Charlton Heston, Michael Moore are a provocative pair
Crusading documentary filmmaker Michael Moore and screen-legend-turned-NRA-stumper Charlton Heston might not be a match made in Second Amendment heaven, but there's no question that, thrown together, this odd couple makes for provocative viewing. Heston serves as a lead antagonist throughout "Bowling for Columbine," Moore's Oscar-winning examination of gun control and America's culture of violence. The filmmaker's climactic showdown with Heston -- some might say ambush of him -- turns uncomfortable fast. And yet looking at their respective filmographies, it seems that they were destined for each other all along. The evidence, laid out from left to right: "Bowling for Columbine" (2002). Moore, on public response to his work: "I'm really happy when people say, `Jeez, five, six days later, there are still things from that film replaying in my head.' I [like] hearing that as opposed to, `Jeez, I loved that and went directly to the bar to forget about it.' " The year was 1990, and Moore was speaking to a group of Boston writers during a stop to promote his breakout General Motors slamdance "Roger & Me." Nearly a decade and a half later, the philosophy behind his latest effort is exactly the same, to the film's benefit and detriment.
"Bowling" is sufficiently disturbing that, yes, its regular tension-release valves are welcome, probably even necessary. Security footage of the Columbine shootings certainly is enough to set fingers twitching over the "off" button on the remote -- precisely what Moore doesn't want. But his handling of comic-relief moments hasn't grown much more sophisticated or varied with time. Too often we find him going back to the same well, training his camera on slow-witted heartlanders, hapless corporate middle-rungers, and clueless celebs when he's got better material at hand. Just how many gun-loving Michigan rednecks do we need to hear from, anyway?
The film's look at kinder, gentler Canadians is fresher territory, even when the material is as goofily innocent as, say, Moore demonstrating their comparative sense of security by strolling up to various Toronto homes and simply opening the front door. Similarly, Moore pursues a short-tempered Dick Clark to confront him about a widelycovered incident in Flint, Mich. -- scene of "Roger & Me" -- in which a 6-year-old boy shot and killed a classmate. (The boy's mother was reportedly at a welfare-to-work job at one of Clark's theme restaurants at the time.) But if celebrity must figure into Moore's narrative, why veer off on this obvious tangent when he's already established that Heston is waiting up at the NRA podium, rifle held defiantly aloft? Moreover, Moore makes such a compelling core argument that media fear-mongering is largely to blame for our predilection for violence, the movie doesn't need to go the sideshow route. DVD technology was seemingly made for a guy like Moore, always eager to speak his piece. Where multiplex schedules may curb his films' running times and the Academy Awards telecast may cut off his Bush-whacking acceptance speech, he can expound ad infinitum here. On some portions of the disc, he does, most notably a 15-minute elaboration on what he was trying to say at the Oscars. (A couple of minutes are devoted to Moore reciting his speech, since the Academy refused to allow the inclusion of actual telecast footage.) Meanwhile, highlights from a post-"Bowling" lecture at the University of Denver may or may not aid his liberal agenda -- as in Moore's Oscars speech, his message feels less polished and more rantlike than in the film.
Social-mindedly giving back a little, Moore lets his interns provide the commentary track. This gaggle of 20-somethings offers the occasional welcome glimpse of life in the muckraking trenches, as when one recalls being told to find out ASAP whether Hitler ever bowled. But an annoying number of observations are glib, banal, or downright sycophantic. Notes one woman on hearing "South Park" cocreator Matt Stone's hardline thoughts on the Columbine shooters: "It's so nice to hear somebody famous say things that you think, too." Too bad Heston couldn't have supplied a commentary. (Newly available from MGM Home Entertainment, $26.98; VHS priced for rental)"Canadian Bacon" (1995). Contrary to what Moore's more conservative critics would argue, this film does, in fact, represent his sole venture outside the nonfiction arena. John Candy, in his last role, heads up a low-budget ensemble as a small-town sheriff who hears about a planned Canadian assault on the United States and heads north of the border to preemptively kick butt -- unaware that the "conflict" is actually a phony story cooked up by American president Alan Alda and his advisers to jump-start business for faltering, post-Cold War defense contractors.
The movie occasionally delivers the absurdist "Dr. Strangelove" vibe it aspires to; witness Candy, in an anti-Canuck lather, grabbing a six-shooter and declaring, "There's a time to think and a time to act, and gentlemen, this is no time to think!" But most of the humor falls flat, partly because of the forced premise -- Canada? -- and partly because Moore doesn't segue nearly as deftly between comic documentary and comedy as, say, Terry Zwigoff did with "Crumb" and "Ghost World."
One guesses that Moore, for all his talent, probably realized this on some level -- and promptly started beating a path for Heston's door, leaving this no-frills disc in the dust. (MGM Home Entertainment, $14.95; also on VHS, limited availability)
"Planet of the Apes" (1968, 2001), "Beneath the Planet of the Apes" (1970). Of course Moore was going to feel compelled to help Heston connect the dots between gun violence and wider-reaching military muscle-flexing. Look at the way this series finds a clearly conflicted Heston ranging all over the map: at one moment cutting that signature, savage image in nothing but a loincloth and a rifle slung over his back . . . but in the next, damning those "maniacs" for bombing the world back into prehistory. Then it's back to a pro-arms stance as he pushes the button that nukes the whole planet, man and monkey alike.
And then there's Heston's curious cameo as an elder ape in Tim Burton's remake, in which he warns offspring Tim Roth against the evil of mankind -- and of guns in particular. Talk about your mixed messages. (Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment, varying availability)