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

Rush


Another day at the office.

Another day at the office.

(2013) Biographical Sports Drama (Universal) Chris Hemsworth, Daniel Brühl, Olivia Wilde, Alexandra Maria Lara, Stephen Mangan, Christian McKay, Julian Rhind-Tutt, Jamie de Courcey, Pierfrancesco Favino, Natalie Dormer, David Calder, Alistair Petrie, Colin Stinton, Augusto Dallara, Ilario Calvo, Patrick Baladi, Vincent Riotta, Josephine de la Baume, Brooke Johnston, Hannah Britland. Directed by Ron Howard

Race car drivers are a breed unto themselves. While here in the States our focus tends to be on the NASCAR circuit, the Formula One drivers have the attention of the rest of the planet and for good reason; Formula One cars are, as one character in the film puts it, essentially coffins strapped to bombs. In the era this film took place in, 25 drivers would start out the racing year and two of them would die sometime during the year without fail. Why would anyone sane do something like this?

James Hunt (Hemsworth) is the kind of star that makes the sponsors salivate; handsome, irreverent and talented, he is fearless on the track and will make moves that would give even veteran drivers pause. Niki Lauda (Brühl) on the other hand is an Austrian with cold, technical precision and focus. While Hunt loves the spotlight, Lauda prefers solitude. Whereas Hunt drives for the thrill, Lauda drives for the victories. They are both ultra-competitive and it was inevitable that the two would become rivals.

In 1976, the two were vying for the Formula One championship – Lauda for Ferrari, Hunt for McLaren. They drove the best cars in the world and it seemed that Lauda, the defending champion, had the upper hand but after a horrific accident in Nürburgring for the German Grand Prix, Hunt had the golden opportunity to make up lost ground and pass the hospitalized Lauda, whose lungs were so badly burned after being trapped for nearly two minutes in an 800F inferno that they had to be vacuumed out while he was conscious. Against all odds and against doctor’s advice, Lauda returned to the track two months later to set up a head-to-head battle that would grab the attention of the world and make for a legend that endures today.

Howard is one of the best storytellers in Hollywood today and at his best his movies not only pack an emotional punch but stimulate the intellect by giving us something to think about. Here, Howard uses the rivalry between these two men (who actually respected each other a great deal and were friends after they retired from racing) to try and get at the mindset of men who risk their lives by driving in circles around a track for a trophy and a check.

Hemsworth is sometimes regarded as a handsome muscle boy who is best known for playing Thor  and very likably at that but the kid can act. He gets the look and mannerisms of the infamous bad boy of racing down to a T but also shows some insight into the insecurities that often drove Hunt. When his racing team collapses under a mountain of debt, Hunt turns into a bit of a prick and eventually drives his wife, supermodel Suzy Miller (Wilde) into the arms of actor Richard Burton. Under the wisecracks and the braggadocio there is a ferocious competitor who is out to prove to the world that he will live on his own terms and nobody else’s.

However, I think that the movie might just launch Brühl to the next level of stardom. He is mesmerizing as Lauda, wearing a dental device to simulate the overbite that earned Lauda the nickname “The Rat” among his fellows. Lauda was thoroughly disliked and didn’t care that he was; all he cared about was wringing every ounce of performance out of his machines and at that he was a master. He’s arrogant and charmless – his marriage proposal to Marlene (Lara) is “if I’m going to do this with anyone, it might as well be you.” Makes a girl’s heart beat faster, doesn’t it?

It is his intensity that Brühl captures best however. The nightmarish injuries that Lauda endures, the unimaginable pain of the burns is captured not only by the body language and the screams but in the eyes. Brühl looks like a man suffering the agonies of the damned – none worse than having to sit on the sidelines and watch his insurmountable lead erode race by race. For a competitor like Lauda, there could be no torture more terrible.

Peter Morgan, who wrote the screenplay, did it on his own; no studio commissioned it so the movie was deliberately written with few racing sequences just in case that the film was made on a non-major studio budget. Some lament that this is a racing movie without racing but in true point of fact it is not; this is a movie about people, not cars. Be aware that the movie is loud and intense however – the race scenes that are in the film accurately capture the noise and chaos of an actual race so that you might imagine you can smell the rubber and the asphalt. However, once the cars are moving I have to admit that the sequences aren’t anything to write home about.

Howard will no doubt be in the Oscar conversation again this year for the first time in five years, and I don’t have a problem with that. This is intense entertainment sure but more it is an examination of what makes people like Hunt and Lauda tick, and with performances at the level that Hemsworth and Brühl deliver, they are the first salvo in the 2014 Oscar race. Gentlemen, start your engines.

REASONS TO GO: Hemsworth and Brühl are impressive. Focuses on the differences that made them rivals.

REASONS TO STAY: More of a character study; the racing sequences are few and unimpressive.

FAMILY VALUES:  Plenty of cussing, some pretty disturbing images of the aftermath of a fiery crash, sexuality and nudity and brief drug use.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the second collaboration between Howard and writer Peter Morgan; the first was the Oscar-nominated Frost/Nixon.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/2/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 88% positive reviews. Metacritic: 75/100

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Grand Prix

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: In a World…

The International


The International

When someone tells Clive Owen to go play in traffic, he's man enough to do it.

(Columbia) Clive Owen, Naomi Watts, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Brian F. O’Byrne, Ulrich Thomsen, James Rebhorn, Jack McGee, Michel Voletti. Directed by Tom Twyker

Given what is happening in the world economy today, most of us have come to the conclusion that bankers have shuffled off what morality they may have had and are operating strictly on a greed motivation factor. Still, even given their reprehensible behavior nobody is ordering contract killings…at least so far as we know.

Louis Salinger (Owen) is a hard-bitten Interpol detective who has been investigating the International Bank of Business and Credit (IBBC) for a long time. Every time he gets close to nailing them for ethical or legal violations, witnesses recant, die or disappear. Currently he is working with Manhattan assistant D.A. Eleanor Whitman (Watts) investigating corruption in the Big Apple having to do with the bank. Eleanor’s boss (Rebhorn) sounds the cautionary bell but the two plunge on.

However, it appears to be happening again. Louis’ partner dies of an apparent heart attack that was brought on by what might have been a lethal injection after meeting with a bank insider, who shortly thereafter perishes in a car accident. From then on Salinger is looking for leads, running up against dead ends and generally acting pissed off in various locations around Europe before following a likely bank-employed assassin back to New York. After a shoot out in the Guggenheim finishes off the assassin, Salinger recognizes that he cannot get justice via ordinary means. He will have to resort to extra-legal methods.

The above plot synopsis is really a bit of an injustice to this very complex and engaging movie. German director Twyker has a very good sense of pacing and utilizes the locations nicely, capturing the wealth and power of the IBBC and those who orbit around it. Those who remember his signature film Run, Lola, Run will appreciate The International’s twist and turns as well as its compelling action sequences.

Owen has the hangdog, unkempt and sleepless look of a man caught up in the throes of his own obsessions (which Salinger surely is). Only in the eyes does Owen allow Salinger’s consuming rage to show through. That his performance is so nuanced is a credit to Owen’s abilities as an actor; that his character is so easy to root for despite the fact that he’s a bit of a jerk cement my opinion of Owen as a major movie star coming into his own.

Usually I like Naomi Watts but she seems a bit lost here. While there is no romantic connection for her to play off of Owen with, the chemistry between the two seems nonexistent, like two people who work in the same building and recognize the face enough to exchange nods in the hallway. Surely two people who have been directly in the line of fire as these two are depicted would have at least more of a bond?

This is a bit of a police procedural (I never knew that Interpol agents were not allowed to carry firearms) and a bit more of an action film. The Guggenheim sequence, with Owen and his allies running down the ramps of the iconic museum in a running gun battle with black-suited assassins hired by the bank is as marvelous an action sequence as you’re likely to see. Not only would it do the James Bond series proud, but the way Twyker edits the sequence together would bring the warm fuzzies to the heart of a Hitchcock aficionado as well.

Yeah, the storyline can be confusing upon occasion, particularly in the second act and Thomsen as the head banker Skaarsen is a bit bland, which weakens his position as lead villain a bit. Mueller-Stahl is a terrific character actor who manages to be chilling and charming at the same time, something like finding out a beloved grandfather was once a serial killer.

Even though I give it only a mild recommendation because of some of the tendency to over-plot as well as for some of the gaping holes in logic that result, if I think about it I’d probably give this a higher rating after revisiting it in the future. Tom Twyker is a terrific director working with a terrific actor and movie star in Clive Owen. Something tells me that a few years in the future this movie may wind up being a watershed first encounter between two talents who I believe are destined for big things in this business.

WHY RENT THIS: The behavior of IBBC is appropriate given the recent behavior of major financial institutions contributing to our current financial crisis. The action sequences are breakneck and satisfying. Clive Owen is, in my mind, a big star.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some of the financial biz stuff is fairly boring. No chemistry between Owen and Watts. The storyline can be confusing in places.

FAMILY VALUES: Lots and lots of violence coupled with a good deal of bad language. You make the call.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The set for the Guggenheim Museum, in which a major action sequence takes place, was built in an abandoned locomotive warehouse using the original blueprints from the Guggenheim.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: Most of the usual featurettes, deleted scenes and commentary.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: Red Cliff