Monday, April 20, 2009

One is about money in the bank...the other one is

The International [**]/ State of Play (2009) [****]

Watching “State of Play” and “The International” on the same weekend is an instructive lesson in how to make the most of your premise and well…how to not. That’s not to say that the lesser film “The International” is awful just that at the end of the day it is bracingly irrelevant. In a time, when financial institutions fail us left and right and insurance companies like AIG are performing suspect business practices the movie doesn’t do much to stoke the fires of righteous indignation.

Louis Salinger (Clive Owen) is an Interpol agent perilously close to nailing a bank CEO for funding/funnelling funds for terrorist activites and, this could be something I missed but the key difference between this film and “State of Play” is that the money may be going directly to terror cells whereas “State of Play”’s intrigue involves the privatization of the military and whether or not a Congressman’s aide’s murder has anything to do with his crusade against a private contractor.

Louis works with a Manhattan DA named Eleanor Whitman (Naomi Watts) to help bring the bank down after an investigative colleague dies after meeting with an informant poised to give the details that will blow the case wide open. Most of the pieces are already in play and the film wastes very little time in tying up its loose ends which includes political assassination and assassin assassination. The latter act taking place in the Guggenheim in a dizzying but breathtaking action setpiece that merits the consideration of Tom Tykwer to helm a 007 picture. Even better is the satisfying bloodiness of the sequence, a necessity since the film otherwise fails to work the audience up into a lather.

It’s a nicely helmed, nicely paced and even nicely acted, Watts and Owen never fail to captivate and even Owen and Brotherhood’s Brian F. O’Bryne make a nice odd couple buddy cop/avengers act. But the problem is that I keep using the word nice and rarely using words like breathtaking or satisfying. That action scene though could give some good speakers a workout and if you’ve got about ten minutes to kill that shootout really is a thing of beauty. Escapism so relevant it’s irrelevant.

“State of Play” directed by Kevin McDonald is the kind of muscular picture you should rightly hope for when you’ve got so damn many talented individuals working on any one thing.

As I’ve said before, a Congressman’s aide is murdered, he’s persecuting a private military firm and his reaction to his aide’s death is just emotional enough that people are starting to see a story in the reaction. The congressman is Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck), the new hero on the hill until this latest tragedy and his greatest ally is former college roommate Cal McCaffrey (Russell Crowe) who despite angling for a story seeks the truth more than a headline. Along the way, Cal alternately butts heads with and molds into a bonafide journalist a gossip blogger named Della (Rachel McAdams).

Starting with a youth taking a fatal bullet and another passerby being hospitalized, the questions pile up when secrets about the aide are discovered and a couple more too convenient bodies show up. Maybe you’ll be playing the guessing game, but you might just be riveted by the cast: Helen Mirren is great as a no-nonsense ball busting editor, Russell Crowe does what seems like his millionth effortless and commanding performance in a row while the less seasoned but not untalented Rachel McAdams and tv stalwart Michael Jace of “The Shield” mange to hold their own and make distinct impressions just the same. Last working as the director of 2007s “Gone Baby Gone,” Ben Affleck brings the effortless charisma I admire him for to the role of an impassioned, compassionate man burdened by too damn many mistakes. It’s the kind of role that suits him better than a starring vehicle, though I’ll confess to having missed him only once theatrically since 1997s “Good Will Hunting,” and makes me wonder for how much longer the cinematic atonement of Ben Affleck must continue.

Having seen the first two hours of the British mini, the first hour of “State of Play” is a faithful approximation of the original and with five hours left of the British version I can only imagine and will probably later attest that the 2009 film is a model of efficiency that doesn’t waste a breath in telling its story. Adding to the unqualified success of the film is the screenwriting efforts of Billy Ray, Tony Gilroy and Matthew Michael Carnahan the respective writers of “Shattered Glass,” “Michael Clayton” and “The Kingdom.” It’s quite easy to feel their stamps on the final product as Ray brings an understanding of the tension inherent in newsroom dynamics while Gilroy’s “Michael Clayton” leaves you feeling a little hollowed out at the hard fought victories that don’t make you feel any better at the end. Carnahan has played the politics game in “Lions for Lambs” and to a lesser extent in “The Kingdom” but the film’s final moments are of the breathless what’s going to happen next nature of “The Kingdom.” It’s a beautiful convergence of screenwriters and for that matter actors, directors and editors.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Uncomfortable stirrings from within and without

Adventureland [****]

Almost always favoring the subtle chuckle over the huge guffaw, Greg Mottola’s “Adventureland” finds itself in the company of recent excellent films “Superbad” and “Nick and Norah’s Inifinite Playlist” about how we wear our insecurities on our sleeves and, at least, in the case of the latter how often we let our hearts fail us. Choosing instead to be merely okay rather than take the plunge that fulfills our heart’s desires.

James (Jesse Eisenberg) is a recent college graduate who finds his life’s path pre-grad school altered ever so slightly when his father’s demotion forces him to get a summer job at an amusement park populated by archetypes such as the slutty chick (Margarita Levia as Lisa P), the Russian author obssessed nerd (Martin Starr), the damaged girl attracted to all the wrong guys (Kristen Stewart, finally, ideally cast as Em), the married handyman (Ryan Reynolds) who is having an affair with the object of the hero’s burgeoning attraction, the douche, the married couple that manage the park (Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig) and, most importantly, the guy who punches people in the cock (Matt Bush). Anyone who has ever had a job before can recognize these archetypes, but anyone who has ever lived and breathed a job will appreciate the humanity that writer/director Mottola infuses each of these characters with. It’s helpful to recognize a type from a mile away, but to be reminded what it’s like to stand on the precipice of the twilight of youth and the spring of an uncertain adulthood is another thing altogether that not many writers/directors seem capable of capturing as we get older, more cynical and further removed from the wonderful, unobtainable simplicity of life that we once knew.

A couple of moments each involving our hero’s interaction with rivals to affection: Lisa P, who oozes sex but is rumored to be as pure as the virgin snow, reveals her greatest weakness to be her concern for her injured father and Connell, the married handyman who sees Em on the sly, offers advice on conversational dos and donts of first dates to James who is currently seeing Em. Shows not only a reverence for the memories of the time, anyone with a personality or name is impossible to paint as a villain, but understands that sometimes not every flaw is everyone’s problem. In some circles our greatest failings might be our inability to keep a secret or our zippers zipped. One thing the film does and maybe more so in the case of Connell than anyone else is compartmentalize. Lisa P sees Em as the villain in the Connell situation, a homewrecker while everybody else seems to be in silent agreement that Connell can’t be blamed because men are hardwired to fuck. Perhaps these concessions are made because nobody wants Connell to be the villain—he’s a nice guy. In fact, they’re all nice people.

Connell is one of the film’s two outright appeals to nostalgia. Proof that you can grow older, have responsibilities but keep that kick ass job of no particular importance and swim in a sea of meaningless sex…until it comes crashing around you. Then there’s Frigo the guy who punches people in the dick. He’s always doing it and sometimes even more immature things than that. He’s the guy who hasn’t made it to the “D” section of the dictionary so he doesn’t know what the word delusional means, but he hasn’t even realized things are changing enough that they can be missed. Either way, his dick punches facilitate a stirring within you that you don’t always feel but when it comes about it’s intense and when it’s gone all you want is to feel it again. That’s right, dick punches as a metaphor for the pangs of nostalgia deal with it.

Greg Motolla’s “Adventureland” is the first truly great purely 2009 release. It understands a few things about longing and the unattainable. Understands even more the pure invaluability of memories and what a good bit of regression does for those who really need it.

Observe and Report [***]

“Observe and Report” is a lot like the dick puncher in “Adventureland” that shit isn’t right but what it evokes is an honest to goodness uncomfortable stirring within you. Ronnie Barnhardt (Seth Rogen) is a deeply delusional security guard at a shopping mall who finds the exploits of a local mall flasher to be his ticket to the big time. In this case, big time means a lot of things: he’ll catch the pervert, win the respect of the local cops and become one, win the heart of the sluttiest girl in the mall (Anna Farris) and all will be right with the world. Ronnie’s got two problems, though: himself and the detective (Ray Liotta) assigned to the case who doesn’t appreciate Ronnie’s impeding his investigation every step of the way.

“Observe and Report,” like most recent comedies, exists in a world just south of reality where a guy can blow a pervert away in the climactic showdown while his boss looks on approvingly and tosses him the keys to the kingdom as the guy lays in a heap on the floor. People do heroin on the clock and skateboarding punks are beaten within an inch of their lives by overzealous security. You should try your best not to be surprised when I tell you there is a scene where security guards wax hopeful about being able to carry guns instead of tazers as they fetishistically polish phallus like guns. Note also that they are cracker jack shots who go for the head, heart and genitals always.

The laughs in the film aren’t the fast and furious kind you come to expect from the Apatow gang, but the kind of laughter you elicit because you don’t really know how else to react. It’s your deepest darkest fantasies brought to vivid, ugly life but it’s honest and for ninety minutes we get to forget about the crippling burdens of social contracts and we can laugh at the horror of swinging dicks in a mall, delusional psychos in a superhero drama (trauma?) of their own making. Still, the film isn’t without an irresistible romantic impulse upon discovering that the wheelchair bound coffee girl in the food court has been ridiculed to the brink by her boss, Ronnie threatens him with death and it’s a fantastic example of the one thing in the movie that is far from dead: chivalry. Ronnie is a loving son and a gallant protector, but it’s the kind of chivalry you don’t want to be on the wrong side of. Maybe I was wrong about the social contracts being burdensome perhaps we’ve just run out of reasons to uphold them or people crazy enough to do it.