September 24, 2009

Capitalism: A Love Story (09/24/09)

Lettergrade: B

Capitalism: A Love Story is Michael Moore's screed on corporate greed and white collar crime with a strong emphasis on the mismanagement that led to last year's economic melt-down. Before I get into it, though, I should admit that in spite of the flaws, I'm usually a sucker for Moore's movies. Politically, I tend to agree with a good deal of what he says, and as a humorist, I greatly admire the way in which he goes about saying it. Love or hate him, he has consistently used his celebrity to shine a light on issues that he feels need public attention, and for that I have an endless amount of respect. His last few pictures have felt a little scattershot, ranty, and somewhat slim on tangible solutions, but nevertheless they're important, thought-provoking pictures that often feel like imperative viewing. How many wide-release films have you seen this year that actually try to _do_ something?

Capitalism stimulated two extremes for me: I found myself surprisingly emotional during sections of it (particularly the last part, starting with the story about the sit-in at the window and glass company in Chicago on through to the end), but at the same time I found myself a little atypically annoyed that Moore again seems to undercut his own objective a bit by omitting key points of view and by taking an overly harsh (yet populist) stance against those on the other end of his argument.

This picture opens with a cheesy educational film about the fall of the Roman Empire which details how corruption and tyranny ultimately led the people to rise up and overthrow the established order. If the implication isn't clear enough, Moore inserts quick shots of politicians of the present and recent past. Among the points he argues in this picture is that capitalism as we know it has been distorted and rigged to the point where the upper 1% of the US population controls nearly 95% of the wealth, and that they've conned the rest of us into fighting over the scraps that are left instead of recognizing the inequity. Throughout the film, Moore profiles families that have lost their homes in the mortgage crisis (and companies that prey on the acquisition and resale of them), the Wall Street phenomenon of derivatives and split derivatives (comparing the institution to an insane mega-casino), and makes a persuasive argument for how deregulation, Union-busting, and obscene greed in the 80s and 90s has led to the virtual eradication of America's middle-class.

Moore uses every tool in his arsenal to tug at your heart strings and sense of decency: He includes multiple devastating testimonials and portraits of families who have lost everything, he has the survivors of deceased loved-ones cry on camera, and he flashes to emotionally charged images, such as post Katrina New Orleans, whenever he feels he can get some juice out of them. A number of other Michael Moore classic bits reappear as well, such as having Mike show up at some corporate headquarters with a camera crew, and then act surprised when security promptly covers his lens and shows him the door.

Similar to his previous productions, the approach is designed to aggressively inform, to incite passion, and to get in a good laugh whenever possible in order to make the whole thing palatable to those who might not be inclined to sit through this kind of thing otherwise. As always, the editing is sharp and incisive, and the archival team located some hysterical retro film and music in order to enhance the picture's considerable wit. While it's effective, I also can't deny that it's propaganda in the most pure sense of the term and manipulative as hell.

During the middle of the picture, after around 45 - 50 minutes of hearing how hopelessly fucked we are economically, I found myself wondering where the film was going, but in the last section Moore shifts gears a bit and profiles a number of small businesses and individuals who act out of a sense a fairness, despite the fact that the law does not require them to do so. Toward the end of the picture, it feels like Moore is actually spending more time with people who go out of their way to do good for other people for a change, and the picture winds up being oddly inspirational in a way that I don't believe any of his other pictures have been.

I guess you can think of each of Moore's recent pictures as a call to arms for liberal causes, and while he's continuously chosen subject material that is very potent and relevant, again I worry that they're becoming increasingly unfocused. Bowling For Columbine had the clear objective of swaying public opinion on gun control, with a few awkward detours into why Americans are a violent lot to begin with. Fahrenheit 9/11, which I didn't much care for, was sort of about the craziness that ensued after the terror attacks, but largely felt like an inartful smear piece. I happened to agree with his main point - that Bush ought not be reelected - but I felt that the way he went about making his case was scattershot, mean-spirited, and somewhat non-persuasive. SiCKO really stokes both sympathy and anger like no other picture he's made has, but after detailing the contours of a very large problem (and the bullshit arguments against implementing some kind of universal coverage), the movie failed to really chart out a clear way in which the problem might start to be remedied. On top of that, Moore was guilty of over-romanticizing socialized health care systems in other countries, all of which, while better than what we have presently, come with their own problems. Overplaying his hand there, as he does somewhat in Capitalism too, gives his critics a convenient way to dismiss the really good points he's making along with the sloppy ones.

Minor bitchings aside, though, I will say that the other week while watching Obama's address on health care reform to congress, I was quite struck that several of the health insurance horror-stories the president recounted would have felt right at home in SiCKO. Now, health care reform might well have been an important agenda for any president at this particular point in time, of course, but I had the feeling that Obama's speech wouldn't have been quite the same had Moore's film never existed. Either Moore was a little ahead of the curve in terms of understanding how big an issue health care reform would shortly become, or it was his willingness to take the material on in the first place that led to more of a national dialogue about where we are and where we need to be. In any case, it's hard to deny that he does have a good bead on many of the critical social-political issues of the day, and even if you find the guy to be an utterly obnoxious, bloviating asshole, it's usually worth listening to what he's got to say about them.

My review of SiCKO

September 19, 2009

The Informant! (09/19/09)

Lettergrade: F

You know, "hate" is an awfully strong word, but it's the only one that really comes to mind when thinking about Steven Soderbergh's The Informant!. Oh, it's started off well enough: The cast, which includes Matt Damon and Scott Bakula, is fantastic, and the true story of a delusional, dimwitted guy who sold out his agro product company, Archer Daniels Midland, to the FBI for price fixing not realizing that he himself would very likely be implicated in multiple corporate crime and embezzlement charges, sounded like fertile ground for at least a passably entertaining evening at the cinema. Perhaps it would sort of be like a comedic variant on Michael Mann's The Insider?

Ultimately, though, I really feel this movie, while amusing for short bursts, doesn't connect... somewhat because of the writing, but largely due to the way in which it is told. Structure first: The movie has a highly irritating way of keeping the audience on the outside of some key plot points for several scenes before letting you know what, exactly, is happening. I want to make the distinction that this can often be used for good dramatic effect, but that's not what this picture does. The difference is that a movie needs to be somewhat deliberate about what it is being unclear about it. Too often during this one I felt like I had simply missed some critical information, which is when "suspense" turns to "frustration" and then ultimately "apathy."

Building on that escalating sense of apathy was the picture's wafter-thin character material. I found Damon's character neither interesting nor sympathetic nor in any way relatable. Giving him funny hair, a fake nose, and a little extra weight seems to kind of hardwire his screen-time for comedy and comedy alone. A problem with that approach, however, is that it's almost like you're watching a stage clown or a Saturday Night Live character instead of a serious actor giving a dedicated performance. Again, I don't necessarily believe that every movie has to have a character that you like or want to root for, but at least we need to care about what happens to the people we're spending two hours with.

I thought that Damon's crazy internal monologues were really entertaining, and being a long time film-score nerd, I found it interesting that Soderbergh picked music legend Marvin Hamlisch out of retirement to write the jazzy, kitschy score. As the movie ground on, however, both really wore out their welcome fast and only further underlined that this is a project Soderbergh somewhat mishandled.

Other technical gripes are that the picture was largely shot on Red Camcorders instead of film, meaning that the picture, when projected on a large theater screen, was quite fuzzy and soft... almost appearing to be out of focus for large segments. Another byproduct of this format is that bright light sources appeared highly misty, particularly during daylight scenes. During segments of the movie, I found myself wondering if my allergies had returned and were affecting my vision, but when I looked around the theater I realized that everything else was perfectly clear: It was only the movie that was not. Soderbergh has shot most of his own movies since 2000 (under the name Peter Andrews), and it's something he really needs to get away from. Part of the idea behind not having everything be a one-man show is that someone can be there to tap the director on the shoulder every now and again and say, "you know, choosing that lens filter for the camera might not be the best idea." Many other scenes are dark and muddy, and in others still it feels like no one even bothered to point some lights at the actors.

Once upon a time, at least, Soderbergh made pictures that I really liked, but I believe the last time I could say that was in 2000 or so when he was nominated for dual Best Director Oscars for his work on Erin Brockovich and Traffic (the latter for which he won). His first post-Oscar picture was the artistically bankrupt Ocean's 11, which was intended as a fun bank-heist picture, but contained neither fun nor tension. He had two more attempts at making an Ocean's picture that works, and came up with similar results each time. The interstitial pictures have either been bloated and dull (Solaris) or have emphasized style over substance in a way that's awkward and ineffectual (The Good German).

I think he's officially blown his credit line with me, and I'll have to start automatically skipping his movies in the future. I had high hopes for The Informant! as a film that might have been similar to Brockovich in that it would tell an entertaining-yet-true story about corporate crime and some of the interesting people involved with it. The thing is, this movie is a lot funnier if you already know the details of what Mark Whitacre did and where his story is going. In fact, the picture seems to depend on some of that knowledge in order to make any sense at all. If you know those things, however, you might come to the wise conclusion that you should probably just stay home and watch something else.

My review of Ocean's 13

September 5, 2009

Extract (9/05/09)

Lettergrade: B-

If you look at it purely on a story / plot level, Extract doesn't really have a lot going on, but then neither do Mike Judge's other pictures: 2006's underrated Idiocracy and 1999's cultural milestone Office Space. The pleasure of those movies (and this one) is not in what happens as much as Judge's warped perspective on the world and the people who populate it. His characterizations, usually made up of slackers, dimwits, and stoners, get huge laughs because they're not that far off from people you probably know or at least have met.

The movie isn't likely to have the same cultural impact that Office Space did. Even the tag line of that picture - "Work sucks" - struck a deep cultural chord that even now, 10 years later, resonates with me and everyone else I know who has to work for a living. Nevertheless, Extract is a pleasant farce and certainly worth having a look at when time permits.

The schmucky every-man in this one is played by Arrested Development's Jason Bateman, who owns an a small flavor extract company in small-town California. He's in a sex-deprived marriage with Kristin Wiig, and thinking about selling his business to a larger corporate parent. That's complicated by an accident at work which claims an employee's testicle, followed by the arrival of con-artist Mila Kunis who secretly encourages said employee to sue instead of settling. Bateman immediately lusts after Kunis, but feels terrible about wanting to stray from his marriage. One night, his bar-tendin' buddy played by Ben Affleck (in what might be his finest screen performance) helps Bateman come up with a brilliant plan to hire a kid to seduce Wiig, thus freeing Bateman's conscious to lust after Kunis.

Bateman, Affleck, and Wiig are all expertly cast, but as with Judge's other movies, it is the many wonderful bit parts that often steal the show, particularly David Koechner as an annoying neighbor, Dustin Milligan as Brad, the faux pool-cleaner, and Matt Schulze as an intense pot-dealer who only has one scene.

I will say, however, that in spite of the incisive comedy the loose plotting does drag the proceedings down a little. If I think about it, I can vaguely recall that the last third of Office Space mainly revolves around a failed embezzlement scheme, and contains very few laughs. Idiocracy, after a killer first 30 minutes, falls apart much earlier - around the time President Camacho shows up. Extract is a bit more "even" than those movies... the laughs probably aren't as big, but at least they cover the picture from head to tail.

As with his other movies, the production value is a little sparse, and nothing about the way the film has been made feels terribly cinematic -- almost as if it's a movie that Judge decided to make around his neighborhood with his friends. Nevertheless, I think this serves as a good illustration to my continued theory that comedy is often a little funnier when it feels kinda cheap.