Sunday, July 5, 2009

Film Review: State of Play (2009)

As expected after his previous first three memorable films, director Kevin McDonald has put together a technically flawless looking picture with State of Play. One with great performances and a script that at first, I worried might suffer from having too many cooks (it has three credited writers). Couple this with the fact that it is an American interpretation of an already well-respected BBC mini-series. It is relieving to report that the writing is re-soundly excellent considering that the subject matter could have potentially become derivative. The details of chasing leads and deadlines amongst a busy, yet struggling major newspaper for example, was shown believably and grippingly. Perhaps not on the level of similar themed films, it stands up well by having a substantial modern theme of online based “new-media” competing with the once leading edge print standard. Happily, the film flies the flag defiantly for the latter, with both insight and humour.

Working as a reporter for The Washington Globe, reporter Cal McAffrey (Russell Crowe) sets out to a routine murder victim headline, but as more facts start to manifest, a much bigger story begins to unfold of a political cover-up involving defence force distributors, corrupt senators and even more murders. One of the main ideas behind State of Play however, is the parallels that appear between Cal’s handling of a hugely expanding conspiracy story and a police investigation. “It’s not a story! It’s a case”, Cal is abruptly told by the chief detective at one point. Nevertheless, Cal is determined for the same objective - the truth. The tension unfolds subtly with a nice cat and mouse sequence at the centre making it less a droning ‘talky’ as it is a gripping thriller with constant, finely realised twists. Kevin MacDonald knows this genre well and hardly falters bringing the script to life.

Ben Affleck as Senator Stephen Collins at the centre of all the interest suits his role and played it as well as one could have expected; straight laced with few extrovert qualities. Helen Mirren’s newspaper boss shines through with little to do and representing the new age of ‘blog reporting’, Rachel McAdams’ Della Frye counters Crowe’s McAffrey surprisingly well. Russ is top flight as always, proving that his ability to inhabit a man and all that makes him tick, makes him almost second to none within his generation of performers. Robin Wright-Penn channels her real-to-life wife scorned experiences with not surprising ease, adding weight to the supporting cast alongside small but pivotal roles from Jeff Daniels and Jason Bateman.

With such written films however, genre rules always tend to appear and even though the revelatory ending did not feel worse or better for the film, I might have been more satisfied if a reasonable, but rushed extra twist at the eleventh hour wasn't thrown in. Overall, I was thoroughly impressed despite thinking it doesn’t quite match McDonald's outstandingly tense Last King of Scotland. It is easily one of the best films of 2009 so far and as a film for adults goes, it’s a damn fine entertainment.

Film Review: Diary of the Dead (2008)

For his fifth zombie film, genre legend George A. Romero chose to re-stage the beginning three days and nights of his initial outbreak, thus making Diary of the Dead forever linked (for better or worse) with his original film, Night of the Living Dead, more than any of the others. Rather than just being a re-tread of that groundbreaking movie however, Romero opts to modernize the situation, giving us a very 21st century essay of the events.

This concept is echoed mainly through Dairy’s literal presentation, with the whole film viewed through the home video recordings of one Jason Creed (Joshua Close) which has been spliced together into a film within the film, “The Death of Death”. Jason’s motive is to upload his footage as they try out run the situation to offer, what he believes, the media is failing to do, by not covering the events truthfully and without censorship. Yes the media is firmly the target or Romero’s angst here, though somewhat less veiled than his other films sub-texts’. Diary is a small film in almost every concern, including its ambitions.

What is noticeable about Diary though, is the numerous homage’s to earlier films of the director (Dawn of the Dead, The Crazies), in-jokes and even a cameo from the man himself. This all proves that it was a much more labour of love than his previous effort, the decent but studio-driven Land of the Dead. Happy to be returning to his independent roots, it shows with his fans being rewarded with plenty of in-the-know quirks. These will be lost on non-Romero fanatics however and thus it is ultimately more enjoyable if you are one. Not to say that it is alienating, rather that it is made for a certain type of audience and if you are not part of it, you’re less likely to enjoy the film as a whole.

On top of that, as a film it has its problems. Of the leads, only Debra (Michelle Morgan) & the Professor (Scott Wentworth) really stand out. The whole idea of the internet being a lone truth telling hero amongst society‘s great lying media is a bit muddled and unconvincing at times. However, it comes from a rushed script that if expanded a bit more, could have proved more feasible. Its surprisingly short length doesn’t help and it is over all very quickly. The slight lack of zombie carnage may disappoint some gore hounds, but there is some great gore moments of course with Romero proving, even though zombie is the ‘new black‘ in Hollywood, he’s still unique when it comes to putting his beloved undead on screen. Overall, it is a worthy (re) telling of the zombie apocalypse, which initially was only planned for a much more subdued, direct-to DVD release. That might have actually benefited the film, as it is strictly for Romero hordes - anyone else might be hard pressed to see what all the fuss is about.

Finally, the biggest issue by far is the fact that the director made it in the first place. Part of me does wish that “going back to the well”, as Romero has done with here, is not the best he has left to offer. I’m not sure how many more films he has in him, but it would be nice to see something different than him clinging onto a legacy he can’t really match anymore. There is still fun to be had with Diary, and it is a very well put together effort, it just seems all very unfortunately forgettable. It would be a great film if he hadn’t already made it better 35 years ago.