STATE OF PLAY: The Film Babble Blog Review

Taking a break from the heat on my Vegas vacation I found a theater (United Artists Showcase 8) not too far from my hotel and decided to take in:

STATE OF PLAY (Dir. Kevin McDonald, 2009)

Literally hitting the ground running with a foot chase through a rain drenched Washington DC night resulting in multiple murder, this adaptation of the six part 2003 British miniseries never lets up from its riveting opening. In the cold light of the next day we are introduced to a scruffy haggard looking Russell Crowe as a ace old school reporter (the type who brags about using a 16 year old computer) who buys coffee to get info from the police and makes jaded quips like: “I’ll need to read a few blogs in order to form an opinion.” A nice timely touch is to then pair him up with a blogger (Rachel McAdams) for his newspaper’s online division. Crowe’s long time buddy, a congressman played surprisingly solidly by Ben Affleck, is exposed as having had an affair with one of the previous night’s victims (Maria Thayer – only seen in photos and cellphone footage) and, of course, something sinister lies in the shadows with an evil corporation possibly pulling the strings.

Yes, it’s a conspiracy movie with a “trust nobody” vibe that has many allusions to one of the all time greats, ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN with its Washington DC backdrop, intense walks and talks, doors slammed in journalist’s faces, and even a shadowy parking garage sequence. The Watergate hotel gets more than just a visual shout out too. Crowe gets many terse tongue lashes from his English editor played beautifully by Helen Mirren in the cluttered newsroom of the fictional “The Washington Globe” (same typeface as The Washington Post in case one misses the connection) while he and McAdams go from lead to lead. For the up to par supporting cast we’ve got Robin Wright Penn as Affleck’s estranged wife, Jeff Daniels as a smarmy Senior Representative, Viola Davis (DOUBT) as a no nonsense pathologist, and a stand-out Jason Bateman as a bisexual fetish club promoter addicted to OxyContin.

There are contrivances and clichés galore but the movie moves so fast with such entertaining zeal that none of that matters. Crowe puts in a cantakerously crafted performance that’s strong enough to conceal that we are given virtually nothing of backstory of his character, while McAdams appealingly works those “dewey eyed cub reporter’s eyes” (as Mirren sneeringly calls them at one point) uping the ante from her previous one note roles like the love interest in WEDDING CRASHERS. There is spare but weighty commentary on the fate of print media in the era of the internets – particularly the likening of bloggers to bloodsuckers (ouch!). Through this all the supreme structure of the film is what really makes it tick. It’s played straight with a tightened pace that doesn’t ever fall out of focus. Maybe it’s not quite in the league of the classic 70’s political thrillers it pays ample homage to, but STATE OF PLAY is a worthy addition to the conspiracy cinema canon.

More later…


Nice to see this country gets something right for a change. Ignoring the gigantic marketing blitz for BEE MOVIE moviegoers instead chose a gritty violent crime drama and I doubt there are many regrets for it. So let’s take a look at that choice:

AMERICAN GANGSTER (Dir. Ridley Scott, 2007) In this fictionalized account of real events Denzel Washington portrays Frank Lucas, a real life Harlem heroin kingpin in the late 60’s to mid 70’s who was originally from my home-state (he was born in Washington, North Carolina and there are scenes set in Greensboro). Lucas rules the streets by smuggling drugs from Vietnam in soldier’s caskets therefore eliminating the middleman and turning a huge profit. Detective Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe – not as good as in 3:10 TO YUMA but solid nonetheless) is hot on Lucas’s trail and desperately trying to keep his “honest cop” status afloat in a sea of corruption. Rounding out the cast is one such corrupt cop played by a slicker than sin Josh Brolin, Chiwetel Ejiofor as Lucas’s brother, Cuba Gooding Jr. in a juicy bit-part, and Ruby Dee as Mama Lucas. Being that it’s Ridley Scott you’ve got to expect at least one shining rain drenched street at night and it’s there in a effective drive-by shooting scene.

There has been criticism of Crowe’s character being given too large a part just so that he could function for audiences as a white counter point to Washington but I think that’s too cynical. Roberts is a necessary real-life figure and he provides us with a lot of the inner-working background while relieving us of an entire movie dominated by Lucas’s scary presence. Not that that would be so bad – Denzel Washington is excellent as ever; all polite power and laid-back cunning confidence but to be honest it’s the kind of performance he could do in his sleep. AMERICAN GANGSTER is getting a lot of unfair comparisons to other mob movie classics such as THE GODFATHER, SCARFACE, and even Blaxploitation touchstone SUPER FLY (the New York Magazine article that the film was based in part on was entitled “The Return Of Superfly”). But these are easy cheap shots though I’ll say as those films go this is more along the lines of DONNIE BRASCO than GOODFELLAS. I don’t predict any Oscar nominations for this film and it most likely won’t make my top ten films of 2007 (there’s too much strong competition) but it’s well crafted, extremely well acted, and offers lots to sink one’s teeth into. So forget that silly Seinfeld-voiced animated bee flick and join your fellow Americans at the multiplex.

More later…

Westerns, Lovers In Paris And Media Circuses Are Doing Fine Thank You

“I feel like Dorothy – everything just turned to color.”
– Don Draper (Jon Hamm) Mad Men (AMC Original Series 2007)

Got some recent moviegoing to babble ’bout so let’s get at it :

3:10 TO YUMA (Dir. James Mangold, 2007) I don’t want to spend much of this review addressing the state of the modern Western – I’ll just say that it’s a genre that will never die (see Deadwood and the upcoming THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES). Those prematurely eulogizing it are discounting the allure of that period of history – tales with a backdrop of a lawless land that stretches to infinity will always be told. The tale told in James Mangold’s (WALK THE LINE) 3:10 TO YUMA is told very well – especially for a remake. I haven’t seen the original so I can’t compare but reasonably I am very skeptical about remakes so I was pleasantly surprised at how strong a movie this was. Christian Bale plays a down on his luck rancher who takes on the daunting task of transporting a villainous fast drawing outlaw (Russell Crowe) across country. The film’s title is their destination – a scheduled train with a prison car that will supposedly take Crowe to be tried and hung.

Obstacles aplenty surround Bale and his posse (including a wonderfully grizzled Peter Fonda) – Crowe’s murderous gang close behind set on freeing him, dangerous Indian territory, and the conniving overly confident Crowe himself. As Ben Wade –you’ll know him from the trail of the dead – Crowe does a career best performance. He perfects the kind of evil man who laughs through bloody teeth when being punched in the face, quotes ominous Bible passages, and never flickers for an instant in any hostile predicament. As an actor though he’s surely met his match with Christian Bale. Adding another sharp intense performance to an incredibly impressive roster, Bale really shines and should be rewarded come Oscar time. Far more than a genre exercise or a modernized re-imagining – 3:10 TO YUMA is one of the best films of the year. So forget about all the “death of the Western” diatribes and just savor the scenery.

2 DAYS IN PARIS (Dir. Julie Delphy, 2007) Looks at a distance like another BEFORE SUNRISE/SUNSET love story travelogue but a closer look reveals that Delphy’s directorial debut is fairly removed from those chatfests. Of course there is considerable Richard Linklater influence in the dialogue and use of tracking shots but there is an offbeat dynamic that is all Delphy. The premise is simple – a couple (Delphy, Adam Goldberg) spend a few days in the city of love during what appears to be a rough patch in their 2 year old relationship. She’s a photographer; he’s an interior decorator though during this trip he’s the one taking pictures – a lot of pictures. They seem to run into a former lover of Delphy’s at every turn which makes the already extremely neurotic Goldberg’s heavily tatooed skin crawl. Goldberg’s Woody Allenesque asides provide the humor throughout especially in one of the best scenes – a dinner with Delphy’s real-life parents (Albert Delphy & Marie Pillet). Some funny affecting moments but maybe would’ve worked better as a short film – even at 96 minutes it feels a bit drawn out. Better yet – condense the best moments from 2 DAYS IN PARIS into a montage and it would’ve made a kick ass segment of PARIS JE T’AIME! Nah, I’m just blogging out of my ass – Delphy’s film may be only fair but as a first time effort it’s on the good end of fair.

ACE IN THE HOLE * (Dir. Billy Wilder, 1951) It’s amazing that Wilder’s follow-up to the inarguable classic SUNSET BLVD. has been missing in action (never available on home video until now) and undocumented for so many years. I’ve picked up movie guides from the last decade that didn’t have a listing for it (not even in Wilder’s filmography!) and when I’ve mentioned it to my other film buff friends it got no recognition. Well, this spiffy new Criterion collection edition should change all that. Kirk Douglas stars as a wild-eyed hard drinking newspaper man who arrives in Albuquerque, New Mexico to revive his troubled career. Stopping at a trading post on the way to a rattlesnake hunt he hears of a man (Paul Benedict) trapped in a mine because of a cave collapse. He milks the story for all its worth even delaying the man’s rescue and it becomes the definition – possibly where the phrase came from – of a media circus. With Douglas at his most intensely vicious and Wilder’s gloriously cynical but insightful script – it’s so nice that this film comes back to bite us on the ass and show us how little has changed. After watching it I turned off the DVD player to see pundit after pundit espouse about the latest O.J. caper on cable. Hard to look at that pointless blather the same way again after seeing ACE IN THE HOLE. You can’t get a higher film babble recommendation than this.

* After its original poorly received release the film was re-titled THE BIG CARNIVAL and re-released. Apparently this didn’t help – the film was still deemed too dark and it failed to gain an audience. Until now…

More later…