The Emperor’s New Clothes


Get me to the financial meltdown on time.

Get me to the financial meltdown on time.

(2015) Documentary (Sundance Selects) Russell Brand. Directed by Michael Winterbottom
Wealth inequality is a major social issue in 2016 and looks to be for a long while. The same people responsible for the financial collapse of 2008 that very nearly wrecked the global economy have benefitted from trillions of dollars in financial bailouts generated by the taxpayers of the United States and United Kingdom.

We hear about these issues from progressive bloggers, left-wing news outlets and progressive politicians. Few have made these issues more relatable however than comedian Russell Brand. While his movie appearances and brief marriage to singer Katie Perry have made him fairly well known on American shores, it is in Great Britain where he is much more of a well-known figure, thanks to his comedy specials and television programs.

He is something of a gadfly, a populist comic who has become a social activist. He has always leaned to the left in his comedy but of late he has emphasized his activism a lot more, as shown in this documentary collaboration with filmmaker Michael Winterbottom (The Trip) as he tilts at the windmills that are British bankers.

While Brand focuses on the problems in his native United Kingdom, the issues there are somewhat depressingly similar to what is happening in the United States. Using memes and an occasional in-your-face rhetoric in which statistics are shouted in a strident voice, Brand nevertheless builds up a convincing argument that Fundamentalist Capitalism as advocated by economist Milton Friedman and put into practice by Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and conservatives that have followed in their footsteps, is responsible for the runaway economic woes that have come from the rich not only getting richer and the poor not only getting poorer, but the disparity between the two growing wider than ever.

Statistics come at you like body blows from Rocky Balboa; OXFAM reports that the world’s wealthiest 80 people has the combined wealth of the bottom half of the world population, or that had the minimum wage gone up at the same rate as CEO salaries, then workers would be making a minimum salary of nearly six figures annually.

He utilizes a confrontational technique popularized by documentary filmmaker Michael Moore in seeking out banking executives for interviews (who only give them when ambushed by Brand and his camera crew) to ask uncomfortable questions about the bailout, bonuses given by banking firms since then and their own excessively bloated compensation packages. Often he ends up spending more time with security guards with whom he discusses what he’s planning on asking their bosses, which is ironic since the guards are part of the 99% he’s preaching to.

And it is preaching. Even Brand himself admits that he’s a wealthy man and occasionally jokes about raising taxes on the wealthy to exclude himself, but he advocates 90% taxation on the wealthy, a plan that he seems to dash when he also brings up the tax havens in the Cayman Islands and elsewhere where trillions of dollars are being held benefiting essentially only the very rich.

Brand is an engaging and likable personality and when he is showing compassion to single working mums, he seems to be at his best although there are instances (as when he’s talking with a woman afflicted with cerebral palsy whose benefits were drastically cut) where you feel that he is playing to the camera a bit overly much.

I can’t say this is an indispensable documentary – there is a bit of pandering to the hipster left and some of the stunts are a bit disingenuous but the heart is in the right place. Your reaction to the movie will entirely depend on your political point of view; conservative audiences will no doubt dislike the film while more progressive viewers may well embrace it. Film buffs could admire the graphic presentation and disparage Winterbottom’s static camera work.

Certainly this is one of the more important issues (behind climate change) of our time. Brand makes a good case that this is money that these families didn’t actually earn, and whom for the most part inherited and used their power and influence to buy political votes in order to make the tax structures more accommodating to them and make it easier for them to not only keep their wealth but increase it – at the expense of everyone else.

REASONS TO GO: A succinct explanation of wealth inequality. Brand is an engaging personality.
REASONS TO STAY: Sometimes you feel shouted at. These sorts of confrontation hijinks have been done before.
FAMILY VALUES: A fair amount of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: One of two documentaries about Russell Brand’s crusade against wealth inequality released last year (the other being Russell Brand: The Second Coming by Ondi Timoner).
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/3/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 61% positive reviews. Metacritic: 53/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Roger and Me
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: The Danish Girl

Advertisements

Pick of the Litter – December 2015


BLOCKBUSTER OF THE MONTH

Star Wars Episode VII The Force Awakens

Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens

(Disney/LucasFilm) Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher. For Star Wars fans, there is literally a new hope; after the prequel trilogy that pleased nobody, Disney bought LucasFilm and went on to set up an unprecedented and ambitious series of films, including a new trilogy and at least two stand-alone films. All of that begins right here with this film. Little is known about the plot of the newest episode, only that it takes place 30 years after the original trilogy in a universe where the Empire is as strong and as cruel as ever. New heroes will fight beside the old in what promises to be yet another license for Disney to print money. December 18

INDEPENDENT PICKS

Hitchcock Truffaut

Hitchcock/Truffaut

(Cohen Media Group) Alfred Hitchcock, Francois Truffaut, Martin Scorsese, David Fincher. In 1966 French director Francois Truffaut conducted a series of interviews with Alfred Hitchcock which changed the public perception of not only the man but of the art of directing films in general. The two legendary directors discussed the art of making film, the planning and the thought that went into it, their frustrations when things didn’t work out the way they wanted and their joys when unexpected brilliance occurred. This documentary looks at how this watershed book has affected modern filmmakers as well as examines the author and his subject in depth. December 2

Life

Life

(Cinedigm) Robert Pattinson, Dane DeHaan, Joel Edgerton, Ben Kingsley. Photographer Dennis Stock is given the assignment in 1955 by Life Magazine to do a photo essay on an unknown actor named James Dean. What begins as an assignment turns into mutual respect and eventually into a lifelong friendship. The performances by the two lead actors have already received a good deal of acclaim on the festival circuit. Noted photographer Anton Corbijn directs. December 4

Macbeth

Macbeth

(Weinstein) Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, David Thewlis, Paddy Considine. I don’t mind saying that I’m a great admirer of William Shakespeare, and that my all-time favorite Shakespeare play is this one. It has it all – political intrigue, murder, an ambitious wife, the supernatural – everything anyone could possibly want. And this particular performance has the incomparable Marion Cotillard and the emerging superstar Michael Fassbender. What’s not to like? December 4

The Emperor's New Clothes

The Emperor’s New Clothes

(Sundance Selects) Russell Brand. Comedian and activist Russell Brand takes on perhaps the most arrogant species on Earth – the British banker. As responsible for the world economic downturn as their American counterparts, to date in Britain no banking executive has had criminal charges leveled against them for the various malfeasances committed either with their direct knowledge or under their watch. Brand uses the confrontational tactics of Michael Moore coupled with his own unique brand of humor (see what I did there?) to bring attention to the British people that there is something they can do about it – and by extension, the American people as well. December 16

Bajirao Mastani

Bajirao Mastani

(Eros International) Deepika Padukone, Ranveer Singh, Priyanka Chopra, Aditya Pancholi. The Indian film industry has been thriving for decades, but in American terms has been coming into its own more than ever. This epic tale of a historic romance between the Indian general Baji Rao and his second wife Mastani has the kind of sweep and scope that American films have had and has of late been more the province of the Chinese film industry. Lush sets, massive battle sequences, and of course what would an Indian film be without a catchy pop song to hum on the way home from the theater? December 18

 He Never Died

He Never Died

(Vertical) Henry Rollins, Booboo Stewart, Steven Ogg, Jordan Todosey. Jack, a social outcast, lives in his apartment alone and content to be that way. Venturing out only to get supplies, to have a quiet drink and occasionally a rousing game of bingo, he keeps the world at arm’s length. However, there are those who don’t want him to remain that way and when he discovers that he has a daughter that he never knew about, she becomes a pawn in a deadly game – which leads Jack to reveal an ancient and terrifying secret. Henry Rollins, former lead singer of Black Flag and one of my favorite humans ever, stars. December 18

Son of Saul

Son of Saul

(Sony Classics) Géza Röhrig, Levente Molnár, Urs Rechn, Todd Charmont. A concentration camp prisoner tasked with burning the bodies of the victims discovers the body of a young boy he takes to be his son in the waning days of the war. With the Germans desperately trying to liquidate evidence of their atrocities, he makes the decision to salvage the body of his son so that a rabbi might give him a proper burial, putting everything on the line for a boy he didn’t take care of in life. This is Hungary’s official submission for this year’s Foreign Language Oscar. December 18

45 Years

45 Years

(Sundance Selects) Charlotte Rampling, Tom Courtenay, Geraldine James, Dolly Wells. In the weeks leading up to their 45th wedding anniversary, a couple receives a letter which contains life-changing news. Attempting to recover while planning a gala celebration, the two must find a place where they can continue onwards – and rediscover the strength to love each other. This film was a huge hit at the Berlin Film Festival, winning Golden Bears for both Rampling and Courtenay. December 23