Category Archives: Documentary

Where to Invade Next (2015)

What’s a conservative Christian like me doing watching a documentary from progressive activist and documentarian Michael Moore? I have actually watched all of his documentaries, most of which focus on a mean-spirited critique of America’s economic and social structure. Most of them make some good points about how Americans have allowed corporate greed and political bureaucracy to get us away from being the nation that our founding fathers established.

His most recent film is all about this theme, however he changes up his theme in a big way. It is not a critique, but a graceful and witty film that offers possible solutions to the problems that Moore believes plague the United States. He identifies these solutions by “invading” countries in Europe and North Africa with the hopes to take some of their best ideas back to the US.

Moore admits that he looks only at each country’s positive achievements and ignores its problems. He uses each country to illustrate one way government can help citizens navigate through the various stages of their lives – education, employment, parenthood, and retirement. Moore celebrates the ways these countries have found to temper Capitalism with strict regulations and a solid set of social-welfare programs.

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In Italy, he chats with a couple about a law that compels employers to provide up to 22 weeks of paid maternity leave. As Moore reminds viewers, America is the only country in the world besides Papua New Guinea that doesn’t provide its citizens with paid maternity leave. In France, he hangs out at a public school that treats the lunch hour as part of the curriculum. The school chef cooks fresh meals daily using local ingredients. It’s far cheaper per head, Moore argues, than the gross frozen food that American schools buy in bulk.

He visits a factory in Germany where he learns that, by law, rank-and-file employees must make up 50 percent of each company’s governing board. Another law forbids bosses from contacting employees who are on vacation. These examples show that Europeans – at least those Moore profiles – value quality of life far more than wealth.

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Where to Invade Next is Moore’s most radical film because it shows there are countries that refuse to shape policy according to the logic of profit and wealth alone, but also factor in the notion of the public good. The higher taxes their citizens pay goes to establish free health care, cheap day care, well-funded public schools. If those needs are met, Moore argues, people are less likely to be obsessed with wealth and more concerned about forming social bonds. It would take a massive revolution to make these things happen in America, but our nation was formed through a massive revolution, perhaps it is time for another one that brings us back to where we should be.

The Big Short (2015)

When I think of the collapse of the housing market and the beginning of the Great Recession, I don’t immediately think of a comedy. Millions of hard working Americans losing their homes and pensions and having to bear the burden of a government sponsored bailout makes me think of a hard-hitting and moving drama. Well, The Big Short is both of those. It is more than a comedy, but it is also tremendously entertaining even while it made me really mad and sad.

Adam McKay took the directorial chair in this adaptation of Michael Lewis’ book. McKay has previously been known for a number of Will Ferrell comedies like Anchorman, The Other Guys and Step Brothers which kind of explains the tone of the film. Lewis has been responsible for writing a number of books that have made it to the big screen despite their traditionally dry subject matter, think Moneyball (another Brad Pitt Project) and to a lesser extent The Blind Side.  
The Big Short 2The Big Short
 is set in the years leading up to the financial meltdown of 2008 and tells the story of a handful of investors who saw it coming. Bitter humor (primarily delivered by an excellent narrator in Ryan Gosling) guides us through an educational journey that ultimately ends in tragedy (for everyone but our protagonists). The housing market is usually a rock-solid investment. But these guys read the signs and started suspecting that it was a skyscraper built on sand and it was getting ready to collapse. The “experts” of the day told them that it was impossible, That it couldn’t happen.

What was their argument? Because it never has. But they had no clue how blinded they had become by their own greed and self-interest. They continued giving loans to people, no matter if they’re qualified. And not just any loans but sub-prime adjustable rate mortgage loans. In some ways, it’s a horror story: We were all affected by the illegal and fraudulent activity that led to this downfall, and most of the culprits received no punishment (in fact many used the bailout money to give themselves substantial bonuses).

The most difficult subjects can be explained to the most slow witted man if he has not formed any idea of them already; but the simplest thing cannot be made clear to the most intelligent man if he is firmly persuaded that he knows already, without a shadow of doubt, what is laid before him. – Leo Tolstoy, 1897

Despite its ominous and (let’s be honest) boring subject matter. The film is so entertaining, I had to go back and see it a second time. It sports a star-studded cast (Brad Pitt, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, and Christian Bale) effortlessly operating at the top of their game. McKay uses a multitude of techniques to tell the story. There are plenty of fourth-wall breaking moments and monologues, my favorite being Anthony Bourdain using a cooking metaphor to explain the disgusting product that is a Collateralized Debt Obligation. The Big Short 1There are jump cuts, slow motion, foreshadowing and flash backs. The filmmakers use any and all tricks to explain a complicated mess of financial underhandedness in order to help the audience understand, because as our narrator tells us, “Mortgage backed securities, subprime loans, tranches… Pretty confusing right? Does it make you feel bored? Or stupid? Well, it’s supposed to. Wall Street loves to use confusing terms to make you think only they can do what they do. Or even better, for you to leave them the f*** alone.” The banks, mortgage brokers, the credit ratings agencies and the government manipulated people in the nation and world into investing in worthless packages of bonds, and it behooves the director and writer, Adam McKay, to use all cinematic tricks to explain and untangle the financial corruption. The miracle is that the film deciphers the economic melt-down well while entertaining its audience.

The Big Short 3It would probably be a good time to compare this film to two other recent films which addressed similar issues but in very different ways. First you have the over the top Martin Scorsese film, Wolf of Wall Street. That film became known for the number of F-bombs it dropped while attempting to make the world of investing look cool. Then there was the Oscar winning documentary by Charles Ferguson, Inside Job. It had a cool narrator in Matt Damon, but you almost needed a degree in Finance to follow along as they explained the crisis and spoke to experts. I feel like Adam McKay sought to walk a like between these too films, it is not over the top in an attempt to be cool, nor is it preachy and heavy handed. It reminds me of a heist movie in the vein of Ocean’s Eleven, the casino gets taken for all it’s worth, but in the end the house still wins.

The Big Short 4I’ll let you watch the movie for yourself to get to know the awesome characters that McKay develops for us. As a middle-class worker, I could not have less in common with these guys, but dang it if I didn’t feel myself rooting for and empathizing with them. We’ve got a socially backward fund manager who blasts death metal in his office. The two young guys who started on their own fund while they were still in college. Knowing that they are out of their league, they call in the investing giant turned reclusive doomsday-prepper. Then there’s the hedge-fund manager (and his team) with a bad attitude toward banks.

I already mentioned that our tour guide is played by Ryan Gosling, he is a subprime specialist at Deutsche Bank who is certain things will crash. He’s slicker than a used car salesman, but convincing and hilarious. It’s difficult to root for them when that means rooting against the economy and your own wallet. But McKay uses their formidable talents and personalities in such a way that makes it nearly impossible not to.

 

Day 22 – 30 Day Movie Challenge

Your Favorite Documentary

It’s the mark of a great documentary that it can make you care about something you had no interest in otherwise. That is the reason I loved this documentary, because the fight between Billy Mitchell the jerk and underdog Steve Wiebe is something utterly captivating, and a story that’s continued even though the movie came out in 2007. That’s right, the two are still competing, and the saga continues. Sure, it might not seem like a big deal to us, but to these guys, it’s everything.

The King of Kong: Fistful of Quarters begins by tracing the history of competitive video gaming, which the film argues began in 1982 when Mitchell racked up the world record score on Donkey Kong (over 800,000 points). Mitchell’s record stood, undisturbed, until 2005. That’s when Steve Wiebe, who had recently been laid off, decided to accept the challenge to compete with Mitchell’s high score. The most amazing part of the film is the fact that Wiebe’s wife and kids let him engage in what is a very trivial competition.

You couldn’t find two more diametrically opposed rivals if he tried. Mitchell, currently a restauranteur who still wears his hair and dresses like it’s the 1980s, is a major jerk of a human being. The fact that he has such a huge ego about being the biggest fish in the puddle of competitive classic videogaming is laughable. But he is one of the best villains I have seen on the screen in a long time. Wiebe, on the other hand, is a guy you can’t help but pull for. We cheer when he bests Mitchell’s score by over 200,000. Then we feel his setbacks when the score is invalidated.

It is a real improbable success. It’s a documentary, about Donkey Kong of all things, that is as compelling and involving as any summer blockbuster. I can’t recommend it highly enough. A documentary that moves you is rare enough, but one that makes you stand up and cheer is truly unique. It is one of the best documentaries movies I’ve ever seen. Don’t take my word for it, check it out.

There were several others in the running especially Man On Wire and The Thin Blue Line, but as far as entertainment value, I couldn’t ask for a better film. What about you? Do you have a favorite documentary? I’d love to hear about it in the comments below or on Twitter or Facebook.

Day 11 – 30 Day Movie Challenge

A Movie That Changed Your Opinion About Something

I have two films that have changed my ideas about the food industry. It has made me question everything I put in my mouth. These are the Morgan Spurlock McDonald’s experiment, Super Size Me, and Food, Inc. that asks how much we really know about the food we buy in the supermarket. After watching both of these movies, I wanted to move to a big 40 acre farm in Montana where my family and I could grow crops and raise cattle and we could seclude ourselves. Of course, then I got hungry and couldn’t afford to be a vegan, so I settled for a double cheeseburger.

Super Size Me​ had great concept that I wish I was clever enough to think of: Eat nothing but McDonald’s food for 30 days straight… breakfast, lunch, and dinner. He will follow three basic rules: (1) If McDonald’s doesn’t serve it, he can’t eat or drink it. (2) He must Super-Size his meal if asked. (3) He has to eat every item on the menu at least once during his 30 days. He claims to have gotten the idea when he saw a news item about two teenaged girls whose parents were suing McDonald’s for making them obese.
This is an eye-opening and shocking look at the effects of fast food on the body, and it’s more important that ever with 60% of the United States being obese. We are literally eating ourselves to death.
Before he starts his experiment, he visits three doctors and has each of them conduct tests to get a baseline measurement of his health. He actually starts out healthier than average. He weighs about 185 lbs and stands at 6′ 2″. His cholesterol is well under 200 and his body fat is below 10%. The biggest surprise to me was the doctor’s nonchalance about his upcoming experiment. They predict minor effects: triglyceride levels will increase along with cholesterol. This suggests that even in the medical community, people didn’t know that too much easy cheap food is bad for you. Oh, and he won’t be exercising any of that fast food off, during the 30 days he will remain sedentary like most Americans.

During his first lunch, he sat in his vehicle with a Super-Sized Double Quarter Pounder meal. He is shown at 5 minute intervals attempting to complete his meal, which includes a 44 ounce Coke. He’s having a hard time, and at minute 22, loses it and vomits through the window and onto the parking lot. Gladly not every day was like this. By three days in, his mood is much better after his body adjusted to the high fat / high sugar food. Over the 30 days, he stops in for check-ups along the way. Nutritionists are surprised when he puts on about 10 lbs in one week. There are times in the 30 days that he feels palpitations, has trouble breathing, and feels constriction in his chest.
A little over halfway through the month, the doctors finally catch on to the danger and indicate that the side effects are going far beyond what they predicted. His triglycerides and cholesterol are up, but his liver also looks like he has been a heavy drinker all his life. By the end of the 30 days, he’s put on almost 25 lbs, and his body fat has increased from 10% to 18%. In the closing credits, we’re told that it took him 8 weeks to get his liver back to normal and over one year to get down to his previous weight.
Shortly after Super Size Me was released, McDonald’s announced it was going to discontinue its Super Size menu. They of course denied it had anything to do with the film. I would suggest you to buy this one so you can pop it in whenever you get that fast food craving and remind yourself that it is terrible, or you can watch the whole film online or from Hulu.

I consider myself pretty well educated when it comes to nutrition. I mean, I actually read and understand most of the stuff that is put on the nutrition labels. But I was shocked when I watched Food, Inc. and found out that some of those items that I thought were healthy could have been doctored to the point that they harbor franken-bacteria. And if I was this taken aback, I can imagine how many people who don’t take the time to educate themselves would really be stunned if they realized where their food comes from and what the food they are consuming could be doing to their bodies. Most Americans biggest concern about their food is that it is fast, cheap, and tasty. Food, Inc. examines the costs of valuing cost and convenience over nutrition and environmental impact.

Director Robert Kenner explores the profitization of food from all angles. He talks to authors like Eric Schlosser (Fast Food Nation), who happened to co-produce the film, and Michael Pollan (The Omnivore’s Dilemma). And he follows the story of farmers like Gary Hirschberg (Stonyfield Farms) and food standards advocates like Barbara Kowalcyk, who has been lobbying for more rigorous procedures since her two-year-old son died from E.Coli found in meat that was recalled 16 days after he had already passed. He takes his camera, much like Upton Sinclair, into slaughterhouses and factory farms where chickens grow too fast to walk properly, cows eat feed pumped with toxic chemicals, and illegal immigrants risk life and limb to bring these products to market at an affordable cost. Kenner presents this expose in such an engaging way that Food, Inc. it is relateable and accessible to the over-scheduled American who doesn’t have the time or income to read every book or to make sure that they aren’t eating eat non-genetically modified produce every day.

Food, Inc. isn’t quite as entertaining as Super Size Me, but I believe it made a bigger impact on me and although I am not as paranoid as the film probably wants me to be, I still think of these films every time I bring the fork to my lips. So how about you? Are there any movies that have changed your mind about something? Perhaps you hated blue people until Avatar showed you that they have a softer side? Let me kno in the comments below or on Twitter or Facebook.