It’s just another movie, another song and dance

Swing Vote (Joshua Michael Stern, 2008). Stern builds his soft political satire around the notion of a contentious U.S. presidential election coming down to one vote, an entirely ambivalent, freshly unemployed middle-aged scamp. That role, as it must, goes to Kevin Costner, who tries to find a new side to the die he’s been casting periodically ever since Bull Durham. It doesn’t work, in part because he can’t quite get a handle on how this guy’s charm should be balanced against his more problematic behavior. It’s mostly due to the tepid script, though. The raw material is there to tackle the perpetually compromised nature of our electoral process head-on, and Stern surprisingly manages to make his credibility-straining premise reasonably believable. He veers towards some of the hot-button issues of the day, but delivers only glancing blows.

Ghost Town (David Koepp, 2008). While he’s handled screenwriting duties on a wide variety of high-gloss Hollywood productions, Koepp’s directorial efforts have largely been grim, creepy dramas. That changes with his latest, a floppy little comedy with a supernatural bent. Ricky Gervais plays a morose dentist whose own dalliance with death causes him to have the capability to see those who’ve passed on, but are saddled with some unfinished business that keeps them wandering the earth. Lessons are learned, romances forged, at it all barely makes an impression as it passes. The well-worn comedy of put-upon exasperation that Gervais perfected in Extras remains funny, but it can’t salvage an entire film when there’s little else of interest going on.

Shouting Fire: Stories From the Edge of Free Speech (Liz Garbus, 2009). Inspired by the First Amendment work of her attorney father (who features prominently in the film), Liz Garbus looks at the current state of the opening salvo of the Bill of Rights. Garbus examines several specific cases from recent years, tipping towards distinctly liberal causes, but also making room to offer tacit defense of a religious teenager punished for bearing a message of intolerance on his t-shirt during a day at his school that he viewed as pro-homosexual. A seasoned documentarian, Garbus is occasionally somewhat artless in her approach and uses clips mildly pertaining to First Amendment issues from a variety of fictional films in way that is distracting it in lack of insight. What the film lacks in panache, it makes up for in dogged thoroughness. The documentary is appropriately infuriating. David Horowitz, not so incidentally, comes across looking like a hateful psychopath in just a handful of scenes.

Mamma Mia! (Phyllida Lloyd, 2008). I suppose it was nice that they recruited the stage director of Mamma Mia! to make her feature film debut with the bigscreen version of jukebox musical sensation. Gracious as that may be, you’d think someone might have been a little more concerned about determining whether or not she actually had any flair for working in the very different medium. The film is horribly clumsy, all jump zooms and painful clowning. The ABBA songs are wedged in awkwardly, haphazardly and often sung with with so much vigor by the actors that it starts to come across as a weirdly catchy form of aggression.

Married Life (Ira Sachs, 2008). An odd film about marital infidelity and the potentially murderous lengths some will go to in order to end a relationship. Set a few years after World War II, the film follows a straitlaced businessman whose dalliance with a lovely young widow has him contemplating the easiest way to extricate himself from his marriage. Director Ira Sachs never seems to settle into a tone. One moment it’s borderline satire, then it’s winking intrigue, then a somber tale of heartache. It never truly gels. There’s a nicely restrained performance by Chris Cooper at the heart of it, even if it sometimes gets lost in the film’s meandering focus.

(Posted simultaneously to “Jelly-Town!”)

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