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by Rob Horning

14 Apr 2007

Ezra Klein linked to the chart below, a graphic representation of the money flow through the American health-care system. As his commenters point out, this is a streamlined portrait, and the reality is actually much more complicated.

This makes it clear how many entrenched parties would need to be “disintermediated” before any progress could be made toward a simplified system, which would not only save American tax dollars but would remove the disincentive from seeking medical care that’s created by the complexity and confusion. Of course, the confusion may be a feature rather than a bug, meant to accomplish precisely that (just as voting registration is sometimes made more complex to keep the wrong sort of people from voting). It heaps shame on those who need medical attention but can’t afford it, as if being sick in the first place wasn’t already troubling enough. Instead we built into the health-care system assumptions that (a) health insurance is necessary to use as bait to keep people productive and working institutionalized sorts of jobs (ie insurance is a management tool, not a social service) and (b) people must be assumed to be abusing the health-care system (for who knows what perverse reason) and should be treated with suspicion.

Perhaps the burdensome health-care system is just a reflection at the institutional level of the fundamental conflict that haunts health-care provision—a patient comes in with a selfish investment in the unique severity and significance of his symptoms, and the system must gently remind him that there are scads of people who are just as sick, and there is nothing special about his mortality. Does the American system mystify that conflict and lessen its sting? Would a more transparent payment system, organized more clearly for society’s benefit, remind us all too much just how minute we and our medical problems are when compared with society as a whole?

by Farisa Khalid

13 Apr 2007

Coca-Colonization

With One, Two, Three, Billy Wilder confirmed what everyone already suspected about business interests abroad: that it’s espionage with fringe benefits. One, Two, Three is a movie that satirizes the great American executive lifestyle - the suited stiff glued to the phone, golf on Saturdays, the 2.5 kids, the luscious secretary.  And it does so in the unlikeliest of places – West Berlin circa 1961. To ease America’s anxieties about the spread of Communism, Hollywood producers realized they needed less stodgy suspense thrillers (The Ipcress Files), and more screwball comedies with hapless Bolshies and thwarted plots (think Boris, Natasha and Fearless Leader). More reassuring was the idea of a US multinational stationed in a dangerous foreign outpost, generously doling out enticing consumer products to the starving masses. Pop culture is the most effective, insidious colonizer. Every hot-blooded anarchist eventually succumbs to its seduction in the form of Marvel comics and Wrigley’s Bubblegum. It was how America won The Cold War.

Wilder must have been thinking along these lines when he and his long-time collaborator, I.A.L. Diamond, penned One, Two, Three in the early ‘60s. Wilder, an Austrian émigré to Hollywood since the late ‘30s, was all too familiar with the hot-air pomposity of totalitarian politics. He wanted to mock Soviet pretentiousness just as his mentor, Ernst Lubitsch, had done deftly in Ninotchka. But rather than mimic Lubitsch’s effervescent style of romantic comedy, Wilder stamped his own brand of cynicism onto this tale of bungled corporate intrigue.

He couldn’t have found a better star than Jimmy Cagney, who imparted all the wiry, bantam energy he brought to his famous criminal roles into this lead.  Wilder, a playful provocateur, in casting Cagney as an executive, was making a bold statement about American business—scratch a businessman, find a gangster, vice versa.  Cagney, who hadn’t made a movie since the late 40s, was called back to cinema to essay C.R. MacNamara (a wry nod to then Machiavellian Secretary of Defense, Robert MacNamara), a fast-talking, scheming executive for the Coca-Cola Corporation stationed in West Berlin. There, he tries to advance Coke to the neighboring Russians in East Berlin in an effort to be promoted to head of European operations, located in the glamorous London office. To MacNamara’s dismay, all headquarters back in Atlanta requires of him is to chaperone the CEO’s daughter, a perky sorority socialite, Scarlett Hazeltine, around Germany on her Grand Tour of Europe. Scarlett, played to broad comic exaggeration by the lovely Pamela Tiffin, comes across as Brittney Spears in pearls and gloves: a boozy, lascivious mess of a woman who can’t control herself around men.

To MacNamara’s worst fears, a few weeks into her stay she elopes with a hot-tempered Communist revolutionary from East Berlin, Otto Piffil. Doing what any decent surrogate father would, he concocts a plan to get Otto arrested by the East German police and away from Scarlett. Once Otto’s motorcycle whirrs through the Brandenburg Gate with large balloons emblazoned “Go Home Russkies,” the poor boy doesn’t have a chance. But before Otto can waste away in prison, Scarlett reveals she’s pregnant, and MacNamara has to not only conceive of a way of bribing the officials to release Otto, but to transform Otto from a unwashed, angry beatnik to a Brooks Brothers-suited Count (there’s nothing an American robber-baron loves more than European minor royalty) charming enough to please Scarlett’s parents.

In a veritable symphony of high-speed commands, MacNamara micro-manages every aspect of Otto’s transformation. He bribes a monocle-wearing, impoverished Count, who works as a valet in the men’s restroom of The Hotel Kempinski, to adopt Otto. He meticulously picks out tube socks and demanding ties straight off of his employees’ necks. MacNamara throws himself at the task with the kind of gusto he should be using every day at work but never gets the chance to because his corporation is such a well-oiled machine it doesn’t really need him in the first place. But he delivers in the end. MacNamara is so successful that Scarlett’s father decides that Otto is the man to head Coca-Cola’s European operations. MacNamara must settle for a vice-presidency in the Atlanta office, a city that he acidly refers to as “Siberia with mint juleps.”

One, Two, Three has never been considered one of Wilder’s best movies and it’s obvious why. It lacks the innovative twisting of genre he showed in Double Indemnity, the romantic gloss of Sabrina, or the sinister, elegiac quality of Sunset Boulevard. As far as Wilder goes, One, Two, Three, is average, with some recycled elements of his peerless screwball masterpiece, Some Like it Hot—a cross-dressing scrawny man and the men who lust after him, a jiggly buxom blond, the riotous confusion that ensues from mistaken identity. But as a political comedy, it is inventive and daring.

It pushes all the sensitive buttons of America’s complacency in foreign affairs, particularly as The Cuban Missile Crisis made everyone uneasy. The New Yorker nervously suggested Wilder had pitched his “circus tent on grounds that threaten to become a cemetery,” and other reviews were notably hostile. Abby Mann, who wrote the screenplay for Judgment at Nuremberg (the year’s other movie about postwar Germany), thought Wilder’s movie so tasteless that he apologized for it at the Moscow Film Festival. The public’s anxiety to Wilder’s farce was not unlike the jumpy nervousness that followed our own brazen political satires, like Matt Stone and Trey Parker’s underrated and quickly hidden, That’s My Bush!  But true to form and genius, Wilder couldn’t have cared less. Comedy comes with no apologies.

One, Two, Three  looks ahead to the two great black comedies of the 60s, the playfully dark and brutal Dr. Strangelove and The Producers maniacal and relentless Nazi baiting. It’s a clever movie that shows that people are seldom loyal, least of all to ideology. And the film works well for all its incessant one-line gags pulled straight from the headlines (when MacNamara cautiously warns his tailor not to tell Otto that the cufflinks he’s wearing are French “with the whole Algeria situation being what it is”). One enjoyably ridiculous moment occurs when the East German police torture Otto into confessing he’s an American spy by playing a high-pitched, squeaky version of “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini” over and over again till the young man screams to submission. One, Two, Three is full of shrewd jokes about America’s gift for exploiting its cultural power and of the eagerness of countries willing to be exploited and the futility of those who try to resist.

C.R. MacNamara’s vision of the world isn’t altogether far from the truth. No other American product has had the imperial power enjoyed by Coca-Cola. It’s everywhere. I went backpacking through Malaysia last summer and was reluctantly convinced to go boating through the dense, lush jungles of Sarawalk. It was a haunting, ethereal experience right out of Apocalypse Now.  When my friend, a hardy Peace Corps alum (the sojurn was his idea), needed to go to the bathroom, we stopped at this makeshift rest area, a wooden shack that served as a provisions shop. The shop sold only three items: broken flashlights, cigarettes, and numerous cases of lukewarm Coke. The same situation exists in India, where people who are afraid to drink the local water constantly swill bottles of Coke. Three-fourths of the world’s population suffers from tooth decay and doesn’t seem to care. Coke is the poor man’s nectar, the self-anointed elixir of democracy, and it’s taken over our planet with its rapacious corporate tentacles. Its power is an undeniable fact, and since we can’t control it, we can at least laugh about it.

by Amy DePaul

13 Apr 2007

Check out the Times’ interview with its new owner, mogul and motorcycle enthusiast Sam Zell, who claimed to see the purchase as a business deal and hinted he would not dismantle the paper. This information was probably intended as good news, but it would have been more reassuring if Zell had expressed enthusiasm for the importance of newspapers to democracy. Sure, newspapers can be profitable; but they are way too much trouble to own for money alone, if only because they are run by pesky, nosy and trouble-making reporters. This is a lesson Zell may have learned already when Times columnist Steve Lopez wrote about going to Zell’s Malibu digs last week to grill him on a local civic issue: illegal gates erected by Malibu residents that make it hard to get to the public beach.

by Bill Gibron

12 Apr 2007

Buckle up, brave cinematic souls, it’s going to be a bumpy weekend ride. On the premium pay channels alone we have a brazen battle of extremes – the graceful vs. the graceless, the timely vs. the tacky. The shift between the offerings on HBO and Cinemax alone are enough to cause anyone permanent aesthetic whiplash. Still, at least there are recommendable offerings this time around. Some Fridays it’s near impossible finding something worth suggesting. The pickings are a little slimmer in the Independent and Outsider arena. Once you get past SE&L‘s top choices, the alternates are shaky at best. Still, secure yourself in your home theater saddle and prepare to traverse at least a couple of these movies all the way to beyond the blue horizon – or at least to the end of their running time. And if you wander over to any of the other titles talked about for 14 April – well, at least you were warned:

Premiere Pick
United 93

Some still consider it the best film of 2006 – all lack of Oscar love excluded – a sparse and very authentic recreation of the doomed September 11th flight. Others argue that it remains a difficult if not next to impossible movie to enjoy, an experience that so readily places you in the situations playing out on that fateful day that something akin to “entertainment” can’t be found. But there is no denying the artistic impact this movie has had on the cinematic depiction of this American tragedy. Paul Greengrass set the benchmark for all films to follow, and as Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center proved, it’s a hard standard to fulfill. Whether or not the small screen will lessen any of the narrative’s impact remains to be seen, but one thing is definitely for certain. United 93 will stand in motion picture history as one of the most honest, truest, and most touching films ever made about a horrible act of terrorism. (14 April, HBO, 8PM EST)

Additional Choices
Big Momma’s House 2

Groan…it’s Martin Lawrence doing the cash grab thing again, and audiences are wise to his ruse. There is nothing more outwardly disturbing than an African American comedian, copying another of his ethnic counterparts – in this case, Eddie Murphy – in making fun of their own race. Women of color – especially LARGE women of color – should find these scrawny screw-ups and kick their asses – immediately. (14 April, Cinemax, 10PM EST)

Keeping Up with the Steins

Consider it a Jewish My Super Sweet 16 as the title family creates the kind of over the top bar mitzvah that is all too common nowadays. Of course, director Scott Marshall (son of filmmaker Gary) can’t leave well enough alone, having to impart his good natured comedy with as much pathos and pap as possible. He even manages to get his elderly dad to drop trou for the camera. Talk about your unnecessary rites of passage. (14 April, Starz, 9PM EST)

Capote

This is the movie that finally won Phillip Seymour Hoffman his long overdue Oscar. That’s good. It’s also the film that so completely overwhelmed the In Cold Blood zeitgeist that the equally wonderful Infamous got swept under the theatrical table. That’s bad. Offering a sensational chance to compare and contrast, this subtle Oscar bait of an effort is first up on the premium pay cable channels. (14 April, Showtime, 9PM EST)

Indie Pick
The Coffin Joe Trilogy

Jose Mojica Marins is one of the most misunderstood filmmakers in his native Brazil. A deeply religious country, many find his affronts toward the church and God to be outright blasphemy, and he has spent more time defending his work than creating more of it. Thanks to DVD, and a long growing cult of international horror fans, we have a chance to experience what the South American populace finds so scandalous. And indeed, Marins is a man courting controversy every step of the way. The three films being offered here – At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul, This Night I Will Possess Your Corpse, and Awakening of the Beast  - are considered by many to be the best of the director’s early works. They definitely do a fascinating job of establishing his onscreen alter ego – the power mad Prince of Darkness Coffin Joe. So grab a bowl of popcorn, dim all the lights, and be prepared to have this Brazilian wonder completely mesmerize you. (19 April, IFC, 9PM EST)

Additional Choices
Leaving Normal

Christine Laiti and Meg Tilly play less brash versions of Thelma and Louise in this girl power road pic directed by future epic helmer Edward Zwick. In fact, comparisons between the two films probably killed Normal‘s chances at the box office. Of course, the clunky script (by broad comedy scribe Ed “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure” Solomon) didn’t help. Instead of compelling, this films goes cockeyed, crazy, and then cloying. (14 April, Sundance, 12PM EST)

Leaving Las Vegas

Many in his current fanbase may not know that Nicholas Cage was once a serious actor. A decade or so lost in action hero la-la land will create such artistic amnesia. Right before he sold-out for the sake of a paycheck, he provided this devastating turn as an alcoholic, self-destructive man. Planning on drinking himself to death, he brings Elizabeth Shue’s prostitute along on his depressing, downward spiral. The result is acting aces. (15 April, IFC, 10:45PM EST)

Pray

It starts out like your typical kidnapping story – a desperate couple swipes a child and contacts the parents looking for ransom. That’s when they get the shattering news – said hostage has been dead for over a year! Guess its time to bring on the unsettled spirits and ghost gals covered in black stringy, spook show hair. But thanks to some psychological tension, and a nice helping of gore, we survive the stereotyping. (16 April, Sundance, 12AM EST)

Outsider Option
Coffy/Foxy Brown

It needs to be said so let’s just come right out and say it – Pam Grier is FINE! Even today, as she enters a more ‘mature’ phase of life, the lady is a looker in all the right ways. But back when she was the queen of the blaxploitation scene, she was scalding sex incarnate. Not only that, but she could kick some major bad guy booty as well. Featuring two of her most infamous roles, Turner Classic Movie’s Underground series (with or without host Rob Zombie – who knows anymore) will give modern audiences a chance to experience this first lady of fisticuffs, though it will be interesting to see what they do with the whole violence/language/nudity thing. There is a great deal of all in both. Cutting these films would be a crime, especially since their taboo-busting elements were what made them so special in the first place.  (13 April, Turner Movie Classics, 2AM EST)

Additional Choices
Phantasm II

With Anchor Bay celebrating Don Coscarelli’s life behind the camera in DVD form, here is one movie that won’t be making it onto the digital domain anytime soon – at least, in Region 1. Thanks to rights issues with Universal, this superior sequel to the director’s definitive fright flick remains MIA. And that’s too bad, since it’s a sensationally sick revisit to the world of Reggie and Mike – and that maniacal monster The Tall Man. (14 April, ThrillerMax, 11:50PM EST)

Electra Glide in Blue

Hail Canada! Thanks to their quirky b-movie channel, this amazing Robert Blake vehicle from 1973 is getting another North American release. Playing a motorcycle cop whose desperate to make the Homicide division, we wind up with a taut thriller couched in the old ‘be careful what you wish for’ conceit. Though many know him today as an accused killer, Blake was an amazing actor, and this able actioner more than proves it. (17 April, Drive In Classics, Canada, 11PM EST)

84 Charing Cross Road

Anne Bancroft and Anthony Hopkins are long distance pen pals in this ersatz romance from British filmmaker David Hugh Jones. Based on a true story, this charming case of Trans Atlantic correspondence (between a NY script reader and a UK book shop owner) grows into a real primer of friendship, love and life. Those looking for a sensational “sleeper” will definitely enjoy this effort. (19 April, Indieplex, 7:15PM EST)

 

by Joe Tacopino

12 Apr 2007

The staggering amount of money raised so far for Hillary Clinton’s ’08 presidential campaign should be a cause for concern. Her first quarter windfall of $26 million was conveniently leaked to the Drudge Report on April 1st and was intended to convey a stark message to her Democratic rivals. The numbers were officially released later that day and the media frenzy over the primary finances began (John Edwards raised $14 million, while on the Republican side Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani raked in $21 million and $15 million respectively).

Clinton’s early receipts eclipsed all previous records for fundraising in a presidential primary and set a new precedent for aspiring presidential candidates. The $26 million, however, did not tell the whole story of Clinton’s elaborate fundraising mechanism – one that flouts campaign finance laws and attempts to bury her competition in a mountain of cash.

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