SXSW Film Festival ’11 | Day Five

Spurlock makes points using the specific capabilities of the medium of film, and it contains moments of comic genius that will make you gasp because they are so perfect.

So many films, so little time. Today we have reviews of documentaries about pot smuggling in Miami and the product placement game, then just to change things up, a review of a historical epic by one of the masters of J-Horror, Takashi Miike.
Square Grouper: The Godfathers of Ganja, directed by Billy Corben (Cocaine Cowboys, The U) presents three stories about pot smuggling in southern Florida in the 1970s. The title is a slang term for the bales of pot that smugglers would throw overboard when they were fleeing authorities, which people would then try to fish out of the water—a catch much more valuable than the fish kind of grouper, of course. The first and most fantastic (but absolutely true) story is about the Ethiopian Zion Coptic Church that successfully claimed that smoking pot was a sacrament (based on the Biblical passage “And God said, Behold, I have given you every herb bearing seed…). They smoked quite a bit of the “herb” themselves (the thick clouds of smoke disturbed neighbors on Star Island), but also ran a pot smuggling ring so large it was said to have disrupted the local economy of Jamaica.
The second story is that of the Black Tuna Gang of smugglers led by Robert Platshorn and Robert Meinster, both originally from Philadelphia. They operated out of the Hotel Fountainbleu in Miami and were notable for their use of sophisticated electronic communications, aircraft and boats retrofitted specifically to transport pot (even repainting water lines so they wouldn’t appear low in the water). The DEA, which was fighting for its institutional life at the time, claimed the gang smuggled over 500 tons of pot into the US in less than two years, and Platshorn and Meinster both received stiff sentences—over 100 years in prison between them.
The third story is that of Everglades City, a small town 80 miles west of Miami. Everglades City has a long history of involvement with smuggling (alcohol during Prohibition, more recently illegal immigrants) due to the ease with which local residents could escape law enforcement officials in the swamps and the close-knit community’s historic suspicion of outsiders (one interviewee remarks that there’s only about 10 surnames in the entire town). They got into pot smuggling when the fishing business became unprofitable, and when it all went bust they served short sentences (4-5 years) and moved on once again to jobs that kept them out of trouble with the law.
Corben tells these stories primarily through interviews and the film has a light-hearted tone. This is in large part because most of those involved (other than the DEA agents) never saw pot smuggling as a moral issue but simply as a way to make money and perhaps have some fun. The director’s touch is evident in the way he chose just the right backgrounds and costumes for each character; the DEA agents wear blue suits in a bland outdoor setting while Platshorn wears a Hawaiian shirt (in the talkback following the film Platshorn revealed that Corben brought that shirt to the interview and insisted that he wear it), and both he and his wife are interviewed in what appears to be a luxury home.
Everyone knows product placement is part of the filmmaker’s financing arsenal these days, but what if you made a film financed entirely by sponsorship deals? That’s what Morgan Spurlock did with The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, whose 1.5 million budget was raised entirely through product placement, co-promotions and the like. It’s fast-paced and funny (Spurlock has great comic timing) and also very meta because the film you see is primarily a film about getting the money to make the film.
A lot of The Greatest Movie Ever Sold is taken up with Spurlock making phone calls and pitching potential sponsors (reportedly he contacted 500-600 companies and ended up with 15 sponsors, including Mini Cooper, Ban, and POM Wonderful juice), with product placement within the film becoming increasing obvious as each sponsor signs on. The Greatest Movie Ever Sold is always cinematic; Spurlock makes points using the specific capabilities of the medium of film, and it contains moments of comic genius that will make you gasp because they are so perfect.
Spurlock goes off on several tangents as well. There’s a brief discussion of brand placement in general and in films and TV shows specifically. There’s a side trip to Sao Paolo where billboards and other outdoor advertising have been banned (it makes for a remarkably peaceful public space) and another to a company that uses MRIs to see how consumers respond to different commercials. Finally, Spurlock talks to several filmmakers about their experiences with product placement. Of the responses, the most hilarious comes from Quentin Tarantino, who says his films have suffered from what might be called negative product placement. For instance he wanted to set the diner scenes in Pulp Fiction in Denny’s, but the company ordered him to remove all references to their brand (not surprising considering what takes place at the diner in that film).
Takashi Miike is best known in the West for his stylish and sometimes amazingly violent films like Ichi the Killer. He provides both style and the violence in 13 Assassins, a historical epic based on a real incident in 19th-century Japan. This film draws on so many precedents that I can only list a few: Unforgiven for the grim revenge tale with no limits set on that revenge; Seven Samurai for the story of assembling a motley crew in order to achieve a mission; Lone Wolf and Cub for the theme of the few battling the many and for the almost absurd excesses of the final battle; Ran for the attention to period feel and detail; Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid for the theme of people stuck in the ethos of a past era while the world has moved on; and any number of exploitation horror films (the Saw franchise, The Human Centipede) for the grotesque mutilations that are depicted in 13 Assassins.
The story is set in 1844, hundreds of years past the Warring States period and a few decades before the beginning of the modern era in Japan. Lord Naritsugu (Goro Inagaki), brother of the Shogun, is a sadist rivaling Caligula who uses children for archery practice and chops the limbs and tongue off a woman when he grows tired of her. The samurai Shinzaemon (Koji Yakusho) is hired to assassinate him and gathers a crew of 12 samurai for the mission. The title refers to the fact that they later adopt a woodsman (Yusuke Iseya) as the 13th assassin (adding a welcome note of humor because he’s totally unimpressed by the samurai and is more concerned with trapping rabbits for dinner than in defeating the enemy).
Naritsugu is travelling with 200 bodyguards, but the 13 set elaborate traps that lead to a series of set piece battles that must be seen to be believed (some have speculated that this is the most violent movie ever made). In the film’s defense I will point out that the violence is not gratuitous and that the story documents a transitional point when one value system was being replaced by another. In the moral code of the samurai period rank was absolute and a servant’s life belonged to his master, whereas in the modern system a code of conduct applies to everyone and the lives of all human beings are assumed to have independent value.
13 Assassins is a big movie that will overwhelm you with its scope and it’s hard to imagine anyone topping it any time soon. The release schedule for this film is unusual; it will open on video on demand on March 25 and in theaters on April 29. Because 13 Assassins is a highly cinematic film, it’s well worth seeing in the theater (one with the biggest screen and best-equipped sound system you can find) even if you feel you also have to see it at home as soon as it becomes available. | Sarah Boslaugh

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