a spate of murders mirrors her attack. Trying to track down the would-be killer with the help of a reporter, they find the series of crimes are linked across time.

The title recalls Stephen King's 'The Shining', who happens to be a fan of Beukes, but isn't an inspiration. Elisabeth Moss has emblazoned a name for herself across TV and film, winning over critics and audiences with her role in The Handmaid's Tale. While she directs episodes in this series along with The Handmaid's Tales' Daina Reid, her role as Kirby has echoes of The Invisible Man. Embracing a similar dark, shadowy world... it makes complete sense, toying with the notion of a possible assailant who's there but not there in this time-bending concept.

Jamie Bell is a curious choice as the villain because he's not the first person you'd expect to play the role. While Tom Holland's turn as the stage Billy Elliott may be slowly catching fire with newer audiences and his popularity, it's still Bell's best known performance. He's a real contender and while he's not trying to distance himself from the role, he's changing hearts and minds by way of solid performances, admiration and respect.

Taking atypical leading roles in films like Skin, Bell isn't afraid to take on a challenge. This is what makes his role in Shining Girls so promising, giving the reins to an actor who isn't afraid to go places. Whatever happens, the potent concept, stellar cast and under DiCaprio's oversight should hopefully add up to one helluva thrill ride of twists and turns across the ages.

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