To refer to Defending Your Life as one of my favorite movies of all time would be an understatement. Albert Brooks’ script about a man who, after he dies in a car accident, finds himself in a bureaucratic afterlife waystation where he needs to justify his existence to determine if his spirit can “go forward” is as lean and airtight as they come. It ranks right below Much Ado About Nothing as a pure example of how dialogue and character development can move a story forward in lieu of big flashy set pieces or artificial “moments.”
The movie, much to my chagrin, turned 30 earlier this month, prompting retrospectives including this interview with Brooks on how the project developed and how a friendship with Carrie Fisher led to Meryl Streep being cast. If you haven’t seen it or just feel like it’s a good time to rewatch the film (it’s never *not* a good time, btw), it’s currently streaming on HBO Max.
In the meantime, from a script that contains more dryly funny bon mots per pound than nearly any other, here are a handful of quotes you can use in a variety of life situations and circumstances.
How HBO Max has sold a story of making peace with your past.
Meryl Streep teams for the second time with director Steven Soderbergh in this week’s new HBO Max release Let Them All Talk. Streep plays Alice, a well-known author who decides to reconnect with some old friends by taking a cruise as a group. Joining them is Alice’s nephew Tyler (Lucas Hedges), who is responsible for making sure the ladies get where they need to be and so on. Candice Bergen and Dianne Wiest play Roberta and Susan, Alice’s friends and fellow travelers, while Gemma Chan plans Karen, a literary agent who gets involved with Tyler on the trip.
The movie, which has a strong 93% Fresh on Rotten Tomatoes, has gotten a campaign that sells it as part of the overall Soderbergh brand while also relying heavily on the charisma and talent of the three women in the leading roles.
In addition to selling the names of the director and stars, the poster makes sure to label this as a “Max Original,” a different designation given to the titles it has produced as opposed to those it’s acquired after the fact. That’s meant to apply a little cache, but with such a new brand it’s hard to put much weight behind it.
Outside of that the photo of Streep looking pensive and tense pairs nicely with the copy “Write your wrongs,” conveying a good sense of the basic story as well as the emotional tone of the film.
Alice is furiously writing as the trailer (2.3 million views on YouTube), released in mid-November, opens, but she hasn’t actually turned in anything. So Karen has booked her and her friends on a cruise to try and shake things loose. Turns out there’s some bad blood between the friends, stemming partly from Alice’s use of them as characters in her past works. The chemistry is still there, though, and the time together brings some laughs and some tears and quite a bit of soul-searching. What the trailer really sells, though, is a bunch of professionals doing their thing on one of Soderbergh’s loose sets, which is a strong message to send.
Online and Social
Nothing here specifically for the movie, but HBO Max’s corporate social profiles did provide some support leading up to release.
Advertising and Promotions
Soderbergh announced the movie in mid-August of last year, revealing he was already well into production at the time. It wasn’t long until it was reported the feature marked the first major acquisition by HBO Max for what at the time was its unlaunched streaming subscription service.
The first very brief look at the film was offered in a sizzle reel promoting HBO Max’s upcoming slate of original material.
A few short promos like this were distributed on social in the last few weeks, offering slightly different looks at some scenes previously shown in the trailer.
Media and Press
A group interview with much of the primary cast had them talking about the story as well as the unconventional nature of Soderbergh’s filming style, including how low-budget, low-tech and low-stress the shoot was. That piece also hinted at a December release for the movie.
Streep appeared on “The Late Show” to talk about both this movie and The Prom, also released this week. She, Bergen and Weist all took part in a “Today” interview.
There was a big profile of Bergen that touched on her role here as well as her life and career overall.
You won’t go wrong with a certain segment of the audience (myself included) by selling a movie by promising simply a good time watching a bunch of seasoned professionals breeze their way through a simple premise.
That’s exactly what is being communicated here, with the added bonus that it comes from Soderbergh, who has a history of guiding just those sorts of productions. There’s good stuff here specific to the story, but the real hook is simply a few naturalistic performances and a director with a knack for capturing interesting moments on film.
Picking Up The Spare
More from Chan on her role in the film here. Hedges later appeared on “The Tonight Show” to talk about the movie.
Among the later press was a profile of Bergen and how she prepared for the film.
How Netflix is selling a flashy, glitzy feel-good story.
The Prom, directed by TV impresario Ryan Murphy, is a star-studded romp about defying small-minded attitudes with the help of a handful of massive celebrities. Adapted from a hit stage musical, the movie stars Jo Ellen Pellman as Emma Nolan, a high schooler who has been informed that the PTA, headed by Mrs. Greene (Kerry Washington), will not allow her to attend the prom with her girlfriend Alyssa (Ariana DeBose), who just also happens to be Mrs. Greene’s daughter.
When Emma’s situation makes the news it catches the attention of a handful of Broadway stars who are looking to get themselves out of a professional rut. So Dee Dee Allen (Meryl Streep), Barry Glickman (James Corden), Angie Dickenson (Nicole Kidman) and Trent Oliver (Andrew Rannells) all head to small-town Indiana hoping to find career salvation but wind up experiencing quite a bit more.
The movie itself has received middling reviews, but Netflix gave it a flashy campaign in keeping with the subject matter.
The first poster (by marketing agency L.A.) came out in September and immediately makes the showbiz-nature of the story clear by presenting both the title and the names of the cast in big neon letters, like a sign placed on top of a building. You don’t get a lot of story information here but you get a lot of background on the rest of the movie, so it works pretty well.
A series of character posters, each with the face of that actor and another thing to celebrate named, came out in November.
“Everyone deserves a chance to celebrate” the audience is told on the next poster, released later in November. This one shows Emma and Alyssa holding hands while walking toward the school building, clearly on their way to a dance. A second poster uses the same aesthetic, but turns the couple around so they’re standing triumphantly facing the camera.
The final poster has the adults in the cast walking down the downtown of the town where the action takes place, all looking like they’re having a great time with all the neon and glitz they’re wearing.
The trailer (1.3 million views on YouTube), released toward the end of October, is the very definition of glitzy. You get the basics of the story – that a bunch of Broadway superstars has come to a small Indiana town to support a young woman who is being denied the right to go to the prom with her girlfriend – but that’s just there in the service of showing off the big musical productions. There’s so much glitter, so many sequins and so much choreography it’s…well…it’s just impressive.
The final trailer (1.4 million views on YouTube) came out just a few weeks ago, opening with Emma logging into her computer to tell her story. That prompts the cadre of actors to take up Emma’s cause as their own, heading to Indiana to make a splash. There are ups and downs, of course, but ultimately the stars decide to stage a prom themselves, resulting in more than a few heartwarming musical numbers.
Online and Social
No website, of course, but the movie also seems to have received limited support on Netflix’s brand social channels because the company has been busy promoting Mank as well as its lineup of holiday films.
Advertising and Promotions
The movie was announced back in April of 2019. After it was picked up by Netflix a release date was finally announced in mid-September.
A full clip of Kidman performing one of the film’s key musical numbers came out earlier this week.
Media and Press
The cast and crew were all part of a THR cover story where they talked about making the movie, what the story meant to them and more. That included a spotlight on DeBose, mentioning this as one of a couple high-profile projects she’s recently involved in.
Many members of the cast were quoted talking about this movie in a feature story on the latest wave of Hollywood’s attempt to make musicals an ongoing genre again.
Murphy praised his cast and celebrated the timeliness of the story in an interview.
DeBose was interviewed about how her cultural heritage and other factors played into this and other roles. Another interview with Murphy had him talking about assembling the cast and making the movie.
In terms of talk show appearances, Rannells showed up on “The Tonight Show” while Streep appeared on “The Late Show.”
You certainly can’t accuse the campaign of not knowing what it’s selling. That bright, shimmery pink and purple brand identity is carried across every element of the marketing, creating a consistent experience for the audience no matter where they encounter it.
What is slightly disappointing, though, is that in serving so much glitter the marketing never really settles into the story. You have to dig through several layers of musical fluff to get to what the film is actually about, and much of the drama that’s conveyed in the official synopsis isn’t communicated within the campaign itself. That includes big contradictions, such as how Washington’s character is shown in the trailer to be the antagonist who doesn’t want to let her daughter celebrate but on the posters is smiling and having a grand old time along with everyone else.
In the end it’s a mixed bag, but maybe I too don’t understand the concept of zazz.
The Vietnam War still looms large in the collective American psyche, an instance where the cause being fought for was more muddled than usual. So too, the tendency of powerful figures to use whatever tools available to silence dissent and maintain their secrets is as old as time. Both of those realities came together in 1971 when former military analyst Daniel Ellsberg leaked what came to be known as “The Pentagon Papers” to The New York Times in 1971. While the Times published a number of stories on the documents, which contained a classified analysis of the Vietnam War, it wasn’t until later that year when The Washington Post picked up the story that things really heated up.
The Post, the new movie from director Steven Spielberg tells that part of the story. Meryl Streep plays Katherine “Kay” Graham, publisher of the Post from 1969 to 1979. When she’s informed by editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) that he intends to publish reports based on The Pentagon Papers it sets off a whirlwind of corporate and legal action. The Nixon administration moves to stifle that reporting, just as it did for the Times, citing national security concerns. Graham and Bradlee, then, must weigh the threat of being arrested for treason against their duty to inform the public of the real reason behind the Vietnam War.