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.


Unknown said...

Nice review of STATE OF PLAY. I'm a huge fan of the original BBC mini-series so it should be interesting to see how the two match up. I dig crusading journalist movies (SHATTERED GLASS, THE INSIDER) so this one looks right up my alley. Can't wait to check it out.

Jason Bellamy said...

J.D. Thanks. I enjoyed it, and I'm looking forward to watching the mini-series at some point.

Daniel said...

Terrific little review of State of Play. I agree - it brought nothing new to the table, but didn't harm anyone by being simply average. It also rose above the liability that is Ben Affleck these days. I actually was impressed by his Philly accent.

And regarding DC locations, isn't Salt currently being filmed around those parts right now? You could run into, ironically, Brangelina.

Richard Bellamy said...

I sympathize with your disappointment about not running (literally) into any film shoots. I've seen a couple but I'm always looking.

I saw Brad Davis and Karen Allen do multiple takes of a scene - at Harvard Square in Cambridge - from the very much forgotten (but I like it and wish it were on DVD) A Small Circle of Friends (1980). And it's always nice when you see them shoot a scene that stays in the movie.

Then, when I was living in San Francisco, I saw three different shoots, at three different locations in the city, of Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home - and those shoots included Shatner, Nimoy, and Kelley. Also, on my way to work, I saw them setting up at Columbus Square and met Doohan and Takei and got their autographs.

This dates me - but I remember in high school when classmates skipped school to watch them film Bullitt in the city.

Anonymous said...

Fine, homeboy, I’ll stick to the facts and do a film about the sexual abuse scandals....

Funny stuff Jason. The RC church oughta just get a life and worry about their own stuff. It's FANTASY, boys.

Jason Bellamy said...

Daniel: Thanks. Your comment reminded me to go back and read your review. Love this lead: "Like a paper clip that's twisted one too many times, State of Play eventually snaps apart, unable to regain its form and sending you into your desk drawer, or rather film library, for a new conspiracy thriller."

As for Salt, yeah, it's been in town. Not sure if it's coming back. I suppose another fun thing to do would be to try and sign up as an extra for one of these things. Would make for a cool blog post if nothing else.

Hokahey: Seeing the crew of the Enterprise on the streets of San Francisco had to be awesome. That's a good shoot to catch!

Rick: Exactly. I was raised Catholic and let's just say that I don't understand their marketing campaign. Do they really think people are going to turn away from the chuch based on a Ron Howard movie? Really?

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Jason Bellamy said...

Damn spam! I really don't want to have to turn word verification on again. But it seems no one can escape. Ugh.

Mark said...

I'm late to this conversation because we just saw "State of Play" today.

Afraid I can't agree, Jason, that the film "moves along so quickly and with such singular focus that it leaves little time to be critical." I found plenty of time. Aside from the amped-up style and music cues, the logic problems and the plot twists to no good effect, the movie is a sad commentary on the news business -- and on the proud tradition of journalism movies.

I heard somewhere that Ben Affleck described "State of Play" as the last newspaper movie that won't be a period piece. If that turns out to be true, what a shame. In a real "Washington Globe" there's no way a reporter as conflicted as Crowe's character would be allowed anywhere near this story. Mirren's editor character couldn't be as venal and wishy-washy if she were the spawn of Sam Zell himself. And all the banter about the Internet and blogs and how that's what's wrong with the newspaper business was just ludicrous.

I don't believe movies need perfect verisimilitude to be effective, especially in a popcorn thriller like this, but come on. "All the President's Men" worked partly because it felt so real. I'm gonna fire that one up to get the taste of "State of Play" out of my mouth.

2 gliomas, tops.

Jason Bellamy said...

Mark: I'll respond to your comment by recalling some country wisdom from Hoosiers:

"There's two kinds of dumb: Guy that gets naked and runs out in the snow and barks at the moon, and the guy who does the same thing in my living room. First one don't matter, the second one you're kinda forced to deal with."

Translation: You're disgusted because you see this as a commentary on the news business, and as a newspaperman that's in your living room. I didn't take this to be the second coming of All The President's Men and so I stopped caring about its accuracy as soon as they showed the Globe offices with each department's work areas clearly labeled, lest someone from the City section accidentally walk into Sports, I guess. (What is this, the 60s TV version of the Batcave?)

So, yeah, disagree with Affleck's too-high opinion of his film. But don't judge the movie by its marketing. (Notice how I avoided saying "press"? You're welcome.)

I'm not trying to swing you here, just showing you the direction I'm coming from. All that said, I'd still only give it 2.75 gliomas. So we're not far off.

Mark said...

Funny, the newsroom department signs may have been the most realistic details in the journalism parts of the movie. They still have those at the LA Times, at least, and I'd venture at the Washington Post too.

Anyway, I take your point and appreciate the country wisdom. You're right, the movie was in my "living room," and though I tried hard not to respond to it that way I suppose it's inevitable.

Still, I was predisposed to like the movie -- I'll give a newspaper movie more benefit of the doubt than a baseball movie -- it just didn't grab me.

Lesson learned, in any case. I'm not even going to try "The Soloist." I used to work with Steve Lopez and can't bear it.

Chris Bolduc said...

Affleck's Philly accent was horrible...