Posts Tagged ‘michael moore’

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Really, on paper,  the whole thing ought to be a slam dunk : the trial of the so-called “West Memphis Three” is prime material for either a gripping, emotionally impacting human drama or a nail-biting courtroom procedural, take your pick. Add in the talents of director extraordinaire (well, okay, Chloe sucked, but we’ll give him a pass on that) Atom Egoyan, probably the best known of the former “Toronto New Wave” filmmakers (no offense to Bruce McDonald or Don McKellar, who also continue to do stellar work), who has shown a deft hand in dealing with material centered on the aftermath of tragedy in the past (most notably in Exotica and The Sweet Hereafter, the latter of which earned him a well-deserved Oscar nomiation), and you’d seem to be in very good hands, indeed. The screenplay is co-authored by up-and-coming horror maestro Scott Derickson (director of SinisterThe Exorcism Of Emily RoseThe Day The Earth Stood Still remake, and the forthcoming Deliver Us From Evil and Doctor Strange) and his frequent collaborator, Paul Harris Boardman, so you can’t go wrong there, either, right?

Then we’ve got the stellar cast : Colin Firth as lead defense investigator Ron Lax, Reese Witherspoon as grieving mother Pam Hobbs, Dane DeHaan as suspect-for-a-second Christopher Morgan, James Hamrick as supposed “Satanic cult ringleader/child killer” Damien Echols, and supporting turns from the likes of Mireile Enos, Bruce Greenwood, Elias Koteas, Kevin Durand, and Alessandro Nivola. And they all turn in, to a person, strong performances, as do Kristopher Higgins and Seth Meriwether as the other two accused “killers.” Seriously, this is an all-star production from top to bottom.

So why does 2013’s Devil’s Knot leave me feeling so flat, and why didn’t it even manage to score a domestic theatrical release ( fair warning, I caught it on Netflix instant streaming, so no DVD or Blu-Ray specs information will be included in this review)? It’s a fair question, with an unfair answer : pretty much for reasons entirely beyond its control.

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First off, for those of you who don’t know, here are the particulars of the case upon which this film is based : in 1993, the bodies of three young children — Stevie Branch, Christopher Byers, and Michael Moore — were found in a wooded area known as “Devil’s Knot” (hence the film’s title) behind a typically slow-burn soul-eating suburban subdivision known as Robin Hood Hills in West Memphis, Arkansas. Despite having several leads to pursue in the case (including two of the kids’ stepfathers), the cops more or less immediately circled in on local “bad boy”/junior misanthrope Damien Echols and two of his friends, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley,Jr. Their “evidence”? The fabricated-from-wholecloth testimony of a kid who wasn’t even there (and whose mother bargained for her son to give a statement in exchange for having credit card-fraud charges against her dismissed) and a coerced “confession” (later recanted) from Misskelley, who is mentally retarded. Oh, and the fact that Echols like to dress in black, listen to heavy metal music (of the entirely mainstream variety — we’re talking Metallica and Slayer here, not Burzum or Emperor) and read books by Aleister Crowley. He supposedly had at least a passing interest in Satanism, as well (who wouldn’t, growing up in a dysfunctional family that lived in a run-down trailer court? Spend some time in one of those places and you’ll realize how lucky we are that they haven’t produced a veritable legion of either serial killers, revolutionaries, or both).  Apparently, in the buckle of the Bible belt, that’s more than enough by way of “proof.”

The prosecution was hopelessly fucked, of course, but it worked anyway — Baldwin and Misskelley were given life sentences and Echols was scheduled to be executed. But then things took a turn : an HBO documentary film titled Paradise Lost showed the glaring holes in the prosecution’s case and its lack of anything even remotely resembling evidence to tie the three then-teenagers to the crime. Appeal after appeal was filed as high-profile supporters with deep pockets kept the wheels of justice turning (slowly). Two sequels to the original documentary followed, keeping the case in the public eye. New evidence with the potential to implicate others came to light. And a lot of volunteers never quit fighting.

Eventually, after 18 years in prison. Echols, Baldwin, and Misskelley were all able to arrange a very rare — but perfectly legal — Alford plea, the terms of which dictated that they remained listed as convicted felons but admitted no guilt for the crime they’d been accused and convicted of. Today, they’re all free men. Hail Satan, right?

Here’s the rub, though, when it comes to this film : unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know all this shit already. Besides the three aforementioned Paradise Lost flicks, there’s also been another documentary, West Of Memphis, that covers pretty much the same ground. They’re all good movies. And so is this, on both an artistic and technical level. But it doesn’t add anything new to what’s already known, and maybe that’s just because it can’t.

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All of which puts Egoyan, his fine screenwriters, and his fine cast in a tough spot : getting blood from a rock. Water from a dry well. A charitable donation from a cheapskate. An ounce of sense from a Tea Party member. It just ain’t possible. I give the folks involved in Devil’s Knot all the credit in the world for trying — they never stoop to Lifetime movie-of-the-week melodrama and consistently handle this touchy subject matter with the respect and care it deserves. This is a quality piece of work. But it’s also a complete re-hash, and by its very nature can do nothing but give short shrift to a story that’s been covered in much greater detail elsewhere. You honestly have to wonder, when watching Devil’s Knot, why they even made the thing in the first place.

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Which, mind you, is not the same thing as me saying they shouldn’t have made it. There’s seriously nothing wrong with this flick.  But there’s no real point to it, either, unless you’re completely unaware of the four other films that preceded it, in which case I guess this would serve as a very good “primer” on the case. Beyond that, though, well — there’s just nothing new under the sun, is there?

I opened this review by saying that Devi’s Knot looks like a “can’t-miss” deal on paper, But in reality it’s a” can’t-win” situation any way you slice it.

"Capitalism : A Love Story" Movie Poster

"Capitalism : A Love Story" Movie Poster

You might think that with a purported “progressive” in the Oval Office and both houses of Congress firmly under Democratic control, Michael Moore wouldn’t have too much to bitch about these days.

But you’d be wrong. And thank goodness for that. Because in the current political atmosphere when liberal and otherwise left-leaning voters might be tempted to assume that everything’s okay and that now’s the time to rest on their laurels and enjoy the fruits of their “victory,” Moore’s message is actually more relevant than ever, and his latest film “Capitalism : A Love Story” shows that he’s not about to sit back and give the Democrats a free pass. He’s doing exactly what everyone else should be doing, namely holding these people’s feet to the fire, and he hasn’t mellowed one bit. In fact, he’s chosen now to unleash his most uncompromising, well-realized, and comprehensive assault on the robber barons of the late 20th/early 21st century and their paid henchmen in the political and media classes. The result is a polemic (sorry, TFG doesn’t really consider Moore a documentarian in the strictest sense and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that) that’s energetic, focused, and mad as hell with a smile on its face. Moore is the happy warrior of the working class and “Capitalism : A Love Story” is his magnum opus, the natural culmination of everything he’s been working towards all these years crystallized into one seamlessly flowing, easily-communicable message : capitalism sucks, it has nothing to do with democracy (or even the US Constitution), we’ve all been played for suckers, our country has literally been swindled out from underneath us, and it’s well past time that we fought back.

And you know what? He’s absolutely right. I may disagree with many aspects of Moore’s proposed solutions, but in terms of identifying the problem he’s spot-on. Runaway Wall Street greed has resulted in a pronounced and rapid deterioration in the quality of life of average Americans, and the honest working man and woman have been left in the dust as the already-filthy rich have fattened their coffers way beyond the dreams of avarice.

Michael Moore doing what he does best

Michael Moore doing what he does best

Moore starts out his latest offering by showing us the human toll that the recent foreclosure mess has taken on people before segueing into his by-now-typical paean to life in the 1950s America he grew up in where one income was more than enough to buy a house outright, send your kids to modest private or parochial school, pay for their college when the time came, take a nice little vacation every year, and have enough left over to enjoy one’s golden years in relative comfort.

Then we go back to the modern day, and learn that pilots are only making $19,000 a year, the unions that once helped fight for our customary way of life have been decimated, whole cities lay in ruin due to factory closings, and Wall Street tycoons are laughing all the way to the bank (that they own) as their complex derivative games turn the stock market into a giant casino that the taxpayers they’ve spent the last few decades ripping off cover the losses for in the form of all these insane “bailouts” that have been rammed down our collective throat in the last year or so.

Nobody comes away from Moore’s equal-opportunity assault clean, with prominent Democrats like Chris Dodd exposed as charlatans and stooges for the predatory capitalist class every bit as much as Republicans. Coming in for special criticism is Donald Regan, secretary of the treasury and later chief of staff for Ronald Reagan (the footage where  Regan, the former CEO of Merrill Lynch,  tells his supposed boss to “speed it up” without even adding the customary “Mr. President” to the end of the command as Reagan is addressing the crowd on the Wall Street trading floor is priceless and lays bare in the most stark terms possible who’s really giving the orders in Washington these days) who slashed taxes for the wealthy while slashing regulations on the financial sector, Robert Rubin, Clinton’s former treasury secretary who deregulated the industry even further before going on to make $115,000,000 running Citibank, and Hank Paulsen, former Goldman Sachs CEO and Bush treasury secretary who arranged the current “bailout” fiasco.

Not getting in the door, as usual

Not getting in the door, as usual

Yes, there are a few honest folks in Washington who do their part in laying the scam bare and sticking up for the interests of ordinary working folks in the face of teh Wall Street juggernaut. Representative Marcy Kaptur of Ohio, in particular, would probably be elected President if everyone saw this film. But they’re few and far between and Moore makes it clear that if we want to end this cycle of legalized theft, we need to do it ourselves.

To that end, the final third of the movie is actually a somewhat uncharacteristically optimistic portrayal of some positives that have taken place in recent months : a high-tech robotic equipment company and a bread-baking corporation that are run in truly democratic fashion where the workers all have an equal voice in how the company is run and all take home an absolutely equal share of the profits are both making money hand over fist. A group of concerned neighborhood activists in Miami banded together to prevent a family from being foreclosed on and refused to move for days, causing such a stink that the bank eventually walked away in shame. The sherriff in Wayne County, Michigan, where Detroit rests, has refused to serve any more foreclosure notices. Workers at a door and window company in Chicago locked themselves into their factory when they received three days’ notice that they were all being fired without pay, and after a six-day sit-in they all received $6,000 severance packages.

Sure, along the way Moore serves as our guide as usual and gets up to his usual antics of trying to get into various corporate headquarters and being refused entrance (the scenes where he’s driving an armored car around Wall Street and backing up to places like Goldman Sachs and Citibank and asking for our money back are classic Moore — when no one budges he tries to get inside to make a citizen’s arrest of their boards of directors with equally predictable results), but these antics come pretty late in the game, and rather than making himself the star of the film as has been a frequent and entirely justified criticism of his previous work, in “Capitalism : A Love Story” Moore does a much better job of letting the ordinary folks involved in his portrayal of contemporary America and their stories serve as the real centerpiece of the film. He’s more a tour guide than he is a protagonist, and the movie is all the stronger for his decision to take more of a back seat to his subject matter.

How about some of that bailout money back?

How about some of that bailout money back?

The usual redundant criticism from the usual corners will certainly all be heard in the days to come — that Moore has gotten rich himself by criticizing the wealthy, that his films are one-sided, that he’s out to push an agenda, that he’s a shill for the Democratic Party. The last is refuted pretty easily throughout the course of the film (he’s even notably ambivalent about Obama, excited by the prospect that his historic election represents while fully cognizant of the fact that his largest comparing contributors were all Wall Street giants—he seems to take the pragmatic and understandable view that Obama may want to do the right thing, but that if we don’t demand it, he’ll opt for the politically easy route of pleasing the folks who paid for his ticket to the top instead), and the rest just plain don’t matter, pure and simple. If folks on the other side of these issues want to present their side of the story, they have the entire media apparatus and most of the government in their pockets and are free to do so. In fact, they do 24 hours a day , seven days a week, in what is laughably called “news” programming.

Simply put, Moore is not merely giving us one side of the story. He’s giving us the other side of the story, the one we know to be true from our daily lives but never see reported by the networks.  And he succeeds where so many other left-leaning journalists fail by actually employing a technique that the right uses very well : placing things not in cold logic and concrete numbers but in real, human, emotional terms. He speaks to the head only after he’s proven what the heart already knows to be true. It’s not about the facts and figures with Moore, in the end it’s about the people. This movie plays at the heartstrings, sure, but in the present political climate of town halls and tea parties, it’s refreshing to see purely emotional politics put in service to issues that speak to the better angels of our nature (and yes, I hate that term, too) rather than baseless, irrational, divisive fears.

Mr. Moore goes to Washington

Mr. Moore goes to Washington

As for the most lame-brained fall-back argument his critics employ against him, “If he hates America so much, why doesn’t he just leave it?, ” Moore delivers a poignantly simple rebuke at the end that is the film’s best line and maybe the best line you’ll hear in any movie this year : “I refuse to live in a country like this anymore. And I’m not going anywhere.” After over two hours of succinct and harrowing accounting of our present crisis laid out in terms anyone can understand and far too many people can relate to, it’s enough to make you want to pump your fist in the air. And then roll up your sleeves and get to work.

Given that’s exactly the reaction Moore wants, it’s only fair to conclude that “Capitalism : A Love Story” is an unqualified success —  his best and most accomplished work and a movie no one should miss.  We already know that, given the nature of our highly divided Union these days, Moore will essentially be preaching to the converted with this film and those who would benefit the most from hearing his message will be nowhere in the audience. Our task, then, is to convince others of the truth in what Moore is saying in our daily lives, to take his message to unfamiliar quarters and present it in a way they can relate to without feeling alienated and/or somehow threatened by “socialism” (a position Moore never actually advocates, instead stressing that democracy—real democracy—is the best antidote to capitalism). It’s a daunting task, to be sure, but it’s one we have to undertake if we want to bring about change we really can believe in.

Next time out, we’ll return to our little halloween countdown, but for now, we all need to get off our butts, get out and see this movie, and then get down to business.