The Song of Sway Lake (2017)


An aching ode to nostalgia, sun-dappled summers, and scratchy big band-era melodies etched into heavy-duty acetate, Ari Gold’s The Song of Sway Lake is a refreshing antidote to a film season rife with computer-generated blockbusters heavy on comic-book ultraviolence. It’s also not without its flaws, but more about those later. Ollie and his best friend Nikolai, an impossibly handsome Russian thrillseeker, have journeyed to the family cabin this summer to do the wrong thing. They plan to steal a valuable 78—a 12-inch, 78-rpm long-playing record to the uninitiated—from Ollie’s grandmother, the luminous Charlie Sway. And in the past, Charlie clearly did hold sway over this idyllic lakeside setting in upstate New York where the rich and famous came to play. Ollie passionately believes the vintage disc to be his, bequeathed to him by his late father. But Charlie has plans of her own for the rare recording… The performances in ’Sway Lake elevate the drama significantly, given that the drama often involves the thumbing through of dusty old long players or run-ins with misspent youths trespassing on the family dock. Rory Culkin, the youngest of the Culkin sibs (Macaulay, Kieran et al), brings agreeable life to the listless Ollie, who takes a shine to one of these lovely layabouts (Isadora—“after Isadora Duncan”; she’s played by a luminescent Isabelle McNally). As Nikolai, Robert Sheehan exudes a depth well beyond his good looks, and Mary Beth Peil (TV’s The Good Wife), is fascinating as the elderly matriarch who surprises the boys with an impromptu visit. The setting is beautiful—the film was shot on Blue Mountain Lake in the Adirondacks—and the evocative soundtrack couples standards from the likes of Cole Porter with original songs by the director’s brother, Ethan. It’s too bad The Song of Sway Lake suffers from some modest directorial missteps (Sheehan’s constantly reappearing naked rear end, for example, plus some unnecessary “artistic” flourishes) which serve to throw the production’s otherwise charming rhythm slightly out of whack. Still, the film has a serene air to it, and mostly works as a bittersweet love song to the complexities of family and the seductive allure of an idealized past.

(c) 2018 David N. Butterworth

Chappaquiddick (2018)


“Beyond what you know. Beyond what you hear. The truth will finally surface.” Despite its publicity’s insistence to the contrary, there are no new revelations in Chappaquiddick, John Curran’s restrained dramatization of the events of the weekend of July 18th, 1969, when Massachusetts Senator Edward Kennedy, 37, drove his Oldsmobile 88 off a narrow wooden bridge into Chappaquiddick Island’s Poucha Pond, leaving his driving companion, 28-year-old staffer Mary Jo Kopechne, to drown. Nobody really expected any latter-day reveals, of course—the only people who really know what happened that night are no longer with us. But the events of that ill-fated weekend still make for a compelling period drama and they’re starkly and soberly told, played out to the subtlest of scores by Garth Stevenson that dramatizes the mystery (many questions remain unanswered to this day, of course, including whether or not Kennedy was even behind the wheel!). Screenwriters Taylor Allen and Andrew Logan have based their concise script on the transcript of the inquest released in 1970 by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, a meaty 763-page document that most of us haven’t had a chance to read. Also strong is the cast, especially Jason Clarke (Zero Dark Thirty), whose conflicted “Lion of the Senate” vacillates between doing the right thing and doing what’s right for the Kennedys, bullied along by his infirm yet still overbearing father, Joe (a scary, wheelchair-bound Bruce Dern). Ed Helms, as Kennedy’s cousin and guilt-ridden attorney, Joe Gargan, is also excellent as is Kate Mara in a much smaller role as Kopechne, one of six single “Boiler Room Girls” in attendance at a drinking party arranged by five married men. The good people of Massachusetts—who are shown giving Ted the benefit of the doubt in newsreel footage at the film’s conclusion—re-elected Senator Teddy the very next year, but Kennedy delayed his bid for president eight years because of the scandal, and was ultimately defeated by Jimmy Carter in the 1980 primary. On that summer night in 1969, after Mary Jo Kopechne died, Kennedy’s first words to his cronies were, “I’m not going to be president.” At least he told the truth about that.

(c) 2018 David N. Butterworth