Where to Invade Next Tells It Like It Is (even if you don't want to hear it)

Directed by Michael Moore
Dog Eat Dog Films
110 minutes, R (language and naked people jumping into water—Really?)
* * * * *

Two stories we love to tell: (1) The United States is the greatest nation on earth. (2) The world envies us. The first isn’t remotely true and you have to crawl pretty far down the pole for the second to be the case. The USA is number one in the world in military hardware, graduate school education, and medical technology­, and the last two only if you can afford access. As for being the envy of the world, sure, if you’re from impoverished sub-Saharan Africa, a dictatorship, or from a war-torn failed state like Libya, Somalia, or Syria, though some of them are so desperate even the shattered economy of Greece looks pretty good. Still, Americans like to delude themselves into thinking life doesn’t get any better. Maybe that’s a necessary coping mechanism; as Michael Moore shows in his latest documentary—his best to date–it’s pretty damn depressing to consider how far we've strayed from American ideals.

Moore opens with a funny, but cheesy set-up: the military has come to him for answers as to why it hasn’t won a single conflict since World War Two, and okays his plan to “invade” Europe and steal its best ideas. (The US military really hasn’t won a war since 1945, unless you want to count Grenada, a nation with an army the size of the Massachusetts State Police but with less firepower.) Moore sets off for Europe, draped in an American flag, which he intends to plant and claim like a modern-day conquistador whenever he encounters an idea worthy of emulating. His sojourn takes him across Europe and into northern Africa. For the most part, though, Moore isn’t on camera as much as he usually is—he lets the details speak for themselves.

Moore has been denounced as a propagandist. Interesting word: propaganda. These days it tends to mean anything that makes us uncomfortable, even if it’s true. We never call the things with which we agree propaganda; we use nicer terms: advertising, marketing, infomercial, public relations….. So spin these and tell me what’s wrong with them: free health care supported by taxes that are less than what Americans spend on insurance and co-pays (Germany); 80 paid vacation days per year (Germany, Italy); two-hour lunches (Italy); factory owners who think wealth should be capped and welcome employee input (Italy); a government that is half women (Tunisia); or a land without student debt (Slovenia).

Moore’s travelogue reveals things that make American minds boggle. Finland has the world’s best schools, yet has abolished homework and standardized tests; Portugal decriminalized all drugs, saw addiction rates plummet, and now has money to spend on treatment, which is cheaper than prosecution and incarceration. The maximum prison sentence in Norway is 23 years and that only for true sociopaths; most of its jails are like summer camps—even for murderers—and even prisoners to maximum security facilities are greeted by a video of guards singing “We are the World.” French children eat school lunches worthy of top-rated restaurants and are aghast when shown pictures of American hot lunches. (And they eat yummy meals that cost less than US Mystery Meat specials!)

Best idea? Maybe Iceland. The US press was all over its 2008 financial crisis—one endlessly propagandized, sorry—“reported”—by outlets such as Fox News and the Wall Street Journal as “proof” that “socialism doesn’t work.” Did they report that a bank owned and operated by women did not engage in disastrous speculation and spearheaded the effort that led to full recovery in less than three years? And did you read about how Iceland jailed the bankers responsible for the 2008 crisis?

Moore’s guerilla documentary style makes a lot of people nervous, but it doesn’t make him wrong! Put down the laissez-faire Kool-aid and dare to ask the hard questions Moore poses: If other countries can do this, why can’t we? Is American business and government too male? Is testosterone poisoning holding back America? Or is just greed? This film made me wonder whatever happened to the attitude that Americans could do anything. When did a “Yes we can!” nation degenerate into an “It’s too hard/It costs too much/It’s not my problem/I blame it on the [fill in blanks]” bunch of whiny losers?  Think I’m overly harsh? Moore asked three Icelandic female business leaders a seemingly simple question: "What would you like to say to Americans?" He was met with stony silence, until one woman finally said, “Tell them I don’t want them to be my neighbors. They are not good neighbors.” Are you fine with the fact that none of the three could think of a single thing they found admirable about US society, its culture, or its people? I'm not and neither is Moore—who is a much better patriot than most of the idiots who wrap themselves in the flag.

Oh, yeah, ignore Michael Moore. Call him a propagandist. Keep on paying for an inept military that wastes billions daily. We wouldn’t want to build a safety net that would ruin our “self-reliance,” would we? Who needs the rest of the world? I call such thinking narcissism, self-deception, and fantasy. I call it the superhighway to self-destruction. This film should be required viewing.

Rob Weir


45 Years is Quiet and Powerful

45 YEARS (2015)
Directed by Andrew Haigh
Sundance Selects, 95 minutes, R (for language and suggestive geriatric sex)
* * * *

Call this one "Portrait of a Successful Marriage in Crisis." Geoff and Kate Mercer (Tom Courtenay and Charlotte Rampling) are deep into their golden years and have settled into a predictable and quiet life in their cottage in the Norfolk Broads–a routine in which Kate walks the dog each morning and returns home to down a glass of water, then settle down to a cup of tea and a chat with Tom, who is frail but content among his books and solitude. On the eve of their 45th wedding anniversary, Geoff receives a package from Switzerland informing him that global warming has unearthed the frozen remains of Katya, his love of 50 years ago who died when she fell into a glacier crevice. The news sends Geoff into a quiet depression so deep that Kate begins to imagine that she's been little more than leftovers for the past four and a half decades.  

At the root of this small domestic drama lurk several of life's big fears: regret, doubt, fate, and what happens when you ask questions whose answers you don't really want to know. Kate disclaims feelings of jealousy toward a woman who died before she and Geoff ever met, but this is a fiction more wispy than the slides of Kayta she discovers deteriorating in boxes tucked away in the loft. Dare she ask the question that's tearing her apart:  If Katya had lived, would Geoff have married her? Such questions, of course, are the ultimate Pandora's Box monster. How does one compete against a ghost? How does one accept Geoff's attempt to defuse a no-win situation by reminding Kate that Katya did die and that it is pointless to muse over hypothetical questions?

The film covers the week leading up to the Mercers' anniversary fete. Geoff and Kate perform a pas de deux upon a stage drenched in the symbolic grayness of a late Norfolk autumn. Circumstantial pathos is made heavier by the subtle but powerful performances from Courtenay and Rampling. Is Geoff's gloom a natural response? Depression over his own impending mortality? Regret for a path never completed? Rampling is even more incredible; she's a seething volcano hidden behind a mask of stolidity.

45 Years comes across as the kind of play Eugene O' Neill would have written had he been English. Make no mistake; this movie is very English in the ways in which emotions are buttoned-down, much is left unsaid, and characters subject themselves to inner torture rather than beat their breasts and rage against the Fates. It is based upon the David Constantine short story "In Another Country" and stretches to 95 minutes by allowing the camera to linger over landscapes, faces, and skies. Impatient viewers might find the pace too languid, but I found it moving and powerful and it's closing scene almost too painful to watch. This is a film for adults–not because of its ridiculous R rating, but because one needs to have lived to quake at its terrors. Rob Weir


Female Voices: Siv Jakobsen, Candy Thief, Larissa Murphy, Granville Automatic


Let's consider a category I call "Female Singers with Soft Voices." It's a dicey category. The reality of today's music world is that there are scores of young women with pretty voices vying to attract notice and a lot of them simply won't. Call it the female equivalent to the legions of young guys heading off to Nashville with bigger dreams than cowboy hats.

Siv Jakobsen comes from Brooklyn via Berkelee College of Music by way of her native Norway. She calls her current repertoire "dream-folk," a quiet, moody approach with lots of spaces and silence. I have her pegged as a future torch singer, once her voice ripens and she figures out that her tones lack the clarity to command the stage without more texturing. I sampled seven Jakobsen tracks, most of which struck me as too much of a piece. But the contrasts between her original versions of "Dark" and "How We Used to Love" with remixes done with composer/producer Martin Hviid are telling. In each case, Jakobsen alone with the white keys of her piano is too light to make impact. With Hviid, though, she slows the pace, drops down a half tone, and lets her voice ease into more soulful arrangements. Those work for me. Put another way, a song titled "Dark" deserves to feel more sonorous than somnambulant. Might be time to bust out the eveningwear and hit the late night jazz clubs.

About all I know about Candy Thief is that it's a movable pieces lineup anchored by vocalist Diana de Cabbarus. Now try to find information about her and good luck with that. I think she sews and there are tons of pictures of her on the Web, almost none of which are attached to reliable biographical details. She's allegedly from Staffordshire, but is based in Edinburgh, and apparently has kicked around a lot, but it might all be bullshit. So let's cut right to the music as experienced on an EP called The Starting Gun. It's sort of pop-rock, but with the unusual cadences and moodiness of Cat Power. Songs like the title cut and "Number Five" are like rainy days with bright sunshine interludes. Vocals (with some looping) evoke the chirpiness of The Hollies and the edginess of The Pixies, which makes them hoppy and melodic at one moment, yet strangely unsettling the next. Jangly guitar melts into crunchy power chords and back again. De Cabbarus doesn't have a clean voice either, but she's picked the right genre, whatever it might be! Listening to The Starting Gun evokes being at a party with deliciously weird people who are inventive and odd, yet grounded. I loved this release because it kept me off-balance. Every time I thought I had Candy Thief pegged, another curve emerged.

Larissa Murphy is an interesting new voice in country music if, for no other reason, she too skirts expectations. Her voice is a bit like Patti Griffin when she's being vulnerable, but with the timbre of Lucinda Williams minus the husk, and with the sensibilities of Patty Loveless, but with less fuss and frippery. Got that? How about this–it's not everyone who gets to produce a six-track EP with some of Nashville's heavyweights, and enlist a multiple Grammy Award-winning producer (Ray Kennedy) and John Prine's wife, Fiona, as executive producer. You can sample Speak Your Mind (Bego Music) online and hear for yourself. My favorite tracks were "No Town," which felt like a classic country/early 1960s pop song mash; "Mexican Flowers," a slowed-down sweet song with offbeat cadences; and "Late One Night," which is fragile but with Griffin-like soars. The latter turn is something I really admire about Murphy; she doesn't have a giant voice, but she's not afraid to air out what she has. {Footnote: If you Google her, reference the EP title or your search results will be overwhelmed by a different Larissa Murphy who has been doing Christian testimony about being married to a disabled man. Nice story–but no soundtrack!}

I'm torn about the duo Granville Automatic (Vanessa Olivarez and Elizabeth Elkins). Their latest effort is titled An Army without Music: Civil War Stories from Hallowed Ground (Red Clay Music) and consists of ten original songs rendered in a style that's one part 1970s style country music and one part old-style timelessness that makes the songs sound as if they could have been 19th century campfire selections.  Many of them are lovely, though selections that break that mold stand out more. My personal favorites were the parlor room feel of "Goodbye Home," the mid-tempo waltz  "Salem Church," and the hoe-down-like ghost story "Grancer Harrison," though the last of these appropriates a bit too much of the tune of Van Morrison's "Brown-Eyed Girl." Overall, "pretty" is the adjective that best describes the album and I longed for something more distinctive. My bigger reservations are about presentation. Let me start by saying that referring to grown women (in their promo) as "girls" is a 70s country trait better left non-resuscitated. I also had squirm reactions to the project's Southern bias undercurrents. I've had it up to eyeteeth with Lost Cause romanticism. Although the stated purpose is to tell stories of places threatened by development, the only heroes—unless you count one of Perkins' ancestors who deserted after Day One at Gettysburg–are Confederates, the only Union officer referenced is the odious John Chivington, all the "hallowed ground" is in the South, and the words "secession" and "slavery" are AWOL. Excuse me for mixing politics and music, but my ears grew sticky listening to syrupy revisionism.

Rob Weir