The best thing about Morgan Spurlock's first film, Super Size Me, was the way he personalised America's fast-food addiction by subjecting himself to a McDonald's-only diet.
The worst thing about the film was that it convinced Spurlock to build all his subsequent documentaries around similar, but inferior stunts. The upshot is that when he came to make a documentary about product placement in the movies, he set himself the challenge of funding it entirely via product placement, and then showing us the boardroom negotiations that went into the process. In effect, The Greatest Movie Ever Sold functions as its own behind-the-scenes DVD extra. And its full title is actually Pom Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, because a pomegranate juice company paid Spurlock a million dollars for the privilege.
This Postmodern gimmickry is entertaining for a while. Spurlock is so engagingly cheery that it's fun to watch him persuading corporate suits that his documentary could be the next Iron Man. But his fundraising mission isn't nearly as compelling as the broader questions to be asked about product placement: how much cash changes hands, and how much influence the paymasters have over what's on screen. Frustratingly, Spurlock does ask these questions, but doesn't stick around for the answers. He's gathered some gob-smacking clips of the most blatant product placement, and some heavyweight pundits to discuss them. But Quentin Tarantino and Noam Chomsky, and the issues they might illuminate, get a line or two each before the film returns to Spurlock schmoozing potential investors.
The Greatest Movie Ever Sold is a diverting comedy and a valuable conversation starter, but it's annoyingly sketchy journalism. Spurlock's last word is an offhand: "Best I can do is just show you it's out there." Is that really the best he can do?
There's product placement aplenty in Real Steel, a sci-fi sports movie set in a near-future where boxing matches are fought not by humans but by remote-controlled robots. Sounds exciting, doesn't it? It isn't. The film's fatal flaw is that the computer-generated pugilists have all the grace and athleticism of washing machines, and not as much personality.
Perhaps that's why Real Steel tries every tactic under the sun to get us rooting for its heroes. It has Hugh Jackman as a washed-up, hard-drinking ex-boxer – even if he looks like a clean-cut matinee idol – who's reduced to taking his battered old robot around county fairs. Still, if by some million-to-one chance he can get his rustbucket off the scrapheap, and into a title fight with an undefeated robo-Tyson, then he could turn his life around. But that's not all. The bout would also save the gym owned by his beautiful childhood friend, Evangeline Lilly. And it would help him to reconnect with his 11-year-old son (yes, Steven Spielberg is a producer). And the baddie robot is owned by a cold-hearted Russian heiress and a sneering Japanese scientist, for double hissability. I didn't think any film could fit in more underdog movie clichés than last month's Warrior, but after the all-crying, all-hugging finale of Real Steel, I realised it had met its match. It's shameless, but audiences will still be left as emotionless as any of Jackman's metal co-stars.
The Three Musketeers is another film that throws in everything it can, devoting much of its time to the zeppelins, flame-throwers, and booby-trapped Venetian vaults which are overlooked in many adaptations of Dumas' novel, and devoting the rest to shots of Milla Jovovich – the director's wife – posing in a variety of corsets. I can't say I object: there have been so many Musketeer films that there's no harm in making one that's an extravagantly silly steam-punk comic strip, and in 3D to boot. But for all its pandering to our inner 12-year-olds, The Three Musketeers is strangely uninvolving, the characters crowded out by explosions and airship battles. Christoph Waltz and Mads Mikkelson are under-used as the villains; the Musketeers themselves barely register; and D'Artagnan (Logan Lerman) is such a brat that he deserves to be stabbed at the earliest opportunity.
Nicholas Barber sees the disease thriller, Contagion, health permitting
Peter Mullan and a revelatory Olivia Colman are unlikely allies in a grim world, in Tyrannosaur, a compelling directing debut from Brit favourite Paddy Considine...while Owen Wilson hangs out with Scott, Zelda, and other 1920s bohemians in Midnight in Paris, in which Woody Allen regains some of his sparkle. The Buñuel gag is good, at least.
Also Showing: 16/10/2011
Everything Must Go (97 mins, 15)
A salesman (Will Ferrell) camps on his front lawn when his wife locks him out of their house. This witty Raymond Carver adaptation has a pleasantly mellow wooziness – maybe too mellow considering that its hero is meant to be a desperate alcoholic.
Retreat (86 mins, 15)
On a remote Hebridean island, a holidaying couple (Thandie Newton and Cillian Murphy) encounter a blood-streaked soldier (Jamie Bell) who claims that the mainland has been decimated by a virus. A resourceful indie chamber piece with a cunning twist.
Hell and Back Again (88 mins, 15)
This upsetting documentary cuts between a US Marine's tour of duty in Afghanistan and his agonising recuperation back home.
Albatross (88 mins, 15)
A free-spirited teenage girl shakes up the staff of a seaside boarding house. When I say "free-spirited", I mean obnoxious.
First Night (116 mins, 15)
A tycoon (Richard E Grant) stages an opera in his stately home. Jolly, but incompetent.
Texas Killing Fields (104 mins, 15)
"Michael Mann Presents" a joyless cop drama directed by his daughter.