At The Movies

Economic insecurity in “Repo Men” and “The End of Poverty”
Review by Malcolm Maclachlan

One is a garishly violent “Minority Report” rip-off. The other is a serious documentary heavy on academic talking heads.

But it’s odd how much “Repo Men” and “The End of Poverty” have in common. Never mind that the makers of “Repo Men” (directed by Miguel Sapochnik) probably spent more on fake blood than the makers of “Poverty” (directed by Philippe Diaz) spent on their entire movie. Both are commentaries on economic insecurity, and both are chilling in their own way.

“Repo Men” will probably get the most attention for two things: the return of Jude Law, and multiple scenes of artificial organs being removed against the will of the bodies they’re in. Once seemingly in every Hollywood release, Law has had a lower profile lately. Now he’s back with bigger muscles and less hair, trying to reinvent himself Bruce Willis-style as an action hero with a soul.

Law and partner Forest Whitacker are heavily-armed employees of The Union, a large corporation that seems to have cornered the market on artificial organs. The story opens with a cringe-inducing scene of Law in action as a kind of battlefield surgeon in reverse before heading home to his wholesome family. The plot covers the well-worn territory pioneered in 1976’s “Logan’s Run.” The hero has a change of heart when he goes from hunter to hunted—in this case, when Law’s Remy ends up with a Jarvic heart and loses the stomach to kill people for a living.

But “Repo Men” may play most effectively as a commentary on our healthcare system. When crowds of people with past due organs flee heavily armed men with tasers—or when a father sits in an office choosing between his children’s future and his own—it’s hard not to see it in the light of rescission and pre-existing conditions.

This is a story told in broad strokes, and the sheer amount and graphic intensity of the violence became a real turnoff. But there are plot twists here that I didn’t see coming. It’s also clever how people of different political stripes could interpret it. Whitacker’s Jake gives an emotional speech on the importance of people honoring the contracts they sign. The story’s heroine (Alice Braga) is a multiple organ fugitive who made her own trouble with addictions to drugs and elective surgery. And it’s hard to read too much left wing propaganda into a film that partly plays as an extended Volkswagen commercial (the repo men all drive souped-up Touaregs).

It’s also interesting to note that in the midst of the recession, there has been growing mayhem in the repo industry in the repo industry we’re more familiar with—the guys who take back cars when owners miss their payments. Over the last couple years, there have been numerous fatalities—both repo men and car owners—in violent confrontations in that lightly-regulated industry.

But it’s regulations and government action that are often at the heart of the oppression of the poor seen in “Poverty,” which begins a one-week run at The Crest on Friday, March 19. The film opens with a basic question: Why is there so much poverty in the world?

This is a film heavy on shocking statistics that might make losing your health insurance seem minor. Every day, 24,000 people die from starvation and hunger related diseases. One-third of the world’s people lack access to clean water. We also meet many of these people, in locals including Bolivia, Brazil, Ethiopia and Kenya.

But the film’s main focus is building an academic argument that the poverty around the world isn’t an accident or a stage in development: it is the actual goal of a set of policies enacted by corporations via a set of quasi-governmental agencies, under the rule of law, designed to devalue labor and dating back to at least 1492. This is a well-worn path that relates the racism and colonialism of the past five centuries to a situation today that increasingly sees water, crop seeds and ideas as things that can be owned at great distances.

“Poverty” builds its case systematically. It views our modern religion of property rights and markets as a recent, constructed belief system designed to rid the world not just of the communism of the Marx/Lenin/Stalin variety but the friendlier communalism of shared fields and pasturelands in traditional villages across the globe. By making us focus on our own wealth and not that of our society—which we have increasingly little access to unless it’s sitting in our own checking account—the system encourages competition as a way of life.

In this competition, the big players always win. “Poverty’s” case ropes in the World Bank, Christianity and the CIA overthrow of Iran’s democratically-elected president in 1953 on behalf of British Petroleum as all strands in the same coherent system. In this model, International Monetary Fund loans have replaced invading armies fighting guns vs. spears against the natives.

“Most everybody in our country believes a loan [to 3rd a world country] is going to help poor people,” says writer John Perkins. “It isn’t. Most of the money ends up in the hands of corporations.”

He adds, “From the most rational, objective standpoint, it’s a failure.” Though maybe he should said that for some, it’s the sweet smell of success.

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