TIFF: Will Michael Moore’s ‘Where to Invade Next’ Contend for an Oscar?

11 Sep 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

‘Where to Invade Next’: TIFF Review.

Where to Invade Next, divisive doc filmmaker Michael Moore’s latest, had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival’s Princess of Wales Theatre on Thursday night. Michael Moore’s latest bomb-throwing documentary joins pics about sex abuse, climate change and cutthroat political operatives in perhaps the festival’s most controversial slate ever.All has been fairly quiet on the pestering front for Michael Moore since “Capitalism: A Love Story,” his glum 2009 assessment of the greed-is-good culture that spawned the global financial crisis. Unsurprisingly, the picture — in which Moore travels throughout Europe and also visits Tunisia to highlight the progressive ways other countries handle social issues — is sure to please the rabble-rousing lefty’s fans and outrage his opponents. Fans accustomed to his harsh critiques of health care, the educational system and gun control in the U.S. may be a little surprised, but not disappointed, at this almost happy film full of lol moments.

But now this impassioned and unruly provocateur returns to further dismantle the myth of American supremacy with renewed optimism and sharpened comic instincts in “Where to Invade Next,” an impishly entertaining, career-summarizing polemic bent on demonstrating how other countries around the world — with their happy workers, superior schools, humane prisons, healthy sexual attitudes and fully empowered women — are putting U.S. progress to shame. Instead of ranting over the conspicuous social failings he sees in the U.S.A., he humorously finds solutions to its ills by “invading” various countries and bringing back the victor’s spoils, which are simply other people’s good ideas. This may be drive-by tourism on a highly selective, flattering and downright gluttonous scale, but there’s something undeniably sharp and buoyant about Moore’s globe-trotting, grass-is-greener approach that compels indulgence and attention. Instead of doing a typical documentary showing how better it is somewhere and how awful it is here, “we decided to trust the level of your intelligence and experience, whether you’re American or Tunisian. A secret memo from the Pentagon was intercepted: all future invasions will be carried out by one man” before showing Moore on a boat carrying a United States flag and saying, “U.S.A.

From the priest sex abuse scandal drama Spotlight to the Dan Rather downfall pic Truth to the thinly veiled satire about political strategists Our Brand Is Crisis, this year’s festival promises 10 days of heated debate. It may not win over his detractors, who are and remain legion, but with careful election-season targeting by a shrewd distributor, he might just have his biggest crowdpleaser since “Fahrenheit 9/11,” at home as well as abroad.

You already know the truth. “You don’t need to go and watch another documentary to show how (messed) up this thing is or how (messed) up that thing is. Yeah!” Footage shows Moore traveling the globe and visiting people from different countries with a U.S. flag. “I have invaded your country to steal your great idea,” the director’s voice says.

Moore is well-known for his political documentaries on gun control, universal healthcare and the Bush administration’s role in Afghanistan and Iraq. But Jason Pollock, a co-founder along with Moore of the Traverse City Film Festival, greeted fans lining up outside the festival’s headquarters with one free ticket each. “We want to make sure his [Moore’s] real fans who didn’t have a chance to buy a ticket get to see the film,” Pollock told The Hollywood Reporter before staging the media stunt. But Moore issued the first salvo on Thursday with his Opening Night film that takes aim at the problems he sees as eroding the America Dream and looks to Europe and other liberal cultures for solutions. “I was tired of being the poster boy for Fox News,” Moore told the frenzied premiere crowd, explaining his six-year absence from filmmaking. “After Ferguson and Black Lives Matter, I thought it was important to re-enlist and be part of what’s happening.” Moore’s opening night fireworks only set the stage for a steady stream of controversy to come. All of this now feels like a sly campaign of misdirection on Moore’s part, in light of the relatively adroit piece of comic sociology he’s given us, which cooks up no sinister conspiracy theories, has little to do with U.S. military misadventures, and indeed embraces an altogether different, more fanciful definition of the word “invasion.” After a characteristically flip opening montage of various far-flung conflicts in which the U.S. military has embroiled itself over the past century, Moore decides to brand himself a new kind of American invader, a one-man conquering army who will travel to foreign nations not to destroy their villages and enslave their citizens, but rather to plunder their way of life — to claim their utopian ideals and hold them up as examples for the U.S. to learn from. So, this awards season, will Moore’s latest, when it inevitably finds a distributor, go the way of Roger & Me (1989), his career-breakthrough that was shockingly snubbed by the Academy, or Bowling for Columbine (2002), which ended up earning him not only the first of his two Oscar noms (he subsequently was nominated for 2007’s Sicko), but his sole victory?

Based on the true story of the Boston Globe journalists who uncovered Catholic priest pedophilia, the film screens Sept. 14 with its real-life subjects — winners of the 2003 Pulitzer Prize — on hand for a post-premiere Q&A. That largely depends on how the current members of the Academy’s documentary branch, which determines the doc Oscar nominees, regard Moore’s very specific brand of filmmaking. The drama, which shines an unflattering light on the Church’s role in keeping the scandal from surfacing, comes at a time when Catholicism is enjoying an improved image thanks to charismatic Pope Francis.

From there, Moore makes a logical leap over to Finland, whose world-renowned schools have adopted such radical yet intuitive measures as doing away with homework and seeking to educate the whole person, rather than merely training students to pass a standardized test. For years, its members were older and conservative and had major reservations about doc films that employed non-traditional storytelling techniques, such as reenactments, animation and, most relevant to Moore, a filmmaker inserting himself or herself into his own film and helping to shape events, as opposed to standing back and observing them, as in cinema verite. They are at their wits’ end after losing every war they have fought since World War II: Korea, Vietnam, Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Libya, Yeman, Iraq again… So Moore pledges to take over the invasions from here on out and “do better.” Instead of heading for the Middle East or Asia, Moore embarks on a whirlwind “invasion” of Europe with his camera crew.

On and on Moore goes, in typically rambling, discursive fashion: He pays a visit to the “magical fairyland” of Slovenia, where college tuition doesn’t exist and any attempts to impose it are meant with immediate, successful student protests. Handing out free stuff followed Moore arriving in Toronto having done his very best to keep his film under wraps. “I don’t want to give anything away about the film. The doc branch, though, has brought in many new members in recent years, and my sense is that the old-guard that probably stunted Roger & Me’s chances is mostly gone, replaced increasingly by younger people who don’t share those strong objections to his approach, and who sometimes even strive to emulate it (such as Morgan Spurlock).

As he goes around interviewing ordinary people, he highlights some particular advantage of foreign life, making it seem amazing and extraordinary, and leaves it up to the audience to make its own mental comparisons. He was happily ready for a bidding war to start immediately: “There’s a buyer right here in this audience ready and willing to say, ‘I will buy this movie and make sure every American sees what’s on that screen! His simplified language can sound like he’s addressing high schoolers, and the viewer is given little choice but to marvel over what’s being presented and agree with him. And he makes a particularly instructive stopover in Germany, specifically pointing out how a country should grapple with and atone for its cruel history (cue some unnecessary Hitler-rally footage from Leni Riefenstahl’s “Triumph of the Will”), in this case by displaying constant reminders of the Holocaust in the form of city monuments, memorials and public art.

Sure, he is still front-and-center talking with people about his concerns, only now he’s not directly confronting “bad guys” because the “bad guy,” in his estimation, is America itself and what he feels it has become. This aside leads Moore down one of his more sobering alleys, in which he wonders what a similar level of self-examination and accountability would look like on American shores; for him, regular reminders that the country began with a Native American genocide and grew rich on slave labor would be a decent start. And, for all of his stats and graphics and funny clips that suggest America’s decline — and there are many — he may find it a lot harder to convince Americans to feel disgust and outrage about their country as whole than he did when he was targeting George W. Although much of the film unfolds beyond U.S. borders, Moore does throw in an early sequence (set to the ominous foghorn blasts of Hans Zimmer’s “Inception” score) that offers a diffuse, despairing snapshot of a nation in turmoil, with a particular emphasis on the ongoing abuses suffered by black men and women — from the fires that have ravaged Ferguson to the recent police attack on unarmed black teenagers at a Texas pool party. This is not including national and religious holidays, which add up, or the standard five months of paid maternity leave that mothers are entitled to, or 15 days of paid honeymoon for those who get married.

Later in the film, he contrasts Portugal, where drug use has been decriminalized, with the U.S., where the so-called war on drugs has become a campaign to incarcerate and disenfranchise as many black men as possible. Ironically, one buyer who saw the film said Invade is lacking something that other Moore docs have featured. “There’s no villain,” the buyer says. “That’s a big problem.” As such, it may be even more susceptible than its predecessors to the charges of slipshod, simplified filmmaking that have dogged Moore for years: His shaming-by-example strategy doesn’t acknowledge or account for the fact that poverty and injustice persist, even in countries with more generous social services. Needless to say, those seeking a more balanced, politically nuanced perspective — one that offers, say, a more subtle parsing of the death penalty and abortion rights — will not find themselves among Moore’s targeted demographic. As in Sicko, the film it most resembles, where the U.S. healthcare system was compared to that of France, the U.K., etc., it’s the gist that counts.

Still, insofar as the construction of an airtight argument has never been Moore’s strong suit, there’s something to be said for the way he’s deliberately structured his latest as a series of inspired and loosely interconnected riffs. His preferred style of message-mongering may be immediately recognizable with its reams of voiceover, satirical interpolation of old film clips, and sledgehammer-subtle use of music.

But he’s happily done away with some of his other shtick; at no point do we see Moore trying to push his shlumpy frame past security guards in order to penetrate some One Percent citadel, and for the most part, he keeps his inner cheap-shot artist largely in check. If there’s a throughline here, it’s the firm conviction that we are human beings rather than human doings, and that the ever-present stigma of “socialism” has kept too many Americans from grasping that a good education, a fulfilling, low-stress work life and ready access to health care should be universal entitlements. Liberals and conservatives alike may take the cynical view that Moore’s climactic visit to Iceland, known for its pioneering tradition of strong female leadership, effectively recasts the movie as a stealth Hillary Clinton campaign promo. In showing how a country’s belief in its own military, political and economic infallibility can devalue its own citizens, Moore retains his genius for the human (or at least human-interest) moment. In one moving scene a Norwegian man, who lost his son in the horrific 2011 summer-camp attacks, states that he has no right to retaliate against the convicted killer Anders Behring Breivik, now behind bars in a country that caps jail time at 21 years (and has one of the lowest murder rates in the world).

Later, a Tunisian woman aptly rebukes the small-mindedness of a global superpower that exports its culture all over the world but demonstrates so little curiosity about the cultures of others. Slovenia, for instance, has a free university system that actively caters to foreign students, to the point of offering courses in English, all free of charge. Germans employed at the Faber-Castell pencil factory work 36 hours a week on a 40-hour salary and are sent to a spa to relax whenever they feel stressed.

Walk; sound, Francisco Latorre, Hilary Stewart; field producers, Tierney Bonnini, Adriane Geibel, Nicky Lazar; consulting producer, Solly Granatstein; archival producer, Christine Fall; line producer, Dorin Razam-Grunfefld; coordinating producer, Devorah Devries. After Tunisian journalist Amel Smaoui talks about the role of women in the revolution, the story builds to a long final segment set in Iceland, where women have achieved parity with men in public life, businesses, banks.

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