On The Screen (4.17.09) Crowe and Affleck in 'State Of Play' reviewed
There are nine movies opening today? Really?
Most of those are extremely limited releases, of course, but still, that's an avalanche of titles considering it's just mid-April.
The real question is "how many of those nine titles are worth my time and energy to track down?" And hopefully we can sort through them quickly as you guys are rolling out to the theaters to see some of them.
The biggest title of the week is probably "State Of Play," the latest feature from Kevin Macdonald, the director behind "The Last King Of Scotland," which won Forrest Whitaker his Oscar a few years ago. This was adapted from the acclaimed BBC miniseries that aired a few years back, and which not coincidentally just showed up on DVD this week. David Yates, who is busy with Harry Potter movies these days, was the director of the original, and Paul Abbott was the writer. For the feature film, though, they went for Matthew Carnahan and Tony Gilroy and Billy Ray, an all-star line-up of A-list script doctors, with Macdonald directing, and they were faced with the challenge of how to make six hours of drama play as a coherent and interesting film at two hours instead. Originally, Brad Pitt and Edward Norton were set to star as a reporter and his college roommate, now a politician caught up in a scandal that may be part of a larger story. I liked that casting because of how well they played together in "Fight Club," but at the last moment, it all sort of fell apart. Instead, Russell Crowe and Ben Affleck ended up in the parts. Did that casting pay off as well as Pitt and Norton might have?
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Impossible to tell, but Crowe seems to be settling into the role of macho character actor instead of movie star, which I think fits him better. He's carrying extra weight these days, and I like what it does to his screen charisma. He's rumpled, more amiable, more likable. Affleck is perfectly cast as a politician cut from the Kennedy model, a square-jawed clear-eyed symbol that a party would love to be able to hang their platform on. The thing is, while I think each of them is well-suited to the roles they're playing. I don't buy that they were college roommates (What is there, a decade between them? If not, it still seems like it), and they don't really have any chemistry as old friends, either. It's not crippling to the picture, but it is a misstep, and there are some key moments that fall flat as a result.
Crowe has better chemistry with Rachel McAdams as a blogger who works on the digital side of the newspaper where he's a star reporter with a track record. He embodies a stereotype that is as old as the movies, the hard-drinking reporter with the shambles of a personal life, willing to do anything as he pursues "the big story," and much has been written over the last few days about how this is a love-letter to journalism, and there's definitely some of that to the movie, but I think that's actually giving it more credit than it deserves. It's a solid thriller that uses a political sex scandal as the lead-in to something larger, and as such, it hits its marks with restraint and style pretty consistently. But it's about a deep a newspaper movie as it is a political movie, which is to say, not much at all. I don't think they do anything with the print vs. online dynamic that they establish between Crowe and McAdams at the start, and the role of a reporter in a story is so weird and ridiculous here (seriously... interrogating suspects in hotel rooms?) that it's not much of a love letter. And the ultimate players in the film's mystery are fairly predictable in a post-Watergate age. Just once, I'd love to see a film like this where it didn't turn out that all the politicians are scumbags, willing to sell out their ideals for anything. It just seems so easy. The one stand-out thing about the film for me was the performance by Jason Bateman as a low-level player in D.C., a part-time pimp and power dealer who plays a key part in the mystery, and who unravels in memorable fashion when confronted about it.
I wish the film were either tougher about the institutions of politics and journalism or more engaging as a mystery, but it settles for doing both moderately well, and maybe that's enough. It was entirely painless to sit through, but I don't think it's something I'll be rushing to revisit any time soon.
"Crank: High Voltage" looks straight-up preposterous, and I'm sure that's exactly what Neveldine and Taylor had in mind when they set out to make it. I think these guys are making some of the silliest action films out there right now, and that's a good thing. Sometimes, that's exactly what I want from an action movie. I'm going to try to sneak away to see this one as soon as possible, and I hope it's dirty and stupid and noisy as it looks. If it's anything less that insane, I'll be disappointed.
"17 Again" feels like the sort of film we'd see released every other week in the '80s, but which really aren't made that often these days, silly high-concept teen flicks. I mentioned a few of them in my DVD column this week, like "Hiding Out" or "My Best Friend Is A Vampire," and there were obviously several body-switch films with a similar premise in the '80s. Here, though, there's no switch... Matthew Perry just gets the opportunity to age backwards and go back to high school as Zack Efron. Add liberal doses of "Back To The Future" and stir, and you end up with something that will probably play like the funniest, freshest film of all time to Efron's younger fans, but which seems like a drag for everyone else.
"Every Little Step" is a new documentary about the casting process for a recent Broadway revival of "A Chorus Line," and the buzz has been really strong from people who've seen it. This sort of story about the lives and ambitions of performers can be quite engrossing if done right, and I look forward to it. "Is Anybody There?" is the new film from director John Crowley, who made both "Intermission" and "Boy A," which were really strong indie films. This is the story of a young boy (played by Bill Milner from "Son Of Rambow") who lives at a nursing home that his parents run. When a retired magician played by Michael Caine moves into the home, they strike up an unlikely friendship. This was one of the films screened at ShoWest a few weeks ago, and I'm guessing the releaser was hoping for stronger buzz coming out of that event. As it is, there seems to be a lot of goodwill for Caine's work, as there normally is, and I'll check it out for him.
"Enlighten Up!" and "Goodbye Solo" are both expanding wider after limited release in the last few weeks. One's a documentary about the world of yoga, and the other is an acclaimed indie drama from critical darling Ramin Bahrani, and both move to new venues with a huge amount of support behind them. At the same time, "American Violet" and "Sleep Dealer" are both opening limited, and I plan on finally sitting down to watch "Sleep Dealer" tonight. I love low-budget science fiction because it's forced to rely on ideas instead of effects, and Alex Rivera's film seems to have a pretty dedicated following already. "American Violet" is the story of a single mother in Texas accused of dealing drugs, and it's garnered some attention for the lead performance by Nicole Beharie.
Next week, things heat up even more with Robert Downey Jr., Channing Tatum, Beyonce Knowles and even Mike Tyson all aiming to claim your box-office dollars, and I'll be back here then with a look at all of those films for you.
On The Screen appears here every Friday. Except when it doesn't.
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