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TORONTO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL

Michael Moore unveils 'Capitalism'

The documentary filmmaker debuts his latest takedown, on the corporate dominance of America, to an overwhelmingly appreciative audience.

September 15, 2009|BETSY SHARKEY | FILM CRITIC

Twenty years after getting his start at the Toronto film festival with "Roger & Me," Michael Moore was back Sunday night among 1,400 cheering friends for the first public screening of "Capitalism: A Love Story," without question destined to be his most controversial film yet.

This time the documentary filmmaker's target is not a corporate titan, like General Motors' CEO Roger Smith was all those years ago, but a concept -- capitalism -- so American that it seems like the country would cease to exist without it. And so, by extension, Moore's target is us, a population that his film argues has come to confuse capitalism with democracy, which is the one thing he believes could actually save us.

It is an extremely risky gambit and Moore knows it.

"At least we'll have one good night with a bunch of socialists from Canada," Moore said as the crowd roared (the documentarian couldn't have received a warmer welcome -- even the protesters out in front of the theater were on his side).

It's probably safe to say that he won't be receiving the same kind of universal acceptance from U.S. audiences when the film opens here next Wednesday.

As good a filmmaker as Moore is, he's not bad as a stand-up comedian either. The film was screening in the city's historic Elgin Theatre in the Visa screening room. Soon after taking the stage in his now familiar trucker's hat, sports jacket and tennis shoes, he crooned sotto voce: "Welcome to the Visa screening room, Vis-aaaaah. . . . " before telling about the nervous calls he got asking if there was anything about the credit card giant in his film.

But it was, for the most part, not a night for laughs as the film opened with a '50s-style health warning -- those with heart conditions or small children, should leave immediately. Though it drew laughs, they weren't hearty because the subtext was clear, this was not going to be an easy ride.

The documentary is, in its own way, an activist love letter for a different time, one he feels passionately we should reclaim, as he intercuts his own family's home movies of vacations -- "me here on Wall Street" accompanied by a shot of an 8- or 9-year-old Moore -- or a recent walk with his now 88-year-old father to the empty lot that once was a massive spark-plug factory in Flint, Mich., where his dad worked for nearly four decades. His father, he told us, had made the trip up to Toronto and was in the audience.

Moore's confrontational provocations, which he first introduced us to in his relentless hounding of GM's Smith for an interview to explain the massive downsizing of the Flint operations all those years ago, now feels familiar. It seems softened in this film, perhaps because he felt the need to spend so much time in setting the table for his message. He takes us back to Rome with a textbook explanation of why the empire collapsed, juxtaposed with contemporary images that remind us how relevant those words are today along with silly scenes from old swords and sandals movies.

There are heartbreaking vignettes of foreclosed families, one after another across the country. And then there's the interview with a guy whose company is called "Condo Vultures," and is happily in the business of buying up and reselling foreclosed properties. As he explains it, the only thing that separates him from a real vulture is that he doesn't vomit on himself (his idea of a joke).

Moore walks us through the so-called "dead peasants" life insurance policies that companies take out on their employees -- not for the families, but to enrich corporate coffers. There are charts and graphs and news clips explaining how Wall Street took over Washington, how the disparity between rich and poor grew so wide. And there is the trademark Moore guerrilla-warfare stunts: the filmmaker wrapping Citibank, Chase, et al in yellow crime scene tape, trying to make a citizen's arrest of their boards of directors.

The film gets tougher and tougher the deeper it digs into the issues -- with his hometown priests, among others, denouncing capitalism as not just a failed economic system, but as an evil that must be eradicated. I saw one woman slip out of the theater then, but the rest of the audience seemed mesmerized, barely moving except for the occasional ironic bit that allowed us a second of comic relief. Besides, Moore has never been shy in letting us know that he comes at his topics with an agenda.

After a standing, cheering ovation as the final credits rolled, more than half the audience stayed for the Q&A after. The questions, unlike Moore, were not confrontational. Did he have hope that Obama would bring change? He did, though he's not giving him forever to do it. Was he angry over the deification of President Reagan? He was.

And then it was over, unless you wanted to join the nearby protest to support Canadian auto workers -- there were directions.

--

betsy.sharkey@latimes.com

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