1/07/2009

DVD & Blu-ray Review: Swing Vote (2008)



Campaigning for Your Vote
On DVD & Blu-ray

1/13/09








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In 2007, the world was introduced to the young Irish actress Saoirse Ronan with her Oscar nominated turn in director Joe Wright's acclaimed Golden Globe winning heartbreaker Atonement, based on the novel by Ian McEwan.



While admittedly, director Joshua Michael Stern's political satire Swing Vote doesn't aim for the same high brow art house crowd, those who sought out the 2008 film in its August release, became acquainted with a young, extraordinarily talented eleven-year-old American actress named Madeline Carroll.


Turning in a performance that was both bittersweet and mature, the young girl whom actor Kevin Costner called the film's "little home run" in the DVD & Blu-ray Making-of Featurette managed to keep us interested, even when the sometimes bloated film began to veer off course.


Holding her own opposite not only Costner but Stanley Tucci and other acclaimed professionals more than three times her age, it was young Carroll who managed to stop the film from becoming a spoiled ballot, despite a number of fine supporting performances and an ingenious concept.


Now arriving on DVD and Blu-ray in the same month that our country finds ourselves being given a new opportunity with a change of leadership, it's the right time to check out a political comedy now that we can all collectively breathe a sigh of relief that campaign media coverage has ended.

And although I can't altogether recommend the film which moves unevenly in tone-- I have to recommend that you seek it out regardless as young Carroll definitely earned the vote of this reviewer in a performance that I listed as one of the standouts of the year in Film Intuition's 2008 Year in Review.


However, before I delve into the aspects both the DVD and Blu-ray disc themselves, I'll break this post up into three parts beginning with my original theatrical review of the film.


I. The Movie


Director: Joshua Michael Stern

To precocious twelve-year-old Molly Johnson (an impeccable Madeline Carroll), voting is not only an optimistic privilege but it’s also an American citizen’s “civic duty.” However, to Molly’s under-achieving father whom — for the zero parenting he offers — she fittingly calls Bud (Kevin Costner), voting in America simply risks the chance that you’ll wind up on the fast track for jury duty. Unfortunately for Bud, along with making the family budget and packing his daily lunch, Molly registered her father to cast his vote, aligning him as a political “independent” since she proclaims that “the two-party system neglects the working poor.”


While Lou Dobbs would no doubt beam with pride, Bud struggles to make sense of his daughter. This is especially the case when — in equal fascination of the electoral process as well as her tie-in school project — Molly reveals that she took the trouble to fill in her parental political questionnaire for Bud because she wanted to make him “sound smart.” Despite his protests and canned statements that voting is useless, Molly demands that her father meet her at the polling place after school with a peck on the cheek and a warning to Bud, namely, “screw this up and I’m leaving you.”


And while Molly has a fruitful day delivering a beautifully worded political essay and ends up on the news after local Texico, New Mexico reporter Kate Madison (Paula Patton) decides to feature it in the evening broadcast, Bud’s prospects that day are far less successful. With incriminating footage that depicts Bud ruining more of the eggs than he’s able to neatly package in the plant where he works — not to mention the fact Bud hasn’t punched in on time in six months and proceeded to take thirty-one sick days — before he’s officially laid off, his boss and former high school friend asks him to give him one good reason not to let him go. Foreshadowing his inability to make a decision which will propel the rest of Swing Vote's plot, needless to say Bud can’t offer him any explanations.

Later, predictably forgetting his promise to Molly until it’s nearly too late, Election Day ends on a far stranger note after a bizarre computer error concerning Bud’s vote makes the results of the day — already in a deadlock for the presidency — all boil down to whom Bud will vote for ten days later when, by oath, he swears he must recast his vote. Literally holding the fate of the government in his hands as his vote will decide which candidate earns swing state New Mexico’s five electoral votes and ensures him the presidency, Bud is overwhelmed by the media reaction as every major outlet from MTV to CNN to the BBC sets up a stakeout right outside his trailer. And just as quickly, political organizations start flooding into the tiny town that — before the gaffe — had been so inconsequential it wasn’t even on the state map.


However, the story really heats up when both candidates journey out to try and win over Bud by any means necessary. Pulling out all the stops and White House goodie bags he can carry, the first of the two competing front-runners, the favored Republican incumbent President Andrew Boone (a pitch-perfect Kelsey Grammar) arrives in Texico complete with the aptly named Martin Fox, his amoral strategist, in tow (Stanley Tucci). Also vying for Bud’s ear — or rather his vote — the earthy Democratic challenger Donald Greenleaf (Dennis Hopper), who along with his campaign manager Art Crumb (Nathan Lane) promises a racially blind, all inclusive “rainbow” White House, pack up their “Truth Train” and “Operation Real Deal” to make the long trek to the desert. Although the Dems learn that — while they can’t even begin to compete with Air Force One — their secret weapon is none other than Willie Nelson, who was the subject of a tribute band that Bud had played in before his rhythm section ended up in the slammer.


In an effort to better understand Bud, the candidates and their smarmy managers resort to shameless pandering, insincere flattery, and manipulation, including letting the dimwitted, perpetual beer drinker win at poker or using cue cards to make small talk with Bud about fishing. Most memorably, this results in a wonderfully hilarious speech by Grammar likening his role as commander-in-chief to that of a quarterback, breaking foreign policy down with the aid of football terminology. Grammar nails every scene he’s in and nobody plays a buffoon or the prototypical blue collar American male quite like Kevin Costner, although he’s essentially recycling the far more likable characterizations he crafted in Bull Durham and Tin Cup.



However, by making our lead character such an idiotic Homer Simpson-like oaf, we’re laughing at Bud rather than with him throughout the film’s entirety. And far more often than I felt empathy for him, I was surprised to find myself actually loathing him numerous times throughout because of his complete inability to see beyond himself and understand not just the gravity of the situation but recognize how it’s all affecting his daughter. Speaking of which, as Molly, the young Madeline Carroll completely steals the film and our hearts in the process, especially in a scene wherein she shows far more worldliness and morality than her father ever could, while breaking down in tears in front of her classroom, telling white lies in order to make her father sound like he actually cares about the country he’s living in and his fellow Americans.


For a comedy, Swing Vote is a bit more melancholic than perhaps director Joshua Michael Stern, along with his co-writer Jason Richman, had planned since there’s nothing funny about child neglect; but they try to keep the satire swinging along with the mystery of Bud’s vote and make great use out of their supporting players in the process. As the candidates begin to address Bud directly in a series of new political ads, suddenly Costner’s Bud becomes his very own Truman Show, being followed and analyzed around the clock in every journalistic medium. Although quality wise, Swing Vote is less like Truman Show and more like EdTV.



However, hilarity ensues as the candidates embrace political flip-flopping as the Republicans suddenly promote gay marriage and environmental protection with the Democrats tackling illegal immigration and embracing the pro-life movement simply because the inarticulate Bud misspoke a few times while being interviewed by the beautiful local, ambitious newswoman Kate Madison. In an underdeveloped subplot, Madison, who shares a bond with Bud’s brainy daughter, must reconcile her ethics with her desire to get ahead in the business, seeing Bud’s story as the ultimate break in getting the hell out of her tiny town and station run by George Lopez in order to follow in the footsteps of idols like Paula Zahn.



With the inclusion of an “everyman” and a “reporter with a conscience,” Stern reaches to emulate the type of underdog film that Frank Capra perfected with Mr. Deeds Goes to Town and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. And while the performers elevate the material, Stern forgot the fact that what made Capra’s films such a success is they delivered us a hero we could root for and one whom - despite not being the smartest - had a heart as big as the White House and therefore endeared us to him from the get-go. Predictably, Costner’s Bud has a wake-up call late into the film but it’s rushed and protracted — crammed into the last twenty minutes, making it pay off less than it could have had we seen glimmers of his goodness earlier on.

While it’s not as cynically intelligent as Wag the Dog or Bulworth, nor as paranoid as the underrated Man of the Year, there’s no doubt this film plays much better during this particular election year with audiences growing weary of endless coverage of the candidates and outrageous accusations and distracting spin. Despite this, Swing’s sound bites and satire get awfully repetitive in the last hour of the film’s surprisingly lengthy running time.



And similar to the way that the issues a voter cares most about are often neglected as soon as their candidate hits the Oval Office, on my way out of Stern’s film I felt like I’d just voted again. For instead of contemplating any food for thought by recalling some truly terrific scenes and stellar performances, I wondered what would have happened if the film hadn’t been ultimately overshadowed by such an inconsistent screenplay. Now that’s something that calls for a re-vote or at least, in the case of Swing Vote — political comedy reform.

II. The DVD



Featuring an audio commentary by the two friends turned professional collaborators, writer/director Joshua Michael Stern and his fellow scribe Jason Richman, this beautifully transferred widescreen DVD from Walt Disney Home Studios Entertainment and Touchstone Pictures arrives with great new cover art to highlight the film's stellar cast via an Altman-like design although unfortunately Carroll isn't billed in either side of the box.

Revealing that the impetus behind the film was following the shock of the 2000 election and the scary idea that the presidential decision could be narrowed down to "a tiny district in Florida," Stern and Richman share that they figured narrowing it down even further to just one man wasn't only not far fetched but great comedy fodder.

When it came to casting, the two who share that they "always wanted Costner" for the lead in order to "deconstruct his movie star persona," gratefully reveal the actor's generosity in arriving on the set as an actor first and foremost and leaving his "director's hat" at home (so-to-speak), ensuring that the film was the young director's vision through and through.


Crediting the richness of the script and the way it moved from humor to great emotion, numerous actors reveal the way that they were drawn to the piece because of precisely that mixture and the added bonus that it would make audiences think as well.

"Let's face it, we're making fun of ourselves as a country," one interviewee notes in the extra "Inside The Campaign: The Politics of Production," but in doing so, the filmmakers wanted to add as much credibility and authenticity as possible in persuading reporters, anchors and pundits from Larry King to Arianna Huffington to Bill Maher to make brief "TV Cameos" to heighten the film.



Additionally, it features some great tongue-in-cheek remarks from the cast including Grammer who notes that he couldn't turn down the opportunity to act opposite an elephant (as we discover in the deleted scenes) and Dennis Hopper who jokes that although this is a long ways away from Easy Rider and Blue Velevet, he doesn't "want to give up my day job playing villains."

Likewise, we also gain a greater appreciation for Patton's turn as the actress shares the way she studied the posture, intimations, and delivery of CNN and other channels to nail her character, along with Tucci who we discover improvised one of the funniest lines of the film that made it into the trailer (a spontaneous response to Carroll's charge that he would sell his own mother).

Additionally, although it's standard DVD fare, when it comes to Swing Vote, the deleted and extended scenes (with optional filmmaker commentary) are actually worth watching as-- in the two best ones that add more humanity to the politicians-- we see a hilarious "what if?" moment as Tucci and Lane hypothesize the way they could change Washington, Hopper and Grammer get in touch with the real reason they entered politics in the first place (including that aforementioned elephant).

Also boasting the "Hey Man, What About You?" music video from Costner's band Modern West which fuses footage of the film together and giving fans a better gauge of the actor's true musical talent (in lieu of the purposely overdone Bud Jams with the Democrats sequence in the film), the DVD also includes an insert for the debut album by the band-- Untold Truths-- which you can learn more about on the official website.



III. The Blu-ray Disc

As Walt Disney Home Entertainment was generous enough to send out both formats for Swing Vote, I was able to judge the technical quality of the film's Blu-ray version as well. Boasting the same featurettes that comprise the DVD (as described above) and a fun interactive menu that uses the sound of camera "flash bulbs" as you move through the options, the Blu-ray's quality is predictably far superior to the DVD with the soundtrack blaring out as though we were in a rock arena in 5.1 DTS-HD surround (especially evidenced in one of the earliest scenes as Bud drives Molly to school).

Seducing owners of Blu-ray players with a plethora of pre-feature trailers to experience the works of Miramax, Paramount Vantage, and other Disney owned films in the HD format, you'll get chills seeing some clips of your favorite films like Kill Bill and There Will Be Blood in their Blu-ray glory (which I can actually attest to, having rented Blood recently on Blu).

As for the feature film itself, Swing Vote's Blu-ray transfer is crystal clear from the far left of the screen to the far right as we can see heightened detail in flesh-tones, individual hairs blowing, and a wondrous magical effect of the chicken feathers flying as though they were snow at Bud's workplace near the beginning.

With heightened 3D like depth perception and a super sharp contrast, Swing Vote excels. This is particularly noticeable in scenes where the politicians and reporters all clamor together dressed in dark business suits, holding cameras and microphones with a high transfer of the deep, rich black tones that don't blur together to a muddy effect to which some Blu-rays have fallen prey. Thus in the end, it offers home viewers an even better Voter experience than the one I witnessed via the print I viewed during a crowded press screening back in August of '08.