Thursday, April 30, 2009

State of Play

What a good movie.

Tense and gripping, with plenty of twists and turns, good acting and some incredibly relevant messages.

As a film, for entertainment, topnotch. I found myself utterly engaged and mostly baffled by how it was going to unfold - for me, this is what film entertainment is all about.

Russel Crowe plays a tough Washington journalist who's seen a lot of life on the other side of boundary - he's savvy, he's dedicated and he's a maverick. In terms of characterization: he's the old hand - it's all about investigation and follow-up, hunches and connections, last minute copy and "stop the presses" - everything journalism has been at its best.

Rachel Adams portrays a young, savvy, blogger who's all about getting out the story right now, who spends more time in front of the computer than on the streets - who writes well, but doesn't know how to dig for the real story behind the sensational headlines.

Both of them are thrown into a double murder - a junkie and a nice young may, both shot and killed professionally within 20 feet of each other ... any connection? And then like a freight train out of control, the story hurtles into ever greater depths of corruption.

Ben Affleck is a young and up-coming Congressman dedicated to exposing the shady war dealings of a powerful multi-corporation behemoth with plenty of money from government contracts and plenty of hired guns.

Robin Wright Penn is the Congressman's wife - a marginal presence in the story, but a key part right at the end.

Helen Mirren is her wonderful self as the editor - hard-nosed and driving, and utterly frustrated by the possible demise of this once great newspaper, now under new ownership, and it's no longer about the story, it's all about sales.

As the story unfolds, it takes a lot of twists and turns, but with good directing (Kevin Macdonald) and editing, there's never moment of confusion - just good story-telling.

As for relevance - wow! As the years of the Bush Administration are held up to the light of scrutiny, it would seem that folks like Blackwater and who knows how many of the ruling party were in cahoots for big money and power. If big-city newspapers are no longer about the story, but only the sales, it would seem that some parts of the government, in clandestine partnership with covert operations, are no longer about the people but the profits.

As for journalism - what's happening? With the demise of the newspaper industry, the Fourth Estate, who will be the watchdog for society - who's going to put on a porkpie hat and smoke unfiltered cigarettes and hang around the police station, stop in for a drink at a seedy bar, and comb through old files?

Like the mortgage industry that succumbed to too many 20-somethings who knew all about the money but nothing about the industry, will the journalism world become nothing but tabloid blogs, long on sensation and short on story?

I don't know, but the Fourth Estate is one of the anchors of democracy, watchdogs of truth.

This is fine fim, and if you want only entertainment, this will provide it, but if you're looking for entertainment with some provocative questions, this is one to see.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Observe and Report

I like Seth Rogan, but this movie has got to be one of the worst ever; surely the worst I've seen, and I've seen a bundle.

Laughs were few and far between for the audience, in mixed up film that had no idea how to handle what might have been a decent idea. This is no film for Rogan. Where's Jim Carey when we need him to play a lovable loser - to emote some feeling and invite the audience into his world.

A billboard stated for the film, "The World Needs a Hero" or some such nonsense, and in other hands, with other writers and another director, it might have worked; the audience might have been drawn into a loser's world, as that loser tries to connect to reality, to his alcoholic mother, a blond bimbo (Anna Faris) at the cosmetic counter and a sweet coffee server (Collette Wolfe) at a donut shop - both of whom turn in credible performances.

But there wasn't a shred of emotion here - I don't think anyone felt any sympathy for the character, nor was there anything for which to cheer. Whatever was missing was really missing. This movie has yet to be made.

All around Rogan, a decent cast of odd-ball characters mostly well-played, with Ray Liotta playing the cop - a roll neither funny nor pathetic; it should have gone either way, but this movie lost its way in the first five minutes and tried to make it up for it by using the "f" word and all of its variants every other line - but not even the "f" word, funny as it can be sometimes, could redeem this script. Liotta looked game, but mostly lost. Was he doing someone a favor? His brilliant sleezebag performance in "Crossing Over" reveals an actor with ability and depth. He should have stayed home on this one.

And then at the end, the flasher (yes, there's a flasher here) shows up one more time to frighten women and terrorize the mall. Played by Randy Gambill, this poor actor should be sent flowers and apologies from everyone involved in the film - the man's a flop, so to speak. With full frontal nudity in an endless chase through the mall, we're well acquainted with Gambill's anatomy - I hope he got paid lots of bucks for this one, but if he were hoping to advance his acting career with this caper, he's likely to come up short, so to speak. And it all ends with horribly bloody moment - what is this? This is not comedy any longer - it's blood and brutal.

This is one of the worst films I've ever seen - Rogan should have had the sense to can this film and put it away for archaeologists to find. Writer/Director Jody Hill needs a vacation from Hollywood - whoever green-lighted this project needs to go along.

Oh well, enough already.

Don't bother seeing it. Don't even rent it. Except if you're a Ph.D. student in failed films.

I observed (for $10.00) and now I report - stay home tonight, or as a friend of mine used to stay, "Kicking bricks barefoot in the dump would be more fun."

Wednesday, April 8, 2009


The reviews were coming in good, but I was still reluctant - another teen-in-love movie?

But I went anyway and was I pleasantly surprised.

All the actors are terrific, but it's the story that makes this movie a cut above the usual run of teen-angst films.

These are all college-plus folks - the young man, Jammie (Jessie Eisenberg) a recent college grad, is all set to join a friend for a summer in Europe, but a financial setback with dad forces him to cancel plans as the family moves to Pittsburgh where dad takes a lesser job and Jammie takes a meaningless job in an amusement park, running games, where he meets an assortment of going-nowhere-fast summer employees.

Jammie meets Em, a complicated young lady with a painful home life, played splendidly by Kristen Stewart, whose face is filled with the uncanny depth of sorrow. She's being jerked around by a jerk (Ryan Reynolds), good-looking and fun, but married, who takes her over to his mother's house for sex - well, so much for romance. He's having a good time, but Em is lost.

In Jammie, she meets someone with a different take on life.

He's well-read, an intellectual, who wants to be a journalist. His "experience" with life is limited, but she doesn't seem to mind one bit, and no one else does either. But love is close at hand, unfolding in its usually bumpy fashion. They both end up hurting one another, and then slowly reach out to one another.

At one point, in one of the best lines ever, he says to her (as best as I recall): "You don't ignore the folks you've screwed up with."

Who doesn't screw up now and then? But the point of a relationship is finding those bridges that transcend the screwups.

At the end of the summer ... well, I won't give it away, but this film has one of the best "love" endings I've seen. Where's there's love, there's hope!

The parents, the other friends - Bobby (Bill Hader), the amusement park manager - a real hoot with his baseball bat protecting his employees; Eric (Michael Zegen), a pipe-smoking Jewish nihilist who waxes eloquent on the trials of life - terrific.

Hats off to the writer/director, Greg Mottola - what might have been a formulaic piece is real story that, for me, had the feel of real life, real characters, trying to find their way.

As for message: it's good to be smart, to be bookish, to be able to carry on a thoughtful conversation - life isn't all about sex and booze - and most kids are smart enough to know that - this film affirms them and is filled with hope in the midst of life's hardships - family reversals, death and missteps.

This is definitely worth seeing ... even as I write, I'm thinking I might see it again.

Having lived in Pittsburgh a few years, it was fun to "think" about that good city again - though filmed there, it's not about the city, but "Adventureland" - actually, Kennywood, an old-time amusement park just right for this 1987 period piece.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Frozen River

The face of grinding poverty ... a day late and a dollar short ... and what about love - to only have a double-wide, with good insulation, so the pipes never freeze - a safe place for her sons.

Set in northern New York State along the St. Lawrence River, near a large Mohawk reservation.

Melissa Leo (Ray Eddy) gives a stunning portrait of a wife and a mother struggling to keep body and soul together. Her husband, a gambling addict takes off a week before Christmas. In spite of working two years for Dollar Mart, the manager refuses to give her full-time. They're coming tomorrow afternoon to take the TV.

Leo's face says it all - every line speaks a sorrowful tale. I couldn't help but think of those haunting Depression-era photos of Oakies living in the California camps -  their farms long buried in the dust of drought, and their hopes dying for want of a job.

No wonder she was nominated for Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role.

Gentle, powerful performances in every regard.

Charlie McDermott is the 15-year old son, a good boy hurting for his parents. It was evocative to see a teen boy portrayed this gently, rather than opting for the usual images of temper tantrums and wild driving, or some fit of protest against the world. He cherishes the one thing his dad gave him - a blowtorch that he uses to repair a small, pedal-driven, merry-go-round. He wants a job, but mom keeps him in school, scrapping by pennies for lunch.

Until a chance meeting with Lila Littlewolf (Misty Upham), a young Mohawk single mom living on the reservation, an on-again, off-again, smuggler of illegal aliens from Quebec. Desperate for money, Ray agrees to smuggle some folks across the frozen St. Lawrence in her car trunk - it's easy money - the border in the Mohawk Nation is porous, and the law is marginal. So, why not? Maybe that double-wide is within reach.

You'll have to see it for the rest of the story, but this I can say: under the direction of Courtney Hunt, this remarkable film captures the heartache of poverty, the deep sense of entrapment, every door closed and every hope squashed. It's a tough world, no doubt, but for the poor, it's even tougher.

In the end, a remarkable moment of sacrifice and a glimmer of hope.

Literally, a dark movie since much of it happens at night. Carefully edited, with a marvelous smattering of characters on the bottom-side of life.

I would have loved to have seen this in a theater, but I'm glad to have finally seen it at home. This is a must-see.