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Movie Reviews—IT’S COMPLICATED, BROTHERS, THE LAST STATION

With all the holiday activities going on, I’m woefully behind on everything (haven’t seen Avatar—what?!) so the following reviews will be a little abbreviated. They’ll take less time for you to read so you can fulfill your obligations, too.

It’s Complicated

In writer/director Nancy Meyers’s ultimate female fantasy, Meryl Streep plays a woman who’s lusted after by two successful, attractive men: her lawyer ex-husband (Alec Baldwin) and the sensitive architect (Steve Martin) who’s renovating her house, an already gorgeous spread in Santa Barbara she’s trying to make bigger and more awesome.

The movie is a very mature, if flawed, exploration of the emotional complexities of divorce, not making anyone out to be the bad guy or completely blameless. Streep is as radiant as ever (she doesn’t age!), Baldwin has some very funny scenes, including an unfortunate Skype incident, and Martin turns in a lovely, understated performance as someone who might be falling in love but is reluctant to move forward with the bitter taste of his own divorce still fresh in his mouth.

The most refreshing element for me was seeing how the family, though damaged by divorce, is so functional. They talk things out, they’re respectful towards each other and the kids don’t seem to prefer one parent over the other. Conflicts exist and obstacles abound; the affected parties just don’t turn their affairs into a Jerry Springer episode. I’m not sure what it says about the state of our times when I was surprised, but pleasantly so, to see family members not bitching each other out on screen. Nerd verdict: Complicated but fun.

Brothers

After Marine captain Sam Cahill (Tobey Maguire) goes missing and is believed dead in Afghanistan, his brother Tommy (Jake Gyllenhaal) helps his wife Grace (Natalie Portman) and daughters Isabelle and Maggie (Bailee Madison, Taylor Geare, respectively) through the grieving process. Uncle Tommy gets a little too close and of course, this is exactly when Sam comes home. [Note: This isn’t a spoiler. We see him alive in Afghanistan even while the family mourns.]

Maguire does impressive work as the conflicted soldier who comes back haunted by things he was forced to do to survive, actions for which he can’t forgive himself. He’s a shadow of his former self, unrecognized by loved ones, feared by his children. He’s intense in a quiet way, which is much scarier than an over-the-top way.

Portman is more sensual and womanly than usual as a young wife and mother trying to navigate uncharted waters. Gyllenhaal is believable as Maguire’s brother but I didn’t buy for one minute that he’s some tough ex-con who just got out of the Big House. The real stars for me, though, are the two actresses who play Sam and Grace’s little girls. They have a natural, easy style that made me think they were simply being, not acting. It’s an easy concept to grasp, not necessarily to execute on camera. Drawing out amazing performances from young actresses (see In America) is a specialty of director Jim Sheridan, who makes his movies intensely personal.

I also like his way of covering heavy subject matter with a light hand. He often cuts away from a scene before its natural end because he trusts we can fill in the rest. When two military reps arrive at Sam’s house to notify Grace of his so-called demise, we see Grace approaching the open door, the horrible realization washing over her face, and the scene ends without the actual notification. Sheridan doesn’t jerk tears; this isn’t a war movie. It’s about people trying to find a way to live again after a part of them dies. Nerd verdict: Relatable Brothers.

The Last Station

I’m going to keep this one brief because I fell asleep three times while watching it. The performances can’t be faulted, except for maybe Paul Giamatti’s scenery chomping as a devout Tolstoyan who wants Leo Tolstoy (Christopher Plummer) to will his estate to the movement, much to the chagrin of the author’s wife. The movie is one long melodramatic tug of war between Giamatti’s Vladimir and Helen Mirren’s Sofya and none of it was compelling. It’s more a history lesson than entertainment and even James McAvoy’s presence as Tolstoy’s secretary couldn’t save this for me. Nerd verdict: Bypass this Station

Comparison Between BBC and American Versions of STATE OF PLAY

Having been thrilled by the BBC miniseries State of Play, I had to see the American movie this past weekend. The cast looked amazing and I couldn’t wait to see how the movie had been adapted and updated. The original came out in 2003 and a lot has happened in the world of print journalism, with papers folding and the Internet hopping.

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The story, now set in D.C., is still about newspaper reporter Cal McAffrey investigating the seemingly unrelated deaths of a congressman’s aide and a drug addict. Soon, Cal, with some help from colleague Della Frye, finds connections between the two stories and a possible government cover-up with deadly consequences. The problem is, the congressman at the center of these stories, Stephen Collins, is Cal’s old college buddy. The reporter must decide whether he wants the biggest story of his career at the cost of ruining his friend’s life.

I wanted to do a comparison between the two versions so I called up my friend Eric, who has also seen both versions.

PCN: I can’t tell if I’m not as excited by the movie because I knew what was going to happen, or because it truly has some flaws.

Eric: I think it’s the latter.

PCN: What issues did you have with the American version?

affleckEric: I didn’t believe Affleck’s portrayal of Congressman Collins. The reason the character is the head of a committee investigating a military contractor is because he’s that rare white knight you find in politics who’s out to right wrongs and give the bad guys their due. The way Affleck is playing him, the congressman just comes across petulant.

PCN: Yeah, I had major problems with his performance. Didn’t believe anything he did. There’s a blankness to him that he can’t seem to overcome. I didn’t believe him when he was angry, didn’t believe him when he was righteous, didn’t buy it when he was sad. David Morrissey was much more passionate in this role. I also had a huge issue with Cal and Stephen being college buddies when Affleck is 36 and Crowe is 45. What, Cal was held back a decade in college?

Eric: And if you don’t believe the core relationship between those two, why bother with the rest of the story?

crowe-smilingPCN: Exactly. I will say, though, that I liked Crowe’s performance. He gave Cal a little more weight than John Simm did in the original. And there’s a mischievousness in Crowe’s eyes when he’s sparring with Helen Mirren or Rachel McAdams that we don’t often see in his performances.

Eric: Those lighter moments from Crowe just came off as manufactured and full of pregnant pauses that announce, “I’m ACTING NOW.” And I’m speaking as a fan of Crowe’s past work.

PCN: Oh, I didn’t feel that way. I liked how he toned everything down as opposed to giving us the full Crowe ballast.

Eric: You mean how he didn’t throw things or hit anyone?

PCN: Well, that and never shouting at anyone. He barely raised his voice but still managed to exude intensity.

Eric: The intensity was low and the stakes weren’t high enough for me.

PCN: No?

***SPOILERS ahead!! Skip to where it says END SPOILERS***

Eric: Instead of the major conflict being about fuel sources like the original, they made it about the privatization of military forces and corporate espionage.

PCN: And you don’t care about that?

Eric: Fuel hits me where I live. I don’t care about the privatization of Homeland Security right now.

PCN: Good point. Did you find the movie suspenseful at all, knowing all the twists ahead of time?

Eric: No. I couldn’t help thinking over and over the miniseries did it better. But to be fair, they had six hours to do it in as opposed to two and change. I felt like the miniseries shouldn’t have been adapted into a movie because it sold the story short.

2009_state_of_play_026PCN: I was fine with some of the stuff they left out, like the affair between Cal and Stephen’s wife, Anne. They spent a lot of time on it in the series while in the movie you’re just told that it happened. I also found the movie quite suspenseful in parts. The scenes where Cal ran into the killer in the apartment hallway and being stalked by him in the parking garage—those were super tense and weren’t in the original.

Eric: Those scenes were great, no argument here.

PCN: But I didn’t like how they made the black kid who was shot in the beginning a drug addict.

Eric: Yeah! That was too easy.

PCN: In the original, everyone thought he was a druggie but he turned out to be clean. It spun the stereotype on its head. What’d you think of Helen Mirren taking over Bill Nighy’s role as the paper’s editor? ***(END SPOILERS)***

2009_state_of_play_005Eric: Nighy was allowed to show how and why he’s the editor. He’s cagey, wily and always on top of his game. Mirren’s character, while no doubt intelligent, is only allowed to throw up her hands in frustration for most of the movie.

PCN: Her character was really cut off at the knees by the new owners of the paper, whereas Nighy’s Cameron was ballsier and fought the money guys in upper management more. Plus, Nighy had some hilarious lines while Mirren’s Cameron was humorless, which is not something you want to do to Mirren.

mcadamsEric: Yeah. As for McAdams, this is the first time I’ve been unimpressed by her.

PCN: I think the problem was the way the role was written. Her Della was a little more whiny in the beginning than Kelly McDonald’s portrayal. McDonald’s Della was plucky. Granted, McAdams’ character is a gossipy blogger instead of a “real” reporter.

Eric: Yeah, that was kinda lame but I guess it created some conflict with Crowe’s character.

PCN: I understand why they made her a blogger; it’s a statement about how old-school journalism is dying. This movie is a valentine to the passing era of investigative reporting. This is a theme also addressed in Michael Connelly’s new book, The Scarecrow (click here for my review), and it makes me sad. I like reading the news by actually holding a paper in my hands.

Eric: But that end-credits sequence showing the paper going through the printing presses made the process seem so antiquated. And all I could think of was how many trees were being cut down.

PCN: You have a point but I love having my paper. It’s a tradition I’m not ready to give up yet. I love going out in the morning and finding the paper on my doorstep. Love reading it over breakfast, flipping the pages, not clicking on them. I also wrote for a paper a long time ago and loved the thrill of seeing the final product in the morning, how many inches you got and what artwork the editors gave you. If you press “send” and the only place where you can read your article is on the same monitor you used to write it, it’s anti-climactic.

Eric: But you’re writing a blog.

PCN: I don’t write hard news and am not a reporter anymore. If I had Oprah’s money, though, this would totally be a weekly entertainment paper or magazine. But we’re getting off track. Would you recommend this movie or not?

Eric: I’d say wait for the DVD. And while you’re waiting, check out the BBC version which is already available.

PCN: I’d recommend this movie. It may not be as strong as the original but it’s still smart entertainment and we need more of that.

Nerd verdicts: PCN—Entertaining Play; Eric—Play it only on DVD


BBC’s STATE OF PLAY Left Me in State of Awe

Last year, when I first heard about the cast for the American version of State of Play , I thought, Dang, that script must be really bangin’ to get all those stars to sign up! I mean, Russell Crowe, Rachel McAdams, Ben Affleck, Robin Wright Penn, Jason Bateman, Viola Davis, Jeff Daniels and Helen Mirren are all crammed into this movie. The trailers just look like standard thriller fare so what’s the scoop?

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Since the movie is based on a BBC series of the same name, I checked that out last week on DVD. Luckily, I did this on a Saturday. But, unwisely, I popped in the first disc at about 11 p.m., thinking I’d polish off one episode (there are six) before hitting the sheets. Three a.m. and four episodes later, I’m bleary-eyed but still up because from the first frame, this show grabbed me by the throat, threw me up against the wall and kept me hanging. It’s brilliant, really, and I don’t use that word often.

state_of_play_bbc_01The series is about investigative newspaper reporter Cal McCaffrey, who stumbles upon the most explosive story of his career when an MP’s (member of Parliament) research assistant/lover dies under mysterious circumstances (she may or may not have accidentally fallen onto the tube’s tracks). On the same day across town, a teenager is assassinated in a seemingly drug-related killing. Cal and his fellow staff reporters investigate these stories and find they might be connected. The incidents also have far-reaching implications into the corridors of government and may be too hot for the paper to handle.

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The terrific ensemble is led by David Morrissey (Viva Blackpool) as the MP, Stephen Collins; John Simm (the original Sam Tyler in the British version of Life on Mars); Kelly McDonald (No Country for Old Men); Polly Walker (Rome); James McAvoy and the fabulously wry Bill Nighy, who delivers every line with perfection.

After finishing the series, I thought, How is the American version going to top this? How will it cram six hours’ worth of plot—jam-packed every minute with clues and revelations and surprise twists— into two? But the amazing cast gives me hope. I think Crowe (as McCaffrey), McAdams (his colleague Della), Wright Penn (Collins’s wife) and Daniels (Collins’s superior) are well cast. And if there’s anybody who can make me forget, if only temporarily, Nighy’s performance, it’s the divine Helen Mirren in a fun gender twist as the paper’s tough but smart editor.

affl-penn1Affleck (as Collins, here a Congressman) is the only one I’m concerned about; I’ve never been a fan of his onscreen persona. Have you seen Changing Lanes or Reindeer Games or Pearl Harbor or Armageddon? He seems lightweight for a role in which Morrissey gives a towering performance. But then again, Affleck was good as George Reeves in Hollywoodland. Also, when I saw him speak couple years ago at a screening for Gone Baby Gone (which I thought was well done), I found him charming and smart and it reminded me why he won that Oscar for writing once upon a time. If he could transplant his real-life charisma onto the screen, he’d be great as Stephen Collins.

The movie opens Stateside April 17. (Click here for my comparison between this and the American version.)