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Saturday Night at the Movies by Dennis Hartley review archive

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Hullabaloo


Saturday, August 09, 2008

 
Saturday Night At The Movies

Swing voters and Nixon calling

By Dennis Hartley

















“If daddy punches a chad, an angel gets his wings.”




With less than 100 shopping days left until The Most Important Election Day Ever, I thought I would alert you to a couple of politically-themed films that have reached out from behind the curtain to give a timid tug on Batman’s cape, and tide us over until Oliver Stone’s W opens this fall (BTW here’s the trailer, in case you haven’t seen it yet.)

First up on the ballot is Swing Vote, a lightweight but agreeable political fantasy/civics lesson from writer-director Joshua Michael Stern (Neverwas). Signaling a return to form for star Kevin Costner, the film speculates on what would happen if a presidential election literally hinged on one person’s vote (remember, I already said it’s a fantasy).

Costner plays the underachieving Bud Johnson, a trailer-dwelling, beer-quaffing, NASCAR worshipping single parent who supports himself and daughter Molly (Madeline Carroll) with a job at an egg-packaging plant in Texico, New Mexico. Young Molly may be the “dependent” as far as Family Services is concerned, but in reality takes on the role of the responsible parent in the household. She constantly admonishes her Dad for his drinking, poor grooming habits and slack attitude toward his job. The civic-minded Molly also takes it upon herself to register her father for voting in an upcoming national election, much to his chagrin (he’d rather not be on the radar for that pesky jury duty). Needless to say, he doesn’t follow politics, or keep up on the “issues”.

You know where this is headed, don’t you? After a chain of serendipitous events that only occurs in movies, this gomer ends up with the fate of the free world hinging on the flick of his chad finger. Before he knows it, he is at the center of a crazed media circus, and is being personally feted by the incumbent Republican (a convincingly presidential Kelsey Grammer) and his Democratic challenger (the always interesting Dennis Hopper).

Some of the film’s most clever moments arrive in the form of the faux-TV ads brainstormed by the campaign strategists for both sides (ably played by Stanley Tucci for the Republicans and Nathan Lane for the Democrats). It’s quite amusing to see a rainbow-hued, pro-gay marriage ad endorsed by the Republican president and a radical anti-abortion polemic featuring the Democratic challenger, tripping over partisan party platforms and each other in their rush to pander to one undecided swing voter.

There is a temptation to read these plot machinations as a setup for a modern-day “Capraesque” tale, which is where the film appears to be heading at first glance. But in actuality, it’s sort of Capra in reverse; “Washington goes to Mr. Smith”, if you will (Capra’s Jeff Smith is a political idealist by nature; Bud Johnson, on the other hand, has his idealism thrust upon him). There has been some critical outcry that the film is more than a little derivative of a relatively obscure 1939 John Barrymore vehicle called The Great Man Votes. Frankly I’ve never seen that film, so I can’t address that specific issue. In a more contemporary context, you could say that this film could be viewed as Mike Judd’s Idiocracy-with a heart (and much better acting). Also, I found some of the satirical aspects of Swing Vote reminiscent of Hal Ashby’s Being There and Bill Forsyth’s Local Hero. The film’s depiction of a flock of ravenous media vultures descending on a small New Mexico town has some strong echoes of Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole , as well.
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I don’t think the film is in danger of showing up on anybody’s top 10 list for the year, but as long as you buy into the premise, I think you’ll be entertained. I enjoyed the performances. Costner revives the long-dormant “aw shucks” charm that he played to such laid-back perfection in Bull Durham and Field of Dreams . Sure, he’s playing a chucklehead this time out-but he’s a sympathetic chucklehead. Carroll gives one of those “30-year-old midget” turns that belies her chronological age and shows great promise (like Diane Lane or Natalie Portman in their fledgling days). The always excellent and forever underrated Mare Winningham makes an all-too-brief but welcome appearance (where the hell has she been?) as Bud’s estranged wife. Brat-pack aficionados will be sure to recognize Judge Reinhold (remember him?) as one of Bud’s co-workers, and comedian George Lopez gets to fire off some good zingers as a local TV news director. Also featuring a veritable rogue’s gallery of MSM pundits and journalists, in cameos (erm, as themselves): Aaron Brown, Campbell Brown, Tucker Carlson, James Carville, Mary Hart, Arianna Huffington, Larry King, Bill Maher and Tweet…um…Chris Matthews (hey-don’t let that keep you from seeing it-but don’t say I didn’t warn you!)
























CSN&Y: Old songs for a new war.




Another film getting swamped in the wake of the summer’s storm surge of superheroes is CSNY:Déjà vu, a timely rockumentary from Bernard Shakey (Greendale). Bernard who? Okay, you probably know him better as the iconoclastic folk-rock-alt-country-“Godfather of Grunge”-cum-antiwar activist-filmmaker (did I leave anything out?)…Neil Young.

Mixing backstage footage and musical highlights from the 2006 Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young Freedom of Speech Tour with vox populi interviews and analysis by “embedded” journalist Mike Cerre (a veteran front lines Afghanistan/Iraq war correspondent) the doc plays somewhere between Dixie Chicks: Shut Up & Sing and Fahrenheit 9/11.

The 2006 reunion of the notoriously mercurial foursome was spearheaded by Young not so much as a nostalgia tour but rather as a musical wake-up call addressing the Bush administration’s post 9-11 shenanigans, at home and in Iraq. The tour commenced on the heels of Young’s incendiary Living with War album (definitely not on Junior’s iPod).

The reaction from audiences (and music critics) was mixed. Young cheekily employs voiceover actors to read excerpts from concert reviews in the local rags, and particularly seems to take perverse delight in highlighting the sneers and snarks (usually involving ageist references to the band’s senior citizen status). I will give him credit for including some (brief) “warts and all” excerpts from some early shows in the tour, like one instance where the quartet’s rusty pipes are definitely a couple bubbles off plumb. And speaking of falling flat, we also witness a senior moment as a band member takes an onstage tumble.

The most eye-opening moment in the film occurs when the band plays Atlanta, a city usually perceived as a blue oasis in a red state. At first, all appears to be going swimmingly, with the audience happily clapping and singing along with the old “hits”. But things get interesting as the band launches into some more recent material from Young’s aforementioned Living with War album (accompanied by a faux-Karaoke lyric scroll on the huge onstage projection screen, just in case anyone misses the point):

Let's impeach the President for lying
And misleading our country into war
Abusing all the power that we gave him
And shipping all our money out the door

Suddenly, the temperature in the auditorium seems to drop about 50 degrees; catcalls and hisses quickly escalate to boos, bird flipping and near-rioting. Cerre interviews some of the disenchanted as they stalk out; the outrage ranges from bitching about the ticket prices to threatening grievous bodily harm to Neil Young, should they get close enough. Backstage, the band takes the philosophical high road (with age comes wisdom, nu?)

But all cracks about geriatric rockers aside, it becomes apparent that the one thing that remains ageless is the power of the music, and the commitment from the performers. Songs like “Ohio”, “Military Madness”, “For What it’s Worth” and “Chicago” prove to have resilience and retain a topical relevance that does not go unnoticed by younger fans. And anyone who doesn’t tear up listening to the band deliver the solemnly beautiful harmonies of their elegiac live show closer, “Find the Cost of Freedom”, while a photo gallery featuring hundreds of smiling young Americans who died in Iraq scrolls on the big screen behind them, can’t possibly have anything resembling a soul residing within.

CSNY: Déjà vu is in limited release, but also currently on PPV in some markets.


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