‘Where to Invade Next’ Proves the American Dream is Still a Reality, Just Not in America

Where to Invade Next poster

With his documentary “Where to Invade Next,” Michael Moore comes into it looking more run down than usual. It’s been a few years since “Capitalism: A Love Story” in which he railed against the economic order of America and the consequences of runaway greed, and since then he has weathered through numerous events including a divorce and a bout with pneumonia. However, he still has enough energy to continue his fight to make America a better place.

“Where to Invade Next” starts off with a brief history of America and the countries it has invaded, and it also makes clear how World War II was the last big war America ever won. Since then, America has been engaged in highly unpopular conflicts in Iraq and Vietnam, and it has suffered greatly in the wake of 2008 economic crash. In an effort to find ways to make America better, Moore decides to playfully invade other countries to steal their good ideas and bring them back stateside to be put to good use.

As always, Moore gives us a very entertaining time filled with unforgettable moments and laughs designed to stick in your throat when you realize how workers in other countries have it better than Americans. He interviews an Italian couple who describe in detail how they get eight weeks of paid vacation time, and they look utterly shocked when he tells them Americans only get two. There is a scene where he sits with a group of French children at lunch and sees how they are eating very healthy meals of the high-end restaurant quality, and none of them drink Coca-Cola. When those same kids look at the school lunches Americans have, they understandably recoil in disgust.

Yes, Moore is cherry picking facts here and all these countries seem to look rosier than they probably do outside of this documentary, but he admits early on he is there to “pick the flowers, not the weeds.” He’s not here to give us an in-depth overview of the places he visits, but instead to show how other countries treat their people and workers as compared to how they are treated in America. One country does not charge college students tuition, so the term “student debt,” a huge problem in America, has no real meaning. Another country offers its citizens a yearlong maternity leave as they feel the bond between a parent and their child must be formed as soon as possible. A lot of these ideas are frowned upon in the United States, and the documentary leaves you wondering why this is the case.

In some ways “Where to Invade Next” covers the same ground as “Sicko” as Moore talks with Americans who have since moved to other countries where they discover more opportunities than they ever had back home, and he talks with people of other cultures who react with horror as to how America handles education, health care and workers’ rights. It gets a little old after a while as he’s treading through familiar territory, but you have to applaud those educators who say America should do away with standardized testing.

The documentary does have one pivotal moment, however, when Moore visits Norway and talks with a father whose son was murdered. The man who committed the crime is about to be sentenced, but the father doesn’t wish him dead or yearn for revenge. His reasoning is it will not make his or anybody else’s life any better and will just crush his spirit. Now there are many people in America who think like this, but the whole “eye for an eye” saying in the Bible seems to be more preferable to the most vocal of its citizens.

Many prefer to label Moore as being “anti-American” among other things, but he’s still living in America and looking for ways to improve life for its inhabitants whether they are immigrants or natural-born citizens. Why doesn’t he just move to another country if he finds so many others to be better, you ask? Because he loves America and continues to speak out against those who greedily take away from the middle and lower classes just because they can.

Seriously, who in America thinks two weeks of vacation time is more than enough? There are many who work 40 hours a week and yet still live in poverty. Despite the advances of the Affordable Care Act, many in America cannot afford health insurance. Those who lost their jobs and savings have ended up taking jobs offering no benefits of any kind because they have little choice. If none of this bothers you, then you need to take a much more observant look of the country you live in. Many say America is still the greatest country in the world, but there’s more than enough evidence to suggest it is not even close.

More importantly, “Where to Invade Next” shows Moore at his most hopeful. He doesn’t have an axe to grind this time around and does not lash at anyone in particular. Considering how he comes to use the words of our last few Presidents against them, this never comes across as a liberal or a conservative documentary. This is one any audience can and should be able to appreciate even though it will mainly appeal to his base and not those outside of it.

But what’s especially invigorating about “Where to Invade Next” is it shows the American dream is still alive and well. Looking closely at other countries, Moore shows how their ideas have been shaped by ones which originated in America. Now if we could only make that dream a reality again in America, things would be much better.

“Where to Invade Next” may not be one of Moore’s best documentaries, but it is still very entertaining and will have you laughing as well as informed about the world around you. Moore does look beaten down after all these years, but he’s still there fighting for his home country and looking for ways to make it great again, unlike the current resident in the White House.

For those who still think this Oscar-winning filmmaker doth protest too much and should shut up, keep in mind this following quote from Oliver Stone’s “Born on the Fourth of July:”

“People say that if you don’t love America, then get the hell out. Well, I love America.”

* * * ½ out of * * * *

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‘The Ghost Writer’ Shows Roman Polanski Has Not Lost His Touch as a Filmmaker

The Ghost Writer movie poster

The act of ghost writing a book for a celebrity, be it a memoir or perhaps a children’s book, seems like a cheat. Granted, there are a lot of celebrities out there who do in fact write their own books, sometimes with the help of another, and good for them. But you can’t convince me O.J. Simpson wrote that book which contained his supposed confession of the double murder he committed back in 1994 that claimed his ex-wife Nicole and Ron Goldman. By now, we should know Simpson is going to be the last one to admit to any wrongdoing, and the idea behind it was pathetic to say the least. Still, there was a nice sum of money involved in this particular ghost-written book, and Simpson was struggling financially.

What really has me wondering about this whole process itself is who the ghost writer is, and of how they about seeing their work being credited to another who didn’t write it. On one hand, you avoid a lot of the hoopla and screaming fans who worship the work to an unhealthy extent, but the benefits you get out of it are depressingly minimal it seems. You are basically an anonymous person in a sea of people who get far more attention than they deserve, and this makes you easily expendable as a result.

Now I’m not mistaking “The Ghost Writer” as the definitive example of what a writer like this goes through, but the feeling of replacing someone or fearing you will be easily replaced cannot leave one in a state of supreme confidence. But what the movie version of Robert Harris’ book shows is how it can make for a really good mystery thriller.

“The Ghost Writer” is the film Roman Polanski made while he was “wanted and desired,” and it’s the same one he managed to finish post-production on while under house arrest. The writer of the movie’s title is played by Ewan McGregor, and to add to some vivid illustration to the title, we never learn his character’s real name throughout the entire running time.  Anyway, he gets a very lucrative job offer from a publishing firm CEO, played by James Belushi of all people, to ghost write the memoirs of the former British Prime Minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan). It turns out that McGregor’s predecessor on this project died in an apparent suicide, and his body was found washed up on the beach.

Once hired, McGregor is taking to Lang’s oceanfront house on Martha’s Vineyard, an island off the coast of New England. Of course, this was actually filmed in Germany as Polanski could not step on American soil without getting arrested. Upon looking over the manuscript from the deceased writer, and in his talks with Lang, McGregor comes to discover this ex-Prime Minister may have been involved in handing over suspected terrorists in Britain to the CIA for torture. The closer he gets to the truth, the more he fears he will end up like his predecessor.

After all these years, Polanski still knows how to make an excellent thriller, and he manages to maintain a strong level of suspense and intensity over the movie’s two hour plus running time. Throughout “The Ghost Writer” he is extra careful not to reveal too much of what’s going on, and it leaves us guessing as to what the truth really is. Like McGregor, we are left to sift through the clues left behind and figure out how they all add up.

McGregor doesn’t play any writer here, but instead one eager to get at the truth which is just within their grasp, and that’s even if they know they will not like what they see. McGregor gives a really strong performance here as the ghost writer, and Polanski succeeds in putting us in his shoes to where we feel as lost as him as he gets deeper into uncovering long kept secrets. During a chase scene, we are in the actor’s mindset, and even we can’t figure where to go or who to trust.

Also great in “The Ghost Writer” is Brosnan who plays an ex-Prime Minister who bares a not so subtle resemblance to Tony Blair. This gives the former James Bond actor the continued opportunity to shed his 007 image as Adam Lang in a way he must have been eager to do. Behind this image, we see on the television screen a man stuck in a moral contradiction he will never be able to escape. Flanked by his wife, a team of advisors, and besieged by a plethora of angry protestors out for his blood, Brosnan gives us a character you almost have to admire in how he manages to keep many things to himself despite an unrelenting pressure to reveal stuff he’d rather not reveal.

Olivia Williams is also terrific as Lang’s wife, Ruth, and she herself is a complex study in emotions. In the face of her advisors, Ruth has a tough façade which screams out “don’t bullshit me” whenever possible. But when Ruth is alone with the ghost writer, she lets this mask down to reveal someone who feels hopelessly trapped in a situation she has no real control over. She was probably promised something much different in life, something more positive, but she now looks back on it all as one big lie. Taking her character through different levels of emotion is fascinating to watch, and Williams holds our attention completely whenever she is onscreen.

I also loved seeing Kim Cattrall here as well, and her British accent was absolutely flawless. As Amelia, Lang’s personal assistant and mistress, she manages to keep the coolest face despite escalating controversies which threaten to define this ex-Prime Minister as a deceptive war criminal. Her strictness of directions can be seen through her sexy smile, and she holds her own against Lang’s wife with aplomb. There is an innate sexiness to Cattrall’s performance in how she goes about her days not losing a beat, and it is enthralling to see what she pulls off here.

There are also a number of familiar faces to be found in “The Ghost Writer.” You also have Timothy Hutton who plays Lang’s American lawyer Sidney Kroll, Tom Wilkinson who portrays Harvard law professor Paul Emmett, and even Eli Wallach shows up in a memorable cameo. In some cases, their appearances could have really taken us out of the movie, but none of them are able to hide the fact the real star of “The Ghost Writer” is Polanski.

Ironically, Polanski is in a good position with “The Ghost Writer” as the shadow of his most famous movies like “Chinatown” and “Rosemary’s Baby” are not hanging over this one. Throughout the years, he was trapped by his earlier work which he received so much critical acclaim for, and it affected his later movies like “Bitter Moon” and “The Ninth Gate” to name a few. But every so often he gives us a motion picture to remind us of how he has never lost his unique talent for filmmaking.

We see so many directors drop the ball in terms of maintaining suspense, but Polanski has not lost a beat, and this film sees him hitting his stride again. Many will say “The Ghost Writer” is the kind of movie which doesn’t get made anymore, but Polanski calls Hollywood’s bluff on that to where this is one which cannot be missed.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Das Boot

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With it out on Blu-ray, viewers can once again see that “Das Boot” is still the greatest submarine movie ever made. Other underwater sea adventures like “Run Silent, Run Deep,” “Crimson Tide,” and “The Hunt for Red October” may come close, but none of them can capture or match its power in unbearable claustrophobic tension. It remains Wolfgang Petersen’s crowning achievement as a director, and it has lost none of its power in sucking us into the inescapable terror people face in the deep dark sea.

“Das Boot” takes place in World War II as Commander Willenbrock leads a group of boys to sea on a U-Boat, the German version of a submarine, and covers the tedium of life at sea when no battles are fought. You feel the sweat and body odor of the crew quite vividly to where you will want to take a cold shower afterward. But it’s when they face off against destroyer ships when the intensity really goes into serious high gear.

Petersen does a brilliant job of conveying the terror and claustrophobic nature everyone on the U-Boat is forced to endure. You are right there with the crew and experiencing their frenzied emotions as the destroyers sail over them dropping depth charges which threaten to sink their boat in a heartbeat. The “ping” noises make the suspenseful tension even worse as the position of the submarine becomes easier to determine, and this becomes a film you experience far more than watch.

The director also does a really good job of getting viewers to know various crew members and the important roles they have on the ship. There is Chief Engineer Fritz Grade (the wonderful Klaus Wennemann) who finds looking at pictures of his wife too painful. Then there’s Chief Mechanic Johann (Erwin Leder) who is in love with his engines the same way Scotty loved the Enterprise in “Star Trek.” And there is also Senior Cadet Ullmann (Martin May) who is constantly worried about his fiancée who is French and pregnant. The more viewers know about the crew, the more emotionally drawn they are to their predicament.

There may some people who object to seeing “Das Boot” on the grounds the crew members were Nazis. Truth be told, not all of them are big fans of Adolf Hitler, and they are never seen wearing a Nazi insignia on their uniforms while at sea. But regardless of this, take away the politics of what’s going on and you will realize just how universal this movie is in what it portrays. Had it been the “good guys” instead, they would have endured the same crippling terror and fatigue so this crew could have been of any nationality.

It is also a powerful anti-war movie as well in showing not just the horrors and destruction of war, but also of the victories which become empty ones when soldiers see what is left behind. This is especially the case in one scene when the crew members are on the surface and surveying a freighter they successfully destroyed. They revel in their victory, but then they see survivors jumping off the ship into the ocean. They swim to the submarine pleading for help, but while the German crew members want to assist them, the Captain concedes there is no room for them onboard, and they are left to drown. It’s an emotionally devastating moment which captures the senselessness and the price of war.

“Das Boot” is based on the novel by Lothar-Günther Buchheim which was inspired by his own wartime experiences as a war correspondent onboard submarines. The character most resembling him here is Lieutenant Werner, and he is our guide through the chaos as his lack of experience aboard a submarine mirrors our own. What he discovers about life at sea, viewers discover along with him. Playing him is German singer Herbert Grönemeyer, and he does great work in conveying his naivety while covering the goings on of a German crew.

The best performance, however, comes from the great Jürgen Prochnow who plays Commander Willenbrock, the hardened sea veteran who looks like he’s seen everything war has to offer. The other officers freak out easily during an attack, but he keeps his cool because he needs everyone to do their jobs. It’s when he starts losing it, however, when things get really bad, and then the audience has a reason to freak out. Prochnow creates a multi-dimensional character which feels very much lived in, and he gives the Commander a subtle vulnerability which looks and feels effortless.

Petersen has been known best for making movies about people who are stuck in small places where there’s not much room to hide. He enthralled us when the American President’s plane was hijacked in “Air Force One,” he had Clint Eastwood chasing after John Malkovich during “In the Line of Fire,” and he has George Clooney and company trapped in the rocky sea in “The Perfect Storm.” “Das Boot” is where it all started for him, and it is a seriously intense and emotionally exhausting experience which thrills and terrifies you in equal measure. The accuracy to detail is never in doubt, and the audience will come up gasping for air once the credits roll.

There may be another submarine movie or two coming to movie theaters in the future, but after watching “Das Boot,” you can bet they won’t come close to topping it. Movies don’t get much more thrilling than this one, and it is a must see for those who are fans of Petersen’s work or war movies in general. It is also more preferable to some of the director’s more recent work like “Poseidon” and “Troy.”

* * * * out of * * * *

Note: There are currently many different versions of “Das Boot” available. The original theatrical cut lasts about two and a half hours. The director’s cut of it added an hour of footage which gave more depth to each character. And before it made its way onto Blu-ray, there was the uncut miniseries version which runs for almost five hours. You may want to start off with the director’s cut and then move on to the miniseries which perfectly captures the infinite tedium of the crew that feels endless.

Toni Erdmann

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It’s hard to tell you how to go into “Toni Erdmann” as it works as both a comedy and a drama. Some moments are truly hysterical while others are deeply moving as German filmmaker Maren Ade draws us into a story which takes us in completely unexpected directions. These days, only a foreign film can get away with what “Toni Erdmann” does here as it balances out both its hilarious and moving scenes for a nearly 3-hour running time. Yes, it’s that long, but don’t let this and subtitles give you a reason not to sit through it because you will be missing out.

We meet Winfried Conradi (Peter Simonischek), a music teacher who thrives on playing pranks and practical jokes on unsuspecting victims with tremendous glee. Winifred is eager to reconnect with his daughter, Ines (Sandra Hüller), who is currently working in Bucharest, Romania as a business consultant in the oil industry. Ines is hopelessly addicted to her phone, as many of us are from one nation to the next, and she barely has any time at all to spend with her family as she is constantly called away to work. Following a sudden death, Winfried impulsively travels to Romania to spend time with Ines, but his unexpected visit cannot compete with her seemingly ambitious climb up the corporate ladder. Winfried at one point asks Ines what she enjoys most out of life, and she finds she cannot really answer the question as the term enjoyment is impossible for her to honestly define. These days, with everyone struggling to make a living, it’s very hard not to relate to how she feels.

After feeling quite alienated, Winfried decides to leave Romania and let Ines go about her hectic life. A few days later, however, Winfried reappears as Toni Erdmann, his alter-ego who presents himself as a life coach and consultant to Ines and her friends, and it doesn’t take long for him to draw a crowd with his effortless charisma. Ines is at first horrified by what her father has pulled off as she feels her career might be put in jeopardy as a result, but she eventually finds herself playing along as it gives her life a levity which constantly eludes it.

Watching “Toni Erdmann,” I kept thinking how a Hollywood studio would try to dumb down the material and force the director to cut the movie down to 90 minutes so they could maximize the number of screenings which can be shown in a day. I imagine producers were trying to do the same to Ade, but she apparently said deleting scenes would have hurt the movie’s pacing. Keep in mind, she spent over a year editing the movie and even gave birth to her second child in the process, so you cannot say she didn’t put a lot of thought into what she was doing here. The end result is a final cut which doesn’t have a single wasted shot in it as we watch Winfried and Ines struggle with this crazy thing called life.

Both Simonischek and Hüller are exemplary in portraying characters who could have been played far too broadly in any other movie, and the actors fully invest in the emotional natures of Winfried/Toni and Ines to where we are completely caught up in what’s going on in their minds. Just when you think each actor has given their best moment onscreen here, they come up with another one which has you in awe as well as in hysterics in regards to what they succeed in pulling off.

Winfried could have been a completely obnoxious and annoying father like many are in movies these days, but Simonischek makes him a wonderful presence even when Winfried, in his alter-ego of Toni, threatens to overstay his welcome. When he reveals who he really is to another person and why he is putting on such a disguise, it is a wonderfully moving moment as he is not greeted with disdain but instead with understanding and empathy. I imagine most parents are desperate to keep a strong connection with their children after they move away from home, so it shouldn’t be a big surprise when some resort to desperate measures.

Hüller gives us a character ever so serious in advancing her career in a male-dominated business, but she’s also not afraid of showing the bruises in Ines’ armor which come up when her world becomes too much to deal with emotionally. She also brilliantly takes her character in directions you couldn’t possibly anticipate, and this results in a musical scene and a birthday party, both of which need to be seen to be believed. She fearlessly dives into those moments with sheer enthusiasm as she soon finds herself battling against a lifestyle which has become far too suffocating to deal with.

“Toni Erdmann” is in many ways a comedy, but the comedy doesn’t just come out of its hysterical moments. It also comes out of the painful and awkward ones as humor at times becomes the only way to deal with the emotional hurdles life constantly throws in our direction. There is a seriousness to the subject matter as well as life and death are dealt with in equal measure. Taking this into account, it’s best to go in with an open mind as expectations will threaten your cinematic experience rather than inform it. What you can expect are a number of surprises you could never have expected, if that makes any sense.

Every once in a while, we need a movie which reminds us of the importance of living in the here and now as life becomes far too hectic for us to realize it. “Toni Erdmann” never tries to shameless manipulate its audience into feeling anything as we come to fully sympathize with Winfried and Ines to where we do see the importance of stopping to smell the flowers more often. Winfried’s last scene with Ines drives this point through as they come to realize how quickly time passes everyone by to where it is very hard to slow down for just a second. Please don’t try to convince me you don’t relate to this in the slightest.

I am still thinking about that last scene long after the movie ended, and of how Hollywood would never have let Ade get away with a nearly 3-hour running time. I’m convinced they would rather rush to get to the “live in the moment” scene in a mere 90 minutes because more screenings in a day means more money. Sometimes it is worth it to take the time to tell a really good story.

* * * * out of * * * *