Thursday, April 23, 2009
Notebook: State Of Play (and Stuff)
Hot Off The Presses
Matthew Macdonald’s State Of Play is another in a long line of films that show how news gets made, but I think it’s the only movie I’ve seen that shows how a newspaper is manufactured. As the closing credits roll, we are treated to a mini documentary that’s a narrator short of being a feature on Discovery’s How It’s Made: a massive roll of newsprint arrives, a plate of the day’s front page is developed and fitted onto the printing press and then the machine goes to work, creating pages that get folded and bundled for distribution. It’s a mesmerizing thing to watch, and it’s a sight made poignant by the sorry state of the newspaper industry. More than that though, it’s a fitting finale for a film that feels like it was slammed together on an assembly line.
In many ways, it was. State Of Play is based on a highly acclaimed British mini-series (which I haven’t seen), and it was adapted for the screen by three experienced writers – Matthew Michael Carnahan (The Kingdom, Lions For Lambs), Tony Gilroy (the Bourne trilogy, Michael Clayton) and Billy Ray (Flightplan, Breach) – who leave no cliché unturned. Russell Crowe plays a renegade reporter who has never met a deadline he won’t ignore. Rachel McAdams is the Bambi-eyed young scribe with her ethics still intact. Helen Mirren is the editor stuck between the demands of her publisher and her undying affection for a big breakthrough story. Ben Affleck is the young congressman with the political ambition of RFK and the hormones of JFK. Robin Wright Penn is the beautiful wife who isn’t overly hurt by her husband’s infidelity because she’s in love with someone else. And Jeff Daniels reprises his role from Blood Work as the guy the movie tries to pretend isn’t important who we know must be important because he’s played by Jeff Daniels. Breaking from the herd, Jason Bateman plays a fast-talking PR guy who gives the film a needed shot of comedy. That pretty much covers it.
Wrapped in paranoia, State Of Play is all surprises and no surprises. One plot twist leads to another, which leads to another, and so on, as expected. Our sense that the mystery is nearing resolution has less to do with any understanding of the facts than with our sense that the story is nearing the 120-minute mark. State Of Play isn’t a mystery so much as a diversion. But, here’s the thing: it’s a fun diversion. Macdonald’s film moves along so quickly and with such singular focus that it leaves little time to be critical. The film lacks any memorable shots or performances. In fact, it lacks anything memorable at all. But, like a good Sunday paper, State Of Play feels familiar yet new – and it's momentarily transportive. Often that’s enough. A reporter doesn’t need to be Woodward or Bernstein to write a solid news story. A movie doesn’t need to be All The President’s Men to be entertaining. State Of Play is a story worth hearing, even if it isn’t worth hearing more than once.
People in My Neighborhood
I love movies. I love movie locations. Thus, I would love to see a movie being shot on location, but so far that’s never happened. Since moving to Washington, DC, almost five years ago, a number of films have been shot here: Breach, Body Of Lies and Burn After Reading, just to name three. In each of these cases, and others, I’d usually been aware that a movie project was in town – often thanks to a gossip piece in The Washington Post noting that This Celebrity was spotted eating at That Restaurant. Still, I’ve never sought out any of the rumored shooting locations, because to me that’s cheating – akin to camping outside the Ritz-Carlton so I can say I spotted Brangelina. That isn't fun. I’m not interested in being a movie stalker. What I want is to stumble across a movie shoot within the framework of my daily life.
That might sound unrealistic. Then again, Breach, Body Of Lies and Burn After Reading all include scenes shot in the light of day at places that I frequently pass while running. Amazingly, frustratingly, at no time did I ever see any evidence that a movie shoot was about to happen at one of those locations. Instead, I had to wait for the movie to come out to spot George Clooney running across Key Bridge, causing me to wonder how the heck he managed to do that on a day I wasn’t doing the same thing.
All of this is lead-up, obviously, to mentioning that State Of Play has several scenes shot in an area that I flat-out wore out while marathon training last year. The location of the movie’s opening murders – a place Russell Crowe’s character visits twice afterward – is just a few feet from both a bike path and a running trail that I used several times a week last summer. And here’s the kicker: I ran through that location the very day the crew was setting up shop. “That’s an odd place to be laying cables,” I thought. But did I think to ask someone what the cables were for? No. Of course not. Because I’m an idiot.
And so my quest to stumble upon a movie shoot goes on. In the meantime, it’s only fair that I report that State Of Play is surprisingly accurate in terms of its use of District-area locations. The major exception is when the young researcher who is about to meet her demise walks through Adams Morgan and into the Metro station in Rosslyn, which is the equivalent of walking across the Brooklyn Bridge and ending up in Central Park. Oh, well.
He Even Makes a Splash Reference
Ron Howard did a nice job of defending Angels & Demons at The Huffington Post, responding to charges from William Donahue, the president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, that Howard and author Dan Brown “collaborated in smearing the Catholic Church with fabulously bogus tales.” Howard writes, “I know faith is believing without seeing (and a boycott would be disbelieving without seeing).” That’s well said. But I wish Howard had said, “Fine, homeboy, I’ll stick to the facts and do a film about the sexual abuse scandals.”
I always knew that Billy Bob Thornton was a jerk. What I didn’t realize is that he’s such an egotistical jerk. The worst part of his proud-to-be-a-dick interview on a Canadian radio program a few weeks ago wasn’t his behavior. It’s that he actually had the balls to compare himself as a musician to Tom Petty. Twice! … I always knew William Hurt gave me the creeps. Now I know why. … I always knew that expecting Chris Carpenter to contribute to my fantasy baseball team was dangerous, given his injury history. What I didn’t know was that Carpenter would go on the DL due to a torn oblique muscle that he injured while batting! That hurts. Equally painful was being in attendance at Nationals Ballpark and watching my fantasy shortstop, Cristian Guzman, stroke his fifth hit of the day into the outfield, raising his average to .515 on the season, only to then see him pull up lame running to first base. At this point, I suppose I should be grateful that another one of my players, Johnny Cueto, wasn’t killed last night when Milton Bradley’s shattered bat nearly decapitated the Cincinnati Reds pitcher. Bradley, by the way, is on my fantasy team.