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Stranger Than Fiction

Maverick filmmakers expose America's underbelly


HAPPINESS IS A WARM GUN: Michael Moore shoots from the hip in Bowling for Columbine
  • HAPPINESS IS A WARM GUN: Michael Moore shoots from the hip in Bowling for Columbine

God bless America. And God bless Michael Moore for caring so much about America. The scruffy guerilla filmmaker who's made a career out of sticking it to the nation's corporate guard on behalf of the little people this time sets his sights on the country's thorny firearm issue. The result is Bowling for Columbine (***1/2 out of four), a hard-hitting treatise that offers almost as many laughs as his previous pictures Roger & Me and The Big One but also (and here's the telling detail) emerges as a much sadder, wiser piece of filmmaking than its predecessors.

Detractors will claim that this film, so skewed that Marilyn Manson ends up coming across as the most logical of all the interviewees, is nothing more than a typical liberal diatribe taking pot shots at easy targets, and they'd probably be right except for one thing. Sure, it's easy for Moore to note (as most left-wingers do) that those countries without easy access to firearms don't have our absurdly high murder rate, yet this film muddies the waters by pointing out that Canada, a country swimming in firearms (countless citizens are gun owners), also has an enviably low murder rate despite the prevalence of weapons, thereby leading Moore (and us) to question whether gun control isn't the issue as much as an arrogant American mindset that feels everything is for the taking for anyone with the means to do so.

That's not to say that Moore lets the satanic National Rifle Association off the hook: He allows goober members to ramble on until they hang themselves, and the picture concludes with him landing an interview with rabid NRA spokesman Charlton Heston, an enjoyable actor but a somewhat reprehensible human being. The moment where Moore tries to get Heston to acknowledge a photo of a little girl killed by a single gunshot is about as harrowing as anything to be found in this year's more high-octane releases. Bowling for Columbine isn't a subtle film; instead, it makes its case with Magnum force.

FROM HERO TO ZERO: Sit-com star Bob Crane (Greg Kinnear) after the fall in Auto Focus
  • FROM HERO TO ZERO: Sit-com star Bob Crane (Greg Kinnear) after the fall in Auto Focus

Director Paul Schrader moves from Affliction to addiction with Auto Focus (*** out of four), a distant, even sterile, yet compulsively watchable look at the sordid life of Hogan's Heroes star Bob Crane.

Played by Greg Kinnear with the right mixture of frat-boy exuberance and lounge lizard unctuousness, Crane, in his early days as a radio show host, emerges as an affable chap with a yen for "skin" magazines. The success of the WWII sit-com doesn't exactly change his personality ("I'm a nice guy," he repeatedly insists), but the exposure allows him to stray from his wife (Rita Wilson) and get a taste of the women lining up to bed a bonafide celebrity. Working in tandem with a video production geek named John Carpenter (Willem Dafoe), Crane eventually gets hooked on the easy sex; what follows is an expected divorce, a post-Hogan career in dinner theater, endless hours of taped sexual marathons, and the actor's unsolved murder in 1978.

Despite the intense focus on Crane, calling the picture a character study wouldn't exactly be accurate, since the movie doesn't get inside his head as much as it watches his increasingly self-destructive actions from a detached distance. This approach mutes the film's emotional pull and makes the climactic killing seem almost like an afterthought, yet it also allows viewers to better study the signs that eventually lead Crane to his doom. The sex itself isn't the problem, Schrader seems to suggest; rather, it's any obsession that reduces a man to an unfeeling automaton merely going through the motions. Auto Focus centers on a sad sack whose life is eventually reduced to one endless bout of intercourse without intimacy, a marathon bang that lends new meaning to the term "artificial insemination."

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