Joe's Movie Reviews

Friday, October 23, 2009

Capitalism: A Love Story

I'd imagine that very nearly everyone has already decided what to think about this movie just because it's made by Michael Moore. Either it's an evil, communist conspiracy designed to tear down everything that's great about this country, or else it's perfect and utterly beyond any kind of criticism. I'll try to approach it as just another movie and hope that readers will take it on the same terms, whatever their politics may be. I suppose my own politics will inevitably show through... it's in the nature of any review of a film like this, I suppose... but this is going to be a movie review, not a political rant.

In this movie, Moore takes as his subject something that he's addressed briefly in some of his other movies, particularly his first, "Roger And Me"... the capitalist system by which the country is run, what it used to be at one time and what it has since become, and what might possibly be done to set the country back on course to being what it used to be. Obviously, it's a topic that stirs up extremely fierce debate. Let's try to not tear each other's throats out about it and attempt to discuss it without too much violence.

Among the most common criticism of Moore is that he doesn't present any other point of view in his films but his own. This is something I've never worried about: Moore is making the movie equivalent of newspaper or TV editorials, the whole POINT of which is to present the maker's personal opinions. Do Rush Limbaugh or Bill O'Reilly give the other point of view? For that matter, did Ben Stein give a liberal point of view in that Moore-like documentary he starred in about a year ago? And on the liberal side, Al Gore didn't exactly give non-global-warming advocates equal time in "An Inconvenient Truth". I also approach a Moore movie perfectly willing to accept his assurances that he loves his country and BECAUSE of that wants to see it become the best it can be. To be frank, it's actually inspiring at times to see how dedicated he is to that cause.

There can hardly be any dispute, whatever you think of his arguments, that Moore knows how to make a politically oriented documentary very entertaining. The opening sequence of an old movie about the Roman Empire accompanied by a narrator describing the things that brought it to collapse, accompanied by lightning-quick clips of contemporary American life with very direct parallels to the narration is both hysterically funny and somewhat frightening. The clip from "Jesus Of Nazareth" with dubbed dialogue from Christ in which, for example, he refuses to heal a man, saying "I cannot be responsible for his pre-existing condition", gets across Moore's point about what Christ would REALLY have thought about the state of health care and the economy today more memorably that any talking head. And the George W. Bush speach about the soundness of our economy featuring background animation of the building he's speaking in collapsing around him while people run by screaming and on fire... a real stitch.

But Moore has a serious message to impart, and it's not all jokes. We see clear examples of how benevolent the capitalist system used to be in the thirties through the fifties, even into the sixties... providing good jobs at fair wages, paid vacations and safe working conditions, never (well, hardly ever) taking unfair advantage of the poor. A system truly deserving of being called the best in the world. But even though Moore has often been accused of fudging the facts in his documentaries by choosing to present the facts only in ways that bolster his arguments, it cannot be disputed that, for instance, the major Wall Street wizard he interviews really DID say that "Capitalism is more important than democracy". And the sheriff evicting families really DID remark about groups attempting to re-occupy foreclosed properties "If people are living in these houses, people who want to purchase them won't have any place to live". Companies with names like Mortgage Vulture really DO take pride in how many people they can put out of their homes without caring about whether they have any place to go. And most frigtheningly, companies really DO take out "Dead Peasant" insurance policies (that's really what they're called) on their employees, so that when an employee dies, the company can benefit to the tune of millions of dollars while their family struggles to make ends meet. As Moore remarks, "There's a REASON I can't, or shouldn't, take out a policy against your home burning down, because that gives me a vested interest in your home burning down". If even HALF of what Moore is telling us is true... and I find it diffifult to believe it isn't more than that... then something is definitely wrong and needs to be fixed.

And Moore absolutely DOES believe that's possible. In spite of the amazing number of people I've heard commenting about the gloom & doom of the movie's conclusion, it is in fact inspirational. We see employee-owned-and-operated companies providing their staff with full benefits while actually making a decent profit (for those who think Moore is completely against the idea of profit). We see people using the power of the vote to change their situation (and are reminded that the richest 1% still only has 1% of the vote, while the rest of us have the other 99). We see large groups of citizens who have decided they've had enough of greed dominating the course of the country and decided to do something about it. And for folks who are convinced that Moore is a depraved socialist who thinks every single rich person is the devil, we even see level-headed, sensible quotes from people like Warren Buffet ("It's class warfare, and my class it winning... but it shouldn't be."

"Capitalism: A Love Story" IS a story about love: a man who loves his country, and is afraid of the direction he sees it going in. But a man who has NOT given up on the possibility of it being able to be repaired. He closes the film with "I refuse to live in a nation like this... and I'm not moving." If you think there's nothing that NEEDS to be fixed, that statement will probably upset you. But if you believe in America and want to see it live up to all of its potential, then you can only hope that the arguments Moore makes in this film will be heard across party and liberal/conservative lines (I should point out that Democrats take it on the chin in this movie as much as Republicans), and as a result we will be able to change, if not the world, then our own little portion of it.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Ong-Bak 2: The Beginning

About 4 1/2 years ago, in the spring of 2005, one of the movies you simply couldn't escape hearing about on the internet was a Thai import called "Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior". The star (and director, co-writer, and practically everything else), Tony Jaa, was hailed as the next coming of Bruce Lee, and the film was supposed to be the start of a legend. As impressive a fighter as he was (and he most definitely was impressive), I found Jaa's film to be a bit lacking in a number of key areas. I thought that if he matured as a film maker he could really be something. (He's made a few films in the intervening years, but most of them haven't had much in the way of distribution in the U.S.). Now, we have what isn't exactly a sequel... or even a prequel, really (as such)... but close enough. And while Jaa isn't a world-class film maker yet, he's clearly made some promising steps in that direction.

The first "Ong-Bak" was a modern-day film, and when I heard that this one was set several hundred years in the past, I assumed it must be about an ancestor of Ong-Bak. Well, it sort of is (you'll have to see the movie to understand that "sort of"). Our hero is named Tien (played again by Jaa), introduced to us as a young boy of perhaps ten years old, trapped in the middle of a war in which an invading army is taking over his country and facing little if any obstruction from the official government. His family killed by the invading forces, Tien finds a new home with a band of outlaws who have been extremely impressed by his fighting prowess and offer to train him in weapons and martial arts. Taking up the offer, Tien grows to be a fierce, fighting leader determined to liberate his people.

Some necessary caveats: I totally understand and sympathize with people who have a low tolerance for violence... for the most part, unless it's really essential to the film, I'm not a real lover of violence either (he says, the day before he plans to see "Inglorious Basterds"). But let's face it, this is a martial arts movie, and really gentle souls should probably stay away. Also, genuine Asian martial arts films often have elements and plot twists that you would never in your life see in a similar American release, and which American audience might find difficult to handle. And this is a very genuine Asian film (complete with English subtitles). Just to let you know.

That established, I want to make it clear that Jaa has become an absolute master of martial arts, and the rather thin story and characterization in the first "Ong-Bak" have deepened: you really get to know who Tien and the other characters are. And Tien is not just a fighting machine: you get to know him as a basically gentle man, who loves his country and only wants to live there in peace with his family, and takes up fighting only to set things right (in this respect as well, he truly is the heir of Bruce Lee). When fighting isn't needed, he's more than willing to do things in a peaceful way, and a number of times demonstrates his deep sense of mercy. You don't often get characters this well-rounded in an action movie.

Okay, I've managed to write four paragraphs without going into detail about the action scenes, so here's what you've probably been waiting for: they're spectacular. How many times have you seen the old cliche of one man fighting a army of opponents who do him the courtesy of lining up to take him on one at a time? Not in "Ong-Bak II", where you often see Tien taking on four, five or more opponents at once. You even see him battling one opponent behind him with kicks from his LEFT foot while taking care of another foe in front of him with his RIGHT foot (leaving his arms free, of course, to take on enemies on both sides). And none of those fake Hollywood digital effects, either: what you see Jaa do, he's really doing. Even the stuff that seems to be humanly impossible. Small details are not ignored in the fight scenes, either, as in a shot where an enemy approaches Tien to begin a duel and as Tien approaches him with absolute Zen-like calm, the camera zooms in on a single bead of sweat rolling down his enemy's face (letting you know that he realizes full well what he's facing).

Now, I'm not saying that Tony Jaa is Zhang Yimou or Wong Kar-Wai (or even Jackie Chan as a film maker) quite yet. There are continuity errors, a character or two who suddenly acts in a way contradictory to how they've acted up to that point (because the script demands it), and some scenes that made me go "Hey, wait a minute... why did he do that when it would have made more sense for him to do that other thing?" But ultimately, when a film provides this much action and excitement, filmed as lavishly as this one (it must have had a large budget) and keeps you shaking your head in amazement thinking you couldn't have possibly seen the hero do what you thought he did, you're probably willing to let some things slide. Jaa is clearly getting better as a director (among MOST of his other many tasks on this film: it's hard to imagine him improving as a martial artist), and I'm sure later films will reflect this. In the meantime, he's given us a pretty amazing slice of action in "Ong-Bak II: The Beginning".

By the way, given the setting several hundred years in the past, you don't really need to have seen "Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior" in order to understand this movie. However, having seen it might make a few particular lines in the film's voiceover narration clearer to you, and give you a much different idea about how this movie actually turns out than audience members who haven't. In fact, I suspect some newcomers to Tony Jaa's movies might be rather confused, while those who've seen the first Ong-Bak will be going "Ahh, so THAT's the explanation!" (I wish I could be more explicit without giving away too much.) So it couldn't HURT to watch the first "Ong-Bak" before seeing this one, if you haven't already. It's not on the same level of quality, but Jaa is still an amazing fighter to watch. So why not?