A Greater Society


This is what difference makers look like.

(2018) Documentary (Deranged Squirrel) Ruth G. Weber, Fred Genetti, Tamara Gussman Stine, Howard Finkelstein, Jack Mendelson, Barack Obama, Joe Biden, Charlie Crist, Nan Rich, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Mitch Caesar, Bruce Bandler, Ronny Sydney, Minerva Nazario, Karen Hoffman, Jack Shifrel, Tony Fransetta, Jeff Johnson, Ted Deutch, Ashley Walker. Directed by Stacy Goldate and Craig A. Colton

Down in Broward County in South Florida, just north of Miami is Wynmoor, one of many retirement communities in the area. California developers opened the facility back in 1973, marketing it mainly to residents of New York City and the Northeast in general, wooing residents with sunshine, modern amenities and sea breezes. Their advertising campaign worked; more than 4,000 residents live there now, many of them of the Jewish faith.

The Jewish community in New York City tends to be progressive; many lived through the depression and the New Deal of FDR. All of them lived through the 60s and Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” which tried to address poverty, racism and rising medical costs. While the New Deal established Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid and the Voter Rights Act came out of the Great Society. In fact, the title of the movie is a play on LBJ’s ambitious program.

When Wynmoor opened, Broward County was largely a Conservative bastion although at the time it was mostly Dixiecrats that made up the voter rolls. Since then, Southern conservatives have moved to the Republican party as the Democrats became champions of civil rights and other things that the Old South was less than fond of. The arrival of large numbers of progressive elderly from the Northeast swayed the county from red to blue.

This fascinating documentary, which premiered at the Florida Film Festival earlier this year and is now making its way onto the Vimeo streaming service, looks at the residents of Wynmoor during the 2014 midterm elections when Rick Scott was running for re-election as governor. It starts with the primaries when former Republican governor Charlie Crist was running against Nan Rich, leader of the Democratic party in the Florida House of Representatives and a grandmother herself, which appealed to many of the voters at Wynmoor who saw in her someone who understood the needs of their age group but also their desire to provide the services they rely on for their children and grandchildren in the years to come.

Much of the emphasis focuses on the Wynmoor Democrat Club which true to its name supports Democratic candidates and makes sure that residents of that party get out and vote. The stereotype of the elderly is that they tend to be conservative and suspicious of change; nothing could be further from the truth and it is refreshing to see the liberal activism that goes on in a group of people who could easily just take a dip in the pool, play some shuffleboard and in general just enjoy their golden years. It means something when someone who has earner their retirement nevertheless gets out and appeals for people to vote.

There is a Republican club as well, led by the knowledgeable Jack Mendelson who has a sunny sense of humor and a propensity towards driving his wife crazy. Despite being such an engaging subject, he gets a whole lot less screen time than his liberal counterparts who are, to be sure, equally fascinating, particularly Fred Genetti, a handsome man pushing 70 at the time of filming who only reluctantly gets active in the election but proves to be very good at it, and Ruth Weber, a 98-year-old woman born during the Woodrow Wilson administration who is still sharp as a tack and as passionate about politics as anyone a quarter her age. Conservative viewers may well find the disparity insulting, but the truth is that the Democrats appear to be much more active at Wynmoor than the Republicans.

In fact, Wynmoor is so important to the Democrats that often luminaries of that party stop by the complex to campaign, including Joe Biden, Debbie Wasserman Schultz (then-chairperson of the Democratic National Committee) and both candidates for the Democratic gubernatorial primary. The documentary labels the activist seniors as kingmakers and they aren’t far wrong.

The pace of the film is a little bit slow, but it seems to mirror the lifestyle of the residents and is perhaps a nod at the target audience. The filmmakers certainly display the power of organization and that coming together as a community matters. The filmmakers engage in a lot of talking head interviews but not as much as you might think. They use political cartoons to set up the political history nicely and the footage of the seniors going about their day is genuinely interesting.

This is a different kind of political documentary. Although it leans a bit left, it is by no means out there to extol one side over the other. Red or blue, there is a lesson in what these seniors accomplish and in their genuine love for their country and its future. Every vote matters and these citizens are well aware of that fact. Particularly in a midterm election year where so much is riding on the outcome, it seems a particularly timely film that anyone who thinks their vote doesn’t make a difference should check out.

REASONS TO GO: Weber and Genetti are both engaging personalities. The filmmakers turn stereotypes of the elderly on their ear. The filmmakers give time (although far from equal) to both sides of the aisle.
REASONS TO STAY: The pace may be a little bit slow for some
FAMILY VALUES: There is some brief mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Both Goldate and Colton primarily work in the editing bay for other projects; this is their first project as co-directors.
BEYOND THE THEATERS:  Vimeo
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/21/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Final Year
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
Bel Canto

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Lincoln


Lincoln

The pressures of being President encapsulated.

(2012) Biographical Drama (DreamWorks) Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, Tommy Lee Jones, David Strathairn, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, James Spader, Hal Holbrook, John Hawkes, Jackie Earle Haley, Bruce McGill, Tim Blake Nelson, Jared Harris, Lee Pace, Peter McRobbie, Gloria Reuben. Directed by Steven Spielberg

 

Abraham Lincoln, our 16th president, author of the Gettysburg Address and for all intents and purposes, Savior of a Nation, is revered beyond any President this nation has ever known. He is considered by many to be the greatest President in the history of our nation; his face is one of four that adorns Mt. Rushmore and along with Washington is a literal icon of American history.

But with all the praise heaped upon him, the hero worship accorded him, the legendary status given him, we sometimes forget – in fact more than sometimes – that he was a man. In this latest film from Steven Spielberg nearly a dozen years in the making, we are presented with not only President Lincoln but with Abraham Lincoln – father, husband, raconteur, wily politician, lawyer and human being.

We pick up the story as Lincoln (Day-Lewis) is trying to get the13th Amendment passed. This constitutional amendment would ban slavery. The war is in its waning days and he is concerned that his Emancipation Proclamation wouldn’t stand legal challenge which would surely come with the South rejoining the union which is what is expected will happen. He is concerned that will put the country back into the same position twenty years hence and a second civil war would surely destroy the Union utterly forever.

His Secretary of State William Seward (Strathairn) is in agreement and knows that once the South sues for peace which could happen at any time, the Amendment will never pass the fractious House of Representatives (the Amendment had already passed the Senate) and is 20 votes shy of the two thirds majority that is required. The time to get those votes is now; the House is in a lame duck situation with plenty of Democrats being shown the door in recent elections; not having to worry about re-election they could vote their conscience or on a baser level, these men would soon be needing jobs and could be persuaded to see reason with the right offer.

To that end Seward has employed William Bilbo (Spader), a lobbyist from New York whose chicanery is legendary. In the meantime, Lincoln is preparing for his inauguration and welcoming his son Robert (Gordon-Levitt) home from college. Robert is keen on joining the military and doing his duty to his country which Lincoln’s wife Mary (Field) is utterly against; she has already lost one son (in childhood to typhus) and will not lose another. Losing the first one drove her to the point of madness.

Opposing the bill are crafty politician George Pendleton (McRobbie) and firebrand orator Fernando Wood (Pace) from the Democratic side. Thaddeus Stevens (Jones) of Pennsylvania supports it, and is the target of the Democrats who wish the bill to fail. In the meantime, Francis Preston Blair (Holbrook) who founded the Republican party and whose influence can insure all the Republican representatives toe the line, is eager to go down to Richmond and negotiate a peace. Lincoln gives him permission to do so in return for his support.

Blair is in fact successful, getting the Confederacy to send a trio of peace negotiators led by Confederate Vice-President Alexander Stephens (Haley) but Lincoln orders them kept out of Washington in order to allow the Amendment to pass which it would not if the Congressmen knew that peace negotiations were underway. The clock is ticking and nothing less than the future of the Union is at stake. What will Lincoln do to ensure that future is slavery free?

As it turns out, a whole lot. I have to admit that I was impressed with Lincoln’s political acumen which I didn’t know much about. He was often underestimated by his contemporaries who thought him an uneducated rube from the sticks but in fact even if he was self-educated he was shrewd and had the foresight to understand that a slave economy was a limited economy and that the U.S. would never be able to grow as a nation with one in place. Of course, he also recognized the immorality of it.

But what the movie achieves which to me is even greater is that it brings Lincoln into focus as a man. Not only does Spielberg accomplish this by creating an authentic atmosphere for the tale to be told within, but to allow Day-Lewis – one of the greatest actors of our time – to inhabit the role. I was surprised at the high-pitched voice Day-Lewis uses for Lincoln but contemporary accounts confirm that the Great Emanciptor’s voice was in fact not the sonorous baritone we have come to associate with it. It was more of a tenor.

You get the compassion of the man, but also the frustrations he suffered as both a man – the loss of his son was a blow he never really recovered from – and as a politician. He felt every one of the hundreds of thousands of deaths that occurred during the war keenly and bore their weight on his shoulders. Lincoln has been characterized as an awkward gangly man and Day-Lewis gets the posture exactly. The performance is so massive, so overpowering that you can’t help but feel that this is going to be accorded an Oscar nomination as Denzel Washington’s performance in Flight will be as well. Both performances could easily win it, with the slight nod going to Day-Lewis.

Field also gives a performance that will be given consideration come Oscar time. Mary Todd Lincoln is often characterized as someone whose sanity was on the brink (she would eventually be committed to the sanitarium years after her husband’s assassination) but here she is strong and determined, giving Thaddeus Stevens an earful at a White House function. She is a First Lady without a doubt, one who not only saved the White House from dilapidation but defended her husband like  lioness.

There are some great supporting performances here as well, including Jones, Strathairn, Gordon-Levitt and Holbrook at the fore. While I learned a great deal about Lincoln the man, Lincoln the film never fails to be entertaining. It is a bit long and in places long-winded but you wind up feeling like you know the 16th President a little bit better and admiring him a little bit more. This country could use another President like him and sadly, it will be a long time if ever that we get one.

REASONS TO GO: Humanizes an icon. Another Oscar-caliber performance by Day-Lewis (and Field as well). Informative and entertaining.

REASONS TO STAY: You know how the story ends.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are images of the carnage of war and the brutality of slavery. There’s also some brief strong language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Spielberg spent twelve years (off and on) researching the movie. He recreated Lincoln’s executive mansion office precisely down to the wallpaper and books. The ticking of the pocket watch is Lincoln’s actual watch taken from the Lincoln Historical society – it was the watch he had with him the night of his assassination.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/27/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 91% positive reviews. Metacritic: 86/100. The reviews are extremely positive.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: 12 Days

CIVIL WAR LOVERS: .A nice re-creation of the bombardment of Wilmington and the battle thereafter. Also a look at the waning days of the war which are rarely captured in Hollywood.

FINAL RATING: 9.5/10

NEXT: The Fifth Quarter

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