Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Capitalism: A Love Story

Tonight I saw the latest Michael Moore documentary Capitalism: A Love Story.

The man is nothing if not entertaining.

True to form, the film is laced with "stunts" that are almost funnier in the trailer (trying to make a citizen's arrest on the execs on Wall Street; arriving in an armored truck at banks to take America's money back). What's better are his sincere interviews with experts in the economic field and stories of individuals who were affected by the collapse.

One family had their farm house mortgage go from a manageable $1700 to an impossible $2700 per month, and surrendered the home to foreclosure. Aside from losing their physical living space, they were sacrificing some of their history, said the wife, who had the farm in her family for decades. She is seen fiercely chopping flowers from a bush in her yard to perhaps preserve something of the original land as the eviction staff simultaneously collects house keys from her husband. They were paid a whopping $1000 to prepare the property for the next owners.

Another family, with a Mom and Dad who worked for Wal-Mart, were shocked to find that Wal-Mart collected the life insurance money when Mom passed away suddenly from a severe asthma problem. Though Dad had over $100,000 in medical bills to pay after her death, and a $6,000 funeral, Wal-Mart offered nothing to help with the expenses. And he'd been a loyal employee of theirs most of his adult life who still had three kids to support.

Perhaps the most unsettling stories were those of our commercial airline pilots—some who are forced to collect food stamps because their pay is so low ($17,000 was one quoted salary). Others take on second jobs, which obviously could exhaust them physically and hinder their ability to do their day job, which is keeping us flying customers in the air. How can we pay fast food managers more than we pay our skilled pilots?

Moore blames capitalism for all of these woes, but I have to disagree and blame it on corporate greed (and yes, there is a difference).

He shows an example of a completely productive co-op bread-making company in California, where the assembly line workers make the same salaries (an impressive $65,000) as the CEO. Granted, the model is very socialist in its principles, but at the end of the day, they are functioning as tax-paying capitalists. The more bread they sell, the higher their paychecks.

I see nothing wrong with that. In fact, if there was a branch of the bread-baking company in Seattle, I'd probably apply to be a baker. Or a packager. Or any other job where I could punch in, do my thing in a pleasant environment and go home without worry of being laid off or the need to take on freelance writing gigs to fund my rare vacations. The argument is in a backward way in favor of capitalism: make a good product, create demand for it and reap the benefits.

At the heart of the economic collapse in our country was greed. Greed mixed with big government mixed with deregulation.

I wanted to stand up and cheer when I learned our President recently supported a group of workers in Chicago that refused to leave the plant they were fired from without sufficient severance packages. They went about their protest in a peaceful way and got exactly what they demanded from the notorious Bank of America. Kudos to them, and kudos to President Obama for sticking to his principles despite election contributions he received from the bankers in question. I'm happy his values can't be bought, and I'm happy I voted for him.

America is finally moving in the right direction by putting votes toward those who inspire real change (kudos to the female rep. from Ohio who is featured fighting for what's right), and for that I can say Moore's unpopular film tactics still serve a purpose.

Though I don't agree that capitalism is inherently evil, or that it can't work, I do support his motivation to bring power to the people.

If we don't act on these human injustices, who will?


Sunday, October 18, 2009

Where the Wild Things Are

This morning I saw Where the Wild Things Are, starring Max Records and the voice of James Gandolfini.

Based on the classic children's book of the same name, I was apprehensive when I heard it was going to be turned into a live-action film—the movie is never as good as the book, and how dare Director Spike Jonze risk tarnishing one of my beloved childhood reads?

I went back and forth with those thoughts after I saw the nearly universal praise showered upon the film by many notable critics who I faithfully trust. There must be something magical about it, I assumed. They must see the spirit of the text come to life in a way they never imagined.

So I decided to give it a go and spent the majority of the film feeling guilty for getting bored and looking at my watch.

But first, the positive stuff: Max Records, a first-time actor who plays Max, absolutely embodies the essence of the child in the book. He's smart, vulnerable, sweet and angry, just as he should be. The beginning of the film is also strong—Catherine Keener as Max's mom is convincing as a haggard single parent trying to navigate a difficult job and balance raising two children on her own. We see no evidence of Dad, but realize how uncomfortable Max is when Mom has a date over for dinner. So far, so good.

The transition from Max's bedroom (where he's sent without dinner, just like the book) to the place Where the Wild Things Are is more elaborate than it needs to be and will probably scare the bejesus out of children under the age of 10 or so, but he gets there. At night. Via some terrifying (yet beautiful in the daytime) beach on the Australian coast.

Instead of "staring into their yellow eyes without blinking once" to become the Wild Things' king, he simply tells them he's their king, and they curiously accept that.

"They" are a dysfunctional family of beings that look identical to the drawings in Sendak's book, but sound like a collection of dumbed-down Hollywood actors...er...because that's where their voices come from.

And therein lies the largest problem I had with the movie: the all-too-recognizable voices.

I'm sorry, but James Gandolfini will always be Tony Soprano. And Lauren Ambrose will always be Claire from Six Feet Under. Those two especially, have such distinct speaking patterns it's hard not to picture the physical human while you're watching the mechanical animal. It's the first thing that removes you from your childhood impressions of the story.

The second is the assignment of personalities to each "thing." There's the Big Mean Man (Carol) who's driven away the Strong Independent Woman (KW), the Fighting Couple (Ira and Judith), the Outcasts (Terry and Bob), and so forth. By personifying them with stereotypical human behaviors, the splendor of the unknown is removed, leaving little hope for magic to appear.

Legend has it Maurice Sendak fashioned the "Things" after his extended family. If that's true, he was smart not to name them specifically or box them into any traits. Ambiguity is a good thing.

Another annoyance is the blatant way in which allegory is presented again and again. When Max arrives, the Things want him to "take away the sadness." A few days later, they want to build a utopia (but not allow everyone to sleep in the pile).

Such obvious lessons are fine for a children's film, but the way it's shot and shown makes it feel like it's for us adults. And if that's the case, the result is somewhat melancholy, as we know the idealism most of us have in youth fades considerably the older we get.

Jonze should be commended for the visual beauty of this film, and for discovering a great young actor who undoubtedly has a fine career ahead of him.

But the story for me shall remain where it belongs—in the pages of my well-worn copy of the book.


Friday, October 16, 2009

The Invention of Lying

Tonight I saw The Invention of Lying, starring Ricky Gervais and Jennifer Garner.

The alternate reality in which Mark (Gervais) and Anna (Garner) live in doesn't allow for lying. Actually, the citizens don't always just tell the truth—they say everything that comes to mind, even if it may be hurtful to the other person. It is a filter-free society, which makes folks like Mark miserable.

In the span of a few days, Mark loses his job, gets evicted from his apartment and has a disappointing date with Anna, whom he adores. As he goes to the bank to withdraw his last $300, the bank's computer system crashes and they can't check his balance. He knows he only has $300, but it's $800 he needs to pay his rent, so he says $800. And because everyone tells the truth, the teller has no reason to disbelieve him. She hands over his $800 and he's on his way.

He's invented lying.

He doesn't quite understand this gift, but when he tries it out on a few of his buddies (telling them he's a black Eskimo named Doug) and it works, he decides to use it to improve his life.

Soon he has enough money to stay in his apartment and take Anna on a second date, to a nicer restaurant. Things go well on that second date until Anna again confesses she can't be romantically involved with him because he's not a desirable genetic match for her (though he makes her laugh and makes her happy). During the date, his mother falls ill and the couple rush to her side in the hospital. On her deathbed, Mark realizes she's terrified of dying so he invents a story about a paradise afterlife to comfort her. Hospital officials overhear the fib and take it for gospel, alerting the news media to his wisdom, which prompts a mob of sorts to camp outside his residence.

He's not only invented lying, he's invented religion. And this is where the movie becomes preachy in the opposite way that films typically do.

Soon he's proclaiming edicts that sound dangerously like commandments (yes, there's ten) from a Pizza Hut box where he's scribbled them under the pressure of the crowd. Did I mention he's a screenwriter too?

The impromptu way Mark creates the rules of society is meant to highlight the absurdity of Biblical texts, which of course were recorded by men. God becomes "Man in the Sky" and houses resembling churches emerge to give folks a "quiet place to think about the Man in the Sky."

It all amounts to a great big wink in the direction of atheists who may be cheering, and an unflattering mirror to those devout.

I appreciated the clever dialog, the many cameos (Rob Lowe, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Tina Fey), the performances by the two leads and the sweetness of their courting, but it all could have moved a bit faster.

At the heart of the story is heart—the message being that we should not live our lives simply to please our families or friends, or conform to society's expectations, even if our brains tell us that is right.

We should follow the instinct that lies deep within us to be good people and seek out someone who fulfills our every dream no matter what sort of package they arrive in.

I wish the film had focused more on that.


Thursday, October 15, 2009

The September Issue

Tonight I saw The September Issue, a documentary that follows famed Vogue editor Anna Wintour in the months leading up to—well—a September issue.

The year is 2007. The financial bubble has yet to burst and excess is exactly what the magazine is going for as they try to break their record for the most pages (they did, with over 800).

Designers, stylists, photographers, models, a celebrity (Sienna Miller, the cover subject) and even the poor documentarian making this film are scrutinized, degraded and scoffed at throughout by the Queen Bee of Fashion. For such a petite lady, she does pack quite a punch.

As the most prominent designers from the biggest fashion houses in the world show their newest lines to her, she looks bored. She tells one he doesn't have enough color and another that there isn't any "evening" in his set.

Little do they know, right?

Having worked in the fashion industry for eight years, none of what happened on screen was the least bit shocking to me, but it did serve as a reminder of what a negative business 'pretty clothing' really is.

What's most interesting in the film is the dynamic between Wintour and legendary stylist Grace Coddington (who has been at the magazine just as long, and began her career as a model). They snip and snark at each other both privately and publicly, then reluctantly administer mutual praise as if they know they should. Both ladies are forces to be reckoned with, and one gets the sense that the combination of their personalities and tastes may be what makes the end product work.

As far as documentaries go, I would register it on the weak side. The director didn't ever bring Anna out of her comfort zone, so we don't see anything that we don't expect to see. Really, the most revealing thing we learn is that Anna has an incredibly pleasant daughter who seems to want nothing to do with the fashion industry.

The conversation about Anna's siblings thinking her profession was trite could've made for wonderful cinema. But all we got was a soundbite.


Wednesday, October 14, 2009


Tonight I screened Precious, starring Gabourey Sidibe and Mo' Nique.

Clareece (Sidibe) is a 16-year-old student living in Harlem who is known as "Precious" to her family and teachers.

She does well in school though she can't read or write, and comes home every night to cook and take care of her physically and verbally abusive mother Mary (Mo'Nique), who is a welfare recipient that likes to watch game shows.

Clareece's principal expels her when she learns she is pregnant with her second child and arranges for her to enroll at a nearby alternative school. What the school administration doesn't realize is that the child, like Clareece's toddler-age daughter, is the product of rape. By her father.

Precious is overweight, illiterate, poor and ridiculed, but something about her spirit enables her to seek a better future for herself. Despite the protest of her mother (who feels she should also go on welfare), she applies herself at the alternative school, learning to read and write. Her teacher takes a special interest in her and builds the first healthy relationship she's probably ever had.

A counselor (played by a surprisingly good Mariah Carey) is also assigned to her, and the truth about her family life begins to unfold, which serves as a healing force in the progress of Precious.

Soon she's made friends at school, given birth to a baby in a hospital and vows to make a better life for herself and her son.

Then life interferes and throws another enormous trauma her way.

At this point in the film, after watching a slew of amazing performances, I wondered how much more the writer could put on the actors. If Precious were a real human being, there is very little chance she could've survived everything she was forced to endure without losing her mind.

But the sad thing is, there are a lot of Precious teens out there. Probably many who have suffered similar grievances and come out of it bearing only hidden scars.

The film does a good job of getting to the core of each of our main characters and also making them real enough to worry about. Truly, it felt more like a call to action than a means of entertainment.

But sometimes, that's okay.


Sunday, October 11, 2009

Paranormal Activity

Today I saw Paranormal Activity, starring Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat.

It is not often that a film with long periods of nothing can keep me gripping my theater seat, shifting and fidgeting with anxiousness throughout, but this one did.

Katie and Micah are a twentysomething couple who live together in a house that appears too fancy to belong to a graduate student and a day trader, but horror films demand a greater suspension of disbelief, so I'll see past that detail.

They seem like a happy enough couple—she comfortably roams the house in skimpy tank tops and unflattering boxer shorts; he's on the obnoxious side, but clearly in love with her.

When we join their life in progress, Micah is trying out his new video camera by filming Katie in everyday situations (studying, pouring wine, etc.) and attempting to catch 'evidence' of whatever paranormal force seems to be disturbing her at night.

The shaky camera work isn't as nauseating as that of The Blair Witch Project, but it does serve as a constant reminder that the production quality isn't going to get any better.

Said camera is soon anchored on a tripod facing their bed each night to be left on as they sleep, and us audience members are granted the privilege of seeing things happen as the footage is captured.

First, the only indication of unrest is the quiet, kooky music. Whenever the time on the video clock advances to the place where we're supposed to pay attention, the score creeps into the background. It's an obvious technique, but in a charmingly low-budget way, it works.

Next are the slamming doors, Katie's mysterious sleepwalking, hints about her imperfect childhood, and the frustration that builds from Micah's resistance to call the demonologist (recommended by a ghostbuster) for help. We want him to quit being such a dork and we want her to do what she needs to do on her own if he's not on board.

Instead, he plays with a Ouija board and makes things worse.

Without giving anything away, that's the beginning of the end, which is unfortunately much weaker than the story's build-up.

That said, for only four people appearing on-screen and only one set utilized in the entire film, the writer did mount a healthy dose of suspense and old-fashioned jumpy payoffs. It's just a shame the big finale didn't deliver.