Michael Moore's SickoSICKO

It seems that the older I get, and the older Michael Moore gets, the more I'm conscious of his imperfections as a filmmaker - and the less I could give a damn about them.

Those who are driven crazy by Moore's self-aggrandizing, proudly lowbrow approach aren't going to be assuaged by Sicko, the documentarian's tragicomic examination of the American health-care system. I'm making this assumption because even I - a professed Michael Moore acolyte - found many of the director's expected Moore-isms, especially in the first half hour, hard to take.

Yes, Moore has no compunction about patting himself on the back when opportunities arise, and they frequently do. (Early on, we learn that a child's initially refused operation gets the green light once her father informs the doctors that he's going to sic Michael Moore on their asses.) Yes, his sentimental lapses are clichéd. (Can we please call a moratorium on tear-jerking sequences underscored to Barber's Adagio for Strings and Pachelbel's Canon?) Yes, his presentation is one-sided, and his moralizing is obvious, and his tone is oftentimes patronizing, and his jokes are generally cheap.

I don't care. And I say that from the bottom of my nonobjective heart. I forgive Michael Moore's deficiencies because they're inherently meaningless; if it takes an unapologetic attention hog with an aw-shucks demeanor and questionable tactics to get a Sicko out into the world, so be it.

Moore interviews a couple in their 60s - an insured couple - who are forced to abandon their home when their medical bills escalate past the breaking point. He speaks with a woman whose perilously ill child died; the girl was taken to the hospital, only to be sent to another hospital across town, one recommended by her insurers. He meets with volunteer rescuers from the September 11, 2001, attacks, whose resulting medical bills aren't covered because they were "only" volunteers. And on and on. We all know that the American health-care system is a mess, but what filmmaker besides Moore is giving voice - and a voice in multiplexes, no less - to those most affected by its insufficiency? Who else is sharing their stories?

The wealth of human experience that Moore presents in Sicko is so profound and moving and deeply necessary that, like the predictable criticism against him, the director's skill as an entertainer becomes almost incidental. (Moore's movies need their comic conceits, because they'd be almost unbearably sad without them.) And in case anyone is bothering to notice, Sicko is a sharper, more streamlined, more mature work than anything previously seen in the Moore oeuvre. He may never get over his love of a dumb gag, or his love of himself, but Michael Moore is working on the side of the angels; he's making movies on subjects, and with people, that matter.


Bruce Willis and Justin Long in Live Free or Die HardLIVE FREE OR DIE HARD

Before the arrival of Live Free or Die Hard, the last entry in Bruce Willis' action-thriller franchise was 1995's Die Hard with a Vengeance, and I doubt many moviegoers have very strong memories of this disposable, big-budget, low-impact entertainment. Yet the movie has special significance to me personally; it was the very first film I reviewed for the River Cities' Reader. And I can't help but think that my disappointment with this new John McClane entry is directly tied to the 12 years that separated Die Hard with a Vengeance and its follow-up; since 1995, I've seen more than 1,500 movies, and Live Free or Die Hard's filmmakers appear to have seen none.

Len Wiseman's film, which finds Willis' gruff, bad-ass cop McClane attempting to save America from the evil machinations of a tech-happy mastermind (a hugely miscast Timothy Olyphant), certainly does its job: The explosions are loud, the stunts are cool, and even boasting a family-friendly PG-13 rating, it's violent as hell - so violent that I routinely found myself wincing. (In an inspiring example of cinematic equality, Willis saves his most savage beatings for the martial-arts practitioner played by Maggie Q.) Yet except for some energetic, sardonic bantering by Justin Long, Live Free leapfrogs from one cataclysmic show-stopper to the next with so little variety, and such slavish adherence to action-flick conventions of the past, that I spent its entire 130 minutes fighting the urge to nap. It's 2007; aren't empty-headed blockbusters supposed to be more fun than this?

The original Die Hard was recently named by Entertainment Weekly as the greatest action film of all time, and it's a tough choice to argue with; John McTiernan's 1988 original is lean, mean, and awfully funny. Yet while Live Free or Die Hard is arguably a tighter, more technically impressive outing than the series' previous sequels, it, too, feels soulless; the world may be in danger - again - but there's little on-screen that suggests it's worth saving in the first place.


Meryl Streep and Vanessa Redgrave in EveningEVENING

How could anyone who cares about acting not derive enjoyment from director Lajos Koltai's Evening? Mind you, I didn't say a lot of enjoyment; for long stretches, the movie might almost be daring you to like it. Based on Susan Minot's highly regarded 1998 novel, the film concerns Ann Grant (Vanessa Redgrave), slowly dying of an undisclosed illness, whose deathbed reveries transport her to a long-ago weekend when her best friend married, and when Ann had a fateful encounter with her one true love (Patrick Wilson).

With its script by Minot and Michael Cunningham, the film traverses between past and present, fantasy and reality, and its chronology remains lucid. But you rarely believe in any of it. Many of those playing relations (Toni Collette and Natasha Richardson as sisters) or the same character at different ages - Claire Danes portrays the young Ann - don't match each other physically or temperamentally, and the dialogue is so stilted and portentous that it sounds as if, rather than conversing, the characters are merely reading Minot's novel aloud to one another. (Like those sincere, misguided adaptations A Thousand Acres, The Shipping News, and Cunningham's own A Home at the End of the World, Evening wears its literary pedigree on its sleeve yet barely exists as a movie.)

Yet the cast is frequently extraordinary. Redgrave, with her exquisite focus and mischievous wit, effortlessly conveys a lifetime of regret and buried passion, and while Danes' ever-quivering chin too easily signifies inner turmoil, the actress has remarkable moments; a scene of Ann reuniting with Wilson on a rain-swept street features some of Danes' strongest, subtlest acting to date. Hugh Dancy, as Ann's sexually confused suitor, lends his role heartbreaking pathos; Eileen Atkins and Glenn Close make quick, vibrantly theatrical appearances; Meryl Streep's daughter, Mamie Gummer, plays the bride-to-be Lila, and appears to have inherited her mother's directness and nearly translucent emotionalism. And then, in the final scenes, Streep herself shows up as an aged Lila, and performs opposite Redgrave with invigorating, playful ease and not a whiff of sentimentality. As a film experience, Evening isn't very satisfying. But the committed actors frequently turn the script's ersatz poetry into true poetry, and for my money, it's nowhere near as dull as Live Free or Die Hard.

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