Capitalism: A Love Story | Brothers | The Box | Did You Hear About the Morgans?

Cinema reviews for Feb. 4
Capitalism: A Love Story

Written and directed by Michael Moore. With Thora Birch, William Black, Jimmy Carter, Congressman Elijah Cummings, Baron Hill, Marcy Kaptur, John McCain, Michael Moore, Sarah Palin, Ronald Reagan, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Wallace Shawn, Elizabeth Warren.

Michael Moore´s Capitalism: A Love Story fits right in with the rest of director´s work, almost too snugly; he covers a lot of the same ground here as he has in other, better films, and his filmmaking is at its most scattershot and lazy. Yet I begrudgingly give it a pass because I agree with most all of what is said here (politics aside) and it´s neatly packaged, ultra-relevant infotainment that Moore can deliver to the masses like few documentarians before him.

So I recommend the film, but not before you see these ones: Roger & Me, Moore´s first, and Bowling for Columbine, his best; and these two that cover the same ground as Capitalism in much better detail: Mark Achbar and Jennifer Abbott’s massively enlightening The Corporation, and Chris Smith´s Collapse, which plainly describes the current state of the global economy and lays out Michael Ruppert´s harrowing, apocalyptic view of the future (hint: start stockpiling those seeds).

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But back to Capitalism: Moore is always at his best when contrasting the plight of the working man against the spoils of big business, and he´s got plenty of material in this economic climate. We meet: Peter Zalewski of Condo Vultures, a firm that delivers recently-foreclosed homes to bottom feeders looking to make a quick buck; the employees of Republic Windows & Doors in Chicago, who were fired and unpaid when their company decided union workers were too expensive; Captain “Sully” Sullenberger, the hero of Flight 1549, and other pilots whose pay have been drastically reduced (one takes a second job waitressing); and PA Child Care, a juvenile correction facility that bribed judges to send them kids, netting them millions in tax dollars.

The most harrowing, perhaps, are the life insurance policies corporations take out on their employees, like the one that nets Walmart $81,000 when one of their former cake decorators passes away, while the family is left with mounds of debt under medical bills. Or Amegy Bank, who made $1.5 million when Irma Johnson´s husband died of cancer. The corporations have a name for these policies: Dead Peasant Insurance.

With decidedly less success, Moore also delves into politics and economics, Wall Street and Washington. There are all the usual suspects: Chris Dodd, Henry Paulson, Reagan, Bush, AIG, Goldman Sachs, and the infamous secret CitiBank memo. The director doesn´t bring much new to the table here, and he won´t be winning any converts during these segments.

Moore is also known for his gimmicky stunts, which make a brief appearance as he wraps crime scene tape around Wall Street institutions, tries to make a citizen´s arrest at AIG headquarters, and tries to get into the GM building, just like he did 20 years ago in Roger & Me. Nothing nearly as memorable as what he´s done before.

Moore is always attacked as a left-wing propagandist, but his political status rarely overtly rears its face in his feature films (save for the wisely aborted Captain Mike Across America); that´s unfortunately not the case in Capitalism, and towards the end we´re treated to a lovey-dovey Obama montage that threatens to sink the whole movie. 

Luckily, Moore pulls out his best material to save it: footage of Franklin Delano Roosevelt delivering a piece of his State of the Union address months before his death. In it, he calls for a Second Bill of Rights that would guarantee Americans the rights to a decent life: a job, a home, an education, health care. 65 years later, and Americans are still waiting for these rights. Incredibly, this footage – thought to be lost – was unseen for those 65 years until Moore apparently re-discovered it.

This scene alone holds a kind of power that makes Capitalism worth seeing. It might otherwise be a documentary praised more for its intent than actual craft, but you´ll leave it feeling something.




Directed by Jim Sheridan. Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Natalie Portman, Tobey Maguire, Clifton Collins Jr., Bailee Madison, Sam Shepard, Mare Winningham, Taylor Geare, Patrick Flueger, Jenny Wade, Carey Mulligan, Omid Abtahi, Navid Negahban, Ethan Suplee, Arron Shiver, Ray Prewitt. Written by David Benioff, from the 2004 film Brřdre written by Susanne Bier and Anders Thomas Jensen.

I only question the purpose of Jim Sheridan´s Brothers. It´s a finely made film, raw and real, well-directed with some intense performances. It´s also a remake of Susanne Bier´s 2004 Danish film by the same name, and has no real distinction other than being in English, with more familiar (to American audiences, anyway) actors.

We´ve been down this road before. Usually the foreign-language film is little-seen arthouse fare, and the Hollywood-ized remake is more of a mass-appeal project. This typically involves some script changes, and I can even think of a couple remakes (Christopher Nolan´s Insomnia, Gore Verbinski´s The Ring) that I liked better than the foreign-language originals.

But this Brothers is virtually the same movie it was in 2004, and it will appeal to precisely the same audience.

Marine Captain Sam Cahill (Tobey Maguire) ships off to Afghanistan, leaving his wife Grace (Natalie Portman) and two daughters at home. His brother Tommy (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a perpetual screwup just released from prison. Father Hank (Sam Shepard) is proud of Sam and disappointed in Tommy, and lets him feel it.

Bad news comes: Sam´s helicopter was shot down, and he was killed in action. Hank to Tommy: “Why couldn´t it have been you?” Tommy to his father: “I´d slit my throat if it would bring him back.” Grace tries to get through it with her children. Tommy soon inserts himself into their lives, playing with the kids, fixing up the kitchen with his old friends. Maybe he´s not such a screwup after all.

And Sam isn´t really dead. He managed to save himself and Private Joe Willis (Patrick Flueger) from the wreckage, but they´re soon taken prisoner by insurgents. Terrible things will happen to them. These scenes are contrasted with the grieving process back home, and how Tommy fills Sam´s shoes with his wife and girls.

There are two plot developments I have a little trouble with, moreso here than in the original film. The first is that Sam is declared dead; it´s happened before, but it´s still a stretch that the army would do so, especially so soon, without a body. Neither film (perhaps wisely) really gets into the rationale behind this decision. The second is the act that Sam is forced to commit; I´m just not so sure I believe his character would do it.

The acting here – one of the few differences between the two films – is really terrific. Maguire, specifically, reaches into some painful depths in an impressive performance. Smaller roles are also well-cast, and Carey Mulligan has an excellent scene as Willis´ wife. The acting and technical craft here is arguably better than the original.

Bier´s film, however – influenced by the Dogme ´95 movement – was gritty and natural and the emotion felt more real. It may be close, but it´s unquestionably a better film. Unless you just want to admire the filmmaking involved here, there´s little reason to see Sheridan´s movie if you´ve seen Bier´s original, and no reason to see it instead.



The Box

Directed by Richard Kelly. Starring Cameron Diaz, James Marsden, Frank Langella, James Rebhorn, Holmes Osborne, Sam Oz Stone, Gillian Jacobs, Celia Weston, Deborah Rush, Lisa K. Wyatt, Mark S. Cartier, Kevin Robertson, Michele Durrett, Ian Kahn, John Magaro, Ryan Woodle, Basil Hoffman. Written by Richard Kelly, from the short story “Button, Button” by Richard Matheson.


After the widely panned Southland Tales (which still had its moments), The Box marks director Richard Kelly´s return to Donnie Darko territory. The results are decidedly mixed. It´s both obvious and infuriatingly obtuse: a Richard Matheson short story (“Button, Button”, which was previously made into one of the better episodes of the 80s Twilight Zone rehash) padded out with of Kelly´s extravagant indulgences. The two simply don´t mix, and the result can be summed up in one word: unsatisfying.

But Kelly is an excellent director, and he just may fool you into thinking otherwise. The problem is he´s not as good a writer, and you´ll either figure it all out and discover the wizard behind the curtain, or you´ll get lost along the way and feel angry about being jerked around. There´s a thin line – one that David Lynch walks so well – between keeping us in the dark and still attracted to the material. Kelly simultaneously provides too much and too little information.

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In the middle of the night, a mysterious package is dropped off at the door of Arthur (James Marsden) and Norma Lewis (Cameron Diaz). Inside the package there´s a box, and inside the box there´s a button. The next day, Arlington Steward (Frank Langella) – a burn victim with a portion of his face missing – shows up while Arthur is away.

He presents Norma with a key to the box, which will unlock the top and allow the button to be pressed. If the button is pressed, Arlington tells her, two things will happen. One: someone, somewhere, who they don´t know, will die. Two: they´ll be given a million dollars, “tax free” (a quote from the original story that indicates Arlington is working for the government; here, it doesn´t make much sense). Talk it over with your husband, he tells her, and he´ll be back tomorrow to retrieve the box.

This is the basic premise of the film, and it´s a pretty good one. Would you press the button? I think most would: not because they want someone to die, or they believe that would happen, or they really think they´ll get the money. It boils down to human curiosity. Given a button and no indication of what would happen if we pressed it, we´d probably press it; if we knew something bad would happen, we probably wouldn´t. A mysterious man with vague instructions would heighten our curiosity. In The Box, the question should be: how much do we trust this Arlington guy?

But that isn´t really the question at all. No, Kelly dives for deeper pretensions than what existed in Matheson´s script, and he doesn´t have a grasp on his own internal logic to back those up. By the end, the original story has played itself out, and while we ‘get it´, it doesn´t make much sense this time around. The original ends with one of those great Twilight Zone lines that can send shivers down your spine; here, it´s used as a throwaway line halfway through, and then literalized to the point of meaninglessness throughout the rest of the film.

But, ah, you´re thinking, that Twilight Zone episode was only 20 minutes long, what has been added to the script for this 2-hour movie? Answer: indulgence after indulgence.

Norma´s foot was left under an x-ray machine when she was younger; now she´s missing her toes and walks with a limp. Arthur works for NASA. So did Arlington Steward, until he was struck by lightning and declared dead. People around the Lewises start to act strangely, and noses begin to bleed. A woman is murdered, her husband goes missing. The weird water portals in Kelly´s previous films make an appearance.

You might think this all leads to something; it doesn´t, not really, it only pretends to. The only thing left in the movie is Matheson´s 20-minute TV script, made nonsensical with all the distractions. But Kelly manages to keep our interest anyway, for a good deal longer than he should have.



Did You Hear About the Morgans?

Written and directed by Marc Lawrence. Starring Hugh Grant, Sarah Jessica Parker, Natalia Klimas, Vincenzo Amato, Jesse Liebman, Elisabeth Moss, Michael Kelly, Seth Gilliam, Sándor Técsy, Kevin Brown, Steven Boyer, Sharon Wilkins, Sam Elliott, Mary Steenburgen, Kim Shaw, David Call, Dana Ivey, Wilford Brimley.

In case you haven´t heard about the Morgans, let me fill you in: this is an objectionably awful romantic comedy. Director Marc Lawrence is something of a rom-com auteur, receiving sole writing credit on this and his other two films, the decent-enough genre efforts Music and Lyrics and Two Weeks Notice. But his stock has really sunk with Did You Hear About the Morgans?, one of the very worst films of 2009.

Hugh Grant and Sarah Jessica Parker star as Paul and Meryl Morgan, a recently-separated New York couple. Paul wants to get back together. Meryl is willing to listen to him. Their assistants (Elizabeth Moss and Jesse Liebman) arrange a dinner for the two in the middle of their busy schedules. It doesn´t seem to be going so well, but the persistent Paul walks with Meryl to her next appointment anyway.

Only problem: Meryl´s next appointment drops dead from a second-story window. The couple get a good look at the killer, a hitman who conveniently pokes his head out the window before he takes off. The U.S. Marshals notify Paul and Meryl that this was a mafia hit, and that they´ll be coming after Paul and Meryl next because they witnessed the crime. They provide them with protection at their separate locations, but the same hitman comes back anyway for Meryl. Then the Marshals recommend the witness relocation program.

The Morgans isn´t horrible up to this point, but the premise makes not a lick of sense. Why doesn´t the damn hitman just go into hiding? End of movie. This was a mafia hit, and Paul and Meryl cannot connect the hitman to the mafia, they can only give the police a description of the hitman. Which they have likely already done. There is no reason for him to go back after them, it will only result in the likelihood of being caught. He goes away, he and his employers get away with murder.

Of course, the hitman goes after them anyway, even after they join the relocation program, it´s the only way for this idiocy to resolve itself. So Paul and Meryl get relocated to small town Wyoming, and this is when the movie really begins to go rotten.

Yes, it´s your standard-order fish-out-of-water comedy, with the busybody New York City folk thrown in with the good ol´ rural America boys. The movie is on autopilot for the remainder, and boredom soon sets in. But that doesn´t mean the movie can´t still insult our intelligence at every illogical-yet-predicable-because-we´ve-seen-this-movie-hundreds-of-times-before plot development, and offend both big city and small town folk equally. Comedy? You´ll get more laughs out of Deliverance.

Sam Elliott and Mary Steenburgen play the rugged law enforcement couple that take the Morgans in. There´s bear spray, misused by the Morgans. And a bear. Gun shootin´. Horse ridin´. Gruff old cigar chompin´ Wilford Brimley. The town nurse who doubles as the town waitress. There´s a hoe-down AND a rodeo. DVDs from Clint Eastwood AND John Wayne (scenes from The Searchers and Dirty Harry are the only fleeting moments of entertainment here). And overgrown bushy mustaches, big belt buckles, and cowboys hats, dear lord, the cowboy hats.

Would you believe that by the end of the film they use the old horse costume gag (Parker is the front, and Grant is the ass) and it isn´t meant to be ironic? No cliché is left unturned.


Also opening: Pouta (showtimes | IMDb), a drama from director Radim Špaček starring Lukáš Latinák, Luboš Veselý, Iva Pazderková, Ivana Uhlířová, and Kristína Farkašová. Screening in Czech.

And: an English-language, 3D copy of Avatar has finally made it to Prague screens. Catch it at Palace Cinemas Slovanský dům through next week, with one screening daily at 17:20.

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