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INEQUALITY FOR ALL

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Following in the footsteps of Al Gore, who was instrumental in spotlighting climate change as an imminent threat in “An Inconvenient Truth,” economist Robert Reich—who served as Secretary of Labor in the first Clinton term—addresses the issue of growing disparity in income between the wealthiest Americans and the struggling middle class in a similarly didactic, monitory documentary. But “Inequality for All” isn’t just a moralistic tract that treats the matter as one of simple ideological principle; it presents the subject in terms of economic theory, arguing that the economic wellbeing of the middle class is essential to the wellbeing of the entire economy and to the workings of the democratic political system, meaning that the stagnation, even deterioration, in the condition of the country’s working families is a betrayal of the American dream and an existential threat to the nation as a whole.

In truth there isn’t much that’s new in Reich’s presentation, which delivers the same message he’s been preaching for years. In fact, a goodly portion of the film simply records portions of a class on “Wealth and Poverty” he teaches at the University of California at Berkeley. (It’s obviously a popular course, filling a large lecture hall with enthusiastic students.) But Reich is an engaging instructor who avoids jargon and, using graphs that set off the historical data in illustrative form, makes what might have been arcane quite accessible. He’s especially successful in using references to his diminutive size to disarm potential hostility in his listeners, and avoids treating the people he talks with condescendingly, as so many academics do. That, along with the biographical material the film provides periodically as background, makes him very hard to dislike. So too does the fact that he’s critical of himself and many of his liberal colleagues (including presidents) for their failure to address the problems he diagnoses seriously enough, while bemoaning the polarization of political discourse that had made confronting such fundamental issues nearly impossible.

Reich also personalizes the issues he raises—which proceed from his basic economic message to the corrupting influence of big money in politics, a problem he identifies with the explosion of lobbying and portrays as being astronomically worsened by the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United—by going beyond abstract argument to give real people the opportunity to tell their own stories. Two middle-class families are introduced as examples of how that segment of society has suffered over the past three decades. In one case, the husband lost his job when his employer Circuit City went under and the bank foreclosed on the family’s condo, forcing them to move in with friends and live hand-to-mouth. In the other both partners have jobs, but they still have trouble paying the bills, let alone saving anything. As a contrast Reich includes observations by Nick Hanauer, a multi-millionaire who agrees with the film’s populist argument, deriding those who call people like him “job creators” as a smokescreen to hide the reality that their driving goal is pursuit of their own ideological agendas (and tax policies). The “Occupy Wall Street” movement is also introduced as a symptom of the anger felt by many about how the system seems rigged against their interests.

“Inequality for All” basically constitutes a liberal jeremiad, but it’s one presented with civility, good humor and a human face as well as impassioned conviction. In that it’s an accurate reflection of Reich’s personality, and it leaves one wishing more of us had character traits similar to his.

ONE DIRECTION: THIS IS US

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Part concert movie, part bio-sketch and all commercial, “One Direction: This Is Us” is yet another slam-dunk for Simon Cowell’s flavor-of-the-month boy band, whose myriad fans will eat it up as fast as they do the guys’ songs and high-priced arena tickets. It doesn’t hurt that its subjects—Niall Horan, Zack Malik, Liam Payne, Harry Styles and Louis Tomlinson—come across as the sort of very pleasant chaps tween girls’ mothers wouldn’t hesitate to invite over for dinner and gush over afterwards, or that the picture is expertly directed, handsomely shot, spiffily edited and—perhaps most important of all—well recorded. Of course self-styled musical sophisticates will scoff at the quintet’s bubble-gummy sound, the fact that they don’t write their own songs, and their failure (with one exception) to play instruments in their act. But success in the form of hordes of screaming, devoted fans is hard to argue with.

The saga of One Direction’s creation is well-known, of course. The five were originally solo competitors on Cowell’s British version of “The X-Factor” in 2010 but failed to advance. Cowell then had a brainstorm and put them together as a group, and in that form they came in third on the program. Though they didn’t win, through social media and tours their popularity exploded and their first album became a smash. An unkind but apt comparison might be drawn to the Monkees, the group created for an NBC TV series in 1966. Because of their obvious mimicry of the Beatles, they were often dismissed as the Pre-Fab Four. One Direction might be called the Pre-Fab Five, since like the Monkees they didn’t join one another naturally but were pretty much constructed from scratch by Cowell.

Now, three years later they’re an international phenomenon, as Morgan Spurlock’s movie—on which Cowell served as producer—clearly demonstrates. The concert footage of the English/Irish group, much of it shot at their appearance at London’s 02 Arena but with excerpts from performances at various venues during their worldwide 2012-13 tour, shows rabid crowds, members of which express their undying love directly into the camera. Interspersed are sequences in which the boys cavort about backstage (often to the distress of their anxious security detail), sightsee around the locales they visit in touristy fashion (though they’re swamped by fans when recognized), and offer observations about their unexpected success and how they feel about it. Spurlock also follows them on their increasingly rare trips back home to visit with family and friends.

What comes across loud and clear isn’t just that while the music they make may not represent the pinnacle of art, it’s catchy and easy on the ear. And the footage is calculated to emphasize that though they’ve hit it big, these are still normal lads at heart, no swelled heads among them, solicitous of their families (one is shown nearly breaking down when his mum thanks him for buying her a house, while another is best man at his brother’s wedding), still at ease with their old friends (another visits the bakery where he used to work and hugs his old boss, a chipper old lady) and genuinely chummy with each other on the long trips to the next concert. Again and again they thanks their fans—who, we’re told repeatedly, were the real key to their unlikely success, embracing them when they were runners-up in a television contest and spreading the word via tweets and e-mails. And they’re aware that the adoration they’re getting might not last and they might go the way of so many barely-remembered bands before them, and they seem okay with that, choosing to ride the wave as long as it lasts.

Of course, it’s hard to know how much of this is spontaneous and how much carefully staged. Certainly some of the boys’ off-stage antics have a lot of “A Hard Day’s Night” and “Help!” vibe to them, while a camping trip during which they reflect on the roller-coaster they’re on has a calculated air. Sequences in which some of them disguise themselves to interact directly with their fans are obviously planned well in advance. And in terms of their normalcy, it has to be remembered that it’s still early days and there’s plenty of time for darker aspects of their personalities to emerge, depending on how long their longevity is—a very uncertain thing in the boy-band world.

But at this moment in time, there’s nothing wrong in their enjoying their celebrity, however long it lasts, and it’s certainly understandable that Cowell should take the opportunity to add to the piles of cash they’re bringing in with a film like this. It’s a first-class job from the production standpoint, with Spurlock—not the most obvious of choices for the task—and his talented crew capturing the performance material in visually exuberant style (with the 3D used pretty effectively) and the off-stage footage capturing, or mimicking, a suitably fly-on-the-wall air. And it manages to differentiate the five guys nicely, with Styles coming across as the most self-consciously “on,” Malik as the most quiet and introspective, and the others falling in between the two. The result is more no-warts-at-all than warts-and-all, to be sure, but the boys’ “Teen-Beat”-buying fans would hardly want a “Behind the Music”-style expose anyway.

As one watches “This Is Us,” though, it’s possible to feel an urge to advise the guys to invest their earnings wisely. If musical history is any guide, the well won’t be a gusher forever.