Something to say: Documentaries offer a mixed bag for comments

Reeling It In

Posted: Thursday, October 04, 2007

I've found that when you go see a movie in a theater, much of the effect it has on you can be determined by the audience around you. For example, Disney's "102 Dalmations" won't ever be considered in the pantheon of great children's films, but going to see it with an audience of delighted 5-year-olds will definitely buoy your spirits. This weekend, I went to see two films, both issue-oriented, and both of the sort that garnered audience commentary. Unfortunately, only one of the movies benefited from it.

The Homer Theater recently held its fourth annual Documentary Film Festival. Of the several documentaries on the docket, I made the trek to the end of the road to see Michael Moore's muckraking extravaganza, "Sicko," a blistering expose of the health-care industry. Moore is certainly a galvanizing filmmaker either you hate him or you love him, but I doubt you'll find anyone who won't admit he's at least extremely talented.

His last film, "Fahrenheit 9/11" was amazing and powerful, but ultimately a little too angry and without restraint. "Sicko" is angry as well, but less likely to offend.

In the film, Moore sketches a picture of an industry that has become infected with greed. As the insurance and pharmaceutical companies increase their lobbying capital, more and more of the health-care industry falls directly under their control. It's big business, and profits are king. Big-Pharma has paid plenty to their legislators for the right to charge exorbitant fees for medicine. And doctors working for insurance providers now find themselves in the damning position of increasing their own wealth by denying care for the sick.

In a style that's much less confrontational than in his former films, Moore spends much of his time comparing the U.S. system to other countries' countries with admittedly fewer resources than ours. Granted, Moore has an axe to grind, here, and he's obviously not showing the whole picture.

I'm sure there are some in Europe and Canada who've had a hard time within their particular system, but it's impossible to deny the powerful statement made as Moore wanders a clean, modern state-run hospital, looking for the cashier, only to be greeted with laughter at his request.

And if you're able to maintain a dry eye when the 9/11 volunteer, now suffering severe respiratory problems, breaks down after discovering that her medication, which costs her hundreds per month at home, can be bought for right around a nickel in Cuba, then you've a harder heart than I. The audience I was with must've been softies, because amid the sniffles were exclamations, both in shock and support. At the end, they applauded.

Contrast that with the action-drama-cop-thriller "The Kingdom," wherein the loudmouth idiot behind us, obviously thinking he was at home watching an episode of "24" in his living room, fairly shouts at the screen during an awful torture scene, "Now that's how you do an interrogation!"

The film revolves around a terrorist bombing within the western-friendly part of the city of Riyadh, killing over a hundred people, including American oil workers, Saudi police and a two FBI agents on assignment in Saudi Arabia.

The FBI sends in a crack team led by Jamie Foxx and Jennifer Garner, but getting answers won't be as easy as it seems. "The Kingdom," unlike our friendly film-fan from the back row who continued his running commentary throughout the film, is unsure of the tone it should take is it a critical look at American involvement in Middle East politics? Is it a condemnation of the corruption and backward restrictions of the Saudi government and its system of strict Shari'a law? Or is it a good old-fashioned action movie where the FBI is good, the terrorists are bad and all is right in the end?

Where the film tries to be all three, it only succeeds in the last, which, considering the social issues it attempts to address, makes you feel a little uneasy when the film finally settles on being an adrenaline-filled-car-chase-shoot-'em-up. Or it made most of us uneasy. At the moment a terrorist guard is stabbed in the crotch, "That'll do it!" rose toward the screen with barely controlled glee from somewhere in the back.

"The Kingdom" is mostly entertaining, but ultimately unsatisfying as it stumbles in trying to find its theme. It didn't help that part of the audience in this film kept making me invoke the title of the previous one. Grade: "Sicko" - A. "The Kingdom" - C

"Sicko is rated PG-13 for some disturbing medical scenes, adult themes and brief language. "The Kingdom" is rated R for graphic violence and language.

Chris Jenness, of Nikiski, is a freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff.

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