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Column Fri Oct 30 2009

This Is It, Bronson, The Yes Men Fix the World and Labor Day

This Is It

Let's start by putting aside the ethical decision to release this film in the first place. I have less of a problem with Sony releasing this film so soon after Michael Jackson's death and more with the fact that the unpolished nature of the work being shown would never have seen the light of day if Jackson were still alive. The performer was a perfectionist to a fault, and having footage of him at anything less than his absolute best simply wouldn't have been allowed to be viewed by the public. But Michael Jackson is not in control of his image anymore, or even his own output.

This Is It is the first of what I'm sure will be many film and music releases that will now make their way to the public, and you know what? I thought it was pretty strong material. You have to remember that unpolished Michael Jackson is better than 95 percent of most other singers and performers in the world. The footage is taken from a series of rehearsals from March to June 2008, but the stuff I liked the most are the unguarded moments where Jackson issues forth orders to his band, his dancers, and his production director Kenny Ortega (who also assembled this film).

There are a few wonderful diva-like moments — a scene in which Jackson is complaining about the sound levels in his earpieces being too loud is downright hilarious — but for the most part Michael is concentrating on getting the music, dancing and other elements perfectly coordinated. I was truly shocked how hands on Jackson was for this production, from selecting his backup dancers to the production short films that would run in the background of the stage during certain songs. And in nearly every case, what he's instructing others to do actually does make the show better.

When I heard that Michael Jackson was preparing to play 50 shows in a row in London last summer, I was well aware of his reputation for dropping out of gigs at the last minute and leaving everyone suing everyone else for the lost money. On the day he died, when I'd heard he'd gone to the hospital, I'd assuming this was another one of his attempts to get out of his commitments. But I think this footage reveals just how dedicated he was to playing at least some of these shows to the best of his ability. It's funny to watch Jackson sing his heart out at rehearsal and then chastise himself for not saving his voice, while bandleader and keyboard player Michael Bearden urges him to continue belting out a song like only Jackson can. The other thing that genuinely surprised me was how generous he was about sharing the spotlight with others on stage, in particular his lone female backup singer and occasional duet partner Judith Hill and the crazy sexy lead guitarist Orianthi. When he tells Hill that a particular moment in "I Just Can't Stop Loving You" is her moment to shine, you can almost see the tears in her eyes.

And how about those songs. Shortly after a slightly lackluster opening rehearsal number for "You Wanna Be Startin' Something" (it took me a while to get used to Michael not singing all the vocals for some songs just to hear what others are singing or playing), he goes into a breathtaking rendition of "Human Nature" that made me remember what it was about Jackson's voice that I loved so much growing up. What follows is a series of greatest hits, some rearranged, but most done note for note like the album versions. And I'm not complaining. Hearing songs like "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough," "Jam," "Black or White," "The Way You Make Me Feel," Shake Your Body" and "Man In the Mirror" really brought back memories. But it's the songs from Thriller that get the most attention — "Beat It," the title track and the show-stopping "Billie Jean." You can't help but cheer a little watching him recreate the dance routines that are as much a part of the cultural fabric as the songs.

Some of the set pieces for songs like "Heal the World" are undeniably cheesy and are focused on for far too long. But for every moment like that, you get two or three truly eye-popping sequences, best among them is an all-too-brief Jackson 5 medley that includes "I Want You Back," "The Love You Save," and a absolutely devastating version of "I'll Be There." This Is It isn't quite the revelation I think some people feel it might be. There isn't a hint of Michael the drug addict or man near death. All of you morbid curiosity seekers will have to look elsewhere. There's a bit of Jackson the man-child, but there's also Michael the spiritual man (his "God bless you" mantra gets old after awhile). The dedication (presumably from Ortega) at the film's opening is to the fans, but I think that's what Michael Jackson was aiming for with the show. It's a greatest hits package, accented with familiar dance routines, with the occasional reworked number just to mix things up. All I could think of after watching This Is It is that these shows would have been stellar, and for the first time since Jackson's death, I actually started to miss the singer whose music I grew up admiring.

Bronson

This offering from one of the rawest filmmakers to come out of Denmark, Nicholas Winnding Refn (the Pusher trilogy), is less about plot and everything about character — one character in particular, the raving, raging, savage creature called Michael Peterson (Tom Hardy from RocknRolla and recent British TV versions of Wuthering Heights and Oliver Twist), a Brit who worshipped Charles Bronson so utterly that he adopted his name and found a way to warp what he believed to be Bronson's attitude and toughness. What unfolds in the movie Bronson is a series of increasingly disturbing and nightmarish acts and behaviors that initially land a fairly young man in prison for a few years for attempting to knock over a post office. But through continued bad behavior against prison guards and other prisoners, Peterson ended up spending 34 years in jail (30 of them in solitary confinement, according to accounts), thus gaining him the reputation of the nation's most dangerous inmate.

I can handle just about any level of brutality from a film, especially one so passionately acted as Bronson. What Hardy does here is completely lose himself, until there's not a scrap of the real man anywhere on the screen. He becomes this version of Bronson so convincingly that it's almost impossible to wrap your brain around it. And yet you can't help but attempt to force conventional morals, behavior and right-minded thinking into this scenario, and you're only going to drive yourself nuts. What you have to do is simply step into Bronson's world, allow the devastation to wash over you, and take your punches. It's kind of unbelievable what happens next. We attempt to decipher if Bronson has a code of some sort when it comes to who he'll attack and/or kill, but it never sticks. Does he have a weakness or something he loves enough to stop the insanity for a time? He seems fully capable of making friends with prison guards when he feels like it, but if he needs to make a point, he'll pummel one of these friends without a thought. It's sinister and unpredictable.

While I certainly feel like I got a bit inside the mind of a madman watching this movie, writer-director Refn always keeps us at a comfortable distance, perhaps for our own good. And I certainly don't mean to imply that Bronson is nothing but anger and violence; it's also remarkably funny at times. In fact, Hardy's comic timing may have been the only thing keeping me on board much of the time. The film also has a stark, washed-out atmosphere that pushes the entire experience watching it into the realm of nightmare. And if you're looking for some subtext, it's not to tough to find. In a similar fashion to Natural Born Killers (although with slightly less glee), Bronson unleashes its nastiest venom not against its subject but at those in society who found it possible to admire and even praise this anger-management poster child. Bronson wavers and wanders a bit, but overall it's a deeply effective work with perhaps the single most unforgettable performance you'll see in 2009. Even with its many flaws, I'll take it. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

The Yes Men Fix the World

It's hard to believe that it's been five years since Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno first came to the big screen touting such technological wonders as hamburgers made of human waste and communication suits that featured a monitor attached to a phallus-like TV screen jutting out from their waste so CEOs could manage their plants remotely and in comfort. Of course, these revelations were bogus, as was the troublingly authentic looking fake WTO website the two created to generate interest from news organizations and conferences looking to enlist them for their expert testimony on the state of corporate efficiency and the economy. I can't remember the last time I held my breath for such extended periods over and over again watching a single film. Now the Yes Men are back with even loftier goals in their new series of indiscretions collectively known as The Yes Men Fix the World, directed by Kurt Engfer, who worked as an editor on Bowling for Columbine, Fahrenheit 9/11, The League of Ordinary Gentlemen and Trumbo.

The film opens with what might be the Yes Men's greatest hoax ever, and it involves Union Carbide (now owned by Dow Chemical) and the chemical disaster caused by its plant in Bhopal, India in 1984. I'll say no more. What's great about the scam is that for the first time, the Yes Men actually bother to follow up with those they may have inadvertently given hope to — the victims of the tragedy — then took it away. Were they angry? Were they crying in the streets? The answer surprised the hell out of me.

Much like the original film, The Yes Men Fix the World gives us a series of wonderful pranks that actually seemed a little more focused on making a positive difference. Before the objective seemed more about embarrassing a company for past misdeeds; this time around, in a stroke of genius, the Yes Men actually seem to be giving these companies a way out. The idea is, "If you were good people practicing corporate responsibility, this is what you'd be doing." It's up to the companies, then, to either do the right thing or deny that the Yes Men work for them and dash the hopes of so many counting on them to act humanely. In one hoax, Bichlbaum (who always seems to play the spokesperson, while Bonanno pretends to be the man behind the scenes) poses as a member of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), offering countless dollars to the people of post-Katrina New Orleans whose housing projects were torn down despite no real damage being done to them.

There is still plenty of silliness as well, such as when the Yes Men are invited to speak as representatives of Exxon to talk about alternative fuels, and they present each conference attendee a candle supposedly made from the manufactured body parts of a low-level Exxon employ. The film's ending will absolutely put a smile on our face. Again, I won't ruin it, but it involves The New York Times, and it's something in this day and age that is absolutely necessary. Not all of the Yes Men's scams work and some certainly aren't as funny or successful as others, but the overall effect of watching these men pull off appearance after appearance literally steals the air out of my body at times. I first saw this film at SXSW in March and I watched it again more recently (I believe the film also played on HBO in the last month or so), but now you get a chance to see it on the big screen with an audience fully prepared to gasp at every big company that gets it right in the keyster. The film opens today at the Music Box Theatre, and as a special added bonus, Yes Man Mike Bonanno will appear live at the theater for post-screening Q&As with me on Friday, October 30. Check the Music Box's website to find out after which showtimes Bonanno will appear.

Labor Day

I'm guessing there are as many unique and interesting stories revolving around the presidential election of 2008 are there were voters. The new documentary Labor Day focuses on an organization that was pivotal is getting Barack Obama chosen as the Democratic candidate and continued its grass roots efforts to make sure he was elected president. The film's timeline actually goes back to 2007 just weeks after Obama announced his candidacy. The group in question is the Service Employees International Union (SEIU).

Union leaders put together an event in which all of the Democratic candidates at the time (including Obama, Hilary Clinton, Bill Richardson, and John Edwards) to come speak to its members, answer questions during an on-stage interview with Time magazine's Karen Tumulty, and take part in a "Walk a Day in My Shoes" program, in which each candidate must spend the entire day with an SEIU member, both at work and at home. Watching our current president serving a meal to an elderly gentleman and then proceeding to wash the man's linens is humbling. One of the more interesting aspects to this process that is brought up during the film is that Obama had the least comprehensive health-care reform agenda at the time, and that the SEIU was making health-care a priority as an issue in choosing its candidate. Still, they chose Obama, and then the real work began.

Labor Day's other focus is a Labor Day concert/rally dedicated to taking back the holiday as something more than just a day off to barbeque. Performers such as Tom Morello, Steve Earle and Mos Def gave impassioned performances laced with anti-Bush rants and many good things to say about unions in general. And indeed the film is peppered with many a famous face from all realms, including politics (Ted Kennedy, Dennis Kucinichd, Joe Biden, even John McCain and Sarah Palin), journalism (Ted Koppel, Newsweek's Jonathan Alter) and entertainment. In fact, if you told me that the SEIU personally financed the making of this film, I'd have no trouble believing you. To say the film is slanted very far to the left (the idea that SEIU would throw its support behind a Republican candidate is never even entertained), and that doesn't make it a bad movie at all; it just makes it biased. At its core, Labor Day offers a view of the election that is far from head on; it's almost like watching events we are both familiar with and that are new to us, and seeing them through the eyes of people who live very different lives than I do. I was in awe of men and women who literally took months out of their lives and traveled to battleground states where they were needed to go door to door campaigning for Obama. The combined sense of desperation and hope permeates the skin of SEIU workers and it's infectious.

Labor Day doesn't offer a sweeping look at the game-changing election (see the Edward Norton-directed We The People on HBO for that), but we're still getting a behind-the-scenes microcosm of the political process that I found truly fascinating and educational. The film opens today for a weeklong run at Facets Cinematheque.

 
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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »

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