IRRESISTIBLE (2020)

June 25, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. For the fifteen plus years Jon Stewart hosted “The Daily Show”, he could be depended on to bring his acerbic wit and often scathing political commentary to virtually every show. His most devoted followers leaned left, though he was known to take down extremists on both ends. Stewart’s foray into filmmaking as writer-director was ROSEWATER (2014), a look at the detainment and interrogation of journalist Maziar Bahari in an Iranian prison. This follow-up takes a much lighter approach – one similar to his TV days – while still managing to skewer our election system and campaign financing.

Steve Carell spent a brief time as a reporter/correspondent on “The Daily Show” before heading off to mega-stardom in movies and on TV. Here he plays Gary Zimmer, a political strategist for the Democratic Party. The film opens on the 2016 Presidential campaign between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, and we first see Zimmer in a whirlwind media battle of words against his nemesis, Faith Brewster (played by a funny but underutilized Rose Byrne), a strategist for the Republicans. As you might imagine, Zimmer is a funk after the election, and his career is in shambles.

A ray of hope and inspiration enters Zimmer’s life in the form of a viral YouTube video. Wisconsin farmer and former Marine Jack Hastings (the great Chris Cooper) is recorded tearing into the Deerlaken Mayor and City Council. Zimmer recognizes the Patriotism and a potential Party savior, and seizes on the opportunity to convince Hastings that the Democrats stand for the same things he stands for … those things he rattled off in the video.

Zimmer in Deerlaken is the proverbial fish-out-of-water, and his trip is farmed for laughs. It starts in the local German beer hall and carries forward to Hastings’ farm where Zimmer spots daughter Diana Hastings (Mackenzie Davis) up to her elbow in cow. The other locals we get to know include Will Sasso and Will McLaughlin as Big Mike and Little Mike, CJ Wilson as the accommodating barkeep, Blair Sams as the eager baker, and Brent Sexton as Republican Mayor Braun. When Zimmer’s campaign for Hastings catches the eye of Ms. Brewster, we soon experience an all-out political brawl for the Mayor’s job in this tiny town … one recently made smaller by the closing of the local military base. Director Stewart labels this “Heartland USA.”

Of course, this isn’t a story about the candidates. It’s Stewart’s commentary on how campaigns are conducted today. Social media and the national news media are weapons, and we see that there’s no such thing as dirty politics … only politics. Topher Grace plays a pollster and Natasha Lyonne is in charge of analytics, and the over-dependence on data is made clear. However, the biggest point Stewart makes has to do with campaign finance and money. It’s all about the ‘Benjamins.’ The Super PAC is shoved (conveniently) to the back of the room in what Stewart terms “an election economy.”

There are plenty of Jon Stewart comedic touches on display. We get “Rhinestone Cowboy” used a couple of times, see “swing voters” listed on a first name basis, and get an advertising slogan of “a redder kind of blue.” When Faith Brewster says “I look forward to lying to you in the future”, we recognize this as prime form Stewart. The problem with political statements, political commentary, and political satire, is that people will complain it goes too far, or doesn’t go far enough, or points the finger, or doesn’t point the finger. It won’t cover what they want covered in a way they want it covered. Stewart lets neither party off here. In fact, he lays blame on both. However, given what we see and live through on a daily basis right now, Stewart’s observations come across a bit tame … we wish he had pushed harder.

The opening credits segment is brilliant with a slide show of previous campaigns accompanied by Bob Seger’s “Still the Same”, and the closing credits are worth sticking around for just to hear Trevor Potter, the former Chairman of Federal Election Commission.

Releasing on Digital/VOD on June 26, 2020

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MANCHESTER BY THE SEA (2016)

November 23, 2016

manchester Greetings again from the darkness. Grief. When a loved one dies, we experience a sorrow that is impossible to define. It can take on many different looks through various stages. When Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) receives a phone call, he rushes back to his hometown, but arrives at the hospital too late to say goodbye to his big brother whose years-long battle with heart disease has ended abruptly. It’s at this point that we begin to realize there is more to Lee’s daily disquiet than we had realized in his early scenes as an apartment complex janitor.

This is director Kenneth Lonergan’s third directorial effort (You Can Count on Me, Margaret) and in each, death plays a crucial role. Mr. Lonergan is also a renowned playwright and screenwriter (Gangs of New York, Analyze This, Analyze That), and here he displays an incredible feel for humor and sarcasm amidst the ominous presence of gloom.

If you aren’t yet scared off, you will be rewarded with one of the most outstanding films of the year, and one of the best ever on-screen portrayals of grief. Casey Affleck embodies Lee as the broken man – a tortured soul who doesn’t blame himself for the unspeakable tragedy that destroyed his life, yet neither can he forgive himself. As penance, he has basically dropped out of society and moved to Quincy, where he lives in a dumpy apartment simply trying to survive each day shoveling snow and fixing leaky faucets. It’s his way of not facing the present while avoiding the memories that haunt him in his hometown.

The death of big brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) forces Lee to return to Manchester and handle the endless details of arrangements. He then learns that Joe’s will states that Lee is to take over guardianship of 16 year old Patrick (Lucas Hedges). As we learn from flashbacks, Lee and Patrick long ago bonded as Uncle/Nephew. Things are much different now – not just for Lee, but also for Patrick. He’s a popular athlete, musician and high school lothario … seemingly unwilling to accept the change brought about by the death of his father, and the long ago abandonment by his unstable mom (Gretchen Mol).

The flashbacks serve as the reference as to how this family and these relationships reached this point in time. We also see the devastating event that crushed Lee’s soul and left him unrecognizable from the one time life of the party, and doting husband and father. It also explains his approach to his unwanted duties in finishing brother Bob’s job raising Patrick, and why much of the town treats Lee as a pariah.

In addition to the brilliant writing and wonderful cinematography (Jody Lee Lipes), it’s the highest level of acting that elevates this film to the level of extraordinary. Ms. Mol and Mr. Chandler are joined in the supporting cast by Matthew Broderick as Ms. Mol’s evangelical husband, CJ Wilson as Bob’s former friend and partner, and Michelle Williams as Randi, Lee’s ex-wife. It seems like we have watched Lucas Hedges grow up on screen through the years, and he really nails the surprisingly complex role of Patrick. As terrific as all of these actors are, it’s Affleck who redefines grief and sorrow and pain. In fact, the single scene towards the end when Affleck and Williams meet by happenstance, is so powerfully acted that it alone should garner nominations for each. It’s a gut-wrenching scene that tells us sometimes reconciliation is just not possible.

This is a heavy drama set in a cold environment with hard people – at least on the outside. It’s not the typical Boston blue collar drama, but rather more the psychology of being a man. There is enough humor to prevent the weight from being too much on viewers, and Lonergan pokes a bit of fun at the Massachusetts accent by tossing in arguments about Star Trek and sharks, and a scene about parking the car. The diverse music of Handel, Dylan, and Ella Fitzgerald somehow complements the mournful Lee … the Humpty Dumpty of Manchester – unable to be put back together again. It’s certainly one of the gems of the year.

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