America’s Sicko Health System

Just saw Michael Moore’s latest expose on the American health system – Sicko. A great film from Mr Moore, incisive, emotional and as usual he manages to bring up 9/11 as often as a Republican Presidential candidate, hopefully to more positive ends. The subject of the film is America’s singularly unique approach to healthcare – privatization to an extreme degree. Every US citizen has to pay for their healthcare in monthly payments to private organisations, although more normally this is through their employer. Should the inevitable happen and they need to go to the doctor, their HMO (Health Maintenance Organization) has to pre-approve any charges raised, from the consultation, ambulance trips, x-rays and everything. This all sounds a great win for private industry and free choice (the positive view on HMOs) until it goes wrong and the company’s bottom line becomes more important than saving lives – the situation Moore says now exists.

I’ve had to go through US medical treatment a few times now, with varying levels of medical cover. The first time was due to an icey slip into a puddle which resulted in a sprained tendon that took an age to heal but no major operation thankfully. The slip also resulted in about $5,000 in medical bills from a few hours of emergency room checkups (that weren’t even that quick). Luckily this was all covered, but it would have been an unwelcome cost should my HMO have decided not to pay out. In Moore’s movie the many ways that HMO’s avoid payouts and the impact on peoples’ lives is gone into in detail, often heart wrenching detail as death is regularly involved. Unsurprisingly the government’s link with big business is singled out as a driving factor by Moore, and his old pal George W comes in for the usual treatment.

Having revealed the warts of the US system, Moore then proceeds to wax lyrical about overseas systems based on ‘socialist’ practices – ie, taxes pay for everyone’s health cover however poor, all are equal. Canada, Britain, France and Cuba are examined and Moore acts out his country’s amazement on how well these systems work. As a Brit I know the British system isn’t as wonderful as Moore makes out, but I’m glad we have that rather than the US system. Equal healthcare for all is a wonderful thing, as none of us know who will be unlucky in the good health lottery.

Sicko is a great film, more emotionally wrenching than his previous offerings and a lot more human while staying political as only Moore can. Generally the US doesn’t get much sympathy these days due to its oil driven global policies, but this film reminds us that the citizens of the US are often the ones who suffer. Hopefully this movie will help drive positive change for all.

Disclaimer: Many years ago I did some work for Humana, one of the HMO’s mentioned in the film. In fact when you watch the film and see the ridiculously huge and be-marbled Humana offices in Louisville, look at the small brick building to the right – that’s where we were working.

Stardust – An Epic Gaiman Movie

Last night we went to see Stardust, the film adaptation of Neil Gaiman & Charles Vess’ same titled graphic novel. Gaiman’s last foray into movies, MirrorMask, was interesting but somehow un-engaging, but Stardust is an absolute delight all the way through. A fairy-tale love story, set in a world alongside England – reached through a hole in the wall next to the town of Wall (near Ipswich). Once the protagonist, Tristran Thorne, sets off on his quest to find a fallen star the action comes thick and fast, with twists and amazing characters on the way that keep you constantly engaged and smiling.

My personal highlights are the ghostly chorus of the dead princes, all named based on their order of birth, from Primus to Septimus, and all vying to be the next king by dint of being the last one alive. The already dead brothers includes David Walliams and Rupert Everett, and en masse they inject a wonderful note of humour into a Shakespearean tradition. The special effects are also fully integrated, never too showy just there in subserviance to the story as they should. Plus you have Robert deNiro as a flying ship captain with a hidden secret, Ricky Gervais with a brief cameo as a salesman plus a panoply of other famous actors from both sides of the pond – thankfully a lot are British given that’s the general accent. Even Claire Danes’ accent is reasonable, if a little too plumy in places.

You know this movie would never have gotten made were it for the success of Harry Potter, so for that we owe J K Rowling another thanks. Gaiman is an amazing author and explorer of the imagination, but his popular success is still limited even after the oustanding Sandman graphic novels and a selection of successful novels. Indeed, rumours of Sandman’s movie debut have been around for many years now, but it has yet to appear. Fingers crossed that Stardust has enough box office success to put some steam behind other Gaiman adaptations. So go see it!

The Next P K Dick Movie

There’s a new movie coming out in a few weeks based on Philip K Dick’s ‘The Golden Man‘, one of his longer short stories. Of course the big question is: is this another Blade Runner, or is it more of a Paycheck?

We’ll have to wait and see whether Next is any good. It has the potential to be interesting, with Nicholas Cage playing a Las Vegas magician who can see the future and hence change it, but it’s definately more ‘based on’ the original story than faithful to it. In the original, the Golden Man was the next stage of human evolution – unable to communicate, but with the ability to see the future and a huge threat to mankind due to his extreme fertility and attractiveness to human females. Oh, and he was gold. Dick wrote a story that discussed the possibility of mankind being replaced by a species better suited to the world, but less intelligent – an animal in human form. The movie takes just one of this mix of ideas and puts together a pre-summer epic involving terrorism plots and lots of running away. So it won’t be considered a ‘Dick’ film by anyone other than the marketing folks who get more attention through using his name, but if you want mindless action I’m sure it’ll be just perfect.

Bond, not Blond

Last night we went to see Casino Royale the new James Bond movie, and it’s definately a thumbs up – with some reservations. Like many fans of the series I was mildly concerned by the choice of a blond actor, however talented, to play Bond – but the high class of acting and toughness of Daniel Craig has won through to create a new, darker yet highly enjoyable Bond. Read on to find out more – although be warned, there are some spoilers…

After the campy 60s Casino Royale there was no way this Bond could be anything other than dark. In fact almost to counter the saturated colours of the last version, this new Royale starts in black and white – although I have to say the choice of ‘dramatic’ angles actually made me almost laugh in their naivity and seemed to echo the other. That laughter was soon quelled as Bond brutally and realistically achieves his double-0 status with his two first kills. More ‘Layer Cake’ than James Bond.

Then the titles… which weren’t good. They really need to stop using computer generated cleverness on this and get back to basics.

We cut to later, Bond is now in the African jungle hunting a potential bomber with his inexperienced partner. One slip up and Bond is thrown into a man on man chase through jungle, market and building site – but this is no normal Bond chase. No gadgets, no cutting corners just man against man as they literally race up scaffolding and jump across fatal heights in an amazing balletic display of speed and violence. This alone made the movie worth watching for me, while simultaneously making me feel vertiginous as they run across cranes. Amazing.

The trail of the bomber leads Bond onwards towards bad guy LeChief’s airport ‘terrorist’ plot, demonstrating the frailty of the leads he has to react to in order to save lives, whilst destroying property. The script deftly takes Flemming’s original novel and interjects the modern fear of terrorism while maintaining the development of Bond’s cold detachment and athletic prowess. Again, gadgets are at a minimum, but thrills are not.

The stage is now set for the title player, Casino Royale, to make an entrance as LeChief has to make back the money he lost after Bond thwarted his plan. Now this is the first point at which I feel the film looses itself a little bit, as more supporting characters are brought up with minimal introduction – all apparently integral to the plot. Some script editing would be useful as we deal with the new ‘Bond girl’ Vesper Lynde, Mathis the local bureau contact, corrupt police, more henchmen (& women) for Le Chief and a plethora of supporting poker players. Yes, poker not bacarrat. In amongst all of this, Bond has to cooly out play LeChief, win all the money, get poisoned and almost die, fight some guys, woo the girl and invent a cocktail. Guess what. He manages it all, but it takes some time – which could easily have been trimmed.

The game is won, all is good. But wait, there’s more! Betrayal, a chase, an amazing torture scene which, if you’re a woman will have you drooling and if you’re a man will have you wincing and calling your gym at the same time. Then, somehow, Bond escapes, he recuperates, gets the girl and goes on holiday. Here things, to my mind, really start to fall apart… After Bond ‘escapes’ the torture chamber I was convinced that he was being drugged to give away the passcode to the money, but turns out I was wrong – turns out the film makers needed a good 10 minutes of film to convince us that Bond and Vesper were in love. Star Wars II anyone? In fact it almost looks like the same European lake… Ug. Don’t get me wrong, the quality of writing here is infinitely better than Lucas’ pre-pubescent efforts at love scenes, but it’s still drawn out.

Oh wait. That wasn’t the end. The usual model of ‘Bond and girl float off into the sunset together’ is royally turned upside down. It’s a great twist, leading to another good sequence, but no better than what went before. Plus at the end of it all we get Dame Judi Dench delivering some platitudes to Bond about how he’s learnt, before he goes off to coldly get his revenge. Then the film ends, not with a cliff hanger – but with the introduction of the new, darker Bond forged from fires of betrayal and loss.

Sigh. So almost perfect. This could have been the best Bond film ever, even knocking the early Connery efforts off their podium. Just a little bit of editing, a little bit less Sony product placement and a few less characters to identify and understand. Maybe next time?

Uncovering Missed Gems

It’s been a weekend for catching up with mindless video style enjoyment, in between back breaking sessions on a 3000 piece jigsaw. My colour blindness and the jigsaw’s bad colour printing (and indeed their trimming the edge of the image on the box lid) is certainly making that more challenging than I’d like. Definately getting value for money from it.

First up was Stranger Than Fiction – the new Will Ferrell film widely touted as a Ferrell’s first effective cross over into ‘serious’ movies. I was a little bit apprehensive about this as some commentators had classed it as a Charlie Kaufman movie, without Charlie Kaufman writing it, luckily it came into its own and was a highly enjoyable romp. All the players were outstanding, with the exception of Queen Latifah who was just wasted, and Emma Thompson excelled as the neurotic writer for whom Ferrell is just a character in her latest novel. Strange, but entertaining – go see.

Continuing in the Charlie Kaufman vein, I finally got to see the wonderful Human Nature – Kaufman’s first collaboration with Michel Gondrey (before the excellent Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind). This beautiful film, which I had somehow managed to miss even though I’m a fan of both Gondrey and Kaufamn, didn’t do so well in the cinema – even after getting pretty good reviews – but it certainly should have. Great performances from all the principal actors, especially Rhys Ifans as the ‘ape’ man trained in manners by Tim Robbins’ repressed, and saved by Patricia Arquette’s hirsute nature writer. On top of the usual Kaufman script forging, Gondrey gets to extend and evolve his nature filming from the Bjork videos of old, plus introduce some beautiful CGI mice. Not sure how I missed it, but hoping I find some more wonders like this again.

Finally, another TV series I’ve been avoiding for a while for some unknown reason, Arrested Development. This now, unfortunately cancelled, series is pure genius – following the antics of a rich, orange county family whose patriarch has just been arrested for improper financial dealings and his second oldest son Michael’s attempts to keep the dysfunctional family functioning and save the company. With the likes of David Cross in the mix you know you’re in for a treat, but everyone else in the cast also excels to produce a laugh out loud comedy that reminds you however bad your family is – they’re your family.

Next stop.. the new James Bond movie, which everyone is calling superb which is good news indeed.