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Column Thu Apr 16 2009
State of Play
Something that struck me almost immediately about the smart, complicated, and wholly satisfying State of Play were the three men credited with the screenplay. Now, I have no idea whether these three collaborated in any way — I'm guessing not — but they are three screenwriters who have impressed me with their knowledge and means of telling convincing stories about journalists and those who occupy positions of power in our world. And the result of this carefully crafted screenplay (based on the much-praised BBC miniseries of the same name, which I have not seen but is sitting on my shelf ready to be watched very soon) is a tale that is more about the way in which even the purest forms of journalism can be influenced and less about simply a scandal and possible cover-up involving big business and corrupt politicians.
But let's take a quick look at those screenwriters. Matthew Michael Carnahan wrote Peter Berg's The Kingdom and the Robert Redford incendiary Lions for Lambs. Tony Gilroy wrote the three Jason Bourne movies, as well as wrote and directed Michael Clayton and the recently released, superb corporate espionage thriller Duplicity. Finally, Billy Ray wrote and directed probably the best film about journalists until State of Play, a little film called Shattered Glass; he also wrote the fantastic FBI drama Breach. Combine this braintrust under the clean and clear direction of Kevin Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland), and State of Play might actually be one of those films that is so smart that it will scare audiences away. I hope to God I'm wrong, but it's getting really close to the summer movie season kicking in, and people are just about ready to switch their brains off. I hope State of Play is looked at as the final exam before the school doors fly open and the heavy drugs kick in.
Russell Crowe packed on a few pounds to play seasoned DC newspaper man Cal McAffrey, who is slowly watching his beloved institution come under yet another new owner that puts profits over substantive writing and reporting. One thing his editor (played with the perfect copious amounts of cynicism by Helen Mirren, in her best role since The Queen) has noticed is that the paper's online bloggers have been generating a lot of readers and revenue. The queen bee of the blog side of the paper is Della Frye (Rachel McAdams), who is a terrific writer but a terrible reporter. She values the scoop over getting the facts right the first time, and it drives Cal crazy.
When a story breaks that a young woman working as a senior researcher for Congressman Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck, doing a great job of giving us equal parts creature of emotion and consummate politician) has been killed at a Metro station, the first reports on the blogosphere say that she was heartbroken after the married Collins broke off an affair and that she committed suicide. But the more Cal (who happens to be long-time friends with Collins) digs into both that story and a seemingly unrelated double murder in a less savory part of D.C., the more he begins to see pieces coming together is unexpected and unexplainable ways. He decides to use the clearly layered story as a teaching exercise for young Della and enlists her to help out with the reporting. The two make a pretty convincing team, and I appreciate that the filmmakers resisted the temptation to pair these two up romantically. It would have made for an unnecessary and unwelcome distraction from a story that demands our full attention.
Going into too much detail about the plot from this point on would severely ruin the fun of watching it unfold and the many twists that the story takes. Yes, there are a few too many coincidences, and yes, it does seem like every lead Cal or Della find leads to something even more significant that the thing they were initially investigating (I would have liked at least one lead to dead end; real reporters know this happens more often than not). But the film succeeds because it's about the process of investigative reporting; it's as much about sitting in the office making phone calls as it is meeting mysterious sources in dark alley or in seedy bars. State of Play features some great featured players as well, including Robin Wright Penn as Affleck's wife, who has her own history with Cal; Jeff Daniels as a senior member of Congress who would appear to be mentoring Collins through his troubling times; and particularly stellar work from Jason Bateman as a PR slickster who is far more ingrained in the affairs of government and other power brokers than he'd like to be.
State of Play feels about 85 percent authentic, which is better than most films about newspapers or news makers. A lot of the film takes place in the fictional offices of the DC paper, and seeing Cal and his team do actual work to find little bits of information in an effort to piece together the entire story is refreshing and fun. The film probably suffers from exactly one too many "holy shit" moments as things are wrapping up, but by then, I was already on board and willing to go where the train took me. Also, the film feels rushed at the end and desperate to wrap everything up and get all the revelations out on the table in the closing moments. I guess that's the price we pay for them doing such a great job taking their time watching the news-gathering process in the film first two thirds. There are no weak performances here. Initially, I thought McAdams might be out of her element, but she pulls through impressively. You can actually see key moments when her character is getting that her job is more than breaking news and eye-catching headlines. With relatively few lapses, the film is one seemingly made for intelligent people by intelligent people. It struck me as the film was wrapping up that you don't get that combination in movies much any more.
As I settled down to watch the latest man-turns-into-a-boy film 17 Again, I was fully expecting to watch in wonder and amazement at the long-overdue return to the big screen of Matthew Perry. Turns out the star of The Whole Nine/Ten Yards franchise and "Friends" is in about 10 minutes of this movie. What a colossal disappointment that man behind Chandler continues to remain underappreciated by Hollywood. The good news is that instead of Perry playing the adult version of Mike O'Donnell, a one-time high school basketball superstar with great promise, for the entire film, we get Zac Efron as the 17-year-old Mike who gets a second chance to attend high school, win the big game, and get the girl. Back in the '80s, Mike knocked up his high school sweetheart and walked away from the most important game in his life so that he could ask her to marry him. Throwing away his hopes of a basketball scholarship, Mike instead takes a job at a pharmaceutical company where he is consistently passed over for promotions. When we meet the adult Mike, he is in the middle of a divorce from wife Scarlett (Leslie Mann), and his teen kids (Sterling Knight as Alex and Michelle Trachtenberg as Maggie) can barely stand the sight of him.
After a weird encounter with a mystical janitor, Mike is turned back into his 17-year-old self but he's not sure why. He turns to his oldest friend and consummate nerdling Ned Gold (the great Thomas Lennon, last seen with his tongue down Paul Rudd's throat in I Love You, Man), who does copious amounts of research in all of his science fiction and fantasy books to determine that Mike's transformation has occurred so that he can right some wrong in his life. Does it have to do with his kids? His soon-to-be ex-wife? His own life's disappointments? Mike sets out in the body of Zac Efron to find out.
Now I'm not a Zac Efron hater by any means, but I did find it really strange that after three rounds of playing a singing/dancing basketball star in the High School Musical films that he would literally open 17 Again shooting hoops (shirtless) and later joining the cheerleaders bust a move to the familiar strains of "Bust A Move." Way to help people see you as something more than a Disney puppet, dude. But to Efron's credit, the guy is loaded with seemingly limitless energy, and the guy has something resembling comic timing (hell, I thought his recent gig hosting SNL was funnier than Seth Rogen's episode the week before). I'll even go so far as to say that Efron is a pretty funny guy in this film, and where the stale script lets him down, he picks up the slack and makes us care about Mike's plight. Anyone whose knee-jerk reaction is to dismiss Efron simply because he's good looking, has floppy hair, and has the largest man nipples I've ever seen is missing out on an actor I suspect will be around a very long time. Watch him in Hairspray, and maybe you'll get a sense what I'm talking about.
Director Burr Steers (Igby Goes Down, and episodes of "Weeds," "The L Word," and "Big Love") does at least one very smart thing in letting his supporting cast come to the foreground enough to keep things interesting. I was particularly amused by Lennon's sad and relentless attempts to woo high school principal Masterson, played by "The Office's" Melora Hardin. When the two finally discover what they have in common, it's a terrific melding of the minds. Pretty much every second that Lennon is on screen is better than the seconds when he's not. Leslie Mann's Scarlett is good if only because she's the only one who seems to realize that young Mike today looks exactly like young Mike from years earlier. And while she doesn't make the connection, she does find herself drawn to the young man who has become good friends with son Alex. Knight and Trachtenberg have their moments, but they kind of just take up space while far more interesting and amusing things happen around them.
Look, I'm not going to argue with anyone over whether 17 Again is worth checking out. I'm about as on the fence about recommending the film as you can be. But it's becoming increasingly difficult to deny the appeal of Zac Efron any longer. I don't think I've ever used the term "star quality" in my life, but if such a thing exits, this guy has it. And it's the combination of and chemistry between him and Lennon that keeps this movie from dying a violent death. In a strange way, I stopped paying attention to the plot of the film and watched these two performers work (sometimes struggle) to keep the film interesting, with the occasional laugh thrown in. In the end, there are at least two or three other comedies I'd rather you spend your hard-earned money on, but if you've seen those films already, you could do worse than 17 Again. I know that's not a resounding endorsement, but it's more of one than I thought I'd give. Take that for what its worth.
Three years ago filmmakers and writers Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck seemingly came out of nowhere to deliver one of the most highly praised films of 2006, the remarkable Half Nelson with Ryan Gosling. Then the pair seemingly vanished, only to resurface last year on the festival circuit with Sugar, another small and utterly authentic story about a young man from the Dominican Republic nicknamed Sugar, played by first-time actor Algenis Perez Soto, who manages to convey the confidence his character has in his in his abilities as an up-and-coming baseball pitcher, while still being incredibly shy. Sugar plays for the Kansas City development team in the DR, and is called up to play in the minor league in the States. He's soon on a plane to the smallest small town in Iowa, staying with an elderly couple who clearly love baseball and house up-and-coming players on a regular basis. With almost no English in his vocabulary and being tossed in a strange place and forced to adjust, Sugar throws himself into the game and delivers some powerful pitching that earns him a place as a starter.
On the surface, Sugar is a film about culture clash, as this man from the Dominican slums comes to the United States to live its dream. At its heart, the film is about the call of America that is heard around the world, and how often those who come to this country are disappointed, not with how much America has to offer but how little of it they can afford. Sugar is also a top-notch baseball movie showing us a sliver of the professional baseball structure that we never get to see. The system uses the players' desire to live and work in the United States as a means to rope them in and get them to play for nothing until they are ready to call up to the "Show" or send them packing. With Sugar's powerful pitch, he seems destined for greater things, but a minor injury and the introduction of an equally impressive new pitcher to the team makes the young man lose his confidence. This isn't as hard to believe when you consider that Sugar is only 19 when he comes to the United States. Off the field, Sugar and his fellow Latin American teammates are forced to endure a series of small humiliations, racism and disappointments.
Sugar makes a surprising move late in the film that puts him in even more questionable circumstances that make you anxious for his future. In many ways, the movie is about the loss of one man's innocence or at least the harsh realization that dreams and reality rarely intersect. And even when they do meet in the real world, the dream is often short lived. There's a poignant scene near the end of the film where Sugar meets a group of former major league players, all from Latin America, who get together in an organized league to play the kind of baseball they grew up dreaming about. I have no doubt in my mind that these other players are the real-life inspiration for this story. We rely on these independent filmmakers to find and relay these deeply personal stories with careful attention to detail and more heart than any studio film could ever bring to a subject like this. Sugar is a great, spiritually uplifting piece that deserves a better platform in Chicago than playing at Pipers Alley, which is where it opens today. If I were you, I'd take the extra time and go up to Evanston to watch this extraordinary movie.
All the wrong movie for all the right reasons. One of the higher-profile films from SXSW this year, American Violet proved to me that there is absolutely a compelling story to be told based on the facts of the case of Dee Roberts (played by the impressive newcomer Nicole Beharie), the young mother of four little girls who was caught up in a sweep of her housing project by police trying to rid the area of drug dealers. The trouble is this movie is not the great work that I firmly believe can be told about this tale. Based on the coerced informant testimony of one desperate actual drug supplier, Dee's name was given to police and she was picked up and held for a many weeks while her children were in the care of both her mother (Alfre Woodard) and her ex-boyfriend (rapper Xzibit). After many months and much heartache as she loses her job, Dee is cleared of the charges. But an ACLU lawyer (Tim Blake Nelson) has been brought in to stop the clearly racist sweeps of the almost entirely black areas of this small Texas town. He suggests that Dee sue the police for racist law enforcement tactics, and eventually she agrees.
Despite a particularly nuanced performance by Will Patton as a former narcotics officer who helps the ACLU investigate their claim, since he used to be part of the system, American Violet finds itself frequently bogged down in preachy and overly simplified rhetoric. What's worse is the fiendish performance by Michael O'Keefe as the police chief, whose barely veiled racist tendencies are brought to the surface in the movie's most ridiculous sequence by far. I have no trouble believing the real-life police chief was a certifiable prick, but the only thing missing from this film's villainous portrayal is a waxed mustache to twirl. Most of the film is equally heavy handed and obvious, and it so didn't need to be. Is it any surprise that the Texas justice system is fucked? There's practically an entire sub-genre of films dedicated to proving that. The heavy-handed approach does a great disservice to this otherwise inspiring and important story, and I have to put the blame solely on director Tim Disney, who has a lot to learn about pacing and building a dramatic atmosphere. I grew increasingly frustrated with American Violet because I could feel a great movie struggling to break free. In the hands of a better storyteller, Dee Roberts' story could have made for some truly righteous storytelling. Instead, we are force fed an overblown plot about justice, racism and the screwed up legal system. This should have been a film about a brave woman with everything to lose going up against a law enforcement agency and legal system that is rotten to the core. Instead, we are saddled with clichés, stereotypes and contradictions. If you still consider After-School Specials high drama, then maybe there's something here for you. Otherwise, stay away.
The events detailed in Hunger are fairly simple to follow and understand, but there is something so inherently wonderful and moving about the means by which co-writer and director Steve McQueen tells this familiar tale of the last days of IRA Hunger striker Bobby Sands that you can almost feel the weight and importance of these moments in history. The film does not begin with Sands or any of his fellow prisoners in Maze Prison in Northern Ireland. Instead it begins with a guard at the prison. Raymond Lohan (played by Stuart Graham) was probably an ordinary man who didn't see the job he had or the prisoners he was attending to to be anything or anyone extraordinary. We also meet a new prisoner named Davey Gillen (Brian Mulligan), who refuses to wear the prison uniform and spends a great deal of the movie naked or simply wearing a blanket. Gillen is put in a cell with Gerry Campbell, who has been in the prison for years and knows how to smuggle things and messages in and out of their confines.
Much of Hunger is told in these segmented moments, often with only two men sharing the screen together at a time. Almost more important, great portions of the film pass without an dialogue, which adds to the haunting quality of the work. For large chunks of the movie, Sands in not a key player. But when we finally get to the scene most critics have said is one of the strongest of 2008 (when most critics saw film at one festival or another), the impact is almost more than one can take. In a jailhouse conversation between Sands (Michael Fassbender) and Father Dominic Moran (Liam Cunningham), the two men manage to exchange a potent mixture of humorous moments and some of the darkest philosophy about moral dignity. Sands lays out his and other inmates' plans for a hunger strike (one which actually killed Sands). The discussion is almost more focused and intense than I could take, especially since the entire 17-minute conversation is done in a single, unbroken take.
Hunger's most agonizing moments are, of course, seeing Sands emaciated and dying in the prison hospital. He sees a small number of visitors before his demise, and those exchanges are fairly devastating. By using one stark moment after another, McQueen, without flaw, captures these episodes in a way that maximizes his ability to pull out the raw and ugly truth of each scene. I'm not even sure if I'm describing it accurately, let alone in a way that would compel you to see this film. But see it you should. You're going to have an exceedingly difficult time shaking the pain and the filth of this experience. It opens today at the Music Box Theatre.
While She Was Out
I'm actually really glad I didn't know that Guillermo del Toro was an executive producer on this film until after I was done watching it and had formulated my thoughts and feelings on it. Not by any means that having Del Toro's name attached to a film means it gets an instant pass in my book, but knowing that going in would have forced me to look for something, anything, about this movie that would have drawn Del Toro to put his name on it. My guess is that he had nothing to do with the making of the movie, but saw it completed and liked it enough to lend his name to the production as a sort of seal of approval. If I'm wrong, I'll happily admit it. But the fact is, there is something remarkably twisted about this seemingly straightforward story of a frustrated housewife named Della (played with horrified glee by Kim Basinger) who is being chased through her suburban world by a group of wanna-be gangsters, led by the surprisingly effective Lukas Haas as Chuckie, a guy who looks like he just decided to become a tough guy earlier that same day, bought a gun, and just went ape-shit crazy during the Christmas rush at the local mall.
Co-written and directed by first-timer Susan Montford (a producer on Shoot 'Em Up and the upcoming Del Toro-produced Splice), While She Was Out thankfully takes the time to map out Della's unsatisfied life as wife and mother of two. She lives in a great neighborhood, drives an SUV, and has an abusive asshole of a husband (Craig Sheffer) who demands a clean house and well-behaved kids. I was getting a littler nervous in the beginning of the film when Sheffer walks into their home, sees toys scattered everywhere, and wonders out loud why the house isn't clean ("What do you do all day?" he screams.). It seemed just a little too patented "Evil Husband" for my tastes. But blessedly Della has places to go once her husband gets home, and she hops in her car and heads to the mall for some last-minute shopping. Again, Montford lingers longer than most films might to show Basinger watch happier women, couples, and families at the mall go through their holiday rituals. It's a very sad opening that serves to make what Della goes through later and how she handles all the more poignant.
After leaving a note on a car taking up three parking spaces in a jam-packed mall lot, she returns from her shopping to find the owners of the car waiting for her. Four young punks who seem intent on at the very least verbally harassing her — at the very worst, raping and/or killing her. After a mall cop attempts to stop anything bad from happening, he is shot dead by one of the hooligans and Della gets the hell out of there with the carful of punks hot on her trail. What follows is a fascinating chase that lands the hunted and hunters running and hiding through an under-construction subdivision. Della is forced to abandon her vehicle, but she does think to grab her faithful small red toolbox, which seemed hilarious to me...at first. But as anyone handy with a set of tools (or anyone who has seen The Toolbox Murders) can tell you, a well-stocked toolbox is just a shiny collection of weapons waiting to be used in creative ways. What's even funnier is that the gang of thugs is convinced that Della has something valuable in the red box, and they amp up their pursuit even after one of their numbers dies accidentally while chasing after the lovely MILF.
When the chase leads the remaining four into the woods surrounding the housing development, things get a bit more surreal. But you can't help but be impressed by how handy Della is with her tools, and she comes up with some damned creative ways to disable or dispose of her assailants. I was impressed by the films never-stop-to-breath pacing, and Lukas Haas as a deranged stalker grew on me as well. What never quite works is the United Colors of Benetton make-up of the gang — one white guy, one black guy, one Asian, one Latino. Uh huh, just like in real life. Still, that bit of silliness only added to my giddiness as I watched the still-beautiful Basinger get put through the paces. There are even less than subtle hints that she finds Chuckie more of a man than her own husband, and considers falling for his creepy seduction tactics.
Look, While She Was Out is no prizewinner, it's not particularly ground-breaking, it probably cost about $2.50 to make, and the plot is thread bare. I'm certainly not trying to make a case for this film being a masterpiece on any scale. But, I got into the spirit of the chase, and Basinger made me care about what happened to Della, a smart and resourceful woman who does pretty much the same things I would have done under the circumstances — she grabs anything she thinks can be used as a weapon. You know how I'd like to see this film again? With a group of friends on a Saturday night with the lights off and sound turned up just a little too loud. If you have a "horror night" with your friends once a month, or something like that, this film would slide in that rotation quite nicely.
The film is in the midst of a nationwide limited release before its DVD release on April 28. The Midwest premiere of the film is taking place at the Midway Drive-In in Sterling, IL, on April 18 as part of a Horror Fest Triple Feature.