Category Archives: Big Money

SIFF 2009: We Live in Public ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 30, 2009)

Marshall McLuhan is spinning.

So, how many “internet pioneers” were there, anyway? Tiresome jokes about Al Gore “inventing” the web aside, it seems every time you turn around, yet another person is credited for being the “visionary” who put “us” where “we” are today (wherever the hell that is, in the virtual sense).

Take the naked guy in the photo above, for instance. His name is Josh Harris. He’s an internet pioneer. Ever hear of him? God knows, I hadn’t, until I screened a fascinating new documentary called We Live in Public. The film was a 10-year labor of love for director Ondi Timoner (Dig!). Depending on who you ask, her subject is either an unheralded genius, or a complete loon who got lucky during the dot com boom (he’s a bit of both). By 1999, Harris had built a personal fortune of 80 million dollars by cannily presaging the explosion of social networking. In less than ten years, he was completely broke and had expatriated himself to Ethiopia.

What separates Harris from the rest of the nerdy, pocket-protected web entrepreneurs is his self-styled persona as an “artist” (he apparently was referred to by some as the “Warhol of the Web”). He considered his “art” to be his life (and the lives of others), as filtered, documented and shared through the matrix of digital technology.

In December 1999, Harris bankrolled a “social experiment” that could have been concocted by Hunter S. Thompson and Jim Jones on an ether binge. Harris narrowed down scores of applicants to 100 “subjects” who would room together in a bunker-like underground environment for 30 days. Each person had to consent to having a CCTV camera trained on them 24/7. Each also had his or her own monitor, with access to “flip channels” and peek in on what any of the other 99 people were doing at any given time (showers and toilets were communal, and there were no bedroom doors, to answer the obvious question). The complex was stockpiled with food, beverages, and guns (the latter allowed people to “blow off steam”). Each person was housed in their own sleeping pod.

Harris hired psychologists, who would grill residents in stark interrogation rooms. It was fun and games for the first couple weeks, but things quickly went downhill when people started losing their sense of reality. When New York City law enforcement caught wind of these (literally) underground shenanigans, they pictured a Heaven’s Gate-type cult scenario, and Harris’ “experiment” was abruptly shut down on January 1, 2000. Orwellian implications aside, the idea itself was prescient; especially when you consider the current popularity of personal webcams and the glut of reality TV.

Harris soon took the concept to the next level when he wired up every room in his home with cameras and launched the “We Live in Public” website with his girlfriend, enabling any one with an internet connection to peek in on their daily life (with absolutely no holds barred). By the time Harris pulled the plug six months later, his girlfriend had left him, daily hits were down to a handful, and he appeared to be in the middle of a mental meltdown (watching the footage of Harris moping about, I was reminded of Charles Foster Kane’s waning days, listlessly pacing the empty halls of Xanadu).

From a purely cinematic standpoint, Timoner has assembled an absorbing and stylishly kinetic portrait; but curiously, her subject remains somewhat of an enigma by the film’s end. Is he truly a “pioneer”, or is he just a glorified exhibitionist? What did he “pave the way” for, ultimately…Katie Couric’s televised colonoscopy? Is there such a thing as “too much information” in the Information Age? Does everybody necessarily need their “15 minutes”? If so, why? Is the medium the message? And while I’ve got your attention, have you seen this video of my adorable little cat with a bag stuck on his head?

SIFF 2009: The Yes Men Fix the World ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 30, 2009)

Live bait: The Yes Men chum for corporate sharks

What do you get when you throw Roger and Me and The Sting into a blender? Probably something along the lines of The Yes Men Fix the World, an alternately harrowing and hilarious documentary featuring anti-corporate activist/pranksters Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno. This is a more focused follow up to their ballsy but uneven debut, The Yes Men.

In that 2003 film, they established a simple yet amazingly effective Trojan Horse formula that garnered the duo invitations to key business conferences and TV appearances as “WTO spokesmen”. Once lulling their marks into a comfort zone, they would then proceed to cause well-deserved public embarrassment for some evil corporate bastards, whilst exposing the dark side of global free trade. (Most amazingly, they have managed not to suffer “brake failure” on a mountain road, if you know what I’m saying).

In this outing, Bichlbaum, Bonanno and co-director Kurt Engfehr come out swinging, vowing to do a take-down of a very powerful nemesis…an Idea. If money makes the world go ‘round, then this particular Idea is the one that oils the crank on the money-go-round, regardless of the human cost. It is the free market cosmology of economist Milton Friedman, which the Yes Men posit as the root of much evil in the world.

Of course, there is not much our dynamic duo can do at this point to take the man himself down (as the forlorn expressions on their faces during a visit to his grave site would indicate); but the Idea survives, as do those who would “drink the Kool-Aid”.  And thus, the fun begins.

Perhaps “fun” isn’t quite the appropriate term, but there are definitely hijinx afoot, and you’ll find yourself chuckling through most of the film (when you’re not crying). However, the filmmakers have a loftier goal than mining laughs: they want to smoke out some corporate accountability; and ideally, atonement. I know that “corporate accountability” is an oxymoron, but one still has to admire the dogged determination (and boundless creativity) of the Yes Men and their co-conspirators, despite the odds.

Case in point: the 1984 Bhopal disaster in India, when a Union Carbide pesticide plant mishap exposed 500,000 people (200,000 of them children) to a toxic gas. Between 8,000 and 10,000 deaths occurred within 3 days. Since then, an estimated additional 25,000 Bhopal residents have since died from complications due to exposure. Union Carbide eventually paid an insurance settlement to the Indian government of 470 million dollars in 1989 (it sounds like a lot of loot…until you split it 500,000 ways). To add insult to injury, Union Carbide pulled up stakes (read: fled the scene of the crime) without ever cleaning up the site; to this day residents are drinking groundwater leached by toxins.

In 2004, BBC News did a special report on the 20th anniversary of the tragedy, which included an appearance by a spokesman for Dow Chemical (the corporation that had just recently acquired Union Carbide at the time of the broadcast). The spokesman, a Mr. “Jude Finisterra” made an astounding, headline-grabbing announcement: In an effort to truly atone for the Bhopal incident, Dow Chemical was going to invest a tidy sum of 12 billion dollars to clean up the area and compensate the victims.

For several hours, all hell broke loose; Dow stockholders panicked and dumped over 2 billion dollars worth of stock in record time. To anyone with a soul, it was too good to be true-corporate criminals coming clean on live TV, in front of 300 million viewers? There’s hope for humanity! Well, not exactly. “Jude Finisterra” was really a member of our intrepid duo.

But the point was made; in fact, the real beauty of the ruse didn’t come into full flower until the Yes Men were “exposed”. When the real Dow Chemical spokespeople jumped into the fray to denounce the prank, they only made themselves look more ridiculous (and culpable) by essentially saying “Obviously, we would not commit such a large amount of money in this manner (i.e. of course we would never publicly take responsibility for the deaths of tens of thousands of innocent people).”

The most distressing thing to observe is how quickly the MSM jumps in to toe the corporate line; in the case of the Dow sting (and later in the film, when they pose as HUD spokesmen, announcing that the government agency will provide housing for all the Katrina victims it had originally displaced in order to clear the way for redevelopment by private sector contractors) the newspapers and TV news anchors condemn the “cruel hoax” that gave “false hopes” to the victims of Bhopal and Katrina, respectively.

When the concerned Yes Men travel to Bhopal to personally apologize to the residents for their “cruelty”, they are greeted with open arms; one Bhopal victim tells them that even though he was admittedly disappointed, he was, for an hour or so, “in Heaven”. By the end of the film, the Yes Men may not actually “fix the world”, but they certainly succeed in giving it hope with their sense of compassion and infectious optimism. And for an hour or so, I was in Heaven.

Pay you back with interest: The International ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on February 21, 2009)

Owen and Watts: Lawyers, guns and money.

Get this. In the Bizarro World of Tom Tykwer’s new conspiracy thriller, The International, people don’t rob banks…. banks rob people. That’s crazy! And if you think that’s weird, check this out: at one point in the film, one of the characters puts forth the proposition that true power belongs to he who controls the debt. Are you swallowing this malarkey? Oh, and it gets even better.

The filmmakers even  suggest that some Third World military coups are seeded by powerful financial groups and directed from shadowy corporate boardrooms. What a fantasy! The next thing you’re gonna tell me is that these same “evil bankers” will devise some nefarious bailout plan that enables them to sustain their self-indulgent standards of high living while the world’s economy collapses-and all at the expense of hard-working taxpayers. Yeah, right.

The (fictional) international bank in question is under relentless investigation by a stalwart Interpol agent (the ever-glum Clive Owen), who is following a trail of shady arms deals all over Europe and the Near East that appear to be linked to the organization.

Whenever anyone gets close to exposing the truth about the bank’s Machiavellian schemes and criminal enterprises, they die under Mysterious Circumstances (alas, it is the karma for all whistle-blowers portrayed by lower-billed actors in a conspiracy thriller). The chase leads to New York, where (for reasons I was not 100% clear on) Owen is teamed up with a Manhattan-based assistant D.A. (Naomi Watts). Complexity ensues, with tastefully-attired Eurotrash assassins lurking behind every silver-tongued bank exec.

Director Tykwer, best-known for his hyper-kinetic cult thriller Run Lola Run, seems at odds with himself. He appears to be paying homage to the smartly-written, Byzantine and deliberately paced political paranoia thrillers of the 1970s, like Three Days of the Condor and Day of the Jackal, yet he also employs structural elements more akin to the logic-defying, action-driven escapades of a James Bond/Jason Bourne adventure (an imaginatively mounted shoot-out in New York’s Guggenheim is  exciting from a purely cinematic standpoint, yet suffers incongruity with the rest of the narrative).

Still, the film involving enough to hold  your attention throughout. It’s far from a classic, but if you are a sucker for the genre (like yours truly), I think you’ll find it  worthwhile. I enjoyed the Bondian travelogue device (it even has the mandatory stop in Istanbul-complete with the requisite foot chase through a crowded bazaar).

Owen and Watts hold your attention (although I would have liked to have seen more screen chemistry between them, and would it kill Clive Owen to crack just a tiny little smile once in a while?) and there is an excellent supporting performance from the frequently underrated German character actor, Armin Mueller-Stahl.

The timing of the film’s release is interesting, in light of the current banking crisis and the plethora of financial scandals. From what I understand, screenwriter Eric Singer (no relation to the drummer from Kiss) based certain elements of the story on the real-life B.C.C.I. scandal. I predict that this will become the ubiquitous new trend in screen villains-the R. Allen Stanfords and Bernie Madoffs seem heaven-sent to replace Middle-Eastern terrorists as the Heavies du Jour for action thrillers. You can take that to the bank.

Let fiefdom ring: Capitalism: a Love Story ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 3, 2009)

Money speaks for money, the Devil for his own

Who comes to speak for the skin and bone?

 -Billy Bragg

 So it’s not just me. Recently, in my review of Public Enemies, I wrote:

If you blink, you might miss the chance to revel in a delicious moment of schadenfreude in Michael Mann’s Public Enemies that decidedly con-temporizes this otherwise ol’skool “gangsters vs. G-men” opus. In the midst of conducting an armed robbery, the notoriously felonious John Dillinger (Johnny Depp) notices that a bank employee has reflexively emptied his pockets of some crumpled bills and loose change onto his desk. “That’s your money, mister?” Dillinger asks. “Yes,” the frightened man replies. Dillinger gives him a bemused look and says, “We’re here for the bank’s money, not yours. Put it away.”

I almost stood up and cheered…then I remembered that a) Dillinger was a murderous thug, and b) I would never even fantasize about participating in such a caper, so I thought better of it. Still, I couldn’t help but savor an opportunity for a little vicarious thrill at watching a bank getting hosed. I don’t know…it could’ve had something to with the fact that my bank recently doubled my credit card interest, even after they eagerly gobbled up the bailout money that was funded by my hard-earned tax dollars (ya think?). In fact, in the context of our current economic woes, one can watch Mann’s film and sort of grok how John Dillinger, Bonnie and Clyde, Ma Barker, Al Capone, Pretty Boy Floyd and other “public enemy” list alums gained folk hero cachet during the Great Depression.

In the opening credits of  Capitalism: A Love Story, Michael Moore runs a montage of real-life bank robberies in progress. As you watch masked felons in slow-mo, strong-arming their way through bank lobbies, firing off warning salvos into the air like it’s the 4th of July and leaping over counters like Peking acrobats, it becomes an oddly balletic rendering of the ever-widening chasm between the Haves and the Have-nots in our country, writ large through the unblinking eye of a security camera and all choreographed to Iggy Pop’s growling rendition of  “Louie Louie”:

 The communist world is fallin apart
The capitalists are just breakin hearts
Money is the reason to be
It makes me just wanna sing louie louie

So how did we arrive to this sorry state of our Union, where the number of banks being robbed by desperate people is running neck and neck with the number of desperate banks robbing We The People? What paved the way for the near-total collapse of our financial system and its subsequent government bailout, which Moore provocatively refers to as a “financial coup d’etat”?

The enabler, Moore suggests, may  be our sacred capitalist system itself-and he proceeds to build a case (in his inimitable fashion) that results in his most engaging, thought-provoking film since Roger and Me (and you can call me a Commie for saying that…I don’t care).

In essence,  this film is the belated sequel to the aforementioned 1989 documentary; it would seem that, 20 years later, the rest of the country has “caught up” with Moore’s hometown of Flint, Michigan. Roger and Me chronicled the economic collapse of the city following General Motors CEO Roger Smith’s decision to close down the plants that once employed 30,000 of its residents.

Moore does take a few moments in his new film to bask in the “what goes around, comes around” irony of GM’s bankruptcy filing this past June-and you can’t really blame him. If you recall the heartbreaking scene in Roger and Me of a family getting evicted on Christmas Eve by an apologetic yet duty-bound sheriff, you will detect a bit of recycling in that department; same as it ever was.

However, this is not just a rehash of what happens when the capitalist dream dies, but an attempt to examine why it so often does. Moore digs deep into the dark underbelly of the beast in this outing; he gives us many eye-opening examples of truly soulless profiteering and unchecked vulture capitalism at its most egregious.

The film’s trailer has misled many people into assuming that they are just going to be seeing Moore doing another series of his patented grandstanding pranks. Although you do see him running around Wall Street armed with a megaphone, yellow crime scene tape and a rented Loomis truck, demanding a refund from bailed out financial institutions on behalf of the American taxpayers and generally being a pain-in-the-ass to hapless security guards, these types of shenanigans really only take up a relative fraction of screen time.

Those moments of shtick aside, I think that the film represents the most cohesive and mature film making Moore has done to date. Interestingly, from a purely polemical standpoint, it is also one of his least partisan, which I’m sure is going to make some of his usual knee-jerk critics develop a little twitch. Not that it really matters; his haters will continue to despise him no matter what kind of film he makes, and likely condemn it as anti-American, unpatriotic and full of lies (without bothering to actually see it, of course).

Okay, so he does close the film with a lounge-y version of “The Internationale” playing over the end credits (you just know he can’t help himself). Yet despite that rather obvious provocation (and the film’s title, of course), I didn’t really find his message to be so much “down with capitalism” as it is “up with people”.

There is a streak of genuine and heartfelt humanism that runs through all his work; a fact curiously overlooked by many. Isn’t that kind of what the founding fathers were all about? After all, I believe that little Declaration thingie reads that we all have the right to “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”, not “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness, even at the expense of someone else’s”. Or does it?

Out here in the fields: There Will Be Blood ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 12, 2008)

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In the audacious opening shot of his magnificent, sprawling, demented epic, There Will Be Blood, director P.T. Anderson presents us with a tracking shot of a vast expanse of rocky, desolate scrub land, scored by an ominous, discordant drone. When the camera (literally) disappears down a hole, we are introduced to the protagonist, a lone, shadowy figure, chiseling away at the subterranean rock wall of a derelict well with a fierce, single-minded determination.

There is nary a word of dialogue uttered during the ensuing 15 minutes; yet through the masterful implementation of purely cinematic language, we are given a sufficient enough glimpse so as to feel that we may already have some inkling of what it is that drives this man, even though we do not yet even know his name.

Stylistically, this scene recalls the prologue for 2001: A Space Odyssey. What we witness in the film’s introduction may not be quite as profound as Kubrick’s rendering of “the dawn of man”, but it does put the spotlight on something just as primeval. It is something that is buried deep within the capitalist DNA-the relentless drive to amass wealth and power through willful exploitation and opportunism (hey, don’t knock it- it’s what made this country great!)

Flash forward a few years, and we find that our mystery man has made a name for himself in the midst of California’s turn-of-the-century oil boom. The ambitious Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) has moved up from prospecting for precious metals to leasing tracts of land for the oil drilling rights. He is well on his way to becoming very wealthy. He did not get to this place in his life by being a nice guy (who does?).

He is a bachelor; but in order to give an impression as a sincere “family man”, he totes a young orphan along to business meetings, who he introduces as his son (not unlike Ryan and Tatum O’Neal’s con artist team in Paper Moon). In his worldview, you are either with him, or you are his “competitor”. In fact, Plainview is the quintessential lone wolf, having very little tolerance or use for people in general, unless they can help further his agenda.

Plainview’s biggest payday arrives in the form of a furtive and enigmatic young man named Paul Sunday (Paul Dano), who walks out of the desert  with a hot tip about a possible oil field beneath his family’s central California ranch land. Everything appears to be going swimmingly until Plainview crosses paths with Sunday’s twin brother Eli (also played by Dano) a fire and brimstone evangelical who sees his family’s business partnership with Plainview as a potential cash cow for building up his ministry. The relationship between these two characters forms the heart of the story’s conflict.

Plainview and Sunday are in reality two peas in a pod; they both employ their own fashion of charlatanism and manipulation to get what they want. They circle each other warily, grudgingly accepting that they need each other to achieve their goals. Plainview sees himself as an empire builder, and promises the milk and honey of economic prosperity to sway the landowners to his way of thinking.

The unhinged Sunday envisions himself as a prophet, and uses the lure of eternal life and the theatrics of faith healing to win over his followers. He clearly sees (plainly views?) Plainview as the Devil; this is suggested in one of the film’s most stunning visuals, where Anderson frames Day-Lewis in ominous silhouette against the hellish backdrop of an oil well fire, recalling the image of Chernabog in the “Night on Bald Mountain” segment from Fantasia. It is significant to note that when we are first introduced to Plainview, he emerges from underground (the Underworld?). The resulting pissing contest between prophet and profiteer makes for a compelling tale.

The story spans thirty years; culminating on the eve of the Depression, by which time the obscenely wealthy but completely soulless Plainview has morphed into a reclusive Charles Foster Kane type figure, alone in his mansion. The film’s jaw-dropping climatic scene is destined to be dissected and argued over by film buffs for some years to come.

The story is rich in allegory; especially in the character of Plainview, who is the very personification of the blood-soaked history of profit-driven expansionism in America at the turn of the century (and it must be said that the particular brand of puritanical religious zealotry represented by Sunday has been responsible for its fair share of damage throughout U.S. history as well).

I was reminded, oddly enough, of the excellent documentary The Corporation, in which the filmmakers build a psychological profile of the typical corporation, as if it were a person. From that film’s website:

To assess the ‘personality’ of the corporate ‘person,’ a checklist is employed, using diagnostic criteria of the World Health Organization and the standard diagnostic tool of psychiatrists and psychologists. The operational principles of the corporation give it a highly anti-social ‘personality’: it is self-interested, inherently amoral, callous and deceitful; it breaches social and legal standards to get its way; it does not suffer from guilt, yet it can mimic the human qualities of empathy, caring and altruism.

That is Plainview, and to some extent, Sunday. The famously meticulous Day-Lewis is nothing short of astonishing . It is one of his finest performances . He does make some interesting choices; especially in his carefully measured vocal inflection. I’d swear that he is channeling the voice of the late Jack Palance. But it works-and maybe it’s not such a stretch, since director Anderson appears to be channeling the mythic style of George Stevens’ westerns (Giant, obviously; and in a tangential sense, Shane).

Credit must also go to Paul Dano (Little Miss Sunshine), who does an admirable job of holding his own against the greatest character actor on earth. In a recent interview, Dano said that Day-Lewis never once broke character, even refusing to acknowledge him off-camera. Kudos as well to  Radiohead guitarist Johnny Greenwood for his soundtrack.

This marks the most cohesive and mature work from director Anderson, who adapted his screenplay from Upton Sinclair’s novel Oil!. Anderson’s previous films have shown a tendency to polarize critics and audiences. I personally find him one of the most unique American filmmakers working today, and I think that this movie is going to surprise a lot of people.

Sometimes, covert ops are just like a box of chocolates: Charlie Wilson’s War ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 29, 2007)

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Aaron Sorkin, you silver-tongued devil, you had me at: “Ladies and gentlemen of the clandestine community…”

That line is from the opening scene of the new film Charlie Wilson’s War, in which the title character, a Texas congressman (played in full Gumpian southern-drawl mode by Tom Hanks) is receiving an Honored Colleague award from the, er-ladies and gentlemen of the clandestine community (you know, that same group of merry pranksters who orchestrated such wild and wooly hi-jinx as the Bay of Pigs invasion.)

Sorkin, (creator/writer of The West Wing ) provides the smart, snappy dialog for high-class director Mike Nichols’ latest foray into political satire, a genre he hasn’t dabbled in since his excellent 1998 film Primary Colors. In actuality, Nichols and Sorkin may have viewed their screen adaptation of Wilson’s real-life story as  a cakewalk, because it falls into the “you couldn’t make this shit up” category.

Wilson, known to Beltway insiders as “good-time Charlie” during his congressional tenure, is an unlikely American hero. He drank like a fish and loved to party, but could readily charm key movers and shakers into supporting his pet causes and any attractive young lady within range into the sack. So how did this whiskey quaffing poon hound circumvent the official U.S. government foreign policy of the time (mid to late 1980s) and help the Mujahideen rebels drive the Russians out of Afghanistan, ostensibly paving the way for the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War?

He did it with a little help from his friends- a coterie of strange bedfellows including an Israeli arms dealer, a belly-dancing girlfriend, high-ranking officials in Egypt and Pakistan, a misanthropic but handily resourceful CIA operative, and “the sixth-richest woman in Texas”, who also happened to be a fervent anti-communist. It’s quite the tale.

Phillip Seymour Hoffman continues his track record of stealing every film he appears in. He plays the aforementioned CIA operative, Gust Avrakotos, with aplomb. His character is less than diplomatic in the personality department; he becomes a pariah at the Agency after telling his department head to fuck off once or twice (and always within earshot of colleagues). Through serendipity, Gust falls in league with Wilson and one of his lady friends, wealthy socialite Joanne Herring (Julia Roberts).

Once they unite, the three are a sort of political X-Men team; each with their own Special Power. Joanne has influence with high-ranking Middle East officials, and can set up meetings; Charlie can talk just about anybody into anything; and Gust can get “it” done, especially if it involves cutting corners and bypassing the middleman. Once Joanne lures powerful congressman Doc Long (the wonderful Ned Beatty) on board, the deal is sealed.

The film doesn’t deviate too much from the facts laid out in the book by George Crile; despite some inherent elements of political satire, it’s a fairly straightforward rendering. What is most interesting to me is what they left out; especially after viewing The True Story of Charlie Wilson, a documentary currently airing on the History Channel (check your listings). One incident in particular, which involved a private arms dealer “accidentally” blowing up a D.C. gas station (oops!) on his way to a meeting with Wilson and Avrakotos, seems like it would have been a no-brainer for the movie (maybe some legal issues involved, perhaps?) The History Channel documentary also recalls Wilson’s involvement with a (non-injury) hit and run accident that occurred on the eve of one of his most crucial Middle-Eastern junkets (the congressman admits that he was plastered).

I think it’s also worth noting one more little tidbit from Wilson’s past that didn’t make it into the movie-but I think I can understand why. Allegedly, the randy congressman once had a little, er, “congress” with a hot young television journalist named Diane Sawyer. Yes, that Diane Sawyer, of 60 Minutes fame. That same Diane Sawyer who is married to (wait for it)…director Mike Nichols (it’s all part of life’s rich pageant, you know).

 A final thought. After the film’s feel-good, flag waving coda subsided and the credits started rolling, something nagged at me. There was a glaring omission in the postscript of this “true story”; I will pose it as an open question to Mssrs. Nichols, Sorkin and Hanks:

So tell me-exactly how did we get from all those colorful, rapturously happy, missile launcher-waving Afghani tribesmen, dancing in praise to America while chanting Charlie Wilson’s name back in the late 80s to nightly news footage of collapsing towers and U.S. troops spilling their blood into the very same rocky desert tableau, a scant decade later?

Let’s see you spin that story into a wacky romp starring Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts.

Touch me, I’m sick: Sicko ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 7, 2007)

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Oh, Michael-you are such a pill.

Our favorite cuddly corn-fed agitprop filmmaker is back to stir up some doo-doo, spark national debate and make pinko-hatin’ ‘murcan “patriots” twitch and shout. Unless you’ve been living in a cave and have somehow missed the considerable amount of pre-release hype, you have likely gleaned that I am referring to documentary maestro Michael Moore’s meditation on the current state of the U.S. health care system, Sicko.

Moore grabs our attention right out of the gate with a real Bunuel moment. Over the opening credits, we are treated to shaky home video depicting a man pulling up a flap of skin whilst patiently stitching up a gash on his knee with a needle and thread, as Moore deadpans in V.O. (with his cheerful Midwestern countenance) that the gentleman is an avid cyclist- and one of the millions of Americans who cannot afford health insurance.

Moore doesn’t waste any time showing us the flipside of the issue-even those who are “lucky” enough to have health coverage often end up with the short end of the stick as well. A young woman, knocked unconscious in a high speed auto collision and rushed to the ER via ambulance, was later denied coverage for the ambulance ride by her insurance company because it was not “pre-approved”. She ponders incredulously as to exactly how she was supposed to have facilitated “pre-approval” in such a scenario (as do we).

The film proceeds to delve into some of some of the other complexities contributing to the overall ill health of our current system; such as the monopolistic power and greed of the pharmaceutical companies, the lobbyist graft, and (perhaps most depressing of all) the heartless bureaucracy of a privatized health “coverage” system that focuses first and foremost on profit, rather than on actual individual need.

I know what you’re thinking-kind of a downer, eh? Well, this is a Michael Moore film, so there are plenty of laughs injected to help salve our tears. Most of the levity occurs as Moore travels abroad to the socialized nations of Canada, Britain, France and Cuba to do a little comparison shopping for alternate health care systems.

Much of the vitriol and spite aimed at Sicko seems to have been triggered by this aspect of the film. Indeed, the film has only been open for a week, and already the wing nut comment threads are ablaze with about a million variations on “Well if you think it’s so much better than America then why don’t you just move there you big fat Commie traitor.” (In his typically sly fashion, Moore leads into his Cuba segment by weaving in footage and music from vintage Communist propaganda films; knowing full well that those with small minds will take the bait and completely miss the irony.)

The classic Moore moment in Sicko arrives as he sails into Guantanamo Bay with a megaphone and a boatload of financially tapped Ground Zero volunteer rescue worker veterans who are all suffering from serious respiratory illnesses. After learning that the Gitmo detainees all enjoy completely free, round the clock medical care on the taxpayer’s nickel, he figures that the state of the art prison hospital wouldn’t mind offering the same services to some genuine American heroes. Of course, the personnel manning the heavily armed U.S. military patrol boats in the bay fail to see his logic, and they are unceremoniously turned away.

Undeterred, he decides to give the Cuban health care system a spin (while they’re in the neighborhood-why not?) They are welcomed unconditionally, and receive prompt and thorough care. Is it a propaganda move by the Cubans? Probably. Does Moore conveniently fail to mention the minuses of the Cuban health care system (or the Canadian, British and French systems for that matter)? Sure-but who cares?

The pluses greatly outweigh the minuses, especially when compared to the current health care mess in our own country (at least he’s showing enough sack to step up and give people some alternatives to mull over). Moore makes his point quite succinctly-the need for health care is a basic human need. It should never hinge on economic, political or ideological factors. As one of his astute interviewees observes, it is a right, not a privilege.

In fact, this may qualify as the least polemical of Moore’s films to date. Consequently, it may disappoint or perplex some of his usual supporters, especially those who always anticipate that a Moore film will give them a vicarious “let’s go stick it to The Man” thrill ride.

Things are not so black and white this time out; the issue at hand is too complex. I don’t think there is any filmmaker out there right now who could sum it all up (tidy solutions and all) in less than 2 hours, but Moore has done an admirable job of scratching the surface, and most importantly, he manages to do so in an entertaining and engaging fashion. After all, isn’t that why we go to the movies?

Manic street preacher: What Would Jesus Buy? ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 15, 2007)

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Deck the halls with advertising, Fa la la la la la la la la

‘Tis the time for merchandising, Fa la la la la la la la la

Profit never needs a reason, Fa la la la la la la la la

Get the money, it’s the season, Fa la la la la la la la la

-Stan Freberg, from “Green Chri$tma$”

Joy to the world!

In the form of goods.

Consume! Consume! Consume!

-Rev. Billy and his choir

This week I thought we’d take a respite from holiday shopping to check out a new documentary called What Would Jesus Buy? Produced by Morgan Super Size Me Spurlock (who I like to refer to as “Michael Moore Lite”) and directed by Rob VanAlkemade, the film documents the public antics of improv performer/anti-consumerism activist Bill Talen, better-known as his alter-ego, Reverend Billy, the “spiritual” leader of the “Church of Stop Shopping”.

Talen honed his act in San Francisco, originally creating the stage persona of “Reverend Billy”, a flashy, big-haired TV evangelist who performs with the fearless, in-your-face conviction of a sidewalk preacher. The Reverend doesn’t preach traditional gospel, however. His “mission” is to rail against the evils of corporate retail giants. Talen calls attention to corporate sanctioned sweat shops, abused and underpaid store employees, and the cradle-to-grave brainwashing of American consumers by the advertising media-to anyone who will listen. His favorite targets include Disney (Rev. Billy considers Mickey Mouse “the Antichrist”), Starbucks and Wal-Mart.

In 2005, Talen and his troupe left their New York City home base to embark on a nationwide bus tour to spread the good word: “Stop shopping!” VanAlkemade and his film crew tagged along, as they executed their blend of street theater and social activism. The traveling church members stake out malls and retail chain stores, treating unsuspecting shoppers to impromptu sermons and Weird Al-style rewording of well-known hymns and Christmas carols. They also rent local public halls, where they stage “church services” and “revivals”. In one particularly inspired  church service, Rev. Billy exhorts attendees to come forward and have their credit cards exorcised; he collapses on cue for his  grand finale.

As the group treks across the fruited plains, they make stops at the likes of the behemoth Mall of America . We watch the performers repeat the same drill several times: Billy, armed with a megaphone and backed by his singing, hand-clapping choir members, plants himself squarely in center court and proceeds to call for an immediate cessation to mindless spending. Groups of shoppers, at first a little puzzled, eventually begin to gather, some clapping along and getting into the spirit of the performance, others watching but still blinking uncomprehendingly. By the time a crowd gathers, the ubiquitous teams of beer-gutted, walkie-talkie wielding mall security personnel converge to unceremoniously escort the group from the premises. The audience disperses, chuckling and shaking their heads on their way to the Orange Julius.

The final whistle stop is Anaheim, where the reverend and his flock descend on Disneyland. Just before he is (inevitably) escorted out by the Disney brown shirts (seriously-they are disturbingly fascistic in dress and demeanor), Billy delivers the best line in the film through his megaphone: “People! Main Street, U.S.A. is made in China!”

Mission accomplished? Hardly, but you do find yourself admiring Talen’s conviction and dedication to his activist principles, despite the fact that his message is apparently falling on deaf ears. When he is filmed making a purchase, it’s at an independently-owned, small town clothing store where he first checks labels to make sure his new sweater is “Made in the U.S.A.” You get a vibe that it isn’t a grandstanding gesture for the cameras, but a sincere effort on Talen’s part to literally practice what he preaches.

To my observation, Talen is the heir apparent to a style of guerrilla theater popularized by the likes of the San Francisco Mime Troupe and the Diggers in the 1960s, with a pinch of Abbie Hoffman. One scene in particular, where Billy and his flock perform an “exorcism” on a Wal-Mart store, reminded me of Hoffman’s crowning moment of political theater in 1967, when he joined forces with Allen Ginsberg and thousands of anti-war protesters in an attempt to “levitate” the Pentagon.

The film’s “Stop the presses! Christmas is crassly commercial!” revelation is as hoary as Miracle on 34th Street or A Charlie Brown Christmas. Also, there have already been several documentaries produced that frankly do a much better job covering the “corporate exploitation of workers” angle (Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price and The Big One come to mind).  That said, I still admire Talen’s adherence to his “mission”, and it’s refreshing to see a Christmas holiday-themed film that might actually make people snap out of their Return of the Living Dead mall stupor. One immediate epiphany as I walked out of the theater: for two hours (counting previews) I didn’t charge one thing to my credit card. And that’s a good thing.