Swing Vote


Swing Vote

Kevin Costner and Madeline Carroll go fishing for an audience but don't catch anything.

(2008) Comedy (Touchstone) Kevin Costner, Dennis Hopper, Nathan Lane, Kelsey Grammer, Stanley Tucci, George Lopez, Madeline Carroll, Paula Patton, Judge Reinhold, Willie Nelson, Mare Winningham, Richard Petty,  Nana Visitor.  Directed by Joshua Michael Stern

We all want our system to work, but the fact of the matter is that few of us believe that it does. However, like the eternal cock-eyed optimists that we are, we hope that it could.

Bud Johnson (Costner) is one of those who don’t really care one way of the other. He works a mind-numbing job at an egg-packing plant and further numbs his mind with alcohol. His cute-as-a-button and smart-as-a-whip daughter Molly (Carroll) is really the adult in the family, putting up with his constant hangovers and dead-drunk slumbers with the patience of a saint.

She is passionate about civics however and is urging her dad to vote in the upcoming Presidential election. As usually is the case with her dad, he messes it up and Molly figures out how to vote for him, a contrivance that backfires when a voting machine error winds up not counting his vote. And when the New Mexico electoral votes prove to be crucial in determining the winner of the election, it turns out that Bud Johnson’s vote in an unlikely turn of events is the deciding vote for the whole enchilada.

Of course this brings out a media feeding frenzy and personal visits from the candidates, the incumbent conservative President Andrew Boone (Grammer) and the liberal challenger Donald Greenleaf (Hopper) visiting, promising Bud the sun and the moon with their obsequious campaign managers (Tucci and Lane, respectively) in tow.

Bud’s main goal is not to be the deciding factor but simply not to embarrass his daughter, which he is doing in a big way. The issues of the campaign trail and the resulting chicanery of the candidates gives way to the need for a father to make his daughter proud.

This is not really a polemic, and it isn’t strictly a comedy despite its categorization as such above. This is more or less a look at the modern American electoral process with elements of a spoof to it and certainly elements of a comedy. That it is marketed as a comedy is a very likely reason the movie floundered in its general release.

It’s certainly not the fault of the actors. Kevin Costner has moved from the dashing leading man phase of his career to the respected character actor phase. He takes the all-American schlub who is ignorant and content to remain that way and gives him charm. Bud Johnson isn’t the kind of neat, tidy character who gets rocked by the world’s blows and stands tall. He’s complicated and terminally weak-willed.

He has a match in young Madeline Carroll, who was so excellent in last fall’s Flipped. There are an awful lot of smarter-than-adult juvenile roles out there that are just plain annoying, but Carroll elevates the role to something special. She has a really intense scene with her mom (Winningham) which explains a lot of why both Bud and Molly are the way they are – it’s one of the best scenes in the movie and is the kind of performance that gets you noticed.

In addition to the impressive cast, there are also celebrity cameos of pundits, politicians, politicos and celebrities. A little bit of that can go a long way and before too long you’re overloaded on the famous faces in the film, which also would have benefitted by a little more editing. I don’t know about you, but I thought the movie would have been perfectly fine with at least half an hour of meaningless subplots lopped out, don’t you think?

If Frank Capra was alive today, this would be the kind of thing he’d be selling. He’d just condense it down into an hour and a half or less whereas this drags on for more than two. Its heart is in the right place though – and as examinations of the American political system go, it’s amazingly candid. I thought it was a bit underrated when it came out and thus I’m pleased to give the movie some love now.

WHY RENT THIS: A surprising amount of pathos mixed in with a terrific performance by Costner.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Too many famous people cameos, gets distracting. The movie is much too long and would have benefitted from a firmer hand on the editing room.

FAMILY VALUES: There are a few bad words but nothing too rough.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Costner’s second movie with Hopper, the first being Waterworld (1995).

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is a music video from the band Modern West which is fronted by Kevin Costner himself.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $17.6M on a $21M production budget; the movie was a flop.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: The Tree of Life

New Releases for the Week of September 17, 2010


Something smells bad on this elevator and I think it's coming from YOU!

DEVIL

(Universal) Chris Messina, Geoffrey Arend, Logan Marshall-Green, Bojana Novakovic, Jenny O’Hara, Jacob Vargas, Bokeem Woodbine. Directed by the Dowdle Brothers

Five strangers get on an elevator in a Philadelphia high-rise. Midway through their trip up, the elevator gets stuck. Not an unusual situation, granted, nor one that’s generally more than inconvenient. However, one of the people aren’t who they say they are, and what’s going on in the elevator is nothing natural at all. This is the first in a series of Night Chronicles, movies produced and conceptualized by M. Night Shyamalan but not directed by him.

See the trailer, promo and a clip here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Supernatural Horror

Rating: PG-13 (for violence and disturbing images, thematic material and some language including sexual references)

Alpha and Omega

(Lionsgate) Starring the voices of Justin Long, Hayden Panattiere, Dennis Hopper, Danny Glover. Two Canadian wolves – one an Alpha, one not so high up in the pack – are tranquilized and delivered to Idaho to repopulate the wolf population. That is so not happening, so the two make their way back to Canada and find they have to work as a team in order to make it back in one piece – and they make a pretty darn good team.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard, 3D

Genre: Animated Feature

Rating: PG (for rude humor and some mild action)

Animal Kingdom

 (Sony Classics) Ben Mendelsohn, Joel Edgerton, Guy Pearce, Jacki Weaver. After a young man’s parents die, he goes to live with his grandmother, who turns out to be the doyenne of a Melbourne crime family. Not only is she the nastiest piece of work since Ma Barker, she and her three cold-blooded sons are also deep in a war with the Melbourne police, some of whom are more unscrupulous than the crime family itself.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Crime Drama

Rating: R (for violence, drug content and pervasive language)

Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinski

(Sony Classics) Anna Mouglalis, Mads Mikkelsen, Elena Morozova, Natacha Lindinger. In the Paris of the Jazz Age, an unorthodox fashion designer and a controversial Russian composer meet and begin a torrid affair that will mark the most fertile creative period for both parties. This covers a different period in the life than that of the earlier biopic Coco Before Chanel.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Biographical Drama

Rating: R (for some strong sexuality and nudity)

Easy A

(Screen Gems) Emma Stone, Penn Badgley, Amanda Bynes, Patricia Clarkson. A high school girl who has no reputation whatsoever pretends to have sex to help out a gay friend, which changes her reputation – and the way she’s viewed by her peers – overnight. Unfortunately, there are unintended consequences as other guys who are getting picked on are lining up to have their reputations enhanced by having the world think they’ve slept with her. It’s “The Scarlet Letter” for the Nickelodeon generation!

See the trailer, interviews, promos, a featurette and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Teen Comedy

Rating: PG-13 (for mature thematic elements involving teen sexuality, language and some drug material)

The Town

(Warner Brothers) Ben Affleck, Rebecca Hall, Jon Hamm, Jeremy Renner. When an attractive bank manager is taken hostage for a brief time by a group of bank robbers, she thinks her ordeal is over. However, she didn’t count on one of the robbers falling for her and pursuing a relationship. Not that she knows it’s him – she was blindfolded at the time. Oh, and an FBI agent who looks a lot like a Mad Man is on his tail and she might be the key who can connect the dots, which might make the bad guys nervous enough to bump her off. Did I mention Affleck also directed this movie? What was I thinking?!

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Crime Drama

Rating: R (for strong violence, pervasive language, some sexuality and drug use)

Elegy


Elegy

Sir Ben Kingsley can hardly wait to film his sex scenes with Penelope Cruz.

(Goldwyn) Ben Kingsley, Penelope Cruz, Dennis Hopper, Patricia Clarkson, Peter Sarsgaard, Deborah Harry, Charlie Rose. Directed by Isabel Coixet

As we get older, we tend to desperately fight against the aging process by resolutely not acting our age. In some cases, we do it without realizing we’re doing it but in others we are completely aware of our motivations.

David Kepesh (Kingsley) is a professor of literature, a published author and a radio show host on the subject of books. His best friend, George O’Hearn (Hopper) is one of the world’s most acclaimed poets. He lives in a comfortable New York apartment (the kind with a stunning view) filled with art and books, made for lounging around with the New York Times on a Sunday morning with a coffee and a bagel from the neighborhood deli.

David abandoned his wife and son (Sarsgaard) years ago and seems to have been in a mid-life crisis since then. He has a tendency to pick one female student each semester to seduce, prudently waiting for the grades to go out before inviting his whole class to a party at his apartment and dazzling his prey with intellectual insights and an invitation to get together for coffee or an off-Broadway play. This way, there’s no hint of impropriety.

This semester’s target is Consuela (Cruz), a Cuban-American girl who is a lot different than the starry-eyed co-eds he usually aims for. She is a bit older and surprisingly, sees there might be more to her professor than an aging lothario.

The two embark on what is a highly physical relationship, which at first suits David fine as that is really all he wants. But as they spend more time together, a more emotional bond begins to take form. David, against all odds, falls in love.

With love comes jealousy, and David’s inherent self-doubt begets an irrational obsession that Consuela might be seeing a more attractive, virile younger man. He begins to stalk her a little bit which doesn’t sit too well with her. When she asks him to show up at a graduation party, he realizes that everything he fears may be waiting for him at that party – and that everything that is truly terrifying may be waiting for him if he doesn’t go.

This is based on a novel by Phillip Roth, who quite frankly isn’t the easiest author to adapt to the screen. Nicholas Meyer, who wrote the screenplay, does a very good job and let’s face it; he gets one of the best actors in the world to work with. Kingsley has to take a character that is basically unlikable and get the audience to at least relate to him. He is quite successful in that we are motivated to continue along for the ride.

The surprise is Penelope Cruz. An Oscar winner for Vicki Christina Barcelona, she takes a part that is far more sexual than any other she has ever tackled and makes it her own. In fact, I think its fair to say that you will go away from this film remembering Cruz even more than you will Kingsley, which is quite an accomplishment in itself. For my money, she has in the last few years become one of the best actresses in film today, up there with Meryl Streep, Cate Blanchett, Kate Winslett, Hilary Swank, Helen Mirren and Amy Adams for consistent quality performances from a leading lady.

The setting is the New York literary scene, an environment that I as a writer have always found fascinating. Not everyone will share that fascination; the scene has its share of narcissists and self-aggrandizers, enough to give it the smell of hoity-toity. Still, I can’t really fault a film for catering to the intelligent, and that’s what Elegy does. You may not love everything that happens on-screen, but there’s a certain honesty here and plenty of subtle layers – I haven’t even mentioned Patricia Clarkson, who plays David’s longtime mistress who shares his fondness for sex without emotional ties and is shocked that her paramour is getting into a situation that is an emotional minefield.

Every character here adds nuance, and I appreciate that a great deal. While this isn’t a movie I would recommend unreservedly to everybody, it is a movie I can recommend to anyone who likes their movies smart and thought-provoking as this does on the subject of men and aging. I hope I won’t be seducing young women at Ben Kingsley’s age; for one thing, I’m happily married and plan on remaining so. For another thing, I think I have a higher opinion of women than David does. For yet another thing I don’t have the gravitas and alluring charm of Kingsley so chances are I won’t be as successful as he is at it.

WHY RENT THIS: Stirring performances from Cruz and Kingsley. A literate and well-written script that doesn’t talk down (mostly) to its audience.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The New York intellectual setting may turn off some.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some nudity and a lot of sexuality, as well as some rough language. Definitely for adults and mature teens.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: David tells Consuela that she looks like Goya’s Maja Desnuda. Penelope Cruz played Pepita Tudo (who was possibly the model for the painting) in Volaverunt.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Mary Poppins (!)

Sleepwalking


Tara’s (Anna-Sophia Robb) glasses are anything but rose-colored.

Tara’s (Anna-Sophia Robb) glasses are anything but rose-colored.

(Overture) Charlize Theron, Dennis Hopper, Anna-Sophia Robb, Nick Stahl, Woody Harrelson, Callum Keith Rennie, Deborra-Lee Furness, Matthew St. Patrick. Directed by Bill Maher

We are all, in a sense, damaged goods. None of us makes it through our lives unscathed by trauma and tragedy alike. Some of us emerge stronger for it, but far more of us bear deep, open wounds hidden away by the veneer of civility. Press too hard on the scab and our true nature emerges, oozing from the sore like pus.

Jolene (Theron) has horrible taste in men. When her boyfriend is arrested, she is forced out of her apartment along with Tara (Robb), her 11-year-old daughter. With nowhere left to turn, she shows up at the door of her brother James (Stahl), a soft-spoken, weak-willed young man who is an endless doormat for his family and his friends, like his stoner co-worker Randall (Harrelson).

It doesn’t take Jolene long to find another loser to hitch her wagon to, and after a night of passion she impulsively runs away with her new beau, leaving James holding the bag. Completely ill-equipped to handle the needs of a young girl, he soon loses his job trying to be a ketchup father (coz he’s playing catch-up in the role…get it?) and is evicted himself. He goes to lick his wounds over at Randall’s, while Tara is put into the foster care system.

Predictably, Tara is put in one of the least hospitable foster homes on record and is soon begging for James to take her away, anywhere but there. In true desperation, he runs away with his niece, the two of them taking assumed names. They eventually make their way to the ranch of James and Jolene’s father (Hopper), a rattlesnake of a man who’s mental and physical abuse tormented his two progeny into lives of abject inability to deal with life. While James has defense mechanisms that help him deal with the old man’s cruelty, the spirited Tara is slowly being broken by dear old Dad. James must soon figure out a way to get away from their place of temporary refuge before Tara winds up crushed the way he and Jolene were.

This is not the most upbeat movie you’ll ever run into. Not only are the main characters constantly doing the wrong thing, they are dealt incredibly bad hands to begin with. They are poster children for the aphorism “if it wasn’t for bad luck they’d have no luck a’tall.” Director Maher compliments the grim mood with bleak landscapes; harsh winters, dry, dusty and lacking in color. Only Tara has any color to her, which is more or less a metaphor as far as I can tell.

Robb, so good in Bridge to Terabithia, proves herself a capable actress who could well wind up in the same stratum as Dakota Fanning and Abigail Breslin. Stahl, who has mostly played supporting roles throughout his career, is put in a position to carry this movie and for the most part, he handles it well, given that his character is a bit of a milksop as written.

What really drew me into the movie was the relationship between Tara and James. It defines the movie to a certain extent and is the best thing in it, the only aspect that generates any hope that their miserable lives will improve at all. Robb and Stahl make it believable and moving, two wounded creatures gravitating towards each other at first out of necessity and eventually out of true affection. The evolution of their relationship is the crux of Sleepwalking.

While the ending is a bit of Hollywood hokum, the truth is that there are lives that don’t get happy endings. Some people struggle and labor their entire lives only to get nowhere. Sometimes they are responsible for their own plight, other times it is just godawful luck. Observing a slice of their lives doesn’t necessarily make us feel superior; rather it makes us feel fortunate that we have what we do and reminds us that everything good in life comes with a price tag.

WHY RENT THIS: Robb and Stahl make a believable pair; their relationship is at the crux of the movie and provides all the rooting interest.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The tone is unrelentingly bleak, and in a lot of ways, most of these characters are hard to relate to because of their many and varied faults.

FAMILY VALUES: Rough language, a bit of sexuality and a scene where a child is emotionally and physically abused make this not suitable for kids.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The original working title for the movie was “Ferris Wheel.”

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Grace Is Gone