Friday, January 25, 2008

A Touch of Capra

Capraesque. A movie that generally makes you feel better about the world when it's done, even if more sophisticated viewers call it sentimental. It often involves an improbable situation where one man makes a difference. It is guaranteed to bring a tear to your eye but there is always a good helping of laughter as well.

The best of the films from which this term arose are Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Meet John Doe, and It's a Wonderful Life. Two of them starred Jimmy Stewart and one had Gary Cooper, both of them quintessential American men you never wanted to see in a costume drama except for a Western. Frank Capra directed them all (from scripts by different writers), hence Capraesque.*

Kevin Costner has starred in a number of Capraesque pictures, the most recent of which we saw last night in a sneak screening conducted for audience input. Personally, except for a little trimming for time, I think the film was pretty near perfect and should be left alone.

The film is called Swing Vote and is currently slated for an August 1 release, indicating they don't expect it to make a lot of money or have a long shelf-life. I'm thinking that it should be released right after Labor Day to tie in with the elections and give everyone a civics lesson in why it is important to go out and vote, which is what the film is about.

Costner plays Bud Johnson, a single parent with a drinking problem who works at an egg-packing plant in a very small town in New Mexico. His daughter Molly is a very grown up fifth grader who is torn between life goals of being a veterinarian or Chair of the Federal Reserve when she gets older. She's got the brains to do either or more. The film opens on election day, pitting sitting Republican President Kelsey Grammer against Democratic challenger and community college president Dennis Hopper. Molly's trying to make sure Bud votes in the election because it is his civic duty and because she's got a school project to do and her efforts (not at all slapstick) lead to the improbable result of Bud having to recast a ballot to keep the election from going to the House of Representatives for a resolution. Hilarity ensues, as does a requisite growth in Bud's character.

Loved it, loved it, loved it. But then, I also loved The Postman (which got panned by the critics.) Costner plays everyman Americans as well as Stewart and Cooper did and probably better than anyone else of his generation. He's great in Bull Durham (possibly the best romantic comedy ever made other than those starring Katherine Hepburn in the 1930s and 1940s), Field of Dreams, For Love of the Game, and Tin Cup. He does great sports films and has a wonderful sense of timing for comedy. He's pretty good at Westerns as well (Open Range, Dances with Wolves, and even Silverado) and he's also a decent director (although the beset-with-problems Waterworld is a miss, Open Range and Dances with Wolves were quite good, the latter good enough to garner a directing Oscar(R).)

What Costner should never do again is a costume piece set somewhere other than here. Robin Hood was painful (as I think I've written before), although he did look great in those costumes and all men's looks are improved by long hair or extensions. Errol Flynn gets me to believe every time, but Costner was definitely out of place in medieval England. I don't want Kenneth Brannaugh to get the idea of casting him in something Shakespeare, either. Wouldn't work. A Yank in Great Britain he could do, but not a Brit anywhere.

Sometimes, when we see a screening this far in advance of release, changes are made which don't improve the film. What Dreams May Come is my personal best example. Loved the screening and couldn't figure out why the studio made the changes to the release leaving the film less comprehensible and affecting. Other films which were clearly subject to some studio idiot's whim and which now have the benefit of being restored include Frank Capra's Lost Horizon and Ridley Scott's Blade Runner. The restorations are far superior. (Let's not come to the conclusion that restorations are always better. After all, we all know that Han shoots first!)

In August (or when it does come out) make a point to see Swing Vote, written by Jason Richman and Joshua Michael Stern, directed by Joshua Michael Stern, starring Kevin Costner, newcomer Madeline Carroll, Kelsey Grammar, Dennis Hopper, Nathan Lane, and Stanley Tucci. Willie Nelson, Richard Petty, Arianna Huffington, and Lawrence O'Donnell all have cameos.

And be sure to vote in your upcoming primary.

*Capra's autobiography, The Name above the Title, is definitely worth reading but it did take the blood, sweat, and tears of the writers to create 120 pages of script upon which Frank could put "the Capra touch."

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