Where to Invade Next


These chiefs could use a joint.

These chiefs could use a joint.

(2016) Documentary (Alamo Drafthouse) Michael Moore, Tim Walker, Krista Kiuru. Directed by Michael Moore

Michael Moore is one of those polarizing documentarians who has an agenda that occasionally plays fast and loose with facts and often takes things out of context. He infuriates the conservative electorate, many of whom characterize him as public enemy number one. For liberals while he is not necessarily a beloved figure, he is at least respected to a certain degree. With Moore’s films, you get pretty much what you expect.

His latest takes a look not so much at America but how improvements could be made, all of which are doable. Predictably, conservative film reviewers have ripped the movie a new one while those critics who already lean towards the left have sung the praises of the movie. Being of the latter persuasion, I find it hard not to add my voice to the liberal choir but I’m trying to be as objective as I can be.

Moore makes a valid point that we as Americans tend to accept without question that we live in the greatest nation on Earth, the best place to be. We are the land of the free, the home of the brave and we are the where the American Dream makes its residence – the philosophy, not the wrestler. In any case, we sometimes look at other countries ideas of doing things with a healthy dose of disdain.

That’s not always a wise thing. We don’t have a monopoly on good ideas here, although many expressed in the film originated here in the States and have since been abandoned or ignored from the get-go. The conceit of the film is that we have fought a string of wars with almost nothing to show for it other than debt, dead soldiers and obscene profits for military suppliers.

So the Joint Chiefs of Staff have sent American gadfly Moore out to invade other countries, steal their best ideas, and bring them here to the United States to implement. The ideas vary from five weeks mandatory paid vacation in Italy (with an additional two weeks of government holidays) and five months of paid maternity leave, also mandatory (the United States and Papua New Guinea are the only countries on the planet that don’t have mandatory paid maternity leaves, although most companies offer roughly six weeks of paid maternity leave to their employees here). France has a one hour lunch for schoolchildren and serves lunches that are nutritionist-approved from fresh ingredients – on plates and in glasses – to students who learn to serve each other and conduct themselves with proper table manners. They also do it for less than American schools pay for their slop.

And the ideas keep on coming, from reduced school hours, virtually no homework and no standardized tests that have taken Finland from educational standing right about where the United States is to the top ranking of national education systems to Slovenia offering free college to any student who wants to attend there – including non-Slovenians (so many American students have flocked over there that some universities are offering as many as 150 different courses in English). Norway has a prison system in which violent offenders stay in compounds in which they are treated with dignity and given more or less free access anywhere inside the compound – although not out of it. The campus is beautiful and gives them amenities that you’d find at home – just not freedom. The recidivism rate is about 20% there, opposite our own 80%.

Portugal has eliminated drug use prison sentences and treats drug use as a health care issue rather than as a criminal law issue, lowering their drug use rate. Germany has begun teaching their children about the Holocaust and taking ownership rather than ignoring it and hiding it. Tunisia shows how women took to the streets following their 2011 revolution and told the Islamist government that they refused to allow their rights to be unprotected by their new constitution. The uprising was so massive that the government voluntarily stepped down.

Finally in Iceland, the only financial company that escaped the country’s massive 2007 financial meltdown was one founded and run by women. The financial recovery was largely spearheaded by the addition of women to corporate boards throughout the country. And unlike the United States, their equivalent of the Department of Justice investigated, prosecuted and convicted a number of financial executives for wrongdoing and fraud, basing their investigations largely on American policies during the savings and loan crisis.

I will admit that Moore has a tendency to present facts as he sees him and not necessarily as they are. Employee benefits in Italy, for example, are tremendous but unemployment is twice the rate it is here. However, unlike the conservative reviewer who blames unemployment on those benefits somewhat speciously at best (she seems to think that the high taxes in Italy pay for those benefits which they do not – the companies do), I can see that Moore makes several points that are worth considering. We should be concerned not just with profits but for the quality of life of all people. We have become a society so narrowly focused on the bottom line we’ve lost sight of what is even more important – living. And in a country where our own government has taken a scorched earth policy against the middle class, we should not be pooh-poohing new ideas and refusing to consider them because we think they won’t work here. Why wouldn’t having more women in the board room work in this country? Why wouldn’t giving our kids better nutrition at lunch work here? Why wouldn’t shorter class hours and no standardized tests work here?

Moore’s point is that we are mired in this box of thinking that everything we do is the only way to do things and if it doesn’t work, it can’t be fixed. This is a film that attempts to prove that this isn’t the case at all and I think largely Moore succeeds in making his point. While I think that two hours is a bit long for this kind of film, at least he keeps it interesting with his sense of humor and his ability to tell a story in an entertaining way.

I don’t doubt that those who consider Moore to be an irresponsible socialist lefty with an axe to grind are going to hate this and reject the message out of hand simply because it’s Michael Moore delivering it. There are also those who are going to accept everything out of hand in this documentary simply because it’s Michael Moore saying it. It behooves us to do our own research and reach our own conclusions which most of us refuse to do because it’s too much trouble. And if you wonder why the world is so messed up, there’s your reason right there.

Nevertheless, Moore raises some valid points, poses some crucial questions and makes a film that is perhaps more optimistic than any he’s ever made, and one made out of – get this – patriotism. I’m not sure who said this, but whoever it was in my book was a very wise person – a true patriot is one who loves his country enough to want to change it for the better. You can read into that whatever you like.

REASONS TO GO: Much food for thought. Moore is a wonderful raconteur. Plenty of humor.
REASONS TO STAY: May be a little bit too long.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of foul language, some graphic nudity, disturbing photos and some drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Moore with the cooperation of the distributors are screening the film for free from February 19 for two weeks in his hometown of Flint, Michigan owing to the water crisis there.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/19/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 76% positive reviews. Metacritic: 63/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Sicko
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

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TRON: Legacy


TRON: Legacy

Sam is a little irritated that the library wants their books back; Cora is just disappointed.

(2010) Science Fiction (Disney) Jeff Bridges, Garrett Hedlund, Olivia Wilde, Bruce Boxleitner, Michael Sheen, James Frain, Beau Garrett, Anis Cheurfa, Cillian Murphy, Daft Punk, Jeffrey Nordling, Dan Joffre, Mi-Jung Lee, Dale Wolfe. Directed by Joseph Kosinski

We are all haunted by the ghosts of our past. In the case of movies, they are haunted by the movies that have come before them, sometimes many of them.

Sam Flynn (Hedlund) has good reason to be angry. His father, eccentric software genius Kevin Flynn (Bridges) deserted him when he was 12, disappearing into a miasma of rumor and innuendo, leaving his giant corporation Encom essentially in the hands of those he despised with only his good friend Alan Bradley (Boxleitner) holding his fingers in the dyke.

Sam expresses his anger by pulling spectacular pranks on his company (like releasing their new operating system software to the Internet so that people can use it for free rather than have to pay exorbitant amounts for it – take that Bill Gates!) that he takes no other interest in. He’s a bit of a spoiled rich kid with plenty of toys but no direction.

Then Bradley gets a page from the arcade that the elder Flynn started out with from a number that’s been disconnected for years. Sam expresses disinterest but at last curiosity wins out and he decides to check out the arcade, which is in marvelous shape despite the nearly 30 years that have passed since people last brought quarters in to play their machines (in a nice nod to the first film, “Separate Ways” by Journey blasts from the jukebox). He discovers a hidden door behind the vintage TRON machine and heads into his father’s secret room where a computer far more advanced than what we even have now sits. Sam had always been entertained about his father’s tales of being  beamed into the grid; is this where his father actually travelled into the electronic frontier?

Of course it is. Sam is beamed down there and is immediately captured and sent to the gaming grid, at first mistaken for a rogue program. When it is discovered that he is a user he is brought before a mysterious masked figure who appears to be the head honcho of the grid. The mask comes off and it’s – his dad, but the same as he was 30 years ago. Sam discovers quickly that he’s not quite his dad.

This is Clu (Bridges, using the same de-aging software found in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button), a program his dad had written to help create the perfect electronic society but this version of his dad is obsessive and somewhat cruel. He sends Sam out to be executed in the light-cycle arena but Sam is saved by the beautiful Cora (Wilde) who takes him to his dad in a sanctuary outside the grid where grid vehicles can’t travel.

There he finds his real dad, looking every bit the aging guru (not unlike the Big Lebowski two decades later) in a white robe and bare feet. Grizzled as a man exiled from his home and family might be, he has gone from being cocky and reckless to being almost afraid of taking any sort of action. His Zen has become his pen.

It turns out that Clu decided he didn’t like the way Flynn was running things, so he took over, destroying Flynn’s electronic partner Tron (Boxleitner) in the process. Clu is obsessed with perfection and thinks that he can take his well-ordered near-fascist state out into the other world, which he has yet to be able to do. However, should he get Flynn’s identity disk he’ll not only be able to do it, he has amassed a gigantic army in order to take over our world and make it over in his own image.

Sam is incensed that his dad wants to sit in his lonely castle and wait until the portal that Sam opened closes on its own (the power it takes to maintain an open portal is tremendous and they close usually after about eight hours). He figures that he can go to the outside world and delete Clu with a keystroke. However, he has to get back to the portal to escape and Cora tells him there’s one man who can do it; a man called Zoos (Sheen).

Zoos however has his own agenda and things take a turn for the worse, forcing Dad to come to Sam and Cora’s rescue. However in the process, Flynn’s identity disk falls into Clu’s hands, leading to a final showdown between maker and machine.

There is a lot to like about this movie. Unfortunately, I wanted to like it more and left feeling a bit disappointed. That may be because I do believe the trailers and the hype set the bar awfully high and it may be that the movie just didn’t quite get to that bar. Perhaps on its own merits I might have given it a higher score; do keep that in mind as you read on.

The visuals here are absolutely dazzling. Those that remember the graphics of the original TRON will be pleased that the sequel takes those images and refines them, keeping the essence of the filmmaker’s intentions rather than redefining the wheel – they are merely redrawing it with a better pencil.  That’s a very good idea.

Bridges, who I believe filmed this before his Oscar-winning turn in Crazy Heart is at the top of his game here. He is both the megalomaniacal Clu and the Zen surfer dude Flynn, as well as the grizzled disappointed Flynn. He is really playing three different roles and he imbues them each with their own subtleties. I had never considered him one of the best actors of our generation, but I’m beginning to change my mind on that score.

Hedlund looks and sounds a lot like a young Brad Pitt here and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. When held up against Bridges, you have to feel for him; he’s just not in that league quite yet. However, he makes a serviceable hero here, both vulnerable and ballsy at the same time. I was more impressed with Wilde, who is beautiful, mysterious and physical, all blending well together in a single core role. For my money, she has the looks and talent to be an A-list actress if she gets more roles like this one. Sheen has an entertaining supporting role as an outgoing Zoos who is equal parts David Bowie, Liza Minnelli and the Merovingian from the Matrix movies.

A quick word about the soundtrack. It was composed and performed by the French electronic duo Daft Punk (they make a cameo appearance as masked DJs in Zoos’ club) and it is one of the best movie soundtrack’s I’ve heard, maybe since Vangelis’ Chariots of Fire. It perfectly compliments the mood and the environment of the movie, plus the music stands up on its own without the visuals.

In fact, the movie has a lot of the Wachowski Brothers epic trilogy in it, as well as 2001: A Space Odyssey. There are positives and minuses about both of those elements which you take with a certain amount of salt. However, what I had more problems with is that the movie has long sequences where it drags, such as when father, son and Cora are riding a long train to the Portal near the end, or when Sam is investigating his dad’s page early on. The movie is at its best when it is at its most kinetic; any gamer will tell you that a game is only as good as its action and the more of it the better.

REASONS TO GO: The visuals are dazzling, a must-see. Hedlund resembles a young Brad Pitt both in look and in performance. Wilde makes a bid to be an A-list actress.

REASONS TO STAY: While the movie looks good it can’t really live up to the anticipation. There are long stretches where it drags.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of sci-fi action and some of the littlest tykes might be put off by the derezzing. There’s also a little bit of bad language but quite frankly there’s nothing here that most parents should prevent their kids from coming to see.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: There’s a hidden Mickey in the film; check out the back of Sam’s motorcycle helmet.

HOME OR THEATER: Very much the theater. These visuals should be seen in an epic scope. However, the 3D I found essentially unnecessary and added nothing to the film.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: The Chronicles of Narnia: Voyage of the Dawn Treader