By: Kevin Jordan
The United States Supreme Court has made more than a few boneheaded decisions throughout its not-so-illustrious history. Google “bad supreme court decisions,” grab a very large cup of coffee, and get comfortable for hours of eye-opening reading. The best part of that search is it does not matter where you fall on the political spectrum; there are plenty of pieces written from every political bent about all of the bad decisions. Personally, I fall on the side of not fucking over our democratic republic’s election system, so I consider Citizens United v. FEC to be one of the worst decisions of the court’s history. Irresistible is a satiric look at the consequences of that decision wrapped in a what-if scenario.
What if there was a retired Marine colonel who became a dairy farmer in rural Wisconsin and who also defended immigrants? In real life, that person is a unicorn, but in this movie he is Jack Hastings (Chris Cooper). Political campaign consultant Gary Zimmer (Steve Carell) is shown a YouTube clip of Jack lecturing the mayor of Deerlaken, Wisconsin, about protecting everyone in the town during their hard financial times, not just the white folks. After consulting on the 2016 Hillary Clinton campaign, this video is catnip to Gary, who decides he can make Jack into the new poster child of the Democratic Party.
Gary flies out to meet Jack and convinces Jack to run for mayor against incumbent Republican Mayor Braun (Brent Sexton). From there, the film leans full-tilt into displaying the absurdity of a political campaign, especially in a town of only a few thousand people. Gary brings in his full team, lines up big-money donors, and even baits his rival Republican consultant, Faith Brewster (Rose Byrne), into pouring money and publicity into Mayor Braun’s campaign, all with the objective of garnering national attention. Does Gary care one wit about the actual politics of Deerlaken’s people? Maybe a little, but Faith sure as shit doesn’t, and she is not shy about it.
This is too what ranchers where when throwing hay bales.
As the movie progresses, so does the level of craziness Gary and Faith stoop to for the sake of party and future campaigning. Jack is relegated to the background for much of the campaign, with his daughter Diana (Mackenzie Davis) filling in as liaison for much of the campaign. As the days and weeks roll by, we see pamphlets, slogans, data analytics, demographic breakdowns, polling trends, and TV ads. Oh, the TV ads. On the pro-Jack side, the ads wrap themselves in patriotism and aw-shucks-down-on-the-farm-home-living. On the anti-Jack side, the terrorists are coming for you and the apocalypse is nigh. I know this movie is satire, but it’s hard to decide whether to laugh or cry at a movie that is arguably less satirical than real life.
Eventually, we reach the end of the campaign – voting day – where the film puts the final exclamation mark on its view of post-Citizens-United campaigns. There are lessons to be learned by both Gary and Faith, but the film lets both of them (and our two parties) off the hook, simply sending them on their way to the next campaign(s). Granted, we never expected introspection from Faith, a monster who would punch a baby for a poll bump. But, it’s a little disappointing to see Gary look bewildered for roughly six seconds before simply shrugging and moving on, since he seemed to have a shred of conscience at points throughout the film. Even more disappointing is realizing what the film was missing the entire time – bite.
Written and directed by Jon Stewart, one would expect a much more searing takedown on the issue of campaign finance considering everything we saw from him during his Daily Show years. The satire and commentary were there in the film, but presented in a fairly sterilized bubble seemingly designed to be as inoffensive as possible. Which is not to say the film isn’t entertaining, just to say that you will be disappointed if you are hoping for a political heavyweight of a film. I appreciate that Stewart did not try to tackle multiple political issues, choosing instead to stay focused on campaign finance and subtly weaving small jabs throughout the film at many of those issues that so divide us today. If nothing else, the film was quite politically correct.
Rating: You can ask for a couple of dollars back, but the Supreme Court says corporations get to keep all of it.
By: Kevin Jordan
But only during the day.
There’s a throwaway line early in Live by Night when Joe Coughlin (Ben Affleck) is lying in bed with his girlfriend, Emma Gould (Sienna Miller), and Emma says something to the effect of “work by day…” She intentionally leaves off the second part of that phrase – live by night – in order to allow the viewer to automatically fill it in mentally, then go “oooh. I see what you did there.” The only problem is nearly the entire movie takes place during the day. I know – weird, right? This attention to detail is the kind of thing one might miss when one directs, produces, writes, and stars in one’s movie while also starring in Batman v Superman, The Accountant, and trying to write a kick-ass screenplay for a standalone Batman movie. Sorry Ben, you can’t do everything. You’re Batman, not Superman.
To be fair, he was only adapting a screenplay for Dennis Lehane’s 2012 novel Live by Night. If that name sounds familiar, it’s because Lehane is also responsible for Mystic River and Shutter Island, as well as the short story The Drop was based on, which he also wrote the screenplay for. If that name doesn’t sound familiar, Google “nearest library.” Yes, we still have those things around.
Live by Night is the story of a gangster, Joe Coughlin, who does gangster things for 129 minutes. Those 129 minutes cover a few years of Joe’s life during the Prohibition Era and includes bank robberies, two girlfriends, a lot of bootlegging rum, two mob bosses, Joe getting his ass kicked, car chases, some KKK assholes, a lot of dead people, and Elle Fanning. Oh, and all of this happens in Boston, then Tampa. If that sounds like too much for a movie, that’s because it is. But only if you care that much about plot.
(Some SPOILERS ahead unless you read the book. Yeah, I laughed a little too as I typed that.)
You know how drunk people sometimes think they’re being stealthy?
Maybe the book is better, but the film was very scattershot (no pun intended). The first act of the film covers everything you saw in the preview and that’s not a good thing because the rest of the movie is basically a different movie. Emma is the blond woman you saw, but the movie isn’t about Joe and Emma. Emma is cheating with Joe on her mob boss boyfriend, Albert White (Robert Glenister), then sells out Joe to Albert just as they are running away together. This is never adequately explained beyond one of Albert’s goons seeing them, but Joe and Emma were barely trying to hide it. At one point, they are having dinner together in a busy, fancy restaurant (they would hook up when Albert was out of town). And, besides, wouldn’t Albert have one of his men escorting her around since his competition would probably be interested in kidnapping her for leverage? Sorry, I’m caring too much about the plot.
Joe is beaten within an inch of his life and only survives because his police captain father (Brendan Gleeson) just happens to show up in the alley where they’re about to kill Joe. Joe wakes up a few days later in a prison hospital and spends three years in jail for armed robbery. Once out, the new story begins. Joe joins the Italian mob in order to exact revenge on Albert for killing Emma (Albert wasn’t about to forgive the cheating). His new boss, Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone) sends him to Tampa to take over his rum-running business there while simultaneously muscling Albert out of Tampa. On the surface, this seems like the logical road for a broken-hearted lover to take, but avenging Emma is soon forgotten when Joe meets Graciella Corrales (Zoe Saldana) and falls in love with her. At that point, Joe is just acting like a standard mob guy and we never actually see Albert until the end of the film. I won’t spoil the why, but it’s pretty dumb. And Joe verbalizes how dumb it is. Then bullets start to fly and bodies pile up as the movie climaxes, then we get three endings because Ben couldn’t decide how to actually end the film.
Her name was Elizabeth. No, Angela. No, something starting with M.
Like I said, there are parts of this movie that are good. The climax scene is very well done and Batman kicks some ass in that scene. There are good moments between characters, especially a diner scene between Joe and Loretta Figgis (Elle Fanning), the daughter of the Tampa police captain (Chris Cooper). Unfortunately, Loretta is one of the side plots that becomes the main plot for a time. At this point in the film, Joe has rid Tampa of Albert, and Joe is focused on getting a casino built. Loretta is preaching about the evils of gambling and drinking, and Joe doesn’t want to kill her. Later, the Ku Klux Klan show up because black people also drink rum and the movie becomes about racial history. It’s like if Batman was Forrest Gump, but made and sold hooch for the Italian mob.
And one Elle Fanning.
If the movie had stuck with a single plot like the love story (this could have spanned the entire film with the rum wars between the mobs woven in), it would have been a much tighter film. Then, Emma’s betrayal might have meant something to the audience rather than just being a forgotten plot device. They also could have spent more time developing the rivalry between Albert and Maso rather than trying to convince us of the animosity through occasional ethnic slurs. Even Loretta could have been a more important character (perhaps being played by both sides) rather than being an amusing anecdote in Joe’s life. The point I’m trying to make is that sometimes less is more. Live by Night is an average, but uneven movie that suffers from Ben Affleck trying prove that Batman is better than Superman. Or something like that.
Rating: Ask for half your money back. If Joe did any living by night, we never saw it.
By: Kevin Jordan
That’s one way to show it.
Pretty much the worst thing I can think of happening is also the premise of the movie Demolition – my wife tragically and suddenly dying. It’s one of those thoughts that flitters through my mind every time she travels for work and she travels a fair bit. How would I handle it? What would I tell my toddler? What in my house wouldn’t bring a flood of memories and turn me into a man-sized puddle? And how would I explain that to my toddler? It’s not a fun brain exercise, but it’s one that I never see coming until it’s already dancing in my skull. So, yeah – bring on Demolition; my wife is travelling again soon.
(Some mild SPOILERS coming up, but let’s be honest – you aren’t going to see this movie because you’ve never even heard of this movie.)
Jake Gyllenhaal plays Davis Mitchell, a successful investment banker whose wife, Julia (Heather Lind), is killed in a car accident. This happens within the first few minutes of the film and for the next few minutes of the film, you will wonder what this movie is actually about. That’s what I did because I’m a plot guy, so I’m always looking for the plot. As it turns out, this movie doesn’t really have a plot – it’s just one hundred minutes of Davis coping with his wife’s death. Essentially, it’s a biography and once I figured that out, I stopped wondering when they were going to get to the point because I realized that was the point. Being a biography, it makes up for a lack of plot with very well-developed characters as well as an exploration into one of the ways in which a person might cope with such a tragedy – by demolishing pretty much everything in sight. Yes, this movie has the most on-the-nose title not featuring a superhero.
Of course, he doesn’t just start demolishing everything right away. He starts with appliances and doors, then moves on to bigger things, which I won’t spoil for you. But before any of the demolition begins, he tries to buy a candy bar out of a vending machine at the hospital (after his wife dies) and the candy bar gets stuck. It’s definitely the kind of kick to the balls that life gives to a person when said person doesn’t think life can suck any worse. Anyway, Davis decides to write a complaint letter to the vending machine company and includes a detailed accounting of his wife’s death, among other things. The customer service who receives the letter is Karen Moreno (Naomi Watts) and she finds it so heart-breaking that, after a couple more letters from the grieving widower, decides to give him a call. I’m not sure this qualifies as your typical rom-com meet-cute, but then this isn’t a rom-com and it’s one of the most depressing meet-cutes in the history of movies.
Karen is a single mom who likes smoking pot, has a 15-year old son, Chris (Judah Lewis), and is dating her boss. Also, Karen is a little crazy, which becomes obvious well before you learn any of those things. She’s probably the opposite of the kind of person that Davis should be hanging out with, but it seems to be helping both of them. As Davis ramps up the destruction, he also forms a bond with Chris, who is your typical disgruntled, angst-y teenager, but with the added bonus of being sexually confused. So, if you are keeping score, that’s three people with serious life issues. Given the title of the movie, you can confidently assume there’s going to be some kind of blow up involving the three of them, but I can confidently tell you it’s not what you think. Like I said, this isn’t a rom-com, so the blow-up isn’t the misunderstanding event that is standard to those films.
After watching the film, I realized that film schooling would have been really helpful for analyzing this particular movie. It’s obvious that the director and writer filled this movie with more symbolism than a Dan Brown novel, but I’m sure I missed at least half of it. I did manage to catch things like flickering lights early in the film (Davis’ mental state), Davis moving forward through a crowd while everyone in the crowd was moving backwards (no explanation required), and, of course, the obvious metaphor/literal demolition of everything in his life. But, what I don’t think I can explain well (at least without a minimum of one more screening) are the memories of his wife that we see scattered throughout the film. Not one of them felt superfluous or pointless and all of them manage to affect the viewer as if we are Davis. It’s really good filmmaking like that which allows me to enjoy a plotless movie.
I’m usually not a fan of biographies, but I found myself very content when the film was over. While I think they dropped the ball a bit on Karen at the end, I do think it was a pretty solid movie. It quickly dawned on me that I never realize how much I need movies like this until I’m actually watching one (a good one, I mean). I love action flicks, but it’s nice watching a well-made movie every once in a while that doesn’t leave my ears ringing and my eyes wobbling. Of course, the downside of this particular movie was having my brain start dancing again during the drive home.
Rating: I’m not sure the film is worth a theater screening, but I don’t think you should ask for any money back if you give it a shot.