Sicko (2007)

Michael Moore's impatience with the government's ongoing ineptitude, ignorance, and iniquity here finds a mini-perfect storm.


Director: Michael Moore
Cast: Michael Moore
MPAA rating: PG-13
Studio: Weinstein Company
First date: 2007
US Release Date: 2007-06-22 (Limited release)

Michael Moore stands on the deck of a small boat he's motored from Florida to Cuba, the sea stretching behind him. Framed by his stalwart-looking passengers, three 9/11 rescue workers now suffering an array of health ailments, he puts bullhorn to mouth, as the camera cuts to a watchtower on Guantanamo Bay. Moore pleads, "They just want some medical attention, the same kind that Al Qaeda is getting. They don't want any more than you're giving the evildoers, just the same." It's one of several slow-motion-gonzo moments in Sicko, Moore's documentary on the business of US medical insurance. The bullhorn and far-away prison camp form an apt embellishment, as Moore stands opposed not only to the institutional neglect of ailing patients, but also, and again, to the Bush administration. His impatience with the government's ongoing ineptitude, ignorance, and iniquity -- expressed most vociferously in Fahrenheit 9/11 -- here finds a mini-perfect storm. Preceded by shots of orange-jump-suited detainees at Gitmo playing soccer inside their cages, and a tour of the hospital unit showing operating room, ample medicines, and doctors in white coats, the shout to the watchtower takes aim at the US war on terror, as well as border anxieties, military posturing, alarmism and imperialism.

Turned away from the rocky-beached, barbed-wired camp (or, as he explains, responding to the sound of a siren), Moore takes his passengers on to Cuba, where they find clean white facilities, attentive doctors, and affordable medications. It is this scene that has reportedly inspired the US Treasury Department to investigate "possible violations of the US trade embargo restricting travel to Cuba," and incidentally, provide free publicity for the film. The quite literally feel-good sequence closes with a tribute to the US rescue workers by firefighters in Havana, a scene where tearful embraces are augmented by the fact that one of the US workers, medical technician Reggie Cervantes (currently suffering from "pulmonary and bronchial problems," according to the team of Cuban doctors who examine her), speaks Spanish. "Mi hermanos," they agree, all rescue workers a global family. Really, if only the US might learn not only to get along with its neighbors, but also take them as models for good behavior, the world would be a better place.

This would be the most reductive point to take away from Sicko, which, like Moore's previous documentaries, mounts a righteously angry, alternately sentimental, blowhardy, often effective argument. Using anecdotal evidence and occasional numbers to make the case that US health insurance companies, in the words of one emailer to Moore, "flat suck." The focus on the broken system appeals directly to "those of you who are living the American Dream." If you're like Larry and Donna, a two-career couple who put six children through college, you will be bankrupted if you depend on insurance companies when your health gives out. It's a neat bit of timing that on the very day they arrive at their daughter's doorstep (they've lost their house), their son-in-law, "a contractor," is leaving for work "out of town." When asked why daddy's going to Iraq, a tearful child answers, "To do some plumbing."

Such coincidence grants Moore's film a narrative structure with a familiar political point: the crises facing regular citizens are connected, as well as ongoing. And most insistently, the crises have to do with class. Again taking up the cause of the working class victims and heroes he's made his focus since Roger & Me, Moore offers up some familiar villains. The first versions of medical profiteering trace back to the Nixon administration, specifically a 1971 conversation between John Erlichmann and the president (courtesy of the notorious White House tapes) concerning Edgar Kaiser's proposal that health insurance could make money -- lots of it. The film includes brief digs at Ronald Reagan (who appears to have been a paid spokesperson for the industry, before he was president) and temporarily rambunctious "little lady" Hillary Clinton, who famously fought back, for a minute. But, after a slew of white men decried her plan for "socialist medicine" (and protestors burned her in effigy), now appears to have accepted enough financing from lobbyists that she'll never again propose anything like "universal health care."

She's hardly the only figure with such odious association. As the film shows congresspeople making their way to a stage show with president, each is followed by a little green dollar amount, indicating the campaign monies they've accepted from health insurance and drug company lobbyists (Bush, unsurprisingly, is followed by a gigantic number). Cute as well as accusatory, the bit connects fear and money by way of politics. It's an incisive analysis, in its way, more nuanced than the most obvious conclusion, that congresspeople are greedy, conformist, or categorically unthoughtful. Here the system, recounted by victims as well as former workers within it, looks dismal and dishonest. It's supported by individuals who don't or can't see past dictates handed down from on high: insurance employees are rewarded for turning down claims, doctors for treating patients who can pay.

The film's alternative systems -- Cuban, British, and French -- offer "free" care and unfailingly friendly caregivers. Recipients express their gratitude and expectation: the system makes sense, after all. "It all began with democracy," beams former member of Parliament Tony Benn, which "gave the poor the vote" and "moved the power from the wallet to the ballot." Imagine, Moore submits, that a government would look after its people before its businesses, noting that after WWII, England decided to pull together by mandating free health care. By contrast, after 9/11, the US rejected such "pulling together" and focused instead on going to war.

Though Moore purports to seek the costs (the higher taxes in France and England), he doesn’t find an interview subject to complain about it. Instead, citizens speak to the reasonable lives they lead, their affordable rent, and their vacations (one woman keeps a collection of sand from the many beaches she's visited). If the scene seems like gimmicky overkill, it leads to the more pithy point: in France, says an expatriate interviewee, "The government is afraid of the people, they're afraid of protests, they're afraid of reactions from the people, whereas in the States people are afraid of the government. They're afraid of acting up, they're afraid of protesting, they're afraid of getting out."

As Sicko has it, the most effective resistance in the States is not highly visible. The examples are sympathetic, tragic, and sometimes fierce. Again, the overt case-making looks simplistic, but the film's narrative is crafty. A 22-year-old cancer patient marries a Canadian so she can afford treatment by crossing the Detroit River periodically. While she notes that she's telling "little white lies," Moore again makes the broader point: "Yes, what Adrienne was doing was illegal. But we're Americans. We go into other countries when we need to." Looking at street surveillance tape of an impoverished patient being dumped by hospital employees onto Skid Row, he submits that a nation might be judged both by how it treats "those who are worst off" and those it deems its "best," that is, the 9/11 heroes.

While it articulates all kinds of individual rage at these consistent failures, the film's most effective moment is also self-congratulatory. Denied coverage for his daughter's treatment, a man writes Cigna ("without my permission," notes Moore), announcing that Michael Moore is making a movie about health care. "Have you ever been in a film before?", he writes, at which point, the company calls to reverse the denial. If a movie not even made yet had such effect, maybe Sicko will inspire someone else, somewhere, to make a right decision.


The Best Metal of 2017

Painting by Mariusz Lewandowski. Cover of Bell Witch's Mirror Reaper.

There's common ground between all 20 metal albums despite musical differences: the ability to provide a cathartic release for the creator and the consumer alike, right when we need it most.

With global anxiety at unprecedented high levels it is important to try and maintain some personal equilibrium. Thankfully, metal, like a spiritual belief, can prove grounding. To outsiders, metal has always been known for its escapism and fantastical elements; but as most fans will tell you, metal is equally attuned to the concerns of the world and the internal struggles we face and has never shied away from holding a mirror up to man's inhumanity.

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In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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Two recently translated works -- Lydie Salvayre's Cry, Mother Spain and Joan Sales' Uncertain Glory -- bring to life the profound complexity of an early struggle against fascism, the Spanish Civil War.

There are several ways to write about the Spanish Civil War, that sorry three-year prelude to World War II which saw a struggling leftist democracy challenged and ultimately defeated by a fascist military coup.

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Beware the seemingly merry shades of green and red that spread so slowly and thickly across the holiday season, for something dark and uncertain, something that takes many forms, stirs beneath the joyful facade.

Let's be honest -- not everyone feels merry at this time of year. Psychologists say depression looms large around the holidays and one way to deal with it is cathartically. Thus, we submit that scary movies can be even more salutary at Christmas than at Halloween. So, Merry Christmas. Ho ho ho wa ha ha!

1. The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932)

Between Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933), director James Whale made this over-the-top lark of a dark and stormy night with stranded travelers and a crazy family. In a wordless performance, Boris Karloff headlines as the deformed butler who inspired The Addams Family's Lurch. Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas and Ernest Thesiger are among those so vividly present, and Whale has a ball directing them through a series of funny, stylish scenes. This new Cohen edition provides the extras from Kino's old disc, including commentaries by Stuart and Whale biographer James Curtis. The astounding 4K restoration of sound and image blows previous editions away. There's now zero hiss on the soundtrack, all the better to hear Massey starting things off with the first line of dialogue: "Hell!"

(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

2. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

Two mermaid sisters (Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska) can summon legs at will to mingle on shore with the band at a Polish disco, where their siren act is a hit. In this dark reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen's already dark The Little Mermaid, one love-struck sister is tempted to sacrifice her fishy nature for human mortality while her sister indulges moments of bloodlust. Abetted by writer Robert Bolesto and twin sister-musicians Barbara and Zuzanna Wronska, director Agnieszka Smoczynska offers a woman's POV on the fairy tale crossed with her glittery childhood memories of '80s Poland. The result: a bizarre, funy, intuitive genre mash-up with plenty of songs. This Criterion disc offers a making-of and two short films by Smoczynska, also on musical subjects.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Read PopMatters review here.)

3. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)

In the category of movies that don't explain themselves in favor of leaving some of their mysteries intact, here's Olivier Assayas' follow-up to the luminous Clouds of Sils Maria. Kristen Stewart again plays a celebrity's lackey with a nominally glamorous, actually stupid job, and she's waiting for a sign from her dead twin brother. What about the ghostly presence of a stalker who sends provocative text messages to her phone? The story flows into passages of outright horror complete with ectoplasm, blood, and ooga-booga soundscapes, and finally settles for asking the questions of whether the "other world" is outside or inside us. Assayas has fashioned a slinky, sexy, perplexing ghost story wrapped around a young woman's desire for something more in her life. There's a Cannes press conference and a brief talk from Assayas on his influences and impulses.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Reader PopMatters review here.

4. The Ghoul (Gareth Tunley, 2016)

The hero (Tom Meeten) tells his therapist that in his dreams, some things are very detailed and others are vague. This movie tells you bluntly what it's up to: a Möbius strip narrative that loops back on itself , as attributed to the diabolical therapists for their cosmic purposes. Then we just wait for the hero to come full circle and commit the crime that, as a cop, he's supposedly investigating. But this doesn't tell us whether he's really an undercover cop pretending to be depressed, or really a depressive imagining he's a cop, so some existential mysteries will never be answered. It's that kind of movie, indebted to David Lynch and other purveyors of nightmarish unreality. Arrow's disc offers a making-of, a commentary from writer-director Gareth Tunley and Meeten along with a producer, and a short film from Tunley and Meeten.

(Available from Arrow Video)

​5. The Illustrated Man (Jack Smight, 1969)

When a young man goes skinny-dipping with a mysterious stranger (Rod Steiger) who's covered with tattoos, the pictures comes to life in a series of odd stories, all created by Ray Bradbury and featuring Steiger and Claire Bloom in multiple roles. Nobody was satisfied with this failure, and it remains condemned to not having reached its potential. So why does Warner Archive grace it with a Blu-ray? Because even its failure has workable elements, including Jerry Goldsmith's score and the cold neatness of the one scene people remember: "The Veldt", which combines primal child/parent hostilities (a common Bradbury theme) with early virtual reality. It answers the question of why the kids spend so much time in their room, and why they're hostile at being pulled away.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

6. The Hidden (Jack Sholder, 1987)

In one of my favorite action movies of the '80s, a post-Blue Velvet and pre-Twin Peaks Kyle MacLachlan plays an FBI agent who forms a buddy-cop bond with Michael Nouri while pursuing a perp -- a bodiless entity that plugs into the human id. In the midst of slam-bang action comes a pivotal moment when a startling question is asked: "How do you like being human?" The heart of the movie, rich in subtext, finds two men learning to embrace what's alien to them. In pop-culture evolution, this movie falls between Hal Clement's novel Needle and the TV series Alien Nation. On this Warner Archive Blu-ray, Sholder offers a commentary with colleague Tim Hunter.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

7. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)

Speaking of Twin Peaks, here we have a textbook example of a movie that pleased almost nobody upon its release but has now generated such interest, thanks in large part to this year's Twin Peaks revival, that it arrives on Criterion. A feature-film prequel to David Lynch and Mark Frost's original TV serial that answered none of its questions and tossed in a raft of new ones, the film functions as one of cinema's most downbeat, disruptive and harsh depictions of a middle-class American teenage girl's social context. Sheryl Lee delivers a virtuoso performance that deserved the Oscar there was no way she'd be nominated for, and she wasn't. The extras, including a 90-minute film of deleted and alternate takes assembled by Lynch, have been available on previous sets.

(Available from Criterion Collection)

8. The Green Slime (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

Incredibly, Warner Archive upgrades its on-demand DVD of a groovy, brightly colored creature feature with this Blu-ray. As a clever reviewer indicated in this PopMatters review, what director Kinji Fukasaku saw as a Vietnam allegory functions more obviously as a manifestation of sexual tension between alpha-jock spacemen competing for the attention of a foxy female scientist, and this subconsciously creates an explosion of big green tentacled critters who overrun the space station. While we don't believe in "so bad it's good," this falls squarely into the category of things so unfacetiously absurd, they come out cool. There's a sublimely idiotic theme song.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

If the idea is that earth, water, fire, air and space constitute the core elements of life, then these five songs might seem as their equivalents to surviving the complications that come from embracing the good and enduring the ugly of the Christmas season.

Memory will never serve us well when it comes to Christmas and all its surrounding complications. Perhaps worse than the financial and familial pressures, the weather and the mad rush to consume and meet expectations, to exceed what happened the year before, are the floods of lists and pithy observations about Christmas music. We know our favorite carols and guilty pleasures ("O Come All Ye Faithful", "Silent Night"), the Vince Guaraldi Trio's music for 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas that was transcendent then and (for some, anyway) has lost none of its power through the years, and we embrace the rock songs (The Kink's "Father Christmas", Greg Lake's "I Believe In Father Christmas", and The Pretenders' "2000 Miles".) We dismiss the creepy sexual predator nature in any rendition of "Baby, It's Cold Outside", the inanity of Alvin and the Chipmunks, and pop confections like "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus".

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