Where To Invade Next (A-) is a strange misnomer for writer/director Michael Moore’s most eye-opening and consistently accessible documentary to date, which is only tangentially about the military. In the film, the on-screen auteur stages a series of mock infiltrations into some of the great global societies to steal and stake claim to brilliant ideas and bring them back to the U.S. Sometimes a land grab and occasionally a grab bag, Moore’s trenchant travelogue transports us to schools in Finland and France, prisons in Norway, CEO roundtables of Iceland and the halls of government in Tunisia, to name just a few of his eye-opening encounters. The intrepid iconoclast of the progressive persuasion challenges all sorts of cultural assumptions and delivers plain-spoken innovations and surprising belief systems. The film is a spiritual sequel to his 2007 film Sicko in which Europeans frolicked in the bliss of their universal healthcare; but this movie is much more engaging and entertaining. Using his trademark humor and everyman interview style, he arrives at a profound thesis that many of the world’s great ideas did come from America; they just got lost a little bit on the journey. Moore speaks a little softer and carries a slightly less pulverizing stick, and it’s an entertaining and insightful lark. Those who choose to hear the provocateur’s message will be rewarded.
There’s lots of big ideas to convey about the headlines plaguing us today in Spike Lee’s fever dream fable Chi-Raq (B). Although overstuffed with plot and prose, it’s a powerful entreaty to end the violence dominating inner-city America and in Chicago in particular. Lee’s unconventional narrative is a modern-day adaptation of Lysistrata, complete with rival gangs, rhyming lines, a charming narrator (Samuel L. Jackson) and a formidable heroine, played with fierce majesty and commitment by Teyonah Parris. Nick Cannon is cold and effective and near-unrecognizable as a lead gang member in a plot about women abstaining from sex as the ultimate way to get the men of their community to wake up and restore civility. Lee’s film suffers from an avalanche of gonzo notions, many of them quite brilliant and some of them self-indulgent detours that could have used some judicious editing. But ultimately it’s a shock to the system and a vivid reminder of the political power he has as a filmmaker. It’s vivid and sometimes makes you livid and is an important take on society today.
Best known for directing Will Ferrell larks, director Adam McKay sets his eyes on a work of gravitas by tackling the American housing market collapse through the eyes of a few investing misfits who saw it all coming in the wry dramedy The Big Short (B). Treading familiar territory of big data chic honed to more entertaining effect by the same author’s Moneyball, this film suffers from a paucity of likable protagonists. That’s likely intentional but unfortunately undercuts the film’s sharpness. Steve Carell, Christian Bale and Ryan Gosling are standouts as guys who hope to strike it rich by betting against America and its institutions. The ultimate story is an important one to tell, and McKay sprinkles in some meta flourishes to ensure viewers can keep up. A civics lesson wrapped in the arch of a paranoid thriller, it’s close encounters of the earned kind. It’s a lot of exposition for the plaintive payoff.