Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Moore and Less

Crosing country with "The Big One."

By Jim Ridley and Noel Murray

APRIL 20, 1998:  In the pages of The Nation, Michael Moore has smacked around liberals for liking the notion of "the people" a lot more than "the people" as actual human beings. Fair enough. But liberals can be forgiven for liking the idea of Michael Moore--a huggable Barney of a crusading journalist who skewers the rich and gives to the poor--a lot more than the actual Michael Moore, a prickly, resentful fellow who has become a celebrity by tapping into the bewilderment and powerlessness of downsized America. Should we still listen to him? More than ever. Moore's new commando comedy The Big One frequently set my teeth on edge--it's basically his Triumph of the Will, a filmed demonstration of mass support--but anyone who denies the basic truth of his message is living in another country.

Ragged, sprawling, and right on time, The Big One is the cinematic version of a Xeroxed broadside, which is actually a plus There hasn't been a more timely blast of issues at the movies since Spike Lee's Get on the Bus. (Primary Colors isn't about current affairs; current affairs are about Primary Colors.) The Big One is more or less a record of the nationwide 1996 tour supporting Moore's book Downsize This! (a bestseller, as Moore reminds us often). Crossing the country, the author assembled a ragtag (union?) camera crew and traveled to trouble spots throughout the heartland to Centralia, Ill., where the local Payday candy-bar plant was phased out despite the company's $20 million profit; to a Milwaukee auto-parts plant skipping town for cheaper labor down Mexico way; to a Borders bookstore in Iowa where the unionizing employees meet in secret with Moore in a darkened parking lot. (Surprisingly, his tour doesn't seem to land at a lot of mom-and-pop booksellers.) What he finds is the despair of his surprise 1989 hit Roger & Me writ on a national scale--the erosion of the bedrock American principle that anyone willing to work can get ahead, or simply survive. From Wisconsin to Washington, he feels your pain.

Not that watching The Big One is painful, at least initially. Propelled by a great soundtrack of rig-rock music, The Big One (Moore's suggested new name for America) has the rambling momentum of a coast-to-coast road movie. Moore has mastered the art of assault journalism as a stand-up routine, and The Big One delivers a lot of belly laughs, most of them at the expense of flustered flacks or blustering bureaucrats. (Whenever he catches some poor wage-slave of a bookstore clerk in his crossfire, though, the effect is more bullying than funny.)

Like Rush Limbaugh, with whom he shares more in common than he'd like to admit, Moore wields ridicule as a political weapon. When he yokes his razzing wit to a subversive brainstorm--such as sending campaign contributions from "Satanists for Bob Dole" and "Abortionists for (Pat) Buchanan" to see who cashes the check--he scores a bull's-eye as both humorist and satirist.

But presenting your own book tour as a public mandate is a pretty egomaniacal idea, and Moore's self-regard is indeed hard to take--especially when he cuts away to audiences whooping at his jokes, or he cuts to himself looking sad or thoughtful in the middle of someone's tearful downsizing experiences. (In these moments, Moore is just as guilty as the liberals he despises of treating "the people" as a faceless mob.) He isn't exaggerating his appeal: When he introduced the movie at a sold-out screening in Austin, Texas, a few weeks ago, the ecstatic audience did everything but raise lighters and wave tour jackets. But he's a demagogue in the making, one with an alarming distaste for eggheads and college graduates, as he demonstrated at the post-show Q&A--and that ultimately leaves a bitter aftertaste. He obviously sees his success as the voice of the people speaking, and by pushing the book sales and the cheering crowds, he's trying to show support for his agenda--a vote for Michael Moore is a vote against layoffs and corporate thievery. The tradeoff is that you still have to vote for Michael Moore.

Business as usual
Nike C.E.O. Phil Knight gets a few pointers from director Michael Moore in The Big One

For now, Moore has my vote. Even if the citizens of Centralia can get access only by participating in one of Moore's photo ops, he has still given them a bigger soapbox than anyone else has in the blinkered national media. He's the first person in recent American movies to question how much profit is enough, and he names names, even though his Great White Defendant, Nike CEO Phil Knight, gets off on child slave-labor charges with only a $10,000 payoff to the Flint, Mich., schools. And he nails President Bill Clinton's dubious low-unemployment statistics--a backward triumph that counts the proliferation of part-time, minimum-wage, benefit-free jobs as a source of pride. If the price of penetrating the national consciousness (and conscience) with these issues is making Michael Moore a movie star, I reluctantly hand over my ticket money. To paraphrase LBJ, he may be a son-of-a-bitch, but for the moment he's my son-of-a-bitch.

--Jim Ridley

The trouble with angels

A guy I was arguing with one time claimed I wasn't judging The Godfather Part III on its own merits, but rather unfairly in comparison to the classic Godfather and Godfather II. That may be, I said, but that's what happens when you call your film The Godfather. City of Angels skirts this issue. Although it's an Americanized remake of Wings of Desire, Wim Wenders' classic film about angels over walled Berlin, the filmmakers bend over backwards to avoid comparison by changing the title and avoiding mention of the source material until the closing credits.

Although they're not really the same story, the two movies begin the same way--following a pair of angels (Nicolas Cage as Seth and Andre Braugher as Cassiel) as they roam through a city (Los Angeles, in this case), offering unseen comfort to the troubled souls whose thoughts they hear in a near-constant stream. But where Wings of Desire stayed with this concept for almost one plotless hour, City of Angels tarries for barely 10 minutes. At that point, Seth becomes enchanted with a compassionate cardiac surgeon (Meg Ryan), and he reveals himself to her in hopes that she'll fall in love with him.

In the earlier film, the angel remained unseen to the object of his affection until he "fell"--i.e., became human. Other small details are different too. Wenders' film opens in black-and-white to reflect the reduced senses of the angels; the new film is in full color. Also, the former angel who inspires the protagonist to "fall"--a tangential figure in the original--has been made integral to the plot. (In the Wenders film, the former angel was Peter Falk playing "himself"; here it's Dennis Franz, playing a heart patient named Nathaniel Messenger.)

The biggest change, though, is one of tone. Wings of Desire was a pitch-perfect piece of mystical ennui that dissolved into a hopeful romance against the backdrop of a concert by goth-rocker Nick Cave, of all things. It was a love letter to the possibilities of a post-Cold War Berlin, and it was as thrilling as cinema as David Bowie's similarly themed Heroes is as rock 'n' roll. By contrast (and by design), City of Angels is a lesser thing--a spiritually tinged tearjerker. Even so, by starting the love story so early in the movie, the makers of City of Angels get stuck in an unfortunate angel-meets-girl cycle. Since there's seemingly little complication in the romance of a successful surgeon and her celestial admirer, the film concocts a last-minute plot twist that will leave most filmgoers (especially fans of Wenders' film) feeling betrayed.

Love story
Nicolas Cage and Meg Ryan in City of Angels

Of course, more Americans will see City of Angels than have even heard of Wings of Desire, and although anyone with a video-store membership should spend their money on the original instead, City of Angels does have its merits. Cage, who is different in every film, reduces his voice to a whisper and his gestures to a shrug--as would befit a being used to going unseen and unheard. Ryan, who gives the same open-mouthed, tilted-head, shifty-eyed performance in every film, does so here to charming effect. And in their small roles, Homicide's Braugher and NYPD Blue's Franz are a delight (although I kept hoping they would break off from the movie and start solving crimes).

Still, it's not the simplification of the source material that's ultimately bothersome, so much as the way this new vision plays out. City of Angels extols the simple pleasures of life--the taste of pears, the smell of the ocean, the warmth of the sun, and all the other sensations that are denied to the angels. Then it suddenly descends into tragedy, as though these little joys would be meaningless without the threat of disaster. Which is a completely useless worldview. We enjoy fruit because it is sweet (and films because they move us). This is a lesson that Wenders--with his message of hope for hope's sake--was able to convey. Light is vital because of what it illumines, not just because it chases away the darkness.

--Noel Murray

In brief

Live Flesh. When art movies are this much naughty fun, who needs the mainstream? Pedro Almodovar's smashing new thriller kicks off with a prostitute going into labor on a public bus in Franco-oppressed Madrid; 20 years later, her now grown son falls for an alluring junkie and tracks her down at her apartment. In one fateful instant, a cop lies bleeding on the floor and the boy is packed off to prison--only to return six years later to find the cop and the reformed junkie married.

The plotting comes from a Ruth Rendell novel, but its voyeurism, vivid sexuality, and pulpy fatalism are ideally suited to Almodovar's mischievous hothouse wit. The director responds with the most dynamic, indulgence-free staging of his career: The rococo Douglas Sirk flourishes have been replaced by a Don Siegel-style bluntness, augmented by the most voluptuous camera glides this side of primo De Palma. And hot? When the gorgeous leads, Liberto Rabal and Francesca Neri, merely stand in close proximity, they reduce the heavy-breathing cast of Wild Things to snuffling warthogs. Live Flesh reminds you what's been missing from all those pallid American neo-noir items glutting the market: the heat of deranging erotic obsession--i.e., live flesh.

The Players Club. Retro-nuevo blaxploitation from first-time writer-director Ice Cube, who has some flair for raunchy comedy. Too bad this is a drama. In this soggy old-school grindhouse flick, a single mom (newcomer LisaRaye) works her way through college doffing her duds at The Players Club, a third-rate strip joint. As written and acted, the women characters might as well be cardboard cutouts--except cardboard has more depth than the movie's conniving rape-bait cousin and the obligatory ELP (Evil Lesbian Predator). And somebody oughta tell Mr. Cube that heavy-mitted moralizing doesn't mix with pole dances.

But the club itself has its moments. It's a tawdry milieu out of inner-city folklore, populated with enough sleazy hustlers to stoke a Rudy Ray Moore slab, and the movie's pretty entertaining when it's hanging with the playas--especially the mushmouthed Staggerlee-wannabe owner (Bernie Mac) and his supercilious sidekick (A.J. Johnson). Whenever they're not onscreen, the movie plays like an afterschool special that sternly cautions against ho'ing--even as it fixes its beady eyes on the merchandise.

Species II. The lunkheaded original concerned a slithery alien whatsit that disguised itself as a butt-nekkid centerfold cutie so that it could mate (and mate and mate) with horny Earthlings--the sort of blatant strokebook premise that virtually guaranteed you'd bump into your minister while trying to sneak out. The twice-as-lunkheaded sequel offers more sex, more gore, and more aliens, here led by a male astronaut who gets infected coming back from Mars. This time around, the crassness of serving a second helping of such shamefaced drek humiliates everyone involved.

The original alien, Natasha Henstridge, is back: Where previously her lust was so undiscriminating that even Alfred Molina saw bareback action, her libido has now been extinguished by, I kid you not, force-fed reruns of The Dukes of Hazzard. (That'd do it for me.) Also back is troubleshooter Michael Madsen, whose performance is rather defiant in its couldn't-give-a-crap laziness.

Almost everything else wrong with the movie can be blamed on screenwriter Chris Brancato. Not only does Brancato have an African American astronaut (poor Mykelti Williamson) speaking in nonstop Def Comedy Jam warm-up patter, he then somehow makes a hero of sickle-cell anemia. (Apparently the last line of defense against racially pure villains is a black man's tainted blood.) It's junk like this that gives mindless sexist trash a bad name.

--Jim Ridley

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