CAPITALISM: A LOVE STORY (2009). It goes without saying that Michael Moore's most recent documentary hardly shows the United States of America at its best. The sobering afterthought is that it hardly shows Michael Moore at his best, either. Easily the controversial filmmaker's weakest nonfiction piece to date, Capitalism contains many powerful sequences yet ultimately is too scattershot to serve as effective agitprop. Tackling the subject of capitalism is even more daunting than tackling the subject of health care (as he did so expertly in Sicko), and Moore is unable to coalesce all the different chapters of his odyssey into a cohesive whole. He jumps all over the place: watching ordinary folks being thrown out of their lifelong homes by the evil banking industry; chatting with erudite actor-playwright Wallace Shawn about economics; detailing how various people (including a judge) were getting rich by throwing typical teens into a juvenile detention center for offenses as minor as hurling a piece of meat across the dinner table; and noting how many banking-industry officials have been a key part of the past few administrations. This is all well and good, but we already knew most of these stories from even just cursory glances at newspapers and news blogs, and more than ever, we get the sense that Moore is preaching to the choir with no real inclination to expand his audience. As always, he's at his best when he gets the hell out of the way and lets average citizens have their say; these are the moments that alternately provide the most inspiration and the most outrage. By the end of the picture, Moore takes to the streets, brandishing the verbal equivalent of a shotgun and calling for the end of capitalism. Yet even his own footage often suggests that the problem isn't capitalism itself but rather capitalism as it's abused by those in charge. Moore means well, but in this case, he seems to have used that metaphorical shotgun to shoot himself in the foot.
DVD extras include 10 additional vignettes (totaling approximately 85 minutes); and trailers.
PONYO (2008). Compared to many of the previous films by Hayao Miyazaki titles, the Japanese import Ponyo is minor-league stuff. But compared to the animated garbage that typically comes our way, it's practically a godsend. This tale about a goldfish (voiced by Noah Cyrus) who longs to be human is a bit on the elementary side, and the translated dialogue (shaped by E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial scribe Melissa Mathison) isn't up to snuff for a Miyazaki feature. But as always, Miyazaki fills the screen with so many wondrous images that viewers are immediately swept up in his fantastic universe. Tina Fey, Matt Damon and Cate Blanchett are among the name actors voicing various characters, although I was especially fascinated by the nautical wizard who spoke with the voice of Liam Neeson but looked less like Schindler and more like David Bowie in his Labyrinth garb. In other Miyazaki news, three of the visionary filmmaker's past efforts are being re-released on DVD in two-disc sets. Although produced during the 1980s, the films didn't really enter the American consciousness (or even reach our shores) until the 1990s, but that changed largely due to Roger Ebert's rave review of My Neighbor Totoro (1988) back in 1993. Totoro earns its reputation as a surreal delight, focusing on two little girls who befriend some odd creatures (dig that crazy cat-bus). Castle in the Sky (1986) is, for my money, Miyazaki's best movie next to the Oscar-winning masterpiece Spirited Away, as two kids get involved in hair-raising adventures as they search for the title edifice. Kiki's Delivery Service (1989) doesn't quite measure up, but it's still an enjoyable tale of a young girl training to become a witch. Miyazaki's films are dubbed better than most other foreign-language fare (Anna Paquin, Mark Hamill, Cloris Leachman, Dakota Fanning and Kirsten Dunst are among the name actors featured), so viewers can enjoy these in either English or Japanese-with-English-subtitles.
DVD extras on the various discs include interviews with Hayao Miyazaki; introductions by Pixar's John Lasseter; and behind-the-scenes featurettes.
Castle in the Sky: ***1/2
My Neighbor Totoro: ***1/2
Kiki's Delivery Service: ***