Review: State of Play (2009)

Quick! Name three classic journalism movies! Yes, there are three: All the President's Men, His Girl Friday and The Third Man. Oh, there are some other good ones, but in general, Hollywood gets journalism all wrong. It has to have unbelievable heightened dramatic tension, not much to do with journalism and it seems practically to be a requirement that the headlines always look stupid, not like real newspaper headlines in grammar, form or visual appearance.

State of Play gets the headlines right! So that's one strike in its favor. As for the heightened dramatic tension and lack of interest in real journalism, that's all there. And despite its Washington setting, it doesn't have much interest in politics, either. As far as journalism movies, I'd put it somewhere between the not-bad The Pelican Brief and the execrable The Paper.

The film features a lot of remarkable actors without much to do. Russell Crowe is sometimes interesting but mostly bland, Helen Mirren an afterthought, Harry Lennix window-dressing. Rachel McAdams turns in a hard-eyed, determined portrayal with some depth, Jason Bateman has a stellar cameo as a pimpin' p.r. flack, and Ben Affleck! is really pretty good as Congressman Collins, who seems constantly just about to fall apart and who has a cool, weird Pennsylvania accent that almost but not quite reminds one unfavorably of his bad "Saturday Night Live" impersonations.

The story begins, and continues, with a fast pace which doesn't bore until the boring plot is revealed, and then it all seems kind of boring. The opening features two murders, and Russell Crowe's reporter Cal McAffrey (shouldn't that be McCaffrey?) riding in in his beat-up Saab to take the story for the fictional Washington Globe, for which he is a well-connected, tough-minded investigative reporter.

He's so well connected, it gets to become a joke, as we watch him slouch around town anywhere he pleases, knowing every gatekeeper, cop, criminologist by their first names. There is a scene with Viola Davis as a coroner which adds a bit of flesh to this silly conceit, but it seemed like there needed to be a scene or two showing him actually beginning one of these friendly relationships to make it seem real.

McAffrey, no fool, soon makes connections between the murders, and more murders, a shady Blackwater-type defense contracting company being investigated by Congressman Collins, and Collins's own private life, in which McAffrey has more than a passing interest. He and McAdams's blogger/cub reporter Della Frye are soon in over their heads in scandal, sleaze and corruption.

The defense contractor angle is kind of shopworn, and State of Play doesn't try to get insightful about it. To be generous, I guess you could say they were making a point about the banality of evil. It was pretty banal. It reminded me (unfavorably in comparison) of the plot of the excellent television show "Jericho," but they dared to go somewhere with it.

I suppose it's not really a spoiler to complain that the plot stinks, that it's clichéd, silly, and pointless. It would have been more interesting if something interesting had happened.

There's that legendary acting moment in All the President's Men when Jason Robards as Ben Bradlee walks down the row of silent desks in the newsroom and taps one of them for emphasis, which the real Woodward and Bernstein say was Bradlee all over, but which was just another day at the office for a great, intuitive actor like Robards. It wouldn't, therefore, be intuitive for Crowe to repeat it, but still the most suspense in State of Play is wondering whether Russell Crowe will tap a desk like that as he frequently walks up and down the rows. So I won't ruin it.

The Magic of the Movies


Review: Observe and Report (2009)

Jody Hill's Observe and Report is a near-perfect film, a modern mall-set Taxi Driver with an amazing lead performance from Seth Rogen as Ronnie Barnhardt, the "head of mall security" at a suburban mall beset with robberies and a particularly aggressive parking-lot flasher. Hill's script delights in finding and subverting cliches in hilarious and genuinely clever ways, so there's every kind of laugh here--laughter of recognition, perversity, surprise, pity, laughter at complicated set-ups which pay off in unexpected ways. This is a very funny movie.

Ronnie is bi-polar and completely delusional, a wannabe cop who spends his days talking tough and...walking around a mall. He leads a crew of misfit security guards, including Dennis (Michael Peña in a brilliant performance), a suck-up with secrets, and John and Matt Yuen (John and Matt Yuan), who join Ronnie on the weekends to talk guns and shoot guns and clean guns and fantasize about and fetishize guns at the local shooting range.

Ronnie lives with and enables his drunken mother (Celia Weston), who manages to say a lot of the right things, and many wrong things, you'd expect a loving mother to say to her son. Ronnie's whole life, though, is the mall, and his vision of himself as the protector of right in a brutal world.

He also has a crush on Brandi (Anna Faris, also great), one of the victims of the flasher, and finally manages to get a date with her, just one of many improbable feats he manages to perform without any indication of where it will lead. Her perfect, unattainable blonde image, some late narration by Ronnie and some aspects of the ending are the only overt references to Taxi Driver.

The film has the guts to go with that vision to some remarkable, and remarkably funny places. Ronnie's confrontation with drug dealers during a police ride-along, his introduction to the dark side by Dennis, and his two final confrontations in the mall are as original and entertaining as anything.

Taxi Driver has had some fascinating antecedents, including Scorsese's own The King of Comedy, Almodóvar's Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down, Neil Jordan's Mona Lisa and The Brave One and Vincent Gallo's Buffalo 66, stories of genuinely nutty but wise outsiders who don't understand anything but have strong convictions they impose on the world, with varying results, and Observe and Report fits in this category, without abandoning Ronnie Barnhardt's own peculiar, goofy reality. It's an absurdist reality, too, on a par with Adam Sandler's two great first films, Billy Madison and Happy Gilmore, and as funny.

Without giving away too much of the plot, Ronnie is confronted with two mysteries at the beginning of the film: who's robbing stores, and the identity and motives of the flasher. We see him confront them both with stupidity, insight and bravery.

We also get to watch him pursue his dream of joining the real police force, something we know is completely impossible, but Ronnie doesn't. That's the real magic of the film. Ronnie believes, and keeps believing, even when everybody else knows exactly why his belief is silly, beyond naive, dangerous and impossible. He keeps on believing.

If you have a serious aversion to male frontal nudity, you may be as challeged by this film as by the recent Watchmen, but you could always put your fingers over your eyes, it's a very entertaining and worthwhile film.

The Magic of the Movies


Review: Adventureland (2009)

I liked Adventureland; I wanted to like it more than I did. It has a very appealing cast and a good story, but also a lot of fat, just in terms of time wasted, and wasted script opportunities.

The movie tells the story of James Brennan (Jesse Eisenberg), just graduated from college in the summer of 1987 and excited for his trip abroad to Europe. Bad news, though, his father has been demoted and his family can no longer afford the trip. So James is in for a long, boring summer in the Pittsburgh suburbs, and needs a summer job to help pay for his upcoming matriculation to Columbia in the fall.

This means James starts working in Games at the Adventureland amusement park, with crazy bosses (Bill Hader and Kristin Wiig, very good), with his old best friend Tommy Frigo (Matt Bush), a bundle of misfiring adolescent nerves, and new friends like Em (Kristen Stewart), bookish nerd Joel (Martin Starr), hottie Lisa P. (Margarita Levieva) and maintenance stud Connell (Ryan Reynolds). All of the actors are really excellent and well cast.

Adventureland is, of course, a whole soap opera world for James, an intellectual romantic, and there are romance, heartbreak, secrets, and wacky, irresponsible fun everywhere. He develops a real crush on Em, complicated by her own painful past and hidden passions, dates the hot Catholic girl Lisa P., becomes good friends with Joel, learns to sort of tolerate Frigo, and learns from Connell's b.s. and "expertise" with women.

If it feels like sort of a paint-by-numbers plot, it is, and that hurts quite a bit. The movie never quite gets any real momentum going, and drags in many places. The characters feel real, but without much real to do, the task of keeping the audience interested becomes difficult. Interesting characters like Em's stepmother (Mary Birdsong), James's father (Jack Gilpin), Connell, Joel, and even Em and Frigo, catch our attention, but there's never quite that one scene or sequence that pays it off, that really illuminates them or ties them in with the rest of the story. James himself, the main character, is not very interesting, though Eisenberg makes him appealing.

It's like you're never quite sure where you should be looking. On the one hand, it's a strength for a movie to make you want to be interested in so many characters, but again, the loose ends are much more numerous than the satisfying conclusions.

This does make the movie seem more realistic, one of its strengths, but it creates a lot of boredom and frustration in terms of getting the story or stories told in a way that you can hold on to, or be moved along by. Also, I would like to mention a missed visual gag at the end of the scene where James confronts Em outside of Connell's mother's house. I won't ruin it, but you'll probably notice it, too. One more set-up that goes begging.

The movie gets a lot of things right. The soundtrack is good, the characters each seem fairly real, not just stereotypical movie characters, from James to the other intriguing characters mentioned who never quite have their moments. The movie is trying to recreate true boredom and vapidity, and it does so in a fairly amusing way, for the most part. It's not a laugh-a-minute crowd-pleaser, but it's funny and enjoyable overall.

Director Greg Mottola's Superbad was an immediate classic, over-the-top funny, top-notch story and rhythm, but hey, if you're looking for a fairly intelligent teen romance, a slice of '80's nostalgia, a sometimes slow comedy about a summer job with weed and fun-park rides, you could do a lot worse than Adventureland. Just be ready for it to seem a bit longer than the actual running time. It can drag some.

The Magic of the Movies


Sanford leads March 2012 GOP presidential nominee web poll results

Gov. Mark Sanford (SC) led March voting for who respondents thought would be the 2012 Republican presidential nominee. This was a pretty lightly voted poll, and of course it is of self-selected voters of any party who found my website, so it is not scientific in any way. (This means you should not complain that it was not scientific because it's never going to be.) Voting is just for fun, please no wagering. Here are this month's results:

March 2009

#1 - Gov. Mark Sanford (SC) ... 25%
#2 - Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (TX) ... 17.5%
#3 - Sen. John Thune (SD) ... 16.7%
#4 - Gov. Sarah Palin (AK) ... 12.5%
#5 - Fmr. Gov. Mike Huckabee (AR) ... 8.3%
#6 - Gov. Bobby Jindal (LA) ... 5%
#7 - Fmr. Gov. Jeb Bush (FL) ... 4.2%
#8 - Fmr. Gov. Tom Ridge (PA) ... 3.3%
#8 - Fmr. Gov. Mitt Romney (MI / UT / MA) ... 3.3%
#9 - Gov. Tim Pawlenty (MN) ... 2.5%
#10 - Gov. Haley Barbour (MS) ... .8%
#10 - Senate Min. Leader Mitch McConnell (KY) ... .8%
#11 - Sen. Sam Brownback (KS) ... 0%
#11 - Fmr. House Speaker Newt Gingrich (GA) ... 0%
#11 - Fmr. Vice Pres. Dan Quayle (IN / AZ) ... 0%
#11 - Other ... 0%

120 total votes cast / Margin of error ±100%

You can vote for this month's new poll here, or click the vote button from any of the Choose Our President 2012 pages.

Choose Our President 2012