Call for Essays About Any Aspect of Popular Culture, Present or Past

 
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Thursday, Jun 21, 2007


Will this month ever end? It seems like we’ve been talking about June for at least the last four weeks, if not longer – and believe it or not, there’s another seven days left. Is the calendar purposefully creeping along or what? Let’s face it; summer is a time of entertainment overkill. The young ones are out of school and loaded down with disposable income, their parents are desperate to get them out of the house and into the marketplace, and Hollywood is working overtime to give them both as many monetary excuses as possible. The pay cable channels are no better. While Cinemax continues with its pledge of first run retreads from last blockbuster season, the rest are regurgitating fare that few should focus on. Seems they’ve given up on the audience as well, assured they will be parked in the local Cineplex waiting for Pixar or John McClane to save the cinematic day. By the looks of 23 June, they’ll be lingering there a long, long time:


Premiere Pick
The Lady in the Water


It was either the biggest leap of filmic faith ever made by an up and coming superstar director, or the sloppiest example of uncontrolled hubris ever exhibited by a yet to be fully established filmmaker. Angry that Disney would not develop his latest script (a project they feared would flop) M. Night Shyamalan pulled up production stakes and turned his talents over to Warner Brothers. Of course, the competitor was more than happy to have the man who helmed The Sixth Sense and Signs under their moviemaking moniker. Then, just to pour cinematic salt in the wounds, Shyamalan cooperated with a book blasting the whole House of Mouse approach to his project. Unfortunately, what got forgotten along the way was the movie. And in this case, the film is a frustrating, forced fairytale that takes up too much time establishing its parameters with not enough effort going toward enchanting the audience. While it has some interesting moments, it’s Uncle Walt’s world that’s having the last laugh now. (23 June, Cinemax, 10PM EST)

Additional Choices
The Sentinel


At first, we here at SE&L were excited. It looked like one of our favorite novels from the mid-70s, Jeffrey Konvitz’s The Sentinel, was getting the remake treatment. The original motion picture adaptation was a pointless little travesty, and an update at the hands of one of our modern macabre experts would be more than welcome. Turns out this is some minor Michael Douglas thriller. That sound you hear is the superstar’s demographic demanding their money back. (23 June, HBO, 8PM EST)

The Night Listener


Robin Williams needs to stop making movies pronto. His hirsute hack stench is ruining what would otherwise be fairly intriguing titles. Take this one for example, the story of a radio talk show host haunted by a phone call from a desperate young boy. Before he knows it, the child has disappeared – though it’s possible he never really existed in the first place. Promising premise, right? Williams whizs it right down his hairy leg. (23 June, Starz, 9PM EST)

 


The Last Holiday


The transformation of Queen Latifah from rap icon to marginal movie star has nothing to do with her talent (and she has some) and everything to do with Hollywood’s race based mea culpa-ing. If you need further proof of such a safe strategy, look at this urbanized disease of the week waste. How the talented Wayne Wang (Smoke, Eat a Bowl of Tea) came to be associated with this drivel is a mystery for movie scholars. (23 June, Showtime, 9PM EST)

Indie Pick
Dark Water


Perhaps you’re familiar with the remake – a decent enough effort starring Jennifer Connelly and directed by Brazilian filmmaker Walter Salles. But it’s the original Japanese effort, helmed by the wonderful Hideo Nakata (Ringu, Kaidan) that’s well worth looking up. One of the better J-Horror exports, the first film is far darker and more depressing than the equally evocative Hollywood revamp, but there’s just something about the long haired creepy ghost girl that the Asians have down pat. Particularly intriguing are the scenes where lead Hitomi Kuroki must react to the never ending frustrations of the Japanese legal system. She is so effective here that when she starts stumbling over into the supernatural, we believe her baffled confusion. Sure, the ending still stinks, the kind of ‘could have seen it coming’ cop out that almost ruins everything that came before, but thanks to his subtle style and way with visuals, Nakata singlehandedly saves the story. That’s the sign of a true cinematic artist. (27 June, Sundance Channel, 5:30PM EST)

Additional Choices
Bend It Like Beckham


He’s supposed to be coming to the US to reinvigorate the flatlining sport of professional soccer, but if he was smart, David Beckham would remain a staunchly European icon. Then, he could inspire more marvelous movies like this clash of cultures comedy from Gurinder Chadha. While it does deal with subjects more closely associated with the West Indian way of doing things, the message of self esteem is universal – just like the appeal of football around the world. (23 June, IFC, 7PM EST)

11:14


Some have called it a riotous Rashaman. A few have labeled it a comic Crash. But the five stories served up by writer/director Greg Marcks are meant to act as a commentary on small town life, and how one event (an automobile accident at the title time) can bring divergent lives together. While critics claim that Marcks is more a Tarantino wannabe than an individual talent, others have really gotten behind the filmmaker’s dark and devious way with a knotty narrative. (23 June, Sundance Channel, 10PM EST)

Intacto


Many fans feel that the multifaceted story of separate lives in sync and destiny deconstructing us begins and ends with 21 Grams/Babel auteur Alejandro González Iñárritu. But 28 Weeks Later helmer Juan Carlos Fresnadillo would definitely have something to say about that. This 2001 effort finds the filmmaker intertwining several threads to tell of tale of how the ‘gift’ of luck creates an underground subculture of divergent personalities. (26 June, IFC, 12:50AM EST)


Outsider Option
This Stuff’ll Kill Ya!


Ah, the joys of sweet sour mash. Leave it to those solid sons of the soil, otherwise known as hillbillies, to bring moonshine and the still to the cultural forefront. In actually, no one really gives a rat’s patoot about how a redneck lubes his lifestyle, but for some reason, the makers of exploitation felt the rube was ripe for a little erotic exploration. Sure, ever since Lil’ Abner proved that Daisy Mae’s feminine wiles could make men weak, the buxom beauty from the backwoods was potent fantasy fodder. But most of these movies were cut from the same clunky cloth – way too much corn and not enough pone. At least Herschell Gordon Lewis was behind this mess. He could make a boring bootlegger comedy into something quite surreal – and he does so with this brazen bit of rot gut. SE&L suggests you sample at your own risk – too much bumpkin buffoonery could be hazardous to your health. (25 June, Drive-In Classics Canada, 9PM EST)

Additional Choices
The Honeymoon Killers


In writer/director Leonard Kastle’s creative zenith, Tony LoBianco and Shirley Stoler play a mismatched couple who use death as a means of cementing their relationship. He’s an oily lothario. She’s an obese nurse who’s never known real passion. Together, they forge a bond that begins to unravel into madness and murder. Avoiding almost all the standard thriller clichés, this is a crazed character study first, a wonderful work of cinematic art second. (22 June, TCM Underground, 2AM EST)

The Man With the Screaming Brain


Everyone’s favorite b-movie badass, Bruce Campbell, plays a wealthy industrialist who has his brain transplanted with that of a Russian cab driver. Of course, all kinds of horror/humor hijinx ensue. While not the classic it could have been, the presence of everyone’s favorite Evil Dead symbol makes this a lot more fun than it should be. Too bad the premise can’t match the title’s ability to inspire waves of schlock sensationalism. (23 June, Sci-Fi Channel, 9AM EST)

Little Voice


It’s movies like this one, the story of a lonely girl with a great big singing voice, that makes fans question the talents of the actors involved – in a good way. While Brenda Blethyn and Michael Caine are always magnificent, who knew that Jane Horrocks (best known as Bubble from Absolutely Fabulous) had such sensational pipes. Her ability to mimic famous divas is only part of what makes this movie so fascinating. (28 June, Indieplex, 9PM EST)

 


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Wednesday, Jun 20, 2007


It’s too bad that Evan Almighty is merely a fluffy summer trifle. It really wants to be something more – or at the very least, it appears to strive for something greater. And once you hear the entire backstory of the film’s production (studio wants sequel, star Jim Carrey passes, Bruce co-star Carell gets the call up, Noah’s Ark script gets the Almighty revamp) you begin to understand the dilemma. The notion of a modern, everyday man with real problems and a regular, day to day existence, suddenly getting the calling to build the Bible’s big boat, and convincing his skeptical family that he’s not a nutjob, has the makings of a meaningful cinematic statement. Toss in issues of faith, how we as a society react to questions of religion and belief, and a last act catastrophe that allows the special effects to turn the small moments into something epic, and you’d have a potential classic on your hands. It could be a grand motion picture spectacle and masterful human drama. There’s even room for comedy in the complicated mix.


But this is not the road Evan Almighty wants to travel down. Oh, you see it every once in a while – a noble look in lead Steve Carell’s electric eyes, a sequence of natural beauty as the world’s animals prepare to board - but, in general, this is a film that wants to mainstream and dumb down all of its ideas. Indeed, if you start questioning the logic of certain elements and the last act denouement, you soon realize that the entire narrative is built on the foundation of find a “reason” for the finale’s flood (this is not a spoiler, the most recent trailers and TV ads show the floating zoo navigating some rough waters). In turn, this renders most of the comedy flat and much of the emotion hollow. What we wind up with is a decent diversion that never quite gels into a clever comedy, or an Old Testament thriller. Instead, it straddles the fine line between missed opportunity and craven crowdpleaser.


This time around, smarmy news anchor Evan Baxter (Jim Carrey’s nemesis from the first film) is a newly elected Congressman from New York. He moves his doting wife and cookie cutter trio of sons to a massive DC suburb, the kind of planned community that stinks of developer corruption and government payoffs. Sure enough, Evan’s first day on the job finds him admiring his huge new office – and taking an important meeting with a senior Representative. Congressman Long (an uncomfortable John Goodman) wants Evan to support a piece of legislation that would allow our National Parks to be parceled off for – you guessed it - more planned communities. At first, Evan is on board. But then he starts having premonitions about a specific Bible verse (Genesis 6:14), and before you know it, God himself is asking this pampered politician to build his new Ark. Of course, his new objective flies directly in the face of Congressman Long’s plans, and his family’s tolerance of their ‘distant’ dad.


Part of the problem lies with the film’s tone. This is a subtle smile maker that believes it’s an uproarious farce. The script – credited to Steve Oedekerk alone – keeps giving the cast the smallest of jokes, and yet director Tom Shadyac demand his actors swing wildly at each and every one. What are really nothing more than quirky character beats are broadened into the movie’s main yucks. Similarly, the real cinematic strengths of the film (the ark building, the moments of God-like majesty) are marginalized – or worse - become fodder for mindless musical montages. As a matter of fact, you can actually see the focus group reactions to such struggles. They exist in every insert shot of crazy comedian Wanda Sykes cracking wise. So blatantly last minute in their addition that they actually function like a commentary on the film’s success as an entertainment, you can just hear the studio suits screaming “the sassy black assistant scored well. Let’s bolster her profile!”


Sadly, Sykes alone can’t save Evan Almighty’s funny business from flatlining now and then. It doesn’t help matters much that the usually ebullient John Goodman is reduced to a rotund Simon LeGree, or that Knocked Up’sJonah Hill is mandated to play creepy instead of clever.  John Michael Higgins does his best with limited material (it’s all those Chris Guest improv fests paying off) and Morgan Freeman is the coolest higher power this side of The Simpsons. But for every decent turn, there is a performance that’s particularly disturbing – and Lauren Graham just can’t stop giving it. She is horrible here, a shrew in a situation she knows nothing about, an irredeemable downer throughout the first two acts of the story. Gilmore Girls or not, her last minute conversion is cold and completely calculated. Even after her so called ‘enlightenment’, she’s the party pooper that no one really invited.


The one saving grace is Carell. Sure, he frequently flies into freak out mode when a far wittier rejoinder would have worked (his declaration of “SHEEEEEEP!” is classic, however). When he tones it down and plays to the possibilities within the story, he almost pulls the entire project off. His interactions with the animals (real and CGI) are warm and wonderful, and he does find the proper balance between cut-up and concerned toward the end. But we need Evan Baxter to be a more well-rounded personality, to have more to his individual eccentricity than a desire to cleanse his nostrils of nose hair. Indeed, the entire narrative simply races right into the God stuff, barely letting us catch our breath before the omens start overriding everything. But this is a movie that’s not intelligent enough to tell the story it should be exploring. Instead, it skirts smarts to go for the easy gag (lots of bird poop and monkey shines) and manipulative sentiment.


Of course, none of these criticisms will really matter. Evan Almighty is expertly forged to be a superficial audience friendly phenomenon, the kind of movie that has critics and the cultured scratching their heads over its continued success. It is all set up and expected payoff, with just a little ‘Go with God’ positivity to flesh out the lilting life affirmations. It’s destined to drum up box office even as word of mouth wavers between excellent and “eh?”. Modernizing the Bible’s many important parables would seem like a filmmaker’s dream – the stories are sensational and the themes strike all the right chords of righteousness. But Evan Almighty just wants to get in, get out, and leave you feeling somewhat entertained along the way. And frankly, that’s all it does.



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Tuesday, Jun 19, 2007

Little Big Shots: Melbourne’s International Film Festival for Kids
June 6-11 2007
ACMI Cinemas, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia



It was the first day of the festival, first morning, first film, and Marcella Bidinost was standing in a spotlight asking if anyone here understood Hebrew. Yes! shouted part of her audience. Woo! Yeah! We do! The boys who were shouting looked about fourteen years old. Some of them—the ones whose hair I could see in the light from the screen—were wearing teased mullets. You knew they were from well-off families, middle class at least, because no one, no matter how hard they banter and snicker, can look seriously tough in a teased mullet.


What had their teachers brought them to see, these students from Bialik College in Melbourne’s east? They were here to watch a movie called Little Heroes. “One of Israel’s first feature films for kids,” explained the programme. Little Heroes is the story of a telepathic migrant girl, a half-orphan boy, a genially retarded teenager, and a squinting kibbutz kid who looks like Rick Moranis at the age of six. The children are independent and strong, fine-feeling without being saintly (although the girl comes close—many shots of her staring into the distance, eyes pale with contemplation), and they neither reject the adults nor lean on them excessively. There is comedy and danger. There are ostriches and a car crash. This is an adventure film with a good sense of balance. It didn’t make a bad start to a festival.

Little Big Shots runs annually for six days, three for schools, three for the wider public. It’s the largest international film festival for kids in Australia. Melbourne has had a film festival for adults since 1951, but prior to 2005 there had never really been one dedicated to those among us whose parents don’t want them watching nudity, gore, and Lars von Trier comedies. Brief seasons of independent family films were sometimes screened during the holidays (I remember a friend’s father taking us all to see one of them on a summer’s day in a cellar-like cinema, somewhere at the bottom of a government building where there was a lot of concrete slab) but nothing as organised, official and regular as this. Nothing with a programme quite as glossy, or sponsors quite so joyfully prominent or cinemas quite so large and undungeonlike, as this.


Almost half of the films are Australian premiers, two have been nominated for Oscars, and 25 of them are made by children themselves. This is important. One of the festival’s aims—stated in the publicity, and again when you talk to the people who are running it—is to show children that they can make movies themselves, that they can do more than gawk tamely at the screen, that they can be the grown-up filmmakers of the future. Being Australian they’ll make one film here and then hive off to Hollywood and direct Legally Blonde but we don’t tell them that yet. For now, they are our filmmakers. 


The festival travels. This year it’s going around Australia and then to Singapore. Marcella will go with it. Little Big Shots is partly her brain-child. She stands at the front of each session, she welcomes everyone. She is the festival’s face.


She also chooses the films. Her favourite this year is Renuka Jeyapalan’s Big Girl, a deft Canadian short about a girl who challenges her mother’s new boyfriend. “Bartender,” she grumbles at him crankily. “Loser.” There is a twist at the end. It’s a perfectly shaped short story, and one of several films here that would fit equally well into a festival aimed at adults. In 2005 the Toronto Film Festival judged it their Best Canadian Short Film; in 2006 the Children’s Jury at the Chicago International Children’s Film Festival put it in second place behind Nils Mooij’s Fried Rice. Fried Rice screened here at the end of a session that included Small Ant Syndrome (Australian, funny) and Drive (live action from a North American teenager named Joseph Procopio who, going by his festival appearances, seems to be one of the world’s most prolific quality filmmakers under the age of 15).

It’s a festival free of breathless interviews and high-profile names, unless you count Disney, whose Little Match Girl left people sniffling as the lead perished in the deathly blue Russian snow, or Nickelodeon, a primary sponsor. The filmmakers who turned up for question time were all Australian. No one, it transpires, is going to fly umpteen thousand miles around the earth to discuss Het Monsterlijk Toilet, or The Monsterous Toilet, a handsome fourteen-minute Dutch short in which a girl eats a table-load of cakes and chocolates and then has to confront a cistern that growls at her.


These local filmmakers were shy, some seemed nonplussed—they had little instinct for self-promotion. The animator of Big Cat Zoo came down the front with his two co-creators, his children, both of whom were under the age of ten. Was it difficult to make the film? the audience asked.


Nah, not really, he said diffidently. The kids did most of the work. He put one hand lightly on his son’s head.


Marisa Lai was more forthcoming. She was 14, with two films in the festival. One of Marisa’s films was titled Talk to the Toys; the other was Military Sandwich. In Military Sandwich there is a funny moment with the lettuce, which I’ll leave you to discover if you ever get a chance to see it.


Why did she decide to animate talking toys? the audience asked.


Marisa said that she liked Creature Comforts and wanted to do a similar thing, but with toys. The decision made sense—animals were already taken. She grinned and brushed her hair off her cheek. The spotlight was on her and she handled it well.


Five of Little Big Shots’ child-made films came from Croatia’s Škola Animiranog Filma, an animation workshop run specifically for children. Wonderful things are done there. Their films were part-surreal without being incoherent. One of them, Rose, was entirely the work of a 13-year-old boy named Toni Zadravec, whose Water appeared in the festival last year. “He draws above his age group,” Marcella said before the screening, and it’s true, he does.


Storytelling and jokes are not the preserve of adults. Nor are they the preserve of countries with an excess of money. The film that got the biggest laugh was a computer animation from Zimbabwe, Moondance, while the United States’ Camp Lazlo: Treehugger was received with plain stares. Lazlo was flip, smart, noisy, and graphically stylised, with a pedigree that stretched backwards through Ren and Stimpy to Roger Ramjet and the UPA. Moondance was a series of simple visual jokes built around a giraffe. After sitting in on Little Big Shots, I wonder if marketers who say that kids won’t watch anything unless it’s edgy and hip aren’t thinking more wishfully than realistically. Funny animals tripping over themselves seem to do the job just as well.


Sad films work too. People were attentive during The Little Match Girl and quiet for Big Girl‘s poignant finale. Come to think of it, girls turned up a lot in these films. Girls brandished plungers at toilets, girls poked dangerous suitcases (Miriam Plays Hide and Seek), girls befriended girls who were different (Sirah), girls conducted interviews with other girls (Children of Nomads), girls survived natural disasters (Ayla the Tsunami Girl), girls built aeroplanes (Lolly’s Box), and, in Marta and her Flying Grandfather, a girl stubbornly tried to cure her grandfather’s Alzheimer’s. (Lovely Marta manages to make the grandfather likeable even after we’ve seen him throw a senile fit, very frightening and inexplicable to his granddaughter, with whom we are asked to identify. At the end of the film all of the bad adults turn over a new leaf and become good. I saw a wonderful Tempest once; it ended like that too).



There were plenty of boys (Wander, The Big Race, Frankie’s Story, Drive, Dobli, etc) but the resilience of the girls was more noticeable, perhaps because it doesn’t always carry through to adult productions. If you’re sick of watching films in which every female character is scripted and cast with the male audience in mind then you should try a children’s movie. It might cheer you up. Try The Time-Out Chair, possibly the neatest little fuck-you to authority ever filmed. The lead character is a silent girl with long brown hair.  Nobody gets hurt; nobody needs to, and the ending is funny.


The other thing I’ve realised, after listening to audiences of adults and children, is just how much rubbish the grown-ups talk. “This film comes from Zimbabwe,” a mother told her daughter next to me, but the film came from Madagascar. A father, trying to figure out the nationality of Marta and her Flying Grandfather, saw a .de at the end of a web address in the credits and said that it must be Danish. Oh kids, kids. Don’t be fooled by our size, our bossiness, the mysterious languages we confidently pretend to recognise. If only you knew how little we know, you’d never trust us again.

Talk to the Toys, by Marisa Lai (Australia, 2006)


Wander, by Joshua Clark (USA 2006)


Small Ant Syndrome, by Anne-Marie Denham (Australia, 2004)


The Lollipop Tree Wish, by Olivia Allen-Wickler (USA, 2006)
Lollipop Tree Wish



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Monday, Jun 18, 2007


This is clearly a week to thank your favorite higher power of choice for the existence of a company called Criterion. If you had to rely on the standard studio DVD decision makers, you’d get nothing but second tier theatrical titles and usually unnecessary ‘special edition’ cash grabs. Since their inception almost two decades ago, the cinematic artform’s number one advocate has been doing its best to preserve important films while introducing unknown and forgotten movies to the post-modern audience. More importantly, they understand the value of context and do their best to fill out their packages with as many explanatory extras as possible. On 19 June, this dynamic distributor will deliver three prime examples of their production policy. One is a renowned work of ‘60s social commentary. The other two introduce a new voice to the ever increasing motion picture mix. In all cases, the results defy standard digital convention and provide an approach to film rarely seen in your standard release.


If…- The Criterion Collection


The English boarding school system is a setting ripe for motion picture allegory. Therefore it’s no surprise that Lindsay Anderson’s class conscious metaphor of youthful rebellion taken to extremes remains a strong socio-political statement. In fact, it more or less fell out of circulation once the awful events of Colombine suggested a vague, virtually indirect connection. But no matter the pundits’ position, this is one incredibly strong motion picture. Trading on star Malcolm McDowell’s inherent wickedness (it was something that moved Stanley Kubrick to cast him in A Clockwork Orange) and the closed knit, good old boy network nature of British education, Anderson argued that the sins of the father – or in this case, the Establishment – will always come back to revisit him/them. It also complains that pain, not power, is the instigator for most violence. Thanks to Criterion’s insight-heavy treatment, the real intention of the film can be debated for decades to come.

Other Titles of Interest


Bridge to Terabithia


Disney, ever desperate to jumpstart their waning live action fortunes, teamed up with former animation giant Gabor Csupo (Rugrats, The Wild Thornberrys) for this mostly successful adaptation of Katherine Paterson’s award winning children’s book. It’s not just the fantasy sequences that work here – and they’re indeed magical. This is the rare family film that has both heart and head to spare, resulting in a richly rewarding experience for young and old alike.

Miss Potter


When did Renée Zellweger become the mock Brit du jour? Granted, her work in the Bridget Jones films proves she can pull off the proper UK accent, but do the English really appreciate a born and bred Texan taking over their favorite female leads. Case in point – this rather syrupy story of Beatrix Potter, famed author of the Peter Rabbit books. Thankfully, Chris Babe Noonan makes it all go down with minimal schmaltz. 

Reno 911 – Miami


The list of successful small screen (TV) to big screen (film) translations is minute, to say the least. In the case of this Comedy Central COPS parody, the jury is still out. True fans will enjoy seeing their favorite characters cavorting in and around the South Florida setting, unencumbered by the burden of basic cable censorship. Others will wonder why efforts that manage to perfectly conform to one medium try to broach another. 

Sweet Movie – The Criterion Collection


Those preservationist experts at Criterion are apparently desperate to introduce the work of Yugoslavian surrealist Dusan Makavejev to the uninformed segment of world cinephiles. In one of two releases available, we are drawn into his world of weird juxtapositions, interpersonal propaganda, and outrageous irrelevance. Be prepared for hardcore imagery, narrative indecipherability, and self-important postulating. Clearly, these will be ‘love it or hate it’ offerings, even for the most adventurous film fan.

W.R.: Mysteries of the Organism – The Criterion Collection


It’s supposedly about sex. It also claims to be about politics and imperialism as well. Somewhere inside Dusan Makavejev’s half fact/half fiction take on female genitalia and fascism is a really evocative take on how we allow ideology – personal and political – to thwart our basic humanity. Or it could all be just some elaborate in-joke on the part of the director. Perhaps Criterion can clear it all up. Or perhaps not.


And Now for Something Completely Different
The Abandoned


To call the 8 Films to Die For After Dark Horrorfest a hit or miss affair is to state the stunningly obvious. At least four of the films were outright rejects (Wicked Little Things, Dark Ride, Unrest, and Penny Dreadful) while the other four offered varying levels of cinematic success. This visually dazzling offering from Spanish wunderkind Nacho Cerdà (famed for his necrophilia short Aftermath) may not be the best (that right is reserved for Grudge helmer Takashi Shimizu’s Reincarnation), but it definitely builds on the basic delights of The Gravedancers and The Hamiltons. In this tale of an American movie producer haunted by her past, we get mountains of atmosphere and dread. Too bad then that the story is little more than a movie macabre molehill. What could have been epic ends up simply eerie. However, in a genre desperate for anything remotely terrifying, Cerdà’s semi-success is greatly appreciated.

 


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Sunday, Jun 17, 2007


Get ready. It’s coming. And it’s gonna be LOUD! You think the outrage caused by Fahrenheit 9/11 was bad? You think the pro-NRA responses to Bowling for Columbine were bad. Well, fellow citizens, it’s safe to say that you ain’t seen nothing yet. Michael Moore is back, and with a little less than two weeks before his latest example of “docu-ganda” (as his critics would call it) hits theaters, the groundswell of hyperactive handwringing is already in full flummox mode. For those who are unaware of the filmmaker’s latest screed, SiCKO tells the woeful tale of America’s medical insurance crisis. Not from the perspective of those without coverage. No, they’re the real lost causes. Moore isn’t after the easy target this time. Instead, he has taken aim at the bloated bureaucracy surrounding the nation’s numerous health care and pharmaceutical companies, and how it harms – and even kills – many of its supposedly indemnified customers.


As a result, pundit power is already working overtime debunking the film. Of course, that’s kind of tough to do when it’s yet to see a wide theatrical release (you had to go to Cannes to see the most recent screening). But in what many are calling a grandiose publicity ploy on the behalf of Lionsgate, the full length feature somehow was ‘leaked’ to Internet file sharing sites (or P2P protocols as they are known), giving anyone with a bitTorrent program and a relatively fast DSL line the opportunity to bootleg it. Add this to the already tenuous position taken by the Federal Government over the filmmaker’s last act trip to Guantanamo Bay and other points inside Castro’s Cuba, and you’ve got a mole hill waiting for the prerequisite media dung to help fertilize it into an untenable mountain. It won’t be long before the apologists and the activists get their prostylitizing panties in a nice big wad over the many inaccuracies, half-truths, and gross overgeneralizations the director determines are necessary to make his point.


Unfortunately, their fuel comes to an already raging inferno. Moore’s work post-Roger and Me is already a sideshow. Though many could have anticipated the carnival barker approach to its marketing, no one could have accurately predicted the unprecedented preparations to tear this man a new bash-hole. Naturally, it’s a division drawn down ideological lines (Conservative vs. Liberal, patriot vs. provocateur) and very much founded in a previous film that divided a nation. Fahrenheit 9/11 took on an incredibly popular President, argued against the leaders ‘security through force” scare tactics, and complained that America shouldn’t be invading a country that had no real designs on destroying us. Many called it treasonous and demoralizing to our fighting men and women. Even with the critical community under its belt, there were those who couldn’t cotton to Moore’s refusal to conform. What a difference three years makes.


Now, the focus is far narrower and more easily delineated. SiCKO centers its story on how the development of the HMO’s, and the privatization of medical care, created a crisis in coverage which literally destroys the lives of the very people it’s supposed to support. Horror stories of denied claims and wild, worst case scenarios are piled on top of already obvious dicta (insurance companies are in the business of making money) and governmental boot licking, resulting in a chaotic, corrupt system so steadfastly self-debasing that it really doesn’t need Moore’s help making it look bad. Indeed, what the filmmaker does here is basically call out the cads and have them readily admit their graft. The kicker is in the afterthought. It’s not that these companies commit these immoral crimes against human health. It’s that they do so with absolute – and in some case, law protected – impunity.


The second half of the film is a stroll through three competing socialized systems – Canada, England and France. Each one is presented like paradise on Earth, a place where no myocardial infarction goes untreated, where no late night fever lacks a free and easy cure. In the next few months, expect to hear citizens of these noteworthy nations debunking Moore’s many declarations. The Canadians are already up in arms (if ever so slightly) while Parisians in particular do not like the filmmakers definition of “average” (it’s in connection with a supposedly ‘middle class’ couple). By the time the Fall begins its annual blitzkrieg of cold and flu remedy commercials, the rest of the Westernized world will offer their two cents about universal health care and its many diverse elements.


But that’s not really the point with this latest round of rebuking. Moore, like outspoken auteur Oliver Stone, is a man better at the big picture than the multiple minutia that accompanies concepts such as facts and accuracy. No one is questioning the need to overhaul what is becoming a major financial, social, and emotional albatross around the neck of the world’s remaining Superpower. But because Moore makes his films out of theories first and statistics second, many like to undermine his truths without beginning to broach the core conceits. They somehow believe that if you can disprove some percentage of the veracity in Moore’s claims, the overall idea is invalid. Naturally, that’s bunk. The sky may not be purely blue (in fact, it is made up of many colors refracted and refocused by the moisture in the atmosphere – the tendency toward blue is the result of said reflecting), but calling it so is not a crime…at least, not inherently.


It’s like quarreling over semantics. Is France’s health care 100% free? Probably not. Do Canadians really have the wonderful, problem free universal coverage as claimed in the film? Most assuredly No. Is either system, from a purely fiscal approach to the patient, better than America’s cash machine mandate of money based acceptance/denial of coverage? Without a doubt. So why argue the potential faulty finer points? If you can agree on the foundation, do all the bricks have to be faultless as well? It may make for better debate, but since the opposition (the health care industry, the lobbyists, and politicians who kowtow to them) won’t be forthcoming with all their facts either, it seems only far to fight liar with liar. Yet it’s unreasonable to call Moore a fraud. In a country where expression is paramount among our rights, he is completely free to speak his mind. Equally, he must be open to those who will criticize and condemn his efforts, even when those assessments are more assertion than argument.


The current preemptive take on SiCKO is obviously a tactic taken from the unbelievable backlash experienced on Fahrenheit 9/11. In the case of the Republican Party, there was a need to protect a sitting president running for re-election. It was part of a strategy that guaranteed that no issue would set the campaign agenda unless the GOP were in complete control of it. In a far more damning documentary, Adam Del Deo and James D. Stern’s …So Goes the Nation, we learn that in the political trenches of each candidate, it’s war almost every second of every day. Anything and everything is fodder for advantage and opponent undermining. If, somehow, Moore had managed to gain enough credibility to sway the election, he’d have achieved a monumental democratic goal. Thanks to the massive machine in place, however, the movie had to settle for winning an international cinematic award. Toppling a soon to be unpopular war mongering President just wasn’t in the cards.


This time around, it’s all about money. Moore is doing to Aetna and Kaiser Permanente what he did to General Motors, except he doesn’t have to confront a bunch of CEOs to do so. He has hundreds of willing whistleblowers eager to expose the demoralizing practices they were part of just to earn a paycheck.  In this case, the effect is more obvious and potentially potent. We see bleary eyed citizens crying, good and decent men and women whose lives have been inexplicably altered by the big bad robber baron of the 21st century – the insurance company. It’s the motion picture equivalent of shooting puppies. It may be manipulative, but it’s effective as all Hell. And better yet, it’s the perfect visual soundbite for a nation that needs its problems pitched at a text-messaging level of meaningful or they fail to register. SiCKO is a striking, nauseating, heart-wrenching, reactionary masterwork. That can’t be good news for the people over at Pfizer.


That’s why the repercussions have been so immediate and incremental. SiCKO is going to stir some response. It’s going to solidify the many grass roots consumer groups into one big voice of the people. It will more than likely be a topic on the tip of every candidates tongue as we enter 2008 and prepare for another pointless changing of the Executive Branch guard. On the other side, there will be those so lost in the jingoistic stance of the last seven years that they’ll be unable to tolerate the constant mocking of the US system (those pesky foreigners, they just love to hate us for our many liberties). They’ll milk the complicit media for as much screed time as possible, and Moore will have to appear on various chat fests to defend himself and his artistic choices. This won’t stop the conspiracy theorists for blaming each other over the film’s web appearance, nor will it defuse those already waiting for the 29 June play date to pounce.


While the leak does go to a wholly different issue regarding piracy, copyright, and Hollywood’s hopelessly outdated moviemaking model (which technology still trumps, damn those scientists), in this case, it also stokes the raging coals surrounding Moore’s most effective film to date. If the government was wise, it would back down from the bully pulpit and let the filmmaker have his medical days in the Cuban sun. In addition, the capitalistic cranks should also tone down the rebuttal rhetoric. It’s not like the multi-billion dollar health care industry needs their defending. Its got the money, and the connections, to secure its position. No, what everyone should be concerned about is the power inherent within the moving image. SiCKO may start a real people rebellion that could wrest this issue out of the hands of special interests once and for all. It may only be a movie, but it’s already having an impact. Just wait until it’s actually released. 


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