When I think back to the worst moment of the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival I will be transported back to a noon the screening of “Rats,” Morgan Spurlock’s documentary on history of rat infestations in the world’s biggest cities. Going in hungry and trying to eat a sandwich while watching the skin-crawling creatures blown up to the size of a football field did nothing for my appetite, and in fact may put me off eating for ever. Not since “Willard” or “Ben” have rats enjoyed a close up as vivid as the one Spurlock gives them in his new doc.
If I was doing the advertising copy for “Rats” I might write something like this, “Rats, coming to a city near you… actually they’re probably already there,” because apparently the beastly rodents are everywhere. They’ve been in Manhattan for 250 years and it is estimated there are more rats in New York City than people. And that is just one of the metropolises Spurlock focuses on.
In New Orleans researchers, checking for pathogens the rats might be carrying and spreading in the aftermath of Katrina, find a smorgasbord of disease and parasites. In Mumbai, India rat catchers kills hundreds of rats by hand and in Cambodia we see how rats are prepared as a dinnertime treat. “It’s important to get the rats while they were still alive,” says the chef, “that way you know they’re fresh.” In one a small Indian town rats are worshipped at a 600-year-old Hindu temple teeming with 35,000 of the long-tailed rodents. “We all die and in in the next life we become rats,” says one man. “They die and in the next life they become man.”
Presented as a horror movie, complete with scary movie music cues, “Rats” tells us pretty much everything we need to know about the creatures we share our cities with. They taste like chicken but sweeter, they are diabolically clever and when the food runs out they start eating their babies. No detail is spared in the depiction of life among the vermin, get ready for an eyeful of parasites and bloodthirsty terriers tearing rats limb from limb—“Terriers are bred for vermin control,” we’re told, “you don’t have to train a terrier to kill rats.” Yet the scary stuff isn’t the blood and guts of rat autopsies but the scientific data derived from them. Rats mutate quickly, becoming immune to rodenticides and diseases. In other words they are carriers of nasty stuff that will kill a human but not its rodent host.
Like Jason Voorhees they are relentless, breeding quickly and constantly on the lookout for food. But why are they so hard to get rid of? They learn from their mistakes and every action on our part will cause a reaction on their part. That is scary stuff. “We are hardwired to be repulsed by these animals,” says one rat expert, “probably for our own survival.” Another urban rodentologist with almost 50 years experience says, “When a rat jumps at me I still jump back.”
“Rats” is often more unsettling than anything you can make up because these little horrors aren’t hidden. They’re everywhere. “I’ve even seen them in graveyards,” says a ratologist ominously, “I wonder what they’re eating?” If that doesn’t put you off your sandwich, nothing will.
The members of Britpop boy band One Direction seem like five nice young lads—and they fight poverty with Comic Relief!—and I don’t want to hurt their feelings, so Zayn, Harry, Louis, Liam and Niall if you’re reading this, please skip ahead to the next review.
“One Direction: This Is Us” is a behind the scenes look at the singing sensations from their beginnings as 2010 “X Factor” contestants to teen dream superstars.
Like five tousle-haired Justin Biebers they prance about onstage and off, prompting fans to squeal things like, ”They make me laugh! They make us believe anything is possible! They make me happy when I’m sad!” and newscasters to emote that, “the Beatles didn’t have such transatlantic success so early on!!”
In the concert segments they make vocal sounds that clearly hypnotize anyone under 17 years old, but will have no effect whatsoever on people who have outgrown their training bras.
If this movie could be summed up only using punctuation, I’d suggest younger folks might use the exclamation mark (!) while their elders may prefer the question mark (??).
Of course boy band pop music isn’t supposed to be appreciated by people of a certain age. What’s the fun of liking something of your parents also enjoy? So the music isn’t exactly the point here, but the bar is quite high for these kind of docs and I don’t mean in comparison to “Don’t Look Back” or even “Behind the Music.” No, I mean “Justin Bieber: Never Say Never” and “Katy Perry: Part of Me.” Both were finely honed promotional pieces but neither were dull, which is “One Direction: This Is Us’” greatest sin.
While Keith Moon used to while away the time on tour driving Rolls Royces into swimming pools, Zayn, Harry, Louis, Liam and Niall tweet to fans and try to figure out the vagaries of miso soup while in Japan.
The movie is as sure a hit as will be released this year, so it’s disappointing that it feels so prepackaged. It would have been interesting to learn about the marketing and selling of the band but that, I guess, isn’t the stuff that teen dream movies are made of.
Instead the movie is a parade of banality. Despite a few moments with the boys’ parents that ring true and an almost revealing bit near the end when the boys contemplate life after One Direction, the movie panders to fans expectations while revealing very little.
“One Direction: This Is Us” is a blunt force promotional object that portrays its stars as cuddly young men. It preaches to the choir, but anyone of a certain age will feel like they’re being beaten… with a bunny.
Everybody knows when Iron Man drinks a Dr. Pepper it’s not necessarily because he likes the taste of the soda, but because the good doctor paid beaucoup bucks to place the beverage in the superhero’s hand. Ditto the reason there are Coke glasses lined up in front of the “American Idol” judges and it ain’t to quench JoLo’s thirst. That’s not news. What is newsworthy is how those soft drinks ended up where they did. Enter Morgan Spurlock, documentary filmmaker and professional everyman.
Spurlock, who has previously documented his attempts to eat nothing but McDonalds food for a month (the “docbuster” “Super Size Me”) and hunt down a terrorist (“Where in the World Is Osama Bin Laden?”), returns with a look into the murky world of product placement, or, as it is called now, brand integration. For ninety minutes we follow him, first person style, as he “goes on a quest to get some sweet Hollywood ad money.” He wins some (POM Wonderful buys naming rights for $1 million), he loses some (Nike says no) and along the way ponders the moral and ethical problems of sponsorship on his art.
Spurlock is an engaging guy, which is a good thing because he inserts himself into virtually every frame of the movie. His easy charm and sense of humor lend much to the doc, but half-an-hour or so in are muted by the film’s subject. This is essentially a movie about marketing. Marketing can be sexy—sex sells!—but the business of marketing by and large isn’t.
The idea that Spurlock can finance a film entirely by sponsorship is a great one, but by the time he starts talking about “cultural decay rate” and identity versus brand the movie starts to bog down, despite its attention deficit disorder pacing.
Perhaps more insight would have helped. Spurlock is a sound bite documentarian, who can lift a great quote from Ralph Nader like “Advertisements which say they are lying are the only ones telling the truth,” but then doesn’t seem to know exactly what to do with it. Ultimately he simply sums up with the message that marketing works. Not exactly groundbreaking stuff.
That should have been the starting point, with more attention paid to why it works in the body of the film.
I wish nothing but good things for “The Greatest Movie Ever Sold.” By contract with his sponsors Spurlock has to hit certain goals—like $10 million box office—and I hope he succeeds, but next time out I’d like to see some of the cleverness exchanged for insight.