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.

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