Michael Moore and Pixar are both in the spotlight of this week’s DVD releases, along with one of the most underrated movies of the 1980’s, and yet another example of a director passing on his talent to his offspring.
As everyone else has mentioned, Moore’s Sicko goes after a system almost everyone agrees is broken, and that’s our healthcare system. It’s not just the 50 million who don't have insurance who are screwed, Moore argues, but also most of the 250 million who do. As someone who has had many unwanted bills because of my health problems (ulcer, shoulder pain), I certainly feel the sadness and outrage Moore wants us to feel when he shows stories of people who have run aground of health care in this country (although he does allow for some gallows humor in the tale of a man who was only able to get treatment for his deaf daughter by dropping Moore’s name). It’s not just the big sob stories, like the woman whose baby died because her insurance policy wouldn’t cover her at the closest hospital to her, or the former health care worker who remorsefully tells of the claims she had to deny simply because it was better business. It’s also the simple tales of the couple who had to move into their daughter’s house because they couldn’t afford their medical bills anymore, or the janitor well past the retirement age who must work just to get insurance. And though his approach is somewhat simplistic (HMO’s may have started under Nixon, but our fear of “socialized” medicine came long before that, as did big business controlling government), he does a good job outlining what’s wrong here and why.
The problem, as always, is when Moore looks to other countries as an example of what the U.S. should be doing. It’s certainly true Britain, Canada and France, three of the leading Western nations, have universal health care and, for the most part, are better off for it. And Moore includes parts of an interview with Tony Benn, a retired British MP, of how universal health care is essential to a democracy. But Moore’s utopian view of health care in these countries doesn’t entirely wash. Again, having lived in Canada for 11 years, I was diagnosed with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) without being examined. At least when the doctors here said I had an ulcer, they had examined me thoroughly. Also, he fails to mention in Britain how the Conservative government under Margaret Thatcher actually tried to roll back universal health care, until Tony Blair partially restored it. And then there’ his notorious Cuba trip, where he takes injured 9/11 rescue workers (not insured because they were volunteers) to Guantanamo Bay to get the same treatment as political prisoners. Moore finds the Cuban doctors are more than happy to treat them, and it never seems to occur to him how they might be staging this for his benefit (and while Moore is right to say the U.S. has overblown Cuba as a menace, he fails to mention how many people they’ve jailed for being gay or for speaking out against the government). Once again, Moore’s message is perfectly sound, but his methods often aren’t.
Those methods are the subject of Rick Caine and Debbie Melnyk’s documentary Manufacturing Dissent. Unlike such hateful works as Fahrenhype 9/11 and Michael Moore Hates America, which come from the “Love it or leave it” school of political debate, this comes from filmmakers who agree with much of what Moore says (Melnyk especially is moved by Moore’s denouncing of the media’s behavior towards the administration after 9/11) but not how he says it. As the film follows Moore on his tour promoting his film Fahrenheit 9/11, the filmmakers cover his career before his breakout hit Roger & Me, such as his brief turn as an editor at Mother Jones (he said he was dismissed because of a dispute over a story, while his colleagues insist he wasn’t that good), and examine his career, mainly that movie and Bowling for Columbine, questioning not only the veracity of his information (including the oft-repeated charge that Moore actually did interview Roger Smith for his film, but chose not to include it), but also, again, his methods (John Pierson, who produced Roger & Me, talks about how appalled he was at Moore’s interview with an obviously senile Charlton Heston at the end of Bowling for Columbine). They also include debate, on both sides, on how much good Moore’s films have actually done (for every one who thinks Moore has been a much-needed shot in the arm for the left, there are those like Errol Morris, who think Moore merely preaches to the choir). Finally, they examine what Moore has done with his celebrity, and his stands outside of his films (going from being an enthusiastic Nader supporter in 2000 to being totally against him in 2004. As Nader pointed out, what hurt is not that Moore campaigned for Kerry – as many people did, he thought Kerry had a legitimate chance of being Bush and voted accordingly – but that he repudiated Nader so thoroughly).
Like its subject, Manufacturing Dissent has both its good and bad points. On the good side, Caine and Melnyk give room to those who also praise Moore as well as damn him (or, in the case of Pierson, do both), and while they show those who think Moore is a traitor for speaking his mind, they clearly don’t have sympathy for that point of view. And much of what they target Moore for is troubling (although I’m surprised at one thing they don’t target; they bring up the cartoon Moore showed in Bowling for Columbine, but not that he implied it was done by South Park cartoonists Trey Parker and Matt Stone, since it came right after interviewing Stone. The pair retaliated by making him a villain in their movie Team America: World Police). On the other hand, often they get bogged down in nitpicking, and seem to forget every documentary film edits out something that doesn’t fit their story, even cinema verite. And often, the film seems scattershot, as if it needed Moore to come in and tighten it up a bit.
Although I do not consider Pixar the masterpiece factory many critics do, it’s undeniable their films are normally head and shoulders above most of the stuff that passes for movies made for kids (except for the merely okay Monsters Inc.). I even liked Cars more than most people did. And while Brad Bird’s Ratatouille didn’t knock me out of the park like it did many critics, it’s still an impressive piece of work. Of course, I’m one of those people who think Bird’s first film, Iron Giant, is his best film, so any film he does after that has a tough act to follow. Also, while the idea of a rat being a gourmet, let alone advising a garbage boy how to be one, is novel, a movie set in the kitchen of a restaurant isn’t really (especially when the garbage boy falls for the cook who supervises him). And the plot turns do become a bit predictable towards the end. But all of that seems like niggling next to the animation, which becomes better and more vivid with each Pixar film. Also, as in his last film, The Incredibles, Bird is celebrating talent over mediocrity, and backs it up with talent of is own, which we should all appreciate (and not-so-slyly bites the hand feeding him; it’s said one of the points of contention between Pixar and Disney is how Disney made direct-to-DVD sequels to their classic animated films, thus cheapening the originals. So in this movie, a chef wants to make fast food ripoffs of a classic restaurant.). Finally, the voice cast does terrific work here. I don’t know Patton Oswalt’s work (except as the voice of Captain Dementor on the animated show Kim Possible), but he’s quite good as Remy, that gourmet rat, even if he does sound a lot like Richard Dreyfus. I spent the entire film trying to figure out who voiced Remy’s father, not realizing it was a relatively restrained Brian Dennehy. Ian Holm as a terrific time as the Skinner, the sinister chef (though he, Janeane Garofalo (as Colette, the supervisor and love interest to garbage boy Linguini (Lou Romano), and Brad Garrett as Gusteau (the chef who inspired Remy) strain at times with their French accents), and best of all, Peter O’Toole is all oily condescension as Anton Ego, the restaurant critic. At the end of the film, Ego says that while a critic’s position is mostly negative, he must sometimes realize great talent can come from anywhere, and defend it as such. Ratatouille doesn’t quite inspire that passion from me, but like Ego and others, it did leave me hungry for more.
Included on the DVD for Ratatouille are two short films – one featuring Remy and his brother Emile (Peter Sohn) narrating an animated history of rats, and Lifted, one of the funniest bits of animated film ever made, lasting only five minutes. The latter is also available on Pixar Short Films Collection, along with 12 other shorts, including the one that started it all, The Adventures of Andre and Wally B. This set may be for completists only (most of them are available separately on other Pixar feature releases), but it’s a reminder that their short films are just as good in some ways as their features. Along with Lifted, the best of these is Jack-Jack Attack, the spin-off from The Incredibles, which explains why the babysitter was so harried when the Incredibles returned from saving the world.
This week’s big DVD collection, besides the Pixar shorts, is something called the “Leading Ladies Collection, Volume 2.” If you don’t want to pony up the $55 for the whole collection (which includes I’ll Cry Tomorrow, Rich and Famous, and Up the Down Staircase), you can just get the best film in the collection, Alan Parker’s Shoot the Moon. To say Parker has had a checkered career is a gross understatement to say the least; he’s gone from very good (The Commitments) to very bad (The Life of David Gale) and back again. Shoot the Moon, however, remains his finest achievement. Bo Goldman may be best known for his Oscar-winning scripts for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Melvin and Howard, but this is his best work as well. This examination of George (Albert Finney), a writer, and his wife Faith (Diane Keaton) is the truest, most painful examination of divorce ever put to film. What makes it all the more wrenching is neither George nor Faith is entirely good or bad; both of them can be petty and selfish, yet also amazingly sympathetic. And it also pays attention to how divorce affects the children without ever getting sappy, particularly George’s relationship with his oldest daughter Sherry (Dana Hill). In an interview with American Film, Parker called this his most personal film, even though he didn’t write it, because he had four children and could relate (Goldman had six). Yet it’s never completely a downer. It’s alive to the idiosyncrasies of family life (as when Sherry and her three sisters help Faith get ready for a big evening out), and the relationships George and Faith have with others – George with Sandy (Karen Allen), and Faith with her contractor Frank (Peter Weller) – are also well drawn. Finney and Keaton are both actors who can coast on mannerisms, but they’re both terrific here, as is Hill (whose career was tragically cut short by her death at 32 of a stroke). Pauline Kael, who was usually hard to impress, wrote how afraid she was that she couldn’t do the film justice, and after watching, it’s easy to see why.
All political thrillers in this country owe a debt to Costa-Gavras’ Z, about the assassination of a prime minister in Greece, and the attempted cover-up of the investigation. Gavras’ daughter Julie is interested in politics as well, but goes for a more comic look in her feature film debut Blame it on Fidel. The film concerns Anna (Nina Kervel-Bay), a 9-year-old girl in early 1970’s Paris. Anna is generally happy with her life – her parents Marie and Fernando (Julie Depardieu and Stefano Accorsi) live in a nice house, she has friends, she goes to a Catholic school which she likes, she gets to see her grandparents all the time, and they have a Cuban nanny whom she adores. But her parents start to change when Fernando’s sister and her daughter escape from Spain. The husband has been arrested under Franco’s regime, and Fernando feels guilty enough that he and Marie turn from liberals to radicals. Before long, Anna has been taken from her house, she’s no longer allowed to attend religious classes, the nanny has been let go (having fled Cuba when Castro came to power, she’s disdainful of Communists, hence the movie’s title), to be replaced by whoever Fernando and Marie thinks needs a job the most, and Fernando has become a more activist lawyer, while Marie goes from writing about cooking to writing about women who have abortions. Anna, of course, is happy with none of this, since her life has been disrupted, and she doesn’t understand.
All of this could have been a tract, but Gavras is after something subtler. Anna decides to test out the solidarity theory her parents always talk about by joining the class in guessing the wrong answer to a question, even though she knows the right one. The new nannies she get give her different creation myths depending on their background, and she tries them on in class, with mixed results. She’s astonished when her friend from class is shocked by Fernando being naked, and that she doesn’t know where babies come from. These and other incidents show the wry humor Gavras sees this world through (although the movie is based on a popular French novel, it obviously resonates with Gavras’ own life). And while she tells her tale exclusively through Anna’s eyes, Gavras is obviously alive to what Anna herself can’t quite understand, and treats every character with kindness (even Fernando and Marie’s radical friends, who start off quite pompous, become likable). At the end, Anna is able to adjust to her new life, and we see that in small gestures, much like Gavras does with the rest of the movie.