Every Act of Life


The play’s the thing.

(2018) Documentary (The Orchard) Terrance McNally, Don Roos, Nathan Lane, Peter McNally, Christine Baranski, Chita Rivera, Richard Thomas, Angela Lansbury, F. Murray Abraham, John Slattery, Tyne Daly, Rita Moreno, John Kander, Anthony Heald, Lynn Ahrens, Jon Robin Baitz, Audra McDonald, John Benjamin Hickey, John Glover, Edie Falco. Directed by Jeff Kaufman

 

Terrance McNally is without question one of the most important playwrights of the late 20th century and on into the 21st century. Even now, pushing 80, he remains a vital creative force. He was one of the first Broadway writers to put openly gay characters in his plays; he was also among the first to come out himself.

This documentary is an attempt to capture the life of McNally, from his beginnings in Corpus Christi, Texas where he was hopelessly bullied, to Columbia University where he essentially majored in Broadway, Eventually he took an interest in writing stage plays instead of novels (which under his beloved English teacher in Corpus Christi Mrs. Maurine McElroy who encouraged him when both his alcoholic parents did not). He took up clandestine boyfriend Edward Albee whose career was just starting to take off at the time; McNally, on the other hand, was struggling especially when his first work was roundly panned by the critics.

Since then, McNally has written such gems as Frankie and Johnnie in the Claire de Lune, The Ritz, Master Class, Lips Together Teeth Apart, and the musical version of Kiss of the Spider Woman. He has won four Tony Awards and countless other honors. Jeff Kaufman rounds up a battalion of his friends to talk about the various facets of his personality and the highlights of his career. Broadway greats like Lan, Abraham, Lansbury, Roberts and Glover have all had their careers positively impacted by McNally and they are generous in their praise of the writer.

The film is a little bit over-fawning, rarely admitting to any warts or disfigurements, although they mention his bout with alcoholism which Lansbury apparently talked him down from. He has had a fairly large and diverse group of boyfriends, ending up with current husband Tom Kirdahy with whom he has a stable relationship so far as can be seen. Still, while some of the relationships get some coverage, others are almost mentioned in passing.

We hear about how generous he is, how insecure he is about his own work but we don’t really dive deep into the work itself. It feels at times we’re just getting a greatest hits version of his plays and the meaning of them and what they mean to others gets little interest from the filmmakers. I would have liked to see more analysis and less anecdotes but in the whole, this feels more like a group of friends gossiping rather than a truly academic study of McNally’s work. Frankly, this really will only appeal to those who live and breathe Broadway and kind of ignores everyone else.

REASONS TO GO: A very informative film for those unfamiliar with McNally. McNally’s gayness is emphasized, something a lot of films are afraid to do even now.
REASONS TO STAY: There are too many talking heads. There’s also a little bit too much hero-worship going on.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexual content as well as profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie made its world premiere at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/11/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 86% positive reviews: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Wrestling With Angels
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Life Feels Good

The Vanishing of Sidney Hall (Sidney Hall)


The Hollywood version of a writer hard at work.

(2017) Drama (A24) Logan Lerman, Elle Fanning, Michelle Monaghan, Kyle Chandler, Janina Gavankar, Margaret Qualley, Nathan Lane, Blake Jenner, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Tim Blake Nelson, Michael Drayer, Christine Brucato, Alex Karpovsky, Darren Pettie, David Alan Basche, John Trejo, Danny Cullen, Richard Beal, Ryan Willard, Cris Williams, Stephanie Purpuri. Directed by Shawn Christensen

 

From time to time, people who are at the top of their field, wrapped in success and fame, who simply walk away. It’s an irresistible story for the rest of us who wonder why those folks give up what the rest of us dream of. It is a sign of the prurient side of ourselves.

Sidney Hall (Lerman) is a gifted writer. Ask him; he’ll tell you so. We meet him in a high school writing class in which he has been tasked with writing an essay on the meaning of life. What he delivers is a treatise on his willingness to masturbate over a popular cheerleader and his feeling that he’s wasting his efforts on it. Needless to say, this doesn’t impress the tightly wound English teacher much.

Duane (Abdul-Mateen) knows that Sidney is just breaking the balls of the teacher who doesn’t understand him. He acts as kind of a mentor (and later a literary agent) to Sidney, delivering him to a prestigious publishing house and it’s acerbic editor (Lane). Sidney’s first novel, about the suicide of a high school student, becomes not only a bestseller but a cultural phenomenon and makes him wealthy and a bit of a rock star.

But Sidney’s personal life is a shambles. He left home, getting away from his shrill and controlling mother (Monaghan) and with his high school sweetheart Melody (Fanning) who later becomes his wife. But success breeds some not so pleasant side effects and Sidney’s marriage is crumbling as he becomes more and more self-absorbed. After losing the Pulitzer to another writer and devastated at the end of his marriage, Sidney abruptly disappears from public view.

A series of arsons in bookstores and libraries in which Sidney’s books alone are targeted for burning puts a detective (Chandler) on the trail of Sidney, who has at this point become something of a hobo, riding the rails with his dog Homer. But what motivated Sidney to walk away from everything? What is inside the mysterious box he dug up with his jock friend Brett Newport (Jenner)? Who is the mysterious detective chasing him and why is he so keen to find him? There are ghosts haunting Sidney Hall and perhaps that is why he wants to become one himself.

Director Shawn Christensen has enormous talent; it was clearly on display in his last movie Before I Disappear and there are moments where you can see it in this film. Unfortunately, this is much more of a mess than his last movie was. Christensen has three separate timelines interweaving with one another; Sidney’s last weeks in high school as his relationship with Melody begins and his relationship with Brett is explained. There’s also the apex of his career as a successful writer in his 20s in which his nascent ego has reached full flower, alienating him from just about everyone including his wife. Finally we see him as a lonely and just about psychotic wanderer, cloaked in self-loathing and with only a dog for company.

There are a lot of revelations in the film and to be honest some of them work, others are more on the ludicrous side. Lerman is a fine actor but he’s unconvincing here particularly in some crucial scenes which quite frankly undermines the whole she-bang. He also has almost no chemistry with Fanning whose character is so massively cliché that we’re banging our heads against the wall in frustration.

There are a lot of clichés on display here; the writer in his study, a glass of whiskey beside him, cigarette smoke curling up from his keyboard as he ponders the weight of his next few words. There is in fact a great deal of pretentiousness here, from the condescending dialogue to the portrait of the writer as a young snot. Although we find out near the end of the film that Sidney has suffered greatly at the hands of life, by that time it’s really too late to rescue the character from being someone we can’t stand to be around for very long – and we’re forced to hang out with him for nearly two hours.

Yes, the movie is much too long and feels padded out with gratuitous misery. We get it, Sidney’s life sucks and success isn’t all it’s cut out to be yadda yadda yadda. It doesn’t help that the leaping back and forth from timeline to timeline is done with leaden hands, leaving the audience frustrated yet again.

The sad thing is that there really is a good film somewhere in here. The cast is strong top to bottom and the performances are for the most part compelling; Nathan Lane brings some well-needed levity to the movie and Blake Jenner is surprisingly strong in his role as well. This just feels like a director trying to spread his wings but for whatever reason he plummets from his perch to make a great big ker-splat on the ground. I’m hoping this is just a misstep for Christensen and that we can still expect better things from him in the future. This isn’t going to be one of the highlights on his resume though.

The film is just hitting theaters after a month-long run on DirecTV. It is also still available there for subscribers to that satellite service. Expect it on a larger array of streaming services in the near future if you’re of a mind to see it.

REASONS TO GO: Nathan Lane is always a hoot. There are some really nice cinematic moments. The cast does pretty well in general.
REASONS TO STAY: The storytelling is disjointed and frustrating. The movie goes on way too long. The dialogue and plot are way too pretentious.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity including some sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Lerman plays Sidney as a high school student, in his 20s and lastly in his 30s; Lerman is actually 25 years old.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/3/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 10% positive reviews. Metacritic: 18/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Listen Up, Philip
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Submission

Trumbo (2007)


Bath time is work time for Dalton Trumbo.

Bath time is work time for Dalton Trumbo.

(2007) Documentary (Goldwyn) Dalton Trumbo, Joan Allen, Brian Dennehy, Michael Douglas, Paul Giamatti, Nathan Lane, Josh Lucas, Liam Neeson, David Strathairn, Donald Sutherland, Dustin Hoffman, Kirk Douglas, Helen Manfull, Mitzi Trumbo, Christopher Trumbo, Walter Bernstein, Kate Lardner, Peter Hanson, Emanuel Azenberg. Directed by Peter Askin

documented

One of the core values of the United States is the freedom of speech. Our forefathers in their wisdom decreed that nobody’s right to it would be abridged by congress or any other legislative body. That freedom is one we take for granted…until someone tries to take it away.

In the late 1940s we were riding high, but all was not perfect. The Nazis had been defeated, but we weren’t quite out of the woods yet; the communists in the Soviet Union and elsewhere were on the rise and we were fully certain that a World War III was just on the horizon and there was a fatalism that it would be nuclear.

At that time in Hollywood, Dalton Trumbo was also riding high. One of the most acclaimed and honored screenwriters in the business, he fell afoul of the House of Un-American Activities Committee, or HUAC led by the notorious Senator Joseph McCarthy. The committee, attempting to root out what was rumored to be a heavy communist influence in Hollywood, went after Trumbo who was unapologetically a member of the Communist Party (although he would later leave it, disillusioned). When questioned as to his activities, Trumbo asserted his First Amendment rights and refused to answer. He was found in contempt of Congress and jailed for a year. When he was released, he discovered he was blacklisted by the major studios and had to make a living writing scripts under “fronts” – other screenwriters who were credited with the scripts that Trumbo (and other members of the so-called Hollywood Ten) wrote. Two of them, The Brave Ones and Roman Holiday, would net Oscars for Trumbo which he couldn’t collect at the time.

Eventually Kirk Douglas enlisted Trumbo to write Spartacus, perhaps the most well-known of all his movies. Once that became a blockbuster, the blacklist essentially ended. and Trumbo resumed his writing career which lasted into the mid-70s (he would die in 1976 of a heart attack).

His son Christopher Trumbo created a play from the letters Trumbo wrote during the period of his trial before HUAC, his incarceration and the years he was blacklisted. Askin has skillfully weaved that into an unusual documentary, taking the elder Trumbo’s words read by a variety of socially conscious Hollywood actors skillfully interwoven with archival footage, home movies and contemporary interviews detailing Trumbo’s ordeal.

The readings themselves vary; some are very emotional, while others feel stiff. Clearly some of the voice actors connected more with the material than others did, and quite frankly some of the letters sound better in the mind read on the printed page than they do spoken aloud. However, the home movies and some of the archival footage is absolutely riveting, and Askin maximizes their effect. Editor Ken Engfehr is to be commended for his deft touch.

Through these readings, interviews and footage, we get a glimpse of Trumbo the man, a man of unique principles and courage. Standing up for his beliefs at a time when conformity was more the norm – well, I suppose that can be said of any time – but certainly at a time when rocking the boat when it came to communism was tantamount to treason. Trumbo, despite his disdain for capitalism, had a deep abiding love for the Constitution and despite the fact that he could have pleaded the Fifth chose not to and ended up going to jail because he did not. He felt that the First Amendment was precious and needed to be protected, no matter the cost.

We honor those soldiers who have fought to keep us free and justifiably so. They put their lives on the line to uphold the principles that founded this nation and made it, despite all its flaws, a great one, and that’s something that should be treated with respect. However, along with those who defended our nation on the battlefield, respect should also be given to those who fought for our liberty on different battlefields; in the courtrooms, in the halls of our legislature and in the hearts and minds of our citizens. It would take decades before Dalton Trumbo’s courage would be recognized and honored but better late than never.

The story is compelling enough that it has been made into a feature film, with Bryan Cranston starring as Trumbo. It is in the process of a staggered release and should be coming to a theater near you soon (it’s already out in major markets like Los Angeles and New York City as this is published). Cranston is said to be on the Oscar shortlist for Best Actor and wouldn’t it be ironic indeed if he won an Oscar for the role. I haven’t seen the new movie yet but something tells me it will be a sentimental favorite.

WHY RENT THIS: Excellent use of archival footage. Some of the letters are really touching.  Important story.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some of the readings sound a bit stilted.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Debuted at the 2007 Toronto International Film Festival.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $109,057 on an unknown production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix, Amazon, iTunes, Vudu
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Trumbo (2015)
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Documented concludes!

Mirror Mirror


Mirror Mirror

Armie Hammer expresses what we already know while Julia Roberts looks on in amusement - Worst. Costume. Ever.

(2012) Fantasy (Relativity) Julia Roberts, Lily Collins, Armie Hammer, Nathan Lane, Mare Winningham, Sean Bean, Jordan Prentice, Mark Povinelli, Joe Gnoffo, Danny Woodburn, Sebastian Saraceno, Martin Klebba, Ronald Lee Clark, Michael Lerner, Robert Emms. Directed by Tarsem Singh

 

Fairy tales are all about happily ever afters. That’s why we read them even as adults – we want to believe that no matter how bad things get, things will end up the way they’re supposed to be.

I wonder if Snow White (Collins) believes in them. She’s been locked up in her father’s castles for most of her life. Her mother died giving birth to her and her father, the King (Bean) married a woman noted for her beauty and made her Queen (Roberts). Shortly after that, the King ventured into the dark forest and was never heard from again.

The Queen took over and immediately turned the kingdom into her own personal playground. She raised taxes to unbearable levels and used the proceeds to buy herself a lavish wardrobe and throw extravagant parties. However, she has depleted the treasury to the point where her administrator Brighton (Lane) warns her that there is no money left – for anything.

Quite by chance young Prince Andrew Alcott (Hammer) is traveling through the kingdom with his faithful aide-de-camp, Charles Renbock (Emms) when he is set upon by seven bandits with unusually long legs. They rob him of everything including his clothes, leaving him to be discovered by the Queen who realizes that the Prince, who hails from a wealthy Kingdom, could be the answer to her financial problems.

The trouble is that Snow has discovered how destitute the people of her kingdom are and how despotic her stepmother is. The Queen realizes that Snow is not only inconvenient to her plans, she is a downright obstacle – she and Prince Andrew are very attracted to each other. The Queen orders Brighton to take Snow out into the dark woods and murder her, but Brighton can’t do it and when the roar of the Beast that haunts the wood is heard, both go running in opposite directions. Brighton stops by the butcher shop to pick up some animal entrails (and a roll of sausages) to prove that Snow is dead and gone.

In the meantime she has discovered the lair of the bandits who turn out to be seven dwarves, cast out of the town because the Queen found them ugly. Each of them – Napoleon (Prentice), Half Pint (Povinelli), Grub (Gnoffo), Woodburn (Grimm), Saraceno (Wolf), Klebba (Butcher) and Chuckles (Clark) each have something distinctive about them.  Grub loves to eat, Half Pint is something of a ladies’ man, Wolf is half-wild and Chuckles – well, you can guess.

At first they don’t want the girl among them – too much trouble but when Snow proves to be useful and resourceful, they grow genuinely fond of her. Snow is ready to take back her kingdom from the wicked Queen, but the Queen has enchanted the Prince to fall in puppy love with her and he is willing to do anything for her – including kill Snow White.

Singh is the director of such visual spectacles as The Cell and Immortals. He has a very strong imagination and I give him props for it. This is his first attempt at a family film and at comedy in the same shot and it does show a side of him we haven’t seen up to now.

Roberts is the biggest reason to go see this movie. She captures the character of the Queen perfectly; vain, arch and a little bit naughty but with a whole lot of nasty. She doesn’t always have the best dialogue but Roberts makes up for it with sheer caustic attitude. Because she’s so dang beautiful, some people tend to underestimate her star quality. Trust me, she’s a star for a reason and this film might end up being the quintessential example of her work.

Armie Hammer first wowed viewers in a dual role in The Social Network. I think he has great things in store for him. Prince Andrew is a little bit dense and possessed with an overabundance of a sense of honor. Hammer gives him a bit of a goofy edge but with a sweetheart core. He seems to be a pretty easygoing fella, one you’d want to hang out and share a tankard of ale with at the local pub while watching the jousting. He is also quite easy on the eyes I understand. Not that I’m a judge of that sort of thing.

Tarsem was working on this almost right about the same time he finished up Immortals and one wonders if he was stretched too thin – the CGI effects on both were a little bit rocky. I don’t mind CGI but I get a little put out when it looks like CGI. You’re taken out of the movie when that happens.

There are wonderful sets and amazing costumes here – the last from Oscar winning costume designer Eiko Ishioka, who sadly passed away from pancreatic cancer in January. Other than the unconvincing CGI, this looks sumptuous. Unfortunately, the dialogue is mediocre and the movie tries way too hard to be fun instead of just being fun. Roberts understands how to make a movie feel fun and inventive, and the dwarves are pretty good at it too. Lily Collins, the daughter of Phil Collins, didn’t blow me out of the water as much as she did with other critics but there are plenty who think she has a bright future and I agree with them.

Overall, I was quite disappointed. I was hoping for something light and fun and it was the former but missed a bit in the latter. Give or take a few details, this could have been a marvelous film. It nevertheless is okay entertainment that fans of Julia Roberts will adore and those who don’t care for her might not like. Personally I think she does a good enough job that she makes the movie worth seeing all by herself.

REASONS TO GO: Roberts chews the scenery wonderfully. Hammer’s star continues to rise. Inventive in more than a few places, particularly on costumes and set design.

REASONS TO STAY: Weak CGI. Weak dialogue. Never really rises to the level of the visuals.

FAMILY VALUES: Some of the humor is a bit rude, there are a few disturbing images of fairy tale monsters and there is a bit of fantasy action.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While filming, Julia Roberts’ young children would often hide in the skirts of her elaborate gowns without anyone being the wiser.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/4/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 50% positive reviews. Metacritic: 47/100. The reviews are extremely mixed.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Space Jam

COSTUME LOVERS: The costumes, particularly the dresses Julia Roberts wears, are extremely elaborate and over-the-top. Those who love fashion – particularly the more esoteric sort – will enjoy the outfits here.

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

NEXT: Love, Wedding, Marriage

New Releases for the Week of March 30, 2012


March 30, 2012

WRATH OF THE TITANS

(Warner Brothers) Sam Worthington, Rosamund Pike, Bill Nighy, Liam Neeson, Ralph Fiennes, Danny Huston, Toby Kebbell, Edgar Ramirez. Directed by Jonathan Liebesman

Retired hero and demigod Perseus has been living a life of quiet satisfaction as a fisherman but a visit from his father Zeus changes all that. Apparently the power of the Gods has been siphoned out by the lack of worship from their human charges and the Titans, the cruel and vicious forbears of the Gods who have been imprisoned in Mt. Tatarus for thousands of years, are growing strong enough to break out of the weakened Gods’ bondage. With Hades and Ares switching side, it will take the combined might of the humans and Gods to save the world from the tyranny of the Titans.

See the trailer, clips, featurettes and a promo here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard, 3D, IMAX 3D

Genre: Fantasy

Rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences of fantasy violence and action)

Mirror Mirror

(Relativity) Julia Roberts, Nathan Lane, Armie Hammer, Lily Collins.  A wicked Queen who has lived life as the fairest of them all gets a rude shock when she discovers there’s a new contender for the title – princess in exile Snow White. Snow has about had enough of the evil Queen and vows to reclaim her kingdom with the help of seven rebellious dwarves who will also help her win back her Prince – once he finishes sniffing his own hind end, that is.

See the trailer, interviews and featurettes here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Fantasy Comedy

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

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen

(CBS) Emily Blunt, Ewan McGregor, Kristin Scott Thomas, Amr Waked. A visionary sheikh decides he wants to import the pastime of fly fishing into Yemen. He enlists the help of a skeptical Scottish fisheries expert who doesn’t think it can be done. However when the British Prime Minister’s overzealous press secretary, looking for a feel-good story in the Middle East turns the screws to see that it gets done, the Scot begins to fall for the sheikh’s strange dream as well as for an attractive consultant.

See the trailer and promos here.

For more on the movie this is the website

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Dramedy

Rating: PG-13 (for some violence and sexual content, and brief language)

Thin Ice

(ATO) Greg Kinnear, Alan Arkin, Billy Crudup, Lea Thompson. An insurance man trying to turn his life around and win back his estranged wife hits upon a scheme to con an old man out of a rare and valuable musical instrument. Things go sideways when a nosy, volatile locksmith inserts himself into the plan and creates havoc that spirals dangerously out of control.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Crime Comedy/Thriller/Drama

Rating: R (for language, and brief violent and sexual content)

W.E.

(Weinstein) Abby Cornish, Oscar Isaac, James D’Arcy, Andrea Riseborough.  A young woman obsessed with the story of King Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson is given access to private correspondence from the American divorcee which may put her romantic notions of the couple to the test. Madonna directs this love story set in two different time frames.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Romance

Rating: R (for domestic violence, nudity and language)

New Releases for the Week of September 16, 2011


STRAW DOGS

(Screen Gems) James Marsden, Kate Bosworth, Alexander Skarsgard, Dominic Purcell, Laz Alonso, James Woods, Rhys Coiro, Walton Goggins. Directed by Rod Lurie

A Hollywood couple – a screenwriter and his actress wife – go to the Deep South to prepare the family home for sale after her father passes away. What appears to be idyllic and down home on the surface bubbles over into a cauldron of emotion and sexuality when her ex-boyfriend decides to give their relationship one last chance, leading to a violent conflict. Based on the controversial Sam Peckinpah 1971 thriller of the same name.

See the trailer, clips, interviews and a promo here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Thriller

Rating: R (for strong brutal violence including a sexual attack, menace, some sexual content and pervasive language)

Drive

(FilmDistrict) Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, Bryan Cranston, Ron Perlman. A seemingly mild-mannered Hollywood stunt driver moonlights in a far more dangerous profession – getaway driver for whoever is willing to pay him. He drives, no questions asked, through nearly impossible odds. When he agrees to take on a job for a friend, he finds himself being chased by some of the most dangerous men in the criminal underworld and it’s going to take all his skills if he’s to get away clean.

See the trailer, clips and promos here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Action

Rating: R (for strong brutal violence, language and some nudity)

I Don’t Know How She Does It

(Weinstein) Sarah Jessica Parker, Greg Kinnear, Pierce Brosnan, Kelsey Grammer. A Boston mother of two tries to juggle family, marriage, school and career while maintaining her sanity. When she bags a new account for the firm she works for, necessitating frequent trips to New York, things get further complicated when the charming business associate she’s working with proves to be more tempting than she realized.

See the trailer, clips and a promo here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Comedy

Rating: PG-13 (for sexual references throughout)

The Lion King 3D

(Disney) Starring the voices of Matthew Broderick, James Earl Jones, Nathan Lane, Jeremy Irons. Disney’s accountants are hoping they’ll be singing “Hakuna Matata” if the brief 3D version of their classic animated hit does well. Shortly afterward, the movie will be making its debut on 3D Blu-Ray so Disneyphiles prepare to unlimber your wallets.

See the trailer, featurettes and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard, 3D

Genre: Animated Feature

Rating: G

Tabloid

(Sundance Selects) Joyce McKinney, Kent Gavin, Peter Tory, Troy Williams. Acclaimed documentarian Errol Morris takes on a 1977 tabloid scandal, the lurid “Case of the Manacled Mormon” in which a former Miss Wyoming flew to England to, depending on whose account you believe, abduct an upstanding Mormon missionary into sexual slavery or liberate him from a cult. Something this unbelievable could only be a true story.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Documentary

Rating: R (for sexual content and nudity)

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